Foreign Languages and Literature

Foreign Language Media Center
Spanish Reading Assistant

Spanish Verb Conjugator
Tom McCone
December 11, 2000

Tom McCone

Students Dive Into Spanish

The Foreign Language Media Center received a 1998-99 UNIDEL grant to expand its resources. “Our mission was to place as many of our teaching resources as we could on the web, so students were not dependent upon coming to the media center,” Thomas McCone, center director, said. With McCone leading the “technology team” and Hans-Jorg Busch leading the “pedagogy team,” the department worked on several projects, the most mature of which is an online Spanish reading assistant.

“We use this in Spanish 107, but we also created it as a prototype to show what’s possible,” McCone said.

Another faculty member, Katrien Christie, liked the idea of the reading assistant and, with assistance of a small grant from CTE and from the PRESENT, she created one for her students in Italian 107.

Without the reading assistant, Christie said a lot of in-class time is spent making sure students master the mechanics of each reading assignment. “With the reading assistant, the students can work on the mechanics at home, so we can discuss the stories and issues they raise in class,” she said. Each story—written in Italian—is broken into short sections followed by questions.

After answering the questions and receiving feedback on their answers, students read the passage a second time. The second time certain words and phrases are italicized. “We’re trying to get the student to use more Italian than English,” Christie said. So, if a student points his or her mouse at an italicized word, an Italian synonym appears. If the student needs more help, he or she can click on the word and see an English translation or a web link. “The assistant helps students assess their own progress, and the immediate feedback corrects anything they may have misunderstood.” Because each story is in small sections and students are questioned about each section immediately, Christie said students’ comprehension appears to improve. “It’s still a pilot project. I am collecting data to compare the reading comprehension of students who use it and students who do not.”

McCone and Christie both said they see the potential development for reading assistants like these to include an audio component. “It would enhance students’ aural understanding if they could hear the story as read by a native speaker,” McCone said. “In addition to practicing their listening skills, we could have the students record their own reading to improve their pronunciation,” Christie said. McCone indicated there have been other projects from the center underway. “The two most promising ones are an online dictionary and a Spanish verb conjugator.” Staff developed a data base for a Spanish dictionary, then commissioned the PRESENT to help complete the programming.

“We are still populating the data base with terms, but all the pieces are there.” The Spanish verb conjugator was written by student Charles Brandt, AS2000, as a way to understand the system of Spanish verbs. “It’s a beautiful linguistic study realized in terms of a Java program,” McCone said. “Chuck wrote the program on his own as a way to help him learn the language. We heard about what he had done and talked to him. He graciously gave us permission to use it,” McCone said.

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"We created [the language reading assistant] as a prototype to show what’s possible."

—Tom McCone