Spanish Elementary Course

Developing Second Language Proficiency Online

Refuting the claim that conversation isn’t possible in an online language program.

October 8, 2014

It’s the first day of school. The bell rings, the lockers slam. Students are dressed in the new clothes specially set aside for the day, and giggling and chatter fill the air. Teens scramble to claim the perfect seat, the seat they hope to claim for the year. The bell rings and the teacher is looking at twenty plus sets of eyes. Expectations are high. What are they thinking? I’m so excited to learn to write an email in Spanish.

Well, probably not. Conversation has always been the top motivation (other than getting into college) that students have for signing up for a language class. They want to learn to speak with the Latinos in their math class and after-school job, or maybe they have a family member who doesn’t know English and lives abroad. Or better yet, they want to go there, immerse themselves in the culture. They want to fit in. We teachers know that reading and writing are just as important as speaking and listening, but it’s so much less fun.

When I taught in brick-and-mortar settings, my class was largely conversational, and I’d send the written work home as homework. In second year and above, the first 10 minutes were spent in everyday conversation in the target language: last night’s basketball game, the history project that’s coming up, and that birthday cake they have to make for little sister’s sixth birthday. I would also plan (for all levels) guided conversations and countless other speaking drills. They loved it. And they gained so much confidence from it. The skills acquired from so much conversation carried over to their writing as well. 

When I first heard about online language programs, my nose flew in the air. 

How can you possibly have a conversation with a computer?

I blew it off. So did my colleagues and pretty much everyone I knew. Not only did my students come home with those first-place medals in impromptu conversational events at the annual World Declamation Contest in Alaska, many went on to minor in it since they were so close after finishing the AP program. Others travelled abroad to do great stuff. One student even went to Peru and taught the people the importance of clean water and nutrition. Then my health took a complete left-turn making it impossible to continue teaching in a brick-and-mortar classroom. Online instruction became the clear alternative, so I decided to swallow my pride and have an open mind, but I remained doubtful. I was sure that the success I’d experienced teaching would be limited in the online setting.

What happened was something I didn’t expect. Middlebury Interactive Languages really does live up to the “interactive” part of the name. It’s super creative and very effective. The variety of methods and platforms used is quite extensive. Here’s what I mean… Keep in mind there are several platforms and not every activity listed is on every platform:

  • Students listen to stories and excerpts by native speakers. They respond sometimes in written format and other times they record themselves speaking and send me the recording. I can send them both written and recorded feedback, so if they’re pronouncing the letter H, they’ll know not to do that. 
  • Vocabulary is pronounced for them to hear. They have many drill and practice games and can play them as much or as little as they need to and then move on.
  • There are some great projects on culture and many have a speaking component. They research the country and the topic and record themselves telling me about it.
  • There are discussion boards where the student records himself talking about everyday topics and posts it. The other students in the class listen and respond.
  • They have regular speaking assignments where they talk about their daily schedules, sports and other topics they’re working on at a given time. 
  • They also have speaking assignments where they hear a native speaker sing a song or say a poem and then they record themselves saying the same thing.
  • They have dictations where they listen to an audio and write it down word for word. 
  • They go to live sessions with a teacher and other students each week for 30 minutes. The teacher gives a lesson on what they’re studying for the week using a PowerPoint that all students can see. The students freely converse orally and written with the teacher as well as in breakout rooms with other students around the country. 
  • During some live sessions, the teacher will play a recording and then the class discusses it.
  • Each teacher holds an office half-hour where the students can have their questions answered. The teacher and student hear each other, and they see a whiteboard where the teacher can pull up a student’s assignment to go over. Both can write sentences for the other to view.
  • Students message their questions to the teacher and the teacher responds within the day.
  • This one blew me away. The kids have conversations with a computer! The computer records questions and responses and guides the student so what they say makes sense, such as in this example:

      Luís: What is your family like? Is it big or small?
      Student: My family is small. I have my dad and my younger sister.
      Luís: So, your family is more or less a traditional family or modern?
      Student: My family is more modern. I don't think it's completely traditional.
      Luís: In my family, we always like to spend a lot of time together on Saturdays. What traditions do you have in your family?
      Student: One tradition we have in our family is that we play board games.

I am very impressed with the level of conversation in this online program. The students really seem to know what they need to at each level, including the Advanced Placement level. After the Spanish AP exam this year, I received an email from a student that really said it all. “Middlebury Interactive really prepared me for the AP exam. I knew every topic given to me. I’m sure I got a 4 and maybe even a 5. ” 

I received another email later where she told me she received a 4. She’ll receive three years of college credit and be a mere one year away from a minor in most universities. Not too shabby.

Amy Gobroski
Amy Gobroski has taught French, Spanish and American Sign Language since 1990. As a strong believer in parental choice in education, she has taught in public school, homeschool support programs, and Christian school before joining the Middlebury Interactive team. When she’s not working online, she enjoys spending time with her four children and six grandchildren, playing music, bike riding in the Cascade Foothills and working in her bookstore and coffee house in Darrington, Washington.
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