Yes, We Can…Because We Need To!

In Pursuit of the 90%+ Target Language Usage

Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 12.08.09 PMBeth Hanlon, OFLA Executive Recorder and Editor for Print Publications
Spanish Teacher, Oberlin High School

Why do we use “Can Do” statements?  To show our students WHAT THEY CAN DO in the target language.

Why do we write our daily “I can” statements on the board?  To show our students WHAT THEY CAN DO that day in the target language.

Why do we NEED to teach in the target language 90% of the time?  To show our students WHAT THEY CAN DO by modeling the language for them.

Yes, our modeling of language shows them what they can do.  Without input of the target language, how can we ever expect them to output the target language?

We as teachers need to examine what WE CAN DO.  WE CAN TEACH in the target language 90-100%.  WE CAN.  WE MUST.

An awesome picture was circulating the internet recently of a fortune cookie sized slip of paper that read “Teach in the language, not about the language”.  Exactly.  If we don’t input Spanish, French, Chinese, German, etc….how do we ever expect our students to output it?  It might sound silly, but if a math teacher never uses math in class, how do students learn math?  And if a music teacher describes how to use a violin, but never allow students to play the instrument?

Is it easy to teach in the target language?  Not always.  Does it go right all the time?  Not always.  Do teachers and their students need practice?  YES.  Let’s talk about how to plant the 90% seed for a world language classroom.

First, let’s define “90%.”  The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) “recommends that language educators and their students use the target language as exclusively as possible (90% plus) at all levels of instruction during instructional time and, when feasible, beyond the classroom” (“Going for 90% Plus: How to Stay in the Target Language“).  ACTFL’s “Going for 90% Plus: How to Stay in the Target Language” brochure goes on to explain that teachers can use that English 10% to explain classroom procedures early on in a class.  They can also use the English 10% to explain a language concept.  However,  this English 10% is pre-planned because once teachers revert to English, it’s easy to stay there and use more.

Personally, I use my English 10% for the beginning of the year when I read my syllabus and when I administer my SLO IPAs as ACTFL recommends these directions in English.  Otherwise, my speech to students to 100% in Spanish.  My expectation of them is to always respond and interact with me and classmates in Spanish.  When they speak to me and try to occasionally sneak an English word in, I tell them I don’t speak English.  It’s tough love.  But it’s reality because not everyone speaks English in other countries to understand those random English words that students attempt to “sneak in” (“Profe, necesito ir a mi locker”).

Teachers have to commit.  Pick a date to switch it all over…even now in January, the second semester, the third quarter.  Prep students and hype it up.  Give them strategies when they are stuck, confused, need to go to the bathroom or the office, etc.  Once that day arrives, there is no going back.  If the teacher reverts to English, it shows that he will revert to English in the future and students will attempt to get the teacher back to English again and again.  Students need to know that if they want to communicate in class, they 1) need to express themselves in the TL with the language they know; 2) they need to circumlocute (describe something they don’t know with other words in the TL); 3) they need to draw what they are trying to say; and/or 4) they need to act out what they are trying to say.  I have become great at guessing and charades over the years, and it’s so cool when other students step in when I have trouble guessing to help describe or act out something.

How do teachers hold students accountable and in the TL?  The following are ideas to help:

  1. Give students the necessary survival phrases for needs, requests, etc., in class.
  2. The teacher always has to use the TL.
  3. The teacher can not respond to their attempts in English.
  4. A reward system or the use of consequences (I use my discipline plan as I feel this is not following directions).

Teachers need to observe other teachers who use the target language 90%+ without feeling shy or ashamed.  By doing this, teachers are making steps in the right direction for their students’ proficiency.  Asking for help and searching for examples of how to do this is fantastic and shows growth as a WL educator!  What groups of teachers are doing this?  Organic World Language (OWL) is becoming very prominent in Ohio as well as TPRS and CI (Comprehensible Input) groups.  Before I was exposed to OWL, I taught using a gradual release model lesson plan that I delivered completely in Spanish (all activities, all transitions, all activity directions, etc.).  The outcome of this lesson plan gives the teacher the opportunity to incorporate an open-ended communicative activity like a survey, interview, MicroLab or information gap.

Teaching in the TL just isn’t talking to them in the TL.  Students need to receive tons of comprehensible input, which

means that students should be able to understand the essence of what is being said orpresented to them. This does not mean, however, that teachers must use only words students understand. In fact, instruction can be incomprehensible even when students know all of the words. Students learn a new language best when they receive input that is just a bit more difficult than they can easily understand. In other words, students may understand most, but not all, words the teacher is using. (

And when it is all in the TL, the WL teacher has to work his tail off.  Activities need to be created that give students the opportunity to use the language in a meaningful context and planning needs to be done so that teachers can use comprehensible input to explain those activities in the TL.  This input comprehensible comes into play with the use of gestures, drawings, acting (jumping, running, imitating, etc.), using pictures, etc.  The appropriate speed of speech for each level also needs to be determined by the teacher as well as relying on the vocabulary students already know and the use of lots of cognates.  Unwavering patience is required for explaining things over and over and over until all the students’ faces in the classroom register comprehension and English has not been used.

Understand that grammar is not the objective of being communicative and using the TL in class.  Did you know that the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Proficiency Guidelines (ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines) do not mention the use of time frames until the Intermediate Mid and High proficiency levels?  Take a minute.  Let that sink in.  Language learners can NOT BEGIN to incorporate verbs tenses, aside from the present tense, into their speech and writing until the Intermediate Mid and High proficiency levels.  We need to let it go and communicate.  Let the grammar come naturally and as needed.

Using the TL 90%+ is so rewarding.  When students are interacting in the target language, using gestures I have used and language they have heard me say in context and when they tell me in the hallway that their brain switches to the TL when they simply walk into my classroom or see me, it’s all worth it.

If you would like more strategies on reaching that 90%, I am leading a half day workshop on Saturday morning of the OFLA conference.  Check the OFLA member lodge for more details on how to sign up!

In conclusion, you can do this!  We all can do this because we need to do so for our students.  Reach out to a 90% teacher and become one!

This entry was posted in Executive News, Vol. 53, No. 2 - Winter 2015. Bookmark the permalink.