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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Capture

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 Awesome News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Exploratory Language Class Activities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I’ve Been Thinking About This Past Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ci-umbrella-final-version1

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

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

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

How to Liberate Your Language Department Using ACTFL Can-Do Statements

Yesterday, I attended an informal workshop about Can-Do Statements, which were written and then revised by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). The Can-Dos are divided into three communication categories (Interpretive, Presentational, and Interpersonal) and two intercultural categories (Investigate and Interact) and describe what language learners should be able to do with their acquired second language based on their proficiency level (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Distinguished, and Superior). For example, some of the things that learners at an Intermediate level should be able to do include the ability to:

  • understand the main idea and some pieces of information on familiar topics from sentences and series of connected sentences,
  • participate in spontaneous spoken, written, or signed conversations on familiar topics,
  • communicate information, make presentations, and express my thoughts about familiar topics, using sentences and series of connected sentences,
  • make comparisons between products and practices, and
  • interact at a functional level in some familiar contexts.

Then based on the category and the proficiency level of the language learners, a series of sample Can-Do Statements are offered for teachers and students to use as a model and alter as necessary. For example, based on what Intermediate language learners can do, sample Can-Do sentences include the following:

  • I can understand essential information in a feature story in a magazine.
  • I can understand some basic facts reported by a witness regarding an accident.
  • I can understand most of what is said in a conversation among characters in a familiar play.
  • I can understand a written apology where a someone explains why he couldn’t attend party.
  • I can understand diners discussing what to order at a restaurant.
  • I can exchange blog posts about raising money for a cause.
  • In my own and other cultures I can compare and contrast how people label nationalities and why they do so.
  • I can choose an appropriate means of transportation based on my location, needs, and local options.

Then, by using the Can-Do Statement as the desired end result of instruction, teachers can determine what vocabulary, structures and cultural products or practices they need to teach in order to reach those results. For example, if my Can-Do Statement is “I can understand diners discussing what to order at a restaurant,” a teacher would have to make sure than students have had instruction about different types of foods and drink, words needed to describe food and drinks, structures such as “I want to order,” “I would like,” and “I don’t like,” interrogatives, and so on. Instruction might also include information about traditional meals in the country or countries where the target language is spoken. All of these lessons can play a role in helping students meet the goal of understanding a restaurant conversation.

I am lucky enough this year to be the only French teacher at my school, so I do not have to worry about staying “on the same page” with other teachers. This is something that I have to do, however, for my Spanish classes. When I started at my new school I was handed a curriculum and lessons to teach complete with worksheets and assessments to use in class. All year I have been having issues. Using lessons, worksheets, and assessments made by someone else feels kind of like walking around wearing someone else’s clothes. As the newest of three Spanish teachers, it sometimes takes me longer to get through a unit than it takes the other Spanish teachers. In addition, I wanted to use comprehensible input (CI) in my classroom, which doesn’t appear in the curriculum as often as I would like, so I spent some time altering lessons and units to do that. And finally, I wanted to be able to use my own materials and approaches, because that is what I am comfortable doing and what I think is the most effective approach to facilitate second language acquisition.

It was after this workshop that I had what I think is a fantastic idea. Instead of writing common curricula, lessons, worksheets, and assessments, what if the three Spanish teachers sat down together and came up with a set of Can-Do statements for our common classes, and then leave it up to the individual teacher to determine how to meet those Can-Do statements? Then if Teacher A wants to use a traditional curriculum to teach descriptive adjectives, for example, but Teacher B wants to do it using CI, both teachers are actually addressing the goal set by the Can-Do statement (Which might be something like, “I can describe myself and my family”) without having to do exactly the same thing (although due to my love of all things CI you all know that I would bet that the students taught traditionally wouldn’t make as much progress as the students in the CI class). Then teachers could concentrate on what they do best, which in my case is delivering input, and not have to worry that they have to catch up to the other teachers and do that worksheet or that assessment they haven’t done yet.

Naysayers may say that this won’t work because of the possibility that students may switch from one class to another due to changes with their school schedules. And while I know that this is a possibility, after the first month of September these types of changes are rare. I really don’t think it is fair to force a teacher to do exactly the same thing as every other teacher of the same level and subject due to the remote possibility that someone may switch from one class to the other during the school year. In high school classes where students need to take a common final exam, that new student can be given extra study topics to close any gaps s/he may have due to a change of schedule. In a class where no comprehensive final is given, I’m not sure it really matters if a new student misses a certain unit. Good teachers (and especially CI teachers) know how to reuse and recycle important elements throughout the year, ensuring that the new student will get those important structures elsewhere.

CI teachers have a special advantage when using Can-Do statements to plan instruction, which is that it eliminates the friction that may surface in a department where only some teachers use CI. In addition, Can-Do statements are not grammar based, so the pressure to teach students to conjugate verbs is virtually eliminated. We CI teachers know that we are not going to be able to convince every other second language teacher to convert, for whatever reason. But, at the very least, structuring instruction around Can-Do Statements should reduce the chances that CI teachers will be vilified for their teaching approaches.

I am going to suggest this when the Spanish teachers in my department meet again, which is tomorrow. I will let you know how it goes.

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.

Capture

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!

My Thoughts on Student Input

Wow, my comments about the conference I went to last Saturday has generated quite a bit of conversation on Facebook! All week members of the CI Fight Club have been debating the idea of student output, which was the topic of my last blog post, and have also been discussing another claim I heard at the conference in the Facebook iFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching group, namely that of all the talking being done in a language classroom (which should be 90% of the time according to ACTFL guidelines), teachers should be doing 20% of the talking and students should be doing a whopping 80% of the talking. This claim comes from this book and is echoed by the use of this model, which is called the Learning Pyramid. But as a professional who teaches with comprehensible input (CI), I was skeptical, to say the least.

The way the presenter responsible for these claims sees it, by designing speaking activities that students can do in pairs or small groups, the teacher experiences the best of both worlds. First of all, collaborative work makes the class student-centered instead of teacher-centered (The presenter compared the photo of a collaborative classroom full of students happily working together with one of a teacher lecturing in front of a class full of sleeping students to illustrate what he sees as typical student-centered and teacher-centered classrooms), thus fulfilling the 80-20 expectations of the Learning Pyramid, and since the students are spending almost the entire class completing speaking activities where they are talking to each other in the target language (TL), they are meeting the ACTFL 90% Guideline AND are providing each other with tons of input! It’s a win-win, right?

Ummm…no. I’ll give the presenter points for trying to base his claims on research, but he missed the point in two very important areas.

First of all, let’s start with the claim that teachers should be doing 20% of the talking and students should be doing a whopping 80% of the talking. If we want to have students do the majority of the talking in class, they theoretically need to be able to communicate on a variety of subjects and in complete sentences. They should also be able to ask and answer questions. Based on the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, I would guess that, to do this effectively, a student would need to be at an Intermediate Mid level of speaking proficiency (“Intermediate Mid speakers are able to handle successfully a variety of uncomplicated communicative tasks [related to] personal information related to self, family, home, daily activities, interests and personal preferences, as well as physical and social needs, such as food, shopping, travel, and lodging…they are capable of asking a variety of questions when necessary to obtain simple information.”) or higher. And yet, most students don’t reach the Intermediate Mid level of proficiency until they have had at minimum seven years of classroom instruction. Consider the graphic below.

Capture

It is logical to say, therefore, that reaching that 80-20 split isn’t sustainable in beginner language classes, since they are still in the Novice level and are only capable of short messages made up of “isolated words and phrases that have been encountered, memorized, and recalled.”

Bill Van Patten,  independent scholar and the self-proclaimed “Diva of Second Language Acquisition,” agrees that the 80-20 split in beginning classes is not feasible. He  recently did a live Facebook Q and A where he was asked a question about the 80-20 ratio. He said unequivocally that only in upper levels with students of high proficiency was this possible and that teachers of beginning level classes should do most of the talking and then expect more student talking as the student acquire more language.

Furthermore, let me address the idea that a classroom where a teacher does most of the talking is teacher-centered and not student-centered. I have already written about doing activities like the Special Person Interview, which puts attention on students. And in most CI classrooms, the topics of discussion are often about what students want to talk about. For example, this past Monday when I asked in class what people did over the weekend, one girl said she went to go see the movie Black Panther. This led to a discussion about who also had seen the movie, what superheroes were students’ favorites, and whether or not Batman is a superhero since he technically has no superpowers and is just a guy with cool gadgets (This claim caused quite an uproar, by the way). This conversation was valuable and interactive and totally student-centered, since it was about what the students wanted to talk about. In addition, classes taught with Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) and One Word Images (OWI) are student-centered because the students help create the story being told in class. Many teachers also have class jobs, which is another way to make a class more student-centered (For more on the topic of student-centered classrooms, visit this post by Carol Gaab).

So now that I have explained why I am skeptical of the 80-20 claim, let me turn to the presenter’s second claim, namely that students can provide each other with input by completing speaking activities where they are talking to each other in the TL. I have an issue with that as well. Why? Well, I’ll tell you.

First of all, let’s look at the definition of comprehensible input, a term that was developed by Dr. Stephen Krashen as part of his Input Hypothesis (which is now called the Comprehension Hypothesis). Comprehensible input is described as input that is understandable to the language learner but slightly about the learner’s current proficiency level. Krashen describes this type of input as “i + 1,” and says that this kind of input helps learners acquire language naturally.

So with this definition in mind, speaking activities designed for students in the same class, who are more or less at the same proficiency level, may provide “i” but probably don’t provide “i + 1,” which means there wouldn’t be any new language to acquire. That is why teacher input is so important at the beginning levels, because teachers are the best people for delivering “i + 1” input due to their higher proficiency level.

Second, I have a feeling that many second language teachers automatically assume that any speaking activity done in a language class delivers “good” input. I am not so sure. Bill Van Patten talks about good input in his book, While We’re On the Topic. He says in the book that besides being comprehensible, good input “must also be engaging and important so the learner has a reason to pay attention to the message (p. 50).”

I will freely admit that, before I started researching CI, I used to plan what I thought were valuable speaking activities for my language classes. I was a big proponent of information gap activities. For example, I would give my students two incomplete maps of South America and have them ask and answer questions about who went to what country so they could complete their maps. The problem with this activity is that all the people on the map were imaginary. It wasn’t really that important to find out where imaginary people went. Moreover, the real goal of this activity was to practice forms of the verb “to go,” and my students knew it. Therefore, while at the time I thought this was a great activity, it turns out that it did not meet the definition of “good” input, so I doubt it helped further my students’ second language acquisition at all.

Unfortunately, many of the speaking activities that were suggested at last Saturday’s conference were similar to the one I mentioned above. They weren’t “good” input.  That being said, I am thinking of reaching out to the presenter and sending him a free copy of Bill Van Patten’s book. He needs to start his own CI journey.