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.]



12 thoughts on “Translating Readings Into English”

  1. 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.

  2. Laurie–
    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.

  3. Very nuanced insight Kate. It then seems to be a question of balance, Lori. How much translation and how much staying in L2? I don’t know. I hope people chime in on this. My own thought is simple. They need to hear it (M/Tu in PQA and stories) and they need to read it (W/Th readings of stories or plowing through novels). I see great value in the translation/reading classes. That said, the kids say it is too much, and you yourself from your position in the classroom doubted their value above:
    ….now I’m wondering if they are actually effective or not….
    Maybe the translation work on the readings is enough without those short paragraphs. My reason, by the way, in designing a week with two full days of reading on (translation/spinouts/discussion of grammar) was to make sure that I gave reading as close to 50% of my instructional time as possible, as I believe that it is the best way to learn a language. I hope more people weigh in on this thread. There must be an answer.

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. 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.

  7. 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).

  8. Keven wrote:
    pop-up grammar and establishing meaning are important….
    I had placed Lori’s question on the back burner in my mind and I noticed something very interesting today, with that question back there on a low simmer. I was doing PQA as per Jim’s Halloween questions. Whenever I failed to establish meaning by telling them in English what an expression met – in that half ass PQA way that we sometimes get into and wonder why the PQA isn’t working – I lost the kids. I was effectively painting myself into a corner when a few words of L1 would have saved the day. For me in my own personal experience the establishing meaning part via use of L1 is huge. We need rebar rods/target vocabulary to hold the concrete, the various words, together. And the rebar has to be explained in English. But it’s not just in the PQA that translation is necessary, but, as Kevin explains:
    …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…. [ital. mine]]
    The sentence:
    during story-reading, it’s much more pronounced but is really a continuation of those exact same things….
    gets to the central point of the argument that translation is not a bad thing, and this idea:
    ….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….
    really gets into a subtle point about what I have come to believe, that SLOW is not the biggest issue in comprhension based instruction, but the use of English. We actually don’t use much English. If Noonan walks into our classroom as she does sometimes, we better be in 90% – 95% L2. That’s not much English, certainly not enough to rail about as do the purist immersion freak things.
    Immersion freaks do little but lose their audience. It’s a joke, one of the biggest being Rassias, who could barely reach his Dartmouth talent with all that hooey. They didn’t understand it.
    Thank you, Kevin, that pretty much sums it up for me. Your argument has few if any flaws, and convinces me yet again that we have, in our approach, the formula for Coca Cola, as it were.

  9. 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.

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