Skip to main content

Volleyball translation

September 22, 2015

Volleyball translation is a go-to activity for many teachers that have been to TPRS workshops. Essentially, students pair up and take turns reading and translating a text, helping each other when they get stuck on a word. It is an excellent activity for students and the teacher alike to check and confirm students' comprehension of a text, and it is a decent review of the story. That being said, volleyball translation is not one of my favorite activities. Read about it, try it out, and decide for yourself!

Volleyball translation is a simple activity for language classes. It is a reading activity that focuses on meaning.

What is Volleyball Translation?

  1. Move around your seats so that there are pairs of two chairs all around the room. (If you have tables that seat two students, this is easy!) If possible, arrange them in a way that will allow for a logical, easy rotation from pair to pair.
  2. Give each student a copy of a text in the target language.
  3. With a student seated in each chair, assign the person in the left-most chair as Student A and the right-most chair as Student B.
  4. Student A reads aloud the first sentence of the text in the target language, then stops.
  5. Student B translates the first sentence word-for-word. If Student B does not know what one of the words means, s/he gets help from Student A. If neither partner knows, they must ask the teacher.
  6. Student B reads aloud the second sentence in the target language.
  7. Student A translates the second sentence word-for-word and seeks help if needed.
  8. Student A reads aloud the third sentence in the target language.
  9. The activity continues like this for two minutes, with each student translating the previously read sentence and then reading a new one in the target language.
  10. When two minutes have passed, Student B stands up and moves to a new pair of chairs (this is why it is helpful to have established a logical rotation--so that students know where to go next). Each student will now be with a new partner, since Student A remained seated.
  11. The students each say where they left off, and whichever student got through less of the text with his/her previous partner begins at that point by reading the next sentence in the target language. This way, you guarantee that all students read the entire text, and no parts are skipped by pairing up with someone that had moved through the text faster with their previous partner.
  12. Continue the pattern: after the student that had read and translated less of the text with his/her previous partner finishes reading the subsequent sentence in the target language, his/her new partner translates that sentence and then reads the next one in the target language.
  13. Every two minutes, Student B stands and moves to a new pair of chairs to find a new partner.
  14. Continue the activity until most pairs have finished reading aloud and translating the text.

Is Volleyball Translation TOO MUCH translation?

I had the chance to speak with a World Languages administrator at our AFLA conference this weekend. After many years of considering the efficacy of TPRS® as an instructional method, one concern that remains for this admin is the large presence of translation. How can we say that we support ACTFL's standard of 90 percent target language use in our classrooms when we spend so much time translating? I believe that translation is an important tool, but I also believe that this administrator's concern is not unfounded.

In my classroom, translation has two primary uses: (1) to establish meaning and (2) to check for comprehension. There are many ways to establish meaning, but translation is the most efficient and the most accurate. If students share a common L1, then I am able to guarantee with absolute certainty that my students know the meaning of a new word or phrase. I don't have to hope that they correctly interpret my gestures or my circumlocution. I can know that all students are on the same page as I move forward with my instruction. I might say the new word or phrase in English once, and I write it on the board beside its target language equivalent. (I have always taught literate students for which this is a possibility.) Although I point to the phrase and translation throughout the class period, and students are able to read it in L1, I am not constantly code-switching between two languages.

Checking for comprehension is perhaps the most important skill for a teacher to develop. Regardless of content area, teachers must know whether or not their students understand what they are being taught. In world language classes, there are many effective ways to check for comprehension in the target language. There are also many effective ways to check for comprehension in English. I use a mixture of target language and English comprehension checks in my instruction, because each different kind of comprehension check gives me a slightly different view of my students' understanding (or lack thereof!).

Establishing meaning and checking for comprehension in English probably account for 2-3 percent of my class time, so I am left with 8 percent to play with and still meet ACTFL's standard...and that's if I am satisfied to just barely meet the standard!  In a 50 minute class period, 5 percent is just 2.5 minutes. If I use an activity like Volleyball translation that takes 16-20 minutes to complete, and half of that time is spent in English, that means that my students have just spent 8-10 minutes in English: that's 20 PERCENT of my class time! There is NO WAY that I can do a Volleyball translation reading and still hit that 90 percent plus!


Am I a perfect 90 percent TL teacher? No way. There are definitely days in which I get off on tangents in English. There are days in which I explain instructions for new activities in English and it still takes waaaaay longer than it should. But because I know that those things are going to happen despite my best intentions, I try to be very strategic about how and when I use translation activities in class. Most often, I use them on days on which I am absent, and I leave students with a worksheet with translation tasks because--let's face it--it keeps the kids busy. The benefit to translation is that I have a completely accurate picture of the students' comprehension of a text, and for this reason I prefer to save the occasional oral translation for teacher-directed activities. I can hear students' mistakes and hesitations, and they can hear the correct translation of each and every word. Because I do like to include those activities every here and there, I do not choose to spend my precious 5 minutes of English per class period on Volleyball translation.

Of course, 90 percent is just a number, and it's a target. And while it has been given to world language teachers in the U.S. as a standard guideline (thanks for the better wording, Bob!) you're not going to lose your job and the skies won't fall and your students are not going to plateau in their proficiency if you don't hit 90 percent every day. There is instructional value to volleyball translation: just make sure that you use it strategically; not because it's easy on you and the first one that you think of. Click here to read about many more activities that you can choose from (warning: some of them involve translation! Think before you use!). Bottom line? Don't do something in your class just because another teacher does, no matter how brilliant you think that teacher is! Critical reflection on our practices is what moves our students forward to ever-higher levels of proficiency!

Volleyball translation is a reading activity that allows teachers to check for understanding in an ELL or world language class while giving students an opportunity to re-read the text in the target language. But is it too much translation? Find out more here:

Well, you've read my opinion and rationale....what's yours? Do you use Volleyball Translation? What do you love about it? For what purpose(s) do you use it? I know that many teachers LOVE this and use it often, so please do share!!!

Join our newsletter

Subscribe to our newsletter and get instant access to 150+ free resources for language teachers.

Subscribe Today