Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

December 7, 2016
by leesensei

Adding Choice Options for Novices – The “Meeting/Fully Meeting” Options

file0001801120400Choice. It’s a key tenet of many teachers’ approach to language teaching. Spurred on by #langchat colleagues such as Amy Lenord, I have worked hard to provide choice in the vocabulary that my students use. Although I maintain a ‘base set’ of words for each unit – after that it’s up to them. Our motto is “you can use any word you want – as long as you can help someone else understand it.” To support this we practice expressing not understanding and how to assist someone when they don’t.

But I’ve also been thinking about choice in early presentational writing and initial interpersonal speaking. How do I give choice options, beyond just the ‘words’? How do I also begin to build an awareness of achieving expectations? How can a student start to develop a feel for ‘fully meeting’ and ‘meeting’?  This is not easy with lower novices who have, really, basically memorized language at their disposal. (Keep in mind that my Japanese students have to learn a completely new orthography so it’s not a case of just learning to ‘put the words together’. This takes time and a great deal of ‘literacy’ work as many learn to read something not written with ABC’s.)

This semester I’ve tried something with my Yr1’s (the ‘never had any of the TL before’ group).  In the early months of the course they are speaking and writing with mostly memorized phrases, substituting their information into the structures. On the second unit test preparation sheet I gave them the type of questions they needed to be able to respond to, both in writing and in speaking. Then I gave them a sample answer to look at – and gave them a “M” (meeting) and “FM” (fully meeting) option.  It looked a bit like this…

  • Where are you from?        M= “from Korea”        FM= “I am from Korea.”
  • What do you think of sushi?”    M= “it’s good”   FM= “I think it is really good.”
  • How often do you drink tea?   M= “often”    FM= “I drink it often.”

I stressed to them that they could choose what/how they wanted to express themselves and it is their choice in trying for the FM option. We also discussed that you could get ‘in-between’ with your answer. The choice in achievement became theirs. Some just wanted to get the basics. Others went for the more FM option – and the vast majority of those did so successfully. In subsequent units I have introduced these M/FM choices – some without much fanfare – and see some gravitate to the more ‘complex’ option.

Why do this? I want to:

  • build in an awareness of choice in expression
  • provide a challenge to those who are seeking to extend or push their learning/expression
  • establish for them that there are always options in expressing themselves
  • ultimately have them be aware of the concept of  ‘meeting’ or ‘fully meeting’ as they continue on in their learning

Today we were working on a ‘choice’ writing piece. One of my more hesitant students called me over to ask about one of her sentences. She had used the unit book resources and opted to use some FM phrases. These actually involved a complex piece of grammar  “I like to listen to music” instead of just “I like music.” (for Japanese teachers おんがくをきくことがすきです。 instead of おんがくがすきです。) . It was perfect – and she was proud that she took the risk to try the fully-meeting option. And I am pleased that providing options allows students to ‘choose’ and that in that choice they are beginning to develop a feel for ‘meeting/fully-meeting’ expectations…


December 8, 2014
by leesensei

Best of 2014: No. 4 “How Do You Say…?” Extending Beyond the Vocabulary List

MP900385754I’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!


August 18, 2014
by leesensei

Lose The Word “Chapter” – Gain a World…Freeing Yourself Up to “Change”

losing chapter word


It started with my Evernote daybook – I was editing and reviewing my classes and I thought “Why do I have units by ‘chapter’ and not theme?” Indeed – why? If you’re already here, and this is long gone in your teaching then these musings may cause more nostalgic thoughts than insight. If you are like me and gradually, sometimes it feels glacially, making lasting change in HOW you do things – then perhaps you have found what I found. What have I learned as I organized by ‘thematic unit’ and NOT by ‘number? Well…

You’ll See What Your Focus Has/Hasn’t Been – Wow – does my Yr 2 class need work. When I erased the chapter titles I saw that what I thought were ‘themes’ weren’t. Instead I had disparate grammar points held together by previous textbook/workbook support. Did I feel awful – all this talk about meaningful learning and it sure wasn’t here in this course. But – what I did have were some great interactive inter-personal orals – that I can see are the ’emerging’ themes for this Yr2 class. For my other courses I did finally “see” my thematic units – now without a meaningless number in front of them – and it shows me that I am on the right track. I’m even abandoning a thematic unit I attempted in my Yr4 course in the past because I see how it no longer fits with my other units (and frees us up to spend more time on them!)

You’ll Open Yourself Up to “What They Really Need AND When They Need It” – So if you are no longer ‘bound by the book’ then you can give students what they need – when they need it . This is a great ‘aha’ moment when it happens and I wrote about it last year with regards to vocabulary. But this year it really allows me to look at all the incidental language my students asked for in a unit and work in pop-up grammar lesson points when needed. I started doing this last year as well but now with the words gone I’m free to add as it works and finally answer the question “Why can’t my students express an opinion until Ch. 7?”!

You’ll Find New Resources to Enhance Your Theme – So no more textbook to march through. I will still use some of the dialogues or stories in my teaching – in part as they provide reading with equal opportunity for student access in my character-based language (something Authentic Resources are challenging for as I’ve written before). But I’m now able to supplement with other visuals, video clips, infographics etc. It allows me to ‘step sideways’ from what the unit focus was dictated by the text to be – and really find the ‘hook’ that the unit should be.

You’ll Find More Meaningful Ways to Check For Learning – No textbook – and therefore – no workbook. Okay – there will be some use of some of the exercises, especially as my students learn any of the three orthographies we use in Japanese. I may also find some readings or listening parts that are ‘authentic’ and fit a theme but I decide when/how to use them – the ‘number’ doesn’t! It also means that I, okay we as a class, can get more creative, and more varied in how learning is demonstrated. Imagine a class where we decide as a group, or small groups, how understanding of something will be shown, do that, and share. Wow…and I’ll not need to write “Workbook Chapter 4 Exercise 2, 5, 9” on the board ever again.

If you are moving along on the road to no textbooks, or workbooks, as I am – it can be an unsettling thing. Certainly the encouragement and leadership of the #langchat PLN has helped immensely. I look forward to the day when all of my courses, and classes, are where I want them to be. In the meantime I am revelling in, and feeling a little bit of ‘good nervous’ in erasing the word ‘Chapter’ from my class vocabulary. Onward!


PS – I work a lot with an Evernote and my daybook in the cloud. I’ve put together a collection of my posts on using this to organize my teaching life if you are curious!

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