We are a month plus into the school year: time for reassessment and reevaluation. Where are we? How did we get here? How does this compare to years past? What does this mean for this year’s students? I have begun to ask myself these questions with increased frequency. I also see these these questions in the context of the level 1s, our newest language learners.

These two factors–the new year and the newness of the level 1s–have lead me to this simple question: What do the best language students do? I am trying to answer this question in order to support my best students and provide a bar for the students who are not there yet.

Here is what I know, and what I hope my students will begin to see:

  • The best language students understand that language is a social construct and language learning needs to be a social activity. Solitary study is helpful, but it needs to be supported by group work, study groups, peer-to-peer interactions. These can take many different forms. One of my favorite of all time? A former student of mine would use the chat function in multiplayer online games to chat in Spanish with players from around the world.
  • The best language students take it out of the book, making the material their own. Covering one column of a side-by-side vocabulary list simply does not work. Students translate into English or worse: they just end up memorizing words in a specific order. Neither of these support real learning. Resources like Quizlet, FlashSticks and Stick Around make this simple.
  • The best language students have an ear to imitate sounds and distinguish different modes and manners of speech. They listen to others and they regulate their own speaking accordingly.
  • The best language students have a sense of structure (“Subject-Verb-Object,” for example) and allow this understanding to connect and “chunk” words together. Students don’t need to be grammarians in the classical sense but they do benefit from a working knowledge of parts of speech .
  • The best language students can see the forest and the trees. They understand accents and they can also begin to articulate ideas in an age/level appropriate way.
  • The best language students have a sense of word roots, prefixes and suffixes. They can leverage this knowledge into language learning.
  • The best language students have a sense of word histories and mysteries. Language is an archive on human understanding and interaction that reaches back into history and guides our future path. This is powerful stuff, plus it is just really cool. Books like this one make great additions to class libraries.
  • The best language students read the examples as carefully as the explanations. Too often students get lost in rules and lose the connection to real language. A colleague of mine wisely advises his students to read the example sentence before and after the explanation. This is where the live language lies.
  • The best language students find ways to use the language outside of class. I tell my students that they should follow an interest into the language of study. This could be sports, politics, art, pop culture. If they have an interest and a framework for understanding, ideas and vocabulary will “stick.” These connections used to be the exclusive domains of language labs or resource centers, but now students can find limitless way to connect on their mobile devices and in their community.
  • The best language students continually combine the new with the “I already know…” Building understanding and connecting yesterday, today and tomorrow is hugely important.
  • The best language students combine what they learn in other classes to enrich their experience in foreign language. This can be English, history, art history, social studies…maybe even science or math. I tell students and colleagues that part of what I love about teaching language is that everything is fair game every day!
  • The best language students put in the necessary time and they understand that frequency trumps time when it comes to planning. Prepping for a test? Planning for a trip? Up against a new topic? If you only have an hour spread your study out over 3 x 20 minutes or 2 x 30 minutes.

Please share these with your students and let me know what works for them!