Adolescent literacy learning #3 – comprehension and critical thinking

The other week, my colleagues and I attended another Adolescent Literacy Learning session with Dr. Kevin Feldman. This session focused on comprehension strategies and critical thinking skills. As always, I’d like to share my important takeaways. These ideas work for all subjects across all grade levels, not just for foreign language.

  • Before we can even work on comprehension, students have to be in the game. We should be pushing them into active cognitive processing – students should always be doing SOMETHING mentally (not spacing out) and just as importantly, they need to be able to show us, the teachers, what they’re thinking. This could consist of responding verbally to a question, responding to a written prompt, creating a product, or any other kind of way of making their thinking visible. We were asked to self-evaluate and I rated myself very highly in this regard because with TPRS/CI strategies, active participation is the name of the game.
  • We talked about how comprehension consists of extracting and reconstructing. There are many pitfalls for students in both areas. Students might have trouble extracting the information they need due to deficiencies in vocabulary, or they might be able to understand the information but have difficulty justifying or qualifying their responses.
  • One thing that makes a huge difference is background knowledge. This is probably the key hurdle to comprehension. For example, my students tend to come from farming backgrounds. Sometimes they talk about problems with their farm equipment, and even though I technically know the words they’re saying, they might as well be speaking Russian. If we were being assessed on a reading passage about farm equipment, my kids would destroy me because their background knowledge is much deeper than mine. I also think this is an easy, easy pitfall for teachers to run into – to assume that because it was technically taught in a previous grade or class, that students will correctly remember that information. I try not to make that mistake. So that’s why, for example, I take a day and talk about fascism vs. communism and the Spanish Civil War when starting my art unit in Spanish 3. On the surface, economic systems have nothing to do with art, but when we look deeper, students need to understand the personal lives and beliefs of the artists to understand their art and contributions. Another difficulty related to background knowledge is a student’s ability to make inferences. If they don’t have sufficient understanding of the key points of the passage, they can’t read between the lines to understand a more subtle point that the author is trying to make.

Okay, so after discussing the background information that WE needed to be able to discuss the particular strategies, we delved more deeply into the strategies themselves.

  • Summarize – this one is pretty self explanatory, since every teacher since the beginning of time has asked for summaries. Some specific strategies included paragraph shrinking (write a gist statement in 10-15 words) or RAP (read, ask what’s the main idea, put in your own words).
  • One really cool summary strategy that would be awesome for literature circle type work is reciprocal teaching. In this strategy, students are in small groups where each person is assigned a role. The roles are predict, clarify, question, summarize. We also watched a video illustrating the strategy where the teacher switched out ‘clarify’ for ‘read aloud’ as the students worked through The Great Gatsby. I couldn’t find the exact video we watched, but this similar video gives a great walkthrough of the concept.
  • Teach students metacognition. Frequently stop to reflect and ask/answer questions. (For those of us in foreign language, this is also great practice to push students into the intermediate level where they can create their own questions rather than copying ours!) If they can’t answer the question on the first read-through or listen, how can they go back into the reading or audio and find it?
  • The one that I’ve been focusing on in my class is close reading. I think the concept of close reading is probably more familiar to reading teachers or elementary interventionists, but I hadn’t heard of it before the last ALL session. However, it’s possible that you already do a form of it and just don’t know it! Close reading is used for difficult readings – you know, the like the kind teachers have students do, not for fun and easy reading. In a close reading, students are asked to complete different tasks like underline the 3 most important ideas, draw a shape around words they don’t know, draw a shape around essential vocabulary, put a ?  by things they don’t understand, etc. Basically, it requires them to annotate and again, justify their thinking. They have to do multiple, thorough reads in order to accurately complete the work. Of course, after having them annotate, it’s very easy to segue into active cognition by having them share their ideas with a partner and then share out some ideas with the whole class for discussion.
  • Something that is particularly important for foreign language is teaching the vocabulary for having a good discussion – I agree because, I disagree because, I have a different opinion, I’d like to add, please explain, etc. It’s much easier for students to stay in the target language if they have the language tools to do so!

I hope you find these strategies as useful as I have. Again, these ideas are simple tweaks that make good teachers into great teachers. Stay tuned for a post about how I’ve implemented close reading strategies in my Spanish 2 class in the near future!

Reflections on storytelling (part 2)

On Tuesday, I posted the first half of my reflections on using storytelling in the classroom. I documented my success, but there are still some things about storytelling that give me pause.

Stuff to work on!

1) I learned very quickly that my original intent of two stories per week at the Spanish 1 and 2 levels was not going to work for my kiddos. Even if the two stories were very similar, it was just story overload for them. This also upset my mode balance – I was doing all interpretive, all the time, and their output skills suffered. After Christmas, I cut back to one story per week. If I do a story on two days, then I do different activities with the same story for more reps.

2) Another big issue with story overload is that I was doing the same activities every single time. After a well-meaning whine from a student, I decided to do something about it rather than getting mad. After all, my students are people-in-progress and what my student was REALLY trying to say was ‘Miss Johnson, we do the same things all the time and I would like to learn in a different way.’ So in addition to cutting down the number of stories we did, I remembered to add in different ways of getting reps besides tell story – ask questions – choral response – timed write. They really enjoy drawing, and it gives them confidence when I ask them to do a retell in Spanish. Sometimes we act the stories out. Sometimes we work in pairs, sometimes in larger groups. However, it’s important to also mix up the new activities as well, or I end up with the same problem all over again!

3) Maybe this is a personal teaching failure, but I really do not like doing verbal stories. I have a hard time keeping a grip on not losing the story while handling classroom management at the same time. I figure it’s okay to do mostly written stories (or if I do a verbal story, the kids HAVE to have something to do like draw it) since I use videos, music, and other sources of audio input. And I almost always read the story to the students anyhow for that dual channel learning.

4) Sheltering vocabulary is hard. Really hard. In my first post, I implored to you not underestimate your students. When it comes to sheltering vocabulary, you also cannot overestimate your students. They can only learn so much at one time. But I struggle with how much they don’t know yet – I want them to learn so much stuff so they can love Spanish the way I do! If I only do one story a week, that means I’m really only focusing on 3-5 new structures per week. I have to fight the tendency to give them 20 new words per story. One way I combat this is by introducing an extra ‘flavor’ phrase into a story (this week in Spanish 1 it was ‘se ríe’ and in Spanish 2, it was ‘estaba preocupado’) and recycle that through a few stories. So rather than hitting an intense practice of it for one week, it just kinda keeps showing up over and over and eventually will get acquired. I hope.

5) I need to use ClassDojo more consistently, and next year, with my Spanish 2s. I made the mistake, of course, of believing that my sophomores had matured enough to not need some sort of accountability system to participate. One of my classes is. The other class is not. My Spanish 1s absolutely need it to stay on track, and they enjoy trying to beat their participation record from the week before. Because I am not above bribery, if we hit our goal for 3 weeks in a row, then the 4th week we get a free day. I figure the good work I get out of them on the 3 story days makes up for it, rather than mediocre-to-terrible work for 4.

6) I need to do timed writes more consistently. I didn’t end up using them for an assessment grade (just their daily participation points) but either way, my students really need regular practice to keep up their writing skills. It’s also hard to judge when it’s appropriate to start going from writing-for-practice to writing-with-accuracy. I’m still working on figuring out that line.

7) My students totally rock the yo, tú, and especially él/ella forms. Nosotros and ustedes/ellos… eeeeeh. They can recognize them, but I’ve done a pretty awful job of getting reps in with those two particular forms. That’s a personal problem, though, that I can easily fix.

Final thoughts

Overall, I am digging the storytelling technique and I am glad I switched. My students are able to handle almost anything I put in front of them. I am always amazed that I can hand all but my novice-mids a page-length story and they are able to read it with ease. It’s also making the transition to more authentic resources much easier. Since we know so many of the little words and are much better at using our context clues to understand passages, my older students are now tackling things like reading TPRS novels without hesitation or complaint. It’s a really great position to be in. There are still some tweaks to be made, but I would encourage anyone who is wondering if they should take the plunge to do it. (At this point, I would probably wait until next year because student resistence to change can be very unpleasant to manage.) I am very excited to see what my program looks like in 2 years when my students have had 4 years of storytelling-transitioning-to-full-authres under their belts.

Reflections on storytelling (part 1)

Here at East Butler, we’re wrapping up the third quarter and I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the storytelling techniques that I’ve picked up and used over the last year. I started using TPRS-like elements this time last year, but this school year was the first that I made the complete switch to using comprehensible input strategies as my main focus. As a whole, I think using storytelling has been a major success in my classroom, but there are still some things that could use some work.

The original post ended up being a behemoth, so I will split this into two parts: successes and stuff to work on.


1) My students have acquired way, way, way more at this time of year than my previous students. The difference isn’t so noticible in Spanish 1, but my 2s and 3s are clearly ahead of the game. A huge amount of this has to do with the amount of input students are receiving. I plan to do a much more in-depth post on this in the near future but basically, I feel that my first few rounds of students had lower abilities because they spent more time doing activities to try to artificially push along their acquisition, rather than doing activities to increase input – which will increase acquisition naturally. That’s how I ended up with students who could reproduce vocabulary flawlessly on a discrete word translation quiz, or correctly conjugate the forms of tener in present perfect… but couldn’t actually read or write them in context.

2) Speaking of acquisition, certain forms that used to be my bane are now easy. Instead of explaining ‘le’ (and how indirect objects work) and ‘dice’ (and how e-i conjugations work), I just teach them ‘le dice  = h/she says to him/her’. Done. Acquired. Same thing with reflexives. Since I no longer explain how conjugations work before the students see and hear them a million times, I also no longer get weird things like ‘yo tieno’ or ‘él poda.’ The kids just know it. They also are much faster at answering questions because they have acquired question words much, much earlier.

3) Instead of wasting my students’ time on taking notes (which again, loses valuable input time) I can do grammar pop-ups to speed acquisition. When students are ready, then they will ask more in-depth questions. Today I had a Spanish 2 student ask me why my story said ‘buena comida’ and not ‘comida buena’. Which is awesome because it shows that he acquired that adjectives have to match, and generally go behind the thing they’re describing. I’m actually going to do a bit of conjugation practice on Friday with my Spanish 1s because we’re far enough into the year that even my average processors are asking me how the whole matching pronoun-verb thing works (not in that wording, of course).

4) I don’t have to follow ‘the script’. You know, the one that says in Spanish 1 you teach present tense (and if you’re really fancy, one of the past tenses). Spanish 2 is all the other main tenses. Spanish 3 is subjunctive. Spanish 4 is review of everything. I personally prefer to stay mostly in present tense for Spanish 1, and Spanish 2 focuses on the past tenses for the first semester. But right now we’re hitting present perfect because our stories call for it, and I even threw in past subjunctive the other day. So for those who are hesitating, I implore you: do not underestimate your students. If your students know that  ‘toma la medicina = he takes the medicine’ and ‘tomó la medicina = he took the medicine’, they can understand ‘tomara la medicina’ with no trouble.

5) For the most part, my students are far more willing to participate. I still get the occasional ‘I don’t want to do this’ or ‘Do we really have to tell another story?’ but it’s few and far between. Since I’m a department of one, I can see the differences between class levels. I recently asked this year’s Spanish 3 do a very simple task (read an authentic blog post with lots of infographics and summarize what they read in English). Last year, the students had an outright meltdown when I asked them to do it. This year, they said ‘okay’ and got to work. It was no big deal, because they’ve spent a goodly portion of their Spanish experience reading lengthier Spanish passages.

6) Storytelling is highly customizable. I mean, that’s part of the whole appeal to students! Although I do have the Blaine Ray book, I stopped using it after the first month. The Look, I Can Talk curriculum is based entirely on input of high-frequency verbs and not much on thematic units. Since I still much prefer to have units to work within (and especially as I create my AP Spanish course, which is required to hit on certain themes), I don’t find it as useful as other teachers might. However, it provides a good framework for the beginning TPRS teacher and is even more invaluable for beginning-teaching teachers because it gives sentence-by-sentence directions on how to do everything. But once I figured out how to pattern a story, it became easy to create one that hits the vocabulary and grammatical concepts I want to cover at a specific point in my program. It is also very easy to differentiate for different levels of learners through different difficulties of readings or verbal questions.

Stay tuned for part 2 (stuff to work on) in a few days!

Personal growth

Hello dear readers! It seems like ages since I’ve posted. One of my not-so-well-kept secrets is that, in addition to teaching Spanish by day, by night I am a fierce roller skating queen. Well… I don’t know about fierce, but I do play for the No Coast Derby Girls here in Lincoln. We’re currently prepping for our Saturday bout against Fargo/Omaha and it’s my first time playing with the newly formed Thunder Dames. We practice 3-4 times a week at 2-3 hours per practice, plus we go to the gym, so that usually leaves very little time for other stuff… like blogging or sleeping. I’m hoping to get back to a more regular pattern once things settle down again.

Anyway, I also spent some time this weekend with non-derby friends. One of them mentioned he wished he would have actually paid attention in high school Spanish because, as it turns out, speaking a foreign language is a useful life skill. Who knew? But he was frustrated because it would take him way too long. I told him, he’s wrong. Does it take time? Absolutely. Does it take dedication? You bet. But his goal is not to reach advanced levels, he just wants to have basic conversations. I’d say that’s an intermediate mid level by ACTFL standards, and I think that an adult who puts in 5 hours per week for 1 year, attending to all the modes (especially interpersonal)… he could easily achieve his goal. ‘But I’m really busy,’ he said, ‘I’ve got two kids.’ My response? Great! They can learn with you! Kids (and/or students) are a great motivator to keep pushing the boundaries of your language knowledge.

Which segues into the real meat of this post: what do I do to keep growing as a Spanish learner? I would argue that my Spanish grows more on a daily basis than it ever did in high school or even college. In high school, I did my 45 minutes a day plus homework, but my classes were grammar-based. That’s fine with me because I’m a grammar nerd, but I came into college still being more or less completely unable to hold a conversation in Spanish. I could read and write well enough, but even after 4 years, my interpersonal abilities were negligible. And I was arguably the top non-native Spanish student in my graduating class. Yikes! But how many of us can tell the same story?

In college, I grew even more, but I also had to balance my job, relationships, and other classes on top of my Spanish. It was difficult because the jump from grammar-based non-native speaker Spanish to literature-based native speakers is HUGE. So when I think about what I want my students to be able to do, I want them to not feel like they’re doing i+100 when going from high school to university and/or real life Spanish.

Now, I learn at least one new word/phrase/structure a day, if not more. I’ve been making a big push since Christmas to increase my Spanish use outside of work. At work, I am gaining new words all the time because I have to help my students, but I can handle lower level grammatical tasks with ease. My real work comes from the stuff I’ve decided to do outside of class.

-Listen to more Spanish radio. My local Spanish radio (97.7 El Lobo out of Omaha) plays pop music for a whopping one hour per day. But that one hour, 4-5 pm, is during my commute home. I like to listen for new songs that I like (just to listen to) and ones that could be used in class. Then I can use services like Pandora or Spotify to save those songs and find more artists that I like. Listening to radio ads also have really upped my ability to understand spoken Spanish without having the luxury of facial expressions and gestures. I find listening to numbers especially challenging, so I try to repeat them back to myself.

-Watch Spanish tv. I don’t watch a lot of tv in the first place, so this is a bit of a stretch for me. I mostly prefer comedies – something that Spanish television doesn’t really have. So I have to settle for telenovelas. Right now, I’m working my way through Santa Diabla, which has all the episodes posted on youtube. (They’re posted by Telemundo, so it’s okay! Too bad they’re totally not school appropriate.) It was scary at first to leave my beloved (Spanish) subtitles, but for the most part, I understand 95% of what they’re saying and 100% of what’s happening so… that works for me.

-Read Spanish literature, not just news. I’m finally working my way through Como agua para chocolate which I tried to read while in college, but I just didn’t have the skill. There was way too much cooking-related vocabulary that I didn’t have, and the language is very flowery. Lots of compound past perfects and whatnot. I prefer to work on microcuentos (stories that are only 1-2 pages long) or short stories, because I can reread them multiple times to note grammar usage or reinforce new words in the same amount of time it takes me to read one chapter of a novel.

Of course, these are all strategies we can use to help our students become more proficient in our chosen languages. The more we know, the more knowledge we can disperse! What kinds of things do you do to grow your own language proficiency? Any book recommendations for a sci-fi/fantasy nerd?