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Using the target language with novice foreign-language learners

How do you teach a beginner-level foreign-language course without relying on English? Four ideas to help you stay on target.

5 min read


Using the target language with novice foreign-language learners


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After spending time abroad in Spain and intensely studying the Spanish language and its cultures, I felt fully prepared to teach. I was looking forward to spreading my love of Spanish to my future high school students. As I started to plan for the first week of school, however, it dawned on me: How was I going to maintain the target language of Spanish in my four classes of Spanish I? Was it even possible? How could I teach a beginner-level course without relying on speaking English?

I quickly discovered that maintaining the target language with novice students was not an easy task; it required careful planning and preparation. It may cause some resistance and discomfort at first, but in time, students grow accustomed to entering your “target language zone.” Many of them may even embrace it, and will undoubtedly benefit from it.

Here are some suggestions on how to stick to using the target language in your beginner-level course.

Create a Word Wall

Word walls are essential in foreign-language classes — they benefit all students. Consider some of the most commonly used phrases students may need to refer to in your class.

Create or purchase posters featuring these phrases, and display them on a bulletin board in front of the room, for all students to see. Some key words may include interrogatives in the target language: Who? What? Where? When? Why? At what time? How?

Some phrases may include common greetings or questions in the target language such as: 

  • Good morning / Good afternoon! 
  • May I use the bathroom? / May I get a drink of water? / May I visit the nurse? 
  • How do I say this word in the target language?

You can change your word wall throughout the year, to feature high-frequency words or phrases being studied in the specific unit. This may help encourage novice students to participate.

They are also more likely to acquire these phrases due to repeated practice. The word wall is there as a means of support but as students grow more accustomed to these phrases, they will rely on it less and less.

Use Gestures and Props

Whenever you are trying to communicate a word or phrase to students in the target language, rather than giving them the English translation, come up with gestures. For example, when teaching vocabulary related to hobbies and sports, act them out through gestures. Pretend to swim, play soccer, or read as you present these words in the target language. Use props to make the process even more lively and fun.

Play Charades! Have your students join you in gesturing, and act out words and phrases as a whole class for maximum participation. It’s easy to play — everyone knows the rules — and if everyone’s doing it, no one feels awkward. 

Use Visual Aids 

Visual aids help present new vocabulary and phrases to students. For instance, for a unit on food, you don’t need English words — use images! Pointing to the image and then calling on students is another way to ensure maximum target language use.

Look for real-life photographs taken in the target country/countries of study; these images help expose students to the culture and can ignite curiosity. Similarly, allow your students to create their own visual aids. They can draw out definitions on paper or digitally with a tool like Pear Deck. 

Model Responses Aloud

After posing a question to your students to elicit oral output, model an appropriate response. Provide a sentence frame aloud to get them started, so that they may feel more inclined and able to participate. You can model a variety of sentence frames, such as: “In my opinion” or “I think this because,” or “I like/dislike this because,” and so on. Many times, students can answer the posed questions with a single or few words, but need some extra assistance putting it into a full sentence. Modeling appropriate responses aloud is a means of support and scaffolding that can gradually be released as students improve their language skills.

Above all, when exposing your novice students to any activity in class, ensure that you are using familiar, comprehensible language. Generously use cognates. Give students adequate opportunities to repeat and recycle a core set of words and phrases. Model as much as you can. Use visual aids and gestures. It won’t always be easy to maintain the target language for the entirety of the class period, but it is tremendously beneficial for students’ acquisition.

Elena Spathis teaches Spanish at Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale, New Jersey. Connect with Elena on Twitter.


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