Resources for La France en Danger

French teacher friends, I know that Mira Canion is busy preparing a teacher’s guide for her novel La France en Danger. I offer you some ideas about how to teach the novel and offer access to some of the resources I have created for it. You can use them while you wait for the guide to be available for purchase, or even as a compliment to the guide once you have it.

Chapter 1

In the first chapter, the most important thing to do before you start reading the chapter is to make sure the students have some background information regarding some of the cultural references in the novel. In order to do that, I created this PowerPoint that I used to talk about Pauline and Luc (the two protagonists), Paris, the World’s Fair, Pablo Picasso, and the bombing of Guernica.

I also wrote this reading in very simple French to provide background knowledge about Charles de Gaulle and Maréchal Pétain, who do not appear in the book but are mentioned. I did not do any formal assessments on this, since all I wanted was that my students knew who fought on which side during World War Two.

And finally, I wrote this reading in English about the Spear of Destiny. I felt that the topic was too difficult for my students to read in French, so I came up with a reading in English followed by questions in French.

Chapter 2

The most important part of Chapter 2 is the introduction of the two agents, Roger and Marcel. After we read the chapter I divided my class into four groups and assigned each group a character from the chapter, either  Pauline, Luc, Roger, and Marcel. Each group was responsible for drawing a picture of their character and writing a description in French of each person. Then we displayed the pictures in class and I did some question/answer with the class where I asked questions like, “Qui a 24 ans?” and “Qui a de longs cheveux bruns?” Then we compared the four characters with students in the class (Alternatively, you could just have your groups draw a picture of their character, put them on display, and then describe them to the class in French one sentence at a time and have your students guess which character is being described).

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 contains information about Pablo Picasso’s Guernica painting, so I did a number of cultural activities related to the painting before we read the chapter. The activities were designed to help students develop an appreciation of the painting and to introduce some vocabulary that they would need while reading the chapter. You will see that I have five different activities here, but most of them are relatively short, lasting at most 15 minutes each.

First, I showed this PowerPoint about Pablo Picasso. I wanted my class to know that he had created realistic artwork before he developed his modern style that he is most known for and to connect Picasso to Paris, where he was living when he painted Guernica.

Second, I created this “I Spy” activity to encourage students to examine elements in the painting and develop the French vocabulary needed to comprehend the chapter.

Third, to familiarize students with some body part words they need for the chapter, I created this matching sheet where students had to match descriptions with the Picasso painting being described.

I also created this matching sheet to help students think about possible symbols in Guernica.

And finally, I created this quick drawing assignment to reinforce names of body parts in the chapter.

Chapter 4

In Chapter 4, Pauline and Luc go to the famous café-restaurant, Les Deux Magots. I created two resources to go along with it.

Here is the PowerPoint presentation I created about Les Deux Magots to give kids some background information about it.

Here is the Web Quest I created for which students had to search the menu and answer questions about it. Students accessed the menu in french but my Web Quest is in English because I am using it as an Interpretive Listening assignment.

Chapter 5

In this chapter, Pauline and Luc visit la Sainte-Chapelle. Here is the PowerPoint I made about la Sainte-Chapelle.

Chapter 6

In this chapter, Luc and Pauline arrive in Antibes in Pauline’s car, a 1937 Talbot-Lago. You can find lots of great pictures of one of these on Google Images, like the one below.

Talbot Lago 1937

Here’s a great poster for the car too.


In this chapter, Luc and Pauline walk down the promenade Amiral de Grasse. I used Google Maps to “walk” along the promenade so students could get an idea of what the area looks like (and appreciate its gorgeous view!).

Chapter 7

In this chapter, Luc and Pauline enter the Château Grimaldi. Here is the PowerPoint I made to go along with this.

(By the way, it was in this chapter that I realized that the author is not being faithful to the original timeline (which I’m fine with, by the way, because it works in the story). Pauline and Luc go to Antibes because Luc said that Picasso had a connection with the Château Grimaldi. It is already a Picasso museum in the novel, which takes place in 1937. In reality, Picasso did not go to Antibes, where he lived in the Château Grimaldi and contributed a number of paintings to the museum that eventually opened there, until 1946. I don’t think it’s that important to mention the timeline manipulation to students but wanted to make sure that any teachers reading this knew the truth.)

Chapter 8 

In this chapter, Marcel approaches Pauline dressed as a princess with plans to steal her notebook, which contains notes about the location of the Lance du Destin. I did a little Reader’s Theater for this chapter, complete with props (a long-haired wig and a tiara).

Chapter 9

This chapter has the car chase. Roger and Marcel chase Pauline and Luc through Antibes. At the end of this chapter, Pauline and Luc escape when Roger’s car crashes. This is a really short chapter, but I did bring in some miniature cars so we could reenact the car chase.

Chapter 10

In this chapter, the action moves to the city of Arles. Here is the PowerPoint I made about the bull celebrations in Arles.

There are also many videos in YouTube with bull running in Arles. If you decide to look for a video for this, it is very important that you specify “Arles” in your search or else you will end up with bull running in Spain instead.

Since students were not familiar with the practice of bull running, this is a very important chapter to review visually. I used a SmartBoard so students could see the main characters jump the barrier onto the bull running course, the bulls running into the characters on the road, and the main characters’ subsequent jump back over the barrier to safety.

Chapter 11

In this chapter, Luc and Pauline go to a bullfight in Arles. Since bullfighting is only legal in southern France, I decided not to spend too much time talking about the practice. I showed this video about bullfighting in Arles and then explained events quickly in English as needed when we read the chapter.

Chapter 12

In this chapter, Pauline is in possession of the Lance of Destiny and runs to a park while Marcel and Roger pursue her. This is also the chapter where Roger captures Luc. This is another chapter that needs to be reviewed visually, so once again I used my SmartBoard to draw the action in the chapter.

Chapter 13

This is the final chapter! I won’t spoil the ending by telling you the outcome, but I will tell you that Reader’s Theater is a great activity to do as a chapter review.


If you are doing this book with your students, I would love to trade resources! Let me know what fun activities you planned for this text!








Rachel’s Awesome Carlos Game

Last Friday my friend Rachel, a Spanish teacher who teaches with comprehensible input (CI) in her classroom, shared a game she plays in class that she calls the Carlos game. (I don’t know if she created it or if she found it elsewhere. If you know the origin of this game, let me know so I can give credit to its inventor). Here is how you play it.

  1. In the game, students get in a large circle sitting on chairs.
  2. The teacher then either writes a question on the board or else projects the question on a screen. The question can be about anything. The class then chooses a silly answer to the question. Her class likes “Carlos” as the silly answer, which is why she calls it the Carlos game.
  3. For the first round, a student is selected as the questioner. That person’s chair is removed from the circle.
  4. The students, including the questioner, close their eyes, and the teacher walks around and taps either two or three students (depending on class size) silently.
  5. Students open their eyes and the questioner starts asking students the question for that round.
  6. Students who were not tapped must give a real, truthful answer. Students who were tapped must respond to the question with the silly answer. So, for example, if the question is, “What are you afraid of?” the students answer truthfully except for anyone who was tapped, who says in the target language, “I am afraid of Carlos” (or whatever your silly word is).
  7. All students must get up, run to another chair, and sit down. The person left without a chair becomes the new questioner.
  8. Play then continues from #2 above.

I played this in class today and students absolutely loved it. Here are a few variations you can add to your game.

  1. Number of students tapped to give the silly answer. The fewer students tapped by the teacher (see #4 above), the more repetitions of the question the student will hear. When I played this, I tapped multiple students when the question was “What is your name?” because my students had heard that so many times. When the question was less common, like “What are you afraid of?” I tapped fewer students so students would hear the question repeatedly, which would, with any luck, increase the chances that they will acquire it.
  2. Brainstorm possible answers to the question before questioning the students. This reviews words and expressions that students may not have seen in a while and, with any luck, eliminates any anxious feelings students may have about answering the question.
  3. Length of play. You could use this as a review game and prepare possible questions on slides and play this game for an entire regular class period (or half a block class period) or you can create your questions on the fly and use it as a filler activity when you have minutes left at the end of class.
  4. Silly responses. Rachel’s presentation led me to believe that the answer to every question is “Carlos” when she plays this game. I decided to group my questions by type (who, what, where, how) and come up with multiple silly responses, some of which were new words that provided some sneaky CI.

If you’ve read my blog previously, you may remember what I had to say about games in the CI classroom. Add this one to the list of fun, equitable CI games that I plan on playing from now on.

Teaching Level 1 Themes with Comprehensible Input

When I visit the IFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching group on Facebook, I often encounter posts from teachers who would like to teach with comprehensible input (CI) but need help getting started. These teachers inevitably need some guidance on how to provide CI while still teaching certain topics that they are told they must cover.

If you are one of these teachers, my suggestion to you is that you start making the shift from traditional to CI with your Level 1 classes. There are a couple of good reasons for this. First, you will be the students’ first language teacher, which means you will not have students trained by a traditional teacher that you will then have to retrain. Second, themes in first-year modern language classrooms are basic enough that they can be presented easily using CI.

When I decided to embrace CI, I started with some backwards planning. I went through the Level 1 textbook and made a list of topics in the book. Then I listed one or two CI approaches I could use to address many of these topics. Here is the list I compiled for my first-year Spanish and French classes.

When I start out the year, I begin each class with Calendar Talk. Here is a video of how Tina Hargarden does Calendar Talk. In my class, we talk about the day (today, yesterday, tomorrow), any upcoming holidays, the weather, what season in is, and, since we have a rotating schedule, what the time is. This eliminates those isolated lessons on those subjects that are usually at the beginning of a first-year book.

Then, as Ben Slavic and other, more established CI teachers recommend, I do Card Talk. This activity used to be called Circling with Balls. My students draw pictures of something like to play and any pet(s) they may have on a card. Then I use Personalized Question and Answer to introduce the expressions “like(s) + infinitive” and “I/You have” and “S/he has.” Students also hear the names of sports and instruments, most of which are cognates, and some animals (usually “dog” and “cat” but sometimes other things like “guinea pig” and “rabbit.”).

Following that, I do Special Person Interviews. I can introduce SO much vocabulary due to the variety of questions I ask. By the time I finish my interviews, my students have been exposed to expressions like dates and numbers (from questions like “How old are you” and “When is your birthday”), activities (“What do you like to do”), food (“What is your favorite/least favorite food”), family members (“Do you have any brothers or sisters”) and names of school classes (“What is your favorite/least favorite class). If you are a French teacher, visit my French Resources page for my Personne Spéciale documents. Spanish teachers can visit my Spanish Resources page for the Spanish version.

After those first two activities, which can take me through mid-October (or even longer depending on class size), I have no set order in which to do my other activities. I am constantly taking things out and adding new things. One activity that I do one year in September I might not do until December another year. I don’t care about when the topics are addressed as long as they are addressed at some point during the school year.

Finally, I have learned to let go of the compulsion to teach all thematic vocabulary words together and have embraced the idea that they will pick them up in bits and pieces throughout the year (Click here for more about my thoughts about thematic units). Take expressions to describe the weather and seasons, for example. In my class, we learn them as the year progresses. In August when we come back to school students will learn to say that it is hot and sunny because it is still summer. In November they will learn to say that it is cool and windy because it is fall. In January they will be able to talk about snow and cold temperatures because it is winter, and in April they will be able to talk about rain because it is spring. Where is it written that a student has to learn all expressions to describe the weather and seasons, or by extension all clothing, food, or names of family members all at once?

And finally, let’s address the elephant in the room…the explicit grammar that some people feel is necessary to teach. I only do pop-up grammar in my classes, because, based on the research by Stephen Krashen and Bill Van Patten that I have read, I know that explicit grammar lessons do not further language acquisition. And I am lucky because I work in a district that has embraced CI. If you are obligated to teach grammar, I recommend that you read this post, in which I talk about ways to teach grammar in ways that maximize class time for comprehensible input in class.

Once the shift has been made with first-year classes, you can start to alter the second year textbook to CI. But that is a blog post for another day.






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.


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.


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 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.

Rethinking Storyasking

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

I HATE Storyasking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Jobs

In my last blog post, I argued that comprehensible input (CI) classrooms where the teacher does the majority of the talking are not necessarily teacher-centered. One of the ways that classrooms can become more student-centered is through classroom jobs.

I had read previously about classroom jobs in Ben Slavic‘s book, The Big CI Book but didn’t implement them in my own class until very recently. To be honest, I think I was hesitant to lose control. In addition, Ben’s classroom jobs seemed specific to his style of CI teaching, which is different from mine. But this year I work part-time in an elementary school and saw first grade teachers assigning students jobs and I realized that if six-year-old children could handle the responsibility of having jobs, so could middle school students. In that first grade class where the students have jobs, the teacher has a chart hanging up that looks like the one below.


This chart has a list of jobs and a clothespin with the name of the student who has that job. I haven’t created a visual like this for my classroom yet, but the idea is still the same. I have a list of jobs and a student in charge of that job. Jobs change on a weekly or monthly basis. Here is a list of the jobs I have in my classroom. By the way, none of these is my original idea. Many CI teachers have similar jobs in their classrooms.

1. Board managers. They write down the agenda for the day, mark off each item on the agenda as we complete it, and erase the board at the end of class.

2. Paper returners. I keep all corrected papers in a bin and have students pass them out at the beginning of class (By the way, I make sure that no grades are on display on the papers being passed back to protect student privacy. I have students fold their papers in half when they turn them in. Then I write the grade on the inside and staple them shut. Maybe that’s overkill, but it’s better to be too careful than careless and get in trouble for violating student privacy).

3. Paper distributors. These are the students who pass out handouts.

4. Paper collectors. These are students who collect homework and classwork and put them in a bin for me to correct.

5. Absent student buddies. These are the people who collect an extra copy of work and/or notes for students who are absent.

6. Calendar and weather reporters. These students change the daily calendar and update the weather.

7. Timekeepers. These are the students who are in charge of keeping track of time that the class spends using only the target language (TL). See this post for more information about how I use this as a classroom management tool.

8. English police. These are the students who check to make sure that if I speak in English that I only do so for less than ten seconds. If I go over 10 seconds, they get to throw a stuffed toad at me.

9. Class artists. These students illustrate during our Special Person Interviews and storyasking sessions.

10. Notetaker. This student takes notes for absent students and gives the notes to the Absent Student Buddy.

11. Question counter. This is the person in charge of counting how many questions I ask during class. Ideally, I want to ask anywhere between 25-50 questions per class, depending on the topic.

12. Personal Secretary. This is the person who’s job it is to make sure that I have everything I need for my class to run smoothly. My secretary makes sure that I have board markers, my laser pointer, and class handouts available and makes sure my water bottles is filled.

Many CI teachers have written blog posts about classroom jobs, and they all say that having classroom jobs changes the dynamic of the classroom. Students develop more enthusiasm and a sense of ownership, and teachers can have students do the mundane tasks and let the teacher focus on the most important aspect of class, which is teaching. I have noticed a change in my classroom environment as well. I am less flighty and distracted because I can leave some of the “administrivia” to the kids. Having a job is also helpful to my figdety students, because they have something to do that distracts them just enough that they can stay focused.

For more information about classroom jobs, visit the websites of Bryce Hedstrom and Ben Slavic, and happy delegating!

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!

Random Thoughts on a Snowy Day

Hi all,

Here in New England I am in the midst of my ninth snow day so far this year. Being stuck in the house all day has given me plenty of time to think about how my school year is going so far. So, in no particular order, here are some of the random thoughts I have had today.

1. Netflix is a great resource for teachers looking to brush up on their language skills. I know that I have posted before about how my language skills have improved by watching TV, and I am so impressed by how much my language has progressed that I just HAD to mention it again. Netflix is THE place to go to find TV shows to watch in almost any language. Now the company has started producing its own TV shows, and the Netflix originals have both audio and subtitles in multiple languages. For example, the Netflix show The Crown is available with audio in English, French, Spanish, and Italian and can be watched with subtitles in French, Spanish, and both traditional and simplified Chinese (this means nothing to me, but it will probably mean something to you if you are a Chinese teacher). And the number of international shows you can find on Netflix is mind-boggling! Unfortunately, many of these shows are not appropriate to show in a K-12 classroom, but they are great for teachers to use to keep up their own personal practice.

2. Special Person Interviews are a great way to help beginning students acquire language. I wrote about Special Person Interviews in this post, but wanted to revisit the topic now that I am done with them in my first year French classes. After listening to seventeen Special Person interviews, my students are now able to do the following:

  • say dates correctly in French
  • talk about people’s likes and dislikes using  a definite article
  • talk about the makeup of people’s families
  • give the names of different classes in French
  • give the names of multiple animals in French
  • give the names of many different foods in French
  • describe people and things using correct French word order (noun followed by adjective)
  • use the verb “avoir” in idiomatic expressions to discuss people’s ages and fears
  • identify French numbers
  • use “de” with negation
  • use the conditional form of “être” and “acheter” to say what people would be or what people would buy
  • use the imperfect form of “être” to talk about what was or were

Obviously, some of my students can do the above list of things better than others, but they are all on their way to acquiring the expressions needed to do the items on this list. And here is the best part – they can do the things on this list even though they have received NO EXPLICIT INSTRUCTION on any of the topics listed above.

3. Lately I have been thinking about teaching vocabulary in novels. In this post I talked about Jason Fritze’s template for planning to teach a novel. The template is fantastic and helps a teacher think about words and expressions that need to be pre-taught before a class reads a novel together. Most teacher’s guides that accompany novels have sections with activities that teachers can use to acquaint students with vocabulary included in a novel before they begin each chapter.

But then I bought the Teacher’s Guide to Brandon Brown Veut un Chien by Carol Gaab. I was surprised that I did not find a large number of activities designed to pre-teach vocabulary. Instead, the guide said two things. First of all, it said that, if the book was level appropriate for the class, students should ALREADY be familiar with most of the necessary vocabulary in the text (and if they weren’t they could look in the glossary). Second, it said that if the teacher started reading the chapter slowly, s/he could just translate any new words while reading (maybe writing them on the board for students to refer to). That way teachers wouldn’t get bogged down in pre-reading activities and could start reading the actual story more quickly. And, since the elementary level books tend to repeat vocabulary, students will naturally acquire most new words later on due to repeated exposure.

In my class, I will be starting Brandon Brown Veut un Chien this upcoming week with my seventh grade and La France en Danger with my eighth grade, and I plan to keep the vocabulary pre-teaching to a minimum. Instead I plan to have my students read along with me, stopping frequently to translate unfamiliar words as they appear in the text. Then I will write an unfamiliar word on the board along with its translation in English and, if it is a high frequency word, I will make sure to include that word in any supplementary activities I do in class (Usually reading the novel is only one of three or four activities that I do in any given class, so I will be sure to incorporate those unfamiliar words in one of my other activities).

4. I still hate thematic units. In this post, I talked about how I find thematic units to be rather restrictive and artificial. I still feel this way and have been moving away from thematic units for some time now. But recently Señor Wooly, aka Jim Woolridge, posted this video about how teachers should go about choosing which of his 25 videos to show in class. The message is simple. Instead of trying to find a video to fit with your unit (based on grammar or vocabulary expressions, for example), Jim urges teachers to pick the video based on the story and let the story dictate what vocabulary and grammar expressions the teacher should present to the class. He argues that, if the story is compelling, students will pick up language without even trying and will make an effort to understand language that might be too complicated for them.

I have been trying this for a while, and I have noticed that, as a result, the conversations I have with my students seem much more natural and much less forced. In addition, students are more engaged in these conversations because they know that I have no hidden agenda. I’m not asking them questions about their favorite season because they have to learn seasons vocabulary but because I am genuinely interested in whether or not some of my students hate summer (and those that have parents who work all the time and end up spending most of the summer home alone or stuck watching younger siblings actually do dislike summer). And if students only can produce words for two out of the four seasons in Spanish at the end of the year? Big deal. They are not high frequency words. And speaking of high frequency words, I have noticed that I naturally end up saying these words all the time, which my students are picking up with little effort due to how often I say them.

I’ve just looked out the window and noticed that the snow has stopped and the sun is out. So I will bid you all adieu as I go shovel. Have a great day and cross your fingers that this is the last of the snowy New England winter!