First Year Spanish, University of British Colombia


SPAN 101 is a 3-credit course for beginners and it has an enrollment of 35 students per section. Students who enroll in SPAN 101 are largely undergraduates completing programs in a wide range of disciplines. UBC is a multicultural university, hence the vast majority of SPAN 101 students are plurilinguals, for whom Spanish is a third/fourth language.

The main objective is to introduce students to the fundamentals of Spanish as a foreign language. The course is in high demand since there is an increasing interest for the Spanish language at UBC. Every term, all sections fill up quickly which results in long lists of students waiting to get a seat. Despite this success, the course has remained unaltered almost in its entirety for the last twenty years. For example, every fall term students study the same units from the textbook, complete the same decontextualized and mechanical exercises to drill grammar and vocabulary and translate the same paragraphs. There is also the idea that addressing students in the target language is confusing for students, so English functions as a lingua franca. Opportunities for students to engage in authentic Spanish use beyond the classroom are limited. Students are mainly exposed to teacher talk and pre-modified input from instructional materials.

Developing listening and speaking skills is a major challenge for learners in SPAN 101. Students learn to write and read in Spanish, but they are nearly nonfunctional in oral communication. That is, SPAN 101 learners have major difficulties to parse strings of sounds in connected speech. And even if they comprehend a message, they hold a conversation reverting to English for clarification. This situation seems reasonably predictable if we consider that students have limited opportunities to engage in anything that resembles a true communicative situation.

TalkAbroad Implementation

Drawing on the analysis of the current course curriculum, I would like to enrich SPAN 101 with a sequence of online Spanish one-on-one language conversations. The aim of adding this component is twofold. First, I would like to explore whether consistent access to speaking with a native speaker increases learners’ willingness to use Spanish beyond the classroom relative to students who do not have access to this added component. Second, I would like to observe whether processing spontaneous sequences of connected speech improves learners’ listening comprehension compared with students who only listen to the textbook materials.

There will be six 30-minute, one-on-one conversations throughout the term. Each session will happen at the end of the six units to be studied. Students and their native-speaking partners will complete two short tasks prepared by the instructor. Each task will incorporate the grammatical contents included in the syllabus, the vocabulary and cultural contents from each unit. The instructor will circulate the tasks a week in advance to give participants enough time to prepare. All tasks completed will be returned to the instructor for assessment. Participation will be mandatory.

Before beginning and at the end of the six online interactions, students will complete the following instruments: (1) Willingness to Communicate Survey, (2) Listening Comprehension Test. The survey contains statements about possible uses of Spanish inside and outside the classroom. Students complete the survey by selecting an alternative from a 1-6 Likert scale. The Listening Comprehension Test will be based on the audiovisual materials from the six units studied. Thirty percent of the questions will be local questions to test specific information, hence test learners’ bottom-up processing skills. Seventy percent of the questions will be global questions to test learners’ overall comprehension of ideas, hence test top-down processing skills. The latter questions will require that learners produce connected speech in Spanish. These data will be recorded using the Camtasia software for a subsequent analysis. As a control group, an instructor from another section will be invited to volunteer her class. Those students will also complete both instruments twice. Results from both sections of SPAN 101 will be compared and analyzed. Findings will be disseminated at academic forums as explained below.


SPAN 101 is a multi-section, three-credit course that serves a population of more than 500 students per term in the Department of French, Hispanic & Italian Studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Developing listening and speaking skills is a major challenge for learners in SPAN 101. The syllabus is heavily loaded with grammatical contents and writing exercises for which students need not to produce concatenated oral Spanish.

A series of six encounters that engaged learners enrolled in SPAN 101-108 and native Spanish speakers took place in the fall 2015. The sessions were scheduled to match the end of six lessons. Students and native speakers worked collaboratively completing handouts prepared by the instructor.

The handouts summarized the main contents from each lesson as they would be tested in the mid-term exams. The latter was important to consider since the exams are prepared by a coordinator not the course instructor. Judging on students’ final marks, the TalkAbroad sessions enhanced comprehension and application of the contents.

During the implementation of the TalkAbroad sessions, no major difficulties were experienced. Both the facilitators and students were expected to have the handouts prepared and uploaded by the instructor. Occasionally, a TalkAbroad facilitator did not have a copy of a handout; yet, this by no means interrupted the flow of the conversation sessions.

Despite an overwhelming success of the project, a systematic integration of native-speaker practice for the SPAN 101 level has not been finalized. At present, further evidence is being collected employing a different online platform also with access to native Spanish speakers. The aim is to further demonstrate that a pedagogical imitative of this nature may bring important benefits for this beginner Spanish course.

Findings from a survey that collected students’ satisfaction with the project was reported at the Standing Committee on Language Articulation (The University of the Fraser Valley, April 2016). Likewise, the project was presented to teachers attending the Conference of the Canadian Association of Hispanists (University of Calgary, 2016). At both events, the audience reacted very positively. They also manifested interest to organize their own projects for which they learned about the TalkAbroad website and contact information.

Finally, in February 2017, the project was presented at the Research Forum of the Department of French, Hispanic & Italian Studies, UBC.

Project Lead

Dr. Samuel Navarro Ortega, University of British Columbia

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