Thursday, June 15, 2006

Language classes and student placement problems

Over at Confessions of a Community College Dean, Dean Dad writes about a problem his foreign languages department encounters but no other department seems to have.
Our foreign languages department keeps running into the same issue over and over again, so I thought I’d see if the blogosphere has a solution.

Students who took, say, two years of Spanish in high school (and who just graduated high school) frequently sign up for Spanish 1 here, figuring that it will be an easy ‘A.’ More often than not, the students are bored out of their minds by the class, since they’ve already learned the material, and stop coming. Then they fail, and the complaints begin.

During advisement, advisors routinely ask students if they’ve taken a language in high school, but since advisors don’t have access to the high school transcripts, the students can lie with impunity. Many do, thinking they’re outsmarting the system.

For some reason, languages seems to be the only department for which this is a major issue. I haven’t seen this kind of behavior in, say, math, where a student might have already had trig in high school. (It’s a nonissue in the subject areas high schools don’t teach.)

There’s a related issue of native (or semi-native) speakers taking classes in their own language. There, too, it’s tough to catch, and many of the students are in a peculiar position of having good vocabulary but terrible written grammar, or of mixing (say) Spanish with English such that they don’t especially master either. But they don’t study, since they assume it will be a cakewalk, and then fail.

All of the above happen at my college as well. Actually, the vast majority of the students who have failed one of my Spanish classes (or gotten a D in it) are students who should have signed up for a more advanced course but thought they'd be able to get an easy A (or an easy B, at least) in mine without coming to class frequently or turning in most homework assignments.

Unfortunately, I do not know how to remedy this. About all that I, as a teacher, can do is have my students fill out forms detailing their experiences with learning foreign languages and then pay special attention to their language abilities during the first week or so of class (when students are still allowed to switch into other courses here) and try to determine if I should talk to them about possibly going into a different level of Spanish. I'm not sure what an administrator or advisor can do to try to improve the situation, other than tell true horror stories about all those who go for what they think is an easy A and, by slacking off, severely damage their grade point average (and, in some cases, unintentionally delay their date of graduation).

On another subject Dean Dad discusses: yes, most "hertitage speakers" of Spanish in my classes tend to have a nice, wide vocabulary and excellent pronunciation but encounter difficulties with the grammar. However, that's not always something one can blame on the student not studying enough: I've had heritage speakers who put in a lot of time studying the grammar, got tutoring, and actually came to my office hours and who still found Spanish grammar harder to learn than they (or I) had originally expected. The studying eventually paid off, although it was frustrating for them because they did not expect things like, for example, participles and the perfect tenses to cause them so much grief.

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