Learning a language isn’t like any other subject area you might study. It’s inherently social, cultural, and personal. Quality educational resources are necessary for teaching to be effective, but the element of personal services is equally important. Individualized feedback and mentoring aren’t just one part of the learning process - they are the best part.
The shift to online learning doesn’t mean this is lost. In fact, a 2008 U.S. Department of Education review of online learning studies found that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction… Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions.”
In addition to the live online class, students need to have access to resources that let them learn on demand. The same report goes on to note that “Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.” This is why it’s so important to provide resources that are equally effective for teachers to use in class, or for students to access on their own.
This month, Fluent City is launching new online resources for learning English, Spanish, and French. These activities are created from an engine that takes authentic media (video and audio), finds the most frequent vocabulary, communicative language, and verb forms, and then transforms them into interactive activities. They’re designed to fulfill the key components of successful language learning.
Skills, Not Just Knowledge
A child acquires his or her native language in this order: by listening, then by speaking, and then through reading and writing - but only after a number of years. Adult second language learners in a traditional educational environment have an inverted experience. They usually start out by reading, then writing, with just a little listening, and even less speaking. But as dance teachers like to say, nobody ever learned how to dance just by watching other people dance. You have to dance! To become proficient in a new language, textbook knowledge isn’t enough. You have to listen actively, and you have to speak and communicate.
Those real-time skills - listening and speaking - are often the hardest for students because they happen on the spot. There’s no time to stop and google something. There’s no formula, like in a textbook grammar activity. It can also be hard for teachers to facilitate effective practice opportunities: finding appropriate, accessible media to recommend, identifying the most frequent expressions in the piece, and organizing discussions around relevant topics. Teaching listening and speaking skills takes more effort than working through a grammar activity from a textbook.
For example, listening involves a number of sub-skills. Our activities are designed to target each one.
- You start by being able to recognize a word or phrase, which goes along with the initial stage of acquiring a basic working vocabulary. At this stage, it’s helpful to have a targeted vocabulary list that you can listen to; read along and repeat out loud; then practice the new words and hear them in context (like this French 1 activity on weather).
- After a while you’re able to identify what you’ve already learned when you hear it in fluid speech. You’re still learning tons of new words and phrases, but at this point, you are able to listen for meaning and intent. Songs are ideal at this point! We just discovered a group of roommates making “Confination Songs” in Spanish (and we know that teachers are dancing to Stromae’s Alors on danse while teaching irregular verbs in French).
- When you’re able to learn new terms and expressions through listening, that’s a whole new level. Many students at this stage will want some supporting activities that let them learn from their favorite shows, like Casa de Papel or Call My Agent.
- And when you can finally understand many different accents and dialects —like hearing Spanish on the street in New York — you pretty much have it made.
Each video and audio activity includes supporting vocabulary, phrasal, and grammar activities (plus a game), but also a related speaking activity. Speaking activities always use the language that was just learned through the media, and it can be done as a group in class, or students can record their answers on their own. (You can see all video and audio activities in French and Spanish here.)
Reading & Writing
There’s nothing like reading with guided written activities to help students learn the structure of a language with more precision. But again, the content needs to be real, and it needs to be relevant.
We built a tool for teachers that allows them to create a practice activity from any text they want (a story, an article, a poem, or song lyrics). They can choose the type of language they want to target (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.) and make a custom multiple-choice or fill-in-the blank worksheet for their students. This is a hyper-customized solution for both students and teachers. It’s especially useful for teaching in business contexts.
“Comprehensible Input” — or Keeping it Real
Students need authentic language in context - chunks of language, not just words or verb conjugation charts - to build communication skills. The language that students encounter in class needs to be real, because real life isn’t scripted and templated.
But teachers do want to know whether the video or article they’ve chosen uses mostly the present simple (“Teachers are important”) or relies on the subjunctive and conditional (“If teachers weren’t so important, students wouldn’t ever need to go to class”). This is the “comprehensible” part of “Comprehensible Input.” It’s a task that has been causing teachers headaches for decades, especially for video and audio media.
We developed a new piece of technology that analyzes natural language, categorizes all the words by difficulty level, and identifies all the verb tenses in every sentence. Most text analyzers will tell you the average sentence is short or long, but by that metric most of Shakespeare would qualify as a fourth-grade text.
On each of our activities, you’ll see a read-out of the language level (of the vocabulary, and also the grammar) in the video or article. Teachers can use this to estimate what will be more accessible to their students. And students can use it to track their progress and achievements.
All of our resources and tools are aimed at the social, cultural, and personal aspects of language learning. We hope to help cultivate teacher mentoring and classmates companionship while also giving learners control over their own self-study resources.
Quick Resources Recap:
- Grammar and Vocabulary: online textbook (for students and teachers)
- Reading and Writing: instant lesson generator (for teachers)
- Listening and Speaking: video- and audio-based activities (for everyone)