An Organic Approach to Learning Language



When Students walk into Ashley Uyaguari’s middle school Spanish classes, they know to leave their English at the door. To warm up, they form a circle and review recent vocabulary. Either the teacher or a student volunteer will say a vocabulary word, act it out, and the class will repeat it. 

This is then followed by a series of activities that move quickly: movement breaks, vocabulary repetition, pair or small group conversations, class conversa- tions, introduction of new vocabulary as it comes up, or a longer activity or game. 

“In my class we typically end with a short writing prompt that students write about in their notebooks,” says Uyaguari, who is known to students as Profe Ashley. 

“We always make this interactive and students share out what they’ve written and respond to each other’s writing. We always end back in a circle and close in a positive way,” she says. “All of this happens with- out breaking from Spanish.” 

Uyaguari says she can tell you “about the ingredients that make up a class, but the order that we do them in is very organic.” She allows for students to bring up topics that can change the direction of the class. The emphasis is on fluency of speaking and understanding Spanish rather than covering specific topics. 

This approach to teaching language is called Organic Language Acquisition (OLA), and Uyaguari first learned about it at a workshop last March, led by Darcy Rogers, the founder of OLA. Uyaguari later met with Rogers to figure out how she could implement OLA in her class- room at IACS. 

Rogers founded OLA as an alternative approach to traditional language instruc- tion. “To develop language proficiency we must go beyond the textbooks and the worksheets to an atmosphere where students are authentically engaged in lan- guage acquisition and hands-on interactive activities. A kinesthetic, communicative, immersion classroom will take students to higher levels of proficiency through a natural progression and strong sense of community,” Rogers says. OLA is intended to simulate how people organically and naturally acquire a language. 

“It feels more like my experience of learning Spanish with native speakers, when I didn’t have the option of using any English,” says Uyaguari. Unlike a tradi- tional language classroom, where there is an emphasis on explicitly teaching grammar, students work on higher proficiency of being able to use the language. “I think that only speaking in Spanish is letting me know what it truly feels like to be connected and inside of a Spanish speaking country,” says Nathan Landis, a seventh grade student. 

Emily Lyons, also a seventh grader, believes that the OLA classroom has changed her perception of herself as a Spanish speaker. “This year I have learned more Spanish than in past years because of the immersion classroom. It makes sense. In Spanish class, we should talk in Span- ish—the more, the better. Of course there are frustrations. You often don’t know a phrase, but you can build off of what you understand and take risks. I now think of myself as a Spanish speaker as opposed to a Spanish student,” she says. 

Becca Kearns, an eighth grader, agrees: “You’re thrown into an environment where you are forced to speak Spanish, and that’s a really good way to learn. If we are put into a country that speaks a differ- ent language, we aren’t going to be able to ask what we want to say in English, so the class is really similar to that. It prepares us for the real world, while being fun at the same time!” According to Uyaguari, the main goals of an OLA classroom are to have students speaking 100% in Spanish, to not be afraid of a Spanish environment, to take risks and make mistakes, to be able to infer meaning, and to participate and be a part of the class community. 

OLA aligns closely with Innovation Academy’s project-based learning approach. “We are learning by doing. Instead of learning about Spanish, we are interacting in Spanish and learning through communicating in Spanish. It’s as if we were actually in a different country where only Spanish is spoken. This, to me, is the best project possible!” says Uyaguari. 

Innovation Academy’s Outcomes (Self-Direction, Effective Communica- tion, Problem Solving, and Community Membership) are the focus of the class, rather than the aspects of language like verbs, conjugation, and adjectives. For example, Effective Communication includes expectations such as “You speak with emotion, actions and/or drawings to help effectively communicate in Spanish” and “You remain in the Spanish-speaking mode.” Problem-Solving includes the goals “You describe ideas/things when you don’t know the specific word” and “You ask questions in Spanish when you don’t understand.” 

The OLA classroom has been popular with students. Many have said that they really appreciate and enjoy the approach because it creates an active and hands-on environment. Students never sit behind desks—there aren’t even any in the class- room—and are expected to participate through movement and speaking. “I’m always excited for the next Spanish class because it’s much more fun learning with a bunch of hands-on activities, rather than sitting down and listening,” says Anna Shi, a seventh grader. 

Uyaguari began using the OLA method during fourth quarter last year, and the whole middle school implemented it this year after attending two workshops in August. Uyaguari says the collaboration in the middle school Spanish department, which also includes Rhonda Hawthorne and Stel Schmalz, has pushed their OLA work forward. “We are continuing to work on professional development in this area,” says Uyaguari. “I traveled to Oregon for a working retreat with about 15 OLA teachers from around the country. There are online meetings with other teachers using OLA. I help host one on Wednesday nights.” In November, she attended the American Council for Teachers of Foreign Language conference in Philadelphia. “IACS has been very supportive of profes- sional development,” she says. 

High school teacher Tom Hinkle uses OLA in a Spanish elective class he teaches, and the high school Spanish teachers headed to an OLA workshop in November. 

“For me, the biggest benefit of the OLA method is that all students are speaking during class. There is no opportunity for students to hide when they are all speaking together in a group—everyone is held accountable. It also helps students gain confidence in their speaking abilities, which is usually the last area of language comprehension to develop,” says Ben Ein- sidler, a high school Spanish teacher. 

Uyaguari has already seen the benefits of this new approach with her students. Math teachers have commented that students have begun speaking in Spanish at recess, excited to show and explain to other teachers what they are learning. Additionally, says Uyaguari, she’s seen an increased ability for her students to express themselves in Spanish, higher stu- dent engagement, and a lot more Spanish being spoken in the classroom. “Personally, I’ve noticed my students finding more success in class. My relationships with students have also improved,” she says. It can be a challenge to get students to take risks when learning a new language, but OLA creates an environment where mistakes are a celebrated part of the learning process. “When my teacher started OLA I learned that mistakes were good. I learned how to get my point across, as well as to try to understand things I didn’t know. OLA gave me more confidence to speak and take chances,” says Becca McKiel, a seventh grader. 

Aria Zegdoun, a seventh grader, agrees: “Instead of keeping quiet and writing the correct form for Spanish words, I spoke up. I spoke the actual language and I made thousands of mistakes, but I realized there is nothing to be ashamed about that and it is good to make mistakes, especially when you want to get your point across. I never spoke so much Spanish and worked on pronunciation until last quarter. It was almost like a life changing experience. I can go anywhere and speak a little Span- ish. I may not be fluent yet and speak fast, but when I do, I will be so proud. I am already proud that I made mistakes.”