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TPRS and TCI with advanced students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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El almohadón de plumas (Horacio Quiroga)

0 prereading - the nightmareThis is certainly a difficult text to teach due to the advanced language. Yet I find the story to be irresistible. On one level El almohadón de plumas is just a good horror story that is fun to act out in class. It is also fun to misdirect the reader; Quiroga leads us to believe that the life of the young wife is slowly being drained away due to the lack of love in her new marriage. It almost sounds like a proto-feminist fable and I like to point out the cues that lead the reader to condemn Jordán and his cold, passionless behavior.

When I teach this story I use embedded readings to build up from a very simple version of the story until, by the end of the week, students are reading the original version written by Horacio Quiroga. I taught this story this year with a larger unit about love, dating norms and gender roles.

First step: essential vocabulary

Click here to download the phrases  that I use in class telling class stories and PQA until students have developed an automatic response to the phrases. It may take more than one class. I did not give this sheet to students until I felt that they already knew the words so that it did not feel like a vocabulary list that we were plugging through but rather some spontaneous conversations. When I thought that they were ready I gave them the list and they translated the list on their own in class, verifying their acquisition. Finally we completed this power point vocab presentation together. Rather than fly through it be sure to linger and discuss why some options are wrong; have fun imagining that the casa de los reyes es un rasguño rather than a palacio.

Second step: embedded reading

I have students fold this embedded reading into quarters so that they are only looking at the relevant section. Do not let them skip ahead! We read each part as a class, discussing line by line, acting out and finally writing five questions per section. Simple questions that have an obvious answer within the text. For example, an acceptable question for the first section might be something like: ¿Amaba Jordán a Alicia? Once everyone has five questions we go around the class, each asking a question and the whole class responding in unison. In practice this did not always work, but it did keep most students focused on the text. This process is so intense, requiring so much focus on part of the students, that the class period passed quickly before we were able to finish the reading.

Third step: el cortometraje

Before reading the original text I like to discuss and watch this video , which you should warn students is not a faithful reproduction of the short story. I interrupt the film often so it takes us about 25 minutes to watch a nine minute film. If you have time you might start the class with a discussion of the painting that I placed at the beginning of this post. In both cases they are getting many targeted repetitions of key vocabulary structures that they´ll need when reading the original story.

Fourth step: the original text

I edited this text very lightly to make it more comprehensible for my students, but for the most part this is the original version . I have included quite a few comprehension breaks including vocabulary reflections, comprehension questions and prompts for illustrations. Students already know the story; they just have to be able to comprehend this version. I certainly read the first two pages as a whole group activity to keep any of my students from giving up when they get to a stretch that is difficult for them to understand. I talk it out, orally simplifying passages.  Nonetheless the assessment I made, which you can download here, does get to how well they have developed a familiarity with the final, complex text.

Definitely discuss the difference between movie and original story prior to the assessment and require them to know the story version for the assessment. If you want a little more time you can have them complete this biographical sketch of Quiroga´s tragic life using the Spanish Wikipedia page (I made this a few years ago, so it might be worth double checking to see if the information is still there).

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Finally! My full AP language syllabus

226ASP6179944780 I did not want to post this until it was officially approved and, for some reason that remains shrouded in mystery, the administration of my school was holding off on submitting the syllabus to the College Board. After several weeks of near certainty that I´d be forced to spend my Thanksgiving break on a rewrite, they finally relented and yesterday I heard that my syllabus was accepted. Phew!!

Click here to download a copy of the full syllabus . It gives a neat overview of the school year, but does not go into the detail of my posts about individual units. Surely things will change. Also, I want to acknowledge that I have had a lot of help developing this syllabus. Most importantly, there are many great AP teachers who have placed their own work online to help guide others. If you recognize a turn of the phrase, a great idea or even an entire paragraph, yours may well have been one of the dozen or so syllabi that I devoured when I made my original syllabus. I wish I had thought to take notes so that I could at least cite some sources, but alas that was well before I developed this blog. On the other hand, this syllabus has been significantly modified to fit the new exam. It is a new product and I think it is worth posting.

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AP unit outline: los avances tecnológicos

Here is a quick outline of a two week unit I just finished with my AP class.  It includes links to many of the authentic sources I used in class as well as some notes on how I taught it, although not as detailed as I would like. 

AP unit: los avances tecnológicos

Essential question: ¿Cómo nos impactan los avances tecnológicos?

Brainstorming in small groups about the essential question

class discussion: un producto que va a revolucionar el mundo de _____. Students imagine that they have invented a product that is going to revolutionize some part of society. It could be a pill that makes you fly, clothing that always fits… anything. In pairs they develop a marketing pitch for their product and present it to the rest of the class. Before they work together I tell them about my own product, a pair of glasses that allows me to see two seconds into the future. I use my glasses to play soccer, because in real life I always go left when I should go right.  While demonstrating I am circling the phrase va a revolucionar el mundo del deporte so that they learn to use this essential phrase related to the theme of the unit.

miyamotoMiyamoto video from RTVE:  A video about the creator of many iconic video games, including Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong. He came to Spain to receive a Premio Príncipe de Asturias. Over the summer I did edit this video boiling it down to a two minute clip, I transcribed it with Spanish language subtitles using Movie Maker, and then in class slowed it to play at 70% speed using VLC player on my school computer. In class I focused on use of the phrase ha revolucionado el mundo de los videojuegos. After summarizing the source we work to recognize the perspective of the author (that is, what were they trying to communicate with video). I have quite a few studnets who, when asked to summarize the video, will simply write a single word such as Mario Brothers. When asked what was the author trying to communicate they tend to respond with full sentences. Once they have learned to summarize then we work together to develop a critical reaction to the video. Recognizing that the video takes a positive perspective on Miyamoto´s work, I ask them to use the source to develop a critique of his work. One student observed that Miyamoto was praised for creating separate universes for people to escape into. We then turned that to argue that, although Miyamoto is praised for this, we argue that creating separate universes to escape the real universe is a fundamental problem with social media today, thus relating the video back to the essential question of the unit. I use this video as an example of how I would like students to use the sources presented in class to make their own arguments rather than simply parroting the source. Refer back to essential question.

homework readings and podcasts: Refering back to the Miyamoto video and how we analyzed it, I show students how to create their bitácora. The first column is to simply summarize the content of the source and identify the purpose of the author (what were they trying to communicate). The second column relates the source to the essential question of the unit and develops a critical reaction to the source. It is essential that this critical reaction is neither a summary nor a simple emotional reaction; it should be a well thought out critical reaction that they can use at the end of the unit as they prepare their essay and oral presentation.  Developing this type of critical reaction will require much modelling.

readings and podcasts assigned for homework (readings were printed out, podcasts linked from our class edmodo page):

soy adicta a los juegos de mi móvil

cómo celebrar el día del cariño a distancia:

prefiero leer antes que navegar por internet:


class discussion: El futuro está en nuestras manos: ¿Cuáles valores queremos fomentar?  A lot of circling on the verb fomentar… they will want to use it with a verb, like necesitamos fomentar leer rather than saying necesitamos fomentar la lectura entre los jóvenes

sleep dealerPortions of a feature film: first 20 minutes of the feature film Sleep Dealer. Depicts a futuristic world in which the border between Mexico and the US has been closed and Mexican migrant workers gather in Tijuana to work in the US via internet connections, controlling robots as they continue to work in the agricultural and construction sectors. The US military also controls drones that protect the assets of US companies abroad. Middle 20 minutes depicting main character working in Tijuana.

class discussion: Does the director of Sleep Dealer describe the values of our current society as he depicts a future world? Could this really happen?  Is this the future that we want?  I give them a list of transition words that they must use during class discussions. At first it is incredibly forced and unnatural, but it slowly gets more and more natural until the point that…. I can give them more transition words. Click on the following link to download the transition words document: transitions while making an argument (four copies per sheet).

Student presentations (recorded online and sent via email): La tecnología en mi vida (2 minutes)

short story read in class: Nosotros no

brainstorming: creating our thesis statement.  The day before we brainstorm possible theses to respond to the essential question of the unit. Students provided three thesis statements, which remained on the board the next day. They were allowed to create their own thesis statement if they chose, but for this first experience with formal writing I wanted to focus on the difference between developing ideas and simply restating what was provided in sources.

formal writing: a paragraph written in class responding to the original esential question, referring back to three sources that we have discussed. They earn two grades: (1) assesses the argument that they make, encouraging them to use sources as a part of their argument rather than simply summarizing the sources, and (2) how well they expressed themselves in Spanish.

Tomorrow we will take a day to reflect, and then on to a unit about the environment….

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My simplified AP syllabus

CC used with permission

Updated Aug 7, 2014: Below is only a small .jpg of my syllabus. A teacher recently contacted me asking for the original files so that she could modify the syllabus for her own classes. Well, of course!! Click HERE for the .pdf and click HERE for the .docx (which might be easier to work with, but it might not be easier depending upon the version of Microsoft Word that you have). This is only the brief student syllabus; click HERE if you want to see my full AP syllabus approved by the College Board, which was approved for the new AP Spanish Language and Culture Exam.


I spent the day creating a simple, eye-catching syllabus for my AP class. They have access through our edmodo group to the 15 page monster syllabus that I submitted to the College Board. This, on the other hand, communicates the basics that I need them to actually read. I am particularly proud of the graphic on the top of the second page which succinctly describes the sequence of events of each unit. Here it is, although something may still be missing

Concise student version of AP syllabus Click on the small image to get a larger, readable image (you might get a slightly larger but unreadable image the first time you click… just click on it again).