A Small Bucket of Language

We know that most students need to listen and read a lot of the target language before being able to speak. However, how do we best lead them to speaking? Do we provide lots and lots of listening with comprehension checks and simply don’t expect them to speak for a very long time (like Krashen & Mason)? Do we circle around one sentence and continue hammering variations of that one sentence until all students are speaking (like Blaine Ray)?

Both of these approaches work, but they are the extremes. I propose that a reasonable approach focuses on the Sweet Sixteen verbs to structure your class conversations. Let the highest frequency verbs of the target language guide the conversation, allowing for a truly student-centered experience while still limiting the language students hear. Find the balance so that students can experience some early success speaking in the target language.

This is the reason I start the school year with student interviews and card talks. These activities are inherently interesting to students as they are student-centered, but the nature of the conversations make it easy to continuously loop back to the Sweet Sixteen verbs. When I eventually move on to creating One Word Images and picture talks we are still pursuing a student-centered curriculum because it is the students’ ideas and pictures that generate these conversations. I am still referring back to the Sweet 16 verbs as well. I am very gradually expanding their language through these activities, but I am even more dedicated to repeating the Sweet 16 in a variety of contexts so that my students firmly acquire these highest of high-frequency words.

Krashen has argued persuasively that the case for natural language use in the classroom is clear: students who hear and comprehend natural language acquire even the trickiest grammar concepts unconsciously while attending to the meaning. When I say to a student in class, “quiero que seas feliz” (I want you to be happy), students are not thinking about conjugations, rules of use of the subjunctive or change of subjects. Instead they are determined to solve the problem that a student has articulated because, after all, we all want this student to be happy! When this happens frequently in class (every Tuesday our OWI faces a problem that we solve), students hear the grammar enough to acquire it and be able to use it unconsciously, without hesitation.

Here is a mental image created by a clever educator to explain why we need to repeat so much (if you know who developed this image please contact me so that I can rightly cite the person). You might imagine all of the not-fully acquired target language sloshing about in a learner’s mind as if it were in a bucket. Every time the learner understands a phrase, you’ve added another drop to the bucket. Once the bucket overflows, then the learner can confidently speak. Here is the trick; the more vocabulary that you expose learners to, the bigger the bucket and therefore the longer it takes before the bucket overflows.

Students speak & write quicker in the target language if you provide a smaller bucket of language for them to process.

Don’t get me wrong; students need huge amounts of input (listening & reading) before they are ready to output (speaking and writing). But if we tightly control the language used in class so that there is very little new language every day (i.e. a small bucket of input rather than a big lake) students will move from listening to speaking quicker.

The trick to teaching beginners is to remain interesting while introducing as little new language as possible… which is exactly why I begin my year with student interviews. If you are teaching beginners I suggest that you really limit your language in the first weeks of school so that everyone experiences some early success with output. This early success is what impresses both students and parents and motivates students to become lifelong language learners.

I limit my language by posting the Sweet 16 verbs and using those verbs to guide every step of our class conversations, every day. When a level 1 student reveals during an interview that she moved over the summer, I glance at my Sweet 16 verbs and use IR (to go) instead of MUDARSE (to move). Simplifying is often not about speaking & writing shorter sentences, but rather re-using the high-frequency verbs that we already know.

I also use whole language from the first day of school– full sentences so that students are not just following a conversation but are hearing all of the verbs conjugated in the appropriate forms.

¿Tú tienes un perro? Yo (hand placed on my chest) no tengo perro. Tengo (hand placed on my chest) un gato. “Miau”, dice (walk over and touch the dice poster) mi gato. Clase, ¿quién (walk over and touch ¿quién? on the interrogatives poster) tiene (walk over and touch the tiene poster)… ¿quién tiene un perro?

I am also curious to try out Blaine´s “describe the situation” technique, but with reservations. Blaine insists that every student should be able to orally describe the situation created in a class story, accurately & without hesitation, before moving on. I am still reluctant to force any uncomfortable student to speak beyond choral responses, but I will ask my high-fliers to volunteer to describe the situation. Essentially, we already do that every day when we create our Write & Discuss text at the end of the class session; the oral “describe the situation” sounds like a mid-class W&D that will help keep our language bucket very small as we move slowly, ever so slowly, towards fluency.