Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

April 28, 2014
by leesensei

Making “Skits” Do-Able….(And Decreasing Student Stress Around Them)

MP900442484I don’t often do skits in class. How rare are they? Well we do 1 in each of Yr1 (at a restaurant) and Yr2 (the famous ‘bullet train’ sketch). That’s it. I generally prefer a communicative oral that evaluates how well a student can communicate. But let’s face it – sometimes the ‘skit’ suits perfectly and they can be great fun. However I have gradually altered what I expect both in the preparation and presentation of a skit – so that the focus is on the Target language/culture presented and it doesn’t become a grammatical show-off piece.

No “Script” Skits – Just Key Words I know that some teachers demand to see scripts prior to presentation – and they ask for a them to be line by line. Then they are only performed when they are ‘perfect’. But I don’t like the pressure of this kind of memorization nor the focus on making something that is ‘error free’. With 4-5 students working together to create them errors tend to be minor when they occur. And, I admit, I don’t even have them hand it in after and have no wish to correct after seeing. So I have instituted the ‘key word script’ idea with the rules being:

– If you know it in the TL – then why are you writing it down? Just put down – “We all come in the room and say “Hi”.” I don’t want you to be writing out ‘lines’
-Write down in the TL what you “need” to remember/may forget – in point or sentence form
-Everyone writes down what is happening – for the entire group. It allows students to understand the whole presentation, it’s in their writing and it keeps them focused during preparation
-Everyone in the group speaks an ‘equal’ amount
-No dictionaries – if we don’t know the word we won’t understand you – what fun is that?

Individual Memorizing – If You Want To – For some skits are a joy but for many students they are nerve wracking. And the sight of a group forcing a member to memorize something on top of that – too much. To get around this I allow students to choose their individual level of  presentation achievement. They all can have the script with them but their own presentation mark depends on how they do their part – and is not affected by what others do. As for criteria

– Is it fully memorized? (okay maybe one glance at the skit sheet) or are you just comfortable reading your part (or in between?).
– How well is it pronounced? (does it sound like its in the TL?  or are the words sounding ‘English’?)
– How at ease is the part presented? (is it well rehearsed or did you  not practice a lot?)

An Active Audience – No ‘just sit and watch’ for me. I ask students to actively watch (with a response sheet) each others skits – not all of the skits but 3 or 4 of the ones being presented. It’s as easy as putting the order of presentation up on the board with  2-3 names beside them that they’ll watch. (For example “Lucy’s group watches Yuri’s, Lester’s and Annie’s group). Just make sure that they are not watching just before or after they themselves present. All group members do the viewing and they each have a  sheet that asks them things (depending on their level of work in the TL) including:

– For my more junior students they must check off when/if they hear either a key word, or structure. All the student has to do is ‘check’ when they hear it – and I only put 3 or 4 things down. The more senior students may have to give a 1 sentence summary of what happened or fill in key words that relate to the content of the skit.
-Evaluate the skit on an Excellent, Good or Minimum scale. Honestly – they all prepped the same thing. They know what was required. I ask them to select the rating – and take that as my ‘overall presentation’ mark.  There are usually enough evaluators (and I do note a quick E, G or M for each group myself) that a fair evaluation occurs.

Removing the ‘pressure’ of memorizing lines and perfect grammar, allowing students to choose their presentation level and asking the audience to be involved as listeners helps make the skit experience more bearable for many. And that works for me – when a skit is called for!


April 21, 2014
by leesensei

Improving Feedback for Students: Colours, Consistency, Corrections

Single Tree in a Green FieldI’ve been working to refine the way that I give feedback on written work. My efforts focus on both easily identifying a student’s issues and increasing their responsibility for their own learning. With that in mind my feedback now focuses on three things – Colours, Consistency and Corrections.

Colours as Codes: I’ve played around with various ways to identify errors or miscues in a piece of writing. Although I like the idea of ‘codes’ – they just don’t seem to be as quickly meaningful. A coded paper has to be ‘read’ to see where mistakes may be. I am a visual person and I want a quick glance at a marked paper to show a student which area requires reworking/improvement. So I’ve settled on two colours – blue and green.

Blue – You have made an error in your choice of/spelling of a word/words
Green – You have made an error in your choice of grammar to use/how you have used it

I highlight/underline the area with a problem. Sometimes I add a sample correction or suggestion if I feel its necessary. Ultimately it’s easy to tell if the student’s main issues are vocabulary or grammar related – or both!

Consistency -On-line/On Paper: I am all for student choice as to ‘how’ work is handed in. Some students are more comfortable composing on their phone, or on a computer than they are writing with a pen/pencil. No matter how a student chooses to hand a piece I want the feedback to be consistent across all of the options.

On-line: brought in to Google docs and marked up using the “Text Study Skills” add-on. I also use a copy of the rubric ‘copied’ and named for each student. At the top of the rubric is a reminder of what the colours stand for. I use header space for any additional comments. Then I use the ‘yellow’ highlighting colour to identify where the student falls on the rubric.
On Paper: I use either highlighters or coloured pens for this. In an attempt to save paper I will also try to photocopy the rubric onto the back of the submitted piece. It makes it more efficient – and no need to attach an extra page.

Corrections or Not?:  It’s my hope that students should want to know where they have gone wrong – but this isn’t necessarily the case. How to build towards that. I am shifting in how I approach this as well – looking to gradually build in a desire to know ‘where I went wrong’.

Year 1- 3: I often ask for corrections on a piece as we build toward summative assessment. The final mark (or completion mark) is not recorded until it is done. I review with a student as needed – but often they work together to find out where they have gone wrong.
Year 4: Typically students are not ‘required’ to do this kind of remedial work – and many come and ‘ask’ when they can’t see where they’ve gone wrong.

Feedback is as useful as it is easy to understand. As I work to streamline my way to give feedback I hope to make it easier for students to see where they need to improve. And, as always, corrections to this system may be needed to make it more relevant.



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.




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.


June 18, 2013
by leesensei

Keys For Using Student Self-Evaluation in Discussions…

MP900341496Too often in the past a student would complete an oral, turn to me and ask “How did I do?”. Didn’t they know? Weren’t they aware of how it was going? Gradually I saw the need to change my focus from oral production focussed on grammar and vocabulary to interpersonal communication. And who better to judge how the communication activity went than the person involved? I use self-evaluation rubrics a lot in my classes for various oral interactive activities.

What are the key elements that need to be in place for meaningful self-evaluation?

A Robust and Flexible Rubric: All of the rubrics I use are based upon the same 4 key areas: Asking questions, responding to questions, utilizing vocabulary and structures and facilitating conversation. The current interation of my rubric represents a collaboration  with my DELF– focussed French teaching colleague Cara Babson and  #langchat colleague Natalia DeLaat (@natadel76). The rubric is based on those used by DELF but modified to suit my current needs. Perhaps best of all the rubric is an evolving document changing to meet communication goals and class needs. My current version is here if you are interested.

Student Awareness of Language Expectations: Build an expectation of language use and practice skills needed. We practice the art of the follow up question a lot. Class often begins with a prompt in English “Ask your partner…” with the words “who? when? why? what do they think of? how often? how good at?” etc below. Prompts relate to current units or topics of study. Sometimes we change partners several times – the short bursts of conversation allow for good practice. As a result students are capable of digging for deeper meaning when finding out information from their classmates

A Personal Challenge to Meet During the Activity: I have moved to using the Rubric now before we even embark on the activity. In particular I ask students to write out or put a star/check mark next to their personal challenge in the activity. Some focus on “no English” while others choose more personal ones such as “explain in Japanese”. Choose your challenge brings a heightened awareness of the goal of the exercise and ‘sets the stage’ for the interaction.

Written “Self-Debriefing”: For ‘summative orals’ I don’t let them do the rubric right away. Rather they turn it over and must reflect in writing first. Initially I ask them to answer a key question posed by the teacher. For example “When I heard that we were going to debate the environment in Japanese I…”  I then follow up by asking them to relate some aspect of the oral that they were most proud of. If the oral is not a major summative one then the student must support their self evaluation giving the reasons ‘why’ behind their choices.

An Absence of “Numbers”: I will admit this is my latest development in my rubrics, and it comes courtesy of my correspondence with Natalia. I am replacing the ‘numbers’ traditionally used with the DELF rubrics with the ‘word’ descriptors. This allows students to focus on the ‘content’ of the rubric descriptor and not it’s perceived value. The first time that I used it with students I encouraged them to circle the phrases that they felt applied to them – no matter what ‘square’ they were in. They truly thought about their language use and were very thoughtful in their responses when they supported their choices. I do eventually ‘convert’ these rubrics to a number, as my school asks me to do, but that is then my doing and not theirs.

The more that I work with rubrics, and student self evaluation, the more I see the rewards for my students. They are more involved in their interactions with others and more confident of their strengths, and what they want to improve on. The journey will continue…


May 14, 2013
by leesensei

“Taking A Risk” – What Does Risk in the MFL Class Look Like?

I use rubrics a lot in my classes as I feel they allow the student to really ‘see’ what they have achieved and where they might improve. Increasingly I have moved to self-evaluation of some of my oral activities – in which the students fill out their own rubric and justify their choices. One activity I do is a ‘re-cap’ of a reading – after students have read a piece and had the chance to note down answers to guided questions. They can make their notes in either the Target Language (TL) or in English – but they have to be able to ‘say’ what they want to in the TL. After the activity comes the evaluation. In the past the “4” category for grammar and vocabulary was simply “Excellent. Took Risks. Didn’t Use English”.

Lately I haven’t been happy with the ease with which students have been giving themselves a “4”. So today, prior to the evaluation I stopped them and we discussed what “risk” looked like. Here’s what they thought. Risk is:

-working without a safety net or “notes” or the dictionary

– asking and answering follow-up questions

-when you have to hesitate and say “let me think about that” and then answer

-introducing other topics to talk about when we’re done

And so I have altered my old rubric to try to reflect those thoughts – you’ll find it below. Which brings me to my own risk and one teachers sometimes have issues with – risk is not in controlling their output but in letting them control it….! Again I learn the most from them when I step back and let them take the lead!


January 14, 2013
by leesensei

Thoughts on the “Video Project”…

What better way to use technology in the language classroom than in a final class video. For example, each year my Gr12 students do a group ‘drama’ video project. Students use their own cameras, or borrow from the library, to film and are given several days in class to coordinate. Often I fit a weekend in before the due date. So what is key in assigning the ‘video’ projects in my classes?

Content – My basic rule is  ‘would your grandmother be happy and/or comfortable viewing this?”  It amazes me at times what kids think is appropriate for the classroom. On the project  – as on all items – students are aware that all content must fit within our District’s “Code of Conduct” guidelines. We often go over them together to ensure that they understand what they have agreed to abide by. Many groups often include ‘bloopers’ as well – often more entertaining than the main presentation!

Script – What script? I’m not a fan of word-for-word scripts. Typically one take-charge kid writes it and forces the others to memorize their lines. My rule is ‘if you know it you’re not writing it out in the TL’. The students work from ‘key word’ scripts written in English and the TL. Each student is responsible for writing their own notes out – so they aren’t reading someone else’s writing.  Yes there may be errors – but it is the group’s job to be as accurate as possible – and the occasional error will creep in. Not a big deal. And above all are you using grade appropriate vocabulary/grammar in presenting what you are.

Can we hear you? – One of my requirements on my rubric is ‘audio quality’. That is – can I hear you? In my Gr12 course they have previously done a shorter project and some experience problems being heard. I ask them to play the video for themselves and if they can’t hear it – neither will I.

Due the day before viewing – Things happen and often a video needs to be copied again or reloaded. To save heartache the projects are due the day before they are viewed. They can hand them in via a USB in one of two approved formats, use my ‘inbox’ online or even upload to YouTube under a funny title (After I ‘download’ it they get an email telling them to remove it!)

Rubric marking – My students are used to seeing ‘what’s important’ by looking at the rubric marking criteria. My rubric for the video project hits many areas mentioned above and  also incorporates a ‘teamwork’ assessment – filled in after the group has evaluated each member’s contributions. And, as this is a second language class – there are no marks for fancy transitions or editing!

I don’t assign a lot complex video-based projects. However, when I do I am confident that the technology supports the demonstration of language skills – and not the other way around!



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