Keep them in the Target Language: La vela de conversar

Keep them in the Target Language: La vela de conversar

September 13, 2017

You know how it goes:  You're teaching, you're teaching, providing tons of Target Language (TL) output, but once you set your kids off on their own for independent, small group or one-on-one interpersonal work, that annoying L1 comes back in. Keeping THEM in the target language 90% of the time is challenging! We hear this from teachers ALL THE TIME:

"They speak Spanish, but then when I walk away, they are back to English"

"The only way I can get them to not speak English is to take points off, but then they just don't speak at all!" 

No más.

At the SWCOLT conference in 2014, I sat in on a session with an amazing teacher, Christine Lanphere, who was the ACTFL teacher of the year in 2007, then the SWCOLT TOY a few years later.  It was like being with a celebrity.


Christine offered a number of ways for teachers to both assess our own Target Language (TL) use, and also ways to stay in the (TL) 90% of the time each day.

This is a scary process.  

So that’s your step one:  the teacher has to commit to not using English.  If you're not sure how, see this post.


Anyway, back to the conference.  The most salient moment of this presentation, for me, was the Christine's tip to get a small candle, light it at the beginning of class and blow it out only when someone speaks English.

It could not work better.

Some parameters:  I promised the kids a prize if they were the first class to burn the candle completely out.  A little healthy competition works really well here. You could have a movie day, game day, a pizza lunch party, free homework pass to the class, whatever suits you, but the dangling carrot turned out to be both team building and made for a more successful challenge. Truly, you could probably NOT offer a prize, and bragging rights will be enough.  This year, the kids picked a pizza party.

If candles are a no-no (I'm pretty sure they are for us, too, but...some rules are made to be broken), try one of those LED candles. Once they don't work, par-tay.

I vow NEVER to tell who the Target Language Offender was.  "Todos tendremos nuestro día, y cuando sea el suyo, no querrán que yo les diga”, I told them.  I usually have to repeat that mantra every time the candle gets blown out.

Here's how it goes:

1) Meet them at the door with their password.

2) Walk in to the room and dramatically light the candle as class begins.  I usually say, in my loudest teacher voice "LA VELA LA VELA LA VELA LA VELAAAAAA".  (Now the kids see me walking toward it and they start saying it!)

3) Go about your business in Spanish only.

4) Blow the candle out when someone speaks English or when class ends!



We use the vela in our more advanced classes all period.  In fact, I have never even had to use it in Advanced Placement, because they are so well trained by then. However, this year, coming off over a year of Zoom class and being able to hide in the chat, I began this week with the vela because I just couldn't handle the English at the AP level.  You know what happened?  Not one student spoke English in the entire 88 minutes.

But I know what you're thinking: This would never work in first year, you say? Here’s how I made it work for my first year, super-novice class:  

For lower levels, just like everything we do, take it slow. Start with a really small candle.  Not a tea light, but a small votive. 2) Start by burning it for just ONE activity, usually something Info-gap -ish, so they have an anchor with the questions readily available. Use sentence starters to scaffold and make using the TL a possibility. In other words, if you give them support for the majority of the output that they will be required to make, model like crazy, then light the candle.  If they make it through, tell them how impressed you are, and blow it out. 

The next day -- definitely don't wait too long -- do another activity that has an anchor, repeat how impressive they are, and tell them that you are going to let them get a leg up on the competition by letting it burn while you go over the activity. THEN explain that you planned to blow the candle out. ¿Apago la vela? ¿No apago la vela?  Ask THEM what you should do (think about all that input that they will be getting!!)  When they see it's not that bad, they usually want to try, and poco a poco they are speaking more in the TL.


Not feeling the candle?  Check out this amazing idea that achieves the same goal, but with a twist.

How about you?  Do you have other great ideas for keeping them in the TL?

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