Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

September 9, 2013
by leesensei

The New First Days…(“Yo Ho Ho” )

imageEach year I strive to improve the way that class begins. This year, armed with my metaphoric pirate eye patch from my summer reading (“Teach Like A Pirate“) and a renewed belief in what constitutes review – my 18th start to the year promised to be different again – and it was.

No boring reading of the outline to start? Nope – this year we opened with “The Trailer”. I must admit I am proud of the visuals and the mood it sets but wasn’t prepared for the student reaction. Whispers to a student beside when they saw an anime character they knew, laughs at the “iron chef” line and unbelievably – applause – at the end. I congratulated them on being wise enough to choose Japanese and then followed up with a brief presentation on the ‘journey’ they were on with me as their ‘guide’…They were primed!

A pipe-cleaner? Fresh from “TLAP” reading – the pipe-cleaner activity. My new Gr 9’s (no TL skills) folded into an object that represented something about them and shared with me/partners in English. My Gr 11’s (1-2 semesters in TL) did a mixture – challenging themselves to do as much as they could in the TL  with their partner.  My 29 Gr 12’s spent time in groups of 4 or 5 (they were asked to change every 5-8 minutes) and used their pipe-cleaner object as a starting point for conversation – all in the TL. Fabulous.

But what about the outline? – Ah – that is now a reflective/informative piece – an idea that I borrowed with permission from Martina Bex (@martinabex). Homework on Day 1 was to read the new improved “infographic outline“& FAQ‘s for class and then answer 4 questions regarding it. The responses to this were really informative. Students showed a real awareness of how they best learn and what their particular challenges are in class. Many commented on my willingness to allow them to use technology in class and how much they loved it’s interactive nature. I wanted to reinforce what kind of learners I need and they were all able to pull out the key requirements of a good language learner – ‘risk’ came up again and again. I responded to each of their emails – an easy cut/paste “Thank you” in the TL with an added personal PS for each.

Will they review everything from last year? Okay I will admit that we are doing some in one class – as my Gr 11 class blends students from 2 different types of pre-requisite courses. But in the other ones we are mainly (as my previous post outlines) doing a lot of talking, game playing and story reading to review the “how” of learning. The “rules of the road” reminded the Gr 11 & 12’s of their role (and mine) in the room. As one student said to me “I may not remember everything, but I know where to go to find out what I forgot”…

My new first week has helped establish a strong relationship with my students, and between them. It has also rekindled their enthusiasm for studying Japanese and participating in class. It would not have been possible without the #wltlap and #langchat PLN support that I received…Yo Ho Ho …Onward I go!


August 27, 2013
by leesensei

What Exactly Are They Reviewing?

Football teamThere is a lot of talk in my professional circles at this time of year about ‘review’. With the two month holiday drawing down and the Sept.3 start of classes looming the question of whether to/how much to go over is always a timely one. Last week my #langchat PLN spent time discussing it – and, true to form, my personal view of the role of review came to me in one of my quick and spontaneous 120 character tweet

So what are my “Rules Of The Road” that need revisiting at the start of the year?

Self-Sufficiency – Your teacher is a resource, a guide and someone who can clarify and support in the classroom. Most of your real use of the language will happen outside these 4 walls. So, you are the person who must know where your resources are, how to locate what you need and, most importantly, when to go to them for support.

Supportive Sustained Interaction – You will not always understand what is being communicated to you, and someone will not always understand you. How do you make it work? What are your strategies? Do you repeat? Use gestures? How about rephrasing or supplying examples? How do you sustain a conversation – what are your follow-up questions to learn more about the topic/person?

Target Language Work – You are being asked to work in the Target Language (in my case Japanese). Your partner, or group, expects you do this, just as you expect it of them. You will not be asked to do something that you do not have the skills to do – so relax and use what you have in your head (and at your fingertips). You will improve your skills, accomplish the task, and – unbelievably – have more fun if you stay in the target language.

Incidental Chatting – If you finish something when others are busy you are to not to sit there mutely awaiting instructions. No – this is your time to practice those ‘small talk skills’. What is your partner doing after school? What did they do this morning? Do they like broccoli? How do they feel about a particular subject? If you’re stuck you can use some of  the ideas on our conversation sheet. Imagine – you can sit and talk with someone about everyday things…just like a real person might!

Welcome back to the journey…glad to have you on the road again!


 PS If you are interested in connecting with other MFL teachers – why not join us for our weekly #langchat Thursday at 8pmEST? Topics discussed are suggested by participants and are voted on weekly. It’s the best personal Pro-D you can do from anywhere!

June 18, 2013
by leesensei

Keys For Using Student Self-Evaluation in Discussions…

MP900341496Too often in the past a student would complete an oral, turn to me and ask “How did I do?”. Didn’t they know? Weren’t they aware of how it was going? Gradually I saw the need to change my focus from oral production focussed on grammar and vocabulary to interpersonal communication. And who better to judge how the communication activity went than the person involved? I use self-evaluation rubrics a lot in my classes for various oral interactive activities.

What are the key elements that need to be in place for meaningful self-evaluation?

A Robust and Flexible Rubric: All of the rubrics I use are based upon the same 4 key areas: Asking questions, responding to questions, utilizing vocabulary and structures and facilitating conversation. The current interation of my rubric represents a collaboration  with my DELF– focussed French teaching colleague Cara Babson and  #langchat colleague Natalia DeLaat (@natadel76). The rubric is based on those used by DELF but modified to suit my current needs. Perhaps best of all the rubric is an evolving document changing to meet communication goals and class needs. My current version is here if you are interested.

Student Awareness of Language Expectations: Build an expectation of language use and practice skills needed. We practice the art of the follow up question a lot. Class often begins with a prompt in English “Ask your partner…” with the words “who? when? why? what do they think of? how often? how good at?” etc below. Prompts relate to current units or topics of study. Sometimes we change partners several times – the short bursts of conversation allow for good practice. As a result students are capable of digging for deeper meaning when finding out information from their classmates

A Personal Challenge to Meet During the Activity: I have moved to using the Rubric now before we even embark on the activity. In particular I ask students to write out or put a star/check mark next to their personal challenge in the activity. Some focus on “no English” while others choose more personal ones such as “explain in Japanese”. Choose your challenge brings a heightened awareness of the goal of the exercise and ‘sets the stage’ for the interaction.

Written “Self-Debriefing”: For ‘summative orals’ I don’t let them do the rubric right away. Rather they turn it over and must reflect in writing first. Initially I ask them to answer a key question posed by the teacher. For example “When I heard that we were going to debate the environment in Japanese I…”  I then follow up by asking them to relate some aspect of the oral that they were most proud of. If the oral is not a major summative one then the student must support their self evaluation giving the reasons ‘why’ behind their choices.

An Absence of “Numbers”: I will admit this is my latest development in my rubrics, and it comes courtesy of my correspondence with Natalia. I am replacing the ‘numbers’ traditionally used with the DELF rubrics with the ‘word’ descriptors. This allows students to focus on the ‘content’ of the rubric descriptor and not it’s perceived value. The first time that I used it with students I encouraged them to circle the phrases that they felt applied to them – no matter what ‘square’ they were in. They truly thought about their language use and were very thoughtful in their responses when they supported their choices. I do eventually ‘convert’ these rubrics to a number, as my school asks me to do, but that is then my doing and not theirs.

The more that I work with rubrics, and student self evaluation, the more I see the rewards for my students. They are more involved in their interactions with others and more confident of their strengths, and what they want to improve on. The journey will continue…


June 4, 2013
by leesensei

Some ‘Real Life’ Tasks for Common MFL Units

Group of Friends with Arms Around Each OtherWhen I began my language teaching career, I really struggled with orals. Skits? Conversations? I quickly found them overused and underwhelming for ‘authentic’ use. A conversation with an amazing French teacher sparked my interest in “tâche finale” (a summative final task).  So I started my re-think with one idea in mind “How/When would these topic areas be used in Real Life?” From there its a bit of ‘backwards and forwards’ design to determine what they already know that they can use in terms of vocabulary and grammar, and what they need to acquire.

All of these activities ask the students to do the following:

– communicate in the Target Language but record information in English

– use language that is common to anyone in class – no dictionaries!

– spend half the interactive time ‘manning’ their booth giving information and half gathering information (generally 25 minutes for each)

– use the information gathered as part of their written summative test

– students self-evaluate for language use at the end of the task using a rubric that touches on asking/answering questions, use of the target language and how they felt during the activity

School – School Fair: My 3rd year students work in rules, uniforms, subjects and more in their school fair. The only info for potential students to see is a name card on the desk. So students must ask and answer questions to get information. Then they use that to write about which school they would like to attend and one that they wouldn’t.

Food – Taste Tests: Students are asked to recommend food items for the school store/cafeteria by testing on their classmates. They choose 3 producers of the same product (chocolate, cookies, coffee etc) and then do a blind taste test activity with their classmates. They gather information on demographics, buying habits and preferences. Then they use the information to prepare a report on their findings.

Daily Routine – Murder Mystery:  Who did it? Take one dead rich guy, an ex-wife, ungrateful children, a lover, his new lonely wife and a chauffeur besotted with her and you have a great mystery. Students volunteer to play the roles – in a twist detectives even interview ‘the dead guy’ and are encouraged to get into character. Teams of 2 detectives get 5-6 minutes to interview everyone involved. The key? The students don’t know the time of death until the next day and when they get it write out ‘who did it’. Suspects and ‘the dead guy’ write as well on who they feel the culprit is.

Travel – Travel Fair: The key here for me is that traveling to major urban centres in the country is not allowed. Students plan an optional 2 or 3 day tour to the destination of their choice ‘off the beaten path’. During the travel fair day they visit 3 – 4 tour booths. Tour operators work to sell their tour by finding out about the tourist – and tourists have their own questions. Then the twist on the written task if for them to write a ‘long’ email to a friend complaining about a tour their parents made them go on!

Hobbies/Sports – Activity Centres: When my 2nds year students begin to add reasoning and ‘purpose’ into their speech they finish with the chance to design their own activity centre. They include outside and inside activities (weather info) and try to appeal to a wide variety of their classmates. Not only do they have to give information for potential clients but they also have to ask the clients about their interests to try to sell them on their centre. After the fair students write about 1 or 2 centres they’d like to be a member of and why.

Students love the ability to communicate information in a ‘realistic’ setting – and I love the 45-60 minutes of target language use I see during the time!




May 28, 2013
by leesensei

It’s an “ALN” not a “PLN”….or it should be…

MC900438747There’s a lot made about the Personal Learning Network (PLN) these days. I know it isn’t a new idea. For years teachers who wish it, have taken personal time and initiative to connect, learn and expand their professional skills. In some schools this is easier than others to do. Many of us work in schools that do not give a lot of personal learning time – and instead favour group Pro-D. Others have the freedom to spend much more time on personally designed pursuits.

Enter Twitter and suddenly, regardless of your school’s focus, the ability to connect and learn on your desktop. Twitter has proven to be revolutionary for many of us -and we enthusiastically search out people, and links to others, that add to our professional lives.

However a PLN doesn’t end with following people on Twitter. I would argue it’s not how you construct it but if, and how, you use it. To me the most important part of the PLN isn’t the Network or the Personal at all. It’s the Learning that is key. And it cannot stop there. To really have a PLN that counts, I believe, you have to be an ‘Active’ Learner. This isn’t about tweets or retweets at all. What do I mean by “Active Learning”?.

Trying Something New You Got From Your PLN: It may be taking something that is shared with you, using it, testing it, maybe even adapting it and then, and this is the most important part, offering up your view/experience with it to the Twitterverse. Would you consider that someone had mastered a skill if they never had to demonstrate that they could use it?

Attending a Hashtag Chat: I admit that some of these chats are so big that the ability to put in ideas, and even see what’s going on is difficult. But there are so many out there that finding one that fits for you is possible – and many lists of them exist if you search for them. For me #langchat,  (Foreign Language teachers) on Thursday is the one. It’s an easy first step to lurk at these chats but to be actively participating, even if it’s just tweeting your presence, is activity- and maybe the first step to joining in.

Check In On a Regular Basis : Active also means that you make a concerted effort to check in on your PLN on a regular basis. I find it ironic that so many educators moan about no time to learn but, when it is as easy as following a list on a subject, seem overwhelmed at ‘how much time’ they may need to invest. Yes it takes time, any learning does if it is to be meaningful.

Many teachers are the first to say that they want to expand their skills and try new things. Creating a PLN using Twitter is a good first step…then making it an ALN is the next…isn’t it?


May 22, 2013
by leesensei
1 Comment

Reaching A “Reluctant” Learner – What Terry Reinforced for Me..

Every year I have students who enter my Japanese 11 class out of a ‘crash’ 1 semester course called Beginner 11. While the majority of students have had 2 semesters in the language the Beg. 11’s cram it all into 1. Not ideal at all especially as quality of learning suffers for the quantity that must be covered. Beg 11 exists for those who suddenly require a second language credit for whatever reason. These students come to Gr. 11  lacking time and practice in almost every skill.

Terry (name changed to protect the innocent) looked like trouble; in Grade 12 and from the Beg. 11 course, indifferent, with attitude. He was quick to tell me that he was only in the Gr 11 course for university requirements. He skipped a couple of double blocks, scored poorly on a couple tests and was so busy reaching for his dictionary that he wouldn’t even try speaking in Japanese.  Oh it was going to be a long semester and admittedly I was not looking forward to it. How was I to reach him? And, more importantly, would he let himself be reached?

I thought about this as I watched him in class on Friday. With 4 weeks to go in the semester, he was engaged, active and assisting his partner in learning. What happened? To me it came down to supporting Terry for success.

‘Do-able Tasks’ – My tasks and activities are always ‘do-able’ requiring little support from the dictionary. Students who strive to work on the basics will have the ability to complete what I ask them to do. If they choose to ‘stretch’ then they can but at the least they will ‘finish’.

‘Personal and Partner Interest’ – Many tasks revolve around the student themselves, and their personal interests. This is a comfortable place for them to start – and a secure one for them to build upon. I don’t allow them to stagnate at themselves though. Equally key is the practice and use of follow-up questions for students and their partners. They learn that they just don’t talk about them – but they inquire about others in a detailed and thoughtful way as well.

‘Supportive Partners’ – I set the seats for my classes and for some students this is done very carefully. Students who are struggling to engage in class often find themselves with confident and enthusiastic partners. These great students are so secure in their own strengths that they find it easy to pull language out of the other person. For the reluctant learner the partner is patient, non-judging and keen to learn (and usually some of this rubs off)

‘My Determination to Make a Connection’ – I think one of the most important things is to not stop encouraging or looking for that chance to make a connection with a student. Too often I hear “well you know ___is beyond hope” from colleagues. I guess they are if you let them be. In Terry’s case it was a book on his desk – one that I knew well. I asked about it, he gave a brief comment and, as I had donated it to our library, also commented on it. He lit up and launched into 5 minutes on the plot. Not in the Target Language mind you but a connection was there and continues to be.

What do your “Terry”‘s teach you?






May 14, 2013
by leesensei

“Taking A Risk” – What Does Risk in the MFL Class Look Like?

I use rubrics a lot in my classes as I feel they allow the student to really ‘see’ what they have achieved and where they might improve. Increasingly I have moved to self-evaluation of some of my oral activities – in which the students fill out their own rubric and justify their choices. One activity I do is a ‘re-cap’ of a reading – after students have read a piece and had the chance to note down answers to guided questions. They can make their notes in either the Target Language (TL) or in English – but they have to be able to ‘say’ what they want to in the TL. After the activity comes the evaluation. In the past the “4” category for grammar and vocabulary was simply “Excellent. Took Risks. Didn’t Use English”.

Lately I haven’t been happy with the ease with which students have been giving themselves a “4”. So today, prior to the evaluation I stopped them and we discussed what “risk” looked like. Here’s what they thought. Risk is:

-working without a safety net or “notes” or the dictionary

– asking and answering follow-up questions

-when you have to hesitate and say “let me think about that” and then answer

-introducing other topics to talk about when we’re done

And so I have altered my old rubric to try to reflect those thoughts – you’ll find it below. Which brings me to my own risk and one teachers sometimes have issues with – risk is not in controlling their output but in letting them control it….! Again I learn the most from them when I step back and let them take the lead!


May 8, 2013
by leesensei

A New “Sense” of Direction….Street View

As part of my travel unit for Japanese 12 I do a quick review of direction giving. In the Japanese 11 class we use a static map for guiding around. But bringing that same map back for the Grade 12’s just didn’t seem to cut it. I don’t work in a school with 1:1 or even the wireless capability to support BYOD but our labs are reasonably quick so I have a pair share a computer there.

SetUp – Student Input:  Many of my students dream of visiting Japan and Tokyo is the first choice for them. So  2 days before the activity I ask them where they would like to go in Tokyo if they had a chance – and draw the inspiration for my activity from their information. I use a quick written exit slip. It is important that I don’t suggest where. Using the student’s information, I search Google for images “free to use or share” from each of the locations my students identified. Then I choose an ‘iconic’ location from that area as the target of the activity and a label for it that allows them to zero in on the general area.

SetUp – An Expectation of Language Use: My Grade 12’s are used to the expectation that an activity will be done using the TL (target language) only. I build this via informal and formal reinforcement after class activities. Sometimes it’s a quick ‘stop-light’ slip – Green (only the TL), Yellow (few words of English) or Red (1/2 the time or more in English). At other times I use a more detailed rubric for self and partner evaluation. The result is students who do use the TL – even without a teacher hovering over them.

The Task: Students are given the picture “quest” sheet and use Google Maps to go first to the general area. From there it’s into Street View and they work together to try to get to the location in the photo using the TL. It’s fun to hear them “No – don’t go left, go right at the next street” – as they work to find the spot. I make if very clear that they don’t have to go to every location on the page – but rather to pick one or two – find the spot and then explore the area.  Some do like to find all the picture spots while others take up the exploring challenge.

The Wrap-Up: After the activity I use a rubric for self and partner evaluation of their use of the TL – including a written justification of their choices.  I also ask them to provide any TL words/phrases that they felt they needed (for the next time I do this).

My students loved the chance to visually explore an area they are interested in and more than one commented on how proud they were that ‘they didn’t use any English’ in doing so. As for me it put me in the role I like best – supporting my students in their learning – not leading!



April 16, 2013
by leesensei

Show Me What You Read….Comprehension in the TL…

Reading in the target language (TL) often raises questions for me. How do I know they have read it and truly understood it? How do I ensure that they pay attention and read for meaning? Frequently it’s the ‘good’ kids who race over the text and announce “we’re done”. Over the years I have developed the habit of asking them, as they read, to follow “Two and Talk” – each partner reads one sentence then together they talk about the meaning. After reading they have a series of comprehension questions and can answer them by writing down ‘key words’ only in either English or the target language (no sentences). Then, typically, the next day they are placed in small groups and review the story orally using the questions as a guide.

So today when they entered the class they expected the typical recap day. We read the text again and they practiced answering the questions with their partner, and another person of their choice. I saw them then get ready for groups – already nodding at who they wanted to work with. But…instead they were asked to clear their desks of everything.

Supplies: markers and big sheets of paper (20×30″/60x90cm) – I use a cheap grade of paper for this!

Instructions: students are told that they will be doing a visual representation of the story. That they are to use basic drawing, some key words and a few speech bubbles to tell the story visually. Partners are told that they will speak in the TL the entire time, but not use any notes. I gave the original recap questions on the sheet to help guide them. Also at the end of the activity they would be evaluating themselves and their partner’s work in the TL.

Cautions: students tend to rush off and either draw like they are recreating the Sistine Chapel or are overly reliant on text and not visuals to tell the story. I had to pull them together as a group to remind them that ‘a picture tells 1000 words’ and that this was not an art class (2 marks for drawing 14 for content!)

Additional Vocabulary: I did put some additional vocabulary on the board for ‘speech bubble’ and technical words like ‘one-third’ for layout.

Time: Students completed the entire activity in 35 minutes.

At the end of the time they self-evaluated their TL use, and their partners and for each wrote ‘why’ they had decided on that mark. They loved the interaction, the drawing and, more importantly, the chance to use their TL to communicate for a purpose.

The assignment sheet and pair rubric are here if you’d like them. Any questions please email me at

How do you ensure comprehension?


April 9, 2013
by leesensei
1 Comment

What I Really “Teach”: Literacy, Communication and Self-Reliance

I have had the privilege of working with a student teacher for the first time in my 18 years of teaching. It has been a great journey working with a ‘new’ professional. Today as I sat  in his ‘final’ conference we were talking about what would make his resume stand out in future hiring. My goal with him was not to have him talk about his MFL – Japanese teaching experience but to drill down and look at what he really does in the classroom. What do we do as MFL teachers?

Literacy – I do it every day. We guide and teach kids to decode, guess and work out meanings of texts that are not familiar to them. We teach them to infer and guess when encountering text in authentic documents. We also lead them to understand how a language works. We introduce and reinforce vocabulary – making it meaningful for them. Often we encourage them to gain the vocabulary that they need to function in class. Yes – I am a Literacy teacher.

Interpersonal Communication skills – We assist our students in developing interpersonal communication skills. Students learn to clarify, to explain, to ensure that a meaning is correct. Through authentic activities the become more skilled at working in a group or with a partner. They also develop an appreciation for the cultural realities that influence communication. Being aware of the do’s and don’ts in a foreign language makes students more aware of those that exist in their own first language (and if it’s not – for English as well). Yes I am a Communication Facilitator.

Self-reliance – I don’t stand and deliver a language. That’s not how the modern MFL class works. Instead I may draw upon methods such as TPRS, PBL or even (yes) Flipped learning – where the student and their choices/interests drive the learning. My MFL students learn to acquire what they need – in a personal way – in order to accomplish the task at hand. They also learn to ask for assistance and draw on resources when they need support. It’s important as well that they see how I acquire more language – that I’m not a dictionary but a learner/student of the language as well.  Yes – I model and develop Self-Reliant Learners.

I haven’t even mentioned “Life-Long Learning” as I work to incorporate more ed-tech. So when someone says to me – “Oh you teach a second language”…I now have a new way to respond “Well actually….”


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