A grower’s ambition is to cultivate her fruit trees so that they produce plentiful fruit for years to come. And that’s the goal we have for our foreign language students: we want them to grow, mature and blossom; bearing healthy L2-fruit, not just in the classroom, but in their future workplaces and communities. Whenever our students show evidence of L2-fruit on their outstretching language branches, we celebrate their steps towards target language acquisition.
Unfortunately, some of the methods used in our profession reveal a misunderstanding of the way L2-fruit is produced. Instead of providing instruction that fosters natural and independent L2-fruit production, we take pieces of L2 fruit and try to duct tape them onto our students’ branches. Learners will have a hard time producing healthy, lasting L2-fruit when our primary work is:
- facilitating the memorization of uncontextualized vocabulary lists.
- modeling how to use a foreign language grammar reference book to successfully conjugate verbs on their homework.
- giving out word searches and crossword puzzles for ‘foreign language fun time’.
- practicing verb conjugation raps from YouTube that help memorization but leave the students unsure of what to do when it comes to applying the skill during a conversation task.
- conducting conversation activities that are motivated by a need to practice isolated skills rather than a purpose to engage in meaningful communication.
These efforts might allow students to display some L2 knowledge for a test or classroom activity. However, it’s quickly evident that it doesn’t produce lasting L2 fruit. (How many times have you heard an adult say, “I don’t remember anything from my high school language courses?”)
We must stop duct-taping L2-fruit on students’ foreign language branches and start focusing on their foreign language root system.
I’ve changed my focus. For almost three years I’ve started following ACTFL’s recommendation of staying in the target language for over 90% of class time. (Side note: speaking in the target language doesn’t magically make your students acquire the target language. Unless you effectively PAIR incomprehensible L2 with meaningful, compelling and corresponding extralinguistic input, you’ll be wasting your time.)
Since I’ve made the switch, my students surprise me by what they can do with the language:
- Today I told students that we are in the month of November and a 4th grader raised his hand and said (in the target language,) “My birthday is in November.” Perfect sentence structure. Correct form of the verb. The last time we formally discussed that phrase in a lesson was10 months ago when he was in 3rd grade.
- A 1st grader got excited that she beat a fellow student in around the world (to practice identifying numbers). The boy next to her forgot to sit down after he was beaten. She looked at him pridefully and said (in the target language), “Sit down.” (We’ve never formally practiced that word).
- My kindergarten students (whom I’ve seen for less than 240 minutes of instruction) come into the classroom and start tip toeing around the reading rug. I say (in the target language), “Class, count to 10,” and they do.
- Today my fourth graders were shouting at me in unison (in the target language), “It’s not for Adam. It’s for Nehemiah!” because I was giving the pen to the wrong person.
- We pass out papers, split up into groups, explain the instructions to games, administer formal assessments using Turning Technology data collection devices, and more ALL IN THE TARGET LANGUAGE.
- Click here to watch video demonstrations of how I teach my students while staying in the target language.
Just like with fruit trees:
1- There is a dormant/silent period when L2 learners are immersed in a foreign language environment. Don’t expect students to produce fruit right away. Fruit trees don’t. It takes several seasons for fruit to develop. While the students are in their ‘silent’ period:
- Stay in the target language consistently.
- Use effective PAIRING strategies to make sure the input is meaningful 90% of the time.
- Start out with lots of work in the interpretive mode to build a reluctant students confidence.
- Use these strategies to make the interpersonal mode as easy as possible.
- Develop a system to increase student motivation to stay in the target language.
2- Don’t be discouraged if you start out with a low-yielding fruit output. Fruit trees gradually produce more and more fruit with each season. Don’t lose hope. Keep focusing on the ‘root system’ by staying in the target language and making incomprehensible L2 input meaningful through PAIRING.
It’s being done. Foreign language teachers are staying in the target language and effectively making input comprehensible. Their students are producing L2 creatively and spontaneously inside and outside of the classroom. Check out the writings from language professionals like these:
- Laura Sexton (check out her story and tips here)
- Keith Toda (check out his story here)
- Joshua Cabral (check out his tips here)
- And more! (Would you like your posts/info listed here? Contact me or leave a comment below.)
What about you? What are your success stories? How are you focusing on the root system to ensure your students are producing long lasting L2-fruit? Leave comments below.
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