Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

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?



April 8, 2014
by leesensei

The “School Fair” – Interactive Oral

sports schoolI like the concept of school life – in my country and the target TL – as the basis for a unit. It incorporates a cultural learning opportunity – especially for my students who regard the Japanese school system as quite different from their own. It also mirrors what happens in real life in Japan – as Japanese parents and students attend “School Fairs” to decide which middle or high school to try to enter.

On the language side it’s a great way for my students to use particular constructions – especially as they pertain to ‘rules’ and activities. My Year 3 summative oral for the unit is an interactive one. Students create their own themed schools – from sports to anime and even the ‘lazy’ school, then devise some rules (how the school operates), subjects, clubs and even the uniform. On the day of the oral students divide their time between giving information about their school and gathering information from other schools. It’s also a great chance for them to practice the culturally relevant ‘niceties’ that would be involved in this promotional situation.

Prior to the Oral Students Have

– explored school life/rules/expectations in Canada/Japan, uniforms, reading/discussion on a day at a school in Japan, discussion of types of clubs/subjects,
-explored/practiced language including “you may..” “you must..” “you may not..” “we’d prefer that you..” etc built from their knowledge of their own school
-practiced oral interaction including how you communicate when you don’t understand something and strategies to use to help someone to understand
A Prospective Student at the "Reading School"

A Prospective Student at the “Reading School”

What Students Prepare/Practice (in pairs) For the Oral:

– a ‘sign’ for their school (name/pictures only)
-information about their school – they can have notes in English (if they forget something) but not in TL
 including: name, theme, various rules, subjects taught, clubs, the uniform, other interesting facts
-asking questions to get information about a school
-cultural ‘norms’ in this conversation – greetings, gestures, opening/closing phrases
Gathering Info from the 'Awesome Manga/Anime' School

Gathering Info from the ‘Awesome Manga/Anime’ School

How It Works on the Day

-recording sheet with ‘prompts’ (“rules” “uniform” etc) for recording information
– desks in circle – one partner behind/one on the ‘inside’
-sign stand(picture stand)  – I bought mine at the dollar store – I use them for all sorts of orals
-inside partner visits at least 3 other schools while other gives info
-students move on their own from school to school as tables open up (you may have to facilitate the first few times)
-if they are waiting  – they stand in the middle of the circle until a chair opens up
-1/2 way through total time they switch (even if their partner is in mid-explanation – they can slide in)
-all oral language in TL – all written info in English

Evaluations – Students hand in their oral evaluation/recording sheet at the end of the time.

Oral – I ask students to self evaluate for their communicative interaction and support the choices
with a written piece. The evaluation is an “always/often/sometimes/never” choice for:
– perceived ability to get their ideas across
-degree of comfort asking/answering questions
-how much they may/may not have used English
-ability to facilitate communication
Written –  The next day students are given their oral sheet for their summative written test. They are asked to:
-identify the school that they would like to go to (not their own)
-tell why using supporting details from their sheet
-relate the details of  the school  to their interests.


There is a lot of “buzz in the room” during this – and many opportunities for students to use practice the full range of their interpersonal communication skills. It’s an easy setup and the meaningful use of the information gathered is the reward for me.


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