Back to Basics in the Foreign Language Classroom?

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  • Back to Basics in the Foreign Language Classroom?*

    Renate A. Schul z

    ABSTRACT The c u r r e n t c r y of 'back to basics' c a n also be heard among foreign language educators . This a r t i c l e t r a c e s s o m e of t h e causes for discontent, especial ly t h e lack of c o m m o n goals in the profession, t h e prol i ferat ion of disconnected options, and t h e unreal is t ic expec ta t ions our instructional mater ia l s p u t on t h e learner . The author warns of in te rpre t ing ' the basics' too narrowly and maintains t h a t foreign language study has a unique p lace and funct ion in t h e

    genera l curriculum. She proposes re ins ta tement of a general language requirement , bu t only a f t e r we have re-examined our discipline for t h e inherent knowledge and skills which will contrib- u t e to emphasizing fundamenta l humanist ic goals for a l l learners . She ca l l s for t h e development of a n a r t icu la ted curr iculum f rom FLES through col lege, d i f fe ren t ia t ing between general require- m e n t courses and those intended for t h e specialist a iming toward mas tery of t h e t a r g e t language.

    In t h e past severa l y e a r s a n increasing number

    of educators , politicians, and m e m b e r s of t h e business communi ty as well as t h e genera l public have been speaking o u t aga ins t t h e 'failure'of our

    schools to t e a c h fundamenta l skills. Publ ic schools

    have been accused of serving as custodial inst i tu-

    tions, and t h e high school diploma is s e e n by many as a c e r t i f i c a t e of a t t e n d a n c e which cannot even guarantee t h a t i t s holder c a n read.' Readers '

    *Revised version of a paper presented at the Joint Meet ing of the Central States Conference on t h e Teaching of Foreign Languages and t h e Ohio Modern Language Teachers Association, Columbus, Ohio, 14-16 April 1977.

    See Merrill She ik and William J. Cook, "The Dropout Exam, " Newsweek (27 October 1979, p. 66; and Competency Tests and Graduat ion Requirements (Reston, Va.: National Assoc. of Secondary School Principals, 197.9, p. 7.


    Renate A. Schulz (Ph.D., The Ohio S t a t e University) is Assis tant Professor of German at t h e University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

    Digest , Time, Newsweek, Change, U.S. News and

    World Repor t , t h e s ta id Smithsonian, Ann Landers, a n d edi tor ia ls across t h e nat ion h a v e expressed

    the i r concern with t h e al leged deter iorat ion of educat ional quality.* According to a 1976 Gallup poll, 51% of those surveyed ranked "more a t ten-

    t ion to teaching t h e basic ski1ls"as t h e number one suggest ion (out of twelve) for improving public

    e d ~ c a t i o n . ~ No doubt about i t , t h e r e is a call for higher s tandards in t h e schools.

    2. For some relevant ar t ic les , see: Merrill Sheik, "Why Johnny Can't Write," Newsweek (8 December 19751, pp. 58-63; "Crisis in t h e Schools," US. News & World Report ( I September 1975), p. 49; 5. Dillon Ripley, "The View from t h e Castle," Smithsonian, 7 ii (1976), 6; Ann Landers, "Back-to-Basics Plea Is So Right," Akron Beacon Journal (9 October 1976); Ernest L. Boyer and Marin Kaplan, "Education for Survival: A Call for a Core Curriculum," Change, 9, iii (197i0, 22-29.

    3. Reported in Ben Brodinsky, "Back t o Basics: The Movement and I ts Meaning," Phi De l t a Kappan, 58 (19711, 522- 27.


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    This paper will t r ace some of t h e causes for t he schools and public alike to establish priorities in current impetus toward 'basics' in public education order to ge t the most for t he dollar. The public-- in general and in foreign language education in and many educators--are ill at ease with the particular. I t will a t t e m p t t o define the place of overdiversification in the general curriculum and foreign languages in general education, discuss t h e proliferation of electives ranging from bache-

    some of the problems facing the profession, and lor survival and driver training t o film making, tap present several proposals which might help us

    refocus our aims and in tegra te our discipline into t h e basic curriculum.

    One perceives manifold reasons for t he current The of ten c i ted decline in national discontent.

    dancing, and transcendental meditation. In Michael McDanield's words, "the idea currently

    popular in education tha t diversity alone can

    reform the curriculum is similar to the idea of automakers tha t a diversity of models solves the

    problem of good transportation; i t equates rele- vance with immediacy rather than with ideas and gives us an 'overchoice' of 'non-choices.' 'I5

    mean scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Tes t

    s t a r t ed the furor. The accountability movement This overdiversification and proliferation of

    unrelated options also appears to b e a major reason has called a t ten t ion to our inability, even unwill- ingness, to specify and measure educational outcomes. Sociologists have pointed to the for the present discontent among many foreign

    language teachers. More and more among us feel

    tha t w e a r e concentrating on t h e periphery of

    foreign language instruction, shortchanging the

    changing family s t ruc ture which puts a larger burden for social services on the schools, taking away t ime and resources from t h e tradit ional

    curriculum. 'Back to basics,' conforming to the 'Ore Of language and literature, and neglecting t o build the necessary foundation for

    any lasting benefits of foreign language study. cyclical movement of fads and counterfads in education, can also be considered a reaction t o the romantic idealism of t he sixties, when well- meaning, but somewhat oversimplified appeals

    asked tha t "Schools should be a place where children learn what they most want to know, instead of what we think they ought to know."4

    Another impetus of the back-to-basics move- ment is t he financial 'crunch' which forces the

    During the sixties and early seventies, we

    innovated with a vengeance. W e individualized, humanized, personalized, mediated, programmed,

    team-taught, grouped, 'interdisciplinized,' clari-

    fied values, fostered creativity, developed mini-

    courses, and discussed old and new methodologies

    ad infiniturn. Most of our discussions, as reflected in t h e professional l i t e ra ture and in conference

    4. John Holt, How Children Fail (New York: Pitman, 1964), p. 5. "Tomorrow's Curriculum Today," in Alvin Toffler, ed., Learning for Tomorrow (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp. 103-31. 175.

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    programs, concern themselves with education

    processes--the 'how to' aspec t of education. Seldom do we read or hear serious discussion about the content of instruction. Yet, no ma t t e r how up-

    to-date the se t t ing and methodology, if instruc- tional content deals with trivia, t h e results will be

    inconsequential. Effective education needs to

    deal with three components: content, process, and outcome.

    We have writ ten behavioral objectives for literally thousands of discrete foreign language

    skills, but few schools have specified t h e overall

    minimal conten t and competencies the various levels of instruction aim at reaching; fewer ye t have determined through a systematic testing program whether students actually accomplish the

    desired goals. Let m e not give cause for

    misunderstanding. By all means, l e t us continue

    our efforts to individualize, personalize, and humanize, but le t us not do i t for t he sake of

    innovation or change alone. The only valid reason for curricular innovation and supplementation, as Judith Morrow and Lorraine Strasheim note, is to meet the specified aims of a course and increase student learning.

    Whether our educational product, be i t on the

    high school o r college level, has deteriorated is open to discussion. Even if we base our opinion on 'scientific evidence' in t he form of declining test scores, we need to consider t h e fact tha t the population tes ted in 1965 is no longer identical to the population tes ted this year. But t h e argument

    of justifying decreasing achievement by differ- ences in s tudent population (i.e.? more students are staying in high school, and more from lower socioeconomic strata--and assumedly an educa-

    tionally deprived background--are going on to college) is evading t h e issue. Even if t he change in


    student population has contributed to the statist i-

    ca l shift in test scores, t h e question of whether we a r e satisfied with our educational results remains.

    Some consider them

    solely t h e three mechanical, survival skills:

    reading, writing, and 'rithmetic.' However, there is danger in interpreting the foundations of

    education too narrowly. If we limit our curricular goals to reading rental cont rac ts and insurance policies, balancing a checkbook, following recipes, and preparing job application^,^ where do students deal with the accumulated wisdom and knowledge

    of mankind as expressed in history, literature, the arts, and l ife styles of o ther peoples? Where do

    they inspect their heritage and consider their future? Where do they f a c e t h e questions of who

    they are, what makes them uniquely human, where they come from, and where they a r e going?

    What ar$ 'the basics?'

    I propose tha t we interpret t he basics t o refer t o the broad, general goals of education which--

    apar t from developing skills in t he three R's--call

    for developing l ifetime learning habits; establish-

    ing good human relations; sett ing values concomi- t a n t with our democratic l ife style; acquiring

    knowledge in the humanities and the social and natural sciences; providipg career education,

    cultural appreciation and citizenship training.' If t h e basics include all these skills, then foreign

    language study has a unique place and function in

    7. See proposed minimal performance objectives listed in

    8. Listed arnoni the ten broad goals of education by theNew Ben Brodinsky, fn.3.

    6. "Sumlementinc! the Textbook Attractivelv. Effectivelv. .. ,, ,, and Responsibly," i: Renate A. Schulz, ed., Personalizing York State Educacon Department and are printed in Anthony Foreign Language Instruction: Learning Styles and Teachin Papalia, Learner-Centered Language Teaching: Methods and Pptions (Skokie, Ill.: National Textbook Co., 197x3, pp. 74-91.' Materials (Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, 1976), pp. 5-6.

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    t h e basic curr iculum. Foreign language study--

    with i t s r ichness of c o n t e n t and poten t ia l for teaching a vast f ie ld of l inguis t ic knowledge, valuable communica t ion skills, cu l tura l insights, and posi t ive a t t i t u d e s and f o r developing memory,

    ana ly t ica l and c r e a t i v e thought , and problem-

    solving processes--belongs among t h e basic intel- l ec tua l disciplines for a l l s tudents .

    The major quest ion we have to d e a l with in

    order to establ ish our validity in t h e c o r e

    curr iculum is: What a r e t h e fundamenta ls of our

    discipline which b e s t cont r ibu te to support t h e g e n e r a l basic goals of educat ion? L e t us review

    s o m e of t h e problems in foreign language educa-

    t ion which have cont r ibu ted to t h e present state of d iscontent and genera l dissat isfact ion with s tu-

    d e n t ach ievement and a t t i tudes .

    O n e problem is t h e divers i f icat ion a l ready mentioned. Whatever unifying, c o m m o n goals we

    have, t h e y a r e scarce ly visible in t h e present prol i ferat ion of disconnected opt ions which may

    range f r o m mini-courses o n "The Culinary Ar ts of

    France" (conducted in English) to "Career Spanish"

    (consis t ing of 144 phrases for mechanics). What i s

    sdid about t h e meaninglessness of a high school

    diploma in genera l c a n b e ex tended to foreign

    language s tudy in par t icular : a f t e r one, two, or t h r e e years of s i t t ing in our c lasses , t h e r e i s no

    g u a r a n t e e t h a t s tudents c a n d e m o n s t r a t e any

    common knowledge or skill.

    so-called innovat ive ac t iv i ty is no t d u e to t h e fight

    aga ins t professional ext inct ion. Educat ion in the

    United S t a t e s is run according to t h e principles of cap i ta l i s t enterpr ise . As in industry, supply is

    based on demand. Demand for our offerings has decreased with f e w e r col lege requirements and t h e prol i ferat ion of o t h e r 'easier' e lect ives: fewer

    s tudents = f e w e r teachers . W e , t h e teachers , are f ight ing for professional and economic survival by

    a t t e m p t i n g to c r e a t e demand f o r our courses.

    A re la ted problem concerns s tudents ' changing

    a t t i t u d e s toward learning in general . Supported by

    t h e educa t iona l t r e n d of t h e last decade to foster self-fulf i l lment and self-real izat ion, emphasize

    c rea t iv i ty , and l e t s tudents 'do the i r own thing,' t o g e t h e r with increased permissiveness and less

    r igorous discipline in t h e home, many students

    have not y e t real ized t h a t t h e The Bill of Rights which guarantees t h e m t h e pursui t of happiness

    has a n unwri t ten condi t ion which makes this

    pursui t possible in a n in te rdependent society. In Henry Grunwald's words, w e need to real ize "that a l l men a r e endowed by the i r c r e a t o r with certain

    inescapable dut ies , a n d t h a t among these duties a r e work, learning, and t h e pursui t of responsibil-

    i t y .ll9

    Foreign language courses a r e reputedly diffi-

    cul t . Acquiring ora l prof ic iency and l i teracy in a second language outs ide t h e t a r g e t language

    c u l t u r e t a k e s at l e a s t a v e r a g e intel l igence, special

    ap t i tude , much t i m e a n d in te l lec tua l energy, high motivat ion, and self-discipline. The 'average'

    s tudent whom w e need to a t t r a c t f o r t h e purpose of filling our c lassroom seats is seldom willing (and s o m e t i m e s unable) to achieve t h e proficiency our

    t rad i t iona l r h e t o r i c c la ims as t h e major benefit of foreign language study. So, in order TO survive, we f e e l forced to adjust our requirements , offerings, expec ta t ions , and grades by appeal ing to a larger

    s e g m e n t of s tudent in te res t s , abilities, and levels - of motivat ion. The opt imis t s among us might see this topsy-

    tu rvy growth of opt ions as a sign of professional vi ta l i ty and creat ivi ty; t h e rea l i s t s among us, however , wonder whether much of...