Direct translation: lame, not as boring as you’d think…and effective

This is a bail-out move when stories fall flat, or it’s the day before a test and you don’t have another video to Movietalk, and you are out of readings.  I think the idea originally came from Ben Slavic’s dictation suggestion.  I just thought, why not have them read and write instead of listening and writing?

I have a basic “script” version of each story.  It is the skeleton of what I ask.  Last year, I found that I was unable to keep the stories 100% comprehensible during asking, unless I circled everything sooooo muuuuch that the stories got boring.  (This year, I am better:  using multiple characters = waaaaay more reps).  So, one day when the kids and I were equally grumpy, I went to the photocopy room, made 30 copies of the basic script of the story, and got the kids to translate.  Surprisingly, the kids were quite happy to sit and work quietly.  My guess is that this is because a C.I. class has a lot of listening and talking, and reading & writing is a break from this.

The next day, when we did extended embedded readings, the kids seemed a lot more focused and I realised that the extra repetition– read and translate– had upped comprehension.  So this has become a regular move.

It’s very simple, it gives the teacher a break, it lets the kids slow down with reading, and it’s easy to mark.

a)  Hand out a printed version of the story.  You want 100% comprehensibility.

b) Get the kids to copy the story out in the target language.  They should leave TWO blank lines under each line of the story.

c) Under the T.L. writing– in different-coloured pen– have them translate into L1.

d) Under the L1 translation, leave a blank line.  This is to keep things looking neat.

e)  Keep going, and remember to indent paragraphs and dialogue, etc.

For marking, I’m a big believer in random sampling.    Pick three sentences at random, and see how accurate the translation is.  The kids get a mark out of three.  I am fairly strict with meaning on these, because they have vocab sheets and we have been through asked story and retells, and I am in the room where they can ask for help, etc.  I can mark a class set of these in under five minutes.

I usually give them 40 min with a story.  75% of kids can get it done in class; for the rest, it’s homework.  While this sounds boring, the kids are fine with it, I know I am getting them to really read, and it’s low-tech.  My inner rebel also likes it:  zero tech, no prep, non-“communicative,” super-high levels of comprehensible input, older than old-school, etc.  Above all, it works.


  1. I recently did almost the exact same thing with one of my classes and it went just as well as you describe. I thought that they’d speak up about how “This is going to be boring,” but they got to work and did a really great job. It showed me that they can understand a lot more than I thought they could and it has spurred me on to move on to things that are a little more complex.

    Thanks for sharing and thanks for the idea of the random sampling for grading. I usually skim the work for big errors, but I’m definitely going to try sampling.

  2. Sampling is a fully under-rated assessment technique. You can’t do it all the time, but for some apps it’s perfect.

    The main point of Direct Translation is input. If we do it near the end of a story cycle, there are going to be very few comprehension problems. I see D.T. like dictation: as a way of binding L1 and L2 in order to clarify meaning.

  3. The general term “wait-time,” and our CI sanctioned equivalent technique “SLOW,” is definitely at play here. Despite our best efforts, allowing students to process the language at their own pace during Direct Translation is huge. In class, we can’t always get to every student. My roots as a classically-trained Classicist ignored the other steps to get to the point of Direct Translation, but we do benefit from it in exactly how you describe. Great post, Chris!

  4. Chris do you have example to share easily of how you are adding characters to get more reps and make it less boring with less circling?

    1. OK suppose you have a story:

      a boy wanted to have three cats
      went to ___
      received three cats.

      You narrate about the boy (“there was a boy”) and ask questions (“was there a girl? was there one boy or two?”). You also direct question the actors abou themselves or others (“are you a boy? Is she a girl?”).

      Then you just say “class, there was ALSO a girl!” You then use the same vocab and question with the girl.

      What happens to the girl is *similar to* but not the same as what happens to the boy. We do this because we want
      a) to re-use the vocab
      b) to maintain interest with novelty

      So the girl wanted 13 purple dogs. You narrate about the girl (past tense), direct question her (present tense) and circle both.

      This way, we recycle the vocab (wanted to have, went, received, dog, cat, purple etc) but we use different names, places etc to maintain interest.

      Adriana uses 1-2 main actors and keeps the parallel characters sitting in seats (with a prop to ID them visually). You can use as many parallel characters as you want.

      Blaien Ray goes on about this in Fluency Through TPR Storytelling.

  5. I started doing this several years ago, and then let it go. It was a great way to assign HW as well as to offer a way to make-up missed CI due to absence. The key instruction I gave was that the first word in each line of the printed copy was always the first line of the hand copy.

    It was objected (by an FL teacher who did not publicly use any FL for communication) that copying is a waste of time. And mindless copying may be a waste of time. Of course, that is an indictment of much of the HW turned in–it is copied from other students. My personal experience is that copying word for word puts a focus on detail in both form and meaning and helping me to “see” more of what I am reading.

    Last night while correcting, I decided that I needed to start doing more of this for my lower level students, and for those slower to buy into learning with CI. So it was a wonderful thing to peruse your site today and read about your discovery and implementation. I like your idea of random grading and using this as bail-out as well as a graded exercise.

    Also, I think that as FL teachers we tend to confuse the difficulty of production translation (L1 to L2) for the beginner with the value of interpretive translation. The first is usually forced output (production expected before the brain is capable to doing so). The second is comprehensible input which is hampered by amount of unknown words/structures. What you are offering here is another, more individual and quieter, format for getting CI. Thanks.

    1. Nice comments, especially re: the L1->L2 problem. The essence of gettting C.I. is slow focus and translation does that.

      Random sample grading works beautifully.

      I like your idea of formatting. To do this you have to print story in BIG font (like 14 point) cos kids’ writing is usually bigger than standard 12 point.

  6. I also think that at times students need to have a piece of paper in front of them to focus on and work on. Even when a speaker interests me, it is hard work to sit in a chair and listen. I am seeing that getting the input from a piece of paper in front of the student can be a welcome break for kids and teacher. Thanks for the post!

    1. I agree. Even if one is super captivating, it’s almost imposssible to be entertaining for 75 min. The typical teen in my experience has an attention span of about 10 min, at which point a break is required.

      We also benefit from slow silent time.

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