Language Sensei

Thoughts on The Journey of Teaching Languages

June 21, 2016
by leesensei

Setting Them Up For the Real World: What Should An “Oral Final” Be?

58db2d0e2c1397f19cc3fd65bcffa2daWhat should an oral final look/sound like? I’ve been thinking about this as I continue to try to take away the ‘unnecessary’ – and get to the necessary – in my classroom.  And I’ve thought a lot about what the ‘summative’ part means. This is the ‘last’ oral interaction – especially for some of my juniors (not going to Yr4), and all of my seniors, that they will have in the Target Language. This is a significant moment and I want the legacy of this moment – the impact of it – to be felt by them. I want them to leave my program with the confidence to take an opportunity to use, or further develop, their skills and choose to act upon them. It may be the end of their class journey but I hope it’s not the end of their learning. So I’ve rethought what a summative oral should be and I’ve gone in my thinking from ‘testing what they know’ to ‘establishing what they will hopefully do…’

It Should Mirror A Future Real Life Situation

Our goal in the future is to hopefully have students, in some way, continue their interest in the TL. And what will this most likely involve? Using it – using it in conversation, using it to find out information, using it to get something done. So their summative oral should leave them with the confidence that they have the skills (basic or more developed) to do this. I watched students in our cafeteria – sitting around…talking….interacting with their peers and I thought “This is what I want…”

It Should Capture All You Hope Their Learning Should Be

 For me that means its isn’t memorized, it involves choice in expression and it is communicative. The summative has to allow students to put into use what we have spent the time in class ‘developing’. Providing detailed information, asking when you don’t understand & being able to help others understand, and asking follow-up questions are the three big skills we work on in oral interaction. I want my students to be confident communicators no matter what their level. So the oral summative must draw upon these and be a ‘test’ of these skills. Can they communicate and provide details, can they say when they don’t understand & explain what someone doesn’t understand them and finally can they ask for information using great follow-up questions? This is what I want their summative experience to be.

It Should Not Involve The Teacher

Barring a job interview or maybe a university opportunity the majority of my students will actually use their TL skills in other ways. So why would I insert myself into their conversation? I have also come to realize that, if at all possible, I should not be present for this. Yes – I won’t be there in the future will I? They won’t choose to speak with someone for ‘marks’. So if at all possible I want them to see that they can do this on their own and don’t need a ‘monitor’ or ‘input provider’ or the ‘presence’ of an evaluator to do this.

So what is my intention now in a summative oral? I wrote it on the board for my students to keep in mind:



This year I held my breath, trusted my students, trusted the process we have gone through and sent them off to do all of the above. We had some in-class preparation around the basic prompts but they didn’t know who they would be working with, or ‘how’ this would be done (they thought it would be in front of me). On the day of the oral I talked with them about what I feel the oral should be, then I told them they would be doing this in teams of 4, without me there, with people they knew. Armed with 2 phones (a back up recording) they went in 4’s to empty rooms, turned on the the voice recording memo feature and talked.

In Yr4 they started with a key item that is important to them. A chance to ‘show & tell’ but so much more. Most groups talked for about 25 minutes –  explaining, lots of questions, inclusive of all, and supporting their peers in this. Amazing detail, use of language and most of all – relaxed conversation. Yr3 took some prompts…basic ‘find out about’ designed to allow them to use what we had explored, and talked for about 15+ minutes. No notes, no ‘re-do’s’, no worrying about ‘what if I make an mistake or don’t understand’. I am listening to them now. Yes there are errors, misunderstandings and some are not as confident as others. But I am listening to 4 students converse & share detailed information in a relatively relaxed manner using the TL.  I believe I’m also listening to students who, in the future, are going to take that chance to use the language again.





February 2, 2015
by leesensei

The “What We Know How To Say” List – Supporting Summative Writing…

Student WritingThis may be controversial, and I am really open to hearing back on this…you see – it’s about ‘the list’. The what? Not a prescribed vocabulary list (breathe Amy Lenord breathe!) but a reminder list. I work hard with my students to expand ‘how’ they say things. We do readings, we practice with targeted games, we do ‘pop-up’ grammar lessons, do interactive homework and I try to tie the summative write to what has been done in our summative oral task. Still – when I ask them to do a summative write I often don’t see ‘it’. The ‘it’ being the new ways students can express themselves – and often any inclusion of ways of expressing themselves learned in the past. Some students are instinctively good at this but others aren’t. And when I mark on my writing rubric I would often not see “goes beyond current unit” or even “good evidence of unit concepts” in their written expression.

So this semester I tried an experiment. My concern is that my students show me that they know how to incorporate and use new expressions/structures – and don’t forget what they already know. Yes, I want them to be aware of what they have learned. No I don’t want to be prescriptive in what they ‘must’ use (they are marked on a holistic rubric). Enter the “what we know how to say” list as a way to support their writing. For me, it’s about showing what the can use, do use and know how to use.

At the start of the semester – In the writing period I allow 4-5 minutes for students to peruse notes and jot down things they want to remember to use in their writing. My rules are that this must be in English – like “Comparisons” or “Plan to do” but  cannot be in the Target language or a ‘formula’ (or ‘how’ to do it). Once they have their list – and I’ve checked it for compliance – they begin to write.

By the end of the semester – Students no longer get time to ‘look over notes and construct’ but are, instead, doing this as part of their exam preparation outside of class. They do get time/paper at the start of the exam class to note down the items – but this time it’s from their memory. I did this at the start of the final as well.

As students progress through their time in my classes I will gradually drop the exercise. It’s my belief that by their 3rd and 4th years their awareness of their learning should bring them to do this kind of thing instinctively.  I am also hoping that this spills over – positively – to influence other types of writing that they do.

It was interesting to gauge student reaction to this. Many said that they actually didn’t look at their list during their write – but it made them more aware of the different ways that they could express themselves while they did so. Several said that it helped in their write “because I knew I had to use what I noted down – it pushed me to write more”. For some this was a ‘natural’ thing to do anyway. “I’ve always had this in my head but this time I got time to write it down to refer to it” while others found it a new, and helpful experience.

As for me I noticed an uptick in the use of/variety of sentences I am seeing in their writing. I don’t want to create robotic writers who are driven by including specific “grammar” in their pieces but I hope that this exercise makes students more aware of what they have learned – and pushes them to show me their growth in their ability to express themselves.





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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