Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

August 5, 2017
by leesensei

IIS it Quality Oral Interpersonal Communication?

Do you ever sit through something and wonder “What’s the point of this?”  I know that I often do. It pushed me to share with students why we are doing what we are doing. It will also assist me in my goal of implementing daily learning intentions for each class. So it a goal of mine to have students learn to/start to/be able to articulate what makes their interpersonal interactions rich & interesting. What makes it what I call ‘quality communication’? I ask my senior (3rd & 4th semester) students this often and finally I’ve found the acronym that I am looking for. So for me the purpose of their interactions can be summarized with the phrase “Quality Communication ISS….”

Informative – for us this means “Are you providing details & extended information?”  Are you including descriptors, connecting ideas, giving reasons, describing ‘how’ you do something and more? This is always related to the level of proficiency of the students. But it is a push to have them try to maximize the amount of the information that they provide….and I find it spills out into their presentation speaking/writing as well (helped along by including it my rubrics). One exercise that we use to help build this in the earlier years is a brainstorming “Wheel of Detail“. I find then as we employ this strategy my Yr3&4 students add can start to do this ‘on the fly’ as well.

Inquiring – communication is not a one-way street. Are you asking the all important follow-up questions? Are you extending the conversation by asking questions related to what is being said? Are you digging for details that you are not hearing? We start purposefully with this in Yr1 in a ‘question game‘ because quite frankly I don’t believe many of us are ‘natural communicators’ and include it in all of my interpersonal rubrics because I consider it so key. If you are not asking questions…if you are not looking for details then you are letting  your side of the communication down….

Supportive – this is a ‘dual purpose’ question for my classes. It speaks to the ability to help someone understand what you are saying. The idea that you can use any word/concept you want as long as you can get your meaning across. But it also requires students to have the confidence to say when they don’t understand. Again I start this in Yr1 and my students practice both sides of this supportive communication. I find that the ‘nerves’ around speaking are then lessened when “what if I don’t understand?” is not an issue. Students relax & know that it doesn’t matter who they are speaking with, no matter their level of proficiency, because their partner(s) will be supportive of them. In fact I often pair those of ‘varying’ levels to ensure that they develop, and practice, these supportive skills.

It’s taken time for me to articulate what I hope quality communication will be for my students….and support them in pursuing it both in and out of class…


December 27, 2016
by leesensei

Top Posts of the Year – #2 – Novices – Learning to Add Details!

What a year it has been! A year of change and growth for me as a teaching professional (it never ends!). For the next few posts I am looking back at what resonated with readers of “Language Sensei”.

I am always trying to get my students to add more detail in their presentational writing and their oral interactions. For my novices I employ a brainstorming strategy that takes it’s cue from follow-up questions. Although this post is about my Yr1 Intensive course – I use this strategy right up my Yr4 classes – adjusting the ‘detail’ as the level dictates! So now the post I called “Wheel Of Detail….” With 2 months to go in the semester, my  Yr1 Intensive students (2 semesters in 1) are now using their language for communicating more than just “I went to the mall”. I am a big believer in using the idea of ‘follow up questions‘ to drive details – but it’s sometimes hard to encourage the ‘brainstorming’ required for this. As my students  were prepping for an oral I pulled out what I call the “Wheel of Detail”. Essentially its a modified mind map and I use it for both presentational writing and oral interpersonal activities.  I like it as it connects details to a central activity.   Read more…


November 20, 2016
by leesensei

Supporting Interpersonal Interaction in Class – What Helps Them Stay In The TL?

Group of Friends with Arms Around Each Other What allows you to walk out of the room, run to the copier and come back and still have them talking? What allows you to send them out to record a conversation and know that they won’t script? What is it that makes them confident to use and sustain a conversation in the Target Language? If you know – please share! This is an ongoing quest for all of us. I have been trying, as you all have over the years, to imbue in my students the ‘confidence’ to risk, to try, to talk.  Here’s a few of my ideas on what helps them out.. what I find helps them want to not only talk, but to sustain their talking in the Target Language.

It Begins with the Setting – A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit Catherine Ousselin at her school – my first #langchat face-to-face encounter. What I took away from that, beyond the idea to do more ‘stations’ in class – was her setup. Tables – long tables that allowed students to sit in groups and face each other. Imagine. No desks in rows facing the front. How could I have a communicative classroom if I made it physically difficult for them to communicate. When I returned home I made the immediate switch to tables of 4. No more rows, no more facing front. In fact I also removed myself from the ‘front’ of the room – switching my teacher area so that I am the ‘coach on the side‘.  Now there is more room for their tables, and more room for them to move easily to find a new partner…

They Build Their Confidence With “I Don’t Understand!” – It’s their biggest fear – that they won’t know what someone is saying, that they don’t really understand what someone is saying and that they are at ‘fault’ because they don’t. So from Year 1 we take on this fear. Our belief in class “If you don’t understand what someone it’s your job to tell them! And their job to assist you in understanding!” So we practice saying “I don’t understand!” We even practice not understanding – yes on purpose – and how to help someone out. In Year 1 it involves repeating, giving your own answer and/or providing examples. By Year 3 and 4 they are including circumlocution practice for their self-selected vocabulary.  It’s these skills that allow students to use the vocabulary of their choice with their peers. As we say “You can use any word as long as you can explain it!” And knowing how to do so reduces the fear and increases the likelihood of risk.

It Includes Teaching Conversational Skills – I firmly believe that often the cry of “They won’t talk!” is really not because they don’t want to but because they don’t know how to. We just assume that they can – which I find ironic because I am terrible at it at age 54 – why do we assume that they are practiced conversationalists at 15? So we practice and learn how to via follow-up questions. We make it a game initially in the early years and then I continue to expand it as they move up in their studies (they are always found in their course resource package & up on the wall in my room.) Students know, because they have practiced and used them over & over, how to extend the conversation. Interestingly I have found that the follow-up question approach also helps them to expand their presentational writing – an exercise we call “Wheel of Detail“.

We Set The Expectation of TL Use in the Post-Activity Rubric – I firmly believe that the value of a rubric is not in what is filled in – but in what it can communicate about expectations. I have used the same activity rubric over and over. “How Did That Go?” rubric sets out the goals that the student will work in the TL, will be an equal partner in the conversation and will ask & answer questions. Prior to the activity we look at the rubric and I always ask my students to set out their personal challenge as well as something they know they will be comfortable doing. It is amazing to see the number of students who choose “Didn’t use English” as a goal. They actually want to speak in the TL. After, because we always reflect before the rubric is filled in they get a chance comment on how it went – and again many are thrilled that they used their circumlocution skills to stay in the TL.

The Intention of the Activity Is Clear to Them – “Why are we doing this?” “What’s the purpose?”. I know I’ve sat through many meetings or even ProD sessions when I couldn’t answer this. I know that, as a teacher, I have the idea of why in my head. So I’ve started to also let them in on it and go over the intentions of the activity. Now I don’t do these for every one – and sometimes I rely on past practice or the post-activity rubric to set them out less explicitly. But before many interactive summatives I now do. In the junior classes I find that I spell it out for them, but in my senior classes I ask them – and they can, as a group, tell me why every time.

They Have a “Compelling” Reason to Want To Talk –  I don’t think there is a teacher out there that doesn’t try to find a purposeful task to encourage students to interact. It is a challenge to continue to find them and I have used a variety of ideas, many adapted from those shared with the #langchat community by generous teacher. Lately I have been working to make the talking ‘valid’ by using the information gathered for a presentational task. In Year 1, for example, students find out if their peers like the same foods that they do (and how often they ear them) and then write out what they learned in basic comparing sentences (an extension that reinforces written work). In their reflections many said how fun it was to meet new people and learn more about them in another language. “Oral Worksheets” provide both an opportunity to talk and dig for information as well as practicing particular concepts. In my summative oral Interactive Fairs in all levels the information gathered is always used in the summative writing task.  As they go about all of these tasks they do so without my guidance – moving from a current partner to the next one on their own (something we call “Talk,Stand, Switch“).

There are so many more ideas out there shared by the #langchat community on how to encourage sustained TL use. The ideas above are a product of the professional development work that the community engages in on a daily basis. And I thank everyone for sharing what they have learned via their amazing #actfl16 tweets – it’s almost like I was there….







November 9, 2016
by leesensei

Talk, Stand, Switch….Developing Independent “Mixing” Skills

In my classes we do a lot of talking with different partners, often gathering information from them to use in class. Whether it is Yr1 finding out how often their classmates eat their favourite foods, or Yr4 creating and sharing their own stories, I ask my students (in a given period of time) to talk to a number of people. But…I hate being the timer. I hate having to direct my students “New partner please…”. I want to build in their capacity to meet, talk, and then ‘move on’. In the interest of building a class community also want to have them work with/talk to students they might not normally speak to. So I have been experimenting with what I call “Talk, Stand, Switch”.

Basically I set out the challenge – how many I would like them to try to talk with in the time period given (they know that there is no maximum – they keep going until time is up.)Then I tell them – when your pair is finished stand –  look around the room – and get a new partner from the others that are also standing.  Students move to the ‘open person’ – even if they don’t know them. They may work with someone who is weaker or stronger than them and that brings helping/circumlocution skills into play.

I used this yesterday with my Yr1’s as they spoke with each other for 22 minutes (!) in the TL discussing food preferences. Yes I had to do some guiding “Sam, Janie looks like she needs a partner!” However the majority of students moved easily to the ‘open person’. It was great – and many of them on their “How Did That Go?” rubric written response commented on how nice it was to meet new people.

It’s a simple thing – but I hope it builds the expectation in class that we work with ‘everyone’….that our class community is a safe place to risk, try and learn…


May 4, 2016
by leesensei

“Wheel of …..Detail!” A Strategy to Aid Novices in Adding Detail to Communication

With 2 months to go in the semester, my  Yr1 Intensive students (2 semesters in 1) are now using their language for communicating more than just “I went to the mall”. I am a big believer in using the idea of ‘follow up questions‘ to drive details – but it’s sometimes hard to encourage the ‘brainstorming’ required for this. As my students  were prepping for an oral I pulled out what I call the “Wheel of Detail”. Essentially its a modified mind map and I use it for both presentational writing and oral interpersonal activities.  I like it as it connects details to a central activity.   Have a look at the one below. Wheel of DetailIt is centred on two topic areas for the oral – ‘what I like to do’ and ‘what I did on the weekend’.  On the side (in red) you can see the prompts for the kinds of follow up questions we have been working on.  You see the brainstorming in English as this is for an ‘oral’. They put down all the details that they want and (if they are unsure of the word) they can add it (you see one example in red above the word park). I am a big believer for orals in allowing English prompts. If this was writing – I’d be doing this in the target language (as we did last week with a similar kind of write). I like it better than a ‘list’ as the Wheel is an effective way to quickly, and visually, connect ideas.

How do you encourage/support adding detail in communication?


PS – the word ‘hint’ on the post-it? Well we’re coming up to a summative write and every once in a while I was ‘dropping hints’  – yes holding up the post-it and dropping it! 🙂


March 9, 2016
by leesensei

The New Feedback Rubrics – Part 2: The Interpersonal Oral Rubric

As I mentioned in my previous post, my rubric journey has been a long and winding one. In the previous post I talked about how I have developed (and continue to) my presentational writing rubric – with the goal of both providing guidance for what is expected and feedback on how a student is doing. Again – and especially for this rubric, I owe a huge debt on these to Amy Lenord who first developed the checklist idea. Stop now and go read her post first – it sets the stage for the ‘feedback’ checklist portion of the rubric.

The Interpersonal Oral Rubric:  Again this rubric is still evolving – and I continue to tweak the descriptors to fit what I am hearing and what I want my students to push 301276952-Oral-Interpersonal-With-Checklist-2015-1towards.  At Fully Meets a student is using current knowledge and tapping previously learned items. They are not giving speeches or talking in very long complex (and often memorized) sentences. Rather the detail and complexity shows itself in the what kind of information they are trying to communicate and how effectively they are doing that.  A student in this category is using follow-up questions often and effectively to dig for details and their choice of questions indicates how well they are listening to their partner. Errors can, and will occur, but a student in this category is often self-correcting – which for me is not an ‘error’ at all. The Fully Meeting student is at ease in the interaction and is an ‘equal’ – not a dominating partner. We work hard to make sure that students are comfortable when they don’t understand something in my class and so ‘facilitating’ can mean explaining a word – or helping a partner to find one – in the target language.   Minimally Meets for me is the ‘unit’ items – and at this level the student is showing me what they have mastered from the current unit but is generally not drawing heavily on past knowledge. This student is often the ‘follower’ in the conversation and they minimally meet expectations by recognizing what their partner is saying – but not necessarily generating as much as they are.  A student, for me, generally falls between Minimally and Fully – and I usually find they have items selected from one or more columns.  At this point – with selections out of several columns I often use a +/- to show where they are. For example a “Meeting+” means that you are moving out of “Meeting” and starting on your way to “Fully Meeting”. A “Fully Meeting-” would be ‘not quite there but definitely out of the “Meeting” area. I believe that the +/- also serves to encourage/show students that they are ‘on a continuum’ of skill building.

The Feedback:  Here is where the real value is for me – the quick and easy way to add extra comments to the piece. This is Amy’s checklist and fully credited to her.  It is general enough to provide a ‘guide’ for a student and has room to allow me add specific points as well.

Student Self-Evaluation First: This year I also started having the student participate in this process. For the Oral this comes prior to the evaluated interaction. We use the checklist for this in what I call “2 Checks And A Smile”. The students select two descriptors that are to be their ‘challenge’ or focus on including/improving in their conversation. These are the “Checks”. The “Smile” is a happy face put next to something that they already feel that they are doing well. It’s a reaffirmation of a skill/strength they already have.

As I wrote in the previous post, the rubric language is still not fully what I want – there are areas to improve it and make it more clear. But I like the mix of the ‘how you met’ and the ‘here’s some feedback’ that it provides.  The link to the rubric is here – and if you are inspired by it please credit myself and Amy for what you use.



October 6, 2015
by leesensei

The “New and Improved” Conversation Circles Activity

convo1One of the more popular posts on Language Sensei involved my use of “Conversation Circles” in class. Essentially the premise involves a small group of students interacting to answer questions regarding a reading that we have done in class. The original exercise is good, and has been effective, but as is usually the case in teaching, I have refined what I do. I have made 3 major changes to this activity…

A “New” Rubric – I continue to refine and hone my rubric for this activity – trying to encourage a depth of conversation beyond what students would normally do. This is a self-evaluated activity – and my students are used to responding to “how did that go?” in class. My new version of the rubric has added a section for the “Everyone” questions that I now include (see below). We preview the rubric before the activity and I ask them to select 2 things prior to the activity – something that they already feel comfortable with and one thing that they want to ‘challenge’ themselves in doing when they start. I ask them to share this with their partner, as saying it out loud increases the sense of personal ownership in how they participate in the activity.

Adding “Group Reflective Questions” – The original activity involved students answering pre-set questions about a reading in the target language. The typical comprehension questions we might ask are there and in the group they ask/answer these questions in the Target Language. (Note – they get a chance to prepare notes for answers and practice with their partner before getting into groups) But the NEW change is to ask a group-focused reflective question after the story question. An example is “Where is Peter from and why is he in Japan?” with the new question “Everyone – where are you from and how long have you been in Canada?”.  Another one is “Which manga is Peter a fan of?” and the new question “What manga do you think are popular at this school – and why?”.  Students are expected to use their arsenal of ‘follow-up questions‘ to further interaction with their group.

An Expectation of “Depth” –  With 8 or 9 story questions, and the new ‘group’ ones, I tell students that this activity is to take at least 45 minutes to do. I want them to push for a deeper conversation – especially on the group questions. They are not to race through the questions but are expected to work hard to dig for details.  They are asked to begin with a group (they determine who is in it sometimes, sometimes I set it out). Typically I let them work for about 25 minutes with this group. Then I ask them to find a new group – and to only work on the ‘Everyone’ questions on their sheet. I will admit that one group was so gung-ho on the everyone questions that they were only on Q3 (out of 8) after 25 minutes – no complaints from me!

Small changes with an increasingly big payoff….more changes in the future for sure!



February 15, 2015
by leesensei

The Interactive “Fair” – An Idea for Group Orals in the MFL Classroom

women-handshakeOne of the mainstays of my teaching is the belief that language should be used by students to ‘do something’. As a result there are very few ‘stand in front of everyone and speak’ opportunities for my students, and many ‘talk with many people’ ones.

As I have moved along in my teaching I have used the concept of the “fair” or ‘group oral’ as a pretext for student interaction (and evaluation). In a recent post John Cadena outlined how he used the fair idea for his fairy-tale retelling (an idea I am going to use for my classes as well). He mentioned that he based this upon some of the ‘interactive fair’ orals that I do. I thought I would pull together several posts outlining examples of those that I have done. I use them in all levels of language learning – especially in Yr 3 and 4.

There are several keys for me in using these types of orals.

Pairs Work Together To Prepare – But Individually to “Present” – On fair day the desks in my room are in a circle. One partner sits on the ‘inside’ of the circle and the other on the ‘outside’. The outside partner runs the booth for half of the time (generally 20-25 min) while the other is out finding out information from other groups. Depending on the complexity/detail of the information they are getting students can visit as few as 3 or as many as 7 other teams during their time. Then they switch – even if one is in ‘mid-explanation’ their partner is expected to slide in and replace them on the spot.

Students Understand The Expectation of Target Language Use – All oral interaction is to be in the Target Language. We work on self-evaluation skills a lot during my classes and my students  are very aware of how well they could do what I asked them to.

Speaking in the TL/Writing in English – Generally students are filling in an information sheet as they go around – one that is done in English and not the Target Language. Yes this can bring up a fear of not understanding something. However, my students regularly practice ‘the assist’ – helping someone when they don’t comprehend and are fully aware that they are allowed to say “I’m sorry but I don’t understand (vocabulary).

Self-Reporting of Success – The fairs are ‘self-marked’ – for the students’ ability to complete the task as required.  They are asked 2 exit questions (such as “how did that go?” or “a challenge for me was…”) that they must answer prior to completing the  oral evaluation rubric. I feel very strongly about this – that personal reflection must precede ‘filling in’. One part of the rubric always touches on the amount of English or non-TL used during the time.

Linking the Oral to the Written – As much as possible I try to link the information gathered in the oral – to the piece of writing they will do to show summative knowledge. In my Yr1 class, after the Club Oral, this can be as basic as outlining what various clubs they liked and why. In the Yr 4 Taste test this takes the form of a marketing report – using the data they collected. After the Travel Fair students write as a bored teen using one of the tours as the basis for “The Trip My Parents Forced Me To Go On”.

Adaptable for Any Year & Many Types of Themes/Content – I think the basic premise of the interactive fair can work for a wide variety of language levels, and themes. The examples below all take the basic premise – and all draw on different themes/levels of skill:

The “Club Decision” – students prepare and present their club activities

The “School Fair” – students construct and sell their themed schools to classmates

The “Taste Test” – students conduct blind taste-tests of products and analyze results

The “Travel Fair” – students research and construct tour packages to lesser-known areas of the TL countries

Next up for my Year 4’s is the “Murder Mystery” – where pairs of detectives ask questions of suspects in the murder of a wealthy Japanese Tech entrepreneur. Their fellow students play the suspects, and, in a twist, one student plays the ‘dead guy’ (and detectives get to interview him as well. It’s a fun way for students to test their language skills (and in the written test – they get to say who they think ‘did it’.)

What themes, language situations do you have in your classes that might lend themselves to an interactive fair?










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