Introducing Students To Three Time Periods At Once (Without Being a Time Lord)

My daughters are big fans of Doctor Who. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the series, suffice it to say that Doctor Who is a Time Lord, which means that he has the capability to travel to the past, throughout the present, and to the future. Unfortunately, this is not something most of the students who exit our four-year high school language programs can do consistently with their second language.

In traditional language classes, teachers have historically only introduced one tense at a time. Generally the first year is for the present tense, second year is for the past tense(s), and third year is for the future (and conditional and subjunctive).

The problem with this sequence is that most students do one of two things. They either never really grasp the idea of conjugating verbs and use the infinitive for everything, or else they master the present tense and use it no matter what time period they are describing. The reason why they do this is pretty simple. They just haven’t had enough consistent, repeated exposure to those tenses in the form of compelling, comprehensible input to be able to use them effectively.

An additional problem with this sequence is that students want to be able to talk about what is interesting to them, and in many cases topics that are interesting to them quite often include things that they did recently or are planning to do. By insisting that students only speak in the present in the first year, the class misses out on discussing a whole variety of interesting topics (i.e. compelling, comprehensible input).

One of the characteristics of teaching with comprehensible input (CI) is that teachers do not shelter grammar. This is something I learned from Blaine Ray at one of my first Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) workshops. Instead, they use whatever tense they need for communication. In my first-year class, I exposed my students to the past (preterit in Spanish class and passé composé in French class), present and future (the form to go plus an infinitive in both French and Spanish). Here is how I go about doing this.

On the first day back to class after a weekend or vacation, one of the warm-up activities we do is called “­­¡Soy yo!” in Spanish class and “C’est moi!” in French class. I project a worksheet that looks something like this in Spanish


and like this in French (Thanks to Scott Benedict for coming up with the original worksheet, which I adapted).


Then I make statements about my weekend/vacation activities. When I read aloud an activity that a student in class also did, the student must stand up and say “C’est moi!” in French class or “­­¡Soy yo!” in Spanish class (Here is the video for ­­”¡Soy yo!” that I first watched during a presentation by Jason Fritze. Here is his original activity, and here are four variations on this activity that I have done in class so far this year.

  1. Most/least popular. A student keeps count of how many students in class stood up and said “­­¡Soy yo!” in Spanish class or “C’est moi!” in French class and we discuss what activities are the most and least popular.
  2. What did Señora/Madame do? I tell students that I did a certain number of activities on the list (usually 3-4) and I have students try to guess which activities I did with a prize (usually a piece of candy) for whomever predicts the highest number of correct activities.
  3. What did my friend do? I have students guess what other classmates did and didn’t do over the weekend.
  4. Two truths and a lie. I have students write down two activities they did and one they didn’t do and have a classmate guess which one the original student did not do.

On the last day of class before a weekend or vacation, I project a similar worksheet. The Spanish worksheet looks like this

Capture 1

and the French worksheet looks like this

Capture 2

Activities that I do with these two worksheets are similar to the ones I use on Mondays or the first day back to school after a vacation, just with verbs in future instead of past (By the way, in case you are interested, I personally think that the formal future tense found in Spanish and French is not something that teachers should be in a hurry to teach. If it comes up in a reading or conversation, then it is fine to point it out and discuss it. But since forming the future with the verb to go plus an infinitive can be used so often to talk about activities people are going to do, I would emphasize that, along with other expressions and structures that are more high frequency and thus more practical).

After doing a variety of activities with these sheets and sheets similar to this, I have noticed that my students are starting to speak spontaneously (although not always perfectly) in both the past and compound future. And in my French classes, students are starting to “feel” that two verbs are necessary to talk about both the past and the future without any explicit grammar instruction at all. this means that they are starting to form their own internal language systems due to the input they are receiving, and I couldn’t be happier!

ACTFL Proficiency Levels and High School Instruction

In my last post, I talked about The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) language proficiency standards. ACTFL assesses language proficiency levels using the following categories: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Distinguished, and Superior. According to this CASLS study, most students exit a four-year high school language program at the Novice High or, at best, Intermediate Low level. Maybe you are thinking to yourself, “Intermediate? That’s not so bad.” But keep in mind that at the Intermediate Low level, students still can’t communicate that much. At this level, students can only communicate in short sentences on familiar topics and can only understand the main idea of what they read or hear if the language being used is familiar (You can look at this document for a more detailed version of what learners can do based on their proficiency level).

The reason students do not get that far in developing their language proficiency is partially due to the limited number of hours that students study the language. According to this CASLS study, after roughly 720 hours of instruction in a traditional four-year program, only around 15% of students reach a proficiency level higher than Intermediate Low. I also believe that another reason why student proficiency levels are so low after four years of instruction is because so much of that instruction is taught using traditional, legacy methods. And although I have no research to back this up, I fully believe that students taught in an input driven class will become more proficient more quickly.

In an input driven class, the goal is to expose students to comprehensible, compelling input. As Karen Lichtman states on this handout, in a class taught using Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) techniques, which is an input driven approach, “class time is spent using the language for real communication.” This is also true in other input driven classes. This is not the case in most legacy classrooms, where teachers often give explicit grammar instruction, usually in the students’ native language, and present lists of vocabulary for student to memorize without ever using those words for true communication. As Bill Van Patten points out in his book While we’re on the topic…. BVP on Language, Langauge Acquisition, and Classroom Practicemany of the things students are asked to do in a traditional, legacy classroom do not involve real communication. No communication results in no input, which results in fewer words and structures added to one’s internal language system.

As I mentioned in my last post, if the goal of the language classroom is to help students develop proficiency, then everything we do in the classroom should be designed to help students receive the input they need to develop that proficiency. And in case you did not already know this, explicit grammar instruction is definitely NOT input (In fact, if you look through the ACTFL Performance Indicators for Language Learners, the only mention of anything even remotely grammatical in nature is the Advanced category, where learners are able to communicate consistently in various time frames). If you would like more information about how to deliver input in a classroom, read this post or visit this page.

So as you go about planning your lessons, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is this lesson input driven?
  2. Is this lesson going to help my students become proficient in the language?
  3. Is this lesson appropriate for the proficiency level of my students?

And if the answer to all three of these questions is “yes,” you’re on your way to helping your students gain proficiency in their second language.

Rethinking Curriculum in a CI Classroom

A Hebrew teacher recently posted this question on the Facebook CI Liftoff page:

“If you were involved in a shift [of] a group of teachers to CI from traditional language teaching and they repeatedly expressed a need for materials and a scope and sequence, how would you guide them?

Then on the Facebook IFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching page, a Spanish teacher said this:

“As I make the transition from traditional teaching methodologies to CI I still find myself struggling with the WHAT TO TEACH…I feel like there should be some sort of grammatical checklist for each level.”

In both cases, teachers who have made the shift from traditional teaching to teaching with comprehensible input (CI) are struggling with what their curriculum should look like. This made me think about my own struggles surrounding the idea of what a curriculum looks like in a CI classroom.

When I was a traditional teacher, I had a textbook with a scope and sequence that listed vocabulary words, grammar structures, and cultural topics that I needed to cover. Then when I made the switch to teaching with CI, I tried at first to use a traditional scope and sequence, meaning that I was still thinking about what I had to “cover.” I did this partially because my department required me to present certain material to my students depending on what level they were in and partially because I hadn’t had much training yet in teaching with CI. At the time, I was teaching at a high school that followed a pretty standard curriculum. I was required to include certain grammar topics and vocabulary lists in each level. I was not satisfied with this approach, however, because I found that being required to include certain material was counterproductive to my main goal, which was to help my students become more proficient in the language.

Then I was lucky enough to get a new job at a middle school, where I was given complete freedom over what and how I planned to teach. The Latin teacher at my new school is very well-read about teaching with CI, and the two of us started having a preliminary discussion about converting our traditional grading practices into a report about student proficiency levels. We plan to base those levels on the proficiency levels provided the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). ACTFL assesses language proficiency based on the following levels: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished. Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced are also divided into Low, Mid, and High based on what students can do with the language. As we started talking more about converting our grading practices, I realized that if I was going to grade students based on proficiency levels, then I needed to plan my instruction to help students reach that desired level (I only do Level 1 split up over two years, grades 7 and 8, so my goal was to help students reach Novice High by the end of Grade 8).

ACTFL proficiency levels do NOT specify topics that teachers are supposed to cover. For example, you can reach an advanced level of proficiency without being able to name all the parts of an automobile or every fruit and vegetable in existence (both of which I have had to teach at some point). Instead, ACTFL describes TYPES of topics that language students should be able to communicate about. These topics are “familiar and everyday ” at the Novice and Intermediate levels, “familiar as well as unfamiliar” at the Advanced level, “abstract and hypothetical” at the Superior level, and “highly abstract concepts” at the Distinguished level (You can read more about the ACTFL proficiency levels here and here). So in regards to the question posted by the Hebrew teacher that I referenced at the beginning of this post, I would say that, when forming a scope and sequence, focus on topics based on the level of your students. So for students at the Novice level, plan instruction in familiar topics such as family, school, the weather, and student interests. At the Intermediate level, branch out to include other familiar and everyday topics such as dining, popular sports, and shopping. At the Advanced level, start adding lessons about unfamiliar topics like cultural or historical topics of significance (Generally speaking, however, unless language instruction begins early, most students do not reach the Advanced level. According to this study, most students in a traditional four-year language program reach a Novice High or, at best, an Intermediate Low level of proficiency, which means it might not be necessary to plan an Advanced level scope and sequence unless instruction starts at the early elementary level).

Equally important to mention is that fact that not until the Advanced level do the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines mention anything even remotely grammatical in nature. At this level, language students are supposed to be able to communicate consistently “across major time frames.” So in classes where the overwhelming majority of my students were at Novice levels (and again, according to this study, these were not just first-year students), why was I trying to make them memorize things like conditional verb forms, relative pronouns, and si clauses when, according to their proficiency level, they could only communicate in or understand simple sentences? Wasn’t it a waste of time to try to force them to say “If you had a million dollars, would you buy a very expensive Italian car?” when, based on their proficiency level, they were only able to say “Do you want a Ferrari?” That’s like making students run a marathon after they have only ever run a 5K! So in response to the question posted by the Spanish teacher that I referenced at the beginning of this post, I would say no, you absolutely do NOT need a grammar checklist for each level. What you need to do is provide input in all major time frames (past, present, and future) and concentrate on improving their proficiency level by exposing them to language about familiar topics at the Novice level and familiar and everyday topics at the Intermediate level.

So here is the big takeaway from this long post, my friends. To rethink curriculum for a CI class, don’t think about what topics you need to cover. Instead, focus on what your students can do at their proficiency level and what you want them to be able to do so that they maintain and/or advance proficiency levels. For what it’s worth, free voluntary reading (FVR) is a great component to any language class and will definitely help your students become more proficient in their target language. If you would like to learn more about FVR, click here.

Have a great end of 2017 guys!

My Day of the Dead Unit

I can’t believe it has been a whole month since I have posted anything!

During the month of October and November, my Spanish classes were talking about the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead and learning to talk about activities they liked and disliked doing. Here are the activities I did in class for this topic. Please note that I only have 45 minute classes and that I have opening and closing activities that I also do in each class. Each one of the activities mentioned below took anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.

  1. Day 1: To start, I showed them this PowerPoint, which had Spanish sentences describing the steps a Mexican family would take to prepare and celebrate Day of the Dead. I did not pre-teach any vocabulary. Instead, I introduced each new word (I have italicized my new words in the questions below) as I presented it, wrote the Spanish and English on the board, and reinforced the word with some circling. I asked questions in Spanish such as, “Is this an ofrenda? Does the ofrenda have candles? How many candles does the ofrenda have? Does the ofrenda have three candles or four candles?” Then students had to read a series of sentences  in Spanish on a worksheet and had to draw an ofrenda based on what they read.
  2. Day 2: I reviewed the information from the PowerPoint I showed in the previous class with an activity that I learned from Carol Gaab. I don’t know what she calls it, but I call it “Rainbow Sentences.” I divided students into groups and gave them strips of laminated paper, each one a different color of the rainbow. First the students arranged the colored papers in the order that they appear in a rainbow (Do you guys remember ROYGBIV?). I had prepared a Word document with sentences from the previous day’s PowerPoint described the steps a Mexican family would take to prepare and celebrate the holiday, but this time they were not in chronological order. Each sentence was a different color of the rainbow, ranging from red to purple. I told the groups that each colored paper corresponded with a sentence of the same color on the Word document. Then I had the groups work together to put the sentences in order by rearranging the order of the colored strips of paper. Then we reviewed the sentences in chronological order.
  3. Day 3: We started the day by talking about activities students liked to do. I projected a document with different activities on it that I knew most of the students in my class would like. Then we did a round of “Soy yo,” where I would say a sentence in Spanish stating that I liked an activity (For example: A mí me gusta jugar al beisbol), and anyone who liked that activity stood up and said “Soy yo.” (This game is based on the song “Soy yo” by Bomba Estéreo and an activity from Jason Fritze that I adapted). I kept count of how many students liked what. Once I was done with all the expressions on the document we talked as a class about what the most and least popular activities are. Then I had the students guess which activities they thought I liked to do. Some of them were very surprised to find out that I liked to play basketball and video games and that I didn’t like to go shopping!
  4. Day 4: We played a round of Four Corners (see this post for a description of this activity) with the activities from the previous class. I asked in Spanish, “Do you like to dance?” My four corners had signs that said “I like it a lot,” “I like it a little,” “I don’t like it, ” and “I don’t know.” Students moved to the appropriate corner based on their own preferences. Then we talked about calacas, which are skeleton decorations for Day of the Dead. I projected pictures of calacas doing various activities and the students and I talked about what each calaca liked to do. Then I gave each student a plastic skeleton (thank you, Oriental Trading!) which they then used to create a diorama depicting the calaca doing something in a shoe box (Note: I started saving, collecting, and asking students to bring in shoe boxes way back in September for this project).
  5. Day 5: Students brought in their dioramas (Note: I gave this project assignment to my students on Day 1 so that they could get started on it if they wanted to. Also, I don’t have Spanish class on Friday, so when I assigned this project students had three days to work on it, and even more time if they had started on Day 1 when I gave them the sheet describing the assignment) and placed them on their desk. I spent time in class using some circling techniques to ask questions about each student’s diorama (Class, does Trevor’s calaca like to skate? No?  Does he like to ski? No? Does he like to play baseball? Yes, he likes to play baseball.).
  6. Day 6: Students put their diorama on their desk. I had prepared a Word document with a list of “I like” statements based on the dioramas the students had done. I gave a copy to each student and had them walk around the room, look at everyone’s diorama, and write the name of the student whose diorama illustrated one of the sentences on the document. Then we reviewed those sentences as a class.
  7. Day 7: Assessment day. I had students match Spanish sentences to an appropriate illustration. The sentences either stated what people liked to do or were about the Day of the Dead tradition.

Here are a few important things I should mention:

  1. I was obligated to do the diorama and am not normally a teacher who does projects in class.  If you are not into crafts, you could have your students draw or print out a picture representing something they like to do instead of making a diorama.
  2. I did this activity with 5th graders who have had three years of Spanish at the elementary school. That being said, I but would do it as well with any middle school or level 1 class.
  3. In future years, I might include some scenes from the movie The Book of Life or Coco in this plan. For example, I know that the grandmother in Coco has a very realistic ofrenda in her house that I might display after talking about this tradition.

All in all, this was a great unit! Does anyone else do something cool to teach about Day of the Dead?