Modern Languages: How Students Learn Object Pronouns in Spanish

Title: How Students Learn Object Pronouns in Spanish
Field(s) or Discipline(s): Spanish, Second Language Acquisition, Modern Languages
Authors: Ester Suarez-Felipe, Kathleen Wheatley, Magaly Zeise, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee
Submission Date: February 29, 2008

Executive Summary:
The lesson topic was one introduced always in first semester Spanish courses. The pronominal paradigm in Spanish presents unique challenges to Anglo speakers due to the many differences between both languages.

Learning goals: The broad goal of this lesson study project was to get a better understanding of how our students develop their understanding of grammatical concepts in Spanish that do not correlate with English, in particular the use of object pronouns. We hoped to come out of the lesson study project with better teaching strategies to help students learn in a more effective manner.

The specific academic learning goal for the lesson was for students to develop an awareness of the object pronoun structure in Spanish and to acquire proficiency in using them correctly in controlled authentic situations.

Lesson design: The lesson involved a progressive set of activities in which students were guided from recognition and choral repetition of the structure to the spontaneous use of the object pronouns in conversation. Students were first guided by the instructor to identify the verb, subject, direct and indirect object in Spanish sentences, and to identify the corresponding object pronouns. In the second step, students were asked to answer questions using the object pronouns in their response. The instructor used transparencies for these activities, providing answers as needed and asking for choral repetition of the answers. In the following step, student pairs were asked to match a set of questions and answers, in which object pronouns were used. An oral activity using props followed to trigger students’ automatic responses using object pronouns. Students were paired for the next activity, an information-gap that required them to produce meaningful questions and answers using object pronouns. The closing activity integrated vocabulary review with spontaneous production of the structure at hand using props.

Throughout the lesson, observers took detailed notes of students’ interactions, comments and discussions among themselves as they performed the activities.

Major findings about student learning: The main finding of our team was to observe that students relied on words that they already knew, rather than on the particular object pronoun structure, to derive meaning and complete the tasks. Little attention was paid to the direct and indirect object pronouns; instead, they gravitated towards the verb as the main, and often only, cue to the right answer. We learned that for students to acquire this complex structure, input has to be extremely controlled so that they have no choice but to focus on the object pronouns as their clues.

We also gathered insight into the importance of students being engaged in all the activities as active learners. Adding choral repetition and not providing the students with paper copies of the transparency increased student engagement to 100%.

The third main finding was not unexpected: cooperative work is fundamental for students to acquire complex structures in a foreign language. Students are predisposed to rely on each other to ascertain meaning and, when offered the opportunity to do so by design, perform the tasks much more accurately and at ease.

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