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Get your students speaking with Productive Language Goals

What does it take to get students to speak in another language during each and every lesson?  I’ve designed a course on Productive Language Goals to help teachers write simple and highly effective language objectives, while also creating visual supports to help students acquire and develop their language skills every day.  

Words Alone Are Not Language Objectives

When I was in grad school, I took a curriculum writing course.  As part of the final project, we had to design a unit for a specific grade level.  I wrote my curriculum for fifth graders on Immigration.  My students at the time were almost all second generation immigrants, and being 1.5 myself, I felt we could really connect around this topic.  

As part of the creation of this unit, I had to develop language objectives.  I asked my instructor what those were specifically.  This instructor said that a language objective was the words that related to the unit.  So, I began creating a long list of words about my unit: immigrant, move to, leave, hardship, generation…  I think I had 30-40 words in my unit.  Well, let me tell you, a list of words is NOT a language objective. 


Lesson-Specific Language Objectives

As part of this assignment, I taught three lessons from my curriculum.  Sadly, they were total flops.  Reflecting back on why my students weren’t talking about immigration, I saw two major flaws in my design.  One issue was that the words I had chosen as language objectives for the whole unit were not, in fact, language objectives for the lessons I was teaching.  This taught me that students need lesson-specific language objectives, that is to say language objectives that are directly connected to the lesson you are about to teach.  More precisely, language that they will need in order to answer your questions, talk to their peers, or write a response.  


Since this unfortunate (but instructive) series of lessons, I’ve concocted a really easy way to identify language objectives that directly relate to my lesson: by using strategy-based teaching:

  • First, I write my content objectives using the strategy-based approach;
  • and then derive language objectives that match those strategies. 


Lesson-Specific Language Objectives

in an Immigration Unit


The Importance of Mortar Words

Another lesson I learned was that language objectives are not just words.  I had heard of this term, bricks and mortar,  as a teacher of ESOL, and as I finished implementing my first lesson, it struck me how I had completely overlooked the mortar words in my lesson.


Bricks and mortar describe how words come together to make coherent thoughts, sentences, paragraphs and text.  What we call bricks are typically nouns and verbs.  They give a lot of meaning.  We often call them lexical words.  Mortar words are the glue that hold the lexical words (brick words) together.  Pronouns (it, they), conjunctions (because, then), linking words and logical connectors (according to, in addition to, as a result), passive constructions (can be described as, was identified as, is often seen).  Depending on which mortar words are used, the meaning of a sentence could change dramatically.  


Let me give you a few examples: 



In the examples above, if a student were only relying on brick words to derive meaning, they may begin thinking that bats are birds because they have wings.  With knowledge of the mortar words, they can understand that bats are absolutely not birds, and that wings are but a feature that they share with birds.  What these sentences also show is that there are many, many ways of conveying the same thoughts at different levels of proficiency in the language.  


As an ongoing English learner, that’s what I continue to find hard to grasp: the increasingly complicated sentence structures that the English language presents.  Just when I think I’ve mastered the language, a new way of phrasing something pushes those boundaries just a bit farther.  


As a dual language teacher, I dedicated much of my time thinking about how my students might acquire those mortar words that make them sound more proficient, more savvy users of the language.  Over time, I came to the conclusion that mortar words need to be taught in context, not in isolation.  I used sentence stems, and a variety of sentence structures to help students make meaning of these functional words.  Each sentence stem had a direct correlation to a particular lesson.  It made sentence structures instantly useful and practical for students. 


Productive Language Scaffolds

Generating vocabulary and sentence stems is truly the easy part.  Here’s the tough part: How do you make them stick?  I wanted students to produce language, not just receive it.  We talk so much about comprehensible input from the teacher, and I wanted to center my attention on output from students instead.  

Productive language scaffolds are the supports we can provide students to aid their speaking and writing in the target language.  They include word walls, sentence stems, anchor charts, digging for meaning activities and conversation protocols.


In my newest online course, Productive Language Goals I’ll show you how to generate language objectives that actually make students talk and write in your target language. In addition to learning how to find the right words and the right sentence stems, I’ll present five types of linguistic scaffolds with multiple examples for each to facilitate your implementation.  

I challenge you to try all of these instructional moves in your classroom!  Productive Language Goals is a short online course.  For $25, you get access to the 2-hour course for 90 days.  Here’s what I would do: learn a few tricks, try them, then watch some more, and try a few more.  The two hour-course is jam packed with resources and examples to help you transfer these tips and tricks to your classroom.



Interested in registering a group with a purchase order?  Please reach out to for a quote and group discounts.  

Your partner in all things dual language,


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