How to Liberate Your Language Department Using ACTFL Can-Do Statements

Yesterday, I attended an informal workshop about Can-Do Statements, which were written and then revised by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). The Can-Dos are divided into three communication categories (Interpretive, Presentational, and Interpersonal) and two intercultural categories (Investigate and Interact) and describe what language learners should be able to do with their acquired second language based on their proficiency level (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Distinguished, and Superior). For example, some of the things that learners at an Intermediate level should be able to do include the ability to:

  • understand the main idea and some pieces of information on familiar topics from sentences and series of connected sentences,
  • participate in spontaneous spoken, written, or signed conversations on familiar topics,
  • communicate information, make presentations, and express my thoughts about familiar topics, using sentences and series of connected sentences,
  • make comparisons between products and practices, and
  • interact at a functional level in some familiar contexts.

Then based on the category and the proficiency level of the language learners, a series of sample Can-Do Statements are offered for teachers and students to use as a model and alter as necessary. For example, based on what Intermediate language learners can do, sample Can-Do sentences include the following:

  • I can understand essential information in a feature story in a magazine.
  • I can understand some basic facts reported by a witness regarding an accident.
  • I can understand most of what is said in a conversation among characters in a familiar play.
  • I can understand a written apology where a someone explains why he couldn’t attend party.
  • I can understand diners discussing what to order at a restaurant.
  • I can exchange blog posts about raising money for a cause.
  • In my own and other cultures I can compare and contrast how people label nationalities and why they do so.
  • I can choose an appropriate means of transportation based on my location, needs, and local options.

Then, by using the Can-Do Statement as the desired end result of instruction, teachers can determine what vocabulary, structures and cultural products or practices they need to teach in order to reach those results. For example, if my Can-Do Statement is “I can understand diners discussing what to order at a restaurant,” a teacher would have to make sure than students have had instruction about different types of foods and drink, words needed to describe food and drinks, structures such as “I want to order,” “I would like,” and “I don’t like,” interrogatives, and so on. Instruction might also include information about traditional meals in the country or countries where the target language is spoken. All of these lessons can play a role in helping students meet the goal of understanding a restaurant conversation.

I am lucky enough this year to be the only French teacher at my school, so I do not have to worry about staying “on the same page” with other teachers. This is something that I have to do, however, for my Spanish classes. When I started at my new school I was handed a curriculum and lessons to teach complete with worksheets and assessments to use in class. All year I have been having issues. Using lessons, worksheets, and assessments made by someone else feels kind of like walking around wearing someone else’s clothes. As the newest of three Spanish teachers, it sometimes takes me longer to get through a unit than it takes the other Spanish teachers. In addition, I wanted to use comprehensible input (CI) in my classroom, which doesn’t appear in the curriculum as often as I would like, so I spent some time altering lessons and units to do that. And finally, I wanted to be able to use my own materials and approaches, because that is what I am comfortable doing and what I think is the most effective approach to facilitate second language acquisition.

It was after this workshop that I had what I think is a fantastic idea. Instead of writing common curricula, lessons, worksheets, and assessments, what if the three Spanish teachers sat down together and came up with a set of Can-Do statements for our common classes, and then leave it up to the individual teacher to determine how to meet those Can-Do statements? Then if Teacher A wants to use a traditional curriculum to teach descriptive adjectives, for example, but Teacher B wants to do it using CI, both teachers are actually addressing the goal set by the Can-Do statement (Which might be something like, “I can describe myself and my family”) without having to do exactly the same thing (although due to my love of all things CI you all know that I would bet that the students taught traditionally wouldn’t make as much progress as the students in the CI class). Then teachers could concentrate on what they do best, which in my case is delivering input, and not have to worry that they have to catch up to the other teachers and do that worksheet or that assessment they haven’t done yet.

Naysayers may say that this won’t work because of the possibility that students may switch from one class to another due to changes with their school schedules. And while I know that this is a possibility, after the first month of September these types of changes are rare. I really don’t think it is fair to force a teacher to do exactly the same thing as every other teacher of the same level and subject due to the remote possibility that someone may switch from one class to the other during the school year. In high school classes where students need to take a common final exam, that new student can be given extra study topics to close any gaps s/he may have due to a change of schedule. In a class where no comprehensive final is given, I’m not sure it really matters if a new student misses a certain unit. Good teachers (and especially CI teachers) know how to reuse and recycle important elements throughout the year, ensuring that the new student will get those important structures elsewhere.

CI teachers have a special advantage when using Can-Do statements to plan instruction, which is that it eliminates the friction that may surface in a department where only some teachers use CI. In addition, Can-Do statements are not grammar based, so the pressure to teach students to conjugate verbs is virtually eliminated. We CI teachers know that we are not going to be able to convince every other second language teacher to convert, for whatever reason. But, at the very least, structuring instruction around Can-Do Statements should reduce the chances that CI teachers will be vilified for their teaching approaches.

I am going to suggest this when the Spanish teachers in my department meet again, which is tomorrow. I will let you know how it goes.

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Rethinking Storyasking

I have written at length about teaching with comprehensible input (CI) in my classroom, and I have mentioned previously that I have attended a few Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) workshops and how that revolutionized my teaching. But it’s time for me to make a confession.

I HATE Storyasking.

Storyasking is a term that was coined by Jason Fritze, a fabulous TPRS teacher and trainer. It involves asking students questions in order to tease out details that the teacher can use to add to a story skeleton. So, for example, a teacher may have a story skeleton that involves someone wanting to go buy something, but rely on student suggestions to determine the gender and age of the person, what it is that the person wants to buy, and where the person goes in order to buy it. I have seen some teachers who are great at Storyasking and can create a story where students totally buy into the process. From time to time I too have had an experience like that in class. When it happens, it is magical.

Unfortunately, I often seem to have classes where students don’t buy in. They don’t really care what it is that the person wants to buy or where the person goes in order to buy it, so they don’t actively participate in the Storyasking process. And then there are those sneaky kids in French class who want to put seals and roosters in their stories (both of these words in French sound like inappropriate English words), which poisons the whole class atmosphere. I guess I just haven’t had enough practice in Storyasking to make it a “go to” technique for my classes the way that Jason Fritze or other TPRS teachers have. As a result I end up doing other CI activities in class like Special Person Interviews or Movie Talks.

As I told you all in this post, I recently attended a nearby TPRS workshop. It gave me a bit of confidence to try Storyasking again, and I have slowly started putting some back into my classroom lessons. But since I am a bit of a control freak, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of having a free-for-all with students yelling multiple things at me simultaneously or, even worse, having inappropriate or no suggestions. Then I remembered this post that Annabelle Allen wrote about using story cubes, so I dug my cubes out of the closet and dusted them off (literally).

The way I use the story cubes is a little different from Annabelle’s method. Annabelle has her students draw images on story cubes and uses those images to tell a story. In my class, I already have a skeleton story in place and use the story cubes to add those details that I might otherwise get by asking students to call out suggestions.

For example, in my beginner class I had a classic TPRS story skeleton where someone wanted to buy something, went somewhere to buy it, but ended up having to go to two other places to look for it because the object wasn’t at the first place. I divided my kids in 4 groups, each group with one story cube and one marker. All students were instructed to write only French words or proper nouns in English. The first group wrote names of cities on their story cubes. The second group wrote names of people. The third group wrote names of stores, and the last group wrote names of methods of transportation. Then as I told the story I would roll a story cube every time I needed the name of a person, city, store, or method of transportation based on what was written on the side of the story cube that was visible after I rolled it across the floor. I appointed one student from each group to act as the Alternative Suggestor, who’s job it was to erase a suggestion on the story cube after we used it and wrote a new suggestion. It is one of the new jobs I have in my class. See this post for more information about jobs in my class.

After forming stories in two French classes with the story cubes, I had one story about a girl named Felicia went by bus to Target in Boston to buy a panda. Dwayne Johnson worked at Target. In the other class our story was about a girl named Rosie who wanted to buy a dog, so she went by bus to the Salvation Army Store in New York City where Paul McCartney worked.

The day after the classes formed a story, I wrote it out in a PowerPoint presentation with some new details, which I read to the class and used as a chance to do some personalized question and answer (PQA) practice. Then on the third day I gave students a written version of that story with some more new details that we read in class and acted out (By the way, using slightly more complex versions of a basic story is a technique called Embedded Reading. You can read more about that here).

Sarah Breckley, a Spanish teacher from Wisconsin, recently posted a link to a set of story cubes with pictures already on them arranged around different themes. As much as I like the idea of the dry erase cubes, having some with ideas already on them may be useful in some unimaginative classes. They are available for purchase on Amazon.

I tend to think that I am not the only teacher who is nervous about doing Storyasking in class. While using story cubes like I do definitely ruins the spontaneity of Storyasking, it has been enjoyable for my students and me so far, and it gives me the confidence to keep refining my Storyasking skills. Who knows? Maybe in the future I may have enough practice to try Storyasking the traditional way!