Creating a discourse community in the world language classroom

For students to have adequate opportunity to acquire language and develop proficiency in a language other than English, maximum use of the target language in the classroom by teachers and students is critical. While the research-based recommendation is that target language use represents 90% of teacher and student discourse in the classroom, many teachers struggle to maximize the use of L2 (world language that the student is working to learn during instruction).

Creating a discourse community through maximizing L2 use directly supports students in developing skills in interpersonal speaking, the most important of the three modes of communication, while also working toward demonstration of proficiency in one of the key standards. All language students, regardless of level, acquire speech most effectively in an environment where there is maximum target language use. A beginning student, on the very first day of class, can handle and should be given the opportunity of complete instruction in the target language provided it is limited to basic introductions, greeting and saying goodbye, and answering simple questions such as, “What is your name?” when adequately modeled and scaffold by the instructor.

A teacher can best support a target language discourse community in class by:

  • Creating comprehensible languageParaphrasing new words and expressionsDefining new words with examples rather than translationSignaling new input and structures with one of voice
  •  Using new expressions and structures repeatedly over time
  • Slowing down rate of speech
  •  Creating contexts for comprehensionUse of gestures to make language clearEnsuring students understand the topic and objective of the lesson in advance
  • Creating lessons with meaningful context and relevant to students
  • Using visuals to support student understanding
  •  Creating comprehensible interactions with students

Involving students in presenting new material (i.e. signaling, responding, cuing sentence completion, asking for opinions, elaboration, ideas)

Using question sequences that begin with yes/no, move to forced-choice questions, and end with open-ended questions

Providing useful phrases to help students negotiate meaning, such as asking for clarification, repetition, or checking comprehension and confirming understanding (Based on Donato, 2011).

Maximizing teacher and student use of the target language during instructional time most directly supports high-quality interpersonal tasks and activities that build language acquisition through conversation, often a primary challenge for language teachers. An effective interpersonal task requires conversation partners to listen to one another with a focus on meaningful topics and follow-up outcomes; negotiate and interpret meaning where there is an information gap between two speakers (do not necessarily know how and with what the other will respond); and arrive at an understanding, demonstrating successful negotiation of meaning and completion of task.

Language educators and their departments are encouraged to make efforts to increase target language use by students and teachers during instructional time. Assessing current target language use this school year and identifying or setting goals as to how it can be increased beginning next fall is a manageable first step.

For more information, contact Maine DOE World Languages Specialist Dr. Jay Ketner at