Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

March 18, 2016
by leesensei

Encouraging Risk/Rewarding Growth with “Checks And A Smile”

How do we encourage students to risk? How to we encourage them to ‘stretch’ and try something new? It’s a big challenge in the world language classroom. I have been using rubrics a lot to find out about how something went for a student, but it took until this year for me to use them to ‘prepare’ students to interact.  I realized that the rubric (and it’s construction/labels etc) is one way that we communicate class expectations. So why don’t we ask them, prior to the activity, to set up/predict/plan how they willSource: work to meet them?  This post focuses on interpersonal speaking but the concept may also be adapted for writing as well.

Initially I started asking students, prior to starting the activity, to select their ‘challenge’ (the ‘extra push’) – and check off (on the rubric) what they wanted to focus on doing/improving. Then I asked them to share that challenge with their partner to build in a bit of accountability. Then we moved on to the activity. It seemed to work well – they sincerely considered their ‘extra push’ in the interaction. But for me it wasn’t enough. It felt a bit focused on the ‘what I am not doing’ and not acknowledging ‘what I can already do’. Clearly, I needed a more balanced approach.

Lately I’ve been trying to acknowledge/encourage via “checks and a smile“. Prior to the activity the students select the ‘challenge/push’ for the activity – that gets the check. For my novices I generally have only 1 check, but in my upper level courses I source: openclipart.orgexpand that to 2 challenge/push areas. Then I ask them to select something that they already feel that they do well – what they are proud that they already incorporate into their interpersonal work. That gets the happy face.  I like how this combination gives a personal pat on the back for something already accomplished and still sets out something for them to reach for in their work.

When I ask students to reflect, as I always do, they are ready to tell me how they well they felt they did in meeting their checked challenge. Increasingly, with the equal focus on a strength, I see reflective comments about what they are ‘proud’ of  as well. And that is a happy face for everyone!



September 2, 2014
by leesensei

Participation – Expected Not Evaluated

Girls with Heads Together HuggingParticipation – it’s a hot topic in language-teaching circles these days. Specifically the old chestnut – the ‘participation’ mark. I can see why it is popular with some. Its a reward for a student who chooses to engage in the class – using the class material. It represents a view that if marks are attached even the most reluctant student will be so concerned that they will push their shyness and/or hesitancy out the window because they want a mark! But, for me, the inherent failure in this is that I was controlling the evaluation of participation – if the ‘teacher’ saw it then it counted.  I’ll admit I used to think that I had to attach the mark to ensure their buy-in. But no more….

When I was asked if I marked for participation I found myself answering “No, because in my class it is expected that you are participating.” This led me to think – what are the key things happening in my class that lead my students to participate…despite no ‘marks’ being on the table.

SetUp – How my classroom is set up is one way that encourage participation. I wrote about my ‘light bulb’ moment about the importance of set-up when I was visiting with Catherine Ousselin and her classes. My students now sit in tables of 4 facing each other. The board (and me) are at the side of the room. The focus is on their group, their table. And its hard not to participate when just 4 people are at the table, and no one else is looking on!  The advantage of the small tables is also that it sets up work with 3 possible partners – and that means the ability to test and try out language in a more supportive setting.

Pair Work – I do a lot of work in pairs – even at the tables of  4 that I now have. I believe they are a powerful tool in class. Students in my class have a ‘partner’ for each unit and who that person is is mostly determined by me. The partner is their ‘base’ for class – students will interact and work with others, but their partner is where they will start and end each day. I work hard to find good ‘matches’ for my students so that their partner complements, and challenges, them to be involved. As I’ve written in the past – pairs are a great way to encourage risk and yet a ‘safe’ way to do so. It’s hard not to participate when you only have to deal with 1 other person. (I should note that once a semester I allow my students to choose their ‘pair’ partner – what great chaos!)

Activity Rubrics/Self Evaluation – I use activity rubrics and self-evaluation a lot in my class. What’s on the rubrics are what I consider to be  great ‘attributes’ of an active language students. Students evaluate their ability to work with others, accomplish the task and maintain TL.  We do go over the rubrics when we first start using them, but then as they are consistently used – they work to build an expectation in students of ‘how’ they should be participating in class. What helps to reinforce this participation is the idea to ask at least one ‘written reflection’ question prior to the activity rubric. Comments from students who complete questions such as “Today I am proud that I…” often refer back to their choice to risk and try – and that’s what participating is all about.

Encourage Risk/Ask for Speaking!  I always tell me students that I will not ask them to do or try something they don’t have the tools for. This doesn’t preclude challenges but it does mean that students are confident that the activity or task is do-able. Knowing you will be able to complete something is huge in being able to step out and do that task. I also work to give chances for my students to interact – I think we often ask students to ask/answer questions of each other – and assume they know how to do that. So we practice (and support) the interaction that occurs between partners but starting a lot of classes with ‘ask your partner’ and having ‘follow up questions‘ handy to continue the conversation. Then, when we move into a larger group or class activity students are equipped with the skills to participate. Not only that – they are eager to help each other out – and if they are talking and working together – they are participating.

If the setup, the expectation and the task all require that a student participate in their learning – then participation will be the natural outcome! What are other ways you support students in participating in class?



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