Keeping Novice-Low Students in the Target Language

I’m going to open up to you a little bit today. One of the hardest best practices for me to follow as a language teacher is the 90% Target Language rule. As a teacher of Spanish 1 and Spanish 2, this was far and away the most difficult battle I had to fight with myself every day. The temptation to slip into English to bond with/encourage/scaffold my students was often too great for me to overcome. The joys of teaching for me felt diminished when I spent all day as the English police, and as I taught in a district where many grammatical concepts were still emphasized and tested, sometimes English felt necessary. Those moments when inside-jokes and aha moments and student collaboration occurred in Spanish were, as I’m sure they are for all of you, always such joyous victories, but sticking to a 90% TL rule in order to make those moments happen is, well, hard for me.

I know many of you have the discipline and strength and backbone to keep everyone in the Target Language from Day One, and I worship you for it. If you are one of those heroes with a TL participation system that works for your students, this post probably will not be super helpful to you (also, tell me all your secrets please). If you’re teaching Spanish 1 or even Spanish 2, and you’re having one of those beginning-of-the-year moments where getting your students to stay out of English feels like pulling teeth, this strategy may be helpful. It’s (not-so-creatively-but-super-effectively) called “Estamos en español.”

I used this strategy in as many different classroom situations as I could muster, but I used it most of all 1) during interpersonal communication practice, and 2) when students played review games in their groups (I’ll share some of favorite Spanish-only review games in another post soon). The basic premise is pretty simple.

  1. You give kids an activity that requires TL communication. The country partners activity I wrote about last week sparked this post and would be a perfect example. You want to pick something where the entire purpose is to spark authentic communication. This could be anything from a pretend marketplace in class to a game of vocabulary review charades to a simple “here’s a list of questions, discuss in groups.” You get the idea.
  2. You tell kids they’ll be working on the activity for a set amount of time. My middle-school students usually could do this for about ten minutes before pandemonium or mental exhaustion or excessive pointing at the clock set in. I found it’s good to give them a set starting point and a strong finish line so they don’t get totally overwhelmed.
  3. You remind kids of the expectations. 100% Target Language means 100% Target Langauge. Kids CANNOT write notes, whisper, look things up, or type in English. Gestures? Definitely. Acting things out? Yes. Weird sound effects that aren’t words? Sure. Coming to the teacher for a quick “¿cómo se dice…?” NOPE. They’ve got to make do with the language they know, no matter what.
  4. Be prepared to enforce the expectation. For me, I would give kids a specific five-point formative assessment grade for staying in the TL during whatever activity it was. I would wander the room, write down the names of any kids I heard using English, and gave repeat offenders tally marks. If I hear you speak English once, you get a 4/5. If I hear you speak English twice, you get a 3/5. Kids will start to police each other on this (lots of pointing and yelling INGLES!!!), but I would only take off points if I heard it myself. It only takes posting this grade once for the kids to know the importance of staying in Spanish for these activities.
  5. Take some time for pre-game language brainstorming. I’d always make sure to ask the kids what Spanish language they thought they would need to know before the activity started. If I was getting them to review specific words and phrases (likes and dislikes, for example), I would provide a lot of language either on the board or on a dialogue sheet in front of them, but having the students generate expressions in addition to the ones I provide creates more buy-in. If we were playing a review game in Spanish, they’d request language like “my turn,” “I win,” you’re right,” “let’s go,” etc. I’d write up the words they thought they’d need on the board and then make sure to give them time to think about any other expressions/phrases that could be useful before rushing into the activity. I love this as a way to give them an opportunity to drive the learning.
  6. Use classroom cues to help students flip the Spanish switch on. In my classroom, I’d ALWAYS make them countdown and turn the lights off when we were in Spanish-only mode, and I also had a rotating disco ball that I’d turn on. (I shamelessly stole this tactic from one of my teacher heros Liz, who, shameless friend plug, runs a food blog you can check out over here). The lights-off-disco-ball-on would also help if a kid came in from the office/bathroom/late. They’d look around, look at me, and nod as if to say “okay, yes we are Spanish, I get it.” If that didn’t happen, a kid might look at them and scream “NO INGLES!!” which also always made me giggle.
  7. When time’s up, debrief. In early level classes, we usually take some time after this activity to talk about how it went and how it made them feel. At first, kids talk about how it felt like their heads were going to explode, but then we talk a lot about how it gets easier and easier to stay in Spanish the longer the lights are off. We’ve had a lot of really good metacognitive discussions about how being in Spanish-only mode forces them to take risks and produce language, and to stop worrying about it being perfect. These conversations help you to start making Spanish-only mode the norm as the kids realize how much they can actually do.
  8. NOW is the time for kids to ask the “¿cómo se dice…?” questions. As part of your debrief, go back to the board where you wrote down the expressions kids thought they would need, and ask them to add to it. What language did the kids need that they didn’t know how to say yet? Nothing forces a kid to learn a word or phrase like being in a situation where they are going CRAZY with a desire to say something they can’t yet. I love that moment where you can give the kid the phrase they wanted, and they’re like “THANK YOU THAT WAS DRIVING ME NUTS.”

Like I alluded to earlier, this strategy was a crutch I used when 90% TL was really just failing (because, hey, sometimes I need scaffolding too). Incorporating it more and more helped me to keep trying to build my classroom up to the Target Language haven of my dreams.

What are your favorite strategies for keeping novice-low students in the target language? Teach me your ways!

4 thoughts on “Keeping Novice-Low Students in the Target Language

  1. vtracy1 says:

    OMG! I love the disco ball idea! Well, actually I love the whole post! I can do 90% TL with lots of effort BUT I totally suck at keeping the kids in Spanish. I have Christmas lights all along my marker board and I can change how they bling. I’m going to use those like you use your disco ball! I can’t wait to try it tomorrow during stations.

    Like

    • Emily Erwin says:

      Yes!!!! Dude, no lie, every time the lights went off and that disco ball went on they knew it was game time. Christmas lights would be perfect!! (And also super cute I bet your classroom looks amazing) Hope it goes well!

      Liked by 1 person

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