On a teachers’ group, the question was recently posted:

How can I transition my Spanish 2 class from listening to me speak in Spanish, but almost always responding/suggesting/asking in English to the students speaking in Spanish as well?

Two words: classroom management. I know, not the answer people want to hear. Teachers would prefer to have a magic activity, or a couple of worksheets that would “catch them up”.

But what behavior of any kind is allowed in class comes from classroom management. What language is allowed in the classroom is a matter of classroom management. If you post and ruthlessly enforce the “2 Words of English” rule (students may use no more than 2 words of English to answer or make a suggestion), there really isn’t much chance that they will output English beyond that. It is more than possible to be ruthless with a rule without alienating your students. You just make sure to be ruthless with a smile.

But doesn’t that shut students down?

Yes and no. First, it depends on the attitude and tone of the teacher. But even more, it depends on the teacher accepting short target-language answers and then modeling how to make a longer one. Just as we use “three-fers” in circling to provide models of longer, more complex language while students are at a place that only allows shorter output, modeling provides extra input and also shows them how they can use language they already have — because the teacher is staying in bounds while doing this — to express complex meanings.

When a teacher accepts a short answer in the target language, he is modeling real-world communication. No one answers in complete sentences, and the more mundane the question, the less likely it is the answer will be in a complete sentence. Listen to question and answer pairs in your native language for a day if you don’t believe this. Now, of course we want more than what might be described as a “husbandly grunt” (you have heard this, ladies!) in response to answers in class, but that doesn’t mean we want to err on the side of forcing complete sentences for output before that is going to happen naturally, and it doesn’t mean that we reject answers that perfectly well convey meaning but are not complete sentences. Considering the way real people use real language, that would be bordering on the hypocritical.

So there is an element of the “fishing” skill here (“fishing” being the TPRS skill of asking for answers to an open-ended question and rejecting some of them). When we “fish”, we always honor the student’s answer, even if we know the second we hear it there is no way we would ever use that suggestion in class. (Inappropriate answers are an exception, of course — I am always talking about TPRS within the frame of appropriate classroom management, since ANY method of instruction has to fit inside that limit, and without that limit, it is difficult to effectively use any method of instruction.) It’s the same way with short answers.

When a student knows that the teacher is first and foremost focused on his meaning, rather than the form of what he’s saying, that’s when the magic happens. That’s why it’s called comprehensible input. Comprehensible means able to be understood, but what is being understood? MEANING. Meaning is central to TPRS. If we drift from meaning and start worrying too much about form in our interactions with students, we kill the relationships. As teachers we still do “worry” about form, but we do something about that by providing more rich input — “rich” meaning rich in the longer, more complex forms that students have not yet acquired, as evidenced by their inability to output them.

We have to fill the bucket of language before it can slop over the top. Long answers are no different. Patience and input equal proficiency.