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Westwood Spanish students doing an interactive lesson

“Mi casa es su casa.”

Every day, students in Tricia Miller’s eighth grade Spanish 1 course are challenged to relay the password of the week in order to enter the classroom. “Mi casa es su casa,” which means “my house is your house,” is just one of the common Spanish phrases these students have learned, and that they can use in their everyday lives.

Beginning in the 2016-2017 school year, Spring Lake Park Schools’ Spanish world language teachers implemented a modern teaching method called Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). This new approach does not solely use the typical classroom textbook and instead uses commonly-used words and phrases in stories, conversations and classroom activities so students are able to acquire and comprehend the language faster and in a way that is meaningful to them.

“Our high school German classes have been using reading and retelling as a main component of their instruction and were a driving force in this switch to our practices,” said coordinator of curriculum, learning design and college and career readiness Lisa Switzer. “Students come to language classes wanting to communicate in another language, so we need to take advantage of that excitement early in instruction by designing many opportunities for interpersonal activities.”

With TPRS, rather than focusing instruction around traditional worksheets and memorization of vocabulary, SLP students are learning Spanish in a context that is relevant to them.

“We want students to leave high school knowing sentences and how to speak the language in real life to not be paralyzed in their speaking by the needs for perfection,” Switzer said. “Using TPRS, we teach students that it is natural to make mistakes and that it is important for them to feel confident in their abilities to produce the language and be understood even when they are making mistakes; much like when they learned their first language.”

Tricia Miller, Westwood Spanish Teacher, said before switching to TPRS, if she wanted students to learn the word “quiere,” which means “to want,” she would give them a verb chart and have them conjugate the verb in the present tense. Students would then practice by saying “I want,” “you want,” “he/she wants,” “they want,” and “you guys want.” Most of the time students focused so much on the verb ending that eventually the true meaning of the word or phrase was lost.

“That way of teaching is the total opposite of how students learn now,” Miller said. “Now, the meaning matters, and if they mess up the ending - that's not a huge deal. People will understand someone who says ‘Yo quiere un taco.’ Technically it should be ‘Yo quiero un taco’ and with enough repetition hopefully they will get ‘quiero’ instead, but the most important part is that they are still communicating.”

One of the key ingredients to TPRS is repetition. Teachers use repetitive language while teaching, allowing students to engage, quickly say parts of sentences, communicate more effectively in the language and pick-up the skills needed to truly learn and speak the language.

Language acquisition research shows that students need to hear a word in context between 70 and 100 times to really acquire that word. In addition to using repetitive language in class, I also try and use real-world examples that are meaningful to them and that can apply in an everyday conversation. Tricia Miller

Spring Lake Park High School Spanish teacher Kelsey Rathmanner said there has been a positive increase in student production and comprehension of the language since changing the curriculum to TPRS.

"Students are willing to make mistakes and are excited to produce language," said Rathmanner. "Since they see the language in context, they are able to understand how the language is used and therefore create their own language. Words are repeated and recycled with TPRS rather than isolated to one unit during the year, which is important. We learn language through repetition and relevant contexts."

With this new type of instruction comes a new type of assessment. TPRS uses a performance assessment to get a clearer indication of a student’s speaking, reading, writing and listening skills.

“Performance assessments were designed to allow students to show what they know and what they can do in the language,” Switzer said. “They replace assessments that focus on right and wrong answers. Instead, students demonstrate that they understand and can communicate a message. Accuracy is part of the assessment, but understanding and conveying the message is the primary focus. As students develop in their language, more focus can be put on correct grammar and building of academic vocabulary.”

Whether in the form of a mini-story, fairy tale, song, book or play script, students in World Language classes take ownership of these various forms and feel confident in their ability to communicate and immerse themselves into a new language.

“I am so passionate about this style of teaching because students leave the classroom feeling self-assured and unafraid to speak Spanish,” Miller said. “They might make mistakes, but aren’t scared to try or be corrected, they just dive right in and begin to communicate with others. They leave recognizing language is a gift and communicating is a gift and feel a sense of accomplishment in the language they’ve acquired.”

Eighth graders in Miller’s class can attest to this new and improved type of learning:

“We actually get to interact with each other and have fun in this class while also learning the material. By learning Spanish this way, we can use it in real-life such as in other countries or when meeting someone new. We don’t just learn the language in this class, we are learning about different cultures and people. We now have some understanding and feel more connected to the world around us.” – Danielle Davis

“This type of learning environment works for both fast and slow learners. It’s nice because if I don’t know or understand something, I can ask a friend for help and at the same time, if I know something no one else knows, it makes me feel a huge sense of accomplishment.” – Destinee Bey

“I never get bored in this class because we are always doing something fun and interactive. Ms. Miller is so nice and makes this class so interesting. We can all tell how much effort she puts her heart into this and how much she loves this.” – Madelynn Huynh

“The repetitiveness of words and phrases really sticks in my head and makes it easier to understand and apply it. Basically, everything we do can tie into our personal life, making it way more interesting to learn.” – Julia Gjovik

A group of Westwood students in Tricia Miller's Spanish class working together on a project