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Recipe for a fantastic year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What does it look like to teach El Internado in a non-targeted manner with a Spanish 1 class?

Teachers often ask me about a list of target structures that I need my students to master before we can start El Internado. What do they need to know?

The legendary Susan Gross used to say that she could teach Pobre Ana on day 1, and there was no mention of target structures, just good TPRS skills that make each phrase comprehensible as students encounter them. I approach El Internado in the same way. I do start second semester when students have a firm grasp of the sweet 16 verbs and a few words that are high-frequency in El Internado, but for the most part we are just processing simple Spanish as we encounter it.

I have made videos of myself teaching but this post is going to be different. Every day, as I teach a little of El Internado, I am going to take a photo of the writing on the board at the end of the class and post it below. Some days (like yesterday) I spend much of the class on El Internado, but most days we only spend 20 minutes talking about one single scene. The writing will show you what students really have to understand in order to enjoy the show. These paragraphs are written quickly together at the end of a lot of oral conversation about a scene. Come back over the next few weeks and read new photos that I will post below. As you read each entry, ask yourself if you could lead your level 1 students through such a discussion. I bet that you could.

January 10, 2017
January 10, 2017
January 11, 2017
January 11, 2017
January 12, 2017
January 12, 2017
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Are there school inappropriate moments in Gran Hotel?

A guide to questionable scenes so that you can keep your job!

julio-y-aliciaI always suggest El Gran Hotel as a suitable alternative to El Internado for teachers who want to make an exciting telenovela a part of their curriculum. In general, Gran Hotel is very school-friendly. The biggest problem is that it is harder to make Gran Hotel comprehensible for language learners, but not impossible if you go slow.

Nonetheless there are some very rare questionable scenes (but not too much questionable language) which I alert viewers to in my episode study guides. Kim M. from Beaufort Academy has alerted me to a wonderful resource that attempts to track all of the questionable scenes: follow this link to check it out and THANK YOU KIM!!!

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Internado Episode 3 student guide now posted

Take a look at the navigation bar to the left and check out the new Internado resources available. Can I say that I am really proud of the finished product? Well, there it is! Not only is there an unprecedented amount of comprehensible reading for your students (there is a paragraph-length description for just about every 2-3 minute scene), but I have changed the format to make this easier for the teacher to navigate as well. In the left margin there are timings for each scene (timings taken from Netflix) as well as notes to the teacher to direct you to any supplementary activities that you might use to teach the scene. This includes the widely-praised set of graphic novels power points that I made to help preview scenes that students find truly difficult. There is also a link, written into the study guide, that directs you straight to a Kahoot! game.

Before class begins I often quickly read the description of the next scene so that I can describe what we are about to see. Initially I intended to include suggested target structures along with the description of the scene. However, since I have heard that students from levels 1 through AP are using these guides I decided to leave space so that the teacher can take notes about the structures targeted. Feel free to target an advanced structure that does not show up in the reading guide (click here for more thoughts on using target structures with El Internado). We watch the scene and afterwards I ask circling questions focusing on the target structures. Then we might act out the scene, occasionally adding our own spin. Finally we have been reading the guide together, projected against the screen. Of course you can print off a copy for each student (especially if you have a final assessment that requires them to demonstrate an in-depth understanding of the plot), but I have been satisfied with an approach that combines listening and reading with a lot of acting and questioning.

With my Spanish 1 students we occasionally work together to create a written summary on the board. The key to this activity is to make sure that virtually all of the suggestions come from your students, not from you. Lots of reading should precede any writing, so be sure to place the activity towards the end of the sequence. I usually start with the name of a character and I let them volunteer. This is an effective way to gently model Spanish sentence structure. I provide transition words, and I rephrase so that what is written on the board is correct, but the ideas all come from the students. Here is an example of a finished product (it actually extended across three boards, but I am just going to describe how we wrote the first board):

writing on board

At first I just wrote the word “Paula”. If no one can finish that sentence then I know we have a lot more talking, questioning and reading to do before I push them into writing and speaking.

“hace pipi”, says one student.
I write on the board, “hace pipi porque” and then ask, “¿Por qué hace pipi Paula?”
“tiene miedo”, says a different student.
I write, “tiene miedo cuando”, and you can see how these sentences are developed.

Keep in mind that these are Spanish 1 students. They are still observing how complex sentences are structured. All of the words used on the board were words that we circled extensively. I think that many students really benefit from this guided writing approach.

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Nothing is a stretch for your students

I often read on Twitter and Facebook about teachers who are trying to decide if their students can handle a novela such as El Internado. The response is often that anything below level three cannot handle it, that it would be a stretch. Personally I think that is not helpful advice.

On one hand, it is so important to stress to all teachers considering using El Internado in any level that it is their responsibility to make the show comprehensible. We know that second language acquisition is driven by students understanding messages, not by being “challenged” to hear better. Planning on showing an authentic resource in class with the idea that the “challenge” is good for your students is misunderstanding how languages are acquired. Being challenged by incomprehensible noise does not lead to language acquisition, even if they enjoy the images flickering across the screen. We must step in and work to make it comprehensible. Certainly that is easier (and requires less interruptions) in upper level classes, but that same work of making the show comprehensible can be done in lower level classes.

On the other hand, I believe strongly that when I come across something that excites students, I should not save it for the exclusive enjoyment of upper level students. That is a delayed gratification mindset; knowing that in a few years they will actually watch a cool show does not develop intrinsic motivation in the same way that actually watching the cool show in level one does. When I developed the approach so that El Internado was comprehensible to my level 2 students we saw a huge increase in enrollments the following year. Now I teach it to level 1, hook them as early as possible, and it has paid off. Several years later we are the department with the strongest IB scores in the school. I credit it to placing our highest motivation activities in the first year of our language program.

Many teachers cannot conceive of teaching El Internado in level 1, so I have looked through my files and found a short clip of myself teaching El Internado to my level 1 students. This clip was filmed in late November after about three months of teaching. We started the year carefully focusing on the sweet sixteen verbs and, among other stories, we did a two week unit retelling the story Caperucita Roja, targeting many words used in El Internado. Here is the video:

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Choose your own adventure… readings?

An interactive reading activity


In Spanish 1 we have been creating multiple variations of Little Red Riding Hood. This Caperucita Roja unit helps prepare my level 1 students to watch El Internado in second semester. I have also been thinking about how to apply the “Choose Your Own Adventure” style of novel to the readings that we do in class. Today I hit upon a wrinkle that just might make this work well. After class, as I was typing up a version of the class story, I thought to include options for students to choose as they read. It looks like this:


While students read in pairs they will circle one of the options. At this point in the semester this reading should be crystal-clear for 80% of my students… this reading serves the purpose of getting additional reps for the remaining 20%. Encountering all of these familiar words in a new context will also increase the processing speed of all students.

The fun, I hope, will happen after they read in pairs. I will give them a few moments to prepare to act out their versions for the class. I will then take the paper and read the version they have created, allowing all students to witness a new version of the story. I expect that in each class there will be students competing to present the “best” version, allowing us to go through variations of the story several times. In that case I could have pairs pair up so that as one pair reads their version of the story, the other pair (unfamiliar with the story) acts it out. In a Spanish 3 class one could do this activity as a mad libs style where students fill in their own blanks.

Click here to download my “Choose Your Own Adventure” reading riffing off of the theme of Caperucita Roja.

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Before starting El Internado: Caperucita Roja

caperucita-rojaMy Spanish 2 students start the school year with a month long unit that culminates in various retellings of the fairy tale Caperucita Roja, or Little Red Riding Hood. I choose this story because it works well to introduce a lot of the vocabulary that students will later need in order to understand El Internado. I also want a familiar tale that we can work with in order to review Spanish 1 and introduce several past tenses. Most importantly I have to explicitly teach my students how a TPRS classroom works. Here is a quick outline of how I do it:

Week one: getting to know students with PQA, setting expectations

Not all teachers in my department are TPRS teachers… so I start with a focus on question words and what Terry Waltz calls the “super seven”:

Volition (“wants to”, “feels like”): quiere

Location (“is at”): está

Existence (“there is”, “there are”): hay

Preference (“likes”): le gusta

Identity (“is”, “am”, “are”): es

Motion (“goes”): va

Possession (“has”): tiene

Story possibilities are virtually limitless once I have verified that the whole class has mastered these six structures.

Week two: more PQA

We keep expanding students´ abilities to work with basic, fundamental structures. Once they have fully acquired the question words and Terry´s super six then we continue with another 10 fundamental structures:  sale de, tiene, hace, se pone triste, puede, le da, le dice, sabe, vuelve, ve. While this should all be review from Spanish 1, there is always a group of students from non-TPRS classes who have “studied these verbs” but can´t use them.  It is worthwhile going slowly and spreading this out to two weeks if necessary.

There is always a school dance on the second Friday of the new school year. I like to capitalize on this by asking a few questions about what is going to happen so that, the following Monday, I can introduce past tenses by asking what happened.  A few common questions: Who is going to the dance?  How are they going to get there?  What are they going to wear?  At what time are they going to be returning home?  I like to tell them that I am going too, with my abuelita who is 153 years old.  This defuses any social tension about the actual dance and allows us to jokingly make a fantasy dance in which we are all going to Disneyland afterwards.

week three: which one of you is Caperucita Roja?

Who went? How did they get there? What did they wear? How did they get home? I always pull an accomplice aside just before the beginning of class and get her to play along with me. Of course, she wore a red cape to the dance. Yes, she walked home, and it was dark. She had to walk through the forest. Did I mention that she lives with her grandmother?  I do not tell them that we are going to learn Little Red Riding Hood; I let them discover it on their own. It is all in past tenses. I often teach iba and fue at the same time (She went home, right? She did not go to McDonald´s, she went home. But class, while she was going home something happened! She was going home through the forest when she met someone…)

Here you can download one of the readings that I wrote for this week. You might want to change the ending if your students have never heard of the verb “to conjugate”. You´ll definitely want to change the underlined place names to reflect where you teach. I also like to change the name of the main character each year to personalize it to a student in one of my classes. Click here for the story: Sara y el lobo version 2

Update Sept 28, 2015: Here is a new activity for reading Sara y el lobo, with an improved reading too.

Students read in pairs in class. For homework they make a six panel illustration of the story with no words, which we use the following class for retells.

In 2014 I used this story within the first month of Spanish 1. Here are two examples made by students (click to see a larger version). The first is by Brenda G.:


Here is another student example, this one by Arielle M:


We also watch a children´s video.  Click here to open a window and see the version that we saw.

week four: some creative reworkings of the classic story

– Caperucita was actually working for the police. They were conducting a sting on suspicious lobos hanging out in the forest…

– As it turns out, the lobo is Caperucita Roja´s real grandmother! Yes, Caperucita´s mother was switched at birth, or stolen by the evil woman that Caperucita always thought was her real grandmother…

– Caperucita lived in Los Angeles. One day she was sitting on the front steps in front of her apartment building (listening to some hip hop) when her mother yelled her name out the window and told her that she had to take the 49 bus over to her grandma´s house to bring her grandma some foot soap. But Caperucita did not take the 49 bus, she decided to cut through the park even though it was getting dark and nobody went into the park after dark…

In the last two weeks I begin introducing Internado structures. We won´t even start viewing the first episode of El Internado until the second quarter (10th week), so I am not in a rush. Where it makes sense I´ll throw a pozo into a story. We have eight weeks. The idea is to slowly, naturally build their vocabulary in a targeted way.

Here you can download the list of structures that I identified for my own students for the first episode.  Your students might need more or less preparation (for instance, I don´t include phrases like “no van a volver” or “ayuda” on this list because generally my new Spanish 2 students have acquired that, but that is verified in class). The bolded structures are ones that I prioritize for acquisition (establish meaning by writing them on the board, circle them and feature them in PQA, sneak them often into class stories as well as the readings that students read on their own, require them on quick writes).  Click here to download the basic structures for episode 1

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First this happened, and then this…

first this happenedWow! Kara, who blogs on The Creative Classroom, has a great idea for anyone who uses videos with an ongoing narrative (such as El Internado). This could easily be part of CI classroom routine to go over any story, but I love the idea of making Internado specific cards. Here is a link to her post First this happened, and then this….