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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 0 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 2 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 4 Comments

Timely repost: the “I don’t understand!” signal

I’ve been hearing a flurry of comments, great ones, directing teachers to not get so distracted by the 90% TL goal that they forget to make sure they’re speaking comprehensibly.  I’m sure you’ve seen and/or committed, as have I, one of these common unfortunate practices:

  • speaking in target language and being super proud of it… except the language I’m using is too high for my students to understand, and I know it, and…
  • making up for it by translating half of what I say.

Well, that’s not gonna work.  It’s easy.  But it’s certainly not going to work.

X means I DO NOT COMPRENDO Thomas Leth-Olson

Thomas Leth-Olson

One of the most effective tools that helped me check my incomprehensible input was an “I don’t understand” signal.  I learned it in a TPRS workshop, and it was such a helpful technique for us that I demonstrate it in every workshop I give on storytelling or staying in the target language.  For those of you who have followed me recently and don’t have time to comb through years of archives (just a few of you, right?), here’s a repost of my description of my I don’t understand signal.

But first, I also want to share a couple more recent posts from esteemed colleagues offering more insight: check out Colleen’s inspiring description of how she helps her students embrace and overcome their ‘not understanding’ instead of fearing it, and speaking of fear, get inspired more by Wendy’s post about fearlessly helping her students figure out comprehensibility and when she fails, try, try again.

And now, from August ’13:

As we all go back to school and meet new students and try to push them to try something really new and maintain target language in the classroom, as you maintain it, commit to make your target language input comprehensible and make sure students know you’re committed to it.  Show them this video:

This baby is talking.  She know exactly what she’s saying.  But you and I don’t have a clue.  Why?  Because she doesn’t know we don’t know and she doesn’t care.

If you only make one change this year, commit to use more target language.  But we also need to be sure it’s comprehensible.  So, give students a way to communicate this.  Tell them, if I sound like this baby to you, show me an X.  Outgoing students may stand up and do a full-body X.  Shy students may cross their index fingers at chest height in a discreet “don’t point me out but I am not getting this” X.  On the other hand, if they can understand you, they should give a thumbs up.  If they’re somewhere in the middle, like they think they’ve got it but might need a little more clarification, they can do a sideways thumbs-out.  Whatever it is, give students nonverbal ways to communicate to you quickly and en masse whether they understand.

Of course, now that they have a signal, make sure you’re checking and rechecking!

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March 10, 2015 0 Comments

Poll: what conference proposals?

Proposals are now open for two of my favorite conferences, my home conference, Kentucky World Language Association, and the 2016 Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.  Conference presentations are only as good as they can relate to the content teachers actually need, so as usual, I’d like to know what you’d like to talk about.

KWLA is asking for either 1-hour sessions or 3-hour workshops, and the theme is ”Communicate. Collaborate. Captivate. Building bridges to proficiency.”  They’re also asking for more sessions in the target language.

CSCTFL will be held jointly with the conference of Ohio’s outstanding organization, OFLA, and the theme is Fostering Connections, Empowering Communities, Celebrating the World.  Their call is for “sessions and workshops” but I can’t see the time limits on either without starting the submission process.

Below are the topics I’m considering.  Almost all of them represent topics that are frequently asked about in emails or blog comments, or that I am asked to address in school visits.  Please help me decide!

60-minute sessions

Please vote for only two.

Cartooning, Consistency, and Cool Content in Storytelling (ENGLISH)
Mejor Comunicación con el Cuento Muy Cool (above but SPANISH)

I’ll tell anyone who will listen that I found storytelling to be my most powerful tool to deliver engaging, comprehensible content to my students.  Three of the aspects that are important and that helped me make the process smoother were using strategies to make content more attractive to students, using basic cartooning skills I learned in my undergraduate program (and I am not an artist at ALL!), and using patterning to help students extract and use structures more quickly.  This workshop would demonstrate and invite participants to practice these three elements of my storytelling.  Since I am so frequently asked for a video of my storytelling, I would try to have this session recorded.

Cultura y Comunicación con Comerciales

Hace varios años comencé a usar los comerciales en español en la clase con mis estudiantes, y decidí compartir los guiones e invitar a otros profesores a colaborar conmigo en el proyecto en un documento en Google.  Ahora tenemos un montón de guiones, y unos cuantos profesores (por ejemplo Kara Jacobs) han hecho algo similar – los recursos de Kara son una maravilla.  Los anuncios nos ofrecen una buena oportunidad para presentar la cultura y el lenguaje de forma rápida, corta, y a veces muy profunda.  En esta sesión mostraría cómo usar un comercial para evaluar la comprensión auditiva y a la vez pedir comparaciones de cultura y opiniones de los estudiantes.

Turn to Page 132: Incorporate, Ditch, Adapt

Spoiler alert, I’m about to publish a blog post on this topic.

There seems to be almost a war within language teaching in which an army of teachers are shouting GET RID OF THAT LOUSY TEXTBOOK and another army of teachers are shouting I LOVE MY TIME-SAVING PRETTY TEXTBOOK and caught in the middle are another army of teachers (who show up in my email a LOT) whimpering MY DISTRICT SAYS I HAVE TO USE THIS TEXTBOOK, WHAT NOW?!

There’s really no need for this.  Let me quote my wise and lovely friend Amy Lenord from a recent #langchat:

[We] have to stop thinking, “This is great activity,” and start thinking, “This is great tool. When to use it?”

This applies to textbooks, too!  A textbook is just a tool in your curriculum, which is in fact a very big thing.


To summarize: If you use a textbook, whether you love it or hate it, there are three ways to approach the vast array of material modern textbooks offer you. You can ditch an activity/tool, you can incorporate it, or you can adapt it into something better.  This session would have us all working on how to do that, using examples from the commonly adopted textbooks.  If you think I can’t effectively address this topic in a one-hour session, vote below that it should be a 3-hour workshop.

El poder del cuento: La literatura infantil en la escuela primaria

Un problema muy común entre los maestros del español en la escuela primaria es que no tenemos para nada lo suficiente de tiempo con nuestros estudiantes.  Cuando yo enseñaba en los niveles preescolar, kinder, y el primer grado, tenía 15-20 minutos con los niños - por semana.  Aún así, mis niños adquirieron la capacidad de contar con comprensión un cuento básico con estructuras y vocabulario útiles, por el uso de cuentos infantiles populares.  Pero, no es que solo leemos los cuentos y los niños podrán contarlos; lo intenté así con el libro La oruga muy hambrienta y fue un desastre.  Es un proceso de 1) buscar y elegir un cuento que ofrezca el vocabulario, las estructuras, y a lo mejor la cultura también, 2) adaptar el texto para ser más repetitivo y tener un enfoque mejor, y 3) contar el cuento con mucha frecuencia, con los estudiantes, con gestos y tono de voz que ayudan la comprensión y memoria.  Lo haremos con varios cuentos ejemplares.

The M that Trumps Your Methods, Materials, and Madness

I just wrote a very philosophical post on this topic, but the session would be much more practical (after a quick philosophical intro mostly encouraging participants to read Drive).  Using lots of examples we’d examine how motivation factors into how we plan lessons, choose resources, and assess students.

Ready to votePlease vote for just two.


3-hour workshop

Vote for only one.

Turn to Page 132: Incorporate, Ditch, Adapt

If you think the 60-minute session wouldn’t be enough time to adequately address this topic, vote that it should be a 3-hour workshop instead.

Goldilocks and the Three Authentic Resources: Too Hard, Too Dull, Just Right

This is a session I’m actually working on in collaboration for a few conferences.

“You can’t use authentic resources with novices, they’re not comprehensible enough.” “Don’t adapt the text, adapt the task.” “Authentic resources all the time for all the activities!”

Who’s right?  Here’s another dichotomy that’s entirely unnecessary.  You can use authentic resources successfully at any level.  You can adapt them to make them more comprehensible if that’s what students need (especially, in my favorite way, by eliminating sections that are distracting and aren’t my target).  The real problem here isn’t whether we’re using them, it’s which ones we’re using.  Sometimes they are simply too hard and students will be far too frustrated to learn anything.  Sometimes they’re incredibly boring (or ridiculous) and students won’t want to even look at them much less interact with them enough to learn anything.  Participants will explore how to evaluate resources quickly, find the better ones faster, and incorporate them in motivating ways in the classroom.

The Best Laid Plans

I’m hoping this will also be a collaboration.  A practical, hands-on workshop founded on brain-based research: what does an effective lesson plan look like?  How do I start?  How do I finish?  How much in a class period, and does it matter if we don’t finish it all?  What do I do with extra time?  What about the kids who finish fast?  How much time per activity?  How do I sequence activities?  How do I transition effectively?  How often do my students need a brain break, and what are some ideas for that?  Teams of teachers teaching the same language at similar levels will work together on putting these elements together in a lesson plan – or as I recently saw in a tweet from the SCOLT conference, a better “learning pathway.” Ready to vote?

Thanks for your input, and I hope to meet you at a conference soon!

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March 6, 2015 15 Comments

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 4 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!

**UPDATE 3/5: The workshop for Friday, June 26 – intermediate is full.  Inevitably, issues arise and someone needs to cancel, so a spot may open up for you.  To sign up for the waiting list, fill out this form.  There are still two spots available for the Thursday (novice) workshop.  If you want to sign up for that workshop, read on.**
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 10 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 4 Comments