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.

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Summer Planning and Getting Back in the Game

An unexpected hiatus

Burned out, Over it, Exhausted, Fried, Run down

These are all phrases I can use to describe the last 2.5 months of school. I was ready to be done with the year in April, which is bad, because the year was over on June 1. I didn’t blog because all I had were negative things to say. I know that I would stop following a “woe-is-me” type blog from a burned out teacher, so I decided to just take a break.

And I’m glad I did, because, after a week and a half at home, I’m already anxious to get back into the game. I went back and re-read my posts from the last year. I really posted a lot less this past school year than the year before. I am not too happy about that. This blog is a place to post my reflections, ideas, and share what has been successful in the classroom. The reason I didn’t post was that I didn’t feel as inspired as I had in the last year. I felt like I made it past the honeymoon period of TPRS and have started to plateau.

Engaging students and myself next year

Now comes the hard part: How to keep students (and myself) engaged. I have storytelling pretty much down. The kids like the stories, especially in the lower grades, but the older ones are hungry for more. They need a new story template and new types of activities to keep them engaged.

This summer is the time for finding the solution. I have been reading up on Laura Sexton’s pblinthetl blog and am going to try some of her ideas:

Vocabulary blogs


Since the 8th grade is now a byod class, I am anxious to get them using their devices to personalize their learning. I learned about the idea of student-created word walls, but those are not very practical for me because I teach 3rd – 8th grade in the same room which I also share with another teacher. There just isn’t enough wall space for all the classes to have that for all of the classes.

An idea for those younger grades would be to have class wikis for word walls (have students suggest words or I can take a picture of the words we end up writing on the board) and post them to our class websites.

Interactive notebooks


Interactive notebooks are something that I have played with before, but it wasn’t very successful. First off, it was way too much work for me to collect and grade, which is because I implemented it in 4 grades at the same time. It was a bit of a disaster. This year, though, will be better. I am keeping it simple and straight-forward and I am rolling it out slowly, just like the byod activities that I talked about above.

Finally, assigning homework (or finally assigning homework)

With 2 days per week of instruction time, I decided that chasing students for uncompleted homework assignments wasn’t worth it. While this did free up my time and keep lots of 0s out of my gradebook (allowing grades to better reflect the students’ abilities), it hasn’t quite sat right with me. I want the students to interact with the language outside of school, but I don’t want to give worksheet and I don’t want to have to chase them down for it. Then, I found this 5 year old post from my Blackbox Buddy Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell at musicuentos. I will have some ideas on how to hold the students accountable for getting this work done and I will post them as soon as they are more fleshed out.

These are just a few ideas that I have encountered that are going to dovetail nicely with my own teaching style. I will be describing more as I find them and will be adding my own contributions as well.

Thank you to all the bloggers and great thinkers out there in the World Language Ed-Blogging world. Your work serves as an inspiration and I hope that I may rejoin your ranks soon!

Seeing With New Eyes

As a language teacher who sees the students in class every day, I find that it is so easy to take for granted the everyday language that students know and are able to use. My students are able to say a lot of things about themselves, they are able to ask this information about others, and they are able to understand a lot of topics that they aren’t ready to talk about yet. And on a regular day, I would say to myself, “well of course they do, but they can’t do XYZ.” I tend to focus on what they can’t do rather than what they can. This is a theme that I find myself coming back to again and again in my reflections on teaching:

Sometimes, it takes a different perspective to see just how significant the students’ progress really is.

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Encouraging Student Interactions in Class

Since I attended the SCOLT conference, I have begun to implement a lot of new ideas into my daily teaching. Some of these things are a bit outside the TPRS mainstream, but I think that even if it isn’t “TPRS approved,” there can still be value. Specifically, I am talking about “forcing” student output.

I am on a journey with my students and I am learning as much as they are as we go through the year. Just like most of my students with their Spanish proficiency, my TPRS proficiency began at novice low. Just like my students, I have made major gains in my proficiency, but I felt I was reaching a plateau. I have felt stuck, not knowing how to get the students to the level above just acquisition. How do I get them to synthesize that newly acquired knowledge and use it in original interpersonal interactions?

Most of what I have read and researched about TPRS is about students at the beginning of their language journey-they shouldn’t need to produce at the very beginning, but what about the students who have had a lot of input and are eager to start speaking? As I move along my own Spanish teaching proficiency scale, I am finding that I have to do the same kinds of things that the students have to do to progress: take chances (they use dictionaries and other tools to move beyond what we are doing in class; I use ideas from all over the language teaching spectrum to make sure that they get CI and also the opportunity to express themselves), make mistakes (everyone in here experiments and gets things wrong, but that doesn’t stop us from trying again), and get messy (linguistically 😉 ).

01-frizzle (Thanks for the advice Ms. Frizzle!)


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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.

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Assessing Proficiency and Providing Feedback

SCOLT is definitely my favorite new conference. It is like ACTFL, but I can find my way around and recognize people. Take ACTFL and take away 5000 people and you have SCOLT: All the same kinds of presenters (Including me!) and ideas being promoted, but in a way that is more manageable.

For me, SCOLT was all about proficiency:

  • How do I get the students from one proficiency level to another (for me, mostly novice to intermediate)
  • How do I assess proficiency
  • How can I quickly and effectively give feedback?

I didn’t know that going in, but it was definitely a theme that I followed around the sessions of the conference. I will spend the next few posts discussing these things and how they will be implemented in my own classroom framework.

How do I move students from one proficiency level to the next?

I went to a workshop given by Paul Sandrock (@psandrock), who is a former president of ACTFL and currently the ACTFL Director of Education. It was all about getting students from performance to proficiency and how to get novices to reach up into the their next proficiency level. I didn’t have the vocabulary or expertise on the proficiency levels to really use them to describe my students or to figure out how to use them. I didn’t have a good working understanding of what they are, so how could I use them?

But now I do.

Novice level is all about memorized language. Novices are parrots, repeating what they hear. As Paul Sandrock and Thomas Sauer both stated: “Novices are full of answers waiting for the right questions.”

Intermediates, on the other hand, are peeking out from behind the memorized language wall. In the intermediate low level, they are using the memorized language that they have internalized and are beginning to creating with it. Additionally, they are not just reacting anymore, but asking their own questions.

So the question becomes: How do I get the students from novice into intermediate? How do I get the students to create with language and how can I get them to keep conversations going by asking more questions?

Answer: Always be looking at the next level. By that, I mean to keep an eye on the ACTFL Can-Do Statements. Once they can reach the novice benchmarks, start planning on how to get them to the next. Give the novice level students lots of input and phrases that they would use as intermediates—question words, transition words, phrases like “I agree,” “I disagree,” “How is it possible that…,” etc. Basically, give them the phrases to start internalizing the strategies you will be teaching them to move beyond the parrot stage.

Remember that Novice learners can’t really interact with each other because they can only react to input from an interlocutor, they can’t really produce original language. That’s why if we give them the strategies and phrases to begin to talk to others on their own, we can foster more student-student interactions and get them to move beyond the novice level.

What would this look like in my TPRS classes?

So all my TPRS friends out there are reading what I wrote above about getting the students to speak (aka forcing output) and are probably spitting coffee all over their computer screens. The whole idea of TPRS is to get students to proficiency in the most natural way possible: Input until the kids start producing. I am all for this, but at the same time, I feel like my students are ready to begin their output journey. They have had a lot of CI in the last year and a half and are anxious to get the language from their heads to their mouths. I also find it to be beneficial to get students comfortable with being in the uncomfortable position of speaking to others in the target language.

I know that focusing on output in the classroom will not lead to true proficiency. I get that. I understand that performance and proficiency are not the same thing. At the same time, I learned at the conference that things learned for use in performance activities (output activities with strict parameters and lots of support posted around the room) can become internalized in the same way that input can be.

In the realm of writing, we do timed writings and retells to assess our students in TPRS classes. I am thinking of applying my new deeper knowledge of proficiency levels to direct how I assess this output. I am not going to take off points for the grammatical rules that students break. I will draw students’ attention to their errors and help them to correct them. I will help them to get to the next level in their output all while telling stories and circling and doing movietalks and all of the other activities that I have learned how to do as a teacher in the TPRS world. So don’t think I’m abandoning my beloved TPRS to go to back to another type of teaching from the past. I will continue to be forward thinking and focusing on acquisition and proficiency.

Assessing students’ proficiency

Another thing I learned (or that I inferred, you could say) from the conference is that my assessment tools are really lacking. With the kind of assessment I am doing now, it is very difficult to let the kids know what they can do to improve. Enter Thomas Sauer (@tmsaue1) and Bethanie Drew (@lovemysummer). Both of them presented on how to use rubrics and provide feedback to students in a positive way that emphasizes their movement along the proficiency continuum.

At Thomas Sauer’s presentation, I learned about using rubrics and about what makes rubrics useful. Firstly, no number ranges! There is no reason that rubrics can’t use the proficiency levels as the criteria. This lets the kids know exactly where they are on the proficiency continuum for each assessment. They will know that on such and such interpretive assignment, they are at Intermediate Low and on such and such interpersonal assignment, they are at Novice Mid. This becomes positive for the students because they can see the requirements for the next proficiency level. Rather than seeing that they lost points for only including 3 verbs instead of 5 (which they already know because they did the assignment), they can see where their proficiency is and the exact kinds of things that they need to be doing to move to the next level.

These levels can be tied to letter grades, but Mr. Sauer was reluctant to endorse that, even while saying that it may be a necessity in some places. Even though it isn’t ideal, it is much more valid than the, “I can understand what you wrote, you get an A” style of grading that I have been using (for lack of a better alternative) since I started using TPRS.

This leads into the other thing I learned about rubrics and proficiency in general: Kids will be all over the place depending on the kind of mode they are using. Someone may show high proficiency in presentational mode (because of the ability to revise and practice the presentation) and show low proficiency in interpersonal mode (because they are nervous in 1 on 1 conversations with others). The only way to know where they are is to use these rubrics consistently.

Providing Feedback

Bethanie Drew’s presentation on “Fortifying with Feedback” was great because it helped me to see how I can do what she calls compassionate assessment. The idea is that we focus on the strengths of the students’ work, rather than marking up their papers with red ink. We can focus on what was good, then give them concrete ideas on what they can work on to do an even better job next time. instead of saying, “You did A, B, and C wrong,” we can say something more compassionate, like, “I like A, so keep that up. To do a better job on B, why not try ___, ___, and ___?”

SCOLT was so inspiring and there is so much to unpack (both physically from my suitcase and metaphorically from all the great sessions I attended). I will be working on that for a while, now that I am back in the classroom and able to throw more ideas into my teaching repertoire.

As always, thank you to all of you out there who share your ideas through conferences and blogs and tweets!

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

Slow and Steady

Embedded Reading Win              

Every so often, it seems like my students aren’t getting anywhere. I know, academically, that is, that acquisition is a slow process and it’s even slower for my students because I only have 90 minutes per week with them. It can get frustrating to feel like there is no day-to-day progress. But every once in a while, a kid has a light bulb go off in his or her head. It happened last year with the girl who was completing her activity (in almost perfect Spanish) and told me, “I like that we don’t learn anything.” And now, it has happened this year. Every time something like this happens, it reaffirms why I do what I do.

Let me start at the beginning. 4 class periods ago (which, because of my schedule with the kids means almost 3 weeks ago), I handed out the first embedded reading assignment for a story called, “Necesito Cafeína, which I found on another TPRS teacher blog (but I can’t seem to find the link, if you know where it is or what I’m talking about, please let me know in the comments!). The students read and they did pretty well. It was their first reading assignment in Spanish coming back after the summer, so there were some cobwebs, but understood more than I was expecting (thanks, TPRS!). They understood almost everything really well and could answer the Circling questions that I asked about the reading and they did really well with acting out the story and with volleyball reading.

After that, we did some more story-asking, conversation activities, and PQA for 2 class days. Today, we read again. We read the second, more in-depth version of the story from the first week of school. I handed it out and there were complaints (8th graders during first period…what’re ya gonna do?), but they all got to work.

One student, who has been in Spanish class with me he was in the third grade, said this to me:

“I get it! It’s weird, I understand it even though I don’t speak Spanish. I read it one time and I know what it says.”

I told him, “I guess you’re wrong, it looks like you know a lot more Spanish than you thought you did.”

“I guess so. Thanks, Señor.”

He was truly amazed that he could decode and understand all the words on the page and understand the message of the story the first time through. I hope that this post doesn’t come off as bragging or self-congratulatory, but I’m so proud when moments like this happen. That kid gets it. I have a whole year to get the other 23 kids in the class to the same place.

Building Every Student’s Confidence and Fluency

I have my work cut out for me, but the one thing that I know for sure is that as hard as it can be, it will still be really fun and they will be learning, regardless of how it looks on a day-to-day basis. TPRS can go really slowly and it can seem like there is no light at the end of the tunnel, especially for those who (like me) only get to teach each group of students a few times a week. It can seem like a Sisyphean task, but don’t lose hope because, eventually (and unlike Sisyphus) you will get the rock up the hill and you will get the kids ahead in their language comprehension and use.

They will get it. One day, it will click in their heads and they will understand what all the silliness and stories have really been about: getting them to understand the TL without even realizing it.

FLES TPRS Story – Opuestos (Opposites), Pt. 2

This is the second part of the story that I began last week with my first and second graders. Last week, we introduced the characters. In the coming weeks, we will discuss (through story-asking) problems that each character has because of his or her description. Today’s story was part 2 and it focused on the characters who were tall and short.

2 is character number 2 (the short character, I have a child walk around on his or her knees for this part)
1 is character number 1 (the tall character)

To set up the story, we review the different adjectives that we have learned and then I ask, in Spanish, “who is tall in the class? Who is short?” The students remembered which of their classmates played each character and those students were the ones who played the characters again today. I set a book high up on a shelf, but not so high that the tall character couldn’t reach it.

I wrote a few words on the board to help with comprehension:


The rest of the new/unfamiliar words (estante-shelf, libro-book) I could either model or show them the actual object to establish meaning.

Then I told the story:

2 es bajo. 2 necesita un libro. El libro es muy alto en el estante. Pide ayuda al 1.
“Necesito ayuda! Soy bajo. Necesito ese libro allá.” (points to book far away, way up high on the shelf)
“No problema.” 1 ayuda a 2. 1 le da el libro a 2.

2 is short. 2 needs a book. The book is high up on the shelf. He asks for help from 1.
“I need help! I’m short. I need that book over there.
“No problem.” 1 helps 2. 1 gives the book to 2.

Next week I will introduce the problem that the tall character has that the short character can help with in a mini-coda to today’s story. Then, I will continue with the problems that the fast and slow characters have that can only be helped by their opposite character.