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Foreign language compositions pose challenge

By Ellen Stenstrom, For The Miami Student

With Miami's heavy emphasis on foreign language requirements, many professors have found ways to streamline the learning and evaluation processes in the classroom.

The College of Arts and Science requires that its students complete a foreign language through the 200 level, meaning many students will take four semesters of foreign language before graduating.

But, given the difficulty of learning a new language, the departments have created methods, like grading rubrics, to make the learning easier for students.

Russian professor Benjamin Sutcliffe said the importance of recognizing that no two language departments can be treated alike.

"If you have students who are studying French or Spanish or even German at Miami, they've probably taken these languages in high school," Sutcliffe said. "And that means we are going to demand more of them in, say, third-year French than we would of a student who has just signed up for Hindi."

He said students with two or more years of Spanish or French experience, for example, will most likely be able to write at a higher level than second-year students of Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, Russian or another less commonly studied language, because those languages are harder to learn.

This, he says, is why rubrics and guidelines must be adapted for each language.

Both students and faculty find value in the merits of rubric grading. Sutcliffe uses a streamlined rubric.

"For an 'A,' you have fairly accurate completion of the assignment, you have correct grammatical endings, you have appropriate vocabulary," Sutcliffe said.

Sophomore Sammi Marshall is pursuing a Spanish minor and finds the grading rubrics to be helpful in specifying expectations.

"I would say it's pretty fair because you know what is to be expected," Marshall said. "There's no straightforward way to grade [essays], so the rubric is the best way to go about making everything fair."

German professor John Jeep is another supporter of rubric grading.

"What's useful about it is the students can look at it in advance when they're writing their essays and see what we concentrate on," Jeep said. "The really helpful thing is when they get something back, if they're not happy with it, they can look at the rubric."

Jeep also said that rubrics provide structure for students to format and check their writing and learn to self-evaluate.

The items on the rubric, minus foreign language-specific words, are important skills for any kind of writing that may prove useful in most careers. Jeep hopes the rubrics will help produce strong writers in any language.

Not all students have this experience. Sophomore Kinsey Cantrell, who is working toward an Italian minor, said her Italian professor does not use rubrics on essays, but simply derives 75 percent of the essay's grade from content and 25 percent from grammar.

The grading system for university foreign language programs is under construction.

Jeep said the state of Ohio is going through the process of creating transfer assessment guidelines, and is asking all foreign language programs for outlines of the curriculum, including assessments.

"The idea of that is to guarantee that if a student transfers from one college to another that they'd know what's been done," Jeep said. "They could somewhat expect to be in the same place at the next college."