The ABCs of Providing CI Through Remote Instruction: X is for eXtend that Text

In any comprehensible input (CI) language class, students do lots of reading. This year in my French 1 class, I am using an CI-based online program that is chock full of stories called Notre Histoire (see this post for more information). In addition, as part of a number of strategies I use in class, like Special Person Interviews, Storyasking, and Movie Talks, I create texts with my students using the Write and Discuss strategy that I talked about in this post.

Last year, I started doing an activity that I call “Extending the Text.” Basically, I take a text that students are very familiar with (either one from Notre Histoire that we have reviewed extensively or a Write and Discuss text that the class has created together) and I ask them follow-up questions designed to elicit more details from them. Then I add those details to my original text, resulting in a piece of writing that has more complexity but still retains comprehensibility. With any luck, exposure to these more complex texts will help students increase their level of proficiency.

Here is an example. Let’s say that your class is in the middle of a TPRS story. You have established the main character and his problem. You have added parallel characters and have established a few details about them too. You do a Write and Discuss activity and end up with a text like the one below:

There is a boy. The boy is John. John lives in Memphis, Tennessee in a house with Madison. Madison is a girl. There is another boy. The boy is Jack. Jack lives in an apartment in Santa Fe, New Mexico with John Cena.

Now it is time to extend the text, which I will do by asking questions. Maybe I feel that my students need more practice using adjectives. In that case I might ask, “What is John like?” Maybe they need practice talking about how old people are. In that case, the logical question is, “How old is Jack?” Maybe I want to reinforce structures students need to express likes and dislikes, so in that case I’ll ask, “What does Madison like to do?” Then I’ll add those answers to my original text, thus extending it. My new text might look like this below (new additions are in italics):

There is a boy. The boy is John. John is tall. He is 21 years old. He has brown hair and blue eyes. He is shy but friendly. He likes to read and play soccer. John lives in Memphis, Tennessee in a small, blue house with Madison. Madison is a girl. She is eighteen years old. She is medium height. She has red hair and green eyes. She is very smart. She likes to study chemistry. There is another boy. The boy is Jack. Jack is very friendly and generous. He is 22 years old. He likes to draw and paint. Jack lives in an old apartment in Santa Fe, New Mexico with John Cena.

Like any good CI strategy, the higher the level, the more complex the structures. In an upper level class, my original text would be in a past tense, and my questions designed to elicit more information and subsequent sentences I added to the original text would be more complex. So that original text above about John might look like this below in an advanced class after doing some TPRS:

There was a boy who was named John. John lived in Memphis, Tennessee in a house with Madison. Madison was a girl. There was another boy. The boy’s name was Jack. Jack lived in an apartment in Santa Fe, New Mexico with John Cena.

After asking questions to elicit more information, my new text in the advanced class might look like this one below (new additions are in italics):

There was a boy whose name was John. John was 21 years old. John was tall with brown curly hair and blue eyes. He had a small mole on his cheek. He liked to read and play soccer. He started playing soccer when he was five years old. John lived in Memphis, Tennessee in a house with Madison. John moved to Memphis when he was fifteen. Before that, he lived in Nashville. John met Madison in high school. Madison was a girl. She was also 21 years old. She had lived in Memphis her whole life. She was studying to be a doctor. There was another boy. The boy’s name was Jack. Jack was very friendly and generous. He was 22 years old. He started drawing and painting when he was in middle school. He wanted to become an artist. Jack lived in an old apartment in Santa Fe, New Mexico with John Cena.

At the Novice level, I find that fictional texts are the easiest to stretch, since it gives students more freedom when trying to stretch out the text. Non-fiction texts are too restrictive and require more specific vocabulary, so I would save those for upper-levels.

I started using this technique when teaching face-to-face, but it is very easy to adapt to remote teaching. While on Zoom or Google Meet, all teachers need to do is paste the original text into a shared document, share the screen, and ask students for details, which they can share by unmuting themselves or typing suggestions in the chat. Then teachers would just type any additional details into the document. They can even add italics or highlighting to separate the original text from the additions if they want to.

And the absolute best thing about this particular strategy is that it takes almost no prep. All you need is a text that students are familiar with and you’re good to go. If you decide to try this, let me know how it goes!

The ABCs of Providing CI Through Remote Instruction: W is for Write and Discuss

Write and Discuss is a strategy that I learned at a workshop with Tina Hargaden of CI Liftoff. (If you would like more details about Tina’s workshop, click here and here. As I recall, Tina did not invent the Write and Discuss strategy, but started using it in her classes pretty early on). Simply, put, it is a strategy where the teacher and the students in class write a summary of whatever they have been talking about in class using the TL and then they talk about it. The teacher usually begins the Write and Discuss by starting a sentence in the target language (I often start mine with “There is/There are”) and then stopping to ask students to complete the sentence. For example, if the class just read a story about a boy in school, their writing process may be the following exchange (I have written this in English in case anyone reading this doesn’t speak Spanish or French):

Teacher writes: There is…

Teacher asks: Class, what is there? Is there a girl or a boy?

Class says: A boy.

Teacher finishes the sentence by writing “a boy” and says: There is a boy…What is his name?

Class: Marvin.

Teacher says: There is a boy…class, what else do I need to add before Marvin so this sentence is complete?

Class: Who is called.

Teacher writes “who is called Marvin.” Teacher says: Where is he?

Class: At school

The teacher then continues asking questions and coaxing sentences out of the students until they have a complete paragraph about the subject. Then the teacher reads the entire completed paragraph out loud. The teacher may ask the class to translate either whole sentences or isolated words as the teacher reads. Once the class and the teacher have finished reading and translating, the teacher then may decide to point out writing conventions or words and phrases that illustrate grammar patterns in the text (If you’re a visual learner like me, here is a video of a Write and Discuss activity in a Spanish class to help visualize what this looks like in a regular class). A possible follow-up activity the next day may be a short assessment about the paragraph.

Before the pandemic, Write and Discuss was a strategy I used once every week or two weeks. I wrote out our paragraphs by hand because it was good for my slow processors. I had a special easel, paper, and markers that I used when doing a Write and Discuss, and if my students misbehaved, I could obligate them to write down the paragraph in their notebooks, which usually quieted and calmed them down (It’s an AWESOME bailout move for anyone with a rowdy or hyper class).

When our school buildings closed in the United States due to the pandemic, many world language teachers tried to readjust their teaching approaches for the remote environment. Although Write and Discuss was not an activity that I could do with my students (I was not providing synchronous instruction then), I did get a chance to see Mike Peto demonstrate Write and Discuss in a Spanish class over Zoom. Adapting this activity to the virtual environment was actually pretty simple. All he had to do was set up a white board behind him and conduct a Write and Discuss activity the same way that he would do it with students in front of him. Students could unmute themselves to suggest additions to sentences or write a suggestion in the chat. Mike also allowed students with lower proficiency levels to suggest in English if they wanted to contribute but didn’t know enough words in Spanish. So simple! In the following picture, you can see how he set up his workspace for virtual Write and Discuss.

(If you’re a Spanish teacher and want to purchase transition word magnets like Mike’s, you can find them on his website. Disclosure: I have no affiliations with him or his products. I just like sharing tools that are easy, free, and/or help World Language teachers provide more CI to their students.)

Now that I’m back in the classroom in a hybrid model, I have started using modified Write and Discuss activities in my class. Unfortunately, I have to type on a computer because I can’t use my easel in a way that the students at home can see it without blocking my view of the students in front of me (Hybrid teaching STINKS! It’s like trying to dribble a basketball with your right hand while simultaneously trying to eat a plate of spaghetti with your left). But at some point, I am pretty sure that my school will switch to either full remote or full in person instruction, and either way, I am prepared to incorporate Write and Discuss.

The ABCs of Providing CI Through Remote Instruction: V is for Voces Digital

If you are a French or Spanish teacher who is teaching remotely, you may want to check out a fairly new online book series made by Teacher’s Discovery called Voces Digital. In the past, I have spoken about how much I don’t like textbooks because they are not designed specifically with comprehensible input (CI) teaching in mind. And while I still prefer to teach without a textbook, having pre-made activities to do with my students thanks to Voces Digital has saved my sanity during both remote and hybrid instruction.

Disclosure: I have no affiliations with Teacher’s Discovery or with Voces Digital. I just like sharing tools that help World Language teachers provide more CI to their students. 

Voces Digital has two different series in both French and Spanish for levels one through four. One series is a traditional textbook series and the other is a CI series. The French CI series is called Notre Histoire and the Spanish CI series is called Nuestra Historia (Voces also has a series for ESL, which uses a combination of CI and traditional approaches, and other language series are in the works). Here’s just some of what the series offers:

  • Six units, each one based on one of the AP language themes (Families and Communities, Contemporary Life, Personal and Public Identities, Global Challenges, Beauty and Aesthetics, and Science and Technology).
  • Four short stories and four long stories per unit, each with vocabulary to pre-teach and multiple post-reading activities to reinforce and demonstrate comprehension
  • Multiple texts about the French and Spanish speaking world designed to reinforce intercultural competency
  • “Pop up” grammar explanations
  • Embedded videos and audio recordings
  • Safeguards to prevent students from cheating
  • End-of-Unit Integrated Performance Assessments (IPAs)
  • An online gradebook that automatically corrects multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and true/false activities
  • The ability to edit pages to tailor the content to the ability levels and individual needs of students

And these are just the features I was able to think of just off the top of my head! If that entices you to investigate further (and I think it should), you can sign up for a free two-week trial and explore the program yourself.

So what’s the downside? First, the cost may be prohibitive. I have one-year access to and unlimited student accounts for one title (Notre Histoire 1) and it costs $500 a year. That’s a hefty chunk of change for many school districts. But the good news is that teachers can get a decent discount if they purchase multiple titles (and let’s face it…if you teach high school, it’s highly unlikely that you only teach one level of language).

In addition, I don’t find the program to be naturally intuitive (When an online program needs nineteen videos so teachers can learn how to use it, one has to wonder…is this the absolute best design possible?). I don’t recommend that you ask students to use the program independently until you have demonstrated how it works with them. And since the program is still a work in progress, it has some glitches here and there (I repeatedly tell my students that if they can’t complete a single activity after working on it for 30 minutes, they should stop and notify me that they had an issue in case it is due to a technical problem). But the good news is that the creators of this program are extremely receptive to emails about technical glitches and suggestions to improve the product and are willing to work with schools or individual teachers as needed.

As the pandemic continues, I have no way of knowing if and when I will be back to business as usual. But until that happens, I’m very grateful to have this program to access for CI readings and activities. Mind you, I don’t use it every day, but I still like knowing that I can rely on this when I need to!

The ABCs of Providing CI Through Remote Instruction: U is for Universal Curriculum

A few years ago, I stumbled upon Lance Piantaggini‘s Universal Language Curriculum. His Latin curriculum has two main parts. The first part contains two main essential questions, which are, “Who am I/Who are we?” and “Who were the Romans?” The second part of his curriculum is a heavy emphasis on high frequency verbs (You may have heard other comprehensible input teachers talk about the Super Seven or Sweet Sixteen verbs). In all of his lessons, he strives to present materials in which he uses lots of high frequency verbs and to provide a partial answer to his essential questions.

I have been working to set up my curriculum using a similar model . As a French and Spanish teacher, my first question is still “Who am I/Who are we?” but second question becomes either “Who are the French speakers?” or “Who are the Spanish speakers?” I make a point to put emphasis on speakers of the language and not residents of the country where the language originated to be more inclusive. Focusing on high-frequency verbs and the first essential question helps students progress according to the ACTFL Proficiency Scale, and focusing on the second essential question helps students develop intercultural competence.

This curriculum framework has given me the freedom to present material on almost anything as long as it answers those two essential questions in some way and includes lots of high-frequency verbs. In class, I usually have an idea of what I want to talk about on any given day, but the foundations of the curriculum gives me the flexibility to let the conversation flow to anything the students want to talk about. So while we may start out by talking about what students did over the weekend, one student may say something that sparks a conversation, and the next thing I know, we’re talking about whether or not Batman is a superhero if he has no superpowers or if pineapple should be put on pizza. It doesn’t matter, because all of that conversation still leads to answers to our first essential question (“I like Batman. My favorite food is pepperoni pizza.”).

While I do allow students to lead our conversations, I still try to steer our conversations to topics that are AP themes and that invite comparison between my students and students in the French-speaking world or Spanish-speaking world. One good theme to talk about is school. Some high-frequency verbs you might use include is, goes, does, and has. Then you’d need to expose students to vocabulary they can use to talk about what classes and teachers they have and like, school materials they need for each class, and what activities they do in their classes (verbs like to read, to draw, to sing and so on). This partially answers the first essential question (“I am a student in middle school. My favorite classes are art and science. In art, I draw and paint. In science class, we learn about the biology of plants and animals”). Then you can explore material about schools in the French and Spanish speaking worlds and start to compare their schools with your students’ school in the United States. You’ll still use high-frequency verbs and say things like they are, they go, they do, and they have to talk about students in other countries, and you’ll use we are, we go, we do, and we have when making comparisons. This answers the second essential question (“In France, students go to school for twelve years. In secondary school, they go to school for five days but have a half-day on Wednesday. At the end of secondary school, students take a test. The test is called le Baccalauréat.” Students study very hard for the test.”)

While teaching remotely, I found that I wasn’t able to introduce as many topics or structures. The same things is true now that I teach in a hybrid model. In spite of this, I found and continue to find that following a Universal Curriculum has been fortuitous. I don’t have to worry about not being able to “cover” a certain topic or structure the way I used to when I taught using a traditional grammar-based curriculum or even a unit-based curriculum. The way I see it, students will still be able to answer those essential questions at the end of the year and will have had exposure to those high-frequency structures. They just may not be able to answer those essential questions as thoroughly or use those high-frequency structures as easily as students may have in previous years. That is our unfortunate reality right now, because a magic formula to speed up proficiency just doesn’t exist. In the current state of things, I just need to remind myself that my students still will make some gains in proficiency this year, and just be happy with that.