When You Absolutely Have to Teach Grammar

I recently met a Spanish teacher who is new to the area. He teaches at a private middle school and has been attending some interesting professional development this year, including Organic World Language (OWL) training and a proficiency institute organized by a local language association. His comment to me was that, although he has enjoyed learning new ideas at these workshops, he is unable to implement a lot of the new ideas he learns into his classes because the teachers at the high school that his students go on to attend expect that they will have a solid grammar foundation when they reach the second year of the language.

Sigh. I hear this over and over again. So many teachers who want to incorporate more proficiency-based and comprehensible input (CI) approaches in their classroom feel that they are unable to because of the demands placed on them to teach grammar. Of course, these teachers don’t want put their job in jeopardy, so many of them bow down to pressure and teach grammar explicitly, even though it doesn’t result in language acquisition (For further explanation of this, pick up a copy of Bill VanPatten’s book While We’re on The Topic). I am not in a situation like this but I am also not passing judgement, because as I said previously in this post, we all have to do what we need to do to keep our jobs.

That being said, with a little planning and creativity, you can find ways to teach the necessary grammar but still remain primarily CI or proficiency based. Below are a few ways you can do that.

Solution Number 1: Do CI and proficiency-based activities exclusively until the last few weeks of school, then switch and do explicit grammar for the remainder of the year. This is what Alina Filipescu does in her classroom. Read this post to find out more about how she makes sure students get to the next level with plenty of knowledge about verb conjugations in Spanish.

Solution Number 2: Have designated “Language Study Days.” This is something I first heard about from Tina Hargarden. She did a language study day every few weeks to fulfill district requirements (A colleague of mine who teaches Spanish also has days set aside for language study. She jokingly said that she calls them “Dinosaur Days” and wants to wear a Tyrannosaurus Rex costume in class for those lessons).

Solution Number 3: Alternate between CI or proficiency-based lesson weekly, biweekly, or monthly. This is similar to what Alina Filipescu does but breaks up the grammar study throughout the year. I tried this on and off for a few years but found that I preferred waiting until the end of the year to do all the grammar, kind of like what Alina does.

Solution Number 4: Assign students grammar study for homework. If you read this post and this post, you will see that I have written before about flipped classrooms, where teachers obligate students to learn a new concept for homework that the teacher then reviews the following day in class. If you check YouTube, you will find a lot of videos that explain different grammar topics in a second language, especially in Spanish. This year, I found videos on YouTube about different grammar topics and gave students worksheets to fill out while watching them. I kept all the worksheets together in a folder for each student for personal reference and then I shipped a copy up to the high school teacher so she could see the topics they had reviewed.

The bottom line is, you can have the best of both worlds, where you provide your students with plenty of comprehensible input and activities designed to further language proficiency but still squeeze in those necessary grammar topics. If you haven’t already, I hope you will consider giving it a try.

My Takeaways This Year

I have already started reflecting on what has worked for me this year and what I have learned about myself as a teacher and about second language (L2) students in general. These thoughts are in no particular order, and many of them echo things that I have already written about on this blog. Below are things that I have been thinking about recently.

1. Before teachers can begin to teach meaningfully, they must make sure to train their students to meet their expectations. As I have already talked about in this previous post, the main priority of all teachers should be to establish class norms, make expectations clear, and enforce discipline consistently. With high school students, this should typically take two or three weeks. As a rule of thumb, the younger the student, the longer it will take to train them. There are always exceptions to this rule, however, since every class is different. In addition, it is also good practice to retrain students after long weekends and vacation weeks.

2. While forced output is never acceptable, it is fine for a teacher to cold call students if the teacher is pretty sure that they know the answer. One of the biggest components of teaching with comprehensible input (CI) is understanding that obligating students to speak will not further proficiency. This is called forced output, and it is common in traditional, textbook-driven classes. As Dr. Stephen Krashen stated in his book Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, making students produce language when they are not ready to do so will raise the Affective Filter and hinder language acquisition.

While I strongly support this hypothesis, I started to notice that, in classes where I wasn’t randomly choosing students to answer questions, some of my students were beginning to disengage and lose focus. It is perfectly understandable. Students in a class who know that they may be cold called (that is, called on to answer a question for which s/he did not volunteer to answer) have to stay attentive in class because they know that they may have to answer a question involuntarily at any moment. But some students will become disengaged if they know that the teacher is not going to obligate them to participate.

3. Teachers can use authentic resources creatively at any level. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) supports using authentic resources in the world language classroom, but many teachers struggle with making those resources comprehensible for Novice students. It takes practice, but with appropriate scaffolding or an attainable underlying purpose for use of that resource, teachers can successfully use authentic resources with all students.

For example, students in a Novice level class can study a song in the target language (TL), but the desired end result may not be that they understand every word of the song. Maybe the goal is for them to understand just one line. Or maybe the song is secondary because it has a great video that the teacher can use as a Movie Talk. In addition, authentic resources like works of art, wordless books, or photographs (that is to say, resources without language) can also be used in Novice classes. Why hadn’t I thought about that before?

4. While teaching culture is an important component of second language teaching, it can be taught in the target language (TL) at all levels. Many teachers talk about culture in the students’ native language because they say that students don’t possess the appropriate language skills to discuss cultural topics in the TL. But if you look at ACTFL’s Intercultural Competency expectations, you will find that, even at the Intermediate level, students are not expected to have in-depth, detailed knowledge of cultural products or practices. Novices are only expected to identify products and practices, which means that while they might be expected to know that September 16th is Mexican Independence Day and that it is a national holiday, they should not be expected to know much more than that. At the Intermediate level, students would be expected to know enough facts about Mexican Independence Day that they would be able to compare it with Independence Day in their home country. It’s only at the advanced level that students are expected to be able to speak at length and with great detail about cultural products or practices. So since expectations are so low (and, in my opinion, completely realistic for the students’ ability level), it is completely possible for students to learn about a certain cultural product or practice in the TL.

5. Technology is a nice tool to use in a second language classroom, but it is not essential. This year I incorporated a lot of technology into my classroom instruction, such as Quizlet, Kahoot, Gimkit, Charlala, Wheel Decide, and Plickers. What I learned was that, although my students enjoyed the novelty associated with using them, they didn’t really add anything to my classroom instruction that I felt I couldn’t live without. If I ever have an administrator that wants to see me use technology during an observation, I will make sure to use one of the tools listed above. I’ll also use one of these tech tools on a day when half the class is on a field trip or right before a vacation. But on a regular basis, I will not use a technology just for the sake of using technology.

6. When it comes to curriculum, less is more. Lance Piantaggini has a curriculum document on his website that I found very beneficial. Basically, he structures his curriculum around two essential questions (“Who am I?” and “Who are the speakers of the TL?”) and a list of high-frequency verbs called the Super Seven (and, once students have mastered those, the Sweet Sixteen. That’s it.

It probably doesn’t sound like much, but when you brainstorm all the possible answers to those two questions, you will find that almost anything you want to or are obligated to teach is an appropriate response to those two essential questions. And while teaching only seven (or sixteen) verbs doesn’t sound like a lot, it is a lot more when you factor in all the different tenses (When teaching in a comprehensible input classroom, teachers are encouraged to use any and all tenses necessary to make their messages meaning and comprehensible). And as you continue to use those high-frequency verbs, you will just naturally include other vocabulary that one would naturally use with those verbs (articles, adjectives, prepositions, common nouns, and so on).

As you embark on your summer break, I encourage you to reflect on what you have learned this year. How will what you have learned about yourself this year guide and improve your practice next year? Let me know.

My Day With Blaine Ray

Last July I attended the NTPRS conference in Boston. This is a national language conference devoted to training second language teachers in Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) and other comprehensible input (CI) teaching approaches (This conference was organized by TPRS Books, but you can also find information about additional conferences being held all over the country during the summer by other second language companies like Fluency Matters, CI Liftoff, and Express Fluency). This is an annual conference, but this was my first time attending.

At the conference, I won a day of free teaching and coaching with Blaine Ray. Yes, THE Blaine Ray. He arrived earlier this month and spent the day with my French and Spanish students and I. He taught my classes and also coached me after watching me teach.

Before he arrived, I told him that I wanted to work on my Storyasking skills (I have talked about my dislike for Storyasking in this post). I felt very uncomfortable in my abilities to make Storyasking work in my second language classes, so I had been spending my time using every other CI activity I’ve ever learned, like Movie Talks, class novel reading, Free Voluntary Reading, and Special Person Interviews. These activities have worked very well for me in my CI-driven classroom. However, I felt that Storyasking was so powerful that I just had to try to learn how to do it more effectively and incorporate it into my classes.

The day began with Blaine teaching Spanish to my fifth grade students. My fifth graders are nice, eager to please, and easy to control, so the lesson went very smoothly. After a while, he had me step in and ask a story, and when the class was over, he praised me and told me that I already had strong Storyasking skills, and that maybe I was hesitant to ask a story in class because I lacked confidence in my abilities.

A little later, my seventh grade students came in. This year, my seventh grade students have given me a very hard time. Classroom management has been a constant struggle for me this year, and as Blaine began his lesson, they began giving him a bit of trouble too (You can be sure that I gave them a VERY stern lecture about their behavior the next day!). But Blaine had a response for each infraction, and he shut them up and shut them down both quickly and politely and continued his lesson.

As I observed Blaine, I began to realize that the reason I struggled with Storyasking was because I didn’t know how to respond to misbehavior during the process. After all, whenever I had previously seen a Storyasking demonstration, it was at a workshop where the presenter had no behavior problems, since the “students” were all teachers interested in learning how to ask a story. I needed to observe Storyasking with problematic students to get that missing piece. And as embarrassed as I was that my seventh graders misbehaved when Blaine visited, at least I was able to see firsthand how to deal with some pretty common behavior infractions during Storyasking. Below are some of the issues Blaine had with my students and how he dealt with them.

Problem Number One: Students intentionally giving a wrong answer. Blaine had established that the main character was a girl, but students were intentionally answering “No”afterwards when Blaine asked if the main character was a girl. Blaine’s response was to stop and tell the students, “You must not know what the rules are of asking a story. Once we establish something in the story, it is fact and cannot be changed. We have already established that she is a girl, so you need to say ‘Yes’ if I ask that question again.”

Problem Number Two: Students screaming answers when asked a whole-class question. When this happened in my class, Blaine said to the two culprits, “I’m glad you know the answer, but part of my job is to make sure that all students know the answer. I can’t hear the rest of the class over you two because you’re too loud. Please answer in a normal speaking voice.”

Problem Number Three: Side conversations. Blaine used a party points system. A timer was set for eight minutes, and if the class had no side conversations in that eight minutes, the class earned a point and the timer was set again for eight minutes. After a certain number of points, the class got a prize. If students had a side conversation during that eight-minute block, the timer was reset (For the purpose of Blaine’s visit, the prize was a piece of candy).

Problem Number Four: Students not responding to a whole-class question. Blaine told the class, “I need to know that you are understanding the story. If you don’t answer along with the class, I will ask you the question individually.” This was enough to motivate my super-shy students to answer the questions with the rest of the class.

Problem Number Five: Misbehaving Student Actors. Blaine had one student actor that was being uncooperative, so Blaine said, “I need you to do only what I tell you to do. If you can’t do that, I will fire you.” The student in question subsequently asked to be fired immediately, because he didn’t think he could obey the rules.

Blaine came to my school the week before school ended for the summer, so I did not have the opportunity to test out my new classroom management skills with students. But now that I am on summer break, I have continued to reflect on the experience as I prepare for the next school year. I have also found more resources related to classroom management in a CI class (This guest post by Jon Cowart talks about urban classrooms, but the behavior management techniques he describes could work in any classroom). One of the things I have recently discovered that I especially like is Connie Navarro’s Response to Blurting Out resource sheet. This one-page document lists root causes and action steps in response to students blurting out in class. I plan to post it in my classroom as a reference for those inevitable moments when I have to respond to undesirable behavior.

I will be attending this year’s NTPRS conference. I am pretty sure that presentations about classroom management will be offered again, which I plan to attend. With any luck, I should have a solid enough foundation in classroom management to start off the year successfully. Wish me luck! I have those pesky seventh graders again this year. I hope they have matured over the summer!

Let the Wheel Decide

Yesterday I received my latest newsletter from Joshua Cabral, a World Language teacher in Massachusetts who operates the website World Language Classroom. In it, he talked about a website called Wheel Decide that lets you create free wheels of chance like the one you might see on the game show Wheel of Fortune or at a roulette table in a casino. For example, if you don’t know what to have for dinner, you may spin a wheel like the one below to choose what to eat that night.

I have nothing but respect for Joshua, who is a member of many professional language organizations and an engaging speaker and presenter. But, he is much more interested in getting students to speak in class than I am, so it came as no surprise to me that he suggested using Wheel Decide for student output activities. As a comprehensible input (CI) teacher, I am more concerned with input than with output, but the idea of using this wheel intrigued me as a way to inject some novelty into my classroom instruction. I have started implementing it in class in a few ways that you may find useful in your own classes.

In my classroom, I start off by talking about the day, date, and weather. Recently a French teacher colleague said on Twitter that she includes a discussion about the weather in a French-speaking country as part of her opening routine. I thought this could be a great way to talk about French-speaking countries and geography, and I decided to use this wheel to take this activity one step further in my French class this morning.

I created a wheel with the names of the capital of different French countries and overseas départements. Here’s what it looks like:

I started class today as I do normally by discussing the day, date and weather. Then I let a student come up to spin the wheel to choose which French-speaking region we would talk about. Today the wheel landed on Basse Terre, the capital of Guadeloupe. This city was unfamiliar to my students, so I showed them where it was on Google Maps (My students especially like using the Google Maps feature where you can drop the human figure found on the right into an area and get the street view). So as we talk about the day, date, and weather, we also can learn a bit about the French-speaking world without having to do a straight-up geography lesson.

I also like to do games on Fridays in my class, so I came up with a Wheel Decide to choose which (low/no prep) game to play that day (By the way, I get most of my game ideas from Keith Toda’s fantastic blog. Click on links under “Post Reading. Amy Marshall also has a ton of games on her blog, DMS Spanish. Look for “No/Low Output Games.”). Here’s what my wheel looks like:

Lastly, if you read my blog, you may remember that I don’t really like the unpredictability of Storyasking, since so often things can get out of control by students either shouting out inappropriate answers or not participating at all. Sometimes in class I use dry erase cubes when I ask a story, where I have students write possible ideas on the cubes which we roll to determine our answer. I am also planning on using Wheel Decide to help choose possible suggestions in class as well. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Using YouTube Videos in French and Spanish Class

A few years ago, I stumbled upon two great YouTube sites where native speakers tell stories intended for people wishing to learn Spanish or French. In Spanish class, my students and I watch videos on
Pablo Pankún Roman’s YouTube channel, which is called Dreaming Spanish. Students in my French class watch videos on the YouTube channel operated by Alice Ayel.

These channels are great because I can use them as a way for my students to receive input. I am not a native speaker of either French or Spanish, so listening to these videos is a great way for students to listen to native speakers (and in my Spanish classes, heritage learners get to hear a variation of Spanish that they don’t hear at home because Pablo is from Spain). I can slow down the video and add subtitles for my Novice Low learners, so they can be made comprehensible for students at all levels.

Alice organizes her videos by subject and by season (just like a TV series, she has Season 1, 2, and so on). Pablo, on the other hand, organizes his by language proficiency level. I must confess that I like having them sorted by level because it makes it easy for me to pick videos that will be comprehensible for my students based on their ability. If I’m in a hurry, I don’t need to preview his videos to see if it’s at an appropriate level for my students the way I have to for Alice’s videos.

In addition, both Alice and Pablo help learners acquire cultural knowledge of the French-speaking and Spanish-speaking worlds because they record videos about cultural products or practices. Holiday traditions are a popular topic on both channels. Alice will often record stories based on fables written by French author Jean de la Fontaine, and Pablo talks about Spanish history and important figures of Spanish and Latin American history on his.

At my school, all teachers are required to keep emergency lesson plans on file. Once I discovered these two YouTube channels, my plans became simple. In the event that I am absent unexpectedly, my students watch videos and write summaries on the videos they watch in English. I am careful to state in my plans that videos need to be a certain length. I also ask the substitute to monitor computer use to make sure that students don’t turn on English subtitles, which I am unable to control.

During class, watching a video and completing a task based on the video is a great warm-up activity. I have found that they have a calming effect, so I often will show a video when a class meets right after lunch or last period of the day. As they watch and write, my students begin to calm down and regain some of the focus they need to make it through the rest of the class without getting in trouble.

I use two different tasks when I show videos in class. Sometimes I have students write a summary in English, just like they do when I am absent unexpectedly. Then I grade the summary using a rubric based on the accuracy of their summaries and how many details they provide. As you might expect, my expectations change based on the proficiency level of my students. In September of my first-year class, students are able to meet the standard by accurately describing the general gist of the story told in the video. As the year goes on, students are required to give details to meet the standard. Since every student is different, I can differentiate and require my fast processors to do more to meet the standard and lower my expectations for my slow processors.

In my novice-level classes, I may give a multiple-choice quiz based on the video. Although I do use the quiz to assess interpretive listening skills (I know that students are starting to understand at an intermediate proficiency level if they can correctly answer a question that isn’t supported by a visual), I use them as scaffolding to help make the video more comprehensible. For example, Alice tells a story in one video about a woman who eats too many chestnuts. She draws brown circles that every one of my students assume is chocolate. So one of the questions on my quiz asks students to say how many chestnuts the woman eats. By seeing the word “chestnuts,” students then are able to figure out that those brown circles aren’t chestnuts. Similarly, many stories talk about objects people want, which is very hard to express visually. Students that aren’t familiar with that verb in French or Spanish might assume that the person in the video has that object, so the question “What does Marie want?” on a quiz goes a long way to make the video comprehensible.

A final activity that I do with these videos is ask students to comment in either French or Spanish on the YouTube channel. Usually this is an extra-credit assignment. My students are so excited when Alice or Pablo reply to their YouTube comment. I guess in a way they are celebrities in our class, but if that helps students acquire language, that’s great!

What’s In a Name?

For the first 20+ years of my teaching career (when I was a textbook-based, traditional drill and kill teacher), I always gave students a French or Spanish name when they entered my first-year language classes, which would stay with them throughout their second language study at our school. Recently, however, I have abandoned this practice. Reasons why are described below.

Over the years I’ve had more Pablos, Marías, Moniques, and Pierres than I can shake a stick at. Names were given on the first day of class, which was also when students made name tags with their new names on it. As my students and I went through our introductory classes together, I often would pick up a student’s name tag and use it during a pronunciation lesson or conversation about accent marks. It was great to talk about the Spanish pronunciation of the letter j, for example, and then go pick up the name tag of the kid who chose the name “José” to illustrate my point.

In addition, most of my students loved having a French or Spanish name. Some students would call each other by their Spanish or French name in other classes, and I enjoyed it when students came to my class and told me about how they accidentally wrote their Spanish or French name on a math test. I even had a few students confess that they did not know the real name of some of their classmates and knew them only by the name given to them in my class.

But over the years, I began to reevaluate this practice. First, I started noticing in Spanish class that I had boys fighting over the name “Jesús” just because they thought it was funny to be named after Christ. I also had multiple boys fighting over being called “Juan” so they could make puns like, “I’m Juan in a million.” Other boys wanted to be called “Pablo” in honor of the drug lord Pablo Escobar. Things were no better in French class, where my male students fought over the names with Arabic roots like “Habib” and the female students all wanted the name “Latifah.” I eventually realized that my naming practice was perpetuating negative stereotypes and inadvertently giving students permission to make fun of people from another culture.

In addition, one of my classroom goals was to have students realize that the language they were studying was real and alive, spoken my millions of people all over the globe (This is one of the reasons why the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) advocates using authentic resources in second language classrooms). I didn’t want them to think of Spanish or French as something artificial that they only used when in my classroom.

In his book While We’re On the Topic, Bill VanPatten is adamant that all language used in class be part of authentic communication. This is the reason why he doesn’t have students pretend to be in an airport or restaurant in his classes. By extension, how authentic and real can communication be when someone’s real name is Caleb but classmates are calling him Federico? Not very authentic at all, I think. Over time, it started to seem counterproductive to give students a false identity when I was spending so much time trying to promote the authenticity and the real-world value of studying a second language in my class.

These days, I don’t have nametags to help me illustrate pronunciation or accent usage. My students figure those things out anyway through frequent classroom use. Also, I call everyone in class his or her given name or nickname. If a student has a name that is 100% identical in English (our first language) and Spanish or French (like David in Spanish or Rose in French), I will pronounce that name with an appropriate French or Spanish accent. If students’ names have a Spanish or French translation, I share that with students (“Your name is Michael? In Spanish it would be “Miguel.”) but never address them with it. The boy in Spanish class named Matthew is never “Mateo,” and the girl in French class named Mary is never “Marie.” These days, I’m all about keeping it real! How about you?

Why Promoting the Seal of Biliteracy is Good for Second Language Programs

I don’t know what things are like in your state, but here in New England, many states have started programs that allow students to earn the Seal of Biliteracy in high school. The Seal of Biliteracy is a program that allows second language students to earn a seal on their diploma recognizing them for being biliterate, meaning that they are proficient in reading, writing, speaking, and comprehending two languages. Qualifications for earning the Seal vary from state to state, but in most states students need to demonstrate that they possess at least  an Intermediate Mid language proficiency as measured by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) proficiency scale. Many states are measuring this with the AAPPL or STAMP tests, which are computerized language proficiency tests. Other measures include at least a 3 on an Advanced Placement exam or at least a four on the International Baccalaureate exam.

If you teach a second language and live in a state that offers the Seal of Biliteracy, you should inquire about the Seal of Biliteracy in your district. And if your district hasn’t implemented this program yet, you should try to convince them that they should. Not only will it give your district something to brag about, but it is good for your language program overall. Here are two reasons why.

First of all, earning a score of Intermediate Mid proficiency is not something that most students can do in a few years. According to this CASLS study, only a small percentage of students enrolled in four years of a second language high school program reach Intermediate Low, and even fewer reach Intermediate Mid. ACTFL reached similar findings, which you can find on this graph. 

This information is the ammunition needed to advocate for the implementation, expansion, and/or retention of out second language programs. If our superintendents want to brag about awarding the Seal of Biliteracy in their school district, they are going to have to put their money where their mouth is and support second language education at the middle school level.

Second, implementing the Seal of Biliteracy can be a great way to highlight and promote comprehensible input teaching approaches. I think students taught using comprehensible input (CI) approaches will develop higher language proficiency overall than students in traditional programs. I have no direct data that supports this, but I did see this, which is a review of studies comparing classed taught with Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS), with is one CI approach, and traditional teaching approaches. Overwhelmingly the research finds that students in TPRS classrooms perform at least as well as, if not better than, assessments given to students in traditional classrooms. As far as I know, research has not studied the efficacy of TPRS with a proficiency test, but nonetheless the data does suggest that students in a TPRS program advance more quickly that those in traditional programs.

I also have some anecdotal evidence about the success of CI approaches related to the Seal of Biliteracy. Just last week, I had a conversation with a woman who is the World Language Department Head at a local school. Last year, 28 students earned the Seal of Biliteracy. Of those students, only three studied Spanish. The rest were all French students. In this school, all the French students are taught with a CI approach and all Spanish students have traditional teachers. Last I heard, the school principal was very interested in why so many French students and so few Spanish students earned the Seal of Biliteracy. I am sure this department head will have a lot to say about this.

I predict that it will soon become very fashionable for school districts to offer students the chance to earn the Seal of Biliteracy. If you haven’t already checked out to see if it is offered in your state, reach out to your state language association for more information. Implementing this program could really be beneficial for your school district. 

Classroom Management, Revisited

Last year I went to a TPRS workshop with Mike Coxon and Craig Sheehy. This was the first time I heard about their classroom management system. Blaine Ray, the creator of TPRS, calls it the Party Points System. The Party Points system awards the class points for staying in the target language (TL) for eight minute segments. The teacher uses a timer and resets the timer every time someone talks in English. If the class is successful in staying in the target language for eight minutes, they get a point. After a certain number of points, the class gets a reward (View this post for more on this system).

I came home from the conference and implemented this system. It worked really well. My problem behaviors decreased dramatically. I ignored colleagues who criticized the system and was able to make it to the end of the year with hardly any discipline issues at all. Life was good.

At the National TPRS conference in Boston over the summer, I heard again from Blaine about how awesome the Party Points System was. When the new school year started, I made plans to implement Mike and Craig’s reward system again. As far as I was concerned, it was foolproof, right?

Nope.

I have one class this year that has been difficult since our first week back in August. The class is very large (27 students), which makes classroom management difficult. I also have a large number of boys in the class who don’t take class seriously. I abandoned the Party Points System with them because I got nowhere. They were so bad that they often earned zero points in one 45-minute class. The well-behaved students were frustrated by those who constantly blurted in English and spent class socializing, and the ones who caused the problems stopped caring about a reward. As far as they were concerned, if they were never going to earn any points, why bother trying to behave? It was a lost cause.

So I implemented the “hard reset.” I spoke to the class about their behavior, explained why I was abandoning the point system, and returned to my old-school management system à la Ben Slavic. It’s only been a few days since the switch, but things are a little better. My students aren’t little angels, but the threat of calling home is keeping most of them in line. The moral of the story, then, is that no classroom management system is perfect. Some kids just naturally will misbehave, and it’s up to the teacher to figure out how to manage them in the most effective way possible. And considering that I have been teaching for over 20 years, I should have known that.

A New Year’s Reset

Yay! December Break is finally here! I have been looking forward to a little rest and relaxation. And yet, my teacher brain just cannot turn itself off. All the Christmas presents have been opened and New Year’s Eve is still a few days away, making this the perfect time to start thinking about what I’m going to do once I am back in my classroom next week. I have two changes I plan to make to my Interpersonal Communication Skills Rubric and a great Movie Talk I’m planning to do once I return to work. More details are below.

The rubric I use for self-assessment is similar to ones that are found on Ben Slavic’s website. This rubric asks students to evaluate themselves based on how well they listen with the extent to understand and how well they support the flow of language in class.

Now that I have started Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) in class, I have replaced “Listen with the Extent to Understand” to “Listen AND READ with the Extent to Understand.” I don’t hold students responsible for what they read, which means no book reports, assessments, or projects based on their books, but I do want them to actually read. Most of them do but I still have a few that don’t (I have one student who purposely held her book upside down during our last FVR session, and when I said something to her about it she said, “I just don’t feel like reading.” This is exactly the kind of behavior I hope to address with the altered rubric).

The other adjustment I have made to my rubric involves how well students support the flow of language. Students are required to respond to my whole-class questions, usually only with a word or two. The problem is that I have a lot of students who give themselves full credit on their rubrics for answering my whole-class questions but I usually can only hear a handful of kids. As a result, I have rewritten the rubric so that students will only be able to give themselves full credit on the rubric if their answer is audible. I’m not going to give students full credit if they mumble or whisper anymore.

Along with these two changes, I’ve also planned to do a Movie Talk when I return to school based on the clip Lily and the Snowman. It is the story of a girl who builds a snowman that comes to life. It’s a perfect Movie Talk for the middle of winter, don’t you think?

Authentic Resources

World languages conferences are traditionally held in the fall, which is why October has been a very busy month for me. Three weeks ago I helped organize and also presented at a small local conference, and a few days ago I attended a larger conference nearby. At both conferences, authentic resources were a popular topic of discussion.

I must confess that I have never been a fan of using authentic resources in my language classes, mainly because I felt that most of them were too complex for my novice students to understand and appreciate. In addition, I felt that most of the language in authentic resources was not very practical, and it was more important that students be exposed to more high-frequency words. But somehow I found myself assigned the task of giving a presentation about authentic resources at my local conference, and I have slightly changed my tune.

The reasons for this change are varied. First of all, due to the advent of the Internet, it is super easy to find many different, appropriate types of authentic resources, ranging from infographics, commercials, and recipes to music videos, short stories, and full length television shows and movies. Many Spanish teachers have written extensively about using Spanish television shows like Gran Hotel or El Internado, and many French teachers enjoy adding lessons based on music videos to their class.

Second, authentic resources are a great way to learn about the culture of the language we teach. Even though I have taught Spanish for years, I didn’t learn about el Ratoncito Pérez (the equivalent to the tooth fairy in Spain) until I watched a TV show where two little girls talked about losing teeth. In addition, it was through the same TV show that I realized that even though “Felicidades” and “Enhorabuena” both translate to “Congratulations” in English, they  aren’t generally used for the same occasions (Traditionally, “Enhorabuena” is for something that only happens once or twice in a lifetime, like a wedding, job promotion, or graduation, and “Felicidades” is for things that happen more often, like a birthday or a good grade on something).

Finally, the third reason I have changed my mind about authentic resources is that I came to the realization that students don’t have to understand every single word of the resource in order to have a meaningful experience with it. In addition, I can use the authentic resources to introduce and reinforce some high frequency vocabulary. Here are the steps I take when I decide to use an authentic resource.

Step 1: I choose an authentic resource that I want to use. I usually choose an authentic resource because it relates to a topic I am talking about in class. So I may find an infographic about eating habits during conversations about food or a commercial about Christmas when I talk about holidays.

Step 2: I ensure that the authentic resource is appropriate for my students. I make sure the language is not too complex and that the resource is both age and culturally appropriate.

Step 3: I determine my main goal for using the authentic resource. As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I used to shy away from using authentic resources was because I thought my students had to understand every word of the resource in order for it to be valuable. I have since realized that students understanding every single word doesn’t have to be the main goal. For example, when I used the Jean de la Fontaine fable “Le Corbeau et le Renard,” my main goal was to use it as a medium to teach some descriptive adjectives and other high frequency words. As far as the fable itself, I wanted students to only be familiar with the general plot and moral of the story.

Step 4: I pick out the necessary structures and/or cultural references my students need to understand the authentic resources. For example, for this Tapsin commerical, I make sure students know about the history of the Ekeko and use it to teach some vocabulary that has to do with being sick (thanks to Kara Jacobs for showing me this commercial in the first place).

Step 5: I preteach those necessary structures and/or cultural references. I always preteach these concepts through context and not as isolated words, because students are more likely to remember the concepts in a context than in isolation. I use Total Physical Response, Movie Talks, and other techniques that are designed to deliver a lot of comprehensible input (CI).

Step 6: I introduce the authentic resource. After preteaching structures in context for this McDonald’s commercial in Spanish (including the use of this infographic about levying taxes on soft drinks in Mexico), I was ready to show students the commercial itself and talk about it.

Step 7 (Optional): Assess or do a final wrap-up activity. I stay away from traditional vocabulary tests, but I might ask students to retell the main idea of the fable/video/story that we just talked about or ask students to create something original with the new structures we used.

The beauty of breaking down the authentic resource step by step is that I have a flexible process that I can follow. Depending on the size and complexity of the resource, each step I take care be very short and quick for a resource like an infographic or an advertisement or take a while for something longer like a video clip or a song. Give it a try!