Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

May 26, 2016
by leesensei

“Three Days In Tokyo” – An Exploratory, Target Language Online Field Trip….

file5791299869525We are exploring travel in Yr4 – travel to our Target Language (TL) area of Japan. I have taken what was a one-day experience of street view (that I used to use to revise ‘directions’ – no, don’t do that any more!) and expanded it to a target language exploration of Tokyo. Now your language may not be Japanese but the ideas are applicable (and your access to resources probably similar).

It begins with….Tokyo Neighbourhood Pre-reading in TL. I use the White Rabbit Express level 4 reader about Tokyo called “東京歩こう”. Students are asked to select 5 areas of Tokyo and read/find information. This is a graded reader resource (for reasons outlined in many previous posts), written by Japanese for Japanese learners. Most importantly it  provides a super overview of Tokyo Pre-reading in the TL. Students had 2 – 80 minute classes (with some time taken for our on-going Music Mania -post to come). They read in pairs utilizing strategies developed in their just finished story unit. As they read they answered questions in the TL about the neighbourhood including “What ‘type’ of neighbourhood is it?”, “Where in Tokyo is it?”, “If you went there what things would you see/activities would you experience?” and “If you went what would you want to go see?”

Once the reading was done – off to the online field trip. Students are encouraged to have their own online resource (we did this in a lab because we’re a low-tech school) with a partner nearby to ‘consult’. It is designed to be done in any order – except that I think the Trip Advisor reading piece should be done before the ‘using’ activity. I sourced all of these online with the idea of giving students a chance to see and hear….Tokyo. (A link to their handout is here: Trip Handout.)

Street View – Iconic Tokyo Places: I love Google’s street view – because it puts students ‘on the ground’ in the place. I give pictures of 5-6 iconic buildings/areas in Tokyo and asked students to ‘go there’. Then once there – to go exploring. What do they see, what can they read, what’s there? This is the only requirement – nothing to write or record…just experience. (Note: some students had never used street view before…so it was a real learning experience).

Street View – Neighbourhood You Choose: Using the reading exercise we did I ask students to go ‘find’ some of the places they selected as “I want to see…” from their neighbourhood reading. That’s it…go explore and experience. They really enjoyed this – going to places, going into buildings, reading/viewing and ‘seeing’ the various areas…

Trip Advisor Hotel Information in TL: On to some more reading – I printed out the information on one hotel from Tokyo and ask them to use the information to complete a few questions. Some had not heard of Trip Advisor or even knew what you considered in booking a hotel – all good skills to acquire. This was done with a ‘paper’ printout and gives them a good first look at what this site is like. They answer questions in English based upon the information.

Trip Advisor for Your Neighbourhood in TL: Students are asked to go back to their reading and select one neighbourhood. Then, using Trip Advisor’s Japanese site, find a hotel, a restaurant and 3 things to do in that area. Note – for Japanese online the Chrome add-on Rikaikun (Rikaichan on Firefox – is a ‘game-changer’. It allows a student to roll over Chinese characters on a site and gives the reading/meaning. Essential for my students as they do not learn all 2000 characters Japanese use in class!). They waded in finding hotels, exploring menus, commenting on the prices (!) etc. Great experience and ‘real world’.

Tokyo Metro/Tokyo Neighbourhoods (in TL): I found 4 commercials online that promoted 4 areas of Tokyo. Note that I ‘download’ from YouTube so I can have future access to them. I then uploaded to Dropbox (providing a quick link) and also had them on USB to load onto a device. Students are to watch the 4 commercials and answer specific (and more general questions) for each. General questions are designed to encourage them to really look/listen at the pieces such as “3 things I observed or noticed in the commercial were…” and “I wonder….”. I also included a link to the audio of one of the ‘theme’ songs for the commercial and students listen and comment on how well it ‘fit’ the commercial and what ‘words/phrases’ they may have recognized from listening to it.

Inanimate Alice Journals…an interactive visit to several areas in Japan: There is an amazing on-line interactive episodic story called “Inanimate Alice”. It is produced in various languages including Japanese. The site also links to 3 ‘journals’ that document the main characters trip to Japan. It is written in a combination of Japanese and English. For this piece I ask the students to go through each of the journals and read, view, listen and even take the embedded language quizzes. They then send me an email commenting on what the most interesting thing they saw was, and where they would like to go that Alice went. It’s a great resource for this and the first time I have used it in class. It also introduces them to the episodic story that they can experience on their own time!

Debrief...after the field trip is done we will spend a portion of the class sharing our findings/thoughts/observations with others. This can be done in the TL or not – I think it’s a preference of what you going for – reaction and/or language use.

After the field trip we focus on ‘travel’ as we build to our Travel Fair that explores lesser-known areas of Japan. I’m excited about where this activity is, and more importantly, what tweaks and extending activities I can build into it!




May 24, 2016
by leesensei

My Philosophy of “Teaching”? The Opportunity to “Learn”…

IMG_2341One of my favourite #langchat colleagues – Natalia DeLaat – asked me to complete a questionnaire regarding language teaching. It was interesting to be asked about my “philosophy” and how I viewed various aspects of teaching. And, as usual, I learned more about me, what’s important in my classroom, what’s key for my learners, than maybe Natalia will learn in reading it. You may not agree with how I present everything but I hope it causes you to think about what is key for you. I wanted to share it in a post because it shares what I think is common for many teachers – the struggle to find the ‘best’ way to teach.

It started with Natalia asking…”What particular strategies do you find most successful in terms of teaching…”

  • Concepts – I’m all over the map on this. Sometimes I am very direct – especially with cultural things in which we will talk about ‘why’ in English. For example we don’t have a word for “must” – it’s actually a double negative and we talk about ‘why’. As for word order it’s not so key especially in lower level Japanese as long as the correct ‘particle’ (indicating ‘subject’, ‘object’, ‘time’, etc) is attached to the word. But I don’t like that term so I call them ‘signals’ that show what/why the word is in the sentence. As for grammar – I tend to introduce in ‘use’ then look as to ‘why’ ‘how’ the rule is being used. Sometimes I ask my students to figure it out discreetly, sometimes we just ‘use it ‘til we get it’. But I always do a review explanation in English – I don’t want any ‘doubts’ – that is in common understandable ‘non-grammar word’ language.
  • Vocabulary   – When we first start students cannot read the language at all and we rely heavily on picture cues for words.  Now, I like to teach a base set of vocabulary for each unit. I know many are into ‘student selected’ but I also think we need an agreed upon amount that we all understand. We always have a section in our unit book for ‘things we want to know’ to allow for choice & variety. I introduce a lot of vocabulary via picture cards. We may see some in a story (with pictures) that they read, we may see some via a more TPRS story that I tell and then they re-tell with pictures. When I ask students what helps them to learn most many say ‘the picture cards!’.
  • Grammar  –  Often done via story – with the ‘rule’ either explicitly up there for referral or implicitly taught via questioning and expanding on the point with students. “Nonki likes to do what?” “Ah he likes to ski.” “Do you like to ski?”…etc I do know that my biggest thing in teaching grammar is not teaching ‘grammar’. I have worked to refine how I teach to ‘describing word, action word, who we are talking about, ~ly word’ etc.. I now test a lot of these concepts, after we’ve worked with them, via a pop-check in that sees ‘what they have in their brain about a concept’ and is marked only for completion after (of corrections). But I will confess to doing some practice via old ‘workbook’ exercises – just a few to see that we all ‘get it’. Yes I admit that…. :-)
  • Reading/Writing – The Skills –  I have to teach my students how to read as they must master 3 scripts for Japanese. I have changed a lot in my approach to this. In Yr1 for the first orthography I used to teach & discreetly test the ‘chart’. Then for the words that used a script we didn’t introduce until Yr2 I would use English letters to phonetically spell that out. Why?????? NOW I do not have my students read or write until they have a bank of phrases/words that they know how to use well orally. Our first unit is Yr 1 is ‘All About Me’ and there is minimal reading/writing until they know a fair number of Q/A’s for this. So then reading becomes a discovery of what we already know. Now I teach the script and ‘test’ it via them writing out phrases we have already learned to say. As for the 2nd orthography – I introduce it as soon as we have the first one down (putting it overtop of the 2nd orthography to read it) so that they see it used naturally. As for the 3rd script, Chinese characters, we introduce those slowly in a kind of ‘isn’t this exciting it’s like pieces of lego that you put together to make a picture’ kind of way. Keep in mind over 50% of most of my classes are immigrants from a Chinese background so the stress for me is on equity.
  • Reading text – authentic documents – I do not use a lot of true authentic documents unless they are ‘reachable’ by all students in my classes in an equitable way. There are 1900+ Chinese characters that can be used in Japanese and we study about 400 in my Yr 1-4 classes. By equitable I meant that my students from a Chinese character background (who can see a character, know the meaning, but not know how to say it) can’t have the advantage. So in using #AuthRes I either use only the parts that I can, or modify the resource. I also create my own from authentic student info. We also use ‘graded readers’ – adapted stories adapted by Japanese for Japanese learners.  So for me ‘authentic’ is ‘authentic as I can get to ensure that all students experience success in using the language’.
  • Communicating – speaking & listening together – The key is ‘do-able’ and the focus in my courses is on communicating information.
    • Speaking- Speaking is always done in a small group – at the minimum a partner – that is sometimes chosen by me and sometimes by them. This is to encourage risk, support more hesitant learners and build skills. I do almost ‘no’ presentational speaking to the ‘group’ but a lot of it to a single person or 3 other people. If we are speaking as a ‘group’ students are called upon (after they have had a chance to prep with a partner) and always given a chance to ‘come up with the answer’ (I expect them all to be ready to go and don’t often ask for volunteers). That requires essential skills such as follow-up questions, rephrasing and circumlocution. It also involves developing the confidence to know when you know don’t and be able to ask for assistance in understanding. We work a lot on all of these aspects. There’s a lot of learning that can happen as you use the same skills to work with 5-6 people in a room in a controlled amount of time. We start in short bursts with the Yr1’s and work up from there to Yr4 where students are expected to sustain and develop their skills in much longer periods of time. Speaking is always evaluated as to meeting/fully meeting expectations and students are well aware, before a formal evaluation, of what each level of achievement entails.
    • Listening – discrete – most of my listening comes in the form of either ‘listening’ to others and responding/reacting appropriately or, yes wait for it, listening to a conversation or exercise for discreet reasons. I don’t do a ton of ‘authentic listening’ in the early years as students have not learned the ‘casual’ form or the highly ‘honorific’ form of the language used either in regular shows or on more formal broadcasts. No matter what we are ‘listening to’ the student knows that they will receive the information more than once or, in the case of conversations, have the opportunity to ask/clarify to understand. If we are listening for an evaluation students will always be listening in the TL and ‘answering’ in English
  • Writing skills – I used to be really focused on written skills especially formal piece written skills – because we had a provincially mandated exam that was writing based. Now I do far less formal summative writing than I used to do and I am working to help them improve their writing. I do a lot of oral activities (draw & share) involving concepts that also ask them to ‘write’ the concept and then I mark for correctness (they have to correct it and when done it gets a completed mark) I’ve started doing the occasional ‘workshop’ day (thanks Amy Lenord!) where we focus specifically on this skill. On written evaluations I allow them to bring in a list of ‘concepts’ in English that we have looked at (drawn from our “I can” statements). I feel that I am testing their ability to ‘use’ the language not to remember what we know how to say. I try to provide rubrics that explicitly assist a student in understanding what ‘meeting/fully meeting etc’ entails. I have gone to several ‘in class’ writes that are done ‘open book’. I’m trying to change it up and not just ‘test’ writing one way. The summative writing that I do is almost always tied to information gained in the oral (interactive) or used in an interpersonal oral – but asking them to expand, go deeper, explain why etc.. I guess for different ways to ‘test’ writing….formative and summative.

Thank you again for asking Natalia…I learned a lot…and mostly that I have more to learn!




May 12, 2016
by leesensei

“Why We Are Doing This?” – Intentions Set Expectations For the Interpersonal


Yr3 (Gr 11) prior to the school fair….

j12 story fair retell day intentions

Yr4 (Gr 12) prior to story re-telling day

Why are we doing this? What’s the point of doing this? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we set our students up for success especially in interpersonal activities – the ones where they are interacting without someone ‘watching’. We hand out rubrics, we talk about what we want to see in the language piece, we (may) show examples, we practice and we give feedback. But when they set out on their interpersonal oral how do we keep them ‘focussed’ on the real goal of the time? (Hint – it’s not just to get something done). This year I have been experimenting with explicit intentions – reminders we review – prior to doing the activity. I used them for recent Yr 3 and Yr 4 interpersonal oral work You can see the intentions in the photos – intentions that reflect the purpose of the activity and directly tie to the evaluation rubric elements. I reminded students about these prior to starting and then set them on their interpersonal fair activity (For Yr3 it was the school fair and Yr4 story re-telling as part of their story unit). After this kind of work I like to ask reflection questions. I’ve learned to make the link to these intentions and ask at least one reflection question that relates directly to them such as “Today I met the challenge of ____by ____.” Their responses to this were powerful as they referenced something specific and how they worked to meet it. Responses like “Today I met the challenge of quality conversation by taking the time to really listen to my partner.” or “Today I met the challenge of ensuring my partner understood me by providing help when they indicated they didn’t understand.” I’ve always had goals/purpose – intentions – in the activities I plan. But now I’ve learned that its important to communicate this to my students. And in doing so I help increase their commitment to using and working in the target language.

What ways do you help students to understand why they are doing something?





May 4, 2016
by leesensei

“Wheel of …..Detail!” A Strategy to Aid Novices in Adding Detail to Communication

With 2 months to go in the semester, my  Yr1 Intensive students (2 semesters in 1) are now using their language for communicating more than just “I went to the mall”. I am a big believer in using the idea of ‘follow up questions‘ to drive details – but it’s sometimes hard to encourage the ‘brainstorming’ required for this. As my students  were prepping for an oral I pulled out what I call the “Wheel of Detail”. Essentially its a modified mind map and I use it for both presentational writing and oral interpersonal activities.  I like it as it connects details to a central activity.   Have a look at the one below. Wheel of DetailIt is centred on two topic areas for the oral – ‘what I like to do’ and ‘what I did on the weekend’.  On the side (in red) you can see the prompts for the kinds of follow up questions we have been working on.  You see the brainstorming in English as this is for an ‘oral’. They put down all the details that they want and (if they are unsure of the word) they can add it (you see one example in red above the word park). I am a big believer for orals in allowing English prompts. If this was writing – I’d be doing this in the target language (as we did last week with a similar kind of write). I like it better than a ‘list’ as the Wheel is an effective way to quickly, and visually, connect ideas.

How do you encourage/support adding detail in communication?


PS – the word ‘hint’ on the post-it? Well we’re coming up to a summative write and every once in a while I was ‘dropping hints’  – yes holding up the post-it and dropping it! :-)


April 28, 2016
by leesensei
1 Comment

When You Ask For Their Feedback – Empowering You and Them in Class

recap self grading rubric

The ‘original’ participation tally handout

It started with good intentions. I frequently do a class ‘recap’ of a reading and I wanted to encourage my students to say more, give more during this process. I am a big believer in letting a rubric or other such tool set & guide expectations. However finding one for this purpose had eluded me. Suddenly timely posts by Carrie Toth on her independent reading yielded a class discussion participation sheet. Perfect I thought. With credit to Carrie, I took her original idea and modified it to what I wanted. By ‘what I wanted’ I mean to include descriptors of the kind of language that I expect, and know, my students are capable of producing and how they corresponded to expectations.

Admittedly I sprang this on them. They were not warned in advance of this addition to the activity and I was okay with that as I wanted to encourage spontaneous, not prepared, depth and detail. I introduced the ‘recording sheet’ and reminded them to keep track of the types of answers they were giving. I also reviewed how those answers would ‘rate’ in meeting expectations. So we started. Wow it was amazing. My students really worked to try to add in detail, depth and breadth to their answers. I was almost in tears hearing what I was hearing. Lots of props, thumbs up and smiling from me. They were fantastic. Then – perhaps I sensed something but really I’m not that tuned in – after the activity I asked them to reflect not on their work but on the success of using this type of tally to spur participation. They were sincere in their comments – I collected and read them and was ‘floored’ by some of the comments. They felt:

  • intimidated by others
  • ‘compared’ to other students
  • that they were not warned
  • confused by the process itself
  • it made them less likely to try
  • demeaned because their answers weren’t ‘as good’
recap pptn rubric modified 2016

Participation Sheet 2.0 (after student feedback)

Not good. Not what I intended and not what I value in my classroom. To quote Paolo Jennemann, “We needed to talk”! The next day I acknowledged to them what had I read. I posted on the board what my intentions were and, more importantly, were not(!) in using this tool to help them participate more. I explained that this tool was for them, to encourage them and that clearly it hadn’t done that and that I needed their help. And then I set them to the task. I wanted their own opinions on this so I chose to have them work with their partner. They were given a copy of the tally sheet from the day before and ask to ‘make it into a better tool to encourage them in this activity’. Wow – 20 minutes of talking intently, honest feedback on the form (and I mean honest!) and suggestions. They shredded the original document and provided me with ‘Participation Sheet 2.0’. The new sheet tells me so much about my classes and what they value in learning:

They believe in “I can” as a motivator – It’s been a couple of years and this crop of Yr3 started in Yr1 when I started to use ‘I can’ statements on the first page of my unit book. And apparently this is making an impact. More than one group turned the ‘statement’ of what they said into a representation of what they ‘can do’. Wow. They like the sense of accomplishment and they like to be able to articulate what they are capable of.

They want to challenge themselves/set their own expectations for how they will do – I’ve worked a lot on the pre-setting expectations both by me and having themselves set them and apparently they like to do this. The new sheet now starts with a ‘predictor’ or a setting of expectations but the student themselves.

They want to see if they meet their own expectations – They like the ability to set a bar and rise to it. I’ve never yet seen it as an excuse for just wanting to minimally meet. They like the setting of goals and several groups wanted them to not only be able to record how many items they offered a type of answer but also to be able to ‘check’ off the category as we they went along.

They want to reflect about the process after – This was my favourite. One group’s critique included a rather incredulous “What? No reflection?!!!” comment about the lack of opportunity to process the activity. So I combined this with a statement in which they get to say how well they met expectations. They know that the “That went…” starter demands both a statement about how they felt about it and, more importantly, reasons why they feel as they do.

They value when they take risks in using new items they are learning – They get that to meet expectations for a unit they are going to have to show that they can understand and use current unit items. They also realize that using new items requires them to risk. I loved this “I step out of my comfort zone…” statement one group suggested. It means that they know that they have to not be content with the ‘old’ but take what they know and layer on – expand – it with the ‘new’.

They don’t value a ‘points or expectation value’ on contributions – Many groups said  to ‘ditch’ the expectation indicators. Some said that any contribution at all was valuable and shouldn’t be discounted for a perceived value. Others said that they ‘know’ what is expected and what ‘meeting expectations’ involves so you don’t have to have it on there. And still others said that if they delivered the majority of the tupes of contributions they know they would be meeting expectations anyway. Gone.

They know that what they think/do matters – I will be presenting this updated sheet to them in the next few days. They already know that I value their choices and learning goals in the room. Now I am taking their feedback and working it into the document – and demonstrating their role/importance in the learning environment.

They have voices – and they matter. After all it’s all about their learning (not my teaching). What a process – what a powerful process.








April 19, 2016
by leesensei
1 Comment

The “Level Up” Writing Workshop Class…

HKnRUEcMI’ve been using descriptors instead of numbers for a while now. It’s going well but I have felt like there is a piece missing. It wasn’t until I read Amy Lenord’s post about a writing ‘workshop’ (where would my teaching be without her!) for students. It was then that I realized that I have been good about describing how well students are meeting expectations but not doing enough to show them how to improve. A class like this – dedicated to showing/helping students increase their written output – was long overdue.

I found the perfect opportunity to try this with my Yr4’s. We had been exploring a mini-health unit and had looked at ‘sick notes’ that I claimed to have received from various students in my Yr4 class from last year. You know the ‘I missed the last 3 days because I was playing soccer, hurt my leg etc etc’ kind of note. For a take-home I asked students to prepare a ‘basic’ note in the style of the ones they had been reading.

On workshop day I talked with them about the purpose of the class that day. They were given a copy of the writing rubric – and I went over with them what I feel a ‘minimally meeting’, ‘meeting’ in each category meant. Then I talked with them about their writing. The fact that when they write, they often don’t stop to think to include, to ‘show’ me what they know. I used a ‘making a cake’ analogy and said if many of them made a cake like they wrote they would do the following: know they had to make a cake, gather a few ingredients, stir them up, throw it in the oven and say to themselves ‘gee I hope it’s a delicious cake’. I wanted to impress upon them that, without stifling creativity, they also have to be conscious in their writing, of showing their reader (me) what they know. They have to consider the ‘ingredients’ of the writing as much as the outcome. They have to, to borrow a phrase from Japanese, be conscious of trying to ‘level-up’ their writing. I saw some heads nodding in the room…on to the practical demonstration of what I meant we went…

Then we began the actual exercise. They each received a big (11×17) piece of paper (you could save the planet and have them write use their own) with one of the sick notes, line by line on it. I am not a ‘grammar’ formula teacher but for this they also received a ‘technical sheet’ as I called it – a sheet detailing in English (then TL structure & example in use) the ‘kinds of things that we have covered in Yr3 and 4’.  I reviewed (just in English) the types of things they have in their writing tool-box. Many were surprised to see the extent of what we have covered as far as ‘technical grammar’ goes. I asked them to look at the opening line of the note “I have been away from school since last Wednesday” and I invited them to use the technical sheet to rewrite the first sentence with a ‘level up’ added. They they shared that new sentence with the 3 other people at their table. On to the other sentences we went in the same way. For at least one of the sentences I asked for 2 level-ups to be added. For another I asked them to take 2 shorter sentences and use level-ups to combine them. One student said “If we wrote every sentence this way every time it would be hard to read!”. He is correct, and we talked about judicious use of them in writing. At the end of the exercise they read their complete ‘new’ note to their partner. Then, borrowing from my ‘oral worksheet‘ focus, they had 15 minutes to visit with other students to read (not show) their note with them. Their work for that night was to re-write their basic note using the same idea that I had modelled in class.

After we were done – many smiles and nods as they considered their edits of the note. Students said that they found this a very effective exercise. My first glance at their notes indicates that many looked to inject level-ups into their writing. I will do this again and more often with all my levels.  How do you help students ‘level-up’?


April 15, 2016
by leesensei

Why Write When You Can Talk? – The Oral “Worksheet”

file791271781089Worksheets. I’ve been thinking, and rethinking, about them a lot lately. I believe that teachers use them with good intentions. We want them to practice something. We want them to “learn” and show understanding of a new language point or vocabulary group. We want them to reinforce what is going on in class. These are great intentions for using them. Unfortunately they also serve as ‘filler’, a required bit of homework and, for me, are not very ‘communicative’. Perhaps, more importantly, students increasingly see them not for the good intentions we may have employed them, but as something that must be ‘completed’ – rather than learned. Don’t get me wrong – I am someone who still uses a strategic paper worksheet here and there  (there I said THAT) so let’s get over the sheepish ‘I still use worksheets’ feeling. These days though, instead of handing out the worksheet, I’ve been trying to employ activities that hit the best of what we intend a worksheet to be – with the best of what I want my classes to be. Enter what I call the “Oral Worksheet”. This is really focused practice and involves anything that gets students interacting with (a) new language elements and (b) their peers in class.

Prior to Oral “Worksheets” what has to be in place? In my class you need two things – the confidence to ask/tell when you don’t understand and how to handle that (we work on that a lot) and the understanding that we are not ‘lazy listeners’ but, rather, active ones who will assist/correct/help in a gentle and supportive way when they hear an ‘error’ in use or have someone who can’t remember a word/phrase. I agree this can be a delicate thing – no one wants someone correcting them all the time – but we work on it from day 1 and they are effective in how they do it. Students also have to be used to activities where they frequently change partners and understand that they work with everyone in class – not just their friends.

Example 1 – Picture/Story Tell “Worksheet” : My goal was to introduce various ‘health’ terms/issues as part of a greater unit. I used clip art pictures and told a story told via QAR about a class where only 1 student showed up because everyone else was sick. We went over and over via questioning and then the students read a similar story. The “Worksheet” – pictures from the board story were in an envelope on their tables. In pairs they retold the story (not reading it/re-telling it) matching the pictures and the symptoms. On the board was a reminder of some key phrases we had used with ‘new language elements’. Then they had 10 – 15 minutes to re-use the pictures to make up a story about a character’s terrible horrible day  (the story was oral only – no notes!). Students then had 30 minutes to visit with other pairs telling their story and hearing others. As students listened to a story they were also allowed to ask questions “He cut his finger? How” which required the pair. How was it a ‘worksheet’? Well for 40 minutes they heard the vocabulary and language elements over and over. They helped each other out when they weren’t sure. They corrected appropriately and gently when they needed to.

Example 2 – Sketch/Share “Worksheet”: My goal in the lesson was to practice a particular element related to the use of giving & receiving action words (simple/complex). We had built up knowledge via practice/story the day before. Their ‘homework’ was to come up with 6 pictures with captions that demonstrated their understanding of how to use the concept (something I call the ‘sketch & share’). The next day in class they initially showed their partner the pictures and told them what the caption was (note – they ‘told’ they didn’t have their partner read it). This ‘check in’ also provided a chance to alter/edit as necessary. The “Worksheet” – After their partner check,  on  to the “oral worksheet” which involved 20 minutes of challenging others to see if they could provide a caption for the pictures that the student had drawn. The result? for 25 minutes they heard, reviewed and interacted with the material. Yes some ‘errors’ may have slipped through but I catch those when they hand in their pictures after the activity.

After the Oral Worksheet – Did they ‘get it’?: Do these kind of  oral ‘worksheets’ do the same job as a paper worksheet? I think so. My pop check-ins tell me that they ‘get it’ as much after these as they do with paper ones. And I think they get so much more – in the negotiating of meaning, the listening for understanding and the oral interaction with classmates. What are your written worksheet alternatives?



April 10, 2016
by leesensei

Teaching? To Me It’s Kind of Like Golf…

4538570185What is it like to teach? What makes a ‘good’ teacher? What is ‘good teaching practice’? What ‘method’ is the best?I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I watch the #langchat community grapple with the rise of the “(fill in method) teacher” and the staunch defense by some of one ‘method’ over another…There are many teachers leading the charge these days to find the ‘common’ among all of these schools of teaching thought. I thank Martina Bex, Thomas Sauer, Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, Lisa Shepard and Amy Lenord among those leading a spirited discussion on line about this.

And it led me to wonder what language teaching, or teaching in general, is like?  Now it may not be golf season for you but here in my corner of Canada we can (you may not believe this) golf outside year round. So allow me the analogy when I say that teaching, to me, is like golf. It is because…

I have a lot of clubs in the bag – As a golfer you don’t go out and play with just one club. And I don’t teach like that either – but rather I borrow/use/try a variety of approaches in order to enhance my students’ learning. Truth be told I experiment because I like variety. With 30 kids in class I realize that employing one kind of teaching style may not be allowing all of my students to learn in the way they like or need to. So I mix it up and use different ideas, approaches and styles as it suits. That’s not to say that, like my trusty 7 iron, I don’t have go-to strategies and activities that work for my students but I’m always looking to add to me repertoire.

I play the club for the lie I have – In golf you have to learn to pay attention where you are – and choose your club accordingly. In the classroom, in the past I admit there were days, lessons, where I ignored where I was in pursuit of an activity. It wasn’t working, it didn’t meet my students’ needs but I was so enamored of the activity I pushed ahead. And yes, the lesson bombed. I’ve learned to pay attention to the individuals in the room and adjust (or not use) things as needed. In teaching you are most effective when you pay attention to the room.

The club may differ but the swing is the same – No matter what approach or activity I choose my principle goals remain the same. (1) Teacher not as leader but coach (2) a “can do” learning environment that prepares students for success (3) proficient students aware of and driving their own learning (4) learning that prepares students for beyond the classroom.

Sometimes I make birdies, and sometimes bogies – It’s nice to hit a lesson or unit out of the park. But what is most important for me is to realize that it won’t always go well. I remember an authentic resource lesson I was so keen on. It really used the resource but ultimately it stank! It wasn’t until I looked at how I was using it that I was able to re-jig it and it was much more successful. I think the bogies are more important than the birdies though – because they tell me that I am risking and trying new things.

I may play the same course over & over – but fortunately I’ll never play it the same way twice  – In golf you rarely duplicate a round and its the same in the classroom. We know that every class will be different. Their skills and their needs, we learn, dictate the how/why of the approaches we choose.  However, this isn’t just about a different mix of students each time. I also think it speaks to teacher growth. As a teacher you are constantly reflecting on your class work. How did it go? What didn’t work? What did? What changes can I make?

I have a great caddy on the bag  – Okay in real life I’ve never had the chance to use a caddy, so my choices in clubs and approach to each hole are mine alone. But as a teacher I have a great caddy in the #langchat PLN. This amazing group of teachers offers mentorship and support that is so needed to by all of us on our teaching journey. #langchat allows me to share my successes, and offers advice and direction when things don’t go so well. It is an inspiration to me, and a guide to improving my teaching game.

Thanks for indulging me in this analogy….what is teaching like for you?




April 2, 2016
by leesensei

Building Student Responsibility For Learning: Pre-to-Post Oral Activity Ideas

DSC05583The ideas in this post deals with oral interpersonal activities in my classes. However I think many of them can be used for presentational and interpretive activities as well.

One of the big things that I have learned, and continue to learn, in my teaching is that, in order for learning to occur, my students need to be as aware of/involved in it as I am. Increasingly I’ve been building in opportunities for them to take on responsibility for their learning and provide feedback for themselves (and me) on the process. I’ve done a variety of posts in the past on parts of these but thought I would put it all together in one post that spans the ‘pre to post’ activity process.

Pre-Activity – Setting Our Expectations – I’ve learned that I can’t just set out ‘what’ we will be doing, but, in building in self-responsibility I also have to address ‘how’ and ‘why’ we will be doing an activity. With that in mind I now employ a range of pre-activity strategies (sometimes I use all of these at once, sometimes just a few) including:

  • Rubric in advance – Wow have I learned how powerful a rubric can be in establishing expectations. But what I have also learned is to use it to see if they both understand the expectations and their impression of how they are meeting them. So now I often ask them to mark the rubric before we do the activity so that I can see how they are expecting it to go.
  • Intention and/or Post Reflection Starters on board- new for me this year is to put either the ‘intention’ of the activity  or the actual post-reflection sentence starters on the board in English (or both!). In reading out the intention it gives an opportunity to remind my students why they are doing the activity. “Today we will discuss our favourite activities with partners. The focus is on communication and understanding – not on finishing quickly.” I’ve also experimented with writing the post-activity ‘reflection starters’ on the board – another way to set/build expectations.
  • Checks/Smile – Again a new one for me this year that expands beyond just having students read the rubric in advance. I am seeing results in using “Checks & a Smile” in the reflective comments of students afterwards.
  • Sharing with partner – We know that if we share a journey of change and growth with someone it helps us to make the change/take a risk. In a quick ‘share a challenge with your partner’ students share, and often learn, that everyone, regardless of perceived ability, has areas that they can still grow in

During Activity – Focus On Communicating – The goal during any activity that’s interpersonal is ‘good communication’. We work a lot in class on this. What does it for students to be good communicators in class? Students know that top ‘marks’ go to those who:

  • Are as good at listening as they are speaking
  • Don’t confuse good communicating with dominating/making speeches
  • Say when they don’t understand & help out when someone doesn’t
  • Asks a variety of appropriate related follow-up questions
  • Know that it isn’t about ‘finishing’ it’s about participating

Post Activity – Reflecting and Evaluating: Yes there is a rubric to fill out. It may be a simple ‘how did that go‘ or a more complex one specifically designed for the activity.  But before they fill it out students know they will also be writing. And they know that I will be reading these reflections and responding to them. Some of my favourite post-activity starters include:

  • That went ….because…
  • I am most proud that….
  • A challenge that I set out for me was to …and I met/didn’t meet it because…
  • My work in class today reflected/did not reflect our year level because…
  • One challenge for me for next time is…because…
  • We should do more/less of this type of activity because…

It’s taken time, and the great support of my #langchat PLN for me to realize that it’s what my students think/know/feel about their learning counts the most.



March 21, 2016
by leesensei

The Song Lyric “English First” Reading Activity

We use songs a lot in our world language classes – they are an amazingly authentic resource – and often just downright fun to listen to. file000564987721#Langchat has done more than one chat on this subject and I have written about my ‘song of the week‘  and the variety of ways I use it (among other ideas) in the past.

This past month I stumbled on a new aspect of the song activity. Keep in mind that this initially came as part of a bigger activity but it emerged as a fun interpretive add-on. In a nutshell it involves using the English version of the TL (target language) song lyrics as well as the TL ones.

What you need – a copy of the English lyrics and the TL lyrics (you can almost always find them online). Please note that I get my songs from iTunes (I believe its important to pay the artist).

What you doTo start, I put the lyrics side by side on a piece of paper (trying to match up the lines) and have the students fold them to only initially see the English version. You could put them on two separate pieces and only hand out the English first. Then play the song 2-3 times with the students looking at the English lyrics as they listen. I don’t worry too much about “understanding” – I want them to be listening and ‘reading’ the meaning. Next ask them to choose 5 words (or phrases or lines depending on their level) in the English that they want to see ‘what they are’ in the TL. Finally, once they have them I then ask them to look and search for the key phrases. Nope – no dictionaries at this point – they have to use the original English lyrics, position in the song etc. I then allow them to look up the words in the dictionary to see what they ‘mean’ in the original language. Finally we share out 1 key word each (on the whiteboard) that they found and think they will use again!

Why I like this – There’s so many ways that we use songs and I must admit that this type of approach was an afterthought during a more traditional ‘use the song’ activity. But I found that I liked it because:

  • It reinforces that we don’t directly translate from one language to another – it’s so much more than that – we have to consider not what they are saying but what they are ‘communicating’.
  • It’s personal – students are finding words/phrases that appeal to them
  • It’s interpretive – they are using guessing, inference, and more to try to find the match
  • It’s different – we almost always go to the TL lyrics first – so it’s a twist

Students enjoyed this ‘song’ option and I heard more than one “hey I was right!” comment during the time. I’ll try it again with other songs in the future!








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