Language Learning 101: Practice the Right Way. (Tip #3)

Here’s my third tip in our series: in order to master a foreign language, students need to practice.

But what does it mean to “practice?”

Ideally, language practice would satisfy these three criteria:

  1. It would be regular—in a perfect world, happening daily. 
  2. It would spiral—including the review of old material while adding on new vocabulary and grammar. 
  3. It would be engaging—employing interesting resources that are suited to the learner’s strengths. 

So, let’s think about how to meet these requirements.

Making it regular:

One (very obvious) way to make language practice a regular occurrence is to set aside daily time to study. Perhaps your homeschool student could set aside 10 minutes every morning to review the vocabulary flashcards that he/she has made. Or perhaps he/she could use time in the car, on an app like duolingo, to review how to conjugate the preterit tense.

But another way to make language practice regular is to replace English-speaking activities with activities in the target language. It’s even better if they’re authentic resources, which integrate cultural education into language learning.

Does your teen usually scroll through blogs first thing in the morning? You can add (appropriate) blogs in Spanish to his/her RSS feed. Does your family enjoy listening to audiobooks in the car? Well, why not listen to one in another language? You may have to start with short stories or even picture books in order to match your child’s level of listening proficiency, but audiobooks (as well as podcasts) are a great way to reinforce listening skills by immersing your child in the target language. If you’re looking for such resources in Spanish, look no further—I’ve compiled a complete list here of my favorite authentic (and safe!) resources for homeschool students.

Making it spiral:

In general, language learning naturally builds upon itself. Once you master a basic set of vocabulary, such as greetings and introductions, you naturally include them in future conversation. Yet the maxim “Use it or lose it” still definitely applies. If the majority of your conversations in the target language revolve around literature, for example, it can be easy to forget sports vocabulary. Or if you mostly talk about sports, useful everyday vocabulary—such as that related to food and cooking—may fall by the wayside.

For that reason, it is essential to structure foreign language practice in the form of a spiral. 

(Want to know more about what spiraling is? Here’s a great explanation by a fellow homeschooling mama).

Some language curriculums popular with homeschoolers naturally do this (such as Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone), but others do not. If you are using a combination of materials, or materials that have thematic units, spiraling can be as simple as writing out a schedule that includes weekly, monthly, and quarterly reviews of old material.

Making it engaging:

Some kids (…quietly raises hand…) really like to do vocab and grammar drills. For them, the worksheets included in their language curriculum or even a workbook like this one (aff link) will be enough to keep their attention and provide a sense of accomplishment and reward. 

Other kids need a little bit more convincing. For these students, apps and on-line resources can provide the game-like atmosphere that can help them stay focused and motivated while practicing vocabulary and grammar structures.

In the past, when I’ve had such students in my classroom at the University of Virginia, many of them found the Web site to be a great tool for review. I like that for vocabulary, it is arranged by theme, and for grammar, it is arranged by concept, so it can be an excellent supplement to any language curriculum and it takes about two seconds to navigate.

What are some of your best tips for building in language practice to your homeschool routine?