Back to the Language Basics: We Never Learned That!

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Have you ever heard your upper-level students say, “We never learned that!” or “Our teacher never taught us that!” It’s a typical literacy task in the world languages classroom: students reading aloud to one another or as a whole class in the target language, and you come across something in the current selection which draws you to a halt. Is it pronouns, reflexive verbs, or even colors?

You pose what you believe is a simple comprehension question related to the content. There are no hands in the air and the classroom is silent—only eyes staring, waiting for your next move, waiting for you to provide all of the answers. 

You are astonished. This is a basic, low-level topic and yet not one student seems confident enough to offer insight. Their blank faces tell you that this is not so straightforward after all.

Wf926906 Shaped 2019 Blog Posts September Backto Basics

How do you continue to grow your students’ proficiency in the target language when time must be spent reteaching the basics?

Here are three activities to help you navigate possible gaps in curriculum, so you can avoid spending an entire valuable class period going all the way back to square one.

Warm-Ups or Exit Slips

A great time to bring back supporting content is in the first or last few minutes of class. A word (or words) of the day or week can allow students the opportunity to recycle vocabulary and use it in a variety of activities (e.g., creating definitions in the target language, group skits, or acrostic poems). Bring back grammatical structures by posing discussion questions, projecting an interesting picture along with some sentence starters, or playing a quick game of dice to refresh subject/verb agreement. These quick activities may help recycle and/or trigger the memory of missing content.

Design Your Own Homework

Homework doesn’t have to be directly related to the area of study currently in your curriculum. What about giving students a basic topic to explore on their own? For example, my students seem to struggle with how to formulate and pronounce years in Spanish. I can give them an assignment to make a collage of five different years in their lifetime that have significant meaning. They simply create a document with five pictures and five different years (a timeline could work beautifully here). The next day in class, students spend a few minutes sharing their collages with a classmate, working on their pronunciation skills in a meaningful context. Unbeknownst to them, they are also practicing the past tenses!

Brain Breaks with a Twist

Over the years I have found that going back to the basics can actually be a nice break from the difficult upper-level content. What about taking a short brain break from on-level content to listen to the alphabet song? There is something about marching around the room and shaking maracas that brings life back into the second semester of senior year. Or, what about a game of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” to review the body parts long forgotten? Finding ways to shake up the monotony of the day can help you quickly relay content while providing students a chance to relish the early years of their language experience.

The next time you find yourself stuck between moving ahead or turning back, I hope these tools will help make it easy and fun.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Looking for additional fun ideas to keep your students engaged in the target language? Learn more about HMH’s World Languages programs.

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