Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

February 17, 2014
by leesensei

Developing Conversation Skills: The “Follow Up Question” Game

MP900262685We work hard in my class on developing an ease at conversing. It isn’t natural for many people, including me I’ll admit, so why would we expect it to be so for our students? This semester I have a new crop of Grade 10’s, 30 students who are in my class for the first time. When I asked what it is they want to many of them wrote ‘have a regular conversation in Japanese.” My job is to have them meet that challenge. I’ve written before about extending conversation skills using ‘follow-up questions’ and this group needed a way to jump-start their ability in this area.

So I invented the ‘Follow Up Question’ game….my fancy title for essentially practicing conversations!

What You Need

  • Question Cards- a set of follow-up questions in the Target Language. I input the phrases I want into Quizlet – then print out thefollow up quest ‘large’ flashcards on coloured paper and cut them out . My initial ones are shown on the right.
  • Students – in pairs – initially of your choosing then eventually their own
  • An ’emergency sheet’ (list) with the questions/answers already matched (upside down on the desk)

Initial Round (First Day)

  • These words are not new to them so I have students match the English and TL cards – then mix them up and spend 3-4 minutes quizzing each other.
  • Have the students separate the cards again into two piles – and select the TL pile (put the English aside)
  • Student 1 begins with a simple phrase such as “I’m going shopping”
  • Student 2 pulls a card from the pile such as “When?” and Student 1 thinks of an answer that fits
  • Student 2 then pulls a second card – perhaps “Where at?” and it continues
  • Students run through the ‘stack’ of question cards then switch roles
  • They will run through this with 3 or 4 different partners – experiencing asking/answering a number of times – and be encouraged to change their ‘starting phrase’ a couple of times

Recognizing Appropriate Questions – Sometimes the follow-up question a student draws doesn’t work. For example if you are shopping at the mall then “Where to?” isn’t appropriate. Students know that if a question is not usable they are to tell their partner that. It sharpens skills and awareness around the questions – and to be honest they love it when they say “No – that one won’t work!” in the target language.

Assisting in Comprehension – Not every student will remember all of the questions initially. So we also practice helping each other understand. If the question is asked and it isn’t understood then the student asking knows that, if they understand it, they are to try to assist by giving a sample answer. For example if their partner doesn’t understand/know how to answer “Who with?” they can use “For example ‘with a friend’ ‘by yourself'” to help their partner clue in. If the both students don’t understand they can peek at the emergency sheet.

Later Round (Second Day) – I employ the same strategy, and start with a quick warmup with the cards. Then they are paired with new partners, but now use the pile of cards in English. Again we rotate through 3 or 4 partners. Students are encouraged to change up their ‘starting phrase’ at least once during the time of the activity.

Later On (Third Day etc) – Again we start with a partner and a quick warmup. Then the cards are put away (an emergency sheet is on the desk if needed). We rotate through 2 or 3 partners, switching up the starting phrase. At the end of the time students have an opportunity to record the questions on their conversation phrase sheet that they keep in their binder.

Finally –  No cards are provided at all (the questions are on a sheet the student knows how to access). Instead of the student providing the initial phrase students may start the class with a question on the screen (from me) like “Ask your partner what they are doing after school? Where? When? Why…etc!” And they are off – with great questions that allow them to dig for details. As the semester progresses we find new questions to add to our ‘follow-up’ list.

Taking the time to help them develop their questioning skills pays off when the room is alive with conversation. My job at that point is to get out the way and let them talk!





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?


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