Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

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 3, 2014
by leesensei

Considerations As You Allow “The Phone”

Outrageous Phone CallAs a language teacher I find mobile phones are a great resource as a dictionary, a unique way to do homework and, for many of my students, an alternative way to take notes. I’ve been using them in my class for a while now and their presence is actually hardly noticed – so seamlessly is it a part of what we do. In working them into my class I’ve learned some things about how to introduce them that may help you if you just starting to allow them.

“Out on The Desk”  – The first few weeks of my class always starts with the call to “take out your phones – upside down on your desk”. So stunned are most students that you are allowing this that the phone carriers all do. As we work through class I make a mental note of who has them. If I don’t see it when I initially ask them to take it out they will often get a personal reminder to do so. Gradually the action becomes a habit and having it in plain sight makes it easier to use, and not to abuse.

“Silent/Upside Down” –  In the first few weeks of class I start each class the same way by asking them to take out their phone, place them face down on their desks and set to “manner mode” (‘mute’ as it’s called in Japanese).  I warn them that sometimes we all  forget to mute it and it will ring and usually tell a story on myself of how my mother likes to text or phone me at all hours of the day. Then I talk what to do if your phone goes off – apologize, mute it, don’t check it and continue on with what you were doing.  By the way inevitably my mother does call, my phone isn’t on mute and my students hear the ring, look at me and say “your mom?” (target language of course!)

“Use It As They Do” – My phone is out, on my computer table during class. It is upside down and set to ‘mute’. I have blogged before about the usefulness of recording what happens in my classes. So I use my phone in front of them. The first few times I do it I tell them what I’m up to but eventually they don’t even notice. What am I doing? I take photos for me of my boards if I have been using them. I will often upload it (after converting it to a pdf or grey-scale photo) to my website – in front of them – for those without phones who want the visual as well.  I update my website with it – in front of them. If we’re searching for a word I’ll use the dictionary app. For my Japanese classes I also use it to show them how to look up characters using ‘hand drawn’ input.  Using it yourself is a powerful tool for you – and a great way to model it’s proper use.

“Consequences When Needed” – Okay there are still occasional slip ups. It’s not hard to notice the furtive glances or an attempt to key in a quick text. Generally I call out the offender with a “really?” and it doesn’t happen again. Students know it is a privilege to use the phone in my room – and that that privilege can be removed. It’s only ever happened once – a student who kept using their phone inappropriately. After 3 warnings they were asked to hand it over – each day at the start of class for 3 weeks. I kept a post-it on my computer desk to remind me to ask. Three weeks later, when the phone was returned, it was never misused again.

So go ahead – release the phones. If you set the ground rules, model what you want and monitor it a lot at the start they will learn to use it positively in class. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll unleash its potential benefits for you as well!



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!










November 19, 2013
by leesensei

Leaving the Lurk Behind

Balloons in SkyIn my last post I talked about joining Twitter and the inevitable question “what do I do next?” It’s natural to spend some time exploring Twitter and its usefulness as a Personal Learning Network (PLN). But there comes a time when the lurking in the shadows – being a passive user – must give way to a more active process. But how to step out from and step into being an active participant?

Expand Who You Follow – One way to be more active is to find more people to potentially interact with. But how? As I mentioned in my previous post, I turn off retweets but if you don’t you can find other people to follow by reading those retweets. Another suggestion is to look at who you are following follows. The vast majority of Twitter educational users have unlocked accounts and this allows you to read their bio and see some of their previous tweets. Finally many tweet out on #FF (follow Friday) and offer suggestions of who they think you, as their follower, might like to follow.

Discover the Hashtags that You Care About – Hashtags are the topic definers on Twitter. Although anyone on twitter can create their own hashtag there are many standard ones out there.  Watch what those you are following use as a first source. You can also do a search of ‘educational hashtags’ and you find a even more. Cybrary Man’s Educational Hashtags is a particularly comprehensive source.  As a world language teacher my top two are #langchat and #mfltwitterati.

Watch A Twitter Chat – Many of the common hashtags are also used for a regular Twitter chat. Moderators of the chats regularly tweet out the ‘when’ as well as the topic. The Thursday #langchat, which I am privileged to help moderate, typically tweets out a link to the topic poll from Monday to Wednesday and the topic early on Thursday. When the chat begins (#langchat at 8pm EST), there may be introductions and then it is off! Some chats are very structured and you put begin each tweet with the question you are answering. Other chats are more ‘organic’ and ideas, questions flow in a less organized way.In order to just see the tweets for the chat many find it useful to use a ‘chat’ following program such as Tweetdeck or Twubs where the hashtag chat is separated out from your regular twitter stream and easier to view.

Join Into a Chat – You have searched out new people to follow, found some key hashtags and lurked around a chat. Now you are ready to step in. For me it is critical to be using something like Tweetdeck. The program  lets me see not only the chat but any responses to my tweets that I may want to further respond to.  Some of the large chats may not do this but if there are introductions at the start of your chat let the moderators know it is your first time joining in. Once you are ready tweet your thoughts or respond to what someone else has posted. If you think its going by too quickly relax – and realize that chats such as #langchat will publish a summary of key points.

Realize That You Do Have Something To Say – I think that this is the biggest hurdle for educators to overcome; the feeling that you don’t have anything ‘new’ to add to the conversation.  Just like everyone you are following you are an educator who has experienced the highs and lows of the classroom. You are working in a place governed by the educational policy of the day. You mentor and lead students. What you find of interest is most likely interesting to others like you – educators. So send out a retweet, share a success, pose a question (directly to someone or to all your followers) and see where it takes you.

For me Twitter as personal professional development does not work unless you are actively involved. If you aren’t your interests wanes – after all a one-sided conversation doesn’t benefit anyone.


November 5, 2013
by leesensei

Two Ways To “Power” Up MFL Students’ Learning

MP900438776This year I returned to teaching the ‘new’ Grade 9 course. They are young, keen and full of energy. Many I get have never really been in a modern language classroom taught by a language specialist.  As a teacher I love these ‘newbies’ and work hard to support them in class as they explore Japanese. But as an elective teacher I also realize that my job is dependent on turning out successful students who want to stay in my program- and doing so means that I must teach them how to be successful. What are a couple of my techniques to help ensure success for ‘new’ learners?

The “Power” to Take Risks – As MFL teachers we are good at providing opportunities in class for students to use, and get feedback, on these skills. And yet it is common for us to lament students who don’t risk or won’t interact unless they know it is correct. One way to give students more power to succeed in oral assessment is by practicing what happens if they make an error or don’t understand.  During oral interaction I often ask my students to not understand something, or make an error, on purpose. We discuss as a group what to do when this happens. Was your question not understood? Then repeat, add gestures and if that doesn’t work try giving your own answer to the question. Did they answer a question that you didn’t ask? Don’t tell them ‘wrong answer’! Respond to what they said, even add your own comments, then try your original question again. When you have them practice the errors on purpose you give them the ‘power’ to be willing to risk.

“Powerful” Study– Although I allow a lot of choice in the language elements students acquire – there is for me a ‘base’ level that I expect them to know and use. This is key in the ability to read for comprehension and communicate in written form.  One strategy we use comes from my own experience and the difficulty I had in being able to focus during study. Called “Power7’s” it asks students to set a timer for 7 minutes – and during that time to focus only on the task at hand – either ensuring they know what words/text mean or writing out the words that they are to know. At the end of 7 minutes they can go do something else. They are to repeat the process 4-5 more times in the evening (or until they know it). Early on in the course I take time prior to the first tests to give time to practice this technique in the classroom. The 7 minutes of quiet personal work done there means my students know what to do at home. My students use this technique regularly and many now use it in other courses that require vocabulary or concept knowledge. There is great “power” in giving your students tools for success.

We often assume that students are already equipped with the  tools they need to be successful in our MFL classes. But I like to take time to review and teach my students ‘how’ to be successful – and put that power in their hands… How do you create success in your room?


October 16, 2013
by leesensei

“Everyday Situations” – The Taste-Test Activity

tastetest photoRemember those classic “Coke vs. Pepsi” commercials – where unsuspecting cola drinkers took a ‘blind’ taste test (don’t know which they are sampling) and then were stunned, or not, that what they thought they liked they didn’t? My original training is in marketing and the blind tasting is a staple when looking for what people really like.

Years ago I used a textbook for grade 12 that helped provide me with a ‘theme’ to the unit – but not a great activity.  While I no longer use the textbook some of my topic areas still come from this time. Food is one that gives a number of different possible approaches. I like to have my students utilize their language in a situation that parallels everyday life and so, for food – coupled with my graduate degree in marketing –  the ‘taste test’ became the activity. More specifically they are  to determine what new snack food/drink will be sold in the school cafeteria.

Pairs of students select one product made by 3 different companies. Generally I encourage inexpensive snack foods etc like ‘iced tea’, ‘cola’, ‘potato chips’, chocolate etc. I understand that ‘budgets’ may be an issue in for some students – and if  this presents a hardship to my students (I know who they are), I provide the product for them (water (bottled/tap) or milk chocolate). In a class of 30 they will have 11-12 visitors to their booth so they don’t need a large amount of food. I provide spoons/forks, small cups or plates for the products as needed.

Students do this as a blind taste test – so that those who are sampling do not know the brands that they are trying. Their job then is to construct a survey that will both gather information about who is doing the tasting and what they prefer. We do discuss in English the idea of ‘demographics’ (who is your population) and they receive hints as to what kind of questions they might want to ask. They take 2 periods to construct their questions – using an 11×17 piece of paper – questions along the top/side in English with spaces to record information that they receive.  They also practice asking about food allergies – so that students with those issues can avoid complications.

On the taste test day students bring their ‘product’ and their survey. They are allowed an ’emergency sheet’ if they want in their pocket but they don’t really use it at all. For 25 minutes one partner is administering the survey while the other samples – then they switch. Immediately after the activity they do a self evaluation for communication /use of English. They must support their evaluation with reasons.

The day after the taste-test they get time to meet with their partner to go over the results. They can bring those results to the written evaluation – as long as they are in English and on a notecard (that I provide). They don’t get to take the results home – all work is done/left in the classroom until the next day.  Many are surprised when stated preferences for brands prior to tasting don’t match the results they receive.

The written evaluation is a report – two or three small paragraphs reviewing the ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ including recommendations. Students have their results card returned to them. In real life if I was writing a marketing report I would not be doing it without resources – so they are allowed to use any notes etc that they have with them in writing.  However they don’t know that they can use their supporting documents until they are in class and ready to write. Most students take 45-50 minutes to plan/compose their reports. I believe it is because it is something that is meaningful to them. When we used to have a ‘school store’ I would pass along recommendations.

My favourite student comment after testing was from one student “I feel more necessity to use Japanese in everyday situations like this where we need to use the language to do what we need to do. I find this more useful than artificial oral tests.” A great comment considering that the activity was the oral ‘test’! A ‘real life’ challenge in which the oral is necessary for the written evaluation is my goal for each unit.

My information for the project is attached here – if you aren’t a Japanese teacher I think you can still follow along. Next up  for the 12’s – the great ‘uniform or no uniform’ debate!


September 17, 2013
by leesensei

Conversation Circles…or “I spoke in the TL for 45 Minutes?!”

convo2If I told a student that I expected 45-50 minutes of sustained discussion in the target language they’d laugh and say no way. But I watched it today in my Grade 12 class – as students used the pretext of answering questions about a story they read to work in their “conversation circle”. This small discussion group activity produces some of the most relaxed and engaged interaction in my WL classroom. Not only that but students offer up a personal debrief afterwards – that I use to add to their oral communication marks.

Practice the “Art” of Conversation –  Relaxed interaction is no accident. We practice the “art” of the conversation a lot in class. As my students know – it’s not the first question that you ask that is key – but rather the second and third follow-up question. Class often starts with an “ask” your partner based on some current area of study but students are expected at a minimum to use basic “who, what, when, where, why?” queries to learn more.  All students have a ‘conversation’ sheet that they can refer to with suggestions for how to ask questions. When we debrief I often get asked for more “key phrases” and we add that to the sheet as we go along.convo3

Select a Common “Piece” to Discuss – The pretext for the circle is always to discuss or review something. It can be the answers to questions about a story, as it was today, or even a review of some element of homework/classwork. The key is that there are questions/answers that can be used to get the talking started. I will give them the questions for the discussion and they have already had the opportunity to make notes on possible answers. (The key for me is “notes” and not full sentence answers). At the time of the “circle” they are given a new sheet with the questions on it and, in the lower grades, extension questions for the group. For example “What did Tarou get for his birthday” and the extended “What do you want/did you get for your birthday?” My Grade 12’s  now naturally extend the task questions without my including them.

Students Know What They Are Aiming For – We look at the post-activity rubric before the activity. I ask my students to see what the “goal” is and to select just one area – one descriptor – as their ‘personal challenge’ for the time. If there is nothing on the rubric that the student sees as applicable then they can write in their challenge. One of my students, who speaks Japanese at home, wrote “I don’t want rubricto dominate my group’s conversation”.

Set Out the Initial Groups But… I usually set the initial groups, looking for a mix of students in each – and sometimes for a group that may be supportive of a more hesitant speaker. Students are expected to sit in a circle and to work on good eye contact when they are speaking.  They know that this activity is not to be raced through. After about 30 minutes I often ask them to find a completely new group and to ‘just chat’ – using the extension questions only.

Written Debrief Before Rubric – Students are asked to really think how things went, so I don’t let them race to the rubric at the end of the activity. Rather they go the reverse side and I ask them to answer one or two key questions. Today it was “what went well?” and “what was a particular challenge?”. Then once the personal reflective piece is done the rubric can be completed. Students understand that I expect them to carefully consider all sentences on the rubric and that they are not just to circle an entire “section”. They must justify what they pick.

My goal in the conversation circle is simple: using the TL to communicate beyond standard sentences to more meaningful conversation. The level of noise in the room is my key that this is working….more to come.


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