5 Ways to Avoid Language Plateau in the Classroom

What happened?  Your students were doing so well and you were feeling like the amazing Spanish teacher that you are, when suddenly, they start to regress!  Whoa… what’s going on?  They knew this stuff just yesterday!  Well, relax.  It’s completely normal for your students to move forward and back, and forward and back again as they increase toward more advanced levels of the language.  This regression may seem discouraging, but take heart!  Although students regress frequently, the general movement is f-o-r-w-a-r-d! 

What happens, though, when a student gets stuck in this process?  It IS possible for a student’s language to fossilize at a particular point or for a particular structure.  This is actually a pidginization of the target language with the native language and often occurs when the student lacks motivation to move forward.  What could cause that, you say?  Well, when the student feels that he is reaching the communicative goal, regardless of the correctness, he may be unmotivated to continue to work toward nativelike competency.  Many times this happens when language is learned in the classroom with limited exposure to native speakers.  Unfortunately, once this fossilization has occurred it is very difficult to turn back the hands of time.

As we say here in the south, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!  So, here are 5 strategies to motivate your students to work toward nativelike fluency, helping them to avoid language plateaus and fossilization by exposing them to the target language:  

1.  Provide exposure to the target language
Bring your students into contact with fluent speakers regularly by inviting native speakers of the target language to the classroom.  One of the most underused resources that we Spanish teachers have is native speaking parents!  This is a great way to involve parents in the learning process as well as to introduce culture, as parents can talk about their native countries or traditions.  Another wonderful resource are the native speaking students within your school.  You can have native speaking students be guest lecturers and discuss topics of interest to your students.  Other sources would be administrators, counselors, other teachers, and adults from the community.

2.  Increase motivation with an authentic purpose.  
Students love to use the target language for an authentic purpose. Writing to a pen pal is the perfect way to motivate your students to use their new skills.  Organize pen-pal relationships between students and peers.  This could be as easy as partnering with another Spanish teacher and having the two classes exchange letters.  You could also partner with the ESL teacher and exchange letters with her native speaking students, rotating between Spanish one week and English the next, so that both classes practice their language skills.  If you have contacts in a Spanish speaking country, this exchange also works well for those Spanish speaking students wishing to practice their English with native English speakers.  Looking for pen pals for your students?  See this blog post by KidWorldCitizen for some ideas.

3.  Supply opportunities for language use.

Arrange field trips to take your students to local markets or restaurants where they will have to communicate with native speakers for understanding to order a meal or buy food.  You can also have them attend a theatrical production in Spanish or visit a Spanish bookstore for a reading or author meet.  If this is impossible due to funding, then have virtual field trips in the classroom and bring in some guest speakers to introduce the native speech aspect.  Interested in learning more about virtual field trips?  Click here for some great tips to get you started.

4.  Promote proficiency with authentic materials.

Provide appropriate native written books that the students want to read by having a small library in your classroom.  You can also bring in popular magazines written in Spanish or a current Spanish newspaper.   This exposure to native materials may also heighten the motivation for your students to become as proficient in the language as possible.  Our very own Sherry at the World Language Café has some fun ways to use a library in the classroom.  

5.  Encourage participation with celebrations

Plan celebrations that involve more advanced speakers of the language.  This could be during the class time when another, more advanced class comes and communicative games and activities are planned.  You can also have get togethers after school such as a ‘coffee talk’ where students have access to native speakers to practice conversation skills.  My school has a program called Project Bridge where the Spanish students and the ESL students sign up to meet together for 20 minutes of English practice and then 20 minutes of Spanish practice.  Check with other teachers, your school’s Spanish Honor Society or Spanish club to see if you can coordinate an event.  For some fun ideas, see this post by my fellow blogger, Catharyn Crane from Sol Azúcar, where she lists 20 things you can do with your Spanish club. 

Hopefully, these ideas will help you plan for that nasty bout of fossilization that could occur, and give you some ways to inoculate your students so that they don’t catch that nasty bug!  You just may prevent fossilization or at least get students moving forward again in the language development process!

How do you motivate your students to push past plateaus in the language?  I'd love to hear your thoughts below in the comments!




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