The Summer Slide and Language Attrition

The summer slide, when students lose important skills they learned in school, is the worst enemy of foreign language teachers. Language attrition refers specifically to the foreign language skills that are lost during the summer slide. Research suggests that during the summer students lose on average at least a month’s worth of skills learned during the school year. The amount of target language (TL) attrition depends on instructional factors, cultural factors and personal factors.

Studies show that language attrition has less of an impact on a student’s’ ability to retain basic grammatical concepts and vocabulary skills. However, the ability to effectively communicate in the target language is the skill that’s most affected by the summer slide. So, students in foreign language classes that focus heavily on language production may suffer heavily from extensive language attrition. In contrast, classes that focused more on TL comprehension and writing saw less TL skill loss. Bear in mind, students can suffer language attrition in different amounts across various TL skills.

“Welcome back, students. Now, let’s relearn everything we did last year!”

The type of instruction and the amount of instruction heavily influences the level of language attrition. Students in more intensive immersion programs tend to retain more TL skills than those students in a more spaced out TL learning program. For example, students studying Spanish in an intensive immersion program where half of instruction may be in the TL resist language loss better than students learning the same amount of Spanish over the course of two or more years. Another variable to consider is the age of the students. Young children are like sponges and are adept at TL memorization. Adults are better at conscious learning because they can organize what they learn and understand strategies to retain TL acquisition. Therefore tailoring your instruction style to the natural abilities of different aged learners can affect successful acquisition and the amount of TL attrition that is avoided.
The cultural environment can also affect TL retention. In the U.S., and other countries, bilingualism isn’t heavily encouraged. In some cases countries may even push for complete linguistic assimilation by immigrants.These kind of environments impede a language learner’s ability to practice and maintain TL skills. If you teach in this kind of climate you can counteract these negative attitudes by creating a classroom space that’s fun, engaging, and provides resources for TL maintenance during the summer. Check out this blog post for ideas about how to prevent TL attrition.

Personal factors are the hardest to combat in regards to language attrition. If a student isn’t motivated and has a negative attitude towards the TL they aren’t likely to maintain proficiency. Moreover, there’s a higher likelihood the learner will suffer from extensive language loss. I will address how to combat these issues in another post.
More information on the summer slide and language attrition can be found here and here.

5 Steps to Help Students Become Conversationally Fluent in the First Year

Language
Whether fluency means being able to read in the target language (TL) without the use of a dictionary or being able to watch a foreign movie without any subtitles, each student’s definition of fluency and fluency goals can differ. Contrary to popular belief a student can become conversationally fluent in a foreign language that they are learning in school. The following are 5 practical steps a student can pursue to become a more efficient and effective communicator in their TL.

Step 1:

Master the Essentials. Simply put, the essentials students’ need to learn are some vocabulary and basic grammar.  There are plenty of resources available to help students master vocabulary - on and offline. Of course, we encourage students to use ClassTracks to efficiently and effectively study vocabulary. For some languages learning the vocabulary in 2 or 3  sequential textbooks can lead to basic conversational fluency. For example, Japanese learners who learn the vocabulary in the textbooks Genki I and Genki II will know around 70% of the spoken Japanese language. Learning the basic grammar will allow a student to use their vocabulary in the proper sentence structure.

Step 2:

Master Conversation Fillers. Every language has sentence fillers such as um, er, so, and like. If a student can master the TL’s fillers it will enable the learner to sound more natural. Also if a student learns conversational fillers it will allow them time to think of words or phrases if they have a mental block.

Step 3:

CommunicationFind a Native Speaker to Communicate with. This is the most important aspect of learning another language. You actually have to speak it. With the internet there’s no excuse why an individual can’t find a language partner or teacher. Teachers can help their students find native speakers and make sure the contact is standards-aligned through sites like penpalschools.com, which provides a platform to connect with students across the world along with standards-aligned curriculum to support the interactions.

Step 4:

Learn to Problem Solve and Find Synonyms. Problem solving in the TL is absolutely vital for a student to learn. What do I mean by problem solve in the TL? Problem solving in the TL means finding ways to work around mental blocks when you forget words or phrases. If you’re talking to a native speaker about your day and can’t remember the word for library, you can refer to it as “the place that lends books out for free”. Finding synonyms is the same concept. If you forget the word short, work around it by saying something isn’t tall.

Step 5:

Forgive Mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, but students learning a foreign language shouldn’t be discouraged by them. Students need to forgive mistakes because they are a natural part of the learning process. If a student can laugh off their mistakes and keep going they are more likely to stick with a foreign language for the long haul.

Success

If a student can master these five steps, then effective communication in TL is achievable in a year.

Me Shirt: fun project for the last weeks of school

One of my absolute, all-time favorite activities to do this time of year is the ‘me-shirt.’ My students love any excuse to not wear their uniforms and this projects gives them a creative, fun, (and most importantly) communicative way to share their style.

“Yo soy muy artistica” - Peyton, 7th grade Spanish

 

Objective: Students will be able to describe themselves in the target language and compare what others wrote about themselves.

Materials: Ss will need a blank, light colored t-shirt, their notebook, and a pencil/pen.

I provide: fabric markers, glitter-glue, fabric paint, brushes, and butcher paper (to protect my desks)

Procedure:

  • A week before the activity, I ask students to look for a blank, light colored t-shirt that they have permission to write/draw on. They don’t know why.
  • For homework the day before the activity, I ask students to write at leasme-shirt2t 10 sentences to describe themselves in Spanish. I expect at least half of the sentences to be at least 5 words long and at least one of those to be a compound sentence (the requirements will depend on your students’ level).
  • In class on the day of the activity, I have students peer-check each other’s sentences (to make sure no one ends up embarrassed by their shirt) and I walk around to double-check my more struggling students and/or answer questions.
  • When everyone is confident in their sentences, I explain the activity: we will have the rest of class (about 45 minutes) for this activity. Every student will make a custom t-shirt (me-shirt) that describes themselves in Spanish. They can draw anything they like (as long as it’s appropriate for school) and can write as much as they want as long as it’s in Spanish and includes at least the 10 sentences they wrote for homework. I bring out the supplies and explain any necessary procedures about how we will be using them.
  • Students spend 45 minutes having fun, being creative, comparing their shirts, and practicing their Spanish. I walk around to help - especially if students want to test out a more advanced construction.
  • The shirts have to dry in my classroom overnight, during which time I write up a quick ‘quiz’ about the students in each class (who has red hair, who likes animals, etc). The following day students pick up their shirts and wear them over their uniform. Then in class I take about 15 minutes for them to present their shirt to the class and ask each other questions. Then, we play a quiz game to see who remembered the most about their classmates. They get to be creative, break dress-code, and compete with each other. This has always been a winner in my classroom!
  • Bonus: if there’s a spirit week or something similar at the end of the year, ask your principal for permission for a second showing of the shirts. Really, any excuse not to wear uniforms is met with excitement. If you’re looping with your students the following year, have them wear their shirts during spirit week in the fall to get your new level 1’s excited.