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What is Articulation?

Among second language educators, articulation is

"the interrelationship and continuity of contents, curriculum, instruction, and evaluation within programs which focus on the progress of the student in learning both to comprehend and communicate in a second language" (Lange, 1988).

This definition focuses on content, curriculum, instruction, and evaluation of students' ability both to comprehend and communicate in a second language.


Since passage of the National Defense Education Act in 1957, one of the major challenges facing second language teachers in our nation's schools has been the lack of coordination of second language learning at all levels of instruction. Another persistent challenge faced by our teachers has been to ensure that students enrolled in different courses on the same level (level being defined as a year in school) are exposed to similar teaching methods, text materials, and testing procedures that are linked to similar outcomes. The articulation of second language programs from level to level and across offerings at the same level is a crucial element of language programming that assures replicable and predictable student outcomes (see Byrnes, 1990; Lafayetee, 1980, and Lange, 1988).

Second language instruction can be horizontally articulated; that is, similar instruction can be delivered across courses on the same level. It can also be vertically articulated between elementary and secondary schools, between secondary schools and postsecondary schools, and between elementary immersion programs and secondary non-immersion programs. Discussions and debates among education professionals relating to the articulation of second language instruction have not, historically, adequately focused on students' performance outcomes for comprehension and communication, and the means by which articulation of instruction is usually managed have already focused on students' actual demonstrated proficiency in using the target language in real-world contexts.

Current literature on articulation suggests several approaches to articulation which focus more on method, materials, seat-time, and testing of language features than on the performance of the student. In the first of these approaches, an all-consuming search for a superior method of teaching and learning languages (e.g., audio-lingual, cognitive code, communicative approaches) has driven attempts to assure articulation. Several attempts to find such a method have proven inconclusive, suggesting that the "search for the Holy Grail is fruitless" (Higgs, 1983).

The second approach to articulating second language instruction has focused on the selection or development of text materials. According to this approach, students working with articulated materials will work with the same language, read the same texts, know the same vocabulary, learn the same grammar, and demonstrate the same level of proficiency. This second approach is flawed, however, in light of human variability in learning, which dictates that students do not communicate and comprehend in the same ways. Students read and interpret texts variably, process grammar differently and learn at different paces. The search for the "right" text or materials which will effectively control language learning -- where all learners process the same language simultaneously -- clearly has proven illusory.

Seat-time is the third approach by which articulation of second language instruction is achieved. Seat-time is an old style of measurement that has traditionally been used in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions. According to this tradition, it is assumed that there exists a basic and definable relationship between time spent on task, prior instruction, and current knowledge or ability. Knowledge and ability are perceived as stable commodities over time, and learning is seen as a linear, cumulative process. Evidence of this approach can be seen most clearly in the establishment of prerequisites for courses and in equivalency formulas (e.g., one year of secondary school French equals one quarter of college work) which determine the transfer of credits or the fulfillment of degree requirements. This concept is also problematic because all students do not learn at the same pace, and students' knowledge and ability vary over time, thus making attempts at articulation by using seat-time both artificial and contrived.

Finally, traditional tests featuring multiple-choice, true-false, fill-in-the-blank, CLOZE, and short-completion exercises drive the curriculum to focus on linear features of the language. Such tests ignore the processing, comprehension, and communication of information in the target language -- skills which second language educators have usually sought to develop in their students. As a result, traditional tests do not correspond in a meaningful way to the goals of language competence. Their use as a tool in articulating second language instruction is therefore wholly inappropriate.


The above argument has been strongly supported by attempts which have been undertaken to examine articulation from an empirical or data-driven perspective. Spencer and Flaugher (1967) have shown that discrete-point testing is only marginally effective in accurately placing students in college-level second language programs. Examining the scores of 3,500 students who took proficiency tests, Lange, Prior, and Sims (1992) found that prior experience using equivalency formulas accounted for only 7.2% of the pass tests, thus calling into serious question the concept of seat-time.

Second language programs which are not vertically articulated lead not only to ineffective teaching and unnecessary frustrations for students at all levels, but also to high attrition rates among students who might otherwise continue to study a second language at more advanced levels. Research has demonstrated that the number of students continuing to pursue second language study beyond the first year of instruction is reduced by approximately half for each successive year of the language. This national phenomenon -- which is even more pronounced in the critical languages -- results in a significant waste of resources, as our nation's elementary and secondary schools tend to produce students who have only an introduction to a second language and little or no demonstrable proficiency in that language.

The considerable dearth of students at the elementary and secondary levels who persevere to pursue advanced study of second language is especially acute among our nation's minority youth. Concentrated in urban settings characterized by high mobility, these students on average change schools and programs more often than their majority counterparts. In so doing, they lose critical momentum in their study of second languages and they are often placed into programs in which they find themselves underprepared. This lack of horizontal articulation in language instruction therefore discourages these at-risk students and they consequently often do not continue studying foreign languages -- an incalculable loss to a nation which needs to use all of its intellectual resources in an increasingly competitive international environment.

The various articulation projects that have been conducted through the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition have addressed the many issues raised by the challenges of articulating curriculum. The ultimate goal of these projects is to provide students with the opportunity for continuous language study that is coordinated between levels and across institutions to encourage student persistence in language learning.

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Last Modified: February 14, 2014 at 11:06