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by Erica Fischer on Oct 5, 2015

Get More from Your Students! Help Learners Use Greater Detail and Support Their Opinions

Last week, Langchatters met to discuss how to get more detail out of students. In the process, they provided lots of detailed comments themselves! Participants reflected on the kind of detail they hope to find in student responses. They then considered how questions and tasks might promote greater detail and help students support their opinions. Langchatters then shared some of their favorite strategies used to elicit more detail. Before the hour came to a close, they talked about how the level of detail provided by students should factor into assessment.

There was no lack of detail in last Thursday’s chat, and we extend a big thank you to everyone who contributed! We would also like to thank our moderators: Diego (@DiegoOjeda66), Sara-Elizabeth (@SECottrell), Kristy (@placido), Kris (@KrisClimer), and Laura (@SraSpanglish)!

Question 1: What kind of detail do we want to see more of in student responses?

When it comes to ideal amounts of detail, Langchatters encouraged one another to take student level into account. As @kltharri pointed out, expected detail “depends on [students’] proficiency level target :).” @CecileLaine added that “[novice students are] moving from words to lists, [and, as for intermediate students, they are] moving from sentences to strings of sentences.” @Marishawkins commented, “I think in [intermediate classes, students are] answering why more often.” @WHS_French_ noted, however, that answers need not be enormously complex: “I want to see something deeper than just parroting back the ‘right’ answer. Give me a why – anything!”

As Langhchatters recognized, even novices should be pushed to respond with greater detail. @KrisClimer wrote, “Even if language is parroted, more detail is better than less. Instead of ‘Yes,’ [novices can respond,] ‘Yes, I’m 15.’” He added, “I tend to use the old ‘phrase complète’ with my expanding hands gesture, even with [novices].” @srahugueley, who also uses this technique, wrote, “[My] students started mimicking my hand gestures to ‘frase completa’ today.” While such learning exercises can help stretch student output, others felt they could become somewhat unnatural. For example, @SECottrell wrote, “I think it’s important to remember though that answering naturally is ok even if [students do not produce an entire] sentence […] We narrate in mostly complete sentences. We answer questions in mostly words and phrases.”

Question 2: How does the type of questions asked affect level of detail in learner responses?

As @tmsaue1 asserted, “[If] we want more details we got to ask better questions.” Langchatters recognized that questions can strongly influence learner responses. They noted that binary and open-ended questions can serve different purposes in the classroom, eliciting different kinds of output from students.

Many instructors felt that binary questions are a good way to start off a discussion. @SraDentlinger wrote, “I also use binary ([yes/no questions]) to warm-up the whole class before moving on to harder questions with level 3 [students].” @kballestrini added that binary questions can also help put students at ease: “[Binary] questions also create an initial comfort level in response; removing the affective filter is so important.” In addition to lowering the affective filter, binary questions can also serve as comprehension checks. @magisterb480 suggested that instructors “[use] binary [questions] to check for understanding, use open-ended [questions] to see how [students] interpret it, and assign [another] task to further comprehension.” @MagistraRamahlo also uses binary questions to “check comprehension,” writing, “I greet students at [the] door with [a] binary [question]: “[Do] you prefer apples or pears?”

Langchatters noted that open-ended questions create expectations for greater detail. @MmeFarab said, “Open-ended questions give way to more detail. Binary questions make [students] (and me) think you don’t want more.” @SraEspinoza1 commented that this type of question also “allows [students] to have creativity and use the language more.” Along the same lines, @SraDenlinger wrote, “[Open-ended questions] also ask for students to use previously acquired [language], while often creating with it.” That said, @tmsaue1 pointed out that students should feel prepared to respond to open-ended questions: “[Open-ended] sounds like a great idea but can also shut down kids if they don’t have skills to answer.”

Question 3: What tasks help students give and support their opinions in the target language?

Langchatters offered three main ways to help students provide and support their opinions in the target language. They suggested that instructors allow students to record their responses, provide supporting language to strengthen student ideas, and assess student interests to make elaboration less of a chore!

  • Let Students Record Themselves: Several instructors provide students with opportunities to record their responses. For example, @SraWiemiller wrote, “Sometimes I have [students] record their answer. [This takes] away the fear of ‘[What] if I am wrong?’” @Narralakes replied that there are “lots of good [applications] for that, [one] online [resource and application] is [SoundCloud]. [Teachers] can annotate and send back [comments] to [students].” Alternatively, @_scolby commented, “I use [Google Voice] to have my students send me responses.” @learnsafari felt that recorded responses could be beneficial for leaners: “That’s a great idea. I think fear (embarrassment, being wrong) is a big barrier to using language. Practice helps!”
  • Offer Supporting Language: Some instructors recommended providing students with chunks of language to bolster their opinions. @MmeJCesario said, “I give [students] chunks to add to [a conversation, for example,] ‘I agree with…’ ‘I don’t agree because I like…’” @VTracy7 echoed this point: “I feel like this is my answer for everything but sentence starters (that grow in details) really help.” @SraDentlinger also provides students with linguistic tools to support their answers: “I used worldcloud [with] adjectives [and gave the resource] to [students]. They used [vocabulary] (some new [and] old) to defend answers to my questions. [This was] VERY helpful!”
  • Assess Student Interests: Yet again, participants pointed out the importance of knowing your students and their interests. @Marishawkins wrote, “The key is to find out about what students want to talk about. That is the only true way to get them to elaborate!” @GrowingFrench agreed, noting, “[It’s] all about the topic. [Students] love to [give] their [opinion] if its something they care about. [Get] to know your students.”

Question 4: What are your favorite strategies for eliciting more detail in student responses?

When it comes to strategies to elicit more details, Langchatters again reinforced the importance of discovering student interests. They also suggested drawing on previous knowledge, providing safe spaces for sharing, and setting expectations.

  • Discover Student Interests [Yes, we said it again!]: Once again, participants recognized the importance of knowing your students. @SraDentlinger wrote, “[The best] strategy to get detail is to discover what [students] want to talk about.” @SraWienhold replied, “Truth! No one wants to support an opinion about something they don’t care about.” @Marishawkins shared a frequent favorite topic among students: “Many times I give photos [of] celebrities as [conversation] starters [because] kids always have opinions on celebrities.”
  • Draw on Previous Knowledge: Langchatters acknowledged that previous knowledge can support detail provided in students’ second language. @PreKlanguages wrote, “[Tap into] previous knowledge. If [students] know [about something in their first language,] they’ll be able to describe [it easier] and you’ll be able [to] make connections [with] other subjects.” For example, she suggested, “To push students to give more details use easy novels or fragments of stories that they already know in their own [language].”
  • Provide Safe Sharing Spaces: @SraWiemiller commented that “[providing] a safe place to be wrong [either working with partners or small groups]” can support greater detail in student responses. @MmeJCesario uses group work as preparation for class discussion: “Sometimes I put a timer on. [Students] have to speak for 4 minutes with their table before [we begin] whole class discussion.”
  • Set Expectations: Others recommended setting expectations for detail in student output. @SraEspinoza1 wrote, “Sometimes if you ask [students] to have a certain [number] of sentences, it makes them have more responses.” @profepj3 uses a detail scale: “I have a finger scale that tells them how much [language] they’re using. 1 is [the] least, 5 is [the] most.” Alternatively, @SraDentlinger suggested requiring one contribution from each individual student to build detail collectively: “I’ve heard of one activity where [students] write one sentence. Then [they] add 1 detail to other [students’] sentence, and so on.”

Question 5: How does the level of detail in learner responses factor into our assessment practices?

In the words of @KrisClimer, “Assessment should allow learner to go as far as possible. [This means more] open-ended activities with MORE answer possibilities.” @profepj3 observed that our expectations can push learners to give us more detail: “As we expect more from our [students], they’ll give us more. Build into them, praise them, show HOW they can accomplish higher levels.” That said, he reminded instructors to remain realistic: “Yet have realistic expectations of what they can do—[Novice-mid learners] aren’t going to always speak in sentences, for example.” Along these lines, @SECottrell wrote that we should also have realistic expectations in light of the type of questions we have asked, “Bouncing off @tmsaue1 – if you asked a novice question, don’t assess as if you expected an intermediate answer.”

In terms of rubrics, some instructors include level of detail as a grading criterion. @CecileLaine includes a category for “writing [or] speaking with more details in [her] rubric at every level,” and she shared an example: @MsKBono also encouraged use of “proficiency rubrics targeting what kind of language [students provide and] how much language [they produce].”


Last week, Langchatters met to discuss detail—and they had plenty of it to offer! Participants described the kind of detail they hope to find in student responses. They also considered how questions and tasks might promote greater detail and help students support their opinions. Langchatters then shared strategies to elicit more detail from students and talked about how level of detail should factor into assessment practices. Throughout, participants encouraged instructors to push for more and support students to help them get there! @learnsafari wrote, “Meet students on individual levels and help scaffold to the next. Ask for more, but don’t terrify them!”

Thank You!

Thank you to everyone who contributed to last week’s detailed chat. Now you can get your #langchat on twice a week– Remember, #langchat will take place both Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET AND Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. ET!

Due to space limitations, many tweets had to be omitted from this summary. To view the entire conversation, you can access the full transcript on our tweet archive. Got a question you’re eager to discuss?! Send us your ideas for future #langchats so that our weekly discussions can become as relevant and inclusive as possible!

Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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