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Vol 5, No. 1 (September 1987)

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Inexpensive Videodisc for Proficiency: A Teaching Model Based on Bruner's Learning Hierarchy

Captain Richard Sutherland
Dr. Richard Knight
Utah State University

A classroom scenario provides a specific example of how a teacher implements the inexpensive videodisc model of instruction to enhance proficiency in the classroom. With this model, a teacher uses the remote control unit of the videodisc to operate the disc player much like a remote controlled television with the additional benefit of random access. The theoretical underpinnings for this model are provided by Bruner's learning hierarchy consisting of the iconic, enactive, and symbolic stages, which are related to the steps of the teaching model. The model is also supported by the "effective teaching literature" and allows the teacher to remain in control of the classroom while directing activities that encourage creative dialogue production integrating previously introduced lexical items. Moreover, this model lends itself to the teaching of other subject matter areas.

Inexpensive Videodisc for Proficiency:

KEYWORDS: proficiency, videodisc, second language instruction, audiovisual aids, visual aids, teaching methods, teaching models, classroom techniques, communicative competence


Richard Lamb is a German teacher at Mountain Crest High School in Logan, Utah, and has concentrated his teaching methods towards developing the ability of his students to speak German proficiently. He begins his classes by dividing the students into small groups of five or six. He then informs students that they will view several short vignettes that were actually filmed in Germany. They are to try to understand as much as they can from both the spoken words and the information provided by the context of the scenes they will see.

Richard then uses the remote control unit of a videodisc player to play several segments of vignettes depicting money exchange in Germany. In this situation, the videodisc is used much like a remote controlled VCR/television with the important difference that Richard can immediately access any


predetermined disc segment by pressing a number on the remote control unit. After playing each segment, Richard asks general questions in English to insure that students understand the overall concept that U. S. currency must be exchanged for German currency before a visitor can make purchases. He also asks more specific questions about the contents of each segment. For example, he might ask, "How many dollars would you want to exchange into marks?" and "What kind of identification must one have to cash traveler's checks?" The purpose of these questions is to focus students' attention on cognates (der Pass = passport) and to emphasize that much information for understanding what is being said is provided by the context of the situation. Richard concludes this initial videodisc session by asking students to tell him which visual images they have seen that would help them learn the appropriate vocabulary so that they could carry out an exchange of money in Germany.

Richard then hands out a list of the new lexical items and models the pronunciation of each term, which is repeated in chorus by class members. In this context, lexical item means vocabulary words that are commonly used together. For example, "einlösen" means "to cash a check." After the repetition of several lexical items or phrases, Richard again asks for examples of images that students had seen that would help them to remember these words.

After the introduction of the new phrases, Richard displays a transparency with German language content questions relating to the vignette segment. He reminds the students that there will be an activity in the form of a competition between groups in answering the questions. Richard plays a particular segment on the videodisc and asks if the students can respond to the content questions. If they cannot, he again repeats the particular segment. With difficult material, it may require up to four repetitions before most groups are ready. Richard then selects a student to read a question. While a question is being read and until Richard calls on a specific student to respond, the members of the groups are to collaborate with one another to insure that every group member can respond properly to the question.

To provide for random selection when calling on students, Richard has a deck of cards and uses the suits to designate the respective groups. The order of the cards corresponds to the sitting arrangement of the groups. By continuously manipulating the cards, Richard makes it possible that a student may be called on at any time, perhaps even twice in a row. This procedure insures that all students will be called on regularly so that they remain engaged in the learning



Reinforcement is important and each group is awarded a point when a student from that group communicates effectively, even though the response may not be grammatically perfect. Other groups have the opportunity to earn a point if they can answer the question accurately. With this technique, Richard reviews all of the segments on the disc and all of the questions on the transparency. The group activity and random selection of students motivates every student to prepare an answer to every question.

Because practice in speaking the language is important, Richard divides his students into small groups of twos or threes to transform lexical items from the handout, the transparency, and from the videodisc into a dialogue between an American exchanging money in Germany and a German carrying out his part of the transaction. The students are to assume that they will be going to Germany in the summer (which several of them actually do through an exchange program) and will have to exchange money to survive, to buy gifts for friends and family, etc. Students are asked to think about problems that they might face and how they could use these lexical items to solve their problems. Richard encourages discussion of possible problems to promote creative transformation of the German phrases.

Students are given about 15 minutes to generate their dialogues; members of the larger groups are encouraged to enhance the accuracy and creativity of the dialogues of the subgroups because subgroup performance will count toward points for the larger group. While the groups are working, Richard circulates about the classroom helping students individually whenever possible.

After the preparation time has expired, Richard randomly selects a subgroup to perform before the class. Students are allowed to use their written notes so that recall does not impede performance and heighten anxiety. (The students may also use their notes to write a more extended dialogue as their homework assignment for that night.) Richard awards points for successful communication, for accurate communication, and for creative use of the language in problem solving. After awarding points for the respective dialogues, he adds all the points awarded and determines which group has won the contest. At the end of the week, the best group is given a bag of "Gummibären."


Like most teachers, Richard Lamb uses a textbook to structure his course. He has implemented the use of the inexpensive videodisc, dialogues, and learning games to foster students' speaking skills. He is unique in that he has


access to an inexpensive videodisc player with an excellent program on disc made in Germany. He is typical of many language teachers throughout the country who are concerned that their students develop greater oral proficiency.

The Foreign Service Institute and other agencies have become so concerned about oral proficiency and measuring oral proficiency that they have sought to develop a standard for this important skill (Liskin-Gasparro, 1984). In the past, language proficiency was measured by the number of classes or number of years that students had taken a language. Typically, a college graduate with a bachelor's degree in a foreign language has had two years of grammar and two years of literature or four years of seat time. Unfortunately, this unit of measurement supplies remarkably little information about the ability one has to speak a foreign language, a qualification often required. To resolve this dilemma and to establish a universal standard for determining foreign language competence, the American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL) established the ACTFL Provisional Proficiency Guidelines (1982), which evaluate the areas of speaking, listening, reading, writing, and culture in terms of five ability levels ranging from novice to superior.

A second aspect of the proficiency movement was to acknowledge the importance of speaking a foreign language and to devise a method for testing this difficult area: the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview. Currently, one first takes an examination in reading and listening to qualify for an Oral Proficiency Interview, a prerequisite to obtaining an "Advanced" rating. Many military and governmental positions now require a Proficiency Interview score to determine qualification for desirable positions abroad. In addition, an increasing number of universities such as Brigham Young University are requiring a certain interview score before granting a degree in a specific foreign language.

In order to align the public school foreign language curriculum with the national oral proficiency movement, the Utah State Office of Education has published the Foreign Language Mastery Curriculum which "calls for a major change in instructional emphasis from the study of grammar to performance in speaking skills (USOE, 1985, p.1). We hope that this is a trend which all states will follow.

A New Model for Foreign Language Instruction

Jerome Bruner (1966), a noted cognitive/developmental psychologist, formulated a structuralist theory of learning based on three different stages in the cognitive development, which has important implications for the teaching of


language. Bruner believes that a child goes through three general cognitive stages. The first of these is the enactive stage; the term "enactive" derives from action. "In earliest childhood, events and objects are defined in terms of the actions taken toward them." A one-year-old child, presented with his favorite toy, will not cry when it is removed unless he is holding it in his hand. Later, removal will bring tears if he has begun to reach out for the toy. Still later, he will cry if the toy is removed when he can see it. In this stage of development, he views the toy as different kinds of actions. A toy is "to shake" and a hole is "to dig" (1966, pp. 12-13).

By age three, the "iconic" stage is reached. The child is fascinated by images. She is a creature of the moment and is controlled by a single feature of the situation. She can copy what she has seen but cannot transpose. If she sees identical beakers filled to the same level, she will say that they are equal. If the contents are poured into another vessel that is taller and thinner, the child will deny that there is the same amount to drink in both glasses (1966, pp 13-14).

The next stage is "symbolic" in which the child can go beyond what she sees. If one standard glass is poured into two others of different shapes behind a screen with only the tops showing, four year olds will say that there is the same amount in each glass. However, when the screen is removed, they will change their minds. Five and six year old children will not alter their opinions. Rather they will explain, "It looks different but it isn't." Language has provided them "the means of getting free of immediate appearance as the sole basis of judgment." Bruner finds these qualitatively different stages to be a far better description of cognitive growth than that provided by stimulus-response theory (1966, pp. 14-16).

Bruner used his developmental stages in developing his theory of instruction. A striking example is provided by the teaching of quadratic equations to eight year olds. In the "enactive" stage, a child builds a square from a block of wood "X" units in length, from strips of wood "I by X", and from "I by I" squares. The completed squares form an iconic representation, which a child can see directly and point to. The next step is to demonstrate that the squares can be represented symbolically as equations, a transformation into a form of representation that goes beyond immediate imagery and that can not be viewed directly or pointed to (1966, pp. 59-62).

Such successes in instruction provided Bruner with basis for his conviction that other subject areas could be taught similarly. For example, he designed a social studies course entitled Man, A Course of Study. In its section on


world view, students watch a young Netsilik eskimo stalking a seal, hoping to harpoon it before it can escape to the water through a breathing hole. The teacher asks her students to write about a dream that the eskimo hunter might have had about the seal's escape. This gives students a personalized introduction into the eskimo myths about seals. The action of the hunt corresponds to the enactive, the film itself to the iconic, and the story about the seal corresponds to the symbolic (1966, pp. 89-92).

In terms of the order of the hierarchy, it is informative to note how Bruner himself applies his model when designing instruction for adult learners. For example, with the aforementioned unit on the Netsilik eskimos, "children are introduced abruptly to Eskimo society by a film" (p. 91), which provides vivid input before students may undertake activities. Further, Bruner writes that "it may be possible to by-pass the first two stages" with the risk "that the learner may not possess the imagery to fall back on when his symbolic transformations fail to achieve a goal in problem solving" (p. 49). Again, one sees Bruner's emphasis on imagery input before involvement in activities or transformation of knowledge. It is in the sense of imagery input before activities and symbolic transformation that this videodisc-

based model for language instruction seeks to implement Bruner's learning hierarchy.

Moreover, it is Bruner's contention that the enactive first stage developed between ages 1-3 as well as the subsequent iconic stage remain a part of the cognitive thought processes throughout adolescent and adult life. Illustrations of this concept are perhaps best exemplified by Einstein's thought experiments, whereby Einstein visualized enacting a complex theoretical experiment such as the effects of riding in a spaceship as it approached the speed of light. Another example of enactive and iconic elements incorporated in formal thought would be the observations of an observer in free fall from the roof of a house, who perceives any objects he releases as being stationery although he and the objects are falling at the same speed. (Rothenberg, 1979). Even in the adult capable of formal thought, the enactive and iconic elements remain vital cognitive processes.

A further point of interest is that Bruner's hierarchy cuts across the domains of knowledge established by Bloom: affective, psychomotor, and cognitive (Bloom, 1956). In relating to the Eskimos, Bruner finds it is "necessary that the children 'feel' [the] myth as well as understand it . . . " (p. 91). Hence the requirement of the videodisc model of students relating situational lexical items to what they feel will be problems facing them in Germany.


There are several features of this model that go beyond Bruner's hierarchy and may be addressed by various aspects of information processing descriptions found in works on cognitive psychology (Bransford, 1979; Ellis & Hunt, 1983). The videodisc allows a language instructor to expose students repeatedly to short segments of about 45 seconds in length, a feat too cumbersome with simple videotape alone which requires that the entire vignette of a situation be shown in a linear fashion. In turn, these segments can be designed to contain 7+/-2 new lexical items, a quantity adapted to the capabilities of short term memory. Further, the concrete visual images should function as an organizer of the information contained in short term memory and facilitate the internalization of these items into long term memory as well as enhance retrieval cued by situational contexts.

An Inexpensive Videodisc Model of Instruction

Videodisc controlled by a microcomputer (Level III) holds great potential for the improvement of instruction for at least three reasons: first, it offers the potential for providing a very large number of examples to help students understand complex or difficult concepts. The second important advantage of the Level III videodisc is that it can provide complex branching programs to meet the needs of different learners. The third advantage is that a huge amount of visual and auditory information can be stored in very compact form with almost immediate access to any part.

Currently, the expense of a videodisc unit with a microcomputer is a hindrance in using the videodisc in public school classrooms. Also, few language discs have been offered for purchase by the general public.

This inexpensive model of instruction presented here can be implemented with a videodisc unit without a microcomputer (Sutherland, 1986). Such units are becoming less expensive, and several are available for under four-hundred dollars. Moreover, a small but growing number of instructional discs are becoming available in the public domain. And perhaps most important, the use of a teacher controlled unit places the control or management of instruction clearly in the hands of the teacher, an important feature for introducing new applications of a technology.

Teaching Steps of the Model

Phase One requires that an instructor review his current text and determine which lexical items introduced by the videodisc are new or difficult. He then generates an appropriate item list containing German as well as English equivalents. He also makes an overhead transparency with the difficult items and appropriate content questions incorporating these items.


In Phase Two the instructor enters the segment numbers of the situation to be presented into the videodisc player. He then previews each segment to guarantee accurate functioning of the equipment in front of the class.

Phase Three is conducted in the classroom with students present. The instructor divides the class into small groups of about 8 students, plays the selected disc segments, and asks general questions in English to provide for understanding of what is taking place and to have students verbalize the visual images presented that would assist them in learning the lexical items involved. This phase is the iconic stage in Bruner's hierarchy because it supplies students with imagery input.

In Phase Four the instructor hands out a list of lexical items to the class. He then models the pronunciation for the students which is repeated by them. After several repetitions, he asks students for examples of images they had seen that would facilitate learning.

Phase Five involves an activity for the students to use the lexical items in answering content questions about he disc materials. The instructor plays a disc segment while displaying a transparency containing content questions and randomly selects a student to respond to each question. Random selection cab be expedited by using a deck of cards as described in the scenario.

Group members are encouraged to actively cooperate in preparing one another to respond to the content questions. Based on the responses of individuals within a group, each group is awarded a point for any answer that effectively communicates. After the response has been made, other groups may win points by correcting the response made or by elaborating on the response. In principle, this activity should have every student prepare a response for every question. This phase corresponds to the enactive stage in Bruner's hierarchy. Again, it should be noted that in Bruner's own curriculum work, he introduced units of study with imagery input and then had students process the images with practice in group settings. This group processing enhances personal involvement and provides information feedback via group members.

In Phase Six the instructor has the groups divide up into twos and threes in order to transform lexical items from the handout, the transparency and the videodisc into a dialogue that involved solving an anticipated problem in Germany. Students are given about 15 minutes to construct their dialogues. During this time, the instructor is freed from his role as an activity director in front of the class and moves from group to group answering individual


questions and providing additional assistance. Groups are encouraged to help group members since the performance of those chosen to demonstrate a dialogue will represent the group's score. When the preparation time has expired, students are randomly selected to act out their dialogue, using their notes if they wish. Points are awarded for effective communication, accurate communication, and creative use of the language in problem solving. At the end of the week, the best group receives a bag of "Gummibären."

This phase corresponds to Bruner's symbolic stage, whereby students are to transform knowledge acquired. Generating dialogues to solve problems from word lists, questions, disc and text materials allows students to internalize linguistic items by transforming them into problem solutions that directly relate to personal goals. This, in turn, should enhance the ultimate goal of oral proficiency.

Social Interaction with the Model

In phases one through five the instructor must carefully organize the activities. He retains the traditional position in front of the class and performs as a director of learning to insure that students understand the material. The instructor must have experience asking questions and posses some showmanship.

It is important that the instructor is able to create a cooperative climate within the class. Students should feel free to respond even if their responses are not completely accurate and to work together in the spirit of cooperative competition.

Equipment and Facilities Needed

The most unusual piece of equipment for this model of teaching is a videodisc player, which can be easily connected to the TV monitors already available in the schools. Of course, the videodisc with the language materials is required. An overhead projector is also needed.

A regular classroom is adequate for this model, since the equipment is portable.


In this application, the videodisc model provides the language instructor access to technology that may present linguistic materials in a mode well suited to human information processing capabilities such as instantaneous and uncomplicated repetition of short segments. Further, the model is based on Bruner's theory of instruction as applied to older adolescent and adult learners. Imagery and activity are used to facilitate higher level symbolic use and


transformation of material. These are vital components of the model and consistent with recent research on information processing, memory and a variety of models of teaching.

It should be noted that although this model is designed for foreign language instruction, it could easily be adapted to other subjects such as math, chemistry, and social studies where suitable disc materials are available.

The Limitations of the Model

The most obvious limitation of this model of instruction is that videodisc material is expensive to develop and not yet commonly available for all subjects. However, several initiatives are underway to address this situation.

Another minor limitation is the expense of buying a videodisc player. However, if the equipment could be shared among several language teachers across departments, the expense would be quite minor.

An additional limitation of this model is that the teacher must have some specific skills. He must be able to ask appropriate questions skillfully, set a comfortable climate within the classroom, be able to organize and tolerate student group work, and to foster cooperative competition among students. Although a new teacher may not be able to manage this model, most experienced teachers have the skills and attitudes that would permit them to adopt this model of instruction.

The Strengths of this Model of Instruction

In our judgment, this is a powerful model of instruction. The underlying theory is strong: it draws from the work in cognitive psychology of Jerome Bruner and from a recent body of research known as the "effective teaching" literature. It emphasizes the importance of imagery, student action, information feedback, and cooperative competition. This model requires constant student processing of information, a key to effective learning and retention.

From the students' point of view, this model instructs students in solving real life problems such as exchanging money, buying stamps and mailing a letter, ordering food in a cafe, or asking for directions and buying a ticket in a train station. Students who visit a foreign country, as many do in exchange programs, will use these skills to survive. The content is immediately useful and there is direct transfer from the classroom to the real world.

Another important feature of the model is that students are taught generalizable metacognitive skills. That is, the model nurtures or encourages students to develop cognitive strategies that will enhance general learning and


memory skills. For example, using imagery to aid memory and retention is a proven learning strategy. Many studies have demonstrated that the differences between fast and slow learners are the organizing strategies used to learn new materials (Travers 1982, pp. 103-107).

This model also fosters a positive attitude toward learning a foreign language because the emphasis is relevant knowledge rather than memorizing words, rules and verb forms which aren't immediately useful to students.

Another important strength of the model is that the teacher retains control of the instructional process. This is important for teacher acceptance.

Finally an important feature of this model is that the use of the videodisc is the use of a powerful technology at an affordable price.


The Inexpensive Videodisc Model of Instruction offers a powerful new model that is relatively inexpensive, allows teachers to maintain control of the instructional process, and fosters student learning in a variety of ways. Although it is directly applicable to teaching foreign languages, it could be adapted for other subjects which have available videodisc materials. It requires substantial preparation and skill on the part of teachers, but not beyond what most conscientious teachers put forth for other models of instruction.


ACTFL Provisional Proficiency Guidelines (1982). New York: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Bloom, B.S., Krathwohl, & others (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: Handbook I, Cognitive Domain. New York: Longman.

Bransford, J.D. (1979). Human Cognition: Learning, Understanding, and Remembering. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Bruner, J.S. (1966). Toward a Theory of Instruction. New York: W.W. Norton.

Ellis, C.E. & Hunt, R.R. (1983). Fundamentals of Human Memory and Cognition. Debuque: Brown.

Griffen, B., Wardrop, D., & Howe, E.C. (1985). Utah State Office of Education Foreign Language Mastery Curriculum. Salt Lake City, UT: Utah State Office of Education. Joyce, B. & Weil, M. (1986). Models of Teaching (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.


Liskin-Gasparro, J.E. (1984). The ACTFL proficiency guideline.: A historical perspective. In T.V. Higgs (Ed.) Teaching for Proficiency: The Organizing Principle (pp. 11-42). Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company.

Rothenberg, A. (1979). Creative contradictions. Psychology Today. Jun., (55-62).

Sutherland, R.L. (1986). Inexpensive use of the videodisc for proficiency: an attempt to link technology and teachers. CALICO Journal, 4(1), 67-80.

Travers, R.M.W. (1982). Essentials of Learning: The New Cognitive Learning for Students of Education (5th ed.) New York: Macmillan.

Authors' Biodata

Richard Sutherland is a Captain in the U.S. Air Force. From 1984-1986, he served as an Instructor of German at the U.S. Air Academy, where he began his work with the videodisc in the language classroom. From 1979-1984, he was stationed in West Germany. Currently, he is completing a doctorate at Utah State University and is involved in integrating videodisc technology into the public school system.

Dr. Richard Knight is an Associate Professor of Secondary Education at Utah State University and received his Ph.D at the University of Michigan in 1972. His areas of focus entail teaching and learning theory as well as social studies education. He is particularly interested in the "effective teaching literature" as well as the application of different teaching models to improve classroom instruction.

Authors' Addresses

Richard Sutherland

248 East 500 North

Logan, UT 84321

Dr. Richard Knight

Department of Secondary Education

Logan, UT 84322-2815