Meredith Kearsley Coy and Dr. Michael Bush, Center for Language Studies
One of the goals of the BYU Center for Language Studies is to improve the basic Swahili course in order to support the African studies minor. An initial concern in teaching such less commonly taught languages is the lack of qualified teachers. In many cases technology is the solution to this problem. Creating on-line lesson materials that are pedagogically sound facilitates instruction in two ways. First, teachers do not have to be as strictly qualified because much of the burden is shifted to lesson plans that are already completed and available on-line. Second, students receive authentic language exposure and instruction through the video and audio clips that make up the on-line activities. A possible downfall of technologically enhanced language learning is that the pedagogy of the lessons is overlooked. With the unique perspective of a student and a teacher, I evaluated the pedagogical effectiveness of the lessons and provided suggestions for improvement. In addition, I intended to examine the lessons to determine if they would be useful in teaching English to native Swahili speakers, but I was unable to do so because of difficulties in obtaining an internship in Tanzania.
The on-line portion of the Swahili 101 course is organized into six chapters composed of five lessons each. Using generally accepted teaching methods, I tested each lesson on the basis of three types of activities: (1) introduction of the language concept, (2) skill-getting, and (3) skill-using. These three activities cover the steps that a language learner must go through in order to understand and use the language competently. The learner should be brought from the first encounter with a new concept, whether grammar, vocabulary, or cultural appropriateness (introduction) to being able to recognize and becoming familiar with the concept (skill-getting). Finally, the learner must be able to reproduce and create language with that concept in a meaningful, communicative way (skill-using).
As I performed the tasks in each lesson, I evaluated the activities on two levels: (1) does the lesson follow the introduction, skill-getting, skill-using format, and (2) does the activity fit within the scope and sequence of the lesson, chapter and course? I expected that not many changes would need to be made to the overall scope and sequence of the on-line course; however, I knew that many of the lessons did not follow the three-step sequence necessary for mastery of a language concept.
While I suggested minor changes to all of the chapters and lessons, I made several general observations for overall improvement of the course. Some lessons followed the three-step sequence very well, particularly the lessons that introduced new vocabulary. However, I discovered that the lessons that focused on specific language functions, such as describing people or narrating in the past, did not adequately follow this sequence in the introduction and skill-getting phases. Often, there was a lack of preparation for the verbs that students would be using in each lesson, as well as skill-getting activities to help familiarize students with those verbs before being required to produce them in a skill-using activity. This lack of preparation could be improved by providing in the introduction page a list of all of the new verbs that would be used in that lesson and then creating one or two activities that would help the learner to recognize the verbs in a simplified context before moving on to the rest of the lesson.
Because the scope and sequence of the on-line course is based on the communicative language teaching method, in which the focus of language instruction is communication rather than grammar instruction, adequate examples are imperative so that students have enough input to induce the grammar concepts. Teaching grammar still plays a part in the communicative method, but it relies heavily on examples of the language structure given in context. As I reviewed the lessons I found that the grammar sections did not provide adequate contextual examples, or that the examples provided only used one or two conjugations instead of a wide variety. I also found that a lack of standard formatting for “Grammar notes” and “Cultural notes” made the grammar concepts and cultural information confusing and not easily accessible.
In some lessons, I discovered that there were two or more main subjects such as “food” and “places”. In these lessons, activities seemed to jump back and forth between concepts without making a logical connection between the introduction, skill-getting activities, and skill-using activities of each given concept. In these lessons, the two concepts never received full attention. This problem could be remedied by separating the two concepts into different lessons, or by more fully integrating the two concepts in the introduction phase of the lesson so that students can more easily see the connection between them as they move from one activity to the next.
Towards the end of each lesson, there is an activity that is scored before the student moves on to the skill-using portion of the lesson. The score helps students gauge how well they are acquiring the concepts. If students do not receive 100% there is no feedback provided before moving on to the final activities. Thus, if students do not yet have the skills to receive a 100%, they do not have the opportunity to understand what they did wrong. Simply adding a page of feedback so that students can correct themselves would make these scored activities much more effective.
One possibly underused strength of the course lies in its skill-using activities, found at the end of each lesson. Typically, these activities ask the student to compose a paragraph using the content and language structures learned in the lesson. Students are then encouraged to print their work and bring it to class. There is a potential for ineffectiveness if the classroom teacher does not use these activities during classroom instruction or grade them as homework. The classroom teacher needs to make sure to enforce the final activities of each lesson; otherwise, students will most likely skip these pages and lose the opportunity to solidify the learning process.
Overall, I found the lessons to be fun and engaging. The on-line lessons enhanced the learning process and provided innovative ways to acquire each language concept. Still, I found many areas in which the lessons could be improved to ensure that the technology supported pedagogical methods. With these changes in mind, the on-line Swahili lessons provide an effective template for teaching other less commonly taught languages.