Stay in the target language with circumlocution: mindset, method & awesome madness.

November 27, 2018

“My immersion students don’t have the vocabulary yet to be able to stay in the target language.”

“When I’m in guided reading, my immersion students come to ask me how to say words.”

“My kids stay in Spanish when I’m around them, but sneak back into English when I’m away.”

As a dual language immersion classroom teacher, have you ever thought or said any of these things? And, when you DO think these things…do you ever find yourself wondering (or even doubting) what students are able to do in the immersion language?

If you have, it’s important that you know you’re not alone. At addalingua, we work day-in and day-out with teachers and leaders to build and maintain a relentless commitment to boosting immersion language skills, but setbacks happen.

There’s no silver bullet for these challenges. There’s no resource to buy as a “quick fix”. But there are mindsets, methods and awesome madness that help inch us closer to the desired effects for student learning and the language acquisition process. Why? BECAUSE. WE. KNOW. THEY. CAN. DO. IT.

Mindset: It all starts with your beliefs.

Before setting forth with anything new when trying to help students stay in the target language, it’s always critical to ask questions like these:

  • Do I truly believe that staying in the immersion language is important? Or, do I just consider it a nice bonus if they do?
  • How effective am I with creating an age-appropriate sense of urgency to learn and use the language?
  • Does my program at large support me in this work?


When we teach students how to circumlocute, we teach them to artfully talk around words they don’t know by using descriptions and words that they do know.

Whatever your program model type or immersion language, it’s IMPERATIVE that your team is on the same page with expectations surrounding language output and the timeline for it. Consistency in beliefs about student language production and adherence to the language of instruction are critical for setting students expectations.

addalingua partner programs utilize our very specific timeline for language output for even the earliest grades, and we regularly see the positive impact that the separation of languages is having on the quality of the language output in both English and Spanish in both one-way AND two-way programs. It works because…what you focus on grows. And, with that mindset, there’s no limit to what kids and teachers can do!

Method: It’s followed up with strategy.

High standards and expectations without support always seem cruel. But, if you’ve got a mindset that is bent on helping kids produce the immersion language, you’re ready to explore strategies to make it happen. Enter: circumlocution.

When we teach students how to circumlocute, we teach them to artfully talk around words they don’t know by using descriptions and words that they do know. That seemingly simple practice ultimately leads them to the unknown word’s name and…yup…a boost in vocabulary!

addalingua partner teachers have access to our circumlocution lessons each year, and they reiterate them at critical junctures (like returns from holiday breaks). But, even if you’re not an addalingua partner, consider the following circumlocution strategies to ensure that your students are developing their linguistic chops:

Getting started

  • known items — Take 10 random items that students know the names of in the immersion language and put them in a box. Tell the class you’re about to take one item from the box, but that they’re not allowed to shout out its name. Instead, the students must describe it based on its attributes, what it does/doesn’t do, etc. Chart the description. Ask a student volunteer to grab something from the box and keep it hidden! Tell her to describe it out loud to the class with extensive detail. Have the class guess the item! After each round, reiterate that the strategy they’re using is called circumlocution, and that it helps them discover ways of describing stuff they don’t yet know how to name.

Continuing the learning

  • unknown words — Before placing new academic vocabulary up on your word wall, build a “web of support around it”. Cover up the new word in the center of a word web. As you talk about the word, describe it in detail while writing the descriptions along the web. Once you’ve circumlocuted, name the new academic word.

Expecting it all the time

  • Students who develop great circumlocution skills don’t “sneak” in and out of their languages. Now…do NOT mistake me…it’s well known that students can pull from knowledge and understandings across their languages in order to make meaning. I’m simply reiterating that, when students are empowered to circumlocute, they are FAR LESS LIKELY to revert to the non-immersion language for support…because they have an accessible strategy in the immersion language!
  • Ensure that students are circumlocuting on a regular basis. This means that during the writers’ workshop, students aren’t standing up and asking, “¿Cómo se dice skateboard?” They’re not coming up to you to interrupt your guided reading groups either. Instead, when writing, they circumlocute on paper and circle it so that, when their conferring opportunity comes, they describe the word in the immersion language and you can share it with them in the immersion language without it becoming a translation exercise. Students can also circumlocute for one another to negotiate meaning. It’s a WIN, WIN for all!

Awesome madness: It’s celebrated to the max.

Having the skills to navigate language in the language of instruction is EMPOWERING for students. We emphatically support it because we see the results: in student efficacy and capacity, in student proficiency and performance, and in program quality overall.

From the kindergartner who forgets the name for rana who is suddenly able to say, ¿Cómo se llama el animal chiquito verde que brinca?, to the middle school student attempting to discuss world immigration patterns and uses circumlocution to do it in order to keep the flow of her argument going, it deserves to be celebrated!

Consider the following ways you might celebrate circumlocution in your classroom:

  • Rack up the points: Each time you hear a student use circumlocution, add a tally mark to the board. Once your class reaches its goal — what special language-based activity will they get to do? Just like we always use reading-based incentives with reading, it’s important to encourage some language-based incentives for language!
  • Circumlocution stickers: Encourage the usage of circumlocution by placing a sticker or sign (of course…a non-wall-harming one!) on the doorway of your classroom. Passers by will know it’s a strategy that you’re working on, and can stop in to celebrate it in the immersion language with you!

Boost the buddy time: Explain to your students that, once they reach the goal for quantity and quality of circumlocution, or for how many new words they’ve discovered through the art of circumlocution, they’ll have more time with their buddies from the upper grades or lower grades of the immersion program! They’ll see that their efforts to stay in the immersion language are paying off, and that visiting with the the big kids (or the little kids) is such a gift for everyone involved!


November 27, 2018

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