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…


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….



January 2, 2015
by leesensei

My 2015 #OneWord – “Applicable”

MP900398869 Last year I focused on the word “Opportunity” and the ways in which I could provide students the opportunity to interact with authentic materials and deliver their work in Japanese. Laura Sexton has already provided a great post on  the benefits of “Less”  – one I will be keeping in mind in 2015.

And for me? I tossed around a few ideas. At first it was ‘Recycle’ – in allowing students to take what they know and re-use it in new challenges and situations. Not quite what I wanted though. Then I moved on to “Stretchy” – that being the ‘stretch’ past what students are comfortable doing (and not the ‘stretchy pants after over-indulging in holiday eating’ meaning). Nope. But I think I’ve found it now…and that word is “applicable”. Not terribly flashy but really relevant. Applicable is defined by Merriam-Webster as “capable of or suitable for being applied; appropriate” and for me this is perfect. So this year I will strive even more for the “applicable” – in the topics students will explore, the words that they will use to explore them, the structures that they need to express themselves and even in learning what they already can do.

Applicable topics – A 5 week teachers strike and a vastly shortened semester have really helped me to hone in on what is great, and what isn’t, in my current course topics. When I was faced with reducing the units that I taught in Grade 11 it was really easy to chuck one – the one that really was more of an ‘exercise’ than a learning opportunity. Interestingly when I surveyed my peer tutors in the course about what was the least relevant unit for them – it’s the one that they picked as well. This also means that I will work to take out the weaker units and add applicable ones in courses as my time (and the opportunity) allows. This is really relevant for me as I return to teaching a ‘cram course’ (2 semesters in 1 essentially) this spring. Keeping what we explore applicable to what they need will be key….

Applicable vocabulary – Ah…that Amy Lenord. What she did to my nice stable world of ‘lists’ when she set out to challenge us to let go of those lists. It made me really think about what students were wanting to say and not what I, or the book!, thought they should.  I do still have a ‘list’ for each unit – but its a “base list” only.  This year I will root out the words from the ‘base list’ that aren’t working and add in the ones that they really want  – as they ask for them. I will also continue to work on my vocabulary non-tests (from the inspiring Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell) keep a record of this by looking, at the end of my course – at what students put in their “Stuff We Want to Know” vocabulary section in their unit handout.

Applicable structures – Carol Gaab made this so clear to me at #ACTFL14 – shelter the vocabulary and not the grammar.  Or as I tried to explain to a colleague “Who cares if they don’t know how to ‘construct’ it – give it to them to use it (they’ll learn how later)!”. So I will continue to add the structures that students need to do what they want to do. I’m not trying to add to what they know – and place more of a burden on them. I’ve found that students will take in, and retain, what is meaningful to them  – when they are ready to have it. And if they want to know the ‘how’ of what they’re asking for a quick “pop-up” 5 minute grammar lesson helps them to see (I’ve found that those who don’t want the ‘how’ don’t tend to take it in at that time – they’ll get it when they’re ready to use it).

Applicable in Other Situations –  This is one area that I want to continue to work on with my students. The awareness, when they encounter a something new of what they already have that is applicable in this new situation.  In other words what tools, in their current language toolbox, can they already use? I want students to have this “I already know…” mentality and a real awareness of their toolbox. We will continue to build their “awareness” of their knowledge and  I’ve even started an experiment around this in my written summative evaluations (more on this later).

And finally I hope to continue to apply the great lessons I learn every day from the #langchat community. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t find something “applicable” to my classroom and my teaching journey. What a joy to work with such great colleagues.

Happy 2105!


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