Strategies for helping students overcome their fear in Spanish courses
At the core of effective teaching, I believe there is a deep love not only for the subject being taught, but also for the students one is responsible to guide and nurture. While developing fully online Spanish courses for non-native speakers of Spanish at University of Texas El Paso, one of the main concerns that I had as a professor was how I would supplement the time dedicated in a face-to-face and/or hybrid course to oral practice in a fully online platform. While at the beginning I was uncertain about how to approach this concern, I started discovering what researchers had to say about online curricula (e.g. integration of social media, use of multiple platforms, etc.), and beyond that I started to evaluate and listen very closely to my students.
Through the use of surveys first given in the face-to-face and hybrid courses, I found that there were many instances in which students admitted to needing help, whether with grammar or vocabulary, despite my many efforts to create a safe zone and an open, participatory atmosphere. Looking deep into student responses, I started to notice that two of the main factors that influence the decision of students to ask or avoid asking questions were: 1) the awareness of perceptions other may have and 2) shyness. The first one (awareness of perceptions) was easier to battle by providing information of what is essentially language and the process of acquisition. The shyness factor, though, was something I had to really put more thought into. I knew I could do more about changing a student’s perception over an attitude. So then the question became, how could I reach the student(s) that feel shy or hesitant, so that they too would benefit fully from instruction and become better at Spanish?
The answer to my question came unexpectedly when I started to create vocal PowerPoints. That is, I took the PowerPoints from the resources available for instructors in MySpanishLab and added my voice to them. I did so first as a way to supplement instruction for a student who was injured and was at that point in the hospital. I didn’t want this student to miss the lessons and fall behind, so I figured I could give her the same material shown in class, and to avoid losing her I could add my voice and, in that sense, try to make her feel my presence. The reaction I got from the student was one I didn’t really expect. She said she “super loved” the idea and suggested I started doing the same for all PowerPoints. At first I thought it was crazy, but despite my doubts, I uploaded my first three vocal PowerPoint to the Blackboard platform. The actions I got from other students, especially the quiet ones, provided new insight into ways I could approach shyness.
The vocal PowerPoints were a hit! Students could review the material at their own pace and develop new knowledge. Students were better able to grasp grammatical concepts and gained more confidence in speaking the language. Using this knowledge, I took the concept and applied it to our fully online courses, making use of new features integrated into the PowerPoint program (the color pens, the lasers, sounds, and slide transitions, to name a few), adding variety—and in a way my own style—which students could easily perceive.
To this, I added short videos for major grammatical concepts, as well as songs and YouTube raps. So far, I have noticed that the addition of my voice adds presence to the platform, making students feel connected to me and more confident in their language abilities. The videos have also helped in that aspect, and they also show students that I am interested in them and not only Spanish.
Both have been a way of creating a bond and increasing participation, no matter how shy students may be. The YouTube raps and songs of my own add variety and allow students to know that learning a language does not have to be boring. I feel that if I can steal a smile from my students, I have made a way into catching their attention. Sure enough, it’s working.
To conclude, I must briefly add that other components utilized in MySpanishLab include: games, student self-recorded audio/video integrated into Blackboard discussions (which they love), as well as vocabulary flashcards, bimonthly calls/conferences (as a way to interact and check student progress) and one minute runs1.
Read more about how Viridiana and her colleagues increased student achievement in this educator case study.
1 So what is a “one minute run”? and why are they important you may ask? Well here are the answers.
A “one minute run” is an opportunity for students to express what they know and allows them to teach their classmates in their own words what certain concepts are, their function, and why and how they are important. The goal is for students to time themselves for one minute. During one minute, they will explain as much as they can to their classmates. They may talk in either English or Spanish. However, for one minute, they cannot stop talking. They may provide definitions, alternate views, or give examples, but whatever they do, for one minute they cannot stop talking. Students must record themselves speaking, keeping n mind that if they are caught in the middle of an explanation, that is fine.Students are asked to be clear, simple, and concise. It is about providing information that is relevant, easy to understand, and effective.
One-minute runs are important, as they will give students new insight/perspection into certain concepts. Sometimes words used by an instructor do not have as much “swag” as those used by classmates, and students can definitely learn a lot by teaching their classmates.
About the Author
Viridiana Vidaña Matus has an immense desire to impact the lives of her students. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, with a minor in secondary education for modern language majors, and a master’s in Latin American literature, both at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). She is certified by the Texas State Board of Education as a Spanish EC-12 educator, and has been teaching for more than eight years. Her thesis topic was the vindication of the indigenous in Argentina based on Calfucurá: La Conquista de las Pampas (1956), by Argentine writer Álvaro Yunque (Arístides Gandolfi Herrero), with an emphasis on identity construction in the 19th century, silence, and symbolic violence. She is currently working to obtain a Ph.D. in Teaching, Learning, and Culture, with a focus on literacy and biliteracy. She loves love reading, watching lucha libre, playing the guitar, and cooking five-minute rice in two minutes.