Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

March 5, 2020
by leesensei

Adapting To Support….Adapting For Growth….

My educational jurisdiction is adamant about universal adaptations –  the idea that not only students with IEP’s but any, repeat that with more emphasis ANY student, can access these to show their knowledge.  Rebecca Blouwolff outlines the goals of “all student success” in her article in February’s ACTFL “Language Educator” (check it out!). I started on this journey a few years ago – when I was lucky enough to have a fantastic student with an IEP. She taught be so much  – including the idea that an IEP is something that outlines strengths and not areas of weakness. I included what I learned  in my post “Thank You For Having An IEP.”  I’ve continue to learn more about adapting to support and felt the need to expand on the post…and so ….mode by mode…my small steps in offering adaptations for success..IEP or not…

Interpersonal Orals….My interpersonal orals take generally take 2 classes and involve multiple speaking partners…so to support success students have…

  • Notes – If they need notes to allow them to participate…I let them. No they won’t be fully meeting but they will be confident enough to participate and minimally meet expectations. Even holding a paper with notes is sometimes effective. In my Japanese 11 class a student (with an IEP) used the class ‘resource book’ to participate. The smile on her face at the end when she said “I didn’t need them as much on day 2!” said it all.
  • Multiple opportunities to speak –  It’s challenging in one aspect but supportive in another. What is supportive is the idea of ‘do overs’. It can be precarious when a student is dependent on only one partner. With multiple people,  students will work better with some than others.  All partners offer small bits of language that the student sometimes borrows. So rather than ‘one and done’ I’ve found the opportunity to repeat (and expand) leads to more success
  • An “Understanding” Rubric – All students fear not understanding…and making a mistake. I’ve worked to take that fear out by honouring good communication in the rubric. Students know they can’t fully meet unless they tell their partner that they don’t understand something…and help out if asked. Do they try to self-correct? That’s valued too. It’s not an adaptation per se but it’s a support…and removes the ‘must say it perfectly without hesitation the first time’ fear…

Interpretive Tasks…

  • Reading – Audio – that’s one of my adaptations. Any student who needs it can listen to a recording of the text that they have been asked to read. Admittedly it’s me reading it (recorded on my phone) but its available if needed. I have several students who have found this to help them in reading…Students do the task with their class then come in on their off block  (or at lunch) to listen again (I load the audio onto a page on my blog – they listen – then I take the page down…). Another support is to highlight the general area that an answer is in (and the question that it refers to). Students still must use their understanding to complete but they are more focused on finding the answer.
  • Listening – Like the reading – supporting listening is all about opportunity… they can listen again. (and again). Sometimes I’ve given them a ‘timing’ range. (The answer is between the 35 and 50 second mark).

Presentional Writing…

  • Again it was the resource teachers in my school who helped me to put together ‘organizers’ for writing…I’ve used a fill in the blank/add a sentence strategy for some tasks. For others it’s been a target structure/add a reason/add a detail’ sheet. The full post on this “Scaffolding UP: Learning To Support The “Less Confident” Writer” details both approaches.

As I explore adaptations I am grateful for the insight and support of my students – and the fabulous resource teachers who have much to teach me. Thanks especially to colleagues Liz Bell and Connie Santos who share their ideas, and offer their input as I work to help kids to show what they know…


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January 12, 2020
by leesensei

“Pick 10 Jenga!” – Jenga With An Opening Twist

I have really enjoyed using Jenga in my classes. It was such a great addition that I blogged about it – from how to prep/label the blocks to what kinds of things you can do with it. But…..I have had one frustration. This is when I am using it for reviewing a structure/form etc and not necessarily when they are responding to a question prompt.

You see I have larger classes so I have kids playing in teams of 4. This is a great number but, what with 4 turns per round – and the long time it takes some kids to actually choose a block to try to take out – they don’t get the number of reps that I want them too. What to do?

Enter “Pick 10 Jenga”. Before they construct the game they have to pick 10 blocks . They must answer those 10 questions on their response sheet (see my original post) and check their answers. Once everyone is completed (and corrected) then they can play the game. Sure they might get a block they’ve already done – wow – and they do it again. Moreover, their partners will already possibly know the answer before they do and can help out (or chirp!) because they do.

I like this because…

  • There is a preview before they get into the game of what they will be doing
  • I can assist if there are any questions about “how do I..?”
  • They get more opportunities than just in the regular game taking turns

Okay you can call it whatever you want and choose any number you want…but it might be a “twist” that works for you…


PS I will say that today some of my kids even opted for ‘no game – just get the answers’ and didn’t stop with 10. I always say my kids have choice in what works best for them…they aren’t the biggest Jenga fans so…great that it worked for them!

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January 6, 2020
by leesensei
1 Comment

The “Challenge Sentence” Start of the Year (or Mid-Unit) Activity…

I’m always working on providing formative feedback for my students. For that reason I rarely announce a structure ‘quiz’ but choose to see how well kids are doing with a “pop check in“. And in another change from the start of my teaching career, I don’t do a ‘review’ any more…I jump right into the first unit with the idea that some ‘review’ may occur while we are working on the new material.  And for this purpose I began to use the the “Challenge Sentence” activity. In it I ask a student ‘how might we communicate…?”

How It Works….

On the board I will put 3-4 sentences in English and say to students ‘Here’s some Challenge Sentences…How might we communicate these in Japanese?” (horrified people who may consider this translating stop reading now!). Then below the English sentence I actually put the vocabulary words that a student would use – in random order. The students find a blank spot in their unit book and see if they can put the challenge sentence together.  As they are working on it I gradually write out a possible answer on the board. After all are done…we debrief – especially if there are ‘options’ or ‘choices’ in how it can be written. I often use it each day of the first 5-6 days of a new semester to quickly review ‘past’ structures needed for the new unit. (Sometimes I also want to see if, in the middle of a unit, a concept is ‘there’ for a student and I will use this instead of a pop check-in.)

Why We Like It …

It’s gentle, personal , instant feedback for a student. It checks to see if they are ‘okay’ with a structure and putting a particular style of sentence together. It doesn’t punish a student for not remembering a word.  It can be used when you want to have kids check if they are getting a current concept. My students tell me they like it because it is private and personal. They get to see what they already know and where the gaps are or if they ‘have it (and I’ve learned that kids like to know when they do get it).

It’s really not a new idea…but somehow the name “Challenge Sentence” makes it seem more intensely “fun”…!


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December 8, 2019
by leesensei

Dear “I Just Want To Meet Expectations” Student…I’m Sorry…

Meeting Expectations…You demonstrate knowledge & use of some current unit concepts & language structures and some evidence of previous learning. You make errors that sometimes detract, but your work is generally understandable. You tend to stick to the basic vocabulary and your work may lack details and personalization.

Dear “Meeting”,

Thank you for being in my class. You are a consistent presence in my room, come every day, do work as required and work in the TL with your classmates. In every unit you put effort into learning what we are working on. I’ve worked to change my classroom over the years. And one way has been to introduce the idea of ‘choice’ as in how much you choose to meet expectations.

But I’ve noticed things are a bit out of kilter lately. And quite frankly it comes down to me. You see I’ve been off and running in class – so busy trying to give students ways to “fully meet” and go beyond the unit items that I’ve forgotten about you.  I’ve been busy with the “you could say this, or try to add on this, or even take the structure and extend it to this’ that I realize that I’ve been muddling you up. I’ve been pushing opportunity but sacrificing the comfort you get in knowing that you have “got it”. And, quite frankly, I’ve been so busy giving options I’ve forgotten to give you something to hold onto.  It’s been a ‘sea of choice’ when you really don’t want just want to learn what I’m asking you to…

I’ve also forgotten that if I help you see that you are ‘meeting’ you will be more confident. And, if you are more confident, you might want to add more to what you do. But you will most definitely not be comfortable in the ‘stretch’ if you don’t feel that you’ve got the basics.

So I promise to make sure to support you. That in giving a variety options I clearly identify what ‘meets’ the expectations. That I use that language in my teaching with you – that you will hear “this will meet my expectations” as a ‘goal’ more and not as some kind of ‘minimum’ it might imply. That I will honour your wish to show me that you ‘have it’ and show you that I value what you are doing in meeting. That I will thank you for meeting my expectations more explicitly. I have always said that the ‘achievement’ in my classes isn’t the goal but the learning is… but I fear that the steadiness of ‘meeting’ has been perceived as seemingly less important than ‘fully meeting’ of late and it shouldn’t be.

Thank you again for continuing to take my class and I hope to meet your expectations a bit more clearly and effectively in the future.

Your teacher….



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October 9, 2019
by leesensei

JuMpInG into JeNgA..!

We know that the teachers of #langchat always provide new ideas to try in the classroom. So when Jenga started popping up – okay Meredith White was tweeting all about it – I thought ‘hmmm’. Then more tweets followed and I thought..”I’m in”. More required Twitter reading and I had my plan…today was my first day using it in class and here’s what I learned.

Getting ready..

  • Order a coloured blocks version – you’re going to want to use this several ways and colours allows you to assign tasks by group. I ordered a 48 piece ‘knock off’ of the classic game and 7 sets (enough for teams of 4 or 5 – my max. class size is 30)
  • Take them out of the boxes and put them in labelled ziplocks – they are easier to hand out and collect that way.
  • Label the blocks in the middle of the block with a handy sharpie (“A1”, “A2″…) – this serves two purposes. One is to keep the set together. When you find a block under a chair after a session and it’s labelled “A24” you know it belongs in bag “A”. Also if you label it in the middle kids can’t ‘see’ the number until they remove the block…
  • Prepare some general instructions – believe it or not some kids have never played this – so I found a simple explanation online at ‘wikihow’ and prepped a one-page sheet (here’s mine: jenga rules student)

Decide ‘how’ you want to play – there’s a couple of options.

  • If you are using colours you can have students respond to a prompt based on colour. Over time I plan to also develop games with a ‘question’ per block – okay that’s 48 but if you teach a language that ‘conjugates’ imagine how easy that would be. Here are today’s prompts:

Prepare The Instructions:

  • Put the instructions for the activity and the game in a plastic report cover sheet to hand out – on one side the basic ‘how to play’ and on the other the instructions for the game that day. And I never have to make up that instruction package again!
  • Consider if you want them to ‘record’ their answers. I decided that kids should write down the ‘structure’ part of each answer they gave today (you can use it also for more feedback). Their sheet recorded their name and then the key part of the response…

Hand out the games/instructions to the teams (my kids played in 4’s)

  • Go over the basic way to play the game and how they will be playing this time (their task as it were)
  • And then tell them the “what to do on your turn rules”  – which for my class today were:
    • take out a block
    • say the answer to the question prompt (based on colour) and no repeats!!
    • put the block on top
    • write out the required part of what you said as another group member takes their turn
    • If your groups’ Jenga falls…start again!!!

Stand back and let them at it! Some kids asked if they could pull 2 blocks at a time and give 2 answers and I left the ‘yes or no’ up to the group. They played for about 40 minutes and had a ball. I plan to use it once a unit (at least!). If you are looking for information try searching “jenga #langchat” on Twitter and you’ll get lots of ideas. Oh I will use this again!


PS : I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year on improving my practice – amazing professional development but not conducive to blogging. This year I’ve vowed to return to the blog and hope that sharing what I am doing perhaps resonates with others…



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November 2, 2018
by leesensei

Word Sneak? Phrase Sneak!!!!! Oral Storytelling & Listening

A very detailed story waiting to be told!

Okay I needed an activity. I wanted to provide choice but reinforce key structures. Often if we have students ‘use’ something we are worried that it is being done correctly. How could I encourage creativity but ensure the structures were properly in use? I had seen lots on Twitter about the idea of ‘word sneak’ as a vocabulary game (a post by Catlin Tucker outlines the idea). But I didn’t just want ‘words’ – so ‘Phrase Sneak’ was born…here’s how it worked…

The ‘key’ phrases/words

First – I set out the key phrases/vocabulary  they needed in the story. I picked 8 and asked each pair what these would be in the TL. I gave them a small notecard to write them down. Then we reviewed as a class. I also use a lot of visuals in class and envelopes with some of those visuals and blank cards were in their baskets on their tables. You could do this just with blank cards. (I like the idea of visuals as keys to remember what to say.)

Then the instructions. They were given 30 minutes to construct a story (not written down – to be orally told) using a minimum of 6 of the 8 key structure items. And they had to include 3 that I designated as key (they’re the ones with the dots beside them in the picture). I recommended visuals for the key parts – and most used ones we had already (and supplemented with hand-drawn ones).  They were reminded that both partners had to participate in telling the story – that one partner could not do all of the speaking. That was the extent of the instructions. (Note: my colleague whose kids did quick sketches for every picture took much longer to prepare and will tell their tales in the next class).

Just before we set out to share each team got a post-it note. They were instructed that as they listened to a story, and heard the group use the key phrases in telling it, they were to record (a check mark) that they heard it..(They wrote the initials of the group that they were listening to and just put check marks as they heard). My peer tutor also suggested that, when students heard the required phrases, they could indicate that with a ‘star’ instead of a check – I like that extra level of listening.

A story waiting to be told!

Then they set out to tell. After each pair recounted their story they stood up and looked for another group that was done. Then they told it again. And again. Most groups retold the story at least 3 times. You could always do the retell the next day (and allow followup questions from the listeners if you wish. That would be a great extension).

It was a different way to reinforce structures, be creative and have some fun! I’ll do it again!


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May 17, 2018
by leesensei

One Piece of Paper – Sketch, Share, Listen, Speak….Repeat…

I’ve written before about my use of what I call “Sketch and Share” – a way to combine visuals with sentences to practice a particular structure (and avoid the dreaded worksheet). My Year 1’s (Grade 9) have just finished using this in an expanded way…

Day 1: It started with the idea of adding details to a sentence – a day of the week, a person,  a person to go with and a place to go.  One one side of the paper the images that make this up (blue). A coin purse (Friday – character for gold), a person, Mom, and a restaurant.  On the other – the sentence (green). “On Friday, I go, with my Mom, to the restaurant.” 

Day 2: We worked through the structure points and each person checked their work (and their partners) for what needed to be in the sentences.  Then on to the “Share” part – a challenge to a partner to say the sentence. It’s also a practice asking if student’s don’t know what an image is (in TL). Students circulate and challenge 4 people to “say” 4 of your picture sentences.  Then it comes in for me for feedback with only a few needing any tweaking.

Day 3: A chance to work in transportation words. A story and practice ensued. Now students are asked to add a transportation word to their original picture and their original sentence. Circulate and challenge again. Then into me to double-check that you’ve added that element.

Day 4: We began to work on the difference between ‘to a place’ and ‘at a place’  (yes – it is a whole lesson for Japanese!). Again a story and related work in class. Students then were asked to add another sentence to the one they had already written. This time they were adding what they will do AT the place the original sentence went to.  Again this came to me for feedback.

One piece of paper. Four days – 4 chances to write, talk, listen and repeat key structures and obtain feedback…I like it…


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May 4, 2018
by leesensei

Talking the Talk- Eliminating the Word “Test” from My Learning Environment

I’ve been working to reform my classroom learning environment. This is a long-term project, aided by a wonderful colleague in my department (who I won’t name – she doesn’t like the spotlight). We are working hard for students to see that the classroom is a learning and feedback environment. That we are not going to ‘mark’ your learning. That the only thing that is ‘assessed’ is what you have mastered at the end of a unit. I’ve altered my conversation around marks gradually – shifting from numbers to descriptors and adding proficiency descriptors. I’ve changed how I ‘grade’ work we do in our classroom. I’ve even altered how I evaluated using pop check in’s to help students assess if they have mastered an area or not.

In the past few weeks though I noticed a holdover from my ‘past’ teaching practice. The word “Test”. So many kids cite anxiety about a ‘test’. Teachers use it as a ‘hammer’ and a ‘threat’ in their belief that it will get kids to do work. “There’s a test” then becomes the impetus for kids to study and learn. And it is held up as the measure of how well they are learning a subject.  And yet I continued to use the word. It suddenly felt so wrong and so incongruent with my current teaching practice. For a while I settled on the word ‘evaluation’ as in “you’re learning will only be evaluated at the end of the unit”. It was a step up but still to me smacked of the idea of a ‘test’. So I put my attempt to eliminate the word ‘test’ out on Twitter to the #langchat crew. And the lovely Wendy Farabaugh replied that she uses the word ‘assessment’. Wow…assessment …great word.  A simple snapshot in time of their mastery of certain skills. Not a punishing ‘right/wrong’ list of what students can’t do but an assessment of what they can. We ask kids to self-assess and I constantly assess my teaching – and now I’m making sure that my work with them is viewed via that lens too. Update: After reading the post a great reply from #langchat amie Natalia DeLaat. She uses  “assessment” for more summative activities and “learning check” for smaller items – I’m going with that!!!!

So out with the words ‘quiz and test’ and in with the word ‘assessment’. It’s aligned with what I believe and what I am trying to practice. The only issue, beside my self-monitoring to make sure I no longer say the words, is the need to change the ‘wording’ on the cover of previous ‘tests’. And that’s an edit I’m happy to make!


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April 29, 2018
by leesensei

Is This For Marks? Well…Let’s Talk About That…

So welcome to my class – I know you may not have been here before – and I know already you have asked me about how hard I ‘mark’ and if there is a final and more. You’ve even asked “is this for marks?” about something I’ve asked you to prepare for class…You’ve been well-schooled by the ‘if it has a mark attached it is important’ idea from your classes. So let’s just stop a moment and review ‘marks’ in my class…here we go…

Is this for marks? Will this count? Your class is a daily opportunity to learn and receive feedback on that learning. I know you may not get that yet. You’re expecting everything I ask you to do that has any ‘value’ to have a mark. So I’ll give you a mark for it. In fact everything you do, everything I ask you do prior to the summative is worth 0.5 marks. Yes. 0.5. Almost seems not worth it does it? I mean why not skip a class, why not choose not to do something for class? Why bother. It’s not worth much. But the sum of all those experiences, all those chances to learn, all the feedback you receive will ‘count’, will impact your summative assessments. Your summative assessment is worth ‘everything’ in the unit. It’s a look at where you the end of all the learning, feedback, check-ins and more. Each summative also increases in value over the course of the year – so later summatives are worth more – more chance to slowly develop your skills and bring in your past learning as you add on new learning too..

You didn’t do what I asked you to do in preparing for today’s class? You just didn’t bother? You wonder if you can ‘make it up later’? Sure. Of course. You will not get a “0” for that. It will be recorded as ‘incomplete’ in my book until it is done. Oh but it was something I asked you to prepare to use in class and if you don’t have it ready….you won’t be participating in the activity until it is…Yes you could have done it…but you chose not to. So until you are ready you’ll be sitting this one out…and missing out on a chance to get feedback for your learning…

Did you really think you knew something but found out you didn’t. Well chances are you did it via a pop-check in. You were asked to show what is in your head about a concept – without ‘warning’ or ‘studying’. Did you not understand as well as you could have/thought you did? While after the check-in, while you were in class, I took the time to go over it with you, we talked about what you do understand and reviewed what you still aren’t sure about. And then you do your ‘revisions’ and hand it in for that whopping 0.5 point credit. But now you have shown more understanding than you did before…

You did something I actually ‘tested’ and it didn’t go so well? Was it a lack of understanding? Did you just have an off day? Would you like the opportunity to show me that you have learned the material. Yes you can. Life happens and sometimes you need another chance. (Sometimes…if we’re at every time we’re having a chat!). Please email me a request to do so telling me when you’d like to do that. Happy to provide that opportunity.

So sure ‘it’s for marks’….just not how you think it is…


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August 30, 2017
by leesensei

Read, Reflect, Respond…Or…No Reading the Syllabus on The First Day of Class…!

It’s almost my first day…and I am excited to see my students again. I enjoy the first day – especially since I made the decision to NOT spend any time reading the syllabus (or outline as I call it). I got this idea from the amazing Martina Bex…and this year I have updated/altered my questions to suit the new style of syllabus that I have designed. It’s an all ‘graphic’ syllabus now…including a Path to Proficiency and my recent “Skills You Develop in Language Class” infographic as well.

So what do I do with this ‘piece’ of paper that is a syllabus? Well…I ask them to take it in hand…read it and answer some questions that require they ‘reflect’ on what they read… This email assignment also ensures that they know how to contact me! (After all they have to do this to complete this!)

Here’s what I ask my 2nd and 3rd year students to consider….








I’m looking forward to their replies…


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