Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

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 18, 2016
by leesensei

Encouraging Risk/Rewarding Growth with “Checks And A Smile”

How do we encourage students to risk? How to we encourage them to ‘stretch’ and try something new? It’s a big challenge in the world language classroom. I have been using rubrics a lot to find out about how something went for a student, but it took until this year for me to use them to ‘prepare’ students to interact.  I realized that the rubric (and it’s construction/labels etc) is one way that we communicate class expectations. So why don’t we ask them, prior to the activity, to set up/predict/plan how they willSource: work to meet them?  This post focuses on interpersonal speaking but the concept may also be adapted for writing as well.

Initially I started asking students, prior to starting the activity, to select their ‘challenge’ (the ‘extra push’) – and check off (on the rubric) what they wanted to focus on doing/improving. Then I asked them to share that challenge with their partner to build in a bit of accountability. Then we moved on to the activity. It seemed to work well – they sincerely considered their ‘extra push’ in the interaction. But for me it wasn’t enough. It felt a bit focused on the ‘what I am not doing’ and not acknowledging ‘what I can already do’. Clearly, I needed a more balanced approach.

Lately I’ve been trying to acknowledge/encourage via “checks and a smile“. Prior to the activity the students select the ‘challenge/push’ for the activity – that gets the check. For my novices I generally have only 1 check, but in my upper level courses I source: openclipart.orgexpand that to 2 challenge/push areas. Then I ask them to select something that they already feel that they do well – what they are proud that they already incorporate into their interpersonal work. That gets the happy face.  I like how this combination gives a personal pat on the back for something already accomplished and still sets out something for them to reach for in their work.

When I ask students to reflect, as I always do, they are ready to tell me how they well they felt they did in meeting their checked challenge. Increasingly, with the equal focus on a strength, I see reflective comments about what they are ‘proud’ of  as well. And that is a happy face for everyone!



February 2, 2015
by leesensei

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.





March 10, 2014
by leesensei
1 Comment

“Today I took a risk and….” Asking for Student Self Reflection

b  We often tell students what we value in the classroom but how do we know the message is getting through? How do they interpret what I am trying to get them to be: risk-takers, supportive classmates, inquisitive learners? I never know unless I ask.

It is my custom to use various rubrics after an oral activity. This can be for a short interaction or a longer conversation circle. In any case I like to get them to think before they fill in the rubric and self-evaluate. I think it leads to more honest and meaningful choices once they get to the rubric itself. The thinking, for me, means that they are asked leading questions. Typically I put two ‘starters’ on the board and they are asked to respond to at least one.

This week my Yr 3 and Yr 4’s both completed their 30-40min conversation circle activities and I wanted to find out if they were stretching, risking in their interaction or just happy to stay in that comfortable place. So on the board I wrote “Today I took a risk and….” and “I didn’t use English and here’s how I did it…” as their pre-rubric response options. Over 75% of students responded to the risk statement and their replies, some of which are below, show me that they are ‘getting it’.

Today I took a risk and…

-tried to use follow up questions so the conversation could go on more easily

-talked about something we didn’t necessarily have all the vocabulary for and it was an interesting conversation

-didn’t resort to English when someone didn’t understand – I used gestures and synonyms (it worked!)

-asked questions that I hadn’t written down in advance

-just used what I knew – I didn’t rely on any notes

-tried to create sentences with more details than usual in them

-asked my table – in Japanese – to explain something when I didn’t know

-asked more questions than I usually do

Their answers show me that my message  – to be a risk-taker in using the language – is paying off. If it didn’t – then I know that I have work to do to get them to be willing to step out of their comfort zone. My favorite response?

“Today I took a risk and tried to include my own personal ‘sass’ in my speaking!”

 Yes –  I’ll take that!


March 3, 2014
by leesensei

“How did that go?” An Oral Activity Feedback Rubric

Students Doing HomeworkI’ve always asked students to work in pairs, or small groups in class. But only lately have I started to ask for their feedback as to how it went. I’ve worked for a while on a quick feedback rubric – one that builds an expectation not only of what students should be doing when they are working in small groups – but also how they are to be working together.

The key for me in using it is the following:

Students Know What’s On the Rubric: They know that what is on the rubric – taking risks, not using English, working together, equals in an activity – are things that I value in my classroom. We have taken lots of time to practice how to support someone who doesn’t understand and, equally key, how to ask for assistance from a peer in understanding.

They Reflect Before They Select: They know that they will fill out the sheet after they have answered a reflective question (posed by me) in writing on the back. It can be anything from “During this I was most proud that I…”, “One thing that still is a stretch for me is..” or even, “I didn’t use English – here’s how I managed to do that…”. Once they turn to the actual rubric, students know that they are to select the phrases that match how they felt/what happened during the activity.

They Know It Will Be Used (Maybe Just Not When): They know that this feedback rubric can be used at ‘any time’ – and after any activity in which they worked with their classmates. They may know when they start the activity, or not know, that it will be used. It’s one way I build an awareness of what is key. If they know in advance they are often asked to ‘choose their focus’ prior to the activity and if what they want to work on is not there – they can add it.

It’s Always Ready – I keep a stack of these in a basket at my main teaching desk. Sometimes the decision to use is set well in advance but other times I choose to use it just because it feels like a good time to use it. In either case a supply is always there for me to use.


I know that the contents – and the descriptors – are a work in progress. The rubric’s value is in the information that it provides to the students as they think/reflect on their learning. It’s also a chance for me to see ‘how it went’ and what to alter or support as they continue to work in the TL.




November 20, 2013
by leesensei

Homework? A Quick Phone-Recorded Conversation Please!

MP900438762Have you mastered what we are working on?” I am trying to balance the need to know that they ‘have it’ with the practical realities of a modern language class. For that reason I have been looking at more and more choice in not only what language students use to demonstrate learning but also in how they do it. This year I have been making more use of the ‘quick conversation’ as a means of measuring learning.  So an interaction, recorded on the phone, and then forwarded to me is a new way to offer some formative assessment.

Supplies – You  need a mobile phone per conversation pair. I am aware that there are students without mobile phones so I also have a handheld digital recorder ($30 ) that can also be used.  Almost all smart phones have some form of audio note recording app built into them – and they can use any one.

Requirements – I am careful to lay out the criteria beforehand. This is not onerous but is one designed to hear the desired pattern or structure in context, and more than once.  For example, in my grade 12 course I needed to hear that they understood the difference between 3 types of conditionals. It is easy for me to tell who is ‘getting it’ and who isn’t.

Preparation – I allow about 15-20 minutes depending on what we have studied. This is enough time for them to consider the requirements, ensure that they are comfortable with what they have to demonstrate and run through it a couple of times. This is also a key time where partners affirm their knowledge and even help their partner to understand a concept they might not be as clear on.

Sending – I will  not accept any files until after the end of the school day and it is sent from a student’s home, via a wireless connection. The last thing I want to do is push a cost onto a parent for data. If I receive the file prior to that it is not marked.

Listening – You will receive files in a variety of formats. Typically I click on it and it opens in a program that will play it. However I use a Macbook Pro and files that come from Android phones initially look incompatible. Well – internet searching to the rescue. I know what kind of files my computer reads – and so I search “converting .api to .mp4” – the answer is easy to find. After doing of few of these I am comfortable altering the file extension to what I need to hear it.

Marking – I wanted to be able to credit students for completing a task as required, but also encourage them to show a bit more range in the language they choose to do this. So I looked around at various rubrics and came up with one that measures “Task”, “Vocabulary” and “Grammar”. Students also receive some feedback in written form.  The rubric isn’t perfect but it provides feedback that students can use.


The phone conversation homework is popular with my students who like the timeliness and authenticity is provides. More of these to come.



September 17, 2013
by leesensei

Conversation Circles…or “I spoke in the TL for 45 Minutes?!”

convo2If I told a student that I expected 45-50 minutes of sustained discussion in the target language they’d laugh and say no way. But I watched it today in my Grade 12 class – as students used the pretext of answering questions about a story they read to work in their “conversation circle”. This small discussion group activity produces some of the most relaxed and engaged interaction in my WL classroom. Not only that but students offer up a personal debrief afterwards – that I use to add to their oral communication marks.

Practice the “Art” of Conversation –  Relaxed interaction is no accident. We practice the “art” of the conversation a lot in class. As my students know – it’s not the first question that you ask that is key – but rather the second and third follow-up question. Class often starts with an “ask” your partner based on some current area of study but students are expected at a minimum to use basic “who, what, when, where, why?” queries to learn more.  All students have a ‘conversation’ sheet that they can refer to with suggestions for how to ask questions. When we debrief I often get asked for more “key phrases” and we add that to the sheet as we go along.convo3

Select a Common “Piece” to Discuss – The pretext for the circle is always to discuss or review something. It can be the answers to questions about a story, as it was today, or even a review of some element of homework/classwork. The key is that there are questions/answers that can be used to get the talking started. I will give them the questions for the discussion and they have already had the opportunity to make notes on possible answers. (The key for me is “notes” and not full sentence answers). At the time of the “circle” they are given a new sheet with the questions on it and, in the lower grades, extension questions for the group. For example “What did Tarou get for his birthday” and the extended “What do you want/did you get for your birthday?” My Grade 12’s  now naturally extend the task questions without my including them.

Students Know What They Are Aiming For – We look at the post-activity rubric before the activity. I ask my students to see what the “goal” is and to select just one area – one descriptor – as their ‘personal challenge’ for the time. If there is nothing on the rubric that the student sees as applicable then they can write in their challenge. One of my students, who speaks Japanese at home, wrote “I don’t want rubricto dominate my group’s conversation”.

Set Out the Initial Groups But… I usually set the initial groups, looking for a mix of students in each – and sometimes for a group that may be supportive of a more hesitant speaker. Students are expected to sit in a circle and to work on good eye contact when they are speaking.  They know that this activity is not to be raced through. After about 30 minutes I often ask them to find a completely new group and to ‘just chat’ – using the extension questions only.

Written Debrief Before Rubric – Students are asked to really think how things went, so I don’t let them race to the rubric at the end of the activity. Rather they go the reverse side and I ask them to answer one or two key questions. Today it was “what went well?” and “what was a particular challenge?”. Then once the personal reflective piece is done the rubric can be completed. Students understand that I expect them to carefully consider all sentences on the rubric and that they are not just to circle an entire “section”. They must justify what they pick.

My goal in the conversation circle is simple: using the TL to communicate beyond standard sentences to more meaningful conversation. The level of noise in the room is my key that this is working….more to come.


June 18, 2013
by leesensei

Keys For Using Student Self-Evaluation in Discussions…

MP900341496Too often in the past a student would complete an oral, turn to me and ask “How did I do?”. Didn’t they know? Weren’t they aware of how it was going? Gradually I saw the need to change my focus from oral production focussed on grammar and vocabulary to interpersonal communication. And who better to judge how the communication activity went than the person involved? I use self-evaluation rubrics a lot in my classes for various oral interactive activities.

What are the key elements that need to be in place for meaningful self-evaluation?

A Robust and Flexible Rubric: All of the rubrics I use are based upon the same 4 key areas: Asking questions, responding to questions, utilizing vocabulary and structures and facilitating conversation. The current interation of my rubric represents a collaboration  with my DELF– focussed French teaching colleague Cara Babson and  #langchat colleague Natalia DeLaat (@natadel76). The rubric is based on those used by DELF but modified to suit my current needs. Perhaps best of all the rubric is an evolving document changing to meet communication goals and class needs. My current version is here if you are interested.

Student Awareness of Language Expectations: Build an expectation of language use and practice skills needed. We practice the art of the follow up question a lot. Class often begins with a prompt in English “Ask your partner…” with the words “who? when? why? what do they think of? how often? how good at?” etc below. Prompts relate to current units or topics of study. Sometimes we change partners several times – the short bursts of conversation allow for good practice. As a result students are capable of digging for deeper meaning when finding out information from their classmates

A Personal Challenge to Meet During the Activity: I have moved to using the Rubric now before we even embark on the activity. In particular I ask students to write out or put a star/check mark next to their personal challenge in the activity. Some focus on “no English” while others choose more personal ones such as “explain in Japanese”. Choose your challenge brings a heightened awareness of the goal of the exercise and ‘sets the stage’ for the interaction.

Written “Self-Debriefing”: For ‘summative orals’ I don’t let them do the rubric right away. Rather they turn it over and must reflect in writing first. Initially I ask them to answer a key question posed by the teacher. For example “When I heard that we were going to debate the environment in Japanese I…”  I then follow up by asking them to relate some aspect of the oral that they were most proud of. If the oral is not a major summative one then the student must support their self evaluation giving the reasons ‘why’ behind their choices.

An Absence of “Numbers”: I will admit this is my latest development in my rubrics, and it comes courtesy of my correspondence with Natalia. I am replacing the ‘numbers’ traditionally used with the DELF rubrics with the ‘word’ descriptors. This allows students to focus on the ‘content’ of the rubric descriptor and not it’s perceived value. The first time that I used it with students I encouraged them to circle the phrases that they felt applied to them – no matter what ‘square’ they were in. They truly thought about their language use and were very thoughtful in their responses when they supported their choices. I do eventually ‘convert’ these rubrics to a number, as my school asks me to do, but that is then my doing and not theirs.

The more that I work with rubrics, and student self evaluation, the more I see the rewards for my students. They are more involved in their interactions with others and more confident of their strengths, and what they want to improve on. The journey will continue…


June 4, 2013
by leesensei

Some ‘Real Life’ Tasks for Common MFL Units

Group of Friends with Arms Around Each OtherWhen I began my language teaching career, I really struggled with orals. Skits? Conversations? I quickly found them overused and underwhelming for ‘authentic’ use. A conversation with an amazing French teacher sparked my interest in “tâche finale” (a summative final task).  So I started my re-think with one idea in mind “How/When would these topic areas be used in Real Life?” From there its a bit of ‘backwards and forwards’ design to determine what they already know that they can use in terms of vocabulary and grammar, and what they need to acquire.

All of these activities ask the students to do the following:

– communicate in the Target Language but record information in English

– use language that is common to anyone in class – no dictionaries!

– spend half the interactive time ‘manning’ their booth giving information and half gathering information (generally 25 minutes for each)

– use the information gathered as part of their written summative test

– students self-evaluate for language use at the end of the task using a rubric that touches on asking/answering questions, use of the target language and how they felt during the activity

School – School Fair: My 3rd year students work in rules, uniforms, subjects and more in their school fair. The only info for potential students to see is a name card on the desk. So students must ask and answer questions to get information. Then they use that to write about which school they would like to attend and one that they wouldn’t.

Food – Taste Tests: Students are asked to recommend food items for the school store/cafeteria by testing on their classmates. They choose 3 producers of the same product (chocolate, cookies, coffee etc) and then do a blind taste test activity with their classmates. They gather information on demographics, buying habits and preferences. Then they use the information to prepare a report on their findings.

Daily Routine – Murder Mystery:  Who did it? Take one dead rich guy, an ex-wife, ungrateful children, a lover, his new lonely wife and a chauffeur besotted with her and you have a great mystery. Students volunteer to play the roles – in a twist detectives even interview ‘the dead guy’ and are encouraged to get into character. Teams of 2 detectives get 5-6 minutes to interview everyone involved. The key? The students don’t know the time of death until the next day and when they get it write out ‘who did it’. Suspects and ‘the dead guy’ write as well on who they feel the culprit is.

Travel – Travel Fair: The key here for me is that traveling to major urban centres in the country is not allowed. Students plan an optional 2 or 3 day tour to the destination of their choice ‘off the beaten path’. During the travel fair day they visit 3 – 4 tour booths. Tour operators work to sell their tour by finding out about the tourist – and tourists have their own questions. Then the twist on the written task if for them to write a ‘long’ email to a friend complaining about a tour their parents made them go on!

Hobbies/Sports – Activity Centres: When my 2nds year students begin to add reasoning and ‘purpose’ into their speech they finish with the chance to design their own activity centre. They include outside and inside activities (weather info) and try to appeal to a wide variety of their classmates. Not only do they have to give information for potential clients but they also have to ask the clients about their interests to try to sell them on their centre. After the fair students write about 1 or 2 centres they’d like to be a member of and why.

Students love the ability to communicate information in a ‘realistic’ setting – and I love the 45-60 minutes of target language use I see during the time!




May 14, 2013
by leesensei

“Taking A Risk” – What Does Risk in the MFL Class Look Like?

I use rubrics a lot in my classes as I feel they allow the student to really ‘see’ what they have achieved and where they might improve. Increasingly I have moved to self-evaluation of some of my oral activities – in which the students fill out their own rubric and justify their choices. One activity I do is a ‘re-cap’ of a reading – after students have read a piece and had the chance to note down answers to guided questions. They can make their notes in either the Target Language (TL) or in English – but they have to be able to ‘say’ what they want to in the TL. After the activity comes the evaluation. In the past the “4” category for grammar and vocabulary was simply “Excellent. Took Risks. Didn’t Use English”.

Lately I haven’t been happy with the ease with which students have been giving themselves a “4”. So today, prior to the evaluation I stopped them and we discussed what “risk” looked like. Here’s what they thought. Risk is:

-working without a safety net or “notes” or the dictionary

– asking and answering follow-up questions

-when you have to hesitate and say “let me think about that” and then answer

-introducing other topics to talk about when we’re done

And so I have altered my old rubric to try to reflect those thoughts – you’ll find it below. Which brings me to my own risk and one teachers sometimes have issues with – risk is not in controlling their output but in letting them control it….! Again I learn the most from them when I step back and let them take the lead!


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