Teaching in the Target Language

teaching in the target language

Teaching in the Target Language

This week I had the opportunity to chat with Devon from La Libre Language Learning about teaching in the target language.

Welcome to the 5-Week Linguist Show. If you want to learn a language or you teach a language, you’ve come to the right place. Join Janina, each week for tips, resources and advice, for making engaging language learning happen anytime, anywhere.

All right, well, lang klan, welcome to another interview in our target language series, so that we can get you further towards your 90 percent target language goals, or maybe even a hundred, if you’re feeling brave. We have today, the wonderful Janina who has a ton of experience teaching on three different continents; and many years in various classroom settings. And especially, in a year like this year, a ton of great ideas for how you can still continue your goals in a crazy year, like teaching during COVID. So, we’re going to jump right in by turning it over to Janina. Can you tell us a little bit about your classroom experience. And, where you are at right now in your teaching journey?

Certainly. I started teaching in 1994. I filled in for someone sabbatical leave for a year, that was high school Spanish. And after that, I wanted to travel, and I went to Asia for one year, and I taught English in Seoul, Korea. And while I was there, I got hired by a university to be a language instructor. And, I ended up staying for three years. It was an amazing experience. So, I taught sort of bachelor level classes, where foreign language requirements being English, in this case. The students had to take a few years of English. And I also, during our university breaks, taught a language immersion school for primary age students. And after that experience finished, I decided I really enjoyed international teaching. And, I went to work for an international teaching organization, where I’ve taught languages, as well as drama, and high school English, and middle school English, just outside of Tokyo, Japan for five years. And, I’ve been living and teaching in Cambridge, England. And then, my language summers Paris, Lyon, France, Madrid, etc. So, learning and teaching languages are pretty much my life.

The bread and butter. You’ve been all over it, that’s awesome. So, you’re currently in Cambridge teaching?

That’s right? Yeah.

Awesome. So, how has it been? Are you in your first week back right now?

The kids come back next week.


Yeah. So, they’ll come back face-to-face. I think much of the United States and schools, a lot of schools everywhere, everyone was doing some kind of version of remote learning, I think; and we were certainly doing that. But, I know that you had asked me about, doing things a little bit differently this year; so that’s certainly been on my mind. I always start the first two weeks of school, Harry Wong. Now I’m going to make a confession here. When I went to school [crosstalk 00:03:24].

The best.

When I got my bachelor’s degree… I have a bachelor’s degree in theater arts, and one in foreign languages. And then, when I became a teacher during the summers, I did a master of arts in the teaching of languages in Spain. So I say this, because I didn’t do a student teaching experience. I kind of did an alternative certification sort of thing, where I was learning on the job, and I had some mentoring and that kind of thing, a lot of trial and error. So, the short amount of time that I worked at a school district in the states, they hired Harry Wong to come there, the first days of school. Then he gave a two day workshop, of course. I love him because he says, everything is common sense. And, he said so many interesting things, that still resonate with me, all these years later. You get the routines and procedures down, and everything will just flow into place.

And, I thought this is perfect for languages, because then we get to do it all; use comprehensible input, target language training in our room. But, in [foreign language 00:04:40] or the calendar; all of those things, we get to just… We can spend so much time on, [foreign language 00:04:47], all of those things to just function in the class, and they’re absorbing language like sponges, and they’re having fun. So, this year I thought, okay, there’s all these rules that I’m feeling a bit insecure about, if I’m really honest with you; because this is new. Isn’t it? I’ve never had to combat… Think about that. You think about getting sick all the time, because we do as teachers; but, not like this. So, how do I make that a language lesson and make it effective?

And so to be honest with you, the first thing I did, is I started Googling. I thought, okay, I could make all these materials, or I could go on Teachers Pay Teachers, or find a good colleague, who’s already put the work in. Because the genius really comes, when we all sort of share that stuff together, I think. And, don’t reinvent the wheel, have a life, don’t be at school. Don’t spend your life at school, unless you want to, of course, but I don’t. I love school and kids, but I don’t want to spend my life at school. And so, I went and I found somebody who did a bunch of basically PowerPoint stuff, that I could adapt. So then, I’ll be able to put that into my routines and we’ll practice, [foreign language 00:06:10]. We’ll do all of that, and keep practicing it over and over, as part of Harry Wong’s routines.

That’s great. That book also, transformative for my teaching experience as well. And, I have a blog post that, I send a lot of my audience too, that’s all about like the first day of school, and how important that is. And, it’s like all about that kind of stuff. And, the idea that the students are the ones who have all the energy, and they’re the ones who should be doing most of the work, as long as you set up those routines. And, I think that’s a really great segue, to the idea that you can use a lot of those common sense routines, you can just do them in the target language. And, that idea of just the repetition of it, will make it a really powerful experience for language learning. That’s really cool

And, put some drama in there. That was another thing. [crosstalk 00:07:03] I didn’t have training in language teaching, but I was an actress and a writer. So, I used that automatically. I thought, okay, I know how to be in a play, I know how to memorize everything that’s in a play. We’ll try that technique, but on a smaller scale sort of dialogues, and that kind of thing. And so, I hammered up a lot with those routines. They pretend to be the teacher, I’m the student, they have to ask, everyone has to ask, everyone plays a student and a teacher, that kind of thing. So, we’re going to look different, because there’s going to be, a lot less movement. I use a lot of movement; but I can’t have that now, not right now.

And, it’s probably going to have to be something that teachers work through, on a day-by-day basis. Every day is going to bring something new. So, it’s going to require a whole new level of flexibility for us. I’m sure. And, with that level of flexibility, I’m sure that you’ve experienced this before, especially, as you were kind of thrown into lots of new teaching situations. New things are by no means, something surprising to you. With your first year teaching, what were some fears you had, around using a lot of target language? And, what was something you did to get over it?

I definitely had some fears, for sure. But I have to tell you, I had used… I don’t know if my experience is different, than… Obviously it is, it’s unique, we all have a unique experience. But, I had a lot of fears in, yeah, making mistakes, and that sort of stuff, using language all the time. With that said, I had already… I don’t want to say work through some of those fears. I had a situation, I was in New Mexico. We moved out to New Mexico when I was young. And, when I was in college, by the time I got to upper-level Spanish, the people in my Spanish class were all native speakers. And so, that was a great way to learn. But, it was also really humbling and humiliating, if I’m really honest with you, at that time. Because, I felt like, I didn’t have that ease of expression. They were so intelligent.

And, I remember kicking myself a little bit, because I’m thinking like, how did they learn that? And of course now I know, well, they’re from Mexico. That’s how they know that, and they’ve got their struggles too. But, at that time… So, I was able to kind of work through some of that stuff, before I became a teacher. I had a very different audience than that, I think is what I’m trying to say, of people who I probably knew more than. Not probably, I did know more Spanish than they did. But, it was thinking about all those mistakes, and one thing… And, I don’t know if you have this experience, because I think we both speak French and Spanish. French, in my opinion, can have this reputation for being a little bit harder, than Spanish; and it couldn’t be less true.

True, yep.

And, it’s the commands are easier in French. They’re so much harder in Spanish. You’ve got remember all the stem-changes. It took me a really long time to really master that. So, I worried about things like that. Am I using the right command form? I was pretty critical of myself, because I really felt like, I wanted to speak with the ease of expression that I had in English. And, I ended up getting to that point, certainly, in my Spanish. And, it was a very concerted effort. It wasn’t easy, but yeah.

I’m glad that you speak to that, because I think that everybody feels that way, that in the frustration of being the leader of a language classroom. You want to be able to have that ease of expression, that you have in English, and be that model for students. But the truth is that, if you’re not a native speaker, and even there’s many different labels, and levels of proficiency and all that good stuff; that honestly, at the end of the day, something that we all have to realize is that, they don’t need a perfect speaker. They need somebody who’s at least at a certain level. And, when you make mistakes, it can be a very transformative experience for students, watching you make a mistake, and how you catch yourself, and correct yourself.

And in this whole conversation about target language, I think it’s really powerful to address that fear right away; because I have yet to meet a language teacher, who hasn’t at least mentioned it at some point that like, “Well, I would love to, but what if I make a mistake in front of my students.” Listen, teachers, we’ve all been there, we’ve all felt that in front of a class. And, one of the nice things, one of the tiny silver linings, one of the opportunities that you and I kind of talked about, with being in a virtual learning environment, is that we do actually have a little bit more control, and a little bit more pace in a virtual lesson.

You can actually control the language a lot more, in terms of what you’re putting into a digital resource, what you get from a resource that you’re curating from a colleague, or TpT or whatever. You actually have a lot more control of what language is in there. There’s not quite as much pressure for you to produce all of this output, all of the time for your students. You can get it from other places.

Yeah, that’s true. And with that said, and I’m glad that you bring up that point, because that input doesn’t all have to come from you speaking. Remember, we have those three modes of communication. So interpretive; so if you get from a colleague, a slideshow, that’s all CI, in the target language, they’re still getting that. If they’re reading, they’re getting that CI, because they can slow down, and they can look things over, they can extract vocabulary, they can read at their own pace, it’s not like having a conversation. So, all of those things count.

It’s not just necessarily you having, a conversation with them. But, I also do want to say that, one of the things that I learned in my journey towards native level Spanish, and there was a reason I did that, a very conservative reason, that first year’s experience of having some self doubt. But, it doesn’t matter what you’re teaching, whether it’s languages or not, I think you’re going to have some self doubt as a first year teacher. And then, mine was a bit double, because I didn’t have all that training that I think, so many of you go into, which is great. I kind of got that on the job. But as I told you, when I taught in Seoul, I used to run this language immersion program. And so, it was teaching content through languages. So now, mind you, when I was teaching English… (silence)

Oh no, our connection got paused.

[inaudible 00:14:11] with my university students or qualifications to Spanish immersion, I had to have a native level of Spanish. So, I went through that, from advanced mid, I think, is the first test that I took. And, it wasn’t good enough. And, I had to keep going back, and it was a long journey. When you get up to those levels into the advanced level, to advance up to advanced high and superior, it’s difficult. But, I have to say that it’s really worth it, in so many ways. It’s worth it, because you’ll have so much fun getting there. And, we can talk about that in a second about really fun ways for people to get language professional development that are don’t… They’re not from a university, I’ll you that. And then, the ease of expression, that you get.

So yes, if you have more proficiency than the students, they’re getting higher quality input from you. But, the more that you can do, the easier it is. I mean, I haven’t for years, had to think about how do I say this, how do I say that? I can concentrate on making everything CI in my target language; because I don’t have to think about the words. But, I’ve been on the other side too. I’ve been…

Our connection got a little fuzzy. So could you, I hate to do this to you, but could you give us like another quick summary of… The last thing that I heard, and just in case it didn’t record, was when you started teaching the immersion program content based, in Seoul. And, you were talking about how you didn’t have quite as much training as most teachers do. [crosstalk 00:15:41] but gets a good story.

So yes, when I taught at Seoul, I taught at university. So, my university students, adults, and I taught a language immersion school, which is all teaching content through language. You teach content and language at the same time. And, I was a coordinator. And, I would have these different, wonderful teachers that will come and teach for months, they might do. We used to have four classes, and we would do maybe English and art, or it really depended on the specialty of the people I had; because the content was secondary. Really, it was the experience in language. And, when I decided to come work for the organization I work for now, I decided to get a qualification in what’s called Spanish language immersion. So, K through A, you would have a first grade classroom, or a fifth grade classroom; and you would teach, in most of the day or part of the day in Spanish. And, you had to prove with an ACTFL OPI, that you were a near native speaker, at the very least; so that was difficult. So, the first time I did the ACTFL OPI, got like an advanced mid.

I mean, and it was way below what I needed. And so, that sent me on a journey to being able to speak Spanish, like a native. And, I can’t even say it was a personal passion. It was just sort of like, okay, this will make my life easier, this will make my job easier; and it turned into a personal passion, because I figured out so many… I learned so much about languages, about really hitting those high levels. And then, the rewards were just outstanding, because I don’t ever feel like I don’t know the answer. And, I can concentrate a hundred percent on CI. I can make everything I do, CI. I feel like I don’t even really need materials, necessarily, or the slides. But, don’t be shy about relying on that stuff. And, you guys are so lucky, there’s so many colleagues out there that are making things that you could use, and adapt to you, which is fantastic. And I mean, I didn’t have that when I first started teaching. We didn’t have all this connectivity.

Oh yeah. Wow, that’s a really powerful story too. I mean, and an advance [inaudible 00:17:50], that’s just an incredible achievement on its own. I’ve taken a couple ACTFL OPIs, and they are no joke.

Yeah. You had to get advanced higher superior. And, what was the great thing about going through the training, is it gave me a really solid foundation, on what proficiency levels mean. So now, I know how to translate that to my students. I know how to say, okay, we’re going to go from this level, we’re going to go from here to here. And, this is how much time we have. Okay, boom, this is how we’re going to do it. And, I feel really confident being able to do it. And, I don’t feel like I’m guessing. And, it follows the same trajectory; you learn words, you learn phrases, you start making your own sentences, you make choppy sentences, they start looking like paragraphs, you have choppy paragraphs, you have solid paragraphs, you have good strong paragraphs, you have connected paragraphs, and then you have extended speech.

So, when you think of it like that… And, we don’t deal with that up top or upper level at all. So, you don’t need that as… Most language teachers at school, you wouldn’t need that. I mean, you wouldn’t find really any purpose to use that. So, you’re really dealing with the novice level in most schools situations; so they’re going from nothing to being able to make their own sentences. And, the sentences don’t even have to be great. You know what I mean? They don’t have to be terribly polished, they just have to have some basic communication skills; and that’s usually at year three.

And, you said that, if I remember correctly, you’re teaching Spanish one through AP this year. Right?


So, what does that look like? I know I get asked a lot, and something we talked about a lot, when I was teaching Spanish in our department was, how do we know that they’re ready for the next level? And honestly, the whole contract of levels is a little bit artificial, but we got to have something. So, when you’re working in your curriculum, or however you set it up, what’s that indicator that helps get them from like two to three, or three to four? What are you looking for?

Yeah. So really, level one, of course by the end, I would say, because you make faster progress…. You make the fastest progress in the novice level. And then, it takes about twice as long to make the same amount of progress in the intermediate level. And really at school, even up to AP, because they call it pre-advanced, higher, intermediate or whatever. You’re only dealing with mostly that novice level. So, to go from zero to being able to make some phrases, I feel like that’s really level one. And then level two, some parts of it can be pretty painful with the grammar; which I believe in, I do some old school things, because they work, verb charts, that kind of thing. I’m not afraid of old-fashioned learning.

I don’t think anybody’s really a purist. I don’t really think there’s any such thing as like a true language teacher purists, or whatever. Everybody kind of mixes it together.

Yeah. And then, so like level three, they would really be going from that sort of high novice level, into the intermediate. Now mind you, if you have an advanced track class, which I know we’re not really supposed to do that kind of thing. But, I know some schools still have programs that the students who are really motivated, and they love it, and they want to go [inaudible 00:21:35]. There’s plenty of schools that have programs like that. But then, there’s plenty of schools that have one program for everybody. I mean, that’s just the reality. So, it can be done very quickly, to get from zero to intermediate. So, by the end of Spanish three, they are intermediates, which means, they can create with languages. So, novice level students is just kind of regurgitating, learned things. But then, they have enough of those learned things, to move it into, to create. And, that’s the hallmark of an intermediate.

And so then, the magic that happens in level three, it’s beautiful. The beginning of the year, everyone’s a little insecure; and then, by the end of the year, people are not perfect, but confident communicators. And then, to go from there to… What I would normally recommend is that students, if you’re going to be a senior, I always recommend to students, that they would just do AP, because that can be like free college money. And, the language classes, the language AP’s, because they have a lab component, and they are equivalent to a couple of upper level classes. I’ve seen people get 18 credits out of it, 15, nine, 12; I mean, astounding number of college credits. So, what’s the worst thing that can happen? I mean, you get a two or something.

But, if students are going to be juniors, I would tell them, okay, take Spanish four, because we do tons of reading, and it’s really like Spanish for pleasure, it’s just total immersion. We do those six global themes, that you see sort of throughout. And, learning about the environment, I do a lot of things with guest speakers. I have a lot of guest speakers from around the world, come talk to my students like this, we can talk about that. That’s actually really easy to set up, and it’s really fun; food, immersive lessons, that kind of thing. And, to really enjoy what you’ve learned. Pleasure reading, games, or I do games throughout all my levels. Very selfishly, and they’re not only good for learning. They lower affect, which will get kids communicating.

And, I really didn’t want to be the lady who taught hard classes all the time, and everyone was mad at me. But, I wasn’t going to lower my standards. So I thought, okay, we’ll just do games. We’ll do lots, and lots of games; and they work. And then, AP would be sort of like pre-intermediate. So, really… Pre-advanced. So, really to get like a passing score, a three, a student would have to be able to speak pretty effectively in paragraphs. But let me remind you, paragraphs could be, two or three strong sentences together. And then, maybe a native speaker who’s done some study of Spanish might get a five, and they would speak in really pretty extended paragraphs. So, I listen for that. So, I said a lot of words, but I listen for that.

So I listen for, okay, novice; once you get out of the novice range, you can create with language. And as you progress, you can do it stronger. And, if you can do it up here, this intermediate high level, this pre-advance, then you can do AP. And, I would obviously tell the kid to skip… A lot of times in my situation, I tell kids not to skip, not because I expect them to do a particular sequence; I want them to get lots of college credits. Because a lot of colleges…. The difference between getting no college credit for a three, but you spend another year in Spanish or French, and you get 12 credits, didn’t mean anything to high school students necessarily, but for teachers, I’m sure it does. And, it’s great to be able to share that with families. That’s a whole semester of college, that you don’t have to worry about now.

Yep. I know I’ve benefited from that system. Oh, yo know SAP’s yeah, it definitely works.


So, you talked a lot about, especially when you’re moving students from those different levels. How do you incorporate the routines that we talked about earlier, in order to get that language to them? What kind of routines do you have, and what do those look like, especially in the beginning of the year?

Okay. So, do you want to give me a level and I can…

Let’s do level three.


What does level three look like?

So, level three students would really understand those, because they would have been with me. And if they’re new, the other ones we’ll teach them. So my routines, I usually do one thing for vocabulary, not for culture, but [foreign language 00:26:27]. And we do, [foreign language 00:26:32], its great vocabulary, for students to learn, the pledge allegiance in Spanish. And, we do the calendar. And, these routines are really drawn out early on, because they’re still learning. So, I use my calendar to teach days, months, whether, and I do it every day. So, if you do the weather and days, by the time you get to that unit, you learned some French obviously too; by the time you get to that unit, you just… They do a couple of fun projects. They love it. It’s so easy. You give them some handouts.

And by that point, they know it, because you’ve done it every single day. And then, there’s so many questions you can incorporate, [foreign language 00:27:11], whatever you get, yesterday you get past tense, you get all that in there. So, I really embellish that. And then, at the very beginning of the year, I really embellish all the survival stuff in class, [foreign language 00:27:29], and everyone acts it out. But by level three, they know that. And, I would have them be different leaders. And sometimes, like honestly, they’ve got the routine down of not either just my Spanish class, but the whole deal, that this is foreign language class. And, if the phone rings, they’ll start doing it, because they have to do it. We didn’t do that today. It’s fun, it’s silly, it’s lighthearted, but it’s also… I sneak a lot of language in there.

Yeah. That’s really the power of your teens, is that you can do that.


Can you walk us through, what’s one of your favorite games to use with your upper-level?

My upper level classes or my lower? Okay. I’m going to start with one of my lower-level classes, even though that’s what you asked for. And then, I’m going to tell you about an upper-level one. So, one of my lower level, fun games, I have a lot of guess who games. Do you know that, guess who, where you ask, does the person have a mustache, do they have this, do they have that? And, I made these cards, so they’ve got pictures on them, that has the language. So, it’s totally CI. So, after we’ve done some work on descriptions, and I wouldn’t do like a lecture, it’s very CI, I show them, PowerPoint, opposites, tall and short, and that kind of thing.

They work in pairs as teams against each other, with the card, with guess who; so that they can help each other, they have some support. And, they do that; and then, I divide them up and they have to play against each other. And then, after they’ve had like a class full of practice, they have to take the quiz. The quiz is playing the game without the card. And by then, they know it all; and it’s all in context. So, that’s a really fun game, but that does take some prep. So, some of my instant games for upper-level will start there.

So, I love playing this game with errors. So, if have a test, I give a test, I do this a lot in my four class, and my AP classes, really quite fun. I write down a bunch of errors that they make. Okay. Now, you have to have a group that everyone… One of the most important things, I think in establishing a strong community language class, is for everybody to feel comfortable enough to make errors. So, that’s where the games, the affect, the CI. What you were talking about, with them seeing you make a mistake, that it’s a community, that couldn’t be more important. That’s your community. So, we tend to make the same errors at the same time in our journeys, that’s research-based. So, I would write down their errors, and I don’t tell them what’s, what; and, I give them all this sort of fake money, but you can do anything you want.

And, you going to have to do it for a prize. The kids like do it with checks, they just like to play it. And so then, I would write down one of their errors; and then, they all have to write down the correction, and they all guess who is it. Oh, that one was mine. And, it’s all grammar in context. So, you might see something like two via, like they’ve mixed the preterite and the imperfect, or gender mistakes. Because that takes a long time for them to really stop making those mistakes. So, gender and number. And then, they get a point or a check or a Euro, or whatever you want to give them. And, it’s a very fun way to deal with all the errors on your tests.

I love that. What a great new spin on that. And, I think it’s also really powerful to re-mention what you said too, because that’s something that I know I talk a lot about too; is that we’re super SLA nerds, over in my community. And, some of what we talk about a lot is the whole idea of like the morpheme orders of acquisition. And, that’s exactly true, is that, you’re going to make certain errors, and certain points in your language journey. And, one of the things that is really powerful to know is that, gender errors are going to continue up until your AP level students. Teachers still make them, I still make them. It’s going to be a thing. And, what’s a better way to do that, than to make a game out of it, and just make it cool that everybody does this. And, let’s recognize it, and make something fun out of it. What a great way to do that. I love that.

And, I have a lot of instant games. I don’t know if I listed all of them in… I put together a guide, it was five weeks of fun. And, I organize them by like a similar activity, or one activity in ways, it would look like in the novice level A, the intermediate level B, and the advanced level C. So most of them, they’re low prep, so I think they’re fairly instant. And, I think that’s important to have a good bag of tricks, when you’re a language teacher that you can just pull out… I mean, post-its are great. You should have bunch of post-its on hand, big ones, small ones; because there’s a bunch of instant games. You got any little builds, those make instant games, anything, any little white boards, all of that can turn any little activity and it can kind of game-ify it.

And, I haven’t researched completely the science behind it; but I do know that releases dopamine and pleasure, and they start to really associate it with fun stuff. And as I said, very selfishly, I didn’t want everyone to hate my… If I was going to come to school all day, I did not want everyone to hate my… Like, I hate this, this is hard, because it kind of is, right, foreign language. So, I have to make it fun. How do I make it fun?

Yeah, you’re always going to remember something better when it’s fun. And Janina has all of this for us in a really great handout. There’s tons of activities on there. Like she said, broken down by exactly what level you are teaching, based on what level of proficiency that you are targeting. And, it’s got all kinds of goodies in there for you. Thank you so much for sharing that with us. We’re so grateful to have that guide. And, we are so grateful to have you here with us today. This has been such a joy. We’re going to have, to have you come back on again, and share some more fun with us.

Thank you, Devon. Thank you for having me.

Yeah, this was great. And we, I wish you the best of luck with your new semester, and I hope that it goes as well as it possibly can. And, I know you’re a killer teacher, and you’ll be able to handle everything that comes your way; and that we are wishing the best for you. But, thank you so much for your time today, and we will see you again, next time.

Thanks, Devon.



Thank you for listening to the 5-Week Linguist Show, with Janina Klimas. Join us each week here, and visit us at reallifelanguage.com/reallifelanguageblog, for more resources, for learning and teaching languages.

Devon shares loads of tips and resources for teachers of languages. You can connect with her here: www.lalibrelanguagelearning.com

Language Class Activities: Five Weeks of Low and No Prep Fun- Week Two

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