¿Qué está pasando? Idiomas en Catlin Gabel

(What's happening? Languages at Catlin Gabel)

What’s the point of learning a second language? There are many answers, including developing neural pathways, expanding communication skills, understanding a different culture, enhancing learning in other subjects, and learning geography. Being proficient in a second language connects us to other people and experiences that deepen our understanding of the world. It is a ticket to literature, arts, travel, and experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible.

For these reasons and more, most schools have long included second language study as a core course and graduation requirement. That will not change at Catlin Gabel School, but how we teach language is changing significantly. In keeping with our emphasis on experiential learning, deep understanding, and being able to transfer, or apply, what you know to real-world situations, language study is moving away from traditional methods to a more dynamic and powerful approach.

Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Enrique Escalona, our modern languages department chair, about how we are implementing new ways to teach language classes across all divisions. The methods we are using blend the best standards and practices of FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary Schools) and ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages), along with what we believe and create. For someone like me, who learned German in high school and college through heavy doses of grammar and vocabulary, it was exciting to learn how language study is changing at our school.


The primary goal of our language program is proficiency, defined as the ability to use the target language in a variety of unrehearsed, real-world situations. We want students to use, apply, and retain what they learn in language class.  Those goals inform the three modes of communication we now emphasize in all language classes: interpretive (reading or viewing, comprehending, and interpreting messages in the target language); presentational (creating, writing, and delivering ideas and content in the target language); and interpersonal (using conversation to negotiate and make meaning).

Grammar and Vocabulary

Learning a language through a text-based emphasis on grammar and vocabulary takes longer, is harder, and is less engaging than focusing on usage and practice. Similar to what we believe about first language literacy and numeracy in our younger grades, we are asking students to use the language in various ways and contexts, and build the grammar on that experience, rather than starting with formal grammar and hoping students can transfer that learning to using the language.


Memorizing verb tenses and knowing vocabulary is necessary, but not as isolated tasks. We now are assessing what our students know through integrated performance assessments. Rather than waiting for a test or exam, teachers constantly assess a student’s language facility in various ways. They assess students using performance-based standards which clearly define levels of mastery. Those standards are based on various tasks, including Functions (questions, conversations, narration the learner can perform); Text Type (words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs the learner can understand and produce); and Contexts and Content (topics and situations the learner can understand and discuss).

Student Experience

What do these changes look like for students in class each day? Fewer worksheets and fill-in-the-blank quizzes and verb and vocabulary drills. More work with authentic texts or videos, etc. produced by native speakers for use by native speaking audiences. More classmate interaction, conversations, and presentations. Less separation between grammar lessons and culture lessons, and more lessons that connect language practice and life in that region. Less English use in language classes, even in younger grades, with greater tolerance for minor errors so that students will take risks and become more confident using the target language.


Language programs vary in high schools and colleges across the country. Some emphasize writing, some speaking, some grammar. AP language curriculum is not changing in significant ways, even as the tests themselves are focusing more on understanding, producing, and communicating. At Catlin Gabel, we are doing what we believe the research and professional standards suggest, adding distinctive elements based on teacher expertise and experience. We believe the result will be more proficient, skilled, and culturally confident graduates.

Next Steps

Last year, our language teachers spent five days working with ACTFL trainers on campus, and attended the ACTFL Conference in San Diego with over 7,000 educators. They currently are studying innovative techniques being developed by the CARLA institute (Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition) at the University of Minnesota. Faculty members feel reinvigorated and renewed and are working together to share what they are learning. They report that students across the grades are more motivated and engaged in both learning the language and learning through the language.

As in math or English, deep understanding comes from applying skills and concepts you are learning to answer a compelling question or complete a complex task. The most valuable experiences I had in studying German came when my teachers asked me to teach a class on a short story and when I worked alongside native speakers in a factory in Stuttgart. We know that when learning is isolated, abstract, or focused on clusters of information, it is less effective. Language teachers at Catlin Gabel know that too, and are pioneering better methods that will improve language proficiency and inform teaching and assessment in other subjects as well.

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