The Blog

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

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 2 Comments

Why interpersonal isn’t interpretive

Plaza Treinta y Tres Orientales, Montevideo

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

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

Two differences between interpersonal and interpretive

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

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

What this means for teachers

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

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

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

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April 17, 2015 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

you cannot use a vocab list in a communicative classroom

and focus more properly on the deeper questions here:

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


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March 24, 2015 3 Comments

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 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

Best of 2014 #10: The new JCPS curriculum documents


to the 2014 “Best of Musicuentos” series.  In the month of December I do not post much new material as I enjoy the season with my family, but rather I re-post the top ten posts of the year, in case you want to re-read, or in case you’ve joined us this year and didn’t see these popular posts.  We’ll start with the tenth most popular post, which offers you links (and they should finally all work, yay!) to resources many of us have been working on and many more of us have been waiting for, for a long time: the new drafts of the Jefferson County (KY) Public Schools’ world language documents, for secondary, and for the first time, for elementary as well.

Another resource: The new JCPS curriculum documents

Brittany Randolph

Brittany Randolph


It’s a busy season for Musicuentos, can you tell?

I feel like I just said that.

I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief as an excellent cohort of teachers and I wrapped up a year-long project to lay the groundwork for something that has not existed in entirety before: an elementary curriculum map for the Jefferson County (KY) Public Schools.

If you’ve been looking at resources online for any length of time you know that JCPS has developed and is developing one of the most proficiency-focused, communicative, research-based curricula out there.  But the elementary program has been a different story.  The project to develop a district-wide map has started and stopped and fizzled several times over the years, but it’s finally happened and will continue happening.

**Edit 6/23** It seems the district has put all the documents on password protection.  Here’s the username and password:
Just kidding. I can’t even access them!  But good news, the district specialist wants them available to the public and is working on that.  Stay tuned.

You can find all the new documents online here.  Watch for updates as the great teachers at JCPS continue working on powerful assessments, resources, and lesson plans.

A few notes about the elementary curriculum:

  • JCPS categorizes elementary grades beginning with P1 as kindergarten, P2 as 1st grade, and so on.  At 4th grade the teachers stop using the P# reference.
  • We tried to address the problems that plague elementary programs – kids transferring in and out, the program getting hijacked by pull-outs and testing prep, too many students per teacher, not enough time per week. So we divided the program into two levels, with the levels layered.  Then we developed five six-week units for the last six-week period to be used as review and assessment as the state testing schedule allows.  So the first level has the same five units every year for kindergarten, first grade, and second grade, but every year the vocabulary and functions in that theme get deeper.  There’s a lot of recycling and then moving deeper.  Same with third, fourth, and fifth grades- the same theme for the unit every year with a lot of recycling and moving deeper.
  • We developed the program as if every teacher had the recommended minimum 90 minutes per week with students, which no one in the JCPS system does yet, so we actually recommend that teachers with less time throw out an entire unit instead of doing less per unit.  If it were me I would skip unit 1 in Level 1 on the assumption that kids will develop the school vocabulary as the year goes on, and in Level 2 I would combine the All About Us and Hanging Out with my Friends units.
  • There are also many core content and connections built in.
  • As teachers develop units and find resources those will be updated too, with a goal to have a really good IPA for at least each semester of 3rd-5th soon.
  • The intercultural goals are something cool and innovative but will need some improvement so you can watch for that as well.

We hope you find it useful.

I’m going to take a nap now.

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December 2, 2014 0 Comments

What we learned at IFLTA ’14: Everyone struggles, Culture leads

Since I had my precious Cottrell-itos on my trip to the annual conference of the Indiana Foreign Language Teacher’s Association, I didn’t get to spend as much time involved in the conference as I would have liked to, but I did greatly enjoy the time I did have.  I reconnected with “old” friends, made new ones, and met face-to-face with some of you in my online PLN.

I don’t like giving handouts (because I don’t usually like getting them) but I always promise to put up my resource on a blog post, so here’s that, with some good takeaways from other sessions as well.

We all struggle

Let me just say it was refreshing to hear Linda Egnatz hear that the ACTFL Teacher of the Year can still have a seventh-period class out of control!  I’m not a failure if I still can’t solve every problem presented by putting a bunch of football players together in a last-period Spanish class!

Also, I heard over and over that teachers recognize there are areas where they need to change, and where the research is driving us to change, and they’re trying.  I apologize if the artifact of microblogging on Twitter or blogging in short bursts gives you the impression that I or any teacher anywhere has all the answers and has changed everything that needs to change.  We’re using the TL all the time in 100% comprehensible ways while teaching every aspect of culture and inspiring every single student to learn language for a lifetime and dedicate themselves to improving the world – NOT!  We’re all growing.  We’re all changing.  And if the fact that it’s hard isn’t keeping us from doing something to improve today, something else or something the same next month and the year after next, then kudos to us and here’s a digital hug from me (here’s an extra one for you, Wendy).

Linda Egnatz: Three types of control

When someone goes so far as to be named the Teacher of the Year by ACTFL, you know you’re going to benefit from sitting in a session (and at lunch!) with her, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Linda talked to us about how ACTFL’s work supports our proficiency-based teaching, what motivates students, integrating the 5 C’s, and more, but what I’m really mulling over is how she explained how she analyzes student performance.

First, her idea of counting parts of an utterance – and having students focus on doing the same – fascinates me.  Push student proficiency by asking them to move beyond one-word responses.  Students can count parts: 1) who did what? 2) with whom? 3) when? 4) why? 5) in what way? 6) in what mood? 7) with what result? and you can see how they’ll get used to producing more complex utterances and pushing themselves to take risks.

Also, Linda looks at the proficiency shown by a performance by looking at what type of control the students are showing, that is, how grammatical accuracy is evident in their performance.  Here are the three:

  • Conceptual control: I know it happens but I don’t do it when I produce language except in memorized chunks.
  • Partial control: I can do it on words that neatly fit a pattern that I have practiced a lot. (In Spanish an example is matching adjectives to the gender of nouns but only when they end in the obvious -o, -a.)
  • Full control: I can apply the concept in general.  It doesn’t mean it’s perfect but the student is aware of the general concept and applies it fairly consistently.

Side note, I knew that students can’t manipulate past tense until Advanced proficiency (which makes me wonder why we do it in Level 2 anyway), but Linda said that speakers can’t handle the aspect of past (such as imperfect vs. preterite in Spanish) until Superior.  I have always assumed that my speaking proficiency was somewhere around Advanced High, but this made me wonder if I may be reaching Superior.  I know the topics I can handle are a factor there, but I wonder.

In another conversation, she talked about using tasks and activities that match student’s cognitive level.  In elementary, we can’t teach numbers by counting money in kindergarten because they actually can’t perform that skill cognitively.  Same with telling time.  But they love to talk about animals in the context of farms and zoos.  Try that with tenth graders and, well, you can imagine.  Linda suggests we use cultural resources that are interesting them on their cognitive level, like using Hungry Planet pictures to talk about food comparisons.

Super Teacher PD: best handout idea ever

A university professor (the IFLTA conference seemed very post-secondary heavy to me) did a session on PD and on his handout, he put a doodle box.  Literally, it was a box for us to doodle in if we wanted to. Whether or not you doodle in a session, you have to admit it shows how down-to-earth the guy is!

This session was set in the context of superheroes (Batman – what “kryptonite” keeps you from doing quality PD; Iron Man – what’s your “arc reactor”?; Avengers – I forget) but I really, really hate superhero movies so the analogy fell flat with me, but I appreciated how he pushed us to…

  1. ask what makes me an effective teacher
  2. set big goals
  3. remember what keeps me teaching
  4. eliminate things holding me back from PD that are within my control (i.e. watching too much Downton Abbey instead of pushing my language/cultural proficiency with a Spanish-language film)
  5. making a few achievable goals with deadlines and someone to report to

What PD goals do you have for this next year?

My session: Reality in IPAs

I really had a great group of teachers attend this session and they gave it energy and great ideas.  To find the links to the resources I offered in this session, see the post from the KWLA conference, and especially check out the Camp Musicuentos wiki (and let me know if you want to be notified when registration for Camp Musicuentos opens).

Here are some of the contributions participants made that resonated with me:

  • Set students in a scenario helping someone, especially a child, as this incorporates real service-learning and lowers anxiety.
  • Could your students potentially get a holiday job being an elf or some other character at a local mall, for example?  What a great opportunity to use language, and a fun scenario (if it’s realistic)!
  • One teacher was in an area where a tornado struck and an apartment building near her was evacuated.  She ended up helping translate for the Red Cross.
  • Remember, novices will not be able to do translation scenarios well.  Get them to picture themselves describing themselves, introducing themselves, and otherwise making friends with someone who lives nearby or whom they meet on the internet.
  • Speaking of the internet, this is a go-to realistic scenario for students in rural areas.
  • Another realistic scenario in a rural area: someone on Craigslist wants to buy [item you love but you got a new one] and is willing to travel from [some city not terribly far away] to get it but doesn’t speak English well.
  • One more: Many students in rural areas not too far from a large city will go there for big shopping trips or to see something in the theatre, for example, and may come across speakers of another language.  What about a sporting event?  Students where I live may travel all the way to Cincinnati for a Reds game.

Another resource we mentioned was Megan’s post over on the Creative Language Class on incorporating heritage speakers into your class.

Commercials in Spanish class

Some professors and teacher candidates over at IUPUI did a presentation on using commercials to teach culture (and language) in Spanish class.  You’ll be able to find their materials on the IFLTA website and in the spirit of don’t reinvent the wheel! I wanted to make sure you also knew about Kara Jacobs’s amazing resources for using commercials (presentation, worksheets, videos) as well as the document dozens of Spanish teachers have worked on for the past four years with a ton of scripts and ideas for using Spanish commercials.

What are you learning lately?  I hope these ideas and resources also inspire you to keep on keeping on!

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November 8, 2014 4 Comments

Communicative teaching in the shadow of [grammar-focused] common assessment

After I get a question repeated to me a certain number of times via Twitter, comments, or emails, I know it’s time for a blog post.

The Great Dilemma

If you have never had to consider how students in your TCI (teaching with comprehensible input) class will fit in a program that forces grammar-heavy common assessments, or transfers students into grammar-translation classes, or asks you to prepare students for standardized college entrance exams, count yourself very lucky.  But I’ve seen and heard this so many times that I know it weighs heavily on the minds of teachers on both sides of the fence, and those straddling the fence: are we preparing them for X?

A not-so-great dilemma

I’d like to offer you some relief, from this burden at least, if you’re a TCI teacher at least.  If you’re a grammar translation teacher who is wondering how your students will do in a TCI class, I don’t have a lot of advice for you, except that you should read and listen to research on how people learn language and then re-evaluate which one of you is teaching more in line with it.  But for you teachers currently teaching or developing a program more focused on teaching with comprehensible input, I do not think this is something you need to worry much about, and here are a few reasons why.

Ubiquitous format

Last year a rather antagonistic teacher at a workshop was unpleasantly shocked that I had not given my students a test -or asked a multiple-choice question outside of AP Spanish- in four years.  Perhaps you’ve heard the comment before:

But if they don’t practice taking them, how will they know how to take them?

I nearly laughed.  How old are kids when they start learning how to take multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests these days, 6? 7?  At least half the students at my high school were in private tutoring to improve their ACT scores.  Let their other classes and their ACT tutors prep them for test formats.  They don’t need one more class to do it, too.

High skills to low skills

When students are used to being assessed by circling which answer is the yo form of hablar, they may (usually) have a lot of trouble moving to a teacher or program where someone simply asks them the question (in TL), what do you do in class?  But when students are used to saying “I like to talk on the phone. I talk on the phone with my friend every day after school” they have little trouble choosing the correct form for I speak, or the translation for friend, and so on.

It hadn’t occurred to me to worry about whether my students would be ready for grammar-translation-heavy exams or programs.  The fact is, many of my students have left my class and taken such exams or ended up in such programs in college.  Not one of them has failed to test out of at least one class, usually two, sometimes four.  Not one student.  As for the ones in grammar-heavy programs in college, they hate it, but they’re excelling there, too.  Because when you’re used to refining your communicative skills, learning to analyze words comes much easier than it happens the other way around.

It's a piece of sweet coffee cake. Priscila Mateini

It’s a piece of sweet coffee cake.
Priscila Mateini

Making it even easier

Still, as you face preparing your students for a common grammar-translation assessment or a move into a grammar-heavy next-level class or college class, there are a couple of things you can do to make this even easier, and watch your students succeed with less frustration.

Patterning grammar questions

TPRS now advocates a technique called “pop-up” grammar and my understanding of it is that when grammar issues come up in the natural process of communicative teaching, we take a few minutes to ask pointed questions like “why is it X and not Y? what if the subject were B?”  I love that technique and when I’m teaching I do it a lot.  But it’s also a huge part of how I introduce content.  When I do storytelling, my target features are far from random.  They are all related to a particular grammatical or vocabulary function I’m trying to get students to be able to use in their communication.  So in my story, I may be targeting the pattern of is _____ing  and in the days after the story students will be using music, games, and activities to work on communicating with this pattern.  When students work on communicating in patterns, identifying them on a grammar-heavy test is a piece of cake.

One-day? crash course

In an attempt to broker peace within a strongly conflicted department of teachers on both sides of this fence, I made this suggestion:  what if the TCI teachers spend a day every so often, or the last day of the quarter, or the last two days of the semester, or whatever they’re willing to do in the time right before they go to another teacher’s class, hitting the grammatical terms of some of the things they’ve looked at?  I’d be willing to spend 2 days at the end of the school year going over terms like conjugation and direct object pronoun if it meant the coffee cake at the faculty meeting -and the company- would seem sweeter.  And if it would mean the grammar teacher would get off my back about preparing them for a test.

Are you struggling in a department that’s asking you as a TCI teacher to focus more on test prep?  How are you handling it successfully?

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October 30, 2014 2 Comments

What we learned at KWLA: share, think, respect


It’s a wrap!

I was back at my “home conference” in September for the 2014 Kentucky World Language Association annual conference and it felt like I hadn’t missed a beat- in a very good way.  I got to hang out with old friends and make fantastic new ones, help and be helped, take a few minutes away from kids and learn with the best.  For your benefit and mine, here’s an attempt at organizing my takeaways from this conference.


From some sessions I went to:

  • Kentucky is using a new teacher evaluation system called TPGES.  I’ve had some questions about it and went to the session to learn more so I could be more helpful than “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”  So now I have some idea of what you’re talking about.  Summary: keep being effective, resist the temptation to choose what will work for you instead of what’s communicative and focused on your students’ real proficiency, and don’t let administration or other teachers drag you into making this another bureaucratic pile of words on trash paper or disk space that may or may not reflect how you actually teach in your classroom and who cares anyway.
    TPGES outcomes linked to evaluation

    TPGES outcomes linked to evaluation

    Reflect on yourself, and change if you need to, and do it slowly.

  • The new JCPS curriculum documents were still not available (boy that was a downer) at the conference but it seems they’ve quietly gone live since the conference… I think.  In any case, take what works, do what you know, reflect on yourself, and change if you need to.  And do it slowly.

From my sessions:

  • Create realistic assessments:
    Session’s “Twitter pitch” (the message in 140 characters or less): When assessments let students see themselves using language in a realistic situation, learning is more fun and lasting.
    Here’s a linoit board with suggestions from participants (and you, my awesome PLN!) of how we’ve actually used our language without traveling abroad.  Because let’s face it, renting an apartment in Madrid or creating your own clothing advertisement – don’t get me started on Picasso dioramas – are not exactly realistic linguistic production for the vast majority of our students.  I’m not saying there’s not something to be said for fun projects that motivate, but for production assessments, let’s keep it real.
    Notice a lot of these are adult uses of language, because, well, my responders were adults.  Can you think of reasons our teenagers (or younger kids?) would actually use language?  In the seminal article in the Language Educator, the queen of the IPA wrote about a sample assessment in which elementary children are encouraged to imagine they’re doing something in their future profession. Um, not something a lot of fourth graders are into right now.  Why would a fourth grader actually use Spanish?  Let me know what you think.
    We used these ideas as a springboard to brainstorm realistic assessment scenarios for common units.  Some participants gave me great ideas which have been added to the Camp Musicuentos wikispace, linked below.
    Here’s the Prezi, if you like.
  • Curriculum planning outside the textbook:
    Session’s “Twitter pitch”: With or without a textbook, you can  pace, plan, and execute engaging, proficiency-based curriculum without being overwhelmed.
    We had a fantastic time in this session.  Those three hours went so fast and we accomplished a lot and not enough!  I can’t wait to see some of them at Camp Musicuentos (speaking of which, come to Camp Musicuentos).  We added two great IPA ideas to the Camp Musicuentos wikispace, on the Level 1 page, including one that would work for any language (and for my family would actually need to be Arabic – loved having a UK Arabic professor in the session!).  Note the link to a document with activities for the novice level familyish unit (listed as Unit 3).
    Here’s the Keynote, if you like.

Random lessonsphoto (2)

  • My PLN colleague Jordan Yeager wasn’t at KWLA (boo) but explored with us via Twitter anyway.  While looking at something he noted, “A crappy textbook curr[iculum] made all pretty w/ nice fonts is still crappy curriculum.”  Yes.  Great if it looks good, but keep it real, too.  It’s worth noting that the opposite is true – I saw some pretty fantastic stuff helping novices interact with authentic resources that didn’t look like it was developed by graphic design specialists because, well, it wasn’t, but it was still fantastic for learning.  We can’t all be Zachary Jones (we all love you, Zachary).
  • We’ve heard it, we’ve said it, but apparently not all of us believe it; in the BYOD (bring your own device) movement we believe that cheating is a heart problem, not an equipment problem, and the same goes for respect.  If we don’t teach students how to use devices respectfully, but instead we use our authority to simply take them away, and we strong-arm them into silence instead of teaching respect for the people speaking, we’ll end up with adults (teachers) who sit in an awards luncheon and completely ignore / talk over recognition of amazing colleagues who are fighting and winning big, important battles.  Next time you’re in a conference session, at an awards luncheon, or in a faculty meeting, remember how much you wish your students would learn to respect you when you’re speaking, even when you’re boring them, even when they don’t care.  And remember that when you’re talking to the person next to you, you’re either making them share in your distraction or forcing them to figure out a polite way to tell you to shut up so they can show some respect. /soapbox
  • If you know you’re going to eat cheesecake, enjoy it more by knowing you’ve earned it; get up at 6 and hit the hotel fitness room.  Better yet, bring along a friend (maybe one day I’ll be able to run as far as you, Jana).
  • When will conference hotels enter the 21st century and offer free in-room wifi like every little Holiday Inn Express does?
  • It’s not all about work.  Go out for dinner with new and old friends and tell stories that don’t have anything to do with school.  Enjoy the festival and dance.  No one’s really looking at you (unless you’re on the stage, and then you just volunteered for the audience!).  But at the festival do not pay $50 for a fantastically attractive Ecuadorian pullover if it scratches your arms like a briar patch.  You know you won’t wear (1)
  • Even while you’re having fun, be a professional the whole time.  Watch your conversation while you’re drinking too much in the hotel bar at night.  If I feel like listening to your casual conversation is a complete waste of time, I probably don’t want to hear your “professional” pitch either.
  • Speaking of respect, regardless of what you’re there for, be quiet in your hotel room at 2 A.M.  Remember that walls are thin and the people in the room next door might have to get up at 6 for work and even if they didn’t they didn’t sign up to listen to you… whatever.  I refuse to elaborate.
  • When a conference is over, go home and relax with your family and/or friends.  You have plenty of time to implement all the great ideas you’ve gotten.  Give yourself some time to let it all soak in.

I hope to see you at a conference this year!

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October 9, 2014 1 Comment