Don’t Replace, Add

Kids need novelty. 

Every blog from every teacher I follow, every textbook on language teaching, and every bIt of common sense in my head tells me that this is the case. Seven years of experience with the same kids in the same school has proved it. If I do the same thing day after day, year after year, the kids tune out. It is a struggle I’ve contended with since I started teaching: What can I do to keep my instruction interesting and compelling for the kids?

In the past, my answer has been to quit using whatever methods or techniques I’m using and start from scratch. My thought process went something like, “If kids have gotten bored with what I’m doing, I have to get rid of it and find something to keep them engaged.” I started this blog after doing just that. Every time I read a blog post with an interesting or novel approach, I tried it. At the first instance that this method would be great, I threw away what I was doing before (metaphorically) and started with the new thing. The kids and I were itching for something new and I was happy to try everything I could. And it seemed really successful. When I found effective alternatives to grammar-heavy, book-based activities, I happily ditched them. When I learned how to ask a story and circle (TPRS techniques), I gladly did that and nothing else. When kids got bored with the same sorts of stories using the same types of vocabulary, I looked for other things-I tried OWL techniques and non-targeted CI and a host of other techniques.

Ultimately, instead of being successful, it was exhausting. Each different thing burned bright and then fizzled out. And each technique fizzled out a little bit more quickly than the last. What was the problem? Why were these techniques that other teachers use so effectively falling flat for me?

The answer:

I misunderstood the kind of novelty that students need. They don’t need something brand new every time they start to get bored; they need a teacher who has a large toolbox of fun and effective activities. The problem was that I replaced one fun activity with something else and never really returned to the others that the kids had gotten sick of. The problem was that I replaced instead of adding. 

The students didn’t hate the activities that we have done in the past, but they were just ready to take a break. Think of it like this: It would be really exciting to be able to eat ice cream for dinner every night, but in reality if we ate ice cream every night, it would lose its excitement. We would get sick of it. And just like getting sick of ice cream after having it all the time, the kids get sick of things they really like when it’s the only thing they do. 

The trick, then, is to be prepared to do lots of things that are effective and that the kids like. 

That’s my plan for planning this summer (and something I’ve talked about a little bit before): have lots of activities ready to go so that when one activity begins to sag or slow down or the kids don’t seem to be into it, we can transition into something that would be more effective and compelling. 


Graphic Organizers for Stories

Graphic Organizers are big in the education world, for good reason: They help students to visually organize their information. It gives them another way to interpret the information that they are reading/learning in their classes. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to try to use a graphic organizer to help students organize their thoughts for stories. It’s something that other reading teachers do, things like webs and diagrams and maps. I thought I’d try it out. I took a few minutes and broke down the parts of a Blaine Ray-style story and gave them each their own box. I taught the students what personaje principal means and we got to work.

Continue reading “Graphic Organizers for Stories”

Mascots and Silly Characters

Well, the year is in full swing. Homework is assigned, assignments are being completed and collected, grades are going into the gradebook. All is going at breakneck speed from August to June. It’s already our 3rd week (almost the end of it!) and it feels like we just started.

Things have gone really well, especially my classroom mascots. All classes from 4th – 8th have created a mascot (2 grade level). Now, I am waiting on students to finish their artwork. Here are some examples of the mascots (art by students):

Jiggly Puff el Pato Rosado (incomplete, but looking good so far), Pikachu Llama Amarilla (lots of Pokemon suggestions 🙂 ), Furrari el Perro Rojo

Character Interviews

At the beginning of the year, there are always lots of posts about ice-breakers and about how to get the students to share their information with the teacher and the other students. I, for better and for worse, don’t have this issue. It’s better because I already know the students (and they know me, which means they think they know what they can get away with, more on management later). It’s worse because I have to come up with ideas to review introductions and talking about basic personal information (age, name, where you live, how you feel, what you like, etc). Luckily, this is all stuff we have talked about before, so it’s a quick review. Unluckily, the students have been with each other and with me for potentially 7 years! They all know each other!

So what to do?

To get around this problem, I had students practice by answering the basic questions about themselves in their notes and then interviewing each other. This is nothing new for them and they weren’t too engaged because they already know pretty much everything about each other.

But here’s where the hook came in. After their interviews, I had them sit back in their chairs and told them to answer their questions again. Only this time, they would answer as someone else (a famous person, a fictional character, or someone they made up). They wouldn’t share their info with others until the interviews. This gave them a chance to be creative and let their silliness take control. In the 4th and 5th grades, they interviewed each other and then reported back the information they found out to the full class. In 6th and 7th grades, the students interviewed each other, and then they had to create a comic of a story, the basic plot line of which was:

                       __(the character you created)_ needs a friend. He/she goes to all the people you                               interviewed (the other students’ fictional characters) and ask to be friends.

For the 8th grade, they had to be the person they created and answer a survey on the topic we have been discussing since the beginning of the year (the Olympics and Sports in general). Then, they interviewed each other in character about sports using some question prompts I came up with. They liked that they could make up the information they wanted (my favorite was a student saying, in a serious tone, “Señor, is Bob the Builder more of a baseball guy or a football guy?”) and they liked the unrestrained feel of the class because they could pick their partners and enjoy completing the activity with their friends.

If you have students that you already know and/or that already know each other, I highly recommend allowing them to let their creativity loose (with some constraints, of course: no politicians, no teachers or other students, etc) and play with their own ideas.

Looking back to move forwards


I used to do a lot of different things in my teaching past. I didn’t just use worksheets and grammar (I did for middle school, because that’s what I thought they needed). In the lower grade levels, I did a lot of varied and interesting activities with the kids that I pretty much stopped doing when I started TPRS. I have found that after 1.5 years of only stories and timed writings (and games, for when we’re low on time) in the classroom, the kids are in search of something different. Because of the CI they get from our stories, they have never been able to do more with the language, so I decided to look back at the activities that I have done in the past to see how well they fit into our CI Classroom.

Turns out that many of them (some with a bit of editing and creative updates) will help the students to develop their proficiency in all of the modes of communication.

Continue reading “Looking back to move forwards”

Creating Characters


In the TPRS classroom, it’s easy to get lots of repetitions in the 3rd person. My kids can describe the details of another person pretty well:

“El chico es alto.”

“La chica tiene 17 años.”

“Chris está triste.”

“Mi amigo está feliz.”

But when I ask them about themselves, they generally respond in one of 3 ways:

  1. Respond in Spanglish – “I am feliz”
  2. Use the 3rd person verbs that they have acquired – “yo está feliz”
  3. Look at me like I’m from Mars – “are you talking to me? Oh gosh, what do I do? Ahhh!!!”

So what to do? How can I get them to start talking about themselves accurately?

Continue reading “Creating Characters”

5 Things to Remember in Early Elementary FL Classes

Hi everyone, it’s been a while. I have been away from the blog for a little while starting with the rush to get trimester 1 grades in and then getting ready for Thanksgiving and all the things in between. This is the craziest part of the year (until the last few days, that is) and it feels like everything was getting away from me. But now I’m back on track and ready to write again.

And I have something to write about.

I recently received a comment from a reader asking for tips with K-3 storytelling and to be perfectly honest, that is the level that I struggle with the most. I have the least amount of experience teaching them and the least amount of time with them per week. So I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting and throwing ideas and methods against the wall to see what sticks.

Here’s what I have learned so far:

  1. Each group is different, we can’t just have one plan for all the groups at the same grade level

The individual differences of the kids’ personalities are so much more pronounced in the early grades, probably because they don’t have the ability to contain all their thoughts and emotions like older kids can. When they get older, they can reel in some of their habits that aren’t conducive to the learning environment, but early on, those habits are all out there for you to see.

This makes it difficult sometimes to plan for one grade. One group of first graders might be loud and wild, another might be quiet and unwilling to participate, another might be right in the middle. I have found that for some classes, I can get away with having activities where they sit still the whole 30 minutes, but others need to be up and moving. The biggest challenge has been figuring out how to get the same content in to the same grade level in different ways.

  1. For the most part, they want to be active

Especially the youngest ones-they want to be up and moving around. They love and really respond to TPR activities and to songs that have dances that go with them. And when songs don’t have dances, you can make up your own moves that will help them to get moving and focused. Remember that the goal is for them to be internalizing language. They won’t be producing much (if anything) in Kindergarten and 1st grade, so it’s ok for them to just listen and participate (especially if you only have a very short amount of time)

  1. The students can sit still and be quiet, but they need to have something in front of them 

This is why I used to rely on coloring sheets. They were “under control” when they had something in front of them and I didn’t have to constantly keep them on task. Some teachers and bloggers are against using coloring sheets in language classes at this level, but I think that they can be useful, if you are using them thoughtfully.

There are benefits to having the kids sitting quietly and focusing on something. There is only one benchmark every activity needs to reach: Does it help the students acquire? Are they getting good input in the TL?

If it is just a plain jane coloring sheet that you give them to do as busy work, then it’s probably not going to help them acquire much. If, on the other hand, you can have them working on something that forces them to listen to and comprehend the TL, then they will be acquiring the TL. It may seem difficult, but with a little thought and experimentation, you can adapt any activity to make it input-rich.

For example, I had great success with a reading and coloring activity that we did in class: I broke up the TPRS story that they heard in class into 6 boxes and they had to read it with me and then draw a picture of what was in each box. I read it with them and drew with them for the first two boxes so they understood what to do and then I just read to them and they drew their own pictures for the last 4 boxes. It worked really well—they were engaged, reading, and showing comprehension through drawing.

  1. The students might not seem to be paying attention, but they’re acquiring, so don’t stop talking in the TL

Sometimes the kids who seem like they are focusing the least are picking up the language right in front of you but you can’t see it. All of the sudden, one day a student who has been interrupting and disrupting class will start talking in the TL. It has happened to me several times and each time I’m still amazed. Even though it seemed like the student wasn’t interested at all, they heard everything I said and understood it and processed it and eventually acquired it.

Speak in the TL as much as possible and always have faith that it’s getting through to them. They will pick up a lot more than it seems.

  1. We can’t linger too long on one activity, no matter how compelling, interesting, or “good” it is

The activity needs to constantly change—I need to stay ahead of their attention spans and keep them hooked. They will get bored otherwise. And bored students are disruptive students.

This is why doing all the different songs at the beginning works well – they get to sing each song and then take a quick break, then sing another and do completely different actions (first song-“Buenos días”-has hand motions, cómo estás has faces to make, and then the students get out of their seats for linguacafé-style conversations)

In the past, after singing songs I would expect the students to be able to sit in their seats and quietly listen and participate for 25 minutes. I had great stories and great question and answer activities, but they took a really long time. I don’t know why I expected the kids to sit through it, though. Everything I have seen in my experience as a Spanish teacher has told me otherwise. If you look at what I just wrote above and think about why the songs work so well and keep the students so engaged, you’ll see that it is precisely because they have to keep moving and doing different things. Instead of just doing a chunk of activity at one time, I instead have started to keep the action going throughout the classroom by sprinkling in brain breaks and activities that get the kids up and moving.

The only requirement is for them to listening to and comprehending the language, so why can’t that be done while they are standing? Or dancing? Or jumping? Or spinning?

Sample Plan

Here’s a sample lesson plan (not the whole thing, just the list of activities that I will do in the 30 minutes) to give you an idea of what I have found to work in the youngest grades. Remember: the idea is to keep them peppy, moving, and loud (sure their grade-level teachers might not like that, but if you want them to acquire, they have to be engaged)!

I hope that this helps and if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to let me know!

Introduction activities – 4-6 minutes

  • TPR actions (stand up, sit down, jump up and down, breathe in, breathe out—I add some funny sound effects to this part, spin around, repeat nonsense words, etc)
    • These actions get them up and moving and get their blood flowing and get them into the mood for listening to and responding to the TL
  • Songs – with words and actions
    • Standard “Buenos días” song (to the tune of Frere Jacques) and I invented some hand motions (waving, shrugging, thumbs up, etc)
    • “Cómo Estás” adapted from a Basho and Friends video I found on Youtube called Cómo estás?
  • Conversations to get them out of their chairs and talking with their friends in the TL
    • (como estas and answers that they practiced for a few months with the song mentioned above)

Vocabulary review – 5-8 minutes

  • Back to the seats and stand up for TPR actions for adjective review (tall/short, fast/slow, etc)

Reading/Storytelling – 8-10 minutes

  • Then students sit in their morning meeting spots for story time – then we read “Perro grande…Perro pequeño” translated from the PD Eastman book
    • Lots of story-asking throughout the book
    • Editing the text of the book as I read it to make it more comprehensible
    • “Getting it wrong!”

Review story – 5-10 minutes

  • Students draw pictures of their favorite scenes
  • Or
  • Students tell the story to a partner in English
  • Or
  • Students draw a comic strip of the story (more for the older students)

Ending “Sponge” Activities (a term one of my professors taught me about the activities used to “soak up” the extra time in class and keep it all in the TL) – 3-4 minutes

  • If time after reading, students will play a game (veo veo or simon says – something to keep their brains working in Spanish and their production level low so that they don’t feel any pressure to produce until they are ready)

Storytelling in Practice #3: I’ve finished the story. Now what?

This is the third part of a 3 part answer to a question that was sent to me by an elementary school teacher about using storytelling in the early elementary grades. Part 1 was about pre-story activities: How do I get students ready for a new story? What kinds of activities do we do to make all of the input from the story comprehensible? Part 2 was about activities that I do with the students during stories: What do I do to check comprehension during the story? 

As I stated in the last post, I do not claim ownership of any of these ideas. These are all things that I have found in books and other blogs that have worked well for me in my classes. If you are reading this and one of these ideas is yours, thank you so much for sharing it because it worked super-well for me!

I have to start this post with a disclaimer: For all of the talk about using the TL 90%, you’ll notice that several of my post-story activities in early elementary don’t use the TL. Some of them make use of the 10% English allowance in class (and others make use of even more!) and the others don’t require any speaking at all. 

As important as #TL90plus is for acquisition in the classroom, I have found that letting students in early elementary use English for discussion/debriefing is a successful strategy for linking what they hear in the TL to their memory. Sometimes I feel a little guilty about using English in class to get quick results, like I’m shortchanging the students. But when I do these English activities, I see that they are acquiring so much. It builds their confidence, too. They are able to see, “Hey, I know what he said in that story, and not only that, I can tell it myself!”

Is it ideal? Not really. Does it work in 30 minute per week classes? Yes.

There are many things that I do expect them to be able to do in Spanish outside of the stories and most of them come from songs and songs and chants (Buenos días/buenas tardes; me llamo ___; cómo estás? Estoy ___; necesito un lápiz, papel, un crayón; numbers; colors; sí; no; and other basic words and short phrases) and they are really good at remembering.

Spoken Post-Story Activities 

These activities are usually quick and informal. I don’t really hold early elementary students accountable for their ability to speak at length about the things they acquire through stories. I focus on one or two targets in my summative assessments, but on a day-to-day and story-to-story basis, the spoken activities we do after stories are over are formative assessments and really just practice and confidence-building activities

  • Ask students to summarize in English– after finishing a story, the kids are energized because there have been students up and acting, there have been lots of questions about what is going on in the story that ALL the students are expected to answer together, and there have been lots of instances of me being silly to keep their attention. They are wired after we finish. The simplest thing I do at this point is I make my hands into a T for a timeout from the TL. I simply ask, “Raise your hand if can tell me the story I just told you in your own words.” Usually most will raise their hands because they understand a lot of what is happening. Then, I’ll simply call on one of them to start telling me the story. After about 1-2 sentences, I will stop that student and ask another to continue. This really gauges how well they understand on an individual level and it allows students who didn’t understand part of the story to hear what happened from another student, that is, in different words from my own.
  • Ask students story-comprehension questions in English – I have done this by itself and it has been successful, but I have found that it is really successful if I do it while students are summarizing the story for me. If they skip a detail that I wanted them to understand, I ask about it while they are summarizing (for example, “And how did he feel about that?” or “Did he take the fries or did the other character give him the fries?”)
  • Ask students story comprehension questions in Spanish – I realize that I spoke about using English for quicker assessment, but using Spanish for the questions and answers is also important. When I do this, I also incorporate PQA. I try to frame the questions in such a way that I will be able to ask them personal questions using the same forms from the story. For example, ¿A Juana le gustaban las papas fritas? Sí/no. ¿Y a ti te gustan la papas fritas? Sí/no. ¡Clase a Tommy le gustan las papas fritas! Clase, a Tommy le gustan las manzanas o las papas fritas? ¿A Carla le gustan las papas fritas? Etc….

Post-Story Reading and Interpretive Activities

Reading in any language can be tricky in early elementary, especially kindergarten and early first grade because not all the kids are very good at reading English yet. In these early grades, I find that reading together with them is the way to go. Some of our classrooms have document cameras and if you don’t have them, I recommend requesting one because they are great!

My reading activities for early elementary are basically the story that I told in class. Maybe a name or the places are changed, but overall, they are exactly the same. This is key because at this early stage in story-telling and reading ability, they need to have a 100% comprehensible story so that they can tie the words to their meaning.

I made a template for drawing comics (just a 3×2 table on a Word document.) For the early elementary grades, I break up the story into 6 parts and simplify it considerably, then I put those parts into the boxes. Here is an example of what I mean using the Roberto Quiere Papas Fritas story (see the stories tab at the top for the full story and translation)


This is where the document camera comes in. I show one box at a time and using a pencil, pen, or ruler, I read the words with the kids on the screen. One by one, I read aloud while they read along. Then, in the space above, they need to draw a picture of what is happening. Usually for the first 2-3 boxes, I will draw with them. After I know that they understand what to do, I let them draw on their own for the remaining boxes. But I always come back and read the next box with them, pointing out the individual words as I go. My favorite post-story activity is to have students draw what they heard. They will (almost) all tell you that Señor F may as well be Señor Draw-a-Comic-of-the-Story. It is something that I do a lot, but it is so effective in telling me just how much the kids understand of the story.

I hope that this series of posts has helped all you storytellers out there. I am still learning myself, but these are things that have been successful, fun, and engaging for students.

I’d like to thank the person who emailed me last week and inspired this post. I’d also like to thank all the teachers who write about what works in their classrooms. I get most of my ideas from these places and adapt them to fit my needs. I highly encourage everyone to cast a wide net over the world of language-teacher blogs and see what you find; there is so much out there that you can use! Check out the links in my blogroll and the blogs I follow on wordpress. There are so many great teachers who have so much to offer. And don’t forget to #langchat with us on Thursday nights 8PM et on Twitter. Just search for #langchat on Twitter and join the discussion!

Storytelling in Practice #2: The next step is to just tell the story, right? Wrong.

TPRS/Story asking in early elementary

This is the second part of a 3 part answer to a question that was sent to me by an elementary school teacher about using storytelling in the early elementary grades. Part 1 was about pre-story activities: How do I get students ready for a new story? What kinds of activities do we do to make all of the input from the story comprehensible?

As I stated in the last post, I do not claim ownership of any of these ideas. These are all things that I have found in books and other blogs that have worked well for me in my classes. If you are reading this and one of these ideas is yours, thank you so much for sharing it because it worked super-well for me!

Part 2 of the Storytelling in Practice series is about the kinds of activities that I have found successful while telling stories. I use several different types of activities during stories to assess how much the students understand and to get them to speak in the TL about the details of the story. I definitely don’t just tell the story. Most of the things that I do are standard TPRS storytelling methods, but there is so much more!

Continue reading “Storytelling in Practice #2: The next step is to just tell the story, right? Wrong.”

Storytelling in Practice #1: What do you do before you start a story in early elementary?

TPRS/Story asking in early elementary

I got an email recently from a teacher who was using one of my stories (Roberto no tiene papas fritas). The teacher pointed out that this post has a breakdown of how I tell the story over several days, which is helpful for a teacher who is new to TPRS, but it doesn’t have something that is arguably more important: what do you do before, during, and after the storytelling?

After reading this, I looked back at my posts and realized that over the time I’ve been sharing my observations and reflections about language teaching on this blog, I have posted several story scripts, but I haven’t posted any ideas on how to present them or how I assess the students’ understanding of them (other than story re-writes or comic-drawing activities, which are more of an “older-kid” thing and not super helpful to other early elementary teachers).

There are lots and lots and lots of different ideas and strategies for pre- and post-teaching. I could list them all here, but I don’t think wordpress has servers big enough to hold so much content. So, seeing as there is so much that can be used, I have decided to narrow down the strategies to what I have found successful in the classroom.

The last thing to say before we get started is that I do not claim ownership of any of these ideas. These are all things that I have found in books and other blogs that have worked well for me in my classes. If you are reading this and one of these ideas is yours, thank you so much for sharing it because it worked super-well for me!
Continue reading “Storytelling in Practice #1: What do you do before you start a story in early elementary?”

Musicuentos Black Box Video: “Overcoming Resistance to 90% TL Use”

Language classes are a bit of a conundrum. The latest research into how languages are acquired states that we have to speak to students in the target language for our students to acquire it. It’s like we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place: We have to use the language to teach the language. This leads some teachers and students to think, “But how will students understand it if they don’t already speak it?”

So what is a language teacher to do?

Luckily, there is a huge network of teachers and researchers on social media who have lots of ideas on how to do it! There is a method for every type of person and teacher. I am a boisterous, outgoing teacher. I don’t like quiet classrooms. TPRS is for me. I love the interaction and I love the fact that I can tell students a story in the TL with minimal translation (just the high-frequency words and a few target terms per story). And the best part is that I don’t have to say them aloud, so the students never hear me translating, they just see it up on the board as I am talking (in other words, they still have to process what I’m saying through their ears and brains before they can figure out what it is I’m saying.

But TPRS is not the only method. It won’t work for some teachers. And that’s ok. There are so many other comprehensible input methods for teachers to try (Content Based Instruction, Immersion instruction, AIM, etc). And the best thing about these, is that they all have great parts. I am a firm believer in taking apart methods and using what works best. I am not a purist in any sense nor in any particular method. Methods are methods, not mandates…Excuse me while I step off my soap box…

So, What’s a Good Amount of L2 for the Classroom?

ACTFL says 90% TL use in classroom interactions is the goal to strive for. I know what you’re thinking, “But 90% is hard!” Yes, it is very hard, but it’s not impossible. And when you are able to do it, you can get some pretty amazing results.

So, How Do I Do It?

Well, for that, you will need to watch videocast #7 of the Musicuentos Black Box Video Podcast.

L1 has so many opportunities to sneak into our classroom interaction, but if we set up exactly what we want students to do when we start, we can get a whole year of high-percentage TL use. They key to it all, in my opinion, is procedures. Once we have our methods picked out, then the content becomes the easy part. It’s keeping the class under control during the content presentations that’s difficult. Establishing procedures early in the year is the way to go: If the kids are prepared and know what they are expected to do, they will do it.

If you don’t take away anything else from the video, I hope that you take away this:

90% is our goal. We won’t always reach it and that’s ok. We will be able to get there with practice and determination. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a teacher, it’s that today’s frustrations/failures/shortcomings almost never flow into tomorrow unless you let them. If you come in with the right mindset, the kids will follow. Every day is a new chance to have the best day ever. So don’t come in discouraged about yesterday, think about how much better today will be.

If you come in discouraged and feeling like you can’t be successful, then you won’t be.