Study Groups for Learning a Second Language
By Michael Frank
Volume 44 Issue 4
By Michael Frank
In order to be an effective school psychologist, I have recognized that it is important for me to understand students who have cultural and linguistic backgrounds very different from mine. When I first joined the University of South Florida (USF) school psychology program, we started our practicum right away, and before long I realized that I was not entirely prepared to work with the diverse clientele in the Tampa Bay area. I decided to join a group that a former student of my program had initiated called the USF Spanish Interest Group. This group was started with the intention of creating an opportunity for students to learn about the culture and language of the numerous Latino communities in our area. In this article, I intend to share the importance of studying language and culture, and provide some recommendations on how to make a language study group successful.
The number of linguistically diverse students in the U.S. school system continues to grow. Roughly 20% of K–12 students in the United States are English language learners (ELL; National Center for Education Statistics, 2009), and among these students, 75% are native speakers of Spanish. Despite the large number of ELL students in the U.S. school system, only 11% of school psychologists are bilingual (Curtis et al., 2008). Depending on where you live, there may be a high demand for bilingual school psychologists (that is, school psychologists who are proficient and have specialized training in conducting assessments, counseling, or crisis intervention in a language other than English) or psychologists who can conduct basic consultation with their students’ family members who do not speak English. Even without becoming fully proficient in another language, beginning a consultation session with greetings in the native language of a parent or student can help build trust and rapport.
Given the packed course load of most school psychology graduate programs, it may not be feasible to take university language courses or study abroad. The approach that we used in the USF school psychology program was to create a language study group to provide support and resources for graduate students who foresee using a second language (in this case, Spanish) in their practice.
The Benefits of a Study Group
Creating a study group allows for a flexible curriculum in which each student creates personally relevant goals. Although I had the intention of becoming a fully bilingual psychologist when I joined the USF Spanish Interest Group, others in my group wished to focus more on understanding cultural norms germane to discussing mental illness. Others had more long-term goals of fluency and preferred to focus on grasping the basics during their graduate school training.
Another advantage of a study group formed within a school psychology program is the opportunity to focus on situations that we are likely to face in our actual work settings. Our group role-plays parent consultations, invites guest speakers to talk about educational issues, and focuses on vocabulary related to our profession. Although a university language course will provide more thorough language mastery, our study group has allowed us to focus on the essential elements of providing psychological services to Spanish speaking children and families.
Setting our improved language skills aside, an additional benefit is that the members of our group have been able to recognize issues of culture and race that can adversely affect rapport with children and families who speak Spanish. For example, we discuss how microaggressions (e.g., acting surprised and complementing a child from Puerto Rico on her English) can send unintended insults. Furthermore, we are less likely to ask children to interpret for their Spanish monolingual parents, because we have become familiar with research suggesting that it can be stressful for children.
Many school psychology programs have tight schedules with close cohorts that offer peer-to-peer support; for example, I worked together with the same seven people four days a week for three years. When my fellow language students are constantly nearby, I have frequent opportunities to practice, and plenty of pressure to keep up my progress. Our approach capitalizes on positive peer pressure by requiring members to declare their goals to the group. Finally, perhaps the most compelling benefit of a student-run study group is its affordability. With the exception of learning software that may be needed, running a study group is free.
Steps to Creating and Running a Study Group
The first step in creating a language study group is to develop concrete goals and a plan to achieve them. Some students may expect to reach fluency, while others are only interested in gaining sufficient vocabulary to build relationships with Spanish speaking consultees. In order to achieve the primary goal of reaching fluency, pedagogical materials are necessary (e.g., Rosetta Stone), while regular meetings, practice, and supervision are needed to ensure progress is being achieved. Resources should be considered. Are there department funds available to purchase study materials, or does a grant need to be submitted? Is it acceptable to use only free resources? Where can students meet, and are there any students proficient in the target language who can provide tutoring to their peers?
In order to ensure that meaningful progress occurs, it is important to collect data from the outset of the group, including the goals and a timeline of when goals and benchmark goals should be achieved. It is also helpful to have a pre–post survey of language proficiency in order to measure the actual change in ability.
Learning a language is difficult, and the initially selected approach may not be as effective as intended. It is important to use the data that are collected to regularly assess (e.g., monthly) whether students are likely to meet their semester or yearly goals. If it appears that students are not on track to meet their goals, each student should be able to provide input toward the modification of the study plans to ensure that each individual’s needs are met.
The Usf Spanish Interest Group: A Case Example
Goals. Students in the study group share the goal of improving their fluency in Spanish oral language (receptive and expressive) skills, progressing from words and phrases to sentences and conversations. They are expected to learn to write, spell, and read accurately in Spanish and gain confidence to share their ideas and opinions in Spanish. Students are also expected to learn how to pronounce syllables, words, and sentences in the Spanish language, while receiving immediate, ongoing feedback from Rosetta Stone software. Finally, students strive to gain knowledge of ethical, legal, and cultural issues related to the local and statewide Hispanic community, and demonstrate an understanding of specific prevention, intervention, and postintervention strategies for Hispanic students.
Resources and assessment tools. The study group uses Rosetta Stone language learning software, purchased via a grant, as well as the DuoLingo app, downloaded for free onto smartphones, tablets, or used in a Web browser (resource added in 2013). A small classroom is reserved weekly for lessons or practice conversations, including a dry-erase board for practicing verb conjugation. To monitor progress, the study group uses a Spanish-speaking abilities self-assessment (Adapted from the Self-Assessment of Speaking Proficiency; http://www.govtilr.org/Skills/speakingassessment.pdf), and a cultural competence self-assessment (Adapted from the Self-Assessment Checklist for Personnel Providing Primary Health Care Services; http://nccc.georgetown.edu/documents/checklist_PHC.html). Qualitative data related to progress are collected regularly during meetings.
Barriers and solutions created to overcome them. As some members graduated and new students joined the group, some of the learning strategies became less effective. Students of different ability levels were not always able to benefit from the same group lesson or activity. Many students had difficulty prioritizing practice time and expressed a need for more portable study methods and increased didactic instruction. To increase the rate of improvement, group members decided to begin meeting weekly instead of biweekly, with commitments to practice times posted on the wall of the lab. The DuoLingo app was added to the resource library to increase convenience of practice, and the group increased the frequency of instruction. This year, the new study group leader has organized group meetings into beginner and advanced sessions to maximize gains from instruction and conversation practice.
There are many benefits to learning a second (or third) language, and doing so can improve one’s ability to practice as a school psychologist. Although learning a language is a long-term commitment that requires time and effort, support from fellow students is an efficient and enjoyable way to pave the road to fluency. By measuring the achievement of incremental goals and remaining open to change when difficulties emerge, a student organization can boost the success of its members.
Curtis, M. J., Lopez, A. D., Castillo, J. M., Batsche, G. M., Minch, D., & Smith, J. C. (2008). The status of school psychology: Demographic characteristics, employment conditions, professional practices, and continuing professional development. Communiqué, 36, 27–29.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2009). The condition of education 2009. Retrieved from www.nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009081.pdf
Michael Frank is a school psychology doctoral candidate at the University of South Florida. He is also a member of the NASP Graduate Student Committee and a contributing editor for Communiqué. He gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Dr. George Batsche, Liza Arango, and Jessica Vazquez to the original planning and organization of the USF Spanish Interest Group