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Six Core Practices for Early Language Learners

This is a guest post by Nathan Lutz. Nathan is a Primary School French Teacher and Global Learning Coordinator at Kent Place School in Summit, NJ and President of the National Network for Early Language Learning. The core practices that he writes about here align closely with the methodologies used in the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum.spanish curriculum for preschool

“Best practices” are good for teachers to do. “Core practices,” on the other hand, are essential for teachers. Think of the distinction as the “nice to haves” vs. the “must haves.” Core practices are non-negotiables that must be employed in order to do one’s job as an educator and must be demonstrated to secure a teaching job. If a job applicant couldn’t perform these essential practices, they would not be considered worthy of hiring. These practices would also have to be demonstrated throughout a teacher’s career in order to receive satisfactory evaluations­.

Also called “high-leverage teaching practices,” these are considered “core” because they are essential for educators to employ in order for their learners to acquire a language. Neglecting any one of these practices would result in our learners not being fully prepared. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has adopted these practices and asserts that they are the key to success for student proficiency.

On many occasions, I have heard teachers of early language learners give caveats that their students are not capable of working with some of these practices because of their low proficiency level or basic cognitive abilities. With the right mindset—and plenty of preparation—these core practices can be applied to all of our language learners—no matter the age.

These Six Core Practices for Effective Language Learning are identified as: (1) Facilitate Target-Language Comprehensibility, (2) Guide Learners Through Interpreting Authentic Resources, (3) Design Oral Interpersonal Communication Tasks, (4) Plan With Backward Design Model, (5) Teach Grammar as a Concept and Use it in Context, and (6) Provide Appropriate Oral Feedback. Here is how each can be applicable for the early language learner.

Facilitate Target-Language Comprehensibility

ACTFL gives a firm recommendation of using the target language at least 90 percent of the class time. That recommendation applies to both the teacher and the learners for speaking, listening, reading, writing, viewing, and creating. But with so much of the class content in the target language, there is a concern that a large portion of the class discourse would be incomprehensible for our novice level learners.

Helping make new language comprehensible to learners is one of our biggest jobs as world language educators. There are multiple ways of doing so—and often it takes several methods in unison to reach all students and help make the learning stick.

For some of our early learners, comprehensibility of even their first language (L1) can sometimes be challenging because their vocabulary is still growing, their life experiences are not as rich as older learners, and they may not understand nuance. Now imagine operating in a second language (L2). Our young learners require heavy use of extralinguistic cues—like gestures, visuals, or the use of props—in order to make sense of the new language being presented to them.

Guide Learners Through Interpreting Authentic Resources

This core practice seems stressful to many early language educators because of the perception of text complexity. So instead of using authentic resources, many will use created texts or heavily modify existing authentic resources. Of course, plopping Don Quixote in front of a novice-level 6-year-old learner would be inappropriate. Selection of an appropriate resource is very important. When we expand our thinking beyond books and articles, and turn to comic strips, tweets, or even memes, we are faced with authentic resources with text complexities much more in line with novice-level learners’ capabilities.

The other important point regarding authentic resources is that early language educators should consider the mantra of “vary the task, not the text.” This means that we still provide a text—perhaps a little challenging for our learners, but ask them to do a task that is within their range. For instance, one could provide an article and ask our learners to identify the names of all the animals mentioned within the article. As a result, they are still interacting with the original text, but their task has been tiered down toward their proficiency level.

Design Oral Interpersonal Communication Tasks

It may seem a little unfair to the other modes of communication—presentational and interpretive—that the interpersonal mode is the only one to be highlighted in the Six Core Practices. But many educators—whether at the early learner level or at the high school level—struggle with how to teach this skill. And, ironically, this is the mode of communication that most learners desire the most—to be able to verbally communicate in a spontaneous conversation with another person.

Our early learners need a lot of modeling of this mode of communication. When our learners hear and see two speakers interact with the language, they are provided models for negotiating, exchanging information, expressing agreement or disagreement, and so on. But scaffolding up to this full-on performance must be strategic.

In my classroom, I make frequent use of games in which two partners must exchange information in order to proceed through the game. Admittedly, these are not spontaneous and unrehearsed interactions, but they mimic that type of language and offer practice for learners until they have the confidence and memory to use them spontaneously on their own.

Plan With the Backward Design Model

This core practice, derived from Jay McTighe’s and Grant Wiggins’ Understanding by Design, challenges educators to mindfully plan their learning units with a big picture mindset. By first establishing the desired end results, educators are poised to then identify acceptable evidence of meeting these standards. Then educators can set to the task of judiciously choosing the most appropriate learning activities that will result in those earlier identified results. Each assessment task refers back to a learning objective so that nothing ends up being extraneous within the unit.

For our early language learners, using the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can Do Statements are helpful in setting a tone, written in learner-friendly language, that also respects the learners’ cognitive and linguistic levels.

Teach Grammar as a Concept and Use it in Context

Many early language educators adamantly assert that they don’t teach grammar. This sharply contrasts with many of our colleagues at the higher levels who insist on a grammar-centric approach. By focusing on communication in the early language classroom, we feel confident that our learners are prepared to have functional language that can be used in authentic situations. Yes, they make grammatical mistakes, but these mistakes can be forgiven because they don’t impede comprehension. These errors, though, separate our novice level learners from the intermediate learners.

As many world language educators grouse, our learners often don’t know the grammar of their L1. So imagine the challenge of explicitly instructing grammar in an L2. If we were to give concrete examples with lots of comprehensibility, then we are more likely that the learners will understand—and acquire—the language structure.

Provide Appropriate Oral Feedback

This core practice indicates that it is oral corrective feedback that best mediates learning and develops language proficiency. Providing immediate oral feedback to our early language learners is likely the number one way we elementary educators provide feedback given class session duration and frequency—and the fact that our youngest learners are pre-literate.

With my elementary students, I prefer not to ever correct while they are extemporaneously responding. Instead, I bank their errors and make general comments to the whole class. This method tends to serve as a good example for all students and it avoids halting authentic speech. Students still get feedback in the same class period—but it isn’t halting or upsetting. Instead, it is something that everyone can learn from.

Final Thoughts on the Core Practices for Early Language Learners

As you can see, this list covers a lot of ground for world language teaching and learning. Upon scrutiny, you’ll see that each one is essential to helping our learners achieve proficiency. Although some may seem daunting for our youngest learners, there are slight modifications that can be implemented to achieve success—so no learner is excluded from what they need to make gains in world language proficiency.

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