Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

June 21, 2016
by leesensei

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

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

It Should Mirror A Future Real Life Situation

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

It Should Capture All You Hope Their Learning Should Be

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

It Should Not Involve The Teacher

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

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



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

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





May 26, 2016
by leesensei

“Three Days In …..” – An Exploratory, Target Language Online Field Trip….

file5791299869525We are exploring travel in Yr4 – travel to our Target Language (TL) area of Japan. I have taken what was a one-day experience of street view (that I used to use to revise ‘directions’ – no, don’t do that any more!) and expanded it to a target language exploration of Tokyo. Now your language may not be Japanese but the ideas are applicable (and your access to resources probably similar).

It begins with….Tokyo Neighbourhood Pre-reading in TL. I use the White Rabbit Express level 4 reader about Tokyo called “東京歩こう”. Students are asked to select 5 areas of Tokyo and read/find information. This is a graded reader resource (for reasons outlined in many previous posts), written by Japanese for Japanese learners. Most importantly it  provides a super overview of Tokyo in the TL. Students had 2 – 80 minute classes (with some time taken for our on-going Music Mania – post to come). They read in pairs utilizing strategies developed in their just finished story unit. As they read they answered questions in the TL about the neighbourhood including “What ‘type’ of neighbourhood is it?”, “Where in Tokyo is it?”, “If you went there what things would you see/activities would you experience?” and “If you went what would you want to go see?”

Once the reading was done – off to the online field trip. Students are encouraged to have their own online resource (we did this in a lab because we’re a low-tech school) with a partner nearby to ‘consult’. It is designed to be done in any order – except that I think the Trip Advisor reading piece should be done before the ‘using’ activity. I sourced all of these online with the idea of giving students a chance to see and hear Tokyo and it’s adaptable to any place/language. (A link to their handout is here: Trip Handout.)

Street View – Iconic Tokyo Places: I love Google’s street view – because it puts students ‘on the ground’ in the place. I give pictures of 5-6 iconic buildings/areas in Tokyo and asked students to ‘go there’. Then once there – to go exploring. What do they see, what can they read, what’s there? This is the only requirement – nothing to write or record…just experience. (Note: some students had never used street view before…so it was a real learning experience).

Street View – Neighbourhood You Choose: Using the reading exercise we did I ask students to go ‘find’ some of the places they selected as “I want to see…” from their neighbourhood reading. That’s it…go explore and experience. They really enjoyed this – going to places, going into buildings, reading/viewing and ‘seeing’ the various areas…

Trip Advisor Hotel Information in TL: On to some more reading – I printed out the information on one hotel from Tokyo and ask them to use the information to complete a few questions. Some had not heard of Trip Advisor or even knew what you considered in booking a hotel – all good skills to acquire. This was done with a ‘paper’ printout and gives them a good first look at what this site is like. They answer questions in English based upon the information.

Trip Advisor for Your Neighbourhood in TL: Students are asked to go back to their reading and select one neighbourhood. Then, using Trip Advisor’s Japanese site, find a hotel, a restaurant and 3 things to do in that area. Note – for Japanese online the Chrome add-on Rikaikun (Rikaichan on Firefox – is a ‘game-changer’. It allows a student to roll over Chinese characters on a site and gives the reading/meaning. Essential for my students as they do not learn all 2000 characters Japanese use in class!). They waded in finding hotels, exploring menus, commenting on the prices (!) etc. Great experience and ‘real world’.

Tokyo Metro/Tokyo Neighbourhoods (in TL): I found 4 commercials online that promoted 4 areas of Tokyo. Note that I ‘download’ from YouTube so I can have future access to them. I then uploaded to Dropbox (providing a quick link) and also had them on USB to load onto a device. Students are to watch the 4 commercials and answer specific (and more general questions) for each. General questions are designed to encourage them to really look/listen at the pieces such as “3 things I observed or noticed in the commercial were…” and “I wonder….”. I also included a link to the audio of one of the ‘theme’ songs for the commercial and students listen and comment on how well it ‘fit’ the commercial and what ‘words/phrases’ they may have recognized from listening to it.

Inanimate Alice Journals…an interactive visit to several areas in Japan: There is an amazing on-line interactive episodic story called “Inanimate Alice”. It is produced in various languages including Japanese. The site also links to 3 ‘journals’ that document the main characters trip to Japan. It is written in a combination of Japanese and English. For this piece I ask the students to go through each of the journals and read, view, listen and even take the embedded language quizzes. They then send me an email commenting on what the most interesting thing they saw was, and where they would like to go that Alice went. It’s a great resource for this and the first time I have used it in class. It also introduces them to the episodic story that they can experience on their own time!

Debrief...after the field trip is done we will spend a portion of the class sharing our findings/thoughts/observations with others. This can be done in the TL or not – I think it’s a preference of what you going for – reaction and/or language use.

After the field trip we focus on ‘travel’ as we build to our Travel Fair that explores lesser-known areas of Japan. I’m excited about where this activity is, and more importantly, what tweaks and extending activities I can build into it!




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 9, 2016
by leesensei

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

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

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

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

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

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



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