What is an OWI?
The creation of a One Word Image (OWI) is a central technique to my approach to language acquisition. Invented by Ben Slavic, it is a creative activity that encourages students to enter a state of flow where they are so intent on the message being communicated that they seem to forget that they are listening to a second language. We become so immersed in the character and story being created that we acquire the language unconsciously, just as Krashen predicts. There are few classroom activities as beautiful as creating a OWI; I recommend taking the time to truly master this technique and cover your classroom walls with the student drawings created.
Before getting started you will need an easel with a large piece of butcher paper angled away from the class so that you can see the drawing being made but the class cannot. Choose two students to be the class artists: the first will use a thick black marker to create the outline of the character and add details. The second has a box of crayons to fill in all shapes with color. Instruct your artists to make the image large, but do not write any words with the exception of the character’s name.
Stand in front of the class and tell them in English that today you will all collaborate to create a character together. Before we get started, we need an inanimate object that we will fill with life with our own creativity. Students are often reluctant at first so I like to mention that I am partial to talking food, but it could be anything as long as it comes from our own minds. No Sponge Bob because that is a character that someone else imagined. Allow your students to make suggestions and wait until you hear an idea that you like, or alternatively point vaguely towards the back and say your own suggestion as if you were repeating something said by a quiet student. “Cucumber, yes! Our character is a cucumber!”
Turn to your artists and caution them not to start drawing. We need a few details before they can put pen to paper.
Continuing with our example, write the word “cucumber” on the board in the target language. If I were teaching Spanish I would write the word “pepino” and then say it aloud slowly, savoring the sound. I repeat the word, now with a lower voice, and three times again with a quick, high-pitched voice. The purpose is to allow students to hear the word many times.
Then I ask students to imagine our pepino. I physically lift the pepino off of the board, carrying it in two arms, and plop the imaginary character down onto the stool at the front of the room. Express amazement, putting hand to jowel and cry out, “¡Qué pepino!”
Ask students if they can see the pepino. Offer to reseat students in the back so that they can get a good view. The purpose of this theater, conducted in either English or the target language as long as they can understand, is to encourage students to suspend disbelief. We want them focusing on the theater, not the language. Language is acquired best when the message is the primary objective and the learner does not pause to consider how the language is put together.
Now, still looking at the empty stool where the imaginary pepino is resting, ask students in the target language whether the pepino is big (widely opening your arms and raising the volume of your voice but lowering the tone to as close to bass as you can) or is it small (clasping fingers together and speaking quietly but with a high pitch). ¿Es grande… o es pequeño? Let students respond in the language they feel comfortable. Spread your arms wider and ask, “¿es enorme? O… ”, tightly clasping fingers together as if trying to keep water from escaping, ask, “¿es microscópico?”.
Once your students have chosen (or if they are all shouting different answers try the ‘point to the back’ trick again, nod and say whichever response you wish as if you were agreeing with some imaginary student in the back of the room), then take a moment to review. Announce in an astounded voice, “clase, hay un pepino microscópico aquí”, gesturing towards the empty stool. Glance at your artists to make sure that they have not started drawing yet. Ask a question, “clase, ¿es pequeño?” “No, claro que no… ¡es microscópico!” Turn to a student who is not expressing marvel and ask, “Bobby, ¿ves…”, make the gesture of two fingers moving away from your eyes that you use to communicate the concept of see, “¿ves el pepino microscópico?”
If Bobby says no, move him to the front so he can get a better view. If he says yes, ask him what color the pepino is. ¿De qué color es el pepino? You don’t need a response, wait a beat and then turn to the whole class and repeat the question. If Bobby does not answer yes or no, go to the board and write the word ¿ves? followed by do you see? and ask the question again. If a student is being petulant and refusing to answer, smile and act as if you are assuming that he simply does not understand. You are there to make sure everyone understands. Thank him for helping you.
Once these first three characteristics are created the artists can now start illustrating. They should continue to listen and add details to the drawing as the class further develops the character. Keep the easel facing away from the class and observe to make sure they get it right. I tell my artists to work quickly; the entire process will not take more than twenty minutes. Check to make sure that the illustrations are school-appropriate.
I have a list of characteristics that is displayed in English beside my white board so that students can anticipate the questions that I will ask. This allows me to stay in the target language and encourages their creativity, as they glance at the list and come up with ideas while I am busy speaking slowly and deliberately. I often only cover 5 or 6 characteristics for each OWI, knowing that we are likely to add new details once we make a story with the character. Here is a list of possible characteristics: Is it sad or happy? Smart or dumb? Rich or poor? Kind or mean? How old is it? What is its name? What does it like to do? What does it dislike? What is its job? What is its superpower? You can download the posters in English to guide the OWIs by following this link.
After each characteristic, be sure to go back and review in the target language, rearranging the order of the characteristics. Ask questions. In Spanish I say, “wow, we have a very old, blue cucumber that likes to ski! Class, is he purple? No, he is not purple, he is blue. Blue and very old. How old is he? Is he 100 years old?” Keep them processing the language!
At this point the artists are busy drawing. I continue through the characteristics listed on the board, but I do not worry about covering all of them. We contemplate answers that are compelling, sometimes exploring the ideas in both the target language and English as we imagine the character and sometimes skipping over a characteristic that does not inspire us. I often plan on presenting the drawing on the following day, so I make sure that we finish this part of the process with fifteen minutes of class time to spare. In those fifteen minutes we complete a Write & Discuss description of the OWI on the board, which the students often copy into their notebooks (but not until after we have finished writing it on the board– the W&D requires student input so they cannot be distracted by taking notes). We will also have a five minute exit quiz based on the creation of the OWI.
On the back of the exit quiz, just before class ends, I wonder aloud in English: “Class, I wonder why oh why is this very old cucumber that likes to ski so very very sad. Why? Look at how sad he is, he is microscopic with his microscopic tears… why is he so sad?!” Each student quietly writes their idea on a small piece of paper or note card which they then pass in to me. Students write their ideas in English… it is very difficult to be creative in a language that they are learning. I want very creative answers to form a starting point for a story that we will create together during the next class session. If he is sad, then the responses will naturally lead to a problem that must be overcome in the story that follows. If he is happy, make an announcement at the beginning of the next class. Take away whatever makes the character happy so that he must fix that problem.
The following day I present the student-drawn illustration of the OWI. The moment of unveiling has a wonderful tension as we all marvel at the work of the student artists and, of course, I take the opportunity to fully review every characteristic of the OWI before explaining the problem that the character will face in the story. Here is a pro-tip: as you present, take the time to actually write some of the description in whatever white space is left. You will be hanging these posters on the walls of your classroom and the written language on the poster creates a text rich classroom. For that reason, write big with a thick black sharpie so that whatever is written can be seen from far away. An OWI with text that is hard to read from far away is not useful, so don’t try to copy the entire Write & Discuss onto the poster. Just add key points in full sentences (i.e. no single words either).
If there were no compelling problems suggested, we might not even create a story the next day. In that case I hang the picture on the wall and that character may, or may not, become the star of a future story. I may print out the text of the character description and hang it as a poster next to him so that the easy reading that we created together in the Write & Discuss can be referred to and read again in later classes.
If we do create a story, then the story created the next day is very short. There are four parts to each story and I ask a student to play the role of time keeper so that we spend no more than five minutes on each part. Occasionally I might add an extra minute to a part, but usually each story is finished in twenty minutes. The key is to express everything in comprehensible language. I use high frequency verb posters to be able to point and pause; once your students have mastered the 16 or so highest frequency verbs in the language, you will find that it is easy to express many concepts.
The first of four parts of the story simply establishes the scene by answering the following questions: Who is this story about? Where is he? Who is he with? These questions may well have been answered as we created the OWI; if not we quickly establish an answer. The last question may be useful if the OWI needs help solving his problem. Sometimes that extra character plays a role in the story, sometimes not. Often times this first part does not take the full five minutes because we have already established much of the information while creating the OWI. Be sure to ask many comprehension questions to be sure that your students are understanding you in the target language.
The second part simply answers the question, What is the problem? I express this in the target language. Often times there are things to explain. I make sure that students can process all of the language.
The third part is called “failure”; the OWI tries to solve his problem but fails. You have to work efficiently with students because you need to be able to express this in a complex sentence indicating both what he does and why it does not work. As we do this I am working in the target language. One student might suggest (in either Spanish or English, or often a mixture) that the OWI goes to Walmart to buy new shoes, so I turn to the class and ask (in Spanish), “does he go to Walmart? Does he find shoes there? Are the shoes new? Does he find shoes that he likes?”. Each step along the way I am writing on the board, speaking in Spanish but writing both languages so that students are following what I am saying. When they do not understand I point at the English, but I am trying to use easy, comprehensible language. Rather than teach new vocabulary, ideally I am getting them to process common words over and over in novel situations so that they eventually process the language at the speed of a native speaker.
The final part is called “solution”, where the OWI finally finds a solution to the problem. Once the entire 20 minute cycle is finished I write the entire story on the board in the form of a Write & Discuss activity (described elsewhere in this book). A completed story is typically anywhere from five to ten sentences long. Students copy these texts into their notebooks.
After several sessions making OWIs and their stories you might feel like the list of characteristics is constraining the creativity of the class. I recommend that you eventually substitute the question “Is he happy or sad?” with one of the pairs of words listed at the end of this article. Use only one pair of words per OWI and when it is time to create a problem, rather than asking why the OWI is happy or sad, simply ask how being (characteristic) becomes a problem for the character. For example, if the class decides that their yellow helmet is courageous, ask them how being courageous gets the yellow helmet into trouble. As always, allow them to do this work in English. Let their imaginations fly and report back to you on a note card that you will read after class. As you read their suggestions, feel free to combine ideas to create the most interesting problem that you can express in the target language.
Another way to encourage complexity is to simply project either the entire set of AP themes against the white board and ask students to contemplate these themes just before they turn in small groups and develop a problem (in English), or project only one subset of the themes for students to contemplate. This is like priming the pump; we have had wonderful stories that incorporate themes based on gender identity, environmental issues and such after students took a few minutes to consider the possible problems their OWIs could face in the real world.
When introducing new vocabulary, the intention is not to actually “teach” the new words. Instead we are seeking to encourage the creativity of students. Simply write the words with translations on the board, point and pause when you use them and make no show of trying to get students to memorize the words. Focus on the consequences of the characteristics for the characters, using high-frequency words while developing interesting problems and solutions.
This list was inspired from a list of personal qualities not measured by tests
Courageous – Timid
Resilient – Fragile, low self-esteem
Enthusiastic – Downer
Creative – Dull
Persistent – Gives up quickly
Humble – Self-aggrandizing
Spontaneous – Cautious
Hard-working – Lazy
Motivated – Passive, lethargic
Leader – Follower
Amusing – Gloomy
Curious – Uninterested
Empathetic – Indifferent, uncaring
Reliable – Irresponsible
Trustworthy – Untrustworthy
Valiente – Cobarde
Resistente – Frágil, tiene la autoestima baja
Entusiasta – Negativa, aguafiestas
Creativo – Aburrido
Persistente – Se da por vencido fácilmente
Humilde – Arrogante, engreído
Espontáneo – Cauteloso
Trabajador – Flojo
Motivado – Pasivo, letárgico
Líder – Seguidor
Divertido – Pesimista, sombrío
Interesado – Desinteresado
Empático – Indiferente, insensible
Responsable – Irresponsable
Confiable – que no es de fiar
French (Careful! This list was made by a non-French Teacher!!!)
Courageux – Timide
Résistant – Fragile, manque de confiance en soi
Enthousiaste – Rabat-joie
Créatif – Ennuyeux
Humble – Arrogant
Spontané – Prudent
Travailleur – Paresseux
Motivé – Passif, léthargique
Meneur – Adepte
Drôle – Sombre
Curieux – Indifférent
Empathique – Sans cœur
Fiable – Irresponsable
Finally here are several videos. The first is a video of me creating a OWI in a workshop in Savannah, Georgia. In class this would be about a 20 minute activity.
The next day we experience “the big reveal”, a presentation of the artwork along with plenty of repetition in the target language followed by a quick story. This is about 25-30 minutes of class time.
You might not like how much I code switch. However, during class I am simply focused on keeping the story moving. I want my students to be swept up in the story, not even thinking about the language, so I am comfortable with a loud classroom because I know that I have the classroom management skills to quiet them down and review in the target language when we have established a detail. Furthermore, I think that it is during Write & Discuss where so much language actually comes together. On one hand, I have deep respect for teachers who speak nearly 100% target language (for example, watch the beautiful video of Mila Garner teaching French below). At the same time, I understand that the research and my professional experience indicate that students do NOT need to speak the target language in order to learn to speak… allowing a lively OWI experience keeps my students engaged. Just make sure that your students can process the target language and can pass an exit quiz (comprehension quiz in the target language) at the end of the period.
The text of this blog post comes from my new book “Pleasure Reading in the World Language Classroom: Finding a Balance Between Whole Class Reading and Independent Pleasure Reading”, soon available through Teachers Discovery. The video comes from my “Workshop Online”, available on my website.