Image Alt

Ben Slavic

Translating Readings Into English

This is a superb five star question from Lori:
I know that this was brought up once before – about the perceived over-reliance in TPRS of translating stories into English.  This came up in my class recently after we did a short unit on polyglots. One of my students emailed the polyglot her group was studying and asked him questions about how to best learn a language. Most of what he said fit in perfectly with the CI approach: listen a lot at first to try to feel the language and don’t begin with grammar too soon, read a lot, find people to practice with, don’t try to be perfect. But then he also said that translating everything into English hindered the ability to think in the new language.
In addition, one of my slow-processors told me that he learned more from my short synopsis in Spanish of a novel’s chapter than when I translated everything into English out loud. On the last test I gave them, I had students draw a picture of the scene instead of translating into English. I just don’t know where the balance is in translating into English. Does translating into English help acquisition?  I would appreciate feedback on this.
Lori Fiechter
[edit. note: My initial reaction is to ask for more information. Lori, I assume we are talking about Step Three reading, correct? Or did this occur during snow plow reading of a novel? And you just gave a short overview of the chapter and the kid said it worked better than a direct translation, which I find marvelously effective. Hmmm. I’m turning this bad boy over to the group.]


  • lori f
    November 1, 2011

    Step 3, reading, yes. But also, I had been giving short paragraph translations (3-4 sentences) one a week as quizzes or as small group work; now I’m wondering if they are actually effective or not. That is in addition to embedded reading translations. My students complain that I have them do too much translating.
    Maybe I just need to see how the rest of you use translating in your own classes. I’m referring both to plow-through translating out loud and students’ written translations. My students prefer when we stay in L2 and act out scenes or when I give that short synopsis in L2 with gestures before they read the same thing on their own.
    I do use regular 1-2 weekly dictados from the readings to point out grammar and fine distinctions.

  • Kate Taluga
    November 1, 2011

    I don’t know if this helps or not. I am a learner of my target language. When my Master speaker speaks to me in Mvskoke, I am sorting some of what she says to English in my brain so I can understand. And I often ask her is this what she meant in English. But the longer she stays in the target, the better my brain gets at understanding in the target and the better I get at being able to make a comprehensible response in the target language. So, there’s another learner’s perspective.

  • Chris
    November 1, 2011

    I’ve always wondered the same thing! In my methods classes I was always taught that the use of English is the devil and translating is a huge, super big No-No. So when I discovered all of the translating in TPRS I was confused, I still am, to be honest

  • jen
    November 1, 2011

    I waffle on this. I’m in the middle of a snowplow read right now, and it would be way too much to translate the whole thing. That said, I am varying my translation activities by alternating the following: 1) whole class choral 2) partner “plow through” where the kids sit and read aloud in English. I think(?) this is what Susie talks about when she says they read quickly…seeing the L2 and simultaneously understanding and saying it in L1) I wander around and help out where needed. Correct me on this , anyone! 3) Me reading sections out loud and just doing comprehension check-style questions when there is something unusual that I know they haven’t seen before. 4) Me reading aloud and asking for individual volunteers to translate a section.
    5) Dramatizing (level 2 and up) by having the kids who are dying to speak “play the roles” of the characters. Only in a couple of scenes that are particularly exciting/ compelling. When I do this, they have already read it silently and done partner translation.
    My take on translation as of now is that it seems like when the kids get really automatic at it, I begin to use it less overall and more in a targeted fashion? I really am feeling my way through this, but I see the value in it as mostly a way to confirm the level of understanding.
    I have been giving translation assessments probably every other week at best. Mostly doing the quick quizzes and dictees.
    I am struggling with the plow-through! I had envisioned it being easier to do :0 Seems like it’s dragging on.

  • John Piazza
    November 1, 2011

    As someone who had briefly turned entirely away from translation (in reaction to the “translation is everything” perspective of most Latin teachers), I have found translation to be the easiest and most efficient way to 1)establish meaning 2)help students read and comprehend large quantities of L2 text, and 3) have students demonstrate their level of comprehension, as Jen said. STRATEGIC USE OF TRANSLATION HELPS ME SPEND MORE CLASS TIME IN THE TL. People who do not understand CI methods adhere to a false dichotomy, namely that you are either doing grammar-translation, or you are doing “full immersion.” Neither of these traditional methods works, because one is all in English, and the other is not comprehensible enough to students.
    When we hear talk about how bad it is to use any English in the classroom, we need to consider the source: is this person working with kids in a language classroom on a daily basis? My guess is probably not.
    This also touches on the issue of disciplining students in the TL, raised in another post. I disagree that students won’t take the TL seriously unless we use it for everything. For most students, even L1 reprimands can turn into “waa waa” adult gibberish. More important than taking the language seriously, I want to be crystal clear and quick with students when there is a problem, I’d also rather have all negative feedback coming from English, making the L2 communication as positive and supportive as possible. This way kids will know I’m serious when I’m willing to stop the fun (which is always in L2) in order to deal with a problem student.

    • lori f
      November 1, 2011

      thanks, all–This helps me to put translation into perspective. The classroom setting is different from an adult learning languages for fun.
      It is expedient for me to think in terms of reading and comprehending large amounts of text/assessing understanding. I’ll just try to find the balance of not doing so many “little” things with translation.
      I don’t have much luck asking for volunteers to translate–not with this group of sophomores. When I make partners translate a page into English out loud (everyone has to take turns talking), it goes better.
      And I like John’s idea of reinforcing that L2 is for “fun”. Reminds me of my social linguistics class in college and how “code-switching” is used in families for different situations.

  • Kevin Taylor
    November 1, 2011

    We are right to see the learning of a second language as much more like the learning of our first language than the previous language-learning paradigm acknowledged. Yet translation is the one place that we can actually make strategic use of the abilities that our students have over those of infants, toddlers, and young children. Pop-up grammar and establishing meaning are important, and translation is something that can’t be done either in L2 or with very young children. And it’s something that we do not just during reading, but during all the phases to some degree. In PQA, it may only be pointing to the board where the L1 translations of the structures are. In story-telling, it may be a one-word translation when students alert you that they don’t understand or quick L1 meaning-checks or pop-up grammar. And during story-reading, it’s much more pronounced but is really a continuation of those exact same things. So if there’s an issue with translation it’s not an issue with translation per se. Instead, it’s a matter of whether all of the L1 crowds out the L2 (which I don’t think is the case at all if you do a brief teacher retell/reask of the story after the translation–In fact, I think everything comes together very nicely at that point).

  • catharina
    November 2, 2011

    Terry Waltz wrote in her blog “Let’s not forget immersion means being underwater. And novice language learners don’t have gills.”
    In this thread (and others as well) she explains her views on the use of L1. She supports the use of English, and makes excellent points.
    She also posted a vimeo explaining what TPRS really is all about.
    And she is doing a webinar November 10 on “Differentiation in the TPRS classroom” that I am sure should not be missed.
    Anything Terry writes whether on her blog, the yahoo listserv, or on the ACTFL wall is worth reading. She just gets it. And can explain it.

  • November 2, 2011

    As long as we’re talking about reading, check out Martina’s blog on her workshop with Susan Van Zant:
    Martina is a third-year teacher whose work blows me away. Her blog is first up every day for me…except when I forget and write something that is basically recycled from her blog because I forgot I read it there.


Post a Comment