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!!!

23 replies on “Volleyball translation

  1. Hey Martina¡ I;m really interested in your alternate activities to this since volleyball translation has been a staple for me. It appears your link isn;t set up yet? I know you just posted this so, just fyi.



  2. Martina, I am in general agreement with you here, but just want to point out one important point that makes a difference in some schools and districts: the 90% in L2 is a guideline, not a standard. In edulingo, standards are sort of non-negotiables. Guidelines are just that–something to aim for and be guided by, but there are plenty of reasons why on any given day they may not apply. Volleyball reading is one of those, in my opinion. Thanks for all the good sharing. I share your posts with my department often.

    1. Thank you for that consideration! It IS an important distinction to make, and I should have been more thoughtful of my wording! I should also clarify that I don’t think that Volleyball Translation is bad practice (if so, I would not have included the instructions!); I think that it needs to be used strategically…like any activity! Do you use it often? What do you like about it/why do you use it?

      1. Completely agreed that it is a useful practice. I probably use it about twice a month. I have used it for an entire class period (upper level, longer reading) and as a sort of warm up or ending to a class that involved other things. The greatest use for me as the teacher happens when pairs call me over to clarify something. When that same “something” pops up several times, I know I have a word or structure for which I have not given enough comprehensible input. I may think they they already understand the reading, but this allows me to see where I have misjudged and then back up and do a little more.

      2. That IS useful–with a choral translation, it is hard to tell just how many students don’t know any given word, so lack of comprehension can be masked by the numbers. Reminds me of Linda Li’s demo this summer–it is essential that we train our students to let us know when they don’t understand by CELEBRATING them every time that they do. If students are too embarrassed or don’t care enough to call you over for a clarification, then a huge selling point for the activity is lost! When you do long volleyball translations, how do you maintain engagement? Are students motivated enough by the ability or challenge to translate the text that they don’t mind it, or do you have some tricks up your sleeve that you care so share? 🙂

      3. Martina, in longer volleyball readings, I move around the room to pairs who raise their hand for help, and then, after 5-10 minutes, I call the whole class together to share what I am hearing. It is a mini celebration of those who asked questions about words/structures,and sharing as a whole helps clarify for those who did NOT ask. Then, back to it. The real key to doing a longer reading like this is that the reading really be compelling. As always.

  3. When translating a reading, I am much more likely to do a choral translation followed by intensive questioning like Blaine does in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqSCxBqt6-0

    In my opinion, there should be enough PQA, storyasking and choral reading followed by intensive questioning so that students do not need that kind of support (full translations) when they get to semi-independent reading. If they do, I would go back and do more oral work before reading.

    I worry that needing to do volleyball translation of a text when reading semi-independently could be a sign that the second step (which is a hard step to master… I certainly have not mastered it yet) is being shortchanged.

    1. Hm, very interesting Mike! So if a teacher finds him/herself NEEDING (versus just wanting) to do translation activities during TPRS® Step 3:Literacy to ensure that all of the holes are filled in for students, then perhaps the teacher should step back and consider whether enough time was spend front-loading the language in TPRS® Step 2: Ask questions (PQA & Storyasking). This fits in with what Bill VanPatten shared this weekend: that holes in mental representation of language can only be filled by more input: no amount of practice or drills can fill them in. I love how thoughtful you are about your instruction!

  4. I like using volleyball translation occasionally because it gives them such a sense of accomplishment, I can listen in to see where they break down, and the students really seem to enjoy it. I tend to only do it for shorter stories so it takes about 6 minutes, and I find that I don’t do it at all in my more advanced classes. Overall, I try to be thoughtful about why I want it. Also, my classes are an hour long and it’s a pretty easy break for the kids that still involves learning.

    1. I agree that it gives a sense of accomplishment and is VERY low stress (in a healthy class with positive relationships between students), so students feel at ease and like it’s a break from full-on instruction!

  5. I love this topic. I hope it is okay to give my 2 cents. Consider me the Volleyball translation defender! All I ned is a cape!

    Volleyball translation is not necessarily an activity with the intended purpose to establish meaning nor for check for comprehension nor create a 90% TL environment. In my classes VT is used after hours of storytelling where students interact in the target language in a variety of ways. Before using VT a class choral translation should be used. This is the time to make sure students are clear on the meaning of what they are reading.

    The NUMBER 1 PURPOSE of Volleyball translation activity is to give students the opportunity to go from slow processing the language to fast processing the the language. That is it!

    We do not have thousands of hours to create truly fluent second language users. What we are really hoping to do is create what Terry Waltz refers to as MicroFluency. We want students to be really good at the language they are exposed to in our classes. Volleyball translation is one activity that ensures this objective.

    VTs should not necessarily be used to teach other students the words in the story this should be done in the context of other input-based instructional activities. In the first round or so we can easily see students very slow at this. As they move to other classmates in order to continue the activity, they are doing this at faster rates. This is a successful processing activity and nothing more.

    Here is a video of 2 beginner learners in the activity. This is barely week 2 of Spanish 1. You will notice the boy student make pronunciation errors, like when he tries to say “y” the word “and” in Spanish. He has not had enough TL exposure at this point but he is processing quickly the language he has been exposed to. Those linguistic issues along with others will be worked out over time. There is no other activity that I know of that allows students to rapidly process comprehensible and concise information as well as this activity.


    Martina I love you! I also like your activity… thanks for your take on this topic. I hope my rambling wasn’t rude.


    1. Oh please! Thoughtful responses are not rude. Thanks for explaining your position so well, Volleyball Translation Defender! These lengthy responses are helpful for teachers to be able to consider the activity from all angles and decide whether or not it fits in with their instructional goals and classroom structure. Bill VanPatten spoke this weekend about how knowing Second Language Acquisition theory frees us to make sound instructional choices in the classroom (to think and decide for ourselves about how we want to teach) because we know what DOESN’T work. There is no research to show that Volleyball Translation is ineffective (bad practice), so it is up the teacher to consider whether or not it has a place in his or her own classroom. You’ve decided “yes”, and I’ve decided “every once in a very great while”!

      1. Mike: What I love about your answer is that you make me reconsider VT in a different light. You have made a convincing argument that VT is a good practice when it is used towards the end of the learning sequence, as a way to get your students to read the story another time. “The purpose of VT is to go from slow-processing to fast-processing”… YEAH!! It is interesting to note that the same technique, placed in a different part of the learning sequence, completely changes what is actually happening.

      2. Mike: What is funny about you reconsidering what I said is that you made me reconsidered my role as a language teacher about something you shared from Blaine a few years ago. You shared that Blaine said something like…

        “I am not really here to teach you Spanish. I am here to help you process the language that you understand.”

        That statement you shared changed everything about how I teach. Ultimately, we are unlocking what is already in every human being…UG/LAD.etc.

        Thanks Martina and everyone for this conversation!

  6. I use VT (though I call it Ping-Pong Reading) regularly in my classroom. In a Title I school with fewer kids that read on grade level, it was a bit more of a struggle, but still successful. In the the school I currently teach in (far more students on grade level and a much higher 4-year graduation rate), this activity is charmingly successful. I like using it because after all their focus on the story asking/telling, they *finally* get to simply tune in to each other and practice their reading/comprehension skills. I generally grade them for participating (actually trying to read & translate aloud with their partner instead of reading silently to themselves or ignoring the story altogether). Sometimes, just to surprise them, I use an alternate ending in the version they read with each other – provides more reps as we discuss what was the same/different from the story we acted out in class…

    I recently read something on Ben Slavic’s member blog that calls certain types of reading in class “pronunciation practice”. No matter what the teacher focuses on while students are doing a VT – e.g., either translation or pronunciation – when reviewing the story with the whole class, I think the VT is a valuable tool to use to get the class to reflect on their skills.

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