29 December 2010

9 ways to increase students' TL use

This summer I wrote a post on increasing your own TL use and am just now getting around to this follow-up post.

Students need to practice speaking the TL in order to develop the skill of speaking it; that goes without saying. But because of the affective filter more than anything, and a host of other factors including pure lack of knowledge, it's a constant battle to get them to do so. Here are some tips that have worked in my classroom to get students speaking more.

1. Vocabulary practice.
This is a tedious task in which my students spend 5 minutes (timed) three days a week going over their vocabulary. They look at the English and say the Spanish in a low but audible voice, except in AP where they use Spanish definitions. (This is one area where I have just not been able to eradicate translation from my classroom.) The fact that no one can hear them means that they're not self-conscious, but they're training their mouths to speak the Spanish words. It's a task they hate, but it's been an incredible tool in my class for many reasons:
a) students ask how to pronounce words when they don't know how to pronounce them
b) students latch on to phrases that are their favorites and use them to joke and interact with those around them
c) students "bargain" (or think they're bargaining) with me by doing it in exchange for never doing vocabulary quizzes, which I find an entirely useless exercise in creating short-term memory for invalid grades
d) students don't mind doing it because every 6 times counts for an easy 50-point participation grade as long as they're keeping up with their own pace (they give themselves a tally mark for every 10 words they get through)
e) it gives me a chance at the beginning of class to take attendance and collect my thoughts and such without giving them useless busy work

2. Tell stories.
If you hang around "me" (my blog/twitter/etc) for long you'll soon find out that music and storytelling rival in my mind as the teacher's most powerful tools in the classroom. Storytelling is so powerful (and is as children acquire their first language) because it offers an ideal forum for incessant questioning. Which leads me to...

3. Ask questions incessantly.
I ask questions so nonstop that I do not "teach" the question words. They're in the vocabulary but we don't spend even a day on them. Questions keep students listening and offer you a continual source of formative assessment. Ask questions about stories. Ask questions about your students' lives. About school. About what you're doing in class. Everything. Someone knocks at the door. Who's at the door? Why? How tall? How old? Someone wants to go to the bathroom. TL, please. When? Where? Also, don't say a student's name until after the question. It keeps them listening to the question because they don't know whom you're calling on.

4. [Almost] never answer your own questions.
So you've asked a question and you get blank stares. Resist the temptation to answer it yourself until you've exhausted all possibilities to get students to understand. The best way is to offer options. At the lowest level, your best friends are proper nouns and cognates. Where did the girl go? La tienda--Walmart? El restaurante? If students have to answer in English, at least they comprehended the question, but give a valid TL answer and then ask them to do the same.

5. Ask a student to diagram your question & response patterns in class.
One day, give a class roster to a responsible student who's really on top of things. Ask him or her to put a check mark next to each student you call on. It will surprise you to see what the patterns are and will help you make sure you're calling on a variety of students (if you're in the habit of calling on students). Also, it's good to diagram who answers without being called on so you can see who really never talks and who really always talks, as opposed to just what our impressions are.

6. Get a stuffed animal to throw.
I love doing this and it's always been successful for me, but my colleague in her first year this year is having some resistance to it in her class. However she's having resistance to a lot of things so I'm taking that with a grain of salt. For some reason this has worked with me all the way to 12th grade because it helps control the turn-taking in the classroom to make sure everyone says something. Plus, boys just love to throw things and girls just love stuffed animals. I ask a question or give a sentence starter. I throw the animal. They answer, or if they're taking too long, I ask for it back and throw it to someone else, or they throw it to someone else. Anyway, everyone has to answer or say something relevant. It keeps the pace up, everyone looking up, and again, we don't leave anyone out.

7. Start every class with a patterned question.
This has to do with that stuffed animal thing. It doesn't have to be every class, but I love patterned questions. It helps us practice recent vocabulary, it gets the TL out of their mouth, and it gets umpteen repetitions of the target feature without rote repetition and without it being from me. So I say, "Me encanta Taco Bell porque me gustan las chalupas." (Sometimes I write it on the board with blanks.) I keep going with the pattern with my own opinions until someone asks for the stuffed animal and is willing to do it on their own. The same couple of students are always first and the same couple of students are always last, but that's okay, because everyone says something, and everyone learns at their own pace, right?

8. Make students 'pay' to speak English.
I have a stack of fake money and each student in lower levels receives 5 bills at the beginning of class. They can speak English 5 times during the class but they have to pay me a bill in order to do it. After that, they start losing academic credit (on a participation grade). So they know that they're not "forbidden" from speaking English so they're more comfortable doing both. I almost never have students lose all their bills. Students in upper levels receive 3 bills.
Incidentally, they can also receive more bills by "catching" me saying something in English that they know how to say in Spanish.

9. Vary your seating.
By this I don't mean have a seating chart and I don't mean let them sit wherever they want to. I got this tip from a professor in a TESOL program in grad school. At the beginning of the year I use 5x8 cards to make name "tents." They fold them in half, write their English name on one side and their Spanish name on the other. (Also this helps me learn their names.) My students in larger classes sit at tables, 4 to a table, for collaborative learning and scaffolding. Then every day, right before class, I take about a minute and set the names out completely at random. As the school year goes on I learn that there are a few students who cannot sit together, but generally it's random. If they don't like it one day, I tell them to suck it up because it will be different tomorrow. The principle is that they will usually be sitting at a table with someone who's better than they are and someone who's struggling more than they are, so there's always a new form of collaborative scaffolding going on. Thanks Alexandra--this is the most brilliant approach to language teaching seating I have seen!

Hope these tips help in your classroom as much as they have helped in mine.

27 December 2010

I love collaboration

Ever since someone said something about not reinventing the wheel it seems we've all been in a search to see how much of our work other people have already done. Right?

Not really. Actually we still have a tendency to shut ourselves in our classrooms and overwork ourselves and burn out doing things that hundreds or thousands of other teachers have actually done and some have shared if we just knew where to look.

I'd love for my blog to be an opportunity for me to share places to look. I just joined this wiki, Language Teachers Collaborate, and today I added a page called Authentic Audio. Click. Explore. Request access. Collaborate. It's what makes the teaching world go 'round.

24 December 2010

The problem with translation (from a student)

It doesn't take a teacher to realize that training students to translate doesn't produce proficiency. If you want to look into the SLA research behind why translation slows language processing so much (and if you are a teacher, you owe it to yourself to get this and let it revolutionize your methodology), start with this post. But for some lighter, shorter reading just look at what my student wrote for his evaluation of a listening proficiency exercise he did a couple of weeks ago.

My AP students have to interact in some way with Spanish outside of class once a week. They choose one of 19 options. It's a way for them to show me that, at this point, they have the self-motivation to find something they like to do with their Spanish outside of class (with as much freedom as I can allow and still get them to do a beneficial assignment). Then they report to me what they did, what they think they did well, and then what they need to work on. So "Teodosio" watched some videos on the internet about a theme park. He writes, "I need to work on listening instead of trying to translate. =("

Did you notice that he basically equates translating with not listening? At the very least he's revealing what all of us--and even our students--know: translating slows down language processing too much for listening comprehension to be significant. Listening comprehension reaches a significant level when the L2 word starts triggering the concept without having to route through the L1 to do so.

So why do we waste so much time asking our students to translate? Actually training them to do it?

Good question.

20 December 2010

Why music is more powerful than anything (& how to use it)

I got a question via @espanolsrs about how I "teach" songs and whether my students understand what they're singing. I thought I'd written a post about this before but when I browsed through my song label I didn't see anything about it. Probably I just thought about it and didn't actually write it (that happens a lot--I have probably 15 posts in the "edit" stage in my dashboard right now!).

It did remind me what I consider one of the greatest myths of language teaching: that students have to understand everything they hear. This is one area where I think that TPRS goes very wrong (and if you spend much time on my blog you'll know that I love TPRS). But TPRS and I part ways mostly on two very fundamental philosophical principles, one being using so much English translation, and the other being this idea that students have to understand every word they hear.

The thing that got me started on using music was an AP Spanish workshop led by a woman who handed out two songs (the songs were 19 de noviembre by Carlos Vives and Olvídame y Pega la Vuelta by Pimpinela) and asked us how these songs could be used in class. As we started brainstorming through what target features and cultural themes were present in the songs, using them piqued my interest. When I actually used them in class, and then used videos related to them, the songs themselves piqued my students' interest. The whole thing became a snowball effect that I never dreamed of. So my music journey hasn't really been something I read about or something I set out to do--it's something my students and the pop music industry have shown me, and happened to use my classroom as a venue to do it.

If you ask students all over the world what the best ways to learn English are, they will tell you that they learned the most English through watching our television shows and listening to our music. On any given Top Latino podcast, several of the songs will be in English by stars like Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. Do these English language learners understand everything they hear? Of course not. I don't even understand these songs. So why are they so effective? From using Spanish pop songs in my classroom, I have several theories, and tips.

1) Music is fun & motivating. This is why the industry makes so much money off of the adolescent market. It's why teenagers walk around with earbuds in their ears. Accordingly, you should usually choose songs that are widely popular. (Sometimes I make an exception and just ask my students to forgive me if there is a feature that's just too good to pass up--and then I'll often have one or two students who absolutely love it anyway, as is the case with Alexander Acha's Te Amo. I have a student who has memorized this song.)

2) Music offers a variety to appeal to lots of students. As teachers this is often a dilemma to us, particularly if you use a textbook. Students have a wide variety of likes and dislikes in every area of their life. If we can appeal to those tastes with music from Alexander Acha to Wisin y Yandel (appropriately for class), all the better. Choose a wide variety of artists. I have to remember that not all my students like the same kind of music I do. And I encourage my students to put up with some music and then let them choose other times. Trevor needs to tolerate Estrella for Ashley, and later she'll put up with Cuando me enamoro. (Okay, so who doesn't like that song.)

3) Songs offer an excellent opportunity for chunking. This is one of the main reasons why students don't always have to understand what they're saying. Any teacher or parent knows that children (and people) memorize words that are set to music. So what happens is this: think of all those phrases in Spanish (or English) that are a verb or noun plus an odd preposition. Let me pull a few from songs my students know inside out: "estoy a punto de" + inf from Mientes by Camila; or "hace [tiempo] que"+ present tense from Hace Tiempo by Fonseca. These are the kinds of structures that we can grammatically explain like we always have, and the best students will be able to produce them in writing to pass a test but they'll move on and forget them past our class and never be able to make the connection fast enough to produce them in speaking or comprehend them in spoken Spanish. Unless--they've heard them in context so many times the brain connection is just there and always will be. That is the power of a song. We need to find these structures in songs and point them out to our students, and then give them opportunities to use them in different contexts while reminding them of their use in the song.

4) Songs are an inexpensive way for students to continue interacting with Spanish outside of class. I remember students who didn't even continue to Spanish 3 telling me, "Oh I remember that song--it's on my shower playlist." Okay, well, I'm not really interested in what's on his shower playlist, but the point is he's still interacting with Spanish outside of my classroom because something struck his fancy and he went and spent $1. (Side note: encourage your students to responsibly and legally buy their music and you do the same. I have been appalled at the Spanish teachers who have proudly told me they download music illegally.) Offer homework credit for students listening to music outside of class. In my AP class this is a "fluency credit" my students can do once a quarter (along with 18 other options; they have to do one once a week).

5) Music can spur lots of varied assignments. These are some things my students have done:
--presentation on favorite artist including interpretation of a song
--essay on musicians' social responsibility with examples
--compare and contrast of matters of faith and culture presented in songs by three different groups (I teach at a private Christian school)
--Google Earth investigation of places mentioned in songs (there's a post about this in my song label mentioned above).
--rewrite a song to make it appropriate to their culture/life (example, Ojalá que llueva café to apply to the current recession in the U.S. and the struggles specific to our city)
(Also, remember I teach advanced students exclusively now.)

6) Music helps students remember grammatical features. I have an AP student who never forgets that words that end in -dad are feminine because of the song Electricidad by Jesse y Joy.

Most of all, always have a reason for playing a song. Well, almost always. There isn't anything wrong with playing one just for fun once in a while. If you'll look through the song label you'll notice that songs frequently show a target feature you can point out or ask students to look for. At the advanced stage I teach we are often looking at vocabulary or culture issues.
Also, play them often. You never know when you'll hit on the one or two that will be the magic that Hace tiempo, La llave de mi corazón, Adiós, Electricidad, and Dímelo, Dame, and Creeré have been in my class.