Targeted vs non-targeted input

For those of us who have already made the switch to comprehensible input, apparently the new divide in camps is targeted vs. non-targeted. I didn’t realize I had an opinion on this until iFLT, but it turns out I do (I have so many opinions!) and this is my blog, so you’re stuck reading about them. If you’re not sure what I mean by targeted or non-targeted, targeted input is when you have your specific structures (frequently referred to as target structures – crazy, I know) that you want your students to be on the path to acquiring by the end of your activity/activities. Those structures could be single words or whole phrases, and the lesson could be a quick 15 minute discussion of a static picture, or it might be a 3 day series of everything you have in your comprehensible input toolkit. Non-targeted input, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like. Giving students input with no particular rhyme or reason, just conversing and discussing in the target language or about whatever you want to use as your launching point (pictures, a video clip, etc.)

Targeted input

The case for targeted input is pretty simple. As teachers, it helps to have some sort of plan to follow to know what our intentions for acquisition by the end of each course. (Does this mean our students have acquired the structures? Of course not. But at least we know the foundation has been laid.) For administrative purposes, it is hard to write a scope and sequence/curriculum plan based on non-targeted input. Honestly, I’m not really sure how that would look. Targeted input also makes it easier to stay “in bounds” since each level of a course, to a large extent, would stay on track with each other for those of us who teach multiple classes of the same level.

Non-targeted input

The case for non-targeted input is aimed at targeted input’s drawbacks. Chris Stolz discussed some thoughts of Ben Slavic in his own blog post here where Ben proposes that targeted input can get very boring very quickly, and I agree with that. If you are too heavy on circling, the kids stop “falling for the trick”, so to speak. It’s worse with PQA, especially since the form you’re going to be using in PQA (I/you forms) are not the forms kids are going to use in a story (he/she/they) – not inherently a problem, but sometimes the forms are very different from each other (Spanish preterite verbs, anyone?) and the jump might be too much for your slow processors. It also can become very stilted trying to form a question in just the right way to get your target structures in, especially for ones that aren’t quite so conversational but are common in writing.

The other problem I’ve found in practice with targeted input is that, some really useful language stuff just doesn’t work well in a targeted language setting. Rejoinders, for example. Rejoinders are used in conversation all the time – Oh really? That’s so interesting! No way. I can’t believe it! I don’t care. That’s ridiculous. That’s too bad. You poor thing. – but if I try to shoehorn them into a story or other manner of targeted input and I am not really cautious, it can often seem contrived and again, the kids pick up on that.

The solution

From watching the master teachers at iFLT and reflecting on my own practice and what I intend to do this next year… I think the best choice, as is it is in many things in life, is a little of both. I am a teacher who absolutely needs those targeted structures so I know where I’m going and what I’m doing, or else I will ramble the whole period about nothing and the kids’ acquisition will go nowhere. On the other hand, a lot of really great acquisition happens around the target structures – my students have picked up so many non-targeted words just from random class discussions (one class got really good at extraño because I always said one student was so strange, one class was big on apesta because one year their insult for everything was ‘that stinks’, another class is hardcore about caballo because it’s a student’s nickname, and so on). I have never explicitly taught rejoinders as more than a pop-up or things like saying salud after a sneeze, but my students can and do say them.

When I was watching Mark Mallaney, he noted that his target structures in his stories were all directed towards his final goal of having students being ready to read a novel. Since I read class novels in my classes, that’s how I’ve been doing things (though theoretically, with more intention this year. I do not read class novels with my Spanish 3 and maybe that’s why I feel so lost and blah when teaching that class.) But the rest of the stuff he did that day, either seemed to be non-targeted, or loosely targeted based on one word (deberías). But the way he was using deberías, it was hard to tell if it was specifically being targeted, or if he was putting it on the board as a reminder of a useful word to use when students were phrasing their answers. And I guess that’s why he’s a master teacher, because it’s totally conceivable that his students could bust out things like ‘You should visit the cave of the winds because it is beautiful and popular.’ after 1 year of Spanish.

So that’s my opinion on targeted vs. non-targeted. I don’t think there’s any right way or wrong way to do things. As far as the state of Nebraska is concerned, as long as I am teaching in Spanish and about Spanish-language culture things, they don’t care how I get it done.


iFLT 2017: Wrapup/changes in practice

When I arrived at iFLT, I felt pretty good about myself. I’d been teaching with CI for 3.5 years (notice the .5? Don’t do that. Don’t switch in the middle of the year, it will be bad. Maybe ADD one or two techniques to your practice, but don’t overhaul it entirely. Even if you are totally on board and can’t wait to get started. Trust me on this one.) Anyway, I’d been teaching with CI for 3.5 years, I knew the basics of pretty much all the standard CI techniques, I was able to help out lots of beginners and intermediates. So I was really hoping to get a little idea here, a tweak there, and so on.

I saw a lot of things that I do well. Like the teachers in the language labs, I have words EVERYWHERE in my room. Word walls galore. Especially since I teach levels 1-AP. I try to construct a very positive atmosphere and am the touchy-feely teacher who is all sunshine and rainbows and is annoyingly cheerful most of the time. I do the basic CI techniques pretty well, I just need to toss in some other things here and there to keep them novel.

But the things I needed to change slowly developed like a snowball. It was a little inspirational quote here, a thought there, an off-hand comment by this presenter on the side, that slowly morphed into this big overarching THING in my brain.

Let me back up: Like I said, I am the teacher for Spanishes 1, 2, 3, AP. I posted somewhere in this giant slog o’ blogs that I am 0 for 9 of students taking the AP exam in 2015/2016 and getting a 3 or higher, and that it is a me-problem, not a student-problem. It is not a question of their dedication or intelligence, it is a question of what am I doing wrong to prepare them, and the lightbulb turned on Friday morning as I was standing at the hotel sink brushing my teeth. You know how your brain needs processing time, right, and that’s why you get all your really great thoughts or things finally make sense when you’re doing super mundane things like falling asleep, taking a shower, driving, etc? This was my processing time. (I was also grateful for my long, flat, boring 6 hour drive home to Nebraska because it gave me a ton of processing time from the conference. My brain was pinging like popcorn with ideas and thoughts.)

First of all, by this time, I knew my biggest problem is too much English, and that’s squarely on me. What happens is I want to share as much as possible with my students about life the universe and everything in a class period, and if I do that all in Spanish, there’s no time! Well, first off, I need to either figure it out in Spanish or shut my face. Second off, I have gotten better over the years but my inner grammarian still comes out sometimes and wants to go on long-winded explanations about how this word is related to that one and blah blah blah lost half the class already. In English. I am getting better, but still can improve at redirecting students who want to go way out of bounds with their Spanish. I am terrible at redirecting them back into Spanish if they wander out, BUT I think the fact that I switch into English and stay there tends to give them license to switch to English and stay there.

My secondary issue, that I didn’t realize when I was sitting in Darcy’s AP presentation (considering myself as an AP teacher who knew all the stuff she was talking about… not a Spanish 1-3 teacher who also needs to know about the AP exam) is that my Spanish 1-3 units? Not aligned to the AP themes. And as much as I claim that I have tossed my textbook and gone my own way, that is a falsehood. It’s true that I have tweaked everything to the point that you probably wouldn’t recognize the base units as being from Realidades if I didn’t tell you, but they still follow the thematic units presented in textbooks. Spanish 1 starts with greetings, goodbyes, numbers, weather, colors. Bo-ring. Last year, I struggled because I had this.. stuff.. that I knew I wanted to cover, but I also had these special person interviews that were way more compelling, and I didn’t know how to mix the two, so it ended up being really messy. Now, I’ve learned that I don’t even have to bother doing that stuff in a unit, just do it as time goes by. Start with special person and some really basic stories to get tiene/quiere/va/le gusta cemented and let’s roll.

This also helps me with my problem of my Spanish 3, because I really dislike most of what I teach in Spanish 3. I like my free reading and I like my blogging, and I like my art unit. I like some of my health and wellness unit. I like teaching the subjunctive part in my relationships unit. I love teaching Nos han dado la tierra. But a lot of it is cobbled together, seems contrived, and I otherwise dislike teaching it, and if I don’t like teaching it, then the kids definitely don’t enjoy learning it. So I was planning to redo a bunch of it this year anyway, and aligning it with the AP themes gives me much more of a direction (especially since there’s a lot of stuff in my AP syllabus that I don’t get to anyway; I might be able to use some of those units with minor adaptations.)

And my tertiary and final problem is the one that hit me, standing at the hotel sink. My AP students did not do well because I did not trust the CI process. I was basically doing some sort of half-CI half-traditional mashup. I did not properly preteach key vocabulary through a short TPRS story, picture, movie, anything. I did not do embedded readings. AP input relies heavily on reading and that’s fine (due to my school’s size we probably do more readings than many CI-based classes just because you can only PQA so much with a class of 4!) but I basically threw the original versions or slightly altered versions of things at my students and said “good luck!” And of course I helped them, but it took for-e-ver because I had to help them so much. (Of course, it did not help that my Spanish 3 could really use more input of conditional/future/perfect tenses.) Because I wanted to cover the content quickly, I didn’t stop to make it – did you guess it? – comprehensible. Teacher fail. And I know on the AP exam students will run into things that are not comprehensible but I want them to acquire as much as they can before said exam. Same with listening exercises. Ironically, looking back at last year, about the only thing I did bother to make comprehensible on a consistent basis is when we watched Gran Hotel, but Gran Hotel is extremely compelling so the students were willing to push through.

So here is my list of changes for this upcoming school year.

  • Adiós, bellringers as I currently do them. I will still do opener activities of varying sorts but right now, they are more of a distraction and end up a huge use of English than accomplishing what I want. I normally end up taking this time to ask kids about their day/sports/whatever (hello, PQA) so might as well do it in Spanish.
  • I am making an inglés/español sign. For me.
  • I am redesigning Spanish 3 and maybe the other levels to align with the AP themes. (I might end up with 2 plan periods this year, but our scheduling is currently a mess due to some factors outside of anyone’s control, so I won’t know for sure until school starts. But that would be pretty sweet. If not this year, then next year.)
  • Add back in brain breaks/brain bursts. I only did them really well one year, but they’re fun, the kids like them, and they’re able to focus better.
  • Stay in Spanish, me.
  • Add emoji faces to my emotions poster. (It’s colorful and has QR codes, but I think the faces will help.)
  • More novelty from all the cool tips I picked up at iFLT.
  • Spanish!!! ! ! ! ! ! ! !
  • Hit the thrift store after this heat wave and get some props for my prop box. For real, this time.
  • Properly preteach vocab in AP, even though it means we might go more slowly on the front end, it means things will go more quickly on the back end AND they will actually acquire more.
  • Spanish. All the time. Seriously. My students can do it and it’s kind of insulting to their intelligence to use English as if they can’t.

So that’s what I want to work on. There’s probably another 10 things that I thought about and promptly forgot because there is always room for improvement. I have my work cut out for me but I love a challenge!

iFLT 2017: Language lab recaps

One of the really cool things about iFLT is the language labs. These are opportunities to see real life teachers in action with real life students doing typical activities you might see in their classroom. Originally, I wasn’t even sure I was going to see a language lab – I was all about the sessions. I ended up watching three language labs with three different teachers in three different levels (though all in Spanish). Next time I go to iFLT (because there will definitely be a next time), I might just spend all of my mornings in language labs and go to sessions in the afternoons, because for me, they are THAT instructional. They are great for beginning teachers to see ‘oh, this is what it looks like.’ For intermediates, it’s more about picking up a full technique here or there. For me, as an experienced teacher, it was little tweaks that I can do to make my teaching just a bit more effective here and there.

I do think some teachers were a little put off – I mean, these kids are probably the super whiz kids because who would come to school in the summer, right? I didn’t ask the lab teachers, but I don’t agree. I saw some kids in Annabelle’s session that had a serious cases of the wiggles. There were a few kids in Grant’s session that I think he had a hard time reading and drawing into the conversation, and one of them was hilarious but also kept going on English tangents. Mark’s session was special – he teaches in Denver, so he was teaching an intermediate Spanish with his own regular students! (They had Spanish 1 with him this past year.) But there were students that in that hour and fifteen minutes, that followed him with their eyes and participated with gestures and chorally but never volunteered a singleton response. Probably not his superstars, but they were there regardless.

Unless stated otherwise, for these writeups, assume the teacher is speaking in the TL.

Elementary novice language lab – La Maestra Loca

Annabelle started the class by reviewing what the students knew about John, their magdalena (muffin) one word image from the previous day. I was amazed at the huge vocabulary these elementary students already knew from just a few hours of language instruction. She then very quickly switched to English and explained how they were going to tell a story using the storycubes. She then went back to Spanish and told AND MODELED how to draw pictures for the different categories on the storycubes, then put the kids in the groups and let them get to work.

She was about to start the story but realized she needed to explain to her class artist what to do, so she sent the students to their coloring spots (coloring sheets posted around the room) to color SILENTLY while she explained to the artist what his job was as she told the story. When she was ready, she called them back to their seats and told the story, having a student roll a cube as necessary for the details. They were able to finish the story and then moved into a MovieTalk. Since MovieTalks were new to this class, she quickly switched to English, established rules with the class, and then my notes stop so either 1) we ran out of time or 2) I got too involved with her teaching and didn’t take any more notes. (Probably #2. That happened a lot.)

Special notes about Annabelle’s session

  • Whenever she had to address a student behavior, she didn’t address it out loud (like we might do in high school classes), she whispered in the student’s ear. But she also sometimes gave a single student a specific set of directions in English, also in a whisper, so it was hard to tell when it was a direction and when it was behavior correction. I think this was on purpose.
  • She uses the teacher vs. student game. There’s various variations of this, but she’s blogged about her version here.
  • When doing the story, a student was already showing comprehension by responding with boo-hoos at a sad thing, so Annabelle pulled her up to play the part of John the magdalena.
  • Brain breaks, brain bursts, more brain breaks!
  • Near the end, the response rate was getting pretty sad, so she paused and did a quick survey. Were they tired? Yes. Were they understanding? Yes. Was she going too fast? A few said yes, most said no. This told her that the response rate was not due to the Spanish, just the tiredness factor. (And to be fair, 2 1/2 hours of Spanish class a day is exhausting as an adult, much less when you’re in elementary school!)

Middle school novice language lab – Grant Boulanger

Grant chose to start the class I watched with some PQA. He was working with middle schoolers, who I don’t teach (my program starts in grade 9) but MS kids are… an interesting bunch. After greeting each other, asking how students are doing (one student said he wasn’t doing well, and when asked why, said ‘because I’m here’ and everyone laughed – Grant used it as a moment to reinforce ‘qué lástima / what a shame’) then they moved into a reading on the board about one of the students in the class. In the debrief afterwards, Grant noted that he chose this particular student for the reading, since she came a day late into the class and didn’t know anyone previously (some of the students go to school together), and it was important for her to feel like part of the group. However, Grant didn’t just read the reading straight through, he continued to stop and weave PQA throughout the reading.

As they were reading, they got to a sentence with a lot of cognates and he stopped and did a really cool cognate-recognition activity. He held up his ‘íngles’ sign, switched to English for this short explanation, and then it was right back to Spanish. Whenever he got to a word that was a cognate, he would yell BEÍSBOL, the students said BASEBALL, then he would say the word in question like TELEVISIÓN and the kids would say it in English like TELEVISION. I thought that was a really neat trick and instead of taking a whole day to teach cognates like I normally do at the beginning of Spanish 1, now I can take 30 seconds for explanation, 2 minutes for hardcore practice, then sprinkle in practice throughout the rest of the year.

Then Grant went back to finishing the reading, again sprinkling in PQA. As the students talked, he taught a few rejoinders as appropriate such as ‘no puede ser! (it can’t be!)’ after learning that a student had a black belt in tae kwon do. After this, they transitioned into a quick recap of talking about Fred, their intelligent but irresponsible 5 year old with a beard from the day before, and then transitioned into a story from there. I stopped taking notes because, and I quote, “stopped taking notes cause I got sucked into the story, sorry – door kid was great tho”. Sorry for anyone in that session with me, I was laughing annoyingly loudly the entire time.

Special notes about Grant’s session

  • Grant teaches the alphabet, but in context. During the reading portion, he took maybe 30 seconds with his laser pointer, and said ‘I’m going to point to a letter, you tell me its name.’ That was it. Later, when he was putting up bonus vocabulary on the board (in this case, película) he had a student spell the English equivalent, movie, in Spanish as he wrote it on the paper. Brilliant! Because really, the Spanish alphabet is pretty easy except for g/h/i/j/ñ/x/y/z.
  • Grant only used one brain break, but it was a class builder – it was a mix-pair-share (he didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was if you’re familiar with my beloved Kagan strategies) and describe a connection that two students have with each other (in the TL). So for example, Grant, the profe’s name is Grant, but there was also a student named Grant. Connexión! This was something that apparently came up 100% organically in this language lab but when your kids give you something awesome as a teacher, you run with it.
  • Grant beautifully deflected questions that would require a lengthy translation/explanation in English with ‘let’s talk about that at the break’. I am terrible at this and waste a lot of class time.

High school intermediate language lab – Mark Mallaney

As I type this up, I realize that there are very few actual notes on this session. I watched for an hour and fifteen minutes and this class did PQA and a story. That’s it. Their PQA centered around what one of the kids was doing that weekend (he was doing to a party) and what should we, all these teachers, do while we are in Denver. Then they moved into a pretty typical storytelling scenario and I took absolutely no notes because I was too busy watching and laughing about Shrektuga and his…her? (Shrektuga was played by a girl) love, who had a beautiful smile of 3 teeth and the backroom deal with a character whose name I forget to get more teeth from the tooth fairy.

Special notes from Mark’s session

  • Mark stayed 100% in the TL.
  • Because Mark was working with his school year students, his session was full of in-jokes and personal touches that make our jobs, specifically, as world language teachers so fun. I have a bunch of kids that I can walk up to and say ‘ji ji ji’ (with the English j) and or ‘hey, you guys, I learned to speak crouton this summer!’ and that’s OUR thing and nobody else shares that with us. That sense of community is vital.
  • He did not stop for comprehension checks nearly as much as Annabelle or Grant. One, his kids did a magical job of keeping eyes on him, even if they were not verbally offering any output. Two, Mark is a funny guy and when students were laughing along, or even just smiling that told him that they were understanding what was going on.
  • Even though I knew the wonder of using CI, the speaking ability of his students blew me away. I thought by ‘intermediate’ they meant kids going into year 3 or maybe even year 4 of Spanish. Nope. I asked them at break and they said they had taken one year and these kids were saying stuff I could read and produce grammatically in writing (definitely not SAY in a sentence) in COLLEGE. I was astounded.
  • I could tell Mark’s students were intermediates because a few times they made up words (esprinkles, haha) but that shows they were trying to create with the language with the schema they had in their head, and that’s awesome.

General language lab thoughts and observations

  • All three teachers stressed that community, a sense of belonging and caring, is very important to them and their classroom. There was a time in my teaching career where I was not so good at this in general. There was a very specific time with a specific group of students in my career where I outright destroyed my own classroom community. A snide comment here, a sharp tone there. That’s all it took. And not only did I lose the trust of those students, I lost their friends, I lost their parents, I lost their siblings. (Well, I hope I didn’t totally lose all their siblings because I have a few coming up as freshmen this year and I hope I have proven I can right my wrongs.)
  • All three had clear lines of when English use was appropriate and when it was not, and they enforced those lines for their students and themselves.
  • All three were compelling, competent, and fun to watch, but had their own style of teaching. Annabelle is like me – wacky, energetic, goofy, running around with high-fives, and really good at being hugely dramatic for effect. Grant is hilarious but low-key (which I expect a guy like Bryce Hedstrom is in his class, too). He’s not bouncing off the walls, and even taught for a bit sitting down! But don’t confuse that for being low-energy, because his class was definitely energetic. And then Mark was somewhere in between. His class was able to contribute more to the discussion since they have more language, which means he didn’t have to pour as much of his own energy into the class to keep it running smoothly.
  • I liked seeing that yes, I do a lot of the same things these master teachers do in my own classroom, so I am using the CI techniques in the correct manner. (Not playing the comparison game, though! Everyone loses when you play the comparison game.) However, I can take little ideas like Grant’s alphabet thing or Annabelle’s storycubes to make what I do even better and easier.

So if you have a chance to make it to iFLT, do yourself a favor and watch a language lab or five. There really is no substitute for being able to observe a master teacher in action, especially if you teach out in the boonies like me. You won’t regret it!

iFLT 2017: Day 4

On day 4, I watched yet another language lab session and finished with probably the most useful, thought-provoking presentation of the week. It was called In Good Times and Bad: Staying in the TL 95%+ by Paul Kirschling. Not only was Paul comical, he really knows his stuff.

Teacher confession time: I do not stay in the TL 95% of the time. Or 90% of the time. I am really okay with about 80% of the time as a target (especially since, as Sara-Elizabeth notes here, that the 90% statement from ACTFL is really an arbitrary number made up that sounded pretty good to a bunch of teachers). My problem is… I like to tell personal stories. No problem, right? But then I run into something I can’t describe in Spanish. Or it’s a long story, because I’m me, and I ramble. So I switch to English. And then Kid 1 wants to tell a story, and I let them, because I care and I’m interested, but they have to use English to tell me all the details. And then Kid 2 wants to tell a story. And so on.

And then we technically did PQA. Just… all in English and now we’re 15 minutes into a 45 minute class and there was no language acquisition. Epic teacher fail.

So I decided to go to this session because the thing is, I am totally capable of staying in the TL 95% of the time or more, and the slow realization had dawned on me throughout the week. (But I’m going to say more about that in my wrap-up post so, no more here.) Here is what Paul had to say before he gave us squazillions of examples of how to stay in the TL:

  • Why do we need to stay in the TL? Because we have limited time with our students and there are no shortcuts.
  • What keeps us from using it? Classroom management issues, verbose verbiage, and most commonly YOU THE TEACHER (I bolded this with lots of exclamation points because I am the problem in my classroom.)
  • Two big ideas: layer in the language, and teach the phrases you need to be able to teach (directions, common phrases like What are you doing? / Do you need help? / Eyes on me / Is it true or false / etc)



This was the meat and potatoes of his session. It was the most obvious and also most enlightening sentence of the entire week for me. He said, kid has to go to the bathroom? Use it for input. Kid tries to speak English? Time for input. A visitor interrupts class? More input. I suppose if you are a control freak (I used to be one, but I am in recovery) then it will be very hard to let go of your lesson plan, but if you treat every moment as an opportunity to teach language, then it doesn’t really matter what kind of random stuff happens in class… it’s all a rich gold mine for teaching language, especially conversational language (lots of “should” and “what if” type language.) He also opened my eyes to taking rote input that I spent a lot of time teaching at the beginning of Spanish 1 and… not doing that anymore. Stuff like greetings, saying goodbye, basic courtesies… you know, things you teach the first two weeks of school in a big flurry and the kids immediately forget except for their favorite? Yeah, I’m not going to do that this year. Instead of doing that, just greet them in the same way for a few days until they either get it or get super tired of it, then mix it up. For example:

  • Good morning.
  • Good morning, class.
  • Good morning, my students.
  • Good morning, my dear students.
  • Good morning, my dear students who are always on time.

As you can see, you just keep layering on more and more new language – that’s how we acquire, right? By taking things we have already acquired and just putting a liiiiittle bit more on it.  As the year progresses, mix it up.

  • Good morning, Tigers. [our mascot]
  • Hello, young students and old students.
  • Good day, citizens.
  • Good afternoon, students wearing green shirts and black shorts.

One I came up with myself was a mishmash of an idea from La Maestra Loca, who names her classes, and this one. Name each class after a country, then greet them by their demonym – Hola peruanos, hola argentinos, hola candienses, etc.

Then he threw in some GREAT ideas for languages like Spanish. Want to teach your level ones some subjunctive?

  • I am thrilled you came today.
  • I am disappointed you are late.
  • It’s my pleasure to teach you today.
  • I’m so happy it’s Monday.

Emotions + subjunctive is a super common construction in Spanish, but I don’t normally introduce any of that until Spanish 3. The last one could even introduce ‘sea’ which is very important, being a form of ‘is’ and also being irregular. The modifier ‘tan’ for ‘so’ is also super handy. See? So much rich language in ONE simple sentence. And obviously you would write it on the board, explain the first day you say it, and all that good stuff. You can repeat this process with ways to ask how are you or say goodbye or any other typical routine courtesies.

Then Paul moved on to modeling various student interactions when a student has a routine request, like going to the bathroom, asking to charge a device, asking for a pencil, whatever. Going to the bathroom might include questions like:

  • Where are you going?
  • Is it near or is it far?
  • Is it dangerous to go?
  • What do you need to go?
  • Do you need your phone/a pass/money/your computer/etc?
  • How do you get there?
  • Class, should I let them go?
  • [after the student leaves] Do you think they’re really going to the bathroom? Will they text? Will they play games on their phone? Will they talk to Fiona in the bathroom? Will they be back in 5 minutes?

Obviously, you can’t do this every time and not all the questions every time, but it could be fun, especially if you have frequent fliers for certain things. Or hey, even have a kid do a set-up where they will specifically ask you for something (even though they don’t actually need that thing), because, why not?

This session opened my eyes to the possibility of easy input that is present in every single class if I would just look for it, and especially lots of conversational input that doesn’t necessarily sound stilted or forced (which can be a problem once you get into the higher levels and are trying to work in ways to use conditional or future tenses and such). Since these are tasks that are repeated frequently, you will get your repetition a few reps over a period of time rather than 20+ reps in one day like we might do with a specific CI activity, but students will pick that stuff up. And now I can save myself time at the beginning of Spanish 1 to get to more interesting things than practicing saying hola and buenos días.

iFLT 2017: Day 3

On day 3, I chose to start my day by observing Grant Boulanger’s language lab. As promised in day 2, I am going to write up my language lab observations in a different post. (I ended up watching a THIRD language lab on Friday because they are just so fun and informative to watch.) So we’ll start with my second session.

Session 2 – Embedded Reading Part 2 – Michele Whaley/Laurie Clarcq

I originally was going to go embedded reading part 1 the day before, but I ended up trading it in for La Maestra Loca’s language lab which turned out to be a fine decision. I have a good grasp on the basics of embedded readings and how they work. This presentation, like many parts of iFLT, was mostly a target-language demo of what it looks and feels like (this time, in Russian!) but some salient points the presenters made are these:

  • Remember to leave thinking time!!! As teachers (of any sort) we frequently want students to answer the question before we’re done even asking, when that’s not how questioning and answering happens in normal conversation.
  • We have to remind students to tell us if things aren’t clear – that’s a normal part of communication. (True story: I was talking to native speakers yesterday and getting into unknown vocabulary, and they were starting to talk very quickly, so I had to ask the woman to repeat herself. Lo and behold, she wasn’t offended or angry, she slowed down, repeated herself, and changed her language slightly so I could get it and we could solve her problem! That’s how language works in reality!!!)
  • Big important note: why did students read before comprehensible input? To get ready for the test. What are they doing? Trying to find the bits they understand. How much do they understand? About 30%.
  • In a CI classroom, why do students read? To get information. What are they doing? Focusing on the message. How much do they understand? Depends on purpose and who’s doing the leading. 85% gets you comprehension, 90-95% with teacher support leads to acquisition, 95-100% alone leads to acquisition. That being said, we were shown examples of gibberish plus English to show the different percentage levels and anything under 95 is really unpleasant. (Later, in the BVP/Krashen talk, Dr. Krashen hypothesized that higher interest would lead to higher tolerance of ‘noise’.)

Then we went into a typical embedded reading scenario reading about a penguin who swims from Argentina to Brazil every year to visit a man who washed him off when he was a baby penguin. We did a short TPRS story to introduce the vocabulary, then about a 5-line version one of the story while Michele read. (Yes, she put the actual Russian up there while she read aloud.) For the next version, she had a few of us go up and act it out. Another way to possibly do this is to have the kids do a read-and-draw type activity, but leave a few extra boxes at the bottom. That’s where the NEW information they find out from the subsequent readings goes.

Another idea they suggested is to quickly smash kids into small groups (a director + actors) and have them act out the story SILENTLY while the director films on their phone. Then they submit their silent movies to you, and you can use their movies as a potential MovieTalk. I love this idea because 1) less work that I have to do, 2) kids love seeing themselves, 3) moooooorrreeee input!

Even though I consider myself a pretty okay embedded reading user (two of my favorite stories to teach are authres stories embedded-reading-ified down for students), this session helped me realize that the reason that these SUPER AMAZING STORIES unfortunately tend to fall flat with my kids is because we just read the stories, check for comprehension, and that’s it. I don’t put in other activities with them, which is a note for this year.


On Thursday, there was an hour Q&A with Bill VanPatten and Dr. Krashen, which I have zero notes on because I was enraptured with their presence. (Seriously. I sat 4th row, dead center, and it was the only thing I was EARLY to this entire week.) They were knowledgeable and hilarious and I really wish they had time for more questions. But I’ve always got my Tea with BVP!

Session 3 – Reader’s Theatre – Karen Rowan

I chose this session for two reasons. One, because I sort of do reader’s theatre but I’m not great at it. Two, because I coach drama at my school but I’m not great at it.  The basics of reader’s theatre aren’t terribly difficult: find an entertaining passage in what you’re reading, usually a novel, and act it out. However, after watching Karen’s session, I realized why I’m not so great at it. To have a good reader’s theatre, you have to be adequately prepared with the right kinds of props. #1, I said last year “Oh, I’m going to start a prop box” (I even have a 3-drawer rolling cart with 2 empty drawers for props!) but I never got around to it and #2, I never went through and specifically said THIS WILL BE THE DRAMATIC SECTION (even though we do, for example, Casi Se Muere and we absolutely should act out the part where Pepe is choking and Ana saves his life and then Jaime stomps over). I usually just decided that morning if the kids had enough energy. As a side note, I also think that even if you’re thinking, eeeeh I don’t think my kids would really be into this, having the right kind of ridiculous props will help. In my case, my problem is small numbers due to our enrollment so I usually don’t have enough bodies after Spanish 1.

We acted out a scene from Don Quijote (the version written by Karen Rowan herself so it was exceptionally fun and entertaining) and here are my notes during our experience and on her post-experience talk:

  • We are not teaching students to decode words, we are teaching them to make pictures in their head.
  • The students technically have their books but they’re not really looking at them. (This made me felt better because I always had an internal conflict between, we’re supposed to be reading, but how can they watch the acting and read at the same time.) Some teachers might type out scripts instead and some novel teacher guides even include reader’s theatre scripts that are easier to hold than the book.
  • Karen had written out the dialogue on big pieces of cardboard on BOTH sides so the actor could hold it up and read it and the audience could also see and read it. She later suggested using markerboards too.
  • It’s important for the class to keep the energy up or you, the teacher, have to provide all the energy and that is exhausting.
  • You can redo chunks of the story in rewind, fast forward, slow-mo – just don’t overdo it.
  • Designate a photographer to take pictures as you go, then use those pictures in a retell.
  • Project a photo as a backdrop!
  • Use chairs and tables as staging, just make good decisions.
  • Stop at the moment of maximum interest to get those language reps in. (Should he yell at the bully? Will she ask the cute boy on a date? etc.)
  • Then, once you get to the actual reading of the chapter, just read it. You’ve already acted it out; the kids know what happens.

Session 4 – AP through a CI Lens – Darcy Pippins

The final session of the day on a very long Thursday was focused on preparing students for the AP exam and how CI can do that just as effectively as traditional programs. AP scores just came in for the last school year, and well. I’ve got 2 years of AP under my belt and I am 0-for-9 of students receiving passing scores. Let me be clear: this is a me-problem and not a student-problem but I will address this more in my wrap-up/changes for 2017-2018 post. Darcy had a great presentation but I didn’t take a whole ton of notes because I felt her target audience wasn’t necessarily current AP teachers, but rather teachers who were part of programs that feed into AP and how to get those students prepared from the bottom up. A lot of the information was on the six themes of the AP exam and stuff I was already familiar with due to my AP training a few years ago. One thing I did NOT know that will certainly be useful is that apparently you can ask for your students’ materials back? It costs something or other, but if I can see what my students did on the test, that would be very helpful in saying “Oh. Yeeeeeah this is what I need to fix.” (Right now, that answer is: all the things.)

One thing that it did trigger in my brain is that I can do a much better job aligning my lower level Spanish units to the 6 AP themes. Which is good, because I really dislike my Spanish 3 units and I want to trash a lot of them this year and do something completely different.

Notes to self aside, Arianne Dowd did a much better job actually writing up what Darcy talked about over on the CI Peek blog so if you are interested in that, head over and check it out.

My last session gets a whole post all to itself because it was probably the most enlightening of all the sessions I went to (and again, I went to it on a whim. Best decision ever.) But it will probably be a lot shorter. Yay!

iFLT 2017: pause for teaching

Originally, I wasn’t going to blog tonight because I am dead tired. My brain is so full of thoughts and ideas and just… kaboom, ya know? I think everyone is feeling the same way. But I have been talking to many people here and something that has really kind of been a recurring theme is that many of the people who are on the beginner track (and some intermediates) feel like… okay, we got the basic idea of this whole “comprehensible input” thing, we have buy-in, we’ve seen it as students, we’ve been shown what the end product looks like… now what? A lot of them feel as if they are missing a huge middle step, which, technically they are: lots of practice. But I know I didn’t feel like I REALLY got how to do CI until I went to a 3 day TPRS workshop where we spent those entire days practicing circling with a single sentence, then moving up to a paragraph, and then moving on to storyasking small parts of a story as a group, then individually, all under the guidance of a well-trained TPRS teacher. We never did have time to storyask a whole story (there were only 7 of us in that conference but storyasking 7 stories would be a brainsplosion, I think) but we did receive the updated version of Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk. Ironically, after a year of teaching TPRS, I didn’t really need the book anymore because I got the pattern down, but the first few chapters are very good about literally scripting every. single. question. you might want to ask as you attempt to ask a story (not even including any of the other potential comprehensible input pieces that you might choose to do along with said story!)

Anyway, after today’s sessions, I was standing near the books with one of my new conference friends and she was looking at them, and I held up Brandon Brown Quiere un Perro and said that I loved teaching it, and she said, “My kids can’t read.” I was very confused, and she clarified that her students have approximately no literacy skills in Spanish though and she has no idea where to start. I told her that for the first chapter, you only need to teach quiere, tiene, perro, stuff I tend to teach within the first week. How? And I launched into a random demo of my PQA lesson where I ask students about their pets in preparation for reading Brandon Brown. To an experienced CI teacher, this is the simplest of simple language, but I realized today that for a newbie, this is terrifying stuff!

And so for my friend Taylor, and any other person who is still not entirely sure what PQA looks or sounds like, here is a pretend script of what it might look like in my class. I found that the best way to start, honestly, was to write out everything I was going to say for my story or PQA. Every sentence, every question. Was it clunky? Oh yeah. Did I have flow? No way. Did I get lost? All the time. But you have to be bad at something first to eventually get better, right?

So without further ado, here is a link to my google doc of a sample script (in English, so any language teacher can see what it would look like) of what PQA about pets might look like.  I hope it helps break down what the language looks like for anyone who got lost along the way.

iFLT 2017: Day 2

Before I start this post, I first have to say… hello to all my new readers! Imagine my surprise when I logged in after my excessively long nap tonight and saw that my blog has had more traffic in the last 24 hours than I usually get in 2 weeks so that was pretty great. A special thanks to Kristy Placido for giving me a boost on Twitter, and whoever is blasting me out on Facebook. (I don’t join teacher stuff on Facebook just to give myself some space or else I’d literally never stop thinking about teaching, but again, thank you to whoever you are!) I guess all my self-marketing at this crazy conference is actually working. Who knew?

In any case, today was a bit more brain-manageable since there were only four sessions to attend. I started my day trying to figure out more about the lost middle children of the language learning process, the intermediates.

Session 1 – The Wonderful World of Intermediates – Kristy Placido

Kristy started her session by cracking a few jokes about how intermediates are the middle children of the language world, but she’s kind of right. They’re not the carefully sheltered, curious novices, but they’re not the world-weary AP students, either. They’re this weird, messy language… thing… (which also frequently tends to coincide with a time in their physiological lives where they are weird, messy things – since my program starts in year 9, my intermediates are smack dab in the middle of sophomore and junior years. Yuck.) However, the great thing about intermediates is that you can now start teaching subject matter, as long as you continue to shelter the vocabulary, and they will continue to grow their language skills.

The intermediate level is also a great time to really push a self-selected reading program, however that might look for you. There are plenty of other blog posts from various authors on the subject so I won’t belabor the point here, but I did make a note that auto repair manuals were a big hit with Kristy’s rural students, which is also the population I teach (I laughed when she talked about kids driving their tractors or riding their horses to school – yep, that’s my town!) so that’s something I might need to look for. I have a few kids that HATE reading but would perk right up to look through one of those. Other things might be magazines, comic books, etc. (I personally keep all those sample ¿Qué Tal? magazines that I get in the mail and add those to my FVR library, even little things like that.) Kristy starts with doing only 5 minutes at a time, twice a week.

The rest of her presentation focused on ACTFL’s definition of intermediate skills and then what that looks like in Kristy’s room. So for example, when it comes to listening, students are still listening to stories, songs, short authentic recordings, reader’s theater, and class discussions. Kristy noted, however, that the majority of input is still coming from her. Even “class discussions” are still mostly teacher driven in that she will give her own opinion or idea, ask a question of a student, the student will probably give a short response, then she will redirect the question to a different student or maybe ask if they agree/disagree with student #1, and so on. In that way, it feels like a discussion because the students are giving their thoughts but the teacher is really controlling all the language input. I am glad that Kristy explained this because that’s how discussion tends to end up in my class, and I tended to feel like I was doing something wrong – I mean, I KNOW my students can talk, so why can’t they keep this discussion going on their own? But the problem is, I think, that as intermediates, they can keep a discussion going without me if the topic is simple and in context and in class, we’re usually going into unfamiliar territory, because otherwise… they wouldn’t be learning, duh. So they need me to facilitate it.

When it comes to reading, she uses novels, non-fiction writings (this is the time when I start adding in Martina Bex’s news stories to my classes), short stories, and embedded readings on a cultural topic.

Output with intermediates is… messy. They are trying to create with the language and therefore their control of time markers is particularly not-so-great, and organization with regards to order can be confusing. But as language teachers, this is good – to me, this is Making a Good Mistake. I like seeing that sort of stuff because it means they’re learning! Anyway, according to Kristy, asking for output is satisfying for two reasons. One, it is satisfying to the learner to see that they can actually do a thing. Two, it is useful for the teacher as an assessment tool. In Kristy’s class, her assessments take the form of a 10 minute timed writing every week or two. She gives them a topic because she notes (and I will agree, having seen it in my room) that NOT giving a topic means students spend more time panicking about what to write than just writing, and her topic tends to be related to whatever they’ve been studying recently. She comments on content, but doesn’t make corrections or take off for mistakes, since research shows that error correction makes pretty much no difference in language acquisition. So why waste your time? Her grades are strictly based on word count.

Finally, when it comes to speaking, she acknowledges that it is by far the most stressful of the skills and recently threw out her participation rubrics and grading, and encouraged us to do so too. I personally don’t force any student to speak except on certain assessments, but I will always invite a student to speak (and allow them to pass if they want). Sometimes I might use a chat system like to simulate a spoken conversation but it allows my slower processors time to think or just my quieter/shyer students a screen between them and their peers, and the few times I’ve done it, the kids have really liked it. (Especially if I let them listen to music in their headphones, as long as they’re participating with the chat!)

Session 2 – Language Lab – La Maestra Loca (Annabelle Allen)

Just kidding. I’m going to put this writeup in its own post because I think it will be less confusing that way. I plan to watch Grant Boulanger’s class tomorrow because I hear his teaching style is the polar opposite of La Maestra Loca’s (hers is extremely energetic and bouncy and AAAHHHH TEACHING IS THE BEST which is very similar to mine and his is reportedly very chill) and I think I will write them up together. But I will say it was very helpful to watch another teacher teach CI with an actual class of actual kids so I can say “yes, that is what my class looks like, I must be doing something right” or “hmm, that does not look anything like what I’m doing, how do I change it”.

Session 3 – Cutting Corners and Simple Shortcuts – La Maestra Loca

After watching La Maestra Loca’s language lab, I knew I had to come back for her ultimate “how to be a lazy teacher” session because news flash: I spend all my energy on the teaching part of my teaching so I am reeeeeaaaallllllyyyy lazy on the planning part. Anything I can do to recycle pictures, student writings, etc. so that I have less to do tomorrow is the name of my game. Apparently many other teachers also feel strapped for time and energy because her room was absolutely jam packed. The pictures on Twitter do not do it justice.

Her first lazy idea is how to get students – even elementary students – writing. Post pictures or comics (without words) around the room, and give kids post it notes. Their job is to walk around the room and fill out as much about the picture as they can on their note, then stick it on the picture. Lower levels, it could just be words or phrases. Higher levels, tell a story. They can go to the pictures of their choice, skipping is allowed. And then here’s where you get really fancy: if your next class is a similar level, when they come in, their job is to a gallery walk and just read the stories. Bam. Next activity.

La Maestra Loca also doesn’t like all the random shouting and whining that might happen when you are picking names/characters/locations/etc. for a story you’re about to tell. I solved my problem through using Kagan strategies, but she offered a few other options. One is to take a huge piece of butcher paper (she takes hers from down the hall from the Latin teacher, I assume you can get yours from wherever) and write down the categories, then the students generate as many ideas as they can. Then, when it’s time to need a [whatever] for your story, just pull from the paper. If you need students to burn some energy, a variation is to do the same thing only each category is on a separate piece of paper around the room. A third variation is to use storycubes which I am not going to elaborate on because one, she just wrote about it on her own blog, so go read it there, and two, I’m going to write about it in my lesson lab writeup so you can read about it later.

Then she gave a lot of examples of various things that you can take one of and just adjust your language level to match your student level – MovieTalks, PictureTalks, story skeletons, cultural presentations. She was also a proponent of FVR.

She has a lot of sweet brain breaks. She keeps a list of them on the wall to remind herself of them all, but of course I don’t live in her brain so I didn’t know what they meant. Thankfully, her blog knows what they meant, so again, you should just go look at it and read about them. (I am going to shamelessly yoink some because I really, really, really need to use more brain breaks in my room.)

Session 4 – Using Novels in the Spanish Classroom – Kristy Placido

This session was a collaboration session, so no notes here. I mostly talked with a few other teachers about teaching novels in general, what’s worked, what hasn’t. I still don’t feel like I’ve found my perfect groove with class novels and actually will be pushing FVR down into my Spanish 2 this upcoming year. I picked up 5 new Fluency Matters books today but realized I totally missed Mira Canion’s little shelf (it’s very sneaky!) so I’ll have to get those tomorrow, as well as snag a few of Señor Wooly’s graphic novels… if he has any left!

If you got through this beast of a post… wow, thanks for reading!