We live in an age of technology and rapid innovation, but many language schools around the world are still stuck in the past. Though many of these schools preach about “modern” and “interactive classes”, there is doubt about they live up to their claims.
The fact is, most language schools are only designed to teach grammar. These schools leave the speaking — arguably the most important and difficult part — completely up to the student.
But, that’s exactly what a classroom is for: to learn to use the language. A truly effective program understands that teaching a second language should be about encouraging students to speak, leave their comfort zone, make mistakes, and learn by trial and error.
Here in Medellin, our team at Colombia Immersion has been experimenting with the most effective ways to teach Spanish interactively.
We’ve found that when classrooms combine grammar teaching, speaking games, and opportunities for interactive fun, the results can be powerful. Here are the six most important ways we’ve found traditional language schools can “level up”:
1. LESS EXPLAINING, MORE DOING
It’s often said that “you don’t learn a language, you get used to it”. That’s why it’s so important to practice, practice, practice. A new concept or vocabulary word will only cement itself in your mind after you’ve used it multiple times.
In our classes, the teacher spends about 20% of the time explaining new grammar subjects. Once the concept is clear, the training begins.
The teacher has an arsenal of exercises designed to train students on each specific grammar concept. Most of the exercises are done verbally so students can make the most of in-class time. Reading and writing, which can be done independently, are done at home.
Through these exercises, students produce the language in different contexts, and their mouths get used to activating different muscles to pronounce the words correctly.
As students progress, the classroom exercises challenge students more with regard to speed, trickiness, and comprehension.
2. FUN GAMES MEAN SERIOUS LEARNING
It may not come as a surprise that having fun while you learn can reduce anxiety and increase participation and motivation.
That’s why we’ve built laughter into our methodology, namely through the use of silly and creative games that challenge students to apply grammar concepts they’ve learned. Here are two of our favorites:
· Headbanz is game that gets players asking “Who am I?” — whether a lightbulb, puppy, or apple. It’s the perfect way to practice describing things to each other and listening to descriptions to figure out “what you are”. Here’s an example:
First, Student 1 says, “tu eres un alimento”
Student 2 replies, “te comemos en la mañana”
Then, Student 3 might say, “Soy una manzana!”
· “La bola de nieve”, or “snowball” game, is played when one person starts a short sentence, the next one repeats the first part and adds a new part and so on. A game might go like this:
Beginning with Student 1, “yo camino todos los días”
Student 2 continues, saying “yo camino todos días por envigado”
Then, Student 3 says, “yo camino todos días por envigado y almuerzo”
And Student 4 says, “yo camino todos días por envigado y almuerzo con un amigo…”
Not only are these games the perfect way to infuse laughter and fun into a classroom, they are also effective learning tools in their own right. Students interact with each other, deal with challenges in grammar or vocabulary, and learn to use the language in real-time.
That’s why games –and the ensuing laughter– are on our list of must-haves for effective classrooms.
3. USE VISUAL STORYTELLING TO TRAIN YOUR BRAIN
Rote memorization is boring. Copying sentences is dull. And neither work very well in helping you learn to use new skills in your target language. New research shows that 70% of new information we take in is in the form of a story, which means educators would do well to incorporate storytelling into their teaching method.
To solidify new vocabulary and use a variety of grammar creatively, language classrooms can craft stories around illustrations, trailers or movie scenes. The combination of these different approaches provides stimuli for visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners alike.
And the rule of thumb here: the funnier the story, the better! This way of thinking has also been applied by Benny The Irish Polyglot for vocabulary learning.
We’ve used this idea into our classrooms by asking students to describe what they see in an illustration or movie scene using specific vocabulary or “connector words”. In more advanced groups, students are asked to make a full story based on an illustration, trailer or movie scene using complex verb tenses and with time pressure for added challenge.
What stories can you make up about these illustrations from Dixit?
4. DON’T FEAR ENGLISH
Grammar is complex, detailed, and tricky to explain in any language. Many schools take pride in their ‘no English ever’ approach, sticking to the language even if students have no clue what the teacher is talking about. This can mean:
1. You spend lots of extra time working to understand the grammar concept
2. You never actually understand the grammar concept
We opt for a different approach: we are not afraid to use English in class when it’s needed to help you understand a difficult grammar concept. It’s shown that for effective language learning, classrooms only need to spend 50% of the time in the target language.
The priority is not following a ‘rule’, but allowing for effective communication and explanation. Have no fear of English… it helps!
5. GET LOCALS INVOLVED
There’s no learning a language without using it in-context, which means conversations with locals are an absolute requirement for speaking a new language.
But we also know that getting to know new people isn’t always that easy, especially with a language barrier. That’s why language schools need to do the best they can to connect students to native speakers, helping students practice the target language and exchange culture.
· Intercultural language exchanges,
· Volunteering in the local community,
· …and inviting local people into the classroom so students can have practice conversations.
Student interaction with locals should be ongoing, the only thing that you have to do is to welcome the Colombian kindness in your life and the rest will come naturally.
6. SING YOUR WAY TO FLUENCY
Learning a language through music is not only effective, but fun. When singing along with the lyrics of a song, learners repeat phrases until they become a mantra.
This kind of repetition is important in the beginning of your learning process to build up vocabulary and confidence.
We have compiled a list of songs that correspond to a number of different levels and grammar concepts, so students can work with a song at their own level. To bring this into the classroom, each month classes will choose a song, practice it during the week, and finish the week with a karaoke presentation of all groups.
These activities are tons of fun and can lead to rapid speaking improvement, which is why we recommend music as an effective addition to the classroom.
Check out our other blog post about language learning here: 8 habits of highly effective language learners
What else makes a language class great? Share your tips below!