By Erin Gibbons
Teaching intermediate language learners is hard. For a long time, intermediate level was where all of my precious proficiency beliefs went off the rails. Instructionally, my novice classes were straightforward: play games, sing songs, tell stories. Once my high school students reached levels III, IV, V—that was where I was most tempted to bust out ye olde grammar hammer and provide lists of humdrum nouns that served little to no communicative purpose. After a great deal of reading, workshops, and trial-and-error, I realized that the answer was obvious, but, as Glinda told Dorothy, I had to find it out for myself.
“I know what I want to say; I just don’t know how to say it.”
Hearing my upper-level students repeat that statement forced me to reflect. I had created a curriculum full of compelling authentic texts and relevant cultural topics, from microlending in Africa to la Fête de la musique, and students wanted to talk about them. I could see them bursting to contribute to a discussion or make a connection to something from another course, but they either reverted to English or got frustrated and shut down. Or they how do you say?’d entire sentences at me.
Finally, the key struck me: scaffold for the big kids like I scaffold for beginners.
Why are intermediates so tricky?
- Their target language proficiency is far outstripped by their background knowledge and first language vocabulary.
- Their language level can be deceiving. They have a wider vocabulary than novices and have adjusted to the language classroom environment, so they are fine talking. Their limit, however, is in the topics they can discuss and sophistication with which they express themselves.
- They have learned to create with language, so “moving target” is an understatement when it comes to providing vocabulary resources. There’s no way we can predict everything learners will want to say.
Hitting the moving target
Slowly, I constructed a firmer scaffold for my intermediate students. Some changes were conscious choices and others were serendipitous, but their combined effect has been a consistency from year to year in forming confident, expressive intermediate learners. Here are a few guidelines I now live by when planning instruction for intermediate courses.
Spend your energy on generalized active vocabulary. Organize it by function. Do the hard part for them. The list I hit again and again is a series of documents I developed with my other French colleagues, inspired by the “communicative skill builders” from Howard County Public Schools in Maryland. This is the list I make sure students are always referencing and annotating. Students have a bilingual copy with expressions listed by function, from “reacting with indifference” to “indicating nuance” and I have a large word wall with each function on a separate card.
If our unit of study or the performance task requires a particular set of expressions for “participating in a debate” or “making plans,” I provide expanded lists for those functions. The key is that nearly everything on these lists is a prêt-à-porter expression that is good to go–no conjugating or sequencing necessary.
Make learners responsible for stand-alone vocabulary.
By intermediate level, the little birdies have left the vocabulary nest, and they can mostly manage to use a dictionary. They don’t rely on their teacher as much to curate the appropriate nouns, verbs, and adjectives. I provide students with a vocabulary notebook with matching numbered tables on separate pages where they can personalize which vocabulary from our discussions, authentic resources, and independent practice is relevant for them to record.
Break free of printed lists. In addition to students keeping track of their own vocabulary, I do provide a list of recommended words, but I do so mainly electronically on our class platform. This emphasizes the idea that their vocabulary should grow organically and constantly.
Mind the gaps. A great teaching strategy I actually learned from a student during one-on-one conferences is to have learners respond, at the start of a unit, to the essential questions in their first language. This provides you with amazing insights into their background knowledge, the sentence structures they want to use, and the vocabulary you will need to provide. Another good habit is to have students respond to the question, “What did you want to say today that you couldn’t quite work out?” as an exit ticket. This is key to improving your function-based lists from year to year.
Introduce vocabulary in a communicative activity. Someone once told me I should “introduce” vocabulary before expecting learners to use it. Someone lied. Vocabulary only sticks if it has a communicative purpose, and sitting through a recitation of a list of words and their meanings is excruciating, especially if you’re the one reciting! If I have a list I do have to present, I try as often as possible to frame it in some kind of activity so that students ask for explanation only on the words that aren’t apparent before we begin. For example, I wanted to challenge my students to use richer adjectives, but we turned it into a “tell me who I am activity.” Students chose an adjective to complete the sentence, “My friends tell me that I am…” and write it on a sticky note. I then shuffled them and re-distributed them to students, who then stuck them to their foreheads. That followed with a Stand up-Hand up-Pair up where students told the person that he/she is ____ without using the actual word.
Hand over the grammar. Teaching with comprehensible input means that sometimes you just have to give students chunks of language where the grammar is done for them. I observed year after year that my students were failing to accurately produce third-person plural verbs in the present tense. Did I drill it and kill it? No. I just gave them more input. For example, when I wanted to discuss the symbolism of the baobabs in Le Petit Prince, I anticipated a lot of “Les baobabs est” (“The baobabs is”). The trick was to head them off at the pass. Before the symbolism discussion, students had to choose from a series of statements the ones that accurately described the book. This meant between working with a partner, reading the words, and hearing me say them as we checked the answers, “Les baobabs sont” went in their brains over 20 times.
Do these strategies guarantee that my students always have the exact words and phrases they need to express their ideas? Of course not. What these changes have accomplished, though, is to shift the heavy lifting of communication to the teacher and leave the simple things for learners to find on their own.
The moral of this story, in any case, is not to hold up the quality of my instruction as an example to other teachers. Rather, it is to demonstrate the power of reflection to improve us all. Keep those paradigms shifting, colleagues.
Erin has been a French educator for over thirteen years, during which time she has had the opportunity to teach every level of language learner. She currently teaches at Barrington High School in Barrington, IL, where she is a member of the Blended Learning Cohort and World Language Steering Committee. Her achievements led to her being recognized as ICTFL Paul T. Griffith Teacher of the Year and 2018, and CSCTFL Teacher of the Year Finalist in 2019. She is a coauthor of EntreCultures 2.