A Valuable Learning Experience

Even though I have been teaching French and Spanish for over twenty years, I still have those days when my lesson plan blows up in my face. I had a day like that this week, which turned into a valuable learning experience for me. But before I tell you what happened, let me give you a little background.

When I first started teaching French and Spanish, one of the issues I had was that I was constantly overestimating my students’ ability in the target language (TL). Many times I gave my students an assignment or an assessment that I thought they could handle only to watch them struggle unsuccessfully and become frustrated.

It was only after I had been teaching for a while that I learned about how much time it takes to advance in language proficiency and what students are capable of doing at their current proficiency level. I found this chart below to be very valuable.

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Once I saw this chart, I realized that the language in some of the assignments and assessments I was giving was way too advanced for my students’ proficiency level. For example, students at the end of a first-year class usually end up at a Novice Mid level of proficiency. According to the performance indicators created by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL), language learners at this level have a very limited vocabulary. That vocabulary is made up of mostly high frequency and memorized expressions. In addition, they can understand single, isolated phrases, especially if those phrases include cognates and borrowed words. It is only when students reach an Intermediate level that they start understanding paragraph-length text (for more about what learners can do at different language proficiency levels, click here).

Armed with this new insight, I went back to my first-year class and adjusted my expectations. I began telling stories in isolated sentences. And while I still gave students paragraphs to read, I made sure that those paragraphs were full of high frequency words that my students had already seen multiple times in class, and even then I never gave them a paragraph that had more than three or four sentences in it. I also learned to adjust my assessments so students could be successful and not become frustrated my language that was too complex.

So now that you have a little background on how I try to make sure that I give my students activities that they are capable of doing at their proficiency level, let me go back and tell you what happened last week.

My fifth grade Spanish class recently watched the movie Coco. When the movie was over, I gave them a worksheet to complete. Students had to identify the names of members in the family of the protagonist, a boy names Miguel, based on one-sentence descriptions in Spanish. For copyright reasons, I cannot post that worksheet here, so I will do my best to describe it.

The worksheet has two pictures, one of the living members of Miguel’s family and one of the deceased members. Then the page has seventeen clues to the identity of a character in one of the pictures that the students had to match to a person in one of the pictures. With the sentence-length clues and abundance of family vocabulary that they already knew (but which was translated on the Smart Board in case they forgot essential family words), I figured that my students would breeze through that worksheet. Boy, was I wrong.

So what happened? Why did so many students struggle so much on this assignment even though I made sure the language was right at their assumed proficiency level? After speaking with a colleague and doing some reflection on my own, I have a few ideas about what happened.

First, the worksheet asked students to remember the names of all the major characters, whose names we heard many times, as well as minor characters, who only appeared in one or two scenes and whose names were only said once or twice, if at all. I didn’t have a problem filling out the worksheet because I have already seen the movie four or five times. I failed to put myself in the shoes of my students, who were seeing the movie for the first time over a period of three, non-consecutive days and were not as familiar as I was with the details of the film.

Second, I failed to take into account how overwhelming it would be for my fifth graders to read seventeen sentences in Spanish. It overwhelmed many of them, who started to shut down after the tenth sentence, if not earlier. I probably could have given high schoolers seventeen sentences, but not ten-year-olds.

Third, although I translated some unfamiliar words for students on the board, many of them forgot those words were there. So much incomprehensible language caused them to panic, which raised their Affective Filter and impeded acquisition. In addition, I had over twenty words translated on the board. Just seeing the length of that list was probably enough to freak out some of my students. In retrospect, I should have known that having to translate that many words would make the worksheet problematic.

And finally, I lost sight of what I really wanted to do with the worksheet. My main goal was not to see if they remembered the name of Miguel’s great-great-grandmother. The goal was for them to read sentences in Spanish that would, with any luck, provide the comprehensible input they needed to advance their own language proficiency. If I had remembered this, I would have been able to recognize that the worksheet I had for them was not going to do that.

After some reflection, I came up with a set of guidelines I plan to use in the future to assess whether or not texts are too difficult for my students.

1. Make sure the text is at an appropriate proficiency level for students. I will continue to refrain from giving my Novice students paragraph-length texts unless it has simple, predictable language and, when appropriate, visual support.

2. Make sure the text is not too long. If I give my Novice students sentence-length text, I will limit the number of sentences I give them so they don’t become overwhelmed and I will take into account my students’ age and maturity too.

3. Limit the number of words that need to be translated and put those translations near the text so they are easy to see. Having multiple words translated along with a text doesn’t automatically make a text comprehensible.

4. Don’t lose sight of the real reason students are interacting with the text. The main goal of the text is to facilitate language acquisition and check comprehension, and it’s not worth using if it is too long or complex to do that.

I’m going to alter this Coco worksheet for use next year. I plan to eliminate clues about the minor characters in the movie.  That should reduce the number of sentences students need to read and, with any luck, not overwhelm them. Second, I plan to rewrite some of the clues so the language is more comprehensible to my students. And finally, I may split up clues and separate them into a group about the living members of the family and another group about the deceased members of the family.  Since I will be creating the new worksheet(s) myself, I won’t have to worry about copyright infringement. You can expect to see my altered version(s) on my Spanish Resources page.

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I’m Flipping Over Flipgrid

Hey all, have you discovered Flipgrid yet?

Flipgrid is an online video sharing platform. It is very easy to use. Through Flipgrid, teachers and students can create and post videos to a “grid” that are shared with anyone who has the special code giving permission to view them. Flipgrid hopes to create engaged communities where students can discuss a wide variety of topics spanning all disciplines. At the TCI Maine conference I attended last October, the fabulous Laurie Clarcq set up a Flipgrid where comprehensible input (CI) teachers at the conference could comment about the workshops they were attending and what they had learned.

I explored some of the grids on Flipgrid created by world language teachers. Most seem to use Flipgrid for speaking projects. I only teach first year French, and since I teach with CI, I don’t do activities in my class that obligate students to speak or write in the target language. Obligating students to speak is referred to as forced output. I have written before about my issue with output activities. Like many CI teachers, I am not a fan for many reasons. TPRS teacher Chris Stolz sums up quite succinctly what I think about forced activities on his blog, where he wrote, “Forced output is not language– it is drama, recitation, what VanPatten calls ‘language-like behaviour,’ but it’s not language.”

I decided to use Flipgrid as a source of input, and not output (Last year I talked about transforming output activities into input activities in this post). I reached out to the English teacher in France with whom I have an epal exchange. Then I made an introductory video in English on Flipgrid in which I talked about myself and my community. My students all made introductory videos about themselves in English as well. Then I sent the link to the English teacher in France so she and her students can make introductory videos in French for us. As a result, my students are providing CI to her students by recording videos in English and her students are providing CI to my students by recording in French. Since my students are already very excited about having French epals, this is a highly engaging activity for them as they get to know a little bit more about the French students.

Viewers can slow down the speed of the videos to improve comprehension, which is a nice feature, but the absolute coolest thing about the videos made on Flipgrid is that I can download them and save them for future use. I plan to create some comprehension activities that I can use in the upcoming years to go along with the videos this summer. Downloading and saving videos also gives me an opportunity to show the same videos multiple times throughout the year so my students can see the progress they are making in understanding spoken French.

If you are interested in trying something like this but you don’t have an epal exchange, I suggest you visit this epals site to connect with other classes. You can also make connections through Facebook or other social media sites. And if you come up with any other ideas about how to use Flipgrid for providing comprehensible input, let me know so I can try your idea too!

 

 

 

 

 

My Awesome News

As I have said previously in posts in this blog, I started a new job this year. As I mentioned in this post, my current students are making excellent progress. I continue to be pleasantly surprised when I hear the language my students are starting to produce, and am even more impressed by how much they understand. My four evaluations have all been fantastic due to the high level of student engagement in my classes. And I recently received some awesome news that I wanted to share with all of you.

At my new school, sixth graders take a quarter of each of the four languages we offer (French, Spanish, Latin, or German). Then in the late spring they choose which language they wish to pursue as seventh graders. I’m happy to report that French (which I teach) was the most popular choice this year, with almost 40% of sixth graders choosing to take French in the seventh grade next year.

This result took me completely by surprise, for two main reasons. First of all, French is NEVER the most popular language choice. In my area, Spanish is thought to be the most useful language to study. And in my school, Latin is very popular because it is taught by an engaging teacher who doesn’t assign homework. If you had asked me which language would be the most popular choice among our sixth graders this year, I would have guessed that it would be Spanish, for how practical most people think it is today, or Latin, for its popularity among students who don’t like to do schoolwork outside of class.

The second reason why I was so surprised that French was the most popular choice of language is because I underestimated how positively students would respond to a class taught with CI, most likely due to the fact that the world language department at my previous school disapproved of CI methods. Over the ten years that I taught using a CI approach there I never had anyone I worked with complement me or support what I did in my classroom (For example, on one occasion I proudly showed my department head a set of beautiful free writes. She picked up one and started criticizing all the grammar mistakes the student had made and asked why I hadn’t corrected them. As you may already know, second language acquisition theory states that error correction doesn’t help students improve their language skills).

I was the misfit of the world language department, and even though I knew that teaching with CI was better for my students, I think subconsciously a part of me wondered if maybe the traditional teachers in my department were right. After all, they had the respect of the school administration and students, who believed that a traditional textbook approach was the only effective way to study a second language, and support from the entire textbook industry, who continued creating traditional materials for their use in the world language classroom. I guess a part of me always felt that, if so many people seemed to think that a traditional textbook approach was the best approach to language study, maybe they were right and it was my approach that was wrong.

Learning that French was the most popular choice at my new school for the upcoming year has erased all those doubts I had about teaching with CI. It has given me a sense of validation I didn’t have at my last job. I am so excited for next year, and I can’t wait to see what my students are able to do with the language at the end of the academic year. And by the end of eighth grade, they are going to be amazing!

I didn’t share my news with you because I want to brag about how awesome I am. I’m not the sort of person who toots her own horn. I wrote this because I hoped that it would encourage all you lone CI teachers in a traditional, textbook-driven department to persevere and stay the course. Having to work in an environment with little support from fellow language teachers and superiors can be difficult and depressing. It can make any CI teacher second guess what they do in their classrooms. I hope you can get some strength from my story and recent success. And if you can’t find the support that you need in your world language department, reach out and find that support online in the wonderful online CI community that supported me when I was struggling at my last job. Hang in there and don’t doubt yourself or the awesome power of teaching with CI.

 

My Exploratory Language Class Activities

For the first time this year, I am teaching a 6th grade Exploratory French class. I see my students for one quarter (roughly nine weeks), three times a week for 45 minutes. Every quarter I get a new rotation of students. I have used a full comprehensible input (CI) approach in my exploratory classes. Although I didn’t have my students for very long, by the end of the quarter they were able to acquire an impressive amount of French and could use it effectively on interpretive assessments. Here is a rough outline of how I set up my exploratory program.

1. Calendar Talk. I begin each class with my version of Calendar Talk. At the start of the rotation, I show this PowerPoint and talk about the day, the date, and the weather. At first I ask the question and then I give the answer, translating as necessary. After a while I can then ask the question and get a student volunteer to answer. When relevant, I also mention holidays (I refer to them as “un jour spécial.”). After about four or five weeks I upgrade to this PowerPoint, in which I have removed some of the English supports found in the first PowerPoint. This second PowerPoint also contains two new questions, one about the season and another about the time.

2. A Second Warm-up Activity. After our Calendar Talk, the second activity varies depending on what day of the week it is. On Mondays, I use a visual like the ones mentioned in this post to ask students about what they did the previous weekend. At the beginning of the rotation I read the sentences describing certain activities and have students either stand up or raise their hand and say “C’est moi (Me)” if they did the described activity over the weekend. Once we have done that for a couple of weeks I then ask them to guess what they think I did over the weekend (FYI, I lie to my students about my weekend plans from time to time to provide more repetitions of certain structures).  I also play Two Truths and a Lie, where students write down two activities from the visual they did and one they didn’t do over the weekend. Then as a class we try to guess which activity is the lie. By the end of the rotation, I can get student volunteers to answer when I ask about their weekend (Note: I keep the visual up for the entire quarter. They still need the support).

During the first week of class I quickly teach my students to respond to “Comment ça va (How are you doing)?” Then every Wednesday from the second week of class to the end of the rotation I use this fantastic PowerPoint created by Cécile Lainé as my second warm-up activity. At first I show a slide and ask “Qui se sent…(Who feels…)?” and have students raise their hands and say “C’est moi (Me).” After a few weeks, I ask, “Comment est-ce que vous vous sentez aujourd’hui (How are you all feeling today)?” and take volunteers to answer.

On Fridays, my second activity varies. Sometimes I use a visual like the ones mentioned in this post to ask students about what they are planning to do during the upcoming  weekend. At first I made this my second activity every Friday, but it grew a bit stale since it was so similar to my Monday activity. So then I started substituting other activities. Sometimes we do a little bit of Total Physical Response (TPR) that turns into a Simon Says game. On other days we look at French memes and try to figure out what they say or listen to popular French music.

3. My Main Activity. After my Calendar Talk and second warm-up activity (which take anywhere from five to twenty minutes of class, depending on how quickly students can process new expressions), I move on to my main activity, which usually lasts about 20-30 minutes of class. My main activity this year in my exploratory class has been one of the following:

  • Movie Talks. Visit this post for general information about doing a Movie Talk and this post for specific information about my Fritz the Dog Movie Talk, which was very popular with my sixth graders.
  • Storytelling. Alice Ayel maintains a YouTube channel where she tells stories in simple French for French learners. The first and the third ones are about an artist named Marie. In my exploratory classes these two videos turned into a complete unit, which I talk about here.
  • Storyasking with student actors. Towards the end of the rotation, students have enough language for this. Storyasking is one of the main activities of Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). You can visit this post for a bit of information about how I do Storyasking in my class.

My rule of thumb for the main activity is that it needs to be something that takes at least three class periods to complete. I accomplish this by creating different activities based on the same story. For example, this year I did a Movie Talk based on this video. The 5-day lesson plan I created for this Movie Talk were as follows:

  1. Storytelling to give the bare bones of the story (minus the big reveal at the end) in a style similar to that of Alice Ayel (although unlike Alice, I do translate some words into English by writing them on the board as I tell my story).
  2. Show a PowerPoint about the story, giving a bit more detail (minus the big reveal at the end), while also asking students questions about the story, themselves, and each other.
  3. Read a story based on the video (minus the big reveal at the end), giving a bit more detail. I read the story out loud to the class. When I pause, students need to shout out the next word of the reading in English. Alternatively, students read a story together using volleyball translation.
  4. Play a game based on the story. Visit this post by the amazing Keith Toda for a list of possible Post Reading games.
  5. Watch the entire video clip so students can see the big reveal.

Since I only have students for nine weeks, any assessment I give them is interpretive. Quite often I will give students an (unannounced) assessment where they have to match a picture to a French sentence that describes it or read a series of statements that students about which students have to answer multiple-choice questions. Sometimes I give them a series of sentences to illustrate in comic strip form as an assessment.

Here are the topics I introduce in the sixth grade class:

  1. Greetings, goodbyes, asking/answering “How are you,” and other pleasantries
  2. The difference between formal and informal speech and when to use each one
  3. Adjectives used to describe how people feel
  4. Common adjectives used to describe people physically and mentally
  5. Masculine versus feminine adjective forms
  6. Days of the week, months of the year, and writing out the date
  7. Common weather expressions and names of seasons
  8. Telling time on a digital clock
  9. Expressing likes and dislikes
  10. Numbers to 59
  11. Common colors
  12. Common animals
  13. Common sports and leisure activities
  14. High frequency verb structures like “I am,” “S/he is,” “I have,” “S/he has,” “I want,” “S/he wants”
  15. The question words “What” and “Who”

Keep in mind that students have not mastered these topics. They would not be able to score well on a written or oral presentation or interpersonal assessment. If I asked my students to do that when they are only in a nine-week course, it would kill their motivation and enthusiasm, thus solidifying the belief that French is difficult. My hope is that this initial exposure will be helpful and make students successful in their first-year class, should they decide to continue with French.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this is the first year that I have taught the sixth grade exploratory. Our sixth graders can chose to take one of four languages in 7th grade. A whopping 40% of this year’s sixth grade students have elected to take French next year, which just shows how powerful language instruction with CI can be. I will be their French teacher next year. I am curious to see how much language they will be able to retain from their exploratory class when they return in the fall.

What I’ve Been Thinking About This Past Week

This past week I became a member of the Board of Directors of an organization of local language teachers. We had a dinner this past Thursday and I had two interesting interactions that I have been thinking about a lot this weekend.

My first interaction was with a fellow teacher trying to embrace comprehensible input (CI) in her classroom. She told me she was struggling a bit so I asked her to tell me what was going on in her classes in the hopes that I could help troubleshoot.

The first issue she is having is that she does not have control over her students’ behavior. As a result, she finds it hard to get through a CI lesson because she cannot get her students to settle down, pay attention, and contribute to the lesson. So I told her about the rewards system that Craig and Mike from TPRS Books talked about when I went to a training this past March. When they taught in a language classroom, they had a points system set up where the amount of time students spent behaving well and staying in the target language resulted in the class earning points. After a certain number of points, the students got a prize (For more information about this system, read this post.).

I implemented this system after I came back from the workshop and I have noticed three major differences. First of all, the number of discipline problems I have experienced has decreased dramatically. Second, since more students are staying on task and paying closer attention to the target language, they have made some impressive language gains in the past two months. And finally, student morale is up because my students are more motivated and excited about earning a prize.

Some teachers might take a look at this system and criticize it because, technically, I am bribing students to get them to behave with the promise of candy, a movie, or a similar privilege. But I am absolutely fine with that because of how much easier it has been for me to teach and because of the amount the progress my students have made since I implemented this system. In addition, this year I have noticed that I have more of my sanity intact than I usually do in the fourth quarter of the school year. I’m not as easily aggravated or mentally tired the way I normally am from dealing with bad behavior for the previous eight months, and it is all thanks to this system. Do I wish that my students were all so intrinsically motivated to acquire language that I didn’t need to entice them with a reward? Yes, of course. But I will gladly give candy bars or movie days if that’s what I need to do to get my class to behave well enough so I can keep my sanity, maintain control over the classroom, and, most importantly, facilitate my students’ acquisition of language.

The second issue this teacher told me about what that she has to deal with a lot of student anger. She said that her students are often mad at her because she refuses to translate any words into English for them. I know some teachers who do not translate for their students, and while I think they do this with the best intentions, I also believe that it is a practice that can be a substantial roadblock to second language acquisition. It can also kill motivation and create a negative atmosphere in the classroom.

Teachers who refuse to translate expressions for their students tell me that they do this to obligate students to develop the deductive reasoning and critical thinking skills that are involved in determining meaning in the target language (TL). They also say that this practice makes second language acquisition a more natural process because it mimics the way people acquired their first language. But the amount of frustration this creates for some of our students can lead to a scenario like the one the above mentioned teacher is experiencing in her classroom. This practice can cause students anxiety, which can raise the Affective Filter and impede language acquisition overall. Moreover, any teachers who are providing input in their classroom must make sure that the input is comprehensible. The problem with never translating is that sometimes we cannot be sure that are students are understanding us otherwise. As Mike said at our March TPRS conference, the problem with immersion is that it sometimes become submersion, which is what I think is happening in this teacher’s class.

Does that mean that I think teachers should translate every single word and expression they use in the classroom? No, of course not. Teachers should not have to translate concrete words and expressions if they can convey meaning with a picture or gesture. For example, I have never told my French students that the word “chat” means “cat” in English, because whenever I use this word I show a picture of a cat or make cat noises. But if a student ever asked me to tell them what “chat” meant in English I would gladly translate it for them to make my input comprehensible and decrease any anxiety that student may be feeling about not understanding.

My second interaction at the dinner was with a veteran language teacher who is extremely active in a number of language organizations. I told her that I taught with CI, and her response was, “Of course, because you’re a middle school teacher.” I must confess that I got a bit annoyed by this comment, because it stems from some common misconceptions about the CI teaching approach.

One implication here is that CI teaching is not serious enough language instruction for high school level classes. This perception may partially be due to this teacher’s limited knowledge of Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). Teachers who use this approach tell and create stories in their classrooms, some of which are quite ridiculous (In one of my classes, for example, we are working on a story about Beyoncé, who works at Walmart selling elephants). What teachers are missing, however, is the fact that TPRS isn’t just about telling silly stories. Moreover, there are plenty of other ways to provide CI besides TPRS, all of which are listed in the picture below and don’t revolve around silly stories.

ci-umbrella-final-version1

Another implication made by this comment is that CI teaching is not rigorous enough for high school classes. Without emphasis on explicit grammar and long vocabulary lists, CI teachers generally have better grades than traditional teachers do. For the life of me, I can’t understand why this is bad. We should not want our students to be unsuccessful in our classes. We should not want a classroom where only the strong survive. We should not want dwindling class sizes in the upper levels because of how difficult our classes are. We should not want to teach only to the elite few who “get” grammar. Teaching with CI creates an equitable environment where all students have the opportunity to be successful, and I for one am very proud of that. Many teachers across North America use CI in their high school classes, even at the advanced placement level, with very good results.

The second interaction I had at the dinner was with a friend of mine who said, “Even though I am a TPRS teacher, I don’t tell people I am. I just say that I teach with comprehension in mind.” Unfortunately, the myth that teaching with CI is not serious or rigorous instruction has given it a bad reputation in some areas, so much so that some teachers don’t even admit that they use this approach for fear that they will alienate other teachers. The last thing we should want as teachers is create an environment of us (CI teachers) versus them (textbook teachers), because ultimately all teachers want what is best for their students. But I also know that traditional teachers can get intimidated and defensive when CI teachers start talking about what they do and do not do in their classrooms. It’s actually pretty prudent for CI teachers to tread lightly when interacting with non-CI teachers, and is something that I might start doing myself.

At the end of the dinner, the president of the organization asked me if I would get involved in planning and promoting professional development for the language organization. Based on the interactions I had at this dinner, it sounds as if this will be more of a challenge than I thought. I’ll let you know how it goes.