Learning to Learn Language—My Recent Journey Through Where Are Your Keys

Several months ago I mentioned using Total Physical Response in a post and Rachel Ash left a comment mentioning a new inovative technique called Where Are Your Keys (WAYK).  It sounded extremely interesting and so I immediately thought guest post.  So today Rachel presents her introduction to Where Are Your Keys. Be sure to follow the link at the bottom of this post to read the companion post which details her use of WAYK in the classroom.


I studied German in high school, and Spanish and Latin in college.  In all cases, the languages were taught at a chalkboard (well, a TV for German—it was by satellite—but with the same basic format) with lists of vocabulary and charts and repetition and rules and generally treating the languages as puzzles.

I am actually very good at puzzles.  That is why I managed to get A’s in each and every language class without being able to speak a word of the language or apply my studies in a real-life situation.

When I realized that Latin was the subject for me, and began looking into ways to teach Latin to others, I knew that I wanted my students to really understand Latin, be able to use Latin, and not have to break a sentence down into its parts to read it.  Analyzing a text takes a very long time—each noun can be labeled in four ways, and each verb has more than one-hundred potential forms in Latin.  Add to that innumerable rules for using each of the forms, and you have a reading experience that is more math than literature.

My classroom has usually been some sort of conglomeration of communicative and comprehensible techniques—TPRS, the “Reading Method”, Compelling Input, to name a few.  Depending on the demands of the district I’m teaching in, I add in more or less direct grammar instruction and try to pad the charts I am sometimes required to use with songs, chants, and drawings.

I started hearing about Where Are Your Keys (WAYK) around two years ago.  At the time, I dismissed the method—or “system” as Evan Gardner, co-creator, would call it—as a third-party TPR (Total Physical Response) method.  All I honestly knew about WAYK was that it used American Sign Language instead of made-up motions for vocabulary, and I wasn’t impressed.

I should note here that I am always wary of the “newest, greatest, bestest thing”; there is a lot of that floating around in education circles and there are always people peddling miracle cures for all ailments of learning.  I am constantly in search of ways to make my classes more effective, but that doesn’t mean that I follow fads just because they are popular.  WAYK felt like a gimmick, and I wasn’t buying.

That changed when I got to experience the method myself this last January.

Where Are Your Keys was made to expedite language proficiency.  Evan Gardner developed it with a roommate who taught him ASL as they worked together to find the keys to learning a language as quickly and efficiently as possible.  His goal is no wasted time—and it’s an important goal for him.  Gardner uses WAYK to save endangered languages—languages with seven speakers, two speakers, one speaker who is elderly—and to teach others how to learn and teach those languages.

It’s effective.  Even in the earliest moments of the game—and it is a game—it’s possible to forget that you are listening to an unknown language.  Within five minutes, because you are repeatedly working through phrases, sentences, and vocabulary, both listening and speaking, it is possible to stop thinking in your more comfortable language.  Because within five minutes it’s really impossible to think in anything other than the language you’re learning.

Gardner came to the Atlanta area last January to demonstrate WAYK to a group of language teachers.  The group wasn’t huge; only around 15-20 participants came.  After the demonstration, I and two others got the chance to sit down with Gardner, pick his brain, and get a much more personalized learning experience.

Because we were Latin teachers, Gardner chose to teach us Hawaiian.  It is the first time I had no previous language knowledge to rest on (English has many German roots, and the Latin base of Spanish and English creates many similarities between the languages).  He set before us a small rock, a large rock, a small stick, and a large stick.  He began by teaching us the sign and Hawaiian words for “What is this?”  After we had practiced that three times, we began the game.

The game consists of repeated question and answer sets that are based as much as possible on real, physical objects.  The idea is that the objects are “obvious”—a rock is a rock.  Period.  It can’t be a rock statue of a bird, or a picture of a rock, which could be interpreted as “bird” or “picture” instead of “rock.”  It has to leave no room for confusion.  It has to leave no room for thought, at least as far as the object goes, so that all mental energy is focused on the language instead.  Between “obvious” objects and hand signs to aid comprehension, there is no actual need for L1; the entire experience is super comprehensible and low-stress and in the target language.

The game begins with objects; it quickly moves into adjectives (in our case, large and small were used to describe the rocks and sticks) and from there can go very many places.  Ownership, wishing or wanting, verbs, singular vs. plural, all of these are easily expressed in obvious ways.  Each word has a hand sign, so if you need help with meaning, you can fall back on a physical aid instead of English.  And the learner is given control of the speed of the game—there is a hand sign for “slower” and one for “faster.”

WAYK requires learners to respond in complete sentences.  This is both something that strikes fear in me (I have spent years studying Stephen Krashen, his concept of the Affective Filter, and discussing the need for comprehensible input without authentic output in early language learning) and something that differentiates Where Are Your Keys from other language-learning systems.  It also makes it a much quicker method—students are given the tools to communicate immediately.

The most important part of WAYK, for me, is that the power is all in the hands of the learner.  The tradition is that the bearer of knowledge is a teacher, and the skill of the teacher determines how well a student learns.  WAYK sort of turns that formula on its head.  The learner is given techniques and tools to seek out language knowledge instead of waiting passively for it to be handed to him.  Just having had four hours of Q&A with Gardner empowers me; I feel like I could walk into almost any linguistic setting and start pulling language from the speakers there!

And that’s the real point of WAYK.  You are creating students—life-long learners of language.  Isn’t that what every language teacher really wishes for?

To learn more about Where Are Your Keys in my classroom, you can read the companion post at my blog! (Read it Now)


Rachel Ash has been teaching for nine years and has utilized communicative teaching methods since her second year teaching Latin. She has presented at the local, regional, and national levels over communicative language teaching.  Make sure and visit Rachel at Pomegranate Beginnings or you can find her on Twitter at @rachelcinis.


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5 Responses to Learning to Learn Language—My Recent Journey Through Where Are Your Keys
  1. Bob
    April 6, 2012 | 5:05 am

    So, I have to learn sign language first? I like the context driven learning; but, it seems like using interactive subtitles.

    • Rachel Ash
      April 7, 2012 | 12:46 am

      You could look at it like subtitles, but the physical motion actually helps ingrain the meanings of the words in my students’ minds. When they are stuck for a word, they do the motion and the word comes. To be fair, none of them are ASL fluent, so the experience would be different for a learner who is fluent in ASL.

      And yes, you do need to learn signs for the lessons, but I just do it in the five minutes before class for the words I intend to teach that day. I give a breakdown of how this works in my classroom on my blog (linked above). I won’t pretend that there is not work going into this, but I have really enjoyed the returns: students excited about class and speaking to each other in Latin even when I don’t require it.

  2. Peter
    April 6, 2012 | 11:41 pm

    I have encounter WAYK online a few times, and I like the idea, but I cannot figure out how to actually start using it, because it seems like it would be an awesome way for me to teach my kids Spanish.

    Is there anywhere that breaks it down, sort of like a WAYK for dummies?

    Also, I did not realize this was a guest post until the very end.

    • Rachel Ash
      April 7, 2012 | 12:55 am

      I will direct you to my follow-up post that describes using WAYK in my classroom for now (use the link to my blog above) but this summer I will be using Where Are Your Keys to teach my own son Latin and plan to post my experiences there too; I’ll try to come back to this post and let you know when I’ve done so!

    • aarongmyers
      April 7, 2012 | 9:09 am

      Ahh! I totally forgot the opening introduction. I’ll go back and add it for future readers. Thanks Peter.

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