My Day With Blaine Ray

Last July I attended the NTPRS conference in Boston. This is a national language conference devoted to training second language teachers in Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) and other comprehensible input (CI) teaching approaches (This conference was organized by TPRS Books, but you can also find information about additional conferences being held all over the country during the summer by other second language companies like Fluency Matters, CI Liftoff, and Express Fluency). This is an annual conference, but this was my first time attending.

At the conference, I won a day of free teaching and coaching with Blaine Ray. Yes, THE Blaine Ray. He arrived earlier this month and spent the day with my French and Spanish students and I. He taught my classes and also coached me after watching me teach.

Before he arrived, I told him that I wanted to work on my Storyasking skills (I have talked about my dislike for Storyasking in this post). I felt very uncomfortable in my abilities to make Storyasking work in my second language classes, so I had been spending my time using every other CI activity I’ve ever learned, like Movie Talks, class novel reading, Free Voluntary Reading, and Special Person Interviews. These activities have worked very well for me in my CI-driven classroom. However, I felt that Storyasking was so powerful that I just had to try to learn how to do it more effectively and incorporate it into my classes.

The day began with Blaine teaching Spanish to my fifth grade students. My fifth graders are nice, eager to please, and easy to control, so the lesson went very smoothly. After a while, he had me step in and ask a story, and when the class was over, he praised me and told me that I already had strong Storyasking skills, and that maybe I was hesitant to ask a story in class because I lacked confidence in my abilities.

A little later, my seventh grade students came in. This year, my seventh grade students have given me a very hard time. Classroom management has been a constant struggle for me this year, and as Blaine began his lesson, they began giving him a bit of trouble too (You can be sure that I gave them a VERY stern lecture about their behavior the next day!). But Blaine had a response for each infraction, and he shut them up and shut them down both quickly and politely and continued his lesson.

As I observed Blaine, I began to realize that the reason I struggled with Storyasking was because I didn’t know how to respond to misbehavior during the process. After all, whenever I had previously seen a Storyasking demonstration, it was at a workshop where the presenter had no behavior problems, since the “students” were all teachers interested in learning how to ask a story. I needed to observe Storyasking with problematic students to get that missing piece. And as embarrassed as I was that my seventh graders misbehaved when Blaine visited, at least I was able to see firsthand how to deal with some pretty common behavior infractions during Storyasking. Below are some of the issues Blaine had with my students and how he dealt with them.

Problem Number One: Students intentionally giving a wrong answer. Blaine had established that the main character was a girl, but students were intentionally answering “No”afterwards when Blaine asked if the main character was a girl. Blaine’s response was to stop and tell the students, “You must not know what the rules are of asking a story. Once we establish something in the story, it is fact and cannot be changed. We have already established that she is a girl, so you need to say ‘Yes’ if I ask that question again.”

Problem Number Two: Students screaming answers when asked a whole-class question. When this happened in my class, Blaine said to the two culprits, “I’m glad you know the answer, but part of my job is to make sure that all students know the answer. I can’t hear the rest of the class over you two because you’re too loud. Please answer in a normal speaking voice.”

Problem Number Three: Side conversations. Blaine used a party points system. A timer was set for eight minutes, and if the class had no side conversations in that eight minutes, the class earned a point and the timer was set again for eight minutes. After a certain number of points, the class got a prize. If students had a side conversation during that eight-minute block, the timer was reset (For the purpose of Blaine’s visit, the prize was a piece of candy).

Problem Number Four: Students not responding to a whole-class question. Blaine told the class, “I need to know that you are understanding the story. If you don’t answer along with the class, I will ask you the question individually.” This was enough to motivate my super-shy students to answer the questions with the rest of the class.

Problem Number Five: Misbehaving Student Actors. Blaine had one student actor that was being uncooperative, so Blaine said, “I need you to do only what I tell you to do. If you can’t do that, I will fire you.” The student in question subsequently asked to be fired immediately, because he didn’t think he could obey the rules.

Blaine came to my school the week before school ended for the summer, so I did not have the opportunity to test out my new classroom management skills with students. But now that I am on summer break, I have continued to reflect on the experience as I prepare for the next school year. I have also found more resources related to classroom management in a CI class (This guest post by Jon Cowart talks about urban classrooms, but the behavior management techniques he describes could work in any classroom). One of the things I have recently discovered that I especially like is Connie Navarro’s Response to Blurting Out resource sheet. This one-page document lists root causes and action steps in response to students blurting out in class. I plan to post it in my classroom as a reference for those inevitable moments when I have to respond to undesirable behavior.

I will be attending this year’s NTPRS conference. I am pretty sure that presentations about classroom management will be offered again, which I plan to attend. With any luck, I should have a solid enough foundation in classroom management to start off the year successfully. Wish me luck! I have those pesky seventh graders again this year. I hope they have matured over the summer!

NTPRS 2018 Conference, Day 2 – TPRS

Hi all! If you haven’t already, read my last post about Day One of the NTPRS conference for my summary of the Advanced track before you continue with this post, which is my summary of Day Two.

On Day Two, our workshop presenter, Jason Fritze, spent most of the day talking about Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). TPRS is a very powerful comprehensible input (CI) based second language teaching method invented by Blaine Ray. TPRS includes these three steps:

  1. Step One: Establish meaning. Usually, a TPRS teacher has certain structures in mind that s/he wishes to teach, so s/he establishes meaning of those target structures first. Using Total Physical Response (TPR), which I wrote about in my last post, is a good way to establish meaning. Teachers can also establish meaning through pictures, gestures, or direct English translation (If you would like to know my opinion about using translation in a second language class, read this post). Once the teacher has established meaning, s/he may start to ask students personal questions containing one of the structures. This technique is called Personalized Question and Answer (PQA). For example, pretend the teacher wishes to teach “likes to play.” With this is mind, the teacher might ask questions about who likes to play certain sports or instruments and compare what different students like to play. The teacher may also use circling techniques that I talked about in my last post along with PQA. Since students love to talk about themselves, PQA is a highly engaging activity. And since teachers and students learn all kids of personal information about each other, it is also a great community builder. Jason and Linda Li make PQA look effortless, but Jason pointed out that PQA questions are much more powerful and entertaining when scripted ahead of time.
  2. Step Two: Ask a story. More experienced TPRS teachers can spin PQA into a story. This is what Linda Li did when she came to do more Mandarin with us. On Day One Linda had spent most of her time teaching us some structures such as “has” and “looks at” and “happy.” Then today she took those structures and wove them into a story about someone who is unhappy because he does not have an iPhone. Since he doesn’t have an iPhone, he can’t look at his pretty friend via FaceTime. Linda had some workshop participants come up and be student actors. At first when they had to say something, Linda stood behind their back and had them move their mouth to make it look as if they were speaking while she said the Mandarin words. Then later on students said the words themselves with some prompting from Linda when they felt more comfortable. Jason Fritze suggests that all teachers keep a “back-up” story in case the story spun as a result of PQA falls flat.
  3. Step Three: Read. Once we finished acting out the story, our next step was to review the story through reading. As we discussed what happened in our story, Linda wrote it down for us so we could see and read it. Reading is an essential step in the TPRS process because it ties everything together, reinforces what we have already heard, and compliments our spoken input by providing written input. Jason Fritze said that it is important to establish class procedures and expectations before the class reads. In Jason’s class, students are expected to look at the page and follow along as Jason reads the story. Students who need extra support are offered Post-Its, bookmarks, or highlighters to help them focus. Sometimes the class does whole group reading and sometimes the students do partner reading. Along with reading the text, checking for comprehension is also important. One way to check reading comprehension is to have the class translate chorally in their native language (L1) after the teacher or a student reads in the second language (L2). Another good strategy to check reading comprehension is for teachers to start reading a sentence in the L2 and have the students finish that sentence in the L2. Teachers can also do a spot check for comprehension by occasionally stopping while reading to ask students to produce a gesture to represent certain words.

TPRS has been around since the 1980’s, so many materials are available to teachers who want to use TPRS in their classrooms but don’t have the desire or improvisational skills to create their own stories. Most textbooks these days include a TPRS reader with their ancillary materials. I have never been a fan of those stories, but they are a decent place to start, especially for teachers who are still expected to teach from a textbook. In addition, TPRS Books has lots of resources available, including entire curriculum packages in multiple languages. Jim Tripp has created a set of TPRS stories that are available on his website, and Anna Matava has a book of story scripts in English that are available through Teacher’s Discovery.

In addition, TPRS Books spends a large part of their year traveling throughout the United States and Canada hosting TPRS workshops. So if the national conference (which will be in the Chicago area next year) is not possible, chances are you can find a smaller, more affordable one closer to home. And in some cases, if you can get a group of more than 30 teachers, the boys at TPRS Books may come out and host a free workshop for you and your colleagues! So what do you have to lose? Give TPRS a try!

Back to Basics

Yesterday I went to a workshop at a nearby school organized and hosted by a friend of mine. It was a one-day workshop about Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). The presenters were Mike Coxon and Craig Sheehy. I decided to attend the workshop for three reasons. First of all, a group of my friends were going to be there and I wanted to see them. Second, my district paid for it (I am still getting used to working for a district that believes in and finances professional development). And third, it is not very often that we get professional development on anything that has to do with comprehensible input (CI) in New England, so I figured I better take advantage of it.

To be honest though, I had a decent reason for being hesitant about attending this conference, and that reason is that this was a beginner’s workshop. After so many years of teaching with CI, I don’t consider myself to be a beginner anymore, so I wondered if I would get anything out of this workshop at all. I’m not trying to say that I am an expert in all things TPRS, but I have attended three previous multi-day TPRS workshops, so I wasn’t sure that I would learn anything new from this one.

But I am happy to report that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. It turns out that TPRS has changed and evolved in the past few years, and I walked out with some valuable information. Here are my takeaways from yesterday.

1. Mike and Craig’s point system is a great classroom management tool. When Mike and Craig were classroom teachers, they gave their students jobs. One student was the Timekeeper. The Timekeeper is a student who has to time the class to see if they can stay completely in the target language (TL) for eight minutes without stopping. During that time, if students blurt things out in English or have side conversations, the teacher asks the timekeeper to reset the timer and the class tries again. If the teacher gets through the entire eight minutes, the class gets a point. After the class has gotten to an arbitrary number of points (I have no idea how many. That would depend on how often your class meets. I am shooting for 30-40 points, but that is because I see my classes either two or three times a week. I would require more points if I had classes five days a week), the class gets rewarded (Mike bought pizza for his classes, but he taught high school kids, who are hard to please. Elementary and middle school kids would be happy with a lot less, like candy or a special day of games or Señor Wooly videos).

I can see how the promise of a party/candy/pizza/donuts can be a wonderful motivator for students of any age, as long as it’s the right prize. I find this point system to be similar to Annabelle Allen’s point system that she writes about in her blog, but I find this one to be a bit simpler to wrap my head around. I plan to implement this system with my fifth grade class, who are great, easily excited, and eager to please, and will expand to my other classes if it goes well.

2. I have not been using Movie Talks to their full advantage. I have posted about Movie Talks here and here and felt that I had been somewhat successful using them in class, but Mike and Craig demonstrated that you can do a lot more with Movie Talks than I have been doing in my own class.

Mike and Craig started off their Movie Talk by doing a Picture Talk (My mind was blown! Why have I never thought of this?). Craig showed stills from a video (without telling students that there was a video) along with vocabulary in German and English translations that he would need to tell a story about the pictures. He showed the vocabulary and stills side-by-side and asked questions/talked about the stills. He also compared himself with the main character in the video, which was a good way to make sure students were exposed to first, second, and third person verbs. So after showing us a series of pictures of a tall, skinny boy named Alex, Craig first described Alex in the TL (“Alex is a boy. He is tall. He is not short. He is skinny.”) Then he asked us questions about Alex (“Is Alex tall? Is he short? Is he tall or short?”) and then he asked similar questions about himself (“Am I tall? Am I short? Am I skinny?”). As he moved through the series of pictures, he asked more questions and made more statements about Alex, weaving it all together into a story. From there he showed us a reading about Alex using words from the series of pictures, which we were all able to read and understand fairly easily since we had just seen those words as we went through the Picture Talk. And then we finally wanted the whole video that the pictures came from originally, revealing the big plot twist at the end.

This is different from what I have been doing with my Movie Talks, since I have not been including the reading step. And while I have been introducing vocabulary through pictures before showing the entire video, I haven’t been up ALL the words students need ahead of time in conjunction with the pictures. During the demonstration Craig and Mike were teaching us German, and I saw how much easier it was to follow the story with all the vocabulary words projected and translated, so I will be doing that from now on.

Another thing that both Mike and Craig said about Movie Talks is to use them sparingly or else the novelty will wear off and students will tire of them. I have been guilty of overloading my class with Movie Talks, so I will lay off them for a while and do other, novel activities in class.

Another thing Mike and Craig suggested was that we build a back story about someone in the video. For example, if the Movie Talk is about a teenager, how about creating a back story with the class about his parents and/or younger siblings? I think this is a great idea and think that students will really enjoy helping to create a story about a character we all love (or love to hate).

3. Triangling. This is a technique that I hadn’t ever heard of in any other TPRS workshop I have attended. It involves creating a question and answer situation among three people: a character in the story who is played by a student actor, the teacher, and a parallel character. The teacher asks questions about what the character wants (who is represented by a student actor) and then compare those responses with what a parallel character wants and what the teacher wants. We practiced this today with the sentence “Bart wants a cat.” So it went something like this.

Teacher: Class, Bart wants a cat.

Class: Oh!

Teacher to student actor playing Bart: Bart, do you want a cat?

Student actor: Yes.

Teacher: Class, Bart wants a cat.

Class: Oh!

Teacher: Class, does Bart want a cat?

Class: Yes.

Teacher: Class, do I want a cat?

Class: No.

Teacher: Correct. I don’t want a cat. I want a dog. Class, do I want a dog or a cat?

Class: Dog.

Teacher: Correct, I want a dog. Class, who wants a cat?

Class: Bart.

Teacher: Correct. Bart wants a cat. Do I want a cat?

Class: No, you want a dog.

Teacher: Correct, I want a dog. Does Wendy (second student actor and parallel character) want a dog?

Class: Yes? No? (Note: The class will have to guess.)

Teacher: No, Wendy does not want a dog. Does Wendy want a cat?

Class: Yes? No? (Note: The class will have to guess.)

Teacher: No, Wendy does not want a dog. She wants a guinea pig.

Class: Oh.

Teacher: Class, who wants a cat?

Class: Bart.

Teacher: Correct. Who wants a cat?

Class: You.

Teacher: Correct. Who wants a guinea pig?

Class: Wendy.

4. The Five Basic TPRS Skills should be practiced in ALL second language classes taught with CI.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have moved away from classic TPRS in favor of other CI methods. That being said, as I have experimented with other methods of delivering comprehensible input, I feel that I am on the right track, because I still incorporate the five basic TPRS skills into my teaching, which are: circling (a strategy of asking multiple questions, resulting in repetition of high frequency words), pausing and pointing (at a vocabulary word, which gives students time to process), staying in bounds (limiting vocabulary so as not to overwhelm students), requiring choral responses (from students to check that they understand and are staying engaged), and speaking slowly (which aids in comprehension). These five skills help create optimal conditions for acquisition.

If you are new to CI, I encourage you to find a TPRS workshop. Your presenters will demonstrate the power of TPRS by teaching you a new language. You’ll be amazed by how quickly you will be able to read and speak that language, and you will remember what it’s like to be a language student again, which should help you empathize with your students as they acquire the language you teach. Visit the TPRS Books website to find a workshop near you!

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!

Don’t Knock What You Don’t Understand

I took a new job this year. I left a high school position as a French and Spanish teacher after fourteen years and am now working in a different school district doing ESL in the elementary school and both French and Spanish in a middle school.

This weekend I talked to a student at my former high school. He told me that his Spanish teacher, who is both traditional and textbook-driven, told the student’s class that she did not like Señor Wooly (BTW if you teach Spanish and have not visited his website, you are missing out). She told them that she thought his music videos were stupid and a waste of class time.

Guys, this made me really, REALLY angry. First of all, she broke what I think is the cardinal rule of teaching, which is that you absolutely DO NOT badmouth other teachers or their methods to students. Not ever. Although I never approved of this teacher’s methods or the ridiculous amount of busywork she made the students do outside of class, I NEVER shared those feelings with my students. Whenever students tried to complain about her to me I would say, “Mrs. So-and-so is an excellent teacher and you will learn a lot in her class (Of course, if you are familiar with the idea of learning a language as opposed to acquiring a language, you understand what I really mean by “You will learn a lot.” My students did not understand this distinction, so I could be truthful and it sounded as if I was complementing the teacher even though I wasn’t really.).” When they complained that she gave a lot of homework I would say, “I’m sorry she gives so much homework. We have different teaching philosophies and she believes that homework is an essential part of her class.” I tried to be as diplomatic as possible, because criticizing another teacher is unbelievably unprofessional, not to mention petty and disrespectful.

But the main reason why I am so angry is because this teacher talked so negatively about Señor Wooly and the amazing work he does. It’s like saying that Adele can’t sing or Usain Bolt is a lousy runner. Using this site has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my teaching career for both me and my students, and here are some of the many reasons why:

1. His videos are compelling. According to Dr. Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis, people acquire language when exposed to compelling, comprehensible input. Furthermore, acquiring a second language should be a subconscious process. When my students are so caught up in the story of whether Billy la Bufanda would ever be reunited with his Botas Queridas or were trying to guess who trapped the “Ganga” shopkeeper in an unending, hellish time loop, students got so caught up in the compelling story that they didn’t even realize they are acquiring language. That was exactly what I wanted.

2. His videos are comprehensible. Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis states that input must be compelling AND comprehensible in order for acquisition to take place. That is why the Señor Wooly site provides downloadable materials to ensure that students understand, such as lyrics sheets in Spanish and English and worksheets that teachers can use to preteach vocabulary. In addition, students can watch his videos with subtitles in either Spanish or English, which aids in comprehension and subsequently leads to acquisition.

3. The songs in the music video are very repetitive. Anyone who has ever tried to remember something has tried repeating it over and over again, whether it be someone’s phone number or a formula needed for a math test. Acquiring new words or expressions in a second language also requires hearing those words and expressions multiple times (Blaine Ray, who created the comprehensible input-based method TPRS, said in one of his workshops that the average student needed to hear a word anywhere between 50 and 70 times before s/he could acquire it, but I have been unable to find the research from which he got those figures). Repetition is the concept upon which Rosetta Stone, DuoLingo, and other computer-based programs have built their (superboring) curricula. When students hear Justin ask in Spanish multiple times if he can go to the bathroom, figuring out what to say when they need to use the bathroom becomes easy. When Victor removes his wig and confesses in Spanish that he is “bald, completely bald,” students will probably never look at the word “calvo” without knowing what the word means.

4. The nuggets provide meaningful homework and even more repetition. I love that I can give homework using the Señor Wooly site. If you have a PRO subscription, it comes with 160 student accounts. Each video has ten “nuggets,” which are activities that students can complete. The task is different in each nugget, but all involve either reading lyrics, looking at stills from the video, or watching small segments of the video. All activities are designed to give students more repetition, which results in more acquisition.

5. Each video comes with teacher “extras,” which is all any teacher needs to plan lessons around the video. Teachers have so much stuff they can use to supplement videos, such as multiple worksheets for use before, during, and after viewing, embedded readings, the above mentioned “nuggets” that students can complete either in or out of class, a slideshow of stills from the video to use for Movie Talks, games students can play, and more.

6. His videos are silly and fun. My students used to get very excited when I told them we were watching a new Señor Wooly video. While I was happy that they liked the videos, the fact that they are silly and fun is also important in language acquisition. According to Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis, negative emotions and stress raise a person’s Affective Filter, which is the “screen” that can prevent input from getting to the brain and thus impede acquisition. When my students are laughing at the male doctor in “Ya Está Muerto” for wanting to put a dead man’s heart in a backpack, I know their affective filters are low and that their brains are open to receiving input.

7. When the teacher is sick, s/he can use Señor Wooly for substitute plans. I was very sick last October and missed three days of school. Watching the “Puedo ir al baño” video, and doing the accompanying worksheets and nuggets were all part of my substitute plans. Even though the substitute spoke no Spanish, my students were still receiving compelling, comprehensible input as they worked quietly on the classroom computers or their phones to complete their work. And the best part was that it took me all of five minutes to pull the lessons together, which meant I could relax and focus on getting better instead of stressing out about what kind of plans to send in or whether my students were behaving.

I know that eventually I will stop seething in anger when I talk about this former colleague of mine and her unnecessary trash talk. In the meantime, I can console myself in knowing that her comments originated out of ignorance. She has no knowledge of second language acquisition theory and, as a result, cannot see how the design of the entire site is based on that theory. She also did not get to witness the incredible progress my students made in my class last year, which was partially due to watching Señor Wooly videos and doing their accompanying activities. And finally, she never accessed the site itself and saw all the awesome teacher extras available (I gave her a coupon with a free trial one day in the Staff Room and she left it on the table. Grrrr.). I guess some people are too stubborn, shortsighted, set in their ways, and close-minded to explore, adapt, and change. As Señor Wooly would say, “¡Qué asco!”

Movie Talks

Movie Talks are something new that I tried this year. The idea behind a Movie Talk is to tell a story using a short clip to deliver comprehensible input. I learned about Movie Talks from Blaine Ray at the 2016 ACTFL conference. Dr. Ashley Hastings developed the strategy to use in ESL classrooms and Michelle Whaley is credited for developing Movie Talks for second language comprehensible input (CI) driven classrooms. Here are a few pieces of advice from my experience doing Movie Talks this year:

1. Make sure your clip is short, and try to choose one that has a surprise ending. I made the mistake of showing a great Mr. Bean video this year that was almost nine minutes long. My students were very, very sick of Mr. Bean by the time we got to the end.

2. Plan on showing segments of the video multiple times but don’t give away the ending until the end. I usually spend about 15 minutes per class doing Movie Talks and try to spend at the most 4 days of class doing activities related to the video. A typical Movie Talk for me goes something like this:

Day One: Tell the first section of the Movie Talk in story form with questions to ensure comprehension. Sometimes I show a slideshow with stills while I’m telling the story, but sometimes I just draw as I’m speaking.

Day Two: Do a class reading that both summarizes the first part of the Movie Talk discussed the previous day and also includes a little more  plot information from the video.

Day Three: Watch the video in class in its entirety.

Day Four: Review the video, usually in the form of a game (Keith Toda has a great list of games to play, such as this one and this one) and/or assess students on it with a short quiz or timed writing.

3. Try not to show videos that your students may have already seen. Pixar is well-known for their short clips at the beginning of their films, and they are perfect for Movie Talks. Many videos that go “viral” also make good Movie Talk fodder. The problem is that so many of our students have already seen them, which can affect engagement and may spoil the ending. But since video production is a passion of many talented artists these days, finding suitable, more obscure videos to show is not that difficult. On the iFLT/NTPRS/ CI Teaching Facebook page someone posted a link to a Movie Talk database, which is where I usually start when I’m looking to do a Movie Talk, but you may just want to search YouTube or Vimeo and see what you find.

If you are interested in trying a Movie Talk, you may want to start by purchasing the “Look I Can Movie Talk” resource from TPRS Publishing. It comes in either Spanish (downloadable or on CD-ROM) or French (CD-Rom). The introduction of both versions gives step-by-step instructions on how to do a Movie Talk in class. Then the authors chose ten videos and created resources such as readings, puzzles, and comprehension questions for each video that teachers can copy and use in their classrooms. Unfortunately, this resource is not available in other languages, so if you don’t teach Spanish or French, you may want to start by reading more about Movie Talks from other blogs, such as this one and this one, or watch some demos of Movie Talks done by other teachers such as this one or this one. And then once you feel relatively comfortable with the mechanics of the process, just go for it! And if you are unhappy with your results at first, you will see better results as you get more comfortable with the process. And besides, poorly executed CI is still better than traditional instruction any day!


Interested in Making the Switch to Teaching with CI? Here’s How to Begin

Are you a teacher who is interested in teaching with comprehensible input (CI) but are unsure where to start? You’ve come to the right place. Here are my suggestions, in no particular order, of the best ways to begin your own CI journey.

1. Find a CI conference or workshop. If at all possible, start with a TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling) workshop. Blaine Ray and friends from TPRS publishing travel throughout North America every year offering  2 or 3-day training workshops. Chances are you can find one near you. At these workshops you can expect to receive an overview of second language acquisition (SLA) research on comprehensible input (CI), training on how to implement TPRS techniques in your classroom, and an opportunity to practice TPRS techniques yourself. Your presenter will demonstrate TPRS strategies by teaching workshop attendees an unknown language, so you’ll walk out of the conference knowing a small amount of German or Russian or Chinese. You’ll also receive a book of TPRS stories that you can use in your classroom and will have the opportunity to purchase novels for your students or even the TPRS Green Bible, which is a great resource for teachers looking to learn more about TPRS.

If you can’t find a TPRS conference, look for any conference in your area that has “CI” in its title. Many state language conferences may also have workshops showcasing CI topics, and so will the annual ACTFL conference. And if you plan to travel this summer, maybe you can choose your vacation destination based on whether or nor it is near a CI conference. You can visit one of my previous posts if you’d like to know about conferences for summer 2017.

2. Can’t afford a conference or workshop? Invest in books about TPRS/CI. Find some print resources that you can use to teach yourself. I’ve already mentioned the Green Bible, which is a great place to start. I also recommend Ben Slavic’s Big CI Book, which is available through Teacher’s Discovery, James Lee and Bill Van Patten’s book Making Communicative Language Teaching Happpen, and Terry Waltz’s bookTPRS with Chinese Characteristics (even if you aren’t a Chinese teacher).

3. Need to see CI teaching in action? Explore YouTube where you can watch some of the “experts” give lessons. Just type “TPRS” into the YouTube search bar and you will find tons of examples of teachers using TPRS/CI to teach language. After a while you’ll start recognizing names of teachers who uploaded those videos and you can look for their names elsewhere. Which brings me to #4:

4. Read some TPRS/CI blogs. You can look for blogs written by teachers that have videos on YouTube or you can follow the links on the right hand side of my blog to some of the blogs that I refer to regularly. Blogs posted by others are a gold mine of ideas for your classroom. Some may have lesson plans or insight about a new technique to try. When I’m out of ideas for lessons these blogs are the first place I look.

5. Find a community. Some people wishing to start teaching with CI may be lucky enough to teach in departments with other CI teachers who can mentor and guide them as they make their journey. Others may find themselves being the only language teacher in the department embracing such methods. If you find that you are alone in your journey it is essential that you find your community somewhere. Conferences are a great place to meet experienced CI teachers, and I have yet to meet one who isn’t willing to help out a novice CI teacher. If going to a conference isn’t in your budget, the easiest and probably most rewarding way to connect and network is by joining a TPRS/CI community on Facebook. Currently I belong to five, and the support and advice I have gotten there has been so valuable to me and that fuels me to keep traveling on this CI journey.

6. Tune into Tea with BVP. Bill Van Patten is one of the leading SLA experts today. During the university academic year he broadcasts a podcast called Tea with BVP every Thursday at 3:00 EST. It is a call-in radio show discussing important and timely topics related to SLA research and practices. The podcast also has a web page with links to resources that is very helpful.

Finally, if you are a new teacher interested in making the switch to CI, don’t hesitate to ask me for anything. Leave me a message in the comments or find me on social media. I can’t promise that I will know the answer to every question you have, but I can promise that I will help you find someone who will. And I promise that while your CI journey may not be painless, once you see the way your students respond to it you will be hooked!

Where I Find My CI Resources

In a previous post I talked about how some teachers may not know much, if anything, about comprehensible input (CI) techniques because of the inability to access academic journals or because the lack of either personal finances or professional development funds makes buying books on the subject or attending CI conferences impossible (Case in point: I would absolutely love to attend the Mitten CI conference this April, but I can’t afford the travel costs).

Not to fear, friends! You can still find CI resources out there that are either relatively cheap or free. Here is a list that I have compiled where any interested parties can find some pretty great resources.

1. Stephen Krashen’s websiteOn this website Dr. Krashen, Professor Emeritus at USC, posts free access to many of his books and academic papers on a variety of topics related to second language acquisition (SLA). The lists is quite extensive and it is updated fairly regularly. Anyone looking for an introduction to the SLA theory behind CI should start here.

2. Beniko Mason’s websiteOn this website Dr. Mason, professor at Shitennoji University Junior College in Osaka, Japan, posts some of her papers about Extensive Reading (ER) and Story Listening (SL), two CI methods. I also love the cute little cartoons on her website.

3. Tea with BVP. This is a call-in podcast put out by Bill Van Patten and two of his colleagues, Walter Hopkins and Angelika Kraemer. Each week they discuss a different topic related to SLA. The Tea with BVP website has a resources page that lists every academic paper mentioned on the podcast (a few of them are open access) and includes a 6-part video called “What Everyone Should Know About Second Language Acquisition.” The podcast airs live on Thursdays during Michigan State’s academic year at 3pm EST on Mixlr and is available for download on both Soundcloud and iTunes free of charge. My two favorite things about the show is the monthly “Ask Us Anything” segment and the weekly challenge questions, one about SLA and another about famous divas (Bill calls himself the diva of SLA, so a diva question is highly appropriate). Callers who answer the challenge questions get free swag like a copy of one of BVP’s books or Tea with BVP tote bags and coasters. But before you ask, no, I have never called in because I am either still working or am at yoga when the show is broadcasting.

4. Teacher Blogs. I am overwhelmed by the number of teachers who blog about CI theory and methods. They are full of great information and ideas. The ones I seem to refer to the most are blogs written by Mike Peto, Martina Bex, Kristy Palacio, and Keith Toda. The best things about teacher blogs is that they will often have links to other teachers’ blogs, so the links to resources are endless. I go to Keith Toda’s blog for reading activities, Martina’s and Kristy’s for lesson planning ideas, and Mike’s for episode guides to Spanish TV shows that I hope to use one day in my own classes and advice about free reading in the second language classroom. I encourage you to visit a few blogs, but be warned that you may end up falling down a figurative rabbit hole that can eat up your entire afternoon as you click on links and discover more and more great resources on more and more blogs.

5. Social Media. My husband gives me a good deal of grief about the amount of time that I spend on Facebook and Twitter. However, a large portion of that time is not spent looking at pictures of people’s new babies or Spring Break vacation photos. Instead I am looking at messages on Twitter and Facebook posted by my CI colleagues. On Facebook I am a member of four CI groups: iFLT/ NTPRS/ CI Teaching, CI Liftoff, CI/TPRS for French Teachers, and Story Listening for Language Acquisition. Once I joined those groups, I started seeing posts by the same people over and over, who I then followed on Twitter. It’s a great way for me to get ideas about what to do in class, get feedback about things in class that failed, and learn about new workshops, webinars, and products (The Facebook groups are all open groups that anyone can join, and feel free to check out my profile to see who I follow if you’re looking to use Twitter for professional development).

6. YouTube. I started using YouTube for professional development by watching videos by Blaine Ray, the creator of TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) and found other videos by clicking links on Blaine’s page to the YouTube channels of other TPRS/CI teachers that he follows. Then once I joined my CI groups on Facebook from time to time other group members would post links to YouTube videos. Generally speaking, the videos posted by CI teachers were either videos of them teaching lessons (both demo lessons and lessons with real students) or videos of them giving presentations about something related to SLA or CI.

7. Teachers Pay TeachersThis is a website where you can buy lessons, worksheets, PowerPoints, and more resources that teachers make themselves and then post to this site for other teachers to use. As the name suggests, much of the resources on this site must be purchased, but the prices are pretty low. Some of the resources on this site are free, too. Martina Bex sells a lot of her stuff here, including entire curriculum packets for Spanish 1 and 2. I also really like Cécile Laine’s products. Be careful with this site, however. Many of the stuff on this website may not be CI compatible. Anyone interested in supplementing their classrooms with CI resources from this site needs to make sure to buy from someone who is a known CI teacher.

I hope some of these resources will help any teacher looking to learn more about SLA or CI teaching methods. I hope I haven’t missed any!

A Second Language Should Not Just Be For Brainiacs

The other day I ran into Henry D., a guy I used to work with who left to take a job elsewhere. We talked about some of the differences between my school and his school (His school is bigger, services a more ethnically diverse population, and has air conditioning in all rooms. My school has less than 450 students total, is about 95% white and has no air conditioning, which means I break out in a heat rash every June). But one big difference between my school and his school is that his school requires all students to study three years of a second language in order to graduate (my school has no such requirement but most college bound students take at least two years because colleges require it). “Can you believe it?” He scoffed. “Even kids with IEPs (Individualized Education Plans, which are special plans for students with learning or intellectual disabilites) have to take a language!”

I understand Henry’s reaction as it applies to a traditional language classroom. I too was a traditional teacher once, focusing mainly on grammar and vocabulary with a bit of reading and a small amount of speaking thrown in here and there. Generally speaking, the kids who were in the honors level classes were the ones who had A’s in my class, as they were the ones who were bright enough to handle all those grammar rules I felt it was important to teach. The students in the college prep track had the B’s and C’s. They were strong in vocabulary but weak in grammar, which is what made an A unattainable for them. Students who were in the general education track were the ones who scored the D’s and F’s. They were not willing or able to memorize 50 vocabulary words at a time or master verb paradigms. So then you add a student with learning disabilities into the mix? Many times it was a recipe for disaster.

In a CI classroom, however, students of all ability levels, even those with IEPs, can be successful. Here are some reasons why.

1. Grammar is no longer a main focus of the class, which means that students who can’t master its complexity aren’t doomed. In my experience, the easiest way to tank a student’s grade in a second language class is by giving him or her a grammar test requiring a lot of memorization. This happened to me, where a low grade on a test on preterits in Spanish turned the solid A I had into a fragile B+ (Yes, I’m still bitter). And, I’m sorry to say, this happened to many of my strong students when I taught traditionally. By focusing on comprehensibility and downplaying grammar in the CI classroom, we level the playing field, so to speak. The focus in class is on the message, which is much more logical that focusing on the grammar rules that make up the message (Besides, according to Bill Van Patten, language is too complex to teach using grammar “rules” anyway). In a CI class, the goal is for the students to understand and react to the language, and we see a student’s production of the language as a measure of the student’s level of proficiency and progress, nothing more. Does that mean we don’t teach grammar? Absolutely not, but it plays a supporting role instead of being the star of the show. For example, on Day 1 of French 1 my students learned that French has two words for “a/an” and that the word they used depended on the gender of the noun in question. And in one of my recent Spanish 3 classes, students learned that if they saw an entire infinitive plus extra letters added on that the verb translates into English as either “will” or “would,” depending on what those extra letters are (Not to worry, you grammar nazis. We will fine tune this at a later date).

2. In a CI class, if a student doesn’t understand the language, we slow down to make that language comprehensible and don’t penalize a student for failing to understand. A student I know in a traditionally taught language class has to answer a question at the beginning of every class as a warm-up. Her (valid) complaint is that the teacher asks the question very quickly and expects an answer very quickly. If the student is unable to respond in a timely manner, she is given a zero for the day and the teacher then moves on, asking another question to a different student and so on until all students have been given the opportunity to answer one of the teacher’s questions. In this  situation, many of the slower students in a class are doomed to failure. Once again, the brainiacs have an advantage because they can think quickly enough to respond. The students who process more slowly are more likely to become tongue tied and unable to answer. In contrast, in a CI class teachers speak slowly to make sure their language is comprehensible. If a student is unable to answer a question it is because either the student doesn’t understand the question or doesn’t have the language skills necessary to answer the question. It is not the student at fault for being unable to answer the question but the teacher’s fault for not supplying the necessary input to make answering the question possible. In my class, I employ a scaffolding technique, where I start with simple questions that the student can answer with just a yes or no. Then gradually the question gets a bit more complex and the student must choose between two options given. This is called an “either-or” question. Only after the “yes-no” question and the “either-or” question might I dare ask an open ended question. An exchange between teacher and student in a CI class might go like this:

Teacher: Sam, ¿te gusta la clase de español? (Do you like Spanish class?)

Student: Sí. (Yes.)

Teacher: ¿Es interesante la clase? (Is the class interesting?)

Student: Sí.

Teacher: ¿Es interesante o aburrida la clase? (Is the class interesting or boring?)

Student: Es interesante.

Teacher: ¿Te gusta la clase porque es interesante? (You like the class because it’s interesting?)

Student: Sí.

Teacher: Sam, ¿por qué te gusta la clase de español? (Why do you like Spanish class?)

Student: Porque es interesante. (Because it’s interesting.)

This technique I learned at a TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling) workshop with the fantastic Blaine Ray, who is the nicest man in the universe.

3. In a CI class, we employ the 80-80 rule. The 80-80 rule states that a teacher can consider a certain subject mastered when 80% of the class can score 80% or higher on an assessment of some kind. And the teacher does not move on until this goal is reached. If the goal is not reached, it is assumed that the student did not have enough of an internal language structure in place to attain that 80% and needs more review. In most traditional classes, teachers are so worried about “covering” certain topics in the textbook that even if half the class does poorly on a given assessment the teacher will feel the need to move on and start something new. When I give an assessment that doesn’t reach that 80-80 mark I know that I have not been proving enough input and that I need to review. This is something else I learned from Blaine.

4. In a CI class, the focus on correct spelling, often a huge problem for weaker students, is minimal. In a CI class, if a student is spelling something wrong it is because the student has not seen that word in print often enough to internalize the correct spelling of that word. Once again, a student’s error is the result of lack of input. I am not one of those teachers who constantly tells students that they need to spell things correctly. My students just figure out how to do it (after an appropriate amount of input). And one of the languages I teach is French, which is notoriously hard to spell because of how many silent letters it contains (By the way, I don’t have too many students with major pronunciation problems in French class either. Once they hear a word repeatedly students can usually figure out how to pronounce it on their own). In my French 1 class I have a student with an IEP who had an A- on her recent report card even though she can’t spell in French to save her life (and guess what – she can’t spell in English either) but her comprehension is really outstanding. She can read and speak  as well as anyone else in class. If she had been in a traditional class, even with accommodations, I don’t think she would have the same level of success.

At one of my first TPRS conferences, Blaine Ray stated that he had once taught someone with Down’s Syndrome to speak Spanish. He had figured out a way to make second language acquisition accessible to students of every ability. And that should definitely be our goal. Think about it. We all acquired a first language. So if done correctly, why can’t we all acquire two?