The Blog

Anatomy of a novice question

If you’ve been through ACTFL’s Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) or Modified Oral Proficiency Interview (MOPI) training (I have not), perhaps you can help me clarify an issue when assessing novices.

When talking to teachers about what a novice can and can’t do, I’ve heard teachers make this comment:

But that’s a question, right? And novices aren’t supposed to be able to ask questions?

That’s a misunderstanding.  The major characteristics of novices is that their language is heavily supported by (if not completely) memorized language on familiar topics.  A memorized question is still memorized language.  After all, a novice can ask how are you?  The distinction, I believe, comes when the speaker wants to dissect parts of language and reorganize them in order to create a new question.  So that is the (fuzzy) line – that’s when the student is reaching into intermediate.

How about a Spanish example?

Novice Nellie has memorized the question cómo estás, but she doesn’t want to ask how you are doing, right now she wants to ask how your family is doing.  So she says,

¿Cómo estás tu la familia?

Here is a question where the speaker is using memorized chunks -”cómo estás” and “la familia” – with the possessive tu in an attempt to make it your family.  But these memorized chunks are a little creatively rearranged to try to create a new question.

So which is it?  I’m calling it novice high.  What proficiency is shown in the language in this question?

Bill Watterson

Bill Watterson

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March 2, 2015 2 Comments

I see a… great chance to practice prepositions

I recently observed a teacher practicing prepositional phrases with students and it got me thinking about communicative ways to practice prepositions.  A couple of notes:

First, most textbook suggested vocabulary lists include way too many prepositions.  Take a deep breathe, remember that you can’t control vocabulary, resist the pressure to cover too much content, and determine to deeply practice a few at a time, because you’re truly interested in long-term memory.

Second, prepositions that indicate location (above, behind, on top of, below, next to, between) are a highly visual concept.  Remember that vision is the sense that trumps all the rest and find ways to give students visual practice with these.

I see something…

CC-BY-NC-SA Fidel Ramos

Fidel Ramos

1. Find a photo

This picture is titled “Barbacoa en Yaco Sistemas” and was taken in Andalucía, Spain.  I chose a photo that was culturally authentic, but that also complicates how much students will recognize in the photo.  You can use a photo you took yourself, or find one on Creative Commons.  You can choose one from the target culture, or something random.  You can choose one that illustrates some topic from your current unit, or a previous unit (think: school supplies on a table, animals in a pen).  The sweet spot here, in my opinion, is a photo from the target culture illustrating a topic covered many weeks before, to effectively recycle material students may be forgetting, and including mostly items that students know the words for.

2. Set up the noun vocabulary.

Next, in the target language identify with students what you see in the photo.  Perhaps you know what all these foods are.  Perhaps you don’t.  Let’s see what we have here- looks like salad, chips, sausage, crackers, olives, bread, cheese, oil, pepper, bowls, glass.  What else?

3. One student: choose & describe location

Randomly choose a student or ask for a confident volunteer to begin.  The student chooses an item but doesn’t tell anyone what it is.  Instead, he describes where it is in relation to other items, including any other language he can and wants to:

I see a food that makes me sick.  It’s next to the salad. It’s behind the cheese.  It’s also behind the bread.  It’s next to the sausage.  It’s in front of the pepper.

What am I identifying?

Try this out as a class starter that takes advantage of the high brain activity at the beginning of class, or as a brain break when you can tell students are nearing or at the end of their natural attention span.

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February 24, 2015 0 Comments

Speaking of motivation: Guest interview on Paulino Brener’s EPC Show


I’m looking forward to participating in a special interview with Paulino Brener on his EPC Show in about a week.  Join us online to talk about motivational aspects of our curricula.

Cross-posted from Paulino Brener at and you’ll find out more about where to find the video here:

Join me on Saturday February 28 at 1pm CST for an interview and presentation with Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, World Language teacher and blogger at Musicuentos.

Sara-Elizabeth will be talking about  motivation and how it affects various parts of our process – resources we choose, vocabulary, assessments. S he will also give  us a preview of her presentation at Central States Conference 2015  (#CSCTFL15).

You can send your question for Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell in advance to or ask your questions DURING the show by leaving a comment on this YouTube or send a tweet using hasghtag  #epcshow.


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February 20, 2015 0 Comments

It’s TIME! Open registration for Camp Musicuentos ’15

Are you ready for the most intense, profitable workshop on curriculum planning this summer?

I’ve been planning for the 2015 Camp Musicuentos workshops since the inaugural workshop ended last June, and I’m so excited to announce that registration for the events (a 2-day workshop in Louisville, Kentucky, and a one-day workshop in Warwick, RI) is now open.

Camp Musicuentos 1What’s this about?

Camp Musicuentos is a one-day workshop designed to get you as far as possible in planning your next school year: units, themes, assessments, down to the resources and activities if you can make it that far.  Here’s a summary of what you can expect:

  • A crash course in setting realistic proficiency goals and expectations for your class
  • Only 20 teachers grouped by similar levels for maximum benefit
  • Working together through a step-by-step process beginning with choosing and scheduling your units/chapters for the next school year
  • Developing proficiency-based performance assessments
  • Identifying discrete skills students will need to accomplish a goal
  • Learning to more efficiently find, evaluate, and share activities and resources to prepare students for higher proficiency
  • And delicious snacks, coffee, drinks, and lunch won’t hurt either!

I’ve found that in workshops I’ve attended, the smaller the group, the more I can learn from the people around me, so in order to be of the most benefit for the participants, this workshop is limited to 20 participants per day.  Last year the one-day workshop in Louisville filled up in 72 hours, so I encourage you to reserve your spot right away.  Once a day is full, I will open a waiting list here.  Things come up, and chances are one or two people will have to cancel, and a spot will open up for a later registration.

Where will I meet you?

(Base)Camp Musicuentos: 6/25-26, Louisville, KY

I welcome you to come to my hometown for what I’m now calling (Base)Camp Musicuentos.  This event will be held again at the Hyatt Place Louisville East, who did a wonderful job hosting us last year.  They have blocked a limited number of rooms at a discount rate for participants, and room includes breakfast.

At this hotel we’ll have a morning snack break, afternoon snack break, drinks, coffee, and a lunch including soup, salad, choice of two sandwiches, and freshly baked cookies (vote for menu options at registration).

Cost and two levels!
Based on feedback from last year’s workshop, I’ve divided the workshop into two days (8:30 to 4:30) based on level.  On Thursday we’ll work specifically as a group of teachers of novices, and on Friday we’ll work together to plan for our intermediate students.  The cost for one day is $139.00 and for both days is $259.00.

To register: Simply fill out the form at this link.

Camp Musicuentos NE: 7/24, Warwick, RI

My first expansion for Camp Musicuentos is into the northeast.  Join us in Warwick, Rhode Island this year.

The beautiful Hilton Garden Inn in Warwick is hosting the event.  This location also offers muffins and coffee in the morning, South of the Border build-your-own-burrito lunch, and afternoon granola bars, fruit, and yogurt.  They also have blocked a limited number of rooms for participants at a discounted rate.

Cost: Just one day for the Northeast workshop, with teachers divided into groups working together based on the levels they teach.  We’ll meet from 9:00 to 5:00 and the cost is $139.00 for the day.

To register: Simply fill out the form at this link.

Where should Camp Musicuentos expand to next?

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February 18, 2015 6 Comments

The M that trumps your method, materials, & madness

Shall we talk labor and delivery a moment?
I suspect I have your attention!  No worries, I’m not going to get gross.  I don’t think so, anyway.  But you will get to know me a little bit better.

Because I wanted to!

Because I wanted to!

When I was pregnant with my third child, some family friends were visiting, a couple and their 17-year-old son.  The subject of the upcoming birth came up and as 17-year-old boys are so knowledgable about this sort of thing, he made an offhand comment about drugs (the pain-relieving kind) and childbirth.  I mentioned that I was planning to have another natural childbirth and well, we had to explain a bit about what “natural” actually means in the context of childbirth.  He asked the burning question that came to his mind:

But, why? Why would you do something like that if you don’t have to?

There are lots of answers to that question but if you really want to discuss it, there are other forums for you to do so.  (Or, you could email me if you really want to.)  Usually, though, the underlying answer is simple: Because I want to.  I told this young man,

People run marathons all the time, and that’s no picnic in the park.  It hurts.  So why do they do it? Because they find the process and the result more rewarding than the pain and effort.

He stopped and thought and acknowledged the point.  People do put themselves through pain or a lot of effort pretty frequently, on purpose, simply because they want something from the process or the result.  It’s all about motivation.

Except, perhaps it’s not.  Someone tweeted a link to me recently, an article in which famed input-hypothesis researcher Stephen Krashen announces “the end of motivation as a relevant factor in language acquisition.”  I was stunned.  I’ll admit that my admiration of Krashen has been steadily declining for years.  On the one hand, no one could overstate his importance as perhaps the single researcher who most forcefully impacted the direction of world language teaching in the past forty years.  The last time I saw him speak in person, he had been wrapping up some important research on pleasure reading and the results and implications were intriguing and enormous.  Between that and his usual demonstration of how he can get you to understand some German in 2 minutes, everyone in the room was spellbound.  But on the other hand, even then, he asked the big question that should have been in everyone’s mind – how can we possibly replicate language acquisition in the classroom when we don’t have the time? – and answered, well, that he didn’t have an answer.

I’ve had the sharpening, thought-provoking privilege of interacting with Krashen a couple of times since then, and each time I thought, no, he truly thinks he can generalize X research (insert a highly specific case study here) that has nothing to do with a language teaching situation and apply it to language teaching.  And then I read what he wrote about motivation and I couldn’t swallow a line of it.  Spectacularly, he repeatedly uses the phrase “our students” while spinning his announcement around two boys who, where I am, do not reflect our students in almost any way.

So my head has been spinning with questions.  I mean, I can’t overstate the influence Krashen had in the total professional revolution that was my graduate school experience.

But what do I do with my other favorite researchers who show that purely extrinsic motivation hinders education but there’s almost no stopping what a kid will do when she is intrinsically motivated through autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

What about the forty years of research on how motivation actually affects language learning, where whether motivation affects language learning is not even a question?

CC-BY-NC-SA Lotus Carroll

Lotus Carroll

Can you hear my stunned disbelief?  The ripples of my shock bouncing off the research from everyone and their brother and sister that says that motivation is perhaps the key factor in predicting L2 success from issues like whether students will ever continue in the language (not a big question that faces us at all, right) down to whether or not their very pronunciation will improve?!

I mean, what does Krashen say when he sits in a room with Dörnyei?  With Gardner?

Who’s right?  Is Krashen right and motivation has no effect on whether people acquire language, it’s all input?  Am I right and motivation is the most important factor in student success, bar none?  I’m certainly nowhere near as educated and experienced as Krashen in the field, right?  How dare I even compare my opinion to his, right?  I mean, doesn’t he have an army of student researchers at his beck and call while the time I used to spend reading research for fun is now spent baking fish sticks and singing ABC’s (also fun)?  Does this seem so very crazy to me because in my shadowed ignorance I’m just completely missing something?  Am I missing some obvious sarcasm since it seems to me that his whole brief essay is really about motivation after all?  I mean, isn’t the claim that we need to make the message more compelling just another message that we need to access motivation?

Perhaps we’re both right.  Perhaps the answer is that Krashen is just narrowly focused on pure acquisition as it can be defined the first time around, and doesn’t actually care how we can access this sort of brain process in a classroom.  Or perhaps it’s that he is talking about motivation and just talking around it at the same time.  Steve wondered with me,

I wonder if the simplicity of his message is what makes it appealing. Is it too “clean”?

(You will learn a lot in a hurry by reading Steve’s post on theory underpinning language and acquisition, the whole series really.)

Yes, perhaps it is the simplicity of Krashen’s message that attracts us, that still has state and regional language teaching associations calling him up as the keynote speaker.  We want an easy answer.  But it is the simplicity of his answers that make them difficult to accept in the mess that is second language learning in the classroom.  Perhaps if I thought we could ever even come close to reproducing first language acquisition in the classroom, the simple message would mean more to me.  But there’s no chance.  We can’t.

In case I haven’t communicated to you a clear enough picture of the muddy mess that motivation in second language acquisition can be, check out Matt’s posts on motivation and the comments on them by his readers.

Whether your methods include grammar drills, vocab lists, or goofy stories; whether your materials include Realidades or Sing, Dance, Laugh & eat Tacos or Kahoot!; whether a particularly disrespectful group of immature freshmen is driving you to madness, let me propose that the m that trumps them all is motivation.  Because while whether or not they actually acquire anything in this week’s lessons is important, whether or not they are doing something communicative with it ten years from now is a much messier question:

Do they want to?


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February 17, 2015 2 Comments

Shake things up: Vary your seating – every day

What does your seating arrangement say about your classroom style?

In my last post I made a side comment about how I handle seating assignments and discovered that the only time I’ve written about it on the blog was in the last bullet point in a post on increasing student TL use.  How unfortunate, since this method of seating students, an idea I got from my ESL methods professor in graduate school (thanks Alexandra!), has been one of the most effective ways for me to improve many aspects of my classroom, from student behavior to pair/group activities.


One of our tasks in the first days of school is for every student to make a name tent (label a 5×8 or 4×6 card folded in half).  In elementary, I do them myself and it’s a very effective way to start out 100% in the TL with student comprehension; it only takes a few TL questions (What’s your name? Is it John? No, it’s not John.  Is it Eddie?  No, your name isn’t Eddie.  I know your name.  Your name is Tyler! -write ‘Tyler’-) for even 3-year-olds to begin answering me with their name when I ask

Y tú, ¿cómo te llamas?

In secondary, students do them on their own.  They can use markers to decorate if they want.  We can add a Spanish name to the other side if they’d like to have a Spanish name for class.  At the end of class, I collect them all, put a rubber band around them, label them with a sticky note identifying the class (2-II for Spanish 2, second period, or just VII for seventh period, or “Keeton” for Mrs. Keeton’s kindergarten), and let the students know that the next day, and every class, they will sit where their name tent is.

For the seating arrangement, I use groups of tables.  For classes larger than 10 students, two tables are side by side, right against each other along the length, with two students on the outside of each, and more on the ends if I need them:

I reproduced those two tables toward the back, so I had a total of 4 groups, with seats for between 16 and 24 students, and one long table at the back for more students (our class size did not typically get that high).

Then, right before every class, I would spend about 45 seconds going around the room setting out the name tents.  I alternated – one in this group, next tent in that group, next tent in the third group, and so on, so that by collecting them all together at the end of a class period, and alternating them to set them out the next day, the seating arrangement almost always varied greatly.  I even did this all the way down to 4-year-olds who sat in a semicircle on the floor when I went to their classroom; it was part of our routine to stop what they were doing and come find their name to sit behind (literacy skills!).

Here are some of the biggest benefits this arrangement gave my class:

  • I could easily manipulate the seating of students who could not sit next to each other without causing problems.
  • I could reward students by purposely seating them next to a good friend.
  • There was always an opportunity for new scaffolding.  At each table likely someone was more proficient than you (you being a student), and/or someone was less proficient than you, and/or tomorrow it would be different.  And I could plan this based on what I knew about individual students.
  • I could quickly quell complaints about seating with “Put up with it today, you know tomorrow will be different.”
  • My elementary students would get a “star” on their sheet for collecting the names for me, and they loved this.
  • Stressing out to memorize my students’ names as fast as possible = not an issue.

I did occasionally have an issue with students switching around the name tents when I wasn’t looking, but since it was usually someone moving theirs next to a person I deliberately had not put them by, I caught it pretty quickly and took care of it.

My administrator loved the communicative, collaborative nature of my seating arrangement so much that he held all faculty meetings in my room.

Think a bit and make a plan: how could changing your seating make your class more communicative?

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February 12, 2015 0 Comments

#Teach2Teach 3: A coach who failed me, and a coach who didn’t

Preservice world language teachers are asking experienced teachers questions they’d like to hear about from the trenches.  To find out more about what #Teach2Teach is, see here for an explanation of how it came about, and what the questions are, or how to submit your own question if you’re a teacher in training or a new teacher.

I answered the first question, and skipped the second, because it was about politics in teaching, and I have been blessed to be able to mostly stay out of that sort of thing.  For this third question, Jennifer asks,

What has been your most troublesome experience with teaching and how did you handle it?

I thought about two, and they both involved school coaches.

A lesson from the coach who failed me

Chris Hunkeler CC-BY-SA

Chris Hunkeler

I’ve only taught at two separate schools, and at the first one, they had an incredible policy on athlete scholarship.  A student who was failing a single class at any reporting period was ineligible to play.  Usually, this was not a big deal.  It was just the way it was.  Until one day it was a big deal.

In my class I had the school’s star female basketball player.  It was a small school, with generally mediocre sports teams, but in girls’ basketball, there was no question she was the best.  But she was lazy.  I don’t remember if she simply didn’t turn in the assignments I gave, or came up severely short on the requirements, or just bombed them for lack of effort, but she was failing my class because she simply didn’t care.  She shouldn’t have had any trouble at all, but she did.

You can probably see where this is going.  Her grade in my class made her ineligible to play.  So I received a visit from the coach, an outstanding older man, a fatherly type with years of experience teaching and coaching, whom everyone respected, including me.  But this one time he dropped the ball (pun intended).  He told me to violate my grading policies to cut her enough slack to pass.  And what did I say?  Well, no.  Of course.

So I got called, with the coach, into the principal’s office.  The principal was a middle-aged man with years of experience in teaching and administration, whom everyone respected, especially me.  But this one time he let me down.  He told me to violate my grading policies to cut her enough slack to pass.  And what did I do?  I cried.  I got angry.  And I did it.

Yes, you read that right.  I didn’t go on a crusade.  I didn’t stand on my principles.  I was a second-year female teacher with the most powerful men in the school using their authority to pressure me into accommodating a lazy, failing athlete because she could play slightly better than mediocre basketball.  And I told myself that hey, she was going to turn something in, so it wasn’t like I was giving her grades for nothing.  So I took her shoddy late work and passed her and she played basketball.  And nothing like that happened to me again.

So I suppose the answer to how did you deal with it? is that I decided the hill wasn’t one to die on, and I gave in, and it doesn’t keep me up at night.

Maybe I know more about politics than I thought.

A lesson from the coach who changed me

Fast forward several years to my second school, also a private school, with a bit larger of a student body but not much better sports teams.  The year after I started incorporating music and storytelling in class, students were much more motivated to take Spanish 3, and the retention rate into Spanish 3 went from 4% to 40%.  The class was large for that level for me, and not as homogenous as I was used to advanced classes being.  I had two students in particular, baseball players, who were best friends and could not sit next to each other without being very disruptive.  I genuinely liked them both.  They were both bright, had strong personalities; both were generally disliked by several of their other teachers.  But I got along quite well with them.  Until one of them started to let his personality show too much strength.

Almost the entire first semester was foul with this student, but two exemplary moments stand out in my mind.  One was the toddler temper tantrum he had when he walked in one day and -as usual- his name tent (see #9 here) was not next to his best friend’s.  He swept his books off the table onto the floor, he was so angry.  His classmates just stared.  The other example was the day I announced I was pregnant with our first baby.  He looked at me and said,

Your husband is the father, right?

I get that I’m a sheltered teacher who’s never taught in an inner-city school and this is probably par for the course there.  But I’m a sheltered teacher and venomous disrespect like that is not something I’m used to.  When I told my administrator about the incident much later, he told me I should have come to him; the boy would have been suspended.  But I didn’t.  What I did do was bring it up at a department head meeting that included the social studies department head, who was also the baseball coach.  He told me he’d take care of it on the field, and to come to him if I had any more such troubles with his baseball boys.  (Insert me clapping here for all coaches who believe greatness on the field isn’t an excuse to do whatever you want off the field.)

But that wasn’t what made such an impact.  He also proceeded to offer some real insight on what was going on.  He told me that the boy’s parents had been going through a nasty divorce.  They’d split up, and then decided to get back together, and then couldn’t work it out and decided to divorce.  He’d been on a see-saw for the better part of a year.  So, the coach’s opinion was that he blamed his mother, and he was taking it out on all females in authority in his life.  His male teachers had little difficulty with him.

That student and I didn’t have a stellar year together, but it wasn’t bad, and after I had a better understanding of what he was going through, I have more good memories than bad from that class with him.  My biggest memory is the important lessons I learned for how to deal with difficult students:

  1. Many students have bigger problems than a bad seat assignment.
  2. Demand respect regardless of the good reasons for their disrespect.
  3. Don’t jump down their throats right away; treat them as you would if their parent(s), your administrator, and a police officer were standing in the corner watching.
  4. Don’t assume they’re behaving this way because they’re punks who want to ruin your life.
  5. Talk to someone else in their life who may give you valuable insight behind why they’re acting the way they are and what the solutions might be.
  6. Never underestimate the power of a coach to speak to a student’s life where you can’t.

Thanks, Coach Vaughn.

Photo license CC-BY-SA

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February 9, 2015 3 Comments

Pronunciation gold:

If you haven’t found this resource yet, let me introduce you to Forvo, where you and your students will find close to three million pronunciations of almost as many words in 324 languages.

All the words in the world. Pronounced.

All the words in the world. Pronounced.

I’m a teacher of a language with very specific pronunciation rules (Spanish) and I have a pretty deep knowledge of how (and why) those rules work.  But I still find myself unsure at times – particularly with words that include x or a word that used to have an accent and no longer does, or sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t.  Other times, I know how the word should be pronounced, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it differently, and I want to hear multiple native speakers say it.  Now, Word Reference continues to be one of the most valuable online tools for a language student or teacher, but if I (or my student) look up the word lápiz (pencil), I can only hear the pronunciation from Spain, and if you know anything about that, you know it’s definitely not the only or even most common way to pronounce it.  On Forvo, on the other hand,

six pronunciations, mapped!

six pronunciations, mapped!

Count ‘em – six pronunciations of lápiz.  I can hear two men and one woman from Spain say it, or a man from Bolivia, a woman from Argentina, or a woman from Colombia.

Aside from the obvious, here are some ideas for using Forvo:

  • Ask your heritage students to add to the pronunciations on the site.
  • As a homework choice, students can choose to listen to the pronunciations from their vocabulary list (if you have one) (and make notes about differences among countries, or differences from what they assumed, for example).
  • Ask AP students to look up words they don’t know in an authentic text and also hear their pronunciation in Forvo.  Students can do separate words and then share what they’ve found with the class.
  • Have students find out how to pronounce all the regional Spanish variations of a particular English word- also a good way to introduce them to the concept that the word they’re learning in their textbook may not be used everywhere.
  • Encourage students to add to the English database on their own time.

How will you and your students use Forvo to improve pronunciation?

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February 3, 2015 0 Comments

It’s a myth, #11: Assessing communication without communication

For the original myths post, click here.  You can also view all of the myths posts.

This, my eleventh post on myths I believe make us ineffective in the world language classroom, is about saying we’re assessing something without actually asking students to do it.

11. A multiple-choice question counts as a valid assessment of proficiency (or, “I can actually assess communication without asking students to communicate”).

Where's the communication? Josué Goge

Where’s the communication?
Josué Goge

I don’t want to pretend that good assessment is easy.  Exploring these questions-

  • what is valid assessment?
  • how can I make all my assessment valid?
  • how can I do this without spending my life grading?

has been a long, difficult, worthwhile, amazing journey for me.  From the days in my tests and measurements classes when I was required to write the very best Scantron test I could generate – whatever was easiest to grade –  to now, when my philosophy is that students don’t answer a multiple choice question unless they’re doing AP prep, I have been on a mission to figure out what was wrong in the way I was treating assessment and fixing it.  I’m not there yet, but I’m a lot farther than I was when I started, and as always, the journey itself is a lesson.

What’s wrong with non-communicative assessment

The answer to this comes down to two issues: goals and certainty.

If you’re going to use assessment that does not ask students to communicate, that may be fine, if communication is not your goal.  That is, if you’re trying to motivate or ‘hook’ students using something like PollEverywhere at the beginning of class, or you want students to reflect on how they feel about what they learned in class in a type of reflective exit ticket, there can be a lot of value in that.  The value evaporates when we try to say that we’re doing such an assessment to, say, assess whether students have learned to tell their name by choosing among
a) yo llamo
b) se llama
c) me llamo

The other issue is with certainty, and this is my primary issue with the multiple choice question.  When a student selects C in the above question, the answer is correct, but that does not tell you anything about why the student chose it.  It cannot tell you this:

letter C

So you cannot be certain that the student actually knows the answer.  You can only be certain that the student wrote C.  And what does that tell you?

What communicative assessment looks like

Communicative assessment doesn’t have to be hard or extraordinarily time-consuming.  It doesn’t have to look like a detailed IPA every other week.  It simply has to ask students to communicate something.  So, in the above example, instead of asking a multiple choice question, you’re asking students the question, “What’s your name?”  If they can answer, you’ve assessed whether they can communicate that information… today, anyway.


Interpretive tasks are the ones most prone to lack communication.  And yes, I call it communication, because receiving a message is communication; it’s not a one-way street.  There are so many muddy questions here.  If I ask interpretive questions in English, is that appropriate assessment?  I used to say no.  I’ve changed my mind.  Because on the other hand, if I ask the question in the TL, I’ve lost my certainty again.  If the student gets the question wrong, is it that he misunderstood the message, or that he misunderstood the question/answers?  I can’t tell.  I watched this frustrate my AP students time and time again.  They knew that the article was talking about people cooking a dish with pork, but because the comprehension question offered choices of extraordinarily low-frequency alternative words for goat, pig, and calf, they couldn’t select the right answer.  So we assumed that the College Board cared more about whether they could comprehend these random alternative terms than actually comprehend the authentic text.

All that to say, my go-to way to incorporate interpretive tasks in a communicative program is to ask students to incorporate them into a production task.  On the lower levels, I ask students to simply retell me what’s going on, or perhaps recreate with their own content (look at a ‘lost dog poster’ and change the information to their own pet, for example).  For higher levels, they need to use the content to make a comparison or defend an opinion.


There’s an easy aspect and a hard aspect to interpersonal tasks.  Easy:  Ask students to have a conversation (in writing, maybe a Twitter exchange).  If I’m assessing it, the conversation is with me.  If it’s simply practice, the conversation can be with each other.  Hard: don’t do skits and call it interpersonal.  If students have a chance to draft and/or practice a conversation before performing it, this is not interpersonal.  It can be valid, if you call it presentational, but it’s not interpersonal.


This is my primary method of acquiring test grades.  I usually alternate or allow students to choose (but they must alternate choices): one presentational speaking or one presentational writing assessment per unit (that I grade).  They may do lots of other presentational communication, even in every class period, as the definition is simply communication they have time to plan and edit.  Their weekly blogs are a form of presentational writing.  Bottom line, I’m asking them to communicate something in writing or speaking that we’ve been working on.
Novice example: Write a short review of your favorite restaurant for someone who is coming to visit our city.
Intermediate example: Compare the McDonald’s menu in Argentina with the McDonald’s menu here and tell what you like best and why.  What would you eat at McDonald’s in Buenos Aires?  Post your video presentation on YouTube (if allowed) and tweet it at McDonald’s Argentina.

More reading

Here are some previous Musicuentos posts that I think may help further with this issue:

Consider this: what current practices are making our assessments invalid, and how can we change them (and maintain our sanity)?


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January 30, 2015 5 Comments

My favorite authentic resource combining culture & calendar

If you love to incorporate authentic resources into all levels, you know that there are two major problems with doing so.  1) It takes a lot of time to find the right resource. 2) Using many resources in novice classes can be problematic because of how much scaffolding you may have to do to make it more comprehensible, lest the level of confusion demotivate your students.

Once in a while, though, there comes along a particular resource that shines, and when you find it, you’d better download it and bookmark it, because once you’ve found it, why search for something else, right?  So even if it slowly goes out of date, it’s still useful for students.  But what if you find one of those resources that is actually updated every year?

I know this is the wrong time of year to post about this, but you’ll want to get this one saved on your computer or in the cloud.  One of the best authentic resources for novices (or any level) I have ever seen is the program and schedule of the Xcaret Festival de Vida y Muerte.  It’s packed with deep cultural references that beg to be explored, and it’s brimming with novice skills: making plans, days of the week, calendar, times, interests.

Regardless of when you’re reading this post, this year’s information should be available here.  The 2014 program is still downloadable here, and download it – they’ll remove it a couple of months before the new one comes out.  Then check back and download the new one – they’re always very different, and they’re always #authres gold.  And if it’s too late and you’ve missed the 2014 version, no worries – I have it on my Google Drive here (I wish I had the 2013 version for you; it was equally well done).  Really, it’s stunning- tons of context, tons of cognates, tons of culture.  The activities are even organized by interest, so ask your students – what interests you?  What would you see?

Here are some extension suggestions:

  • Have students explore the Twitter hashtag: #festivalvidaymuerte
  • Explore the website of the Xcaret park: how much to get there?  where would you stay? what would you eat?
  • Check out the park’s Facebook page.
  • They also have a YouTube channel.
  • Do a simple Google Image search of “Xcaret festival”; students can describe their favorite Catrina or altar and vote.
  • Have students group together by similar interests to plan their trip to the festival.  What will they choose to attend?
  • Students can research cultural groups that interest them- where are they from? what else do they perform at?

Enjoy this amazing resource.  Have you found something similarly so easily adapted to multiple levels and already so rich with culture?

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January 27, 2015 0 Comments