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Story Listening Lesson with my Spanish 1 students

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

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

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

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

Added the next day:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Story Listening, almost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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