Back to Basics

Yesterday I went to a workshop at a nearby school organized and hosted by a friend of mine. It was a one-day workshop about Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). The presenters were Mike Coxon and Craig Sheehy. I decided to attend the workshop for three reasons. First of all, a group of my friends were going to be there and I wanted to see them. Second, my district paid for it (I am still getting used to working for a district that believes in and finances professional development). And third, it is not very often that we get professional development on anything that has to do with comprehensible input (CI) in New England, so I figured I better take advantage of it.

To be honest though, I had a decent reason for being hesitant about attending this conference, and that reason is that this was a beginner’s workshop. After so many years of teaching with CI, I don’t consider myself to be a beginner anymore, so I wondered if I would get anything out of this workshop at all. I’m not trying to say that I am an expert in all things TPRS, but I have attended three previous multi-day TPRS workshops, so I wasn’t sure that I would learn anything new from this one.

But I am happy to report that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. It turns out that TPRS has changed and evolved in the past few years, and I walked out with some valuable information. Here are my takeaways from yesterday.

1. Mike and Craig’s point system is a great classroom management tool. When Mike and Craig were classroom teachers, they gave their students jobs. One student was the Timekeeper. The Timekeeper is a student who has to time the class to see if they can stay completely in the target language (TL) for eight minutes without stopping. During that time, if students blurt things out in English or have side conversations, the teacher asks the timekeeper to reset the timer and the class tries again. If the teacher gets through the entire eight minutes, the class gets a point. After the class has gotten to an arbitrary number of points (I have no idea how many. That would depend on how often your class meets. I am shooting for 30-40 points, but that is because I see my classes either two or three times a week. I would require more points if I had classes five days a week), the class gets rewarded (Mike bought pizza for his classes, but he taught high school kids, who are hard to please. Elementary and middle school kids would be happy with a lot less, like candy or a special day of games or Señor Wooly videos).

I can see how the promise of a party/candy/pizza/donuts can be a wonderful motivator for students of any age, as long as it’s the right prize. I find this point system to be similar to Annabelle Allen’s point system that she writes about in her blog, but I find this one to be a bit simpler to wrap my head around. I plan to implement this system with my fifth grade class, who are great, easily excited, and eager to please, and will expand to my other classes if it goes well.

2. I have not been using Movie Talks to their full advantage. I have posted about Movie Talks here and here and felt that I had been somewhat successful using them in class, but Mike and Craig demonstrated that you can do a lot more with Movie Talks than I have been doing in my own class.

Mike and Craig started off their Movie Talk by doing a Picture Talk (My mind was blown! Why have I never thought of this?). Craig showed stills from a video (without telling students that there was a video) along with vocabulary in German and English translations that he would need to tell a story about the pictures. He showed the vocabulary and stills side-by-side and asked questions/talked about the stills. He also compared himself with the main character in the video, which was a good way to make sure students were exposed to first, second, and third person verbs. So after showing us a series of pictures of a tall, skinny boy named Alex, Craig first described Alex in the TL (“Alex is a boy. He is tall. He is not short. He is skinny.”) Then he asked us questions about Alex (“Is Alex tall? Is he short? Is he tall or short?”) and then he asked similar questions about himself (“Am I tall? Am I short? Am I skinny?”). As he moved through the series of pictures, he asked more questions and made more statements about Alex, weaving it all together into a story. From there he showed us a reading about Alex using words from the series of pictures, which we were all able to read and understand fairly easily since we had just seen those words as we went through the Picture Talk. And then we finally wanted the whole video that the pictures came from originally, revealing the big plot twist at the end.

This is different from what I have been doing with my Movie Talks, since I have not been including the reading step. And while I have been introducing vocabulary through pictures before showing the entire video, I haven’t been up ALL the words students need ahead of time in conjunction with the pictures. During the demonstration Craig and Mike were teaching us German, and I saw how much easier it was to follow the story with all the vocabulary words projected and translated, so I will be doing that from now on.

Another thing that both Mike and Craig said about Movie Talks is to use them sparingly or else the novelty will wear off and students will tire of them. I have been guilty of overloading my class with Movie Talks, so I will lay off them for a while and do other, novel activities in class.

Another thing Mike and Craig suggested was that we build a back story about someone in the video. For example, if the Movie Talk is about a teenager, how about creating a back story with the class about his parents and/or younger siblings? I think this is a great idea and think that students will really enjoy helping to create a story about a character we all love (or love to hate).

3. Triangling. This is a technique that I hadn’t ever heard of in any other TPRS workshop I have attended. It involves creating a question and answer situation among three people: a character in the story who is played by a student actor, the teacher, and a parallel character. The teacher asks questions about what the character wants (who is represented by a student actor) and then compare those responses with what a parallel character wants and what the teacher wants. We practiced this today with the sentence “Bart wants a cat.” So it went something like this.

Teacher: Class, Bart wants a cat.

Class: Oh!

Teacher to student actor playing Bart: Bart, do you want a cat?

Student actor: Yes.

Teacher: Class, Bart wants a cat.

Class: Oh!

Teacher: Class, does Bart want a cat?

Class: Yes.

Teacher: Class, do I want a cat?

Class: No.

Teacher: Correct. I don’t want a cat. I want a dog. Class, do I want a dog or a cat?

Class: Dog.

Teacher: Correct, I want a dog. Class, who wants a cat?

Class: Bart.

Teacher: Correct. Bart wants a cat. Do I want a cat?

Class: No, you want a dog.

Teacher: Correct, I want a dog. Does Wendy (second student actor and parallel character) want a dog?

Class: Yes? No? (Note: The class will have to guess.)

Teacher: No, Wendy does not want a dog. Does Wendy want a cat?

Class: Yes? No? (Note: The class will have to guess.)

Teacher: No, Wendy does not want a dog. She wants a guinea pig.

Class: Oh.

Teacher: Class, who wants a cat?

Class: Bart.

Teacher: Correct. Who wants a cat?

Class: You.

Teacher: Correct. Who wants a guinea pig?

Class: Wendy.

4. The Five Basic TPRS Skills should be practiced in ALL second language classes taught with CI.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have moved away from classic TPRS in favor of other CI methods. That being said, as I have experimented with other methods of delivering comprehensible input, I feel that I am on the right track, because I still incorporate the five basic TPRS skills into my teaching, which are: circling (a strategy of asking multiple questions, resulting in repetition of high frequency words), pausing and pointing (at a vocabulary word, which gives students time to process), staying in bounds (limiting vocabulary so as not to overwhelm students), requiring choral responses (from students to check that they understand and are staying engaged), and speaking slowly (which aids in comprehension). These five skills help create optimal conditions for acquisition.

If you are new to CI, I encourage you to find a TPRS workshop. Your presenters will demonstrate the power of TPRS by teaching you a new language. You’ll be amazed by how quickly you will be able to read and speak that language, and you will remember what it’s like to be a language student again, which should help you empathize with your students as they acquire the language you teach. Visit the TPRS Books website to find a workshop near you!


Random Thoughts on a Snowy Day

Hi all,

Here in New England I am in the midst of my ninth snow day so far this year. Being stuck in the house all day has given me plenty of time to think about how my school year is going so far. So, in no particular order, here are some of the random thoughts I have had today.

1. Netflix is a great resource for teachers looking to brush up on their language skills. I know that I have posted before about how my language skills have improved by watching TV, and I am so impressed by how much my language has progressed that I just HAD to mention it again. Netflix is THE place to go to find TV shows to watch in almost any language. Now the company has started producing its own TV shows, and the Netflix originals have both audio and subtitles in multiple languages. For example, the Netflix show The Crown is available with audio in English, French, Spanish, and Italian and can be watched with subtitles in French, Spanish, and both traditional and simplified Chinese (this means nothing to me, but it will probably mean something to you if you are a Chinese teacher). And the number of international shows you can find on Netflix is mind-boggling! Unfortunately, many of these shows are not appropriate to show in a K-12 classroom, but they are great for teachers to use to keep up their own personal practice.

2. Special Person Interviews are a great way to help beginning students acquire language. I wrote about Special Person Interviews in this post, but wanted to revisit the topic now that I am done with them in my first year French classes. After listening to seventeen Special Person interviews, my students are now able to do the following:

  • say dates correctly in French
  • talk about people’s likes and dislikes using  a definite article
  • talk about the makeup of people’s families
  • give the names of different classes in French
  • give the names of multiple animals in French
  • give the names of many different foods in French
  • describe people and things using correct French word order (noun followed by adjective)
  • use the verb “avoir” in idiomatic expressions to discuss people’s ages and fears
  • identify French numbers
  • use “de” with negation
  • use the conditional form of “être” and “acheter” to say what people would be or what people would buy
  • use the imperfect form of “être” to talk about what was or were

Obviously, some of my students can do the above list of things better than others, but they are all on their way to acquiring the expressions needed to do the items on this list. And here is the best part – they can do the things on this list even though they have received NO EXPLICIT INSTRUCTION on any of the topics listed above.

3. Lately I have been thinking about teaching vocabulary in novels. In this post I talked about Jason Fritze’s template for planning to teach a novel. The template is fantastic and helps a teacher think about words and expressions that need to be pre-taught before a class reads a novel together. Most teacher’s guides that accompany novels have sections with activities that teachers can use to acquaint students with vocabulary included in a novel before they begin each chapter.

But then I bought the Teacher’s Guide to Brandon Brown Veut un Chien by Carol Gaab. I was surprised that I did not find a large number of activities designed to pre-teach vocabulary. Instead, the guide said two things. First of all, it said that, if the book was level appropriate for the class, students should ALREADY be familiar with most of the necessary vocabulary in the text (and if they weren’t they could look in the glossary). Second, it said that if the teacher started reading the chapter slowly, s/he could just translate any new words while reading (maybe writing them on the board for students to refer to). That way teachers wouldn’t get bogged down in pre-reading activities and could start reading the actual story more quickly. And, since the elementary level books tend to repeat vocabulary, students will naturally acquire most new words later on due to repeated exposure.

In my class, I will be starting Brandon Brown Veut un Chien this upcoming week with my seventh grade and La France en Danger with my eighth grade, and I plan to keep the vocabulary pre-teaching to a minimum. Instead I plan to have my students read along with me, stopping frequently to translate unfamiliar words as they appear in the text. Then I will write an unfamiliar word on the board along with its translation in English and, if it is a high frequency word, I will make sure to include that word in any supplementary activities I do in class (Usually reading the novel is only one of three or four activities that I do in any given class, so I will be sure to incorporate those unfamiliar words in one of my other activities).

4. I still hate thematic units. In this post, I talked about how I find thematic units to be rather restrictive and artificial. I still feel this way and have been moving away from thematic units for some time now. But recently Señor Wooly, aka Jim Woolridge, posted this video about how teachers should go about choosing which of his 25 videos to show in class. The message is simple. Instead of trying to find a video to fit with your unit (based on grammar or vocabulary expressions, for example), Jim urges teachers to pick the video based on the story and let the story dictate what vocabulary and grammar expressions the teacher should present to the class. He argues that, if the story is compelling, students will pick up language without even trying and will make an effort to understand language that might be too complicated for them.

I have been trying this for a while, and I have noticed that, as a result, the conversations I have with my students seem much more natural and much less forced. In addition, students are more engaged in these conversations because they know that I have no hidden agenda. I’m not asking them questions about their favorite season because they have to learn seasons vocabulary but because I am genuinely interested in whether or not some of my students hate summer (and those that have parents who work all the time and end up spending most of the summer home alone or stuck watching younger siblings actually do dislike summer). And if students only can produce words for two out of the four seasons in Spanish at the end of the year? Big deal. They are not high frequency words. And speaking of high frequency words, I have noticed that I naturally end up saying these words all the time, which my students are picking up with little effort due to how often I say them.

I’ve just looked out the window and noticed that the snow has stopped and the sun is out. So I will bid you all adieu as I go shovel. Have a great day and cross your fingers that this is the last of the snowy New England winter!

Eric Herman’s Reading Assessment Program

Recently, I purchased this book from Amazon.

You can also purchase a French version.

This book gives information about how the author, Eric Herman, created a program so that he could assess students’ reading ability and development in a second language.

Eric has included Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) into his daily class. His students read in the second language for at least five minutes a day, five days a week. He also teachers through stories, and the structure of the stories he tells in class are similar to the ones found in this book. Periodically,  Eric gives his students a reading assessment to measure their growth in reading speed (number of words they can read per minute) and reading comprehension. The assessment asks students to read an unfamiliar text in the second language as quickly and as completely as possible. After students record the time it takes to read the text (which they do using an online stopwatch), they then take a reading comprehension quiz. Then students are given two scores, a number of words read per minute (wpm) score and a reading comprehension grade (In the book Eric has a graph that he created that can be used).

Eric’s book includes 30 stories that get progressively more difficult. The vocabulary in the stories is made up of high frequency vocabulary and cognates. The book also has reading comprehension quizzes that go along with each story in the target language. This is a problem for me because it adds some variables that may make the quiz invalid. Simply speaking, if I read a text and understand it fully but don’t understand the question I am being asked about it, I may get that answer wrong not because I didn’t understand the text but because I didn’t understand the question. Similarly, if the quiz is multiple choice, I may misunderstand one of the possible answers even if I understand the text, and that may also cause me to get the answer wrong. I have decided to translate all the quizzes into English to avoid and problems that might be caused my misinterpretation. By putting the questions and possible answers in English I know that I have eliminated the possibility of an error due to misunderstanding either the quiz question or one of the possible multiple choice answers to the quiz. If a student gets something wrong, it is most likely because the student didn’t understand the text. I know that, as second language teachers, we are told to use as little of our first language in the classroom as possible. I try to do the same. This is one instance where, for the sake of test validity, I am allowing myself to use English.

The one drawback to using this book and program of assessments is that I don’t think it will be very beneficial in a classroom that doesn’t have a Free Voluntary Reading program unless the class contains extensive, daily class reading. After all, how can we expect students to improve their reading skills if we don’t give them the opportunity to practice?

Have any teachers implemented this program in their second language classroom? I would love to hear your thoughts!


Proficiency Based Grade Reporting

Guys, can I just tell you how much I LOVE my new school district? I have the absolute freedom to teach however I want and have colleagues that also teach with comprehensible input (CI) or are interested in learning more about it so they can implement CI techniques into their classrooms. Now our totally awesome superintendent has given our department freedom to blow up our grade reporting systems and completely reinvent them, about which I am SO excited!

Currently the district uses a traditional A, B, C reporting system for the middle school (we are a K-8 district). This creates an issue because an A in my class might be different than an A in another class. In addition, some teachers in our department consistently give homework. In that class, therefore, a student may have a good grade because she does all the homework and a student with a poor grade may never do homework and end up with multiple zeroes, which brings his grade down. In this case, the grade is not at all based on their ability in the language but on work habits. In contrast, I give almost no homework, so the majority of students in my class have good grades that are based more on their language ability than their work habits. In a nutshell, we lack consistency as a department when it comes to grading, specifically because a letter grade can mean very different things based on whose class a student happens to be enrolled in.

At the elementary level, the second language teachers there assess each student on four criteria on a 1-4 scale. Their criteria include participation, behavior, cultural competence, and language ability. The teachers have over 200 students apiece and they also have to give comments, so this system is very cumbersome for them. So while consistent grading is the goal of the middle school grading practices, at the elementary level it is about creating a system that is less cumbersome for them.

For the middle school, we have decided to create a system based on ACTFL Proficiency Standards, which you can access here if you are not familiar with them. We have five categories: Interpretive Listening, Interpretive Reading, Presentational Writing, Interpersonal Speaking, and Interpersonal Writing. The first three we plan to assess formally and the last two we will assess informally. We will use ACTFL terminology (Novice Low, Novice Mid, etc.) for all categories. We will also report a grade (Not yet, Emerging, Meets, Exceeds) for Active Engagement. So we will have six categories to assess all together. At first I was a little wary of having to report so many different categories, but a colleague pointed out that it really isn’t all that much since there’s no grade calculation involved. Moreover, some students may not progress from quarter to quarter, so we can just copy and paste from one quarter to the next. And finally, if we can’t assess in a certain category, we may leave it blank or define it as being “Not Yet Observable.”

For the elementary school, we have reduced their four categories to two: Active Engagement and Interpretive Listening. We will use the same terminology for Active Engagement at the elementary school that we will use at the middle school but decided as a group not to use ACTFL Proficiency Standards terminology with the elementary students because we do not want parents and students to feel that they are doing poorly in the class when they see the term “Novice Low,” even though, due to the limited time our elementary teachers have, that is where they are SUPPOSED to be, at least at first. Instead, we will use the same category names for Active Listening at the elementary school that we will use for Active Engagement. Then if teachers want to they can keep their own personal records with ACTFL terminology if they desire.

Let me say a few words about that Active Engagement category. This is absolutely NOT a participation grade, for two main reasons. First of all, teaching with CI is all about input and not about output (especially not the forced kind). Second, grading participation is unfair to quiet, reserved students who may be listening and doing everything they need to do in order to be successful in class but will most likely never raise their hand to speak. Our Active Engagement have not been finalized jet, but will most likely be based on the following criteria listen below.

1. Listening with the intent to understand

2. Signaling to the teacher when something is not understood

3. No side conversations or blurting out in English

4. Good posture and eye contact with the teacher

5. A positive, respectful attitude

So now that we have decided to use a proficiency-based grading system, we now have to start testing for proficiency. Specifically, we as a department will have to make sure that we know how to assess writing, reading, listening, and speaking effectively so we can say something like, “This is a Novice Mid writing sample” or “Based on the number of questions this student answered correctly on this assessment, she is at an Intermediate Mid level for Interpretive Reading.” So our department will be researching this and seeking out professional development on this topic. Maybe in the future it will become one of my blog posts! You all will just have to wait and see.

Using E-Pals to Increase Student Engagement and Fulfill All Five C’s

Last December, an English teacher in France posted in the French teacher comprehensible input (CI) group on Facebook that she was looking for a French class in the United States to set up an e-pal exchange with (I’m sure many of you know the term “pen pal.” I had quite a few when I was a young teen. These days the students communicate through email, hence the term “e-pal.”). My students were roughly the same age as hers so I set up an exchange with her. We alternate between writing in French and writing in English so that both our students can practice their target language (TL).

For the past two months, I have been conducting Special Person interviews in my class. Here is the post I just wrote about that. As a result, my students have been receiving a steady diet of CI. Each student is interviewed about their family, birthday, likes, and fears. So after I matched each French student with one of my students based on questionnaires the teacher in France sent me, I had my students write an introductory letter to their pen pal. Thanks to the Special Person interviews we have been doing, my students had very little difficulty writing about six to ten sentences about themselves with no supports whatsoever in TEN MINUTES!

The teacher in France sent me a letter with some information about her town and her students. She also sent me the link to her school’s web page, and that is when I had a GREAT idea. Why not take the basic French 1 topics that I am planning to talk about anyway, such as geography of France, weather, school, food, and hobbies and present them while using what we learning about the lives of our new e-pals as a real-world context? That is exactly what I did, and here is how I hit all those topics.

1. Geography of France. Our e-pals live in a town in southwestern France. I projected a map of France from Google Maps in class and used the opportunity to point out some of the geographical features of France in general such as mountains, big cities, and bordering countries. Then I could ask questions like, Classe, nos amis habitent près de Suisse (Class, do our friends live near Switzerland)? Il y a des montagnes près de leur ville (Are there mountains near their town)This particular town is near the Garonne River, so I showed them where it was on the map and talked a bit also about some of the other rivers in France. This helped my students start to acquire words like mountains, rivers, country, near, far, next to, east, south, west…and so on. You get the idea.

Once I was done with the geographic map, I switched Google Maps to the satellite view and zoomed in so students could get a glimpse of the center of town and the school our e-pals attend. Guys, my kids went CRAZY when they saw that they could virtually see what their e-pals’ town and school look like! They were so excited! I thought their heads were going to explode! For more information on using Google Maps in your language class, read this awesome post from la Maestra Loca, Annabelle Allen.

2. Weather. Since class began I have been asking them questions about the weather each day. Talking about the weather in general can get a bit monotonous, but now that my students and I are able to compare weather in our region with weather in our e-pals’ region, it has gotten a bit more interesting. A real world connection makes all that vocabulary and language structure real, relevant, and a lot more interesting than it is when talking in the hypothetical.

We use the Internet to check and compare our daily and seasonal weather with theirs. I can ask questions like, Ici il pleut. Il pleut là-bas (It’s raining here. Is it raining there?)? I only use French weather sites (Look ACTFL, an authentic resource!). These sites are very visual, usually with just a symbol and a temperature in Celsius. I don’t mind the lack of weather vocabulary, however, because I know my students won’t get bogged down by too much unfamiliar language. They only need to concentrate on the pictures. I also get an opportunity to talk about French usage of the metric system and, since French weather sites also give the weather for the overseas départements of France, I have the chance to add in a little more geography as we talk about the weather in places like Mayotte, Guadeloupe, and French Polynesia.

3. School. I plan to write the teacher in France and ask her if she will send us a copy of what a typical school day looks like for her students, because I would like the opportunity to talk about the differences between our school schedule and theirs (Many typical French school schedules are available online, so if need be, I can use a generic one until I get a real one from France). I plan to project the schedule and use the target language (TL) to talk about the differences between our school schedule and theirs. A school schedule comparison is a great opportunity to reinforce time expressions and names of school subjects. Then from there I can personalize the conversation by asking students in French to tell me their favorite classes, and ultimately they will be able to ask their e-pals about their favorites as well.

4. Food. The school our e-pals attend posts its weekly lunch menu online (Another authentic resource! Yay!). This is an amazing document to use when we are talking about food. I project the weekly menu and we talk about what we would eat each day if we were students there (And yes, even though this is a first-year class, I have NO PROBLEM teaching them a conditional form. I NEVER shelter grammar) and compare it to our own lunch menu. The importance of eating healthy food is such an important part of French culture, which is something my students quickly realize when they compare the two menus side by side.

5. Hobbies. One of the questions on our Special Person interviews was about what my students like to do in their spare time. As a result, my students can talk pretty easily about activities that they like or don’t like to do. My class is a nice mix of musicians, jocks, gamers, and book nerds, so my students have acquired about 15-20 different words they can use to express things they like to do. It has been interesting to compare our favorite activities with the favorite activities of our e-pals so that we can compare and contrast and add even more expressions to our internal language systems based on what our e-pals like to do.

Guys my students are SO engaged in class these days, because everything we are doing we can relate back to a real person. My principal came to observe me and she was very impressed by how excited my students were and the fact that they had a real-world connection to their language study. This project has been great for my professional evaluations too, because I hit ALL FIVE ACTFL WORLD READINESS STANDARDS!

If you’re interested in getting your students e-pals, let me warn you about being careful to protect your students’ privacy. I DO NOT allow my students to give their home address, email address, social media profile name, or phone number to their e-pals. The only means of communication for them is through me, and the teacher in France does the same thing. Once our students have written each other more frequently, the teacher in France and I may talk about allowing our students to exchange private contact information so they can communicate directly. I will most likely send out permission slip forms to parents to make sure that they feel comfortable with that. In this day and age, you just can’t be too careful!

This e-pals project is one of the best activities I have ever done in a second language class! And in our Internet world, connecting with a teacher in a foreign country and setting up an exchange is relatively easy. I urge you to give it a try, no matter what language you teach!



Two Great Activities Courtesy of Bryce Hedstrom

I LOVE Bryce Hedstrom. To be more specific, I love the activities that he has created and written about on his blog. If you want to teach successfully with comprehensible input, (CI), check out his amazing resources!  Here are two activities that I stole from him that I suggest you try, if you can, and my thoughts about them.

1. Password. This is an activity where students cannot enter the classroom until they have said a password, which is a chosen expression in the target language (TL). I post the password outside my classroom for students to see and they say that expression before I allow them into the room.

This activity helps students acquire some practical expressions in the target language that I might not have the time to teach them otherwise. It is really easy to implement if you have your own classroom or have trained your students not to enter the classroom until you arrive.

In my French class, some of my passwords this year so far have been: Je n’ai pas de crayon (I don’t have a pencil), Je ne comprends pas (I don’t understand), and C’est dingue ! (That’s crazy!).

Having a class password is a sneaky way to provide input to your students without having to do much planning. It is SO EASY!!! But I do recommend that, while you are using a certain password, you work it into something else you are doing in class, otherwise you run the risk that students will just parrot the expression back to you without connecting any meaning to the expression.

2. Special Person Interviews. This is an activity in class where a student is interviewed in the TL in front of the class. Special Person interviews are great because they provide a tremendous amount of input and give your students a chance to be the center of attention. Bryce may conduct his Special Person interviews a little differently than I do. I suggest that you visit his website for his take on it. For what it’s worth, I’ve described what I do in my classes here. I have described what I do below.

a. Questionnaire. I have students fill out a questionnaire about themselves in the TL. It is important to note that I translate all my questions into English, as my goal is for all students to fill out the questionnaire with as little frustration as possible. Below is a questionnaire that I used for my Spanish 3 class last year.


b. PowerPoint. I created a PowerPoint with one of the questions from my questionnaire on each slide, along with the language needed to answer that question in the first and third person. I project this PowerPoint during each student interview. Below is the PowerPoint I used for Spanish 3 last year.


c. Student Interview. I interview each student in front of the class. To keep the rest of the class engaged, I have one student draw a picture based on what the interviewed student says. I usually ask another student to be the computer operator who advances the PowerPoint slides. This gives me freedom to walk around the room and helps engage the students.

Once I have done a few interviews, I can then compare them all as I interview. So if one of my students says that her birthday is in December, I can then ask the class if anyone else has a birthday in December. This helps keep students engaged and provides more CI.

At lower levels, students may have trouble expressing themselves in the TL. When I first started doing Special Person interviews, I had many students in lower level classes who wrote one or two words in the TL on their questionnaires but them felt the need to elaborate during their interviews in English. I recommend that you don’t let this happen by declaring ahead of time that blurting out in extended English during the interview is NOT acceptable. If you have time, you could avoid this by reviewing the questionnaires and conferencing with students about any of their responses that you don’t understand or for which you need an explanation. It might be a good chance to provide some personalized CI, but I have never had time to do this.

d. Assessment. After 3 or 4 interviews, I type up a worksheet reviewing information that we have learned about our interviewed students. I describe an interviewed student anonymously and then students have to say which interviewed student I am describing. This review worksheet is yet another opportunity for me to provide CI. Here is an example of some of the sentences on my French 1 review sheet (If you don’t speak French, the sentences below are asking students to name which student said s/he had a dog, who said his/her favorite show was Riverdale, and similar questions).



Once we have reviewed the worksheet, I give a quiz. On the quiz, the students have to write five sentences describing each interviewed student. For the first few times I give them a quiz like this, I include a word bank. I grade my students on the quality of sentences they write (very liberally, since I am more about input than output) and about accuracy of information (Did they say Paul has a brother when he really has a sister?). Some of my students have known each other for quite a few years, and these interviews are very high interest, so almost all of my students have no problem at all recalling five bits of information about our interviewed students.

I am sure that other teachers who do personal interviews don’t assess students on information they learned about their classmates, but I feel that I need to hold my students accountable for at least some of the information they learn about their classmates so that I can be sure that they will pay attention during the interviews. Since my students have known each other for many years, writing five sentences about another student is really not that hard for them.

These are two awesome activities that I suggest you try in your class. Incidentally, just the other day I asked my first-year students to write a paragraph about themselves as a free write activity. Besides Special Person assessments, my students have done very little writing in class. But after listening to so many classmates talk about themselves during Special Person interviews, almost all my students had no problem writing at least a half page about themselves with no supports in a span of only ten minutes!

Thank you, Bryce Hedstrom, for these wonderful activities! I am forever in your debt!



My Thoughts on Thematic Units

I belong to a number of teaching groups on Facebook and I come across a lot of posts that are similar to these:

Does anyone have a good Movie Talk for a unit about shopping?

Does anyone have any good stories to use to talk about sports? Preferably one with command forms?

Posts like this make me cringe. Guys, I am so over planning units based on a theme with a body of knowledge that I need to cover, and the reason why is pretty simple. Teachers who “do” a unit on a specific theme, like eating out in a restaurant or protecting the environment or whatever, are almost always just talking about these themes to “cover” vocabulary expressions and grammatical structures about that theme and are hardly ever really communicating with their students about the topic. And when this happens, little language acquisition is actually taking place. If I try to steer a conversation to make sure that I cover a certain group of vocabulary words or grammatical structures, my kids will very quickly realize that my main objective is to “cover” those vocabulary words or grammatical structures. They will quickly tune me out, because the actual message is not important.

And come on, guys, you have to agree that when you attempt to talk about a certain theme while making sure that you “cover” certain structures, the sentences you end up saying are artificial and often don’t resemble normal conversations. Here, just off the top of my head, is a list of questions that I have asked in a language class that I have never, ever said in a real conversation.

Do you wear pants in the summer when it’s hot out?

Do you use a spoon when you eat ice cream?

Do you get dressed for school before or after you eat breakfast?

Do you reuse or recycle to help the environment?

In case you’re interested, the answer to every one of these questions is the same. Who cares? Not my students.

My goal in my classroom is to talk with my students in a way that feels like a natural, normal conversation. I want them so caught up in what I am saying that they don’t even realize that they are acquiring language. When I think about what to talk about with my students, I choose things that I think my students will find interesting. In addition, I allow the conversation to develop naturally. And while I limit the number of new vocabulary expressions I use with my students, I use whatever grammar I need to make my message comprehensible and interesting. Subjunctive in first year? Yes, if it’s needed. Do I teach the word for sweater without teaching twenty other clothing words? Yes, if what I need to do is tell a student who is cold to put on a sweater or tell one who is hot to take off a sweater. Have I taught all numbers? No, not yet. I have covered 1-31 and the number 2018 because we need them to tell the date. I have taught my French students 55 because it is my favorite number, and I have taught my Spanish students the number 87 because that is how old I tell them that I am.

So I imagine the question you are asking yourself is, “Well, if she doesn’t do thematic units, what does she do?” The short answer is that I do whatever I think my students will find interesting that I can talk about with compelling, comprehensible input. Here is a short list of items that fit this criteria.

  1. Movie Talks. I find a short, compelling video clip, preferably one with a twist at the end, and I talk about it with my students. Sometimes I have additional activities that I do along with the video (If you don’t know how to “do” a Movie Talk, you can read this post and this post).
  2. Calendar Talks. At the beginning of each class, we talk about what is going on that day. We talk about the weather, but mainly only as a springboard to talk about other things. For example, one day last April when it was raining for the tenth or eleventh day in a row I used our weather talk to lament that it had been raining for over a week straight. I got lots of past tense practice by saying, “Saturday it rained,” followed by “Sunday it rained,” and so on. This is when I also talk about any upcoming events, like birthdays or holidays or school functions, and any other event my students might want to mention, such as if they are taking a trip anywhere or playing in an important championship game. I posted recently about using this online calendar as a visual for my Calendar Talks, which my students liked.
  3. Student Interviews. Bryce Hedstrom blogged about this activity here. Basically it involves the teacher interviewing students about themselves in the target language. It is a great activity to use to acquire personal information. I have been doing student interviews for the past few months (I only see my students 3 days a week, so it has taken a while to get through the whole class), but because of this practice my students have acquired language they need to talk about their family, pets, favorite activities, favorite foods, and more.
  4. Personal Anecdotes. My students love it when I tell them stories about my life and my family, and this is one way that I give my students a lot of exposure to the past tense. Sometimes I show my students pictures from my weekend on Monday mornings, which gives us the opportunity to use the past tense. In other instances, I tell my students about interesting events that have happened in my life recently. For example, last year I lost my wedding ring. This turned into a great lesson in class during which I told them that I had lost it, where I looked for it, where it could possibly be, and where I ultimately found it (although I found it a week before I told my class that I had found it, because our conversation about the missing ring was so compelling).

Once I moved away from doing thematic units, two things happened. First of all, I felt liberated. Forcing myself to “cover” a set list of words or grammar structures was making me feel trapped. I didn’t want to have those artificial conversations to make sure that I used all the vocabulary and grammar structures in the unit. Second, student interest increased when we started talking in a more natural way about things they really cared about, which, based on data from their reading quizzes and writing samples, is helping them acquire language. My students are happier and so am I.

The January Blossom

If you are new to teaching with comprehensible input (CI), at first it can feel frustrating, because it is hard to tell if your students are making any progress in acquiring the language. This is especially true if, like me, you don’t force output (and you absolutely should not. Encourage, yes, but force, no), because if students aren’t producing, it may seem that you have no evidence that they are acquiring language. Teachers who don’t have a lot of confidence in their abilities may get so frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress that they may give up and go back to traditional methods (yes, I was guilty of this as a novice CI teacher).

But those who stick with teaching with CI might notice that something magical happens right around the mid-year mark. All of a sudden, students start spontaneously producing language, which demonstrates that they have been quietly acquiring language all along. A colleague of mine refers to it as the “January Blossom,” and it can be pretty amazing to witness. This week I have noticed the blossom in two of my classes.

Students in my seventh grade French class recently were paired with pen pals in France, and yesterday they all sat down to write letters to their new friends in French. This is the first time I have asked my students to do any sort of free writing in class, and they knocked it out of the park. Every student, even the weakest of the group, was able to write down anywhere between two and four sentences about themselves in about five minutes with absolutely no help from me. Some of my stronger students wrote even more. Why was this possible? Because we have been doing Special Person interviews now for the past few months. During these interviews, I ask a series of questions about the student’s family, hobbies, and favorite things. In a class of seventeen students, my students have heard others answer questions about themselves sixteen different times. Thanks to the power of compelling, comprehensible input, my students can communicate about themselves on a variety of topics with a great deal of accuracy. I was very impressed by their abilities and, more importantly, they were proud of their progress as well.

My eighth grade students and I have started talking about the 2018 Winter Olympics in class, which I introduced to them with a PowerPoint about the fifteen Winter Olympic sports in which the athletes are competing. Usually when I show a PowerPoint to the class, I include some French sentences with new words highlighted that I translate into English in parenthesis to facilitate comprehension. This time when I finished going through my PowerPoint, one of my students raised his hand and told me that he already knew ALL the expressions I had translated on the PowerPoint from other activities we had done in class together. Then I asked the rest of the students to raise their hands if they also knew those expressions and almost every hand was raised. This means that my students have been acquiring language that I didn’t even realize they were acquiring!

I am looking forward to seeing what kind of progress students will make as the school year goes on. And I hope you are enjoying your January Blossom as much as I am enjoying mine. And if you don’t see signs of it yet, maybe your blossom will take place later in the year. But thanks to the power of compelling, comprehensible input I can guarantee that you too will have one of those moments where you will ask yourself “How did they know that?” when your students know the meaning of a word you haven’t targeted explicitly or will marvel at student output who produces something that you think is above and beyond their abilities. When that moment comes, enjoy it and be proud!

Sometimes You Just Have to Play the Game

As I have mentioned before in this blog, I recently left a position teaching French and Spanish that I held for 14 years at a high school. At first I taught traditionally and was well-liked by other teachers in my department, but once I started learning about and teaching with comprehensible input (CI), I went from being a respected colleague to persona non grata pretty fast. My Department Head did not like my new teaching methods because she felt that I wasn’t adhering to the curriculum (otherwise known as “Covering what was in the textbook”), so I tried my best to blend the textbook material with CI to appease her.

At first I tried a hybrid approach. I would spend one week doing textbook stuff and another week doing CI. The problem was that my students did very well during our CI week but stopped making any progress during our textbook week. Additionally, my structure was so completely different depending on the week that some of my students had issues figuring out what was expected of them.

As time went on, I started becoming more confident in my own teaching skills and, as a result, began doing more and more CI and less and less textbook work. My students made more progress, but my Department Head was unhappy that I did not explicitly “cover” certain topics. As a result, I got really good at “Playing the Game,” that is, making sure to “cover” textbook topics without sacrificing much classroom time. Here are a few things that I recommend if you are in a similar situation.

1. Get to know Quizlet. Quizlet is an online program that I used quite often. This program allows you to create a study set that students can access and study by completing different types of activities or playing different types of games (See this link for more information if you are unfamiliar with this site).

When I was expected to teach certain vocabulary words, I would create a new study set on Quizlet (Most of the time I would look at the quiz ahead of time and create a study set with only the words on the quiz). On Monday I would quickly introduce the words. Then at the beginning of class on Tuesday through Thursday, reviewing the study set for five minutes or so was my bellringer assignment (It is important to give up class time for this so that you are not accused of assessing students on something that you did not “cover” in class). The homework assignment for Monday through Thursday night was to review the Quizlet set for and then quiz on them during Friday’s class. Our textbook had simple, multiple choice reading quizzes that I used for the Friday assessment (Most textbooks come with quizzes like these, otherwise it is pretty easy to create some yourself). It took at most 15 minutes for students to take one of these quizzes.

2. Ask students to take notes for homework.  Along with vocabulary, I was also expected to “cover” certain grammar topics. I was able to assign note taking for homework for most of the simpler topics from the textbook. Teacher’s Discovery sells a series of flipped lesson books in French and Spanish that I was able to purchase with department funds (although I don’t recommend spending your own money on them because it is super easy to create them yourself) that I could photocopy and give out. Here is what a sample page looks like, which students would have to complete for homework.

Capture 1

Students would bring this completed page to class for homework credit. Sometimes I would give a quiz on the topic that students could take with their notes, although I was careful to ask very simple questions on the quiz where students would have to report what they learned but not apply it. For example, if I gave a quiz on the above worksheet I would ask students to produce conjugations of both verbs but would not give them questions where they would have to choose between the two verbs.

3. Assign students videos to watch on YouTube. YouTube has so many language instructional videos available that are easy to take advantage of, so sometimes instead of asking students to take notes on a topic using the textbook I would ask them to watch a video about that topic instead. Here is a video that I assigned when introducing Spanish students to the imperfect tense.

Sometimes students would also have to take notes on the video they watched, which would serve as proof that they watched the video. And, just liked I did with the flipped lessons I discussed previously, sometimes I would give a quiz on the topic that students could take using their notes.

4. Make a deal. Last year when I was the only person teaching Spanish 3 I went to my Department Head and asked, “What do I absolutely have to cover and what can I skip?” She and I came up with a list of topics that she said I absolutely had to cover, which I did using the methods I have already discussed above. I was then able to spend the rest of my class time doing CI activities. Unfortunately I was only able to do this because I was the only person teaching the class because when I shared sections with another teacher we needed to be “on the same page.”

5. Do an end-of-the-year cram session. This is not something that I ever tried but I do  know of a few CI teachers that have spent most of the year doing nothing but CI activities and then switch to straight textbook instruction for the last six weeks of the year. From what I have heard, students have few problems grasping the textbook instruction after spending so much time being exposed to CI. But I must confess that I was never brave enough to try this. If you have done this, please comment on your experience.

In closing, let me say that I absolutely HATED having to play the game, which is one of the reasons I traded in my last job for one where I can teach using 100% CI. Some of you might not be so lucky, and if you are in a position similar to the one in which I used to be, good luck playing the game. Let me know if I can offer any insight to help you out!

Using an Online Calendar for Input

OMG, you guys, I am SO excited about this site I found online, This is a cool site that allows you to create your own FREE online calendar. Since I try to start my class with a little calendar talk, this site provides a very cool visual that you can use along with your conversation. And, since, as Carol Gaab says, “The brain craves novelty,” this constantly changing visual can help keep students interested.

How to Create a Custom Calendar

To being, visit and click “Create Calendar.” The site then will ask you if you plan to use the calendar for private use, which is free (choose this option) or commercial use, for which there is a fee. You will end up on a page that looks something like this:


The column at the left is where you customize your calendar. You can change the title, colors, the background image and the font. You can also customize how many days you want your calendar to have and add some special effects. Once you have made all your changes here, you can then add some fun stuff to the calendar itself.

Each numbered block on the calendar is actually a door. When you click on each block, you will get a box like this below.


This pop-up box lets you put an image, video, or gif behind each door. Make sure once you have inserted media behind the doors that you click save. I do not recommend that you insert your media on a projected screen with your class watching because some of the media that pops up when you search is not school appropriate, even if you put in a perfectly innocent search term (I put in “Joyeux Anniversaire,” which is “Happy Birthday” in French and got a cartoon image of two bears mating in the snow. You REALLY have to be careful!).

Once you have finished inserting your media, it’s time to make your calendar go live. Click on “Save and Share” in the top right corner. Be advised that, once the calendar goes live, the doors are not in order. Maybe it is possible to put them in order, but I haven’t figured out how to and I don’t want to, because I can reinforce numbers this way.

Once your calendar goes live it looks something like this, with your media peeking out from behind each door, as in the image below.


To open each door, just click on it and your media will appear. I project it on my Smart Board so my wiggly middle school students can come up to the front of the room and open a door with a touch of a finger, which I tell them to do in the target language, of course.

How I Use an Online Calendar in Class

I start every class with a bit of small talk about the date, weather, and important events that are coming up. The calendar is a great addition to this conversation. For example, if it is a really cold day (like today, with temperatures in the single digits), a picture of a snow-covered forest illustrates this very well. If it’s a holiday in the French or Spanish speaking word, media about that is a nice addition to a short culture talk about customs surrounding that celebration. Other things that go up on the calendar include students’ birthdays, my children’s birthdays, my wedding anniversary, a vacation week, a field trip day, a playoff game or any other special day worth mentioning. One thing you can’t do with this calendar is open up a door to a date that is in the future, so keep this in mind as you plan out your events.

The site lets you set up multiple calendars, so this year I set up a special December vacation countdown calendar. Each day on my December calendar had a word or expression behind its door that had to do with Christmas, Hanukkah, or winter. As a result, my students acquired some new vocabulary and could use some previously acquired words as well. Also, talking about getting presents is high interest, compelling input, so my students were very engaged.

I’m super excited about all the cool stuff I can do with this calendar! If you think of any other cool ideas on how to use it, let me know!