Falling Flat on Your Face

A lot of bloggers who write about using TPRS or any other CI method talk a lot about how great it is and how engaged the students are and how much more the students are able to do with the language with these methods. They make it sound easy and wonderful and like anyone can do it and there is no challenge to it; once you decide to do it, your teaching life will be perfect. And in a way, all of that is completely true. It is easier for me now than it was when I taught grammar and used only the textbook; it is definitely more fun; and my teaching life has definitely improved.

CI methods have made a huge impact on the learning of my students in the last year and a half. But the one thing that I don’t see very much in other teachers’ blog posts is what they do when they fail spectacularly. We all do it, it’s the nature of being a human being trying to teach 25-35 other little human beings. Sometimes, the things we do will fall completely flat.

Let’s face it: As positive as we are in the world of language teacher blogging, sometimes, a lesson just doesn’t work.

I had this very experience yesterday when my 8th grade lesson fell completely flat. But one of the best things about teaching is that I was able to come back in today and approach it from a new angle. It went far better today.

The Grump Factor

When a class comes in grim and grumpy, my gut instinct is to reflect that grumpy energy and get mad at them for not paying attention or for calling out. I have learned through experience that even though it’s my first gut reaction, it is the single worst reaction to have. It does nothing but get them grumpier, which makes me grumpier, and we end up getting into a sort of grump-spiral and the class devolves from there and everyone leaves with bad feelings. It has happened more days than I care to admit and those are the days that I want to quit. I don’t know if other teachers have those days, but I’m not afraid to say that I do.

I’m not afraid to admit it because after enough of them, I started thinking about my reactions rather than the students’ behavior. “Could I be enhancing the bad feelings and making my day worse for myself? Is it really more my fault than theirs? Am I to blame for adding to the bad attitude in the room?” I’d ask myself. And the answer is, “YES!” They are children, I am the adult, and is it my responsibility to not lose my cool when kids act like grumpy kids. Of course, this realization made me feel terrible because it’s always hard to figure out that something you were blaming on someone else is really your fault. But after reflecting on it and thinking what I could do, I came up with some ideas for what to do when I start to fall on my face and I’d like to share them with you now:

What to remember when lessons fall flat… Continue reading “Falling Flat on Your Face”


FLES TPRS Story – Opuestos (Opposites), Pt. 3

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This is the third part of the story that I began at the beginning of January with my first and second graders (part 1; part 2). The first week, we introduced characters and described them. Last week, we discussed a problem that Character 1 (tall) helped Character 2 (short) to solve.

In today’s story, Character 3 is fast and Character 4 is slow.

Words on the board to help with comprehension:

  • Ayuda-help
  • Necesita-needs
  • Traer-to bring

The rest of the new/unfamiliar words I could either model or show them the actual object to establish meaning.

Then I told the story:

4 es lenta. 4 necesita traer un libro a Señor Fernández, pero 4 no tiene mucho tiempo. Pide ayuda al 3. 3 es rápida.“Necesito ayuda! Soy lenta y tengo un libro para senor Fernandez. Sr. F necesita el libro en 2 segundos!No problema.” 3 ayuda a 4. 3 le trae el libro a senor Fernandez.Sr. F tiene el libro. Sr. F está feliz. 3 está feliz. 4 está feliz.

4 is slow. 4 needs to bring a book to Mr. Fernandez, but 4 doesn’t have time. He asks 3 for help. 3 is fast.

“I need help! I am slow and I have a book for Señor Fernandez. Sr. F. needs the book in 2 seconds!

“No problem.” 3 helps 4. 3 brings the book to Sr. F.

Sr. F. has the book. Sr. F is happy. 3 is happy. 4 is happy

Going Off-Script and Getting In the Zone



I love improvising in class. I have been doing it since I started storytelling in class. If some aspect catches the interest of a class or even of a group of students, I will do my best to follow that train of thought. This is not great for circling because I haven’t been able to pre-plan any questions, but it does wonders for creating engagement and I’d rather have students fully engaged in something interesting to them than ignore what they want to talk about because I haven’t scripted anything for it. That seems like a path to student disengagement.

Sometimes, a story really captures the students’ attention. It could be from a character name or a location where the characters go in the story. Since I encourage my students to suggest answers to these questions (it makes great practice for question words – quién, dónde, por qué, etc), the same story might take on a comepletely different character for different class groups.

For example, in one of my eighth grade classes, a student suggested the name Nemo. The story then slowly began to follow the plot of Finding Nemo.

There was a problem. Nemo got lost. Nemo wanted to go       home. Marlon wanted to find Nemo. Marlon went on a journey to find him. There was a girl-fish. Her name was Dorrie…

Other times, the stories develop not along the plot of a movie or well known story but it just kind of flows.

Flow, AKA Being In The Zone

There is a lot of interesting literature out there about flow, its impact in the classroom, and how teachers can foster it (just do a google search for “State of flow in classroom” and you’ll see). Basically, being in a state of flow is being in “The Zone.” It is being totally into what you are doing. It is rare for me that this can happen with a whole class, but when it does happen, it can be great. The whole class is interested in the story, everyone is answering circling questions, and everyone is having fun. Basically, when it happens, it’s like the kids have totally forgotten that they are hearing a story in another language. There is enough vocabulary support (keeping to words they know, using cognates whenever possible, and acting out or translating words they don’t know) that they can just get absorbed into the details of the story.

I want every class to be like this. It is my goal that the kids forget that they are in class and learning. I don’t want them to have the realization that what we are doing is planned or that I have standards to meet and objectives for each class period and target language structures to circle. They don’t need to know that to be in a state of flow. At this point in my teaching career, this is pretty infrequent. The goal is to have it happen more.

The class in a state of Flow most recently was the 4th Grade. I have transcribed the details of the story as best I can below. There are a few problems, the main one being that some of the things we wanted to say were above the level of the students’ understanding. There was a lot of translating in this story. But I got a lot of repetitions on the words that I was targeting, tiene, quiere ayudar/comprar, piensa. Here is the story we came up with:

Hay una chica. La chica se llama Carla. Carla tiene 19 años. Carla vive en San Francisco, CA. Carla es una cantante exitosa. Carla tiene mucho dinero. Tiene un montón de dinero. Carla tiene muchos amigos.

Un amigo de Carla se llama Tomás. Tomás tiene 20 años. Tomás vive en Tokio, Japón. Tomás es un cantante como Carla, pero Tomás no es exitoso. Tomás no tiene mucho dinero. No es pobre, pero no tiene mucho dinero. Tomás está triste porque no tiene éxito en su profesión de cantante.

Carla quiere ayudarle a Tomás. Quiere hacerle sentir mejor. Carla decide comprar un regalo a Tomás. Carla le dice:

                -Tomás ¿Qué quieres más que nada?

Tomás piensa mucho.

                -Quiero un carro. Quiero un carro rápido, grande, y fuerte. Quiero un Lamborghini Diablo.

Hay un problema. Carla es muy generosa y quiere comprar un regalo para Tomás, pero un Lamborghini Diablo es muy caro. ¡Un Lamborghini Diablo cuesta $250,000! Carla tiene dinero, pero no quiere gastar $250,000. Carla piensa mucho.

Carla decide comprar un carro más razonable. Carla compra un Ford Fiesta. Después, Carla va a Rockets-R-Us y compra un cohete (rocket). Ata el cohete al Ford Fiesta y se lo da a Tomás.

Tomás está feliz porque tiene un carro rápido y Carla está feliz porque su amigo está feliz.

Please let me know what you think!

FLES TPRS Story – Opuestos (Opposites), Pt. 1

I used to teach the descriptive adjectives as opposites with no context. It worked pretty well, but now that I have begun storytelling, I think that it will make a great topic for a story.

The story below is the first part of a story I plan to use to teach descriptive adjectives along with high frequency verbs like there is, has, likes, and wants. I began telling the story in the 1st and 2nd grades today. The rest of the story will appear as I tell it to my classes and have time to reflect on what works and doesn’t

(I’m going to wait for another reason: I am a big-time improviser, so I like to change things up on the fly to see what works or doesn’t work)

The Story (translation below)

Hay una chica. ¿Cómo te llamas? La chica se llama _1_ (student’s name). _1_ es alta.
_1_ tiene una amiga. ¿Cómo te llamas? La amiga se llama _2_. __2___ es baja.  _1_ es alta y _2_ es baja.

  • I ask the students his or her name to practice responding to that question-I do this every time that I introduce a new character.

Continue reading “FLES TPRS Story – Opuestos (Opposites), Pt. 1”

Promoting Student Success, Pt. 4: No One Does Poorly in My Class

The fourth part in the ongoing series about how I can encourage success and not set students (and myself) up for failure.

Student progress in a language is a very individual thing. Different kids who have had the same amount of comprehensible input might have significantly different levels of proficiency. This is just a part of language acquisition. As language teachers (and as teachers, in general), we must be willing to explain things differently for different students or to give alternate assessments that will allow students to show their individual proficiency. Kids who have not mastered all of the things we have discussed in class are not going to fail because they are on a different mental time-table than my course pacing.

If you checked my online grade book and saw all my grades for all my classes-kindergarten through eighth grade-you’d see that the grades are almost all As and Bs and maybe some Cs. You might be tempted to think something along the lines of, “well, this guy must not be grading everything;” “this guy’s class must be a joke–all songs and games and no actual rigorous content;” “this guy must just give everyone good grades to avoid painful meetings with angry parents;” or something else along similar lines.

But there is a really good reason that almost all of my students have great grades and it is none of the things listed above. Continue reading “Promoting Student Success, Pt. 4: No One Does Poorly in My Class”

Using CI in Elementary School

(My first idea was to call this post “TPRfleS, but I thought that might be too corny…Not that its corniness has kept me from writing it anyway 🙂 )

FLES Programs
Elementary school in Florida is not the place where one would expect to find foreign language instruction. It’s not a requirement in any of the districts that I have lived or worked in. The only place it seems to happen is in private schools (religious and secular). I wish that there were more schools that had it, but that’s beside the point.

In my school system, there are a lot of songs and chants and introduction to culture and mechanics of language, but not much actual communication. The teachers, while well meaning, are of the old-school, grammar-based methodology and because of that, the students aren’t able to speak at a functional level of proficiency. Elementary programs tend to be seen as a stepping stone for middle school Spanish (a Big Deal), which is a stepping stone for high school (a BIGGER Deal), which is…I don’t know…that’s where the narrative ends. One can extend the story into college, but the result is the same. The end game is success in classes at the next level. For some subjects, this might be enough, but for something as practical as a language, to be able to describe grammar and use it in a classroom outside the target culture is not intrinsically motivating or a particularly useful goal.
As most CI teachers have found, learning about language isn’t really interesting to students. Learning how to use the language in unique and real-life situations is much more engaging and useful.

I am blessed to have an administration that sees things differently from the more grammar-based or traditional methodological view. I have been free to experiment with different methods and practices to see which ones fit our students the best. TPRS and storytelling in general seem to be where I have landed.

Storytelling in the FLES Classroom
I know that most of the people reading this already know about TPRS and CI methods, but I also know that a lot of those same people don’t teach the youngins. Most teach middle school and high school and use comprehensible input methods, like TPRS and others, with great success. Let me tell you here and now: it works great for the little kids, too!

When I was in my classroom back in July and August for pre-planning days, I considered using tprs with the early grades and came to the conclusion that there was too much time between classes and that students wouldn’t be able to retain what was happening in class from meeting to meeting. But I saw the results I was having with the older students. The level of engagement and participation was through the roof, so I thought I’d give it a try. I was blown away. I wrote a sample story that I could use to experiment with story-asking in 1,2,3 grades. It was incredible. They retained so much of the first story that they can still tell me all the details (in English) and tell me which student was which character.

They are definitely novice-low in their production, but they are amazingly receptive to the CI we have done in class. They have class for 30 mins, once a week and they retain the details of the story very well over several weeks.

First Long Story
Here is the first story I did with them:

Day 1: Hay una chica. La chica se llama Roberta. A Roberta le gustan las papas fritas. Roberta tiene un problema. Roberta no tiene las papas fritas. Roberta tiene hambre y Roberta esta triste

Day 2: review part 1; Roberta tiene bananas. A Roberta no le gustan las bananas. Roberta tiene hamburguesas. A Roberta no le gustan las hamburguesas. Roberta tiene manzanas. A Roberta no le gustan las manzanas. A Roberta le gustan las papas fritas y Roberta no tiene papas fritas.

Day 3: review pt 1&2; Roberta va a McDonalds. Hay un chico que se llama Ronald McDonald. Roberta le pregunta, ” tienes papas fritas?”
Ronald McDonald le dice: “no”
(Continue in the same way with as many restaurants and students as I can in the class time, all say no)

Day 4: review pt. 1,2,&3; Roberta va a escuela. Roberta va a la cafetería. Hay un hombre en la cafetería. Se llama Señor Boom (our lunch chef’s actual name, which might be the best name ever for anyone who works at an elementary school). Señor Boom tiene papas fritas. Le da las papas fritas a Roberta. Roberta esta feliz. Roberta no tiene hambre.

Storytelling has a lot to offer lower grade-level students. Instead of learning vocabulary through songs or lists, the students learn through contextualized stories just like older students, but they are engaged at a level that is much higher than with regular methods. They retain the input and they are able to follow along with almost no use of English. Luckily for me, it also suits my personality very well: I get to use silly voices and props and puppets and I get to run around and be generally silly…what more could I ask for?