When I started teaching, I used very little target language in my classroom. I struggled with classroom management and the only way I knew to handle it was to speak in English, try to keep students busy with work that I explained in English, and teach vocabulary and structures using English. I was in survival mode and, frankly, I didn’t know any better.
In my third year of teaching, right before school started on the first day, the seasoned French teacher next door stopped by and told me about how she only used French for the first ten minutes of French 1 on the very first day. I couldn’t imagine how she did it, but I just decided, right before that class started, that I was going to try it, too. Students came in, I said hello and took attendance and asked them how they were (good, so-so, bad) all in Spanish for the first twenty minutes. It was surprisingly successful; so much so, that it was awkward when I switched to English after that initial twenty minutes.
Flash forward a few years. I had been slowly incorporating more target language into my daily lessons as years passed. I attended a workshop of teachers using an immersion-style method where they never spoke a common language with their students, only the target language, starting on day one. While this was intriguing, I was intimidated. I thought about it a lot over that summer and came back in September determined to speak Spanish at all costs.
The first day of Spanish 1 conducted completely in Spanish was always scary. I developed many tricks over the years to help it go smoothly. What I found to be the most important thing was to always be positive and encouraging to students, even when they pushed back. Smiling, giving a thumbs up, praising, repeating each word 50 times, writing and drawing on the board, acting it out, using students as examples – I imagined that I was a mime and had to get my message across and get students to speak. Many times, a student on the first day of Spanish 1 would say to me, “Excuse Ms. Buschert. I think I am in the wrong class. I don’t speak Spanish at all.” By the end of the period, they could say hello, tell me their name, and ask how I was.
The road to a target language classroom has many obstacles. I choose to focus on all of the experiences that have let me know that I have done the right thing.
Three weeks into one school year, I ran into my Spanish 1 freshman student in the hallway. She and I had an entire conversation in Spanish about the weather. As she walked away, her friend said, “Wow! I didn’t know you spoke Spanish.”
One student was very shy and didn’t speak in class. Our personalities clashed and I always felt bad that they seemed uncomfortable. But then they told another teacher that they couldn’t stop thinking in Spanish when they left my classroom each day.
When my juniors and seniors started after school jobs, they came back to tell me that someone at their work only spoke Spanish and that they were the only other person at work who could talk to them.
These are the moments that let me know that every single struggle I have had and worked through while trying to maintain that 90%+ target language in my classroom was worth it. There were, however, still some challenges – and here is how I approached them!
Some students will catch on more quickly than others. For those that don’t understand at first, try repeating, making the task simpler, modeling, starting the task for them, or pulling them aside, explaining in English and then trying to figure out why they are struggling. Students can also help each other. Often those that are lost can watch what the others are doing and figure it out. Once you have established routines, this should be less of an issue.
Scaffold! Give students everything they need to be successful on the task. Providing sentence starters, example answers, word banks, and word walls are good places to start. As time goes on, students will need less support.
Student buy-in is key to success. This is where teacher perseverance will be critical. Show them that even if they are resistant, you will continue with the target language. This may result in some very slow and frustrating classes in the beginning. But once students see that you won’t budge, they will come along. It is just like any other classroom rule or routine.
There are moments when English is necessary, and this is one of them! For those students, I would have a quick side conversation in English to check in. For communicative partner activities, sometimes I would partner with those students to provide additional support. Student aids or assistants who have been through your class before are also valuable resources! Make them the designated buddy for your students in need of accommodations and let them help out as much as needed.
Show them the standards for the state or the district. Research supports target language use in the classroom and it is considered a best practice to conduct class in the target language. Those reasons should be more than enough.
See reasons above.
This transition can take a lot of energy. Use those days when everyone is burnt out to play a fun game or do a community building activity. Do something easy that makes everyone feel successful.
Alexis Buschert taught high school Spanish for 10 years in Oregon public schools. She has also taught in France as an English teaching assistant and participated in a Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar in Ecuador. Alexis spent her time in the classroom transitioning to proficiency-based teaching and trying everything from an immersion-style deskless classroom, to teaching fully online during the pandemic.
Alexis still takes Spanish classes at home and abroad whenever possible.