90% TL Is NOT the Only Goal

Last week, I was in the middle of an activity. I think it was a game. The kids were engaged. They were participating. I was speaking Spanish. They were speaking Spanish. Everything was perfect. Until I looked around and thought, “What mode of communication is this?”

Woah. Screeching halt. I couldn’t answer that question. Okay, maybe there was some interpersonal going on because they were speaking mostly Spanish to each other, but that really didn’t have anything to do with the game we were playing.

Suddenly I started seeing my activities in a new light. For the past couple of years, I’ve been so focused on not speaking English that I haven’t given nearly enough thought to what my students and I are actually doing with our Spanish.

I’m not saying I haven’t done anything right – we’ve watched lots of YouTube videos with people talking about what we’re studying right now (the ones that come to mind from recent classes are this girl talking about her schedule, this girl talking about the contents of her backpack, some clothing commercials, along with several to go along with the novel we’re reading in Spanish 3), read some infographics and short readings that relate to our current topics, surveyed our classmates, practiced having relevant conversations (working from more to less structured), and some other good things.

But as I stood there, watching my students enjoy a game, play well with each other, and try to remember the difference between “fácil” and “difícil”, I realized that there were some gaping holes in the “communication-focused” planning and activities that I’ve been explaining to parents, administrators, and co-workers all year.

Was this game we were playing all bad? Of course not! I think it was a form of pictionary. One of my favorite ways to play involves making two lists of vocab words and putting the kids in pairs with a white board. I say which person – A or B – is going to draw, and which number. All the “As” (for example) have the same list, and whichever “B” says the right word first earns a point for their pair. It helps keep everyone more involved than whole-class pictionary. According to my students, it helps them learn the words, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I mean, if I’m going to expect my students to be able to have a conversation with me about the contents of their locker at the end of this unit, they’re definitely going to need to know school supply words. I have no doubt I will play this game again in the future.

However, I think the problem that hit me was mostly about when and how much I rely on these types of activities. While they may be helpful at the beginning of a unit to help students build confidence with new vocabulary, it seems to me that these kinds of “out of context” activities should be really limited – much more than they are right now in my classroom.

As I reflect on why I feel like I’m relying so much on these types of activities this year, I think that part of the reason is actually a good thing. Last year, I frontloaded a ton of vocabulary at the beginning of most of my units. Almost as if I were still teaching from the textbook and reviewing all of the unit’s vocab before I moved on to the grammar. This year, I’m trying to break it up into more logical, manageable chunks. For example, in Spanish 1, we did class/subject vocabulary, and then logically followed with a few descriptor words the next day. Then we took a few days to practice before we talked about places in the school (which I may not even worry about next year because most of them are either cognates or pretty easy to work in in other, less “teachy” ways), and then a few days later started talking about what we need for classes in order to learn school supplies.

I definitely think this method is better and the kids are getting more out of it, but it also means that “new” words are continually coming up, and I feel more need to practice the vocabulary more on its own. Not to mention that many of these games are low- or no-prep activities, so it’s a pretty easy trap to fall into.

So when I was planning for this week, I tried to make sure that every activity focused on at least one, easily identifiable, mode of communication. This was a good exercise for me. I realized that I was pushing myself, and it really forced me to come up with some practice activities that would accomplish my goals for learning vocabulary and focus on at least one mode of communication.

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