Embedded Reading in the CI Classroom

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

Version 1:

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

Version 2:

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

Version 3:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Backwards Planning for Teaching Novels in the Second Language Classroom

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


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


Here is a printable copy of this paper.

Backward Planning Template

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Thoughts About Proficiency

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

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

Novice High students are capable of:

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

Intermediate Low students are capable of:

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

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

The 2017 iFLT Conference Keynote Address – Embracing Inauthenticity

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

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

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

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


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

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

Now that I have started teaching with comprehensible input (CI), I have incorporated games back into my classroom. Just so you know, none of these is my original creation. Most of these games I learned about from TPRS blogs, and I have included a link to the original blog post where I learned about the game if you want more information about it, want to know who created the game, or want to see what else those people have on their blogs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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