How NOT (I Repeat: NOT) To Assess The Progress Of L2 Students In A 90+% Target Language Classroom

I need some help.

I need some feedback on a thought I’ve been developing regarding how to assess the progress of L2 students who have been learning L2 by being immersed in a comprehensible L2 environment.

Here’s the thought: Don’t expect students (from an L2 classroom where the teacher stays in the target language 90+% of the time) to be able to answer assessment questions like:

  • What is the word for “please” in L2?
  • Match the following L2 phrases with their correct English translation.
  • Fill in the sentence blank with the correct form of the L2 verb.
  • Also…(especially if the student is younger than a 4th grader) I don’t think parents should be shocked if it takes a lot of effort for their child to answer the question, “What did you learn in L2 class today?”

I’m starting to think that foreign language teachers shouldn’t expect students in their #TL90plus classroom to be able to think that way.

Here are two stories that explain why:

Story 1 – “Teach Me Your Language”

Every year I teach 600 elementary aged students.  Whenever I meet a student that speaks a heritage language, other than English, I tell them: “If I teach you Spanish…you should teach me your language.” (i.e. Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese, Turkish…etc)

Over the last 11 years I’ve tried learning basic phrases in the language that these students speak at home with their parents.  (It’s important to note that most of these children speak their heritage language fluently with their parents.  When they’re at home, they can navigate, the Russian language (for example), with ease and fluently talk about a wide variety of topics.
I’ve noticed, however, that when they are with me (a non-Russian speaker in a setting where they never use Russian words to communicate) they struggle to answer seemingly simple questions about their language.  For example, If I ask, “how do you say the word for ‘please’ in Russian?” they might…
  • look at me with a blank stare
  • they think for a while
  • and then they say, “I forgot.”

I’ve also noticed that this happens more consistently with students that are younger.  The older students (4th and 5th grade) tend to be able to give me the Russian word for the English word that I give them.  The younger students, however, almost exclusively, freeze up, seem shy, don’t respond, or say, “I forget.”

When I ask them to make a direct connection between their L1 and my L2…THEY CAN’T.

They CAN fully function in their family’s L1 environment (Russian).  They CAN fully function in the school’s L2 environment (English).  But they struggle when they are asked to make direct connections between the two languages.

Story 2 – “That’s Home!!!”
The other week I got so excited about an idea I had to make a special connection with one of my 1st grade students who speaks Russian at home and perfect English at school.  I recently downloaded a trial version of Rossetta Stone (in Russian) onto my iPad.  When I saw the pictures and heard the Russian audio, I knew right away that my student would love seeing/hearing it.  Remember: this 1st grade girl can speak English just like her 1st grade classmates.  …but at home the family only Speaks Russian.
I walked into her classroom (while she wasn’t too busy with other work) and I showed her the app.  I briefly showed her how to use the interactive features and she saw the pictures and heard the audio recordings of native Russian speakers.
As soon as she heard/saw it her eyes brightened up….and she said, “That’s home!”
Notice that she didn’t say, “That’s Russian,” or, “That’s the language that I speak!”  She said, “That’s home.”
Her statement made me realize that, in her mind she doesn’t think in terms of “languages” or “L1” or ” L2” or “translating.”  If she tries to say something in English to her friends, she probably doesn’t think of it first in Russian and then wonder, “what is the English equivalent of these Russian words that I would like to speak to my English-speaking classmates?”
If she has any thoughts about languages, I would guess that she would think more along the lines of:
“My parents speak to me differently than my school teachers speak to me.”
“The words I use at home (to communicate and get what I want) are different words than the words I use at school (to communicate and get what I want).”
Because of experiences like these, I have developed the phrase:
L2 teachers (who stay in the target language) should try to help students avoid thinking, “this L2 word means this L1 word.”  Instead, students should think, “In this L2 situation, this L2 phrase is used.”
Why is this discussion important?
Foreign language teachers need to assess the progress their students are making.  Foreign language teachers need to make sure that their instruction is effective (i.e. that the students can give an acceptable demonstration proving that they’ve mastered of each day’s performance objectives).
However, foreign language teachers need to make sure that they are using appropriate assessment measures.
It would be inappropriate for a #TL90plus foreign language teacher to teach in the target language and then ask their students to demonstrate language acquisition progress by providing direct translations.  Staying in the target language, as a foreign language instructional strategy, isn’t about helping students to make connections between L1 and L2.  It’s about giving them the tools they need to jump into a different world.  A world where people use different verbal sounds (and read and write different letter patterns/symbols) to interact, enjoy friendship, argue, express passions, create, debate, express their grief, work…etc.
What do you think?
I’m particularly curious about your experience with older individuals.  I only work with young students.
1- Is it ‘easy and natural’ or ‘difficult and strange’ for older students, particularly students immersed in a comprehensible L2 environment, to make direct connections between L1 and L2?
2- Do you think students should be expected to demonstrate language acquisition by making direct connections between two languages, or should teachers keep the following phrases in mind when they are preparing their assessments:
L2 teachers (who stay in the target language) should try to help students avoid thinking, “this L2 word means this L1 word.”  Instead, students should think, “In this L2 situation, this L2 phrase is used.”
Leave comments below or add to the conversation on twitter by using #langchat (for general language teaching comments) and/or #TL90plus (for staying in the target language” comments).

 See what others are saying about Tuesday’s Tips For Staying In The Target Language.

Señor Howard

Señor Howard – – @HolaSrHoward

Caleb Howard – – @calhwrd

Your voice is valuable! Share your target language teaching experiences!

Introducing New Vocabulary AND Stay In The Target Language (part 3 – modeling)

You don’t have to use L1 to introduce new vocabulary to foreign language students.  Instead, stay in the target language by using any of the following techniques:

It’s important to make language learning meaningful.  Don’t rob students of the joy of meaningful language acquisition by introducing vocabulary using L1.  When you start teaching language by using L1, you make language class about skills introduction, skills practice and skills assessment.  Teaching and practicing skills won’t be very fun unless you teach a class full of language nerds.  Instead, make language learning meaningful.  Introducing vocabulary AND staying in the target language not only has the potential to make make class more fun, but students will be able to retain more L2 for longer amounts of time. (see this post on why we should make students’ experiences of L2 meaningful)

One way to effectively introduce new target language vocabulary AND stay in the target language is by providing models or demonstrations of how L2 is used.

If I were to use modeling to introduce new vocabulary, here’s what I would try (and also what I’d be thinking in my head).

1- Keep students from getting lost.  It’s easy for students to get “lost” if you introduce unfamiliar words and phrases in the target language.  Sometimes listening to unfamilar L2 content can feel disorienting and unsettling.  To keep them from getting lost, ensure that you clearly communicate what the purpose of your instructional activities are.

If L2 immersion feels like wandering in a dark room, explicit and comprehensible performance objectives has the effect of handing your students a flashlight.

Students will be able to navigate the L2 immersion environment more effectively if they know exactly what you’re trying to teach them.  This is very important.  It gives the students a target to aim for.  It gives them an anchor to hold on to.

2- Students need to know what the performance objective for the day is.  In other words, they need to know what I’m trying to teach them on a given day and what I’m expecting them to learn.  I do this by writing the word, “IMPORTANT” on the board (in the target language) in big red letters.  Next to the L2 word for “IMPORTANT,” I write down the target phrases, words and/or sentences they need to know for the day’s performance tasks.

3- Always have the target vocabulary/phrases/questions posted conspicously while you are modeling L2 or showing models of L2 being used.  I frequently refer to the posted target phrases throughout the time that I am introducing the new content.  This helps students stay focused.

4- Give a demonstration or MODEL of how you want the L2 words/phrases/questions to be used.  If you are giving them language they can use in an interpersonal mode setting (for example), MODEL the language in a conversation.

5- Typically I start with a MODEL that is fun and attention getting.  I might use a video that I’ve made like this (for introducing the L2 for “How old are you?” or “When is your birthday?”) or this (for introducing L2 colors).  French teachers can try rythmic chants like these from RLRA.  There are many resources online.  You don’t need to make your own.

6- I realize that students are going to need repeated exposure to the new vocabulary.  Sometimes I forget that the first several times I introduce a word (or a phrase) the L2 sounds like jibberish to my students.  In order for the content to start sounding itelligible, I need to give them meaningful and repeated exposure.

7- Here are some ways I repeat the L2 modeling without boring the students.

  • I use the two hand method for modeling.
  • I show other videos of people modeling the new L2 content. (check out this resource from University of Texas at Austin.)
  • I might ask some heritage speakers in my class to model.
  • I might show the same 4 seconds of a video 7 times in a row.  It has the effect of making the students laugh because it’s repeated so much.  It also lets them hear the target word/phrase so many times that it starts getting stuck in their head.
  • If I make my own video or presentation for modeling, I make sure I repeat the target content several times. (click here for a video example)

How about you?  What are ways that you introduce new vocabulary in the target language by using modeling?  Leave comments below.

 See what others are saying about Tuesday’s Tips For Staying In The Target Language.

Señor Howard

Señor Howard – – @HolaSrHoward

Caleb Howard – – @calhwrd

Your voice is valuable! Share your target language teaching experiences!

Leave comments below or add to the conversation on twitter by using #TL90plus (for staying in the target language” comments) and/or #langchat (for general language teaching comments).