Short-term study language gains

Judith Liskin-Gasparro and Raychel Vasseur presented at ACTFL 14 on improvement from short-term language study, in this case, five weeks in target-language country. When I saw Judith’s name, I made a beeline for the session.

What they shared ended up blowing my mind just a bit. Because students can’t make gains on most measures in that short a time, the team developed a different kind of assessment: one that measured story-telling abilities.

Liskin-Gasparro explained that there are four parts to stories, which are typically a long conversational turn which the speaker has to justify in order to keep listeners’ attention. These are the abstract, narration-description combination, and the evaluation.

We looked at examples of stories students told before and after their study. Students had to choose an “emoticon card” to help them come up with a story to tell, and they told the same story at the beginning and end of their experience. Their stories became much more cohesive and clear by the end of their time in-country, because they built the elements mentioned more appropriately, and included dialogue and reports of their own feelings in the body of the story.

There’s a lot more to say than I can do justice here, so please excuse the brevity (and likelihood of my getting it wrong). I’m going to skip entirely the part about how stories are based on cultural truisms, though that’s another huge idea.

After we compared the before and after stories, and told a story to our neighbors for analysis, Liskin-Gasparro pointed out implications for classroom. For one, teachers can let students analyze stories told by those slightly more advanced in the language than they are.

Stories, by the way, are simply reports of personal experiences. They are what we tell our friends and family on a daily basis, typically of just a few kinds:
–expected good, turned out badly
–expected bad, turned out well
–worked hard/didn’t, succeeded/didn’t
–worried about something…

Some of what this did for me was to change the way I’ll look at stories. I usually tell kids that a good story has a beginning, middle and end. That doesn’t really help a conversation; it simply sets requirements for a retell or new story in class. Students don’t necessarily know what the definition of a beginning is. Usually ours start with, “There was a girl…” and end with the main character getting or not getting whatever he or she wanted. Now I’m going to be thinking about how more advanced students should create an abstract: “Something really funny happened today,” or “I can’t believe it, but I passed my test…”

As they tell the story, they should include emotion and dialogue, something that Karen Cafmeyer has told us to remind kids to do to expand on any story.

Finally, when they end the story, they need to reflect on what the main point is. My students who were trying to write QAR questions today (a la Martina Bex) were asking how to ask “What’s the point of the story,” and they didn’t even know that I’d been to this talk. I was helping them use circumlocution to get to that question and only now realized where they were headed.

As far as the analysis that I mentioned above, this idea gives me a whole new way to look at Scaffolding Literacy in sharing stories with students. These stories can be really short, but we can analyze what roll each sentence plays in a story.

We have a promise from Judith Liskin-Gasparro to do the presentation as a webinar with our Alaskan group, and I am hoping that by then I will have experimented a little with this and that I can tell you more.


4 responses to “Short-term study language gains

  1. I think this is a fabulous idea. I am interested in more of what you learned. I can see how this will appeal to my adult learners more than “silly” stories as it is compelling to them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I started working earlier this year with the idea that communication requires a catalyst in order to have energy and a purpose…and a story is communication…or communication is a story. :o) The circle goes ’round and ’round. The catalyst might mean an event/occurrence that we react to, a problem/need, a question/concern, or an intense feeling/response. But this really lines up with that idea!! We’ll have to talk more!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The different structure for storytelling was huge for me, but the “cultural truism” idea was also new/old. Each culture has specific truths, some of which overlap, but others don’t. For instance, Americans believe in the power of the individual, while Russians have long distrusted those who “stick out.” Thus a story an American tells to support her success in a mission (however large or small) could be completely misinterpreted by a listener who is Russian. At least I think that’s how it could go. We know that cultural background is just as large a part of communication as are the words and body language, but this brought that idea home to me in a new way. If even our little stories that we tell on a daily basis reflect cultural truisms, it’s useful to at least occasionally think about the messages we are relating and to wonder whether they would be true in the TL.


  3. That is truly interesting. The possibilities are limitless if you are working to create stories that actually resound within the target language and culture.

    Liked by 1 person

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