Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

The “What We Know How To Say” List – Supporting Summative Writing…


Student WritingThis may be controversial, and I am really open to hearing back on this…you see – it’s about ‘the list’. The what? Not a prescribed vocabulary list (breathe Amy Lenord breathe!) but a reminder list. I work hard with my students to expand ‘how’ they say things. We do readings, we practice with targeted games, we do ‘pop-up’ grammar lessons, do interactive homework and I try to tie the summative write to what has been done in our summative oral task. Still – when I ask them to do a summative write I often don’t see ‘it’. The ‘it’ being the new ways students can express themselves – and often any inclusion of ways of expressing themselves learned in the past. Some students are instinctively good at this but others aren’t. And when I mark on my writing rubric I would often not see “goes beyond current unit” or even “good evidence of unit concepts” in their written expression.

So this semester I tried an experiment. My concern is that my students show me that they know how to incorporate and use new expressions/structures – and don’t forget what they already know. Yes, I want them to be aware of what they have learned. No I don’t want to be prescriptive in what they ‘must’ use (they are marked on a holistic rubric). Enter the “what we know how to say” list as a way to support their writing. For me, it’s about showing what the can use, do use and know how to use.

At the start of the semester – In the writing period I allow 4-5 minutes for students to peruse notes and jot down things they want to remember to use in their writing. My rules are that this must be in English – like “Comparisons” or “Plan to do” but  cannot be in the Target language or a ‘formula’ (or ‘how’ to do it). Once they have their list – and I’ve checked it for compliance – they begin to write.

By the end of the semester – Students no longer get time to ‘look over notes and construct’ but are, instead, doing this as part of their exam preparation outside of class. They do get time/paper at the start of the exam class to note down the items – but this time it’s from their memory. I did this at the start of the final as well.

As students progress through their time in my classes I will gradually drop the exercise. It’s my belief that by their 3rd and 4th years their awareness of their learning should bring them to do this kind of thing instinctively.  I am also hoping that this spills over – positively – to influence other types of writing that they do.

It was interesting to gauge student reaction to this. Many said that they actually didn’t look at their list during their write – but it made them more aware of the different ways that they could express themselves while they did so. Several said that it helped in their write “because I knew I had to use what I noted down – it pushed me to write more”. For some this was a ‘natural’ thing to do anyway. “I’ve always had this in my head but this time I got time to write it down to refer to it” while others found it a new, and helpful experience.

As for me I noticed an uptick in the use of/variety of sentences I am seeing in their writing. I don’t want to create robotic writers who are driven by including specific “grammar” in their pieces but I hope that this exercise makes students more aware of what they have learned – and pushes them to show me their growth in their ability to express themselves.






  1. I think it’s really interesting that you mention this, because as soon as I read your post, it reminded me of a study I used in a research paper. It’s called “Foreign Language Production and Avoidance in US University Spanish-Language Education” by Michael Hubert (2011) and it was interested in seeing the grammatical accuracy of students taught through a communicative method (where we focus on communication over accuracy) and the different strategies students employed to be communicative. Since it appears to only be available through a subscription, here’s a brief summary: the study looked at various students in university level Spanish classes and analyzed data from spoken and written summative assessments to see if students used the grammatical constructions that their professors were attempting to elicit with the prompts, and if not, how they were still able to answer properly. These students were explicitly taught grammar. In general, the writing samples tended to include more of the ‘upper level’ grammatical constructions than the speaking, but a large portion of the constructions were not used properly, or even attempted at all. So the authors concluded although the students showed improvement across the levels of Spanish and their basic sentence-making skills improved, their grammatical complexity didn’t really improve very much. Their final suggestion was that we, as teachers, make sure to practice situations that would call for the grammatical concept that we’ve been working on. They also describe the efficiency of what we now call pop-up grammar.

    In any case, I just went through the same thing with my Spanish 2s. Their prompt for their test, whenever we go back to school, is to tell me a story about a disaster. We’ve been recycling the same vocab for 4 weeks now and I had a student outright ask ‘So, in my story, the boy heard a sound. Is that okay?’ Yes! Yes, please, that’s one of the things we’ve been working on, I would be SO happy if you used that construction! So you’re not alone in feeling like you need to prompt your students that yes, they do know how to say these things. I always have the students practice their written work the day before the exam, but it might be helpful to remind them to jot down some key phrases on their test before they actually start responding to the prompt.

  2. I did something very similar today in my upper-level classes. Students had a choice written assessment about the film we viewed and worked on. I gave them 10 minutes to pick the topic (from a list of 12) and note down the words and expressions that they thought were important or necessary for their writing, in French. During this time, students were allowed to use the notes they took during film viewing and … gasp … WordReference. After time was up, they had to put everything away and write, attaching the preparation notes to their writing sample at the end.

    I have been experimenting with what is allowed during written assessments this year: from everything to nothing and this is my latest version. Since I have not had time to grade these yet, I can’t compare the results but here’s my thinking about it. I want the students to use the vocabulary and structures they have learned, and just like you, I thought that by forcing that use (or at least reminding them of what’s available) and making it self-chosen vocabulary I might achieve better results than not giving them access to their resources at all. WordReference can be a foe too as some kids become tied to it and limited in their writing, even making more errors, with unlimited access, but a few “absolutely need these” words will enrich their written sample. So in a way, they also learned something as they wrote.

    Since they all chose different topics, their lists looked quite different from one another: from a few scribbles to an elaborate list of adjectives and verbs. I like your limitations “no formulas on how to form past tense” and checking for compliance. Will do that next time. You post also gave me an idea of a “Should Be Able To Do” poster/handout for each level “reminding” kids of what they can – and should – include in their writing/speaking.

  3. Just knowing you makes me feel smarter!

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