The fact that students can possess basic linguistic skills as they are learning a foreign language does not mean that their thinking skills are as limited or at that process of development.
Learning a language includes acquiring an understanding of a different set of values, a different range of degrees of truth and becoming acquainted with a different conception of many everyday concepts. It can even be said that the grammatical structures in every language might produce a rather specific approach to problem solving. As a Spanish speaker, when I started learning English, I felt that the ‘subjunctive mode’, as it exists in Spanish, was largely needed to differentiate future ideas, possibilities, desires, dreams and fears.
Therefore, I feel that as students develop linguistic competencies in a new language, they need to be involved in learning experiences that cause them to adopt reflective qualities, to act critically, to design solutions for problems and to test the extent to which they can understand the nature of others’ ideas, as well as theirs.
For the reasons mentioned above, once my Spanish students have mastered basic structures and possess a somewhat varied vocabulary (enough to help them understand a context), I have customized situations for them to be engaged in active learning.
What I do is quite simple: I basically put them squarely in the shoes of real people wrestling with real dilemmas. Instead of providing a text that can be quite challenging, I have used pictures where a problem is evident. Students are given some time to analyze the picture and to identify elements of the key elements in the situation: who is in it, where it is, why the issue is taking place, what happened before and what might happen later. If they do it in pairs, they automatically become active part of discussions and can devise an approach to describe and solve the problems described in the case/picture.
Even in beginning classes, it has been evident how students design very outstanding solutions and methodologies for problem solving. Similarly, the culture of collaboration that once can witness is clear evidence that by provoking controversy and debate on issues for which definite conclusions do not exist, the learning experience:
• Stimulates individual input
• Allows learners to obtain feedback from multiple perspectives
• Offers opportunity for peer instruction
• Allows us to evaluate their learning
• Allows them to assess their own performance and
• Gives participants hands-on experience
Many teachers think that very little can be done at early stages of the foreign language learning process, but I firmly believe that the more stimuli one presents students with, the more likely they are to respond as critical thinkers. The fact that they have a limited language level does not mean that their thinking skills are equally limited.
A sample product (in Spanish) can be found here.