The Art of the Bailout Move

Linguist Bill VanPatten likes to mischievously remind teachers that the language we plan to deliver in class is probably not the language that our students will acquire from us. 

He is referring to studies that reveal that our students acquire language in a fixed natural order. We really have little insight into that order of acquisition, but we know that the brain will not acquire something until it is ready.

Students can learn of course; we can teach students to apply grammatical rules on an explicit grammar test, but that will have no impact on their implicit language use and will quickly be forgotten. It will not be acquired. The best we can do is provide a steady stream of comprehensible language and the brain, which is a natural language acquiring machine, will sort out what it needs at the moment to continue down the path of acquisition.

I was chatting online recently with a teacher about the various activities in the CI Master Class. She told me that she would love to try more of the activities, but she just could not fit them into her curriculum. That was a person who desperately needs to hear Bill’s message.

There is no essential activity or sequence that must be followed precisely.

Language teaching is less like baking, which requires exact measurements for the final product to turn out well, and more like putting together a morning hash for breakfast. The activities in the CI Master Class help inspire the comprehensible conversations that will lead to efficient acquisition, but there is no requirement such as “speak in the present tense until students have mastered the stem-changing verbs, then proceed to preterit but not imperfect tenses”.

Instead, speak naturally, slowly, and make yourself comprehensible. The Natural Order Hypothesis is tremendously liberating; even if we did know the natural order, it is impossible to truly know where each student is along the way. 

Just let the grammatical and thematic teaching sequences go!!

The Bailout Move allows us to seamlessly transition between activities. Or better yet, let’s refer to activities as ‘language class conversations’. No one has the expectations for a ‘conversation’ that teachers have for ‘activities’. We may have been trained to think in logical teaching sequences. For example, “in this activity students will learn to conjugate the subjunctive, followed by the next activity which will teach them three phrases that call for the subjunctive, followed by a third activity in which students start to form sentences with the subjunctive”. Let’s just throw away the hopes and dreams that we harbor for our ‘activities’ and instead call them language class conversations. When a conversation dies out, nobody examines the rubble to realize in disappointment that students did not learn to manipulate X grammar. A conversation is simply a conversation. We expect conversations to die down eventually, and when they do, we all have developed social responses to bailout of a dead conversation. It is the same with ‘language class conversations’!

My favorite bailout move is simply to have students read independently for three to five minutes. We start class with 5-10 minutes of quiet pleasure reading. What a nice routine to put behind whatever chaos that happened in the hallways before class and calmly focus on our language class. Instead of returning books after the independent reading session is over, I have them place their books under their chairs so that we can resume reading if needed. Around 35 minutes into class everyone passes their books to the class librarian, who then returns the books to the correct place. I wish this could work at holiday parties! “Okay, this conversation is ending, please take out your book while I find someone else to chat with.”

Another good bailout move that we do frequently is a round of the music matching games that we play for about five minutes every day. Here is an example: Prince Royce’s version of Stand By Me. As our class conversation dies out I simply ask a pair of students to play the game that is ready in a tab on my computer. I usually have them play it three times so that we have enough repetition, and then I might ask another pair to come up and play it another three times. It is a total of 3-5 minutes of diversion between ‘language class conversations’. This music matching game prepares my students to eventually hear & understand the video. I chose ONE song on Monday and we play the matching games for that song all week. On Friday students can hear and understand the song the very first time that they see the video. I always caption the videos to make it easier for my students to recognize the lyrics that they have been hearing all week. Here is the video.

The CI Master Class has pre-made song activities in Spanish, French & German in the Voices of Others module. Instructions to make your own are coming soon!

I often have a Textivate activity prepared and ready to go on my computer. It may be a Write & Discuss that we prepared two weeks ago. Once an activity loses steam I call a student up to the computer and we review the activity from several weeks ago. My school does not have 1:1 tech resources, instead we all look at the screen and the students verbally help the student sitting at the computer. Textivate is a great bailout move that keeps kids processing language while the teacher moves on to the next “language class conversation”. If you have never tried Textivate follow this link for an introductory video. Textivate is a subscription website, but I think it is well worth it.

The CI Master Class has 13 different Bailout Moves in the “Bailout Moves” essay. If you are not a subscriber, consider subscribing here.

Bailout moves are an important part of my class management plan. While I want large stretches of our class time to be focused on students, I want to minimize the opportunities to talk in English. When students are learning abut each other it is natural to want to continue the conversation in the language that they are most fluent in, so these bailout moves provide a minimal amount of input in the target language that prevents students from ‘filling in the holes in class’ with chatting in English.

My recommendation is to plan one bailout move for the entire day. Use the same one all day, regardless of the section; either have it ready to go on your computer (Textivate will require a separate tab for each class since they should review something they have created previously together) or have a plan so that you can transition seamlessly and not leave any space for your students to occupy with English.