Betwyll in Toronto: learning Italian through social reading

Professor Simone Casini has recently completed a didactic project with his students of Italian at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Here’s how he worked on it.

Last fall, the director of Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Toronto, Alessandro Ruggera, invited Betwyll to an event organized for the Week of Italian language in the world when we discussed new strategies to teach and spread our language worldwide. That event led to the idea of designing a didactic project for the students of Italian of the University of Toronto Mississauga, funded by the IIC and implemented by professor Simone Casini, here interviewed. 

With your Canadian students of Italian you commented Io non ho paura by Niccolò Ammaniti on Betwyll. On what aspect of the text did you focus?

I used the app Betwyll in a sociolinguistics class, so I chose to focus mainly on grammar and linguistics (on the app students could find short summaries for each of the selected chapters, editor’s note). I chose Ammaniti’s book for two reasons: it is a contemporary author, so his use of the language – though literary – is alive and linked to current issues. Besides, many of my students already knew the book: being familiar with its content, I could make them focus mainly on the language. 

To what extent the social dimension influenced the work? 

The social dimension was one of the main strengths of the project. The students took advantage of Betwyll, because it encouraged a greater engagement, especially when working in groups or with the teacher, which are the two methods I usually use in class. Betwyll proved to be an element that – combined with the others of the class – made it overall even more collaborative, participatory and inclusive than classes adopting a more traditional teaching style.

Do you think that the use of a digital tool such as Betwyll may have a pedagogic value? 
Definitely, because Betwyll speaks the same language students speak. Consequently, on the one hand it is more appealing for students, on the other it encourages their creativity. In my case, for instance, after having used emoticons in their twylls, students reflected on emoticons themselves in other twylls, in a sort of metalinguistic use of Betwyll that encouraged the practice of the language. Basically, the goal of the didactic process is the same whether you choose digital tools or more traditional ones; what’s different is the journey. And since our goal as teachers is also to meet students’ needs, Betwyll – speaking their own language – proves to be more appealing.
How did you work with Betwyll in class?
In each of the classes where I used Betwyll, I divided my students into groups and assigned three different tasks. In the first, each group was asked to re-write a given chapter in three summaries of variable and decreasing length. In the second, structured as a competition among the groups, I wrote the main chapter information on the blackboard and each student had to write a twyll including most of it. In the third, I asked them to write a sequel to the narrative plan of the chapters read (the first 6-7) through their twylls.
Periodically, charts on the European languages studied abroad pop up. As we discussed in Toronto during the Week of the Italian language in the world, universities and teachers are wondering about teaching strategies. Could the use of digital tools attract potential foreign students of Italian?
Yes and no: I don’t think the tool is what makes the product. I don’t think books are better than digital tools, or viceversa, even though sometimes it seems that printed books are essential whereas Internet is poor, or that only digital tools work and the old paper handbook must die, instead. I think that the use of apps, new technologies and media is key to reach new generations and get them into the study of Italian, in a way that goes beyond the knowledge of literature and art classics. The problem lies in building a tool that, however digital, is not limited to trivial exercises. Ludolinguistics has a huge potential, but must have a significant pedagogical foundation to achieve its goals.
What would you improve in Betwyll?
I believe a lot in a project such as Betwyll. To improve, it should try to meet teacher’s needs further, giving them more freedom and flexibility in the creation and management of their own didactic projects. 
Simone Casini Toronto Mississauga

Simone Casini

Assistant professor

Assistant Professor at the Department of Linguistic Studies of the University of Toronto Mississauga since 2017. He obtained his PhD at the Università per Stranieri of Siena in 2012 with a dissertation on linguistic creativity and superdiversity. He was professor of Linguistics and Semiotics at the Università per Stranieri of Siena and at the Università degli Studi della Tuscia (Viterbo) from 2012 to 2017, besides being a postdoc at the Università per Stranieri of Siena. He was a member of several research group projects. Among his research interests: semiotics; teaching, learning and acquisition of a second language; applied linguistics; sociolinguistics; plurilingualism/multilingualism. 

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