Teaching Italian Without Textbooks

Italian faculty are embracing a new method of language instruction

Italian instructors have ditched the textbook.

Instead, students in third-level Italian language courses are helping create their own curriculum based on group projects and role-playing exercises. It uses a collaborative, student-centered model of learning that adopts the mantra: "Observe, document, reflect and present."

It's a dramatic shift from the old days of language instruction where much of a student's education emphasized the memorization of words and phrases from a book. There's still some of that here for first and second-semester Italian students, but a large group of Italian instructors pieced this new teaching strategy together, believing students will learn more effectively under a more collaborative teaching model.

This new program was funded through Duke's Humanities Writ Large grant. Luciana Fellin, who directs Duke's Italian language program, discussed the changes with Duke Today. Here are excerpts:

Luciana Fellin

Luciana Fellin

Italian language courses are being taught differently. How so?

We're not relying on a textbook. Students and professors together are creating material. It's a content-driven course so we learn language through doing and researching and reflecting. The biggest thing is that we’re not guided by a textbook but by student interests and needs. The responsibility is on the students in that they have to go out in the field and come back with materials themselves.

How does it work, exactly?

A core element of everything here is an exploration of cultures. Food is one piece of Italian culture. So, for example: the first section is on body and food, so we ask them to go out and observe how they eat, where they eat, with whom they eat, how it changes, where on campus they are, just their daily living. They have to observe that and document and maybe film it. (Editor's note: An example of student work can be viewed here)

And they're doing this all in Italian?

Yes. We have some parts in English because there's a learning curve, but everything is in Italian. Their notes, what they document, their work product is all in Italian.

Getting back to the core idea about getting rid of textbook: Why? Is it an outdated model?

We felt constrained by it. No matter how good they are, they won't respond to the specific needs of your student population. We want a course built on students and letting the students create the material.

Do students become more invested in the material this way?

We want them to take ownership of their learning rather than us just walking in and telling them what to do. Now, some of the students see it as just more work. It becomes more of a reflective type of learning so it depends on what type of learner you have. For some of them, it's a pain because they can't just memorize and study for the test.

And it's challenging for us because it's a ton of work. We're not just grading right and wrong. But we're making students more responsible for learning.

Is this a model adaptable to other languages?

I can't speak for the other languages. We know it works for us. We've been very satisfied and happy with it. We're trying to put some assessment processes in place; we've seen what students are producing and we see where they are at the end of the semester.  It's too early for a comprehensive assessment yet, but anecdotally we see students are engaged and their level of oral and writing language is strong.