Oh, how I miss teaching novices! I teach next door to the Spanish 1, 2, and 3 teacher, with a divider separating our basement rooms, and every time I hear her with her Spanish 1 students I long to be in there – not because she’s really doing anything wrong, but because I love teaching novices so much. I enjoy interacting with teachers of novices every chance I get. As I meet and engage in conversation with teachers of novices, both in person and online, I have encountered what I believe are the three most common mistakes teachers of novices make.
Teaching too much grammar
It’s so easy for language teachers to fall into this. We love to pick apart the words into their individual changeable parts but we are not doing beginners any favors by encouraging them to think about language rather than use it. Let me just say that our goal with novices is not accuracy. It’s NOT ACCURACY. It’s not accuracy. You may think it’s important for your novices to be manipulating feminine and masculine (and calling them that) but 1) those labels don’t make any sense and 2) only students who have a high linguistic aptitude (such as recognizing and duplicating patterns easily) will benefit. The others will be lost.
So what is our goal? If I could boil my goal for novices down to one phrase it would be communicating while creating with language. So, some degree of accuracy is needed but only insofar as it prevents miscommunication. The big thing that makes novices novices is that they can’t really create with language. They can communicate with memorized chunks of language but aren’t adept at moving those chunks into different situations or separating them into communicative parts to use as tools in other sentences. I want my novices to get to a place where they can do that – because then they’re moving into intermediate. And then we can think more about accuracy.
What does this mean in the classroom? For me, it means put away the conjugation charts. And the word conjugation for that matter. I’ve recently seen a flurry of teachers recommending this mnemonic or that video or this resource for teaching the conjugation of this or the reflexive that. Oh, if we could just put aside all the pet grammatical labels, all the charts, all the stupid YouTube videos with grammar rules set to modern pop music and just let kids communicate. Then we’d be doing something about proficiency!
Not enough target language
We all know that ACTFL recommends levels of at least 90% target language or more, but there is still way too much English in the classroom. I’m wagging my finger at myself here. The last two years, okay, I was pregnant, I was tired, I have excuses why I didn’t put the brain power in to speaking enough Spanish in the classroom. I started strong and then it was too easy to let a meaningful discussion turn the class into an English zone or to tell myself I was just too tired to get the Spanish comprehensible and out there, but really, there’s no excuse. Because we know that when we don’t speak the target language at comprehensible levels, students aren’t acquiring it.
How many teachers react to the TL recommendations makes me think a lot of teachers think it’s harder to stay in the TL at novice levels than intermediate. (As I write this, I have an email open in another tab from a teacher asking this very question.) But I think it’s the other way around. My intermediates want to push so much into areas they can’t do linguistically; it’s much harder for me there to stay in the TL. Novices, on the other hand, need so much routine, scaffolding, negotiation, etc. that I think it’s much easier to stay in the TL with them. For lots of tips on getting more TL in the classroom, see my posts on increasing teacher TL and increasing student TL, as well as the #langchat summaries of chats on this topic:
- Strategies for staying in the target language with beginners
- Increase your students’ use of target language in the classroom
- Target language from day 1: How to keep high levels of TL in your class
- Maximizing target language use in the classroom
- Ways to inspire conversation in the target language
Too much group work
I love group work. One of my favorite things to say is that collaboration isn’t cheating, it’s the 21st-Century skill. But with some teachers, and some methods (it’s a problem with project-based or problem-based learning especially), we’re incorporating large amounts of collaborative learning in a classroom where students aren’t capable of it. Students need to be working with someone who can truly scaffold with them, and as novices, their classmates aren’t it. Their classmates can’t make the input accurate and comprehensible at the same time. When I’m teaching novices, I include group collaborative work perhaps 10% of the time, and it usually looks like partner or class surveys (what’s your favorite soda? his favorite soda is Coke, and my favorite soda is Coke, our favorite soda is Coke, etc.).
Do you agree? What mistakes do you think hinder the novice classroom and how are you fixing them?