Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

December 30, 2016
by leesensei

Top Posts of the Year – #1 – All About The Interpersonal Proficiency!

I don’t think it is surprising the most read posts of the  year were about something we are all looking to help our students improve – their proficiency in Interpersonal Activities. The post below is a combination of several new and older posts…and my collection of ideas in helping my students be more eager & confident speakers!
Group of Friends with Arms Around Each OtherSupporting Interpersonal Interaction in Class – What Helps Them Stay In The TL? 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….Read more…

Thank you again for your input, and eyes, on my posts. I’ll return in the New Year with more things I am thinking about on this language teaching journey!


December 27, 2016
by leesensei

Top Posts of the Year – #2 – Novices – Learning to Add Details!

What a year it has been! A year of change and growth for me as a teaching professional (it never ends!). For the next few posts I am looking back at what resonated with readers of “Language Sensei”.

I am always trying to get my students to add more detail in their presentational writing and their oral interactions. For my novices I employ a brainstorming strategy that takes it’s cue from follow-up questions. Although this post is about my Yr1 Intensive course – I use this strategy right up my Yr4 classes – adjusting the ‘detail’ as the level dictates! So now the post I called “Wheel Of Detail….” With 2 months to go in the semester, my  Yr1 Intensive students (2 semesters in 1) are now using their language for communicating more than just “I went to the mall”. I am a big believer in using the idea of ‘follow up questions‘ to drive details – but it’s sometimes hard to encourage the ‘brainstorming’ required for this. As my students  were prepping for an oral I pulled out what I call the “Wheel of Detail”. Essentially its a modified mind map and I use it for both presentational writing and oral interpersonal activities.  I like it as it connects details to a central activity.   Read more…


December 22, 2016
by leesensei

Top Posts of the Year – #3 – What Is An “Oral Final”

What a year it has been! A year of change and growth for me as a teaching professional (it never ends!). For the next few posts I am looking back at what resonated with readers of “Language Sensei”.

58db2d0e2c1397f19cc3fd65bcffa2daThis post generated some interesting comments – and almost deteriorated into what I don’t like – the “There is only 1 way to teach” argument. Some disagreed with the idea that ‘imperfect’ language is okay and thought that I should be involved (as the ‘perfect’ language???) in the mix. Others took issue with the ‘real world’ idea. For me the ‘real world’ is them using the language in casual conversation with someone…not in a classroom and certainly not with a teacher there. I think the misunderstandings may also have stemmed from readers not seeing that this post was about my oral FINAL – not orals in general. So if this is a new post to you – again  – this is my FINAL…. 🙂

What 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…’…’ Read more…

December 16, 2016
by leesensei

Top Posts of the Year: #4 – Note to Self – You Are Doing Enough

What a year it has been! A year of change and growth for me as a teaching professional (it never ends!). For the next few posts I am looking back at what resonated with readers of “Language Sensei”.

Source: Morguefile.comOf all the posts this year this one was the one that garnered a lot of activity. It was shared on Facebook a number of times – which I take to mean that people shared it as a personal thing – not a professional item per se. It certainly was personal to me….and I am amazed that in my 22nd year of teaching it still is something I am worried about…

“I’m not doing enough!!!!” Learning to Say “Yes I Am…” – Oh I love Twitter and #langchat. It has revolutionized my teaching. Really it has. It has challenged me, helped me and sometimes (okay more than sometimes) pushed me to ‘stretch’. But with growth comes, I’ll be frank, panic. Sometimes I feel very very inadequate compared to what other people are sharing, advocating, leading on #langchat. Sometimes I feel like there are not enough hours in the day to ‘change everything’. Sometimes I feel that I am not doing “enough”. That some teachers are way ahead of me in how they teach. That some teachers appear to “know” when I don’t.  Read more…

Next Up – #3 – An “Old” Standby – Defended…


December 15, 2016
by leesensei

Top Posts of The Year – # 5 – The “Feedback/Gradebook” Posts

file5381245784488What a year it has been! A year of change and growth for me as a teaching professional (it never ends!). For the next few posts I am looking back at what resonated with readers of “Language Sensei”. Curiously the top posts of the year can be grouped based on their common ideas….And here we go!

#5  The “Feedback/Gradebook” Posts – shifting my teaching also means shifting how students are evaluated. My classes are moving to much more formative feedback – and a change in how I communicate how they are doing. Gone is 73%. Here to stay is how well you are “meeting” expectations. More importantly students are now more able to articulate for themselves how they are doing (and why they are where they are).

My Evolving Gradebook – From Numbers to Descriptors: What does a 6/6 mean? Why do kids ask “How do I get an A?” and not “How fully am I meeting expectations?” and even more key – why are they asking me how they are doing? Don’t they know? Can’t they articulate where they are in meeting expectations for a unit? And More Pressingly…. How do I meld the desire to address student goals and achievement with the requirement of keeping ‘grades’ in my province….Read more

Descriptors Not Numbers – Students React to the Change: When you make the switch to descriptors what do the students think? 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…Read more..

“How Am I Doing? I Know How!” Formative Feedback: One of the reasons I am making a big shift from numbers to proficiency/expectation descriptors is to ensure that students don’t wait for me to tell them how they are doing – but rather that they will know and be able to articulate for themselves. With this shift comes more challenges in improving feedback and learning opportunities for students. I am by no means good at this – but, as a believer in ‘small tweaks lead to big changes’ I have been experimenting with additional ways to provide feedback…Read more

Next up in my year in review #4 The “You Are Doing Enough” Pep-Talk…


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…


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.



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