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by Erica Fischer on Sep 23, 2011

Ways to Inspire Conversation in the Target Language

Thanks to everyone who joined us Thursday for #langchat and especially to our moderators for the night, Diego Ojeda (@DiegoOjeda66) and Don Doehla (@dr_dmd)! Our discussion was on what educators can do to inspire conversation in the world language classroom and beyond. Participants were treated to a huge variety of activities and tips to encourage students to talk, and we’ve included a summary of the night’s chat below.

There are lots of components to a successful discussion class. Educators must strive to put kids at ease so they’re willing to practice and make mistakes, maintain an immersion environment and find topics that are interesting and relevant to students. Perhaps the most important, however, is to constantly ask kids to converse — they won’t talk if they’re only asked to do so every so often (@DiegoOjeda66). Make your class a very long conversation for best results.

Creating a Safe and Comfortable Environment

Spontaneous speech with students is often a challenge, especially with shy students. Older kids are sometimes more reluctant to talk than elementary-aged kids, though not necessarily (@dr_dmd); all kids will clam up and refuse to participate if they feel uncomfortable or vulnerable (@GlastonburyFL). Because of this, one of the essential steps to creating a conversation-friendly class is to make kids feel comfortable and safe.

Be sure to steer away from any mocking or bullying, by you or other students (@mmebrady). Make sure students understand that mistakes are ok (@DiegoOjeda66). You can do this by not overcorrecting them when they make efforts to speak (@NinaTanti1) and acknowledging when you make a mistake so students see that everyone errs from time to time (@GlastonburyFL). @mmebrady recommends making a fool of yourself often in class, so this point really sinks in — it really does go a long way toward breaking down students’ inhibitions!

Once students feel safe, put them further at ease by making them laugh and doing team- and confidence-building exercises (@dr_dmd). For example, “Pair Share” activities at early stages and class songs and activities help students to create and share together. Small group work builds relationships and mutual confidence very quickly. @cadamsf1 pairs students with a new partner each week; by the end of the semester, there are no strangers!

Creating an Immersion Environment

Creating an immersion environment is essential for inspiring spontaneous conversation and making kids comfortable using and listening to the target language. The ACTFL recommends that 90% or more of instruction be in the target language to maximize students’ comprehension and exposure. Also, using less might give students the impression that speaking in English in the world language classroom is expected. @msfrenchteach recently switched to speaking only French, even when students ask her a question in English. The results were instantaneous. Students understood that the target language is the default language, and they began using it much more.

It’s tough to implement an immersion curriculum if you’re not used to it, but participants shared several helpful tips to make the transition easier. If you’re looking for more ideas, your colleagues at #langchat are always willing to help!

  • When speaking the target language, demonstrate confidence! @DiegoOjeda66 says students can’t learn from a teacher who hesitates when speaking the language.
  • @msfrenchteach believes the key to total immersion is to plan your lessons so that it’s easy to invite students to speak the target language at all times. Make the curriculum immersion-friendly.
  • Students often have trouble finding the word they need, and this lack of fluency may be disheartening. To help them, @msfrenchteach’s classroom has very little English in it. She labels classroom objects and puts up frequently used expressions and other helpful words around the room. When students are stuck on a word or phrase, there’s a good chance it’s posted in the room and they’ll remember where to find it.
  • @Watermelonworks encourages students to use franglais (French and English words mixed together) until they’re comfortable with the language. @NinaTanti1 sets the tone for this by making up French-sounding words from time to time so the students understand they can do the same.
  • Students sometimes struggle to find the word they need and ideally use a style called circumlocution to express themselves. @mmebrady embraces students’ circumlocution efforts by having them replace words they’re searching for with odd objects, such as the doohickey that keeps the pizza box from sticking to the cheese. It keeps students moving forward, and the mood light!

Keeping It Relevant and Appealing to Students’ Interests

If you’ve set up a comfortable and immersive environment where students aren’t afraid to take risks in the target language, then you’re halfway there. After this, though, the topic of discussion must be appealing to the students. It might be hard to get Grade 4 Spanish students excited about economic troubles in Spain, for example! Keep the topic interesting and relevant — students hate contrived conversations (@GlastonburyFL). Try to understand what students are talking about outside of school so you can engage them in class.

Some examples of issues that often strike a chord with students are school-related problems such as uniforms, popularity issues and the stress placed on teenagers by their parents, friends and teachers. School policies are also engaging topics; students like to take aim at cellphone restrictions and school food. @pamwesely believes teenager-friendly topics can work with the target culture, as well. For example, discuss bullying or racism in America and then relate it to different cultures.

Another good way to get kids motivated is to show them the real-world implications of the language. This inspires a need to know and explore the language (@MmeLayman and @dr_dmd). Several teachers try to let their kids use Twitter or Skype to talk with classrooms in other countries. This is a great way to show kids that knowledge of the language has uses outside of test day!

Integrating Culture with Conversation Activities

A topic we discussed briefly — but passionately! — toward the end of our chat was how much culture to try to integrate into speaking practice. Several teachers stated that culture shouldn’t be taught separately, it should be embedded in everything we do, echoing a past #langchat on integrating culture into lessons. Other teachers questioned why we need to keep the conversation authentic.

When students talk about themselves and their interests, for example, it’s almost always American culture, not the target language culture (@mmebrady). On the other hand, when students talk about themselves, they are often interested to hear what they have in common with students in another culture (@cadamsf1). Favorite music, for example.

In the end, participants agreed that as much culture as we can integrate while still keeping the students’ interest is a good thing. @DiegoOjeda66 suggests not trying to force culture into everything unless it’s relevant to the kids. If it’s forced, students will simply rebel and resist (@mmebrady). @DiegoOjeda66 asks, “Why converse in the target language? To repeat facts about the target culture or to allow students to express themselves in the target language?” He believes we should first teach students to become proficient users of the target language. Once they’re comfortable using the language, they will explore the cultural issues voluntarily.

Discussion Activities and Prompts

In addition to our engaging discussions and useful tips on how to inspire students to converse in the target language, participants shared a huge variety of activity ideas.Check out the list below for inspiration in your own classes. Some ideas are actual games and activities, while others are prompts that you can use to get kids beginning to use the language. If struggling to get kids to participate, keep students on task by randomly choosing two students to chat on the topic after the activity (@msfrenchteach).

  • @js_pasaporte likes to incorporate lots of phrases of the day that students can apply to their own lives. @DiegoOjeda66 does the same in an activity called “Intruding Lines.” He uses phrases from contemporary soap operas, TV shows and songs and puts them in a list by subject. He then gives the list to students so they can incorporate lines when writing their conversations. The idea is to continually feed students useful and interesting phrases in the target language.
  • @GlastonburyFL uses celebrity gossip stories to get students talking — its relevant and interesting to the kids!
  • @DiegoOjeda66 posts crazy news from around the world as conversation starters.
  • When presenting the agenda for the day, @DiegoOjeda66 includes info about important celebrations, birthdays and deaths on that specific date to stoke students’ interest. Sometimes he switches up the regular bellwork by presenting information about an unusual invention. Students have to tell him what they think it is.
  • Incite students with controversial statements. @SraSpanglish does this and goes to the different sides of the room to debate agree or disagree.
  • Comics and interesting photos are good prompts to get conversations going (@js_pasaporte). As are PowerPoints of photos that students must narrate or describe (@dr_dmd). Flickr is a good tool for sharing photos in this way (@profeguerita).
    • A variation that @dr_dmd likes is to give pairs similar pictures and have students describe their pictures to each other to discover the differences.
    • @dr_dmd suggests choosing culturally appropriate photos to work on culture and language at the same time.
  • Several teachers commented on the effectiveness of “Show and Tell.” Works well when students can discuss their own item (kids open up the floodgates when discussing items of special importance to them!) or when students switch items with a partner and tell the class about the item (either describe the object or create a story). This is a great activity at all ages, and you really learn more about your students.
  • For early levels, @dr_dmd suggests trying sentence starters to get kids going.
  • Several teachers create e-books with students with simple templates to get them motivated in class. Students simply add pictures and a description. Later the class reads the books together and discusses.
    • To create the books, @Watermelonworks uses Adobe InDesign, several teachers like PowerPoint, @mmebrady uses Empressr and @GlastonburyFL recommends Storyrobe for iPhone and iPad — lots of options!
  • @Watermelonworks’ students love the iPhone app Talking Gina. A giraffe that records and repeats voice in a humorous way, students love using it to practice speaking.
  • @pamwesely likes to use virtual field trips to get kids engaged and communicating in class. Check out some resources at
  • @msfrenchteach puts scenarios for real-life conversations in a bucket and has kids choose one randomly.
  • For easy prompts, play the role of a famous person and let students guess who it is or tape a person’s name on a student’s back and the student must ask others questions to discover who it is (@dr_dmd). For a fun variation, have all kids with a role and they must wander around asking questions (@mmebrady).
  • @NinaTanti1 uses a PowerPoint activity with questions on each slide. Slides change every 30 seconds and students use the questions as prompts for paired discussions. Great idea, but @dr_dmd recommends caution when using timed activities. Some students might get stressed out and uncomfortable.
  • @senoralopez does a version of speed dating in her classroom. All students move around the class talking to everyone about different topics
  • @SunnyEarth1’s students love playing “Inside Outside Circle” — lots of variations and speaking opportunities.
  • To tell stories, @dr_dmd writes a sentence prompt on a page and passes around to different groups or individuals. Students write the next line and pass it on. At the end, read the complete story for laughs and speaking practice.
  • To prompt discussion and team-building, and to learn more about students, @cadamsf1 uses a tic-tac-toe board with information about students (where they’ve been, favorite hobbies, hometowns, etc.). Students must find a match to place a marker.
  • A simple discussion activity that @js_pasaporte uses is the “Or” activity. Give students two options and let them discuss, such as “football or soccer.”
  • @Watermelonworks combines vocabulary with conversation with mix-and-match verb cards. Students must explain how to conjugate verbs as well as do it.
  • @js_pasaporte uses a “Milling to Music” activity. Play music and have kids wander around the class. When the music stops, students must discuss a topic with their closest classmate.
  • TodaysMeet is a great tool similar to Twitter that lets you create closed chat rooms for students to discuss a topic in (@dr_dmd). @mmebrady used it recently to let the class silently post questions to a student who was discussing a topic.

Online and Print Resources

Participants get their ideas from their personal experiences and the experiences of other talented colleagues. Check out some of the resources that were shared and recommended by your fellow world language teachers below.

Wow! Thanks again to everyone who participated in Thursday’s chat — the resources, activities, tips and debate are all incredibly useful and this summary is packed with information. I’m sure you’ll find something worth implementing in your next couple classes.

If you’d like to read the full archive, please go here, and don’t forget to visit the #langchat wiki at Also, follow the #langchat hashtag for information and a chance to vote on next week’s topic!

Finally, remember:

  1. Create a comfortable environment where mistakes are accepted or even encouraged so students aren’t afraid to take risks.
  2. Practice total immersion to maximize students’ exposure to the target language and ensure they understand that speaking the language is expected.
  3. Pick interesting and relevant topics that students want to talk about in their native language, too. Insert as much culture as you can, but don’t smother them with issues that aren’t inspiring.

You’ll know you had a successful day of teaching when the students talk for longer than you! (@GlastonburyFL)

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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