Textos en contexto: Literatura hispanoamericana en Multimedia
Susan D. Martin, Northern Michigan University
Product at a glance
Multimedia Spanish-American literature course or language course companion
Reading, Listening, Writing, Culture
1 CD-ROM, WWW links, textbook
233 MHz +
32 MB RAM
Hard Disk Space
500 MB free hard disk space (full installation)
4x CD-ROM drive or higher
Sound Blaster compatible, speakers or headphones
SVGA monitor 800x600, thousands of colors
QuickTime 4, RealPlayer 5.0; Direct X version 3.0 or later (provided on CD-ROM)
Textos en contexto is a textbook/CD-ROM package which may be used in a variety of courses at the intermediate and advanced level. Authors Julia Van Loan Aguilar and José Miguel Oviedo suggest in their introductory comments that it may be useful in conjunction with an intermediate language text, as a supplementary or primary text in a conversation and composition course, as the sole basis for an introductory literature course or as supplemental materials for a language lab (xiii). The CD-ROM program presents six short stories and a poem by well-known Latin American authors, Gabriel García Márquez, Juan Rulfo, Pablo Neruda, Julio Cortázar, Elena Poniatowska, Rosario Ferré and Augusto Monterroso on one CD-ROM. The readings are reproduced in print format in the student textbook, which also includes a short literary history, vocabulary list and exercises, an image page, popular sayings, discussion themes, and a brief suggestion for a generic essay–this material is unique to the textbook itself. Readings, questions, directions and explanations are entirely in Spanish; navigation on the CD-ROM is in English.
On the CD-ROM, the stories are glossed for vocabulary, provided in audio format (often read by their respective authors), and accompanied by pre-reading, linguistic and comprehension exercises that may be printed and turned in manually. Two interviews per text--one with the author and another with a critic--supplement each of the short stories and also are accompanied by comprehension questions. The authors explain in the textbook’s introduction that this approach to literature grew out of their desire to provide ready access to "the cultural and linguistic information necessary to be established for students to understand the text on a general level first and subsequently on a critical level" (vii-viii).
They justify their desire to provide such information by the need to make input comprehensible (Krashen 1981) through the use of multimedia as "sociomedia" (Barrett 1992). In this sense, the Textos CD-ROM announces its intention to bridge the separation of culture from literature that has historically characterized multimedia productions geared toward reading. Textos in this way represents an innovative foray into the possibilities of using multimedia to enhance literary comprehension.
Installation was quite straightforward in the Windows environment, and the installation files for QuickTime version 4 and RealPlayer 5.0 are provided on the CD-ROM, in case they are not already installed. The program ran well, without crashing; video and audio segments loaded relatively quickly without mishap.
Screen management, due to the design of the user interface and the lack of help resources, can lead to confusion. There is no overall introductory page to explain navigation or concept. The main screen presents a map of Mexico, Central and South America, surrounded by the names of the seven authors–clicking on an author illuminates their country of origin on the map and loads their module, which includes a menu of segments organized as follows in a side menu bar: General Information, Textual Information, and Author Biography are listed under a heading which designates them as "Pre-Reading" exercises. Text, Comprehension, Author/Critic Interviews and Linguistic Exercises follow. No other links are visible at this level, either to glossary help, publisher’s product page or internet resources. However, when in the text screen, bolded words may be clicked to pop up a simple translation.
When in General and Textual Information screens, hotlinks may be selected to lead to Internet sites (never more than two per segment). The CD-ROM format relies heavily upon user intuition or direction from some external source, presumably the instructor. Lesson plans suggested in the textbook may provide a clue as to how to proceed through the segments.
The RealPlayer and QuickTime interviews provide a familiar format for controlling replay and volume. Student progress is not "bookmarked" therefore the student cannot resume an activity in a later session. There is no record-keeping facility or way to send responses to an instructor through an email link. Closing a session without printing the work done so far will result in a loss of the data. Clicking the close box of a work screen at any point will shut down the program entirely. Users are not prompted to consider saving their work or warned of the impending loss of data.
The computer capabilities in terms of audio are well-utilized, including excellent audio recordings of both the stories and good sound on the interviews. There are also two songs recorded with glossed lyrics included as supplements to Augusto Monterroso’s and Elena Poniatowska’s segments. There are no slow-down capabilities on the audio. There is no provision made for invoking student oral response. Students at no time are asked to respond with or record their own spoken opinions. Nor is voice recognition technology used to provide pronunciation or intonation feedback.
Visual graphics and images in general are under-utilized, including only simple maps, and occasional archival photographs. The interview clips are a high point in terms of enhancing listening comprehension in a literary environment. Unlike the reading of the short stories, they are not accompanied by a text version or vocabulary glosses (transcripts are provided in the instructor’s manual). The interviews run from one to two minutes, roughly. The interview segments feature a centered shot of the speaker with little background or action. The critic in question is sometimes shown and is not identified anywhere on the CD-ROM. In the cases of Elena Poniatowska, Augusto Monterroso and Rosario Ferré, the clips are audio, with no video component. Neruda’s "interview" is rather a video of a speech, in English, that he made prior to his death.
Each segment of the CD-ROM contains minimal links to sites on the web or information on the CD-ROM, in connection with the General or Textual Information activities. The General activities usually query basic identities, dates and events associated with the national culture and ask students to minimally identify them, using the given link if necessary. The websites are generally Spanish language search engines (terra.com is a favorite), or historical summaries at the publisher’s website. Students clicking on for instance, "Colombia" under Garcia Marquez’s General information section, are taken to the publisher’s Textos website, which reproduces the entire CD’s menu with links; "Colombia" once again needs to be clicked. At that point, the "Colombia" link takes the student to a huge website for the Colombian presidency, intended apparently to help the student name the national currency, a national hero, the capital, and which other country formed part of Colombia before 1900. None of this information is however found at that site, which is engineered more as a public relations site. The link therefore is not much more useful than a Yahoo search engine in Spanish, which yields the answers in a more efficient and less frustrating fashion.
Observant students may note at this point on the publisher’s web page that there is a <Grammar Resources> button at the very bottom which may be consulted for three or four pages worth of verb conjugations and expressions. This <Grammar Resources> link appears only on the Author Biography section of the CD-ROM and is not available, obviously, unless the student is online.
The language used is authentic and, aside from a few minor typos, correct overall. For the most part, the speaking style in both author interviews and critic interviews tends to reinforce an academic tone, rather than a colloquial register.
Published by Harcourt Brace in 2001, Textos en contexto provides the student with immediate access to written and audio versions of seven texts and two songs, limited vocabulary glosses, author interviews and critic clips. The comprehension of these materials is reinforced by comprehension exercises and linguistic exercises. A student interacts with the text as interpreter and integrator of information, entering responses to specific questions that vary between multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank and short answer. The information presented on the CD-ROM is for the most part socio-historical or textually analytical. It is presented on several levels. The student progresses from pre-reading activities, in the "general" and "textual" information sections to comprehension activities related to the text and the two interviews. The pre-reading work, as described, contains questions on basic national information. This information is not usually necessary to understanding the text nor does it bring up issues that the text will later address. This is probably one of the most underdeveloped parts of the program, prompting the production of superficial responses, using gratuitous and hard-to-use links.
The "Textual information" page is split between a top scrolling window which contains the story’s text and reading, and a bottom scrolling screen listing from two to ten questions, depending on the segment. Some require extra-literary knowledge and some refer to story vocabulary or grammatical structures. Some questions that do require knowledge about the history or culture of the story’s background exceed the normal knowledge a student would have and would require significant research, with no guide or resources indicated. For instance, students are asked to interpret a line from Rosario Ferré’s story regarding the increasing poverty of a family in Puerto Rico. Most questions rely upon at least a cursory reading of the text. Curiously, access to the vocabulary glosses is not available through this view of the text screen. Some confusion may be generated by mixing questions meant to profit from skimming and questions meant to be completed prior to reading. For instance, the fifth question under Julio Cortázar, follows four questions that require culling specific answers from the text. Without warning, it asks, "Not having read the story, what features would you expect in a haunted house?" (my translation). It should be noted too that, at least on a laptop, the text font size is extremely small in the story window but sufficiently legible in the questions section.
At any point the student may listen to the text and read along or choose to only read the text, ignoring the audio buttons. There is no option for an audio-only presentation that would "hide" the text. At any point students may repeat a segment of the story they wish to hear again, although they may not play individual words aloud. Individual words thought to be difficult are glossed with English translations that appear at the bottom of the page upon the student’s selecting the problem word or phrase. At no time are entire sentences or paragraphs translated. The texts by Poniatowska, Ferré, Monterroso and Neruda (poem) are read by the authors themselves; the others are read clearly and well-modulated by an unidentified native speaker.
The "Textual Comprehension" segment displays a split screen including both questions and text and aims to elicit more analytical interpretations regarding each story than the initial "Textual Information" section. The depth of analysis required varies from story to story. In all cases, these questions/responses have no suggested or correct answers to which the student may refer, reasonably in some sections, since the problems are mostly interpretive. As with all the screens, these answers must be previewed and printed in order to be saved.
The author interview, critic interview and linguistic exercises present three more opportunities for the student to interact with the text, its formation and reception. Again, consistency in terms of rigor of analysis and level of comprehension expected is problematic from text to text. The interview clips may be replayed but may exceed the comprehension abilities of those in intermediate courses. These constitute the most challenging component in listening comprehension of the CD-ROM since neither textual glosses nor transcriptions are available (outside of print version in the Instructor’s Manual).
Students may be assigned to do the linguistic exercises that vary slightly from segment to segment in type of activity, extension and level. Students are primarily asked to isolate examples of different grammatical structures or verbal tenses from the text of the stories. In only one or two instances, are they assigned a higher-level task-based activity. The story is available to consult in the upper window.
Audio clips of popular songs, with a transcript of lyrics, are included for Poniatowska and Monterroso, as a pre-reading and a linguistic activity, respectively. In the first case, the song fits well with setting up the story and providing the authentic cultural material that inspired the author. In Monterroso’s case, activities similar to Poniatowska’s "pre-reading" exercises are organized under "linguistic" exercises. In both cases, the resource is unique and provides an interesting counterpoint to the main text.
The activities in this CD-ROM support the language skills of reading and listening well. Speaking is entirely absent from all activities; writing opportunities are minimal. The focus, which announces itself as supporting the socio-linguistic and cultural frame, provides access to surprisingly little cultural information, given the obvious effort to include links, and authentic video and audio clips. The opportunity to include cultural glosses and photographs is overlooked. The linguistic focus extends slightly beyond the basic vocabulary glosses, to exercises that do not do much more than reinforce the labeling of tenses and grammatical features.
Teacher Fit (Approach)
In relation to Chapelle’s seven goals for multimedia CALL, the CD-ROM falls short in a number of areas (Chapelle 1998). It does to some extent (1) enhance the students’ comprehension of target language input, largely through the use of a glossary. The definitions provided in English, however, are sparse and do not supplement cultural understanding of the terms or ideas in questions. Recent research has suggested that glossing should extend beyond textual definitions (Chun & Plass, 1996; Davis & Lyman-Hager, 1997; Lomicka, 1998, Martínez-Lage, 1997). Textos also, still according to Chapelle, (2) illuminates semantic and syntactic aspects of the input, but neglects to provide more than minimal opportunities for students to (3) produce output comprehensible to an audience, (4) to notice their errors (there are no auto-correction faculties) or (5) to correct their errors. The non-linear organization internal to each unit does allow students to constantly refer back to the text, glossary or videos in question. While there are no comprehension checks, the repetition and glossary may provide some reinforcement for (4) and (5) as noted above, establishing a certain level of interactivity (Labour 2001). In terms of (6) negotiating meaning and (7) practicing tasks requiring an exchange of information, the fact that the CD-ROM is designed to be primarily a self-standing and solitary product minimizes opportunities for student interaction, although this may be supplemented by classroom activities of the instructor’s design. The lack of communicative and task-based exercises allows for only the basic assimilation of the material at hand. The lack of error feedback however, and of support to make the interviews more intelligible, may impede even this basic assimilation (responses to linguistic and quantitative questions are located in printed Instructor’s Manual).
Textos en contexto does not encourage task-based instruction, a methodology usually enhanced by CALL capabilities. Linguistic exercises are for the most part grammatical; comprehension questions require processing of the text only. Given the potential of CALL, it would have been relatively easy for the CD-ROM to have incorporated more focused links and activities that would have encouraged collaboration, synthesis and problem-solving (Nunan, 1989). For instance, a scavenger hunt for angels in different Latin American city monuments and churches, working off a suggested list of links, could provide an exposure to religious and artistic contexts, as part of the "General Information" activities in Poniatowska’s segment. As it stands, the laundry list of "famous" Mexican heroes and events must be cursorily identified and are not significant to the story.
In terms of teaching reading, the pedagogy does reflect many current standards regarding the integration of culture, which according to Caspari (in press, as cited in Muller-Hartmann), begin with "pre-reading tasks that make learners curious about the text". Although the text does not follow through with an effort to create in the readers an examination of their own cultural identities prior to formulating their own position towards the target culture, it does try to stress the mainstays of the culture in question, if lapsing at times into clichés or citation of mere emblems. Intensive reading, oriented toward understanding the text and visualizing comprehension through the eyes of fictional characters, is carried through in some of the reading activities although interpretation of the other culture is not overtly addressed. Caspari’s last stage, post-reading, would be fulfilled by the CD-ROM’s final comprehension questions, the author interview, the critic interview and linguistic exercises. This stage, which attempts to coordinate the reader's "own perspectives" with other views presented in the reading, is accomplished in the CD-ROM through reading, writing, listening, and viewing.
Learner Fit (Design)
The stories and poem covered in the CD-ROM are fairly short and simple. Between the seven, there would not be sufficient material for an entire semester of a reading course, although the authors’ suggested lesson plan provides options for a 6-day (roughly two-week) unit per story. There are also suggestions for 2 and 4-day units. The CD-ROM seems most appropriate as a reading/writing supplement for high intermediate grammar courses, as cultural materials for a conversation/composition class, or as an extra resource in a literature course on Latin America.
Although the linguistic level is advanced, the glossing makes the texts adaptable to low intermediate-advanced levels. The handling of responses however, with no feedback under any comprehension or linguistic section available to the student, would make the exercises meaningful only when scored and commented upon by an instructor. The stories appeal, in terms of theme and plot, to university students and adults. The mix of visual, aural and written presentations, through graphics and video, soundbites and text, respectively, will appeal to a variety of learning styles (Reese 2002). While the nature of the presentation and the questions seem to imply use by an individual, the lack of support and minimal glossing suggest perhaps collaborative assignments might be effectively designed to enhance the raw material provided. The non-linear possibilities of each segment allow for teacher and student flexibility. Instructors may not however modify the program in anyway in terms of supplementing or modifying existing glosses or exercises.
Textos is based on authentic texts by important Latin American authors, and includes valuable visual and audio support. It attempts to provide prior contextual foregrounding through exercises and Internet links but does not succeed in using these exercises to establish a variety of consistently friendly links to important material. Pre-reading textual screens and post-reading comprehension screens emphasize literary analysis within a socio-cultural context.
The design requires that the teacher create challenging tasks and communicative opportunities to ensure a collaborative, interactive approach. The routine nature of the general, biographical and linguistic exercises — identification, list-making, short answer, and translation — does not fully take advantage of what the technology might offer to enhance such approaches. Technological tools for language learning should go beyond traditional texts, providing additional resources, formats, or strategic tools (Cubillos, 1998). Despite its claims, this program does not provide a significant amount of specifically Latin American cultural information beyond the text and interviews themselves. The rich potential of the format is however available and could be easily enhanced in future productions.
Scaled rating (1 low-5 high)
Implementation possibilities: 4
Pedagogical features: 3
Socio-linguistic accuracy: 5
Use of computer capabilities: 2
Ease of use: 4
Value for money: 3
Over-all evaluation: 3.5
Phone (800) 354-9706
Fax: (800) 487-8488
Susan Martin is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese in the Department of Modern Languages & Literature at Northern Michigan University. She received her Ph.D. in 1998 from the University of California, Berkeley, in modern Latin American literature. She worked as a Berkeley Language Center fellow in the development of effective multimedia foreign language and literature software. She is in charge of CALL internships at NMU, where students explore original software development.
Dept. of Modern Languages & Literature
Northern Michigan University
Marquette, MI 49855
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