OWL Blog

Pittsburgh Public Schools World Language Competition

PITTSBURGH (April 30, 2010) – It may sound like an impossible combination, but that is just what the Pittsburgh Public Schools did by taking advantage of OWL’s state-of-the-art language practice technology. In a recent article released by the Pennsylvania State Modern Language Association (PSMLA), Dr. Thekla Fall describes how Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) used OWL’s Practice Activities for Language Students (PALS) module to create a district-wide language competition.

- Over the last 10 years, the district administered annual, online, speaking proficiency tests using OWL Testing Software. Using OWL’s reporting features to collect and analyze the results, they had determined that one of the main reasons students have difficulty in moving up the Novice Levels of the ACTFL Scale is their limited command of vocabulary. It was decided, therefore, to use Title VI, USDE, Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) funding to purchase an online Practice Activities for Language Students (PALS) Program -- a supplementary component of the OWL Testing Software.

The Competition - In December, PPS instituted the first, district-wide, PALS Competition. According to Dr. Fall, the goal of the PALS contests is to motivate students to learn lots of contextualized vocabulary in a fun and interesting way within a relatively short time period. It is expected that with successful, focused, goal-oriented practice during the competition, students will become more effective and efficient independent users of PALS throughout the year.

The competition offered something for all levels of language students from K-12. As one might expect, the students were highly motivated by the chance to win a pizza party. Some third grade students even volunteered to come in early to school, stay and work through lunch, and work during bus room after school. Students played some of the activities over 50 times. Perhaps most importantly, their teacher has observed the students using the vocabulary from the practice activities in their daily exchanges.

Dr. Isabel Espino de Valdivia’s Japanese 2 class was the winning high school class. According to Dr. Valdivia, “The High School Japanese classes found the PALS activities especially valuable because they include a reading component. Students in level 1 and 2 learn Hiragana and Katakana, each of which has 46 symbols plus combinations. The reading in PALS is presented in a theme context with visuals and this helps students to make connections integrating the symbols at a new level in the brain. They are not just reading symbols in isolation but they are making meaning out of them, connecting them to the theme and visuals. This is especially critical for American students who only use the alphabet system.”

Unlike many contests that are one-shot, right or wrong efforts, the PALS program allows students infinite opportunity to not just show what they know—but also to learn as they go. The activity items are limited in number (8) to encourage rapid learning. Students receive immediate feedback. To increase their likelihood of success, they are encouraged to move through the activities from the easier receptive skills to the more difficult productive skills.

The Role of OWL PALS Program - OWL’s PALS Program carried the brunt of the organizational effort for the competition: asking questions, scoring, collecting, and tallying the needed student data. The district was able to execute this monumental competition with relatively little fuss or bother! No busses were needed. Students competed from their home schools throughout the two weeks.

Direct Curriculum Connection - The PALS Program included separate activities that were created by teachers during summer curriculum writing, ensuring a direct tie-in to the district’s curriculum.

Daily Feedback
- Using OWL’s reporting capabilities; the district could provide their students daily postings of their progress relative to the other classes across multiple grades and schools. This made the students highly motivated to increase their practice activities. Multiple Languages - The district was able to create a competition that crossed all seven of their available languages -- Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish.

Ready Access
- Because the PALS program runs on OWL’s web-based platform, teachers who wanted to participate could find ways to do so. They did not have to adhere to the oft-limited computer lab schedules. Additionally, OWL’s PALS activities are available online throughout the school year, the goal is to give students (and parents) anywhere/anytime access. Students can practice vocabulary outside of class: at home, in daycare settings, libraries, community centers, etc. This enables students to be better prepared for real communicative exchanges with their teacher during class time.

Familiar Context
- The contexts are similar to what students will encounter when taking a SOPI-type oral proficiency test.

4 Practice Modes
- Every PALS Activity has 8 contextualized questions that are presented in 4 different modes: listening comprehension, reading, speaking, and writing—going from receptive to productive skills). Hence, students are asked to practice each set of 8 questions in 4 different modes.

About OWL Testing Software
OWL Testing Software is a leading provider of language test building software to academia, business, and government markets. Built as a Web-based solution for test creation, administration, and management, OWL Testing Software is unique in its ability to create tests for all four communication skills – oral, aural, reading and writing. OWL is available as licensed software and as a hosted solution to meet the needs of the largest and smallest schools, businesses, and government agencies concerned with enhancing the language learning process and outcomes. Please visit www.owlts.com or call 877.695.3305 for more information.

For more information on the Pennsylvania State Modern Language Association, visit www.psmla.org or e-mail Dr. Thekla Fall at thekla.fall@gmail.com. Fall, Thekla.

(2010, Spring). PPS Launches District-Wide Foreign Language Competition. Pennsylvania Language Forum, 80 (1), 80-81.