Welcome to Language Latte: a conversation about teaching world languages. This is Becky Morales, and I am your host. We are on episode 3, and today we are talking about getting students to speak in the target language in our language classes. What should be the goal of our speaking exercises in class? How do you create an environment that encourages speaking? Is it possible to teach 100% in the target language? Treat yourself to a latte, settle in, and join our Language Latte facebook group to get in on the conversation!
Every episode, I examine issues that world language teachers face when trying to help our students’ achieve proficiency. And this episode’s topic affects every language teacher around the world: getting students to speak in class. It’s not just “speaking,” communicating in the target language with each other. There are different ways and tricks to elicit this oral communication- but what does the research have to say? How can we get students to the point where they are comfortable trying out their new language? If we are meeting students where they are, can we expect beginners to actually speak? What kind of speaking activities are the most effective and engaging?
Let’s first look at what the research says about oral communication and best practices, and then I’ll interview Sherry Schermerhorn, a stellar Spanish and French teacher who uses 100%- you heard that right!- complete immersion in the target language in her class. Sherry shares how she decided to switch to 100%, plus her best tips for teachers who want to increase speaking in class, and how she KEEPS students in the target language.
I’m going to go back to the University of Illinois- Champaign, where I got my Bachelor’s degree in Spanish Education, and continued right away for a Master’s in Teaching English as Second Language. We had a rockstar line-up of professors in the late 90s, and in our classes we had a solid theoretical background in second language acquisition and methodology including designing lessons that encouraged communicative competence.
One of my professors was Sandra Savignon- you might be familiar with her work- she taught us using her textbook “Communicative Language Teaching,” and has been writing about Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) since the 1970s. Professor Savignon explained that our goal in teaching a world language was communicative competence through 3 things: expression, interpretation, and negotiation of meaning.
It’s the ability of classroom language learners to interact with other speakers- so not just to recite memorized dialogues, or answer specific grammar questions. With communicative competence, teachers encourage learners to ask for information, seek clarification, venture beyond the memorized patterns: with language they’ve already heard. There’s this wonderful strategy called circumlocution: getting students to talk around a word they can’t remember to get the listener to understand the meaning- sort of like the game Taboo or Password, and I will include some links in the show notes. I have an entire episode coming up that will focus on this comprehensible input, which is essential to have before the learners will start speaking.
In CLT, speakers communicate because they have a purpose. Learners have to speak when they have something to say, and they want to interact using communication. There isn’t a single methodology or set of techniques that define CLT- the main idea is that learners should be engaged in doing things with the language. Grammar isn’t ignored- but we’ll talk about inductive and deductive grammar in a future show.
So back to when I graduated from U of I. We all had lofty ideas of how we would go into a classroom and transform the way language was taught. In OUR class, we would be speaking 100% in the target language! Our students would be excited to listen to our carefully planned comprehensible input, and eager to participate in the activities in our class.
When I got my first job, I realized that this utopic language learning environment was being pressured by all sides: get them ready for this standardized test; this child isn’t very literate in his first language; we have to teach this list of only semi-relevant vocabulary and grammar by March; here’s the 5 year old final exam we all have to share. Learning how to teach a language and then actually teaching a language in public high schools with little wiggle room are as different as chalk and cheese.
So after teaching ESL for a bit, we moved and I got a job teaching Spanish in an urban school, where the previous teacher had left mid-year. They didn’t tell me why, and I didn’t ask. I am now convinced it had more to do with the principal than the students. But anyway, here I am, entering halfway through the year, and I have a block schedule. Every day I see these kids for 90 minutes, and we need to get through a whole year of Spanish 1, in one semester (which is a monumental feat!).
I was newly married, with no kids, so lesson planning became my LIFE. I began to build a relationship with my students, and we eased our way into Spanish. Of course I totally made mistakes- I was new and young, and I would teach by trial and error sometimes. But the kids were becoming comfortable listening to Spanish and trying to guess the meaning of my wild actions and gestures. We laughed a lot, we danced merengue and cumbia, we made salsa and guacamole and patacones, they tried to teach me to beatbox (and I failed miserably), but in my eyes, the biggest achievement from the first couple of months was that they finally felt comfortable enough to speak some Spanish.
So one day, we are working on telling time and schedules and we’re trying to see who was the busiest in the morning. The students are actually speaking in Spanish, and laughing at how so and so doesn’t take a shower every day, and so and so eats 3 different breakfasts every day. My principal walks into class and chastises me that my students were talking too much and being “too loud.” She then stands in front shaking her head and tells me she needs to see me in her office after school.
I kind of sulk in with my tail between my legs, and begin apologizing for the loud volume of the kids, and the couple of swear words I had heard. She tells me “I was a Spanish teacher for 30 years, and this is NOT how you teach Spanish. You should say the sentence you are teaching them, and have them go around the room so everyone can repeat you. I get up at 7am. And then he says I get up at 7am. And then the next student says I get up at 7am. This is the ONLY way to teach them the verb to get up!”
Efforts to argue with her would have been futile, and needless to say, I did not stay long at this job.
Repeating drills were her favorite method to get kids speaking, but I think most teachers would agree that this type of communication is neither relevant nor authentic nor helpful.
I think the majority of language teachers today would concur that students learn to speak the target language by interacting with each other. CLT- again this is Communicative Language Teaching- is based on real-life situations that require communication so that learners have the opportunity of communicating with each other in the target language.
ACTFL, which is the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages, recommends that teachers encourage self-expression and spontaneous use of language. But also that we teach students strategies for requesting clarification and assistance when faced with comprehension difficulties. A lot of teachers I know have signs around the room with key phrases like “I don’t understand… Can you please repeat that?” I’ll include some great links of useful classroom phrases in the show notes.
One of our jobs as teachers is not to force learners to speak, but rather create a favorable environment and engaging tasks that get students excited to say something at the level they are.
If you’ve never read Krashen’s 1982 “Principles and practice in second language acquisition”- I am including a link below to the full 209 pages that I promise you will enjoy. I talk more about Krashen in the episode about input, but he also discusses how language teachers can aid in their students’ comprehension and encourage more speaking in class. Specifically, Krashen says to keep the affective filter low to release the anxiety and pressure students often feel. Krashen argues that one way to keep the filter low is by not insisting on too-early production, before the student is “ready”. In other words, embrace the silent period, do not force production, and let the student decide when to start talking.
He mentions a study at Queens College where students made 1 error every 5-10 words, and the most serious flaw of a teacher would be in error correction. As language learners and teachers, we know that taking IN the language (whether it’s listening or reading) comes before producing the language, like speaking or writing, and we have to be patient for our students to get comfortable and ready for output.
OK, so what does Krashen mean. First, we lower the anxiety of the students by not forcing speaking. And we eliminate error correction during our speaking activities.
Once the learners are ready, classroom speaking activities are crucial. David Nunan, a professor and former president of TESOL, explains that speaking activities in class help learners produce the sounds, intonation, rhythm and patterns of the target language. Speaking helps students use language to express their agreements or disagreements, and to use language more confidently.
So we’ve given the students loads of comprehensible input. They know how to ask for clarification, and they feel comfortable that we’re not going to jump down their throats correcting errors. The students are ready for meaningful tasks, real-life communication, and authentic activities that promote oral language. When students have a task where they exchange authentic ideas– that’s when true communication comes.
For example, when learners collaborate in groups to achieve a goal or to complete a task, interacting in discussions, or work together in joint problem-solving.
Michael Long and Patricia Porter explain the importance of using group activities to increase communication in language learners. First, because group work increases language practice opportunities.
Think about it this way. If the teacher is at the front of the 45 minute class leading a class discussion, each student might only end up speaking 1 minute or less. If the students are working in groups or partners on a 15 minute activity or conversation, and each partner speaks half of the time, each student could theoretically speak 7 minutes! So group work is one way to increase student speaking time.
Long and Porter also explain that group work encourages spontaneous and creative language use, when students are given appropriate materials to work with and problems to solve. It also removes some of the anxiety of speaking in front of the group, and could help the more introverted students to speak in the target language without the eyes of 30 other classmates on them. Students feel less inhibited and freer to speak (and make mistakes) in small groups compared to in front of the entire class.
Teachers have many roles, whether it’s manager, facilitator, director. We have to provide many opportunities for students to speak in the target language, by providing a rich environment that contains collaborative work, authentic materials and tasks and shared knowledge.
There are a myriad of activities that help elicit real, spontaneous communication: from discussions, sharing ideas about an event, brainstorming, story-telling, questionnaires, interviews, reporting, or describing.
I love to use information gap activities- we call them info-gap- where learners work in pairs to solve a problem or collect information. Long and Porter say “The splitting of information can be easily introduced into many speaking activities and is particularly effective for increasing the amount of negotiation of meaning in an activity” (Long and Porter, 1985).
The experts I’ve mentioned agree that authentic communication in speaking activities is crucial in world language classrooms…. But I wanted to hear how teachers are encouraging students to speak in class. We could create the most perfect activity, and then have students simply refuse to use the target language. I found that teachers have a lot of tricks that work for them!
David Besch teaches English in South Korea grades 1-6. He says “I have had fairly good success with offering rewards if everyone in class sticks to the target language for the duration of class. With lower proficiency classes I make sure they understand drawing pictures and charades are still acceptable.”
Julie from Mundo de Pepita collaborates with her students: both the teachers and students agree that they each have responsibilities in order to be effective in keeping her class 90% in the target language. I’ve included a link to her brilliant infographic on this partnership.
Stephanie Moretta, a Spanish teacher outside Chicago uses jars of marbles: one for her, and one for the students. If thestudents catch her speaking English, they get to take one from her jar. When someone catches a student speaking English, a marble is removed from the student jar. BUT when the students start to speakin the target language, Stephanie adds marbles to their jar. She’ll start with about 50 in their jar, and their goal is to fill it up!
Teachers are so creative when it comes to helping their students. You’re going to love my guest’s ideas.
Interview with Sherry Schermerhorn, Spanish and French Teacher
Working with all different types of students from PreK-HS seniors, from urban and suburban backgrounds, and from challenging students to high achievers has taught our next guest that kids are kids. Sherry Schermerhorn has taught high school French and Spanish for 9 years, she also has designed curriculum to teach younger kids, and has taught elementary students and adults in community centers, at after-school programs, and in her own home. Sherry believes in language immersion and active learning, and strives to use 100% of the target language in class! She shares tons of resources on her website WorldLanguageCafe.com, on instagram, and in her TpT store. Welcome to the show Sherry!
In our interview with Sherry we learn all how to get students speaking in the language classroom:
1) How she became a Spanish and French teacher
2) Sherry advocates speaking 100% in the target language in your classes! Why she thinks this is the best practice, and the results you can expect
3) Obstacles for teachers switching over to the 100% target language model
4) Resources from Sherry to get students to speak in the target language:
Research on Encouraging Students to Speak in the Target Language in Class
Krashen, S. D. (1982). “Principles and practice in second language acquisition.” Oxford, UK: Pergamon.
Nunan, D. (2003): Practical English Language Teaching. New York: Mc Graw-Hill.