Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

September 10, 2014
by leesensei

What #langchat Means to Me (And To You?)

frontWhen did you (have you) discover #langchat? It started for me as a hashtag I noticed in a tweet from Joe Dale (@joedale) about language teaching. I was new to this whole twitter thing and, as a language teacher, looking for some insight and inspiration for my teaching. Then, after following a woman named Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell (@secottrell) I learned about the Thursday #langchat hashtag chat. I began, as many do, by lurking, watching and reading. Eventually I took the plunge to start tweeting in. I haven’t looked back.

I thought the other day about what #langchat means to me and why both the hashtag (for daily tweeting) and the chat (Thursdays 8pmET & Saturdays 10amET) are so key in who I am as a professional today. What do I like about #langchat?

#langchat- the hashtag –  is my daily dose of learning & discovery – Have a question? Want a resource? Looking to discover something new. I learn every day via tweets sent out with the #langchat hashtag. Teachers using it are generous, supportive and quick to offer up ideas, opinions and resources that I would never find on my own. Checking in on the #langchat stream is a must for me – and it’s never let me down in answer a query or offering up a suggestion when I’ve needed it. There are those with whom I interact, collaborate and plan more often than I do simply on a professional day – for me now every day is a day to learn

#langchat- the chat – reaffirms that I am on the right track: Teaching can often be a ‘solitary’ pursuit. The chance to be observed or network with fellow staff can be few and far between. But during a chat I often find that I am indeed doing things, and choosing approaches that others are too. It’s nice to know that in my ‘isolated’ classroom I am on target, or not!,  for how to deliver my language program.

#langchat  – the chat – offers approaches/ideas/resources on a specific topic: Chats are really focused with a weekly theme voted on by participants. What a great way to have some concentrated work on one area. It may be pedagogical one week, and class ‘management’ the next. It can be about new trends or a ‘brush up’ on existing challenges. In all cases it is timely, lively and a real challenge to me to focus on my teaching practice.

#langchat  – the hashtag & chat – gives me a look into the future:  Many of my #langchat colleagues are in districts or positions that are ‘leaders’ in their field. Although my school may not be at that point, I get tips on where we might be headed. It also allows me to be a ‘leader’ in my school – challenging the status quo and assisting in change.

Quite simply I would not be the teacher I am today without it. I wouldn’t be striving to be the teacher I want to be, pushing, stretching, questioning my practice without it. My #langchat PLN is my key go-to for my Professional Development. The other day my sister-in-law phoned. It was 6:05pmPT on a Thursday and my sister-in-law’s opening was “Oh it’s Thursday – I’m not interuppting #langchat am I?”  And that’s when I knew how important it was to me!

And now a favour to ask of you! Have you benefited from #langchat? What has it meant to  you? #langchat will be presenting “#Langchat – Your Always-There Professional Learning Network” at ACTFL 2014. If you would be kind enough to share (via a comment) – we’d like to share some of your thoughts with those who are coming to learn more.


March 13, 2014
by leesensei

It’s Not Where You’re At – It’s Where You’re Headed

MP900438811It was a great #langchat tonight. A really lively talk about advocating for the communicative approach in your teaching area. Teachers were great in sharing common objections, ways to lead and why they believe so passionately in how they teach. Sometimes the ideas, the teacher leaders, the things we’re not doing (and everyone else seems to be) can be overwhelming.

I remember when I first started teaching – almost 20 years ago – and a comment made to an administrator. “If I could just get this textbook program…I’d be set.” Wow – it kind of goes along with one of my tweets tonight – “I thought if I got good binders all organized by unit…I’d be done.”. It’s how I used to look at language teaching. It’s how many still do. I was fine in my classroom – it was going great – but then..something happened.

I joined Twitter, found the #langchat PLN – and holy cow – that ruined it for me. Well, not ‘ruined’ like disaster but ‘ruined’ as in “Nope – having a binder for Gr 11 Japanese full of worksheets and lesson plans so that you never have to revisit it again  and you’re finished – not going to be like that” kind of ruined. Suddenly I was the one not satisfied with how my program was running and, more importantly, how and what my students were learning. To me it seemed like there needed to be a different way – a way beyond a textbook and workbook. But how…

At times the #langchat PLN is intimidating and I think “Whoa – these people are so ahead of where I am I’ll never get there.” Sarah Bolaños (@mrsbolanos) really said it well tonight:I love/hate the fact that I’ve been teaching 10 years and it sometimes still feels like my 1st #langchat so many new ideas!” It speaks to that sinking feeling that it isn’t ‘done’, our tinkering, revamping and just plain throwing out what doesn’t work will never be done.  And that can be as exhilarating as it is exhausting at times.

So if you are feeling like that…as if the place you are now is so not where everyone else contributing to #langchat is I say – wrong! #langchat is teachers – from every area of the continent (and beyond), in every kind of classroom and situation, each facing their own struggles, challenges and circumstances. Good teaching is like travelling down a road…we’re all on it and all at different places. No one person is ever at the end and I, for one, am grateful to those just ahead of me – they shine the light, blaze the trail and motion me to keep going. #langchat is what it is because we all, all contributors, lurkers, posters and leaders, play a role in this amazingly organic and rich PLN. Keep on…and know that there are as many ahead lighting the way as walking in step with where you are right now!


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.




February 25, 2014
by leesensei

Continuing the “Vocabulary” Journey – A Quick Update

To educateI wrote recently about my ‘journey’ with going beyond the vocabulary list and the challenge thrown out by Amy Lenord (@alenord) and others to go beyond a confined set of words in a unit. My post spoke about the ‘shifts’ that needed to happen in my mind, and my classes, to allow the vocabulary freedom that I feel students need.

Today was a day in my Yr2 class when it all came together for me. There is a peculiarity in dealing with the “I like to do (something)” phrase in Japanese. It involves an alternative form of verbs that my students don’t know. In fact they don’t see it typically until their 3rd semester/year of the language. But today they were speaking in a situation that really demanded it. I heard the incorrect phrase and suddenly I stopped the class.

“I think we need to know how to say we like ‘doing’ things!” I began “What do you need to know how to say?”. We added the phrases on the board that they needed. I even extended it so that they were giving opinions on doing those activities – which, coincidentally, is exactly what my Yr3’s were going to be doing the next period. My Yr2 students were reminded that this was a “level up” addition which means that they won’t be tested on it, but are free to use it. Most went on to include it in their ‘Extra things I want to know how to say’ section of their unit handout.

It felt great to give myself permission to let them loose with the most appropriate language for them. I threw out the worry that they didn’t know how to construct/use the altered form of the verb and trusted that all these students wanted was to be able to use it.

What hit home for me today?

  • Give them what they need now – don’t worry about the ‘how will they know how to make it’ or the ‘what if they don’t fully know how to use it’ – they’re using the language appropriately NOW
  • Let them choose to include the new vocabulary without the pressure that they have to. It’s about choice. Those struggling to master the basics may not be using the “level up” additions – but they’ve had a preview of where they are going.
  • Relax – they just want to communicate – help them do that

My journey down the “non-restricted vocabulary” road is now, I think, past the point of no return and I ‘m looking forward to where it will take my classes! Thanks for the push Amy! (and if you’re interested check out her awesome blog)


February 17, 2014
by leesensei

Developing Conversation Skills: The “Follow Up Question” Game

MP900262685We work hard in my class on developing an ease at conversing. It isn’t natural for many people, including me I’ll admit, so why would we expect it to be so for our students? This semester I have a new crop of Grade 10’s, 30 students who are in my class for the first time. When I asked what it is they want to many of them wrote ‘have a regular conversation in Japanese.” My job is to have them meet that challenge. I’ve written before about extending conversation skills using ‘follow-up questions’ and this group needed a way to jump-start their ability in this area.

So I invented the ‘Follow Up Question’ game….my fancy title for essentially practicing conversations!

What You Need

  • Question Cards- a set of follow-up questions in the Target Language. I input the phrases I want into Quizlet – then print out thefollow up quest ‘large’ flashcards on coloured paper and cut them out . My initial ones are shown on the right.
  • Students – in pairs – initially of your choosing then eventually their own
  • An ’emergency sheet’ (list) with the questions/answers already matched (upside down on the desk)

Initial Round (First Day)

  • These words are not new to them so I have students match the English and TL cards – then mix them up and spend 3-4 minutes quizzing each other.
  • Have the students separate the cards again into two piles – and select the TL pile (put the English aside)
  • Student 1 begins with a simple phrase such as “I’m going shopping”
  • Student 2 pulls a card from the pile such as “When?” and Student 1 thinks of an answer that fits
  • Student 2 then pulls a second card – perhaps “Where at?” and it continues
  • Students run through the ‘stack’ of question cards then switch roles
  • They will run through this with 3 or 4 different partners – experiencing asking/answering a number of times – and be encouraged to change their ‘starting phrase’ a couple of times

Recognizing Appropriate Questions – Sometimes the follow-up question a student draws doesn’t work. For example if you are shopping at the mall then “Where to?” isn’t appropriate. Students know that if a question is not usable they are to tell their partner that. It sharpens skills and awareness around the questions – and to be honest they love it when they say “No – that one won’t work!” in the target language.

Assisting in Comprehension – Not every student will remember all of the questions initially. So we also practice helping each other understand. If the question is asked and it isn’t understood then the student asking knows that, if they understand it, they are to try to assist by giving a sample answer. For example if their partner doesn’t understand/know how to answer “Who with?” they can use “For example ‘with a friend’ ‘by yourself'” to help their partner clue in. If the both students don’t understand they can peek at the emergency sheet.

Later Round (Second Day) – I employ the same strategy, and start with a quick warmup with the cards. Then they are paired with new partners, but now use the pile of cards in English. Again we rotate through 3 or 4 partners. Students are encouraged to change up their ‘starting phrase’ at least once during the time of the activity.

Later On (Third Day etc) – Again we start with a partner and a quick warmup. Then the cards are put away (an emergency sheet is on the desk if needed). We rotate through 2 or 3 partners, switching up the starting phrase. At the end of the time students have an opportunity to record the questions on their conversation phrase sheet that they keep in their binder.

Finally –  No cards are provided at all (the questions are on a sheet the student knows how to access). Instead of the student providing the initial phrase students may start the class with a question on the screen (from me) like “Ask your partner what they are doing after school? Where? When? Why…etc!” And they are off – with great questions that allow them to dig for details. As the semester progresses we find new questions to add to our ‘follow-up’ list.

Taking the time to help them develop their questioning skills pays off when the room is alive with conversation. My job at that point is to get out the way and let them talk!





January 21, 2014
by leesensei

Review in 7 Minute Stations…


We are nearing the end of the first year course and students are into their ‘finals’ preparation time. A class of 30 Grade 9’s can be difficult to keep motivated so I decided to try stations. I’ve been wanting to try them and the review time seemed like the easiest to do this. I opted to incorporate an aspect of our study method – the ‘Power 7’ idea.

The Basis – The “7 Minute”  Drill –  I have previously blogged about helping students to learn to study using what we call the “Power 7” method. The idea of short powerful bursts of study – repeated 4-5 times a night – instead of a long study session, prone to distractions, seems to bring results to those who find concentrating difficult. As students get better at this method they increase the time – up to 20 min/session. Many use it now in other classes for review. Keep in mind they are not memorizing lists out of context – but this is a way they use to review vocabulary etc. prior to reading or to work on their vocabulary for writing (always marked holistically – the aim is to minimize high frequency errors).

How Many Stations?

  • For a class of 30 students – 65 minutes I set up 8 stations – you could do more – that the students would rotate through.
  • 4 desks in a square for a station with room for 4 students (2 pairs) at each station

What Goes on the Table?

  • Flashcards (2 sets – 1 per pair): I use flashcards a lot in class. Often they are a set consisting of a Japanese word and a picture. They are used many ways – from concentration matching to fun ‘who can name the object first’ competitions with their partner. I had flashcards for 1/2 the stations already ready. But for the first few units I was missing them – until I thought to use my Quizlet files. All of the unit information is loaded into them for study opportunities for students. So I printed out the early chapters in the large size – copied them onto paper/cut out the cards and I had ‘English-Japanese’ ones.
  • “I can statements” (2 pages – 1 per pair) – I have a set of “I can..” statements for each chapter – I also printed up a list of these and put them at the table. If students finished their cards early they could quiz each other by asking “Can you….?” and seeing if their partner could do the task.
  • Unit ‘sheets’ with the answers on them  – that is the phrases/words in both the Target Language and English (note: my students had their own unit sheets so I didn’t need to provide these)

How Long?

  • Initially I was not sure how long to give the students at each station. Ten minutes seemed a bit long – so we started out at 5. I think its best to underestimate what is needed and in fact, at the end of the first station time, my students requested that we go to 7 minutes per table. It is true that for some groups – with students who typically achieve above expectations – they were done well within the 7 minutes. For other pairs this was not long enough. But it is enough to start reminding kids of what we had covered.

Focus of Review –  Given that there are both English and Japanese (or a picture) for each this lends itself well to using the stations different ways at different times. In my initial 65 minute period I only used it for Reading Comprehension.

  • Listening Comprehension Round –  look at  the word in the Target Language – read it out loud to your partner – do you know it in English? Then your partner takes a card and reads it to you.
  • Reading Comprehension Round – look at  the word in the Target Language – read it with your partner – do you know it in English?
  • Written Practice Round – Look at the English or picture card – write it out in the Target language – check with your unit sheets – did you write it correctly?


  • Reconfirmation of how to review/study – this serves to underscore the idea that effective study (short/concentrated) can be more useful than a longer period where people are easily distracted.
  • Reconfirmation of how to help someone understand – without asking them to do so I saw a lot of partners not giving the answer but actually miming, acting out or giving hints rather than just tell the answer. This confirmed to me that my message of how to assist someone who doesn’t understand has been received.
  • Partners helping each other in a relaxed  way – there was high energy and lots of laughter – two great things to see during an activity that could have been a boring run through previously seen material

As a chance to dip my toe into the station world this was a good first experience. I’ll do more of them again not just for review but also for variety in the class. More to come!






January 7, 2014
by leesensei

“How do you say __?” Extending beyond “the vocab list”


I’ll admit it. For every unit – a set of vocabulary. Used to ensure a basic set of words to discuss the topic.  My goal in this being that students have a common vocabulary with which to interact. But it’s the extra’s that are the key – the words that personalize the learning for the student – and expands their ability to express what they want to say.

Recent posts from Amy Lenord (@alenord) and others around”leaving the list’ behind – have challenged me to look not as much at the basic vocabulary but rather at how I deal with the requests for “What is the word for__? or “How do I use ____?”. And so a ‘shift’ for me  is happening – one that is enriching and empowering my students.

Teacher Shift – Attitude: Part of the move beyond the list does I think come when you are ‘comfortable’ with your program. Not only with ‘how’ it runs (PBL? TPRS?) but also where it is running to. It took me a while to come around to the idea of more choice. Not because I didn’t favour having a language vocabulary that is personal – but because I was still forming how the curriculum and the course would be delivered. I was so busy worrying about their ability to communicate – I forgot that this was the focus – and that it was my job to show them ‘how’ to communicate;  how to ensure their listener understands them, clarify or explain a word  or concept, adjust vocabulary as needed.  They could take it from there.

An example? My Grade 12’s regularly do a travel unit in which they ‘sell’ tours to various parts of Japan to their classmates. It can be tough to predict what vocabulary is needed in advance. This time, I asked them to add the words that they each needed that they felt were key to understanding their tour. Yes – we crowdsourced the vocabulary – the words stayed up on the board during the preparation time. Each day they spent a small amount of time (5 min) picking a word (or 2) off the board – telling their partner they didn’t understand – and playing out how to explain what the word meant.

Teacher Shift – Opportunity: Not only did my willingness to add vocabulary require a mental shift, it also required an opportunity shift. That is – I needed to provide students with the settings that allowed them to show/use the words that they needed to use.  Opportunities for personal expression – using the full range of vocabulary they have acquired had to be expanded. How did I allow them to show/use what they knew?

An example? For my first year students it has been as simple as adding a large empty box on their unit vocabulary sheet. I put a heading “Extras WE/I Want to Know:” on it. Whenever a phrase or word comes up in an incidental way in class I put it up for them and they are now recording it there.

For my more senior students it means a shift in how I ask them to show me what they understand. They can utilize any words at their disposal to complete the task at hand. Therefore it is becoming evident in the choice that I am allowing students. “Please show me that you understand the concept ___” means that students can use any vocabulary at their disposal – and are not limited to what is required. In class interaction the motto is “you can use it if you can explain it (or any other way you can share the meaning).”

The more I learn to step back, and empower my students to step up and use the language, the more that choice plays into the mix. I have learned that it is my job to coach and support – not constrict their language learning. It’s true that there are some times when students are not quite ready to take on a concept due to language ability. But if I ask my students to risk and try with a new language – why am I holding back their ability to express themselves?

I want to thank the #langchat community – especially those like Amy who regularly question, mentor and more importantly share their journey with us. It inspires teachers like me to strike off in new directions as well! More choice to come!


January 1, 2014
by leesensei

Language Sensei: Most Popular Posts of 2013

MP900289582Language Sensei is a forum for me to explore both teaching an MFL (modern foreign language) and work to integrate/explore technology both in my classroom and for personal development. It has been my project for the past 2 (almost) years and it is the contact into the greater PLN that I have enjoyed the most. The people who take the time to comment, Tweet and Facebook ‘like’ only serve to confirm to me that we, as teachers, are at our best when we collaborate to learn (and share with others).  So what were Language Sensei’s most ‘popular’ posts of the year?

MFL/Foreign Language Teaching:

No. 1 Conversation Circles…or “I spoke in the TL for 45 Minutes?!” – ideas/tips for conversation circles in class

Runner Ups:


No. 1 Homework? A Quick Phone-Recorded Conversation Please! – using smart phones/digital recorders to demonstrate learning

Runner Ups:

I am looking forward to where Language Sensei will take me in 2014 and welcome the comments/suggestions that come from my PLN. If you want to connect more as a modern foreign language teacher why not join in on #langchat? We ‘meet’ Thursday at 8pm and information on the how and when can be found here.

Happy 2014! I’m looking forward to another great year.





Two Ways To “Power” Up MFL Students’ Learning

Visual Learning – Visual Cues


December 10, 2013
by leesensei

The Quick Sketch & Share – Interactive Homework Review

photoOkay, yes – I give homework. But I’m happy to say that my view of what constitutes homework is evolving. As much as possible I am trying to inject some choice into ‘what’ students express. Lately I have also been experimenting with the ‘how’ they choose to express themselves. I want to be quick and say that I am not an artist but I do know the value of a visual – even a basic one. I often use a quick picture: the one to the left is to help students studying the variety of uses for verbs of giving and receiving in Japanese.

Now I have been asking my students to do something similar to demonstrate their learning. For practice I ask them to come up with 5-6 examples of the concept in use – and to draw a quick sketch to match each of their examples. This is the ‘out of class’ portion of the work. There isn’t a student in my class who can’t come up with a drawing – and a ‘stickman’ is the standard.

The next day is the ‘interactive’ portion – and the one that I find brings the most value. Prior to working with others, students have the chance to check out their work with their partner. They show them their sketch and see if their partner can come up with what the caption would be. This also allows them to check that the concepts illustrated, and in their caption, are used correctly.

Then it’s on to the ‘interacting’. I ask them to meet and challenge 4 classmates to come up with the captions to their pictures. They can meet with any 4 people in the room, the only stipulation is that all of their interacting/reacting is in the target language. If the person guessing doesn’t do so correctly they use culturally appropriate gestures/phrases to indicate that they aren’t correct.

photo 3Suddenly the room is alive with noise and students are unaware that they are practicing 20-24 times. They enjoy seeing everyone’s visuals and the element of ‘guessing’ ups the energy.

The ‘sketch and share’ option really gets students helping each other to show their learning – and any opportunity for them to do this works for me!










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