Saturday, January 11, 2014

Giving directions in the target language

My first elementary school teaching job was an ALT in Japan. I would show up once a month to a school, give one lesson in English to each class and the next day move on to the next school. 90% TL wasn't a problem since I didn't speak any Japanese. All games and activities took extra long because I had to act out everything I wanted the kids to do, although sometimes I was lucky and the classroom teacher spoke some English and could translate. One time I was not so lucky and not only did the teacher not translate she disappeared for the hour, leaving me alone with 28 second graders who to their credit tried very hard to decipher how to play Duck, Duck, Goose.

Despite that experience I still sometimes think that my kids won't understand an activity if I give them directions in Spanish. Not true! They might take longer to understand. Or they might not get it quite right the first time but interpreting simple directions and commands is right there in my standards and I shouldn't avoid it just because it's easier to switch to English. Below is an example of how I explained a simple game of throwing a ball in a circle and asking "What's your name?" and answering "My name is ____."

Start slowly - When I explained how to play the game, I started by first introducing the ball, a word they had never learned before. The exchange below was in Spanish but for teachers of other languages I'm posting it in English.

This is a ball. This is a ball. Ball. Ball. Is this a ball, yes or no?
Is this a pencil?
Is this a marker?
Is this a ball?
Mirror OK!
Ball! Ball! Ball! This is a ball!
Ball! Ball! Ball! This is a ball!
This is a ____.

From then on during the directions every time I might have said the word ball I pointed to the ball and asked the students for the word in Spanish. This makes sure that they are listening closely to my directions because they are expected to respond often in the course of me explaining the game.

Model what you want them to do - Once we were all clear that we had a ball. I drew on the board an oval and told them we were going to sit in an oval and throw the ____. We weren't going to throw the ___ hard like we were playing baseball (cue me acting out throwing a pitch then crossing my arms and saying no!) We were going to throw the ____ softly and nicely (cue me throwing it gently and underhand then holding up my thumbs and saying yes.)

Then I told them we were going to say "My name is "your name." What's your name?" and then pass  the ____ to another person. I then passed the ball to several students in the class so they could hear the question and answers.

Draw pictures for reference - I wanted the students to throw the ball boys to girls and girls to boys so I drew stick figures on the board tossing the ball. (When students laughed at my drawing I told them, "No me llamo Ms. Weber (our art teacher.) Me llamo Ms. Kennedy.)

Check for understanding - After drawing the stick figures and explaining that boys throw to girls who throw to boys. I asked them, "Does Sam throw the ____ to Mary? Yes or no?" "Does Sam throw the _____ to Jack? Yes or no?"  "Do we throw the ____ hard like in baseball? Yes or no? Do we throw softly? Yes or no?"  Then I ask if the students understand the game. Most of them will say yes at this point with their thumbs up. The real test of course is when you start the game.

When do I use English?

After the game started there were a few instances where students didn't quite get what was going on. Usually their classmates would set them straight but a few times I had to step in and explain with a sentence or two in English what was expected. The main part though is that it took either no English at all or just a little English on my part to explain the game, well within my 10% allowance.

When there is time enough to play the game but not enough time to explain in Spanish AND play the game I usually go with the game but explained in English. Most of the time the activity or game has the students speaking and I'd rather sacrifice time spent listening to me so they have time to speak. As I do the same games and activities in class though I don't explain a game we've played before in English a second time.

So that's how I've started to give directions in class and it's how I need to remember to do it more consistently. I need to trust myself and more importantly trust my students to be able to figure things out. They'll let me know if they don't understand! How do you give directions? In the TL or English? What helps you stay in the TL? Leave a comment below!

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