Posted on

Hacking Quizlet to make good reading activities

A reading activity that would impress administrators

On Monday we were chatting about our weekend and a story surged forth about a girl who went to Disneyland with a classmate. Today I had a pair of artists work to create a poster while the rest of the class and I reworked the story into a fantasy-zombie-Disney story. By the end of the class we had a decent story up on Textivate (if you have a Textivate subscription you can search our story in the “Public Resources” section using the keyword Mirabella.

After school I brought in one of my colleagues and we filmed ourselves reading the story with the poster between us. My plan is to play the video retell tomorrow and then follow up with a game of Quizlet Live using a quizlet set that I created from the story.

To make this into an effective reading activity (rather than a vocabulary list) I took the story and split each sentence in half, so that one side logically leads to the next. I uploaded it as a Quizlet vocabulary list so that is looks like this:

Tomorrow when I log into Quizlet Live the students will play on their cell phones, matching the first part of the sentence with the second half. It is a quick 10 minute small group activity that administrators love to see because students are working together in small groups, they are laughing and involved in the activity and it appears to be very student-centered. Of course, I know that real conversations with my students are a much more efficient use of class time. Nonetheless this is a decent 10 minute activity that draws students in, impresses administrators, gives me a short break and then allows me to spend the rest of my class constructing stories… which I think is the best use of class time.

Bonus: I can pull this sequence out again in a couple of weeks on a day when I need a bailout move. This is wonderful review and easily buys me 15 minutes to reconstruct my lesson plans.

Posted on

Becoming Better at Asking

Recently I have been concentrating on techniques that guide me to ask rather than tell a story.

Asking rather than telling a story seems like a basic TPRS skill, but it is a really difficult skill to master. The difference between telling and asking has nothing to do with remaining comprehensible. Although I always include lots of comprehension checks and I proceed very slowly, I am telling a story when the majority of the content comes from me. Storyasking, on the other hand, requires that the majority of content comes from students (with the exception of a story framework containing the target structures). Asking a story is often more compelling than telling (even telling a personalized story) because students have invested their own ideas into the story.

I have struggled with storyasking. Sometimes I have a dynamite story to tell, like when I tell a joke in class. A joke is a compact, beautifully told story. Even though I might spend twenty minutes preparing to tell the joke, I have a very specific plot from which I do not want to deviate. A joke is a good story to tell rather than ask. Sometimes when I want to ask a story I have very specific details that I will allow students to add and it comes out more like a mad libs activity: you can add an adjective to my story but it is still my story. Other times I give the kids too much freedom. Rather than adding details they add entire plot structures. In the middle of the lesson I find myself confused as to how to reconcile their story with the one that has the target structures I need to teach. That is not a terrible situation if students remain interested, but not so much if I end up scrapping their story altogether so that I can tell them my pre-planned story.

question words
Last week I decided to spend an entire class setting the scene before even introducing the target structures. I used the question words posted on my wall (and all in Spanish, of course, writing on the board to remain comprehensible). I announced that we are going to make a new story but we need to imagine a few details first. I started with the word “when”. At first the class was confused. When what? So I wrote on the board: When does the story take place? My students already knew the word “take” (toma) as well as “place” (lugar), but they had never seen these words placed together in this way so I wrote an English translation on the board. The first class threw out several suggestions but we ultimately voted on “20 años en el future” (20 years in the future). The next class decided on “en la edad media” (in the Middle Ages… seriously, this is the impact of FVR because I have a childrens illustrated encyclopedia in Spanish about life in the middle ages). The last class decided that it would take place in the 1920´s.

The next question is “where”… following the process the classes voted on “in space” (we later narrowed it down to Mars), “in Yemen” and the last class chose “Brooklyn”. Yemen in the Middle Ages required a quick break so that kids could do a minute of research on google to figure out what Yemen was like in the Middle Ages (this was done in English). One student discovered on Wikipedia that there was a large slave market in Yemen during the Middle Ages, so we all agreed that would be our location. Once we got to the “who” question we chose a student in class who would be the protagonist of our story, and at that point I had a student actor to verify information with.

After going through all of the question words we had spontaneously created a title for our story. All classes created a rich beginning full of possibilities. There were traces of an emerging plot, but not completely because we had concentrated on setting the scene with all of these question words. I had thoroughly circled everything and the white boards were covered with notes. During the last ten minutes students wrote a two paragraph fluency write: the first paragraph summarized the story we had created thus far while the second paragraph was about what they thought would happen in the story. Kids passed it in and I have had the weekend to read through the ideas that they generated. On Monday we are going to review their stories and then I will be able to start with the phrase, “clase, hay un problema”.

The basic story structure that I will adapt to each story is about a kid who wants to do X but is embarrassed to say it to her/his friends because s/he has a friend who makes fun of people who do X. Simple. There are two structures that I will introduce while asking the story and we will circle them like crazy: “is embarrassed” and “makes fun of”. I am still planning on storyasking the rest of the story, but I am starting from a point in which the class has generated a large amount of the content already and I can use this material to spin around the target structures that I want them to acquire.

After we build the story I am going to type the story up, have them read it again and then illustrate a specific scene from the story. Each student gets a different sentence to illustrate. This sounds like a good activity to do on the day before Spring Break (Friday). Then I will have three different, illustrated stories that all focus on the target structures “is embarrassed” and “makes fun of”. All three stories will be stapled and added to my FVR library; given that they will be comprehensible and student-created I am sure that they will be highly-compelling reading for my students. I might even scan them and add them to the online FVR starter library .

Posted on

Are your Movie talks Step 2 or Step 3?

A few thoughts on pitfalls of a popular strategy

A few weeks ago a colleague confessed to me that she has been bypassing step 2 altogether.

“Oh, you mean you´ve been doing solid PQA instead of story-asking?”

“No, we have been going straight from establishing meaning to the reading…”


It is in step 2 that students acquire the target structures. Step 2 is the reason TPRS practitioners can say things like, “never, ever force output; always wait until the words fall out of the student’s mouth.” Step 2 is where we use the target structures until students can respond with confidence, accuracy and without hesitation. Yet step 2 is difficult exactly because remaining compelling, holding their attention and keeping them responding can be difficult. If the teacher is going to lose control of the class, if the class is going to stray from using the target language, if the educator is in any way unsure of her or himself, then step 2 can be a minefield. I understand the desire to move on to step 3. I do not agree, but I understand.

Yesterday Haiyun Lu from the moreTPRS yahoo group posted a wonderful comment about how she deals with students coming from traditional non-TPRS schools. Among them she mentioned that she has found students who appear to come from TPRS-like schools that have eliminated step 2 altogether. As a result the students have a passive understanding of the language, unable to actually speak and trained to tune out the spoken language.

I have long advocated for a step 2 approach to Movie Talk. Stop frequently, use target structures or already known high-frequency structures, but keep playing with the language until students respond with confidence, accuracy and without hesitation. Ask “what if” questions. Ask background questions. Move from asking about physical descriptions of things students can see on the screen to what they have to imagine. Expect a one minute video clip to last all class.

Kids often want to passively watch the whole video first, but what if that kills the creative, active process that is characteristic of step 2? What if Movie Talk becomes a way of giving more repetitions of target structures so that students can read our written stories, but we unwittingly unravel the process from which our students learn to speak and write?

Perhaps I am wrong on this one… Movie Talk was originally created solely to develop listening ability. I am surely wrong if you continue to story-ask and PQA in your class. However, if you realize that you are using Movie Talk to pole-vault over the messy step 2, then use the interest inherent in the videos to actively engage your students´ imaginations. Plan your questions ahead of time, turn on the lights when you pause the video and use the video to help develop your step 2 skills.

Posted on

The Advantages of Posting High Frequency Verbs

Lately I have been becoming more conscious of how much I use the high frequency verbs posted on my wall.

word walls

I originally posted them for students, and some of my students still do occasionally glance over at the wall. This is especially true during quick writes when someone is looking for inspiration, but it happens also while I am speaking if I point to the wall while speaking slowly.

More importantly, however, I use the posters while circling to keep my questions fresh and interesting while maintaining comprehensibility. For example the other day we were working on two phrases, pide una coca-cola and le ofrecen un pepsi. There was a guy who could not drink Pepsi because he was allergic to the secret ingredient in Pepsi, but the employees kept trying to give him a Pepsi instead of a Coke because there was no Coke in the store. As I was circling these phrases I went through the list of high-frequency verbs:

¿Puede beber un pepsi el hombre? No, no puede beber pepsi, por eso pide una coca-cola. ¿Los empleados salen para comprar coca-cola? No, le ofrecen un pepsi porque no quieren salir. ¿Por qué no quieren salir? Porque quieren ver su programa favorito en la tele. Entonces, ¿qué ve el hombre en las manos de los empleados? El ve latas de pepsi, pero no ve una lata de coca-cola. ¿Le ofrecen una lata de coca-cola? ¡Qué va! ¡Le ofrecen una lata de pepsi! ¿El hombre pone el pepsi en la boca? ¡Claro que no! Él puede morir si bebe Pepsi. El hombre pide una coca-cola. ¿Los empleados saben que el hombre quiere coca-cola? Sí, ellos saben. Saben muy bien, pero son flojos y quieren ver la tele…

I know that the strength of circling comes from the repetition of new structures, but circling gets very old very quickly if the teacher limits him or herself to just the new structures. Once those high frequency verbs have been acquired there is no reason to not continually sow them into your circling. For me, the posters really help me come up with questions during the heat of the moment, unscripted but perfectly comprehensible.

Here are my full basic verbs that my Spanish 1 students master by the end of first semester:



Posted on

¿Tienes una mascota? (A no-fail hook for a basic story)

mascota On Monday I started the class writing just the words una mascota: a pet on the board and then asking, ¿Quién tiene una mascota? Taking mental note of the kids who did not raise their hands, I then proceeded to ask each of them, ¿Quieres una mascota? until I came across a student who wanted but did not have a pet. A major tragedy which easily occupied us for the next forty minutes as we imagined what kind of pet the student wanted, why they couldn´t have it, who else in the class had a similar pet, and a fantasy story in which the student managed to get the pet of their dreams.

Even better, it seemed like my classes were right on my level knowing exactly what I was looking for:
student 1: Ella quiere a hippo
profe: ¿un hipopótamo? ¿Wendy quiere un hipopótamo? (write hipopótamo on the board)
student 2: un hipopótamo morado
profe: Wendy, ¿quieres un hipopótamo morado? (pointing to the purple color paper)
profe: Pero, ¿dónde hay hipopótamos morados?
student 3: ¡Yo!
profe: ¿Tienes un hipopótamo morado?
student 3: ¡Sí!

In each class they were fascinated by this basic hook: the imaginary pet. I even decided to teach this lesson with my level 3 class, substituting the structures quería conseguir and necesitaba escoger for the basic level 1 structures (but otherwise allowing students to take control of the narrative).

I followed up the next day with  this story that I wrote (click here to download) , which students read in pairs and then illustrated on their own. A few students told me that they enjoyed the story, which I think is code for they actually understood it. Now I am going to write a follow-up story for the level 3 class…

Posted on

Not giving up on homework

So many teachers that I admnewspapersire have given up altogether on giving homework that I am often tempted to follow their lead.  Reading Alfie Kohn is enough to make any teacher cringe at the idea of piling on more homework. Yet there are useful assignments that are worthy of my own and my students’ time. Furthermore, I teach on the block; my students need to be thinking in Spanish more than three times per week. My rule is that all homework must be meaningful, not just to me but also to my students. Here is my set assignment for every Tuesday night for my Spanish 3 & 4 classes.

Once a week students must find and read a newspaper article in Spanish (don’t give up, there is a twist).  Although it is a Tuesday night assignment I always say “once a week” so that students who do not have internet access at home understand that they should not wait until Tuesday night… they can use school computers or go to the local library or have a friend print out an article for them. Either way, it is due on Wednesday in class, no excuses.

When students arrive to class I am standing at my door with a list of 12 students who will write the headline of their article on the whiteboard. Every student passes in a fifty word reaction to the homework bin, so there is accountability for all, but the fun starts with the 12 chosen ones. As a class we start by asking a few questions, making sure that everyone understands 100% of what is written (and that the 12 students have some grasp of the article that they chose). Then we decide which headline is the most interesting. Or rather, which headline will lend itself to creating the most interesting class story. At this point input from the person who actually read the article is no longer required because we, as a class, are not interested in creating a factual retelling of the news story; instead we are interested in creating the most interesting backstory that could possibly explain what led to the event reported.

If you are a TPRS teacher then you already know what it means to “ask a story”. Starting with a simple statement the teacher asks a myriad of questions, constantly recycling target structures in the questions and answers so that students acquire the phrases. As students volunteer possible answers to the questions some of the answers are accepted, some are not, and slowly a complex, often absurd story is created.

What I like about the news stories is that, when the class culture is just right, students are seriously motivated to find an interesting article.  The entire class takes ownership of the story as nearly everyone contributes something, but there is a certain special pride in having your article chosen as the most interesting starting point. The class quickly acquires advanced vocabulary used in newspapers, and this is an entertaining lens through which to explore current events.