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Complete instructions to making OWIs and the stories they inspire

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
Tenace –
Humble – Arrogant
Spontané – Prudent
Travailleur – Paresseux
Motivé – Passif, léthargique
Meneur – Adepte
Drôle – Sombre
Curieux – Indifférent
Empathique – Sans cœur
Fiable – Irresponsable

Finally here is a video of me creating a OWI in a workshop in Savannah, Georgia:

And here is a 3 minute video of the big reveal of the artwork “the next day”:
(soon to be added)

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.

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Write & Discuss example

As I was preparing a video session for Scott Benedict’s online conference I looked through some old class footage to see if I could caption a good example of a typical Write & Discuss (W & D) session. This is the activity that I recommend any CI teacher end their class with, regardless of what was being done in class. It is surprising to me that many CI teachers do not end their classes with a quick W & D… whether you have spent the class interviewing a student, chatting about the weekend or even watching youtube videos, W & D is an excellent way to get one last repetition of the input by summarizing the class period and getting that information into their notebooks. The W & D texts are a great answer when parents ask what their children are supposed to study for midterm or final exams.

To be clear, W & D is a short end of class routine that lasts from 5 to 10 minutes. Here is a typical 55 minute lesson that I might have planned (or just performed off the cuff):

The following example of Write & Discuss came after creating a class story like in the first lesson plan, but it could have easily focused on the chat about after school plans, or both. Here is the video:

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Ode to Annabelle Allen

A day with Annabelle Allen, 2018 Louisiana Foreign language Teacher of the Year

Most people know Annabelle “la maestra loca” Allen for her incredible charisma, high-energy and, of course, her signature brain breaks. Today I spent the day with forty other lucky teachers and Annabelle at East Wake Academy in North Carolina. One thing that struck me as I followed her presentation is that Annabelle Allen is much more than brain breaks. I often hear people say that they could not reproduce Annabelle’s kind of high-energy performance in class, but sifting past what I cannot imitate left me with the characteristic of great teachers that I must be able to channel if I want to be effective: Annabelle is incredibly mindful of her students. It can be hard not to get swept up in the absolute hurricane that is her personality, but it would be a mistake to believe that her performance is on a stage untouched and unaware of her audience. How many times have I taught with a sort of tunnel vision, not truly taking the time to look deeply into the eyes of my students?!

Annabelle reminded me today of another hero of mine who has the uncanny ability to calmly, lovingly remember each student’s contribution to a class story and consistently honors that student by gently gesturing in her direction whenever that contribution is recalled in class. If you have ever sat in a class taught by Ben Slavic, you know how special you feel when he says your detail a day later during a retell, then pauses, gently raising his hand palm up in your direction, pausing still to make eye contact with you and for a second nods slightly with a grateful smile as if to say, “yes, blue, you saved our story with that wonderful idea of yours, of course our character is blue“. The difference between Ben’s slow, pondering approach and Annabelle’s frenetic energy could not be greater on a superficial level, yet they are undoubtedly related.

I have heard people suggest that when you observe another CI teacher you should take notes on how they made themselves comprehensible. It is a technique that helps the viewer maintain some distance so that, instead of being entranced by the lesson, the observer can actively observe the mechanics of a good CI teacher. If you have the chance to observe Annabelle, however, consider making a list of how she makes each student feel valued and loved. Some of her techniques, like the crayons of many different colors technique, she will openly articulate… while others are worth holding yourself slightly outside of the tornado of her lesson with the hope of getting a glimpse at how thoroughly she observes the students in her midst.

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Sometimes students long for something real

Working with student-created images does not have to be frivolous

I was looking through some of my favorite One Word Images that my students created in 2017 and I came across the story of Coco, the tale of a transgender piece of paper born with all of the biological parts of un papel but self-identifying as “una hoja” de papel. I made this with a Spanish 3 class.

I did not walk into class that day with the intention of creating a heavy story. I did sense that students were not in the mood for another crazy adventure with wacky details and a nonsensical plot. Sometimes they like that; when they take ownership of such a story there is no better use of class time than following that crazy story. But when students get burned out on stories, sometimes what they really want is to talk about something real.

The trick to eliciting these kinds of stories is to zealously protect a classroom culture of trust. Adolescents constantly monitor social boundaries. When a student makes an off-color remark, every adolescent in the room is watching to see what is permitted by the teacher. When a student makes a racist or homophobic comment, a stern but silent look of reproach is not the right response. Silence communicates to some students that there are some things which are left unsaid in polite society, but we essentially agree. It took me a long time to realize that the stern glare of reproach does not condemn intolerance, instead it pathetically pleads “not here, please don’t ruin my class”. Every other student observes this dynamic. Students in such a class learn that their feelings will not be protected, that there is no line that cannot be crossed. I developed a routine that I call “the cool generation” to create a safe space in my classroom. Click here to read about it; the key is to make sure that you get a full, hearty class response that they reject the hatred of past generations.

On that day I chose the drawing of a piece of paper from a pile that students had created weeks beforehand. Sometimes when class-created stories are not clicking I will “press the reset button” by having students draw for ten minutes in silence, and then we will move on with a student interview or a movie talk. For that reason I always have a pile of drawings on my desk that we can later use as inspiration. As I held up the drawing and we established some basic information about the character, I listened closely and did not jump at the first crazy idea that was offered.

This is the character that my kids came up with. Totally respectful, these kids embraced the metaphor in our character and created a serious, meaningful story. Here is the set-up to “Coco” that we created on the first day:

En un bosque mágico hay una hoja de papel que se llama Coco. Coco nació con todas las partes biológicas de un papel, pero ahora que tiene ocho años y seis meses ella se identifica como “una hoja”, no como “un papel”.

Todos los árboles del bosque son las madres de Coco. Coco tiene muchas mamás.

Ella tiene un hermano mayor también. El hermano es un papel grande que le pega a Coco cuando sus madres no están mirando. Coco se pone maquillaje (líquido corrector) para que sus mamás no vean los moretones.

That took us a good half hour of discussion in Spanish to develop the idea while making sure that each development of our story remained perfectly comprehensible to everyone. When the student came up with that first powerhouse idea, that Coco self-identifies as “a piece of paper” (feminine noun) although she was born with all of the biological parts of “un papel” (masculine noun), I paused and in English told the class that we could not move forward if we could not do this respectfully. “I am willing to follow this story to see where it goes, but we are not using this as a code to make fun of somebody real in this school. Are you with me?” I think that pausing and explicitly setting the boundaries in English was important, even though that was a norm that should be expected of any class story. I think it also served as a social cue that we were doing something extraordinary in that story, and so the engagement was quite high.

The next day was one of the most emotionally draining classes I have ever taught. At first everyone was silent, reluctant to face what we constructed the day before. I let them brainstorm in pairs for a few minutes and then an avalanche of violent, vengeful plots came forward… pushing her bully brother into a paper shredder, for example. Finally I turned to them and admitted (in English) that I really needed a hopeful ending. An ending that did not walk the road of violence. An ending that is not pure fantasy but maybe, with the help of a little poetry, could help us imagine a brighter future. Wow did they come through. The ending is bittersweet.

This was an effective language class because students were so engaged. It is not a question of how many repetitions did I get on a particular target structure– when students are highly engaged, they pick up more with less repetitions. This is how my students learn the subjunctive, this is how they learn advanced grammatical constructions like si clauses. We were also hitting so many AP and IB themes in this story that it is no wonder that my students can spontaneously respond when they take those exams after only four years of classes.

Here is the rest of the story that we created together on the second day:

Coco se culpa por el abuso de su hermano. Ella se dice que no debe decírselo a nadie. Ella cree que es ella la mala. Ella cree que si dijera algo a sus mamás, sería una mala hoja de papel. Nosotros sabemos que ella está equivocada, pero muchas veces las víctimas se quedan en silencio. No debe ser así, pero desafortunadamente es normal.

Un día Coco decide decir algo a su mamá. Ella dice a una de sus mamás que su hermano le pega y primero la mamá no cree que sea la verdad. “Mi hijo nunca te pegaría”, dice la mamá-árbol. Después la mamá le dice que “papeles serán papeles” y que Coco no debe provocar a su hermano. Coco se pone muy triste.

Coco decide que necesita irse. Ella se dobla y se convierte en un avión de papel. Vuela muy lejos. El hermano está solo. Después de años él se siente solo, muy solo. Él quiere hablar con su hermana, pero ella no está.

Un día el hermano recibe un regalo. Cuando abre el regalo, él ve que el papel alrededor del regalo es su hermana. Ella volvió solo cuando él estaba listo para verla.

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Low Income School? Here is funding to bring students abroad!!

Eligible if at least 40% of your students are receiving free and reduced price lunch

I was recently contacted by the FLYTE Organization, which funds trips for low-income schools that are well outlined and thought out with clear educational and cultural goals. The application window is extremely tight; you need to start working on this now. Before leaving for Winter Break I would drop by to see my principal and get her signature. Look at the deadlines to the left; that is to lead a trip during the summer of 2018. To me this deadline seems so tight that I suspect many school systems would not be able to approve it, which means if you can then your chances of leading a free trip for your students are that much better.

Here is the link to the application guidelines.

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How EASY it is to self-publish your CI novel

Let me walk you through the process step by step

I just self-published my fourth book, a translation of my popular novel Superhamburgers into Brazilian Portuguese (I also have translations of Superhamburgers in French & Spanish as well as a collection of essays about teaching Spanish to heritage learners). A fifth book, a graphic novel prequel to Superhamburgers, is on the way and will be published in December. Once you have written a book, formatting it, getting it printed professionally and offering it on Amazon is a pretty simple process. As I was completing this last book I took a lot of screen shots so that I could walk you through the process.

This post is not about the creative process of writing a CI novel– I will write about that in a later post. The post is simply about the technical side of getting your work published and then offering it to the world without having to market, organize inventory, shipping, returns or any of that business stuff. Being a teacher is enough hassle. Once you have written a text, all you need is a word processing program.

I print my books through a service called Createspace, which is a subsidiary of and therefore makes it very easy to offer published work online. You can set up a free account by following that link– in fact, you can do this whole process for free. I will also show you how to offer your book on Kindle, which is a good deal for both you and your readers.

Step One: Correct the Page Size

Starting from the document in Word: Change the size of the page to 9 x 6 to reflect the size of the page in your published book. Once you do this, then you will not have to worry too much about printing errors because the document on your computer will really mirror exactly what will be printed. A word document normally has a default size of a normal letter-sized piece of paper. In order to change the page size you must first click on “Page Layout”, then “Size” and finally click on the last option, “More Paper Sizes”. A new box will pop up where you can manually change the size of the paper to Width: 6 (inches) and Height: 9 (inches).

Step Two: Get an ISBN Number & create a Copyright page
Logged into the Createspace page you need to fill in the first two pages so that you can get an ISBN number, which you will then copy onto one of the first pages on your book. This is what it looked like for my latest book:

Once you have the ISBN number, you need to create the Copyright page. I usually leave the first printed page blank and then place the Copyright page on the second page of the book. Book Design Made Simple has a good explanation of exactly what you want to include on a Copyright page.

Step Three: Thank those who have reviewed your manuscript

Do not forget this part! I have a native speaker read and comment on everything that I write. Even if you are a native speaker, have someone from a different region read your manuscript. It is easy to find collaborators; just ask on one of the CI Facebook groups. It is always appreciated to send that person free copies of your book once published.

Step Four: Upload the interior manuscript

I recommend that you save your word doc as a .PDF before uploading it. Images and fonts sometimes jump around when it is uploaded as a .docx but in any case you will have the opportunity to preview your files.

Here is an screen shot of what the manuscript preview looks like. As you can see, it automatically flagged one of my images that was slightly placed outside of one of the margins. The previewer is pretty cool; you can flip through your book and get a sense of what it will really look like.

Step Five: A few things to consider adding to your manuscript

As you can see, I like to embed cartoons into my books to help scaffold the reading. Since I do not know the students who will be reading the book, I also like to provide footnotes on any vocabulary or expressions that are not high-frequency. I also like to include a word cloud of the words that appear in each chapter that teachers can use either as an aid in class discussions or to scaffold student retells.

I am also particular about the glossary. Most students are not going to use the glossary (especially if you have footnotes), but those that do use it want to quickly find the word and return to the story. For that reason I go out of my way to add EVERY word, conjugated verbs and obvious cognates included, and also include idiomatic phrases that may be hard for some students to put together. The glossary is without doubt the most annoying part of the book to put together, but if done well it will help readers enjoy the book. I always assume that a student glancing back at the glossary is a struggling reader, so I try to include as much support as possible.

Step Six: Create a cover

The front and back cover is one simple image that wraps around:

You can create the image using a program as simple as Windows Paint (which is what I do). The exact size of the binding (and therefore the image) depends upon the number of pages. Createspace has instructions so that you create the perfect sized cover.

Step Seven: Order a proof copy and approve for printing

I strongly recommend that you order a physical print copy before placing your book on Amazon. It will cost around $2.15. The Amazon page for your book will normally be created within hours of your approval.

Step Eight: Tell us that you have published a book!

I will happily advertise your book on CI-Reading, a blog for indie authors of CI novels. Just contact me with your book information. This is a free service.

I also recommend that you get a blog and post information about your book. It is most effective to post the first two chapters of your novel so that readers can preview your writing style. Here are the first two chapters of my latest novel, in Portuguese.

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Graphic novels & Japanese manga translated into Spanish

At the end of this post is a list of books that I recommend as well as a list of books that I am still trying to figure out how to sell to my students and, lastly, the black list of books that I wish I had never bought.

Over the past two years I have been expanding the graphic novel and manga section of my classroom library. You might be surprised at how many of your “non-reading” students are otakus, secretly obsessed with Japanese anime and manga. A few copies of Naruto translated into Spanish may release a flood of nostalgia and, of course, positive memories of when reading was fun.

One big discovery I made this year was the series Orange (pictured above) by Ichigo Takano. Teach your kids that manga is read from right to left, starting from what western readers would consider to be the last page of the book. Therefore in the caption above the reader would first see the boy with tears in his eyes, then read “muchas gracias” followed by “Suwa, ¿estás llorando?”, finishing with “¡Claro que no! Es la alergia.”

A timid heritage learner of Spanish asked to keep my copy of the series Orange so that she could re-read it over the summer. That is what I call a reading home run! It tells the story of a girl who receives letters from herself written from the future, which instruct her to save one of her friends. “He will disappear if you do nothing“, warns one of the letters. In my classes this series has only gained traction among heritage learners, so if you do not have a heritage learner population you might want to hold back on buying this series.

I have written earlier about the wonderful graphic novel ¡Sonríe! by Raina Telgemeier as well as El perro enamorado de las estrellas by Takashi Murakami. Both can be read by intermediate students of Spanish with some “tolerance of noise”. That tolerance is an important point, usually students exhibit a tolerance for noise when they have a high interest in the reading material. These are not whole group novels, although I do occasionally read parts of these novels with the whole class as a browsing strategy. Some students will want to stay with TPRS novels that are closer to 100% comprehensible, but some will not perk up and enjoy reading until they come across something like a manga. Likewise I had a student, an avowed non-reader, who did nothing but fake read until he saw a copy of Art Speigelman´s Maus in the reserved book shelf behind my desk. I would have never guessed that an interest in the Holocaust would turn him onto reading in Spanish.

En la vida real is a graphic novel (ie not Japanese manga) that attracted a small, very specific following in my class. It tells the story of a young American girl who discovers self-confidence through a persona in an online multi-player game. Valued for her skill as a gamer, she disdains players who purchase the online items which she is proud to earn. Things get complicated when she and her online friends decide to attack the online personas of players who spend their game-time harvesting, only to discover that the “harvesters” are exploited children working in the 21st century version of third-world sweatshops.

Los dioses mienten is about a boy who discovers that one of his classmates is an orphan. In fact, nobody knows that her grandfather passed away soon after her father abandoned them, and she has been fending for herself ever since waiting for her father to return. I cannot remember if there were parts to white out; whenever I read a new manga I often have a black marker and a white-out pen to apply to any scene that shows underwear. I remember this manga as a sweet little tale of childhood innocence.

I am not going to pretend that the Oshinbo series does not address a specialized audience, but if you have an interest in Japanese cuisine then you should get it just for your own reading during FVR time! These books are considered “gastronomic manga”; they do have a plot (father and son gourmets who cannot stand each other due to their competing sense of aesthetics), but it is a thinly veiled excuse to be fascinated by the complexity of Japanese cuisine. Occasionally there is a show down between father and son, which does not necessarily mean that either gets into the kitchen and cooks. The competition is to see who has the best palate (sense of taste). It is absurd, entertaining and enlightening.

El Diario gatuno de Jinju Ito is one of the rare books by this author of horror manga that I can recommend for class use. Students who are familiar with the genre will recognize his style, but fortunately in this book the anxiety for which the author is known stays within bounds. It is something of a cute book about a man who hates cats. I have picture talked a page to help develop student interest in the book.

Adding manga and graphic novels to an FVR library is not the cure for all students, but if you take the time to properly develop interest in this new section it will help some of your students actually enjoy independent reading time. That is a big accomplishment because it is enjoyment of reading, not just reading, that makes students into life-long readers.

Books that I enthusiastically recommend:
Orange (books 1-5) – Ichigo Takano
¡Sonríe! – Raina Telgemeier
En la vida real – Cory Doctorow
María y yo – Miguel Gallardo
Coraline, novela gráfica – Neil Gaiman
Desaparecido (books 1-6) – Kei Sanbe
Los dioses mienten (preview?) – Kaori Ozaki
El diario gatuno de Junji Ito – Junji Ito
Oshinbo a la carte (books 1-7) – Tetsu Kariya & Akira Hanasaki Japanese cuisine with a plot
Persépolis integral – Marjane Satrapi (PREVIEW!!!)
Maus – Art Spiegelman (PREVIEW!!!)
Arrugas – Paco roca
Pyongyang – Guy Delisle
Naruto (many books… preview with white-out marker) – Masashi Kishimoto
Dragon Ball (many books… preview with white-out marker) – Akira Toriyama

Books I like that have yet to find an audience:
A Silent Voice – Yoshitoki Oima
Food Wars – Yuto Tsukuda (read with a white-out marker!)
Guía del mal padre – Guy Delisle
El Gourmet solitario – Jiro Taniguchi
Cruzando el bosque – Emily Carroll
El rastreador – Juro Taniguchi
Aventuras de la mano negra – Hans Jurgen Press
Hansel y Gretel – Donald Lemke
Jack y los frijoles mágicos – Blake Hoena
La Bella y la Bestia – Michael Dahl
Memorias de Idhun (graphic novels 1-12) – Laura Gallego García (several students enjoyed this series, but it is adapted from the novels in a confusing, disjointed manner).

Mistakes: books I have bought that never made it into my classroom library:
Los gritos del pasado (sexual violence)
Fantasmas – Raina Telgemeier (read this review)
Doble sentido – Niklas Asker (sexuality)
Futbolín (sexuality)
El guardián invisible – la novela gráfica – Dolores Redondo (sexual violence)
Traición, la torre oscura 3 – Stephen King (made it but rarely read due to tiny font)
Fútbol, la novela gráfica – Santiago García (sexuality)
Vagabond – Takehiko Inoue (sexual violence)
Voces en la oscuridad – Junji Ito (sexual violence)
Hotel – Boichi (sexuality)
Tomei O.C. – Junji Ito (sexual violence)
Mirai Nikki – Sakae Esuno (extreme violence)
Tungsteno – Marcello Quintanilha (sexuality)
Yo, asesino – Keke Altarriba (sexual violence)
V de Vendetta – Alan Moore (sexuality)

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Watching other teachers in class

Bring more CI voices into your classroom

I love watching other teachers teach. An absolutely-no-prep end-of-the-year activity that I enjoy is finding videos of other teachers and spending ten minutes watching and commenting on it with my students. I was telling my students, “es como el Matrix donde podemos entrar en (mimic opening a door) otra realidad“. One corrected me, saying, “actually Mr Peto it is more like Inception where 20 seconds of their time stretches into 10 minutes in our world”. I love how everyone gets a little punchy in the last month of school.

It all started one day with a video of Eric Herman doing a movie talk of a Volkswagen commercial. Unfortunately I cannot find the clip, but we got hung up on a portion in which Eric is asking one of his students if she has pets and she says no, so he starts listing the pets that she might want but does not have. I found this hilarious and, since only a few of my students agreed, I decided to pull one up to act out the ludicrous scene with dramatic relish.

Thus was born a segment that I call, “¡¿Qué está pasando en otras clases?!“.

Click on photo to see Alina’s video
At the beginning of the year my students are assigned seats which are placed within taped boxes, but by the end of the year kids are grabbing pillows and sprawling out on the floor. As long as they are paying attention, they own the classroom. So I thought it would be fun to watch one of Alina Filipescu’s videos that highlight her amazing classroom management skills. It took us seven minutes to watch about 30 seconds of video as I described the various gestos that her students were making, all in unison. The interesting thing for me was that I do not normally ask students to do gestures… okay, I never ask for gestures. Bringing Alina in through video taught my class the entonces gesture. Nice!

Click on photo to see the video of Jason
A few days later I pulled up a clip of Jason Fritze teaching younger kids using TPR. This was fun because not only did my students have to adjust to hearing a different voice, but they had to react quickly to the video. I told my students, “es un baile moderno…un baile supermoderno… y el coreógrafo es el señor Fritze… tenemos que hacerlo perfectamente“. Half of my late-May-fried-teaching-brain was freed up as I sat in the back with my students and simply obeyed his instructions, raising my hand whenever I observed students off-track. One of my students sitting at the computer rewound the video (at times cruelly to the beginning) so that we could perfect our performance.

Click on the photo to visit Pablo’s Youtube channel

A few days later we watched a video made by Pablo Pankun Román on his youtube channel “Dreaming Spanish”. This is a great end of the year activity because it moves students in the direction of finding their own comprehensible input. It is very much scaffolded by a native speaker, but it was almost entirely comprehensible to my students.

Cameron Taylor
I have also released several videos of myself doing story listening lessons. Last January on Tea with BVP Bill Van Patten suggested that hearing good comprehensible input on video can be as effective as live interaction. Cynthia Hitz wrote a blog post detailing how she uses these videos for substitute lesson plans (which in fact was the reason that I made several of those videos). Ironically, while I was absent, I had lunch with Cameron Taylor in Tokyo, one of the other teachers that Cynthia highlights in her blog post. It is a very small CI world! I definitely recommend that you check out both Cynthia´s blog as well as Cameron´s youtube channel and his blog where he explores teaching Spanish and also his experiences acquiring Japanese.

Here are links to several videos of me telling stories that I have on my vimeo site. There are also more, including longer ones when I am teaching with a class. Click on any of the images and you will be brought to the video:

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Conexiones by Bryce Hedstrom

A collection of short, non-fiction entries that excite a different kind of reader

People sometimes ask me how I keep students from getting bored of my schtick creating class stories day after day. The key, of course, is that I am not doing the same thing every day. On some days we create class stories together, some days I tell a fable, some days we discuss the plot of short video clips or a Spanish language tv show that we are watching in class, and some days we discuss our own personal stories through student interviews. But there is one kind of story that feels so different: non-fiction.

The readings in Bryce´s book excite a different kind of reader: the child who spends hours curled up with a magazine like Ranger Rick, Popular Science or National Geographic. This book rounds out a classroom library by focusing on interesting non-fiction that is comprehensible to novice learners of Spanish. Whether offered as an independent reading selection, read in small groups or part of a whole-class reading activity, these readings are a necessary complement to the fiction that is central to my classes.

I like to do a few of these readings as a whole class activity to hook students on the pleasure of reading non-fiction. Not all students enjoy reading about the animals of Latin America (for example), and that is okay. Then I leave the book out for FVR. Those who long for “something real” will be attracted like magnets to Bryce´s book and, in turn, will be much more attentive during the fiction stories spun in class because they recognize that one part of the class was designed just for them.

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Story Listening Lesson with my Spanish 1 students

A copy of the story, video of my lesson and power point full of student drawn pictures for class review the next day

In early May I told this story to my Spanish 1 students. It is inspired by a classic fable but I added an unexpected twist at the end. Here is a copy of the story as I wrote it before telling it to my students. I think it is good practice to encourage students to read the story later.

I do not choose stories based upon language that I want to introduce in class. For story listening I never hunt for a story that has the imperfect tense or a certain group of target words. I do occasionally teach classic TPRS stories with target structures that I want to nail down, but that is a small part of my teaching routine. Instead I normally search for stories that I think will interest students and then rewrite the story so that it will be comprehensible. There are definitely some words that my students did not know, such as chismosa, pueblo, injusto and entierro. I wrote them on the board as they came up in the story and perhaps circled them very lightly just so that students understood in this one context, this one time. The words menor and mayor also came up, and have shown up in other stories, but I felt like I needed to give a little extra attention to those words.

Finally at the end of the video I tell students watching the video at home to write a 150 word version of this story in Spanish. That was simply for the group of students that had been pulled out of my class for a motivational speaker. That is not how I normally follow up a Story Listening activity. Normally I will have them quickly write about the story in English so that I can glance through the papers and verify their understanding. Today I gave them a paper with only one sentence from the story and had them illustrate that one sentence. At the end of the week we will revisit this story with a power point full of their illustrations (which I will insert here when it is done). I will retell the story using their pictures, and perhaps I will have them also retell in pairs but I know that what makes them speak fluently is not the speaking practice… it is the multiple comprehensible exposures to hearing and reading the fable.

Added the next day:

The next day we did a quick retell and I then gave students five minutes to write as quickly as possible everything they could remember. Here are three random writing samples. Since many of the grades that I record are simply based on completion it is meaningless to say whether these students are “A” or “C” students. What I can say is that they are rarely absent, so this is what happens when they come to class:

Click here to watch the video of the story listening part of the lesson (which is about 15 minutes long):

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there is a special doorway into a child’s world

“The best way I have found of getting to a place where everyone knows and approves of each other in a classroom, to form a community in an authentic sense, is by sharing images created by the students to use as a basis for stories. That’s the glue.” – Ben Slavic

Ben & Tina´s book, A Natural Approach to Stories , has just become available today on Teacher´s Discovery. I have so much affection for this approach to stories that it is hard for me to single out a few bullet points as to why you should use this book as your guide to CI. The approach described in this book is substantial enough to entirely replace my previous (already effective) CI curriculum. After a year of Ben´s approach my students are performing better, and happier, than ever before. And it is not just my experience: I have recently learned that two teachers in my CI meet-up group (which focuses on Ben´s approach) have earned the Teacher of the Year award at their respective schools. Take a look at Cameron Taylor´s blog to read about his experiences with the power of stories rooted in One Word Images and Invisibles.

As I leave my district in California behind this June, I will be sure to leave a hard copy of A Natural Approach to Stories, placing it in a discreet place in the hopes that the teacher who replaces me will discover it.

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The growing FVR cartoon library

At this point we have over 20 submissions in our collaborative, downloadable FVR cartoon library.

A few of the cartoons have been fully illustrated in color and are ready to be laminated or added to a cartoon binder for easy reading by students during their free reading part of the class.

Some of the cartoons have been illustrated with pencil so that it will not be costly to print out the cartoons. If you have your students illustrate either colored or pencil versions and they turn out well, please send us the best example so that we can offer both colored and black & white versions.

Most of the cartoons also have a non-illustrated version. These are great for substitute plans or a homework assignment where you want to lightly assess student´s reading comprehension. Instead of printing off a class set of one cartoon, please consider printing off 5 or 10 different cartoons and having students illustrate a random cartoon. Send in the best.

I like to emphasize that the act of illustrating is not an efficient use of class time; assign these as substitute plans or occasional homework to supplement the CI students are hearing in class. The real value of the cartoon library will be once we have a full reading library to cater to the needs of the lowest level readers in class so that your FVR program will be strong and effective.

If you would like to join our collaborative effort please read the instructions and submit a class-created cartoon. All languages are welcome.

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Recipe for a fantastic year

Pre-planned targets, emergent targets, Light-circling, heavy-circling and not targeting at all: they all have their place in a level 1 classroom

A few years ago, when all of my stories had targets, we created a fun class story called Frankie el mentiroso. You can see the original lesson here. Looking at that post helps me see how far I have come in these past years. This is a story that I created with a Spanish 3 class. This year, about seven months into Spanish 1, my students are just sitting back and enjoying hearing this story.

Back in those days I targeted obsessively, mistakenly believing that students acquire what I target and mostly do not acquire what I do not target. I must have been confused if I had read Stephen Krashen´s suggestion that most of what we acquire is almost certainly non-targeted input. I was too close to the grammar syllabus that I was in the process of rejecting to be able to recognize that a vocabulary syllabus is just as absurd.

My experiences this year working mostly with emergent targets has flipped everything on its head. While before I would carefully lay a foundation of essential structures, this year working mostly with One Word Images (OWIs) throughout the first semester has ironically led to a stronger foundation due to incredible student interest generated by the process. Here is my recipe for an awesome year:

(1) I started the year with student interviews and quickly getting students familiar with the third person of the Super 7 verbs. I purposely chose interview questions that featured these highest of high-frequency verbs. It sounds ridiculous, but I actually used this power point with the interview questions in both Spanish (large letters) and English (small letters). During August kids would just turn around and read the question I asked… until they did not need to. It happened naturally while we were busy paying attention to their answers.

(2) Early in the semester I taught my students the process of creating OWIs. We made them twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. These might take 20 minutes each time; the rest of the time was used on interviews (one student could easily take another 20 minutes) and other CI activities. OWIs are definitely the WOW! activity that I incorporated into my teaching this year, and I am not the only one enamored with this powerful technique. Take a look at one of Cameron Taylor´s blog posts about using OWIs with his daughter. Important: we ended each class with a short Write & Discuss activity to summarize what happened in class that day and then added that writing to an FVR binder.

(3) Very quickly kids wanted to start expanding their OWIs into stories, which we did on Tuesdays and Fridays. Both OWIs and the narrative vignettes that emerged on the following day depended heavily on the Super 7 verbs, but there was also a lot of emergent structures. When, for example, students wanted a fountain from which blue chocolate flows, I needed to slowly circle the new information (una fuente de que salía chocolate azul… notice how I carefully simplified the language). Here you can see a story they made in early September (a month into the school year) about that fountain; if this had been a pre-planned class story the story would have been a hopeless failure. Look at how complicated it is! But this OWI turned class story was THEIR story unlike any TPRS story I have ever worked with before. It is fascinating how powerful the OWI technique is.

(4) By mid-October I was occasionally sprinkling in a pre-planned target structure. Mostly this was by “asking” one of the stories that I have used before. In the past I prefaced these targeted lessons with a lot of PQA; this year I would just work with the main text in one single class period. If the lesson required more than one period then I put it off and waited until later, when we could finish the targeted lesson in one period. Here is an example of a “one class” targeted story that we did to focus on the word ningún. The first power point took most of one whole class. We then read the additional story “Panqueques” about two weeks later, and that was also completed in one class period.

(5) But I was also telling completely non-targeted stories via the Story Listening technique, as you can see in this lesson.

(6) We also started watching El Internado in January using an emergent approach. No way I am going to pre-teach all of those structures!! Instead I look at each scene and ask myself, “What do the characters want?” That question is enough to simplify the tv show to make it comprehensible to my students… no need to doddle translating all of that dialogue!!

(7) A tremendous amount of reading is essential, starting in the first semester with class-created texts being added to the FVR binders every day. By September I was doing short, simple book talks (mostly on Wednesdays) about the books in my FVR library that they would eventually start reading independently. By January we started FVR for the first 5-10 minutes of class… students who do not feel confident reading from the TPRS books pick up the FVR binders that we created during first semester and reread texts that we created together.

Watch the video below and look at how easily students are interacting with a story that I originally created for a level three class. As I watch this, I can recognize that there is no such thing as “hard structures”. After telling them the story in a story listening style presentation, students read a copy of the story on their own. Afterwards I quickly read the story aloud, clarifying any remaining doubts. By slowly exposing them to (a) a lot of non-targeted/emergent-targeted input as well as (b) a well-curated foundation of targeted high frequency input, my students are all superstars.

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hello all you beautiful teachers

is-it-okay-to-shareSo many generous teachers post free materials online that it is not always clear what is free to share, or what has been lifted, photocopied and is an illegal copy. Let us be clear on one thing: sharing legally shareable resources is good practice. For years whenever I published a lesson online I thought to myself, “this is free, I don´t need to claim ownership over a free resource”. Recently, however, several people have contacted me regarding unattributed resources that they thought may have been originally mine (they were not). After reading the many comments on Martina Bex´s recent post about her unending struggle against copyright violators it became clear to me that there are many teachers who really do not want to violate copyright.

ccFor those of us who share: let´s do a very small thing to help clarify what is shareable and what is not. Let´s use the system of Creative Commons to indicate that our works are shareable, can be copied, redistributed, and altered. Or not, but let us be super clear by placing an appropriate creative commons license on the bottom of any resource we share. It is easy (and free). All you have to do is go to the Creative Commons website and decide what level of sharing is appropriate for your work. On the bottom of the page include a notice to indicate the copyright status.

Here is an example for this blog post:

“hello all you beautiful teachers” by Mike Peto is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. You are free to adapt and share for non-commercial purposes as long as you keep this notice. See copyright details here:

For a downloadable resource I plan on scaling down the font to size 10 and placing it in a text box at the bottom of the page.

The following step, of course, is to start asking about authorship whenever we receive an unattributed resource. This is not to make people feel bad about passing things on, but to create a professional culture in which piracy does not pass unnoticed through our professional groups.

We are already a generous group; if you are releasing free material then let´s go a tiny step further to protect our colleagues who truly need our help.

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Reality check: is non-targeted story listening an efficient use of class time?

We have very little time with our students. Over the course of a four year program we typically have anywhere from 450 to 600 class hours, while research suggests that it takes thousands of hours to acquire a second language. Students may expect to leave our programs “fluent”, but most language teachers understand that we are truly aiming to develop enough language so that students can continue the process on their own.

As opposed to past years, this year I have followed a mostly non-targeted approach. Before taking this step my main concern was whether a non-targeted approach would provide enough repetitions of core, high-frequency language so that students would thoroughly acquire the language rather than just remain in a perpetually confused state of “I-kind-of-sort-of-understand”. I knew that, given enough exposure to interesting & comprehensible language, they would acquire it eventually. My question: is there enough time in a school day so that eventually comes quick enough? Or is a tightly targeted curriculum better suited for the reality of preparing students to fly on their own someday.

First of all a caveat: I did target the super seven verbs and then the sweet sixteen verbs during the first few hours of instruction. In the past I would have methodically worked on the third person present tense forms, followed by second person and first person forms so that, by late October, I would be introducing past tense forms while casually using other tenses as needed (subjunctive, future, conditional, perfect tenses). This year the targeting was limited to the 3rd person of the sweet 16 verbs, which was complete by early September.

I have written before about how TPRS is a humane, inclusive method which allows students to blossom at their own natural pace. The non-targeted lessons based on One Word Images and Ben Slavic´s approach to story-asking (which he calls the Invisibles) also move as slowly as my best targeted lessons. Nobody is getting left behind; everything is as comprehensible as before. I think the interest level is higher because the personalization of the Invisibles story is deeply embedded into the DNA of the activity, whereas my targeted stories are about as personalized as a Mad Lib activity. Kind-of personalized, but the kids see right through it.

My biggest surprise with the non-targeted approach is the realization that I have more opportunities to differentiate for fast processors while not losing the slower processors. In the past I would spend time trying to find student jobs and other ways of occupying the busy minds of my fast processing students. Part of their classroom experience was learning to remain focused and to not blurt out before the rest of the students had the opportunity to process the language. This year I am reaching the high-fliers in class like never before with variations of Beniko Mason´s story listening technique.

Below are the quick writes produced by a few outstanding Spanish 1 non-heritage learners. These are just beautiful and demonstrate a richness of language that I would not expect, and certainly would not have targeted, for students in their fifth month of language classes. Some of the words I expect will drop out of their active vocabulary (maceta, semilla). But some of the expressions are not actually coming from this specific story. It is pretty darn cool. It is no longer a question of whether I have time to differentiate for fast processors; I have found non-targeted story listening to be a surprisingly efficient addition to my repertoire.

Here is a link to a video of the story listening activity that I told. I think I was very low-energy that day… which is a good sign that this technique works!






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Good Reading FVR Bookmarks

A Free Voluntary Reading program requires a lot of love…

…and one of the requirements that I have been slacking on lately is providing the continual encouragement that students need. I am not referring to banal attaboys so that students reluctantly soldier on, in fact I am not talking about extrinsic rewards at all; I am talking about developing among them a deeper ownership of the reading program. Beniko Mason has written that learners need to understand the why of the reading program if it is to truly take hold. Paul Nation suggests that language learners spend almost a quarter of their language learning time on extensive reading, using texts specifically designed to be comprehensible to their level. Now that the second bookmark-front-and-backsemester is starting (and I am pushing forward with FVR with my level one students), I need to get a little more consistent with selling the reading program to my students.

To that end I have developed a set of 35 Good Reading FVR bookmarks that I want to share with you. On one side is an attractive design; some are meant to be colored in, many refer directly to the act of reading, some reference a cool cultural product. On the other side is a good reading quote. While students may read the quote, they really are there for me to highlight at the beginning or end of the independent reading session. The reading quotes have been harvested from the writings of Stephen Krashen, Jim Trelease, Beniko Mason, Paul Nation, Frank Smith, Kató Lomb, Haruki Murakami, Bryce Hedstrom, Beverly Cleary, Norbert Schmitt, Thomas Aquinas, Paul Sweeney, Alan Maley, and Groucho Marx.

I print out the first seven pages on heavy, light-colored card stock. Flip them over and print out pages eight to fourteen (the quotes) on the reverse side. Using a paper cutter I cut 1/2 inch margins on all sides except for the top, leaving a space for students to write their names that will pop out of the top of the book. I will encourage students to decorate the book marks (on their own time) and, once they are ready, I laminate their book mark using the self-adhesive laminating sheets that I also use to protect the covers of popular paperbacks in my library. Find the free download by following this link to my TpT store.

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Story Listening, almost

Good story listening is reaching “the soul of the reading”

peto-cangrejosWe are reading the classic short story Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes by García Márquez in my heritage learners class. I have been feeling guilty that I have not planned anything lately for the higher ability learners in class (about 30% of the students in a very differentiated class) so I pulled out some challenging but truly rewarding reading. Higher ability kids in the past have really warmed to this tale, so I thought that I would buckle up and fly through this beautiful story the best I could. Looking through old lesson plans I found a myriad of pre and post-reading activities that we could work through as a class so that, hopefully, every student would find some success. You can find a lot of those materials here, in a post that I published two years ago.

The funny thing is… wow those first two days felt horrible. I could feel the joy withering in my artless hands as together we read the first, basic embedded reading. My intention was to get straight to the good part but instead I had a humorless story skeleton that focused merely on plot.

At night I have been reading about the story listening technique developed by Beniko Mason, who questions whether “reading activities” are more efficient or more effective at developing language than simply providing more interesting/comprehensible reading and listening. That is when it occurred to me that my reading activities, meant to scaffold the reading of a specific version of the story, are putting the brakes on enjoying the soul of the text. My ah-ha moment: maybe difficult texts should always be presented orally first so that the storyteller can closely tune the telling of the tale to the audience.

quoteI use reading activities to make comprehensible a text that otherwise would be incomprehensible. Why am I seeking to push incomprehensible texts down the throats of my students? Because the reading is beautiful to my mind, because it occupies a central place in the target language culture, because I want my students to gasp at the mind-blowing creativity of a writer like GGM. All of these objectives can be reached through an oral retelling of the tale, so I dropped all of my canned reading activities mid-week and decided to meet my students where they were through story listening.

Once I looked at the story with new eyes… not to prepare students to read the quote2original text but rather to enjoy the most marvelous moments of the tale, it changed everything. I realized that I can tell this tale to my non-heritage learners. And I did, in one period. As I was reviewing the video of my teaching I heard for the first time the voice of one of my students who sits next to the camera. He was muttering, midway through the story listening session, “This is getting serious… I am so invested in this story!” Although it sounds planted, it was not. There were 37 juniors crammed into that room but, by their silent attention, one could be mistaken to believe it was just me and that one kid. Here is a link to that video. The first few minutes are boring as I set up the class but the story picks up after a few minutes.

I did stray in one important way from the ethos of story listening: I had my students illustrate the story as I told it, and when I was finished I had them go back and write in text to their cartoon versions. I just could not trust that they would listen to me for 36 minutes straight without daydreaming or outright snoozing. I am honestly not sure if this lack of faith reflects my own uncertainty in my skills as a storyteller, recognition that school has taught them to play the accountability game, or simply if the activity, the illustrating, helps them maintain the thread of a complicated story in their own minds. Maybe a bit of all three.

Here are some of the cartoon panels that they passed in (all non-heritage speakers):

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Wafflina, an Invisibles Spanish 1 lesson

wafflina(Click here if you just want to watch the video of my lesson)

Wafflina is a character that one of my students created when we had a few minutes the day before Thanksgiving break. She is a pink waffle that lives in IHOP and laughs at all of the pancakes that get eaten there. She does not realize that humans eat waffles too.

Before the class period I was flipping through my pile of characters and I found this picture. One of my students had written a description of her Invisibles character on the back of the paper. I started the class with the picture projected against the board and I supplied a few details that came from my student´s imagination. There is something about a student-generated illustration that immediately draws other students into the drama of the class. Teaching with Ben Slavic´s Invisibles method, we use student drawn characters to co-create little vignettes in class. When I have a pre-planned TPRS story I am usually exhausted at the end of a school day, but after a day of Invisibles I feel invigorated and ready to go live my life at the end of the school day. As you will see in the video, I am not working terribly hard at moving the story forward. The kids do most of the work… I just keep it comprehensible and in Spanish.

Prior to the video we spent 5 minutes on FVR (these level 1 students are just starting independent reading). At the end of the video, after writing up our story on the board, I had students turn their backs towards the board and I asked them comprehension questions. However in the action of turning their chairs around about a half dozen students placed their chairs within sight of the camera, so I had to delete that last section. You will hear me frequently consulting with the time keeper, a student who moves our stories along so that they are completed within one class period. In this class we agreed to spend 5 minutes per section. I have a poster with the four sections of the story on my back wall. In the first section we determine Who? Where? and With whom?, in the second section we flesh out the problem that the characters face, in the third section there is an attempt to solve the problem but that attempt fails, and in the last 5 minutes of the story there is a successful resolution to the story.

The next day we used a variety of activities to reprocess the story. Jillane Baros, a gifted teacher who posts often on the facebook CI-Lift Off page, recently shared a quick list of CI activities to process a reading, which you can download here. I use Textivate a lot… often rather than writing on the board I will write directly into Textivate so that it saves our class stories for the future. Every 2-3 weeks my students create a quick write on their own using phrases that they have acquired from these class stories, but creating their own narratives. Through these quick writes I observe the natural development of their second language. Check out the CI-Liftoff facebook page or the videos posted on youtube to see other teachers adapting this method to their own classroom.


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the cool generation

cholasIt happens without warning, catching me by surprise. We might be watching a video in which a Bolivian chola comes on screen, or perhaps a very dark-skinned person, an overweight woman wearing a hijab or a homosexual couple dancing in the background of a music video. I hear a snarky murmur, mean-spirited chuckling… nothing that I can precisely distinguish but I know what this is about.

You cannot let this fester. This has to be addressed immediately and unequivocally, but winning hearts and minds can be trickier than just shutting down the rude comments. I have developed the perfect tactic to address this situation. This is not an overall strategy (every teacher should carefully plan how to honor diversity in their classrooms), but rather a tactic to remind students of their better selves. I like this tactic because it rapidly turns the tables and invites them to join us in the 21st century.

When I sense such an undercurrent, I stop whatever we are doing and quickly say, “I thought yours is the cool generation, the generation that refuses to carry hate in their hearts, to hate people for what they wear, how they were born, for being different”. I pause and frequently somebody in class will say, “we are”. They really are the cool generation. “I admire that about your generation… all of that bullshit is over with your decision to end it here and now”. Sometimes I make eye contact as I say, “right?”, but often I am addressing the whole class when I say that. More students will respond affirmatively. “We´re together on this one, right?”, and the whole class responds affirmatively. Most often I can find a reason to fist bump the offending students within ten or so minutes, and they are fully back into our class community.

I do not know why this works so well, but every time I refer to them as the cool generation they immediately take it on as their identity. I am hoping that in the future when my students hear hate speech, when they see white supremacists in public spaces, when they observe powerful figures making harsh generalizations about minority groups, they will think to themselves, “that is not a cool generation, those are not my values”.

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Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners

Last June I gathered a group of educators to reflect on their classes for heritage learners of Spanish. Today I am releasing to the world the first fruits of our collaboration. We have produced a fine book of essays that I think will be very useful for teachers new to teaching heritage speakers. Below I have copied the introduction that describes each essay:

This collection of personal essays addresses an urgent problem in language education: how to teach heritage learners of Spanish.

cover-face-2 Perhaps it is the Californian in me, but I believe that reaching heritage learners is the pressing but often ignored challenge facing our profession. Every year I am contacted by teachers who, willingly or unwillingly, are thrust into a new teaching challenge for which they are deeply unprepared. I was unprepared when I started teaching heritage learners. My impression is that there are departments who are farming out their heritage learners’ classes to the newest, least prepared teachers because these classes tend to be hard to teach. I have read about departments that urge heritage learners to simply abandon their home language in favor of a foreign one. My hope is to collaborate and gather so much classroom wisdom in one book that my colleagues will confidently approach their courses with joy.

These essays were written by practicing classroom teachers. We recognize that the teaching situation that each educator faces is unique. Far from describing an ideal approach to teaching heritage learners, many of these essays depart from the very imperfect reality that teachers actually confront. The most dysfunctional element of the program at my school happens before classes begin with the placement decisions that determine whether students are even placed in the heritage learners’ track. The opening essay of this collection describes the evolution of my approach to student placement. I was tempted to bury this essay because it describes one of my most embarrassing failures as a teacher; I hope that others learn from my mistakes.

In the second essay Carol Gaab sets the tone for the remainder of the book by reminding us that compelling, highly comprehensible reading materials provide the best paths to literacy. I am always surprised when teachers downplay the role of easy reading in their classes. It is through easy reading that non-readers become readers. Dragging students through difficult, classic works of literature or less-than-compelling thematic units may expose students to unknown vocabulary, but they utterly fail in leading students to love reading. Our courses must nurture our students to become lifelong readers so that they continue to develop their literacy long after the course has ended.

This idea of creating a compelling experience is the subject of Sean Lawler´s essay. Using a television program as an anchor text, Sean describes how he made use of the interest generated by the program to provide reading experiences appropriate to multiple levels. The reality of at least some of our students is that the school culture alienates them long before they reach our classes. Those of us who are not obligated to follow a particular textbook should look to popular culture in order to attract otherwise disaffected students.

I have come to the conclusion that easy pleasure reading should be the major element of any program designed for heritage learners. In the fourth essay of the collection I provide a description of my easy reading program, “An Easy Approach to Teaching Highly Differentiated Classes”. The essay is followed by a list of the most student-appreciated titles that are currently included in my classroom library.
Adrienne Brandenburg describes how she developed her metaphorical sea legs while teaching classes for heritage learners. The key realization for Adrienne was recognizing that very few of us were trained to teach these courses. Our instincts as second language teachers often lead us to adopt approaches that are incompatible with the task at hand. In her essay “Adopting a Language Arts Approach” Adrienne advocates that we work much closer with colleagues in the English department. One of the things that appeals to me about Adrienne’s essay is the underlying recognition that, even among well-trained CI teachers, the instincts to return to discredited legacy methods of language teaching resurface quickly when under duress. Spelling lists, direct grammar instruction, vocabulary lists: these have all largely disappeared from English language arts classes in favor of planning highly-contextualized teaching moments.

When I consider the main goals that I have developed for my heritage learners classes, I distinguish three objectives: to develop students’ identities as readers, to develop their interest in their heritage and the Spanish-speaking world and, the subject of the fifth essay, to broaden their language community to include many dialects and variations of Spanish.

Broadening their language community does not mean that I want to fundamentally change the way that they speak Spanish (i.e. trying to develop an Argentine accent among Mexican-American students), but rather make them more aware and accepting of the beautiful diversity within the Spanish language. I have grown to believe that this is not just a casual flourish to adorn the “real” curriculum; some students come to class with such a strong desire to exclude what does not sound right to them that it becomes a barrier to developing their own language. My Mexican-American students whose exposure to Spanish is limited to their family and friends will often resist expressions common even in Mexican popular culture if they are not familiar with them. The teaching solution to the persistent student reaction that “we do not say it like that” is simply to articulate the broadening of language community as a fundamental goal of the course.

Wendy Gómez Campos writes about structuring her program with the end goal being that students successfully pass the AP Spanish language exam. Being successful in an AP course can be enormously empowering for heritage speakers whose families have a limited experience with college. AP Spanish can form the cornerstone to a concerted, school-wide push to attract more heritage speakers to sign up for more highly-academic college track courses.

The essay introducing Krashen´s concept of language shyness is really a short presentation to push educators to read Krashen´s original paper, which is available for free on his website. In my opinion, language shyness is the key concept that all educators of heritage speakers need to understand.

Katherine Thornburgh´s essay on goal setting describes the confusion and struggle that teachers new to heritage learners’ classes may experience. This is an essay about process rather than outcomes; it is an important read for educators who demand so much of themselves that they feel like constant failures in heritage speakers classes. While Katherine´s essay is about her plans to include students in the goal-setting process, just as valuable is the way that she uncovers the reflective process behind effective teaching that I had hoped to nurture when I gathered this community of educator-writers. It is through the writing process, Krashen notes, that our thinking is developed. I hope that more teachers write more about their difficult classes as a path towards imaging a new reality.

In the final essay, Beyond the Classroom, Barbara A. Davis reflects on the unexpected challenges of educating heritage learners in a culture that does not always appreciate the task at hand. An observant teacher of heritage learners quickly gets an insight into how our institutions and cultural practices can come together to present unnecessary obstacles for heritage speakers.

It is my hope that this first edition is quickly followed by an expanded second edition. There are so many facets to this uniquely difficult class that we have not covered and, honestly, I believe that the format of the essay lends itself better to deep introspection than the online forums that have emerged. Or rather, it is a question of tactics versus strategy; the online forums address problems as they arise while the essay encourages a more thoughtful approach. I welcome original essays as well as thoughtfully developed lesson plans which demonstrate a useful approach to classes for heritage learners. The profits from sales of this collection of essays are reinvested into the classroom libraries of the contributors.

Mike Peto
San Diego,
October 2016

For the next two weeks there will be a discount of $2 if you order the book directly from the publisher: Use the code YEGVMSNR to get the discount.

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Where will the CI community be in 100 years?

Will we be playing a 22nd century version of online games with our students, or will we have learned to have deeper, more humane face-to-face conversations with students?

So much about my teaching has changed since I started writing this blog. When I first started TPRS I felt like my biggest weakness was a lack of resources, above all a lack of interesting stories. The blog was a place to share those lessons with other new teachers. Nowadays the Invisibles have led me to tap deeply into my students´ imaginations and I barely ever use pre-made stories. Almost everything (in beginner as well as advanced levels) is generated from what the students indicate that they want to say, so a huge portion of my blog is simply a relic of how I used to teach. It is not a bad way of teaching… it is just not where I am currently at. I have been trying to write a post about this, but it is so big that every time I get started I see that I need to grow just a little more to really describe how my teaching is changing.

Teaching in a high-poverty district, I understand the desire to impose some structure. Especially with students who appear to be dangerously lacking structure in other parts of their lives (whether it be due to poverty or absent parenting or whatever), but I am trying to move away from the impression that language class is any work at all. For me it started with FVR and Krashen pointing out that any sense of accountability will ruin the experience of pleasure reading. It took a while to fully assimilate that insight into my real classroom practices, but now I am finally at the point that my kids come to class and curl up with a novel before any talking begins and I think that is just so cool. I finally got the heritage speaker girl who always used to skip my last period class to come and I don´t want her to regret it. I want kids to bring that perspective to every part of my class, just curl up and enjoy the experience.

I have not even been pushing the self-assessments based on the interpersonal skills rubric. I abandoned it because I hated going through them and having to figure out which students are “playing the game”, which students are being honest, which students “deserve” to earn a low grade. To my thinking there are less coercive ways that take longer, because they require me to deepen my relationship with some kid who has adopted a deeply hostile posture towards schooling. I just want to suspend it all, all of the grading and monitoring, even the self-assessments, and take one of the comfy chairs myself and enjoy chatting in Spanish with them.

Teachers new to TPRS/CI often ask about testing (not to be confused with the formative assessments that we do every 20 seconds while interacting with students). “What is in your grade book?”, they ask me. Ironically if you ask the people who are conducting CI workshops around the country, many will privately admit that they do not really spend time on testing. At all. Replace all of your testing time with more comprehensible input and you will be amazed at the gains your students will achieve. That is not just the result of more time being exposed to comprehensible input; that is also the result of a more playful, less judgmental classroom.

I am not alone here either… last summer on a CI teacher Facebook group someone posed the question about what you would like to change in your class, if you could. Overwhelmingly all sorts of teachers, from those that meticulously backward plan their lessons to people like me who let it emerge without planning, nearly everyone wanted to be rid of grading. Languages are acquired naturally in a low-stress environment; most of the assessment in my class is invisible to students, it is collected non-stop and used at the moment it is collected to shape my teaching in that moment. The district-required midterm exam for my classes is a class story that we create during the exam, and nobody even gets a paper until we have verified that everyone is ready. For day to day grades, I am feeling good with the One Word Images (OWIs) and stories created based on OWIs, followed by a simple exit quiz that is so easy that it is kind of a joke. Just enough to keep their attention in class, but also a kind of wink that tells them that I really don´t care about that grading crap.

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Students need to browse

Wrapping my mind around the shift from required reading to desirable reading

Some tweaks are “good to implement if you can”. Other tweaks carry the urgency of “absolutely change how you do this right now”. This may not be maximum urgency, but if you have a pleasure reading program then creating a browsing wall with book covers facing outward will noticeably increase the circulation of your books.

When assigning a required reading to a class the main concern of the teacher will inevitably be to assure that the reading is comprehensible to all students. A pleasure reading program introduces a slightly different dynamic: the teacher becomes concerned with connecting each student to the right book, which is both comprehensible and targeted to the interests of the student. If you scoff at the idea that this is even possible in a world language classroom, you need to check out the amazing diversity of well-written, limited vocabulary fiction books now available for language learners!

I estimate that my classroom library has between 1500-2000 books written for beginning language learners all the way through to YA fiction for heritage learners. Last school year, when all of the books were contained beautifully within a few bookcases, I had a hard time getting students to browse the books. Each shelf was labeled according to the topic of the books, but students rarely explored. Despite the book talks and gentle nudging, I rarely managed to get a student to take the time to pull out books and find their dream book.

This year I created a “Books of the week” wall display from which students choose a book for independent reading in class. I rotate a portion of the books each week so that students eventually see the front covers of my entire library. Rather than merely relying on my own knowledge of each student to connect them with an interesting book I have found a way to discretely suggest new genres to all students. This really hit home when one of my stand-offish heritage learner students recently lunged to claim my Spanish edition of the graphic novel Maus. I would have never guessed that he had an interest in WWII.


On Fridays students place books that are being actively read on a cart so that I am sure to have them available the following week. I still encourage students to browse my bookshelves, but for those students who have not yet learned the pleasure of browsing this is a nice, structured way to introduce them to one of the essential skills of a real reader.

How did I create my little book ledges?

I am lucky that the interior walls of my classroom are made of a material much like a bulletin board. I managed to staple a hand-crafted ledge made of laminated paper sentence strips which you can buy in a teachers supply store. Behind each book is a velcro strip positioned exactly four inches above the ledge, and each book has the opposite side of the velcro strip (again, four inches up). Finally a student in each class has the job of “King/Queen of Books”. Students return the books to that one person who is responsible for placing them on the wall in such a way that they slightly overlap (see the photo below). That way none of the books splay outward, ruining their binding.

If you are just starting a pleasure reading library and are looking for where to find these specialized, limited vocabulary books then check out the following websites: Bryce Hedstrom, TPRS Publishing, Mira Canion, One Good Story, CI Reading, TPRS Books, Fluency Fast, Spanish Cuentos

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Why the Sweet 16 posters should be on your wall

Regardless of your teaching situation, these posters will help you focus on the highest frequency building blocks of the Spanish language


The idea of the sweet 16 verbs grew out of Terry Waltz´s super 7 verbs, which provide an anchor for meaningful communication within the first few hours of class. I expanded those verbs to the sweet 16 in order to form an essential curriculum for an entire first year. In practice, this is the common core that my department has agreed on to guide us through an entire four year curriculum. Of course we do not have a sixteen word curriculum, but we agree that structures with these verbs are the ones that are recycled and given priority at every step in the journey. The only other guideline we follow is to simply strive to provide compelling CI, for four years.

If you are part of a non-CI department

It is crucial that your students are noticeably communicative to the teacher next year. A strictly grammar-oriented teacher may have a hard time detecting the communicative abilities of any student, but most teachers nowadays are no longer strictly grammarians. It is my impression that most teachers are deeply impressed by output, even imperfect output… but they use output activities in the mistaken belief that output leads to output. That is why TPRS/CI teachers often brag about the quick writes that their first year students complete: it is the hook that gets non-CI teachers to look at comprehensible input.

You want your students speaking with a naturalness that astounds the teacher next year. I have heard legendary CI teachers claim that truly easy, unforced output only begins to happen in the 4th semester of language instruction, but in my experience it is possible if you have a focused curriculum. No worries if you are in a CI department that understands the long game, but if you are in a pressure cooker then you need to focus on the highest-frequency structures. This is how I imagine it playing out: next year students will be in a paired role-playing activity and the prompt that one reads will be something like “¿Qué vas a hacer durante el fin de semana?” The output-trained students might say something like “playa” while your students who have had a daily experience with the sweet 16 verbs will calmly respond, “No puedo ir a la playa, voy a la casa de mi abuela porque ella está enferma“. These sweet 16 posters play a vital role in assuring that the highest-frequency structures are recycled daily in class so that, by the end of the year, they have been acquired to the point that they simply drop out of the mouths of your students.

The other option is to try to serve both masters and assign vocabulary lists that neither your students nor the students in traditional classes will remember next year. My advice: don´t fill your class with ineffective activities to please your colleagues, but do focus your instruction time on the highest-frequency words that teachers next year will notice have been acquired. You can do this regardless of whether you are reading TPRS novels, following a highly-structured TPRS curriculum like Cuéntame más or Look I can Talk!, or even if you are following a highly-personalized approach like Ben Slavic´s Invisibles. Next year´s teachers may not even notice your students awesome reading and listening abilities, but they will take notice of student´s mastery of the sweet 16 high-frequency verbs.

If you are part of a CI/TPRS department

I am a little concerned with the way CI/TPRS is more and more becoming institutionalized within curriculum documents. Let me describe what I am hearing from the field: lone wolf TPRS teachers tend to be anxious about what their colleagues think or the influence they can exert, but full-fledged CI/TPRS departments often express anxiety about keeping everyone on track and developing pacing guides. The irony is that departments with particularly “strong” leadership are recreating the onerous conditions of traditional departments, substituting vocabulary lists for lists of required structures and even finding the need to place grammar acquisition on a timeline so that the level 3 classes can read particular books at a particular time.

This approach can work given that structures are limited and recycled frequently, given that the content is highly-compelling and given that the teachers all have the amazing ability to truly own any story, script or set of structures that they are forced to use. The barns are not burning. Yet I do marvel at the resilience of the urge to control the classroom, to control the students, to impose a uniform experience with complete disregard for the diversity of interests that exist in any classroom. Let´s call that the Kanye West approach to CI/TPRS: “I am going to let you talk, but first I want to use today´s target structures at least 70 times each”. Who has the hand counter?

There are dissenting voices. Bryce Hedstrom may or may not appreciate that I characterize him as a rebel, but his popular persona especial interview activity is a wonderful example of emergent language targets rather than backward planned targets. There is no doubt in my mind that the activity is an extremely efficient source of comprehensible input precisely because the students are at the center, not a teacher or district agenda. The most exciting thing currently happening in my classroom world is the revelation through a persona especial interview that one of my freshman Spanish 1 students is going to get a tattoo the moment she turns 18. It turns out that her mother has a whole arm covered in tattoos, but won´t let her daughter get even one. If you try telling that as a story to your class it may fall flat or be greeted with a mild “meh”, but in my classroom this is unbelievably compelling because it is outrageously real. Not planned, not on any vocabulary list. PQA with a target structure will never be as personalized as a real conversation. Our students may never become bitter with us like Taylor Swift when Kanye stole the show, but that does not mean we are creating the best conditions for language acquisition when we constantly steal the show with our target structures.

Ben Slavic is pushing the idea of emergent targets further than anyone I know. Not incidentally, he is not a fan of either the Super Seven or Sweet Sixteen verb lists. He told me such as he stood in my classroom looking up at the posters! I suspect that for Ben even those 16 verbs are too much of an agenda, a classroom that cares more about teacher expectations than fostering the innate creativity of children. I truly admire his approach; Ben respects the imagination of children and wants their ideas to guide the curriculum. Personally, however, I find the sweet 16 posters liberating. They enable young minds to imagine possibilities in the target language. I am not simply talking about glancing up and finding a word for a quick write; this is not a word wall. As these most essential verbs are deeply acquired then their thoughts, their ideas, their quirky, unique imaginations flow in the target language. These Sweet 16 posters are useful whether you teach within the context of a strict pre-programmed curriculum and seek a little freedom, or you teach in a highly idiosyncratic, personalized context and need an anchor to provide a little structure. I am not claiming to have created the set of posters that saved Western Civilization. This is banking on a balanced approach that I suspect has always been a part of the practice of the truly great TPRS teachers.

An essay on how to use these posters

I wrote a four page essay with concrete examples of how to use these posters each day in class. A one page version is packaged with the posters, but you can read the full essay for free by clicking on this link.

The contest

This is the paragraph that everyone will read. You can buy your own set of posters by following this link. They are beautifully designed. My entire department is replacing our hand-drawn posters with these beauties. But wait! I am also giving away free sets to three lucky winners. All you have to do is leave your name in the comments below— your email address will be recorded by wordpress but don´t leave it in the comments (unless you want spambots to collect it). In one week, on Saturday September 10th (Sorry, the contest is now closed), I will announce the names of the lucky winners. If you do not win on the 10th, there will also be three sets of posters given away at the Comprehensible Midwest Conference in Milwaukee, WI on September 24. These are all courtesy of Teacher´s Discovery, which is expanding their selection of TPRS and CI materials to reach out to teachers who have not heard of these effective techniques.

The contest is now closed and the winners have been contacted. Congratulations to Carin Misseldine and Jenny Rogers, both in Arkansas, and Kari Curtis in Ohio!

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The semester-long research essay

Assigning a huge research paper is not a frumpy, out of date teaching practice. It helps kids learn to think. Here is how I did it with minimum disruption to class:

image in public domain:
image in public domain:

I teach at an IB school. Our language B scores are phenomenal; of all subjects our students get their best IB scores on the Spanish assessments. On the other hand, their scores on the 4000 word research paper that they write independently are spectacularly poor. Kids do not write big research papers these days. I decided to shake that up.

If you are considering assigning some sort of large paper, researched and written in English, on some aspect of Latin America, take a look at my documents below.

Characteristics that made this project successful:

(1) I spent ONE class on this, when we went to the library in February and I showed students how to use the EBSCO academic database. Occasionally I would spend 5 minutes going over expectations, but this was not a significant part of class time. It was a barely perceptible use of class time.

(2) There was a weekly assignment which I graded based on completion. In my grade book I had a category weighted at 12%. Every week I added either 100% or 0%. The final essay is worth very little; it is the process that is valuable.

(3) Students are completely free to choose their topic, as long as it can be researched on the academic database in EBSCO (a database of scholarly and popular articles that my school subscribes to; you might have to tweak this for your school). Many kids do not understand that at first, so work hard to encourage them to find something that interests them. Themes that my students chose after preliminary research included the history of cuy in Peru, religious expression in Puerto Rico, civil war in Guatemala, homosexuality in pre-Colombian societies, women´s rights in El Salvador, folk art associated with Day of the Dead, drug trafficking and its impact on campesinos in Colombia, environmentalism in Costa Rica, Mapuche resistance to Spanish and Chilean cultures and the oil industry in Ecuador. I never would have guessed that students would choose such topics, but with enough structured preliminary research they rose to the challenge and I saw a part of their intellectual personalities that I normally do not get to glimpse.

(4) Students will try to shortchange the process thinking that the final product is the reason we do this. Be sure to grade each step in the process and glance through what they pass in to make sure they are really engaging. Assessing the process will go far to prevent much plagiarism. Also, a quick expression of interest in their work in February will keep them on track. Finally use a service like

Click here to download the semester project outline that I gave them last year. Next time I will have them find their initial “preliminary research” book over Winter break rather than start in January since many needed a full month to get their hands on a book. I also attached this packet written by the Academic Support Center at American University to provide details on each step.

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Cartoon syllabus

toondooThere are two very important parts of my syllabus that are constantly overlooked by students: the attendance policy and the electronic devices policy. I have decided to reformat how I present that information using a pretty cool website called Toondoo. Here is one strip that I created (the entire attendance policy cartoon is three of these and fits nicely on one piece of paper):

attendance 1

It was free to use, although I am now noticing that it advertises only a 15 day free trial. Well, I just needed a few hours on a rainy summer day to play around with the website. I have to say, it was enjoyable figuring out how to put together my own characters.

I made two of them to go over during the second week of classes, after things have settled down a little as far as class changes go and once other teachers are no longer going over their rules. Students will have experienced my classes and, hopefully, the idea that they need to be in class and paying attention will make more sense once they experience how comprehensible input works. Here is the one about the electronics policy:

Here is the one that I made to introduce my controversial (but extremely important) attendance policy. Oh boy did this policy irritate some coaches, teachers and parents who were constantly pulling kids out of my classes without any respect for our class time!

One of the advantages of the site: it was very easy to create characters who can express a variety of emotions. A major disadvantage, however, is that it is difficult to place a female character in the cartoon without presenting tired, sexist images. Most of the female outfits are not school-appropriate. This does not make the website useless for my purposes, but it is a reminder that I am the one who actively controls the messages being conveyed in my classroom.

I briefly flirted with the idea of creating cartoons for some of my class stories, but then realized that my student-created cartoons are infinitely better. On the syllabus it will stay. Here is a link to the website for those of you interested in adding cartoons to your syllabus:

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Personal essays about teaching heritage learners


I am looking to develop a long-term collaboration with a group of teachers who have experience teaching sections exclusively for heritage learners. Our goal will be to publish a group of personal essays about teaching heritage learners informed by our successful practices. This will not be a prescriptive guide (“one must do X, Y but not Z!”) but rather a group of personal essays describing different facets of our courses which, when published together, opens up a world of possibilities to the new teacher of heritage learners. We will certainly describe a diversity of approaches (I have yet to meet a single teacher of heritage learners who feels that they have mastered their course), but the key element that ties it all together is that we are all CI teachers who are sensitive to (1) the power of reading, (2) language shyness and the unique language issues related to identity that heritage learners may bring to the classroom, and (3) the absolute, ridiculous waste of time that are activities like spelling lists, grammar activities, accent quizzes, lectures about B´s, V´s and H´s (for Spanish) and such things.

Perhaps it is the Californian in me, but I believe that reaching heritage learners is the urgent and overlooked challenge facing our profession. Every year I am contacted by teachers who, willingly or unwillingly, are thrust into a new teaching challenge for which they are woefully unprepared. I was woefully unprepared when I started teaching heritage learners. My impression is that there are departments who are farming out their heritage learners’ classes to the newest, least prepared teachers because these classes tend to be hard to teach. I have read about departments that urge heritage learners to simply abandon their home language in favor of a foreign one. My hope is to collaborate and gather so much classroom wisdom in one book that my colleagues will confidently approach their heritage-learner courses with joy.

If you are interested in joining this collaboration, or you just want to hear more before committing, please comment below (I won´t publish the comment) and I will respond by email or, if you already know it, just respond to my gmail address.



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Earth Day 2016

A few points of departure for discussion in class today:

(1) Ska de la Tierra (song)

(a) we did not listen first, we just looked at the lyrics and translated/discussed with the audio off. While the song goes fast, this first look at the lyrics is pretty easy.

zoom(b) This matching game is Spanish audio to Spanish text so that students get to hear her voice before actually viewing the video. After matching I chose a student to translate all of the lyrics. We do this several times to acquaint ourselves further with the song.

(c) We watch this version of the video, which has excellent images matching the principal lyrics.

(2) Video “Man”. A bit disturbing, but really gets to the idea that we should be thoughtful about how we use natural resources.

Now let´s focus on why we love the natural world:
(3) Los 30 lugares más bonitos del mundo

We sat in quiet awe as we watched this video.

(4) Picture talk of some of my vacation photos (Macchu Picchu, Patagonia, Costa Rica, Norway, Hawaii… all beautiful scenes). Lots of CI here!

Lake Elsinore
Lake Elsinore
Costa Rica
Costa Rica
Princeton, NJ
Princeton, NJ
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Casas de cartón, the song played in Voces inocentes

Taking the time to thoroughly pre-teach the song will add emotional impact when viewing the film

voces_inocentesWe just finished an emotional week that included a viewing of Voces inocentes. If you have not seen this film about a young boy escaping the violence of civil war in El Salvador, preview it. There are many films about violence in Central America, but few that elicit the empathy of students as well as Voces inocentes.

The first time students recognize the song in the film there is a rush of excitement. Cool, I understand this! The second time that the song is played they have a deeper understanding of the context and there is no confusion concerning the danger faced by the main character. The third time, even the most immature students are appropriately shocked by the rebellion implicit in the actions of the boy and the priest. During the final credits, after a moment of silence in the dark as students emotionally recover from the ending, that first stanza is devastating. Qué triste, starts the singer, se oye la lluvia, and my students are choking back tears.

In past years I have paired the TPRS novel Esperanza with a documentary called Which way home?. They complement each other well to tell a story, but some of my students seemed especially hardened against the experience of immigrants. My school is located right on the front lines of the immigration debate with about 40% of our students hearing Spanish at home, over 50% living in poverty while another portion of mostly white students live behind the walls of a gated community the size of a small city. You might recognize some elements of my school community if you have ever read The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle. Our region made national news in 2014 when, just a few miles away, several buses of Central American immigrant children were blocked by protesters. protesters in murrieta

Given the demographics of the community, I am not going to teach an immigration unit with a friendly debate at the end to understand multiple perspectives. The fire is just a little too hot here, and it is not fair to implicitly debate whether a portion of my students even have the right to be in my class. What I do like doing, however, is leading my students to recognize their common humanity with people that they have otherwise cast out as the others. Taking the time to thoroughly pre-teach the song helps students become emotionally involved in the movie.

This is the process that I follow to teach the song:

(1) On Monday I start by quickly telling the story of the song in very simple language that they can easily understand. I strive not to introduce much new vocabulary. I talk about the rain, and how much I like the rain. Then I talk about the casas de cartón built on the hillsides of many Latin American cities, including Tijuana (which many of my students have visited). When the rain falls, the water inevitably gets into the improvised shacks. When it rains hard, sometimes whole hillsides collapse. People die. I am always a little sickened by a jovial undercurrent among some students as they understand the reality that I am describing. Sucks for them, I have heard grinning kids whisper. I shut that down without hesitation, but I know that I am not winning hearts and minds yet.

(2) This is the step that provides the repetitions to make the entire song highly-comprehensible. For the zoomnext week or so our warm-up activity is this matching activity. At first students will listen for high-frequency phrases that they already recognize, pulling out one word from a phrase. The first few minutes may be difficult for students and tedious for the teacher, so I tend to send them up to the computer in pairs. After only a few times through they get really quick at this game. I like to think of those first few times through as establishing meaning. Slow and deliberate, point and pause. The students will soon be racing through the activity, trying to get the quickest speed in the class.

Once they get really quick we do an “aural choral translation”: I turn off the overhead projector so that they cannot read the translations and, after hearing the part of the song, everyone translates aloud. It is more fun if they sing their translation to the rhythm of the song. A lot of repetition, but the pleasure of good music makes this bearable. Maybe even compelling. I like to be at the board (with a student controlling the computer) so that I can write the phrase in Spanish after it is played. The writing seems to bring it all together.

(3) At the end of the week I movietalk this music video made by students from la Universidad Francisco de Paula Santander. Now that we have heard the lyrics quite a few times out of context it is easy to point, pause the video and describe what is happening using known vocabulary and the lyrics. Introduce yourself and your students as parallel characters to get reps with verbs conjugated in the tú and yo forms. Together as a class write the story of the song on the board (not the lyrics, but the story).

(4) Once, as a fun Friday activity, we play this memory game, dividing the class into two teams. Students get very competitive about this game, but we only play it once. It is fun, but not nearly as good source of CI as the movietalk.

By the following week, when we start the movie, students have a really good grasp of the song. Students tend to identify with the child actors and that, surely, helps build their empathy. But I think the emotional impact that comes with understanding the lyrics at crucial moments in the film also plays a part in winning the hearts and minds of my students.

I have definitely withstood my share of criticism for this approach. “This is not CI”, “completely useless” and “waste of time” are some of the feedback that I have received from other teachers. I keep returning to these listening activities because, in my own classroom, I have found them to be the most efficient & effective way to teach a song to an entire class. When we listen to a Dominican bachata using this approach my students are already singing the chorus before we listen to the actual song. The repetitive nature of the activity, tightly connected to meaning, makes this activity successful. Moreover, it is quick– a five minute warm-up– and they are hearing and understanding the language spoken by a native speaker with a radically different accent than mine. Win-Win! Where is the disconnect?

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The little sign that saved my February

I have been thinking about a recent blog post by Cynthia Hitz about the basics of story-asking. The first time I taught a TPRS lesson was a revelation: everyone had so much fun and learned so much. But try doing this every day, all year long, and the magic can fade. How devastating it is to be greeted by a class of moody teenagers groaning, “another story”, as if it were the worst thing to happen to them all day.

Carol Gaab points out that the brain craves novelty; switching things up, keeping it fresh, adding a dose of the unexpected will go a long way towards building a class that kids actually want to attend. There is another side to this, however, that has to do with consistency rather than novelty. When I watch this video of Alina Filipescu, for example, and I see her students´ synchronized responses I cannot help but admire the results of her clear expectations for students. The interpersonal skills rubric that came out of Ben Slavic´s group is what I use at the beginning of the school year to norm my class behaviors. At the beginning of the year I point and pause until I get the behavior I want. This can be excruciating, and I am not as consistent as I should be. At this point in the year, however, I simply need to restate the norms in a concise, “novel” format. Here is what I have written on the board:


I hate the way it is so tied to a grade, as if we cannot just hang out and have fun speaking Spanish. Yet I also feel like this is working better than anything else I have going on at the moment. Perhaps it is because I am so terribly bad at managing the bureaucracy, at keeping class jobs assigned and placing check marks on little lists, but this sign has saved me from the February blues that seems to weigh on many classes at this point of the year. It quickly, wordlessly redirects our attention so that we can get back into a delightful story, or a discussion about El Internado, or a discussion about the fictional life of a classmate. I like it.

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An unusual class job

Many people have written about the positive impacts of creating class community through class jobs (for instance, click here and scroll down to “Classroom management” on Bryce Hedstrom’s website for a very comprehensive list of class jobs or click here to read a post on the public part of Ben Slavic’s PLC blog). Here is one additional job that we created in my classroom that has added an great element of fun: the class cat.

cat class 2Whenever someone not from our class community comes into the classroom, the class cat starts whispering the words gato gato gato (cat cat cat) in a steady voice to inform me that there is someone new in the classroom. I may be deeply absorbed in the story we are creating… or I may just want to finish whatever we are doing, but the class comes first! The rest of the class, however, is sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for their signal to act. They are waiting for me to utter the phrase “había un gato”, at which point every student says “MEOW” at exactly the same time in a loud, confident voice. At that point I address our visitor as if nothing unusual had happened. My kids really enjoy this.

One of my colleagues, Tammy Cullen, has taken this further. Every several weeks she changes class jobs and, with that, the class votes on a new animal. Of course she then teaches them the Spanish voice for each animal so that the class remains in the target language whenever a visitor arrives. Here are a few that they have done:

el pollito (baby chick): pío pío pío

la paloma (dove): cucurrucú

el pavo (turkey): gluglú

el gallo (rooster): quiquiriquí

el burro (donkey): ji jo

el perro (dog): guau guau

la rana (frog): croac croac

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TPRS and TCI with advanced students

Enough people come to this blog looking at my AP syllabus that I think it might be valuable to share how I move through that syllabus, maintaining a comprehensible classroom while tackling the content expected by AP. Terry Thatcher Waltz recently pointed out on the moretprs yahoo list that TPRS is best at fostering the acquisition of the basic grammatical structures of a language, while there are other TCI strategies that can develop breadth of vocabulary more efficiently.* That is what I would like to address in this post.

I still use TPRS in AP classes (for example, see this great lesson by Bryce Hedstrom that helped me understand how TPRS can be used effectively in upper levels). One of my great concerns for the AP class, however, is developing the listening abilities of my non-native students so that they can understand the authentic audio clips on the AP exam. My students need lots of listening practice.

The way that I do not want to approach this problem is by forcing my students to listen to incomprehensible audio clips. Instead we do an activity that I call Radio Talk, following after Movie Talk and Picture Talk. The idea is to comment on and explain the radio program while we are listening to it. It is not about playing a 2 minute clip and then asking questions but rather listening to 5 seconds, explaining it and listening to it again. It can be incredibly slow, especially at first.

The great thing, however, is that when I am teaching well my students understand 100% of what they are hearing. In the long run everyone develops a great ear for authentic spoken language while also expanding their vocabulary tremendously. Here is a thirty minute video of me teaching an AP theme to a Spanish 3 class. I do not have an AP class this year, so the class seen in the video is not as advanced as I would normally have with this lesson. In a normal AP class we would do this activity for 10-15 minutes, nearly every day, following the themes of the AP unit.

Clicking here will bring you to my vimeo account where I upload my videos. The volume is horrible, you will probably have to plug in some headphones and turn the volume up as high as possible.
pic video lesson

* Let me be super clear: just because I mention the name of a TPRS practitioner that I admire does not mean that she endorses what I am presenting here. I do think that following the moretprs yahoo list is a tremendously useful way to develop a stronger understanding of TPRS in particular and TCI in general.

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On transitioning an entire department towards CI/TPRS

This essay was republished in the 7th edition of Fluency Through TPR Storytelling by Blaine Ray and Contee Seely

Over the last few years I have led a gradual transition in my department towards CI/TPRS. I have heard horror stories from other schools about polarized departments and colleagues who refuse to speak to each other, but we have been able to avoid many of the pitfalls. Here is my advice for leading such a change from our experiences.

(1) Reaffirm respect for the professional educator to determine their methods

There are three parts to this: first, respect and voluntary commitment is the only way a true paradigm shift will ever take hold. I truly believe that top-down change will only be subverted. You cannot force it. Second, respect for difference will protect you as you develop and change your teaching. When I was the only TPRS teacher in my department this was magical. If you want to criticize me, then look at my results, not my methods. If you want to know how I got those results, look at my methods. Third, even if you are a strong-arm department chair and could force people to change their methods, you will at best win a battle and lose the war. The last thing you want is to be leading the charge from behind a group of reluctant soldiers. TPRS will be judged in your district by the performance of TPRS teachers, so do not muddy the waters by forcing communicative or grammar-oriented teachers to put on a false cloak of TPRS. If you are lucky enough to be the department chair, remind yourself often that your role is to support. Teachers lead.

(2) Plan on flexibility

It may be tempting to rush to get a TPRS curriculum, adopt it in committee and then worry about how to implement it later. In the case of TPRS, however, what to teach goes hand in hand with how to teach. Every tree1experienced TPRS teacher must understand how to determine the what on their own because there will come a time in which s/he realizes that the class has moved too fast. A new TPRS teacher must learn to teach for mastery and never feel pressured to move on to the next unit. Merely having a department pacing guide and hearing about “where” other teachers are is enough to shift back into the old paradigm of “covering” units. Plan on a transition period lasting several years so that teachers can learn how to ask a story and truly go at the speed of students. This does not mean that there are no guides (see my advice below on purchases), but no standardized guides until teachers are masters at circling, at slow, at story-asking, at pacing to the speed of the slow-processor and classroom management for the TPRS classroom. I chose the photo to emphasize that organic change takes time.

This paradigm shift between teaching to a pacing guide and teaching for mastery takes longer than one might expect because for most of us educators teaching units is a pervasive, unconscious way to structure education. Almost every TPRS teacher goes too fast as they barrel through stories. The major thing that a new TPRS teacher must learn to do is to slow down and learn to park on a structure until students can respond without hesitation, with confidence and accuracy… regardless of how long it takes.

Also keep in mind that you too will be changing… several years ago as I was transitioning to TPRS I made a vocabulary guide for each level taught by my department so that other teachers would feel empowered to ditch the textbook. That vocabulary guide, simplified from the textbook series that they were using, still called for way too many words to be taught, many low-frequency terms, and worse yet missed the premise that new vocabulary should be embedded within structures. Now, after years of professional development, we are all coming to an agreement on a level one guide built around structures that use the sweet sixteen verbs that I have blogged about previously. A mandatory list of high-frequency structures could have been presented at the very beginning of this process, but I suspect it would have been subverted by the inclusion of low-frequency words that the textbook teachers believed to be crucial. How to explain to non-TPRS trained teachers that the word October or being able to say the alphabet is not high-frequency enough to be included in an essential learnings document for Spanish 1? It is best to put all of those questions on hold until everyone is ready to produce an answer grounded in SLA research.

(3) Work with people who want to work with you

After attending my first summer NTPRS conference I started telling little things to my department that I thought would mesh well with their teaching practices at the time. For example, instead of presenting verbs to students in the infinitive form I suggested that they present them first conjugated in the 3rd person singular (as we tend to do in TPRS). I supported my advice by showing them writing samples of Spanish 3 students who were constantly just writing an infinitive rather than conjugating the verb. Yet even my closest colleagues have told me that, at the time, they smiled and dismissed everything I said as pure craziness.

The problem was that I was directing my comments at the entire department, during a meeting when they had to be there, and not in an organic way at all.

I later secured funding and invited two close colleagues who had commented that my former students were so well-prepared to come to a two day Blaine Ray training with me that Autumn. Learning German with Blaine was a bonding experience like no other, and I am so glad that I brought only the two that were already curious. Writing a 200 word quick write in German, a language that we only had a couple of hours of learning, was such a revelation that they both abandoned all previous lesson plans. One erased her hard drive so that she would never go back to the old ways of teaching.

So I think, rather than winning over everyone at once, work with those who are curious first. Let people come to you. Let the excitement coming from your classroom and the excellence of your former students attract the curiosity of your colleagues.

(4) Win over administrators

Some administrators (not my current principal) have a hierarchical approach to running a school; they mistakenly believe that if they dictate a course of action then the “good” teachers follow and the rest must be badgered until they give in. Por las buenas o por las malas. If there is one overarching idea that I am trying to communicate, it is that a major paradigm shift like the one represented by TPRS cannot successfully take root through authoritarian means. Do not let an administrator who does not understand SLA determine a time line or otherwise commandeer the process of change in your department!

Administrators do have a role, of course. If you have an administrator evaluating your performance as a classroom teacher then it is crucial that s/he understands what they are observing. Bryce Hedstrom´s checklist for classroom visitors (adaptation of work originally created by Susan Gross) helps focus their attention on some traditional areas of concern, such as how students learn grammar.

Even if you are not department chair you can impress them with data about your students. I think that quick writes are some of the most eloquent pieces of positive propaganda that a TPRS teacher can provide. Invite them in for story telling, but be sure to have a whole class worth of quick writes ready so that, when the administrator inevitably asks why there are only a handful of kids participating (i.e. student actors), you can show evidence that even the quiet ones are learning much more than if they were participating in paired forced-output activities.

Be prepared to advertise your successes. Higher retention of students from year to year may be a headache for administrators who have to create the sections and find funding (and admin once frankly told me that every new section I was asking for has a price tag), but it also can be related to higher and more competitive college placements. Last year we graduated our first IB students from a newly created IB program and I am proud to report that, with only a four year language program, 100% of our students passed the IB Spanish language exams and our first year scores were better than the world-wide average. I have gone to great lengths to impress upon my principal and the IB director that most IB schools have at least a 6 year language program starting in middle school.

Once you have sold yourself, be prepared for the typical administrator response: let´s get other teachers using these methods. Here is my rehearsed response: “I am really happy that you are on board, but I don´t feel right telling other teachers what to do in their classrooms. What I would like are the types of resources that will help me get better at this method so that other teachers are won over by the superior results of my students. There is a training that I would like to attend with (fill in the name of an interested colleague)…” Try to always have a concrete item in mind that an administrator can provide you, whether it be a $20 TPRS guidebook, $200 for a class set of TPRS novels or $500 for training with hotel included.

The rest of your colleagues will start to notice when 2 or 3 colleagues are sent to another city for a two or three day training. Prepare your principal now so that he or she knows that you cannot be the one training your colleagues: the real ah-ha moment is when the language teachers are immersed in a completely new language via TPRS and are learning faster than they ever guessed they could. They also have to feel how much repetition they need in their new language so that they can apply that knowledge to their classes. If you are still the only TPRS teacher in your department then your next step, beyond developing your own skills, is to find one receptive colleague to help you ignite the fire.

(5) Take control of the department budget

Of course, wait until a good part of the department is interested in the new methods so that you are responding genuinely to department needs, but at a certain point I put a hold on ordering office supplies, cultural materials (videos, supplies for art projects) and all the other things we used to purchase so that we could prioritize new methods. Schools spend tens of thousands of dollars on textbooks; once you have won over administrators do not shy away from pointing out that TPRS works best when teachers are supported by materials as well, which do not cost nearly as much. TPRS works wonderfully in a low-tech, low-funding environment. Here is my short list of essentials that I bought in the beginning:

TPRS Publishing´s textbook series Cuéntame más: even after their training everyone was afraid of abandoning the security of a textbook. I bought two copies of all three levels of the series (the Spanish teachers were the first to adopt TPRS in my department). Most people taught one chapter and never looked at it again, but they would never have made the leap without the TPRS textbook. Two of our teachers occasionally still use the textbook… but it is a TPRS textbook. 🙂

Several copies of Ben Slavic´s TPRS IN A YEAR so that we did not have to borrow from each other, everybody could have their own copy. You might prefer Blaine Ray´s Fluency through TPR Storytelling… I just happened to stumble upon Ben´s book first. I love TPRS IN A YEAR because it breaks down the skills into 50-something discreet things to work on one week at a time. It is a really useful skill by skill guide to learning TPRS.

I bought copies of Matava scripts volumes 1 & 2 for the ASL and Russian teachers (and I use them too).

As if that were not enough, I also bought copies of Blaine Ray’s Look I Can Talk series… especially the student books so that I have many many stories to print off if needed.

Finally, whenever I can find extra money I try to send someone to a training. I have attended Blaines basic three day training three times, and while now I think I need something more advanced, I actually still observed new things on the third time. I think it is also good to emphasize (to both administration and teachers) that this IS a complex skill set that takes time to build, and it takes time to deprogram from the old legacy methods.

(6) Arrange training and retraining

This is going to be the reason why you cultivated a great relationship with your administrators, but there are other places to look for funding. Back in Massachusetts when I taught at a tony district there was a parent led educational association that would provide one-time funding. In my current school I became briefly active within the district as I was figuring out who had discretionary funds. Keep in mind that second language education may not open as many doors as knowing the exact demographic groups you are servicing. If you can make the case that improving your program will improve the college-bound expectations of economically-disadvantaged or minority groups, you might be able to get special funds directed towards training. In order to do this you will want to track retention numbers from year to year to prove that more students are taking languages, and more are taking more than the suggested two years. You will also need to know who to talk to in your district… and that might take some time to do with finesse. My department has built a sizable selection of TPRS novels through funding for ELL´s since we have two sections for heritage speakers (and those TPRS novels have been wonderful for FVR). If you have a small heritage speaker population without a separate section, then differentiation may be the case you need to make.

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My favorite bailout moves

This post is a reflection on technique with no resources attached

Almost everyday I am in the middle of telling a story, or in the middle of PQA, and something just is not working that requires my attention. Perhaps I do not have students attention like I want, perhaps the PQA is going nowhere or I just simply need a moment to myself to think about where we are going, or look at a list of words to recycle from previous stories. Perhaps I am just exhausted and need to sit down for a moment. These are some of my favorite bailout moves that I use on at least a weekly basis:

(a) recap writing on board (10 minutes): this is what I often do when I know that I am moving too fast. I erase all three white boards in the front of the room (including the daily target structures) and ask if anyone can give me the first line of our story. It is almost always Hay un chico, so I write Hay un chico que and we continue retelling the story. The great thing about this is that, while students suggest what we write next, I model complex sentence structure by adding their suggestions as it makes sense. Hay un chico que tiene tres perros y un problema serio: no le gusta el pelo de sus perros que siempre está en la sopa. Once everything is written on the board I ask them to translate it into English, silently, on their own… which is one more opportunity to get everyone to reread the summary. This bailout move occasionally replaces the end of the period quick quiz.

(b) freeze frame (30 seconds to 2 minutes): this comes from a Carol Gaab presentation. Choose one scene, or even a line from the text, and students work in pairs to quickly arrange themselves as if they were in a photo of that scene. Sometimes I tell them that they are taking a selfie in that scene and one of them holds an invisible camera while caught in the scene. Super-important note: this is not to be confused with acting out the scene; students should be still. Let them take five seconds to arrange themselves (not even enough time to discuss it, just spontaneously do it) and then I recognize the best selfies. We can do 5 selfies in less than a minute.

(c) student retells in pairs (30 to 60 seconds): this is a classic TPRS bailout move that I use less frequently simply because I want to be the one providing input in class. Nonetheless, a thirty second break in which all students are retelling the story in pairs can be invaluable. I never let this run longer than 60 seconds.

(d) unexpected endings (less than 30 seconds): This morphed from observing Jason Fritze teach at iFLT in San Diego. When he was running out of time telling a story about a kid that wanted to eat some cheese he suddenly ended the story by declaring: and then the cheese ate the kid! It was such an illogical, bizarre ending that made me laugh that I have made it a trademark bailout ending. Hay una chica que vive sólo en el bosque…bla, bla, bla… y el bosque comió a la chica. El fin. Hay un vampiro que tiene una caries… bla, bla, bla… y la caries comió al vampiro. El fin. I think it is the repetition that makes this ending acceptable, even when I announce the next day that the cavity did not eat the vampire after all and we continue the story from where we left off.

aunque me llores(e) matching audio activity online (3 to 6 minutes): This should be filed under **crazy stuff that no teacher has time to create**. Over the years I have put a lot of thought into how I present music in class. I dislike fill in the blank activities that require printing beforehand and that students quickly throw away; there is not enough repetition for students to really become familiar with the lyrics, unless you are printing a new cloze every time, the constant photocopying irks me, and taking time to even pass out the lyrics transforms this from a bailout activity to a full-fledged part of the lesson. And it feels like work. So here is my crazy solution: I have created online matching activities for some of my favorite songs that expose students to the song in 2 second increments. Here is an example: Aunque me llores . When you follow the link the activity will be extremely small (the original code was written many years ago and has degraded over time as the internet has evolved); you will have to enlarge your webpage around 400% so that it is normal size. I often have one of these open on my computer just waiting for me to need a bailout, then we take a music break. At first it is hard, but by the third time much of the class is shouting out the correct answer when it is played. That repetition is exactly what I want before I play a song for the first time. I want kids to understand the lyrics! If you are a tech-oriented teacher who is curious about how I did this, and you have the time to put this together, then I would be happy to guide you through the process… just leave me a message below.

I am sure that you have favorite bailout moves… what do you do when you need a moment?

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Blaine Ray and La Gran Sorpresa

blaine Ray

There is an interesting Blaine Ray story published in his book “Mini-stories for Look, I Can Talk!” about a restaurant that always surprises its customers. He posted a video of himself teaching the story, which you can watch by clicking here .

The first eight and a half minutes of this video is choral translation. I used to not understand why teachers would lead choral translations. It just felt so old school; didn’t I give that all up when I switched to TPRS?! Perhaps, also, the old output teacher in me was thinking, “if they all read aloud, then how am I going to know who actually understands the reading?” As I watch this video now it is clear to me that choral reading is not a gotcha moment for the teacher to catch students… it is a respectful moment that allows students to confirm to themselves that they understand. I tried it in my own classes and realized that students really appreciated it. Better yet, it is a really efficient way to verify meaning. While I do not spend too much time on choral translations, I have come to appreciate them as an early step to developing the processing speed of my students.

In the twelve minutes that follow the choral translation you can see the way Blaine weaves past and present tenses together as he asks questions. He introduces a perfect tense structure and he is working with the word le as well. In these twelve minutes he speaks the most English of the entire class, as he is first introducing and verifying the meaning of these structures. Look how carefully he prods to make sure that the student actors understand exactly what he is saying. He goes into English quickly to correct.

Finally, after having established meaning thoroughly, the last forty minutes of questions have very little English as Blaine keeps playing with the structures until his student actors respond confidently, accurately and without hesitation. There are no brilliant moments of hilarity, and that reassures me. It is very repetitive, and in the end those student actors are responding much faster. In my own practice, when I wonder if the other students are getting something out of being spectators to the live theater that is TPRS, I have everyone complete a ten minute fluency write and inevitably I find that the spectators are acquiring the structures just like the student actors. This method is not about asking kids questions that they cannot answer. It is about getting them to process the target language fast enough to respond like native speakers.

Here is a link if you would like to download my own version of this story , which I just finished reading with my level one students. My students already know the story, but now I need to go back, pull up a few new student actors, and get their processing speed up to somewhere near lightning.

Just to be clear, I have posted my version of Blaine´s copyrighted material with his permission.

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Syllabus and Norms for a TPRS class

We have had one academic day of instruction. The administration suggested that teachers present syllabi on that day, but I decided to start straight away in Spanish as described in this recent post. Most classes went well although I started the day off a bit rusty, but one class made me remember all of the work that we do with norming a TPRS class at the beginning of the year so that students know how to learn.

classroom participation rubricOn Saturday morning I pulled together a generic syllabus that I use for Spanish 1-3 (non-heritage speakers classes). You can download a .PDF version by clicking here or, if you want to change it, then here is a .docx version (beware: lots of text boxes). The Listening and Speaking section (40% of the grade) is from an interpersonal skills rubric that was created through Ben Slavic’s PLC (thanks for the clarification Jen! See her comment below).

I suspect that this might be controversial, since many educators seem to be eliminating all grades based on observed behaviors in favor of solely recording grades that reflect demonstrated proficiency. I still record observed behaviors as a major part of the grade. I believe that if a student follows this behavior rubric in class, language acquisition will happen naturally at the pace each student is capable of progressing. For a teacher who can have up to 240 students at a time (right now I have 223 on my roll), I need a system that is both flexible (motivating students with different abilities) and efficient (allowing me to spend most of my class time delivering comprehensible input).

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First Day of School

A teacher recently wrote to me asking if I assign seats in my no desk classroom (click here if you want to see what my room looks like). Here is my response, which describes how I handle my first day. Some people may be surprised that I place such an emphasis on discipline and control in the first days.


Thanks for getting me to think about this, I feel like I do it differently every year with varying degrees of success.

Last year I had the chairs in four groups arranged in a semi-circle. Nogroups more than two deep so that I can reach any chair at any point. Above each group was the name of a country and as they came to class I assigned a country but let them sit anywhere within that country. My thinking was to give them limited choice as to where to sit, but since friends often arrive walking together I assign them separate countries to separate them.

Important psychological note: I stand in the doorway as each kid comes in. There is not much room, so they have to file in single file & they have to interact individually with me. That immediately sets the tone that I am in control of my classroom. I do not move aside so that two can enter at a time, even if the bell has already rung. I do not hurry conversations, even if there is a clump of kids outside my door. There is a written personality inventory that I hand them as they come in that takes them 10 minutes to fill out, so while I am meeting new students at the door everyone else inside is busy. If you want you can even pre-write the name of a country on top of each personality inventory so that it seems like it is impersonal, but I like assigning on the spot.

When they walk in (while I am in the doorway) there is a power point projected on the board that tells them (in English): Take out a pencil and notebook. Place everything else on the tables bordering the walls. Place all phones inside backpacks; if I see them, I take them. Complete the sheet thoughtfully and quietly.

Within five minutes after the bell all students are sitting in groups and writing. If a student has placed their bag on their lap or under the seat then I start immediately in Spanish, pointing at the sign that says place bags on the table and then pointing at their bag. Perhaps this is uncool since it is incomprehensible, but once again it establishes my authority in my classroom and silences any rebuttals in English about why I have the rules I have. I will, of course, explain that later, but the first day is all about demonstrating that they have a teacher who is in control. I might circle the phrase Pon las mochilas sobre la mesa, writing on the board and referring to my question words (that are taped right over the board with English translations). And thus starts the CI.

At a certain point, maybe 5 minutes after I have seated the last student, I have everyone turn over their paper & write their name on it in BIG letters that I can see and draw one thing that they want. I then do a variation of Ben Slavic´s Circling with Balls, except I refer to what students want rather than like to do. Not as powerful, but my problem is that I know zilch about sports and always have a problem doing PQA with sports, so instead we end up talking about cars and burritos. Of course I am really getting to know their names. That is my first day… syllabus can wait until the second week.

Ah, I also have two stools that I place in the center of the semi-circle. One might be for me if I want to take a rest from walking around the room (for the first few days I make it clear that there are no back rows and I will squeeze between chairs, stand next to everyone regardless where they are located. Again, psychological control, but also important to make sure every student feels like they can be the center of the class). The other stool is for the kid whose chair needs to be moved. Jason Fritze has a great process… when he moves a kid from one country group to another for discipline reasons he calls it immigration. Nonetheless my classes are packed, so if I move one kid for discipline there is someone else I have to move just to make room, and that second person almost always has this WHY DO I HAVE TO MOVE I DIDN´T DO ANYTHING victim attitude. So I start by placing the offender on the stool, talking to him or her (in Spanish), getting to know that person and then moving them. The time between discipline and reseating seems to take the sting out of the process.

Martina Bex has a great way of seating kids on the first day of school:

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Maybe… perhaps… the class novel should die

…that is, die a slow death in intermediate levels to be replaced by self-selected reading.

A provocative title? It expresses some of the surprising conclusions that I am reaching in my intermediate and advanced classes.

books 7 smallThis year I have dedicated a significant amount of class time, and financial resources, to developing a recreational reading program in my intermediate classes. My experiences have prompted me to start a new collaborative project: the creation of an online class library starter kit so that other teachers can discover the power of recreational reading without breaking their budget.

Recreational reading is quite different from the kind of reading where a class is tied, like it or not, to one novel for several weeks. For me, the hallmarks of recreational reading are student choice, little or no assessment and giving students the ability to abandon the reading. That may sound like a recipe for “not much will be learned in that class”… or it very well could turn into a highly differentiated, highly student-centered year with a group of intrinsically-motivated students like no other year before.

Let me be clear; recreational reading is just one strategy in a large bag of tricks. But WOW! In the past I have tied my advanced classes to one novel at a time (or one short story, or one poem), convinced that my students needed me to help them learn to read. And they do need me as we read La ciudad de las bestias in AP. However, before this year I did not sense that my lessons teaching them how to read advanced texts does not make them into readers. It prepares them to confront complex texts, each year more and more difficult. On the other hand pleasure reading, losing yourself in the action of a story and not having to stop to complete a written analysis… that is what hooks a student on reading. This year, rather than just being prepared to read, I feel like many more of my students are leaving as actual bona fide readers… in their second language.

If you are interested in developing a recreational reading program in your class and want a source of simple readers to start your class library, please take a look at the new website for the FVR Classroom Library Starter Kit .

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The grammar syllabus is worth fighting against

Reflections on the grammar syllabus and fostering an inclusive classroom

grammar guideOne of the things that I absolutely love about TPRS is the way that the method fosters an inclusive classroom. As long as students are physically in class, they all acquire language because our class stories are compelling and entirely comprehensible. Although this is a difficult skill for the teacher to master, students often comment that our class “work” is easy. The high-achievers who have been trained to differentiate themselves from their peers can display their brilliance through their SSR choices and their timed writings, but class stories always move at the speed of the slowest processor. If I note any of my students experiencing difficulty I know that I am moving way too fast because at no point should students be actively thinking about trying to learn the language. They should be engaged with the story; if students cannot understand, then that was my fault!

Teaching advanced classes does not change what the literature tells me about second language acquisition. I focus on meaning and do not move on until my students are processing quickly.  If I were to move on when the top 20% were getting antsy because, well, they´ve got it, then I would be reinforcing the message that languages are hard to learn to the remaining 80%. If I were to move on before 80% of my students are ready because I have a syllabus to follow, then I would be reinforcing the erroneous message that languages are hard to learn. If I were following a grammar syllabus packed with abstract concepts that leave 80% of my students confused while I pushed ahead, then it would not be a surprise that my program would become an anemic bastion of the so-called elite of learners. As a public school teacher I am very aware that the elite learners are closely correlated with social class. It is devastating the way that educational institutions can function to reinforce inequality in society, and I personally believe that the packed grammar syllabus is our contribution, as language teachers, to reinforcing inequality.

It is not that I do not teach advanced grammar. I actually teach advanced grammar in Spanish 1, and my students acquire it as evidenced through their quick writes. What I do not do is separate the language into abstract units that simply confuse students. I do not devote a unit to the subjunctive, and then expect them to either reproduce it accurately (top 20%) or (for the other 80%) forget it after the test because we are moving on to the imperfect tense now. Instead, within the context of a meaningful story, I teach my Spanish 1 students yo quiero que seas feliz. My students were interested in this phrase because it was uttered by the father in the story, who had never bought a car but always rode an elephant to work. He finally overcame his moral objections to the oil economy and bought his daughter a car because he wanted her to be happy. He looked her in the eyes (student actor steps forward) and said, yo quiero que seas feliz. That is emotionally gripping. I ask my students ¿ustedes quieren que yo sea feliz? (I want an elephant, by the way). I ask them ¿El Grinch quiere que seamos felices? We play with variations of this one phrase until it is natural, until they have acquired it. It takes a while. A week later it showed up in a timed free write of a student who was writing about a boy who screamed at a girl; he wrote el chico quiere que la chica sea triste. That is language acquisition for 100% of my students: no conjugation charts and no forced deadlines for learning.

Recently I saw a scope and sequence for a Spanish 3 class that had quite a bit packed into the year. Every few weeks a new grammar concept, and then the last several weeks of the school year finally dedicated to “using all tenses at once“. My issue is not actually with the grammar taught. It really is with the sequence. A sequence ordered by linguistic function is great for linguists… but for the majority of us humans, not so much. All of our students will learn the complete grammar of the target language naturally if we do not shelter our grammar instruction into discreet units, but rather limit our vocabulary so that we remain 100% comprehensible. Most high school language departments still sequence their courses largely by grammar concept, making it very difficult for a good TPRS teacher to follow the dictates of research and conscience.

The grammar syllabus is worth fighting against.

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(Cultural) Product Placement: Arepas

A non-fiction reading, suggestions for introducing cultural products in stories

mola de PanamáThere are so many cultural products that I would like to introduce to my students. I have considered scheduling a once a week “cultural moment” in which we try a bit of the iconic Peruvian drink Inka Kola or I show them a mola that I brought back from Panama. Next week, if I teach this right, we will all become obsessed with arepas. As a language learner a “cultural moment” makes perfect sense to me because I understand that fluency requires cultural and well as grammatical understanding. Nonetheless, for my students it may feel random and add a chaotic rather than unifying vibe to the class. From the student perspective a “cultural moment” runs the risk of lacking a compelling reason for being. Culture should be embedded within my lessons, not a bizarre add-on that interrupts the flow of the lesson.

la-areperia-chipichapeYet I do want my students to develop the kind of depth of knowledge that a “cultural moment” fosters; that is, I want my students to develop more than a passing familiarity with key cultural products. If I were teaching a class of learners who were like me, I might organize a week-long lesson plan dissecting Spanish-language documentaries about Arepas. Fascinating!! While The History Channel is hugely popular among my demographic (40 to 60 year old males) I have to recognize that my preferred approach is not so appealing to many teenagers. I was considering this while watching a Costa Rican television show. The obvious product placement within the sitcom was hilarious. Then I thought about the Spanish program El Internado; next time you watch it count how many times someone delivers a package from Mail Boxes Etc. The magic of product placement within a compelling story makes an unfamiliar product familiar!

Next Monday while co-creating a class story I´ll casually ask what the main character is eating and, after rejecting several responses, I´ll insert the arepa into our story. Es obvio, as Blaine would say. Perhaps I´ll add es una comida de Colombia, but unless my class is super curious I´ll leave it there for the time being. Sure, I´ll circle the word arepa several times and contrast it with hamburguesa and perro caliente, but no further explanations about the cultural significance until the next day when students receive the written version of the story. Within the story I will include an advertisement for an Arepería, including a fake coupon for a free arepa (redeemable only in Colombia, of course). Instead of reading the ad I will apologize to the class and explain, in Spanish of course, that I have enrolled in a google ads campaign in order to raise money for our class library. With a straight face and pushing forward I am confident that many students will not question me. If they do perhaps I´ll tell them that I get a penny per page view, thus my class of 36 just earned me 36 centavos

On Wednesday I´ll find a pretext to add a stock phrase advertising the Brentwood Arepera . With my level three class we have been working with si phrases followed by the imperfect subjunctive and conditional tenses. I´ll point to a picture on the wall and say something like Si yo tuviera una arepera Brentwood, podría hacer arepas aquí en la clase. Once again, apologies, but I get 2 cents every time I say that in class. Circle, circle: ¿Tienes una arepera en la mochila? Clase, Jenny no tiene una arepera en la mochila (¡ay ay ay!) Pero si ella tuviera una arepera…

Thursday I´ll come in with my Brentwood Arepera but no, I will not make arepas in class. Last time I attended a training with Blaine he mentioned that, while storytelling, he has a strong preference towards moving backward in the story because moving forward ends the story. He doesn´t want to end the story, he wants to milk the story of every opportunity for comprehensible input. In the same way, once I make those arepas then the story is over. Pero si yo tuviera Goya ® Masarepa, las haría. ¡Claro que sí!

Friday is Arepa day, and since I took just a few minutes each day to develop their curiosity they are now primed to do the cultural activity that I had originally planned.  Click here to download a .pdf of the reading that they will complete on their own, and click here to see the simple recipe that I follow to make arepas in class. My arepera is fairly slow, so at best I only have time to create two batches. If it is a small class of 24 students I just make one batch of six and cut the arepas into quarters.

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My favorite blog post that I wrote in 2013

Here is my favorite post that I wrote in 2013. I had not been blogging for very long, so perhaps you haven´t seen it yet…  

yougetoutwhatyouputinIt is the beginning of March and it is high time to reflect on where we are going in our classes, how far we´ve come and how far we can sail before summer vacation. A bitter colleague recently said to me, “hey, you get out what you put in” to explain the failing students in her classes. It´s the kind of comment that is a cry for help, both for the teacher and her students.

Here is the truth to that comment (a secret that more language teachers need to hear): you DO get out what you put in… you get OUTput if you put in comprehensible INput. This was shockingly revealed to me today as I reviewed the quick writes that Spanish 2 students did in class the other day. We had spent the week talking about whales (a unit that I will post later, once I have fixed a few things). After a few days of non-fiction I gave them a writing prompt (“There was a boy that hid a whale in the bathroom of his house”, but I actually wrote the prompt on the board in Spanish). Take a look at Klynn´s 10 minute quick write:

10 minute quick write 2

I am so incredibly proud of Klynn. Her choice of verb tense is not always accurate… but did I mention that she has been speaking this language for only a year and a half?! Last year “hola” was confusing to her. Look at what she´s doing now!!!

I have met teachers with all sorts of reasons to explain why Comprehensible Input is not right for “their teaching style”. Some don´t like to dance (um, not a required CI skill). Some think it´s too goofy (also not required). Some believe it might be good for younger kids, but not their own students (if this is you then you HAVE TO check out this free sample of the first five pages of one of Bryce Hedstrom´s AP lessons for super-complex structures like “Si yo lo hubiera visto, lo habría ayudado”).  In the past I have even fought back, saying that “in order to learn to write, children must write”, entirely ignoring that what comes out (the writing) is profoundly shaped by what went in beforehand (all of the reading and listening that was comprehensible and interesting enough to grab the attention of the student).

You do get out what you put in.

p.s. Honestly, I do not have a second job in the Bryce Hedstrom sales department, but  HERE is the link if you want to purchase the entire lesson from Bryce… scroll down to El cuento trágico de Mark. It is a good one with a lot of instruction on how to teach an advanced class through Comprehensible Input.

(note added in December, 2013: you can see the entire whale lesson that Kylnn was writing about by clicking HERE )

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Koi-Zora (movie talk for Span 1)

A video suitable for movie talk and a follow-up reading with comprehension and creative response questions

Koi-Zora 2Coming back from Thanksgiving Break next Monday I am going to start using past tenses regularly with my Spanish 1 students. At the beginning of this school year I had not taught level 1 for a few years and I wanted to limit the amount of new structures. After observing Blaine Ray earlier this month and watching videos of other TPRS teachers I started integrating past tenses into my circling in class and realized that it is much more important that my students hear and comprehend a more natural speech rather than a forced version in the present tense. During the next two weeks between now and midterm exam week I am going to focus on circling the principal foundation verbs that I have posted on the wall of my classroom in both present and past tenses. I am going to maintain the focus on meaning and I will not go out of my way to use conjugations that are lesser frequency (i.e. yo quería is higher frequency than quise, and I am not going to bend stories for the purpose of contrasting preterite and imperfect usage).

Starting on Monday I am going to work through this short video called Koi-Zora , combining the movie talk technique of carefully planned narration with questioning student actors à la Blaine Ray. Today I prepared by pre-watching the video and I wrote a script, which served as the basis for the class reading that follows. Also I am going to explain the process to my students: when I speak to my student actors I will use the present tense ( ¿Quieres ir al campo? ), but then speaking to the class I will speak using past tenses ( Sí clase, ella quería ir al campo ). This is going to be a fun activity for the student actor who plays the role of the fish.

Wanting, having and putting are the main foundational verbs that will be used over and over. I will introduce parallel characters in the middle of the movie to emphasize these three verbs so that quería, tenía, ponía and also puso are circled effectively. I am going to use subió instead of fue when she goes to the roof, because it is more natural and they already know subir, and also because there will be better opportunities to really nail fue later. In fact I am going to avoid mentioning that she goes anywhere so that I can simply focus on the four verbs quería, tenía, ponía and puso.

The video clip is only a minute and a half long. Nonetheless, with all of the student actors, the parallel characters, the new verb tenses and slowly pointing and saying the verb each time we say the new tenses, I suspect I will just barely have enough time to complete viewing that clip with my classes on Monday (we have 55 minute classes). On Tuesday we will read the following reading and students will translate it in pairs before we go over it together. Only after that is done will students be allowed to turn the reading over and complete  the questions on their own (which should be easy at that point). Click here to download the .pdf of the reading or, if you want to change it for your class, click here to download the .docx version (which may be oddly formatted because I used text boxes to position the pictures).

If you look at the reading you´ll see that there is quite a bit of vocabulary that will come up in the video that my students don´t yet know. Without the movie I would rewrite the story to make it more comprehensible, but with the movie I have found that I can include a lot of details into my narration and remain comprehensible, as long as the narration clearly refers back to what is projected on the screen. My objective is to teach those four verbs, so I have provided footnotes and embedded photos for the out-of-bounds words contained in the reading.

Even if it is engaging, is this a good idea to include so many out-of-bounds words? Well, first let me clarify that it is always comprehensible (all out-of-bounds words are written on the side boards). My students also know that the target structures are on the center board, and those are the only ones that I want them to write down. Anything else they might acquire is frosting on the cake… but frosting in large quantities is not really that good for you! As I improve my teaching in the years to come I expect to pair down my stories to the essentials so that there will be less out-of-bounds vocabulary, while improving my storytelling skills so that it remains highly engaging.  

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A day with Blaine Ray

blaineToday I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with Blaine Ray. I never tire of observing a true master teacher, and truthfully I suspect that I have not always been ready to learn from him. Yet these days what impresses me most is the call to simplify, to focus on high-frequency structures, and to repeat those basic structures until the flow of communication between student and teacher is confident, accurate and without hesitation. Perhaps it is the AP monster that I am currently teaching that makes me appreciate these basic principles. When I see errors on my students quick writes it is certainly because I have moved on when my students merely understand the structure, but they don´t yet exhibit the confidence, the accuracy and the lack of hesitation that is the mark of mastery. Today Blaine reminded me that I need to bring in more parallel characters, have more actors so that we can make more comparisons and, most importantly, so that students hear more repetitions of the target structures.

A few quotes that I wrote down:

On the essential role of a TPRS teacher:

I don´t teach rules, I just teach them to answer my questions.

My job is not to get students to figure it out, my job is to make them fast processors. If they don´t understand then write it on the board.

On how getting to the end of the story is not the purpose of a TPRS teacher:

I have a major bias towards going back in time (in the middle of a story to explain why a detail is the way it is), because going forward finishes the story… and I don´t want to finish the story!!!

On the few kids who process the language faster than everyone else:

Teach the fast processors to blend in and not beat the class in a choral response

And finally, on the role of hidden props:

I´ve got to get rid of this cow in my pocket.

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Silent Sustained Reading (SSR)

A few observations on developing an in-class reading library

This is a reflection piece without any teaching resources

One of the accomplishments that I am very proud of this year is that I now have students voluntarily borrowing books from my class library to read at home. They are not yet breaking down my door to get the books, but there are more and more kids who approach me after a class which featured SSR and shyly ask if they can bring their book home. ¡Enganchados!

The problem with our school library is that it appears to be designed to supplement the English department´s curriculum by offering translations of Shakespeare in Spanish. Really?! I am going to describe the types of books that have appealed to my students (both heritage speakers and non-heritage speakers).  

Drug trafficking: Reading about narcos and gangs do not make our students become narcos and gang members; it makes them become readers . This theme is a big attraction for adolescent boys and has led several of my heritage speakers to switch from leveled (simplified) readers to literature written for Spanish speakers. I need more leveled readers on this theme so that I can hook (enganchar) more adolescents who prefer to read this type of book but are not Spanish-speakers. The one book that comes to mind, La vida y la muerte en MS-13, is already a hugely successful part of our Spanish 3 curriculum and thus is not available in my free reading library.

la-llorona-de-mazatlanSports: My disappointing and surprising observation is that historical pieces about specific stars of a previous era have not been too popular. My students can´t see themselves in someone who played pelota sixty years ago, but they do flock to books about contemporary athletes as well as fiction that takes place among athletes. This last piece is what I would like to provide more (hopefully the expiration date is considerably longer). I think a big part of the popularity behind La Llorona de Mazatlan is that the main character is a soccer player who is attending a summer soccer camp.

Biographies of their idols: While interest in these books may be fleeting (there will be a new crop of idols next year), these books are also among the most valued among my heritage speakers. It is like the car of a salesperson: a lot of mileage is put on it in a year and so they have to be replaced frequently. I don´t even try to guess who their idols are. I ask on an interest survey. I can imagine having a project with my upper level classes in which they write simplified biographies of their idols, which we will publish in class and then feature on my SSR wall.

Leveled readers designed for non-native learners of Spanish are great for heritage speakers. Really, I didn´t expect this, but many of my heritage readers love reading when it is an easy experience. The readings in their textbooks are all challenging. Even the higher interest readings I cull from newspapers present a challenge. SSR should be an easy, enjoyable experience.

Science fiction and fantasy: I have managed to seriously occupy the weekends of several of my heritage speaking girls with the Lazos de sangre series (enough that they were leaving sticky notes for me to buy the next book when they finished book 1). As for level readers, Stephen Krashen recently recommended two books by Christine Tiday on the moretprs listserve. Ms. Tiday is a Spanish teacher who writes accessible readers for learners . I am going to order a copy and I will post my own book review later. I am also looking forward to reading En busca del monstruo by Pablo Ortega Lopez and Pat Verano. I have also been encouraging my heritage speakers to write fan fiction following the plots, characters and writing styles of novels that they like; this might yield a few SSR stories to post in my biblioteca.

Provocative real life dramas featuring adolescents: this is my highest priority and exactly what I want more of because I see so many adolescent girls stealing away every moment they can to read books like Jay Asher´s Thirteen reasons why. We really need this in a Spanish leveled reader. La Llorona de Mazatlan also fits into this category.

Classic children´s books such as those written by Eric Carle (The Hungry Caterpillar) and David Shannon (of the No, David! series) have been fine for kindergarten day when I read aloud to students, but they have not been so popular in SSR. Given how expensive they are I have decided that it is better to buy an extra copy of a leveled reader.

I am glad I took the time to write this out. I see more clearly now that my own students writing will form the basis of expanding my class library.

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Experiencing los hipopótamos colombianos with level 3

54101194283378668127593My Spanish 3 class just finished a week of non-fiction storytelling about the hippopotamuses that were living in the wild in a region of Colombia. The strange story of how a large African animal invaded an ecosystem thousands of miles away allowed us to take our discussions in several directions:  we spoke about science, of course, drug trafficking, we contrasted the worldview of campesinos versus city dwellers and ended our exploration discussing the role of government in protecting citizens. What an interdisciplinary lesson!

The centerpiece of this unit was an article published by Veinte Mundos. I really like what Veinte Mundos is doing for advanced students, but my students need a lot more structure in order to make sense of the articles on their website. Here is my lesson, with links to their original resources as well as my own.

Day 1: prior knowledge

imagesJust like the unit on ballenas that I published last year, I like to start this unit with imagesCAX6QP4Sa brainstorming session in small groups to establish everything that we happen to already know about hippopotamuses. Depending upon the class this might be greeted with a revelation that they already know quite a bit. untitledAfter five minutes in small groups I draw two columns images2on the board, one labelled La ciencia and the other column labelled su representación en la cultura popular. The first column will eventually include things such as son de África and son mamíferos. Several details will flow from that, so be sure you know how to say they give life birth and the mothers nurse their babies with milk. I avoid technical terms like vivíparos in favor of phrases like las crías nacen vivas.  Click here for a website to review characteristics of mammals in Spanish . The second column is a bit tricky but I think it is useful for high school students to recognize that the representation of an object in popular culture is distinct from their reality, so I showed some pictures like those along the side of this post. My purpose is to elicit the reaction that hippos are often portrayed as lovable, fun animals. It may be surprising to some students that hippos are ferocious man-killers!

Having already read the article that they will read tomorrow I am extremely sensitive to the information that will appear in class tomorrow.  I carefully circle relevant facts so that what may have been the odd bit of trivia known by one student becomes common knowledge (and in Spanish no less).  When I write circle, I mean circle in the specialized jargon of TPRS teachers… not literally circling the words on the whiteboard. If you have not been exposed to this powerful technique then take a look at Martina Bex´s explanations: first a link to her circling worksheet for teachers and second a link to her blog post describing how she introduces vocabulary . While I do not do it exactly as she does, what we do have in common is that presenting the vocabulary phrases is a long process that delivers many repetitions of the target structures in comprehensible utterances so that students develop a natural, automatic response.

Day 2: first exposure to the article

This year I didn´t exactly follow what I wrote above. In fact, I shortchanged day 1, cutting it short and rushing straight into day 2… what a mistake! If they had a full day of preparation with a lot of circling rather than just a fifteen minute brainstorming session then what I am about to describe may have been disconcerting, but it would not have deflated them.

I gave them a copy of the article  (scroll down to the bottom and click on PDF; I cut and paste so that it fits on one piece of paper, double sided). I played the recording provided by Veinte Mundos (downloaded beforehand so that it plays smoothly, it is the MP3 at the bottom of the article) and I asked them to follow along at the speed of the recording. I do this because I need to start preparing them for AP next year, when they´ll hear texts read by native speakers without any preparations.  Once we heard the article I wrote a spider diagram on the board with the name of the article in the middle and the following four topics branching off: en la naturaleza, Pablo Escobar, el peligro, las protestas. In pairs they reread the article and filled in the rest of the graphic organizer, adding at least four points to each branch. I moved around helping individual groups.

Day 3: breaking the article down

The next day students entered the class unsure that they really understood the article (because I did not properly introduce the vocabulary through day 1). To develop their self-confidence I created this vocabulary builder activity which reviews the main points of the article . Students first did it alone, so they could honestly assess their own understanding, and then we reviewed it together. When we reviewed the answers I could sense the tide turning as students felt empowered that they could understand this difficult article.

I now went straight back to the article and started circling the hard parts of the text, clarifying through questions the most dificult sections so that the entire reading became clear as water. Through this process I became aware of some surprising misunderstandings. I had assumed that my students in level three understood who campesinos were; it wasn´t until I was on the back of the reading and asked ¿dónde viven los campesinos? that I realized that I needed to explore the difference between la ciudad y el campo. If I had not maintained my focus on the text I would have missed that opportunity.

Day 4: extending perspectives

6620_109339870068_654880068_2636993_3469554_nI had several video clips to play today which explore different perspectives on the issue. I found it useful to review Martina Bex´s graphic on how to use an authentic source in a CI classroom for ideas of how to work these videos so that students get the most out of the experience. If you take a look at Martina´s handout you´ll know why I only had enough time to analyze two videos. If you do a google video search you´ll find plenty of videos; I settled on these two: Militares asesinan hipopótamos and Manifestación . These two allowed me to explore the government´s responsibility to protect its citizens, the perspective of the campesinos endangered by the hippos and the perspective of city dwellers who came out to protest the killing of the animals.

Day 5: assessment and musical extension

As an assessment I asked them to take out a blank piece of paper and simply write about los hipopótamos en Colombia. I warned them that I was grading based on content; of course being able to understand them is crucial, but as long as I could understand I was looking for as many distinct points as possible. The idea of distinct points encouraged them to consider the variety of perspectives through which we explored this issue.

Here is a copy of the quick-write written by one of my middle of the road students. Plenty of grammar errors, some that would impede communication if the reader were not his teacher:

student work 001

But wow… look at what he can communicate. Seriously, he has plenty to say and remember that this was a quick write. No drafts, no time to go back and review. Ten minutes. And if you are really grammar-obsessed then I want to point out something super-interesting: at the end of the first paragraph he wrote  Pienso que el gobierno mataría los hipopótamos. I never taught the conditional tense. That phrase is not in the article. I must have, at some point, circled some question or comment with the conditional, but none of us were paying attention to the endings. We were paying attention to the meaning of the phrase. That´s language acquisition, occurring because he was following a meaningful conversation. It humbles me to see it happen so naturally.

After students finished their quick-writes I projected a website that I have recently rediscovered (now that youtube is no longer blocked from teacher accounts at my school). We opened up to my favorite Juanes song . The connection is tenuous… Juanes is Colombian. That´s all I needed. A volunteer came up and, after playing the Juanes game on intermediate,  we then discovered that two currently popular songs have versions in Spanish: Titanium David Guetta & Mey and Si yo fuera un chico by Beyoncé.  By the way, I recommend enlarging the computer screen so that you are looking at just lyrics… that way you don´t have to worry about questionable images from a music video. An enjoyable ending to an exciting week in room 804.

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Back to school night

do betterA few years ago I made a power point presentation to play in the background while I am greeting parents at the door of my classroom during our “Back to School” night. It summarizes a lot of research on the benefits of learning a second language; some of the claims may be surprising but all are backed up with cited sources (solid academic research). In the future I would like to create a power point like this citing the research on TPRS, but for the time being I’ll “settle” with making the case that parents support all second language classes as a core part of their child’s education. Click here to download the Students who study another language power point presentation

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A brief tour of my TPRS classroom

This is not the model classroom laden with tech toys, nor is it even my ideal classroom… but it is getting closer every year. These are some of my favorite design tweaks, and how it helps me teach:
No desks. Chairs only, with tables on the outside for students to place their backpacks (and cell phones). Students come in and take out a notebook and pen, copy down the three structures of the day that are on the board, and then put their notebooks under their chair. I have to fit forty students into a classroom designed for twenty-eight; it was necessity that first led me to remove desks just to free up space. But now that I’ve done it, I would never go back! On the days that my AP students complete a formal essay I reserve the library. But writing is not the backbone of any TPRS class; listening and reading in class develop speaking and writing skills. They can place their notebooks on their laps as they write during the last ten minutes of class.

I also place the chairs in groups to facilitate TPR, naming groups after countries. I learned this from Jason Fritze. Once the whole class responds to ¡Levántense! and ¡Miren! then it’s time to start switching it up and say ¡España, levántense. Miren a México!. It keeps them in their toes.

Inspired by something I once read about Bryce Hedstrom’s classes: the back of the seats of the front row all have exclamations that I encourage them to use in class, so that not only do I get the ohhhhh’s but also a ¡Claro que sí!. Sometimes this can be really amusing.

Free reading library; there are duplicates but none of these books are “required” in the sense that we talk about them in class. Instead they are used for sustained silent reading. Some of the books, like Donde viven los monstruos, are chosen to appeal to non-heritage speakers with very little reading ability in Spanish. Right now I have about 70 books, but I’m building this library to be a more important part of my classes, in every level. The little shelfs are made of cardboard and paper stapled to the wall… very cheap but took some time during the summer to figure it out and then put it together.


Changing the lights from industrial office park lights to soft, friendly lamps has a surprising impact on the mood of the class. These are perfect for telling class stories.

word walls

My word wall focuses on the main sixteen irregular verbs that are used over and over again in conversation. Simply pointing to the correct verb with a laser pointer while telling a story, or asking a question, is amazingly effective. Terry Waltz has refined this list to 7 verbs which she teaches (in Mandarin) within the first two or so hours of class. The English will be removed once these verbs are internalized. I have the same verbs in the infinitive form posted along the front of the classroom.


The only poster in English is a reminder for me to SLOW DOWN. I refer to it often in class to emphasize that when they do not understand me then it’s my fault, not theirs.

question words

Question words are posted in the most central place in class, right above where I often stand. I will tape the English to the bottom for the first few weeks of class to make sure these are thoroughly acquired. You can also see some of the animal puppets I have velcro-ed to the wall. They are good conversation partners and some even develop their own personalities, depending upon the class story.

a clear space
Essential bookcase in the back of the room where I always place the paper that I need. You’ll notice a syllabus is already there, because otherwise I’ll lose it! The planning calendar is to keep track of when my AP kids will be giving a presentation… by September we are on a schedule where two people are giving two minute presentations every day. If I did not have this calendar I would forget.

tarea box, si or no

The Sí sign velcro-ed to the front board has a red back that says no. Hold up red when ask a question. Wait. Wait. Flip it to sí and everyone answers at the same time.

tarea box

The tarea box is another organizational tweak that has saved my life. I would never remember to collect homework if it weren’t for the rule that homework has to already be in the box before the last bell rings.

First day of school is tomorrow… looking forward to it!

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First day of iFLT 2013

Castle-2-1You know that a conference/workshop is good when you leave thinking to yourself that everything must be re-examined!  Of course not everything must go… it just feels that way when bedrock assumptions are put in jeopardy. For me today it was Stephen Krashen, who gave a talk that left me seriously reconsidering the role of comprehension questions in my readings. Still processing, but feeling better than ever about where my teaching is going…

BTW, Krashen will also be at NTPRS in Dallas later this July. I am sure it will be just as amazing.

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Reflections on a good year

A reminder list for me to consult at the beginning of next year

Peto(1) I had a very good year.  I would have had a truly great year if I had just followed the rules of TPRS the entire time. Everyone does it slightly differently, right? My original TPRS mentor, Donna Tatum-Johns, would write her two or three new target structures on the board, asking her students to copy those phrases down before class begins. Then I met Linda Li and Blaine Ray who both have word walls so that they can point to any phrase that they use in class. As a result I started the year doing both; I had a word wall and I had students copy down new structures. With my laser pointer in hand I could focus student attention on any of the structures, new or old, as I used them. That whole thing about slowly pointing while speaking is so much more effective when you have a bright red laser beaming out of your fingers.

Starting second semester, however, I stopped updating my word wall. My laser pointer was forgotten in a desk drawer. By the end of the semester (I didn´t even notice when) I had even stopped writing new structures on the board each day. Why Peto, WHY?!

Lesson to be learned: when done by an expert TPRS looks like “art”, but it is “science”. Respect the science of language acquisition!!  Although TPRS is not the only way to provide comprehensible input, it is the most efficient, mature methodology. Keep the three basic steps of TPRS in the forefront of my teaching.

(2) Don´t let El Internado take over my class. Yes, my students became obsessed fans of the show and developed a deep intrinsic motivation for studying Spanish that is, well… fabulous. Yes, enrollment in Spanish 3 spiked because we followed student interests. But here is another quantifiable fact: their acquired vocabulary (as seen in their free writes) comes principally from the first semester.  Almost entirely.  I circled and recycled effectively during the first semester. During the second semester I spent more time explaining what was going on in El Internado (remaining in Spanish, but focusing on making it comprehensible). Without the repetitive recycling of structures my students understood, but did not acquire.

Lesson to be learned: yes, entice students with El Internado, but follow Kristy Placido´s lead and limit it to once a week.  Perhaps let El Internado guide us in the structures we learn (¡Déjame en paz!  followed by ¡Déjame hablar! and ¡Déjame pensar! are all early acquired in my classroom because of El Internado). Nonetheless, allow enough time to learn, recycle and acquire those structures.

Okay Peto, time to go to the beach and decompress.

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My parents embarrass me: a sort of final exam

This is the last short story of the year and focuses on two structures: se ponen en ridículo and le da vergüenza.

embarrassingBefore students read the story I introduced the structures and themes through a full class period of conversation. That included this powerpoint (which you can download by following this link):  vergüenza y ridículo powerpoint .  If you use it  you´ll probably want to remove the reference to Señor Peto in the first slide. I was surprised that none of the students would admit that their parents have ever embarrassed them (of course, they didn´t want me to embarrass them). Since that line of questioning was going nowhere, I changed the phrase to mis padres nunca me dan vergüenza. I suppose the real theme of the day should have been mi profesor de español me da vergüenza as I came up with silly situations that never occur such as Los padres de Julieta nunca besan al perro cuando sus amigas vienen a su casa. ¿Verdad Julieta? Julieta emphatically denied that her parents EVER kiss their dog. «Entonces… ¿ellos no te dan vergüenza?» A few times we came up with weird situations that never happen (I swear!) and it was a compelling enough mental image to make students laugh. When we laugh in Spanish then I know that they are really learning the vocabulary.

The following day students read this story that you can download by following this link: Mis padres se ponen en ridículo: STORY WITH QUESTIONS . I graded their responses to the back side as the last two big grades of the semester, which is pretty much a final exam since I would not actually have the time to evaluate all of those writing samples in the limited final exam period that we have. The reading comprehension questions are designed to assess their understanding of some big picture points, like did they acquire the difference between iba and fue? I graded the second writing section with a more holistic grading rubric emphasizing the comprehensibility of their writing. Superior students should be able to respond with our so-called advanced structures and wow me with their creativity, but fully intelligible, simple answers with minor errors that answer the question easily earn a grade of B.

Next week, following the advice of Blaine Ray, my students will be giving oral presentations on a topic of their choice. Lots of output, but they have been well-prepared (pat myself on the back) and I am certain to enjoy this coming week.