What Are You Afraid of? : A Language-learning Task

Activities Vs Tasks

In language learning, tasks are activities that have a purpose other than just trying to learn the language itself. In an activity, students are just using the language without a real purpose. For example, asking everyone in the class what their favorite food is. This is just an activity, not a task, because no one really cares what the answers are at the end. Additionally, if students feel pressured to come up with a food in the target language, they might not even give an honest answer. Instead, a task might include taking a survey of all the students in the class to ask what their favorite food is, and then compare the answers to an article that shows the most popular food in every state. The students can find out if they are representative or not of the people in their state.

Which Tasks Work With Kids?

The key to doing tasks with kids is to make sure that the topic is something interesting to them and something relevant to their lives. For example, a task about pets is usually a hit because kids like animals. On the other hand, I wouldn’t design a task around which movies won Oscars in 1999 because my group of 8 year olds just won’t care. One task that I have done with my kids is about fears and what they are afraid of.

photo of spider in web
Are you afraid of spiders?

A Task about Fears

Language learning is all about getting that comprehensible input. We need to talk to students using the language in a way they can understand. I start this task by establishing the meaning of the phrases “I am afraid of XX” and “I am not afraid of XX.” Then, I read the story I Used to Be Afraid in Chinese (pictured below). Then, we make a chart of the things that the character in the book says that she is afraid of and compare if the kids in the class are afraid of the same things. To extend this task, we can compare what we think are the most common fears in the class to the most common fears of Americans in general.

photo of book cover "I Used to Be Afraid" (Chinese version)
Cover of “I Used to Be Afraid” in Chinese

The distinguishing feature of tasks is that we are trying to do something other than just use the language in class. We can make sentences about what our fears are all day long, but there is nothing really meaningful there. Tasks work for language learning because they are about something other than the language itself. Language learning happens on the subconscious level while kids busy doing something else.

 

It is Okay to Just Listen

Some of my students start classes with me with some bad habits. One of these habits is a tendency to just repeat whatever I say. Many of these students do not realize that we are supposed to be having a conversation (limited as it may be). They’re not supposed to just parrot back to me what I say. Real listening is so important and just parroting back words is not something that students should spend their time doing.

We learn languages through communicatively-embedded input. Listening to a teacher and then repeating exactly what she says is not communication. I’m not sure what it is, but it is not communication. What is communication? Communication is the expression, interpretation and sometimes negotiation of meaning in a given context. When students just repeat stuff, they’re not getting any meaning. It is not real communication and students won’t really learn much from this type of interaction. It is also pretty boring.

Since it is a waste of time to be just repeating whatever the teacher says, what else should students do? It really is okay to just listen. Many people want to “see” some evidence of learning. They want to know if the classes are working or not. There are ways to get an idea if students are learning without forcing them to talk. Students can show their comprehension through pointing, nodding, following directions, laughing, drawing.. the list goes on. A good lesson plan for students, especially beginner, will have lots of opportunities for students to show what they know.

 

Using Picture Talk in Chinese Classes for Kids

What Is Picture Talk?

Picture talk is one way of giving learners the input that they need in order to learn Chinese. We know that we don’t learn language by practicing speaking. We also know that we do not learn language without proper communication. We learn language through getting lots of comprehensible input. The idea behind picture talk is simple. The teacher shows the students a picture (or slowly reveals a picture) and talks to the students about what they see.

How to Do Picture Talk

In theory, a really good teacher could spend a 45 or 60 minute class talking about one picture with the students. Since I teach younger children, I think that it is really only reasonable to spend 10-15 minutes on one thing, such as picture talk. Some kids can stay on task for longer. Others still need to develop their attention spans to get to the point where they can focus on one thing for 10 minutes. Ten to fifteen minutes is about right for most young students, however.

To make it more interesting, the teacher can cover up all but just a small piece of the picture and then ask students questions about it. For example, if all the students can see of a picture is a bit of yellow, the teacher can ask: “What do you think that this is, a sun or a yellow house?” The students don’t need that much knowledge of Chinese in order to answer a question like this. If students are a little more advanced, the teacher can ask them “What do you think this is?” and other more open-ended questions.

What to Use for Picture Talk

Any interesting picture or photo can be good content for picture talk. A photo from a recent vacation might be good, or an illustration from a book can be good. Jimmy Liao is an illustrator from Taiwan. He makes really interesting pictures like this one which can be great for picture talk. There are so many elements to the picture to talk about. Who are the people? What are they looking at? What is the dog’s name? A class could easily talk about this picture for 10-15 minutes.

I also like using illustrations by Jimmy Liao because he is from the Chinese-speaking world. In general, I like using books and other materials that my students are already familiar with, such as the David books, and anything by Eric Carle. While these books are great for interest and comprehension, unfortunately they tend to lack diversity. I teach Chinese and I want the materials that I use to include authors from the Chinese-speaking world and Chinese/Chinese-American characters. If you’re interested, there is more information about the lack of diversity in children’s books here.

More information about picture talk from a Spanish teacher’s perspective

 

Why My MIL is a Good Language Teacher

How Do You Teach Languages?

My mother-in-law, Tere Fuentes, is a great Spanish teacher. Why? Because she talks to me in Spanish. She also talks slowly and uses gestures, pointing and rephrasing when I don’t understand. That is it really. I did not know any Spanish when I met her son in 2014. I’d never taken any Spanish classes. I’ve learned all the Spanish that I know in the past through year through listening to people speak Spanish.*

photo of me, husband and MIL
I’ve learned a lot of Spanish from my MIL

Learning a Second Language Vs. Learning A First

Learning a second language is very similar to learning your first. How did you learn your first language? Your parents talked to you. Maybe other adults or older children talked to you too. You learned to say a few words within two years, and were reasonably fluent within five years. No one sat you down at a tiny chalkboard to teach you how to conjugate verbs. Sure, some parents spend their money on flashcards. Millions of children, however, seem to learn words perfectly well without any flashcards.

My mother-in-law taught three kids how to speak Spanish. Now she is teaching me using pretty much the same method. She just talks to me. She doesn’t get annoyed when I answer with one word, or in English. Like all other learners, I will learn Spanish through hearing and reading it.

Letting Mistakes Slide

My mother-in-law has another great teaching habit that helps language learning. She does not explicitly correct my mistakes. If I make a mistake in Spanish, she either uses the correct wording in her response to me or she just ignores it. This is effective because explicit error correction does not help students learn a language. If anything, it hurts the language learning process by raising a student’s affective filter.

While she is not a language teacher by training, Tere is a teacher. She has owned her own dance school in Monterrey for forty years. Although not every teacher is a great language teacher, and not every person who speaks a language can be a teacher, I do think that her experience has been useful to her. As evidenced by her willingness to speak slowly and use words that I know, she is very patient.

*I took one 8 week Spanish class three years ago. I’ve written elsewhere that the only thing I learned was “El mono es curioso.”

The Case Against Traditional Methods (Video)

Do you have two and a half minutes? Do you want to understand why Lotus Chinese Learning (and other high-quality programs) do not use textbooks? We don’t spend a lot of class time teaching grammar rules or encourage our students to memorize new vocabulary words (aka teaching using traditional methods). Watch this short video to learn why it is okay to ditch the textbook.

Want to learn more about classes at Lotus Chinese Learning? Please get in touch via the contact page.