Packing for the Path to Proficiency-Part 1

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I’m packing.  No.  Not guns.  Strategies, activities, techniques, differentiation.  All the materials I need to tackle the path to proficiency.  I love the title-Path to proficiency.  The word is so apt.  A path is long & winding, with mountains and valleys, obstacles, and rewards.  When we set off, we’re full of optimism and excitement, but we can quickly tire and feel that the end is nowhere in sight as the unforeseen challenges of the path rise up to thwart us and to steal the energy and joy we had at the outset.  So, we must be sure to think carefully about the things we will need to travel the path, especially when it’s a new one, like the path to proficiency is for me.  Luckily, along the way we meet other travelers, who share the trail with us, and even offer some of the goodies they’ve packed or picked up on the way.

Training for the path I walk. A lot.  In fact, I’m training with a friend to hike part of the Camino in Spain.  And the one thing I’ve learned is that being well-prepared and packing the right things makes all the difference. We’ve done other races and hikes before.  We know the value of training properly.  So as I set out on the Path to Proficiency, I knew I needed to train mentally and physically.  For me, that required reworking the essentials of my classroom.

First, I needed daily visual cues. The classroom had to be reset.  I needed a trigger every day to ensure I was planning activities that involved students interacting in the target language.  So I got rid of the rows and created pods of three.  As we know, when students are in a group together they will talk.  So, I knew I had to plan lessons with lots of interactive and speaking activities to keep them busy.  Now, every lesson contains activities that require the students to interact somehow with each other using the target language– even if it is just to compare homework answers.  Otherwise, the small groups work against me.

Next, The language “chunk”.  Why did I ever think that a long list of words to memorize was the key to learning a language?  I think back to my own learning.  I would hear someone use a phrase and then I would memorize that whole phrase and attempt to use it.  Then I could plug in single words around the “chunk” of language I had internalized.  This is how little children acquire language.  It is much more natural than hunting and pecking through the lists of words that we have filed away in the recesses of our minds, and stringing them together as we translate each one from our native language, just hoping we get the right syntax and idiom.

Now, we start each day with a warm-up using a new commonly-used phrase or reviewing an old one.  I especially like expressions with personal pronouns since those make us “sound” more proficient, and are hard to master in the traditional way I was teaching them.  We model ways to use the phrase in a short interaction.  I usually provide a few variations on the theme for those students who need the differentiation.  They can stick close to the model, or experiment—all according to their comfort level.  They keep a running list of these little interactions and are encouraged to use them in other activities—almost like a game to see who can correctly incorporate the most.  When a student uses these phrases in a formative class practice on his/her own, I distribute tokens.  At the end of each quarter, we put the tokens in a pot to draw for prizes.  What I love most about this activity is that it sets the tone and expectation for the class—we are using the target language today!

What to Pack?  Once I had physically and mentally prepared (some may remember my previous post—perfect is boring!) now I had to think about what to pack in my lesson. I’ve not been on this particular path very long and I wasn’t exactly sure what I would need.  I knew that some of my equipment was outdated and needed to be chucked out and replaced with more proficiency-minded strategies.   And I was a bit overwhelmed by the path at the beginning; I was ready to climb before I really knew where I was going and had warmed up my muscles.   But I was determined, I am determined.  Along the way, I sometimes have to pause and catch my breath, confer with other travelers, recalculate my trip, and repack my rucksack, but I am determined to finish.  When is not important, only that I do.

So, here are three of the most useful things I’ve packed for my journey to teach proficiency.   I freely share them with you and hope that you will share yours with me.  Together, I know we will reach the end of this path, the one up until recently, much less traveled.  But as the poet tells us, I took the path less traveled and that has made all the difference!

Disclaimer—I borrowed and tweaked all these ideas from other pilgrims I met along the Way! 

  • Dinner party. This is a conversation starter.   Like a dinner party, where we all have those one or two questions we use to make small talk with the other guests, I use questions about the lesson.  Instead of the classic “How about this weather?” of “How about that football team?”, each student receives a different question from the lesson that is his “go to” small talk starter.  Then the students mingle around the room as if at a party.  They have to strike up a conversation with other students, using proper greetings and then make small talk around their two questions.  I usually time the interactions—anywhere from 2-4 minutes, depending on the level.  So, while the original question was given to them, they have to sustain their interaction until the buzzer sounds and they “mingle” some more.
  • Speed dating. This activity is perhaps my favorite, as my students will tell you, I use it a LOT.  I set the room up in two rows with desks facing each other.  Then I place the prompts/ directions on the desks.  This could be a scenario to roleplay, a picture to analyze (5Ws or I see, I think, I wonder, or imagine a story/dialogue), or a guided dialogue (think AP simulated conversation).  Then the students have a set amount of time to discuss the prompt.  When the buzzer sounds they all move one seat to the left and get a new partner and a new prompt.
  • Password. This is my students’ favorite game. Like the old TV game show, students must use circumlocution to get their partner to say a term or expression.  Using PowerPoint, I put 5 terms or expressions on a slide.  Students, in their pods of three, have one student turn away from the screen.  The other two students must give verbal clues (NO CHARADES!) in the target language to get the third student to correctly guess the term or expression on the slide.  The first pod to successfully guess all 5 terms/expressions, yells out and wins a point for its team.  Then a new student in the group must guess and we move to the next slide.  This game is great for the beginning of a unit, to get students used to new terminology as well as a confidence-builder as they learn to manipulate language for their own use.  The first time I play the game with a class, we review certain phrases such as “this is a thing that…” or “this is someone who…” (Great for pulling in those relative pronouns!) To differentiate for more advanced students, add a Taboo game element by listing at the bottom of each slide three or four words they cannot use in their clues.  Or, list a few clue starters for classes where students really struggle to use the language.

Stay tuned for the next post where I’ll share a few more items I’ve packed.  Until then, I’d love to know:  what are you packing?

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Packing for the Path to Proficiency-Part…

by Betsy Taylor time to read: 6 min
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