The Blog

All they need is accurate input… right? Wrong. (Black Box)

We know that students need comprehensible input in order to acquire language. Is that all we need?

Learn more in this Black Box videocast. Here’s the info.

BlackBox 3 Compelling

It is hard to find a research model that has influenced the direction of language more than Stephen Krashen’s five-pronged hypotheses first published in the late 1970′s.  Still, many language teachers may not be aware of what these hypotheses are, or how they play out in language teaching today.  In the third installment of the Black Box videocast series, Albert Fernandez invites us to consider with Krashen how effective input for language acquisition needs to be not only accurate, not only comprehensible, not only interesting, but compelling. What questions will this 10-minute episode have you asking about the way you teach?

Ready to watch?

The Musicuentos Black Box Podcast is a collection of media resources developed to make relevant research in language learning more accessible and understandable for teachers.  The project is cosponsored by Musicuentos and Indwelling Language.  For more information on the team behind this project and to help us keep the resources freely available for all teachers, visit the Black Box resource page.

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July 1, 2015 0 Comments

The new required school supply: Find your own audience

After a year “off,” this fall I’ll be back to teaching, in a unique opportunity (homeschool co-op) that I’m really excited about. And apprehensive about.

Things that worry me:

  • Mostly, time. I’ll be seeing my students only once a week (60 minutes for elementary, 90 minutes for upper grades). I’ll be finding something for them to do every day, though, so if you have taught a blended class and have recommendations, please send them along!

Things that I’m excited about:

  • They’re all novices. I haven’t taught novice (above kindergarten) in years and I’m SO EXCITED.
  • NO ADMINISTRATION. I’m totally in charge. Can you imagine? No red tape. No evaluation systems.  No tech bans.  No attendance records. No announcements.  NO GRADING REQUIREMENTS. I can NEVER GIVE A LETTER/NUMBER GRADE until a parent asks for something for a transcript.

Even before I contemplated this opportunity, I’d already determined one of the big changes I would make when I went back to teaching, and it was to my required supplies.  From now on, students will be required to find their own audience.


A few things I have learned in ten years of teaching:

  • Whether or not students are able to use any language for a lifetime is not primarily linked to the language skills they acquire in my class.
  • Students who do not want to learn language will not use it in their adult life, no matter what I do.
  • The amount of time we have in the majority of school classes is not enough to foster true bilingualism.
  • The students who end up with a lifelong skill in a second language are the ones who want to

Do it through Facebook, Twitter, email, Skype, a family down the street, someone in another class.  A relative, an epal, a blogger or Xbox.  Two or five is fine, but at least one.  Students have to make a community connection with someone who is truly bilingual – not another Spanish learner.

Some considerations we should ask:

  • Does the connection have to be a native speaker?
  • How will the student report to me who the person is and that they are willing to interact with him/her in the TL?
  • How will the student report interaction? I’m envisioning a requirement on this for every assessment, perhaps a weekly thing.
  • What are the security issues involved? What will parents worry about, and how can I keep them informed?

For the document above, find the PDF here, and a document you can download and open in Word here.  To my knowledge all images are copyright free.

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June 22, 2015 4 Comments

Grammar drills aren’t all in your head… or in your head at all (BlackBox)

Did you know grammar is not a skill you can practice? Read on. And watch this.

It’s already time for the second videocast of the Musicuentos Black Box.  Here’s the info.

Justin BB2 info


Ready to watch? This eight minutes (+) will help you understand what it really means to know a language and remind you in a powerful way what it is we should be practicing in the classroom.

The Musicuentos Black Box Podcast is a collection of media resources developed to make relevant research in language learning more accessible and understandable for teachers.  The project is cosponsored by Musicuentos and Indwelling Language.  For more information on the team behind this project and to help us keep the resources freely available for all teachers, visit the Black Box resource page.

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June 15, 2015 5 Comments

Product Launch: Calico Home Learning Series Level B

Home LevelBCan children learn Spanish at home without someone in the home knowing the language?  That was the question Erica Fischer of Calico Spanish asked me two years (ish) ago, and I said,

In the 21st century, there’s very little limit to what people can do at home if they really want to. Let’s do it.

And Calico Spanish Home Learning Series was born.

About a year ago, Calico released Level A, in which María the yellow monkey and Pepe the blue fish teach kids how to use simple language in the context of talking about themselves. Now we’ve -finally!- pushed out Level B (really, it was like a birth… okay not really but sort of) last week.

I love Level B even more than Level A! Watching the characters go from my head to these Video Stories was incredibly fun.  Level B is about the family and in the story-based content, Pepe the dog, Goyo the cat (he’s my favorite!), and Camilo the rabbit (^^ right up there) teach children how to talk about their families (including concepts like months of the year, what people like to do, and describing people).

I’m thankful to Erica and Calico for the opportunity to work on this project that is dear to my heart, and I’m honored to be the primary author on something I think will contribute so much to families wanting to explore Spanish on their own, but not knowing where to start.

Are you using Calico Spanish Home Learning Series? I’d love to know what you think, and get your suggestions for future levels.  Before you know it, you’ll be seeing Level C, where Rita the green frog (she’s fabulous!) and Raúl the gray mouse (he’s that adorable annoying neighbor kid always coming over!) help kids learn to talk about their homes (and including concepts like telling time, daily activities, and talking about where something is located).  The characters play Pañuelito, Rita makes up a duck song to the tune of “Caballito blanco” – it’s going to be a blast.

And to further honor the reason homeschooling and Spanish bring joy to my life, I must include an image of the dedication page.


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June 11, 2015 0 Comments

The one-word key to teaching culture


What is the point of teaching culture, anyway? Is it to get kids to realize that people are different? (They already do.)  Is it to get them to try a new food? (Lengua, eww, gross. Does that have peanuts in it?)

No, cultural awareness is more about perspective-taking.  According to the research, children who show empathy will be more successful in life.  And what is empathy?  It’s “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”  It’s perspective-taking.

As I hear teachers ask this question a lot,

How can we teach culture?

I think I always felt we were asking the wrong question, but not until my recent interest in 1) empathy research and 2) design-based learning did I identify why I felt this way.  Asking how I can teach culture is asking how I can transfer some knowledge I supposedly have to a learner, and that’s just not it.  So as I worked my way through how I felt about teaching culture, I identified the one word I believe is the answer to “teaching” cultural awareness in the classroom.


Inquiry-based learning models are following the research that says that children who investigate the big questions are more successful in just about every way.  So let’s start asking questions.  Better yet, let’s get learners asking questions, present the sources of some answers, and let them have at it.

Not: “Mexicans eat different foods than I do.”
But: “Why do Mexican families eat parts of the animal that my mom throws in the trash? Do they think it’s delicious? How do they cook it?  I wonder if I’d like it if I tried it the way they make it?”

Not: “Nicaragua grows a lot of coffee.”
But: “Why don’t Nicaraguans drink the coffee they grow? What are the expenses involved in brewing and drinking coffee? How much do I spend on coffee, and how much of that ends up with the coffee farmer?”

Not: “Avocados are an important export in Mexico.”
But: “Why is the drug trade affecting avocado production in Mexico? Who may have picked the avocado in my kitchen, and what is his life like? What would I do in his shoes?”

You can see how these questions reach the beliefs in the culture – why do the Indians mistrust third parties who want to market their cultural goods?

I can sense your question: how do we approach these issues while staying in the TL?  Jury’s still out on that one, but I do have a few preliminary answers.  One is that it’s a good use of the English time you may be allowing in your classroom (10% or less on ACTFL’s recommendations).  Another is to put it in an at-home portion of your class (a flipped model).  One more – focus on authentic resources at all levels, and make them comprehensible for novices.  Whenever I meet a teacher who is struggling to teach culture, some probing questions reveal that the class is heavily focused on language explanations and use and there’s little interpretive work with authentic resources.  The people themselves will expose students to culture if we let them.

Ready for some more questions?  From a curriculum design perspective, here are some of what I think are better questions to ask when contemplating cultural content in the classroom.

How to answer these questions is a great topic to address at the Camp Musicuentos curriculum design workshop.  Louisville’s on a wait list right now, but there are several spots open if you can get to Rhode Island in July.  If you’d like this information as a PDF to print and post for your department, download it here.

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June 8, 2015 0 Comments

Why your method doesn’t matter: Black Box videocast

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the world language teaching profession recently, it’s that we’re plagued with arguments about why one method trumps another.  As it turns out, we’re wasting our time on that argument, and we should be asking a different question altogether.

BB Videocast 1 infoI know, I’ve dropped off the internet a bit lately and that’s going to be the case for June at least, it seems.  I’m excited for all of you getting a break at last and traveling near and far.  I’m facing some pretty daunting deadlines and Camp Musicuentos and that’s pushing off my work on the next reading guide (Esperanza renace) and the blog redesign planned for this summer too.  And so, it’s four days off schedule, but I did wrap up the first videocast of the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast.  Give me 12 minutes to introduce you to Michael Long, who wants you to realize that it’s not so much your methods that will make a difference in your students’ success, but rather the methodological principles that form the basis for everything you do in the classroom.

To help make the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast resources available for teachers everywhere, please visit our GoFundMe project.

The Musicuentos Black Box Podcast collection of resources are co-sponsored by Musicuentos and Indwelling Language.  Justin over at Indwelling Language is up to bat for the next installment. I can’t wait!

WebIndwelling Language Logo with text lighter orange 576

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June 4, 2015 3 Comments

Embedded listening

Are you subscribed to the CASLS weekly newsletter? If not, go here and sign up now, then come back.  Every Monday you’ll get quick resources and bite-size, research-packed learning delivered to your inbox.

One such week a listening activity caught my eye.  The activity was adapted from an activity on Lanternworld (ESL) and with it, CASLS was encouraging us to go beyond the common cloze activity in which “students are not often encouraged to engage in a metacognitive approach to task completion.”  As I looked at the way they adapted the cloze activity (asking students to predict what goes in the blank, talking about predictions with a peer), I was reminded of the strategy for teaching with comprehensible input of embedded reading, in which students are given sheltered texts that get gradually more complex as students work with them.

Then it hit me – what if we took the principles of embedded reading and created embedded listening?  I’m sure you’ve done aspects of this type of scaffolding with yours students before, but in case it hadn’t occurred to you, as it hadn’t occurred to me, let me help you with a couple of resources.

First, here’s an explanation of the process I’m calling “embedded listening.”




  1. First, to begin scaffolding the authentic audio, shorten the script to short, key phrases specifically aligned with what you are targeting by using the audio source.  Drop the key word and present the cloze as only these key phrases.
  2. Next, students make predictions: what word do they think will fill the blank effectively?  You could switch it up and ask them to be funny with it (but in a way that makes sense).
  3. After making their solo predictions, students pair up and come to an agreement on what they think the word might be.
  4. Now it’s time for a pure proficiency exercise: adding detail.  I loved hearing a presenter (wish I could remember who it was!) talk about how she would ask students to count on their hands how many details they could add: “I like to eat (one finger- action) lots of hamburgers (two – added object) at a restaurant near my house (three – where) with my friends (four – with whom) because they’re the best hamburgers (five – why).  Look at all that detail and complexity that pushes students beyond the simple phrases we so often hear!
  5. Here, students hear the script for the first time – but just the simple phrases, and from you.  You say the phrases once, they write what they hear.
  6. Now give them the whole script.  Feel free to drop more words than what you gave them the first time around, according to what you think their ability and frustration level will be.  Choose whether you will play the audio only twice or three times, or if you’ll let them listen as many times as they want.
  7. At the end, ask for higher order thinking, regardless of the level.  Can they compare something to their own culture? Express an opinion? Relate their own experience?

EL_Ultimo_Partido_pdf__sampleIntermediate embedded listening: past narration, sports context

I’ll be putting these embedded listening resources out from time to time here on the blog in the resources section as well as on my Teachers Pay Teachers store.  This first set of activities is based on a commercial using a lot of past narration in a sports context and is for intermediate students, targeting past narration (preterite / imperfect contrast). Five pages with a key and six activities, including ideas for extension.  Designed to last at least one 50-minute class period, longer if you choose one or more of the extension activities.

Embedded Listening Activity: “Nocilla: El último partido” : $1.50

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May 27, 2015 2 Comments

Rubrics: How important is task completion?

Forgive me while I brainstorm in public a moment.

rubric screen shotAlmost four years ago I created this rubric, based on the ACTFL guidelines and the Jefferson County (KY) Public Schools’ world language rubric.  I loved it.  It’s one of my most requested resources.  I used it for years.  But as I wrap up my first year out of the classroom and prepare to embark on a new journey (teaching my own Spanish classes for homeschooled students and adult learners), I’ve been reflecting on the good and bad of my rubric and how to redesign it for my newest journey.

It’s not all the same

One of the things I like most about the rubric is also one of the things I like least: it separates a major focus from a minor focus.  That resonates with me.  Not all language use factors are created equal.  Pronunciation in the sense of sounding like a native isn’t a goal or even possible for most learners.  Pronunciation for comprehensibility - that is important.  As language nerds teachers we love to nitpick about the verb endings and adjective agreement, but the fact is that the vast majority of the time, those mistakes do not impede communication.  For my fourth-year students striving for Intermediate High, eliminating those patterns is a goal, but for my first-year novices, it’s just not.  They just want to talk.

So what is it I don’t like?  I always wondered why task completion was listed as a minor focus, almost in such a way that it would not affect the overall grade at all.  I think I started wondering this as I used the rubric more and more to grade AP assessments, and finally exclusively teaching AP.  In that class, task completion was a major focus for sure.  Students couldn’t be very successful on a task if they responded in a way that did not address what they were asked to do.  And as I intend to make my interpretive tasks look more and more like incorporating authentic resources into production tasks (e.g. tell whether or not you agree with the opinion in this meme), regardless of level, yeah, it matters to me.  If you produce a whole bunch of pretty language on the AP but don’t cite a single one of the three sources they asked you to, you’re sunk.  My rubric didn’t give me a good place to say that.

But I liked my rubric.  Other people liked my rubric.  Surely there wasn’t anything wrong with it.  But I knew there was.  And then Melanie reminded me there was.

Is task completion part of life?

As I evaluate what to do with task completion on my rubric, I’m not sure I know what it’s going to look like.  I can tell you it won’t be labeled “minor focus.”  I can tell you what questions I’m asking myself.

  • When someone asks me to do something that requires language, how important is it that I actually answer the question?
  • If I ask a student a question, and they use great language to address something entirely different, how can I give credit for the language effort without letting them get away with avoiding the task?
  • How much will task completion be a part of the life I’m supposed to be preparing my students for?
  • How does the importance of task completion compare to the importance of the language used to complete it?

Rumblings of change

I do know that there are several things I want to keep and things I want to change about my rubric.

What I love:

  • I must have my large feedback box to write anything I can think of to help the student reach his goal.
  • I will still have everything I want on one rubric so I use the same one for every task I assess.
  • Students will still know exactly where they are in regard to the expectation: approaching, meeting, or exceeding.
  • The descriptions will still be full of proficiency-based terminology focused on successful communication.

What I’ll probably change:

  • I don’t like the word “Unsatisfactory.”  Looking for a new way to say, “You’ve gotta try this again before we move on.”
  • Task completion needs a different spot not labeled “minor focus.”  I will probably remove the term “minor focus” altogether.  What other way can I indicate that not all language aspects are created equal?
  • I don’t expect to teach students hitting Advanced Low language and most other teachers don’t either. So I’m kicking that one off to give me more space.
  • I want to make the “language control” descriptions communicate more to the student (those last two on the right confusing, anyone?).
  • I’d like to figure out how to make the rubric more interpersonal-friendly, since this is the mode most of my students actually want most.

As always, turning to the PLN

Isn’t our online community of language teachers fantastic?  I can tell you to whom I’ll be turning for input on my new rubric:

Maybe I’ll even have my new rubric developed in time to share with the teachers at the Camp Musicuentos workshops.  I’ve always worked better with deadlines!

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May 14, 2015 6 Comments

Add this to your Novice AND Intermediate HW choice options NOW


Every once in a while I come across an authentic resource so amazing I have to give it its own blog post to tell you USE THIS RESOURCE.

And then there’s this one, which makes me shout #addthis and #bookmarkthis and THEN it leads me straight into an example of something I was just asking myself about, design-based connected learning.

There is a podcast called Cuentoaventuras that I play for my kids and we love it.  The host, Gastón, tells stories about characters like El lobo feróz and la bruja buena.  He’s such a great storyteller.


Okay, so it’s an authentic resources with stories, but what makes it such a great resource for novices, perhaps the best authentic audio resource for novices I have ever heard?

At the beginning of every single podcast, Gastón (and his guests like el lobo feróz or his niece or nephew) does… wait for it…

a mail call.

There was a program I listened to when I was a kid that did something similar, starting every broadcast with the host reading mail they’d received from kids, particularly if it was their birthday.  The mail often included a joke.  I’ll never forget when I sent in my letter and they read my note and my joke on the air.  If you’ve heard something like this, you know what these notes include.  On Cuentoaventuras, they’re from kids, and they include:

  • an introduction with name, age, and where the child is from
  • often an introduction to family members
  • often a mention of when the child’s birthday is
  • greetings
  • what characters the child likes and/or what their favorite story is

There are at least three or four of these at the beginning of every podcast.  And it’s not just Gastón reading the letters.  He also takes voice mail greetings in the child’s own voice.  I’m telling you, this stuff is gold.  When have you seen so much language we put in the novice category, all in one place, in a completely authentic context?!

If you add this to your novice-level homework choice options, it’s super easy to ask for a TL comprehension check: Ask the student to give you the name, age, and origin of (three?) greetings read/played along with two other details mentioned (such as siblings or a favorite story).


Of course, intermediate listeners will also benefit from listening to the children’s greetings, especially the jokes (ask for at least one and an explanation of the punch line!), but also they’ll get some engaging input with a lot of manipulating past tenses by listening to at least part of the story.  The stories are about 20 minutes each, and since this is one of only two homework assignments I gave per week, I’d probably ask them to listen to the whole thing and give me a summary.  In particular they’d benefit from one of his cuentos improvisados, where he asks his guest for details almost exactly the way a TPRS story-asker will!

Design-based learning?

If you read my last post you know how interested I’ve been in what a design-based curriculum looks like.  I know what it doesn’t look like – it doesn’t look like making a labeled diorama of a TL culture city (little language, no real-world problem).  But finding this podcast walked me right into what I feel like is a perfect example.  Go to Gastón’s blog for a minute and read what happened to his nephew and then come back.

Do you see what I mean?

Real-world problem: A young boy has been badly hurt and needs encouragement.

Design-based solution: What project can I design to tell this boy in Spanish who I am, where I’m from, what I like to do, and that I hope he gets better soon?  A video, digital poster?  Old-school get-well card?

Ah, now that is a community connection by design.

I’ll end this the way Gastón does: Colorín colorado, este cuento se ha acabado.


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May 11, 2015 2 Comments

What a design-based WL program looks like



If you know me you know I love a good research book, particularly one that tells us in lay language what it’s going to take to help kids succeed in a world we can’t even imagine, one that’s vastly different from the one we grew up in.  The other day, Zoe asked me,

Mami, what’s a cassette?

Ah, the pain in my soul.  And I thought people who liked records were old.

The most eye-opening book I’ve read recently on this topic is Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators.  (If you haven’t read it, click and read my review.  Then come back.  You’ll thank me.)

Of course, as usually happens, since I read the book I’ve also come across articles (like this one on Edutopia) that are finally converting me to the inquiry-based approaches collectively referred to as project-based learning (or problem-based learning, or inquiry-based learning, or problem-based inquiry – you get the idea).  The research is compelling: the 21st century will reward innovators, and innovators come from a background of “deep understanding derived from collaborative methods.”

One of the ways the book and article really got me thinking was to emphasize that this type of learning is best approached and referred to as design-based learning.  So of course, I’ve been mulling over the big question ever since:

What does a design-based world language program look like?

According to the article, design-based learning asks students to “create products that require understanding and application of knowledge.”  That’s really the only answer I have for you.  Other than that, I can simply offer you the questions I’m asking myself, that I think would help me develop a design-based world language program.  In no particular order, they are, from the student’s perspective:

  • What is a problem related to this topic?
  • What is a cultural product related to this topic?
  • How do the relevant products, practices, and perspectives compare to my culture?
  • What can I do to help solve a problem?
  • Can I use what I’m learning to provide a service to the TL community?
  • Can I design something while using the TL and that involves enough TL use to help me develop real communication skills?

And so, it seems to me, those of us interested in design-based learning in the world language classroom want to inspire our students to ask one overarching question:

DESIGN based pic

How’s that for a curriculum development project for the summer?  A group of like-minded teachers would love to help you work through this and other curriculum planning issues at this summers’ two Camp Musicuentos sites, Louisville, Kentucky and Warwick, Rhode Island.  There’s still some very limited space left.

This is a tough question, especially for teachers in novice classrooms.  If you want to know how this could really work, as I do, let me put you in touch with some friends of mine.  Get a discussion going with Don Doehla or Laura Sexton, or ask the global mindset folks over at VIF International what they’re doing about it.

What are you doing to create innovators?

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May 5, 2015 1 Comment