Change The Traditional High School World Language Classroom Through Technology


NEC Conference  -  June 28, 2000


Robert A. Morrey

3404 Merrimac Drive

San Jose, CA 95117-3624

Telephone/fax: (408) 379-5944


Web site:


Copyright ©2000 by Robert A. Morrey


Theme: Moving Beyond the Crossroads: Teachers as Agents for Change

Strand: Change Models


25 Word description: Through the use of technology and other resources this successful program allows students from first to advanced levels to break the one-year, one-level classroom structure.


Outline: The multi-level classroom is a fact of life for many language programs - particularly in small programs and at the more advanced levels - but with appropriate use of technology (computer software and video programs) and textual materials an effective learning program can be developed which does allow talented and motivated students at any level to work effectively at a different pace than the regular class or to work on an independent study basis in other class settings.

Three objectives important for this session are:

1)      to outline in some detail the generic structure of my four-year program and how technology and other resources become an essential element at the more advanced level;

2)      to define how certain students can and do utilize these resources to study the world language in a manner suitable for them – on independent study to complete two years in one year, in a class at a different level than they are studying, at a rate faster or in some cases slower than the normal pace, and even for no credit but just to learn the language; and

3)      to describe a number of students in recent years who have benefited from this non-traditional curriculum design and how the approach has helped maintain advanced level enrollment.


Structure and Resources of my Four-Year Program

The Classroom Instructional Design.

First level. Here the class is teacher-led with extensive oral interaction throughout the year. There are daily homework assignments and regular small quizzes given on paper. Each week the students listen to a video and audio selection and work once or twice on the computer, usually in pairs, to practice vocabulary words or grammar concepts in preparation for the quizzes. A few short stories are read during the second semester. Goal for the year’s work: to learn German and to learn how to use the computer software.


Second level. The class is again teacher-led with extensive oral interaction throughout the year. Daily homework assignments and weekly video presentations continue. Now, however, the number of required small tests on the computer gradually increases throughout the year as does the amount of unstructured class time during which students have the opportunity to complete the computer work. A class reader is used to help develop reading and speaking skills and from time to time the class is divided into groups with some students working on the computers while others discuss the stories with the teacher. Goal for the year’s work: to learn German, to develop skill and confidence using the computer software as a learning tool, and to begin to use unstructured time effectively.


Third level. The classroom instructional design is radically different from the first two years. Since students of various levels are in this class, teacher-led activities for the third level account for only about 40% of the class time. The curriculum presented in the text has been redesigned into 10 three to four week-long units and is quite rigorous; this design allows for partial credit if needed. There are now only block assignments for each unit. The weekly video sessions and reading continue; this year, however, the students need to record what they have seen and when. They also may select the reading material from nearly a dozen readers with differing levels of difficulty for their out-of-class reading and they must record what they read and how long they read. This record of listening and reading is turned in as part of their grade every six weeks. The computer work is now much more extensive with all vocabulary tests and small grammar quizzes taken on the computer. In addition, the students each receive and track an individualized, semester-long, review computer assignment to help them review/relearn grammar material from the previous year; this review work was developed from a pretest that the student took in the first week of class. Students must also schedule one to two oral discussions with the teacher for each of the 10 units. Goal for the year’s work: to learn German, to learn how to be successful in a much more unstructured environment (time management skills), and to learn how to maintain certain records which become part of each student’s grade.


Fourth level.  While the third-level class exhibited a significant amount of unstructured time, it did have some teacher-led work, a very structured curriculum and only certain record keeping requirements. The fourth-level class, on the other hand, has much less teacher-led, full-class activities, no defined curriculum, and extensive record-keeping requirements. Here the students themselves prepare a six-week individualized learning plan within certain guidelines and utilizing the ten currently defined pathways - reading, speaking, listening, writing, vocabulary development, new grammar, old grammar, reports, Internet work, and Advanced Placement preparation [please see the web site listed above for a detailed description of the Level 3 and Level 4 program.]. They then carry out their plan using the computer, video, audio, textual, and teacher-produced resources available to them in the classroom (or through the Internet). At the end of the six weeks they summarize what they have accomplished and turn this summary in. The summary along with grades I provide for written and oral work becomes their six-week grade. Goal for the year’s work: to use German and learn how to define one’s own learning goals.



Computer resources. These resources are the most important element of the program. A student version is available for purchase and about 10% of my students purchase the materials each year for use on their computers outside of school. Ideally the classroom will contain enough computers for 1/3 to 1/2 of all students, placed along the walls of the classroom (or maybe each student will have his/her own laptop computer).

·        Level 1 - level 3. The computer software allows students to practice of all vocabulary items which they must learn for each level. An additional 30 to 50 lessons are available to provide practice with the new grammar concepts for each level.

·        Level 4. More than 4500 vocabulary items are available in over 60 lessons at Cupertino High School. Another 30 lessons on advanced grammar topics are also available.


Video and audio resources. I have found it very helpful to have a large TV-VCR/Laserdisc setup for full-class video presentations and also a smaller TV-VCR setup to which I can attach headphones for smaller groups of students to use without bothering the rest of the class; this latter set is used regularly by the level 4 students for their listening activities. The video resources serve to provide the students with other speakers of the language under study, to review vocabulary and structures students have learned (or to broaden their language exposure), to increase the difficulty of understanding the language since visual cues may not be present and reproduced sound is often less clear, and to provide a cultural context for the language when videos are produced in the country whose language is being studied or if the videos present culturally interesting material. For these reasons listening resources have a definite place in the language classroom. Below I have described the kind of listening material I have found useful for each level.

·        Level 1. My textbook has an accompanying tape which contains text selections from the book and also a tape with a variety of pattern practice exercises; both of these I use regularly to reinforce the material we are learning. I also use selections from four commercial video tape series. I start with material which has a very small, controlled vocabulary, little background noise, and clear speakers; also, I try to use lessons which relate to what I am currently teaching. I have enough episodes available to be able to show one a week.

·        Level 2. I again have a tape of a number of the text selections from my textbook and I continue with the various video series from the first year. One series in particular is a favorite with the students. This series was developed to accompany a different textbook, but it is very much like a soap opera with sixteen and seventeen year olds as the main actors; the video presents each episode twice, the first time without subtitles and the second time with the entire dialog as subtitles. This procedures allows for initial discussion over the general ideas and then more focused discussion on particular grammar elements in the text. The videos at this level contain less controlled vocabulary and noisier backgrounds.

·        Level 3. I continue to use the later episodes of three of the series from level 2; these materials show a broader vocabulary and more advanced grammar. I also have a set of twelve fairytales presented on audio tape with 10 printed booklets to accompany the tapes which I use at this level. I continue to present about one video episode per week, although I do play an entire classical opera once or twice a year in this class, usually with sub-titles.

·        Level 4. The emphasis at this level shifts from learning German to using it, and I have over 100 videos at various levels of difficulty and four audio-taped series available to the students. Some of the videos are inexpensive PBS materials which I allow students to check out for home use and some students at this level have rented videos in the language or have resources at home or through satellite TV or over the Internet.


Text resources. In the first and second levels of language study students have a textbook and workbook and regularly receive grammar summary sheets from the teacher. A graded  reader is used in the second level. Beyond this level the variety of text resources becomes much more important. I have attempted to collect two to five copies of many readers at a variety of levels of difficulty from simple texts requiring a 500-600 word vocabulary, through comic books, picture dictionaries, short stories, picture story books, popular detective and adventure series to classical literature and poetry and even Math texts in German. At this point I have three six foot shelves filled with these books and more in my closet. These resources allow students to select books that they can read and ones which are of interest to them for their outside reading.

·        Level 4. Students at this level have over 50 various readers available to them from beginning level 2 materials to advanced literature. Grammar reference books with exercises and answers are also available to students as are a variety of teacher-made grammar reference sheets. At the advanced level I encourage students to begin to use various references other than the teacher to learn or review grammar elements with which they are having difficulty.


Student Responsibilities and Options.

What is expected of the student changes as that student progresses through the program.

·        Level 1. The student is asked to do the daily homework assignments and to make up work which he/she was unable to do on any particular night.

·        Level 2. Students have these same responsibilities as level 1 student, but they are also asked to complete and record certain computer assignments and are given a period of time in which to do the work. Now student must begin to plan their work.

·        Level 3. The responsibilities of the student grow dramatically at this level. Students have to learn to plan their assigned work over a three- to four-week period. They have a semester-long review assignment to complete, record, and turn in. They have two or three discussion activities with the teacher to plan every six weeks, and they have to maintain and turn in records for their outside reading, the listening they have done, and the work they do on their units.

·        Level 4. Students at this level are responsible for developing a six-week learning plan, carrying out the plan, recording what they do, and turning the completed plan and any supporting work in at the end of six weeks. This activity is in addition to all the things that the level 3 students do which they still must do.


However, along with increased responsibilities come more options for the students who really are interested in learning. These learning options are available only because the resources described above are present in the class. These options are not always suitable for all students, but they do allow the very interested students to continue their study of language even if they cannot be scheduled in the time slot where the appropriate class is taught. The last half of this paper will provide further information on how some students are using these resources in ways dramatically different from the traditional one-year, one-level model

Indications of Student Success.

The success of this multi-threaded program at Cupertino High School is ascertained through yearly student surveys, by observing the high percentage of students who continue from one year to the next, and in the scores on the National German Exam and the AP exam. On yearly surveys students continually express their satisfaction with the course structure and content, but they have also provided suggestions for changes in succeeding years. Quite a high percentage of eligible students continues on to the next level of language instruction even at the advanced levels including students with greatly differing language skills. It is astounding to me that students who get a low ‘D’ or an ‘F’ at the third level still continue on to the fourth level; yet, I have had two such students in the last three years. These students generally have low grades because they do not complete the elements I require as part of the grade, not because they cannot do the work. In discussion with them, I find that they are indeed learning a lot of language material and are generally personally content with their what they have done even if their grade is not very high. On the other side of the coin, I have also had two students in the last two years who have come to the advanced class with extensive prior language training, taken one year to prepare for the AP exam, obtained a 5 on the exam and then have returned to the class the next two years to continue to learn. One of the great strengths of this type of program is the fact that students with different language skills can find language learning opportunities at their level of achievement. In the traditional program that I used to teach, the poorer students could not keep up and dropped out and the very good students were not challenged and also dropped out; now there is something for everyone. Since 1984 - shortly after the first computer programs were developed - about ten percent of the students with no prior background in German who take the National German Exam each year obtain a score over the ninetieth percentile and there were no such students in the ten years prior to 1984. In ten of the last sixteen years students have placed from second to fourteenth in Northern California through this exam program. Recently, I have been able to encourage a very select few students to do substantially more work in the fourth year to prepare for the Advanced Placement examination and these students have passed with 4’s or 5’s after as little as four years of high school German. For all of these reasons I believe that the program I have developed does indeed provide for the needs of the widely varying clientele which I now see in my classes.


Changing the Instructional Model and How Students Interact  With It


Traditional Model

Under this model students complete one level of language study in one year in a classroom with other students at the same level. If a student cannot be scheduled into the class when it is offered, then the student cannot take the class that year and either elects to begin another world language class or waits until the following year.


In a small language program in a relatively small urban school in California, the loss of just a few students can be a major problem. In my district most classes are scheduled on a 32.5:1 student-teacher ratio and I must work diligently in order to keep as many students in my program as possible since I do not ever have a large initial enrollment. In the last few years I have occasionally had enough students for two first-year classes and very rarely have I had enough to two second-year classes, especially in the last five years. As a result I generally have one, maybe two, first-year classes, one second-year class, and one advanced class. The singleton classes leave students with limited scheduling options and each year I have several students who want to continue in the program, but who cannot fit the appropriate classes into their schedule. So, instead of losing these students I have developed an alternative instructional model which allows students to use technology and other resources and to be scheduled into any class. Admittedly, such students do miss some of the interactions which exist in the normal class, but my experience over several years has shown that most of these students do learn most of what is expected and do as well as some students who go through the traditional class.


For many years in the beginning of my teaching career, I was concerned that I could not provide well for students in the more advanced levels who demonstrated widely disparate language skills. By the time students reach the third level of instruction in the high school, I find a wide range of ability: some students have learned literally everything that was taught and remember that and more from one year to the next; other students work hard, do well, but still need continual review and practice to maintain their skill with the past material; a few students simply did not work very hard at all and still want to go on to the more advanced level where they may now decide to actually learn, and they will have significant review needs; and sometimes I have students who did little in the early years and still do not want to do much in the third and fourth levels. Under the traditional program I did not find good ways to challenge the top students and was not able to help the students at the other end of the scale enough; students at these two extremes tended to drop out of the program. Over the years I have developed a new model of instruction through which I am now much more able to provide an instructional program which meets the individual needs of many more of my students.


A New Instructional Model

This new instructional model allows me to handle both of the problem areas mentioned above: the problem of scheduling and the need to provide for individual difference, especially beyond the second level of instruction. Certain characteristics of this instructional model are essential and should be mentioned at this point. It is essential that the core vocabulary for all levels of instruction be available on a computer network (or even over the Internet) so that students can practice the material as much as needed and take test on the words when they are ready. It is also critical that well-designed practice material for all grammar points for all levels also be available through computer technology. A well-defined continuum of listening materials from the very elementary to standard native-level language material must be available through audio tapes, video tapes, CD’s, DVD’s, and Laserdiscs or over the Internet. A good variety of reading selections from the very easy to modern fiction and classical literature has to be available in the classroom. Finally, the instructor must have defined clearly what students are expected to learn at each level. In my program I have a defined curriculum for the first three levels and a structure and set of criteria for students beyond the third level of instruction.



If students cannot fit the appropriate class into their schedule, I allow students who are strongly motivated to learn the language to sign up for whatever period they can during the school day. These students will work more intensively with the computer materials than the students in the appropriate level class, they will consult with the instructor concerning their oral work or when they have questions, and they will learn to use the listening resources and reading selections to develop listening and reading skills. A significant percentage of my students has opted for this instructional model over the last several years.  Two years ago, for example, I had 5% of my students working under a non-traditional learning model: a third-level student in my prep. period; a second-level student in a first-level class; two third-level students in a second- year class, a post-AP (with a 5) student and a senior first-level student in my second prep. period. Last year I had about 10% of my students working under the same type of learning model: two first-level students, a third-level student, and two fourth-level students in my level 2 class; a fourth-level student in a first-year class and another fourth-level student in a Math class; and a second-level student in a level 3 class. For the most part these students work independently and see me for oral work, when they need to find out what to do next, or when they have questions. In some cases the more advanced student(s) can and do answer questions that the students in a lower level might have. It is also possible for students who are just beginning the program and who have a very high motivation and aptitude to complete more than the normal amount of material in one year: in the last three years I have had students complete ˝, 1, 1 ˝, and 2 levels of material in one year. All of the students who completed more than one level of work in one year demonstrated proficiency levels as good as or better than most of the students who completed the standard two-year sequence


The new instructional model allows me to handle individual student needs much better. For students in the advanced class (students at level 3, level 4, and beyond) several areas of work can be tailored to a student’s needs. Students in the advanced class write a pretest at the start of the school year and receive an individualized set of 12 to 15 computer programs to complete during the course of the first semester. These programs are usually review programs covering material which the students did not write correctly on the pretest. Often, a few students do very well on the pretest and are assigned supplemental vocabulary lists to learn instead. These computer materials are selected to help each student improve language usage in those areas most appropriate for that student. During the second semester students are asked to select their own review programs based on needs they determine for themselves. In addition, each student is asked to select reading material at a level which is not too difficult for that student; in that way, the student can read and understand the material, he or she can gradually improve reading skills, and the student can use the content of the readings as material for regular oral discussions with the teacher.  New material is learned more or less easily by different students. It is possible for students to practice with the computer program more times to learn a particular topic, and a certain amount of in class oral practice is provided for students who find that kind of work helpful. Students at the fourth level have an opportunity to focus on certain skills which they may wish to develop further, or where they find they need additional review and practice; these include completing review programs from any of the previous three years and selecting listening material which they can understand from the large volume of material available in the classroom (please see the web site listed in the heading of this paper.). These elements of student selection provide students with some amount of control over the work that they must finish in order to receive a good grade in the class, and, by and large, the major cause of lower grades is the absence of several required items which the student has to complete and turn in to the teacher. This course design places the responsibility for organizing time to finish the work on the student rather than on the teacher. In general, student survey responses and my observations indicate a high level of satisfaction with the course design and the options available for the students.


Students with Special Needs

Below is list of most of the students from the last four school years who have benefited from this new instruction model and brief comments about each one of them:

·        Heather, who became very sick after only 8 weeks in German 3, was sick the rest of the first semester and eventually dropped all Cupertino High School classes except German, because she could continue to learn German on a flexible basis;

·        Nate completed three years of German in just two years and won third place in the National German Test contest at the third level in his senior year;

·        William, who entered the level 4 class in the year following his participation in a year-long exchange program to Germany, had never taken German in an American high school, and in his senior year he also attended a local community college four days a week so he could only come to the German program for two hours one day a week;

·        Jennifer signed up for and attended two periods of German each day in her senior year because she wanted to develop strong skills in German;

·        Judy had spent six years in the German school system when she entered the level 4 class to prepare for the AP exam; she obtained a 5 on the AP and returned the next year to further expand her knowledge of German;

·        Robin completed ten years of study of German at the German Saturday school in the local area, took the AP exam, and obtained a 4; she then entered the level 4 class to see if she could improve her AP score and obtained a 5 the next year; she returned to the German program for two more years to expand her German skills and to read and analyze German literature in her senior year;

·        Alex completed the first 3 levels of German in the normal program and then worked extra hard in his senior year to prepare for the AP exam in German and obtained a 4;

·        Fabian did little work in the level 3 class, and he continued that trend the next year, and at the end of his fourth year he explained that he really only wanted to be able to understand German and not to learn all the details of the language;

·        Alexandra completed German 1 & 2 in one year and German 3 in the second year; after 1 ˝ years of study she scored over the 90th percentile on the National German Test and placed 9th in Northern California;

·        Sarah also completed two years of German in one with Alexandra and was successful in German 3 the next year;

·        Amy worked through 1 ˝ years of German in her junior year and successfully completed German 2 and German 3 in her senior year;

·        Nikki successfully completed German 1 as a senior on an independent study basis when she had time from her work on the school paper;

·        Mandy wanted to start German on an independent basis as a junior, but she had many activities throughout the year and attended class in a large German 2 class; she had only completed ˝ of one year with an ‘A’ grade by June, and was given credit for just ˝ of German 1 on her transcript;

·        Mimi also started and completed German 1 on a independent basis; she would sometimes attend first period and sometime seventh and some days she had other needs and only popped in to say she would not come that day;

·        Becca attend class during the advanced class, but completed German 2 work;

·        Josipa was enrolled in the German 2 class, but she had taken German 2 the previous year and completed all the work for German 3 this year;

·        Dmitry, JR, Tim, and Lynn all attended at various times during the day to complete work at the German 4 level;

·        Ed was in the advanced level class, but he only did about 60% of the work he planned at level 4, and much of that work was on the Internet at home.


Several of these students did non-traditional learning for more than one year, and the kinds of conditions under which they worked could only have been possible with the availability of the resources described above. These students represent a significant portion of my enrollment and, in particular, of my enrollment in the advanced class. In more than one year recently as few as four or five students has meant the difference between having an additional class and not having a large enough enrollment to be allocated the section. So, the new instructional model has been effective in maintaining enrollment at the advanced level and in providing sufficient students to allow for more sections of class than I might otherwise have, as well as helping students advance their knowledge and skill with the German language.


What about the Future?

I see the future as an outgrowth of the past and current instructional design and practice. Past, current and future programs have been and will be founded on two basic goals that have guided my work, namely:

·        to use technology (including audio and video) to provide the highest quality program for the widest variety of students given the current class size limitation in California;

·        to maintain my enrollment from one year to the next by providing a means for students to continue taking the next level class even if they cannot fit that class into their schedule.


The impetus for my current practices started 15 years ago with a single experimental class created to provide a means for students who could not fit into a regular class to continue on to the next level. This class contained 26 students in levels 1 to 4 and included 4 seniors as the only German 1 students and a number of 10th to 12th grade students at the German 2 and 3 level. As one might imagine the class was difficult to organize and run, but the availability of 20 networked computers and a variety of other resources in the class allowed students to learn successfully and a high percentage of the class went on to the next level class the following year. This class was open only to students who had already completed German 1 or who had completed several years of another language and wanted to start German, thus the four seniors in German 1. Four basic ideas came out of this class:

1)      there might be upper division students (juniors and seniors) who might like the opportunity to start a second modern language if they did not have to ‘go through’ a regular German 1 class;

2)      a significant number of the 10th grade students had trouble focusing on the work when the teacher was working with another group of students;

3)      many of the students had time management problems because they were required to work independently or in their group without immediate teacher support; this was a new concept to these students at that time;

4)      this kind of multi-level class could indeed be successful given good organization, training in time management, and appropriate technology.


These ideas led to the current practice in my program, still considering the two basic goals stated above.

a)      I run the German 1 and 2 classes as a teacher-centered class in which computer usage becomes an increasingly important element. I am now seeing more students in these classes who are expressing an interest in moving at a more rapid speed than the regular class which is possible through the use of computer courseware.

b)      I will now accept any upper division student who has had a successful experience in another modern language class into German 1 on an independent study basis any period during the day.

c)      Students who have completed one or more years of German and wish to continue their study of the language can come into any period during the day if they cannot fit the normal class into their schedule – even during periods when I teach Math. This year the first period German 2 class of 31 students contains additionally two German 1 students working independently, a German 3 student, and two German 4 students as well as two German 2 students from another school who come four days a week.

d)      The advanced class this year had five levels of students in it including one German 2 student, ten German 3 students with three from another school who came four days a week, four German 4 students, two AP students, and one student who completed the AP exam two years ago with a score of 5.


For the future I see certain trends developing as students also gain skills in working independently and managing their time effectively. Even with the increased use of a wide variety of technology I do not see the demise of the regular class, rather I see students making a wider use of the curriculum when and where they can. Some of the trends for the future:

i)                    the German 1, 2 and advanced classes will continue to exist, although the classes may become more focused on developing oral skills for students who want those skills, as Q & A sessions for students working independently, and as a location for group projects and cultural activities;

ii)                   some students will go through a four-year language program just as they do today;

iii)                 other students will make use of technology – through a school net, the Internet, or with purchased versions of school programs – to learn when they have time and access;

iv)                 more students outside the regular German program will ‘drop in’ to German – either on a more formal basis with required oral and written exams for credit or simply to learn German;

v)                  students in the last two categories may not have to be in class five days a week in order to be successful or obtain credit;

The increased use of technology of all types provides a basis for distance learning and virtual classrooms.



The range of resources available to my students and especially the video and computer technology has allowed me to provide a new instructional model for my students which helps students stay in the program longer and which is better able to meet the individual needs of the students than was the case 15 years ago. Those students with talent and high motivation are not limited to a one-year, one-level program, nor, indeed, are students excluded from having a successful experience who have a mild educational handicap. In the first case, the students may learn more rapidly or through an extraordinary schedule and in the latter situation, the students may need to cover less material in the course of a year. In this age of computer technology, mass produced products are no longer our only choice; now we can order computers, cars, our weekly grocery order, and even jeans designed to our own specifications to be delivered to our own home. Isn’t it time now to customize our educational offerings to meet the needs and desires of our students?


Author’s school: Cupertino High School

                        Cupertino, CA 95014

                        Web site:    (under ‘Departments’ and then ‘German’)