Foreign language classes get the conversation going

In Hopewell Middle's foreign language courses, the emphasis is on communicative learning.

Credit: Turner Straw

Credit: Turner Straw

In Hopewell Middle's foreign language courses, the emphasis is on communicative learning.

Many students who have undertaken the study of a second language may recall learning basic phrases such as “the pen of my aunt is on the table” or “where is the library?” Such textbook-based sentences rarely apply to real-life situations.

At Hopewell Middle in Milton, teachers are looking at second language acquisition from a different perspective.

“The idea is to give students usable language – phrases that keep a conversation going rather than, ‘Where is the milk?’” said Allyson Segal, the Milton school’s World Language department chair who also teaches Spanish. “That’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t keep students engaged.”

For the last seven years, rather than diving into textbooks, students in French and Spanish courses begin much the same way babies learn their first language.

Our philosophy is that second languages are acquired similarly to the first – with repetition, context and small doses,” said Segal. “We give our students small pieces of language, like you do when you’re talking to a baby. Then we layer in more complex language as they build vocabulary.”

That communicative approach puts the focus on the language that makes up most of daily conversation.

“By exposing students to the most frequently used words and phrases, they learn to recognize and communicate with them, which is different from textbook learning that often times is unrelatable, with old vocabulary that kids won’t use,” said Segal.

Conversation-based learning can also tailor lessons to what students actually want to talk about, and that encourages them to speak.

“We personalize our curriculum by having the content created by our students,” said Segal. “We may spend days talking about their lives and interests. As long as we’re making it comprehensible, they’re interested.”

Eighth grade Spanish teacher Mary Block uses stories from literature, current and historical events, and students’ own experiences to get kids talking. A student’s visit to Sapelo Island led to writing about her photos; a recent arrival from Wisconsin explained the sport of log rolling that launched an engaging exchange.

“We talk about what happens to them on a daily basis, what they’re interested in, what sports they’re playing and books they’re reading,” said Block. “This approach builds community while guiding students through the process of language acquisition. It feels great for everyone and is highly effective at the same time.”

The communicative approach goes back 40 years, but it’s unique to Hopewell, said Segal.

“Other Fulton County language teachers are aware of what we’re doing because we’ve made a point to encourage them to try out some of these different strategies,” she said. “We’ve presented what we’re doing to promote it, and it’s starting to pick up, but slowly.”

About three-quarters of the roughly 1,300 Hopewell students take a language beginning in sixth grade. The seventh and eighth graders also begin reading to increase vocabulary and comprehension. The results have been positive, said Block.

“In 2017 and 2018, 80% of our World Language students earned a novice high or higher on national proficiency tests given by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages,” she said. “And at the end of the day, that’s what we want: to have our students communicate effectively.”

Information about Hopewell Middle is online at

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