Laura Sexton

What Should The First Day of Language Class Look Like?

The always-on-point Laura Sexton (@SraSpanglish–follow her on Twitter) recently said during a #langchat session that, on a successful first day of school “students can say something when they leave.” 

I disagree.  So, today’s question:  what should a successful Day 1 with beginners look like?

First, kids should feel comfortable.  They need to know they are in the right room, in the right class with the right teacher, who knows their name, and that they are sitting where they should be sitting.  They also need to know what they have to do to be successful in class (and it’s very simple: 1. listen and read with the intent to understand 2. don’t distract yourself or anyone else 3. ask questions when you don’t understand), and to feel expectations without pressure.  And those expectations boil down to one simple thing: tune in. 

Second, kids need to do something meaningful.  I am a firm believer in getting to work right away.  While getting to know the kids matters a lot, I religiously avoid “let’s get to know each other!”-type activities which I think are silly and often feel awkward. Getting to know the kids will happen during the year as you intelligently personalise, and most kids (even if they don’t want to say it) are fairly shy with a new teacher.

Before any kid wants to tell you anything about themselves, they want to know two things:

a) do you care about– and respect– me as a person?

b) are you going to run this class in such a way that I can succeed?

We start with B– meaningful Day 1 language activities (in my case stories; for Ben Slavic various sentence-based activities like “Circling With Balls” or “One Word Images,” etc).  We show A by careful listening to the kids as they suggest details (or volunteer) during stories, and by not forcing them to do anything they don’t want to do (typically, talking aloud and speaking the target language in class top the list).  If kids know we are listening, they will trust us, and slowly open up.

Third, we make kids feel successful.  And no, in response to Laura Sexton, that does not mean they are speaking Blablabian when they exit our class on Day 1.  I flat-out tell my students that “success is understanding; speaking will follow when you’re ready.”   As I’ve noted, most kids’ grammar or “communicative” class experiences boil down to them feeling three things:

  • “it was boring” or “it was stressful”
  • “I didn’t understand”
  • “they made us remember too many words and rules”

If you get through a chunk of story, the kids contribute, and most importantly— the kids understand, you will have done something too many teachers havn’t: build the foundations for real success on Day 1.

If you havn’t read this blog before, or you want a refresher, note that it is not necessary to “practise” speaking or writing to develop those skills.  If people read and listen– and understand– they will, without any effort, after an initial silent period, be able to speak and write.  If you don’t believe me, fine– see what the experts have to say about output.

Briefly, Wong and VanPatten (2003) note that “[a]cquisition of a linguistic system is input-dependent, meaning that learners must be engaged in comprehension in order to construct that system […] Production is not comprehension and thus produced language is not input for the learner. That input must come from others.” They also note that “drills are unnecessary and in some cases hinder acquisition,” and Van Patten (2013) remarks that “traditional ‘practice’ may result in language-like behaviour, but not acquisition” and that “practice is not a substitute for input.”  He goes on to ask “if input is so important, what does traditional practice do?” and answers “essentially very little, if anything.  It does not help mental representation.  It is not clear it helps skills.

Now, if the students on Day 1 want to talk– i.e. they speak Blablabian without you urging them to— that’s great.  Enjoy!  But don’t expect them to talk.  If you finish Day 1 with the students, and 80% of the class gets 4/5 or better on their exit quiz, and you ask ten of them at random “did you understand everything?”, and they say “yes,” you are doing it right.