Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

November 17, 2019
by leesensei

A New Lens….Am I Just “Testing Memory” Or Seeing How Well They Can “Use” The Language?

I have been undergoing a great change in my teaching, an evolution in my practice – one that is propelled by my work with kids with IEPs, our new provincial curriculum. my discussions regarding assessment with fellow self-reflective colleagues and my frustrations in how I felt I was not supporting my students at both ends of the achievement spectrum. So what has changed with this new ‘lens’ on how I view assessing in my classroom?…

Yes I Ask Them To “Learn and Remember” – This is not to say that I don’t ask them to ‘learn’, remember and demonstrate their knowledge.  Our learning checks  (what you might call a ‘quiz’) can be the traditional “know how to write these words”. But now I also give checks that show that they can ‘recognize words’ instead of just write them. This is especially key for vocabulary that will be used in oral interpersonals. So I ask them to “match” (TL & English) or listen and indicated the order that they heard a word. I also don’t announce ‘structure’ quizzes. Instead I use pop-check-ins which allow me to see how well a concept is being understood. Sometimes this results in my ‘re-teaching’ because clearly no one is getting it. Often it results in one-on-one coaching with those that clearly are not sure.

Summative Presentational Writing– As I tell my students “I don’t want to know what you remember as much as how well you can use what we have been learning.”  I figure that in real life and in any job you’d have notes, guides, logbooks or access to references in crafting your communication. Why am I asking kids to write only what they ‘remember’ in a foreign language? This is not to say that there is no memory involved. That they haven’t “learned” anything (above).  What is key for me is how they will be assessed. You can’t fully meet in my class unless you utilize current and past learning effectively. And if you add in those little things we mention, the asides, the ‘in additions’, the things that I might refer to once you can push to ‘exceeding’. And all of this end or unit writing is done ‘with notes of some kind’.

What I find here is, that having notes, any student can respond. Often my weakest kids are the ones who don’t know how to prepare, have minimally met on learning checks and haven’t ‘figured out how’ to prepare for this kind of assesment.  This new approach allows them to be able to write more than what they ‘remember’. Often, as well, they get supports for their writing.  It allows them to show more of what they actually can understand.

Many teachers (even in my department) are concerned about the ‘fairness’ of this – that a student who did ‘nothing’ has the same advantage as a diligent student who has tried to master everything during the unit work. This worry implies that a student is unfairly being helped/rewarded for not learning. This has never played out in what I see or what my students have written. The students who have internalized/’learned’ the vocabulary/structures don’t need to spend time looking them up and  they have time to go deeper and really expand on what they are writing. They are using their notes not to look up the basics but to create rich, meaningful responses. The kids who haven’t internalized the words/ideas have less time for more expansive writing – but they are able to write something instead of almost nothing.

As for the writes – sometimes the notes are provided by me (a collection of Quizlets that I have prepared for units as a sort of ‘dictionary’ for example). Sometimes they are ‘open book’ allowing them to use any of their notes in a timed write – but no dictionaries. Other times this can resemble an English essay write – with rough copies, peer or teacher editing and then a final write (and a maximum of 6 words they’ve looked up – they have to use circumlocution for the rest).

Presentational/Interpersonal Speaking – I’ll admit that I do very little presentational speaking in front of the class. Yes there are the two skits (one each in Gr 9 and 10). But beyond that students only present to another student via interpersonal fairs.  Even in this case they can have ‘notes’ in English about what they want to say but have to have ‘learned’ how to communicate this in the TL. We even practice circumlocuting so that if they forget what they wanted to say they can still communicate their message. Some kids can’t do this and will need ‘notes’. This reduces their ability to meet expectations but it still allows them to participate and feel a certain level of achievement. The same goes for their interpersonals. Referring to notes may allow full participation as opposed to being able to ‘say nothing’ and if you don’t need anything to participate you may, depending on what you say, be on your way to fully meeting/exceeding.

Japanese specific – Chinese characters (Kanji) – This is a Japanese-specific observation – it is the language that I teach. Kids often struggle with Chinese characters. They can’t memorize how to write them perhaps. They are frustrated. They can adopt a negative attitude towards them.  I try to teach the characters in context, with a story to go along with how it is constructed. I ask them to see it like ‘lego’; composed of individual parts rather than a complex solo item. Now I am experimenting with two styles of learning checks. If you want to meet my expectations I will give you the characters – you tell me how to say them and what they mean. For fully meeting – I will give you the reading and you write them in Chinese characters and give me the meaning. I see some kids actually relax – they may not be able to write them well but when it comes to interpretive reading they know what they are reading.

Adaptations to Show Learning – Ultimately I am always considering what my provincial curriculum refers to adaptations. This is not reducing expectations but adapting so that any kid can show learning. This is not just for students with IEPs. In my province adaptations are there for any student that might need them. This means that kids can access the audio for any reading assessment or can ‘talk’ me through vocabulary that they can’t remember how to write.

My new lens asks me to consider what I am really assessing – and how I am giving students the opportunity to show what they know. As I evolve in my teaching I hope the focus on this is becoming clearer and clearer…


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April 15, 2016
by leesensei

Why Write When You Can Talk? – The Oral “Worksheet”

file791271781089Worksheets. I’ve been thinking, and rethinking, about them a lot lately. I believe that teachers use them with good intentions. We want them to practice something. We want them to “learn” and show understanding of a new language point or vocabulary group. We want them to reinforce what is going on in class. These are great intentions for using them. Unfortunately they also serve as ‘filler’, a required bit of homework and, for me, are not very ‘communicative’. Perhaps, more importantly, students increasingly see them not for the good intentions we may have employed them, but as something that must be ‘completed’ – rather than learned. Don’t get me wrong – I am someone who still uses a strategic paper worksheet here and there  (there I said THAT) so let’s get over the sheepish ‘I still use worksheets’ feeling. These days though, instead of handing out the worksheet, I’ve been trying to employ activities that hit the best of what we intend a worksheet to be – with the best of what I want my classes to be. Enter what I call the “Oral Worksheet”. This is really focused practice and involves anything that gets students interacting with (a) new language elements and (b) their peers in class.

Prior to Oral “Worksheets” what has to be in place? In my class you need two things – the confidence to ask/tell when you don’t understand and how to handle that (we work on that a lot) and the understanding that we are not ‘lazy listeners’ but, rather, active ones who will assist/correct/help in a gentle and supportive way when they hear an ‘error’ in use or have someone who can’t remember a word/phrase. I agree this can be a delicate thing – no one wants someone correcting them all the time – but we work on it from day 1 and they are effective in how they do it. Students also have to be used to activities where they frequently change partners and understand that they work with everyone in class – not just their friends.

Example 1 – Picture/Story Tell “Worksheet” : My goal was to introduce various ‘health’ terms/issues as part of a greater unit. I used clip art pictures and told a story told via QAR about a class where only 1 student showed up because everyone else was sick. We went over and over via questioning and then the students read a similar story. The “Worksheet” – pictures from the board story were in an envelope on their tables. In pairs they retold the story (not reading it/re-telling it) matching the pictures and the symptoms. On the board was a reminder of some key phrases we had used with ‘new language elements’. Then they had 10 – 15 minutes to re-use the pictures to make up a story about a character’s terrible horrible day  (the story was oral only – no notes!). Students then had 30 minutes to visit with other pairs telling their story and hearing others. As students listened to a story they were also allowed to ask questions “He cut his finger? How” which required the pair. How was it a ‘worksheet’? Well for 40 minutes they heard the vocabulary and language elements over and over. They helped each other out when they weren’t sure. They corrected appropriately and gently when they needed to.

Example 2 – Sketch/Share “Worksheet”: My goal in the lesson was to practice a particular element related to the use of giving & receiving action words (simple/complex). We had built up knowledge via practice/story the day before. Their ‘homework’ was to come up with 6 pictures with captions that demonstrated their understanding of how to use the concept (something I call the ‘sketch & share’). The next day in class they initially showed their partner the pictures and told them what the caption was (note – they ‘told’ they didn’t have their partner read it). This ‘check in’ also provided a chance to alter/edit as necessary. The “Worksheet” – After their partner check,  on  to the “oral worksheet” which involved 20 minutes of challenging others to see if they could provide a caption for the pictures that the student had drawn. The result? for 25 minutes they heard, reviewed and interacted with the material. Yes some ‘errors’ may have slipped through but I catch those when they hand in their pictures after the activity.

After the Oral Worksheet – Did they ‘get it’?: Do these kind of  oral ‘worksheets’ do the same job as a paper worksheet? I think so. My pop check-ins tell me that they ‘get it’ as much after these as they do with paper ones. And I think they get so much more – in the negotiating of meaning, the listening for understanding and the oral interaction with classmates. What are your written worksheet alternatives?



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March 18, 2016
by leesensei

Encouraging Risk/Rewarding Growth with “Checks And A Smile”

How do we encourage students to risk? How to we encourage them to ‘stretch’ and try something new? It’s a big challenge in the world language classroom. I have been using rubrics a lot to find out about how something went for a student, but it took until this year for me to use them to ‘prepare’ students to interact.  I realized that the rubric (and it’s construction/labels etc) is one way that we communicate class expectations. So why don’t we ask them, prior to the activity, to set up/predict/plan how they willSource: work to meet them?  This post focuses on interpersonal speaking but the concept may also be adapted for writing as well.

Initially I started asking students, prior to starting the activity, to select their ‘challenge’ (the ‘extra push’) – and check off (on the rubric) what they wanted to focus on doing/improving. Then I asked them to share that challenge with their partner to build in a bit of accountability. Then we moved on to the activity. It seemed to work well – they sincerely considered their ‘extra push’ in the interaction. But for me it wasn’t enough. It felt a bit focused on the ‘what I am not doing’ and not acknowledging ‘what I can already do’. Clearly, I needed a more balanced approach.

Lately I’ve been trying to acknowledge/encourage via “checks and a smile“. Prior to the activity the students select the ‘challenge/push’ for the activity – that gets the check. For my novices I generally have only 1 check, but in my upper level courses I source: openclipart.orgexpand that to 2 challenge/push areas. Then I ask them to select something that they already feel that they do well – what they are proud that they already incorporate into their interpersonal work. That gets the happy face.  I like how this combination gives a personal pat on the back for something already accomplished and still sets out something for them to reach for in their work.

When I ask students to reflect, as I always do, they are ready to tell me how they well they felt they did in meeting their checked challenge. Increasingly, with the equal focus on a strength, I see reflective comments about what they are ‘proud’ of  as well. And that is a happy face for everyone!



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