“But I never learned Hebrew before now!” a student protests.
The question at hand was how students knew how to follow directions given entirely in Hebrew during the preceding activity. This student assumes that the “right answer” involves translating unfamiliar Hebrew words. He feels frustrated as his inability to perform.
How do we turn this conversation on its head into a positive learning experience?
Step one: diffusing tension
The most important thing is to assure the students that they are not being asked to define vocabulary at this moment. Emphasize “how did you understand?” rather than “what do the words mean?” Refocus the conversation into the realm of strategies:
“We are so glad you are starting your Hebrew journey now. Of course no one expects you to understand everything in one day! But I noticed that you were able to play the game with us just a few moments ago. Can you tell me how you knew what to do?”
By complimenting the student on his success so far, we empower him to reflect on the tools he already has at his disposal. He may still need time to vocalize his answer. Tell him you will come back to him after giving a few other students a chance to share their strategies. (It’s important not to forget to call on him after two or three other students).
Step two: guided metacognition
Prompt the students to identify their process with some of the following questions:
- How did you know where to go/what to do?
- Where did you look for help?
- Did you recognize any words that you heard?
- Were there any clues besides the Hebrew words?
Many students will acknowledge strategies such as following other students, listening for words they knew, vocal inflections, watching teacher’s hand motions, even guessing. All of these are legitimate strategies. The goal is to encourage the students to be honest about their metacognitive response to hearing the language.
Step 3: emotional reconnaissance
Once students own up to the “tricks” they used during the immersion part of the lesson, push them to explore their visceral response in greater depth.
- How did you feel when we were speaking only in Hebrew?
- Did you need to know ALL the words in order to participate, or just SOME? Are there any words you heard more than once? Do you have a guess what they might mean?
- What did you learn about your ability to learn the language?
- Do you feel successful?
Step four: reflection and planning
Now that the students have unpacked the strategies they used to understand the foreign language, they can begin to think critically about what worked best and what tools they may want to make use of in the future.
- Was it enough just to follow other students or is it important to start listening for key words among the rush of language? What will help you to build your Hebrew skills?
- Which words did you find most helpful? What can you do to help you remember important new words?
- Repeat them aloud?
- Write them down?
- Review them at home?
- What might you do differently next time you hear Hebrew?
- What strategies did you hear other students using that you can try in the future?
Ultimately, our goal is to prove to students that when it comes to language, there are many different strategies they can use to succeed. As they grow more comfortable applying strategies, their word recognition and familiarity with the language will only grow. They will also see that the same strategies can be applied to many other areas of school and life.
The key is that working from strategies to automaticity (rather than through vocabulary memorization) will afford students the tools to expand their skills beyond the walls of the classroom.