Typical Activities in My Classroom

Teaching with comprehensible input (CI) looks different in different classrooms. In this post, I’m going to describe some typical activities I use in my classroom. Feel free to emulate them, change them, or use them to design your own CI lessons.

  1. The Date. At the beginning of every class, someone is tasked with writing the date on the board, including the day. Then I start my questions. Depending on how much I have planned that day, talking about the date can take anywhere from five to twenty minutes. I ask questions about what day and date today is in present tense, then I talk about the day and date of the previous day and the day and date of the following day. That way, my students get to hear present, past, and future tenses, they get to learn their days of the week really well, and they have practice with numbers up to 31. If anyone has a birthday coming up, I will talk about that. If a holiday is approaching, I will talk about that. This is a great time to talk about holidays specific to French or Spanish speakers so I can squeeze in a little culture. I also talk about the weather. I’m sure that’s pretty boring if you live in an area that’s always warm and sunny, but here in New England it can be pretty interesting to talk about when you can go from temperatures in the 50’s to the 90’s in 24 hours.
  2. Asking a Story.  In this activity, students and I tell a story together where the students help me add details to a bare bones story I have. So far this year we have established that Jonathan is a 2-year-old baby, that Julia is 2,000 years old, that Sam is married to Judge Judy and living in an apartment in Lithuania, and that Stephan is a lonely Gucci baguette. When asking a story, I have a few structures that I wish to reinforce and create a story whose sole purpose is to practice those structures. Learn more about asking a story here.
  3. Tell a Story. This activity is exactly what it sounds like. I tell a story in the target language, complete with either a PowerPoint or drawing on the board. I write out any new words and translate them. Once the story is over (which takes maybe 10-15 minutes to tell) I ask students to retell it in English to make sure they understood it. I may follow this activity with a reading based on the original story I told, but I usually add new details or a different ending to the story to keep it compelling. I got the idea to try this after reading about a technique developed by Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki called Story Listening. You can read more about it here.
  4. Class Reading. My first-year students and I started reading Brandon Brown Veut un Chien in January. We read it in class. Sometimes I read and ask them comprehension questions to make sure they understand. Other times I read and they do choral translation. And other times students read aloud or read in groups. It is amazing how much more quickly they have started reading as time has gone by and how much easier it is for them to understand the language too.
  5. Post-Reading activities. I came across this awesome blog post by Keith Toda, which contains a list of all the games he plays throughout the year after his students have finished reading a text of some sort. I have not played all of them but have tried quite a few, which my students have enjoyed immensely.
  6. Movie Talks. This is a great activity that you can read more about here.
  7. The Special Person/Star of the Day. This is another great activity that you can read about here.
  8. Independent Reading. Some people call this Free Voluntary Reading (FVR), others call it SSR (Silent Sustained Reading) and others have no name for this activity. Nevertheless, it all involves the same activity, which is independent reading, usually at the beginning of class, for anywhere from 5-15 minutes. Read more about independent reading here.

If you’re interested in trying any sort of CI in your classroom, you may want to start by trying any one of these activities to see what kind of success you have. After that, you can branch out and try others. Good luck!

Grading Practices in a CI Classroom

Making the switch from teaching traditionally to teaching with comprehensible input (CI) is causing me to rethink everything I have been doing in my classroom, and particularly my grading practices.

In my department, we have the following grading categories: Tests 40%, Quizzes 25%, Participation 20%, and Homework 15%. This has started to cause problems for me. First of all, I have not really been giving any tests. In a traditional textbook-driven classroom, tests are given at the end of a chapter and/or at the end of a unit. A test is something that a student needs to go home and study for by memorizing lists of vocabulary words and verb paradigms. This is just not how things work in my comprehensible input (CI) classroom. So no big, comprehensive tests means I’m not using this category at all.

While I haven’t been giving big huge tests, I have been giving quizzes constantly. Unfortunately, I am still required to assess grammar, which I try to do as painlessly as possible and in a format that requires students to show that they know meaning of what they’re writing. See this post for more information on grammar instruction in my class. I don’t give these types of quizzes very often. Most of the quizzes I give are unannounced and are a review of whatever CI activity we have recently completed (a Movie Talk, a Señor Wooly video, a reading, a chapter in a novel). They aren’t the kind of quizzes students need to study for. They just need to listen and pay attention in class and they will do fine. I think 25% is way too low for this, but this is what we as a department has decided to do, so I have to play along.

Participation has also been an issue for me. In my mind, participation rewards students who volunteer to answer questions. These are usually the outgoing kids. This sort of participation system is really not fair to my very quiet students, many of whom never volunteer to answer questions in class but do absolutely everything else I ask of them. In some instances, participation also artificially inflates or deflates grades. Am I not setting up a student for failure at the next level if the only reason he passed is because a strong participation grade turned his F into a D? Alternatively, is it really fair to give a student with an A average a B+ because of her fear to speak in class? Am I really grading for proficiency in these cases?

I have voiced my concerns about this but my words have fallen on deaf ears. My department head feels that this is a necessary category because she says that since we teach a second language we have to assess their speaking. I don’t agree with this, and research such as this article explains why.

I have two issues with homework. The first is the ease with which most of it can be copied. This morning I had to walk from one side of the school building to the other, and en route I saw at least seven kids coping homework. Why should I waste my time giving a homework assignment that someone can just copy from a friend? And why should I reward someone with a good grade when I know there is a good chance that the homework was copied? The second issue I have with homework is that so many traditional assignments are not based in meaning. They are assignments like this:

Image result for spanish grammar worksheets

Of course students see work like this as a complete waste of time.

Here are the changes I plan to make to my grading practices for next year:

1. Rename the “Test” category. Instead, I will call it “Summative Assessment” to include any sort of assessment, no matter how informal or formal, that I give after students have mastered whatever material we’re working on at the time. The nice thing about the grading program we use is that we can weight assessments differently, so if I give one assessment with ten questions and another with twenty I can make the one with twenty worth twice as much as the one with ten if I want to. I will probably have this count for 40% of a student’s average.

2. Ditch the “Quiz” category. They will now be part of the “Summative Assessment” category.

3. Ditch the “Participation” category. I’ve already talked about why that category is not a valid measurement of student performance. I am thinking about possibly using this as extra credit for rewards such as being able to bring coffee to class and NOT for points. I’m still thinking about how I will set up my reward system and I’ll write another post about it when I have figured out what I want to do exactly.

4. Rename the “Homework” category. This I will call “Formative Assessment” and will include grades given for any homework, timed writings, completing Señor Wooly Nuggets, and anything else my students do that doesn’t fall under the “Summative Assessment” category. This will count for 60% of a student’s average. And just like the “Summative Assessment” category, I can change weights of assignments as I see fit.

I have a whole summer to refine and readjust this system as needed, and will update my blog if I change anything. But for right now I feel comfortable with this system because it uses categories that the principal wants to see and because it is broad enough to (I hope) be used effectively in a CI classroom. I’ll let you know how it goes.

How I’ve Acquired Language By Watching TV

I started watching the Spanish drama”El Internado” on Netflix after reading many comments about it on the iFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching Facebook page. “El Internado” tells the story of the adults that work and the students that study at a boarding school called Laguna Negra in an isolated part of Spain. Some teachers, like Kristy Palacio and Mike Peto, show it in school as part of a comprehensible input (CI) classroom. I have been toying around with the idea of doing this, but haven’t summoned up the courage to do so just yet. In preparation, however, I decided to start watching it just to see if it was any good. I was hooked before I even finished the first episode.

“El Internado” has seven seasons, and I have watched almost all Seasons 1 through 3 with subtitles in English. I’m almost ashamed to admit that part about the subtitles, guys. As a Spanish teacher you would think I would want to challenge myself and watch it with Spanish subtitles or no subtitles at all, but the truth is that sometimes I just don’t want to work that hard, especially since I watch about 80% of it on an exercise machine at the gym. Also, I really like listening to the Spanish and trying to match it up with the English subtitles.

I’ve been watching the show now for about four months, and just very recently I have noticed improvement in my own ability to speak and understand Spanish. My vocabulary has improved, as has my ability to produce various structures that were a struggle for me previously. For example, I was a bit nervous at the beginning of the school year about teaching present perfect structures in my Spanish 3 class. I didn’t feel very confident about my ability to produce this structure spontaneously because it is not a structure that I have been exposed to often. But due to the fact that “El Internado” is chock full of dialogue with present perfect, I can now produce it on the fly with ease.

The best part of the whole experience is that I am so caught up in the story and the characters (Paula and Evelyn are my favorites) that I don’t even realize that I am acquiring language. This is exactly what I want to happen in my classroom. I want my students to be so caught up in compelling, comprehensible input that they don’t even realize they’re acquiring language. That should be the goal for all of us who teach using CI.


Independent Reading in a Comprehensible Input Class

I heard Dr. Stephen Krashen talk at the ACTFL convention last year in Boston about reading is instrumental in helping people acquire language. He told the story of a woman that he had met who could speak almost twenty languages, most of which she had initially acquired through reading texts in that language. I was absolutely floored by this story and it convinced me to go back to my classroom and incorporate an independent reading component in my second language classes.

Some people refer to independent reading in a second language classroom as FVR (free voluntary reading) and others may refer to it as SSR (silent sustained reading), but no matter what you call it, the procedure is the same. Students read books, comics, children’s books, or magazines in the target language for a set period of time. In my classroom, my students read every Monday at the beginning of class. We have been doing this since December, and now that the school year is coming to an end my students have reported that they are reading both faster and more fluently than they were when we started this activity in December. They are also starting to pick up new words from their reading, and if I happen to introduce one of those words in another class activity they will comment that they already know that word from a book they’ve read.

Dr. Krashen’s website has a whole page with links to research about acquiring language through reading. It may convince you that you too would like to incorporate independent reading into your classroom routine. Here are some tips to get you started.

1. Gather a collection of compelling reading material in your target language. I recommend that you start by purchasing books through either TPRS books or Fluency Matters. Their materials are written specifically for language students, are categorized by ability level, and come with a glossary. These are the best books to start out with because they are very student friendly. If you start with the books like these first, students will be more likely to buy into the idea of reading in a second language because they will be able to read them easily. Unfortunately most titles are only currently available in Spanish or French. Mike Peto showcases books in other languages on his blog but many teachers of other languages have gotten resourceful and have started to write some stories and/or books themselves once they’ve exhausted the supply of books available for purchase.

I also have children’s picture books in my classroom library, but I find these books to be either hit or miss depending on how complex the language is. I have reviewed the ones I have and have made sure that my students would be familiar with a majority of the vocabulary words in each book and/or will be able to infer meaning by context. I recently learned that Scholastic publishing has been releasing children’s nonfiction books in Spanish and may soon be adding some of those to my offerings.

I have purchased almost all the books in my library with personal funds. This way I can take them with me if I ever change jobs. Some teachers are lucky enough to get money from their school to purchase books and others raise funds through other means (One teacher reported that she funds her library through profits from selling Pop-Tarts). Very few of us have the means to create a full library overnight. Be patient but persistent and eventually you will have enough titles to create a healthy classroom library.

2. Explain to your students why you think it is important for them to read in the second language. They will be more likely to buy into it if they know why they are being asked to read.

3. Start with a small increment of time and gradually increase the amount of time as the year goes on. We started with five minute increments and are currently at twenty minutes.

4. Lead by example. Read with your students. They are less likely to disrupt the class reading time if you are reading also. You may also want to comment on your book to generate interest in it, and you will be better equipped to make suggestions when students are looking for a new book to read.

5. Do not hold them accountable for what they read. Having them fill out a reading log, answering comprehension questions, or having them write book reports sucks all the joy out of the process and turns it into a chore. We don’t want the reading to be a chore. We want it to be something students are willing to do.

6. Do not monitor students during reading time. I do not walk around the room and “proctor” the way I do when I’m giving a test. By all means, I make sure that students are not sleeping, playing on their phones, talking, or doing homework during reading time, but if certain students just want to open up a book and stare, I don’t make a big issue of it. Even my laziest students have started to realize that looking at the same page for twenty minutes is really, really boring, and have eventually come around. I find that not forcing students to read virtually eliminates avoidance behaviors like getting up to blow ones nose, or asking to go to the restroom.

The added bonus of independent reading in my second language classroom is the improvement in my own language skills. Over the summer I am planning on brushing up on my Italian through independent reading. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Movie Talks

Movie Talks are something new that I tried this year. The idea behind a Movie Talk is to tell a story using a short clip to deliver comprehensible input. I learned about Movie Talks from Blaine Ray at the 2016 ACTFL conference. Dr. Ashley Hastings developed the strategy to use in ESL classrooms and Michelle Whaley is credited for developing Movie Talks for second language comprehensible input (CI) driven classrooms. Here are a few pieces of advice from my experience doing Movie Talks this year:

1. Make sure your clip is short, and try to choose one that has a surprise ending. I made the mistake of showing a great Mr. Bean video this year that was almost nine minutes long. My students were very, very sick of Mr. Bean by the time we got to the end.

2. Plan on showing segments of the video multiple times but don’t give away the ending until the end. I usually spend about 15 minutes per class doing Movie Talks and try to spend at the most 4 days of class doing activities related to the video. A typical Movie Talk for me goes something like this:

Day One: Tell the first section of the Movie Talk in story form with questions to ensure comprehension. Sometimes I show a slideshow with stills while I’m telling the story, but sometimes I just draw as I’m speaking.

Day Two: Do a class reading that both summarizes the first part of the Movie Talk discussed the previous day and also includes a little more  plot information from the video.

Day Three: Watch the video in class in its entirety.

Day Four: Review the video, usually in the form of a game (Keith Toda has a great list of games to play, such as this one and this one) and/or assess students on it with a short quiz or timed writing.

3. Try not to show videos that your students may have already seen. Pixar is well-known for their short clips at the beginning of their films, and they are perfect for Movie Talks. Many videos that go “viral” also make good Movie Talk fodder. The problem is that so many of our students have already seen them, which can affect engagement and may spoil the ending. But since video production is a passion of many talented artists these days, finding suitable, more obscure videos to show is not that difficult. On the iFLT/NTPRS/ CI Teaching Facebook page someone posted a link to a Movie Talk database, which is where I usually start when I’m looking to do a Movie Talk, but you may just want to search YouTube or Vimeo and see what you find.

If you are interested in trying a Movie Talk, you may want to start by purchasing the “Look I Can Movie Talk” resource from TPRS Publishing. It comes in either Spanish (downloadable or on CD-ROM) or French (CD-Rom). The introduction of both versions gives step-by-step instructions on how to do a Movie Talk in class. Then the authors chose ten videos and created resources such as readings, puzzles, and comprehension questions for each video that teachers can copy and use in their classrooms. Unfortunately, this resource is not available in other languages, so if you don’t teach Spanish or French, you may want to start by reading more about Movie Talks from other blogs, such as this one and this one, or watch some demos of Movie Talks done by other teachers such as this one or this one. And then once you feel relatively comfortable with the mechanics of the process, just go for it! And if you are unhappy with your results at first, you will see better results as you get more comfortable with the process. And besides, poorly executed CI is still better than traditional instruction any day!