Case study: Lecturing in the target language to post A'level Spanish students: linguistic gains and pedagogical implications

Author: Irene Macías


This case study aims to present the Spanish Cultural Studies lecture in the first year of the Modern Languages degree at the University of Bath as an example of how lecturing in the foreign language to post A-level learners can be linguistically fertile without neglecting the primary aim of the unit, namely to provide a conceptual and systematic introduction to Spanish culture in the 20th century.

Table of contents

1. The case

1.1 Fact file

  • Institution: University of Bath, Department of European Studies and Modern Languages
  • Degree: Modern Languages, allowing a combination of two languages or just one with Politics.
  • Year and length of unit: 1 st year; two semesters, with eight lectures plus three seminars in each.
  • Assessment: one 1000-1500 word essay in Spanish each semester.
  • Number of students enrolled: 30 in the 2004/5 academic year. 60 in 2005/6.

1.2 Institutional context: Spanish at Bath

Spanish was first available in the Modern Languages and European Studies degree at the University of Bath in 2002. It was the latest addition to other well-established language sections: French, Italian, German and Russian. The degree combines the study of two languages, offering parallel syllabi in both. There is also the possibility of studying just one language alongside Politics. In either case the aim is to produce graduates with proficiency in the language(s) and with a good understanding of the culture(s) where the language(s) is/are spoken.

It is perhaps significant that the two main stated aims of this degree, namely the achievement of language proficiency and the understanding of the countries and cultures where the language is spoken, are more often than not pursued separately. That is to say, not all sections deliver non-language units in the relevant language. This is justified in the case of Italian and Russian which students can study ab initio, which naturally rules out lecturing in the foreign language; in other cases, lecturers, usually English native speakers, claim that the subject matter is too difficult for the students to understand in the foreign language.

The Spanish section, made up of two native English speakers and two Spanish native ones to date, agreed from the start that the language of instruction for all units, language and subject based ones, would be Spanish on the shared belief that exposure to the language could only enhance students' L2 progress. But despite our agreement, there was never any real analysis of what the pedagogical implications of this content and language integrated learning were:

  • Should we make any concessions to the linguistic difficulties our post A level students were likely to encounter, such as giving out handouts with glossaries, translating terms occasionally, controlling the pace and complexity of our speech?
  • Should we deliver the same syllabus as might be expected with an equivalent class of native learners?

At the time, I didn't consider any of these questions. This lack of pedagogical reflection was compounded by overzealousness on my part to use my specialist knowledge. This meant that when I first started teaching Cultural Studies back in 2002 I didn't take on board the students' needs as foreign learners. I would lecture solidly for 50 minutes - reproducing the lecture models I had experienced as an undergraduate - and perfunctorily allow the last 3 or 4 minutes for questions which, unsurprisingly, were hardly ever asked. I didn't pause to explain terms that I now know post A level students of Spanish are unlikely to have come across. And I am not referring to specialized jargon, but to the kind of register native learners might be expected to know and use in an equivalent context. It was an alienating and discouraging experience for all of us.

It was not, however, an entirely wasteful exercise. I might have failed to achieve the stated aim of the unit, that is, to facilitate my students' content learning, but I could see that, if nothing else, their understanding of the language was improving. I could pick up signs that confirmed that the amount of information they were able to comprehend gradually increased; as weeks went by they looked more relaxed and made more meaningful eye contact with me; they didn't rely on others so much for their note taking. Their whole body language suggested that at least we were managing some communication, an impression confirmed by them in their feedback. It was at that point that I realised the lecture's potential as a valuable aid for L2 learning. And it was then that I started to confront the questions outlined before.

2. The Cultural Studies lecture: its limitations and potentialities

The aim of this unit is: "To provide an introduction to modern Spanish culture and the events that have marked its development; to explore the work of authors that have played a significant role from the early 20th Century up to 1975." Like other subject based units, it also seeks to develop cognitive and transferable skills, such as conceptual thinking, research and analysis. The one objective it does not overtly pursue is the development of language skills.

The teaching methods employed are the lecture, to which 8 hours are assigned, and the seminar, 3 each semester. Although the seminar can replicate the dynamics of interaction of the traditional language class, here I want to concentrate on the lecture, which can prove more challenging in terms of language exploitation but is, nonetheless, valuable in its own right.

On the surface, the lecture is not a teaching method that lends itself easily to language teaching. This is because the possibilities of interaction between teacher and students as well as among the latter are very limited. There is little opportunity for the productive use of language by students, if any at all. Also, there is little chance for the lecturer to monitor whether what they are saying is being understood. It is therefore potentially a wasteful method in terms of L2 acquisition.

There is a wealth of data on lecturing and its strengths and weaknesses as a teaching method. Although still very common in Higher Education, there is widespread acknowledgement of its pedagogical limitations. What follows is a much distilled list of some of the findings of current research on this area. The items have been selected firstly on account of their significance in shaping my practice as lecturer who is teaching student cohorts in a language other than their mother tongue, and secondly, because they give us the first clues as to how a lecture can be exploited for linguistic purposes:

  • The level of students' attention drops after 15-20 minutes.
  • Varied stimulation (auditory / visual) can raise levels of attention.
  • Students are more likely to remember the content of the lecture if what is said is meaningful to them, that is, if it fits in with the ideas they already have.
  • Rehearsing the information (going over it after its presentation) helps learners tomemorize it and consolidate their learning.
  • Student motivation influences the effectiveness of learning during a lecture.

The first two items refer to attention, the next two to memory, and the last one to motivation. Bligh (1998) argues that these are the main factors that affect the acquisition of information during a lecture. He suggests various techniques to maximise the effectiveness of lecturing, but even allowing for buzz group discussions, quiet time after 20 minutes of class to revise notes taken, test type questions at the end, and so forth, all of which can be linguistically fertile activities, as I will try to show later, there is no doubt that the skill the students will be deploying most of the time is listening comprehension.

Since the eighties there has been a lot of interest in listening comprehension in foreign language teaching and a growing realisation that it is a far more complex activity than had been realised. Vandergrift (1999) maintains that listening comprehension plays a key role in facilitating language learning and that focusing on it offers many advantages. To sum up:

  • Learning through listening resembles the natural way of learning a language. It is also cognitively counterproductive to require learners to produce all the language material to which they are exposed before it is stored in long-term memory.
  • Listening is also an efficient way of facilitating language learning because students are exposed only to good language models (the teacher).
  • Listening is a useful skill because adults spend between 40-50% of their time listening (25-30% speaking, 11-16% reading and about 9% writing).
  • Listening also has the affective advantage of not putting the same amount of pressure on the learner as speaking does (potential embarrassment about not being able to produce correct sounds or idiomatic structures).

The corollary of this list is that lecturing, affording such long stretches of listening as it does, is potentially a highly profitable activity in terms of language acquisition. However, as my first practice as a lecturer proved to me, being a native speaker does not guarantee the provision of a "good language model", if "good" here is translated as suitable to the learners' needs and level. Morgan (1999) asserts that "if the teacher is a target language native speaker then the spoken style/approach can constitute a useful L2 input but may not suit CLIL [content and language integrated learning] learners. Here, then, considerable sensitivity needs to be exercised."

My experience has shown me that sensitivity is the key word here: being able to anticipate likely gaps in lexicon and to remedy them. This can be done in a variety of ways:

  • Handouts with glossaries before the lecture - allowing students enough time to read through them
  • Ascertaining their understanding of terms as they come up, writing them on the board and explaining them by resorting to translation (which I personally hardly ever do)
  • Providing synonyms or other contexts for that word; it may also be desirable to draw attention to lexical items that the lecturer feels could be valuable to them in terms of contributing to their general stock of vocabulary.

Sensitivity has to be extended to mode of delivery too - pace and complexity of syntactical structures - without ever veering away from the "natural", which would in turn be "unnatural" and unsustainable for any native speaker. To sum up, exercising sensitivity towards foreign learners' needs means switching seamlessly from a content agenda to a linguistic one and back.

There is one last, crucial, area where sensitivity has to be exercised: learners are becoming familiar with what is largely new content, and also with values and meanings which may also seem alien. In order to facilitate their understanding one must be able to step away from one's ethnocentric perspective and socio cultural givens and appreciate that learners may need to have the conceptual frameworks of the foreign culture made explicit to them. Byram (1997) makes a crucial distinction between intercultural speakers and native speakers: where the former can be analytical and critically aware of their own culture, are conscious that their interlocutors may not share their culturally embedded knowledge and meanings, and are able to analyse them from the point of view of the other, the latter may not be. And this would answer one of the questions I made earlier of whether we should deliver the same syllabus (in terms of breadth and depth) as might be used for a similar class of native learners, with a resounding "no". The syllabus must be aimed at the group of learners, in this case so unlike their counterparts in the target country in terms of their culturally related knowledge, concomitant meanings and values. In other words, the syllabus must be designed and delivered with intercultural criteria in mind, although the fact that it is delivered in the foreign language does have practical implications, some of which I have already outlined.

What follows now are further pedagogical implications derived from the theoretical body summarized earlier and which, significantly, make the lecture profitable for L2 learning.

3. Lecturing in the foreign language in practice

It is important to set clear ground rules at the start and explain how the lecture in the FL departs from the traditional one that they might have come to expect in HE. For a start, they are responsible for constantly monitoring their understanding since the lecturer's sensitivity can understandably fail to predict everybody's lack of understanding at all times. Learners are expected to put up their hand and stop the delivery to ask for words/data/chunks of information to be repeated or clarified. According to Vandergrift (1999, 2002), this is an important metacognitive strategy and students should be made aware that listening comprehension in the foreign language should be approached methodically.

However, the success of the lecture often depends on another metacognitive strategy that, in fact, precedes the other two: planning. As mentioned before, information is more likely to be retained if it is meaningful to the receiver (Bligh 1998). This is even more crucial in the case of the Spanish Cultural Studies lecture since most of the information is new. Preliminary reading and activities are vital here in order to prepare the students for what they are about to hear, enabling them to make decisions as to what to listen out for and triggering any previous knowledge they may have on the subject. This can be done in various ways.

In their first class, students are provided with a list with all the lectures in a given semester and the relevant reading for each one (most of the background reading is in English, which should make understanding of the oral text in class easier, as what they hear would be a translation of what they have read). Ideally, they should come to the lecture having done some preliminary reading, which should relieve some pressure since, in theory at least, students should have come across the new information before the lecture. Also, preliminary preparation enables students to develop and deploy listening (cognitive) strategies: listening for gist, identifying the most relevant points, more attentive noting down of specific data and so forth. Knowing the context of a listening text and the purpose for listening greatly reduces the burden of comprehension (Vandergrift 2002).

Starting the lecture with a few minutes of revision can also prepare students for the day's lecture, as well as helping them establish links between chunks of information and therefore store it more effectively (Bligh, 1998). It could be linguistically productive if the questions were to focus on terms used in the previous class. Thus, rather than asking general questions about what was happening in Spain at the turn of the 20 th Century, one could ask the students to brainstorm about 'Regeneracionismo' and all kinds of related terms would hopefully come up: educación, laico vs religioso, analfabetización, atraso, etc. Similarly, 'cultura de evasión´ could yield words like censura, propaganda, manipulación, ideología and so on. These links are helpful cognitively, since all these words learnt in context should be easier to retain.

The handout is a vital tool not only in terms of presenting the information to be covered in an orderly way, therefore allowing them to prepare, but also a yardstick of students' listening competence since it gives a measure of what is expected of them: from comprehensive handouts inclusive of data such as dates, numbers, names or titles which often worry students unduly if they fail to note them down, breaking the flow of communication, I gradually move to more schematic ones with bullet points, simply outlining the main ideas. The amount of information is gradually decreased over the semester, and thus scaffolding is removed carefully in order to make the students more self-reliant. In any case, it is important to give them time to read it through in order for it to fulfil its function of cognitive aid. Depending on the target group, key words could be highlighted and a glossary provided according to the learners' level or the specialization of lexis.

A variation of handout which I tend to use only in the second semester, when they are more confident in their language skills, is the test, using a handout listing a number of questions students "should be able to answer during the lecture". Like the traditional format, it provides a framework by pointing out what they have to listen out for, and therefore identifying the key points. In addition, it can be linguistically fertile since the students can be asked to read out and share their answers with the rest of the class. This could be done individually, in pairs or larger groups. Whoever feels more confident could report to the rest of the class. It can be done at the end of the lecture, or halfway through when some questions have already been covered. As mentioned above, allowing for student participation not only counteracts the inevitable drop in their attention, it is also cognitively desirable since it gives students the chance to store what has been said and hopefully rehearse it as well, that is to say, think about the information and say it in their own words. Again, this provides a precious opportunity for student output in the foreign language.

Visual aids, such as the OHP are not only useful for maintaining levels of attention and conveying numerical data or illustrative images. When used for quotes or extracts, they allow a switch from the aural to the written text, affording the chance to deploy reading skills. Students are asked to read the transparency aloud, and thus have some phonetic practice. Notably, in my experience, learners will be less hesitant to ask about words when they encounter them in the written form.

To sum up, the kind of immersion that the lecture in the foreign language can provide is not comparable to the one they are likely to encounter in their Erasmus exchange. In the target country they will be lectured alongside natives and the lecturer is unlikely to be an "intercultural" speaker. It is nonetheless a valuable preparation for that year abroad in terms of L2 exposure and the chances it affords for linguistic advancement. Whether that exposure does actually help students advance their L2 skills has, of course, to be demonstrated. To that end, the questionnaire reproduced below is intended to make them reflect on and measure any linguistic benefit they may have obtained from immersion. The transcribed replies were given at the end of the first semesters of the academic years 2004-05 and 2005-6.

4. Students' perceptions of the gains of immersion

(2004/05 cohort)

The delivery of lectures in the target language is:

OK: 67%
Hard: 33%
Easy: 0%
Very hard to follow: 0%

I take notes in:

Spanish: 86%
In both languages: 14%
English: 0%

The delivery of lectures in the target language has improved (tick the relevant area and/or suggest others):

My aural comprehension: 93%
My note taking in Spanish: 73%
My vocabulary: 53%
My confidence in the language: 40%
My syntax: 26%
Has not made any difference to my language skills: 0%

I prefer to be lectured in:

Spanish: 100%
English: 0%

(I have selected a few quotes on account of its representativeness of other views not cited here).

  • "Immersion is the best way to grasp a language."
  • "It helps with syntax - when it comes to writing exams/essays, it will be easier to use correct terms and verbs."
  • "It is more relevant to the course and improves my language skills at the same time as learning about the culture."
  • "It improves my Spanish listening and confidence in the language."

(2005/06 cohort)

The delivery of lectures in the target language is:

OK: 67%
Hard: 16%
Easy: 14%
Very hard to follow: 3%

I take notes in:

Spanish: 88%
In both languages: 12%
English: 0%

The delivery of lectures in the target language has improved (tick the relevant area and/or suggest others):

My aural comprehension: 92%
My note taking in Spanish: 88%
My vocabulary: 80%
My confidence in the language: 33%
My syntax: 30%
Has not made any difference to my language skills: 0%

I prefer to be lectured in:

Spanish: 100%
English: 0%

(As before, only a selection of replies is quoted here)

  • "I feel that I need to be immersed in it to improve, and when we come to write about what we have studied it is important to know phrases on the topic already."
  • "I prefer to be taught and 'be thinking in' the language that the exam will be in."
  • "The lectures improve my ability to speak and write in the target language."

5. Conclusion

The students' feedback reveals that they identify tangible gains from lectures in Spanish which can be subsumed into two categories: linguistic gains (improvement in listening comprehension, note taking, vocabulary and syntax) and affective ones (notably the increase in confidence in their language skills reported formally in this questionnaire and informally after lectures). Other significant findings are the fact that the replies from both years are fairly similar. For instance, the listings of areas improved coincide in their ordering, with comparable percentages in both years (question 3). In addition, everyone perceives some gain from this teaching method (last item in question 3), and their support in unanimous (question 4).

It could be argued that asking them to reflect on and measure their own L2 improvement hardly provides an objective estimation. This would be a fair observation if one were trying to gauge linguistic results scientifically. If this were the case, one would obviously have to devise more impersonal tools to assess outcomes. On the other hand, it is precisely this personal reflection and its resulting positive perception that evidently makes them realise what we are aiming for, and this, in turn, may increase their motivation to engage with the lecture.

To conclude, in order to exploit the lecture in the foreign language to its full potential, one needs first of all an awareness of its possibilities, and secondly an informed and methodical approach to it, including making the students aware of what one is trying to achieve in order for them to develop their own cognitive strategies. Lecturing in the foreign language has the advantage that it goes some way towards replicating the uninstructed acquisition of the learners' mother tongue, and, in addition, it demonstrates the rules and skills acquired in the language units. It can be a valuable and unobtrusive support for the development of the foreign language.


Bligh, Donald (1998). What's the Use of Lectures? Exeter: Intellect.

Byram, Michael (1997). Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Morgan, Carol (1999). Teaching history in a foreign language: what language? In Masih, John (ed.). Learning through a Foreign Language. Models, Methods and Outcomes, London: CILT.

Vandergrift, Larry (1999). Facilitating second language listening comprehension: acquiring successful strategies ELT Journal 53, 3: 168-76.

Vandergrift, Larry (2003). Good Practice Guide: Listening: theory and practice in modern foreign language competence

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