Student raising hand.

Kelly Weidenmiller June 27, 2019

Top Ways to Get Students Speaking in the Target Language (Part 1)

Kelly Weidenmiller

As much as world language teachers spend much of their curriculum developing 3 out of the 4 modes of communication (reading, writing, and listening), they often find it difficult to encourage and expect verbal output from students. As a 10-year Spanish teacher, I have worked tirelessly to create a classroom culture that incorporates not only expectations but strategies and activities with a central goal in mind: to develop Spanish SPEAKERS.

During my BetterLesson coaching this year, we focused on encouraging more speaking at the lower levels to help support success in the upper-level courses, developing some of my favorite new activities. Often colleagues from other schools are astounded to hear we have non-native speakers earning a 5 on the AP Spanish Language and Culture test at a Title I school district every year. Through various steps and structured activities starting at level 1, students rise to the occasion and eliminate the use of English by the time they’re in their third and fourth years of instruction.

Identifying what types of activities truly help to hone speaking skills and build student confidence has been an ongoing journey. However, if these activities are to be truly successful, you must create a classroom culture in which mistakes are not only okay, but encouraged and celebrated. The vast majority of your speaking in class needs to be participatory rather than graded on accuracy. Risk-taking is incredibly hard for anyone, let alone young people. There must be an expectation that making mistakes is how we learn and that NO ONE will laugh when others make mistakes.

My mantra is “communication is our goal, not perfection.” If the other person understands what you are trying to say, despite errors, mission accomplished. With practice, students will slowly start to recognize their mistakes and self-correct. But above all, we must encourage imperfect speech – it is the ONLY way to become verbally proficiency. By establishing this culture, you will be able to incorporate the following strategies and activities to help build up the number one skill students will actually use after graduation.

This is a three-part blog series in which I unpack how I use strategies that leverage circumlocution, interpersonal conversation, and description and creativity to encourage speaking for all levels of second-language learner.

Circumlocution Strategies

As language learners, we will never know every single word, even in our native language. Therefore, we must be able to describe a word to someone such that another person will understand what we’re trying to say and perhaps offer us that word. This process is known as circumlocution. For example, I might say, “the thing used to open a can.” The other person would then suggest, “can opener.” I use these activities for current vocabulary words, review, and high-frequency words.

1. Level 1 Circumlocution: “Mystery Word” (Palabra misteriosa)

Each student has a partner, a list of 10 vocabulary words in both the target language and English (different set of 10 each), and 2 minutes to describe as many words as possible to their partner without saying the actual word, earning points if their partner guesses correctly in the target language, then switching roles.

Mystery Word Example

2. Level 2 Circumlocution: “Describe it/ Catch Phrase” (Descríbelo)

In a group, students are provided with a deck of index cards with only the target language word on one side and the other blank. Students sit in a circle, and one student picks up a card and holds the card as a “secret,” so no one else can see it. That player describes the word to the group and whoever guesses correctly wins the card (keeping track of points for a winner). That student then passes the deck onto the next person, only describing one word each at a time. (Recommended length: 8-10 minutes)

3. Level 3 Circumlocution: “Heads up” (Cabezas arriba)

This activity is based on the game made popular by Ellen DeGeneres. Groups are divided into team with each person having a turn. We use the same cards from “Describe it,” and instead of describing the work on the car, the person holds the card on their forehead without looking. The whole group describes the word to them without saying it (I recommend an “up” arrow on the backside, so they hold up the card right-side up). The person with the deck has 45sec-1min to guess as many words as they can.

All three of these activities also work on listening skills, with the last pushing their ability to listen to more than one person at a time and ignore the other groups’ voices, a very high-level listening skill difficult for students to master. Next week I will share strategies that support interpersonal conversation.