Keeping Cultural DNA Intact
The Italian Virtual Class Chiavi di lettura method

Christine Ristaino, Lecturer in Italian Studies, and Judith Raggi-Moore, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Italian Studies Program

Vol. 9 No. 1
September 2006

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Who's Afraid of the IRB?
How the Institutional Review Board stepped into the research culture gap

Bolstering the Infrastructure

"If you look at the exponential growth in the amount of research dollars at Emory in 1990 as compared to 2005–06, it’s clear that we hadn’t invested in the overall infrastructure to keep pace with the volume of research and research dollars flowing through the institution."

"The granting organizations aren’t stupid. They’re going to go where they think can get a trial done fastest. If we’re slow, they’ll know about it and go somewhere else. When people approach me about doing clinical trials, they ask me how fast our IRB is. It’s one of their first questions."

Biography Redux
New interest in an old standard

Keeping Cultural DNA Intact
The Italian Virtual Class Chiavi di lettura method

Mixed Messages
Ten years after the Emory Commission on Teaching

Encouraging Words
Suggestions from the Manuscript Development Program

Reading to help you write

Emory Indicators


Imagine you are teaching a class about Italian culture, and from the first day your students see into the lives and professions of Italians from every region and walk of life. Over the academic year, your students will discuss religion, food, immigration, Italian politics, art, architecture, economics, history, and religion. They will compare regional influences, values, histories, and preferences and contrast them with their own belief systems and ideas.

Imagine that your class is taught only in Italian and that the students engaged in this advanced cultural exploration are not upper-level Italian students. Instead, they are first-year students who have become so taken with the idea of cultural acquisition that language acquisition develops more naturally than it could using more traditional second-language acquisition teaching methods—for it is a result of a practical need for language skills, the same practical need we faced during first language learning. In this case, students need language in order to negotiate the cultural tasks they have been charged with investigating. They rise to the task of compiling their own anthology of Italian culture using the highly visual format of the Internet, which allows them to confront and overcome language obstacles.

One of the authors of this article, Judith Raggi-Moore, has been teaching cultural acquisition in this manner as long as she can remember, but it wasn’t until a few of her colleagues urged her to formalize the method that she decided to integrate it into the Italian beginning level course described above. Together with the other author of this article, Christine Ristaino, and Jose Rodriguez, director of technology at the Emory College Language Center, Raggi-Moore’s teaching method was codified into a system accessible to all Italian teachers at Emory. The result of this collaboration is an intricate first-year Italian textbook designed to foster cultural acquisition over language acquisition. The aim is for students to acquire both.

The basic premise of the IVC Chiavi di lettura (Italian Virtual Class Keys to Interpretation) method is to create an Italian community and bring it, culturally intact via Internet technology, to Emory students, so that they may learn the language in an authentic, natural manner. An online multi-media text and a written text support both real and virtual study abroad trips. Each section of the on-line component is regionally based and includes authentic interviews with native speakers in natural settings. Art, art history, history, music, folklore, traditions, and a range of other topics are specific to periods and regions and support the book’s continuous cultural track. Because the emphasis is on cultural acquisition rather than on grammar, students do not study grammar outside of its cultural context.

Within the framework of a study abroad trip, students of the IVC Chiavi di lettura are able to learn exponentially from their peers abroad. Students who actually do go abroad become a real part of the text, showing up in photographs, videos, textbook readings, and exercises. Emory students at home witness the two cultures as they intersect, making observations and comparisons they would otherwise not have had the opportunity to note. Since the method has a regional focus, students compare regional linguistic choices, dialects, and accents. They also witness linguistic breakdowns as their peers work to communicate with the Italians they meet, gleaning valuable insights as a result.

In the IVC Chiavi di lettura method, the teacher works in
partnership with the student to find meaning in complicated
cultural texts. Much like parents work with young children to
process information received from the outside world, so does the teacher of the IVC Chiavi di lettura. Yet just as the outside
world does not simplify its interactions to accommodate the presence of a child, the authentic world presented to students through this method is not a simplified one operating out of context of real culture.

With this shift in the role of the instructor, Italian instruction at Emory has become learner- or student-centered. In an article titled “Inductive Teaching and Learning Methods” (Journal of Engineering Education, April 2006), Michael J. Prince and Richard M. Felder define this approach as promoting an environment that imposes more responsibility on students for their own learning than traditional, deductive approaches. Prince and Felder characterize inductive methods like those of the IVC Chiavi di lettura as “constructivist,” whereby students learn class materials by constructing tables, charts, or paradigms that work within their own cognitive framework, rather than memorizing those created by an author or professor. In this manner, students are able to internalize the material and make it their own, as opposed to simply memorizing it for the test.

While constructivist methods have been used to teach languages in the past, the primacy of cultural acquisition over grammar acquisition makes the approach by Emory’s Italian studies program unique. Through reading, writing, listening, and speaking, the instructor of the IVC Chiavi di lettura method creates the scaffolding necessary for students to discover the grammatical structures. The focus remains from start to finish, however, on culture and communication about this culture.

Using the bank of knowledge and experience that all students bring, teacher and students work together to locate stepping stones or linguistic keys. Once these keys are in place, students forge new connections, coming to understand language in a personal way. These techniques enable students to engage with the language naturally, with little stress. They are not required to understand everything right away. A constant recycling and return to materials allows students to bring insight and tools that are different from those they brought to an earlier reading of the same passage. Students ultimately learn how to learn a language and become less reliant on the teacher and more trusting of their own bank of knowledge and skill sets to solve problems. They learn Italian as they did their first language—not as a series of individual grammar points or components to be memorized, but as a dynamic, living language.

The IVC Chiavi di lettura method has a flexible curriculum that incorporates student input, projects, and classwork into its format. Students work together to produce vocabulary lists, visual learning aids, paradigms, timelines, outlines, photographs, plays, descriptions, book covers, songs, poetry, short films, interview questions, interviews, and so on. Since the text is a dynamic presence in the classroom, teachers are able to focus on student interests and thus make the material individually meaningful, using student homework and research in class to foster learning and growth. Students are asked to insert all new vocabulary lists, web research, and homework into the textbook’s binder format. Thus they make the material and textbook their own, and they have an active hand in its authorship. Because students investigate topics that are most interesting to them, no two textbooks are ever identical.

Judith Raggi-Moore has been using cultural acquisition as her guide for years. When she began, very little research existed to support her method. She relied instead on a combination of teaching experience and instinct to help her develop what came to be called the ivc Chiavi di lettura method. According to a recent series of National Public Radio special reports collectively titled “Exploring Language,” (,
current research affirms that her instincts were right on target,
stating that “the social and emotional aspects of language are at least as important as the rules for stringing words together.”
But we don’t need that affirmation to conclude that the method works. The Italian studies program recently completed a study, conducted with the assistance of Carol Herron, director of the Emory College Language Center. The study compared the performance of students exposed to the IVC Chiavi di lettura method to that of students from an equivalent school who studied using traditional methods. One year of testing showed that Emory students performed significantly better on the retention of grammatical structures and the acquisition of listening comprehension skills in the elementary Italian classroom.

The textbook authors agree that the project was born of the unique intellectual environment fostered at Emory, where different departments are bridged to create an integrated academic experience for students. Alan Cattier, director of academic technology services, recognized that the teaching techniques traditional to the sciences and social sciences could also be successfully incorporated into humanities classrooms, and he made the technology and professionals to support these techniques available to language faculty. Once the right conditions were created, faculty such as Raggi-Moore have been able to thrive. It is only through fostering an interdisciplinary vision and expertise unique to language and cultural studies faculty that cultural DNA can be maintained, providing for real communication abroad.