Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

December 7, 2016
by leesensei

Adding Choice Options for Novices – The “Meeting/Fully Meeting” Options

file0001801120400Choice. It’s a key tenet of many teachers’ approach to language teaching. Spurred on by #langchat colleagues such as Amy Lenord, I have worked hard to provide choice in the vocabulary that my students use. Although I maintain a ‘base set’ of words for each unit – after that it’s up to them. Our motto is “you can use any word you want – as long as you can help someone else understand it.” To support this we practice expressing not understanding and how to assist someone when they don’t.

But I’ve also been thinking about choice in early presentational writing and initial interpersonal speaking. How do I give choice options, beyond just the ‘words’? How do I also begin to build an awareness of achieving expectations? How can a student start to develop a feel for ‘fully meeting’ and ‘meeting’?  This is not easy with lower novices who have, really, basically memorized language at their disposal. (Keep in mind that my Japanese students have to learn a completely new orthography so it’s not a case of just learning to ‘put the words together’. This takes time and a great deal of ‘literacy’ work as many learn to read something not written with ABC’s.)

This semester I’ve tried something with my Yr1’s (the ‘never had any of the TL before’ group).  In the early months of the course they are speaking and writing with mostly memorized phrases, substituting their information into the structures. On the second unit test preparation sheet I gave them the type of questions they needed to be able to respond to, both in writing and in speaking. Then I gave them a sample answer to look at – and gave them a “M” (meeting) and “FM” (fully meeting) option.  It looked a bit like this…

  • Where are you from?        M= “from Korea”        FM= “I am from Korea.”
  • What do you think of sushi?”    M= “it’s good”   FM= “I think it is really good.”
  • How often do you drink tea?   M= “often”    FM= “I drink it often.”

I stressed to them that they could choose what/how they wanted to express themselves and it is their choice in trying for the FM option. We also discussed that you could get ‘in-between’ with your answer. The choice in achievement became theirs. Some just wanted to get the basics. Others went for the more FM option – and the vast majority of those did so successfully. In subsequent units I have introduced these M/FM choices – some without much fanfare – and see some gravitate to the more ‘complex’ option.

Why do this? I want to:

  • build in an awareness of choice in expression
  • provide a challenge to those who are seeking to extend or push their learning/expression
  • establish for them that there are always options in expressing themselves
  • ultimately have them be aware of the concept of  ‘meeting’ or ‘fully meeting’ as they continue on in their learning

Today we were working on a ‘choice’ writing piece. One of my more hesitant students called me over to ask about one of her sentences. She had used the unit book resources and opted to use some FM phrases. These actually involved a complex piece of grammar  “I like to listen to music” instead of just “I like music.” (for Japanese teachers おんがくをきくことがすきです。 instead of おんがくがすきです。) . It was perfect – and she was proud that she took the risk to try the fully-meeting option. And I am pleased that providing options allows students to ‘choose’ and that in that choice they are beginning to develop a feel for ‘meeting/fully-meeting’ expectations…


November 25, 2016
by leesensei

The Power of a Paper Clip to Reward Risk & Encourage Thoughtful Questions

file7731247069025“We’re going to play a game!”….what a thrill that is for students to hear…and then they come back with the obvious question (to them) “Will there be prizes?”. Oh my yes…and what prizes there will be! For you see the only prize you can earn in my class is …a paper clip. But these paper clips are not just your ordinary paper clip. Oh no – I offer the 2″ one – the ‘big’ one as the reward.  And I don’t call them ‘paper clips’. I refer to them as ‘extremely useful office products!”

Now I know what you are thinking. Paper clips? For a reward? Not cutesy Japanese erasers? Well I could spend a personal fortune on those. No the paper clip reward began one day when I had run out of my traditional ‘prizes’. And when they all oohed and aahed I thought “Well – I’ll never have to buy another prize again!”

But these paper clips are not just for games. In fact they typically make their appearance in other ways. Often they appear when a student notices and makes a connection to previous language learning …”Is this like…?”. When a student takes a risk to try to use – and even recombine – new learning in a new way.  When a student asks a question that stops and makes us all think, especially in the areas of cultural practice. The reward can come after a question or comment made while the whole class is working together or while they are working with their table/partner. Either way I like to announce it – to tell the student’s peers who I am rewarding and why. Sometimes when a student poses a question the class will chant “ペーパークリップ!ペーパークリップ!( paper clip! paper clip!). I then remind them that the clip cannot be asked must be earned through thoughtful questions, taking risks and, very occasionally, calling ‘bingo!’.

It’s a small thing I know…but one that is very effective. I found this out when a graduating student gifted me a necklace made from the paper clips he had ‘won’ during his time in class.

Simple but powerful….and ultimately useful …the paper clip!


November 20, 2016
by leesensei

Supporting Interpersonal Interaction in Class – What Helps Them Stay In The TL?

Group of Friends with Arms Around Each Other What allows you to walk out of the room, run to the copier and come back and still have them talking? What allows you to send them out to record a conversation and know that they won’t script? What is it that makes them confident to use and sustain a conversation in the Target Language? If you know – please share! This is an ongoing quest for all of us. I have been trying, as you all have over the years, to imbue in my students the ‘confidence’ to risk, to try, to talk.  Here’s a few of my ideas on what helps them out.. what I find helps them want to not only talk, but to sustain their talking in the Target Language.

It Begins with the Setting – A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit Catherine Ousselin at her school – my first #langchat face-to-face encounter. What I took away from that, beyond the idea to do more ‘stations’ in class – was her setup. Tables – long tables that allowed students to sit in groups and face each other. Imagine. No desks in rows facing the front. How could I have a communicative classroom if I made it physically difficult for them to communicate. When I returned home I made the immediate switch to tables of 4. No more rows, no more facing front. In fact I also removed myself from the ‘front’ of the room – switching my teacher area so that I am the ‘coach on the side‘.  Now there is more room for their tables, and more room for them to move easily to find a new partner…

They Build Their Confidence With “I Don’t Understand!” – It’s their biggest fear – that they won’t know what someone is saying, that they don’t really understand what someone is saying and that they are at ‘fault’ because they don’t. So from Year 1 we take on this fear. Our belief in class “If you don’t understand what someone it’s your job to tell them! And their job to assist you in understanding!” So we practice saying “I don’t understand!” We even practice not understanding – yes on purpose – and how to help someone out. In Year 1 it involves repeating, giving your own answer and/or providing examples. By Year 3 and 4 they are including circumlocution practice for their self-selected vocabulary.  It’s these skills that allow students to use the vocabulary of their choice with their peers. As we say “You can use any word as long as you can explain it!” And knowing how to do so reduces the fear and increases the likelihood of risk.

It Includes Teaching Conversational Skills – I firmly believe that often the cry of “They won’t talk!” is really not because they don’t want to but because they don’t know how to. We just assume that they can – which I find ironic because I am terrible at it at age 54 – why do we assume that they are practiced conversationalists at 15? So we practice and learn how to via follow-up questions. We make it a game initially in the early years and then I continue to expand it as they move up in their studies (they are always found in their course resource package & up on the wall in my room.) Students know, because they have practiced and used them over & over, how to extend the conversation. Interestingly I have found that the follow-up question approach also helps them to expand their presentational writing – an exercise we call “Wheel of Detail“.

We Set The Expectation of TL Use in the Post-Activity Rubric – I firmly believe that the value of a rubric is not in what is filled in – but in what it can communicate about expectations. I have used the same activity rubric over and over. “How Did That Go?” rubric sets out the goals that the student will work in the TL, will be an equal partner in the conversation and will ask & answer questions. Prior to the activity we look at the rubric and I always ask my students to set out their personal challenge as well as something they know they will be comfortable doing. It is amazing to see the number of students who choose “Didn’t use English” as a goal. They actually want to speak in the TL. After, because we always reflect before the rubric is filled in they get a chance comment on how it went – and again many are thrilled that they used their circumlocution skills to stay in the TL.

The Intention of the Activity Is Clear to Them – “Why are we doing this?” “What’s the purpose?”. I know I’ve sat through many meetings or even ProD sessions when I couldn’t answer this. I know that, as a teacher, I have the idea of why in my head. So I’ve started to also let them in on it and go over the intentions of the activity. Now I don’t do these for every one – and sometimes I rely on past practice or the post-activity rubric to set them out less explicitly. But before many interactive summatives I now do. In the junior classes I find that I spell it out for them, but in my senior classes I ask them – and they can, as a group, tell me why every time.

They Have a “Compelling” Reason to Want To Talk –  I don’t think there is a teacher out there that doesn’t try to find a purposeful task to encourage students to interact. It is a challenge to continue to find them and I have used a variety of ideas, many adapted from those shared with the #langchat community by generous teacher. Lately I have been working to make the talking ‘valid’ by using the information gathered for a presentational task. In Year 1, for example, students find out if their peers like the same foods that they do (and how often they ear them) and then write out what they learned in basic comparing sentences (an extension that reinforces written work). In their reflections many said how fun it was to meet new people and learn more about them in another language. “Oral Worksheets” provide both an opportunity to talk and dig for information as well as practicing particular concepts. In my summative oral Interactive Fairs in all levels the information gathered is always used in the summative writing task.  As they go about all of these tasks they do so without my guidance – moving from a current partner to the next one on their own (something we call “Talk,Stand, Switch“).

There are so many more ideas out there shared by the #langchat community on how to encourage sustained TL use. The ideas above are a product of the professional development work that the community engages in on a daily basis. And I thank everyone for sharing what they have learned via their amazing #actfl16 tweets – it’s almost like I was there….







November 14, 2016
by leesensei

Formative-Summative Shift Break Down – A Lesson Learned In Changing My Practice

Shifting your practice is an exciting time. It’s also a great time of ‘learning’ – not only for students but for the teacher trying to put it in place. I’ve been working to provide more feedback/more formative assessment in my classes. The idea in the shift for me was to really allow time to learn/reflect/grow before having students show their skills in a summative situation. I have tried all sorts of things to improve the feedback that I give from involving students in the ‘why’ of what we are doing, to pop-check in’s, oral consultations, writing workshops (and beyond). I’ve got rubrics with checklists, I’ve talked over and over about expectations and what it means to meet them. Wow –  aren’t I just all that in making this shift? Wonderful. Until…it became clear that my shift to more formative assessment had failed to include one key piece…the student perspective/voice.

My Yr4’s participated in a summative oral that involved a ‘taste test‘ activity. As part of the evaluation I ask them to write a ‘marketing report’ about what they learn. They are given guidance in what I want to see and allowed to bring in, in English, the results of what they learned in the test. They were also allowed a ‘list’ of key structures – not in ‘how’ to do make them but a list in English of the kinds of things that we have learned how to say/use to aid in their writing. All of the new unit structures had been introduced and used in class. They had all been given feedback on how well they could use them. They had time for corrections and consultation about them. The day of the report they came, they wrote for 45-60 minutes solid. Wow.

Until…I started to read them. Holy cow. Errors all over the place – errors in what I considered basic structures that we had gone over. Errors in things that seemed so ‘easy’ to me. It was not an easy read. Not because I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to say, but because I was realizing that they were not comfortable in what they were trying to communicate. It was paper after paper of barely meeting my expectations.  There comes a time – after the ‘what is wrong with these kids? why are they not doing what we did in class in this paper?’ when you realize it might not be “them”. Maybe, just maybe, it’s “me”.

So what to do? I realized that this failure to live up to expectations was probably a lot on me. So I started the next class (I’ve taught these same kids for 4 semesters), handed out the papers and said “Let’s talk”. I talked about how the writing didn’t match my expectations and, by their faces, didn’t match theirs. Then I humbled myself (oh great ‘formative feedback’ person) and asked them what I hadn’t done for them? Was there something that we could have done in class that would have made them more confident in their language use? These are kids who are in the middle of my formative/summative push – and they told me what they needed. They wanted:

  • some direct ‘grammar’ structures work (gasp a worksheet for example) to make sure they felt good in knowing how to put things together.
  • some time in class to ‘consult’ before a write to ask questions.
  • a review video of key unit points (I have these for other classes) because they felt that this helped them personally to review.
  • a bit more guidance, ‘hand-holding’ they called it, because they were learning to make that shift from teacher driven to student driven

They also wanted to admit that they hadn’t also hadn’t done their job to a certain extent. That in making this shift from ‘everything is for marks’ to formative/summative they dropped the ball in their responsibility to prepare. And I realized then – that this shift I am making – requires time on my part for them. To help them learn to make the shift from passive learner to active controller of their learning.

In the end we called the problem ‘a bit of you/a bit of us’. I will make the shift and include things for them that they feel they need. I will listen and ask more about how they are feeling in this learning journey. So often we worry about ‘our practice’. This was a valuable lesson in learning that changes in my practice also will bring changes in their ‘learning’ and that my ability to shift my practice quickly doesn’t mean they can shift their learning at the same pace…. A humbling time of growth for me…lesson learned.



November 9, 2016
by leesensei

Talk, Stand, Switch….Developing Independent “Mixing” Skills

In my classes we do a lot of talking with different partners, often gathering information from them to use in class. Whether it is Yr1 finding out how often their classmates eat their favourite foods, or Yr4 creating and sharing their own stories, I ask my students (in a given period of time) to talk to a number of people. But…I hate being the timer. I hate having to direct my students “New partner please…”. I want to build in their capacity to meet, talk, and then ‘move on’. In the interest of building a class community also want to have them work with/talk to students they might not normally speak to. So I have been experimenting with what I call “Talk, Stand, Switch”.

Basically I set out the challenge – how many I would like them to try to talk with in the time period given (they know that there is no maximum – they keep going until time is up.)Then I tell them – when your pair is finished stand –  look around the room – and get a new partner from the others that are also standing.  Students move to the ‘open person’ – even if they don’t know them. They may work with someone who is weaker or stronger than them and that brings helping/circumlocution skills into play.

I used this yesterday with my Yr1’s as they spoke with each other for 22 minutes (!) in the TL discussing food preferences. Yes I had to do some guiding “Sam, Janie looks like she needs a partner!” However the majority of students moved easily to the ‘open person’. It was great – and many of them on their “How Did That Go?” rubric written response commented on how nice it was to meet new people.

It’s a simple thing – but I hope it builds the expectation in class that we work with ‘everyone’….that our class community is a safe place to risk, try and learn…


October 28, 2016
by leesensei

In Defense of the “Flashcard” Or “Yes I Use Them….!”

sentence cardsI notice flashcards talking some ‘heat’ on #langchat these days. “Not communicative”, “no real purpose for learning” etc. say the tweets. Mention the word in a tweet and watch your feed light up. Well…I like ’em. Yup I do. I use them a lot in my classes. I have flashcards sets for almost every unit in my Year 1 and 2 classes. However it is how and when I choose to use them that makes me okay with that…

Generally my flashcards do not use English and they are not electronic. They are a picture and another one with the word in the Target Language. Sometimes they are pictures only.  They are based on our ‘base’ vocabulary that I think we all should know. They are based on images we have used in class – the ones on the board as we told a story and introduced new vocabulary. If there is a key one we all want we add it.  Note – I have the classic solo-review flashcards on my Quizlet site (okay I don’t have the paid version for images – one day maybe).

The flashcards are never the purpose of the lesson that day. They are a warm-up, a 10 minute review, or a tool to a more communicative activity. They are not for ‘teaching’ – they are for short bursts of practice or review of something students have already encountered. My students always use them in class with a partner. Okay – sometimes I throw in one or two new words – they like to ‘find’ out things and its a backwards way to add 1 or 2 new words to the mix.

I use them many ways.  We use them in a ‘classic’  match the picture/word activity. Sometimes we play ‘grab the card’ with the pictures only (I call out the word – first one to grab it gets it) Other times we shuffle the whole deck – see the word-give the English; see the picture-give the Target Language. Always done as a pair…never in a ‘memorize this’ as an individual drill way.

But I have extended this – I use them for my novices as they get used to making sentences – essentially using visuals to create as they practice particular structures. We have used the pictures to create stories (always allow them to add 2 hand-drawn ones to spice up their story) and this becomes a story-relating activity. I have used this with student-generated flashcards for example in my Yr 4 class – and it became a 50 minute TL presentational/interpersonal experience.

I am convinced that we need to offer students a chance to learn in many ways. Some students learn visually and for some the kinetic flip of the card helps.  If we are working on something, and it involves vocabulary and they are trying to add it to their repertoire this is one way to do that.  I am convinced that they like to feel some confidence that they are learning and this is one way, and only one small way, to show them they are. “I know this” is a powerful inner statement. And working with a partner on these means that they have another person to support them (or to help find the word with).  It is a way to reinforce that does not involve a written worksheet – and this oral ‘worksheet’ is effective for them. No it does not appeal to all. No we will not be having a test on this ‘list’ of words. Yes we will be using these words in class in interpersonal and presentational activities. Every year I ask students “What is something that you found helpful/beneficial in class? What is something we did/use that helps you learn?” and it shocks me the number that say “the flashcards we use”.

So…there…I’ve said it. I like flashcards…

Do you use them in your classes…and if so…how?


October 21, 2016
by leesensei

Why My Year1’s Don’t Know The Word For “Homework” (They DO Know The Word “Preparation”)

img_0798The issue of ‘homework’ is big with teachers. What is homework? Should it be assigned? What about ‘choice’ homework? What about ‘no homework’ policies? I’ve had an ongoing ‘wrestle’ with this issue as well. I have hated the negativity around the word. I’ve watched kids struggle in their first year of high school with the mounds of math homework assigned. I don’t want to ‘assign’  a lot of work and, as far as I am concerned if you can show understanding/mastery on question 4, why do you have to do 20 more? Long ago I made the decision to not have them do homework for homework’s sake. But….

I do see a role in work that is not done in class but will be used in class – for class activities etc. Work that students do so that we can use our class time really using the language effectively for communication. So this year I made a change. I banished the word ‘homework’ from my room. Because, really it isn’t homework for me. What it is is ‘next day preparation’ (in my TL I choose to use the word “junbi”/じゅんび). I’m asking you the student to get something ready to be used the next day in class. It may be a self-generated piece showing understanding of the concept (like a ‘Sketch & Share‘), it may be watching a video a la a ‘flipped lesson’. It may be any number of things that will be used in class. But what it is not – is homework.

So I’ve erased that portion of my board that used to be titled ‘homework’ and put up the word ‘preparation’. In my class outlines I removed the word and replaced with ‘next day preparation’. In student monitor speeches (it’s a Japanese way to start a class) they no longer mention if there was homework but now say “we had things to prepare for today’s class”. It is all designed to instill in the students that what they do outside of class is important for what we do inside the classroom. That they have a role in how the class functions. That they also have a job to do in preparing to learn. They may not have something to prepare for every day, but when they do it needs to be done for their role in class to proceed as effectively as possible.

My students know that if they have not completed their preparation (and it happens to everyone once in a while), they are to see me prior to class to explain this and offer a solution as to when I will see the work done. I know that this ‘shift’ to preparing and away from ‘homework’ is starting when a young Gr 9 looked at me and said “Sensei, I don’t have my junbi for today…may I show it to you at lunch?”

It is my vow that my students will never know the word for homework….but they will know that they have things to do to help prepare for the class….



October 19, 2016
by leesensei

Pre-Bell: The Short Vocabulary Video Intro/Review…

First off we don’t have bells in our school. But we do have time when students are in the room prior to class starting and I want to use this time to set the environment for learning. This year with my Year1’s I have started experimenting with a video to either reinforce or introduce a concept.

Today this involved the idea of counting how many people there are. We use it a lot in our “What Is Your Family Like? What Are Japanese Families Like?” unit. It’s a pretty simple and easy concept. Instead of embedding it in a story to introduce…I chose a more ‘direct’ visual approach. I searched YouTube for a video – ‘counting people in Japanese‘ and found a fun one including visuals, subtitles and an annoyingly catchy tune. Note that, due to wifi unreliability I download the video from Youtube. Then, I put the video into Quicktime (or a similar program) and set it to play on a loop. As students entered it played, over and over, and when we were ready to begin I asked the class, in the Target Language, “How many people at this table?”. They all responded. We went around with variations and then extended it to “How many people in your family?”…done…easily, in context, and without my direct teaching of it. We went on to use the information in class activities. As they finished up some ‘next day preparation’ I played the audio on a loop as well….Finally prior to leaving I asked them to tell their partner how you said “one person” or “two people” in Japanese. All could…

Another example – Days of the month – which in Japanese involve a variety of special words for the days 1-10, 14, 20 and 24. I want them to be able to say their own birthday but at least to recognize a classmates date of birth when they hear it. So I found a wacky video made by some students in Australia. Again it played on a loop…Again we used it afterwards via audio to reinforce.

Instead of vocabulary you could use a commercial or other short piece of video that highlights a particular language concept. I looped a small scene from the drama we watch yesterday in order to pull out the phrase related to ‘intend to do’. There are a wealth of videos out there for almost any topic in almost every language (I do find that it is vocabulary that is most prevalent). This is by no means the only way that students will encounter these words/concepts as we will use them in embedded readings and more activities. But it is a quick way to introduce and/or reinforce…and hopefully engage…


PS – The day after the ‘counting people’ video I put it on at the start of class again. And what happened? Singing. Yes – almost the whole class singing the song…then I turned off the projector and they sang with the song audio…then I turned off the audio and they sang. Finally they counted with their partner…I’m off looking for more ‘quick hit’ videos!

October 9, 2016
by leesensei

Who Is The Focus? From “Centre Stage” to “Coaching Corner”…

file000981898347I’ve worked a lot to “re-orient” my teaching over the past few years. This is not just in the ‘way’ I teach, the ‘how’ of assessment and the ‘what’ of the new content of my courses. There’s another way I have signaled my change in teaching and that is in the physical set-up of my room. It began with the seating – when I realized that I could talk all day about communication, but if I didn’t support my students by creating the environment then I was really just that – all talk. So I changed the seating and have not regretted a day since I did.

There has been another issue in my class – my ‘computer’ working desk. Before I go further we have limited wi-fi and are not a 1:1 school. I am tied to using my laptop computer/LCD in a traditional classroom setting. And I am further tied down by where my ‘screen’ was located. In that traditional place, smack dab in the centre of the room. Smack dab in the middle of the white boards. And that put me smack dab in the middle of all of the action. I have been increasingly uncomfortable with this; with all of the student desks oriented so that they could see me in the middle. I’m trying to get out of the way of my student’s learning. I’m trying to minimize the time that I am front and centre. I’m trying to model that I am the ‘coach’ and what coach makes it all about them?

Finally I could stand it no more. We have a new principal this year and I am grateful that he really ‘gets’ that we are in changing times. So I went to him and said that I was tired of being in the middle of the action. And that I wanted to make a physical gesture to my students that they are the focus – not me. My principal got right on it with a simple work order and faster than both of us imagined the change was made. room

I am so pleased with my ‘new’ setup. I have way more board space to put up information that students need. The room is actually more ‘roomy’ because the computer desk is no longer the physically there. But most importantly I no longer have to be in the middle. I’m now really the coach in the corner (Canadians – no Don Cherry references please!).

We can talk a lot about our philosophy of teaching. But I also think it is also the physical setup changes that hammer home to students that ‘things are different’ here.


October 6, 2016
by leesensei

The “Pre-Oral” Consult – Another Formative Feedback Opportunity

whyAsking if they need assistance. We all do it and for me this is especially true before interpersonal orals. We have them involved in an activity or practice to help set them up for the evaluation. We walk around, ask “any questions?”, respond to the few we get. But I am trying to provide more feedback and, specifically, more meaningful feedback this year. Feedback that encourages growth in their language.

Today for the first time I stepped out to try to do that. In my Yr3 class we have explored the world of Anime and Manga. Their task will be to discuss their favourite characters with an unknown (until the oral) partner in a 5-6 minute conversation. We debriefed the rubric, we talked about what ‘meeting expectations’ would look like. They set out practicing/preparing for what they will have to do including specific circumlocution practice for the vocabulary they selected to use. And then…I added my new piece. One by one I called them out of the room for a quick personal one-on-one ‘consult’. I asked them if they had any questions. Any questions about the process? Anything they are worried they aren’t expressing correctly? Anything they might not be sure how to use if they wanted to include.  The questions they had for me were wide-ranging from ‘What do I do if my partner…” to “I still don’t get how to do/use ….” and even to “So, if I don’t understand something they say I am allowed to tell them that? (yes!)”. Some students had nothing that was pressing. Others had several detailed things they wanted to know. The 60min it took to talk to each of my 30 students was, to me, invaluable. I saw and heard their specific needs, I could provide support and clarification. My goodness – I put my ‘words’ into practice and offered more actual formative feedback!

This was a personal ‘big step’ and win for me. And a confirmation  AGAIN that when we take the time to add formative feedback (in any shape/way we choose) it is time well spent in developing our learners…. I will make time for this in all of my classes….


Skip to toolbar