Simply letting students talk more during a class led to dramatic improvements in students’ language proficiency skills at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.

Listening Is Good, Speaking Is Better

When Daniella Friedman began working as the Language Coordinator for Kindergarten – 5th grade at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Maryland, one of the first things she did was look at the 5th-grade STAMP proficiency scores to see where the students’ Hebrew language skills stood.

One thing jumped out to her right away: while students had high language comprehension skills, their speaking and writing skills were several levels below meaning that while students could listen and understand Hebrew spoken to them, they were far less comfortable communicating in the language on their own; a key marker of true language proficiency.

That’s when it clicked: “No wonder students are more comfortable listening – that’s what they do in the classroom when teachers spend most of the time talking,” said Friedman.

“I realized that if we wanted them to truly be able to communicate in Hebrew, we needed to improve their oral expression skills which means that teachers had to make this move in their instruction as well.”

How Avant’s Proficiency Model Encourages Speaking

So Friedman set out to get the other teachers on board. Rather than using “ping pong” conversation or memorization, she adopted Avant’s proficiency model to encourage students to engage in thoughtful dialogue. In addition to training teachers in this model, the school also made a point to use more technology in the classroom so that students would be more comfortable when they took Avant’s online STAMP assessment. They set specific goals to measure results aiming to have 50 percent of enriched (top level) 5th grade classes achieve a level 5 score, a significant increase from the previous year when 85 percent of students were at level 4.

The approach, implemented over the last school year, made a positive impact immediately both in the classroom and on the test scores.

Students loved being able to talk to each other in the classroom about their friends, hobbies, sports, vacations, and they became more engaged in the language learning all around. Because of the extensive speaking practice, the amount of time students spent participating in a dialogue on their speaking portion of the assessment increased from 90 seconds the year before to 5 minutes this year. They enjoyed every minute so much that Avant is now changing that format because the students wanted even more time during the speaking portion.

That wasn’t the only surprise. The test results far exceeded everyone’s expectations; with 77 percent of the enriched students reaching level 5 and a few even reaching level 6.

Having in-depth data to back up these results not only helped to validate the new proficiency approach, but it allowed teachers to continue to adjust and improve their methods and work with specific students on their strengths and weaknesses.

How The School Teaches Hebrew – A Different Model

The Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School is unique in the way they incorporate iTaLAM curriculum (an Internet-based Hebrew curriculum) and the Proficiency Approach on all grade levels. Their partnership with Hebrew at the Center as well as with iTaLAM helped guide them on how to improve their Hebrew instsruction in all language skills. Their curriculum continues to be examined and improved to create a communicative language environment where students improve their proficiency in reading, listening, writing and speaking Hebrew.

“It’s amazing what happens when you rethink your approach and give students opportunities to talk in the classroom,” said Friedman. “Engaging in new teaching styles and moving toward a more interactive classroom can take some time, but the results are so worth it. Everyone at our school has bought into the proficiency approach now.”

In the coming school years, they plan to expand this approach to even earlier grade levels, with students as young as first grade, so that by the time they reach 5th grade, they are even more prepared and proficient. “It’s only going to get better,” Friedman said.

For other teachers or language programs considering implementing a similar approach, Daniella offered three simple tips:

  • Get kids talking in the language in ways they enjoy, like talking to each other about topics that interest them
  • Use technology regularly in the classroom whenever possible, so that students are familiar with it and comfortable when it comes time to take an online language test
  • Transition to using Blended Learning models which allow differentiation as well as better usage of teacher’s time
  • Measure and use data to track progress and show the validity and proficiency and why this style of teaching is so important

The results will speak for themselves.

To learn more about Avant’s STAMP assessment and teaching for proficiency, click here.


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