The Blog

“Three Before Me” poster in German and French

3 before meAs promised, here are the “Three Before Me” posters for German and French.

Big props to some good friends who helped me out with these translations, Wendy Farabaugh, Don Doehla, and Thomas Sauer.

Download the free posters via Teachers Pay Teachers:

  • German

    Bevor du anfängst mit der Fragerei,
    probier doch erstmal diese drei:
    1) dich selbst
    2) deine Ressourcen
    3) deine Freunde 

  • French

    Si tu m’en demandes,
    je te dirai qu’avant,
    il vaudra mieux 
    que tu te serves
    de trois autres options:
    1) ton propre effort
    2) tes propres ressources
    3) tes propres camarades

Let’s go encourage our students to be lifelong, problem-solving learners!

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April 23, 2015 0 Comments

Three before me

What could you get out of #langchat? You never know!  No matter how many years you’ve been teaching, everyone’s bound to come away with some treasurable, profitable nuggets from #langchat.

I’m not even sure which recent #langchat this came from.  It could have been when we were discussing grit, how we could help learners persevere when things get tough.  Anyway, it caught my eye right away.  So I had to make a poster.  And you can bet this’ll be on my wall in my next classroom.

I think we were talking about how to wean kids off of thinking we’d always just provide them with the answers they need/want.  Then Stephanie Carbonneau (@mmecarbonneau) tweeted:

“Three Before ME” is a BIG rule in my class. 1. Show I tried 2. Consult resources 3. ask 3 others

BRILLIANT! Teachers love pithy lines we can say to remind students of our routines and environment rules, and learners do too, even if they won’t admit it, because they thrive on clarity.  And this one does something I always want to be trying to do: foster independent (lifelong?) learning.

So I wrote a poem of it in Spanish:

Si me lo pides,
te digo que antes,
mejor lo intentes
los otros tres:
1) tu propio esfuerzo
2) tus recursos
3) tus compañeros
Which loosely means
If you ask me for it,
I tell you that before,
you’d better try
the other three:
1) your own effort
2) your resources
3) your companions
3 before me

Should you want to put this to work in your classroom, here’s the poster.  I’m working on also getting it in French and German.

Let’s tell them what Daniel Tiger sings to my kids: “Solve the problem yourself, and you’ll feel prou-ou-ou-oud!”

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April 21, 2015 2 Comments

Why interpersonal isn’t interpretive

Plaza Treinta y Tres Orientales, Montevideo

Recently on #langchat we were discussing interpretive and interpersonal tasks and someone asked whether interpersonal also functioned as interpretive, since the listener is interpreting auditory information.  I thought it was Lisa Shepard, a lesson to me to note my sources right away, but I can’t find the conversation.  So while I can’t credit my interlocutor, I can still tell you what we talked about and hope the distinction helps you in some way.

Let me spell out the two differences, and then what I think they mean for our class practice in general.

Two differences between interpersonal and interpretive

As we talked through our thoughts on this topic, we identified two reasons we think interpretive listening isn’t the same as interpersonal listening.

  • In interpersonal communication, the speaker is sympathetic, at least often and maybe usually so.  Sympathetic is a term assessors use to mean that the partner in conversation wants to and is willing to work to achieve communication.
    An authentic audio resource is a static thing; it cannot inherently try to help you understand it.
  • A learner listening to an audio resource cannot negotiate meaning.  This is related to the first point because negotiation of meaning is one way a sympathetic conversation partner helps learners achieve communication.  Negotiation of meaning is a term linguists use to talk about the strategies we use to try to be understood and try to understand, from something as simple as asking “Can you repeat that?” to using circumlocution.
    An authentic audio source cannot clarify itself for you.  It cannot respond to requests for repetition or slowing down, and it cannot stop to explain words simply because you do not have them in your vocabulary.

What this means for teachers

I can think of several implications of this distinction for teachers.

  • Realistic, different expectations for interpretive vs. interpersonal
    I’ve seen immersion programs have incredibly high expectations for interpretive listening skills, much higher than their output expectations.  I think this may be a mistake, unless the teachers are habitually using authentic audio sources, because their teacher is not an authentic audio source; she is a sympathetic partner who is committed to helping them achieve communication and comprehension.  The interpretive listening skills aren’t referring to the ability to understand sympathetic partners in communication.
  • Commitment to use authentic audio
    I’ve written about this a lot.  You can do this even with novices!  Check out why it’s a myth that novices can’t understand authentic material and some sample activities like using El perdón and Voy a vivir and Shrek.  Also, please, please read my letter from an AP teacher to teachers of novices.
  • Teaching students negotiation of meaning skills
    Like how to use circumlocution to both get their meaning across and figure out what their partner is saying.

I love conversations like this and how they make me think through my practices – let’s keep learning by talking together!

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April 17, 2015 2 Comments

How can a transition empower your class?

volunteer-422598_1280A few weeks ago the topic for #langchat was about timing and transitioning activities in a class (summary here).  Then, shortly after, I was teaching a novice-high class of sixth-graders as part of an interview to perhaps go back to teaching next year (MAYBE).  (Lesson plan coming soon.)  Anyway, it made me think more about this issue of transitions.

Quickly, I’ll outline what I think are the characteristics of a class or lesson plan that lends itself to easy, smooth transitions:

  • Frequently changing activities (I once blogged that they should change every twenty minutes, but now I advocate every 10 or so.)
  • Activities that naturally scaffold and build on each other (e.g. front-loading vocab…summarizing resource…using resource…working with resource)
  • Class routines that help students expect what’s coming and transition naturally

As I worked on my lesson plan, I thought about how to move from explaining a game (Buque de guerra) to actually playing it.  Just let them loose? But how will I know they’re ready?

Well, why not ask them, in a way that gives me instant and informative feedback on how ready every student is, while lowering the risk for more timid students?

Here’s the transition: Before launching into an activity, or after a story even, ask students to raise their hands and use their fingers to show on a scale of one to five how ready they feel to tackle the activity (or understood what just happened).  It’s fast, it’s low-risk (students can hold their hands as low as they want, as long as I can see), it gives me much more information than simply ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and it tells students that we’re done with one thing (instructions) and moving to another (activity), which is the essence of an effective transition.  Oh, and it keeps us all in the target language.  If this is a habitual transition in your class, all you’d need to say after the first few times is “hands, one to five, ready?” or something to that effect, in the target language.

I tried it with these sixth-graders.  I explained the game, and asked for the scale.  I got all fives except one, a boy showing four fingers.  So we launched into the game, and it worked well.  I know I’m not the first to use such a technique to gauge comprehension, but this is the first time it occurred to me to use it in gauge readiness for an activity.  It worked!

What are your most effective transitions?

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April 15, 2015 0 Comments

How can I help you put research to practice?

I’ve had a burr in my saddle for a little over a year, probably longer, a problem that pricks me and try as I might to find a solution, I just can’t put my finger on it.

On the one hand, we’ve got a robust body of research coming from both applied and theoretical linguistics programs, teachers and professors and scientists, all asking questions about how people learn language, some asking questions about how people learn or acquire a second language, about how teachers can be more effective in language classrooms.

On the other hand, we’ve got teachers who need to know the answers to these questions. One problem is many researchers don’t know what teachers are actually doing, or what they need, or what realistic expectations are for what the research might look like in their classrooms.  A bigger problem is that the teachers don’t know about all this research.  For most of us, it’s not because we don’t care.  Most teachers I know care very much and would love to know more about how their practices can be better founded on solid research.  But two primary obstacles loom in front of them:

  1. There’s no time.
    You have an extra hour or two a week to dissect an academic article, right?
  2. The best, peer-reviewed articles aren’t accessible for teachers in the trenches.
    You’ve got money to pay for expensive peer-reviewed journal subscriptions, right?  How about an extra $55 lying around to download a single PDF article?
    You feel like you had enough training in Second Language Acquisition theory to navigate academic research articles, right?  Where the researchers are throwing around names and acronyms like you actually know what Chomsky said and what the critical period hypothesis is? (How did they know about my seventh period sophomores?! That’s my critical period!)

Muscuentos Black Box PodcastLast year I determined this would be one of my missions: to overcome these obstacles as much as I could and get real research into our language classrooms.  My first attempt was the Black Box Podcast.  But it didn’t work.  It was extremely time consuming.  I estimate I put 10-15 hours of work into each 18-minute episode.  I enjoyed it immensely.  It was like writing a 10-page article summary / essay where I got to pick whatever topic I wanted and could write in first person with all the jokes and informal comments I wanted.  And it was fun.  But frankly, I have to be careful what work I choose to do outside the time I commit to my family, and I don’t have that kind of time for work I don’t get paid for.

It also wasn’t accessible enough.  To get it on a device for you to listen to, you had to be proactive enough to download it and put it on the device yourself.  Then you had to find a spare 18 minutes where you could devote real attention to listening to and understanding it.  I’d tried to make it easier and I hadn’t succeeded.  Not enough anyway.  A few dedicated teachers got something out of it, but we could say the same about the teachers who take the time to look this stuff up on the internet, or read every page of The Language Educator, which often makes important research more accessible for teachers.

So what do I do?  I’m still convinced that teachers know that they need to evaluate materials and strategies against what research says about how kids learn.  We know a lot of us are stumbling around in the dark there, because like I said before, we don’t have the time, money, and/or background to make that happen.  I’m still convinced one of our major failings as a profession is that the people investigating the questions aren’t communicating with the people who need the answers most.  What can we do about it?

I’ve been exploring how I can make the Black Box one of the answers to that question, and I need your help.  What would be the most effective way for me to help you put research to practice?

I’ve discussed this question with some great colleagues and I appreciate their feedback.  So now I have a poll for you.  Here are the ideas:

  • “Serial” changed the market of the podcast.  Keep the podcast idea, but release it via iTunes so it’s super easy for anyone with an iOS device to listen to for free.
  • Instead of a podcast, do a short, visualized video of how the research applies and put it on YouTube.
  • Instead of a podcast or a video, put the takeaways from the article in a visual format on a PDF poster.  Then you can download it and put it up in your classroom where you’ll see it and hopefully internalize the principles.
  • Some other brilliant solution I’m not thinking of.

Another way this could be vastly improved is if one of you would help me.  Do you have a strong background in SLA theory and a passion for research and what it means for the classroom?  Does your dream lunch date involve pitting DeKeyser, Krashen, Long, Ellis, & VanPatten against each other and seeing if someone throws a sandwich?  Could we alternate putting out the Black Box together?  I’ll take care of the article access through DeepDyve, and you do the rest.

Please, take the poll, and if you have another idea or suggestion, add it, or comment below.

Missed the Black Box Podcast altogether?

If you’re interested in listening to or reading the scripts of the podcasts that I did last year, you’ll find them here.

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April 9, 2015 3 Comments

Forced to adopt a textbook: Now what?

What do you do when you’re being forced into a textbook adoption that’s stifling the creative community in your school?  Sometimes you turn to someone with a generally poor opinion of textbooks for advice.

One of my favorite parts of doing what I do is the conversations I get to watch and sometimes even facilitate.  I’m not in the classroom this year, and I do miss it like a drug some days, but I’m coming to see that where I am now, I can still contribute significantly to the field, mostly through you.

When I get questions and comments through the blog, your immediate need is for advice or direction and my (sometimes not very immediate) response is to try to speak some wisdom into your situation.  But in the bigger picture, the questions you ask me and dilemmas you face and tell me about end up affecting teachers far and wide, because two months down the road at a workshop someone says,

I have this class where I try X and it’s not working.  What do I do?

And I say,

I talked with a teacher in this exact situation 2 months ago!  So she said that you should A, B, and L.

And so, because you reached out to me with your experience, you contributed to the profession in a way that may not have occurred to you.

A striking example of this streamed through my email recently.  Because of the sensitivity of the situations these teachers are in, I have changed their names and some details here.  All of them have previewed and approved this post because they want to help you, should you find yourself in this situation.

I apologize for the massive wall of text that is this post, but as soon as I saw this exchange happen, I knew I had to share it with those of you who find yourselves faced with a textbook adoption, wanted or unwanted.  If it applies to you, you’ll be fascinated by the feedback; if not, if you’re blessed to be a department of one and/or have a lot of freedom thanks to supportive (or indifferent) administration, count your blessings and skip this one.

Round 1: Any change is a solution

Sometime last year, I was contacted by Marlene, who teaches Spanish in a large high school in a department of about seven or eight teachers with widely varying stands on communicative language teaching.  She and her colleagues had done some work on creating assessments, wanted to create common units, and then, bam- a push to adopt a new textbook:

On the theme of books: I am feeling stressed.  I feel like once we get new books, it will be a race by most to create everything new like vocab lists, vocab quizzes, and then the real assessments will be put on hold or have less quality.  I am not condoning vocab quizzes, but some aren’t ready to let them go.

My take on the books is we have Exprésate and we are familiar with it. There is a learning curve with new books.  Maybe we can’t do all the units quickly, but at least if we keep our books, it will be easier to create units.  We already have some decent assessments in Spanish I.   If we adopt a book, we have to get to know the book first and then we mine it for what to keep and use.  Then creating units might get delayed for even longer.  I know the key is assessment.  To me, new book=less time to focus on real change.

I really think people want new books because they want a change.  They like books, so they like new books.   The two best sellers didn’t change since the last round of adoptions, and Descubre was written for a university audience marketed to high school.  I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or not.

When what you’re doing isn’t working, it seems like any big change will be the solution, right?  And a shiny, expensive new textbook with all its techy add-ons and convenient pacing guides seems like the easiest big change that will solve everything.

Honestly, I don’t have a lot to say about specific textbooks because I haven’t used one in years.  So, I turned to a friend who was supposed to be using one and whose opinion I trusted.  Here’s what Brittany had to say:

I would use the Descubre series if I had to select one.  I have used several things from them in my non-textbook classes, and I think I would use them more if I had them.  I like that the activities are progressively more challenging, yet attainable.  Our French teacher got the French editions for her IB classes, and the online resources were amazing–films, audio clips, testing, etc., and all with a proficiency focus.  Grammar is for communication, not just for grammar’s sake.

Info and demo here:  They are really good about sending sample copies.

They also have upper level stuff that is intriguing and good to work with.  I sample stuff from those resources too.

To me, it’s the polar opposite of what we currently have, Realidades.  THAT book hasn’t left the shelf all year.  Descubre is still a text, and isn’t perfect, but I feel that I can make it work as a well-made tool.  I have heard some teachers say that they find it challenging to use, but in further discussions, it seemed that they weren’t doing anything more than the publisher’s activities.  I’m thinking it’s pretty safe to say that we wouldn’t do that–that we would use the text to help with core support, but we’d be using other resources to help pull it all together.  Also, there is so provided material that I think that they got bogged down trying to do it all.

Isn’t that the answer, after all?  That a textbook is simply a tool, and the real answer is you, and what you do with it.  Like she said, a tool that’s well-made can make a big difference.

Marlene’s school ended up adopting Descubre.

Round 2: Get a textbook, and do it now

Fast forward some to an email I got from another friend, Angela, who has more experience teaching than I do, currently teaching intermediate students.  Her department was not only being forced into a textbook adoption, but at first was being greatly rushed into it:

I don’t think a textbook is a good use of money.  I’ve seen lots of teachers and departments design curriculum successfully and share their assessments online.    But the reality is we have a tight deadline to do so and we must select a textbook series for our first two levels, maybe the third too.  Teachers think that ‘simply’ adopting a new textbook will bring great ease and less work.  Any change will bring lots of work.  And this change is being rushed… it’s discouraging.  The task is overwhelming and the textbook options are underwhelming.  Could you please recommend a textbook for us to consider?

It’s months later but I still don’t have an answer for this question.  And I’m not even teaching now, much less using a textbook.  So what do I do?  Well, I put them together of course.

And as a side note, the only advice I really had to offer was that if they adopted Realidades that they could refer to Andrea over at Lugar para pensar to figure out how to incorporate it into a more communicative program.

feedback-520527_1280Descubre: Feedback from the stakeholders

Thankfully, Marlene went above and beyond in her response, contributing far more to the textbook discussion than I could.  She even surveyed her department to get feedback from them, too.  The work she put into helping Angela in this situation is what inspired me to write this post.

First, she explained their school situation.  At their school, students have a class:

  • for a trimester

  • which is 12 weeks long

  • with classes every day

  • lasting about 70 minutes each.

Which adds up to a level of Spanish being:

  • 24 weeks divided into two 12-week trimesters

  • which may or may not be consecutive

  • and which may or may not be from the same teacher

  • and students could have four different teachers for two levels of Spanish.

Their department did end up adopting Descubre, an this is the breakdown:

  • Book 1A for Spanish 1

  • Book 1B for Spanish 2

  • Descubre 2 for Spanish 3

  • Descubre 3 for Spanish 4

In her reflection, she believes that Spanish 4 should be using Descubre 2 and not the third book.

Marlene isn’t a fan of Descubre, as you’ll see.

My opinion is we should have chosen Así se dice 1A and 1B or Realidades 1A and 1B for Spanish I and II.  To adopt Así se dice, I needed department support I didn’t have.

Realidades has a really good feature in the newest version where there is video support that models the communicative activities.  I also LOVED their map features with the geoculture.  But in our textbook-driven department, teachers didn’t like that it hasn’t been updated much, so it seems old.  Also, even with splitting the the textbooks by using the junior high version, there are a lot of chapters.

Choosing a textbook, especially when you don’t want one at all, is a tough decision, as you can tell.  Marlene still wishes they would have simply re-adopted Exprésate.  Perhaps if the other teachers simply got new copies to replace their worn-out copies they would have been satisfied.

So what have they thought about using Descubre since they adopted it this year?  Marlene says about the content:

The vendor does not tell you, and you need to know, that this textbook was written for a college/university audience originally.  Some of the prompts support that statement for example…pretend you are on a date, tell your roommate, talk about your courses which are part of the vocabulary, but are the type of courses a university student takes.  Lesson 2 is about a college life.

 What about how you schedule the curriculum?

Whether you are on trimester or traditional scheduling, I am in favor of a 1A & 1B for any of the textbooks for Spanish I and II.  This will help with the problem of trying to teach too much in one school year (and even with the split there is too much), and will allow room for a lot more proficiency-based tasks and supplementing with authentic resources if your teachers are so inspired.

One of Marlene’s colleagues, a teacher committed to proficiency-based teaching, chimed in with her perspective on using Descubre in level 1.

I supplement with a lot of authentic materials like music videos and commercials.  I don’t find much of the textbook useful.  I only use the workbook because my students could end up with another teacher the next trimester who will know I didn’t use it, so I do.  But there’s too much vocabulary and too many activities.  The communicative activities that are in the book, we don’t use them because they are too difficult for novices so I supplement those too.

On the higher levels, she can’t tell you a whole lot about how Descubre works there:

I rarely use a textbook. For levels 3 and 4, I barely use it, so I can’t speak of its communicative capacities or the authenticity of its resources. I know Descubre 3 has some great things, but I haven’t used them yet.  I only use it to find an alignment to something I am teaching with units.  So I decide what I am going to teach, and then I go to the book to find something related and I put it in my scope and sequence.  I regret even ordering the book for Spanish III and IV because they are paying for a book that isn’t used.

(Did you catch how her whole perspective is that it’s a tool, and it’s not the curriculum?)

How helpful would it be to hear from the students using Descubre?  Marlene’s a wonder and she’s got that feedback for you too.  Here’s what the kids say (if you teach teenagers you’ll read well into these statements, I’m sure!):

  • There are too many words.

  • It’s kind of difficult.

  • It’s helpful.

  • There are no study materials.

  • It’s confusing sometimes.

  • When you just read it, you don’t understand, so somebody has to explain it to you.

  • It needs better pictures.

  • I like it.

  • It needs more English.

Marlene is a teacher 100% sold on proficiency-based, communicative teaching through authentic resources.  What about teachers who don’t land so much in that camp?  Here’s their feedback:

The testing program has been harder to modify because of software issues, but if you like the tests/quizzes as they are, then you won’t have a problem.  The online components have been fantastic, but will require some getting used to for both students and teacher.   If you’re using them for graded assignments, you must schedule regular in-class lab time with teacher available to answer questions.  Transitioning for 2nd year students has been a bit of a challenge, but I think that would be the case for any textbook.   Pacing can still be a challenge, but we are always rushed on a trimester.  There seem to be a lot of places where you can combine concepts easily. As with all textbooks, you have to pick and choose which activities are most effective for your particular classes.

I am very happy with it and have found that I need to supplement less than usual.

If nothing else, the online activities are great when we are able to use them.  Since we can do half as much as we were before, we are able to go a lot slower.

The book is ok.  It’s not great, some of the activities are a little difficult and/or require too much teacher help, so it’s not something I can give them to work on.  The reason I like those types of activities are that I can help the struggling students and the ones that aren’t struggling can move on or I can make it more challenging for them.

I really like it!

Angela especially appreciated and benefited from Marlene’s input because as it turns out, they are on the same trimester schedule.  Angela says,

They feel like little tourists in our classrooms – here for 60 days and then on to the next teacher (or on to a trimester off).

Descubre was high on the list of recommendations for Angela’s school’s textbook adoptions and seemed at first like a positive choice:

The positive feedback we’d heard had everyone very hopeful.  We had heard that the materials were authentic.

But sometimes in spite of the hype and flashy conference booths, a program is not the all-encompassing solution it seems to be:

We looked at the topics inside the front flap that shows all three levels and we looked at the assessment and video examples they sent us.

Among the red flags that immediately perked Angela’s suspicions:

  • 4 grammar topics per chapter (covering too much content, anyone?)
    Marlene: there’s a lot in those four topics.

  • less than impressive assessments
    Marlene: but you can create your own with a good team

  • a clearly different definition of “authentic”
    Marlene: some are authentic, especially the commercials, but Exprésate‘s “Comparaciones” is better than “Flash Cultura”

It’s a situation that’s so sad but all too common.  Angela’s department, thankfully, decided  at least to take a little more time on their decision, but how often do schools come to this crossroads where they could take a path driven by stakeholder input – especially, what the students need; or they could choose what perhaps seems the easiest way, and take the road highly traveled that fills seat time, gets everyone a paycheck, and doesn’t rock the boat.  And too many departments make that second choice.

If you’re in the same situation, and Angela and Marlene could talk to you now, here’s the advice they would have for you:

  • Know when to ease up and when to press your point.

  • Ask the questions that will lead to more administrative support; it makes a huge difference.

  • Ask the questions that will lead to more teacher buy-in; it makes a huge difference.

To wrap it up, here’s my two cents: remember that whether or not a textbook exists in your classroom is not the issue; the important thing is how teachers implement the tools they have.

  • To work toward being a more effective teacher, explore the great content over at the TELL project.

  • Watch for an upcoming post related to one of my conference proposals for this year- AID: a three-pronged approach to textbook content, Adapt, Incorporate, Ditch.

  • To work with a small group of teachers on planning your curriculum for next year from the big picture to the day-to-day routine, whether or not you incorporate a textbook, consider joining us for a one- or two-day workshop at Camp Musicuentos, this year in Louisville, KY (currently very limited space on the novice day, intermediate day on a wait list), and Warwick, RI (six spaces remaining).

No matter what your department does, you can always push for more latitude, do more of your own thing, and then show off your results.  Your students’ success will always be your biggest advocate.


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April 6, 2015 3 Comments

New song: El perdón for two levels

We should resist the opportunity to complain... but how often do we?

We should resist the opportunity to complain… but how often do we?

Ever feel behind the times?  I just caught the current #1 song on Latin Billboard and it struck me as having two golden ingredients for a good class song:

  • high student appeal and
  • a couple of high frequency structures repeated.

(Though I wanted to say, Dude – she moved on, she’s happy, get over it! Ha.)

Two repeated structures in particular in this song shine with opportunities to get students talking, even students on different levels.  Here are some suggestions for what to do with the song “El perdón,” a collaboration by Nicky Jam and Enrique Iglesias.

Lower novice: gripes

Invite lower novices to practice complaining – they’ll love that, right?  Focus on the repeated structure from the chorus: Es que _________, dime ¿quién puede ser feliz? Esto no me gusta. ¡Esto no me gusta!

Here’s my clip of that:

I put the structure at the end.  Model using your own simplified complaints, then invite those who are ready to help build a class list.  See if any extroverts are willing to actually sing the line with one of the sample complaints.  Finally, ask students to make their own and present (sing?) it.  As an extension, create a survey or poll for students to ask and answer questions to find out what everyone’s complaining about.

It’s neither healthy nor friendly to be so negative, though, right?  Tell students, okay, enough complaining – we can just as easily make this about talking about what’s going great; all we do is remove the no and replace with  - “Es que _______, esto sí me gusta, esto SÍ me gusta!” (Got any ideas for adjusting that middle phrase?)

Higher novice / Lower intermediate:

What was happening and what is happening?  Students can use this repeated structure to talk about what they were doing yesterday (Intermediate Low) and what is happening to them today (Novice High):  estaba _____ando/iendo, por (un lugar) _______ando/iendo, [hoy estoy] _____ando/iendo.  Something like that.  You get the idea.  Here’s that clip.


And now, for the unfortunate fine print…

For these two guys, the lyrics were surprisingly clean. BUT in the main part of the chorus there is a terribly unfortunate use of “como un loco tomando.”  Drinking your pain away is not a message for the classroom; I left Nicky Jam’s half of the chorus out of my clip on purpose.  But that doesn’t mean I’d leave it out of the discussion.  Phrases like that can be a great springboard for deep and responsible thinking!

For these two guys, the video could be a lot worse, but it’s not appropriate for my classroom anyway.  Among other issues: the barely clad bicyclists with the headlamps, I’ve got no idea what that’s about.  If you want to play the whole song, you can easily find a different video, a performance or lyric video.

The song and video for “El perdón” are copyrighted material and the clips I made for Edpuzzle are for brief educational use only.  I think all Spanish teachers should use Latin pop music in the classroom, and I also think we should all model responsible consumerism, purchasing legal music and encouraging students to do the same.  I don’t agree with everything these guys do, but they work for their money.


Complaint Box by Erin Stevenson O’Connor

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March 28, 2015 11 Comments

En español, por favor: Fostering bilingualism in children

This post is primarily for parents wanting to raise bilingual children and educators in elementary immersion programs, but perhaps the rest of you will find something useful here as well.

I have three children that I am trying to raise bilingual in Spanish.  We started out fully committed to the one-parent, one-language method, in which I speak to our children in Spanish, and my husband speaks to them in English (he is about a Novice Mid in Spanish interpersonal, more like Novice High or even IL in interpretive).  I did great with the first one.  I estimate I stayed in Spanish approximately 90% of the time, even translating the storybooks I read to her before bed.

But then another came.

And quickly, another.  (They’re exactly 11 months apart.)

They’re bilingual, I swear!

English is my mother tongue and as such it’s my language of frustration and fatigue and frankly, there you have the two Great F’s of young multiple motherhood- we spend a lot of time frustrated and fatigued.  Don’t judge me – if you stayed up til 11:30 just so you could accomplish something and then watch an episode of 24 with your spouse to have some adult time…
and then little guy got up at 6:45, spilled his Cheerios on the floor, then stepped on them, then peed on them…
and then lil gal comes around the corner to ask how to wash pencil off the wall

Yeah.  So now my Spanish interaction with them is more around the 40%-50% range.

Still, they’re quite proficient.  I can’t give you proficiency levels because acquiring language as a child doesn’t spell out so easily that way.  Zoe can adeptly manipulate multiple time frames in Spanish if she can come up with the vocabulary (you can hear her tell you a little story here).  All three of them (now ages almost 6, almost 3, and almost 2) understand me perfectly when I speak to them in Spanish (developmentally perfectly, of course).  But they are so reluctant to produce it.  Not because they can’t.   Just because they won’t.  And the longer they won’t, the harder it gets, until one day, it will actually be because they can’t.  I really, really don’t want to end up there.  I don’t want to waste all this effort (and it’s a lot of effort) to end up with passive bilinguals who still think it’s just too hard to speak Spanish.

It's a battle sometimes. Tammra McCauley

It’s a battle sometimes.
Tammra McCauley

We have a DVD with a Dora episode where Dora and her amigos are trying to get somewhere and need to pass through King Crab’s sand castle.  But he won’t let them through until they do something, and they have to tell him something in Spanish.  So he sings to them, “En español, por favooooor.”  I feel like that’s the mantra of my relationship with my children: En español, por favor. (Really, I sing it just like him, frequently.)

¿Por favooooooor?


In case your amazingly proficient, disturbingly passive learners live among the same societal factors Zoe does, let me share some resources and ideas that have helped us immensely this year.

EVERYONE thinks it’s cool except you, Zoe

I know there are people out there who say stupid stuff about why do kids need to learn Spanish, why do you talk to them like that when I can’t understand what you’re telling them (because my goal in life is for you to be able to eavesdrop, right?), but no one has ever reacted that way to me.  Everyone, without fail, thinks it is so completely awesome that my kids are bilingual.  And I am quick to point it out to her every time we get that reaction, which is like seventeen times a week.

See, Zoe?  EVERYONE thinks it’s cool that you speak Spanish.  YOU ARE SO CHéVERE!

Peer pressure, that’s what it’s all about.

Won’t you be my neighbor?

One of the best gifts in our language journey in the past year has been a blossoming friendship with a Mexican family five doors down the street.  They have a girl just younger than Zoe, and a little guy just younger than Charis.  ¡Hurrá!  The little girl is in school and so she, too, is succumbing to the pressure to speak English (the family’s 12-year-old barely produces Spanish anymore though her parents have very little English), but the mom is there speaking Spanish, and comes over sometimes to chat and get help with writing to her landlord, for example, and the toddler hasn’t gone to school yet so he, too, has very little English.

Come on! You WILL produce Spanish!!

I understand that this is more difficult in other languages, and in rural areas.  But so many places are more multicultural than we might think.  A few weeks ago, Zoe went to the bank to open her first bank account, and the banker who helped us was… Russian.   Last weekend we went to the park to play with friends, and this whole extended family showed up, and kept showing up, with grandpas and moms and kids of all ages, speaking… Russian.  They’re out there.  And there’s always Skype.

There are all sorts of benefits here.  My girls love to play at the neighbors’ house, which gives them lots more exposure, and they get to hear me helping this family with many things because I speak Spanish, which shows them how much purpose there is in it.  And speaking of more exposure, that shows them that…

This is not a weird thing Mami does

I make a big deal out of every person we meet that speaks Spanish to us.  See, Zoe?  Lots of people speak Spanish!

Say it in a song

Nena #2, Charis, has been a lot slower to produce Spanish than Zoe was.  She’s very verbal in English, and comprehends Spanish well, but produces almost exclusively English (except her morning drink- she comes out asking for her leche, or lately, her lech-lech).  So I started singing the words for her to say.  I sing puedo, she says “puedo”; I sing tener, she says “tener”; and now we’ve done it so much sometimes she’ll finish by herself: “mi leche, por favor“.

So, if they won’t even repeat the Spanish words you say, there’s a chance they’ll repeat the Spanish words you sing.

Sorry, it’s Wednesday, no English

It has helped us to pick a day in which everyone, even Papi, tries to speak Spanish.  We try to make school happen in Spanish as much as possible, and include mostly Spanish in our reading.  Then it occurred to me recently that we should switch all screen time to Spanish on that day, as well.  That was genius.  Elsa sings Libre soy, Pooh eats his miel, Flashcard Fiesta’s on the iPad.  Next I need to copy all their Spanish lullabies into a strictly Spanish lullaby playlist so they even go to bed with 100% Spanish!  And speaking of screen time…

Seriously. She will be like this for an hour.

Thank you, YouTube for TV

We don’t have cable because we’re not going to pay money for more time-wasting entertainment to come into our house.  But we do have a DVD player that also connects to our internet and offers connections to our Amazon Prime video and a new app that showed up – YouTube for TV.  There aren’t a lot of Spanish options at all on Amazon (shame on you, Amazon!) but hey, YouTube?  We discovered Mickey Mouse clubhouse clips with several episodes one after the other from Spain – that’s a hit – and Dora in Spanish and their new favorite, Peppa Pig.  Both girls are absolutely glued to Peppa Pig en español.  Last night Zoe was singing at bathtime and I realized she was singing to the tune of Wheels on the Bus, but it was in Spanish! Voluntarily!  She was singing, “El tren del abuelo hace chu, chu, chu… todo el día.”  I said, “Where’d you get that song?”  She said, “Peppa pig!”


Someone else tell her a silly story, please

Zoe is a very imaginative person who wants very imaginative parents.  It’s so tiring to be imaginative all the time.  Her mantra for the past THREE YEARS has been,

Will you tell me a silly story?

Okay, so this has been really good for my Spanish, because I have to practice narrating all the time.  But it wears me out.  Just wears my imagination down to a nub.  Last night on the way home from our church small group she asked again.  And my husband and I looked at each other like, “Your turn.”  And then I had a thought.  What if I could find a podcast that had a story?  So I found something I’d stumbled onto a long time ago, Storynory.  (It’s awesome.  Your kids will love them.)  We listened to two storynories and then I thought Wait. It’s Wednesday. Could I find one in Spanish?

Yes, I could.  I found the podcast CuentoAventuras and started playing El lobito bueno.  The girls were drawn in immediately and after we stopped the car and turned off the audio, Charis was telling us back some of the story! In Spanish. VOLUNTARILY! So get someone else to tell them a story.

She loves to read - and one thing leads to another!

She loves to read – and one thing leads to another!

Literacy matters

Zoe’s a super advanced reader.  She’s reading Judy Moody, Ramona, The Secret Garden, and Magic Tree House.  She loves Magic Tree House.  She will read two in a single day.  So of course when I saw a copy of one in Spanish at the local Barnes & Noble I had to snatch it up.

That was at least six months ago.  It’s sat on her shelf ever since.  But something about that Peppa Pig… and that podcast… and first thing this morning, guess what she had in her hand when she came out of her bedroom?  That book.  She wanted me to help her read it.

Cue: Hallelujah chorus.

She’s not exactly biliterate; she soars in English reading but I haven’t really asked her to be literate in Spanish, or even been able to expose her to as much literature in Spanish as she’s seen in English.  But now?  Now we can work on a new skill.  Because she wants to.




Photo Angry Toddler License CC-BY

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March 26, 2015 8 Comments

It’s not about the I in IPA, or the vocab list

Sometimes it's not that black-and-white. Chris Devers

Sometimes it’s not that black-and-white.
Chris Devers

Do you sometimes feel like we’re working in an all-or-nothing profession?

I’m not sure if it’s an artifact of social media, of tweets and blog posts designed to be punchy and petite at the same time.  I’m not sure if it’s a desire to be the next big thing, the acronym everyone’s talking about.  I raise my hand, I’m guilty here, I sign on to bandwagons and think-

Yes! I must be doing this! I must sell out to it, heart and soul, right now!

And after a while, I realize I got dazzled by the names behind it and forgot to ask,


Take the IPA, for example.  It stars in an ACTFL publication, for heaven’s sake, courtesy of a former ACTFL president.  And so I jumped in (without much research into them, because who has time for that?), thinking, I’ve gotta do 100% performance assessments!  I’ve gotta put them all in a scenario!  I need every assessment to solicit performance in every mode!

It didn’t take me long to realize I actually wasn’t willing to do that.  There were all kinds of assessments my students and I liked, and they worked for us.  There were other factors that were equally or more important to me.  So I’ve designed an all-encompassing IPA or two (you’ll even see some come out as resources on the blog) but before long I was watching teachers try to come up with some scenario under which they could get all the students to perform in all the modes and the result was a frustrated teacher and the most contrived language scenario with mediocre, unrealistic production tasks.

Really, the red flag came up right away for me, when I emailed someone and asked,

Can you help me figure this IPA thing out?  What’s it all about?

And she sent me an article from The Language Educator from the founding mother of IPAs herself and though I saw the point and better understood the concept, I couldn’t help thinking that asking fourth-graders to tackle the topic of their future profession was a bit of a stretch.

I feel this way about vocabulary, too.  I’m totally with you on the frustration with textbook vocabulary lists that are way too long and can’t possibly be acquired in the time allotted to the chapter.  But it’s just a tool.  It’s just a list.  Let me propose that we stop dying on this hill of

you cannot use a vocab list in a communicative classroom

and focus more properly on the deeper questions here:

I’ll confess, there are some things I’ll still sound all-or-nothing about.  I’ll always avoid asking multiple choice questions if I can.  It may snow in Acapulco before I give out a word search.  But that doesn’t mean you haven’t found a way to do it communicatively.  If you don’t use a list, great.  If you use a list, great – let’s look at the list of words as a field of possibilities, that some will stick and some won’t. Whether in a list I put together or not, whether I do quizzes or not, what they need for communicative tasks should be going in the eyes and ears, and staying in the brain, and coming out the mouth and hands.


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March 24, 2015 3 Comments

Armed for a world of incomprehensible input: Circumlocution training

Good morning from a sunny, beautiful spring day in Minneapolis, the location of the 2015 Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

My presentation here is called “Arming Students for a World of Incomprehensible Input.”  It’s based on an episode of the Black Box Podcast from last year (listen here, read the script here), and in it I discuss the why and how to teach students circumlocution, which is what you do when you don’t know a word for something: “It’s a website where people write stuff about parenting or what they do every day or recipes and stuff” (blog).

Here’s the Slideshare:

The presentation includes walking participants through a lesson plan for teaching circumlocution.  You can download that lesson plan here.

For further reading, see my other post on circumlocution from a while back; it’s about banning the dictionary.

Some participants in the session had great ideas I want to add here: Nicole suggested using the “what’s the difference” pictures from the Sunday comics; the objects that change are usually such low-frequency words that students have to circumlocute to identify them.  Another great suggestion was to target the Spanish verb sirve, which had not occurred to me but makes SO much sense, and if you speak Spanish you understand why.  One more I’ll be trying with my kindergartener: the iOS app Heads Up appears to be an engaging circumlocution game.  Thanks for all the great takeaways!

Here’s an added idea for more cultural competency: use a blank map and using the grid of regional variations included in the lesson plan, have students label the countries and then investigate a few words: write the variations of 2 or 3 words on the map according to where they are used.

Enjoy teaching your students circumlocution, and then watching them make incomprehensible input valuable by negotiating meaning to make in comprehensible- on their own!

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March 14, 2015 6 Comments