Let them talk!

We are all aware of the importance of being exposed to the Target Language when learning a foreign language. Talking as a learner, I have learned English as a second language in school in France without much exposure to the TL. I have to admit that my pronunciation, intonation and accent are still very French even after more than a decade living in the UK. However I have acquired Spanish from a total immersion in Mexico, being completely surrounded by Spanish speakers and as a consequence my spoken Spanish is almost native like. This is just one of the consequences of being exposed to and using the TL when learning a language. As Stephen Krashen (University of Southern California) puts it:“Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.”


Target language has always been a challenge for me. I have regularly felt that I was not using it often enough during my lessons. When talking to fellow MFL teachers very rarely have I heard someone being extremely proud about their use of the TL in their classroom. A few months ago I came across this document released by OFSTED (Ofsted | Subject professional development materials: Judging the use of the target language by teachers and students). I decided to grade myself honestly against these criteria. The outcome was shocking; I have to admit that my use of it was mainly between ‘Requires Improvement’ on a good day and ‘inadequate’ the rest of the time. The reason for this was that there was almost no element of spontaneous use of it by my students. OFSTED is putting a great emphasis on the teachers’ and students’ use of target language. Yet research shows that it is more than simply a question of ‘using’ the target language more; teachers using the TL does not necessarily result in learners using it. On the other hand, we can only expect learners to use the TL if we as teachers are using it. So, after identifying the area for improvement, I decided to act upon it. The following are just some ideas that I have thought about, got inspiration from when doing some research and tried in the classroom.talk

One of the first things I did was to tell the students what we were going to do and why. Therefore I explained to my students that I wanted to improve their use of French or Spanish. So I told them that we were all going to make an effort to use it as much as possible. This can seem very vague for a 12 or 13 year old. So I gave them concrete examples:

‘From now on, you will use ‘je pense que c’est…/Pienso que es…’ when giving any answer. ‘

It seems like a detail but this strategy has had a major impact in my classroom. I had to constantly remind them to start with but now that it is embedded, it gives the impression to anybody walking in my classroom that the main mean of communication in the classroom is the Target Language. It is now part of a classroom routine and students now use it even when I forget about it.

Secondly I decided to have a learning environment that would support the learners in their use of the TL. I thought about wall support and came up with this display. It is still work in progress (missing the heading) but we have started to use it.

dsiplay 2display 1

I decided to have three categories of words/expressions: Opinion, Request and Argue because they are, in my opinion, the three main reasons a student would speak in a classroom. The other reason for having these categories was to make it easier and quicker to use. If we want to achieve spontaneity the interactions have to be quick and the students have to demonstrate an ability to sustain a conversation at a reasonable speed. I also voluntarily kept the display to a minimum amount of words / expressions in order to make it as simple and clear to use as possible. I am at the moment in the embedding process with this display and I think that once it has become a routine for the students, I will then, add more words to it.

The last thing I have changed to improve the use of the TL in my classroom is, in my opinion, the one that is having the biggest impact. Unfortunately, I cannot take all the credits for it. While doing some research about how people achieve a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ use of target language in their classroom, I came across the Wildern School and the famous Grouptalk ‘an award winning project to encourage students of MFL to use target language in an authentic and spontaneous way’. After seeing this video , I felt that this was probably a bit too much for my students and that if we were going to make any move towards this, we were going to have to go step by step. Therefore I decided to adapt Grouptalk in order to suit my students’ needs better and came up with the idea of QuickTalk. The objectives were to improve the spontaneous use of target language, to provide the students with a variety of ways to express opinions and points of views that they could use in assessment situations and finally to develop cultural awareness of the target country.

qt for blog

The idea is to ask the students their opinions about cultural aspects of the target country. As Krashen mentions in the quotation from the beginning of this post, the ‘interaction’ has to be ‘meaningful’. We have to recognise that asking a 14 year old to tell us what he had for dinner last weekend is not the most meaningful and engaging conversation. The questions have been, for example; should we legalise all drugs? Or asking the students’ opinions about bullfighting… To support my students I came up with QuickTalk mats that they use whenever we are having a QuickTalk moment. On this mat they have a range of opinions / connectives / intensifiers / adjectives that they are able to apply in a range of situations. There is not so much the group dimension with QuickTalk, it is more aimed at a class discussion in the Target Language. Nevertheless it could easily become more of a group activity. It all depends on what the teacher wants to do with it.

I have started using this with my Yr10s this year and it has had a great impact on their spontaneous use of the language. It is also helping them hugely with the preparation of speaking controlled assessments. Most of my students tend to re-use the structures/ idioms from the QuickTalk mats in their controlled assessments. It has also the benefit of making them improvise answers in French or Spanish, which is a great skill to have in order to show initiative during a speaking assessment. QuickTalk has also helped the students who could not remember their scripts during the assessment. They have been able to recall some of the expressions from the QuickTalk mats. The feedback from my students has been really positive, some of my year 10 boys say:

‘I like the QuickTalk mats because they give you different options for sentence starters, so you can vary them and sound sophisticated.’

‘The QuickTalk mats are very useful because the sentence starters included are good as they can jog your memory when you’re stuck. Also, the connectives are useful as they allow us to vary our speaking or even our writing.’

keep calm

Finally, I think it is quite easy for us to forget that our students are learning to SPEAK a new language. We very often get distracted by lots of factors such as levels, grades, targets, checking progress… We need to take the time to speak more in the target language in the classroom (teacher and students). The quality and standard of the language produced will feel quite basic to start with but, as soon as it becomes a routine the quality, fluency and pronunciation will improve.