ACTFL Innovates: Think Outside the Book

ACTFL Innovates: Think Outside the Book

What language educator has not had the uneasy feeling that despite following requisite lesson plans, district curriculum guides, or state frameworks, there must be a better way to facilitate world language learning?

What Is ACTFL Innovates?

Last summer, a small cadre of teachers and a few other critical friends, fueled by that very unease coupled with the desire for openness in collaboration and innovation, led to the beginning of a very informal ACTFL initiative known as ACTFL Innovates. The group has expanded to include a growing number of interested language teachers. Envisioned as an informal, collaborative group of professionals who would commit to sharing resources, ideas, failures, and success, the group has followed a path on a cycle that is common to many startups: namely, initial excitement and enthusiasm, early experimentation, outside pressures and distractions, and waning engagement by participants.

However, it’s essential to view this as part of a cycle, not a one-way trip. As language professionals from all levels, we need a wide variety of environments where we can feel free to question, share resources, engage, experiment, encourage, warn, analyze, and dream. ACTFL Innovates is not unique in that. Many of our colleagues have opened up other avenues for this as well, such as #langchat on Thursday evenings, and various other twitter streams.

Why Another Initiative?

The short answer is that ACTFL Innovates is an opportunity for those who feel like the current structure of “clearly articulated curricula” and the accompanying grades we assign students are false proxies for language learning.

It’s for those of us who ask:

  • Can students learn languages by reading foreign language transcripts of TED Talks about a subject they are interested in?
  • Can OER language resources be accessed and effectively used by students according to interest with little regard for appropriate “level”?
  • Would a math teacher be willing to accept evidence of learning from a student who mastered a concept by using non-English resources? (See How Khan Academy Is Going Global.)

Who knows? Would you, as a world languages teacher, be willing to accept a student-constructed evidence portfolio centered on skate-boarding, or rocket launching , or kite-flying in place of that Level I, Unit 5 lesson on “shopping in a foreign market”?

For those searching for a safe place to discuss innovative ideas like these, ACTFL Innovates may be one step in an important journey. I look forward to hearing from you.

T WelchTom Welch is an independent consultant and has witnessed, participated in, and advocated for the explosion of opportunities for learning unbound by traditional limits of time or place. He is a founding member of ACTFL Innovates. He has been a high school French teacher and principal, and once designed an online Mandarin course for high schools in Kentucky.


To read more about collaborating with other language educators, read Making Collaboration Easier by Carl Blyth.


  1. Great post, Tom. Thanks from bringing word of ACTFL Innovate. I noticed that your Facebook site is an open group so anybody can join. And I just signed up! Your post make me think of the power of informal language learning. Have you seen any of the “polyglot” YouTube videos? They are becoming a real phenomenon. People who learn languages on the Internet seem to enjoy showing off their linguistic proficiency. Have a look at Tim’s video, a high school student who “performs” 20 languages. No way is he going to follow a lockstep curriculum. The guy is on fire 😉

    • Glad you signed into the group, Carl, and I hope that many others will as also. We are especially looking for folks who will share their experiences, attempts, failures, restarts and successes.
      And I love the YouTube video! Tim is certainly a good example of someone making use of many OER opportunities for language learning!

  2. Would love to find a way to do this within my large district…maybe that “extra unit” I’m going to do can be total student choice and not student survey driven…hmm got me thinking.

    • Alice, there are so many ways to get started. At the ASCD conference this last weekend I was fascinated to hear the way the guys who started the “Flipped classroom” trend had gone through several transitions. It’s all about finding how to take those first small steps that “fit” a particular situation, then figure out a next step, and a next step . . .
      I would be glad to help you think of some ways that you could start in your district.

  3. This is so darn practical and real-world, Tom! I say let students use the target language to study whatever subject they are learning. The sheer authenticity of just using the target language to study subjects other than languages like biology, economics or history really appeals to me. When I first stumbled upon Khan Academy videos that could be translated into other languages, I was way beyond thrilled. I am sure many students will be happy to “practice” their L2 reading this way.

    • lfranklin — I’m right there with you. I think one of the main shortcomings is the “WHY” part of learning that we are trying to put forward with kids. At least studying other subjects takes that up a notch!

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