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Strategies for Supporting the Use of Target Language

Strategies that support using the target language in an immersive environment include:

Provide a language-rich environment

When language proficiency is the goal of a program, instruction needs to occur in a language-rich environment.  The language rich environment includes everything that the learners encounter:  what the instructor says and uses; what is read and viewed; what learners access or produce; and online resources whether websites or videochats.  When possible, the language-rich environment may also include authentic texts and realia around the classroom.

Support comprehension and production through context/gestures/visual support

Learners comprehension needs a beginning context, which may be provided through gestures, visuals, objects, connections with prior learning or experiences.   When introducing students to the family, for example, teachers might point to pictures of various families from the target culture and describe.  When students are supposed to write their names or fill out a certain part of a paper, the teacher models this with an actual or projected version.  If students are to answer questions about their favorite sport, the teacher might have a projected or printed out handout with the various choices depicted in pictures so that he/she can point to and repeat the choices often to enable students to answer.  When asking a yes/no question, the teacher might scaffold with a simple “thumbs up/thumbs down” as he/she repeats “yes or no?”  All of these scaffolds assist students in being comfortable and successful in a target language classroom.

Focus on Meaning before Details

Learners at the Novice and Intermediate levels of proficiency need support to get a general understanding of what is heard, read, or viewed before digging in to figure out details or nuances.  Whether listening. reading, or viewing, learners need a strong context, may need supporting visuals, and need a focused task such as finding out what is new information or figuring out the main idea.  Meaning needs to precede form as the basis for comprehension: before looking at letters or characters, before looking for clues in grammatical forms or word order, before trying to figure out details, learners should search for overall meaning.

Conduct comprehension checks to ensure understanding

Learners benefit from showing their understanding frequently.  Frequent comprehension checks help learners to feel that their efforts are valued and understand what they need to improve upon.  They also give teachers necessary data to adjust instruction.”  Examples of comprehension checks include raising one or two fingers to indicate their answer to a question, writing responses on individual white boards, holding up the correct flashcard to match a statement, arranging a set of visuals to show comprehension, using an online response tool, selecting the best summary sentence from among several options, or having students correct their own work using a teacher-provided marker.

Negotiate meaning with students and encourage negotiation among students

Educators introduce, model, practice, and encourage learners to use key phrases in order to negotiate meaning.  Initially, this might be phrases such as “Really? Me too!” or “Wow! Cool!”   Then, learners may expand their comments to “I like it too because…” or “I agree because I too …” Then educators might encourage learners to discuss new words using phrases such as “that means almost the same as ___.” During an interpersonal activity, learners may need certain phrases to make their interactions more natural and educators can provide these in the moment, adding key phrases to a physical or virtual “word wall” for learners to access during future language activities.

Elicit talk that increases in fluency, accuracy, and complexity over time

Asking simple yes/no questions keeps learners at the Novice level, since the natural response is not more than a single word.  Educators need to carefully consider how they are expanding the types of questions, prompts, and descriptions they are modeling to identify how they are guiding learners to higher levels of performance. One step is simply to ask learners to add more details by adding who, what, where, when, how, and even why to a basic question.  As learners practice asking such questions in interpersonal tasks, they help each other improve and expand their language over time.

Encourage self-expression and spontaneous use of language

It is important for learners to realize from the beginning that they can respond in the target language, albeit simply at the word-level or with comprehensive gestures.  This can be supported by educators by giving lots of choices using visuals and repetitive phrases that can be easily modified.  As confidence builds, learners should be encouraged to mix and match their language chunks to create their own messages.  Learners who apply their learned vocabulary and/or structures in new contexts are beginning the transition from Novice to Intermediate.

Teach students strategies for requesting clarification and assistance when faced with comprehension difficulties

To maintain target language use by both educator and learners, teach learners phrases needed to ask for help or clarification in the target language  (What?  Huh?  What do you mean by ___?  How do you say ____?  I don’t understand.  Can you repeat that?).  These learning aids, as well as other common classroom phrases, can be included on a “word wall” or printed on a list that can be given to the learners or even taped to desks.

Don’t use English (one’s native language) as the default for checking on meaning or understanding:

Of equal importance is making careful instructional decisions about when NOT to use target language (keeping that to 10% or less of what students say, hear, read, write, or view), and reserving that for deeper processing of understanding in generally private exchanges between teacher and student, for reflection on the learning process or for explaining deeper understanding on an assessment.  English is reserved for very strategic purposes, such as explaining why this approach is worthwhile and what learners should expect in this class (not knowing every word, but being able to guess at the meaning and show understanding in a variety of ways), to briefly explain a concept that would take too long to act out or demonstrate, or to allow for brief processing of an idea (e.g., from all the examples you have heard and used, discuss with a partner how you think Spanish expresses possession).  English should not be an easy default choice – otherwise, learners simply wait to hear words given in English.  When people are in a country where only the target language is heard or visible, learners from these immersion settings are the ones who will be comfortable figuring out a sign, understanding a store clerk, ordering in a restaurant because they have worked to “make meaning” in their classroom setting.

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