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Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - Stick with what works in the classroom!

April 23, 2020

Yesterday was Earth Day 2020, and I celebrated with a romp through the woods and a spontaneous interview with Elicia Cárdenas during our #SOMOSathome launch party. The three big questions were:

  1. What have you REDUCED in your teaching in recent years?
  2. What activities do you REUSE over and over again?
  3. How do you RECYCLE content to maximize processing?

If you missed the LIVE Launch Party (which may or may not have involved a friendly game of Strip BINGO... okay, it did!), you can watch the replay in the SOMOS Collab group. And whether or not you joined us, please join ME in sharing your answers to the same three questions!

How is language acquired?

Our decisions about what to reduce, what to reuse, and what to recycle will reflect what we know about language acquisition and what we believe that means for classroom instruction.

The last four (five?? where does the time go?) decades of research in the area of language acquisition tell us that language is not acquired through practice, but through consistent and constant exposure to comprehensible input. In other words, we acquire language when we are exposed to linguistic input that our brains are able to process– linguistic input that is filled with forms that our brains can link to meaning. By providing our students with copious amounts of communicatively-embedded input that is comprehensible, we are creating the conditions that will lead to language acquisition.

Reduce waste.

In the area of language teaching and language acquisition, I see two big categories of waste reduction: we can reduce linguistic waste and we can reduce wasted time.

Reduce linguistic waste

When we receive input through listening and/or reading, our brains attempt to process the forms contained within that linguistic input. Our brains attempt to make sense of the language that they are taking in; specifically, they are attempting to create links between the forms contained within the language and their meaning. If our brains ARE able to link a form with meaning, POOF!– that form is processed and received as intake. It is applied to the developing mental representation of language that exists in our head, and we can draw on it for output.

If our brains are not able to link a given form contained within the input to meaning, that form is "dumped". It is linguistic waste; the proverbial "in one ear, out the other".

As language teachers who see our students for limited amounts of time (never more limited than now!), we want to maximize the processable input that our students receive and minimize the waste. If we can communicate with our students in such a way that their brains are able to process nearly all of the linguistic input that they receive, why wouldn't we? Why waste our time filling their heads with words and other forms that will just go in one ear and out the other?

Reduce your linguistic waste by employing techniques in the classroom that help your students to process the language to which they are exposed. Here are a few of my favorite techniques:

Ask questions

I don't think that I could ever post about this too much! Nearly everything boils down to questioning– knowing when to ask what questions to whom! If you can get questioning right, you will connect with your students, and your students will be able to understand you!

Shelter vocabulary

Right now, we are all too familiar with the concept of "sheltering": we are sheltering in place for the protection of ourselves, our families, and our community members. The purpose of sheltering is protection, and this is no different when it comes to language learning. Millions of students have developed the false belief that they are not capable of learning a language because of their experiences in a language classroom: too hard, too stressful, too confusing.

Be purposeful in choosing the new vocabulary to which you expose your students! Here are some of my favorite ways to reduce the new vocabulary words to which I expose my students:

  • Say a negative sentence with a familiar word (ex: "This is not difficult" instead of "This is easy").
  • Leave out details and let students fill in the holes with their imagination! (like Linda Li did at NTPRS so many years ago!)
  • Use proper nouns instead of generic nouns (ex: "They went to Walmart" instead of "They went to a store").


My husband regularly reminds me that 7% of communication is verbal, and 93% is non-verbal. This statistic is attributed to Albert Mehrabian, who found in a 1971 study that communication is made up of

  • the words you say (7%)
  • your tone (38%)
  • your body language (55%)

Students use tone and body language to interpret messages in their first language, and so we've got to deliver messages in the target language using those same techniques. Because students may not immediately be able to interpret the words in an unfamiliar language, we can overcompensate for that struggle through gesture.

Link meaning to L1

I used to think that exposure to our shared first language would undermine language acquisition. As it turns out, judicious use of L1 in the classroom can boost the amount of input that students are able to process. Processable input = language acquisition!

Have you ever played Charades? Think about the times that you are trying to guess what someone else is acting out, and you can't and they are angry because their acting was on point! It's maddening! When I use a new word with my students, I almost always tell them what it means. Gestures are often misinterpreted, and Lord knows my illustrations are, too! Furthermore, few things raise a student's affective filter like feeling incapable of understanding something that their teacher seems so confident that they should be understanding. Keep those affective filters low (and brains primed for language acquisition!) by helping your students to understand you with confidence!

Reduce wasted time

We don't get much time with our students. If we are very lucky, they might study a language for three, four, or five years, and so realistically we are looking at somewhere between 300 and 500 hours of actual class time (you know, time that students aren't on field trips or home sick or at band practice).

Elicia Cárdenas shares these statistics in our SOMOS Assessment workshops as a reminder to Manage Expectations - both the teacher's and the students'!

Class time is precious, and so it behooves us to reduce the waste. To me, wasted time looks like time spent teaching about the language instead of using the language to communicate with my students. Wasted time also looks like time spent playing games that are not communicative. Furthermore, I believe that class time is wasted when we explore culture using our first language instead of in the target language. These things haven't disappeared from my curriculum, but their presence is minimal... or, shall we say, reduced!

More using the language, less talking about the language

Instead of launching a new unit by giving my students a long word list and explaining a grammar concept, I use vocabulary and grammar naturally as I communicate with my students. I still introduce vocabulary (read here!), but it's a very short list– and my students will need to understand the words in order for communication to happen during that unit! I still teach the occasional expository grammar lesson, but usually my grammar instruction looks more like pop-up grammar.

More games played in the language, fewer vocabulary games

Games like Ten! still make for great brain breaks, but I'm not pretending that they have any value for language acquisition, and so I won't plan them as part of my lesson. Instead, I love communicative games like The Unfair Game! Regular BINGO might still make an appearance as a pre-writing diversion, but it's more likely that you would catch me including Strip BINGO or Sentence BINGO in my curriculum.

Teach culture in the target language

When I opened the Teacher's Edition of the first textbook that I used, I noticed that culture was not going to be a big part of my curriculum. In fact, cultural exploration was limited to a two-page spread at the end of each of the first six chapters of the book– and all the text was in English.

Having come from teaching a 200-level Language & Culture class for the previous two years, I was pretty bummed! It wasn't until I learned how to make input comprehensible from teachers like Michele Whaley that I realized that I could choose what to teach my students about! Later, Carol Gaab helped me to master the art of making content comprehensible.

Now, culture is a part of almost everything that I do and create. The SOMOS Curriculum, El mundo en tus manos, Garbanzo... all of these things are filled with cultural content and delivered in the target language.


Reuse what's working

The brain craves novelty, and so we often feel the need to try all the things and have a completely fresh lesson every day. Of course, injecting novelty in your curriculum by trying out new activities and introducing your students to new games is part of what we do, but so is sticking with what is working. Here are some strategies and activities that I use over and over and over and over!

TPRS - Storyasking

Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling was the instructional method that lured me away from the textbook, and Storyasking remains a core component of my curriculum.

Modified MovieTalk

There are so many amazing videos in the world, with meaningful and funny stories, that we can share with our students! I continue to bring together Dr. Hasting's original MovieTalk with the techniques that I used in my world language classroom to provide the students that learn through my materials with rich, compelling input.

Running Dictation

It should get old, but it doesn't! My students always loved Running Dictation, no matter how many times we did it! The movement that it allows and its many extensions make this activity a "win" for me, every time!

Q&A Matchup

Ever since I first saw this activity used with song lyrics on Sharon Birch's blog, I have used it to help students process all kinds of input! The magic of this interpretive activity is in the layers of input that it provides. Often, students are listening to or reading an authentic resource, and there are many benefits to using authentic resources in your courses! By using accessible language to create a set of questions and answersabout the authentic resource, you are maximizing processable input while still reaping the benefits that come from the authenticity of the resource. Furthermore, students experience the illusion of output (they're answering questions, after all!) without ever having to create the language on their own.

Cooperative Learning activities

My students always loved talking to each other. In my Methods class and in my on-the-job teacher training, I was encouraged to "get kids talking" so that they could learn the language. Since then, I've learned that "get them talking" doesn't actually have much value for language acquisition. When it comes to acquiring language, input plays a far more important role than output. But, my students loved talking to each other, and I have found as a learner that I like getting the chance to taste the words in my mouth.

Cooperative Learning activities continue to play an important role in my curriculum. While I reuse some of my favorites over and over, like this one and this one, I redesign the content and sometimes the task so that the focus is always on input, and output is always limited.


Recycle content

Repeated exposure to information and language forms improves both processing and confidence. I've shared some of my favorite ways to recycle content in the past (check out this post!), and I'll share a few favorites here, too:

Write & Discuss

Write & Discuss is a super flexible activity that I use all the time! It's a great way to revisit content and to help students think through something in their own words and from their own perspective. Watch the video below (Write and Discuss demo starts at about 27:00), or click here to read all about Write & Discuss!

Word Clouds

Word clouds are easy to make and very versatile! When it comes to recycling, you can use Word Clouds to support students in retelling a story, creating a new version of a story, or sharing facts and information about a topic.

Chain Reaction

In a Chain Reaction activity, messages are shared in series of questions and answers instead of a series of statements only. In doing so, students are revisiting the same content in a new way. Input processing is maximized as students are exposed to forms that are new but familiar (ex: you/I forms of verbs instead of he/they forms). My favorite way to recycle content is through this Chain Reaction Interview sequence!

Blind Retell

This activity is another "output illusion". In each pair, one student is talking, and talking appears to be the focus of the activity. However, the real value lies in the "secret input" being received by the other partner.

What does Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle look like in YOUR classes?

Share what you have reduced, what you reuse, and what you recycle in your language classes on Instagram! Save this Stories background to your photo album, upload it to your Insta stories, fill in the space below each heading with your answers, and tag @comprehensibleclassroom so I can see what you shared!

Earth Day remote learning for Spanish classes

While you're done thinking about what to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle in your classes, check out these Earth Day-related, Distance-Learning friendly resources for Spanish classes:

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