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Instead of focusing on memorization, Bethel Spanish classes are piloting a new way to teach foreign languages through hands-on experiences and communication. Through Task-Oriented, Community-Centered Acquisition—or TOCCA—students are learning through repetition and conversations connecting with each other and native Spanish speakers.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

March 12, 2021 | 9:45 a.m.

Bethel Spanish Courses

Bethel Spanish students dance at One Reason Dance Studio, which is led by a Spanish-speaking pastor, before the COVID-19 pandemic. The experience came as part of the TOCCA teaching method—or Task-Oriented, Community-Centered Acquisition—where students forgo textbooks and focus more on acquiring foreign language skills through communication and experiences. TOCCA is being piloted in Bethel Spanish 101 and Spanish 102 courses.

During a recent Spanish course, Adjunct Professor Matt Hanson invited a friend from Mexico to join his class on Zoom. Hanson then watched his Bethel students practice conducting a discussion in Spanish with his friend and shared about their own lives. “It was beautiful,” Hanson says. “It also surprised a lot of them because even after a couple of weeks, they were able to have a quality conversation.”

Such discussions reflect how Bethel is exploring a new approach to teach students another language in classes like Spanish 101 and Spanish 102. The courses are forgoing the memorization focus of traditional grammar-based classes to focus on conversations and hands-on experiences. Instead of working toward a final test, students practice with the goal of holding a 15-minute conversation with a native Spanish speaker. This is at the heart of the TOCCA teaching method being piloted at Bethel by Sarah Tahtinen-Pacheco, the chair of Bethel's world languages and cultures program. “Based on our data, students are loving it,” she says.

TOCCA—or Task-Oriented, Community-Centered Acquisition—took root about five years ago as Tahtinen-Pacheco sought a model for learners who struggled to meet their language requirement or to remember what they’d learned. The goal was to make lessons enjoyable, attainable, and fruitful while avoiding challenges and stresses often associated with memorization-based language programs.

"We’re having a lot of fun with this, but it’s also serious business. They’re learning. They’re making the benchmarks.”

— Sarah Tahtinen-Pacheco, the chair of Bethel's world languages and cultures program

TOCCA emphasizes communicative-based learning. The first TOCCA classes launched in 2019 with Tahtinen-Pacheco acting as lead researcher and adjunct professors like Rebecca Skogen and Hansen teaching TOCCA courses. Other professors are implementing pieces into more advanced Spanish courses.

In TOCCA classes, the coursework follows strong language acquisition principles built around repetition through conversations in Spanish, hands-on experiences, and daily readings. “We don’t use a textbook. We are actually doing real things,” Tahtinen-Pacheco says. To start each class, students spend 15 minutes in a time called “Café,” where students act as if they’re in a Spanish-speaking place and stay immersed in Spanish. Students greet each other and chat over coffee, tea, or breakfast. “You’re relaxed; you’re meeting friends. You’re talking to others and getting to know them,” Tahtinen-Pacheco says. They then shift to an English check-in, which allows students time to ask questions. Targeted instruction follows with each unit focusing on a theme or topic. One, for example, focused on health and wellness around the world. The class also does shared storytelling, where students each chose a story throughout the course that they keep adding to in the language they’re learning.

On their own, students are expected to read for at least 15 minutes each day in Spanish—reading any material they choose—and they also journal each day. Tahtinen-Pacheco notes reading is the top way to increase vocabulary in another language. Instead of buying textbooks, professors collect a student fee to pay for hands-on experiences around the Twin Cities. They visited One Reason Dance Studio—which is led by a Spanish-speaking pastor—Cuco’s Mexican Restaurant, and other spots. After COVID-19 restrictions hit, they participated in online Zumba and cooking classes. Thomas Welch ’24, a nursing major, enjoyed the hands-on nature of TOCCA courses when he took Spanish 101, and he is currently taking Spanish 102. He found “Charlitas”—practice times that consist of 15-minute conversations with a TA—helpful in learning to communicate with someone only in Spanish. “I feel like I'm getting useful information that I can utilize to speak Spanish,” he says.


Bethel Spanish Courses

Communication and writing are both key parts of the TOCCA teaching method—or Task-Oriented, Community-Centered Acquisition—which is being piloted in Bethel Spanish 101 and Spanish 102 courses. Students start each class in a 15-minute “Café” time where they’re expected to stay immersed in Spanish, but they can use resources like notes on the white board or their own notes.

Students meet with a native Spanish speaker three to five times throughout the course—depending on whether the course is taught in the summer during the school year. They then meet with them for the final exam, which is a recorded conversation with them to display what they’ve learned. Welch loved connecting with a Spanish speaker and working toward the “Desafios,” the recorded 15-minute conversation. He says the experience helped him better understand a native accent and to be able to understand when someone is speaking faster. “I also think it was just awesome to hear about their experiences, life, what they do for a living,” he says. “It was super cool to connect with someone! I felt like I was able to understand and communicate efficiently with them, and was comfortable in doing so.”

Tahtinen-Pacheco is excited to pair students with native speakers. The Twin Cities features a rich population of many native speakers of other languages, and she sees the course as a way for students to get to know someone from a different background. “It really allows us to follow out what God is asking of love our neighbors as yourself,” she says. Hanson sees the process move beyond what he can teach in class as students are able to learn from another person. “An opportunity for a friendship is created and that means more to me than any other thing I could teach,” he says.

TOCCA is designed for required university-level courses, and so far it’s been used in introductory Spanish courses. But it can be taught at any course level and for any language—though the professor must be fluent in the language. Tahtinen-Pacheco hopes to someday offer a TOCCA Hmong class, which would be the first-ever at Bethel. Thus far, the model continues to see success at Bethel. Everyone who’s taken a TOCCA class has met or exceeded national standards for such course—most way beyond. Tahtinen-Pacheco calls TOCCA cutting edge and says she hopes it positions Bethel as a leading school in this area. One day, she’d love to hold a TOCCA training at Bethel for how to teach using the TOCCA method. After she presented about TOCCA at a conference this fall, Tahtinen-Pacheco plans to present at the Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Hanson is hopeful for the future of the TOCCA model at Bethel. And by focusing on communication and conversations in Spanish, Hanson has seen students who once struggled to learn a language overcome a fear of being perfect, which he has seen as an unintended consequence of grammar-based courses. “I hope that more and more people can see how wonderful this can be for students,” he says. “It can also simplify how we teach. I can see how students could become less and less anxious because while there is a conversation, there is freedom from perfection. This method can potentially help students use the language in a real way immediately.”

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