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by Erica Fischer on Oct 14, 2013

Moving On Up: 10 Ways to Help Novice Students Become Intermediate

If you weren’t a part of our Thursday night #langchat discussion on how to move students from novice to intermediate, you missed a great discussion. Teachers from all over the world chimed in about how they are using questioning, wall space and many other teaching tools and tricks to help prepare their novice students for the intermediate language level.

10 Strategies to Move Students from Novice to Intermediate

1. Challenge them out of their comfort zones.

#langchat participants agreed that the best way to start moving students to the next level of their language studies is by scaffolding tasks and pushing them out of their comfort zones. @KrisClimer explained: “I think it’s OK for them to not comprehend everything. Get Ss comfortable with comprehending a minimum and build.” Pushing students to explore new language on their own gives them more ownership over their own skills and shows them that they can speak at a more advanced level than they imagined.

But, it’s not enough to just provide challenges. If tasks aren’t specifically scaffolded and designed to build on information they already have, they can become frustrated and unable to progress. @alenord said, “It’s even more important to assess frequently to find out what they are comfortable with and where that zone ends. I create scenarios with scaffolding, but I don’t tell them what or how to communicate. I want them to build language.”

2. Ask Questions

Asking questions is one of the big skills necessary in order for students to be able to jump from novice to intermediate. @Sra_Kennedy said, “Once they really can use and understand question words they can sustain a real convo.”

Still, just having students identify question words isn’t what prepares them for higher levels of language learning. In depth synthesis and evaluation is the key to helping students move toward the intermediate level. @CoLeeSensei said, “I am really big on the ‘follow up’ question – digging for more than just 1 answer!” @SenoraDiamond55 responded, “Yes! Always ask “por qué” (why?) to follow up–make them try to dig deeper. We’ll dig through the why together!” @SrtaTeresa added, “I often ask ¿why? as a follow-up. It makes them think beyond just repetition and the surface of language.”

3. Student Self-Assessment and Monitoring

As novice students learn to self-assess and monitor their peers, they are subconsciously setting up a framework for better language learning @YasmineAllen said, “I encourage students to keep each other in check. Love to hear them say “En español, por favor” as I observe.” Having students learn to maintain target language usage while in class benefits them in the long-run and also makes them more aware of the learning process.

To guide world language students to self-assess and self-monitor, give them small, reasonable goals. If self-assessment goals are too large or vague, students will feel unprepared to monitor their own progress and may end up confused. @LauraJaneBarber and @alenord suggested that the best way of teaching students to self-assess is by starting with small areas of focus. @CoLeeSensei responded, “I ask them to do similar – “choose your challenge” before the activity – what is their focus going to be?”

4. Survival Expressions

Equipping students early on with “survival phrases” is a great way to prepare them for long-term success. By repeating important phrases often from the beginning of the class, students immediately have access to the language, instead of having to wait to use it. @KrisClimer gaves some suggestions for French: “Je ne comprends pas”, “Répétez” etc.” Phrases like “How do I?” “How do you say?” and basic conversation structures help students feel proficient, which affects their actual proficiency level. @YasmineAllen also suggested, “Words of the day, phrases of the week, and expressions that will stick.”

5. Strive For 90% Target Language, But Be Realistic

Although most #langchat teachers agree that being in the target language a majority of the time is important, there was some discussion about when it is okay to speak English to the class. @LauraJaneBarber said, “Target-language teaching from day 1 allows major acquisition, but in situations like homework, tests and quizzes, I clearly state expectations in English.”
Many teachers agreed that these types of assignments often worked better when explained in English. @YasmineAllen said, “Sometimes when I set up the task in English at the novice level, students stay in the target language more.” @SenoritaClark said, “I had some awkward situations transpire when I forced myself to use TL completely. Definite miscommunication.”

Other teachers found creative ways to stay in the target language more than 90% of the time. @Sra_Kennedy said, “ I find I can give directions in TL for simple games or activities we’ve done before. But new activities I switch to English. If I get that I have a student who did understand, I have them explain in English. That way I stay in the target language.” @alenord said, “I teach level 1 and sometimes 2, so I will let them use whiteboards to write English to confirm with me without leaving TL.”

6. Prepare Them to Succeed

One of the best ways to help students progress towards intermediate is by giving them time to prepare for more difficult activities. Providing board resources, word webs and brainstorming sessions helps them activate their prior knowledge and prepare them to use it. @natadel76 said, “I find that requiring a review/study session before retake works really well. They have to initiate!” @alenord said, “Also, brainstorming needed vocab before task. That also teaches them to self-select and personalize their message.”

7. Give Them Interesting Things to Talk About.

All of the world language teachers at Thursday’s chat agreed that students are much more likely to use advanced language skills with topics they like than ones they think are boring. @tmsengel said, “Give them more language and interesting and relevant topics to discuss.” This is a great way to get students more active in the world language classroom. Many times, students will want to talk about pop culture, movies or even politics. By giving them topics that lend themselves to discussion, students seek out new vocabulary in order to stay in the conversation. @LauraJaneBarber said, “I give them a topic to discuss and let them go, untimed. My level 2s and 3s will talk FOREVER!”

8. Use Your Space

A sometimes overlooked element of helping students progress is the available, easy-to-use resources that can be placed on posters, walls, blackboards or placemats. @tiesamgraf said, “Having clear resources posted in the room is really working for students – verb endings, question words, conversation extenders. I use my ‘unused’ blackboards with laminated magnetic signs and charts. It really helps!

@CoLeeSensei even had a suggestion for teachers without a lot of wall space: “I have little wall space so mine have a ‘conversation sheet’ – bright colour – easy to find.” @tiesamgraf responded, “encouraging students to use resources in thematic conversations (wordles, word webs) and pushing vocabulary by modeling builds proficiency.”

9. Start Reading, Right Now

Reading is inherently an excellent way for students to acquire new vocabulary and interpretive skills. @YasmineAllen said, “Get students reading early on, so they can see language in context.” @tmsengel added, “And reading is great comprehensible input to improve and move to intermediate both for writing and speaking.”

Still, it is important to remember that what you read and how you read it is the key to helping students move away from novice-level comprehension and output. @tmsengel suggested students to, “read side by side, stopping to summarize and ask each other questions.” @trescolumnae stressed that it is vital to “have high-interest readings” so that students are excited about the reading process.

10. Small Communication Adds Up

The most valuable lesson from our conversation about helping novice students become intermediate is that the learning process is individual and takes time. By encouraging small production, and extensive input before full conversations, students are much more prepared for higher levels of learning. @SrtaJohnsonEBHS said, “I push for lots of small production, with meaning and communication over form” @YasmineAllen said, “I start with a lot of input first, then model with a student before I have them produce. @jennahacker said, “I strive for a lot of communicative output from early on – fine tune later.”

@LauraJaneBarber shared this gem, which really summed up the concept: “Baby steps. Learning is not time efficient. Neither is change :). But don’t give up!”

Other Activity Ideas and Tips for Helping Language Students Progress

  • @alenord said, “Use familiar topics, but new tasks. Add in a new element like responding with rejoinders or using transitions.”
  • @SenoraDiamond55 suggested that world language teachers, “Start with LOTS of cognates to help them gain confidence in the target language, then focus on teaching synonyms and increasing vocab, as well as infusing it with ‘flavor.’”
  • @LauraJaneBarber said, “It helps to have common expectations through vertical and horizontal alignment.”
  • @tmsengel said, “Rejoinders really help increase the amount of speaking naturally.”
  • @tiesamgraf said, “I like starting class with a number of warm up questions on the smart board and a little word web with helpful vocabulary.”
  • @LauraJaneBarber said, “We often do interpersonal speaking practice, then share out questions and follow-up questions. Sometimes we’ll do a race for which group can create the questions.”
  • @trescolumnae loved the idea of, “…creating questions for each other based on a reading or listening activity, creating stories for each other.”
  • @msfrenchteach said, “To get the novice level 1 students to extend the conversation, I start the year with a minimum-of-3-examples rule. I like, X,Y and Z.”
  • @alenord said, “Another idea – give a scenario or task then have them self assess on ONE part of the normal rubric. One day elaboration, another accuracy.”
  • @LauraJaneBarber said, “An option for follow-up questions for reading: Have them come up with questions they’d ask an author or character in a text.”
  • @alenord said, “I like to tell my students, “Find out (info) about your partner.” Makes them think about what questions they could ask.”
  • @YasmineAllen said, “I give them a chance to ‘Ask the teacher’. This is good for reinforcing proper forms of address.”
  • @alenord said, “Another idea: create task cards based on asking questions. Different cards for different learning targets. ‘Find out x’ with several on each card.”
  • @trescolumnae said, “With reading, I’ll include a probing sentence or two with some unfamiliar vocabulary and ask, ‘Do you see a main idea or just words?’”
  • @alenord said, “Setting deliberate goals is important. For example, saying something like, ‘Every sentence today has to contain past tense or a transition’ during practice.”
  • @alenord said, “For every statement you say, you have to ask two questions to someone else about the topic.”
  • @CoLeeSensei said, “My newbies even practice ‘not understanding’ so they learn to help their partner out! They love it!”
  • @trescolumnae said, “Honestly, repeated use in context is the best way I’ve found to help students progress: The power of #tprs and other #ci techniques.”
  • @natadel76 said, “I make reading activities comprehensible input+1 to encourage natural guessing and risk taking, context clues use. They catch on!”
  • @LauraJaneBarber said, “Create a language day rubric, and have them assess how much target language they spoke. 0 for being silent. You get to make final call.”

Thank You

We’d like to thank our moderators, @CoLeeSensei and @msfrenchteach, for helping us think of new and creative ways to help our students move from novice to intermediate proficiency. There were a lot of great ideas that didn’t make it into this week’s summary, though. To see the whole conversation, please visit our online archive.

You are the biggest part of our online #langchat discussion. We love to have your input on what is working or not working in your world language classroom. Please share your ideas with us for future #langchat topics and help our PLN become a tool for strengthening and refining the world language teaching field!

Additional Resources

Novice high vs. intermediate low
ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012
“Taking A Risk” – What Does Risk in the MFL Class Look Like?
Conversation Circles…or “I spoke in the TL for 45 Minutes?!”
Amy’s Publications
Excellent but Imperfect
Imperfect, Yet Excellent
Visual Learning – Visual Cues
Top 3 mistakes teachers of novices make
Flexible Magnetic Tape
World Languages
Assessment Tools
A letter from the Ohio Department of Education
Empowering Students through Prespeaking

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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  • […] Here’s a fabulous list from CalicoSpanish on what language teachers can do to help their kids move from novice to intermediate in a language classroom.  The two things from their list that I can do immediately to help myself move up are “1. Challenge them out of their comfort zones.” and “9. Start Reading, Right Now.”  Reading is easy at the moment.  I am about three-quarters of the way through In Other Words and I definitely notice an improvement in my reading speed and comprehension each time I pick up the book.  Getting out of my comfort zone is hard.  (By definition, I guess.)  I really should start a Youtube channel or try to join an Italian conversation group.  But the thought of it makes me cringe.  Maybe in a few weeks…? […]

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