Random Notes from Conferences

I’ve decided that it’s time to get rid of some of the clutter in my home à la Marie Kondo. I came across a large number of notebooks in which I took notes at various conferences I attended in the past four years. Before I toss them, I decided to save some of the most important takeaways here in this blog post. In no particular order, here are some of the big takeaways I have from those events.

Notes from a TPRS workshop with Craig Sheehy and Mike Coxon

  • Authentic texts are not necessarily good sources of comprehensible input if they have too many unfamiliar words, especially for Novice students (read more about this here).
  • The best comprehensible input is RICH (Repetitive, Interesting, Comprehensible and full of High-frequency words).
  • Language is only input if it is used to communicate a message. Language used as practice is NOT input so it does not lead to gains in acquisition (research on that can be found here).
  • Dr. Bill VanPatten says that in language acquisition, there are no language errors, just different stages of language development (see more about this here).
  • Dr. Bill VanPatten also says that explicit correction of so-called student “errors” will not accelerate acquisition or increase accuracy (see more about this here).
  • For teachers, delivering input is like a friendly game of catch. Teachers should use nice, easy language with no fastballs (talking too fast) and no curveballs (using too much unfamiliar language).
  • Teachers who teach gestures along with high-frequency words can then use those gestures as non-verbal prompting when students try to produce language.
  • If it’s at all possible, teach students, not curriculum, meaning that it’s inappropriate to move on if students haven’t mastered current material.

Notes from a Classroom Management Workshop with Jon Cowart

  • Students need explicit instructions about when they’re expected to use the target language, when they can use English, and what to do if they don’t understand. These instructions will most likely need to be repeated frequently.
  • For accountability, have students self-assess their engagement and behavior.
  • If you give students directions but some are slow to comply, praising and/or thanking the students who have already followed the direction may be the catalyst needed for other students to comply, thus eliminating the need to repeat the direction or singling out students who haven’t followed it yet.
  • If the majority of a class is not following a certain rule, do a whole class reset. Stop teaching, review class rules, practice the correct behavior, discuss why the class follows rules, and try again to get back to the lesson.
  • If one or only a few students are not following a certain rule, try norming the error. Stop teaching, explain what went wrong, state what should have happened, and give the students a chance to redeem themselves once you start teaching again.
  • When praising students for good behavior, be SPECIFIC with your praise. Name the desirable action the student is doing.

Notes from a Classroom Jobs Workshop with John Sifert

  • Classroom jobs create a better sense of community, relieve and reduce teacher stress, and can improve classroom management.
  • Jobs in a CI language class fall into three categories: classroom management, story jobs, and language management jobs.
  • Classroom management jobs include: materials distributors/collectors; people in charge of the door, phone, and lights; attendance takers; nurse (in charge of Band-Aids and Kleenex); and boss (reminds people to do their job, recommends firing or promoting people).
  • Story jobs include: actors, quiz writers, illustrators, colorists, and Professor #2 (the person who gets to decide things when the teacher doesn’t).
  • Language jobs include: timekeepers (tracks how many minutes can the class stay in the target language), English police (politely reminds students speaking in English to try to talk in the Target language if possible).
  • Make sure to post jobs (preferably in the target language) so it’s easier for people to remember what they have to do.
  • Take volunteers for jobs first and try only to assign them if you don’t have enough volunteers.

Backwards Planning with Jessica Haxhi

  • Backwards Planning refers to creating units starting with the end goal in mind.
  • The first step in Backwards Planning is to identify the goals students should meet. Teachers should set realistic goals based on the students’ proficiency level and they should be able to write 2-3 Can-Do Statements based on the goal.
  • The second step in Backwards Planning is to create an assessment to measure how well students can meet the goal set in Step 1. Jessica suggests that students have a choice in how they wish to be assessed and the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency in all three modes (Interpretive, Interpersonal, and Presentational).
  • The third step in Backwards Planning is to determine what vocabulary and language structures students need to demonstrate proficiency and reach the desired end goal.

Unit Planning with Arianne Dowd

  • When planning a unit, choose the topic based on your passions or interests.
  • If you can’t think of a topic, visit other teachers’ blog posts or Pinterest accounts, such as Leslie Grahn’s Pinterest page, grahn for Lang.
  • Base your unit on an authentic resource you love. Then determine what vocabulary students will need in order to make the resource accessible to students.
  • If possible, include a cultural comparison in your unit, where students compare what they see in the resource with their own cultural products, practices, or perspectives.

Teaching With Comprehensible Input with Gary DiBianca

  • Students are prepped for success if they feel that they are in a safe environment (Safe environment = low affective filter = greater chance of acquisition)
  • If you teach with comprehensible input, its important to talk to students about second language acquisition and how the way you teach facilitates it.
  • Set expectations quickly and be consistent in enforcing them.
  • Show students that you care about them and their success.
  • Check often to see that students understand.
  • Gestures, word walls, visuals, and props can all aide in comprehension.
  • Levels of chunking language: single word, word pairs, word with prepositions, full sentences.
  • Try to change activities every ten minutes to keep students engaged.
  • Steps for Total Physical Response: Say and model, Say but don’t model, Say two commands in a row, Say two commands in a row with students’ eyes closed, Say three commands in a row, Say and add details.
  • A TPRS story only needs 5-6 sentences.
  • Classic TPRS story frame: A character has a problem and tries to solve it in three ways.
  • Follow up a TPRS story with a pre-written text of with a Write and Discuss activity.
  • Novel ways to reuse language: Songs, Picture Talk, videos, fairy tales, simple biographies, legends, and games.
  • Rereading activities: Choral translation, pair reading, drawing comics from a reading, true/false questions in English, comprehension questions about the text.
  • 5 ways to assess: Simple translation, listening comprehension, dictation, story retells, and timed writing.
  • Before starting a novel, plan prereading and post reading activities ahead of time for each chapter.
  • If you do Calendar Talk, lead students in conversation at the beginning of the month and fill out a calendar for the month based on what students say (one calendar for each class).

Equity and Social Justice in Lesson Planning with Dr. José Medina

  • Everyone has unconscious biases which find their way into lesson planning if teachers are not careful.
  • Whether teachers acknowledge it or not, lesson planning is a political act based on what teachers choose to amplify or ignore in their units.
  • Teachers need to examine their practices through a social justice and equity lens.
  • When lessons planning, plan with a content, language, and culture target in mind.
  • Try to connect the culture learning target to self, community, and the real world
  • The language target is the most important target.

Small Group Instruction Victory

If you ask any teacher, I think most of them would say that the 2021-2022 school year has been just as difficult as the 2020-2021 school year, if not more. It’s been difficult to keep my morale up when students are so traumatized from the pandemic. Almost every teacher will tell you about the increase in student immaturity and misbehavior and the decrease in student perseverance and stamina. I have found it difficult to recapture the joy that I had in the classroom before the pandemic.

The fabulous Spanish teacher Anne Marie Chase was feeling similarly until she started doing some small-group instruction in her extremely difficult first-year class. She decided to divide the class into three groups. On day one, two groups did individual, silent work (Each group did a different assignment). She led the other group in a conversation designed to provide lots of input. Over the next two days, the groups continued to rotate until they had all done all three activities. You can read more about her solution here.

This gave me the idea to try something similar with the class novel we’re currently reading. In class, I have lots of “fast finishers” who grow impatient when I don’t go through the chapter quickly and other students who are “late finishers” and absolutely need me to go slowly. I decided to divide students into two groups, with one group working independently and the other working with me in a small group. I let all student choose which group they wanted to be in but warned those who chose to work independently that I would make them join the small group if they completed their work poorly.

Students who work independently read our current chapter while listening to the chapter being read to them on the audio. Students who opt to work in a small group read together with me as I project the text on my Smartboard. When they’re done reading, both groups complete of one of three post-reading activities. I usually give them the option of taking a quiz on a Google Form, drawing a comic strip based on a summary in the target language about the chapter they read, or completing a cut-and-paste activity that requires them to cut out sentences and put them in chronological order based on the chapter.

I’m blown away by how well this system is working in class. I think my stronger students appreciate not having to plod through the whole chapter, and my weaker students appreciate the extra support I can give them in a small group. I can already see improvement in attention, engagement, and performance of some of my weaker students.

If you decide to try something like this, here are my suggestions:

  1. Hold students accountable for their work. Give grades for the independent work and make students redo things that they do poorly on. Otherwise, they may not complete their work with solid effort.
  2. While working with students in the small group, don’t forget to stop every once in a while to monitor students working independently to make sure they are not off task.
  3. Don’t use this technique for the first chapter, especially if you haven’t done a novel in class before. Do the first chapter slowly as a whole class. If this is the first time reading a novel in class, you might consider reading the second chapter together as a whole class as well.
  4. Don’t use this technique for every chapter or it will get monotonous. I usually do this every two or three chapters depending on how many new vocabulary words are in the chapter. For other chapters, you can read together as a whole class or you can have students follow along with the audio.

So far, results have been extremely positive. My “fast finishers” love being able to work at their own pace, and I heap tons of praise on them so they continue to be motivated to work hard. Students who choose to work in the small group love the extra support and attention. All students enjoy having the choice to decide not only which group they want to be in but also which follow-up activity they want to complete to show their understanding. It has been a real bright spot for me as well. As Anne Marie said in her blog, this technique is not that new to elementary teachers, who are masters of small group management and instruction, but it feels pretty new to me and has done wonders for my morale in what has been a pretty dark year. If you try this, let me know how it goes!

Adapting Tina’s Lesson Plan Framework

In my last post, I talked about Tina Hargaden’s lesson plan framework for a traditional 50-55 minute class. In this post, I’ll discuss how to adapt this framework for shorter or longer classes.

Tina’s traditional lesson plan framework is set up below. See my last post for in-depth explanation of these components.

  1. Norming the class (2-3 minutes)
  2. Reading Workshop (5-10 minutes)
  3. Guided Oral Input (14 minutes)
  4. Scaffolded Oral Review (6 minutes)
  5. Shared Writing (12 minutes)
  6. Shared Reading (6 minutes)
  7. Student Application and Assessment (3-5 minutes)

Teachers with shorter classes can adapt this framework by breaking it up over two days. Here’s Tina’s suggestion:

Day 1
1. Norming the class
2. Reading Workshop
3. Guided Oral Input
4. Scaffolded Oral Review (Very quickly)
5. Shared Writing
6. Student Application and Assessment (Very quickly)

Day 2
1. Norming the class
2. Reading Workshop
3. Scaffolded Oral Review (In depth)
4. Shared Reading (Of Shared Writing from Day 1)
5. Student Application and Assessment (in depth)

Teachers on a block schedule should follow the same framework as the original, 50-55 minute class but extend and/or repeat a few of the activities so they last a little longer and schedule some breaks in between (See this post for ideas about Brain Breaks). For example, Guided Oral Input in a 50-55 minute class might have a main idea and three details, but have a main idea and five details in a block class. So perhaps it might look something like this:

  1. Norming the class (2-3 minutes)
  2. Reading Workshop (5-10 minutes)
  3. Guided Oral Input, Part 1 (14 minutes)
  4. Scaffolded Oral Review (6 minutes)
  5. Guided Oral Input, Part 2 (14 minutes)
  6. Scaffolded Oral Review, Part 2 (6 minutes)
  7. Shared Writing (12 minutes)
  8. Shared Reading (6 minutes)
  9. Student Application and Assessment (3 to 5 minutes)

No matter what the length of class, Tina’s lesson framework is flexible enough to adapt to practically every class. I’m looking forward to implementing it in my own classes next week!

Two Days With Tina

This past Monday and Tuesday I went to a two-day workshop with Tina Hargaden. Tina runs the group CI Liftoff and has taken the upcoming year off from teaching to travel around the US training teachers. I have been Facebook friends with Tina for a few years now and was excited that I finally got the chance to see her in action.

Tina is a French and Spanish teacher who uses a proficiency-based, comprehensible input (CI) approach in her classes. What sets her apart from other French and Spanish teacher trainers, however, is that she also has a background in teaching social studies, English to students of other languages (ESOL) and English language arts (ELA). This offers an interesting perspective on teaching a second language because she has incorporated the use of strategies from those fields in her second language classroom.

For me, the most valuable takeaway from the workshop was Tina’s lesson plan framework. I love the consistency and flexibility it provides. I anticipate that I will not have to agonize as much over my lesson planning once I adopt and adapt this lesson plan to my classroom needs.

Here is the framework Tina uses on a daily basis when planning a lesson.

1. Norming the class. During the first two or three minutes of the class, Tina tells students what the day’s objectives are (Example: “Okay class, today I’m going to tell you a story about something that happened to me when I was young. After we read and write about it, I will ask you some questions about it to make sure you understood it.”).

2. Reading workshop. With her background in ELA, it probably doesn’t surprise you to hear that Tina stresses literacy in her classes. In addition, if you’ve been reading this blog, you have already learned that reading is the most powerful way for students to acquire language, in both their first language (L1) and second language (L2). This five to ten minute segment is one of the first of two reading activities that students do in class on a daily basis. This block of time is when students do Free Voluntary Reading, where they can read practically anything in the L2. Other activities that Tina may do during this time include Book Talks, during which she may describe and recommend a book in her class library in the L2, whole-class reading (if she finds a short passage that she wants to share with them) or Volleyball Reading.

3. Guided Oral Input. This part of Tina’s lesson is the longest (14 minutes or so) because students need to receive comprehensible input (CI) in order to acquire language. Here is where she uses one of many strategies such as Storylistening, Storyasking, Movie Talk, Picture Talk, One Word Images, or Special Person Interviews to provide input to the class.

One strategy that was new to me that Tina modeled at her workshop is called a Narrative Input Chart, which she first heard about at a Project Glad training. In an ESOL class, it is a story-based activity used to teach academic language and concepts. For example, if the class is studying about the solar system, the academic content and vocabulary is embedded in a story about an extra-terrestrial traveling through the solar system looking for a new home. Below is an example of how a narrative input chart might be incorporated into an ESOL class.

Tina has modified this strategy for use in the second language classroom and has used it to complement L2 storytelling. My fabulous workshop partner Rachel (this is a different Rachel, not the one who introduced me to the Carlos Game)and I have plans to use this technique for history and cultural lessons in our classes.

4. Scaffolded Oral Review. This part of the lesson is about six minutes long, during which the teacher reviews whatever was done in the Guided Oral Input part of class. This can be pretty much any oral review activity, ranging from a quick question-and-answer session to a review game.

One strategy that was new to me is called Reading the Walls. The teacher reviews any visual created during the Guided Oral Input segment of class (Tina recommends doing this in a question-answer format for heightened engagement) and affixes large Post-Its with key terms on the visual as the class reviews, thus reinforcing those key terms.

5. Shared Writing. Together, the teacher and class write about what was discussed and reviewed during the Guided Oral Input and Scaffolded Oral Review segments of class. This activity should take about ten minutes or so. If you search for this technique online, you may find it referred to as “Write and Discuss.” When I do this in my class, I will often start a sentence in the L2 and ask students to finish it. If students are unable to finish it, I then may give them a choice to help them. Here are two examples of this in English.

Me: Today is…(I write the first two words and wait for students to call out a response)

Student(s): Tuesday.

Me: Today is Tuesday (I finish writing the sentence).


Me: Today is…(I write the first two words, wait for students to call out a response, but nobody finishes the sentence)

Me: Is today Monday or Tuesday?

Student(s): Tuesday.

Me: Today is Tuesday (I finish writing the sentence).

If you want to learn more about Write and Discuss, John Piazza does an excellent job explaining how to do this activity in this post.

6. Shared Reading. Once the writing is complete, the teacher reads the text out loud as the class translates. This takes about eight minutes. When she demonstrated this in class, Tina circled and translated any new words (she is not afraid to add some new words in the shared writing). In addition, she also took time during this segment of class it to discuss grammar as needed in pop-up grammar style. Tina often will often encourage students to share ideas about the language by asking “What can you teach the class?” This gives students a chance to examine the text and comment on language features.

7. Student application and assessment. This is the last segment of the class where Tina wraps everything up with some sort of formal or informal assessment. Depending on how she decides to assess, this may take about five to ten minutes.

This lesson plan is designed for a traditional 50-55 minute class. In my next post, I will describe how to modify this for a shorter or a longer class.

When You Absolutely Have to Teach Grammar

I recently met a Spanish teacher who is new to the area. He teaches at a private middle school and has been attending some interesting professional development this year, including Organic World Language (OWL) training and a proficiency institute organized by a local language association. His comment to me was that, although he has enjoyed learning new ideas at these workshops, he is unable to implement a lot of the new ideas he learns into his classes because the teachers at the high school that his students go on to attend expect that they will have a solid grammar foundation when they reach the second year of the language.

Sigh. I hear this over and over again. So many teachers who want to incorporate more proficiency-based and comprehensible input (CI) approaches in their classroom feel that they are unable to because of the demands placed on them to teach grammar. Of course, these teachers don’t want put their job in jeopardy, so many of them bow down to pressure and teach grammar explicitly, even though it doesn’t result in language acquisition (For further explanation of this, pick up a copy of Bill VanPatten’s book While We’re on The Topic). I am not in a situation like this but I am also not passing judgement, because as I said previously in this post, we all have to do what we need to do to keep our jobs.

That being said, with a little planning and creativity, you can find ways to teach the necessary grammar but still remain primarily CI or proficiency based. Below are a few ways you can do that.

Solution Number 1: Do CI and proficiency-based activities exclusively until the last few weeks of school, then switch and do explicit grammar for the remainder of the year. This is what Alina Filipescu does in her classroom. Read this post to find out more about how she makes sure students get to the next level with plenty of knowledge about verb conjugations in Spanish.

Solution Number 2: Have designated “Language Study Days.” This is something I first heard about from Tina Hargarden. She did a language study day every few weeks to fulfill district requirements (A colleague of mine who teaches Spanish also has days set aside for language study. She jokingly said that she calls them “Dinosaur Days” and wants to wear a Tyrannosaurus Rex costume in class for those lessons).

Solution Number 3: Alternate between CI or proficiency-based lesson weekly, biweekly, or monthly. This is similar to what Alina Filipescu does but breaks up the grammar study throughout the year. I tried this on and off for a few years but found that I preferred waiting until the end of the year to do all the grammar, kind of like what Alina does.

Solution Number 4: Assign students grammar study for homework. If you read this post and this post, you will see that I have written before about flipped classrooms, where teachers obligate students to learn a new concept for homework that the teacher then reviews the following day in class. If you check YouTube, you will find a lot of videos that explain different grammar topics in a second language, especially in Spanish. This year, I found videos on YouTube about different grammar topics and gave students worksheets to fill out while watching them. I kept all the worksheets together in a folder for each student for personal reference and then I shipped a copy up to the high school teacher so she could see the topics they had reviewed.

The bottom line is, you can have the best of both worlds, where you provide your students with plenty of comprehensible input and activities designed to further language proficiency but still squeeze in those necessary grammar topics. If you haven’t already, I hope you will consider giving it a try.

My Takeaways This Year

I have already started reflecting on what has worked for me this year and what I have learned about myself as a teacher and about second language (L2) students in general. These thoughts are in no particular order, and many of them echo things that I have already written about on this blog. Below are things that I have been thinking about recently.

1. Before teachers can begin to teach meaningfully, they must make sure to train their students to meet their expectations. As I have already talked about in this previous post, the main priority of all teachers should be to establish class norms, make expectations clear, and enforce discipline consistently. With high school students, this should typically take two or three weeks. As a rule of thumb, the younger the student, the longer it will take to train them. There are always exceptions to this rule, however, since every class is different. In addition, it is also good practice to retrain students after long weekends and vacation weeks.

2. While forced output is never acceptable, it is fine for a teacher to cold call students if the teacher is pretty sure that they know the answer. One of the biggest components of teaching with comprehensible input (CI) is understanding that obligating students to speak will not further proficiency. This is called forced output, and it is common in traditional, textbook-driven classes. As Dr. Stephen Krashen stated in his book Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition, making students produce language when they are not ready to do so will raise the Affective Filter and hinder language acquisition.

While I strongly support this hypothesis, I started to notice that, in classes where I wasn’t randomly choosing students to answer questions, some of my students were beginning to disengage and lose focus. It is perfectly understandable. Students in a class who know that they may be cold called (that is, called on to answer a question for which s/he did not volunteer to answer) have to stay attentive in class because they know that they may have to answer a question involuntarily at any moment. But some students will become disengaged if they know that the teacher is not going to obligate them to participate.

3. Teachers can use authentic resources creatively at any level. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) supports using authentic resources in the world language classroom, but many teachers struggle with making those resources comprehensible for Novice students. It takes practice, but with appropriate scaffolding or an attainable underlying purpose for use of that resource, teachers can successfully use authentic resources with all students.

For example, students in a Novice level class can study a song in the target language (TL), but the desired end result may not be that they understand every word of the song. Maybe the goal is for them to understand just one line. Or maybe the song is secondary because it has a great video that the teacher can use as a Movie Talk. In addition, authentic resources like works of art, wordless books, or photographs (that is to say, resources without language) can also be used in Novice classes. Why hadn’t I thought about that before?

4. While teaching culture is an important component of second language teaching, it can be taught in the target language (TL) at all levels. Many teachers talk about culture in the students’ native language because they say that students don’t possess the appropriate language skills to discuss cultural topics in the TL. But if you look at ACTFL’s Intercultural Competency expectations, you will find that, even at the Intermediate level, students are not expected to have in-depth, detailed knowledge of cultural products or practices. Novices are only expected to identify products and practices, which means that while they might be expected to know that September 16th is Mexican Independence Day and that it is a national holiday, they should not be expected to know much more than that. At the Intermediate level, students would be expected to know enough facts about Mexican Independence Day that they would be able to compare it with Independence Day in their home country. It’s only at the advanced level that students are expected to be able to speak at length and with great detail about cultural products or practices. So since expectations are so low (and, in my opinion, completely realistic for the students’ ability level), it is completely possible for students to learn about a certain cultural product or practice in the TL.

5. Technology is a nice tool to use in a second language classroom, but it is not essential. This year I incorporated a lot of technology into my classroom instruction, such as Quizlet, Kahoot, Gimkit, Charlala, Wheel Decide, and Plickers. What I learned was that, although my students enjoyed the novelty associated with using them, they didn’t really add anything to my classroom instruction that I felt I couldn’t live without. If I ever have an administrator that wants to see me use technology during an observation, I will make sure to use one of the tools listed above. I’ll also use one of these tech tools on a day when half the class is on a field trip or right before a vacation. But on a regular basis, I will not use a technology just for the sake of using technology.

6. When it comes to curriculum, less is more. Lance Piantaggini has a curriculum document on his website that I found very beneficial. Basically, he structures his curriculum around two essential questions (“Who am I?” and “Who are the speakers of the TL?”) and a list of high-frequency verbs called the Super Seven (and, once students have mastered those, the Sweet Sixteen. That’s it.

It probably doesn’t sound like much, but when you brainstorm all the possible answers to those two questions, you will find that almost anything you want to or are obligated to teach is an appropriate response to those two essential questions. And while teaching only seven (or sixteen) verbs doesn’t sound like a lot, it is a lot more when you factor in all the different tenses (When teaching in a comprehensible input classroom, teachers are encouraged to use any and all tenses necessary to make their messages meaning and comprehensible). And as you continue to use those high-frequency verbs, you will just naturally include other vocabulary that one would naturally use with those verbs (articles, adjectives, prepositions, common nouns, and so on).

As you embark on your summer break, I encourage you to reflect on what you have learned this year. How will what you have learned about yourself this year guide and improve your practice next year? Let me know.

What’s In a Name?

For the first 20+ years of my teaching career (when I was a textbook-based, traditional drill and kill teacher), I always gave students a French or Spanish name when they entered my first-year language classes, which would stay with them throughout their second language study at our school. Recently, however, I have abandoned this practice. Reasons why are described below.

Over the years I’ve had more Pablos, Marías, Moniques, and Pierres than I can shake a stick at. Names were given on the first day of class, which was also when students made name tags with their new names on it. As my students and I went through our introductory classes together, I often would pick up a student’s name tag and use it during a pronunciation lesson or conversation about accent marks. It was great to talk about the Spanish pronunciation of the letter j, for example, and then go pick up the name tag of the kid who chose the name “José” to illustrate my point.

In addition, most of my students loved having a French or Spanish name. Some students would call each other by their Spanish or French name in other classes, and I enjoyed it when students came to my class and told me about how they accidentally wrote their Spanish or French name on a math test. I even had a few students confess that they did not know the real name of some of their classmates and knew them only by the name given to them in my class.

But over the years, I began to reevaluate this practice. First, I started noticing in Spanish class that I had boys fighting over the name “Jesús” just because they thought it was funny to be named after Christ. I also had multiple boys fighting over being called “Juan” so they could make puns like, “I’m Juan in a million.” Other boys wanted to be called “Pablo” in honor of the drug lord Pablo Escobar. Things were no better in French class, where my male students fought over the names with Arabic roots like “Habib” and the female students all wanted the name “Latifah.” I eventually realized that my naming practice was perpetuating negative stereotypes and inadvertently giving students permission to make fun of people from another culture.

In addition, one of my classroom goals was to have students realize that the language they were studying was real and alive, spoken my millions of people all over the globe (This is one of the reasons why the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) advocates using authentic resources in second language classrooms). I didn’t want them to think of Spanish or French as something artificial that they only used when in my classroom.

In his book While We’re On the Topic, Bill VanPatten is adamant that all language used in class be part of authentic communication. This is the reason why he doesn’t have students pretend to be in an airport or restaurant in his classes. By extension, how authentic and real can communication be when someone’s real name is Caleb but classmates are calling him Federico? Not very authentic at all, I think. Over time, it started to seem counterproductive to give students a false identity when I was spending so much time trying to promote the authenticity and the real-world value of studying a second language in my class.

These days, I don’t have nametags to help me illustrate pronunciation or accent usage. My students figure those things out anyway through frequent classroom use. Also, I call everyone in class his or her given name or nickname. If a student has a name that is 100% identical in English (our first language) and Spanish or French (like David in Spanish or Rose in French), I will pronounce that name with an appropriate French or Spanish accent. If students’ names have a Spanish or French translation, I share that with students (“Your name is Michael? In Spanish it would be “Miguel.”) but never address them with it. The boy in Spanish class named Matthew is never “Mateo,” and the girl in French class named Mary is never “Marie.” These days, I’m all about keeping it real! How about you?

Classroom Management, Revisited

Last year I went to a TPRS workshop with Mike Coxon and Craig Sheehy. This was the first time I heard about their classroom management system. Blaine Ray, the creator of TPRS, calls it the Party Points System. The Party Points system awards the class points for staying in the target language (TL) for eight minute segments. The teacher uses a timer and resets the timer every time someone talks in English. If the class is successful in staying in the target language for eight minutes, they get a point. After a certain number of points, the class gets a reward (View this post for more on this system).

I came home from the conference and implemented this system. It worked really well. My problem behaviors decreased dramatically. I ignored colleagues who criticized the system and was able to make it to the end of the year with hardly any discipline issues at all. Life was good.

At the National TPRS conference in Boston over the summer, I heard again from Blaine about how awesome the Party Points System was. When the new school year started, I made plans to implement Mike and Craig’s reward system again. As far as I was concerned, it was foolproof, right?


I have one class this year that has been difficult since our first week back in August. The class is very large (27 students), which makes classroom management difficult. I also have a large number of boys in the class who don’t take class seriously. I abandoned the Party Points System with them because I got nowhere. They were so bad that they often earned zero points in one 45-minute class. The well-behaved students were frustrated by those who constantly blurted in English and spent class socializing, and the ones who caused the problems stopped caring about a reward. As far as they were concerned, if they were never going to earn any points, why bother trying to behave? It was a lost cause.

So I implemented the “hard reset.” I spoke to the class about their behavior, explained why I was abandoning the point system, and returned to my old-school management system à la Ben Slavic. It’s only been a few days since the switch, but things are a little better. My students aren’t little angels, but the threat of calling home is keeping most of them in line. The moral of the story, then, is that no classroom management system is perfect. Some kids just naturally will misbehave, and it’s up to the teacher to figure out how to manage them in the most effective way possible. And considering that I have been teaching for over 20 years, I should have known that.

Authentic Resources

World languages conferences are traditionally held in the fall, which is why October has been a very busy month for me. Three weeks ago I helped organize and also presented at a small local conference, and a few days ago I attended a larger conference nearby. At both conferences, authentic resources were a popular topic of discussion.

I must confess that I have never been a fan of using authentic resources in my language classes, mainly because I felt that most of them were too complex for my novice students to understand and appreciate. In addition, I felt that most of the language in authentic resources was not very practical, and it was more important that students be exposed to more high-frequency words. But somehow I found myself assigned the task of giving a presentation about authentic resources at my local conference, and I have slightly changed my tune.

The reasons for this change are varied. First of all, due to the advent of the Internet, it is super easy to find many different, appropriate types of authentic resources, ranging from infographics, commercials, and recipes to music videos, short stories, and full length television shows and movies. Many Spanish teachers have written extensively about using Spanish television shows like Gran Hotel or El Internado, and many French teachers enjoy adding lessons based on music videos to their class.

Second, authentic resources are a great way to learn about the culture of the language we teach. Even though I have taught Spanish for years, I didn’t learn about el Ratoncito Pérez (the equivalent to the tooth fairy in Spain) until I watched a TV show where two little girls talked about losing teeth. In addition, it was through the same TV show that I realized that even though “Felicidades” and “Enhorabuena” both translate to “Congratulations” in English, they  aren’t generally used for the same occasions (Traditionally, “Enhorabuena” is for something that only happens once or twice in a lifetime, like a wedding, job promotion, or graduation, and “Felicidades” is for things that happen more often, like a birthday or a good grade on something).

Finally, the third reason I have changed my mind about authentic resources is that I came to the realization that students don’t have to understand every single word of the resource in order to have a meaningful experience with it. In addition, I can use the authentic resources to introduce and reinforce some high frequency vocabulary. Here are the steps I take when I decide to use an authentic resource.

Step 1: I choose an authentic resource that I want to use. I usually choose an authentic resource because it relates to a topic I am talking about in class. So I may find an infographic about eating habits during conversations about food or a commercial about Christmas when I talk about holidays.

Step 2: I ensure that the authentic resource is appropriate for my students. I make sure the language is not too complex and that the resource is both age and culturally appropriate.

Step 3: I determine my main goal for using the authentic resource. As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons I used to shy away from using authentic resources was because I thought my students had to understand every word of the resource in order for it to be valuable. I have since realized that students understanding every single word doesn’t have to be the main goal. For example, when I used the Jean de la Fontaine fable “Le Corbeau et le Renard,” my main goal was to use it as a medium to teach some descriptive adjectives and other high frequency words. As far as the fable itself, I wanted students to only be familiar with the general plot and moral of the story.

Step 4: I pick out the necessary structures and/or cultural references my students need to understand the authentic resources. For example, for this Tapsin commerical, I make sure students know about the history of the Ekeko and use it to teach some vocabulary that has to do with being sick (thanks to Kara Jacobs for showing me this commercial in the first place).

Step 5: I preteach those necessary structures and/or cultural references. I always preteach these concepts through context and not as isolated words, because students are more likely to remember the concepts in a context than in isolation. I use Total Physical Response, Movie Talks, and other techniques that are designed to deliver a lot of comprehensible input (CI).

Step 6: I introduce the authentic resource. After preteaching structures in context for this McDonald’s commercial in Spanish (including the use of this infographic about levying taxes on soft drinks in Mexico), I was ready to show students the commercial itself and talk about it.

Step 7 (Optional): Assess or do a final wrap-up activity. I stay away from traditional vocabulary tests, but I might ask students to retell the main idea of the fable/video/story that we just talked about or ask students to create something original with the new structures we used.

The beauty of breaking down the authentic resource step by step is that I have a flexible process that I can follow. Depending on the size and complexity of the resource, each step I take care be very short and quick for a resource like an infographic or an advertisement or take a while for something longer like a video clip or a song. Give it a try!

Special Person Interviews

I have written before about Special Person Interviews (I have mentioned this activity here and also here. Resources for Special Person Interviews can be found here and here.). I love this activity because it puts the spotlight on the students and is because it is so versatile. I plan to incorporate this activity in my first-year class this year.

Here is the procedure I followed last year;

  1. Students filled out a questionnaire about themselves either in class or at home.
  2. One by one, students came to the front of the room and answered the questions on their questionnaire using either the questionnaire or a projected PowerPoint as support. While the student was speaking, a class artist drew a picture representing what the student being interviewed said.
  3. The following day in class, the artist shared the drawing. This was The Big Reveal. I then used this drawing as a way to review what we learned about the student the day before.
  4. After four interviews, I compiled a sheet of sentences about the four interviewed students (such as “This person has two dogs,” or “This person celebrates her birthday in May”) and had students fill in the name of the student being described. Students then took the paper home to study.
  5. I gave a quiz where students had to write five sentences about each student with facts they had learned during the interview (I graded the quiz on content only and took points off for accuracy only if I couldn’t understand the sentence).

This year I have changed my procedure slightly.

  1. I will still give students a questionnaire to fill out about themselves, but it is not as long as the form I used last year (This year’s form is single-sided, where last year’s form was double-sided. The interviews were just getting too long to keep students’ attention.).
  2. Students are still going to come up to the front of the room for their interviews and I will continue to employ a class artist to draw. But I also will have a note taker, who will have to fill in a sheet about the student being interviewed. I am also going to have a data collector, who will be responsible for keeping track of information such as how many students have birthdays in what month, how many students are from out-of-state, and other information on a tally sheet.
  3. Students will take a quick true/false quiz once the interview is over (I didn’t do this last year and I think students tuned out as a result).
  4. The following day, students will read a paragraph about the special person that I will write using information provided by the note taker (Thanks to my friend Rachel for the idea to do this). I will have students read the paragraph with me and then the artist will share the drawing.

Since I have shortened the interview this year, I can reserve the more complicated questions for next year in case I want to do this activity again. I’m not sure if I will, however, because it may not be as compelling the second time as I am hoping it will be the first time. I’ll just have to wait and see. And finally, let me give a shout-out to the original creator of Special Person Interviews, Bryce Hedstrom. This is such an awesome activity! Thanks for everything, Bryce!