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7 Rules to Remain Sane and Avoid Perfection

It is reaffirming to lead workshops and be surrounded by teachers that demand as much from themselves as I do. Their passion pushes me forward. I have met many educators who are entirely consumed by this quest for perfection and occasionally wonder, however, if I should modify my message. These are educators that I worry about; I worry that they will burn out before developing the skills to be able to run a CI class effortlessly without pre-planning. I worry that, after putting so much effort into creating a compelling class experience, they are setting themselves up for a tremendous disappointment when their students yawn, tune out and dismiss the class as boring. I worry that they will conclude that CI is just too difficult, when I want to communicate the opposite: teaching with CI should be really, really easy.

There is no aspect of my life in which I demand perfection of myself; I am pretty forgiving of myself in the gym, the kitchen, perhaps a little too forgiving when it comes to cleaning the house, and although I often do not finish reading novels I still find a little time each day to read. That is, I do show up and do my part; over the years I have become a decent home cook, my BMI is ever so slowly going down and I am now well aware of my blood pressure, and even when I only read novels for 10 minutes a day my world is still so much bigger than that of a non-reader. Perfection is the enemy of progress; here are my seven guidelines that will lead you towards progress without fooling you into thinking that you need to be perfect. You need to be working on these skills in order to improve.

(1) Set clear expectations: “We are going to learn X language this year by hearing and creating stories together. First we are going to learn about each other, and once we are comfortable with that language we will begin creating our own stories. In order to acquire this language, you must listen and be able to understand. Listening is your main job, making sure you understand is my job.” Notice that there is NO talk about our stories being compelling, nothing about students loving class, nor changing their lives by exposing them to a wider world. I don’t mention that I want them to look forward to my class, nor do I tell them that they are my curriculum… we talk about what they want to talk about. All of that is true and as you get better at CI it will become part of the DNA of your classes, but while you are still learning some adolescents will use that information against you… and make you miserable. Instead set clear roles for student and teacher: you listen, I make sure you understand.

(2) Side conversations in L1 cannot ever be permitted. If there is a warm class community, your students’ natural urge will be to chat in English with each other. You must nip this in the bud at the beginning of the year and remain vigilant throughout the year to make sure that there are never side conversations. Stop class whenever there is a side conversation, regardless of how much you might be enjoying the story. Side conversations surge forth when the class conversation is getting good, so you must always be vigilant and never get entirely swept into the drama of the class conversation. Plan smooth transitions and bailout moves so that students do not fill “free moments” speaking in English. Repeat your expectations every single day. This might feel tough because it feels so darn unfriendly.

(3) Get to know your students and enjoy being with them. Learning more about your students’ lives while speaking the target language is always a good lesson. Tell them stories that you enjoy, speak the target language.

(4) Students who engage with their imaginations acquire language much quicker. Emotional connection with the content is a potent language acquisition accelerant. That is why I allow code-switching when we are first imagining the content. Let them get excited, and then take the stage and turn it into the target language. The balance you need to find is how much English is too much. I usually only allow a few words in English before I return to the target language, but sometimes I let a detail develop in English and then allow us to process that language during the Write and Discuss afterwards. One of the skills you will be sharpening is learning how to encourage creativity without sacrificing the target language. I say: honor that quest. You will learn by doing. Some classes you will speak way too much English, some classes you will want to apologize for cutting them off before they could express themselves. Eventually you will get it just right, with practice.

(5) Aim to keep students processing rather than keeping them entertained. You will be effective as long as students are processing the input. You will be more effective if students enjoy the class and the input feels easy to process, but adolescents are fickle. Rarely will a class be rolling with laughter. Even when a story connects, there will be students with boredom written across their foreheads. Give daily exit quizzes to make sure everyone is processing the input. Students do not have to contribute clever responses in order to acquire the target language; they only have to process. Rather than trying to be their favorite teacher, aim to be a teacher that they respect. True respect is not based in fear, but neither do you have to entertain them. Interacting with people that we respect is pleasurable enough.

(6) Stop planning units. All of that planning was the source of frustration when my students did not appreciate the work I did. Yet this idea that we need to plan a unit is an unnecessary relic from the days of thematic units. All we really need to do is talk with our students. Sharpen your skills at leading communicative activities that do not have to be pre-planned; student interviews, card talk, OWIs, class-created narratives following OWIs, movie talks and read-alouds. At most I follow a two day sequence of activities. If a student does not love the story, tomorrow will be a new day.

(7) I once realized that I had a coping strategy for dealing with those disastrous lessons that I had worked so hard to develop; often would show a movie for several days afterwards. That is, after putting my heart and soul into developing a unit that my kids did not find compelling, I wasted more class periods trying to please my students with an activity that provided even less CI. There is no time to burn for game days, projects, exam days, long activities whose main purpose consists of student output or otherwise classes that are not brimming full of rich CI. Instead keep on plugging away at the student interviews, card talks, OWIs, class-created narratives following OWIs, movie talks and read-alouds. Your skills will improve the more you do it, so don’t just try it once. Keep working at it.

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Workshops January to March 2019

This Spring I will be leading a series of two day workshops in cities across the USA. With two days of instruction we will have significant time for demonstrations and for participants to practice a variety of essential comprehensible input strategies.

On the first day we start with several easy to implement CI techniques. Participants see how easy it is to provide clear, interesting input for their students through student interviews, calendar talk and student surveys. We finish the morning with a demonstration of a One Word Image (OWI), an essential technique to unleash students’ creativity in their second language. Participants create their own OWI in small groups. In the afternoon we focus on Movie Talk skills. Mike demonstrates how to take a 45 second video clip and transform it into a full, 55 minute lesson plan… all without planning! Movie Talk is easy for beginners (both students and new CI teachers!); Mike demonstrates how to tweak Movie Talks to get the most language acquisition out of the experience. Participants get access to literally hundreds of videos suitable for movie talk. To round out the afternoon Mike outlines key steps to using an ongoing television show as an anchor text for your classes so that you will always have something to discuss. Classroom management is an important part of the CI classroom; observations are embedded in activities throughout the day and we end our first day of the workshop with a summary of management techniques and simple, powerful assessments that will take very little time to grade.

On the second day of the workshop we delve into using our OWIs to create easy stories with our students. The entire morning is dedicated to developing your skills so that you lead your students to create compelling stories. We discuss how to transform ho-hum stories into gripping narratives. Participants also learn how to scaffold the process to inspire students to develop stories around AP and IB themes. Teachers who must teach to a common department assessment will learn how to combine these powerful student-centered storytelling techniques with the specific vocabulary that your colleagues expect you to cover. During the afternoon of the second day we turn our attention towards developing our classroom libraries. For teachers of lesser-taught languages developing a reliable system to produce class-created texts is essential, but those texts are also useful for any teacher of beginners. I demonstrate many browsing activities, which are activities that get your students familiar with your class library and help them quickly locate the “home run” novel that will turn them on to a lifetime of reading… in their second language! We learn how to manage a pleasure reading program, including how you display your library might help or hurt your reading program. By the end of the second day of the workshop I present my “maravillas”, an activity that melds movie talk with embedded readings to present authentic cultural resources. I will show you the steps to make your own “maravillas” and give Spanish teachers access to 25 ready to go maravillas that I made for my own classes.

But our workshop does not end on the second day. I have collected resources, filmed myself at workshops demonstrating key techniques and arranged it all in a logical sequence to make learning each skill easy for the teacher new to this approach. All together there are 16 modules with more than 25 videos (over 266 minutes of footage and more being added). I call this “Mike’s Online Master Class”; all workshop participants get a one year subscription to the online workshop and a copy of the book that accompanies the workshop, “My Perfect Year”. You will find materials that you can use immediately in your classes while you learn the skills at your own pace. Best of all, unlike a live workshop, you will be able to return and watch the demonstration again until you can do it confidently in your own classroom. Still not clear? Send me an email with a request and I will address your question in the next video that I add to the course. I am committed to providing the very best online PD experience so I will continue adding to the workshop as I give live workshops across the country.

Workshops in San Antonio, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Philadelphia, Syracuse and Washington DC.

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Come see me at ACTFL!

If you are going to ACTFL this weekend, please stop by and say hi. I will be at the Teachers Discovery booth on Friday from 10am until 11am and again from 11:45am until 1pm. You will have a chance to get a sneak-peak at my new book, “Pleasure Reading in the World Language Classroom“, a book that I have been working on for about two years now. I will be back on Saturday from 10 to 11am and 3:30 to 4:30pm. Take a look at the table of contents below; I poured my heart into this book to help teachers effectively balance whole class reading activities with a strong free choice reading program (click on graphic below to enlarge the table of contents):

If you are not going to ACTFL you can still download the ebook! Available now!!! Prefer a paper version? Order the paper version from Teacher´s Discovery.

I am also teaming up with Chicago teacher Sean Lawler to participate in two roundtable conversations about teaching heritage learners. The round table sessions are small — limited to ten people — and are meant to stimulate conversations around our presentation. Our first conversation, on Friday from 2 to 2:45, is titled “Your Heritage Learners Think You Are Weird (Probably)”. Non-native speaking (NNS) teachers often struggle to establish their own authority with heritage learners. Typically non-native teachers are drawn into an unending struggle to validate their own language usage. While they struggle to establish their own expertise in the eyes of students, NNS teachers lose the opportunity to validate the experiences and family culture of their students. The presenters have found that explicitly discussing the concept of language community with students has changed this dynamic. Diversity of Spanish language dialects is not simply an expression of regionalism but also of ethnic and class boundaries. Students from vulnerable, migrant populations often speak “lower prestige” dialects. Students must first feel secure that their own language community is valued and respected; then they are better prepared to interact with “the other”. The session presents five ways to expand students’ language community while validating their home language dialects.

Our second roundtable session, on Saturday from 8am to 8:45, focuses on specific issues you might encounter when starting an independent reading program with heritage language learners. While reading is essential to develop heritage learners language skills, it is just as important to develop their identities as lifelong readers so that they continue to develop their skills long after the course has ended. An independent reading program is not simply about developing language skills; it develops lifelong habits. The presenters explore ten research-based characteristics of effective independent reading programs and contrast each one with common classroom practices that undermine reading programs.

Finally I will be working with the CI Posse at their booth in the exhibition hall, which is right next to the Señor Wooly booth. I will present in the CI Posse booth on a variety of browsing strategies so that your students explore your pleasure reading library rather than just grabbing the first book at hand! I will also demonstrate creating One Word Images and will host a sneak preview of my newest novel, Meche y las ballenas. See the CI Posse schedule for all of the other awesome things happening at the CI Posse booth throughout the day. Why bother going to the sessions, just hang out in the booth with us!!

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When you cannot find a workshop near you…

It is training, not textbooks nor materials, but skilled professional development that is absolutely the most important variable that determines the success of a teacher new to comprehensible input methods.

I have a solution for teachers who want to learn to teach using highly-effective comprehensible input methods but cannot take time away from the classroom nor travel to a workshop to get the professional development that they need. I have collected resources, filmed myself at workshops demonstrating key techniques and arranged it all in a logical sequence to make learning each skill easy for the teacher new to this approach. All together there are 16 modules with more than 25 videos (over 266 minutes of footage and more being added). I call this “Mike’s Online Master Class”; when you register you immediately get a download of my book, “My Perfect Year”, access to the first 25 maravillas in Spanish and a one year subscription to the online workshop. You will find materials that you can use immediately in your classes while you learn the skills at your own pace. Best of all, unlike a live workshop, you will be able to return and watch the demonstration again until you can do it confidently in your own classroom. Still not clear? Send me an email with a request and I will address your question in the next video I add to the course. I am committed to providing the very best online PD experience so I will continue adding to the workshop as I give live workshops across the country. Browse the course index:

Follow this link to register.

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Looking for a place to hold a workshop

Have you ever thought of hosting a workshop? It is easy — all you have to do is provide a classroom where we can meet. I post it on my website and if we can attract enough people to pay for my airfare & hotel, you get a free workshop! My workshops are training for the entire year; it includes demos of key CI techniques, a copy of my book “My Perfect Year” for all participants, and a year subscription to my “Online Workshop” with 15 modules of videos and in-depth descriptions. I have some time available in January and March, two months when teachers are typically eager for a boost. Please comment on this post if you have a classroom available and I will be in contact.


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When a former student asks for advice about how to learn a third language

I get contacted often enough by former students seeking advice about how to continue their language journey. However, I absolutely love it when a student contacts me with vague memories of how it started with Spanish and wondering, “how do I repeat that process with a third language?

First let me emphasize what you should not do: no conjugation charts, no textbooks with grammar explanations, no thematic vocabulary lists and no teachers who want to teach you through these “common sense but flat out wrong” approaches. If you were my student before 2013, let me apologize to you. I was collecting the data I needed to reject those ineffective methods, and some of you I tortured exquisitely with the mistaken belief that I just had to perfect my approach to conjugation exercises. I was so wrong.

There is one crucial ingredient: listening and understanding what you hear in the target language. If it is compelling to you, then even better. Able to read and understand? Much, much better.

Notice exactly what I am saying: you do not have to speak or write in order to learn to speak or write. In fact, you should not speak until the words just plop right out of your mouth, until you have heard them so many times that they are effortlessly falling out of your mouth. Until then, concentrate your time on getting more and more comprehensible listening & reading.

Think about what was successful in our classes: most likely you remember El Internado. Do you remember all of the annoying times I stopped the video and repeated what was being said, summarized it, wrote it on the board, printed it up so that you could read it again and again? Yeah, I was learning to be a decent language teacher. Hopefully you remember some laughter. That also was by design, because I was coming to understand that anxiety about learning and speaking a language is the main thing that prevents students from soaking in the language. Laughter and no anxiety means better acquisition.

If you were my student around 2015 then you might remember that I put great effort into quieting my students, providing some space for student speaking but often encouraging silence. I still wanted a compelling class, but I realized that students had to hear and process everything. That is when I became convinced that student output (writing and speaking) is irrelevant to first learning a language. I realized that the more time beginning students dedicate to listening and reading, the better the final outcome three or four years later.

Not only are my students living proof of the power of this method, but there are many others who have adopted this approach. Have doubts? Take a look at a newspaper article written by Stephen Krashen, the linguist who inspires language teachers like me:

Once you know how to acquire a language, the hard part is getting someone to speak to you in an extremely comprehensible and compelling manner. Yeah, a good language teacher is worth their weight in gold. Chances are you will need to get that conversation from people who are not exactly trained to help you acquire the language. Here is some concrete advice about how to approach your third language. This is based not only on my classroom experience, but also on my own experiences acquiring my fifth language, Japanese.

You need to understand whatever language you come across, or it does not help you acquire the language. That sounds like an impossible condition, but it is not. Watch this classic video of Stephen Krashen explaining how to acquire German with “comprehensible input”: (in fact, watch the full video to understand how to acquire a language).

When learning a new language I rely on tutors that I find on the internet. The best website that I have found for finding cheap and reliable tutors is where I pay around $10 for an hour of conversation. I always choose a “community tutor” rather than a trained language teacher. Sadly, most trained language teachers are not trained in language acquisition. Of course it’s even better if you can find someone interested in a language exchange: a native speaker partner who will speak the language you want to learn while you speak the language that he or she wants to learn. An ideal activity for language exchange is a method called “Cross talk” where you speak your native language and the tutor speaks their native language. I do this with tutors who understand English, although at a certain point with a portable white board and a little art, anything can be explained. To understand this method, take a look at this explanation by Pablo Román:

By the way, I always record my tutoring sessions so that I can rewatch them later.

I have found that comprehensible reading is crucial because I can slow it down to my pace. With my tutors I always end with a summary session in which they create a paragraph long text summarizing what we spoke about. That written summary is what I read afterwards.

Once I have developed enough reading skills to be able to read simple texts, I would look for language learner literature. Not much available in Japanese, but in other languages there are some books out there. Check out this website:

Okay, now you are beginning to get a sense of how to acquire another language… by living it. Now I want to leave you with a video made by Jeff Brown, a polyglot that loves to acquire languages. He documented how he progressed in Arabic over the course of a year. Take notes from this guy!

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Introducing Las Maravillas: small doses of target language culture for a student-centered classroom

Today I am finally releasing something that teachers who attend my workshops have been raving about: Las maravillas. A maravilla in Spanish is “a marvelous thing”; these activities present fascinating people, places and cultural customs in a truly comprehensible format. I think that it is so important that I have added below a short excerpt from my new book about reading (in publication by Teacher’s Discovery, to be released at ACTFL in November 2018) that describes exactly how to make your own maravillas. I also offer access to my library of 25 pre-made maravillas.

An example of a Maravilla

A maravilla consists of four parts which I embed into a power point. The most difficult part of creating a maravilla is the initial research. This is not always easy, but one reliable source is a company called Great Big Story which publishes short videos on YouTube. They have a Spanish channel called Great Big Historias: This example maravilla will use a video created by Great Big Historias called “Sumérgete en este museo debajo de las olas”, which you can view by following this link on the internet:

First I take a screen shot of one frame from the video so that I can talk about the subject in the target language before actually playing the video. This technique is called a “Picture Talk”. It is an important previewing technique because, unlike a video, we move at the pace of the students. Students develop confidence that they understand the subject. Without the Picture Talk students tend to feel overwhelmed and shut down when faced with an authentic video. I also add a caption to the photo so that I can introduce a crucial word or two that students will need in order to understand our discussion that follows. In this case I take a screenshot 4 seconds into the video of the sculpture that is submerged underwater. When presenting the photo, I ask questions and make observations in simple, comprehensible language. In Spanish I say, “look, there is a man. Is that a man? No, that is not a man, that is a sculpture of a man, not a real man. But look, it is really blue. Very, very blue. Is it a beautiful day, perhaps? Perhaps, but that color blue is not the air. It is water. The sculpture is under the water. This sculpture is part of a museum. The museum is all under water. The museum is in Mexico, under water near Cancun. People go (now pointing at the caption) to Cancun in order to scuba dive and see the underwater museum. Amazing!” The caption written in Spanish below the photo is in bold so that students can see the words that are new to them. That introduction is meant to be very comprehensible. In fact that would be entirely accessible to my level 1 students with the exception of only a few words, which I write on the board.

Second, after the Picture Talk, I play the video (which is much less comprehensible). To be honest, the videos on their own are often quite incomprehensible. In my own classes I add captions using a video processing software such as Movie Maker, a free download from Microsoft. However you really should not expect your students to understand the video. Playing the video has another purpose. We know that struggling readers often do not create vivid images in their minds while reading. The purpose of both the video and the picture talk is to prompt students to form pictures in their minds that will help them comprehend the whole class reading that follows. I have used this strategy (displaying a vivid image, discussing it and then taking it away, followed by a reading that evokes that image) as a way to teach struggling readers to employ this particular reading strategy. For that reason I try not to choose a video that lasts longer than three or four minutes; it is like watching a movie over the shoulder of someone sitting near you with headphones. We have all experienced being trapped in a plane and following a movie while not hearing the dialogue. Yet clearly when language is absent (or so incomprehensible that it is just a blur), that does not helping us acquire more language. The images are simply preparation so that students will be primed to understand the reading that follows.

The third part, then, is a simplified reading summarizing the video and written slightly above the independent reading abilities of the students. What follows is an example of a simplified reading that I might have written for one of my classes. The complexity of the text, of course, depends upon what I have determined to be just slightly above the abilities of my students. If I make a mistake and provide a text that is too difficult, I translate difficult parts and use that language in comprehension questions so that students quickly become familiarized with it:

Hay más de quinientos esculturas sumergidas en las aguas de la costa de Cancún, México. La zona disfruta de más de 800,000 visitantes cada año, así que el impacto del ser humano es enorme. El parque marino es una de las atracciones de buceo más populares del mundo. Por eso hacen las esculturas para que protejan la vida marina. Quieren que haya más arrecifes de coral en el futuro, lo que atraería aún más turistas.

For my students this text may be a stretch without context and teacher support. I would comfortably include it in an activity for my level three students, but I might simplify it further before presenting the activity if I were to plan this for my level 1 students:

Hay muchas esculturas en el océano cerca de Cancún, México. También hay muchos turistas que visitan a Cancún. A los turistas les gusta nadar entre las esculturas debajo del agua. Los artistas mexicanos hacen las esculturas para que protejan los animales del océano. Quieren que haya más animales en el futuro… y más turistas también.

The reading should feel easy to students, but we know that had it been assigned entirely devoid of context it might feel much more difficult to students. Contextualized first by the Picture Talk and then by the video, this reading appears quite simple. I read the text aloud, slowly to the class, and then pause for questions about specific words. After addressing student questions, students then chorally respond to a variety of comprehension questions that I ask based on the reading. Finally we do a choral translation of the same reading, students translating each word as I point at it. Leading an effective choral translation is a worthy skill to hone. The teacher must demand that students say each word in unison, without skipping ahead to read the whole phrase and thus create a loud, unintelligible rumble. This is important because the translation is not for the purpose of assessment, not even informal assessment. The purpose of a choral translation is to allow timid students to entirely understand the reading. The students themselves must be able to hear every word.

The fourth part of a maravilla consists of a Write & Discuss activity used to elicit a student summary of the text after we have reviewed it. I pull up a blank screen and start with the phrase “hay” (there is) in the target language. I ask students to add a word, either in English or Spanish (clearly I prefer Spanish), and together we build a summary. I add transition words so that the sentences are not short and choppy, and I correct grammar, but I do not suggest content. Through this class summary, I understand what students truly took away from the activity.

After completing the summary (and not before, to encourage student engagement) students copy the text of the Write & Discuss and there is an announced content quiz at the end of the week. Students are allowed to reread their notes right before the quiz. The content of the quiz is based ONLY on the W & D. Sometimes there are 2-3 maravillas covered on that one quiz. The reason I do this is twofold: first, to encourage students to COME TO CLASS. If they just get notes from a classmate, the information does not sink in the same way as it does when they live the experience. Second, students who otherwise complain that “we do nothing” in class feel like the maravillas add rigor to the class because it is content that they “have to know”. Therefore this assessment helps build a class culture of coming to class and engaging. Everyone who does that gets a fine grade.

The entire four step sequence is completed within fifteen to twenty minutes. I want to impress students with some aspect of the target language culture, and then quickly retreat back into an imaginative, student-centered curriculum. These short, interesting texts are the main vehicle through which I introduce students to new grammar, complex sentence structure and readings that stretch their language abilities. The majority of their reading in class, however, is spent on easier reading that will develop rapid fluency. For a high school teacher who sees students every day for 55 minute sessions, I think that presenting one or two per week is sufficient.

While you can use these instructions to create your own maravillas, I also offer access to my library of 25 pre-made maravillas.

— text excerpted from “Pleasure Reading in the World Language Classroom: Build a Successful Program and Strike a Balance Between Whole-Class Texts and Free Choice Reading” by Mike Peto, soon to be distributed by Teacher’s Discovery.

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Harnessing a Running Horse: An Essential Classroom Management Tool

If you are talking about really interesting things in your class there will be times when the conversation bubbles over and students spontaneously start chatting with each other. Here is one technique that I caught on footage from a recent workshop that not only gets you to regain control of your class in 20 seconds, but it also maintains a pleasurable atmosphere in class without yelling or unpleasant reminders about rules. I call the technique “harnessing a running horse”:

If you want more, I still have a few workshops scheduled for Autumn 2018.

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What do I do with the Write & Discuss after we are done?

So, you talk in comprehensible language throughout your class period and end each day with a Write & Discuss activity to cement all that oral language into your students brains. So, what do you do with the written summary once you finish class? Just erase the board? NO! Watch this, it will change your teaching life!!:)

Click here to download a simple cartoon template, even better than the old one that I posted last year on my website.

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Plan Browsing Strategies if you want Students to Browse your Class Library

For the past several years I have entirely abandoned the whole class novel in favor of student choice. The awkward part of teaching a whole class novel — the thud midway through the novel when student interest plummets but I have to keep the show running — that has thankfully disappeared from my teaching life. My students are actually reading more and they are happier with their reading.

And yet…

Running an effective pleasure reading program requires much more from the teacher than providing good books and quiet time for students to read. Start with unpacking the idea of “a good book”; in this context the book must be both highly interesting to the student and highly comprehensible. I have never had enough books to fully satisfy these two requirements… for language learners I don’t think there are enough books out there to satisfy these two requirements. That is why I am leading the charge to get more teachers to write novels with their classes. But even if I did have “enough” books, I would still need to understand my students well-enough to be able to recommend the right book to the right student. I have close to forty students in each class, and I struggle to remember some students’ names well into September. October. Okay, for a select few I am still blanking on a name in January. My point is that “know your students” is another phrase carelessly thrown around by reading gurus that, when unpacked, is easier said than done. I break a sweat trying to connect students with a “good-enough book” from my library.

A pleasure reading program demands endless tinkering, but there are three things you absolutely must pay attention to if you want it to be successful. First of all, the books have to be highly comprehensible. Not kind of comprehensible. Not even pretty much comprehensible. Highly comprehensible. Take a look at my 4 minute video about how to develop a library with class-created texts. Doing this during the last five minutes of class, every day, will lead to hundreds of low-low level readings for second semester. In level one I unveil the pleasure reading library in January (although I have been talking about the books since the beginning of the first semester). Many students may be able to make the leap to professionally published novels, but I still need this basic foundation of a library to serve as a landing mat for the children who tumble off those books and need an extremely, extremely comprehensible read. To be successful, the library must have texts for the lowest level readers.

Second, take a hint from a good librarian and make sure your class library is browsable. Place your easiest novels in a location that is easy to reach for students streaming into the class. I have tables pushed against the walls on three sides of the room with various types of books so that when students do browse, they are not crowded into making a quick choice by the pushing and shoving of their classmates. Try to have as many covers facing up as possible, and occasionally rotate in the books that are stuck on book shelves. Keep collections together by theme, not reading level; I have all of my animal encyclopedias together on the table near the window, all of the manga and graphic novels together on the table against the back wall. Advertise books recently purchased or the subject of book talks by placing them up front with the book that the teacher is reading. Once you get enough, start stapling the class-created texts together in packets of 5-10, provide a book cover and number the collections so students remember which ones they have already read.

Third, expand your repertoire of browsing strategies.

A browsing strategy is any activity that gets your students more familiar with the books in your library. Imagine a class milling about in front of piles of books, perhaps casually gazing at a few book covers while you encourage them to “browse”: that is NOT what I am talking about! Book talks, Readers Theater, and CALP lessons related to a book in your library are much more effective ways to get students interested in what you have to offer. Heck, when a student interview reminds me of a book in my library I take the opportunity to advertise that book. So let’s take a look at some of these browsing strategies.

Book talks: A great way to complete a reading session. Usually after 5 or 10 minutes of silent reading I will ask students to talk about their books in small groups for 60 seconds. They speak in their first language. The idea is to spread knowledge about the books. After a minute they pass their books to the class librarians, who return the books. While the librarians are doing their job, I present a book in very comprehensible Spanish. Either I talk in general terms about what the book is about or I present one vivid scene, but this is often done by memory rather than reading aloud. I will use the whiteboard to illustrate what I am saying. The key is to talk about a book so that any student who is interested can follow up during independent reading sessions.

Reader’s Theater: This technique is often used when teaching a whole class novel, but there is no reason not to use it as a way to advertise a book. It requires a little bit of planning, but it is worth it. Before class I read a scene from a book with potential for a lot of dialogue and a lot of dramatic tension. Then I will rewrite the scene as a dialogue only script. This often involves me adding lines, even adding lines for characters who do not have dialogue in the book in order to flesh out how each character is feeling. I add stage instructions in English to help clarify what I want my actors to do. Print out a copy for each actor. When we start, I set the scene in Spanish, using the board to draw pictures. The fun part of Reader’s Theater, however, is coaching your student-actors to perform the scene in a variety of ways. Ask a character to repeat a line in several different ways. After performing an action, ask students to do it again in slow motion. End by recording the scene on video so that later in the semester you can play it again. Always have a copy of the book front and center so that students associate the book with the theater; the recorded version should present the book as a book commercial. Once again, the purpose of the activity is to give students a taste of the book so that, if interested, they can follow up during independent reading session.

CALP lessons: CALP lessons carefully introduce academic language, but they can be a great hook too. In my opinion some teachers and researchers misunderstand how to apply CALP to second language classrooms. Tina Hargaden’s version of CALP is really just introducing high-interest content to learners, devoid of burdensome follow-up activities. For example, when I preview my novel Superburguesas I use an info-graphic that I found on the internet about how infections are spread when people do not regularly wash their hands. Before class I project the image against a large piece of white butcher paper and I trace it quickly with light pencil. The pleasure is in revealing the drawing using marker in class: while we discuss hand washing in Spanish, I trace over the illustration of the hand. Then I overemphasize the creepiness of the comical illustrations of common pathogens found on unwashed hands, especially noting the ones that cause diarrhea and other unpleasant symptoms. Bringing the conversation back to the book, I describe the character who does not wash his hands when he works at a fast-food hamburger restaurant. Slowly revealing the info-graphic while discussing it in easy, comprehensible language adds great dramatic tension to the activity.

Impromptu book advertisements: At the very beginning part of the year when a student interview reveals that someone in my class likes baseball, you had better believe that I will be backing up towards the table with my sports books simply to hold up the books that I have about baseball players. However, impromptu book advertisements are easy to include in your classes in an organic way, as long as you are thinking about the books that you have. Before class stroll around your library and consider the themes so that you connect students with books. A student who expresses that the environment is important to her, or even professes enjoying hiking might like Juliana, a fictional novel about a real cave complex in Spain that houses hundreds of bats. She may not find the novel if you do not point the way. Heritage learners of Spanish often enjoy novels set in the country where there family members are from. A student interested in fashion might enjoy El último viaje by A.C. Quintero. An advanced student who is an avid cyclist will surely enjoy El cóndor de los Andes by Adriana Ramirez. An intermediate student who talks about her sister may not bother to browse your collection of graphic novels, but may be thrilled when you place on the front whiteboard a copy of Hermanas by Raina Telgemeier.

A great time to introduce a new book is when the theme comes up organically, during a student interview.

If you help your students learn to browse your library, they are much more likely to hit upon a book that they really like. That is what will turn them into lifelong readers.

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Let me be your guide as you write & publish a CI novel with your classes

Are you a CI teacher who wants to write a comprehensible novel with your classes? This year-long course (August to March) combines video and monthly, small group google hangout meetings to guide you along a class-tested process to creating compelling, level-appropriate novels. I wrote my novel Superburguesas with my level 1 classes. Imagine creating a novel with true beginners in Autumn and being able to hand each student a finished, published novel by Spring!

My course guides you month by month through the process, from getting your students to supply the first seed of a great idea, working with them in the target language as they acquire language while developing a plot line, rewriting and recognizing themes, through to getting the most compelling illustrations as well as the intricacies of publishing and even marketing your novel. I provide three different approaches to novel writing: one well-suited for middle school students (but still great for high school), one ideal for a teacher who is already comfortable with TPRS-style “storyasking”, and another approach designed to highlight target culture and historical aspects while still encouraging students to take ownership of the narrative.

If you saw my presentation during the Comprehensible Online Conference, then you will have seen the starting point for this course. I propose to walk this path with you, helping to brainstorm and develop your novel throughout the year as I write my own. Each month I will upload a short video delving into detail about the month’s work and demonstrating how I solve the problems that arise in my own work. Then we will schedule small group meetings via Google Hangouts so that you have the opportunity to discuss the progress you are making on your novel each month.

In order to assure my sanity, the monthly google hangout group is only open to the first ten teachers (there are still spaces available). Additional teachers will be able to sign up to watch the monthly videos and follow the process outlined in the hour-long instructional video, but the google hangout sessions will be limited to the original 10. If one of the original 10 drops out, I will offer that space. Please inform me upon signing up if you would rather be a “passive” member of the writers group so that someone else can participate in the google hangout sessions.

Why am I doing this? It is not for the money… the cost to join this group hardly makes a dent in the fees I pay for the various internet services I use to maintain this blog. Since 2015 I have been dedicated to helping teachers become authors because my students need a greater diversity of voices in our classroom library. Not just diversity in terms of race, class, gender or life experience of the author, but also a diversity of genres. We do not have any low-level CI sci-fi books, or horror, or even much in terms of fantasy or historical fiction. Publishers tend to publish books that they believe will appeal broadly, neglecting quirky niche genres. However, it is the quirky niche genres that inspire some students to become strong readers. With this group, I intend to help bring at least 10 quality books to publication by next Spring.

Follow this link to sign up.

With purchase you will receive a download link for a word.doc that contains a link and your password to enter the group homepage. Please log in this summer to watch the hour long video overview of the writing process.

Quotes are from teachers who saw the video presentation at the Comprehensible Online Conference in April, 2018.

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Hey Seattle! July 6 workshop with discount…

If you are considering attending the workshop in Seattle on July 6th, please note that there is a nearly 20% discount if your school does not reimburse you. Just type in the coupon code noschoolsupport when checking out and you will receive a $14 discount!

Follow this link to check out the details about the workshop.

“I’m loving the One-word Image lessons with my students. It was great being in your workshop in Japan last month, and I’m happy to have made some pretty great changes in my classroom.” – Paul

“Hi Mike, I just wanted to let you know that the workshop that you did with my department has made an impact. One of my colleagues has continued with the OWIs and her students love them. She also did a Movie Talk lesson and then expanded off that with different versions based on the Movie Talk. She is excited because she sees how the students are acquiring the language.” – Cameron

“I was at your workshop in Brattleboro. It was awesome!” – Carmela

“I want to take this opportunity to share how well FVR has been going in my class. That chat I had with you when you were presenting at my school (in Oregon) was the last piece I needed to have direction and take the leap. At first it felt like I wasn’t ‘working’ – I mostly sit at my desk reading a book that I want to read anyway!! But when after a few weeks I asked my students for feedback (via an online survey), the feedback was overwhelming positive. They (especially the introverts) enjoy having time to go at their own pace, to sit in silence, to relax, and many said they like seeing how the sentences work, figuring out words, learning words they don’t hear in class, etc. Thanks again!” – Stephanie

“As a newbie to CI, I need all the help I can get! Thanks for all the ideas and inspiration in Vermont last month. I wish I could keep it all “fresh,” but hopefully your book and the notes will guide me along.” – Barbara

“You are amazing! Thanks for putting new sparks on the fire for me and my students.” – Sharon

“The Maravillas will be an awesome change of pace this last few months of school.” – Viviana

“You are AMAZING! Your maravillas are so wonderful. I never thought of the write and discuss. Mil gracias por todo!” – Laura

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Common assessments, common experiences, and the messy path of acquisition

Teacher: Hi Mike. I’ve read all your stuff but one thing that I am hearing from the more resistant-to-CI teachers is: “How do we address common assessments with this approach? How do we ensure we are on the “same page”?” I realize that until we can all discuss bigger things with answers grounded in SLA research, these questions are futile as they all need to understand the paradigm shift– moving beyond units, etc. Even so, I do notice that you don’t mention common assessments in your “My Perfect Year” book where you discuss this topic. Could you speak to that briefly? When you worked with other teachers in your dept’s journey to CI, did you have any common “end points”?

Mike’s response: Sometimes traditional teachers are unwilling to abandon common assessments because, although they may never articulate it this way, they do not trust that their colleagues will “cover what needs to be covered”. Good for you that you were able to abandon vocab & grammar sections on the common assessments! You have won the nit-picky “let’s use assessments to compare teachers” fight… I have never seen that approach successfully build a department, it only tears people down.

So first the truth: I don’t mention common assessments because we stopped using them altogether. I imagine that your colleagues won’t want to hear that, but there is a wide if silent agreement among many national presenters who have told me privately about their own practice, even when they present on assessment methods. Over and over again, experts suggest less formal assessments, less time giving those assessments, and more time for a variety of CI activities. Assessment is necessary for the teacher to understand their own impact and some assessments help students appreciate what they do in class as they recognize the progress that they have made. Informal assessment is integrated into the meat of every activity we do. I also often use quick, formative assessments such as exit quizzes to verify that specific lessons were comprehensible to the less vocal students (such as after story-listening). But informal and formative assessments are quite different from the big common assessments that many departments develop.

Common assessments, on the other hand, are almost always summative with one of three less-than-useful intentions. They want assessments that will (1) organize students by proficiency level or some other metric of language ability, (2) identify the “strong” teachers so that “weak” teachers can learn from them, and/or (3) inform students of where they are on their path to proficiency in the belief that that helps them chart out strategies to continue onward. This last point implies some conscious awareness of their language acquisition which might be useful for a self-study student who is going into deep immersion over the summer (I have seen it!), but that does not seem very relevant to most high school students. The other, more troublesome take away could be that students are supposed to consciously keep track of their language learning, stuff like “hey you need to remember not to conjugate verbs after prepositions unless…”, that kind of feedback could be very harmful. See a researcher named John Truscott on this point.

In my experience, the second option never works in practice (and when I look at it on paper, a chill runs through my bones). You might be tempted to develop data comparing your CI students with their students, thus encouraging colleagues to go pure CI once they see how well your students perform. I wish humans were so rational. Instead most of us would be humiliated and become entrenched in our thinking when faced with “data”, and we find ways to disprove it or interpret differently. Changing the culture of the department requires a fine dance to prevent anyone from digging in.

The best option in that case is to train your entire staff on different ways to “dipstick” or get informal assessments in the moment so that teachers recognize the exact moment when students cannot understand what is being said, or better yet (following Krashen), when the “illusion of comprehensibility” has been broken and students begin to feel confused. A less-than-effective colleague who develops the tools to better read his/her students will then develop skills to self-assess his/her delivery of CI. Change from within is an approach that takes years and requires a growth mindset from the teacher, but is there really any other way?

The other reason to use common assessments, to organize a student population to better provide instruction, I think is deeply flawed, but there is less agreement among various presenters on this point. I believe that kids should not be penalized for how their brains work. They all need rich CI, even those who do not output quickly or accurately. Some educators would rather divide the student population so that the teacher can provide input that is roughly at the same level. I believe that all classes are multi-level classes, and that separating students creates an unequal and unnecessary social reality that inevitably confirms to many students that “they are not smart”. Students succeed most when they feel successful.

Some educators might argue that “the community is paying me” to assign accurate grades… which is ridiculous. I am being paid to support the development of all of my students. I am not being paid to give a grade that will allow colleges to determine whether or not to accept my student… I am not a gate keeper of any kind. I do not issue grades to determine whether students should move on (the answer is always yes unless they simply did not come to class, the only reason my students would earn less than a B). Some of my assessments, the ones that give me a critical perspective of my students true abilities, are never reported as grades. They are for me, to determine how to push forward and determine exactly what “i + 1” is for my students. Your colleagues who expect common assessments will probably never accept this argument, but I do not think that a common assessment that spits back a number or letter grade associated with each student is valuable.

So here is a brief answer if you HAVE to have common assessments; I would try to get teachers to collect data that could improve their own teaching. (1) Quick writes without any prompt or lesson to serve as a template… just a 5 minute quick write at the BEGINNING of class to get a real sense of the language in students head, (2) another quick write after an activity that introduces new vocab or content (OWI for lower level classes, one of my Maravillas for levels 2 and above). The purpose of the second quick write is to understand whether the teacher is providing enough repetition and is going slow enough to maximize acquisition. Ideally the teacher will recognize that variations in the way the lesson is presented to different classes impact acquisition & will seek to identify those variations. The big lesson for each teacher to learn via quick writes is how to provide grammatically-rich but vocab-limited input in class. In the case of OWIs, the questions that guide the creation of an OWI limit the possible vocab used so that, over time, students hear a lot of unpredictable structures within a very predictable format. (3) Teacher reads aloud a short EASY EASY reading, students listen with no visual text. After each paragraph teacher asks comprehension questions that can be answered in one word (concrete questions, not open-ended questions). The purpose is for teachers to become aware of an optimal reading speed when reading aloud to class. Be careful not to de-motivate students by reading for too long, too fast or otherwise being incomprehensible. Encourage teachers to use a text that is new but ridiculously easy. The idea is not to find the students “drowning point”, but rather to make teachers better at speaking clearly and slowly. (4) However you put this together, do not administer the entire common assessment on the same day. Have the first five minute quick-write on Monday, the second quick write on Tuesday (again, 5 minutes), the reading comprehension on Wednesday. If you have small enough classes you could have upper levels record a short conversation on Thursday. The assessment should not be announced as such to students: you do not want students to overthink the output, you don’t want to invoke the monitor. Just a normal day, as far as they are concerned. No need to ever “tell them the results” either, since the data is all to improve teaching.

You might have noticed that I have avoided addressing the “creating a common experience” thread while discussing assessment. A common experience is often understood as common content, whereas you want to develop common skill sets. Avoid any common assessment that would guide teachers to create a day to day “common experience” that leads them to teach to a test. Any test for which students can explicitly be prepared would not be a valid assessment of language ability. The solution my department adopted was to stress the Sweet 16 verbs throughout the 4 year curriculum. Please click here to read an essay where I flesh out what a common experience looks like in my department. In short, when any of my teachers get students at the beginning of the year, we do not have a list of target structures in our minds that we assume our students have acquired. We do not get angry if our level 3 kids do not understand X phrase; instead we are trained to start the conversation assuming nothing and paying close attention to their eyes. At all levels, as we think about how to phrase our language so that it will be comprehensible, we all return to the Sweet 16 verbs and posters. It is a common experience in all classes, even though I spend a week talking about whales and my colleague spends weeks talking about football (what would you expect from a football coach!).

I have to say, letting go of the concrete “scope and sequence” type goals and instead stressing the Sweet 16 verbs has made my department much happier and functional. Teachers put more effort into their classes now that they feel successful and part of a successful team. Feeling like you are letting your colleagues down because you cannot get that list of prepositional phrases into your students heads is not good for the teacher, their colleagues, or their students.

I hope some of these ideas are useful. I am sure you will need to re-frame the assessment ideas if you present them to your colleagues (especially if they are keen to give students grades and not so keen to self-evaluate). Nonetheless I think these ideas could lead to fruitful self-reflection that might move the process along.

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Published! The 2nd edition of “Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish”

For a limited time I am offering a 23% discount when bought directly from my website!
Click here to go to the purchase page

The second edition of “Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish” is a collection of thirty-four essays by classroom teachers who pay special attention to what Stephen Krashen has written about educating heritage learners. Starting with a description of Krashen’s concept of “Language Shyness” and how it is reflected in our classes, we outline approaches that respect the unique needs of heritage learners. Topics include: the differences between heritage and native speakers of Spanish, a surprisingly illuminating essay about the differences between native-speaking and non-native speaking teachers, reflections on appropriate goals to structure a school year, home-school communication and issues particular to working with non-English speaking families, how to develop an independent reading program and how to structure a class with extremely heterogeneous reading levels, working within school cultures that may inadvertently undermine the needs of heritage learners, and a host a activities that work well in heritage learner classes. There are four essays outlining entirely different approaches to the school year: one that modifies a traditional thematic approach including descriptions for monthly units, a second approach based on pleasure reading designed to develop a love of reading even among low-level readers, a language arts approach designed to work in tandem with teachers in the ELA program, and an identity-based approach explicitly designed to strengthen the connections between home, school and community. In addition there are three essays detailing different approaches to leading mixed classes, with both heritage and non-heritage learners.

The second edition also strengthens our approach to reading, offering big picture advice on developing a pleasure reading program as well as concrete, day to day activities that are easy to follow when you are just too tired to think about the big picture. We want you to not only be an effective teacher, but to thoroughly enjoy your HL classes and design an experience that your students find compelling, stimulating and yes… even enjoyable.

Click here to see the table of contents of the second edition, with new essays and essays with substantial changes highlighted in yellow.

This book is also available on Amazon.

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Beginner Japanese lesson: A Happy to be Mean Scissors – with Kurumi

Click here to go straight to the video.

I am just a few lessons into my year long plunge into the Japanese language and I have already had a dream with Japanese words sloshing about 🙂 Although I have just started this journey, I feel like I am already getting some insights into my own practice as a language teacher. First of all, I love working with One Word Images (OWIs) to create a concrete object of conversation. It has helped me feel out how the Japanese language sounds and, unlike learning a few words out of context, I am already developing an early paradigm of Japanese grammar through the natural process of acquisition. Word order and these little particles are sliding into place, often I mimic them incorrectly in these first few hours of acquisition, but that is to be expected. I am feeling pretty good.

The questions that I am currently asking to create characters
However, as a Spanish teacher I had never sensed how the first scripted questions of the OWI process leads to adjectives that are not particularly useful. Well, I always knew that the questions led to a whimsical initial vocabulary, and I have no problem with that… but why am I talking about colors so much? Physical descriptions are okay, but describing the physical environment is not a high-frequency skill needed by language learners! As a result, in the coming lessons I am beginning to explore changing the initial questions in the OWI process. As a learner I find it useful to have a predictable framework of questions around the unpredictable language of the tutors. I like being able to observe how different tutors answer the same questions but, rather than bringing forward language about colors and size, I want to ask questions that calls forth high frequency actions (i.e. the Super 7 and eventually the Sweet 16 verbs).

The interesting experiment that I will be conducting in the next few months is to determine how quickly I feel comfortable expanding out from the Super Seven to the Sweet Sixteen verbs. If you are unfamiliar with these basic building blocks of a communicative curriculum, take a look at this blog post I wrote about applying the concept to my Spanish classes.

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Learning Japanese, Comprehensible Input and reflections on teaching

In mid-May I began publishing videos of my tutoring sessions as I acquire Japanese through the same CI methods that I use in the Spanish classes that I teach. Here is the link to the first complete session recorded (before I had some technical issues to overcome as I learned how to record via Skype).

If you want to follow along with me on this year-long project then perhaps you might first take a day or two and learn the basic Japanese writing system of Hiragana using this wonderful system. Or you can learn the characters in context… following the videos will give you that reading practice. When it comes to learning Japanese, I am not an expert. Talking to Japanese teachers has helped me recognize that I really am not yet sensitive to the issues that I am about to face.

As a language teacher, I think this video is fascinating. As I was watching the video after class I was amused that it took me so long to be able to hear many of the phrases. My goal was to get a maximum amount of comprehensible input through community storytelling methods. I decided to start with a series of One Word Images until I get comfortable with the basic questions that we use to create a character. In my Spanish classes I often move quickly from creating the first character to creating a problem and a little story around that character, but as we created our character in Japanese (a medium-sized sky-blue peach) I was feeling occupied enough with this static character. In the future I will explore the why’s behind the character’s details and develop a story (and I think our medium-sized peach has enough interesting details to deserve a story of his own when I am ready for it), but right now I am comfortable spending 60 minutes just describing our character.

Of course, the drawing provided a great touchstone for conversation in Japanese. In the video you hear me speaking a lot of English because I literally do not speak any Japaneseyet. I had made three OWIs with tutors before this video, so I had heard enough language to be able to tentatively say a few words, but really you are looking at a pure beginner. Let’s see how far I can go in a year!

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“How do you “catch up” the students who show up at random intervals throughout the year? How can students “recover credit” from absences?”

These two questions were recently voiced by CI teachers struggling with transient student populations. One reported that her former CI department gave up on CI because they could not catch up the students who enter the program late. I suspect that what was happening was that the students who remained in class acquired language, and kept on acquiring language, which made the students who were often absent or entering midyear appear even further behind. That the teachers decided to drop CI because some of their students were actually learning too much speaks to the problem of a fixed unit by unit curriculum. Let me describe what they should be doing instead.

I am known for creating the Sweet 16 verbs. The idea came from Terry Waltz’s fantastic “Super 7” verbs. Terry’s idea was to quickly get your class to a point in which you can tell simple stories, rather than spending months learning thematic vocabulary lists. That was a gigantic leap forward. However, the idea behind the “Sweet 16” verbs is not simply some more verbs tacked on to Terry´s list. When I first proposed the sweet 16, Terry was describing her Super 7 as an anchor for meaningful communication within the first few hours of class.

My contribution was to take an expanded list of sixteen high-frequency words and describe them as a full four year curriculum. Many people miss how this point is a dramatic step forward. In fact, teachers who want a highly-controlled curriculum (i.e., “every teacher does the same exact lesson”) often totally misunderstand this contribution. The Sweet Sixteen, as my department used them, is the essential structure that guides our non-targeted approach to language acquisition. Let me be clear: at the time I taught in a Title I school with a fairly transient population. We enjoyed a 100% pass rate on our AP and IB exams. CI works, even if the student comes in late, even if the student misses a lot of school, even if the students are coming to school high and oblivious (I am thinking about two former students who failed every IB exam except for Spanish… because CI works).

As a department chair trying to design a common experience for students in different classes, with a half dozen different teachers on staff, I could have sought to limit the creativity of students and teachers by insisting that every teacher follow the same collection of story scripts, movie talks, and novels. That is, “all Spanish 1 students will read X novel and discuss Z movie talk. All Spanish 2 students will acquire this list of target structures so that they will be “ready” for Spanish 3″. That is the approach that leads teachers to frustration because they conclude that their transient population is missing too much.

On the other hand, the Sweet 16 verbs represent a different path towards creating a common experience between classes. Of course we do not simply repeat sixteen words for four years, but we do 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.

We recognized that in any classroom there will be many different interests, and that when students are following their own interests then they perceive the input as more compelling, which leads to faster acquisition. That is the funny thing about those studies which try to count how many times a student needs to hear a word to fully acquire it… teachers know that swears might be fully acquired the very first time they are understood whereas an abstract transition word that the student never uses in their own L1 could be uttered comprehensibly 500 times and not be fully acquired. The Sweet 16 gives a department the flexibility to allow their teachers and students to pursue different interests in class, to use different language, but guarantees that there will be a common communicative foundation throughout the entire program. For example, the Sweet 16 verbs allow one teacher to develop an independent reading program for her students in which students are all reading different books (and thus developing their own idiosyncratic vocabularies), while another teacher develops his CI skills guiding his students through an authentic telenovela.

There is another major advantage to running a department this way. When any of my teachers get students at the beginning of the year, we do not have a list of target structures in our minds that we assume our students have acquired. We do not get angry if our level 3 kids do not understand X phrase; instead we are trained to start the conversation assuming nothing and paying close attention to their eyes. At all levels, as we think about how to phrase our language so that it will be comprehensible, we all return to the Sweet 16 verbs and posters. It is a common experience in all classes, even though I spend a week talking about whales and my colleague spends weeks talking about football (what would you expect from a football coach!).

This is necessary because students move into our district at every level, and we cannot just leave them behind because they did not start with us. We need to provide a comprehensible experience at all levels, even if students missed the first 3 years of our CI program because they were learning thematic vocab in another district.

If you are interested, a succinct but complete description of my non-targeted approach to CI is available in my book My Perfect Year: A Practical Guide For Language Teachers. I will also be in many locations giving workshops this summer and next Autumn, check my schedule here.

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Comprehensible Cascadia in Portland OREGON is the Language Lovers conference

Get ready for a good time!

Comprehensible Cascadia is a small, intimate CI conference held in July in Portland, Oregon. WOW does it pack a punch! One of the strengths of the conference is the coherent vision among presenters. This is not a conference that will leave you unable to implement the strategies once you are back in the classroom. Each track is well-planned with a morning session in which you experience the methods as a student and an afternoon session in which you practice delivering the methods as a teacher.

This year there are two tracks: a track for teaching beginners through intermediate level students (roughly levels 1-3) and a track for teaching upper level students (roughly from level 3 through to AP, IB or level 5). Within the first track participants choose which lesser taught language they want to experience as a student: either Korean, Cherokee, ASL or Scottish-Gaelic. Participants experience learning a new language in the morning and then practice the techniques as a teacher in the afternoon (led by Tina Hargaden). The Upper level track learns CALP strategies in the morning with Tina Hargaden and practices and extends those strategies with me in the afternoon sessions.

Comprehensible Cascadia is the only CI Conference that has an ASL track. Last year I had the chance to observe Frederick Stamps teach ASL and, as a Spanish teacher, I was blown away by his technique and his ability to make himself comprehensible. In the past I have walked away from ASL demos with the sinking feeling that a sign language is really hard for me to learn, but Fred makes it effortless and fun.

Many people believe that Asian languages are particularly difficult to learn; I will be joining the morning sessions with Janet Kyung learning Korean and participating as moderator. Together we will demonstrate that there simply are no “difficult” languages, only difficult approaches to teaching a language. We are opting for the easy way full of laughter: we will follow the star sequence that includes co-creating visual characters (OWIs), Story-Creation, Write & Discuss, Visual Story Telling, Visual Culture, easy reading choices and plenty of active strategies that get you on your feet and processing the target language. The Korean language will be running through your dreams at night!

Wade Blevins will be leading the morning session in Cherokee. He was born in the small Cherokee community of Butler, Oklahoma and is a member of the Squirrel Ridge Ceremonial Grounds. For the past 11 years, Wade has worked for Cherokee Nation in the Education department helping with his tribe’s language revitalization efforts. Wade is an award winning Native artist and writer, having written 7 children’s books on Cherokee culture. He is also very involved in his tribe’s ceremonies and has served as a ceremonial singer and leader from an early age. Wade feels like CI techniques will be the key to helping his people pass their language down to the next generation. With the support of Cherokee Nation and other partners, Wade recently organized the IGNITE conference, the nation’s first CI conference specifically for Native language educators in June 2017.

Have you ever thought to yourself that you just do not have the energy to do CI all day every day? You need to experience Jason Bond’s unique approach to CI. Meditation and mindfulness is the foundation for Jason’s everyday life. Over the years, he deepened his practice on retreats at Samye Ling temple in Scotland and at Plum Village in France. Lately, he has trained as a meditation teacher under the guidance of Julian ‘Daizan’ Skinner, the first Englishman to become a Rinzai Zen master in Japan. Jason also became one of Daizan’s Zen students. This new direction is dedicated to helping others develop calm, stability, and focus – three invaluable qualities for any stage of the CI journey. Jason will be teaching the Scottish-Gaelic morning session.

We are bringing Pablo Pankun Román to Portland for his only appearance in the States this summer. Pablo is an amazing polyglot that you may know from his Dreaming Spanish videos. He learns his languages through pure CI approaches and will be leading a one day pre-conference Spanish class for teachers on Monday. Pablo has an entirely different approach to CI than that which is presented at the big conferences in the US, partly because his exposure to CI draws from his experiences in Japan and Thailand where the organic nature of language acquisition is emphasized. Throughout the week I plan on exploring the outer reaches of CI techniques with Pablo and contemplating how these techniques might translate to the context of US public schools.

Comprehensible Cascadia is the conference that pushes boundaries and explores new paths. And OMG Portland has good food!!! Come out to dinner and then join us at Ben Slavic’s place afterwards for evening coaching and great conversations.

Come join me for a week of language learning & teaching fun!

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OWI tweak for nervous teachers

I can be a nervous teacher at times. I hate having to keep track of many things at once… I like to be able to simply focus on my students and their responses. I find that if part of my mind is focused on one or two steps ahead of where we are, then I cannot react to what we are doing in the moment and my nervousness ends up making me miss some of those beautiful, enjoyable moments of pure creativity.

A few weeks ago I was in Cameron Taylor’s classroom and we were working on One Word Images (OWI) in four different languages: Portuguese, Japanese, Mandarin and French. Normally when I demo we stick to one language and delve deep into that language so that workshop participants can get a sense of the depth of acquisition that can happen with OWIs. Since our Japan workshop lasted two days rather than one, we decided to work in small groups after the initial demo so that more people could experience the process of making a OWI from the teacher’s perspective before returning to their classrooms on the following Monday.

On the board I wrote a quick outline of the characteristics that I was going to ask about to help scaffold the process. Normally in my own classroom I have this posted on a small note card because my heritage students lead OWI creation during lunch tutorials. It never occurred to me, however, how useful it is for everyone to be able to see the scaffolding! Not only do I, the nervous teacher, no longer have to consult my note card to remember what the next question is… but students are now anticipating the questions and thinking of more creative responses beforehand. Cameron added this tweak to his classes the following Monday and reported that they created one of their best OWIs yet!

I created a poster that you can download and hang on the side of the whiteboard. If you print it in color then you get a cool blue glow, but it still looks good printed in black & white.

Remember that the purpose of posting this scaffold poster is to be able to participate in the flow of the lesson with your students. If you use this and find that you are listening to your students less as you barrel through the list of characteristics, then slow down! The whole idea is to be in the moment and listen carefully to your students’ brilliant ideas. Download the poster by clicking here: it is a series of four pages printed in landscape mode.

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Earth Day 2018

A few points of departure for discussion in class today:

(1) Start with this maravilla about the Ka’apor people who live in the Amazon. Una maravilla is a marvelous thing, and so that is how I refer to this series which I use to introduce the people and cultures of Latin America to my students. The Ka’apor people struggle to prevent deforestation from destroying their way of life. This download contains a picture talk, a subtitled video, a short highly comprehensible reading followed by space for a Write & Discuss activity. This should be able to be completed within 15-20 minutes.

(2) 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.

(3) 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:
(4) Los 30 lugares más bonitos del mundo
We sat in quiet awe as we watched this video.

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Anyone want to take this French class with me?!

Are you a Spanish teacher like me who wishes they could sit in and observe an advanced French class?Although it says “advanced”, I personally have taken that as aspiration rather than description. Each class is a discussion of an AP-theme reading that we read before class. Take a look, there are currently only 5 people signed up and we need 6.

Advanced French for French Teachers (and other advanced speakers of French) – Online!

Do you wish you had more French-teacher colleagues? Do you feel like your French is stagnating because you only talk with your students? Join us for this 6-session Advanced French class taught by Anna Gilcher, PhD.

Anna is a well-known national presenter and trainer on teaching with comprehensible input and creating diversity-positive classrooms. Learn more about her at

**Inscrivez-vous ici**

Prix: $216/personne pour la série (payable par Venmo, Google Pay, ou Paypal – ou payable par chèque)

Places disponibles: 20 (minimum 6)

Dates (jeudi 16h30-17h30 EDT)
le 22 mars
le 5 avril
le 12 avril
le 29 avril
le 3 mai
le 10 mai*
*si tout le monde est disponible le 29 mars, on se verra le 29 mars au lieu de se rencontrer le 10 mai

J’enverrai chaque semaine (le lundi avant le cours) le texte dont on discutera.
Voici les thèmes pour les séances (les thèmes viennent du cours AP):
séance 1: La famille et la communauté
séance 2: La science et la technologie
séance 3: L’esthétique
séance 4: La vie contemporaine
séance 5: Les défis mondiaux
séance 6: La quête de soi


Anna Gilcher, PhD
Co-Director, Elevate Education Consulting
Your brain can learn French & Spanish!
French/Spanish lessons for all ages and brains

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My Perfect Year: A Practical Guide for Language Teachers

I have just published the book that accompanies the workshop that I am giving this Spring. If you are attending a workshop then you will get a free copy, but if you cannot make it the book is currently on sale. Purchased from my website it is 20% off.

This guide is more than a collection of effective activities for any language classroom; it succinctly describes my entire approach that I use all year long in levels one through three. Starting with routines and class space, I describe how to design an effective classroom environment for language acquisition. I cover my approach to essential activities that provide personalized, imaginative and comprehensible language throughout the year. Also learn how to develop and maintain a classroom library for any language, with special attention to providing lower level texts for absolute beginners. Since an independent reading program is a core element to my approach, I describe a multi-year plan to build your reading program including ideas outlining how to transition from no reading program and reading activities that support independent readers. Special attention is dedicated to the use of authentic videos in a comprehensible classroom. Learn to expand a sixty second video into a language-rich fifty-five minute lesson plan. This guide also outlines an essential technique for the health and well-being of all teachers: how to organize a “substitute day while you are still in class” for those days when you need a rest but want your students to continue acquiring language. Remain refreshed and fascinated with the target cultures where the language you teach is spoken so that you can provide imaginative, compelling lessons to your students! This guide closes with advice on how to lead a department in transition from traditional methods to comprehensible input methods in a way that respects the professional judgement of all educators in your department.

Click here to purchase the book.

Mike Peto is a Spanish teacher who led his department to transition to proficiency-based methods of language acquisition and, with the collaboration of his team, they enjoy a 100% pass rate on AP and IB exams. Known for his blog documenting his teaching, My Generation of Polyglots, Mike is also the editor of a collection of essays for teachers of heritage learners of Spanish, Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners, and the author of several novels for language learners. He has given workshops on language acquisition around the world and is a well-known presenter at national and regional conventions for language teachers. His essays have been included in seminal publications on comprehensible input methods such as Fluency Through Reading and Storytelling (7th edition) by Blaine Ray and Contee Seeley and A Natural Approach to the Year by Tina Hargaden and Ben Slavic. Mike is also a founding member of The CI Posse.

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Energize your teaching for the Spring semester with a workshop with Mike

Angie Dodd is hosting me on Saturday, March 17th at her school in Brattleboro, Vermont. “My Perfect Year Demo Day” is a full day demonstration of fundamental comprehensible input activities that make up a perfect year. Highly adaptable to beginners through advanced students, this demo day includes easy CI routines for raw beginners, working with student created images, class management techniques for a safe & creative classroom, co-creating narrative vignettes with your students, visual storytelling, Mike’s unique comprehensible music activities, book talk activities and tips for making the best of your classroom library, demo of movie talk & using telenovelas as anchor texts in both beginner and advanced classes.

This workshop is currently halfway to sold out. Register here.

I also have some time available the following week (March 20-24) if you are interested in hosting me on the eastern side of the state in either Massachusetts or Connecticut.

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Energize your teaching for the Spring semester with a workshop with Mike

Portland, Oregon – TWO WORKSHOPS (Choose the one that is most convenient for you)- Monday Feb 12 at Westside Christian High School in Tigard, Oregon and also Friday February 16 at Oregon City School District’s District Admin Office, 1417 12th Street, Oregon City.

“My Perfect Year Demo Day” is a full day demonstration of fundamental comprehensible input activities that make up a perfect year. Highly adaptable to beginners through advanced students, this demo day includes easy CI routines for raw beginners, working with student created images, class management techniques for a safe & creative classroom, co-creating narrative vignettes with your students, visual storytelling, Mike’s unique comprehensible music activities, book talk activities and tips for making the best of your classroom library, demo of movie talk & using telenovelas as anchor texts in both beginner and advanced classes.

Participants that sign up by February 5th receive a free copy of Mike’s book, Activities for a Perfect Year. Early discount available now.

Register for Monday workshop in Tigard by clicking here.
Register for Friday workshop in Oregon City by clicking HERE.

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Persona normal by Benito Taibo

A good addition to a heritage learners classroom library

There are some books that speak to adolescents who are forming a worldview. Over the past year I have suggested Benito Taibo’s Persona normal as an independent reading choice to four of my advanced heritage learners. Three of the students politely returned the book to the bookshelf unread. The fourth student devoured it. He wrote on Goodreads: “nunca supe que un libro puede ser tan estimulante de emoción”. Looking at some of the other reviews (there are close to 2000 of them), this book clearly speaks to certain young people, to inspire them and celebrate a reading life. It seems to alienate some other readers. Well, truthfully I am among the alienated crowd, but I would still recommend buying this book as an independent reading choice for advanced heritage learners. Suggest it to students who may already see themselves as possessing an intellectual inclination and who may see themselves as non-conformists.

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Workshop series – 2018

Contact me if you would like to host an inexpensive workshop.


King George, Virginia – September 7 (Friday) “My Perfect Year” overview of my entire approach

Parker, Colorado – September 21 (Friday)
“My Perfect Year” overview of my entire approach


Cincinnati area, Ohio – Saturday, October 20th.
“My Perfect Year” overview of my entire approach
Workshop will take place at:
Liberty Bible School
4900 Old Irwin Simpson Rd.
Mason, OH 45040

Savannah, Georgia – Saturday, October 27th.
“My Perfect Year” overview of my entire approach

Anaheim, CA – Saturday, November 3rd. “My Perfect Year” overview of my entire approach to teaching a second language. Suitable for teachers of all languages.

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Modifying the blog

A few people have written in to tell me that certain parts of my blog are not functioning or missing. Thank you! The explanation is that I am currently working to make it easier to browse. By next week all of the links and pages will be fully restored, and it will be easier to find specific content when you want it. Thank you for your patience!!

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Bryan Kandel´s new novel, Los Sobrevivientes

A new independently published novel for level 3 and above
Last year I was offered an opportunity to test out a draft of Bryan Kandel´s new novel in my level 3 classes. I presented it to my students as a choice reading option for the end of the year. Among the students who chose to read Los Sobrevivientes, they were really into it! The novel is a gripping action story based on the true story of a plane full of Uruguayan rugby players which crashed in the Andes on its way to Santiago de Chile. Presumed dead, two men decide that they must hike their way out– without mountain climbing supplies, food, or even a clear idea of where exactly they were.

This book appeals to intermediate and advanced readers who are looking for a good action story full of courageous moments, tough decisions and ultimately an inspiring message. Great reading for heritage learners as well. Click here to check out the book trailer and additional teaching resources that Bryan has posted on his website.

To be clear: I never receive compensation for recommending books. That is obvious I hope, but I just wanted to throw that out there! -Mike Peto

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My Perfect Year live demo — Nov 4 — Zebulon, North Carolina with Mike Peto & Brett Chonko

Saturday, November 4th from 9am to 5pm. $25, reservation required.

Mike Peto
Brett Chonko
Step into our classroom for a day and we will demo our favorite no-fuss CI activities that make for a perfect year. Whether you are new to CI or an experienced practitioner, you are bound to find something new in this whirlwind “year packed into one day” extravaganza. For NC educators: we are hoping to offer 1 CEU for attendance… we will keep you posted!

Please bring your own brown bag lunch.

There are many AirBnB rentals available in the Raleigh area: join our Facebook group to connect with other educators who plan to attend.

8:30 – 9:00 Doors open, coffee and bagels available
9:00 – 9:20 No-stress daily rituals to start class & Easy CI activities to start the year
9:20 – 9:40 student interviews on day 1
9:40 – 10:00 Use of wall space
10:00 – 10:40 The beauty of One Word Images
10:40 – 10:50 short break
10:50 – 11:20 Write & Discuss: the underappreciated foundation of fast acquisition

Recycle those class-created texts into cartoons & easy readings for FVR

11:20 – 12:00 Moving from static images to narrative vignettes
12:30 – 1:00 My comprehensible approach to authentic music in the classroom
1:00 – 2:00 Light targeting with my personal library of stories
2:00 – 2:10 short break
2:10 – 2:40 Essential movie talk skills
2:40 – 3:20 Telenovelas for low and advanced classes
3:20 – 4:30 Book talks & other elements of a strong reading program

– Why independent reading is my preferred approach to reading in class
– How I read whole class novels without killing the experience

4:30 – 4:45 My no frills approach to assessment
4:45 – 5:00 A typical day, a typical week, a typical month
Schedule may vary due to needs of participants

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Join our project to improve classes for heritage learners!

In June of 2016 a group of CI teachers started a collaborative project. We believed that Spanish teachers are generally not well-trained to teach to the needs of heritage learners. We felt that much of the published material written by academics or textbook companies was not helping our students. Distressingly we have heard about departments who farm out their heritage learners’ classes to the newest, least prepared teachers because these classes tend to be hard to teach. Other departments urge heritage learners to simply abandon their home language in favor of a foreign one. Reaching heritage learners is the pressing but often ignored challenge facing our profession.

We decided to write essays, from the perspective of experienced classroom teachers, describing each facet of our classes. Our hope was to gather so much classroom wisdom in one book that our colleagues would confidently approach their courses with joy. Furthermore, we write as CI teachers who appreciate that the grammar and extensive spelling lessons from the textbooks that infuriate and frustrate our students are rarely appropriate. Too many heritage learners were learning the wrong lesson: that they could never master high-prestige dialects of Spanish, that their own experiences with the language were useless and that the cultural heritage of their ancestors was forever lost.

Our book, Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish: Essays by Classroom Teachers, was published in October 2016 and from the profits we have since donated over 100 reading books to the classroom libraries of teachers. We also have formed a Facebook group, Teachers of Spanish Heritage Speakers, with nearly 400 members.

It is now time to consider putting together a 2nd edition of our book. Working together, so many of us have moved forward and now have a lot more to say. If you are having success teaching a course for heritage learners of Spanish, please consider writing an essay for our next edition.

Currently we have a lengthy description of my reading program and an outline of how I have organized the rest of the class period. There are lots more that can be written about reading programs. If you incorporate reading conferences or have adapted a Lucy Calkins´s style reading workshop, a description of your approach would be great. I plan on writing a new essay about including manga in the classroom library. You could write about comparing typical writing samples before a reading program and several months later… hopefully you already have writing samples saved from the beginning of the year! Perhaps you want to describe a literacy initiative that extends beyond the classroom—bringing kids to the local library and tracking how many continue to use the library afterwards & what you can do to bring those numbers up or even tracking how many books are checked out of your classroom library and what you do to increase that number. There is so much to say about reading; write to me if you have an angle to explore.

I also wrote an essay about my struggle with counselors who would not cooperate in properly placing students. Essays from schools in which the placement system is not dysfunctional would be welcome, or modifications that you have made that work. Every school system is different; recording a diversity of approaches may help teachers problem solve in their own unique situation.

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 to broaden their language community to include many dialects and variations of Spanish. How do you create a compelling language experience for students who have been marginalized and taught that school is anything but compelling? Any of these topics could spawn multiple essays based on your classroom experiences.

I have often thought that the final essay of the collection, Beyond the Classroom by Barbara A. Davis, could inspire a larger examination of how school institutions and Anglo cultural practices can come together to present unnecessary obstacles for heritage speakers. I am sure some of us have observed how our school cultures can simultaneously absorb and repel heritage learners… perhaps ELA teachers may have a sharper focus on this topic.

We also have no essays about school-home interaction. Are there teachers who create community through activities organized through La Sociedad honoraria hispánica, for example? How does that impact enrollment?

There are so many other topics that touch upon the life of a heritage learner of Spanish. If you have a particular insight, please share.

We also welcome thoughtfully developed lesson plans which demonstrate a useful approach to classes for heritage learners.

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. If you would like to join our group, please feel free to email your idea for an essay to mikepeto AT gmail DOT com with the phrase “Practical Advice” in the topic.


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How to add 15 new beginner level texts to your classroom library EVERY WEEK

“Recreational reading is the most powerful tool we have in language education”
-Stephen Krashen, presentation at CCFLT, February 2017

These are the readings we need most for our classes, the easy easy readings that low level readers can read independently. Almost impossible to find. This is how you do it:

Like the idea? Click here to download the template for the pamphlet cartoon stories.

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A lovely book: El perro enamorado de las estrellas

This book has gone viral in my FVR library!

coverI need to share this adorable book because it makes such a great connection with so many people. It is a Japanese manga translated into Spanish, but it tells a tale that touches across cultures with the help of a cute, faithful dog. It is a story of loss; in the first half of the book a man loses everything and spends his last year on earth living out of his car with his beloved dog. Believe me: my kids love it.

During second semester I am going to use this book as an occasional kindergarten reading for my level 1 kids. Each vignette is short and can become a recurring, quick reading activity. Projecting an image of the book with a doc cam, the illustrations will be easy to make comprehensible. Here is an example page that you can read full size if you click on it (click twice to get the largest most readable resolution). Japanese manga is read from right to left, so start at the top right of the right page and read across and down:

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I chat about FVR with Dr Louisa Walker

teachersthatteachDr. Louisa Walker has an interesting 10 minute podcast designed to introduce CI concepts within your commute to work. A long-time “Krashenista” who teaches Spanish in Chula Vista, California, Louisa caught me at a Carol Gaab workshop and we stepped outside to talk briefly about Free Voluntary Reading (FVR). Listen to it on her blog or follow her on iTunes.

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New book posted on CI-Reading

Subscribe to CI-Reading to get an email each time I discover a new CI-appropriate novel published by an indie author that is not represented on the major TPRS publishers websites & build your FVR library!

This is the post published today on CI-READING:

planeta-zombilandia I have not yet bought this book, but it looks good! This is a Spanish version of a book originally written for an elementary ELL classroom. Here is the description of the original book: “A short and easy captivating mystery reader “Planet Zombieland” designed specifically for beginning English readers, ELD, Adult Ed. and Immersion Students. Incorporates the CCSS’s”. One customer review on Amazon states, “this is easily one of the best Spanish learning books I have ever read to my pupils”.

I will update this post when I get a copy! Click here to purchase on Amazon.

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An updated look at my classroom

Back in 2013 I published a photo essay about how I use the physical space of my classroom. Three years later a lot is still the same, but a few things have changed. First here is an animated gif panning around my classroom:
my classroom

One of the biggest changes over the past three years is the size of my classroom library. After years of purchases it is finally a functional size to maintain not only an FVR program for beginners but also a full heritage speakers program. I am proud to be able to offer an independent pleasure reading course to heritage speakers. They sit in this little reading nook in the back:
2 reading area I can only fit two independent readers per period, but you will notice that each bungee chair has a lamp so that they can read even when the classroom is dark. Added 8/13/2016: A few years ago Jason Fritze said something about lice that led me to remove all hats and clothing from my props collection (replacing them with pictures of crazy hats that students hold over their heads). I am thankful that another teacher who wishes to remain anonymous has led me to reconsider the pillows that I place on the bungee chairs.

Below is a photo of the book shelf where I communicate with the independent study students (we also eat lunch together once a week). I currently have five students in this unique course. While they can browse the entire library on their own, I like to leave two or three books as suggestions. They read 20-30 pages per day and are allowed to pick a new book if they grow disillusioned with their current selection. That is, after all, what I do as an adult reader… I don´t finish boring books. Outside of view I have a clipboard where I keep track of what they liked, what they finished, and the suggestions that were rejected. I use the lists to help me make good suggestions and to guide future purchases.
3 reading area

Last year with the growth of my classroom library I encountered a new problem; it is too big for students to navigate! It was manageable enough to separate the TPRS readers into two sections (low and high) for the non-heritage speakers, but my heritage learners read anywhere between a first grade reading level all the way up to college level. Despite my book talks I felt like I could do more to get them to explore the library further. Then something serendipitous happened; Kirsten Plante from TPRS Academy wrote on Facebook about a Tokyo juku (cram school) that she visited. It is worth reading about their incredible reading program. In this school students do not blindly choose a book for FVR but rather the teachers use their in-depth knowledge of the student and extensive library to suggest books. While I do cannot exactly do that, I realized that breaking the classroom library into manageable chunks will help students discover their homerun novel that connects them to the reading life. This inspired me to create a wall of books of the week so that students looking for a new FVR book have a more manageable selection to choose from:
4 active library Currently the “active library” only consists of easy TPRS readers to encourage a good first reading experience, but as the year goes on I will rotate different books to appeal to different readers.

I moved my main book shelves back to my desk so that these shelves become a “passive library”. In the photo below you can also see the sets of colored index cards for each class. Students start the year providing a few details about themselves on the cards, but for the most part these cards are empty right now. As we find out more information about them I will pencil in details so that I can remember and seed the information into future classes. Not only do I include biographical information, I also take notes whenever they were a particularly memorable character in a class story. The best part of all is that I can flip through these cards in class and immediately identify which students have been passing “unnoticed”. A blank card is an invitation to find a way to make that student a star. 5 passive library

Your expectations in a deskless classroom can never be too clear if you do not want chairs migrating all over the room. Grant Boulanger warns teachers not to place duct tape on carpets or risk creating a very bad relationship with some people who can make your life miserable: custodians. I think this is solid advice; I spoke to my custodian before doing this and, with his blessing, we all have agreed that he will never clean the dark marks left behind when the tape id removed. He actually likes the order that this has created and often comments that my classroom is one of the cleanest in the building. There is something about an orderly room that discourages mess. In addition, he loves it when my last class stacks up the chairs against the wall. 6 clear expectations

Ben Slavic says that classroom management always comes first. A TPRS class will not be effective until students have internalized the rules. Nonetheless this rigid, “everything in its place” organization will give way to seeming anarchy by second semester when students are literally sprawled out on pillows laying on the floor, draped in comfy chairs or sitting with their friends. That is fine for second semester when they are well-trained to maintain their exclusive attention on class, but for me August is all about establishing authority.

Here is how I fit 36 kids into a classroom designed for 25:
7 fitting 36 kids With the independent study kids, a kid sitting at my computer and another couple hanging out back, it is not uncommon to have 40 people crammed in focused on one lesson. Organization is crucial to quickly eliminate distractions while students learn to focus on the story… especially on those days when I am not being a brilliant story-asker.

It has always bothered me that only one side of the room is facing the sweet sixteen verbs posters that I often point to with my laser pointer. Over the summer Amy Marshall posted on the TPRS/CI/iFLT facebook page about adapting Terry Waltz´s idea of using rolling window shades to fit multiple word walls into a classroom. I found an old projector screen that was no longer being used (the district bought larger screens for every classroom, so this screen was considered “obsolete”). Now I have the sweet sixteen on both sides of the classroom, and pointing at both screens will be a much needed reminder for me to slow down. 8 sweet 16 on both walls

Anabelle Allen inspired me to radically redo my question words posters in the front of the room. Check out her blog La Maestra Loca, it is worth following!9 anabelle allen

A year or two ago Craig Klein Dexemple from Spanish Cuentos gave me permission to trace parts of his “Storytelling Characters Poster” against my wall. This is so wonderful, I use it throughout the year to spice up a story or unblock a students writing block when they sit down to do free writes. In addition to a poster, Craig sells his image as a downloadable PDF so that each student could place a copy in their notebooks. And why not mention it? Craig is also the author of two TPRS novels in my easy classroom library. 10 klein

Below is a photo of the “¿Quién es el señor Peto?” poster that I hang towards the front of the room. 11 about me

In the back there are a few celebrity fans who occasionally make entrances in our stories to rave about how they follow a student on twitter, want them to make more youtube videos, etcetera.
12 celebrity fans

And no, I did not buy my own Billy La Bufanda. That would be like making your own friendship bracelet! 🙂
13 Billy

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Did you miss out on TPRS training this summer?

We still have a few spaces left in a very small group training (max 20 participants) led by TPRS expert Ben Slavic. Without question Ben is one of the very best teacher trainers out there. What I am most excited about however is that Ben´s approach to TPRS does not rely upon crazy theatrics or an exhausting teacher performance; Ben´s approach is grounded in a deep, calm reserve of love and respect. Ben taught in an urban, high-poverty district; he understands the false bargain we strike with coercive discipline systems and approaches that do not place the student first. Come join us and learn from a man that has led a revolution of love from within the larger revolution that is TPRS!

The registration deadline is August 1st: follow this link for details.

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La locura de mayo

I sat on the sidelines throughout March as Dustin Williamson and an all-star team of teachers shared March Madness music activities and I thought to myself, lamely, “oh, I should do that next year”. Then April came and I found myself thinking, “oh, I wish it were March”. You know what… my level 3 classes are going to celebrate May Madness. If you have not yet tried this awesome year review of music, check out the brackets that my students made today. I included two wildcard spots for songs that were either voted out earlier or songs that did not make it into the original roster… students vote on the wildcards on the day of the big game. You can download a .docx and change the names of the songs or, if it is easier, download this .pdf and just white-out the names of the songs and put in your own. Personally I am rooting for Peret´s song El muerto vivo!

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Teacher Appreciation lottery for Month of May

I have been thinking about how to show my appreciation to the many people who have supported me since I started this blog. After a lot of thought I have hit upon an idea that I hope will make a big difference in the life of one lucky teacher. I am talking about something that could save a career!

benAt the end of next August my school is going to host Ben Slavic for a three day intensive workshop. There will be a maximum of twenty participants, which means that everyone will get A LOT of coaching from one of the true masters of TPRS. But it gets even better; if you have seen Ben before then you know that he is amazing, but you have probably not seen his newest approach which he tells me is so tight and well-built that it eliminates the uncertainty of PQA. Tina Hargaden reports that, after Ben´s three day intensive workshop, she finally feels like she is doing TPRS the way it is meant to be done. I am ready to bring my teaching up to a new level, and I want you to be there with me.

What I am offering to one lucky subscriber is a $250 gift certificate towards the $400 cost of the training. I am sure this is going to be of most interest to subscribers from Southern California, but if you want to come from further away then you are more than welcome. All you have to do is subscribe to my blog and then leave a comment on THIS blog post with your name and email address. I will not publish the comments so that you do not get spammed– the comment is just so I can get in touch with you. On May 27th I will place all of those names in a bowl and randomly choose one lucky winner. If you are already a subscriber then just leave a comment with your name and email address.

My school is located in Lake Elsinore, California; when I used to live in San Diego the commute was 73 minutes and traffic was never a concern. For those of you living in Orange County, I hear that we are roughly an hour away from Disneyland. The workshop will take place from Tuesday, August 30th to Thursday, September 1. You can find more information about the workshop by following this link. If you want to attend regardless of whether you win the gift certificate, please sign up quick because there are only 12 spaces available to out of district teachers.

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This is what students are capable of if you do not shelter grammar in level 1 classes

4 18 2016
Click on the photo to go to vimeo and see the video.

This is what you can do if you do not shelter grammar in Spanish 1. These kids are hearing and understanding advanced grammar without any problem. Do they produce advanced grammar? NO! They need to hear a lot more, but at this point they are producing present and some past tenses with confidence. Although you cannot hear the students well, all of the suggestions came from the students. I repeat what they say, at times corrected. Between 10:00 and 11:00 I tried to discard what one of the students suggested and the students insisted on including his suggestion in our story. When students own the story, they acquire more. The reading at the end of the video does not show up well in the video, but this is a lesson that is here on my blog. Follow this link to see a description of the unit (along with the readings): Una sorpresa

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Should I assign a reading log for FVR?

A week or two ago someone wrote in to a facebook group with a question about follow-up activities for FVR/SSR. Several people responded (myself included) that a daily reading log is probably not a best practice. I have been thinking about this ever since, though, since I do think that there is a place for the occasional reading log. Finding the right balance between too little supervision and too much is tricky and depends upon the personalities in the class. However, there is research indicating that small follow-up activities are a characteristic of successful SSR programs (i.e. Janice Pilgreen´s study comparing successful and less successful SSR programs; the kind of follow-up activity that she recommends are short, small group discussions and voluntary book talks).

Last week I decided to assign reading logs to all of my classes, something that I have not done since last December (we start class with SSR 3-4 days per week, but more often talk afterwards & rarely write about it). These are two of the things I learned from glancing through the logs every day before handing them back. (1) I found a few kids who were copying from the book rather than writing a reaction—many of my students are comfortable enough writing in simple Spanish but for those that were feeling such anxiety I discreetly wrote on their logs that they should write in English if they preferred. After all, I really care about reading, not writing. Of those, most changed their book to an easier book. In the months of talking in small groups I had not caught that those specific kids needed easier books, but I caught it the first day with a reading log. (2)  While reading through the logs of my heritage speakers I was blown away at their overall improvement with simple spelling issues. I have been quietly despairing at this class for the last several months because I tend to notice the kids who are not making the most of our class time. Suddenly the girl whose writing was pretty unintelligible in August has self-corrected many of her worst errors. The group of soccer players who refuse to read anything except for the sports books are no longer writing short, clipped sentences but rather are writing longer, more expressive sentences. These changes were striking, and uniform across the entire class, but I just had not noticed them outside of the context of the reading log. There was a celebration in room 804 last Friday, followed by 20 minutes of very dedicated reading with huge smiles.

Key take home point: what I really do not want to do is kill the pleasure of reading. Do not use a reading log to police students, but an occasional reading log will not kill reading pleasure and, if celebrated afterwards, can actually help build the good vibes in my classroom. When used sparingly.

Postscript 11/28/2017: My thoughts continue to evolve on this subject. Please read Struggling to hold students accountable during FVR? and Alina´s inspiring approach to accountability with FVR. One thing that has not changed is my distrust of any activity that makes reading a chore.

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Movie Talk: Hay cosas que nunca se olvidan

Updated 10/19, errors corrected in PPT


Start with this reading showing part of the video through a power point. Describe the pictures, read, translate, circle. After circling extensively watch the video, but only minutes 4:26 to 7:12. The video, by the way, is in Italian so this reading is crucial. Here is a link to the video.

Optional day 2: If you choose, you can watch the whole 13 minute video… but just a warning: the old lady dies. And there is some bad language. The kids get their revenge and then the first four and a half minutes makes sense. I think this is satisfying just watching the middle clip… you might even want to run this through movie maker or a similar video editing software to clip off the beginning and the ending. Or not.

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Béisbol, baseball

A little tweak that makes life easier for struggling beginners

béisbolMy Spanish 1 kids are at the point that they mostly understand many cognates when I say them in my wonderful Spanish accent, but there is always someone who cannot hear the elephant in elefante. And everyone, even my superstars, occasionally have their slow processing days when the word hospital sounds nothing like hospital.

We have come up with the perfect class routine to tune all ears to the cognates. When I say a cognate I pause, then say the word béisbol to which the entire class responds “baseball!!”. Now that they are alerted to the presence of a cognate I repeat the cognate and the students who understand (usually most of the class) shout out the word in English.

I love this little routine because students who did not instantly understand the cognate have a chance to process before I give them the answer, the students who did hear it are proud that they can demonstrate their mental agility, the quiet students who are not willing to admit that they did not hear the elephant in elefante are able to comprehend, and the entire routine is so quick that our class story is barely interrupted.

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Contact: a speaking game for native speakers

2This is my absolute favorite speaking game for native speakers. It was introduced to me by a science teacher at Westborough High School in Massachusetts as a short brain break. I use it sometimes to focus on spelling, as you will see in the video. Native speakers are often very reluctant to speak in class; here is an activity that will give many the opportunity to want to speak.

I have added captions so that if you teach native speakers of another language then you´ll still be able to follow along and adapt to your classes. Click here to follow a link to the video that I have uploaded to Vimeo.

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Reading pleasure

Books that Spanish teachers may enjoy reading for pleasure

Teachers should be readers. During FVR sessions we should definitely be reading among our students, not completing school tasks. Diane Chamberlain has inspired me to describe a few books that I have enjoyed in the past few years.

susurroEl susurro de la mujer ballena by Alonso Cueto. A friendship gone bad… or perhaps it was never a healthy friendship. Echos of high school bullying reach into the present, twenty or thirty years later. The description of Lima really brought me back to that city. There are no heroes in this novel; my IB student had trouble with the moral ambiguity but I found a lot to enjoy here.

transportesTransportes González e Hija by María Amparo Escandón. This novel starts with a wonderful set-up. Told inside a women´s prison in Mexico by an American held for reasons not revealed until the end, we follow the tale of her upbringing while also tracking the developing relationships among the women in the prison. I was initially fascinated by the backstory of her “university professor turned trucker-fugitive” father. There were elements of this book that prevented me from getting emotionally attached to the characters (the characters are outrageous who act and develop in not quite believable ways). I really enjoyed the way American Spanish was woven into the novel. The USA has one of the biggest Spanish-speaking populations in the world; it is wonderful to see that reflected in literature.

reyrosaseverinaSeverina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa. This was a charming book about obsession. After reading the novel I was left with an aching desire to find another path into the fictional world, to spend the summer renting a room in a pensión in Guatemala City, to see what might happen.

el heroe discretoEl héroe discreto by Mario Vargas Llosa. I enjoyed this novel, but the depiction of anyone younger than fifty did make me wonder whether Vargas Llosa is aging gracefully. Ingrate children versus their sanguine, triumphant parents… if you take this theme too seriously, from either side, then don´t pick up this book. Otherwise there were plenty of moments that made me smile and a few that genuinely touched me.

americasAmericas: The Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean by Peter Winn. Last December I came across a copy of this book in a hiking lodge in Patagonia. I spent the next day resting and reading. A fascinating introduction to the diversity of peoples in Latin America, I especially enjoyed the chapters highlighting the experiences of women, indigenous peoples and the differing ways race is understood throughout Latin America. Drawing from interviews with contemporary Latin Americans makes this book easy to read and less abstract. Great book.

turn rightTurn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams. I do not read much travel lit, but I enjoyed reading this. Do not worry too much about the groan-worthy description on the back of the book (What happens when an unadventurous adventure writer tries to re-create the original expedition to Machu Picchu?); the writer is led and informed by a highly-competent guide and the idiotic hi-jinks thankfully never really materialize. A very readable book that has inspired me to delve deeper into the subject of the Inca Empire.

el pez en el aguaEl pez en el agua by Mario Vargas Llosa. This book starts with an interesting trip into the childhood of one of the world´s most highly-regarded living authors. Chapters go back and forth between his formative years and the presidential campaign Vargas Llosa ran in the early 1990´s. While reading the behind the scenes political pieces I repeatedly had to give myself pep talks to avoid getting sucked into the author´s narrative, but it´s hard to maintain an objective distance while Vargas Llosa personally takes you under his wing. Then going back to his teenage years, I felt like I was peeling the skin back and finally understanding something about Peru. And the language, why not mention that nearly every page had something of interest.

ruidoEl ruido de las cosas al caer by Juan Gabriel Vásquez. The ambiance of this melancholy novel often appeared in my dreams at night while I was reading this book. I never know if the novel I just finished will linger in my thoughts for weeks, months or if it will quickly fade from my memory. Two months later, however, when the emotional impact of most novels have long passed, I was still occasionally looking longingly out a window, imagining the beauty of Bogota. This is a quiet novel depicting the solitary interior life of a ruined generation. There are frequent pleasures; I really enjoyed the descriptions of the Laverde family, urban life up in the mountains in Bogotá contrasted with the rural tropical areas, the beautiful geography of Colombia and inferring some of the broader changes that took place between the 1960´s through to the 1990´s. This is an enjoyable novel; however, there is something selfish about writing a book that leaves the reader feeling so alone.

diabloDiablo Guardián by Xavier Velasco. One of the most memorable trans-border novels that I have read, a modern picaresque novel. Disgusting at times. The main character, Violetta, is a character that for better or worse has stuck with me for years. A really interesting female voice, a schemer or con that negotiates between Mexican and US cultures. I found the code-switching to be a really interesting part of this novel. Here is her voice as she explains how she uses English to manipulate the innocent to help her when she first arrived to the US: ” ‘Daddy wanted to be, you know, my boyfriend’. El ‘you know’ es buenísimo, te permite decir lo que quieres pero no quieres decir y obliga a los demás a tratar de entenderte. Y así te vuelves de un sutil que bueno, you know, ¿verdad?…”.

chicanoChicano by Richard Vasquez. This is the story of a Mexican family that escapes the violence of the Mexican Revolution in the beginning of the 20th century but, as Mexican-Americans, the successive generations find their access to earning “the American dream” limited by overt and structural racism. As the title suggests, this novel was written (back in the 1970´s) with an explicit political message against the idea that Latinos can (or should) simply assimilate into Anglo-America. Putting aside the historical place of the novel, there is quite a bit that I did enjoy reading. Some complain about the melodramatic plot twists and, particularly, the ending… but it seems to me that the over the top, brown versus white characterizations actually pay homage to narrative structures in Mexican popular culture rather than fitting the plot to the demands of the Anglo reading public of the day.

carameloCaramelo by Sandra Cisneros. Simply one of the great family novels published in the last 20 years. My heritage speaking students often laugh aloud in recognition while reading the first few chapters describing a family road trip from Chicago to Mexico. I have heard criticism of the way this novel is structured. Digression upon digression reaching into the past, zooming into the present creating a quilt of memories. One reviewer called this effect “helpfully alienating to the Anglo reader”. There is something very Latino about the structure of this book. Nonetheless, Cisneros once commented that this is not about the “Mexican-American” experience, that the necessity of the hyphen speaks volumes about where our culture currently is. This is truly an American novel.

peorLos Peor by Fernando Contreras Castro. This is my vote for the Best Novel That You Most Likely Have Never Heard Of award. A marvelous, modern novel set among the lower classes of San Jose, Costa Rica that combines Greek mythology with environmental disaster and a very memorable set of characters. This is a story with a great social conscience, a rare work that is both very Costa Rican and yet universal.

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The concrete poem that opens Superburguesas

This is a power point for teachers who are teaching from my TPRS novel, Superburguesas. Click here to see all resources available for teaching my novel.

4 interpretationsChapter 0 starts with a concrete poem, “written” by one of the characters. During an earlier draft I had actually drawn a flower around the poem to make the shape of the poem more clear, but then it occurred to me that I could play with the ambiguous shape of the poem to provoke a more lively student reaction.

Click here to download the power point that I use to discuss this concrete poem in class.