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Chameleons and bears and early language class, oh my!

Where is the magic intersection of great children’s literature and stories particularly helpful for early language acquisition?

I’ve spent a lot of time investigating my answers to this question and I hope my choices and the adaptations I offer here are helpful to you, whether you teach the young or the old who will tolerate a bit of the young.  For more information on children’s stories that do more than teach language in the world language class, see this post where I borrow a lot of recommendations from Helena Curtain, as well as this post where I share some stories I’ve found useful with my own kids, some of which, as you’ll see below, I’ve adapted for my classroom as well.

Here are the stories I regularly use in my curriculum for 5- to 12-year-olds.  In my adaptations here, I’ve used or included the English so that those of you who teach other languages can translate as desired.

Bears on Chairs: Sharing and problem-solving

When my kids come through the door not knowing that loco means crazy (or will describe our class), our first story is this lovely rhyme by Shirley Panteneau and David Walker.  The plot line is that four bears have chairs but the fifth bear doesn’t, and they’ll have to use their minds and hearts to figure out how to get that fifth bear on a chair.  Through the whole first semester (in a schedule of 16 weekly meetings lasting one hour each), we used this story to practice the targets:

  • numbers one through five
  • vocabulary “chairs” “bears” “how many” “cool” “oh no!” “what a problem!” “very good” “hi” “on” “and”
  • structures “where is” “this is” “his/her name is”

It’s not nearly as cute without the rhyme, but here’s my adaptation of Bears on Chairs.

The Mixed-Up Chameleon: Be who you’re made to be

As usual, I overestimated how quickly my students would develop a good interaction with the first book, Bears on Chairs, and we didn’t get around to using The Mixed Up Chameleon.  But I still love and recommend the book, especially if you have more time than I did. The targets here are:

  • colors
  • vocabulary “was” “said” “saw” “so” (describing words)
  • states of being “I’m hot” “I’m cold” “I’m bored” “I’m happy”
  • structures “I’m not” “I want to be…” “_____ is [descriptor]“

Though I wasn’t able to use it this year, here is my early novice version of The Mixed-Up Chameleon.

The Other Bears: Celebrate differences

I’ve got to say that this might be my favorite early language class story of all time. The message is so critical: it’s exactly what we are trying to get across to our students.  As I said in my earlier post, the message of this book is not to tolerate differences, but to actually celebrate them and how they contribute to all our lives. I can’t wait to walk my little ones through this story of younger bears helping the older bears see how every bear is happier because there are other bears (cough, Academy).  And of course, there’s the language.  This book is easily adapted to practice important targets:

  • family
  • vocabulary “look!” “other” “more” (descriptors)
  • structures “I (don’t) like” “I love” “they are (not)” “in a bad/good mood”

Here is my early novice adaptation of The Other Bears.  We’ll be doing this story all semester, but if I had a better schedule and more time with my students, we’d end the year with The Very Busy Spider (a.k.a. Keep Working – It’ll Pay Off).

Have you used one of these stories successfully with your early learners? What other simple, beautiful stories do your students love and benefit from?

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January 19, 2016 0 Comments

More resources for very early circumlocution

arrow-812000_1920In the last year and a half, I have read a research article, recorded a Black Box Podcast, presented a conference session selected as a Central States All-Star session, and blogged – all on the topic of why we should teach the skill of circumlocution early and often.

Aside: Circumlocution is the skill of talking around something you don’t know how to say to get your listener to help you come up with the word.

Other aside: Basically, we should teach it because comprehensible input is the way language is acquired, but the world is full of incomprehensible input, and circumlocution is the tool learners use to change incomprehensible input into comprehensible input.

I’m back in the classroom with novice learners this year, and it was time to practice what I preach.

For my seventh weekly meeting with my novices last week, we began to work on the skill of circumlocution, and in this post, I offer you the resources I used in the lesson.  I used all of these with very early novices -like I said, it was their seventh class with me- ages 6 to 14.


Of course, the lesson was designed around our Can Do statement:

I can identify something as a person, place, or thing.


Our major targets were person, place, and thing as well as I (don’t) know.  We’d already worked on es.  We also targeted a few basic adjectives: grandepequeño, and bonito.  Students already had some familiarity with color words and lindo.  We ended up adding animal because it was so easy.  My older group also wanted to add edificioplanta, and aparato.


I gotta tell you, I had such writer’s block with this story (something I am struggling with in many areas right now).  So I hope what I came up with helps you.  I started thinking I needed a situation in which someone is trying to guess what something is.  Perhaps a mom has a gift and the child is guessing – is it a person, a place, or a thing?  A friend sees something and the other is trying to guess – is it a person, a place, or a thing?  But I couldn’t make it make sense.  Why would a gift be a person or place?  I could contrive it, but a six-year-old would not follow in the TL.  I finally gave up around 1:30 in the morning and went to bed… where I kept thinking about it and finally, before I drifted off to sleep, came up with the answer: a game show.

I put three chairs in front of the class.  Two students sat in two of them and one had a picture of our class mascot, Jeffrey the Penguin.  He was contestant number 3.

The story sequence went like this: The host (I) described something and the contestant had to guess what it was.  I provided the answers.  Contestants raised their hands and said “I know! I know!” and then gave either a crazy answer (Paris) or the right answer (Disney).  I got more repetitions of the targets after the answers: Is Paris a place? Yes.  Is it a big place? Yes.  Is it a place in Florida? No! Sorry! (Everyone makes a BOOOOONK sound.)  In the end, Jeffrey won, 3 to 2 to 1.

Contest questions:

It’s a place. It’s a big place.  It’s a hot place.  It’s a place in Florida. (Disney World)
It’s a person.  It’s a big person.  It’s a cold person.  He has an animal named Sven. (Kristoff)
It’s a place.  It’s a small place.  It’s a cold place.  It’s a place in Disney.  (Arendelle)
It’s a thing.  It’s a cold thing.  It has an orange nose (TPR). (Olaf/snowman)
It’s a person. It’s a small person.  It’s a pretty person.  It’s a person who sings “Do you want to build a snowman?” (in TL) (Anna)
It’s a thing. It’s a cold thing.  It’s small.  It’s water, it falls when it’s cold (TPR). (snow)

My students were pretty engaged by this.  Six questions was the max – any longer and I definitely would have lost them.  Four or five questions would be fine too.

Brain Break

For our brain break, we tried to see how many students we could fit in 3 chairs.  Lots of physical contact but in my situation it was great.  My younger ones are doing the story Bears in Chairs, which gave me the idea.  This took about 90 seconds, and they had no idea why we did it, but it totally restarted their focus.

More input/ Practice

I showed this slideshow.  We talked about who the people were or what the products and places were (in the TL), which helped us also work on a cultural awareness Can Do we have for this semester: I can identify a person, landmark, or product from a TL country.  The kids could already identify many of them and they enjoyed that.  On the slides with one image, they had to call out whether it was a person, place or thing.
The photos in the slideshow are, in my opinion, part of the fair use of copyrighted material.  This is for brief educational use only.

(Many thanks and props to Patricia Villa who adapted this for French!)

In my older class, because we have more time, we also watched this movie short with no sound, pausing for me to ask them to identify various things in the video as person, place, or thing; we also used it to practice answering the question “How is he/she?”  Then, I put on the Spanish version of this Target back-to-school commercial and paused it at various places.  Students walked around, found a partner, and had 1 minute to describe something on the screen for their partner to identify.  When my 1-minute timer went off, they found a different partner.

Person, place, or thing?

Person, place, or thing?


For each table of students, I had one whole printout of these cards and one set of the same cards cut up.  The uncut sheets were face up on their table and the cards were face down in a stack.  Tables competed against each other (I had two teams).  On team one’s turn, one member drew a card from their stack and used any Spanish they knew to explain what it was.  Their teammates pointed to which one they thought it was.  I was surprised and impressed with many of my students and how many extraneous words they added.  It was definitely word-level – novice low – but they got it across.  They lost the point very few times.  If the teammates guessed wrong, the other team could “steal” the point.  Everyone was 100% in TL and this activity went over very well.
These images are copyright-free.


Before students left, I showed each an example from the same cards, one of each category: person, place, thing.  They had to tell me which it was in the TL.  One student struggled with cosa – she said casa.  Fortunately one of the objects actually was a casa so I pointed to it and asked, “¿Casa?”  She fixed her error.


Since I only see my students once a week, I give them several activities they need to complete while they’re not with me.  Both groups were to develop a list of five of each category (person, place, thing, animal) that they see every week and use Word Reference to find the Spanish words.  My younger group was to listen to this song twice and categorize each of their selected items as grande or pequeño.  My older group was to listen to  this video and identify at which two time points Andy García uses the word persona, find out what the adjective genial means and identify a person they think also fits that description.

They’re supposed to bring all this information to the next class and we’ll work with it more.

Have you thought about teaching circumlocution to your students, early and often?

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October 12, 2015 5 Comments

Product Launch: Calico Home Learning Series Level B

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

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

And Calico Spanish Home Learning Series was born.

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

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

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

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

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


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June 11, 2015 0 Comments

Add this to your Novice AND Intermediate HW choice options NOW


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

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

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


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

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

a mail call.

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

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

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

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


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

Design-based learning?

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

Do you see what I mean?

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

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

Ah, now that is a community connection by design.

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


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May 11, 2015 2 Comments

More multi-tasking children’s lit

If you use children’s stories in the classroom, are those stories skilled enough to do double – or triple – duty?

Piggybacking on what Helena Curtain advised, to use literature that’s deep enough to come at life and language in multiple ways, I’d like to add a couple of suggestions for books to add to your classroom.  I’m primarily addressing this to the elementary audience but if you’re a secondary teacher (as am I by my beginnings) you’ll easily see how these books might fit in your curriculum, as well.  Another note: I read these books in Spanish, but since I’m advising you to simplify the stories, they’re a great option for teachers of any language; just buy the book in English.

Unless you’re in an immersion school, your students likely do not have the proficiency to handle these stories (my bilingual 5-year-old: “What’s rabino? What’s bulliciosos?”).  So take your targets and make the story simple and repetitive.  Add gestures and sound effects and you’ve got a winner to keep you and the students in the target language and your environment acquisition-rich.

Los otros osos (The Other Bears)

In Los otros osos (English here), Michael Thompson introduces us to the koala family, where the mom and dad are not feeling very much like making friends with bears who are different.  They don’t like the pandas’ ears and shoes.  They’re annoyed by the polar bears’ claws and coats.  And don’t get them started on the noise the black bears make!  But their kids have a different opinion- the pandas have awesome food, the polar bears tell great jokes, and the black bears sing fun songs.  Here’s what I love about this book, for the language classroom:

  • Description: The koalas are brown and black and small, the polar bears are white and tall, the black bears are… well, you get the picture.
  • Likes / dislikes: For every new type of bear, the mom doesn’t like something, the dad doesn’t like something else, the kids like something else.
  • National symbols: Each bear has something that is related to a country where it is native.  The black bears wear red, white, & blue marching band uniforms.  The brown bears are dressed in their bright, warm Russian outfits.  The sun bears have their Southeast Asian umbrellas and ride bicycles.
  • Cross-curricular: As an extension of the national symbols aspect, the front and back covers of the book contain information on different types of bears and where they are found.
  • Celebrating difference: I don’t even want to call this tolerance because that implies quietly dealing with something you don’t like without hurting other people over it.  No, the koala bear kids celebrate difference – there’s something about the culture and personality of each type of bear that they really like.  This is a message our kids need to explore.

Siempre puede ser peor (It Could Always Be Worse)

Unless your library has the Spanish edition like mine, buy the English book as the Spanish version will run you close to $100 now that it seems to be out of print.  A poor family lives in such tight quarters (I learned the word apiñado here) that everyone’s at each other’s throats.  The father will do just about anything to make things better, including following the Rabbi’s advice to bring in the chickens… and the goat… and the cow!  Will they all go crazy?  It doesn’t hurt that the book won a Caldecott honor for illustrations.  Here’s what I love about this book, for the language classroom:

  • Family members: One dad, one mom, a grandma, six kids, and a Rabbi.  Give them all names and ages.
  • Animals and their sounds: you’ve got chickens, a rooster, goats, and a cow.  Add other animals, if you like.
  • Vocabulary: Take, put, or some other version of “brought in,” whatever’s common in the language you teach.  The dad takes the animals out of their (barn?) and puts them in the house.  Also something with “crazy.”  Also activities from the illustrations: “is sleeping” “is eating” “is yelling,” etc.  House and furniture, with comparisons to the student’s own home if that’s appropriate.
  • Do you have / I have: This is an aspect I love about repetitive books.  Every time he goes to the Rabbi, the father is asked “do you have” and responds “yes, I have.”
  • Thankfulness:   In the beginning, the whole family lives in one room.  In the end, the whole family lives in one room.  What changed?  It was their attitude.  They understood that perhaps their problems weren’t that terrible after all, and perhaps they could find peace in the situation they lived in.  We could all use a dose of that.

If you want one more recommendation, check out Bears on Chairs for concepts in numbers, math, problem-solving, and sharing (and someone please put this adorable poem in Spanish!).

What literature are you using to teach core values along with language?


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October 20, 2014 4 Comments

The First Day Story: Empowering with CI

In trying to tell a French teacher what I do the first day of school, I realized that my explanation of the first 12 days of Musicuentos Spanish 1 was, well, all in Spanish.  So, here’s some English for you.

There are so many, so very many great language learning principles, right?  So much second language acquisition research that shows students need

  • time
  • input they can understand
  • opportunities to use meaningful language
  • lots of time
  • interaction involving negotiating meaning
  • meaningful repetition
  • more time

to be successful in acquiring a new language.

But oh, my teacher friend, if I could figure out the words to communicate how powerful it is to put in practice what is, to me, the most important thing every language teacher needs to realize:


It’s taken me a long time to come to the place where I’m willing to say that if we believe that motivation is a key factor -perhaps the key factor- in language learning success, our practice ought to reflect it – always.  I’m still figuring out what that looks like.  We can give the homework and give the assessments and put the grades in the gradebooks, we can put up fancy posters and duct tape and send home fancy infographic newsletters and syllabi, but if we haven’t accessed what students are motivated by – not how we can motivate them, but what factors within them motivate themselves – we’ll lose them as soon as the requirement is fulfilled, or there’s a schedule conflict, or they move to another city.  And if native speakers can lose proficiency in the language they were born into, our best long-term-memory-building games and techniques aren’t going to stand against the test of years of ignoring the L2.

Okay, /soapbox.  It’s me, and I always have to start with a bit of theory before I apply it.  My application here is pretty simple: in the magic, difficult question of what motivates students, one answer that many teachers have found is that students are motivated to keep learning simply by a little success in the first place.  I’m sure you’ve experienced it before; when you succeed at something, you want to keep doing it.

Students don’t come into your classroom expecting to succeed.  If you’re going to speak to them in the target language, they expect to be lost.  If you can communicate to them on the very first day that they can understand, it’s incredibly empowering.  And it’s fun.  You get to watch their eyes light up as they think

Wait a minute.

She’s speaking Spanish. (or French or whatever)

And I understand her.

And I’m answering her!


In my classroom, my policy is students get their syllabus and they know how to read and they can read on their own time (I refuse to publish grades until parents and students have signed and returned my syllabus).  We can talk about procedures on the second day.  The first day is all about fun, and it’s all about understanding.

So my suggestion is to spend the first day showing students that they will be able to understand you, and I start by explaining this:

Welcome to Spanish class.

It’s Spanish class, so I’m going to speak a whole lot of Spanish.

But whether you understand or not is primarily my responsibility.  Your responsibilities are to 1) listen, 2) watch, and 3) tell me when you don’t understand.  If you do that, and I’m doing my job, you’ll understand.  I promise.  Don’t believe me? Let’s try it.

And then I launch into a story.  Your story will vary depending on your student level and demographic and so on, but basically, it’s just something to show them that because you’re willing to draw, gesture, act, sing, or whatever, it’s going to be fun, and they’re going to understand.  Here’s my first-day story for Spanish 1 (100% in target language):

Let’s draw a boy (girl). [I draw a girl, students do as well.]
What’s the girl’s name? Jane? Emma? Angelina Jolie? (Girl in class)? No.  What’s her name? [Students choose a name-María. Write 'María'.]
Okay, her name is María.  Hi María.  Everybody say hi, María.
What color [emphasize] is her hair? Blue? Red? Brown? Black? [Point to colors or use color cards until students understand and choose a color - this is the pattern through the story. Point, students understand, draw.]
How does she feel? Is she happy? Is she sad? Is she angry? [Students choose, draw facial expression.]
What’s the girl like? Is she fat? Is she thin? [Choose, draw.]
What’s the girl wearing?  A shirt? A dress?  A tutu?  What color?

I know, it’s not really a story, but you get the idea.  We may get into what kind of hair she has (curly, straight), whether she has glasses, how old she is, where she’s from, and so on.  I do this on day 1 with Spanish 1 and students understand the whole thing and answer all the questions and draw everything, because I’m coaching them through it.  Do they acquire the ability to use this language? Of course not!  But that wasn’t my point – my point was to empower them with the knowledge that they can comprehend in this class when it’s all in Spanish, and it will be fun.  In this first class we might also playfully work on learning names (using “his name is…” etc.) and play a song that’s fun and targets some goal (such as Aserejé to simply show them that part of learning language is wrapping your mouth around the words, and to get them having fun using language)  Later, the character they created becomes a character in the first stories (she makes friends with a Martian penguin and then disappears as the penguin and Garfield become our primary Spanish 1 characters).

How will you make the first day of school about helping students find that they will understand, they will have fun, and this motivates future learning?

For more ideas on comprehensible input on the first days of school, check out this great post by Cynthia Hitz and Martina Bex’s First Days tag.

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August 17, 2014 3 Comments

Repost: A story for demonstratives

I’ve been blogging for a long time, longer than most of you have been reading here, and it occurs to me someone might benefit from a repost once in a while.  Here’s one from early 2009.

I’ve come up with a story that in both Spanish 1 and 2 has worked really well with teaching demonstratives. We’ve worked with those quite a bit for the past couple of weeks, and I’ve been amazed at how fast my students have become consistent and proficient at using them.

Foto: Mariah Demarco

There is a girl, her name is Goldilocks, she has blond hair, and she’s however old the students decide (reviewing beginner phrases). She’s wearing a (color) dress. Is she sad? No, she’s happy. She has a friend, her friend is an animal, he’s a little bear, and his name is Charlie.

(I draw these two on the left side of the board, and then draw three long arcs at about equal widths across the board to indicate space close to them, a bit farther, and farthest away.)

Goldilocks wants lots of things. Charlie has lots of things in his house. Charlie offers her these things. Goldilocks wants soup.

Charlie says, ‘Do you want this soup’? Does Goldilocks want this soup? No, this soup is too hot. (repeat for that soup, which is too cold) (repeat for that soup over there, which is perfect).

Now what does Goldilocks need for her soup?  She needs spoons.  She wants one one for each hand to give us the opportunity to practice the plural.  Two are too red, two are too green, and two are perfectly yellow, the color of her hair.

What is good with soup?  She wants bread.  One is too big, another too small, but the third just right.

We did this in Spanish 1 talking about home and eating, but you can use anything. In Spanish 2 we were working on dropping the noun to get esto, ésos, etc, and we used gorra, pantuflas, and something else that escapes me at the moment.

Believe it or not, once you’ve gotten high-schoolers to accept the fact that where a second language is concerned, they’re like kindergarteners, they’ll tolerate just about anything–including nursery rhymes!

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November 12, 2013 1 Comment

Seven keys to a great story

It’s no secret – I believe the single best way to keep students’ attention, deliver comprehensible input, frame new content, and interact with vocabulary is storytelling.

You may not think you are a natural storyteller, but you are.  Everyone is.  Telling stories is a part of life.  You tell your spouse the crazy things your child said in the car after school today.  You tell your best friend the plot of the movie you saw last week.  You tell your colleague about something that happened to you when you were a child.

That said, it does take some practice to simply make up stories that frame your content and keep your students’ attention, but I promise it’s worth it.  When you see the magic that storytelling injects into your classroom, you’ll never let go of it.  Here’s what I think are the seven keys to a great story.

  • Goals
    Stories aren’t just for fun.  The purpose is to deliver content and get your students interacting with it.  How can the story be aligned with your current theme?  How can you use your target vocabulary? How can you get students to notice the definite article changes, or plurals, or demonstratives, or whatever?
  • Student involvement
    Make sure every story involves your students in a very positive light.  So someone’s having a party and Brad Pitt is there but so is Chuck and which one is more handsome? Chuck, of course.  All the girls want to dance with Chuck.  And everyone’s dancing because Julia’s playing guitar and everyone knows she plays guitar better than Santana. And so on.
  • Questions
    I believe carefully designed questioning is the single greatest characteristic of an effective teacher in any discipline, but it’s of paramount importance in the world language classroom.  Ask and keep asking, and use your questions to let students design parts of the story that aren’t necessary to your target features.  Who’s at the party? Who’s with Chuck? What are they eating? How much are they eating? Who threw it all up?
  • Strange characters
    Last year I thought I was leaving my school and I was throwing away a lot of visuals and other things I hadn’t used in a long time.  One of the things I put in the trash was a posterboard visual of a penguin.  One of my former students, a college student who works in after-school care now, rescued the penguin from the trash, took a picture of it, tweeted at other former students, and before I knew it I was being reprimanded on social media for throwing away such a precious piece of Spanish class nostalgia.  These college students remember (and care) that once upon a time a Martian penguin named Jeffrey was a regular character in their Spanish class stories.  (Yes, this is the penguin in the Musicuentos logo.)
    It doesn’t matter what the character is – let your student pick it.  But a turtle who can play tennis or a Transformer with a personal vendetta against Walmart can go a long way to creating long-term memory.
  • Simplicity
    You know your students aren’t ready for the level of complexity that exists even in a child’s picture book.  Water down the language until you absolutely know it’s comprehensible.  Challenging, but comprehensible.
  • Repetition
    Research shows that people need to hear vocabulary in context dozens of times in order for it to become part of their active vocabulary.  Imagine the repetitions required to acquire the ability to manipulate verbs and the like.
    Think about children’s stories – I know an old lady who swallowed a fly.  Old MacDonald had a farm. I love you this much, said the nut brown hare.  Where is baby’s belly button? Good night, moon.  On Monday, the caterpillar ate through one red apple.  So repetitive. Even when the content is different, the sentence structure is the same.  The questions are often formed the same way.  Why? Because that’s how children acquire language.  Through repetitious play with language.
    It’s fairly easy to design stories with effective repetition by thinking of a question that leads to your learning target.  Working with verbs?  Think about subject, verb, location. Who dances on the couch?  Who dances by the pool? Who dances in the kitchen? Who eats in the bathroom? Who eats with the dogs?
  • An unexpected ending
    I let my students choose a lot of the story, but I rarely let them choose the end, especially at the beginning of the year when they’re not used to how outrageous I want them to be in choosing story elements.  Think about it – right at the end, when you’ve worked through your content and storyline, and you’re about to lose their attention, wham, Chuck is abducted from the party by fire-breathing aliens.  Julia plays the guitar so fast it bursts into flames.  As it turns out, the whole story was just a dream Sam the somnolent student had last period dozing in math class.  Recapture attention and create more memory by creating a memorable ending.

Happy storytelling!

Foto: Imagen en acción


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September 17, 2013 10 Comments

Cortometraje for narration

One of our major goals for Spanish 3 is to refine narration.  We believe this is a critical function of language.  Teenagers do it all the time.  They talk about what they did over the weekend, over the summer, yesterday in math class.  They tell stories about the amazing shot at the basketball game or the kid who threw up in the cafeteria.  They describe the plot of the movie they saw last week or the book they finished last night.  A great deal of life’s language is narrating stories.

Here’s an activity we did to practice narration.

    1. Show the cortometraje “La leyenda del Espantapájaros.”  First, show it with no audio and ask students what happened.
    2. Offer key vocabulary like espantapájaros and cenizas and molina.
    3. Show the video again, with the audio, and then ask key comprehension questions.
    4. Watch the clip one last time with the audio, pausing to point out key events and the verbs used to talk about them.
    5. Chart the film in the form of a timeline.  Use a symbol such as a triangle for description or setting the scene, and one such as an exclamation point for key actions in the storyline.  Use a symbol such as a right-facing arrow to add the sequencing phrases used like “esa misma noche,” an important proficiency-pushing skill in storytelling.  Put description above the line and actions below.
    6. Have students retell the story using their timelines.


Use this film as a starting point to investigate and share other legends.

Transition into students doing a similar timeline of a story in their life or a good story they’ve heard so they can share with classmates while practicing sequencing and narration.

If you teach a language other than Spanish, please share a similar short film others could use for that language.


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March 21, 2013 6 Comments

A storytelling success story

In honor of last night’s #langchat topic, I want to share something that happened in one of my kindergarten classes this week.

At my school, we have mandatory Spanish from age 3 in preschool through 10th grade. Until 2nd grade, however, students only receive between 15 and 20 minutes of instruction per week. I’ve been told many times that this is a waste of my time, and I know there’s very little you can do in that amount of time, but as I’ve said before, that time compounded year after year as students stay at our school could produce some significant acquisition.

In preschool, I teach a story in the fall and a story in the spring. @PreKlanguages gave me a crash-course in teaching preschool that rocked my world: start with a character and a color. Add an action. Add a song. Repeat every week. So that’s what we do. It takes us an entire semester to go through our fall story: there’s the grass, and it’s green. On the grass there’s a house. It’s red. Who lives in the house? Elmo? No, the pollito. He’s yellow (song: “Los pollitos”). One day he takes a walk. He walks fast. He walks slow.It continues from there but you get the idea.Fast forward to kindergarten. At this point the kids come to me and I can use my projector, so we have a powerpoint story and a lot of YouTube videos and playing online games, etc. In late winter – this week – the bear in our story takes a walk to the park where he finds a dad and girl, and a mom and boy. So I start telling the story and doing the action -el oso camina- and that word barely gets out of my mouth when I hear a little guy up front say “espacio” (despacio).

It almost took my breath away, and you have to understand why. This boy was in my preschool last year and hasn’t heard that word from me in almost a year (and I know he doesn’t receive any Spanish input outside my class). He has behavior problems. He has attention problems. Sometimes it seems he has processing problems. And he produced a comprehensible word in an appropriate context when I hadn’t used it with the bear and actually didn’t intend to.Children learn language because people are constantly telling them stories. Why wouldn’t this work in SLA as well?
photo credit: ucumari via photopin cc

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February 3, 2012 2 Comments