IN OUR FOREIGN LANGUAGE CLASSES we teachers often struggle with the knowledge that there is way more vocabulary than we could ever teach, yet we try mightily to cram as much in as we can, hoping our students will pick up vocabulary simply because it is provided- of course, we know this isn't realistic but hope springs eternal! And honestly, I can't advocate for a 'less is more' approach because, well, more is more. However, we can take our objectives for a lesson or theme and prioritize out what are the key words/ phrases.
SO, LET ME GIVE AN EXAMPLE... if my kiddos are reading our minibook 'Pepita y la mariposa' during which Pepita observes the life cycle of a butterfly, one of my goals prior to starting this theme is to identify key words that I absolutely want my kiddos to retain. In Marzano's Art and Science of Teaching, he calls this 'critical content', an instructional strategy to organize content. In my butterfly theme, there are a host of words I could choose from: ve, un día, sale, después, mariposa, oruga, crisálida, huevo, se construye, adiós, among others, including prior knowledge such as colors and adjectives of size, and the verb 'es'.
FOR THIS THEME, I have chosen three key words- 've', 'mariposa' and 'es'. These are the three I am going to emphasize every class, even as I am teaching the other vocabulary as well. Why these three? One of the learning goals for this theme is to describe a stage in the life cycle of a butterfly using simple sentences and adjectives. 'Es' is a natural verb to use to achieve this learning goal, and 've' places the description in context. 'Pepita ve una mariposa. La mariposa es verde y azul.' Of the four stages in the life cycle, 'mariposa' also ties into a cultural learning goal for this theme, the monarch migration to México, so it is a 'heavy lifter' for me.
THESE THREE WORDS ARE ALSO WORKHORSES, meaning they will serve not only for this theme, but in others later in the year and in subsequent grades, so they form part of a larger list of 'key words' I have for my K-4 entire curriculum.
LET YOUR STUDENTS KNOW what the key words are- this is as important as identifying them in the first place. By informing your students, you are helping them to focus in on a subset of all the content you are exposing them to, allowing them to make better sense of the fog of language they are immersed in. I was skeptical when I first learned about this at a Marzano workshop, thinking EVERYTHING I teach is critical, but after using and seeing this strategy in action, I can say it works! My students are more responsive overall during class to these words, and, as we continue through the year, they come up time and again, further reinforcing their usefulness. I often also burn my 1.45 minutes of English (I've done the math- this is approximately how much time I can speak in English out of 90% in Spanish during a 30 minute class) giving my students a quick explanation as to why these are our key words, or how they can be useful to us in achieving our goals. For example, during our 'Las Mascotas' theme in 3rd grade, a key word is 'mi'... one of our goals is to be able to describe one of our pets; my students are able to understand that 'mi' helps us to get to this goal by allowing them to construct a sentence such as 'Mi gato es negro.' This provides a reason behind the words which my students comprehend and buy into, and increases their motivation as well.
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