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by Erica Fischer on Oct 19, 2012

Strategies for Staying in the Target Language with Beginners

Strategies for Staying in the Target Language with BeginnersLast week’s #LangChat participants discussed the challenge of maximizing target language use when teaching beginners, and strategies for overcoming that challenge. ACTFL recommends that language teachers aim to stay in the target language 90% of the time. The ACTFL magazine, The Language Educator, recently featured an article on this very topic.

But the 90% goal can be daunting for teachers standing in front of a class of beginners who don’t know a single word of the target language (henceforth abbreviated as “TL”). Many shared that this was in fact their greatest challenge as a language teacher.

To that end, participants in last week’s discussion shared the strategies, techniques, and methods that they use to maximize TL use with novices. They also suggested that teachers might need to change both what they teach and how they teach it in order to come closer to the ACTFL goal.

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Reframing Our Approach: Focusing on Comprehensible Input

@tmsaue1 got our discussion off to a great start with an insightful proposal: We as teachers need to think from the learner’s perspective. What are students receiving from the teacher? Is it useful? Relevant? The 90% TL use goal does not serve students well if student are not receiving comprehensible input.

@CalicoTeach reminded us that teachers must ensure that students are receiving the TL message. Sometimes this means going slow, added @dwphotoski. @SraSpanglish admitted that she was not prepared for how much an increased focus on comprehensible input slowed down the other things she had planned on accomplishing. But, as @dr_dmd pointed out, “covering material” does not guarantee that students are actually learning how to use L2. Sometimes, “less is more,” as the saying goes!

Examples of Comprehensible Input in the TL

One of the best ways to start introducing the TL to novice learners is by talking to them about what they know best: themselves. As @senoralopez pointed out, beginning language students will find talking about themselves to be meaningful and relevant, and will thus remain curious and attentive. For example, @senoraCMT is a big fan of a technique from Ben Slavic (circling with balls). She has each student draws a pic of what they like to do, and spend the first two weeks of class just talking about  students’ likes that they have drawn. She shares that because of this method, her class has been close to 90% TL since the first day.

@katchiringa cautioned that while students love to talk about themselves, teachers should not lose sight of the key purpose of learning a new language: opening them up to others.

Grammar and the 90% Goal

Ensuring 90% TL use in the novice classroom usually means forgoing traditional, explicit teaching of grammar and the use of vocabulary lists. For many students, parents, and even some teachers, this is hard to imagine: how can you learn to speak a language without starting with the building blocks? @Catherineku1972 shared that she had a parent ask her to assign more homework with more grammar.

As @dr_dmd said, teachers may need to remind parents and students that they learned their L1 without a grammar book; L2 can be learned in a similar way. @placido reminded us that world language teachers have to advocate for best practices, not cave to traditions. Sometimes this means giving students the “pieces” and having them put them together, as opposed to de-constructing a model, said @SraSpanglish. She shared this link to a post on her old blog on that deals with this very topic:

@SraSpanglish also posed an interesting question, asking whether we as teachers are doing future college students a disservice by not exposing them to the old-fashioned style language teaching that they will most likely encounter at the university level. Our participants weighed in:

  • @Catherineku1972 suggested that K-12 world language teachers are actually more innovative in their teaching styles than many college professors. @katchiringa also noted that secondary education is currently more “dynamic” than post-secondary.
  • @placido argued that preparing students for “bad” instruction in college does not justify “bad” teaching now. She suggested that by modeling great language teaching before college, students will perhaps start demanding more of their college instructors.
  • @trescolumnae pointed out that college world language programs are really looking more for students who already have some level of proficiency – not beginners. He suggested that we try to send colleges students with as advanced skills as we can.
  • @tmsaue1 said that it will take some time for post-secondary education to “catch up” with what K-12 teachers are doing, but he also suggested that if the entire K-12 field does their job right, colleges will get students with proficiency levels they have never seen before!

For those who worry that not teaching grammar explicitly will negatively impact students later in their academic careers, several participants put those fears to rest. @LPHS14 shared that last year was the second time she taught AP Spanish; her students from last year are saying that their college Spanish classes are so much easier than their high school classes! Similarly, @DonaKimberly has had many of her students come back to visit and share that they now tutor their peers in college.

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Specific Strategies for Staying in the TL with Beginners

Participants shared the following strategies that they use with their novice learners to help them stay in the target language:

  • @katchiringa recommends lots of repetition, visual support (images, gestures, cueing), and introducing cognates. Since beginners don’t have a large vocabulary, asking yes-or-no questions and/or allowing them to answer with a thumbs up or thumbs down questions lets students engage without feeling too much pressure.
  • Several participants suggested establishing one specific location in the classroom where English is permitted. The teacher must abide by this rule, too, and can only address the class if he or she is standing in this place. @tmsaue1 has seen a teacher section off an English-only zone using a hula hoop. @shannon_lorenzo has an American and Spanish flag displayed in the class; students know that English is only permitted when the US flag is raised. She shared that her students love to play language “police” by enforcing the flag rule!
  • @dr_dmd said that to stay in the TL at the novice level, a teacher must be prepared to make a fool of him or herself, with lots of humor, gestures, pictures, games, and stories – but always followed with a comprehension check.
  • @sonrisadelcampo has her students sketch things for her to talk about in the TL, which gives them plenty of input, with lots of personalized attention.
  • Since staying in the TL often seems daunting to beginners, @alenord recommends that teachers begin by telling their students, “We are going to try to stay in the TL for 10 minutes.” After those ten minutes, take a break and ask students if they are ready for more. Students will come to love the challenge of staying in the TL for longer and longer periods. @madamebaker pointed out that some teachers don’t trust their students enough to stay in TL; maintaining an open dialogue allows teacher to gauge their students comprehension and level of comfort.

@tmsaue1 reminded us that TL use isn’t something that just spontaneously happens; teachers must actively plan what to say in the TL. @senoralopez recommends designing plans backwards: she starts by thinking about assessments, which then allows her to scaffold lessons so that she can stay in the TL.

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Teaching Methods that Increase Target Language Use in the Classroom

Many #LangChat participants cited methods like TPRS and AIM (Accelerative Integrative Method) as effective in achieving the ACTFL’s 90% goal. @AudreyMisiano shared her satisfaction with the AIM method, stating that it helped her to make the shift from using the target language 50% of the time to 90% of the time, starting day 1.

Participants who were not familiar with the TPRS method received clarification from their TPRS-teaching colleagues. TPRS teachers @dwphotoski, @senoraCMT, and @placido were enthusiastic about using the method and were proud to share that their students consistently excel on university placement exams, despite the fact that TPRS does not explicitly teach grammar. @senoraCMT added that students are comfortable with the method, despite the fact that TPRS does not use textbooks or worksheets.

@dr_dmd praised TPRS and other storytelling techniques for the way they provide context for content. His one critique of TPRS, however, was the fact that the stories it uses often do not have strong cultural contexts; he usually creates his own stories, and delivers them to his students using TPRS technique as comprehensible input. This is perfectly fine, stressed TPRS teachers, as TPRS is a method, not a curriculum. As @placido put it, TPRS “is whatever you make it.” Similarly, @trescolumnae doesn’t do “pure” TPRS, but has borrowed and used TPRS techniques for his own classes.

Teachers interested in learning more about TPRS should check out webinars from TPRS Publishing Channel. @placido shared this link to YouTube videos showing TPRS in action:

#LangChat participants @dwphotoski, @senoraCMT, and @placido all teach using TPRS, and @senoraCMT shared that she would welcome any visitors who wanted to watch her teach TPRS in southern Illinois.

More On Staying in the Target Language

For more insights on how to stay in the target language in the world language classroom, we recommend you look back to previous #LangChat summaries that touched on this topic.

A few favorites:

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A Warm #LangChat Thank You!

Thank you to all who participated in this fast-paced discussion! It is your insightful questions and answers that make #LangChat such a valuable resource for language teachers everywhere.

Our team of current #LangChat moderators were all able to participate in this particular chat: many thanks to @CalicoTeach, @dr_dmd, @placido, and @msfrenchteach! The moderators also expressed a special thanks to @@tmsaue1 for his helpful insights and mentoring.

Remember to make suggestions for future #LangChat topics on our wiki, and don’t forget to vote in our weekly polls to pick the week’s discussion topic. Want to keep the discussion going? Feel free to comment on these summaries to add any of your thoughts, or to let us know what you would like to see more of in the future.

See you this Thursday, October 25th at 8pm EST (5pm PST) for the next #LangChat!

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.


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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