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Foriegn Language Teaching Tip: Staying in the Target Language

Thanks to its partnership with publisher Eye on Education, EducationWorld is pleased to share this blog post by Rebekah Stathakis, author of A Good Start:147 Warm-Up Activities for Spanish Class.

How much time should be spent in the target language?

As most language teachers know, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) “recommends that language educators and their students use the target language as exclusively as possible (90% plus) at all levels of instruction during instructional time and, when feasible, beyond the classroom.” ACTFL is not alone in this recommendation; many teachers and researchers also suggest using the target language almost exclusively in language classrooms. However, spending 90% of class time in the target language can sound like a daunting task to both teachers and students. This three-part blog post includes a variety of tips and techniques that can help teachers and students reach and surpass the 90% goal.

Helping others understand the value of staying in the target language.

Although language teachers have typically read the research and understand the value of using the target language almost exclusively, some administrators, students and parents may be worried about this type of approach. Parents may ask, “Won’t my child be lost? How can she learn if she doesn’t understand the teacher?” Students may wonder, “What if I don’t understand an assignment and end up completing it wrong?” Even administrators may be concerned that using the target language exclusively is too challenging for students.

Language teachers need to be proactive in handling these and other question and concerns. I typically started every school year with an immersion experience. From the moment I spotted my new sixth-graders in the hallway, I spoke with them in Spanish. Many were shocked. Some wondered if I even spoke English. I used my class list to ask them their names and invited them into my class using exaggerated gestures. For the next 15 minutes (the first day we only had 20-minute class periods), I engaged the students in using the target language to follow simple commands and introduce themselves.

For the last five minutes, I typically switched to English and debriefed the experience with students (many of whom seemed relieved that I did, indeed, speak English). During the debriefing, I asked students questions like, “You all must already speak Spanish, right?” They all exclaim, “No, we don’t!” Then, I asked them how they were able to spend 15 minutes speaking with me in Spanish if they don’t already know Spanish. During that first discussion, we generated a list of strategies that help us understand another language. Most of my students seemed invigorated by the experience and were willing (and even excited) to try an immersion-based class experience.

Just as I demonstrated this approach for students, I helped parents and administrators experience immersion as well. Many adults have never been in this type of classroom, and they don’t know what to expect. Parents were invited to participate in our classroom during parent visitation day or other scheduled visits. I often included an immersion experience for parents during our curriculum night (sometimes the immersion experience was even run by students). I also videotaped discussions and activities so that parents could see how instruction in the target language works. In my syllabus, curriculum night materials, and other forms of contact with parents, I shared some relevant articles and research that showed why I believe this approach is the best way to learn another language.


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