The Comprehensible Classroom

Questions related to this topic:

  • I want to know how to get better at staying in the target language for the whole class, and helping my students do the same.

  • I want to know how to work with students who refuse to speak in the target language.

  • How can I best keep comprehension going in the TL if we are online in the fall?

  • How to continue teaching 90% in the Target language while engaging in these new methods of teaching?

  • How to effectively stay 90% in the T.L. I’ve done marbles for accountability y nada!

  • When I stay at 90% TL and I hear crickets as their response, how do I “pull” out an answer in TL? How about when distance learning?

Using the Target Language in Class 

ACTFL’s recommendation of 90% Target Language use is, on one hand, a no-brainer! We have to speak the language if students are going to get input.  We want them to acquire the language, not learn about it, right?  However, the recommendations do not say that students need to be speaking in the target language.  It is pretty normal for any group of people to default to a shared language to communicate, so it makes sense that students use their shared language in class.  


In my classroom, L1 (our shared language) is not a crime.  I try not to use it, or to use it judiciously, but there is no punishment or shaming of students who do not yet speak the language to use the language that they are learning.  I provide a ton of supports for them in the form of rejoinders, non-verbal responses, one word responses, circumlocution modeling, and more, so that there are plenty of opportunities for them to use L2 (the language being acquired), and celebrate every instance that they use it! And if they respond in L1, it means that they understand!  And that they want to participate!  That they are engaged and want to continue to engage in class!  Isn’t that worth celebrating?  

I also notice and consider L1 use as a cue that they do not yet have the language to complete a task or that I have asked them to do something that they don’t understand.  If students are using L1 to work in pairs or groups, that is a big red flag for me that the activity is not level appropriate.  (Or that I did a poor job explaining it, or that it is boring.)  


There is one other important use for L1 (if you have a shared language): to clarify meaning.  I use a shared language to clarify meaning because it is the most efficient and clearest way to do so.  Pictures are great, but can be ambiguous.  If I show a picture of a blue butterfly to illustrate the word “mariposa” (butterfly in Spanish), it might not be clear that I mean butterfly rather than blue.  It takes longer to clarify as well. Quickly writing or saying the meaning of a new word in a shared language is both efficient and clear.  


I used to think that if I let my English brain in to my Spanish brain, then I was doing a major disservice to my Spanish and interrupting any chance I had for acquisition.  What I didn't realize was that I am constantly accessing my English brain as a learner of any language- CONSTANTLY- and that rather than that being a deficit or somehow not helpful, the fact that I had that English background was a huge asset.  


In Between Worlds, Access to Second Language Acquisition (Freeman & Freeman, 2011), the authors present three orientations about first language: language as handicap, language as right, and language as resource. I fully fall into the language-as-resource camp- after all, the fact that we share an L1 (a first language) means that we can be more efficient with our limited class time. 


Jim Cummins (2007) also deals with a L2 (the language being taught) only approach in his work with English language learners, and "encourages us to rethink monolingual strategies for teaching multilingual students."  He discusses the misconceptions of the role of L1 in L2 instruction.   


One misconception that is most relevant to this discussion is "the belief that translation has no place in the classroom". Cummins encourages teachers to thing of using translation this way:  "using translation in the classroom recognizes skills children bring to school as language brokers".  


Another and perhaps more relevant misconception that Cummins addresses what he calls the Two Solitudes: the idea that two languages should be kept rigidly separate.  Freeman & Freeman have this to say: "However, many effective practices for language acquisition are excluded when instruction is limited to one language at a time.  For example, having students access cognates depends on using both languages simultaneously."  

Cummins points out "The reality is that students are making cross-linguistic connections throughout the course of their learning [in a bilingual or immersion program] so why not nurture this learning strategy and help students to apply it more efficiently?"


It's true that Cummins was speaking of immersion programs, but I would argue that his point is absolutely relevant in a classroom where we have, at most, 150 hours with our students.


Finally, students do not need to speak or practice speaking in order to acquire a language.  This is a key mindset shift for comprehension based teachers:  When enough language is in the brain, words will come spilling out. My goal is to provide as much input (what they read or hear) that learners understand as possible, and make it compelling so that they want to pay attention and engage with it. 


-Elicia Cárdenas, Director of Training, Comprehensible Classroom


Resources and Further Reading: 90% Target Language


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