Intermediate Swedish II (SWED 2020 DILS) is a foreign language course in the Nordic Program at the University of Colorado-Boulder Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures (GSLL). The course is supported by the CU Directed Independent Language Studies (DILS) program and is administered by Anderson Language Technology Center (ALTEC). The CU DILS program is modeled after the Less Commonly Taught Language Program at Yale. DILS courses provide students the opportunity to study some of the less commonly taught languages of the world in small-group settings and with lower than average enrollment numbers. The intermediate-level Swedish courses in the CU DILS program typically have five to ten students enrolled per semester.
Approximately 9% of foreign language students in the United States in K-12 and higher education study a less commonly taught language. GSLL is one of a few universities that offer a Nordic program with Swedish language studies in the United States. Association of Swedish Teachers and Researchers in America (ASTRA) lists 33 academic centers across the US, Canada and Mexico, while the Embassy of Sweden in Washington DC lists 20 US locations. The CU Nordic program is one of a handful of these centers that offer three years of Swedish language studies.
SWED 2020 DILS meets less frequently and has an intensified self-study curriculum compared to other second-year language courses at the university. The independent study component is instructor-guided. While students are encouraged to independently pursue any activity they find useful in meeting the learning goals and objectives, supportive assignments are provided and integrated into the curriculum. These assignments consist of activities and tasks focused on building interpretive reading and listening, presentational reading and writing, and interpersonal communication skills. Traditional foreign language courses also use out-of-classroom assignments to enhance the learning experience. The difference between DILS assignments and traditional assignments is the amount of work students are required to complete independently and how this work is structured in the course. Since DILS courses require learner autonomy, designing helpful assignments for independent study is critical to student success.
Intermediate Swedish II builds practical, communicative language skills that can be used in every-day contexts while exploring Swedish society and culture. The linguistic goals concern the three modes of communication: interpretive, interpersonal and presentational. Students interpret Swedish as they listen to, read or view Swedish content, interact in real-time conversations, and present ideas and information as they speak and write in Swedish. The overall goal is to be able to interact easily in Swedish in everyday, professional and educational contexts, using culturally appropriate expressions and behavior. A study of Swedish culture is integrated into the curriculum. Students develop culture-appropriate communication skills, understanding of culture-specific meanings and behavior, and the ability to interpret content from a cultural perspective.
The skills developed in SWED 2020 DILS lay the foundation for the application of these skills to subjects close to students’ personal academic interests, in Advanced Swedish I and II (SWED 3010 and 3020 Individualized Instruction, offered through CU School of Continuing Education).
Students in Intermediate Swedish II (SWED 2020 DILS) are highly motivated. Swedish is not a requirement in any undergraduate degree, nor are Swedish courses included in freshman orientation offerings. Students who choose to study Swedish do so because they have a desire and reason to learn the Swedish language and understand Swedish culture. As this is their fourth semester Swedish, students have a clear purpose for continuing their language studies. The students in SWED 2020 DILS can be grouped into three categories based on their motivation. The first category includes students with family ties to Sweden and other Scandinavian countries (“heritage learners”). They may already know some Swedish for everyday communicative purposes but are less proficient in the presentational language modes. Others do not have any prior language skills but have family cultural experiences or significant relationships to Swedish speakers in the U.S. or abroad. The second major group is students in the CU Education Abroad program, who either are planning to study in Sweden or have just returned from this experience. The third category is students with interdisciplinary interests and needs. Some are pursuing a Nordic Studies minor and are enrolled in culture courses in the Nordic Program. Others are students majoring in or pursuing graduate degrees in linguistics. For yet others, learning Swedish is a means to further accomplishments in their field of study. Examples of former students are a PhD candidate in the College of Music researching music in indigenous Sámi Activism, an environmental studies student interested in the ecology of the Arctic Region, an archeology student digging for medieval artefacts on the island of Gotland, and a social anthropologist researching the emergence of the extreme nationalism and national identities in the Nordic countries. Students with interdisciplinary interests receive support for their cultural and linguistic needs beyond the language curriculum of the class. The small class size enables this type of individualization and also is a stepping stone to the independent studies in Advanced Level Swedish, which offer an even greater ability to accommodate personal interests.
The learning goals in Intermediate Swedish II are communicative, proficiency-oriented and aligned with established proficiency benchmarks. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) publishes proficiency benchmarks and performance indicators that guide course design, learning objectives and proficiency goal setting, as well as performance assessments based on ACTFL proficiency descriptors (NCSSFL-ACTFL, 2017). Proficiency descriptors from the ACTFL proficiency benchmarks were used in the course learning goals, but modified to fit the characteristics of the course and student population. These language proficiency benchmarks make learning targets explicit to students, and measure the extent to which students have achieved specific learning goals.
Course outcomes are described in steps towards the target proficiency level in the three modes of communication (interpretive reading and listening, presentational speaking and writing, interpersonal communication). Course objectives, instruction, assignments and assessments are designed to advance students towards specific the language proficiency goals.
The Intermediate II learning goals correspond to an Intermediate Mid to High language proficiency level of the 2017 ACTFL Proficiency Benchmarks and Performance Indicators. For a quick overview of ACTFL proficiency levels, please see the LF Self-Assessment Grid.
This portfolio documents an assignment change implemented in Intermediate Swedish II DILS. Changes were implemented that restructured how and when new vocabulary was learned. The reason for this change was to a) increase student learning of new vocabulary b) decrease the time the instructor spent introducing new vocabulary in the classroom. A small preliminary study to examine the effects of these new vocabulary assignments was carried out.
Since SWED 2020 DILS students were accustomed to completing language assignments independently from previous semesters, the research question was not whether pre-class vocabulary assignments were feasible, but rather what type of activities would be effective.
The characteristics of effective assignments were identified as:
- Productive vocabulary memorization
- Measurable progression towards course goals
- Ease of use
- Ability to engage and hold students´ interest
- Reasonable time expenditure for students and instructor
The preliminary study examined these variables in three different assignments.
The low enrollment in Intermediate Swedish II did not permit the completion of a full research study that yields reliable data. However, preliminary results are reported here in order to show that the study protocol did work, results were obtained, and to enable initial conclusions.
The preliminary study in Intermediate Swedish II DILS investigated whether there was a perceptible difference in learning outcomes of unstructured and structured pre-class vocabulary assignments, by measuring students’ comprehension of key vocabulary used in cognitive-informational communication. Secondly, it investigated student perceptions of these vocabulary assignments. Thirdly, it investigated whether there was a difference in performance when no pre-class vocabulary assignment had been administered.
Objective 1: To investigate whether structured or unstructured pre-class vocabulary assignments are more effective as measured by performance on comprehension-based formative assessments.
Hypothesis 1: There is an increase in student performance on comprehension-based formative assessments with the use of structured pre-class vocabulary assignments, as compared to the use of unstructured pre-class vocabulary assignments.
Objective 2: To investigate students’ perceptions of unstructured and structured vocabulary assignments in terms of their effectiveness, applicability, ability to hold students’ interest, and their investment in time.
Hypothesis 2: Students will rate structured pre-class vocabulary assignments more favorably than unstructured pre-class vocabulary assignments.
Objective 3: To investigate whether structured or unstructured pre-class vocabulary assignments are more effective than no pre-class vocabulary assignments as measured by performance on comprehension-based formative assessments.
Hypothesis 3: There is an increase in student performance on comprehension-based formative assessments with the use of structured pre-class vocabulary assignments, as compared to the use of unstructured pre-class vocabulary assignments or no pre-class vocabulary assignments.
Key vocabulary is words and phrases in a language domain that are important to the comprehension of written or spoken language/communication. A pre-class vocabulary assignment consists of identified key vocabulary that students are expected to comprehend when they come to class. An unstructured pre-class vocabulary assignment is vocabulary that students are expected to learn the meaning of independently, without further instructions. A structured pre-class vocabulary assignment is a structured vocabulary activity that students are asked to complete before class, in order to help them learn the meaning of assigned vocabulary. These assignments may involve written and/or spoken language.
Vocabulary familiarization is the first step in vocabulary acquisition that takes place when students first encounter and familiarize themselves with new vocabulary in preparation for classroom and independent study activities. Vocabulary familiarization is the process of learning new vocabulary passively, that is to gain the ability to comprehend key words as they occur in a linguistic context. This new vocabulary becomes meaningful first after it has been given a communicative purpose and the learner is able to use it in communication, which is “the [purposeful] expression, interpretation and sometimes negotiation of meaning in a given context.” (Van Patten, 2017). The use of new vocabulary in meaningful communication is the end goal of vocabulary acquisition. This study was limited to the investigation of how useful the vocabulary assignment was in building interpretive reading and writing skills.
In three separate pre-class vocabulary assignments, students were asked to familiarize themselves with key vocabulary before coming to class. This familiarization involved studying key words and phrases so that students could comprehend the assigned vocabulary when they read or heard it in a linguistic context. Students were not expected to have mastered the production of the vocabulary in speech and writing in this study.
Quantitative data of student performance was collected in four post-assignment formative vocabulary assessments. The purpose of these assessments was to inform the instructor and students on how the students were progressing towards specific learning objectives. The formative assessments were administered after the due date of each vocabulary assignment. The first assessment measured student performance after working on an unstructured pre-class vocabulary assignment. The second and third assessment measured student performance after two separate structured pre-class vocabulary assignments. The structured pre-class vocabulary assignments provided students with a method of learning the vocabulary, whereas the unstructured assignment provided a vocabulary list with no further instructions. The fourth assessment measured student performance when no prior pre-class vocabulary assignment was provided.
Qualitative data of student perceptions of the assignments was collected using anonymous, online questionnaires. The questionnaires measured a) student interest and enjoyment in completing the assignment, b) their perceived effort in completing the assignment, c) the assignment’s helpfulness in memorizing new vocabulary d) the assignment’s helpfulness in meeting learning goals and objectives e) the assignment’s helpfulness in meeting students’ overall goals and f) time spent on task. Additionally, in the unstructured assignments, students were asked what strategies they used to familiarize themselves with the new vocabulary.
Significance of Study on Teaching Practices
The preliminary study described in this portfolio was intended to inform the instructor on the effectiveness of new vocabulary activities in reading and listening comprehension assignments implemented in Intermediate Swedish II and to provide input on how successful these changes were from the students’ perspective. By sharing the work of the preliminary study, the author hopes to inspire other foreign language instructors who teach in independent study contexts and provide suggestions on what strategies may facilitate the vocabulary acquisition process.
Anderson LW and Krathwohl D (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: a revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman
Berrett D (2012). How ‘flipping’ the classroom can improve the traditional lecture. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 19, 2012.
Brame, C., (2013). Flipping the classroom. Retrieved [todaysdate] from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/flipping-the-classroom/ Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.
Lightbown, P.M. and Spada, N. (2006). The implications of classroom research for learning in How Languages are Learned (pp.176-180). Oxford University Press.
NCSSFL-ACTFL Performance Indicators for Language Learners (2017) from https://www.actfl.org/publications/guidelines-and-manuals/ncssfl-actfl-can-do-statements
There are two major systems of language proficiency guidelines, ACTFL and CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference). CU’s Swedish instructor is a certified proficiency tester in both systems. She uses ACTFL standards in her instruction.