Don’t Knock What You Don’t Understand

I took a new job this year. I left a high school position as a French and Spanish teacher after fourteen years and am now working in a different school district doing ESL in the elementary school and both French and Spanish in a middle school.

This weekend I talked to a student at my former high school. He told me that his Spanish teacher, who is both traditional and textbook-driven, told the student’s class that she did not like Señor Wooly (BTW if you teach Spanish and have not visited his website, you are missing out). She told them that she thought his music videos were stupid and a waste of class time.

Guys, this made me really, REALLY angry. First of all, she broke what I think is the cardinal rule of teaching, which is that you absolutely DO NOT badmouth other teachers or their methods to students. Not ever. Although I never approved of this teacher’s methods or the ridiculous amount of busywork she made the students do outside of class, I NEVER shared those feelings with my students. Whenever students tried to complain about her to me I would say, “Mrs. So-and-so is an excellent teacher and you will learn a lot in her class (Of course, if you are familiar with the idea of learning a language as opposed to acquiring a language, you understand what I really mean by “You will learn a lot.” My students did not understand this distinction, so I could be truthful and it sounded as if I was complementing the teacher even though I wasn’t really.).” When they complained that she gave a lot of homework I would say, “I’m sorry she gives so much homework. We have different teaching philosophies and she believes that homework is an essential part of her class.” I tried to be as diplomatic as possible, because criticizing another teacher is unbelievably unprofessional, not to mention petty and disrespectful.

But the main reason why I am so angry is because this teacher talked so negatively about Señor Wooly and the amazing work he does. It’s like saying that Adele can’t sing or Usain Bolt is a lousy runner. Using this site has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my teaching career for both me and my students, and here are some of the many reasons why:

1. His videos are compelling. According to Dr. Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis, people acquire language when exposed to compelling, comprehensible input. Furthermore, acquiring a second language should be a subconscious process. When my students are so caught up in the story of whether Billy la Bufanda would ever be reunited with his Botas Queridas or were trying to guess who trapped the “Ganga” shopkeeper in an unending, hellish time loop, students got so caught up in the compelling story that they didn’t even realize they are acquiring language. That was exactly what I wanted.

2. His videos are comprehensible. Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis states that input must be compelling AND comprehensible in order for acquisition to take place. That is why the Señor Wooly site provides downloadable materials to ensure that students understand, such as lyrics sheets in Spanish and English and worksheets that teachers can use to preteach vocabulary. In addition, students can watch his videos with subtitles in either Spanish or English, which aids in comprehension and subsequently leads to acquisition.

3. The songs in the music video are very repetitive. Anyone who has ever tried to remember something has tried repeating it over and over again, whether it be someone’s phone number or a formula needed for a math test. Acquiring new words or expressions in a second language also requires hearing those words and expressions multiple times (Blaine Ray, who created the comprehensible input-based method TPRS, said in one of his workshops that the average student needed to hear a word anywhere between 50 and 70 times before s/he could acquire it, but I have been unable to find the research from which he got those figures). Repetition is the concept upon which Rosetta Stone, DuoLingo, and other computer-based programs have built their (superboring) curricula. When students hear Justin ask in Spanish multiple times if he can go to the bathroom, figuring out what to say when they need to use the bathroom becomes easy. When Victor removes his wig and confesses in Spanish that he is “bald, completely bald,” students will probably never look at the word “calvo” without knowing what the word means.

4. The nuggets provide meaningful homework and even more repetition. I love that I can give homework using the Señor Wooly site. If you have a PRO subscription, it comes with 160 student accounts. Each video has ten “nuggets,” which are activities that students can complete. The task is different in each nugget, but all involve either reading lyrics, looking at stills from the video, or watching small segments of the video. All activities are designed to give students more repetition, which results in more acquisition.

5. Each video comes with teacher “extras,” which is all any teacher needs to plan lessons around the video. Teachers have so much stuff they can use to supplement videos, such as multiple worksheets for use before, during, and after viewing, embedded readings, the above mentioned “nuggets” that students can complete either in or out of class, a slideshow of stills from the video to use for Movie Talks, games students can play, and more.

6. His videos are silly and fun. My students used to get very excited when I told them we were watching a new Señor Wooly video. While I was happy that they liked the videos, the fact that they are silly and fun is also important in language acquisition. According to Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis, negative emotions and stress raise a person’s Affective Filter, which is the “screen” that can prevent input from getting to the brain and thus impede acquisition. When my students are laughing at the male doctor in “Ya Está Muerto” for wanting to put a dead man’s heart in a backpack, I know their affective filters are low and that their brains are open to receiving input.

7. When the teacher is sick, s/he can use Señor Wooly for substitute plans. I was very sick last October and missed three days of school. Watching the “Puedo ir al baño” video, and doing the accompanying worksheets and nuggets were all part of my substitute plans. Even though the substitute spoke no Spanish, my students were still receiving compelling, comprehensible input as they worked quietly on the classroom computers or their phones to complete their work. And the best part was that it took me all of five minutes to pull the lessons together, which meant I could relax and focus on getting better instead of stressing out about what kind of plans to send in or whether my students were behaving.

I know that eventually I will stop seething in anger when I talk about this former colleague of mine and her unnecessary trash talk. In the meantime, I can console myself in knowing that her comments originated out of ignorance. She has no knowledge of second language acquisition theory and, as a result, cannot see how the design of the entire site is based on that theory. She also did not get to witness the incredible progress my students made in my class last year, which was partially due to watching Señor Wooly videos and doing their accompanying activities. And finally, she never accessed the site itself and saw all the awesome teacher extras available (I gave her a coupon with a free trial one day in the Staff Room and she left it on the table. Grrrr.). I guess some people are too stubborn, shortsighted, set in their ways, and close-minded to explore, adapt, and change. As Señor Wooly would say, “¡Qué asco!”


Why I’m Not Ready For 90%

As many of you know, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) recommends that teachers should use the target language (TL) in their language classroom 90% of the time. As I start a new school year with new students, I have been thinking about this goal quite often. For the next few weeks, I will not be achieving this goal, and I will not be achieving it intentionally.

At the beginning of the school year, creating a sense of community in my classroom is my primary goal. I believe that a supportive, respectful atmosphere is what helps students feel comfortable in the classroom, and it is only then that students will feel brave enough to take risks, create with the language, and learn to trust me as the teacher and feel that I will help them be successful language students. And I can’t do that in the TL, at least not in the first few weeks of class.

So I plan on spending my first month of class getting to know my students and making sure that they are at ease in my classroom. As time goes on, I will speak less and less English and more and more TL, until eventually I reach that 90% goal. And I won’t worry about how long it takes me to get there, because building our community is what is most important for us right now.

Not Everybody Likes Teaching With Comprehensible Input

I was first exposed to teaching with comprehensible input (CI) at a Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) workshop led by Blaine Ray, the creator of TPRS and the founder of TPRS Books. As my friend Melanie says, I was “Blaine-washed,” meaning that I totally bought into the theory and practice behind TPRS and wanted to jump in and try it in my classroom right away. I couldn’t contain my excitement and eagerly went back to my school overflowing with enthusiasm to implement the methods I had learned. My department head, however, said, “Whoa, not so fast.” This was quickly followed up by, “Stick to the program we already use.” I was absolutely deflated, but I learned a valuable lesson, which was that not everyone would be so quick to buy into the idea of teaching with CI.

Then last month, Stephen Krashen, the creator of the Comprehension Hypothesis (formerly called he Input Hypothesis), gave a presentation at the annual International Forum on Language Teaching (IFLT) conference in Denver in which he discussed why more people don’t support teaching with CI. At another workshop, Carrie Toth touched on the topic as well. Below is the list that I have created based on what they said and my own ideas about why some people may not share your enthusiasm for all things CI. Just who are these people?

1. Textbook and computer software company representatives. In Denver, Stephen Krashen referred to this as the “greedy capitalist argument” (BTW, I follow Dr. Krashen on Twitter and have discovered that he is both very funny and very liberal).

People who work for these companies want schools to purchase their textbooks and software and, as many of you know, they are not cheap. Schools spend thousands of dollars every year on new textbooks and even more on software licenses. However, most CI teachers do not use these products, simply because they are not usually a source of compelling, comprehensible input. Teaching with CI hurts these companies’ bottom line, which is to make a profit, so you will find that, when speaking with their company representatives, they will either tell you that they have lots of CI activities (I’d like to believe that they say this because they don’t know what CI is and not that they are lying to you outright, but who knows?) or downplay the awesomeness of CI by telling you what the textbook or computer software can do that is better than CI. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just bells and whistles, because by and large these products are still based on traditional methods.

2. Grammarians. When teaching with CI, grammar takes a back seat to the message, which students who like grammar will find problematic. In my experience, those students who truly like grammar are usually the ones at the top of their class or are those who want to be second language teachers someday. My response is, what about everybody else? What about those kids whose brains just aren’t wired for grammar? I don’t know about you, but I want to teach a class where the C student feels that s/he is making progress by having success in the classroom. Those successes don’t come all that often in a grammar-based classroom for anyone except the freaky grammar geniuses. Besides, catering to this small population in a second language class is the exact opposite of what we’re told to do in our classroom by our administrators (“Teach to all students!” “Differentiate!” “Reach all learners!”). Which brings me to point #3…

3. Administrators. A second language classroom is different from other classrooms. As Bill Van Patten says all the time, “Language is not subject matter.” Unfortunately, most administrators don’t know this. They erroneously think that the methods a math or history teacher uses should be the same methods they see in a second language classroom. Administrators come in to evaluate us with their little checklist that they use for classrooms of all subject matter, even if those methods may not be appropriate for a CI language classroom.

At the school where I work, for example, the two buzz words being used these days are “student-driven instruction” and “project-based learning.” Both of these are fine and appropriate for subject matter, but not necessarily if the end product is language acquisition. There are some days where I speak for the majority of class, which is a huge no-no these days in public education. But what my administrators don’t understand is that when I am spending the majority of class talking to my students I am doing my main job, which is delivering comprehensible input.

4. Veteran language teachers. As Carrie Toth pointed out in Denver, one must be vvveeeerrryyyy careful about criticizing traditional methods in front of teachers who use these methods in their classroom. In many cases, those veteran teachers will interpret those comments as personal attacks on them and may become very defensive. My friend Melanie, for example, will be attending a CI conference this October in Maine. She teaches in a six-person department, and all but one of those teachers will be attending. That one who is not going has the attitude of “This is what I’ve always done in my class and it has always worked fine for me.” When this teacher was asked if she wanted to attend this conference, she got angry, because she took the invitation as criticism.

Veteran teachers may also be overwhelmed by how much they will have to change in order to teach with CI. It is not easy and it is not an overnight process. It takes a lot of work and trial and error to convert to teaching with CI. For some teachers, it is just too much. They may be too intimidated or too busy outside of school to commit to the change. They may not have the financial means to attend workshops and conferences. And some, unfortunately, just might be too lazy and may just be riding out their remaining years until they can retire.

Friends, it certainly is disappointing and deflating to be unable to share your enthusiasm and knowledge with others. There will always be some people you will not be able to convince. Don’t sweat it. Your main concern should be that you do not end up with your job in jeopardy because of lack of information or willingness to learn about CI. So with that in mind, I would take the following steps.

1. If applying for a new job, ask if the department is CI friendly. If you can help it, don’t get stuck in a department that will expect you to teach traditionally.

2. If you are switching methods in a current teaching position, be proactive. At the beginning of the year, schedule a meeting with your direct supervisor and principal and explain what you would like to do and why. Find out what they will allow you to do in your classroom. You may have to compromise and only do limited CI at first, but hopefully over time you can make adjustments or learn how to “teach” required material via CI. Before an evaluation, schedule a meeting to educate your evaluator on what to look for in a CI classroom. Bryce Hedstrom has this Administrator Checklist on his blog and Ben Slavic has an evaluation form in The Big CI Book that you may wish to consult and share with your evaluator. If your evaluator needs to use a traditional rubric, you should discuss that rubric with him or her about what areas might not be relevant in your classroom (And as an absolutely last resort, if it is a scheduled visit, I wouldn’t blame you at all if you veered from your normal teaching style to teach in a manner that gave your evaluator what s/he needed to see).

3. Appease your grammarians. Explain your teaching philosophy and methods to your students. Explain that you won’t be teaching grammar explicitly in class but tell them that you will be willing to answer any grammar questions they might have (Just make sure that when you do you do so as succinctly as possible). I had a couple of grammarians this past year who had questions from time to time. I would usually answer their questions quickly and then offer to explain more after class. When they stayed after class, I would them direct them to explanations in the textbook.

Nevertheless, in spite of the skepticism and outright rejection of CI, I would still plan on talking about it and sharing your thoughts about it, because not everybody will respond negatively to the idea of teaching with CI. And helping other teachers discover how much fun and how effective teaching it is to teach with CI  is very rewarding.

More Anecdotal Evidence about the Power of Comprehensible Input

My oldest child is home for a month from college, and she brought with her an affinity for Korean music and television. Korean music became popular a few years back after the release of the song “Gangnam Style” by Psy. It turns out that there is a whole genre of music, aptly called K-Pop, and television shows, which my daughter says are called K-Dramas, that we in the US can listen to and watch. 

After a few months of watching and listening to Korean in songs and television shows, my daughter is reporting that she has started picking up some Korean by watching K-Dramas and music videoswith English subtitles. She has not done any formal language instruction, although she has downloaded an app to help her learn the Korean writing system, which is called Hangeul (By the way, I have done a bit of research on the writing system and it is surprisingly not as complicated as it looks. If you’ve ever been interested in learning Korean, don’t let the writing system scare you off). “I’m at the point where, when I’m watching a K-Drama, I can sometimes tell when the English translation is wrong or missing part of the dialogue, and I can recognize common expressions,” she says. All this from exposure to compelling, comprehensible input.

In other news, my husband has decided to brush up on his Spanish, which he is doing by reading La Clase de Confesiones by A.C. Quintero. It is a reader designed for students of Spanish. It took him about four hours to get through the first chapter, but as he has read more and more he is getting through the chapters more quickly and reports that he doesn’t need to look up as many words as he did when he was working through Chapter 1. 

My husband is not completely convinced that comprehensible input is the way to go. He is the product of traditional language classes and isn’t so quick to discount that instruction, even though I am quick to quote Bill Van Patten, who says, “Explict instruction does not lead to implicit knowledge.” And also, in typical husband fashion, since he only hears about comprehensible input from me, he needs to hear it from other people to whom he is not married before he will buy into it fully. Nevertheless, he is enjoying the book and is looking forward to reading Mira Canion’s El Escape Cubano next. With enough reading and acquiring of language, I’m sure that eventually he will see the light!

Using L1 in an L2 Classroom

I woke up this morning thinking about using L1 (one’s first language, which is English in my case) in an L2 (second language) classroom.  The American Council on the Teachng of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has guidelines stating that L2 teachers should spend 90% of their classroom time in the target language (TL, or L2).

Back when I was a traditional teacher, I absolutely did not even come close to reaching this goal. First of all, I taught a lot of grammar, and only in my very advanced classes was I able to teach grammar in the L2. Even then, however, its use was limited to concrete concepts such as a new verb conjugation. I absolutely could not have explained more complex topics like when to use subjunctive or the difference between the preterit and imperfect in the L2. During this time I also did a good number of exercises from the textbook, which usually needed at least some explanation in English so my students would know how to do them.

Another reason why I used to use English in my L2 classroom is because of another ACTFL guideline, which states that students in the L2 classroom needed to work with authentic materials. The message I received as a result of this guideline was that, as a non-native speaker, my language and any materials I created with my language was inferior and possibly detrimental (I don’t think this was ACTFL’s intention but my interpretation). As a result I found myself speaking very little in the L2 and exposed my students to it using the audio and video activities that went along with the textbook and things that I found online produced by native speakers (I am very thankful to Señor Wooly, who gave a presentation in Denver at the IFLT conference this summer that helped make me feel much better about whether or not my language could be authentic. You can read more about that here.)

One of the benefits of teaching with comprehensible input is that I spend much less time speaking in the L1 in my classroom. I am aiming for that 90% and have taught classes where I have reached that but I haven’t been able to do it consistently. And I have given myself permission to speak English in my classroom in a some situations, which I have listed below.

1. To discipline. 

The fabulous presenter Jason Fritze said in a workshop this summer that one of the first words he teaches his elementary students in the L2 is “stop,” which allows him to discipline in the TL. I teach my students some similar expressions in order to handle small discipline issues in the TL, such as asking students to stop talking or to put away their cell phones, but when big issues arise (which are rare, thankfully) I use English. In some cases it is an matter of student safety, and I do not want a student to get hurt because s/he doesn’t understand what I am saying (Like the day I had a student hang out a window from my second floor classroom. What was he thinking?). In other cases, hearing me discipline in English has awesome shock value. I have created an environment in my classroom where students know that when I discipline in English, I mean business and/or am really angry. I do this when I hear students use derogatory or inappropriate language, suspect that a student is getting harassed by a classmate, or see disrespectful behavior. It’s similar to those situations where a parent uses a child’s whole name when said child has done something very wrong.

2. To explain procedure.

This year I used a lot of comprehensible input (CI) games in class (You can read more about some of those games here). We played each game multiple times, but the first time we played I always explained the rules in English, simply because I didn’t want to waste time explaining in the TL, which would take at least twice as much time. Any other procedural issues (such as what to do during an evacuation drill, how to make up work after an absence, or where to put a completed quiz or test) I also did in English the first few times until students got comfortable with the language. Nevertheless, in all classes, I was talking about procedure in the TL by the end of the first quarter of the school year.

3. To explain grammar.

Yup, I still teach grammar, even though I don’t do it in a traditional way. I don’t do comprehensive grammar lessons anymore. Instead, I point out grammatical structures as needed. For example, I may say, “Look class, this French verb ends in -ons. That means “we” are the people doing this action.” That would be the extent of my grammar “lesson” about this topic, but it would be something I would point out multiple times to make sure students remembered it. Similarly, if a grammar question comes up in class (because some students just feel that they need to know why certain things are the way they are), I explain as quickly and as concisely as possible in English and move on.

4. To introduce vocabulary. 

Some concrete words and expressions can be taught quickly using visuals or gestures, but the easiest and quickest way to teach more abstract vocabulary is to translate it from the L2 to the L1. I usually just translate these on the board and leave them up during class (Jason Fritze writes the L1 and L2 in different colors and underlines the L2. I will start doing that this year.).

5. To check comprehension. 

This year I started using videos I found on YouTube to provide comprehensible, authentic input in class (French teachers, check out Alice Ayel’s YouTube channel, where you will find videos like this one. Spanish teachers, check out Pablo Pankun Roman’s YouTube channel, where you can find videos like this one.). Then to check comprehension I ask students to write a summary in English (I suppose if I really wanted to I could have students answer a prepared quiz in the TL about the video they see, but that tends to be stressful for my students and raises their Affectve Filter, thus limiting their intake. Moreover, I don’t use these videos as summative assessments. And finally, making up quizzes can be time consuming, and with four preparations, I just don’t always have the time).

To check comprehension of abstract vocabulary, I may ask a student to translate a word into English. When we are going over a reading, I may ask students to translate as a group, which is called choral translation.

I may also ask students to summarize a reading in English. Traditional textbooks usually check for comprehension of reading passages by asking questions in the T2 for students to answer in the T2. But in my experience, students usually don’t read a passage when asked to answer questions about it. They look for words from the question in the text and either read that small section to find the answer or, even worse, copy the sentence from the text containing those words from the question without even reading the sentence at all. Having students summarize in English requires them to read the whole passage (BTW, I don’t advise asking them to summarize in the TL, because that may lead to direct copying as well).

I think many second language teachers go through their teacher training being told that they should try to make students use the TL as much as possible. According to the Dr. Krashen’s theories of Language Acquisition, however, it is input and not output that leads to language acquisition. That means we should not feel guilty when we check our students’ comprehension through use of the L1.

6. Connections.

Yes, my main job is to teach French and Spanish, but my secondary job is to form connections with my students. Grant Boulanger, a 2016 ACTFL Teacher of the Year finalist, said in a presentation at the 2016 ACTFL annual convention that he tends to only use the L2 around 70% of the time at first and tries to establish connections and create a classroom community, which requires use of the L1, especially in elementary levels. Sometimes I feel that, by using the L2 and insisting that our students use it, we teachers create a wall between us and our students and prevents our students from getting to know us and feel comfortable in our classroom. This is not the kind of relationship I want with my students, because besides helping them acquire language, I also want them to feel comfortable coming to me if they are having issues and need someone to talk to.

Friends, I don’t want all of you to read this and think that I talk in English all the time in my class. As I stated at the beginning of this post, my goal is to use the TL in my classroom at least 90% of the time. But what I am saying is that sometimes the use of the L1 is quicker, clearer, more efficient, and necessary to create a safe, supportive, and productive classroom community. We do not need to feel guilty for using English in our class appropriately!

Nevertheless, I still want to create an environment where use of the L1 is not encouraged, so I plan to borrow two more tricks from that Jason Fritze presentation (I really can’t stress enough how fabulously practical and informative his presentations are! If he is at a conference in your area you should totally go!). Trick #1 is establishing a procedure where students must ask permission before using English (except for comprehension checks) and SO DOES THE TEACHER! I envision that students will take this rule much more seriously if even the teacher has to ask permission to speak English. I also envision me asking the class for permission to speak English but being told no. Trick #2 is called “The Toad of Shame.” Jason has a plastic toad that he bought at a pet store. When a student speaks English without permission, he gives the toad to him/her. The student with the toad must then try to get rid of it by during giving it to another student who speaks in the L1 without permission because, at the end of class, the student with the toad must stay after for a few minutes with the teacher. The consequence in this case is not punitive. I will probably have the student erase my board and have a small conversation with me in the L2.

I am very much looking forward to trying these two tricks in clas this year! But in the meantime I will be enjoying my last few weeks of vacation. Off to the beach!

Embedded Reading in the CI Classroom

At the 2017 iFLT conference in Denver, I got the chance to attend a workshop with Michelle Whaley and Laurie Clarcq. Michelle is a Russian teacher in Alaska and Laurie teaches Spanish in California. Their workshop was all about embedded reading. Embedded reading is a scaffolding technique that they developed for the second language classroom. This activity involves giving students a simple base reading at first. Then over time the teacher presents more detailed and complex versions of the same reading. Here is an example of an embedded reading below.

Version 1:

Alba liked to sing.  She had one perfect song.  She needed a new song.  She went to experts in other places for a new song.

Version 2:

There was a woman named Alba who liked to sing. Alba sang a lot. She had one perfect song.  Her friends liked her song, but one day a friend said, “You need a new song. ” Alba agreed that she needed a new song.  She went to other places to see experts sing a new song.

Version 3:

A few years ago, there was a woman named Alba who really liked to sing. This woman was our friend.  Our friend, Alba, sang a lot. She had one perfect song that she liked to sing.  Her friends liked her song, but one day a friend said, “You need a new song. ”  Alba was a bit sad, but agreed that she needed a new song. So, she went to other places to see experts sing a new song.  First she went to Las Vegas, Nevada.  She went to a school for song experts.   The experts sang a new song for her.  Alba watched and then sang the new song.  The experts were very impressed.

Michelle and Laurie have a fabulous website with more information about this technique, which is where I found the embedded reading example above (although I modified it slightly). I highly recommend visiting their site.

When I think of embedded reading, I think of swimming. Whenever I go swimming, I prefer to put my feet in and then take steps gradually until I am all wet. I have never enjoyed just jumping into the deep end because it is just too much of a shock to my system. For many students in our second language classroom, being given a complex paragraph in the target language (TL) is kind of like being thrown into the deep end of the pool with no warning. Maybe our higher achieving students would be able to swim if they were suddenly thrown into the deep end, but our lower achieving students would possibly drown! Embedded reading eases students into the reading process and helps them all be more successful. And even if our higher achieving students didn’t need the scaffolding, their repeated exposure to the structures in the readings will help their language acquisition in the long run, so it’s really a win-win for all students.

I started reading about embedded reading at some point this past year, but the biggest problem I had with it was that, in spite of the extra details, giving my students the same text over and over got a bit boring for them. I asked Laurie about this at the workshop in Denver and she showed me a document on the embedded reading website that compiled a huge list of reading activities on this reading-activities-chart that can be used to keep things fresh. So if I have four versions of a story that I would like to use in class, I might do something like this:

Day 1: Choral translation of Version 1 (the base story), have students illustrate Version 1 in comic strip form.

Day 2: Project comic strip of Version 1, read lines out loud from Version 1 and have students point to the panel being described (maybe a quick flyswatter game?). Have students read Version 2 in pairs.

Day 3: Review Version 2 with true/false or multiple choice questions in the TL. Present Version 3 with teacher reading (negotiating meaning for any new words), and have students actors act it out.

Day 4: Have students read Version 4 in groups and do a summarization activity mentioned on the activity chart, such as having students list a number of facts from the piece, summarize the piece with sentences from the text, draw a scene from the text, or create a fifth version of the story.

In my Spanish 4 class, I have pieces of literature that I enjoy doing but all of the pieces are really too advanced for my students. I think I will teach them via embedded reading this year, in the hopes that I can make them more accessible for my students. What do I have to lose?



Backwards Planning for Teaching Novels in the Second Language Classroom

A major component of many second language classes that are taught using comprehensible input (CI) is the use of class novels. Both the TPRS books and Fluency Matters websites sell novels designed for the second language learner (although very few titles are available if you don’t teach Spanish or French). If you would like to read about what I have said previously about using novels, you can look here. Every time I go to a conference I end up buying more books. Here are the books that I purchased this month in Denver at the 2017 iFLT conference.


At the same conference I went to a workshop about using novels in the classroom with Darcy Pippins, who shared a template that she uses for lesson planning. This handout is suitable for backwards planning. When a teacher backwards plans, s/he starts with the goals that s/he wished to achieve and then designs activities and techniques that s/he plans to use in the classroom to meet those goals. The template was designed by Jason Fritze (although the hand-written notes at the bottom are mine) and looks like this:


Here is a printable copy of this paper.

Backward Planning Template

I plan to use this template for the pre-reading activities I do with my class novels. Here are the steps I plan to take, using the template above as a guide.

Step 1: TPR. TPR stands for Total Physical Response, which is a method of teaching a second language developed by James Asher. When using this method, a teacher gives commands in the target language (TL) that students must perform to ensure comprehension. These are commands that are blatantly obvious like “Stand up,” “Close the window,” or “Jump.” So to begin planning lessons for a novel, the first thing I will do is scan the text for expressions that are appropriate to teach using TPR. Depending on the length of the chapters in the book, the amount of text that I use will vary. For an advanced class it may be an entire chapter, but for early readers this could be only one page or even one paragraph in length.

Step 2: TPRS/PQA. TPRS stands for Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling and PQA stands for Personalized Question and Answer. Once my students have mastered the TPR stage as described above, I will move on to TPRS/PQA. TPRS is a method that teachers can use to put words and structures into a story. PQA is just what it sounds like – a CI technique in which a teacher asks the students different types of personal questions (yes/no, either/or, open-ended). Both of these methods are designed to help students internalize certain words and expressions through repeated use either in the created story or the personal questions. Before starting this stage, I will scan the text for words that I can use to ask my students personal questions about themselves and/or can spin into a story along with those TPR words from Step 1. For example, if “Jump” was one of my TPR words and “brother” is one of my TPRS/PQA words, I can ask my students questions about how many brothers they have and how many siblings their classmates have and then create a story about someone’s brother who jumps over the moon.

Step 3: Cognates/New Vocabulary. In this stage, I will scan the text for cognates and other high frequency vocabulary that don’t lend themselves to either TPR or TPRS. Novels written from the two websites described above intentionally have a good deal of cognates, which I will just point out to my students or have them identify. I don’t think I will have many new vocabulary words that I can’t introduce through TPR or TPRS/PQA but if I do, I will introduce those words through a variety of techniques. Maybe they will be my target structures for another TPRS story or I will try to find those structures in a video I can use as a Movie Talk. Or maybe it will be easier to translate them quickly, have students illustrate them, and move on.

Step 4: Other. Steps 1-3 deal with high frequency vocabulary. Step 4, “Other,” refers to low frequency vocabulary that is essential to the text but not to everyday life. For example, the Spanish word “sugar cane” is important in the Felipe Alou novel, but I can’t imagine that this will be a word that my students from New England will use on a daily basis. The most appropriate ways to introduce these words may just be direct translation. I will probably leave them up on the board for students to refer to as we read.

Once these pre-reading activities have taken place, I can move on to strategies I can use with my students as we read the chapter. Those I will discuss in an upcoming post. In the meantime. feel free to download and print the backwards planning template. If you share it, make sure to give Jason credit for creating it before you start preparing your favorite novel for pre-teaching.


My Thoughts About Proficiency

One of the more thought-provoking workshops I went to at this year’s International Forum on Language Teaching (iFLT) conference was a workshop conducted by Carrie Toth. The workshop was all about the American Council on Teaching Foreign language (ACTFL) scale of language proficiency. This is a scale that measures a person’s ability in a reading, writing, speaking, and understanding a second language. The ACTFL ability levels are: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Distinguished, and Superior. The Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced categories also have the subcategories of Low, Mid, and High.

According to a study by the Center for Applied Second Language Studies (CASLS) at the University of Oregon at Eugene, after four years of second language study, most students only fall into the Novice High or Intermediate Low categories.

Novice High students are capable of:

  • managing successfully a number of uncomplicated communicative tasks in straightforward social situations
  • conversing about a few of the predictable topics necessary for survival in the target language culture, such as basic personal information, basic objects, and a limited number of activities, preferences, and immediate needs
  • responding to simple, direct questions or requests for information
  • asking a few formulaic questions
  • expressing personal meaning by relying heavily on learned phrases or recombinations of these and what they hear from their interlocutors
  • responding in intelligible sentences but are not able to sustain sentence-level discourse.

Intermediate Low students are capable of:

  • handling successfully a limited number of uncomplicated communicative tasks by creating with the language in straightforward social situations
  • conversing about predictable topics necessary for survival in the target-language culture such as basic personal information, self and family, some daily activities and personal preferences, and some immediate needs, such as ordering food and making simple purchases.
  • responding to direct questions or requests for information, albeit with some struggle
  • asking a few appropriate questions
  • expressing personal meaning by combining and recombining what they know and what they hear from their interlocutors into short statements and discrete sentences
  • sustaining sentence-level discourse but their speech is characterized by frequent pauses, ineffective reformulations and self-corrections.

So in a nutshell, after four years of a second language at the high school level, most language students are not able to do much with that language except for very simple tasks, and they are only capable of using limited vocabulary. So my big question is, if after four years our students can barely get out of the novice level, how appropriate are the activities we are asking them to do in our classrooms? According to this same ACTFL proficiency scale, it is only when students reach the Advanced level that they are able to start differentiating among the present, past, and future tenses in their language usage. So then how appropriate is it for teachers in second and third year classes to expect students to be able to do this? That’s like asking a student who barely has a handle on algebra to solve a calculus equation. Shouldn’t the activities we ask our students to do reflect their proficiency level? Giving students something that is above their ability level sets them up for failure and kills any motivation they might have for acquiring the second language, whereas giving them something they are capable of doing successfully builds up their confidence, lowers their Affective Filter, and eventually advances the proficiency level of their language. Isn’t that what all language teachers should want for their students?

How I’ve Changed My Mind About Games in the Classoom

When I was a traditional teacher, I absolutely HATED playing games in the classroom, for a few reasons. First of all, I spent the majority of time speaking in English when the primary goal of my classroom should have been to speak in the target language (TL), which in my case was either French or Spanish. Second, they were pretty boring. Usually it was a “Jeopardy” style game, which was basically question and answer. Sometimes I could spice it up with electronic buzzers or a bit of movement, but the novelty wore thin pretty quickly. Third, no matter how I tried to even the playing field, our games were almost always rigged. Everybody knew that the students who were going to win the games were the kids who knew the most, so the weaker students tended to tune out while the stronger students answered all the questions. And lastly, I felt that playing a game for an entire class period was a cop-out lesson plan. It was something to do when I didn’t feel like having a “real” class, and I wasn’t convinced that my students were getting anything out of the games themselves.

Now that I have started teaching with comprehensible input (CI), I have incorporated games back into my classroom. Most of these games I learned about from TPRS blogs. I do not credit the original inventor of the games I’m about to describe in this blog post, but each game includes a link to the original blog post where I learned about the game if you want more information about it, want to know who created the game, or want to see what else those people have on their blogs.

In no particular order, here are some of the games I have tried this year that worked really well for me.

1. Six! In this game, students are divided into groups of three or four (if some groups have three and some have four, that’s fine). Each group is given a pen, a six-sided die, and a sheet of sentences in the TL. It is very important that the sentences on the paper be something familiar to the student, such as sentences based on a recent Movie Talk, a class story, or a chapter of a novel that the class has read recently. The first student rolls the die as many times as needed until a six is rolled. Then the student yells “Six!” in the TL, grabs the pen and paper and begins writing out sentence translations in English. While Student 1 is busy translating, Student 2 grabs the die and starts rolling it in hopes of getting a six. Once a six is rolled, Student 2 yells “Six!” in the TL, takes the pen and paper from Student 1, and begins translating. Then Student 3 grabs the die and the process continues until time is called. Be warned that this game can get loud.  Depending on the number and complexity of sentences, it usually takes about 15-20 minutes to complete a majority of the sentences. Once time is called the class quickly reviews answers and counts points.

How I Level the Playing Field: Rolling the die provides an element of chance. A student could be the smartest person in class but may have to roll the die multiple times before getting a six.  And then after finally getting a six, a student may not even get a chance to write anything if the next student gets a six on the first roll. I  only assign a point to the student who finishes a sentence. One student may translate almost an entire sentence but lose the opportunity to finish it if the next student rolls a six, but that is just bad luck. And lastly, I assign multiple winners. Each group has an individual winner, the person who translates the most sentences in the group, and the class winner is the group that translates the most sentences overall.

2. Scrambled Eggs. This game requires pairs (an extra person can be a monitor to make sure each pair stays honest or can be in charge of the eggs). I type up ten sentences in the TL based on a story or Movie Talk we have done recently and cut them up into individual strips. I place the strips in plastic Easter eggs, one per egg, and then I put the eggs in an Easter basket in the center of the room. Each pair has a “runner” and a “writer.” The runner goes up to the basket, picks an egg, and brings the egg back to his or her partner. The runner opens the egg (but not until s/he has brought the egg back to the writer), dictates the sentence to the writer, but DOES NOT show the paper to the writer. Then the runner returns the egg to the basket, takes another egg, returns to the writer, and repeats the process. After the runner does this five times, the runner and writer switch roles. After each pair has all ten sentences, they need to put them in chronological order based on how they appeared in the story or video. The first group to complete this wins.

How I Level the Playing Field: I use a dozen plastic eggs but only have ten sentence strips. Two eggs contain blank strips, so a runner may lose valuable time going back to his/her partner only to find that s/he has no sentence to share. And my plastic eggs are the same color, which means the runner may grab eggs with sentences that the pair has already written down. Also, while I don’t allow the runner to show the sentence to the writer, I do allow the runner to spell words to the writer when needed.

A variation of this game is Running Dictation. In this game instead of putting the sentence strips in eggs, they are posted all around the classroom or, even better, in various locations around the school. Students have to run around looking for those ten sentences. One major difference in this case is that the runners can’t bring the sentence back to their partner and instead must try to memorize it.

3. The Unfair Game. I prepare a PowerPoint with a series of multiple choice questions (around 30) based on something we have read or seen recently. Then I divide the class into two teams. Each team takes turns answering questions, but only one person on the team may answer on behalf of the team. If a team member gets a question right, s/he must pick a card revealing how many points that answer is worth. The point values are both positive and negative and include half points. The team goal is to have the lowest POSITIVE score possible. If a team gets the answer wrong, the other team may answer. If a team member gets a question right, s/he must pick a card revealing how many points that answer is worth, but then gets to decide whether to keep the points or give them to the other team.

How I Level the Playing Field: The arbitrary nature of the points takes care of this.

4. The Fork Game. I prepare a series of statements, some true and some false, about a story we have read or a Movie Talk we have completed recently. Students sit at desks in pairs, facing each other with a fork between them, in two rows. The students sitting in the outside row form a team and those in the inside row form a second team. I read out the sentences one by one (or have a student read them if I have an extra). If the sentence is true, each pair competes against each other to grab the fork first, raise it in the air, and say “Fork!” in the TL. The quicker student earns a point for his/her team. If the sentence is false but a student grabs the fork, raises it in the air, and says “Fork!” in the TL, I award two points to the other team.

How I Level the Playing Field: Sometimes getting the correct answer is just a matter of being quicker and not knowing more, which makes things more equitable. In addition, I sometimes have students switch seats so they face off with different people.

5. Flyswatter. Traditional teachers, myself included when I taught this way, use this game as a vocabulary review. The teacher writes vocabulary words on the board and calls out vocabulary words in English. Two students with flyswatters must find the word in the TL and be the first one to hit the word with a flyswatter. Turning this into a CI game does not require much work. I prepare a PowerPoint with images from a reading or video we have recently been discussing, usually four, and I say a sentence describing one of the pictures. The two students with the flyswatters must find the correct image and be the first one to hit the image with the flyswatter.

How I Level the Playing Field: Sometimes getting the correct answer is , once again, just a matter of being quicker and not knowing more. I also only ever play best of three or five.

Guys, you are going to notice that the common element to all these games is that each game is based on a text that students have ALREADY SEEN. By the time I get around to playing each game, the text I’m using to play each game is one that my students have seen in one form or another multiple times. And I no longer feel that playing a game is a cop-out lesson, because what I am doing is an activity that continues to provide comprehensible input to my students. And most of the time my students are so excited to be playing a game that they don’t even realize that I am sneaking more comprehensible input into my class, which, as I’ve said many times, is the best way to help my students acquire language.

The 2017 iFLT Conference Keynote Address – Embracing Inauthenticity

Hi all! I am in Denver for the 2017 iFLT (International Forum on Language Teaching) this week. Today was Day One of the conference and it was a great day. We started the conference with our keynote speaker, who gave me a lot to think about.

Our keynote speaker was Jim Woolridge, who runs the Señor Wooly website (If you are a Spanish teacher looking for fun, engaging resources for your students, this site is a great resource. And French teachers, Jim told me that next year he is releasing material in French. Huzzah!). He gave a very honest and personal speech about authenticity. In a nutshell, second language teachers are told often that we should be using authentic resources in our classroom. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) defines authentic resources as material created by a native speaker of the language. However, our students often don’t get much out of it because it is too advanced for them, especially at the lower levels. (I give Jim mad props for confessing that, as a Spanish student, he once went to the library so he could take out an English translation of Don Quixote. I myself used to take out English versions of Spanish or French texts I was assigned to read in class all the time. I felt like I was so stupid for having to do this and that if I had to do this it meant my language skills were absolute crap. You will be happy to know that I don’t feel this way anymore and that now I know that at that time I was just in over my head).

But even when teachers successfully incorporate authentic material in the classroom, it doesn’t change the fact that most of the comprehensible input (CI) students receive comes from the teacher. And if that teacher is not a native speaker of the target language (TL), according to the ACTFL definition, our language is not authentic. This led Jim to wonder if, as a non-native Spanish teacher, he was a fraud who was corrupting his students with his inauthentic language. I must confess that I have often felt the same way. But then Jim gave the audience a new definition of authenticity which dispelled all those fears and doubts. Jim said that authentic language happens when communication occurs. So as long as our students are communicating, their language is authentic. Jim also went on to say that this new definition of authentic language helps to dispel the belief that language that we use in the classroom is somehow “not real.” According to Jim, our students need to feel that the language used in the classroom IS real and that they can use it to communicate both in and out of the classroom. Furthermore, encouraging students to use their language outside of the classroom may lead students to push themselves out of their comfort zone and actually use their language skills out in the real world.

After listening to this keynote address I felt a lot less guilty about my non-native speaking skills. When I return to school at the end of August I plan to focus more on the messages my students and I will be conveying in class, because that is when true communication happens. And as long as we communicate, our language will be authentic. I’m very thankful to Jim for the reassuring and enlightening keynote address.