Written emphasis

Does the ULAT’s initial exclusive emphasis on the spoken word diminish long-term written performance?

Actually, quite the contrary is the case. Rather than trying to convince you with my own words, here are those of a high school graduate, with no prior knowledge of Spanish and exclusively trained with the ULAT program, who entered the university with 12 AP Spanish credits. For her entire first year and a half of training in high school with the ULAT, she had seen no written Spanish: “Since I learned to speak first, you’d think I wouldn’t do as well in writing, but I think learning to speak first only made my writing more logical and flow better.” Speaking about her college classmates, she added: “Sometimes we would peer edit each other’s papers in class and people would use sentences in their papers that made no sense; they were using some of the right words, but in the incorrect order and it was actually pretty confusing and frustrating.”

When a solid oral foundation is first laid to a student’s knowledge of a language, the task of teaching the written language is made far easier. When students already know what authentic speech is supposed to sound like in the target language, the teacher’s primary task is merely to teach the language’s phonics system. Even for those languages which display less of a correlation between sound and spelling, not having to teach word order, because the students already know how the language should sound, dramatically decreases the students’ probability of error in their written work.

A fascinating parallel to the critical issue of respecting the primacy of the development of fluent oral expression prior to engaging in written expression is recognized in the realm of math education. For an explanation, I turn to no less an expert than Rachel Nesbitt, my daughter and an outstanding early elementary school teacher. She writes: “According to Hasselbring, Goin and Bransford, students must know math facts to a level of automaticity, or fluency, in order to solve higher-order questions. The authors stated, ‘Although correct answers can be obtained using procedural knowledge, these procedures are effortful and slow, and they appear to interfere with learning and understanding higher-order concepts’ (Hasselbring, Goin and Bransford, 1988). Students who must focus on figuring out addition and subtraction answers are not able to give higher-order questions enough thought. ‘Researchers explored the devastating effects of the lack of automaticity – they argued that the human mind has a limited capacity to process information, and if too much energy goes into figuring out what 9 plus 8 equals, little is left over to understand the concepts underlying multi-digit subtraction, long division, or complex multiplication (Gersten and Chard, 1999).’ Students who are fluent in math facts lack the distraction of calculating the answers in their heads and are able to focus on the task at hand.”

In the same manner, students whose initial language training took place in a text-based fashion (premature exposure to the written word, to writing assignments and, consequently, to inward translation) lack the “automaticity” mentioned above that proceeds from an oral foundation laid exclusively in a visual and auditory manner. Before ever writing in the target language, too many of their mental resources must be devoted simply to the act of inward translation, not leaving them the ability to engage in the higher order thinking that sophisticated writing requires. (Of course, the same could be said of their speech, which is all the more harmful and apparent, as speech must be far more spontaneous than writing.) Moreover, students whose initial language learning is text-based in nature lean heavily on translation and, as was the case with the classmates of the college student mentioned in the first paragraph, fall into the trap of employing their native language’s sentence structure in their target language writing.

In order that students’ writing might flow naturally, without simultaneous translation and with word order and vocabulary reflecting an authentic use of the target language, there needs to be a pre-writing stage of thought in which students first inwardly verbalize the concept they wish to communicate, yet without any recourse to translation, before ever setting pen to paper or hand to keyboard. This initial inward verbalization, if it is to lead to authentic writing, cannot happen unless the students’ knowledge of the target language reposes upon a well established oral foundation of authentic speech.