Four Innovations Boosting Learning and Engagement in World Languages

Four Innovations Boosting Learning and Engagement in World Languages
  • One World
Janice Lewine

Competency in global languages and cultures is increasingly essential in today’s world — and world language instruction has evolved to prepare Ravens to meet the challenge.

A global mindset and competency in global languages and cultures is increasingly essential in today’s world. It’s an imperative that Ravenscroft takes very seriously — with three Upper School-level credits in either Spanish, Mandarin Chinese or Latin required to graduate.

As this global culture has emerged, instruction in the cross-divisional World Language Department has evolved to meet it. Here, we share highlights of four innovative approaches being used today in Middle and Upper School world language curricula.

Students in Jonathan Avery’s Honors Latin II class show the certificates and medals they earned for outstanding results on the 2022 National Latin Exam, an annual measure of proficiency and knowledge for students across the world.

1. Proficiency-based goals and assessments

A shift to proficiency-based learning has made a significant impact on both classroom instruction and learning outcomes. Developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the model is divided into three levels: novice, intermediate and advanced.

On this assessment, a sixth-grade Exploratory Spanish student shows comprehension of a story by both illustrating a scene and translating words and phrases from it.

As students progress in their proficiency development, they read, write and speak more in their target language; here, Latin II student Ethan Wagnon ’25 describes Hannibal’s famed crossing of the Alps in 218 B.C.

As Katie Barnwell, Spanish teacher and chair of the Upper School World Language Department, explained, “It’s a skill-based approach, and we break it down based on the three modes of communication: interpretive listening and reading, interpersonal speaking and writing, and presentational speaking and writing.”

Innovation in practice:
  • In the sixth-grade Exploratory World Language course, students learn what “language proficiency” means and monitor their gains over time. A proficiency rubric provides feedback on their progress.
  • Depending on the assessment, students may receive three grades reflecting their proficiency across the different modes, rather than one overall grade.
  • The expectations are also tailored to the language, Upper School Mandarin teacher Yi-Wen Liu explained. “For Spanish, they ask students to reach the advanced level, but for Mandarin, because there are so many different components with the language and culture, achieving the intermediate level is acceptable.”

Rachel Mason ’22, who takes AP Spanish Language and Culture, said the proficiency-based approach “helps me understand where I need to improve. Taking a quiz and getting back one grade doesn’t tell you, ‘This is where you could get better.’ If my grammar or presentational grade starts to dip, then I know where to focus my efforts.”

Honors Latin IV student Bennett Gillespie ’23 noted that, as Latin isn’t spoken as an official language “anywhere but the Vatican … there will be a bit less speaking than you would see in Spanish or Mandarin. But this is made up for in how deeply we dive into literary analysis and the construction of arguments and messages.”

This is a portion of the graphic that accompanied Mia Bitman ’22’s AP Chinese Language research paper on girls’ access to education in Afghanistan — a more complex assignment that reflects growth in proficiency over students’ course of study.

2. Interculturality

Students also explore the history and culture of peoples who speak the language they’re learning. “Doing a deep dive into a country provides a richer experience,” Barnwell said. “It holds them more accountable in really understanding the culture.”

Honors Latin IV students demonstrate their understanding of the culture of ancient Rome in this assignment, in which they designed a funerary monument for a fictional Roman named Trimalchio; pictured is work by Rowan Thomas ’23.

Innovation in practice:
  • Each AP Spanish student picks a Spanish-speaking country to focus on during the year. Through investigating their country’s cultural products, practices and perspectives along with current events, students develop cultural expertise and can make in-depth comparisons with their own culture and community.
  • The AP Chinese Language and Culture course guides Ravens in attaining high language-proficiency levels and thinking more critically as global citizens. “AP Chinese Language and Culture is very challenging, but students understand the expectations,” Liu said. “It gives them a goal and is something they can benefit from.”
  • Students in higher-level Latin courses explore traditional texts of ancient Rome to increase their understanding of the language and culture. They also read novellas — such as “Bellum Troianum,” a lively and sometimes humorous account of the Trojan War — and adapted versions of familiar myths and legends, which are more accessible.

In this culminating project of Katie Barnwell’s Honors Spanish III course, Dylan Norona ’22 synthesizes what he has learned about Argentina’s history and the Dirty War.

Students say they enjoy delving into a country’s way of life. AP Chinese student Eric Belcea ’22 said, “Most of our classes include engaging discussion about Chinese culture, and every night we have either a listening or writing assignment to complete. Some of my favorite lessons include ones where we get to try Chinese cultural cuisine, like mooncakes or zongzi.”

As part of their study of culture, Yi-Wen Liu’s AP Chinese Language students enjoy a lesson about different teas and their health benefits, followed by a tasting of hot tea.

3. Inclusivity and Personalization

In the spirit of Ravenscroft’s Lead From Here framework and DEI&B work, World Language teachers have enhanced and expanded their curricula to ensure students feel included and see themselves represented in course content. In addition, many assignments, images and vocabulary take a more modern approach that helps students better relate to their topics.

After reading “Capybara con botas,” a chapter book about a capybara in Ecuador that wears boots, Katie Torres’ Exploratory Spanish students created Instagram posts — a modern take on the traditional book report — to show their understanding of what they read. The post at left is by Hope Kalorin ’28; at right, Eva Barkalova ’28.

“Students now write and talk more about themselves,” Colleen Girouard, Latin teacher and chair of the Lower and Middle School World Language Department, said.

Latin IA students including Jack Morrison ’27, above, designed their dream homes as a way to personalize their study of how Romans lived; their classmates left them compliments and feedback on sticky-notes.

Innovation in practice:
  • Girouard and colleague Jim Martin recently redesigned novice-level Latin classes to better reflect the people who lived within the Roman empire, many of whom hailed from diverse lands such as Spain, Britain, North Africa, Egypt, Greece and Israel.
  • Students in Latin IA recently completed a “dream home” project to demonstrate their creativity, critical-thinking skills and use of Latin as they compared how they live to how ancient Romans lived. Students taking IB explore Roman history through a modern lens, such as comparing chariot racing to Formula 1 racing.
  • World Language teachers embrace the cultural identity and heritage of students across the school community, often supporting their divisions’ observations of cultural celebrations such as National Hispanic American Heritage Month and Lunar New Year.

To celebrate Lunar New Year, Chiu-Ping Lin’s Mandarin IA students — Aidan Schechtman ’27, Kamia Abdullah ’27, Laura James Monaghan ’27, Jonas Lisson ’25, Natalie El-Assi ’27 and Jaeden Jordan ’27 — practice the traditional Chinese folk art of paper cutting to mark the Year of the Tiger; students were able to choose from 10 spring patterns then add the Chinese word “Spring” and the picture “Tiger.”

4. Educational Technology

Educational technology has provided teachers with more instructional options than ever before, helping engage and connect Ravens as they build language skills.

Honors Mandarin II students Ethan Silverman ’25, Morgan Riley ’25 and Cole Rogers ’25 (at right) and their counterparts in Taipei, Taiwan, show their completed Marshmallow Challenge design, an exercise they shared as part of a virtual exchange made possible by web tools.

“Technology is not just a tool for language acquisition but also a life skill,” Liu explained. “We use a variety of web tools to expose students to the language and culture in the real world. Our goal is to help students establish effective ways to learn a language and become lifelong learners.”

Innovation in practice:
  • Digital learning apps such as Flipgrid, Padlet, Pear Deck, Screencastify and Canvas, the school’s learning-management system, increase student engagement and facilitate personalized learning.
  • Gimkit and Quizlet enable students to practice and improve their proficiency in a gamified way. The online ACTFL Latin Interpretive Reading Assessment, which AP Latin students utilize, adapts to students’ demonstrated proficiency level and provides timely feedback on their learning.
  • Virtual exchanges with native speakers across the globe, via platforms such as Zoom, provide authentic opportunities to practice skills across all three modes of communication.

Latin IA student Carys Thomas ’27 used Google Slides to create an identity map as part of a two-minute presentation she recorded in Canvas Studio.

Sierra Kish ’27, who is enrolled in Spanish IA, said, “We use an app called Garbanzo. We read engaging stories in Spanish, and then we are asked questions after we read to make sure we understand the material. Garbanzo has been exceptionally helpful in understanding written Spanish — and, as a bonus, it has a really amusing name.”

In this screencast, Director of Educational Technology Sarah Wike demonstrates how a game-oriented reading comprehension check using Quizizz engages students and provides prompt feedback on their progress.


Hernandez teaches kindergarteners from Megan Britton’s class how to sing “Cielito Lindo.”

Global education at Ravenscroft begins as early as PreK, when students are introduced to Spanish.

As Lower School Spanish teacher Carmen Hernandez explained, “In [PreK and kindergarten], we give students the opportunity to acquire the language naturally. We focus on developing speaking and listening skills at that age.” Instruction at this level focuses on phonics through rhymes and songs.

In first and second grade, students begin integrating the four language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. They also begin their study of Hispanic countries. “First-graders learn about Peru, the Amazon rainforest and how people live in the Andes mountains and along the sea. Second-graders study Argentina and the regions of La Pampa and Patagonia,” Hernandez said.

Ravens in third through fifth grades continue to develop their language skills through the core content areas of social studies, mathematics and science. Performance-based assessments through ACTFL begin in grades four and five.

Google Slides and apps like Flipread and Padlet help Lower School students read, write and speak in Spanish. “By the end of fifth grade, they’ve had the opportunity to develop their language skills in different situations and topics. They know a lot of Spanish when they get to Middle School,” Hernandez said.

While most Lower School Ravens will move on to the sixth-grade World Language Exploratory class, in which they’ll explore a trimester each of Spanish, Mandarin and Latin, some students with demonstrated aptitude and interest may be allowed to enroll in a higher-level language class.

Above, Honors Mandarin II student Lexy Chin ’25 and Spanish II student Claire Dillon ’25 showcase their Chinese calligraphy marking the Year of the Tiger during the Upper School’s celebration of Lunar New Year on Feb. 1, 2022.

Honors Mandarin IV students, led by teacher Yi-Wen Liu, practice tai chi with fans.


World Language Study in the Lower School

Two Ravens Earn Perfect Score on 2022 National Latin Exam (April 2022)

Virtual Exchanges Deepen Learning, Expand “International Interconnectedness” (February 2022)

World Language Classes Mark National Hispanic American Heritage Month (October 2021)

Students’ Work Highlighted in National Chinese-Language Publication (September 2021)

This graphic illustrates ACTFL’s proficiency rating scale, reflecting major ranges and sublevels.