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Using Language Ladders to Improve Fluency in Foreign Language Education

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All school content areas use graphic cognitive organizers to help students with reading comprehension, critical thinking and building other habits of mind. A language ladder is a kind of organizer, particularly suited to foreign language curriculums, that

We use graphic cognitive organizers -cause and effect (flow) charts, venn diagrams and so forth -in every content area in school to help students with reading comprehension, critical thinking and building other habits of mind. Our goal in education should always be to help students learn how to learn.

A language ladder is a kind of organizer particularly suited to foreign language curriculums. It can be built by the class as necessary toward making an inventory of functional phrases for everyday use. This way classroom management and learning about the mechanics of the language can be done in the target language.

Students produce the need for phrases in class as we go, in order to express basic feelings and connect ideas together. This is a great way to do culture comparison, too, as we can reveal idiomatic phrases that can be very different than their pendants in the students' native language. We write down the phrases onto stiff pieces of paper, decorate them or attach other pieces of meaning to them (like pictures), and hang them up in groups on the walls of the classroom by a central piece of string or however the class wants to do it. Any phrases can be put into these lists –which resemble the rungs of ladders –to organize the pieces of language. We can use ladders in our class planning to ensure that the target language is immediately understood by the students as being required in class activities, right down to expressing the house rules and in announcing assignments.

The example that we like to use is the "I don't know" set of phrases. In the worst case scenario, when a student hasn't understood, at least the issue can be reported in the target language. The class can decide the hierarchy of importance as we go. Below is an example, with English translations written next to the phrases for emphasis. Note that the translations would not be anywhere in the same visible area as the ladder (on the backs of the cards if you can't live without them); the students must critically work out what is what through association between the phrases:

Bitte? (Sorry?)

Ich höre dich nicht. (I didn't hear you)

Noch einmal bitte? / Wiederholen, bitte. (Can you repeat that?)

Ich verstehe nicht. (I don't understand)

Meinst du, dass...? (Do you mean, that...?)

As stated above, any grouping of functional language chunks can be made into ladders. A set of equal importance to the "I don't know set" contains the kind of stuff like "In my opinion..." "that depends..." which we could label the "response beginnings" set or whatever. There's no set of rules for these groups; the class makes them up.

Mastery of these kinds of tiny bits ultimately can give students a relaxed, natural pace of classroom interaction in a circular way: the more little phrases one can spit out, the more one can think of what to say while spitting them out, and the more one can express oneself calmly while building proficiency and fluency. In the distance we should also be able to see that language ladders can be instrumental in building the academic language that all students in all disciplines must acquire by the end of high school.

There are other ways that ladders can be used to approach several issues of building comprehension. For one, the phrases that make up the ladders can be reiterated constantly and meaningfully each time, addressing Krashen’s essential demand for comprehensible input. It also puts such input into the hands of the interacting students rather than keeping it for the teacher.

But, in essence, ladders are also the product of a scaffolding strategy that should be part of your lesson plans. They can list any kind of information, not just phrases. Ladders are handy because they can bear loads of recursive functions. The presence of the information (we’d like to focus on phrases) in the ladder allows for each written phrase to also bear a kinesthetic movement, an emotive tone for speaking the phrase itself, an onomatopoeic noise, a song, a dance, information from a story or film; each phrase can reach back to simpler concepts, or can even give occasion for the class mascot or puppet to say something.

Here are some ground rules for using language ladders:

1. Build them, don't hang them finished on the walls at the beginning of the year or semester. This would have the opposite of the desired effect -the students would freak at so much information all over, and they'd lose out on the experience of building meaning through necessity, which also gives students a visual testament of their hard work as the period progresses.

2. Educator Constance Knop recommends that one phrase be introduced a day at the fastest. We should take pains to make progressive sets of phrases relate to each other in cognitively appropriate ways –the “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” set is a good example of how to properly structure the sets.

3. As mentioned above, don't put the translation in the native language (such as English) on the ladder entries. If the class won't stand for not having translations at all, then they may be written on the back of the ladder entries, provided that those sides stay to the wall (don't hang such items from the ceiling). This way students have to ask peers, check their notes or work out the phrases unless it's an activity time when they can get up and look.

The classroom routines and habits of mind fostered by use of tools like language ladders not only provide perspectives from which to plan your program, year, semester, unit and lesson, but help your students to practice the same kinds of techniques for learning to learn that they work on in other content areas, bringing their studies into more harmony and making your language program or class more important to the school.

Have fun!


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A. Cardott