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Spanish 220, 315 and French 305, Allegheny College

28 July 2018


Allegheny College is a liberal arts college (+/-1800 students) in northwest Pennsylvania. It is one of few without a foreign language requirement. Thus, the Department of Modern and Classical Languages (MCL) enjoys small and selective enrollments, yet suffers from scheduling limitations due to a limited number of faculty.

This project seeks to pilot TalkAbroad as a viable solution to this problem and to infuse intercultural communicative competence into our curriculum. We will implement TalkAbroad for one semester in Spanish and French courses. A survey, written essays and recordings of the conversations will be used to measure its value as compared with traditional pedagogical materials. If a value-added is found, it will be used to demonstrate TalkAbroad’s effectiveness to colleagues in other languages and the college administration. Our size allows us to aspire to provide equal access to our resources to students of varying means. However, our departmental “Instructional Materials” budget line for 2018-9 cannot cover the cost of offering TalkAbroad to French and Spanish students in the pilot semester. The results of the project will help make a sound argument for reallocating funds for next year to subsidize future access to TalkAbroad for all students.

Course Information

During the fall 2018 semester, we will introduce TalkAbroad into three courses: one Spanish intermediate-level course and a Spanish and French advanced-level course (3rd year). Each class currently uses a variety of genres of written language (literary texts, periodicals) and media (short videos, news reports, podcasts) as comprehensible input and features class discussion and debates on the issues represented in the various media. Current assessments of skill acquisition emphasize written exams and compositions, voice recordings for phonetic evaluation, oral presentations or dramatizations and interpersonal interviews with the professor.

Spanish 220, “Issues in Contemporary Spanish and Spanish American Culture,” is a 5th-semester course with an enrollment of 18-20 and comprised of four thematic units (Sports, Religion, the Environment and Music). It stresses phonetics, pronunciation and conversation. Students are in their first or second year of university study and are at an ACTFL Intermediate Low/Mid level.

French 305, “Advanced Conversation and Composition,” is a grammatical, phonetic and structural study of the French language in its written and spoken forms to help students reach an Intermediate-High/Advanced-Low level. Students (enrollment 10-15) are in their second or third years most typically, but students range in experience and ability level.

Spanish 315, “Advanced Language Study,” is the study of more complex language structures and ways to use them to improve comprehension and writing skills to achieve an ACTFL Intermediate-High/Advanced-Low level. Students (enrollment 15-18) are in their third year of university, but there is a wide range in experience and ability level.

Our current Spanish curriculum was revised in 2013 to solidify the intermediate-level course offerings and to better articulate the learning objectives of the third- and fourth-year classes and their relationship to the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) proficiency guidelines. Following a traditional two-semester Beginning Spanish sequence, we created a flexible three-semester intermediate sequence (215, 220, 230) to help students reach an intermediate-high level before entering the third-year courses. In doing so, we integrated an intercultural component promoting the transatlantic study of the language by including a perspective from Spain and Latin America in each course theme. We structured the upper-division curriculum through genres and themes (“Popular Culture” and “Contesting Authority,” for example) and connected each course to a goal articulated in the ACTFL Advanced-mid level, (“narrating” and “navigating a situation with a complication,” respectively). Our focus is to prepare students to acquire information and articulate an argument so that they may complete the Senior Thesis, an independent research project required to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from Allegheny College. We encourage cultural understanding in the current curriculum and seek to explore the possibility of infusing intercultural communicative skills throughout. However, as evident in the attached curriculum, there are gaps in the “Suggested Practices” piece of the oral/auditory curricular guidelines.

Our current French curriculum was revised most recently in 2014 when adjustments were made to accommodate an English-language sophomore seminar that was to be offered at the departmental level. We made other strategic changes at that time, such as moving a course on contemporary French society and culture to the third year; collapsing our advanced skills classes into French 305; and reducing the number of third-year survey courses offered and altering them so that they emphasize socio-cultural context. We will be embarking on another curricular revision this summer 2018 to address the changing needs and interests of our students. At present, our curriculum is quite traditional and we would like to move toward combining language and content areas across the curriculum, much as the Spanish section has done. We are reconsidering our textbooks, as well, to ensure that they cover the entire Francophone sphere and not just France or Europe. In the broadest sense, we believe our curriculum needs to be more interactive, more interpersonal and more diverse in its approaches and content areas.

TalkAbroad Implementation

Our curricular modification targets courses that appeal to broad topics of student interest at the Intermediate-Mid to Advanced-Low ACTFL levels, and fill a skills development and cultural acquisition role in the curriculum. Spanish 220’s role is to emphasize conversation and pronunciation. The content helps students to acquire cultural information to compare day-to-day topics in another culture. Spanish 315’s role is to increase student knowledge of how the language works. They study isolated structures or tenses, see them at work in different genre and then imitate those genres. Both lack an oral interview component. For Spanish 220, it is not enough to talk about “sports” when students can acquire another’s perspective regarding sports (or religion, the environment or music) in their lives. For Spanish 315, it is not enough to use different tenses to describe changes in a society. Interviewing an individual about a place or a person that has changed (in) their lives lends the grammatical study an intercultural communicative component (other topics: crime and crime-fighters, travel and political opinion). The latter will use four 30-minute conversations, and the former, four 10-minute conversations (if deemed appropriate by TalkAbroad).

The greatest challenge in French 305, now a combined advanced conversation and composition class, is to develop skills at the advanced level in a lone semester of coursework. This fall, four thematic units (i.e. the narrative imagination, ecology and the environment, conflict and war zones, etc.) will include related reading, analysis, grammar, and writing elements. While some in-class speaking and pronunciation activities will also be included, very often in this class speaking and conversation fall to the wayside. It will be useful for students to engage with other people on the themes/units of the course in a 30-minute conversation. Following each, students will write a summary of what they discussed with their partner, any take-aways they had, along with any new words or expressions they learned. By having the same conversation partner, the hope is that they will develop a degree of familiarity that will help them communicate and motivate them to do so. Finally, a weakness in our curriculum is that it has remained France-centric. We appreciate the fact that French-speaking conversation partners in TalkAbroad live in Francophone countries around the world and very much expect that our students will as well.


The TalkAbroad grant specified that we present course syllabi with evidence that the integration of TalkAbroad be just that: an integrated component rather than an add-on. The program was so well-received in the fall 2018, I encouraged its use in the spring 2019 as well and found that when integrated intentionally, the TalkAbroad component of a class is more favorably received.

In Fall 2018, we integrated TalkAbroad into:

SPAN 220: Replaced isolated recordings for pronunciation/phonetic assessment -
Conversations made the phonetics come alive. What remains is the rubric for measuring their performance in the conversation. Students received individual feedback for each assessment. With the recordings of the TalkAbroad conversations, I was able to target specific places where student pronunciation and tonality reflected attention to the pitfalls (like aspiration) we highlighted in our study of phonetics. The recorded conversations also had the advantage of the native speaker voice model as a reference. Class time was also dedicated to highlighting what the students need to have a conversation around the topic at hand.

FRNCH 301: Integrated into new syllabus structure -
The four TalkAbroad conversations pair directly with a given chapter’s theme, on a “personal” and a “social” level. For each conversation, students ask their conversation partner questions; they had time to look up relevant information about the theme in relation to the country in which the student lives. After we previewed their conversation in class as per the syllabus, students had one week to schedule the conversation, complete it, and write up a summary on it, including identification of new lexical items learned (word or expressions). We spent time in class sharing as a group once everyone had completed his/her conversation.

SPAN 315: Replaced fill-in-the blank and translation-based exams -
Spanish 315’s role is to increase student knowledge of how the language works; they study isolated structures or tenses, see them at work in different genres, and then imitate those genres. Former syllabus lacked an oral component and cultural component depended on the comprehensible input given. In the fall semester, TalkAbroad conversations became a topic of conversation. Exams became reflection pieces that required students to transcribe 3-minute sections of their conversations, and identify and use targeted structures and vocabulary (in writing) to reflect on the conversation.

Fall 2018 Student Testimonials:
Many students mentioned they were very nervous at first but ended up liking it. Only one student had “mixed feelings” about it because the student felt the conversations were forced sometimes. Even that student wrote “But I see the importance of talking with a native speaker.” A few mentioned that they felt that 30 minutes was a really long time and one student mentioned the fact that “sometimes technology got in the way of a natural conversation.”

All professors agreed that TalkAbroad offers an experience that can only benefit our students. All found the platform easy to use for professors and students, and noted few technological challenges.

Critiques of the tool were presented not as insurmountable obstacles, but moments that called for unexpected negotiation. In equal measure, all mentioned the adjustment to timing/scheduling of the conversations. All agreed that a one-week window for scheduling the conversation should be allowed which opened up challenges for the timing of the conversation with regards to the amount of classroom work for unit preparation (some students had less time with course material for discussion than others). In general, professors were satisfied with TalkAbroad partners. Inevitably, there were some inconsistencies in the level of engagement/preparation of the individual TalkAbroad partners.

Overall, we found TalkAbroad to be an easy-to-use method for providing an introductory immersion experience for students. It provides for a change in activity from class to class and, more importantly, a variety of voices for students to hear. Departmental colleagues received favorably and are considering adoption in their language classes as well.

The department accepted my recommendation to subsidize one class per each language section on a Demmler Grant-like basis. For the future, subsidy for SPAN 315 and FRNCH 301 remain.

Thank you for the opportunity to invigorate my pedagogy and excite our students!

Project Lead

Barbara Riess, Allegheny College