When District Expectations Make It Hard To Teach In The Target Language

Alison Morrison (check out her blog here) sent some great questions about how to stay in the TL when the expectations from district administration make 90+% TL use more complicated.

Señor Howard,
I just discovered your blog last night and was so excited! I feel like I have gotten away from staying in the TL in favor of adding more complicated activities to my lessons. You have inspired me to strive for immersion by not only giving examples, but the tools in order to be able to do so. Thank you!

I have two questions for you (and I apologize if the answers are somewhere on your blog):
1). Do you use project-based learning in your lessons? My district is really pushing inquiry-based learning and I found it difficult to do without using L1.
2). Also, what do you do with students who enter your program in the upper grades with no language experience? I had a lot of new students this year in the upper grades and it was difficult at times motivating some of them who were not used to immersion and did not have the same foundation as my other students. Any thoughts?
I greatly value your opinions!
Thank you for this outstanding professional development!
Alison Morrison

Here’s how I replied.  I’d love to read your replies to Alison’s questions in the comments section below.


Hi Alison,

I think the most helpful thing I can do is point you to Laura Sexton (if you haven’t already heard of her).  Her website is http://www.PBLintheTL.com.  (Project-Based-Learning in the Target Language).  She’s incredible.

The other thing that might be helpful to hear from me is:

Don’t feel guilty if you feel like you aren’t using the TL as much as you think you should.

I don’t think using the TL is the right strategy to use in every foreign language education setting.

For example, staying in the TL might not be the best way to prepare students for a district-wide test that assesses students’ abilities to provide the English word for L2 vocabulary or that requires students to provide the correct form of a conjugated verb.  (See this post for more on this.)  If your district is pushing for inquiry-based learning, it may not be most beneficial to stay in the target language 100% of the time with your students.  Sara-E Cottrell (from http://www.musicuentos.com) will be the first to tell you that there are many methods for teaching a foreign language and any one method isn’t THE right way to teach a foreign language in ALL educational settings.  (Check out her amazing video on this topic here.)

I personally choose to use the target language because it helps me with the issues of retention and motivation.  I only see my students once every 6 school days.  Before I used the target language, they’d forget everything.  Now students are using Spanish words, phrases and some sentences to communicate with me out in the hallways and on the playground.  Sometimes my students use phrases that I’ve never even directly taught them.

Another positive is that we’re having a good time.  (the motivation issue)  The students are learning/acquiring and sometimes they don’t even realize that they’re learning or that I’m even administering an assessment.  We laugh together and class feels meaningful to them.

It should be noted that I don’t have a lot of administrative pressure to teach in a certain way.  I have the privilege of teaching in the way that I feel is best for my students. (Lucky me)

Regarding what I do with students who enter into the program without much language experience:

…nothing fancy.  I probably do what every teacher does: I do the best I can with a tough situation.  Maybe, instead of requiring them to answer an open-ended question, I might ask them the same question but give them two options. For example, let’s say the question is, “Describe the dog in the picture,” or, “What is the dog like?”  Whereas experienced students might have to start using some L2 adjectives and sentences structures to answer, I might help the new student by saying, “Is the dog big and white or is the dog small and brown?”  I’ll make the answer very obvious to the new student with my vocal inflections and facial expressions.  I’ll give them chances to succeed so their confidence level can increase.  I try to make it so that L2 class becomes a place where they want to be and want to succeed.

Feel free to ask more questions or follow up questions at any time!
Best wishes!

Señor Howard

Señor Howard – www.SenorHoward.com/blog – @HolaSrHoward

Caleb Howard – www.SoMuchHope.com@calhwrd

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