Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

December 11, 2016
by leesensei

My “Oral” Failure: Assuming They ‘Get It’…And Learning They Don’t…

img_2348We don’t do a ‘novel’ through the course of Year 4. Instead we do a story unit – one in which we read a story as a group (it’s a graded reader story in Japanese) and follow this with a ‘select your own’ story to read. Both the ‘group’ and ‘self-read’ story have presentational pieces and, for the ‘self-read’ story a day where they tell others about the story they read.

But I wanted something that I could evaluate – wanted some sort of component in this whole story time where I heard from them. I settled on the idea of a presentational piece using the ‘group-read’ story.  I struggled to think what this, in a reading unit, could be.. Not sure what to do I purchased a teacher guide for a TPRS story by Kristy Placido to investigate (why purchase? I was looking for insight into using stories but I want the authors to get the royalties that they deserve). I introduced the idea of an ‘oral summary’ that was in the guide. I liked it for what I wanted – a chance to hear students give an oral summary that I could evaluate. Students would have 3 minutes to give the summary using pictures from it as a guide. The operative word in my mind was ‘summarize’. I wanted them to hit the highlights and show that they had grabbed the ‘facts’ and gained some insight into the story. Great idea…I prepared a sheet with pictures from the story…We practiced with partners. We did my favourite Carrie Toth “Yellow Brick Road” review down the main hall of our floor of the school …we were ready.

Until…student number 5.  To be honest I had started to be concerned around student 3…but it wasn’t clear to me until number 5 what was going on. In 3 minutes she didn’t get past the 2nd picture. She clearly understood the story…she gave great detail. So much detail that she was bogged down. She couldn’t get the idea of a summary…because she saw the word ‘detail’ in the rubric and that was what she thought she had to deliver. She thought if she didn’t tell everything about every part of the story it wasn’t a successful summary. And whose fault was that? Who didn’t walk them through what a summary might be? Who didn’t set them up for success? Me. I failed to go over what a summary was. I failed to involve them in discussing how you might summarize something using structures we already knew. I assumed. And I was wrong…

Like all classrooms mine is one of second chances. And I am grateful that there will be a second chance for them. I won’t ‘hear’ this second chance as a presentational oral – but they will – in their self-read story fair day – get to use their summary skills to tell others about what they read. And next time, next year, I will do what I didn’t do this year to set them up for summary success not only in what we do in class to prepare but also in the rubric that describes the goals of the activity – a link to my new and improved one is here.

What did I learn? Never assume they get it. Never ever give a brisk “and this is what you will do” and leave it at that. Check in with them. Help them. And above all, set them up for the success you want them to have. There is nothing more disheartening than seeing that their inability to do something that is directly caused by what you did, or didn’t do in the set-up. Lesson learned…


September 30, 2016
by leesensei

Fine Tuning Writing = Fine Tuning Language

Source: Morguefile.comLast year one of my ‘could have been betters‘ was my work with students to improve their written output. Yes I have a rubric/feedback form I like. Yes I use descriptors and not numbers to evaluate their writing. Yes I sometimes show exemplars during a writing ‘workshop’ to assist. And Yes – you may not agree – I sometimes use a “spot the problem” handout to help review common written language ‘issues’.

But I wanted to help push and develop their awareness of what I am looking for and their written output. So this year I have tried/am trying to add onto the process.

A ‘Physical’ Portfolio: Okay – it’s a paper folder – we’re not that tech-able in my school. But we’ve started to put all of the writing they have handed in – from activities like ‘Sketch and Share‘ to more formal pieces into the paper folder portfolio. I realized that what I handed back often got buried in their binders…I want to find it easily and be able to use the information in it. And, quite honestly, the physical presence of the folders in my room reminds me that we have them too!

Going Through the Rubric & Clarifying: It’s not enough, I found, for me to talk about what I am looking for. I need to hear what they ‘think’ I am looking for and for them to realize that they ‘get’ what the goal is, or not. So we took 1/2 a class and went line by line through the rubric/feedback form. What did they think each line meant? After they had a minute to discuss I told them what it meant to me… This was a chance for them to see if their thoughts matched up with my expectations!

Using the Portfolio As a Resource: Now before we write a piece – we take out the portfolio and look at past work. What were the comments and suggestions? What were issues in the last piece?  Today my Year 3’s wrote 2 notes to themselves actually on the folder to ‘remember’ for next time.  Some wrote a ‘suggestion’ that I had given them. Others wrote down a common error they tend to make over and over again. I’m going to look on this evolving “note to self” as a resource for ongoing use. Today, in the period prior to the Yr4 Murder Mystery write – I had a student come request her folder as she wanted to look at past pieces and comments.

I believe that the focus on the writing will also produce a ‘side bonus’ – a focus on the overall language that they use. That the may, perhaps, be more aware of what to say but the options/resources they have to say things in a different, more detailed way.  There is a LONG way to go for me in this process…but it’s a start I’m pleased with!



June 21, 2016
by leesensei

Setting Them Up For the Real World: What Should An “Oral Final” Be?

58db2d0e2c1397f19cc3fd65bcffa2daWhat should an oral final look/sound like? I’ve been thinking about this as I continue to try to take away the ‘unnecessary’ – and get to the necessary – in my classroom.  And I’ve thought a lot about what the ‘summative’ part means. This is the ‘last’ oral interaction – especially for some of my juniors (not going to Yr4), and all of my seniors, that they will have in the Target Language. This is a significant moment and I want the legacy of this moment – the impact of it – to be felt by them. I want them to leave my program with the confidence to take an opportunity to use, or further develop, their skills and choose to act upon them. It may be the end of their class journey but I hope it’s not the end of their learning. So I’ve rethought what a summative oral should be and I’ve gone in my thinking from ‘testing what they know’ to ‘establishing what they will hopefully do…’

It Should Mirror A Future Real Life Situation

Our goal in the future is to hopefully have students, in some way, continue their interest in the TL. And what will this most likely involve? Using it – using it in conversation, using it to find out information, using it to get something done. So their summative oral should leave them with the confidence that they have the skills (basic or more developed) to do this. I watched students in our cafeteria – sitting around…talking….interacting with their peers and I thought “This is what I want…”

It Should Capture All You Hope Their Learning Should Be

 For me that means its isn’t memorized, it involves choice in expression and it is communicative. The summative has to allow students to put into use what we have spent the time in class ‘developing’. Providing detailed information, asking when you don’t understand & being able to help others understand, and asking follow-up questions are the three big skills we work on in oral interaction. I want my students to be confident communicators no matter what their level. So the oral summative must draw upon these and be a ‘test’ of these skills. Can they communicate and provide details, can they say when they don’t understand & explain what someone doesn’t understand them and finally can they ask for information using great follow-up questions? This is what I want their summative experience to be.

It Should Not Involve The Teacher

Barring a job interview or maybe a university opportunity the majority of my students will actually use their TL skills in other ways. So why would I insert myself into their conversation? I have also come to realize that, if at all possible, I should not be present for this. Yes – I won’t be there in the future will I? They won’t choose to speak with someone for ‘marks’. So if at all possible I want them to see that they can do this on their own and don’t need a ‘monitor’ or ‘input provider’ or the ‘presence’ of an evaluator to do this.

So what is my intention now in a summative oral? I wrote it on the board for my students to keep in mind:



This year I held my breath, trusted my students, trusted the process we have gone through and sent them off to do all of the above. We had some in-class preparation around the basic prompts but they didn’t know who they would be working with, or ‘how’ this would be done (they thought it would be in front of me). On the day of the oral I talked with them about what I feel the oral should be, then I told them they would be doing this in teams of 4, without me there, with people they knew. Armed with 2 phones (a back up recording) they went in 4’s to empty rooms, turned on the the voice recording memo feature and talked.

In Yr4 they started with a key item that is important to them. A chance to ‘show & tell’ but so much more. Most groups talked for about 25 minutes –  explaining, lots of questions, inclusive of all, and supporting their peers in this. Amazing detail, use of language and most of all – relaxed conversation. Yr3 took some prompts…basic ‘find out about’ designed to allow them to use what we had explored, and talked for about 15+ minutes. No notes, no ‘re-do’s’, no worrying about ‘what if I make an mistake or don’t understand’. I am listening to them now. Yes there are errors, misunderstandings and some are not as confident as others. But I am listening to 4 students converse & share detailed information in a relatively relaxed manner using the TL.  I believe I’m also listening to students who, in the future, are going to take that chance to use the language again.





May 26, 2016
by leesensei

“Three Days In …..” – 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 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 and it’s adaptable to any place/language. (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!




March 9, 2016
by leesensei

The New Feedback Rubrics – Part 2: The Interpersonal Oral Rubric

As I mentioned in my previous post, my rubric journey has been a long and winding one. In the previous post I talked about how I have developed (and continue to) my presentational writing rubric – with the goal of both providing guidance for what is expected and feedback on how a student is doing. Again – and especially for this rubric, I owe a huge debt on these to Amy Lenord who first developed the checklist idea. Stop now and go read her post first – it sets the stage for the ‘feedback’ checklist portion of the rubric.

The Interpersonal Oral Rubric:  Again this rubric is still evolving – and I continue to tweak the descriptors to fit what I am hearing and what I want my students to push 301276952-Oral-Interpersonal-With-Checklist-2015-1towards.  At Fully Meets a student is using current knowledge and tapping previously learned items. They are not giving speeches or talking in very long complex (and often memorized) sentences. Rather the detail and complexity shows itself in the what kind of information they are trying to communicate and how effectively they are doing that.  A student in this category is using follow-up questions often and effectively to dig for details and their choice of questions indicates how well they are listening to their partner. Errors can, and will occur, but a student in this category is often self-correcting – which for me is not an ‘error’ at all. The Fully Meeting student is at ease in the interaction and is an ‘equal’ – not a dominating partner. We work hard to make sure that students are comfortable when they don’t understand something in my class and so ‘facilitating’ can mean explaining a word – or helping a partner to find one – in the target language.   Minimally Meets for me is the ‘unit’ items – and at this level the student is showing me what they have mastered from the current unit but is generally not drawing heavily on past knowledge. This student is often the ‘follower’ in the conversation and they minimally meet expectations by recognizing what their partner is saying – but not necessarily generating as much as they are.  A student, for me, generally falls between Minimally and Fully – and I usually find they have items selected from one or more columns.  At this point – with selections out of several columns I often use a +/- to show where they are. For example a “Meeting+” means that you are moving out of “Meeting” and starting on your way to “Fully Meeting”. A “Fully Meeting-” would be ‘not quite there but definitely out of the “Meeting” area. I believe that the +/- also serves to encourage/show students that they are ‘on a continuum’ of skill building.

The Feedback:  Here is where the real value is for me – the quick and easy way to add extra comments to the piece. This is Amy’s checklist and fully credited to her.  It is general enough to provide a ‘guide’ for a student and has room to allow me add specific points as well.

Student Self-Evaluation First: This year I also started having the student participate in this process. For the Oral this comes prior to the evaluated interaction. We use the checklist for this in what I call “2 Checks And A Smile”. The students select two descriptors that are to be their ‘challenge’ or focus on including/improving in their conversation. These are the “Checks”. The “Smile” is a happy face put next to something that they already feel that they are doing well. It’s a reaffirmation of a skill/strength they already have.

As I wrote in the previous post, the rubric language is still not fully what I want – there are areas to improve it and make it more clear. But I like the mix of the ‘how you met’ and the ‘here’s some feedback’ that it provides.  The link to the rubric is here – and if you are inspired by it please credit myself and Amy for what you use.



January 25, 2016
by leesensei

Proficiency Descriptors Not Numbers – Students React To The Change

DSC_6868This is the year that I began the switch and took a new path. As I’ve written previously I am now ‘talking ability/proficiency’ and not numbers with my students. It has meant changes in how I provide feedback and also how I record in my gradebook. Most importantly – this is a switch that I know will take some time/adjusting to get right …if I ever do.

It is my custom to ask students to reflect both in the middle, and at the end of term. This year I wanted to see how this change in feedback and marking proficiency is going over with them. So I asked them – 3 classes worth (90 students in all in grades 9,10 & 11). I kept in mind that some might tell me what I want to hear but I believed that all the work we do in self-reflecting would mean that they would be honest with me about this. The question on the form was “I made a switch to ‘meeting expectations’ grading instead of ‘numbers’ in order that you understand how well you are doing. What is your feedback on this style of grading?” And the responses came…

The Negative (12% of respondents). Most of the number-preferring students were older (grade 10 or 11) and have been in this kind of grading system a long time. What is interesting to me is the belief among these students that a ‘number’ is more accurate and precise. It reflects what they see as achievement.  I noted that none of the responders who favoured numbers mentioned their ability to use the language or how this in any way showed them how proficient they were. This is a call to me to work with students to ‘bust’ the idea that a “77/100” tells you how well you can do something.

  • Personally I prefer numbers. The new system for me sometimes feels vague or misleading.
  • I feel that it isn’t precise…with numbers its easier to see why classmates did better than you on something
  • The new way is sensible but I think my Mom prefers numbers  (ah – communication with parents is going to be key!)
  • Numbers still tell me what I have to do to bring up my average
  • Numbers are a more straight forward way to visualize our ability to do things
  • Numbers are more precise and accurate and more explicitly tell me how I am doing
  • Not a fan as students are more used to numbers

The Ambivalent  (2% of respondents). There were few of these kinds of responses and came I think, as one student correctly noted, because I still have to translate the proficiency grade into a number grade anyway.

  • “I don’t think there’s much difference either way”
  • Not much of a difference but it does show what you are looking for
  • It doesn’t make a difference to me either way
  • You still translate it into percentages so there’s not a big difference

The Positive (85% of respondents). Wow – they like it, they really do.   One common reaction is that it is more accurate in showing how them how they are doing.  This means that my shift in message, and in wording ‘you will be fully meeting expectations if…’, is getting through. Others said that it was a great way to show them how they can improve which affirms that my message about ability/proficiency is clear and understandable to them.  Some cited that they found the system “less harsh and more supportive”. I take this to mean that they see that they are on a continuum of learning and that they are encouraged to continue to move forward. They know that, on a particular task/skill, they might have met ‘minimal expectations’ which means they are getting credit for what they can do – not being penalized for what they can’t. Finally many used the word ‘ability’ or the phrase ‘can do’ in their responses. Awesome – it means that my message and effort to re-frame how we measure ‘achievement’ in my classes is bearing fruit!

  • It’s more accurate about how I am doing and is way better in showing me what I need to improve
  • I like it because I wasn’t marked by numbers but the ability to do the work
  • It doesn’t pressure me to be perfect and is less ‘harsh’ when you are still learning
  • It’s great and the notes under them (checklists) tell me what I need to do for next time
  • It’s more informative
  • It’s more forgiving than numbers
  • It gives you a more gentle push towards improvement
  • It pushes a student to try harder
  • Numbers can’t express how I am doing
  • There is less comparing between students this way
  • It helps me to understand the criteria more than numbers do
  • It’s a more accurate way to describe how you are doing in a language
  • It outlines what I need to improve on
  • It encourages me to do better
  • It’s less stressful
  • It’s more forgiving for anyone who doesn’t receive high marks …lets them know they are on the right track
  • It is more accurate (than numbers) and I know what to improve on
  • It’s a more accurate reflection of what you can do
  • I like it because with numbers are you all concerned about is your letter grade
  • I love it. It is less intimidating and give you a more genuine understanding of why you are where you are

The responses, and my own feeling about making this switch, means I will continue down this path…future posts to come I’m sure!


September 10, 2015
by leesensei

A “Refreshing” Day 1- Reminding Them How We Work in Class


Image source:

I made a vow this year that I would not spend my first day of class doing the ‘outline/student info’ massive amount of teacher talk this year. No – my new attitude is to treat the first few days not reviewing material – but rather reviewing the ‘how’ we work in class and reestablishing routines/support.

Just a quick background about the class I am describing. It is a 79 minute (not 80!) Year 3 class on the semestered system.  This is Day 1 described below but the first few days are all designed to drive home the same points…

As they entered…they heard the song of the week. What It Reminds Them: We listen to music as a group here. We will use it for learning, for relaxing and for setting a mood. If you have any music to contribute – please do! And a reminder – no headphones allowed.

Seats are set at tables of four and students find their name card. What It Reminds Them: Your seats will change – with each unit and you are expected to work with/facilitate conversation with both your partner and your table-mates. We face each other and when we work we always have our partner’s, and table’s, support.

Movie trailer for a new anime movie just released in Japan played 2 times and a mini-movie talk exercise – with teacher Q/A and then with their partner. What It Reminds Them:  We will use ‘authentic’ resources in here that you may be interested in as well. You are not expected to understand everything nor are you asked to translate. You will always get a chance to respond, check things out with your partner as well. Relax and look for clues, guess, risk, dare to try!

Screen shot from trailer – with questions for them designed to have them read & talk with each other. (eg. “Find the character for…). What It Reminds Them: When we read we are reading for key pieces of information and not ‘getting everything’ is okay. When we are working and don’t understand something there are key resources to use – our partner, our phone dictionary or paper dictionary. Don’t sit there because you don’t understand – in this class we take out and use our resources when we need them.

Screen shot from trailer – asking them to write a comment to describe the “mood” of the screenshot. Descriptive phrases are then written, 1 per pair, on the board. What It Reminds Them:  That there are ways to describe beyond ‘It’s fun’ using intensifiers (adverbs) etc to differentiate your answer. Forgot a describing word? Your orange “panic package” (okay – it sounds much more fun in Japanese) has all the characters learned, grammar info, word banks we used last year – see what’s in it – and know that you can go there for a reminder if you need to.

Reading a story featuring this year’s character “Mr. Busy” and what he did in the summer. What It Reminds Them: When we read, we read in pairs often and practice “2 and talk” – each partner reading a sentence then talking about what it means. Remember that you have resources as well – phone/paper dictionary is something is not ringing a bell with you. Your teacher will always be circulating to assist as well.

Group read of story and teacher checking for understanding. What It Reminds Them: We will always work through the story together – and you will confirm what you knew as you read and to add any explanations, support and even a pop-up grammar lesson as needed.

Out of Class Work – (homework) – tell me about 4 things you did on your holiday (and maybe something you didn’t do) and how it went. What It Reminds Them: You have information in your hands to support this. You can hand in work in a variety of forms, online or on paper. Remember my email address and if you are sending it in Google Docs – give me permission to edit.

What they didn’t get – a ‘reading of the outline’; a ‘talk about expectations’; a ‘list of rules’. What they did get – a ‘refresher’ on how we operate in class, supports they have & our ‘community feeling’ of working together. My other classes – even the newbie ones – are designed to start reinforcing this message from day 1.  Welcome back – let’s get down to using our language right away!


January 24, 2015
by leesensei

“It Was Cool!” Their First Group Interpersonal Oral…

club namesI am so proud of my Year 1’s. In one (strike-shortened) semester they have mastered one new orthography and are well on their way to a second. They are learning how to feel confident and communicate in a second language they’ve only experienced watching anime or looking at manga. And yesterday – for 40 fabulous minutes – they talked, laughed and communicated solely in Japanese.

The first interactive group oral of their language-learning journey is based on a simple premise: activities they like to do.  The students are also, by this time, becoming very comfortable with follow-up questions like ‘where at?’, ‘when’, and ‘who with’.  Whenever I am casting about for a suitable oral I like to think of ‘when’ the vocabulary/grammar would be used in real life. For me, tying in activities with their daily life led me to clubs.

The Task – The students are asked to create a club and select 3 activities that would be done there. Then they have to decide on meeting times, who they have formed their club with and where they meet. The students also had to think of reasons/ways to convince someone to join in with them.

The Preparation – The topic is introduced via a club that I created and put up on the screen. We worked through Q/A on the details of that club. Then they had, working as pairs, 2 classes to prepare – with part of one taken up with an ‘information gap’ (partner has information that I need, I have information for them) activity to practice asking/answering questions. They also had time to come up with their club sign which is worth no marks but still seems to be the most labour-intensive part of the whole task!

The Club Day – With a 30-student class I pulled out 1/2 of my desks and made a big circle around the room with the rest. Students sat on either side of the desks – the student on the ‘inside’ of the circle would be first to visit other clubs – the student on the ‘outside’ would be the club signmanager for that period of time and give out information. The signs stand up on the desk with the help of dollar store picture holders. Just before we begin we review what the purpose of the oral is – to practice speaking, to talk to our classmates and to relax and have fun. Then we begin – and students visit other clubs, asking questions in Japanese and recording in English (do they understand?). After they visited 6 or 7 clubs they switched roles with their partner. All in all about 35-40 minutes in the target language!

The Evaluation – It’s my practice to have this activity ‘self-evaluated’. It is also my practice not go straight to the rubric but to have students reflect on the process through written comments first.  They were asked to complete two sentences: “That was ___ because…” and “I am most proud that…”  Their comments showed their personal pride in completing the task:

“That was cool because we talked in Japanese for 40 minutes! When I started (class) I didn’t think that we would have learned that much!”
“That was fun because I learned from other people and got to know others better!”
“I am most proud that I didn’t use English during this activity.”
“I am most proud that I could tell others about my club!”
“That was awesome because I know that I’ve improved in my Japanese speaking and listening!”
“That was cool because I got to talk with my classmates without having a lot of pressure about messing up!”
“That was pretty cool because as I was speaking I was also realizing that I learned a lot this semester!”

But, after a semester of language learning and team building my favourite comment was:

“That was fun because I got to speak Japanese with my friends!” 

Job done!


A copy of the student portion of the task is here with task outline, fill in form and evaluation. If you find it useful – please do so with credit.

February 17, 2014
by leesensei

Developing Conversation Skills: The “Follow Up Question” Game

MP900262685We work hard in my class on developing an ease at conversing. It isn’t natural for many people, including me I’ll admit, so why would we expect it to be so for our students? This semester I have a new crop of Grade 10’s, 30 students who are in my class for the first time. When I asked what it is they want to many of them wrote ‘have a regular conversation in Japanese.” My job is to have them meet that challenge. I’ve written before about extending conversation skills using ‘follow-up questions’ and this group needed a way to jump-start their ability in this area.

So I invented the ‘Follow Up Question’ game….my fancy title for essentially practicing conversations!

What You Need

  • Question Cards- a set of follow-up questions in the Target Language. I input the phrases I want into Quizlet – then print out thefollow up quest ‘large’ flashcards on coloured paper and cut them out . My initial ones are shown on the right.
  • Students – in pairs – initially of your choosing then eventually their own
  • An ’emergency sheet’ (list) with the questions/answers already matched (upside down on the desk)

Initial Round (First Day)

  • These words are not new to them so I have students match the English and TL cards – then mix them up and spend 3-4 minutes quizzing each other.
  • Have the students separate the cards again into two piles – and select the TL pile (put the English aside)
  • Student 1 begins with a simple phrase such as “I’m going shopping”
  • Student 2 pulls a card from the pile such as “When?” and Student 1 thinks of an answer that fits
  • Student 2 then pulls a second card – perhaps “Where at?” and it continues
  • Students run through the ‘stack’ of question cards then switch roles
  • They will run through this with 3 or 4 different partners – experiencing asking/answering a number of times – and be encouraged to change their ‘starting phrase’ a couple of times

Recognizing Appropriate Questions – Sometimes the follow-up question a student draws doesn’t work. For example if you are shopping at the mall then “Where to?” isn’t appropriate. Students know that if a question is not usable they are to tell their partner that. It sharpens skills and awareness around the questions – and to be honest they love it when they say “No – that one won’t work!” in the target language.

Assisting in Comprehension – Not every student will remember all of the questions initially. So we also practice helping each other understand. If the question is asked and it isn’t understood then the student asking knows that, if they understand it, they are to try to assist by giving a sample answer. For example if their partner doesn’t understand/know how to answer “Who with?” they can use “For example ‘with a friend’ ‘by yourself'” to help their partner clue in. If the both students don’t understand they can peek at the emergency sheet.

Later Round (Second Day) – I employ the same strategy, and start with a quick warmup with the cards. Then they are paired with new partners, but now use the pile of cards in English. Again we rotate through 3 or 4 partners. Students are encouraged to change up their ‘starting phrase’ at least once during the time of the activity.

Later On (Third Day etc) – Again we start with a partner and a quick warmup. Then the cards are put away (an emergency sheet is on the desk if needed). We rotate through 2 or 3 partners, switching up the starting phrase. At the end of the time students have an opportunity to record the questions on their conversation phrase sheet that they keep in their binder.

Finally –  No cards are provided at all (the questions are on a sheet the student knows how to access). Instead of the student providing the initial phrase students may start the class with a question on the screen (from me) like “Ask your partner what they are doing after school? Where? When? Why…etc!” And they are off – with great questions that allow them to dig for details. As the semester progresses we find new questions to add to our ‘follow-up’ list.

Taking the time to help them develop their questioning skills pays off when the room is alive with conversation. My job at that point is to get out the way and let them talk!





May 11, 2012
by leesensei

“Authentic Not Necessarily Native” Giving Opportunities to Students

As a teacher of a foreign language (FL) there is drive to provide communication experiences and contact with native speakers. In my case, Japanese, I benefit from being in an area that is a popular working-holiday destination for Japanese people. But abundance doesn’t necessarily equal opportunity. So how do we offer up the chance for real-world contact?  For me the goal is to have the students engage in purposeful communication. As a result, over the years my approach has evolved into “Authentic Not Necessarily Native”.

Peers: All of my units involve a ‘final’ task – modelled on a real-world situation. For example ‘daily routine’ becomes a “Murder Mystery”, food is a “Taste Test”. Travelling leads to a ‘Travel Fair’. For each of these students interact to provide information to each other – using the language authentically. As a class we have used Edmodo for ‘in class’ discussion on a topic. All communication is authentic and purposeful.

Peer Tutors: I regularly have senior students in my lower level classes. Many are earning ‘peer tutoring’ credits. We communicate only in Japanese and they, in turn, do so with students. It gives our students the opportunity to see that this is an actual ‘working’ language; and that they too will be able to sustain an interaction.

Technology: Although it may necessarily be one-way technology provides a myriad of ways to put ‘authentic language’ in front of students. YouTube commercials, dramas or telenovelas, songs, recorded messages at businesses etc are all examples of native speakers communicating a message.

International Education Programs: In our district we also have international education programs for foreign school groups. We volunteer an afternoon to host them – a unique peer to peer experience.

Perhaps the most important though is building communication skills.  If I can’t always give my students the chance to speak with a ‘native’ I can give them the confidence to do so whenever that may occur. It is building that sense of a willingness to risk, modeling and practicing communication strategies that will hold them in good stead when they do. These include the ability to ‘rephrase’, to ask for clarification and to use visual clues to aid understanding.

Ultimately it is the students themselves who seek opportunities to interact. Whether they are doing that currently, or in the future, my goal is to give them the willingness to do so.


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