What I have learned about teaching novices is that creating the kind of practices that require them to think about what they have to say about something is a very deliberate process. We have to balance just getting them to speak or respond with elaborating to say as much as they can. Additionally, we have to consciously think about designing practices that require more than word or phrase level responses. In fact, the goal is to control the type of language our students use while not controlling the content of what they say. They cannot move up the proficiency scale without being able to speak or write using strings of sentences, asking their own questions and creating their own personalized responses.
This is why the textbook drills don't really work. Oh yes, they get them talking, but often the practices we find in textbooks are only word or simple sentence level text. They just don't require our students to elaborate on a topic at all.
The unit we are teaching in Spanish 1 right now has to do with homes. One of our learning targets is, "I can describe a typical home and compare it to other homes." By now my students have a firm handle on describing the size, color and looks of something, but this week I wanted more from them. So, I put together this practice to force them to use a few new descriptors and justify why they could describe their homes with them no matter how they really feel.
Let me just say it was great! Worked like a charm. I loved hearing them use porque (because), pero (but), tambien (also) and even AUNQUE (although) and SIN EMBARGO (however). Yes, my level 1's were using some pretty big transitional words. LOVED IT!
What this practice made me realize is that many times we focus on asking novices to describe and tell them to elaborate, but sometimes they don't know what that really means. That is partially due to their developmental level and how their minds work in their first language. Teenagers are very concrete thinkers and have a hard time justifying their opinions about things. If that is who they are in L1, how can we expect more in L2?
So, in this activity I just tried to simplify things for them and take one step out of the communicative process going on in their brains. I took control of the description in order to make them focus on the elaboration. Since description is the easiest of the skills in our lesson, I increased rigor by shining the spotlight on the "why," something they aren't so good at in either language. It was wonderful to hear the types of sentences they were building. They were much more complex than normal.
Another benefit of the practice was that they had to employ a wider variety of vocabulary that they might not have if I had asked them to merely describe. They had to dig in and use all kinds of words to explain themselves and it forced them to ask for new words. My whiteboard was covered with new vocabulary by the end of the day! Even if they don't remember all the new words on the board, they were creating personalized messages to communicate. It was beautiful!
This little practice would make a great model for multiple levels. To push it up the proficiency scale all you would have to do is change the context and the communicative task you want the students to perform. Imagine...
the adjectives become...
the task changes to...
Happy Coaching, friends!