Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

March 21, 2016
by leesensei

The Song Lyric “English First” Reading Activity

We use songs a lot in our world language classes – they are an amazingly authentic resource – and often just downright fun to listen to. file000564987721#Langchat has done more than one chat on this subject and I have written about my ‘song of the week‘  and the variety of ways I use it (among other ideas) in the past.

This past month I stumbled on a new aspect of the song activity. Keep in mind that this initially came as part of a bigger activity but it emerged as a fun interpretive add-on. In a nutshell it involves using the English version of the TL (target language) song lyrics as well as the TL ones.

What you need – a copy of the English lyrics and the TL lyrics (you can almost always find them online). Please note that I get my songs from iTunes (I believe its important to pay the artist).

What you doTo start, I put the lyrics side by side on a piece of paper (trying to match up the lines) and have the students fold them to only initially see the English version. You could put them on two separate pieces and only hand out the English first. Then play the song 2-3 times with the students looking at the English lyrics as they listen. I don’t worry too much about “understanding” – I want them to be listening and ‘reading’ the meaning. Next ask them to choose 5 words (or phrases or lines depending on their level) in the English that they want to see ‘what they are’ in the TL. Finally, once they have them I then ask them to look and search for the key phrases. Nope – no dictionaries at this point – they have to use the original English lyrics, position in the song etc. I then allow them to look up the words in the dictionary to see what they ‘mean’ in the original language. Finally we share out 1 key word each (on the whiteboard) that they found and think they will use again!

Why I like this – There’s so many ways that we use songs and I must admit that this type of approach was an afterthought during a more traditional ‘use the song’ activity. But I found that I liked it because:

  • It reinforces that we don’t directly translate from one language to another – it’s so much more than that – we have to consider not what they are saying but what they are ‘communicating’.
  • It’s personal – students are finding words/phrases that appeal to them
  • It’s interpretive – they are using guessing, inference, and more to try to find the match
  • It’s different – we almost always go to the TL lyrics first – so it’s a twist

Students enjoyed this ‘song’ option and I heard more than one “hey I was right!” comment during the time. I’ll try it again with other songs in the future!








February 13, 2016
by leesensei
1 Comment

The “Class Reads A Story” Process

white-rabbit-varietyIn a bid for more authentic reading I’ve begun to expand my use of stories with my classes. There are many ways to use them and this post highlights one way to use/support reading in your target language.

This post focuses on one way that I use the Japanese Graded Readers as a class story read by  the students (in pairs) at their own pace. I started this journey with the Yr4 novel unit last year and learned a lot while trying to implement it. Student feedback was helpful and many said “we should do more of these”.  So this year I am…

When I Use Them For “The Class Story – I typically start the year with this kind of story activity. For my Yr 3’s I use Momotaro and my Yr 4’s I use Urashima Taro.  Later in the semester my Yr 3’s also read KasaJizou  and my Yr4’s read The Restaurant of Many Orders . My Year 2’s read Hachiko as a class story as well.

The Goal? It’s my goal that students will read a story with their partner and use supports/partnership to work to understand meaning. It’s my goal that we don’t read ‘all together’ but that they read as a pair at a pace that works for them.

How Long? For these stories we are reading for 40-45 minutes of the class but you could read for shorter periods (over a longer period) as well.  Generally this entire reading process – from first pre-reading to final recap takes 3-4 class days.

It’s All About the Pre-Reading Activities!

Initial Vocabulary via images – I hadn’t thought of how easy it was to introduce key vocabulary from the first few pages of the story via images until I was reminded to by John Cadena. My favourite site for these is Irasutoya (Japanese specific). I project the key images (all 8 of them) and preview as a class prior to the first day’s reading.

Target Structure Reminders – In the case of my Yr3’s reading Momotaro, I wanted to remind them of all of the different ways that they were going to see the TE form used in the story. grab key images from the first few pages of the story

Vocabulary Support – I provide an extra vocabulary list and verb list for students. The vocabulary is provided on a page-by-page basis for the story and the verb as part of an overall list. Vocabulary is provided as it is in the story – that is words in kanji are in kanji on the list (with furigana) with their English meaning.

Audio Support – I learned last year that the audio to the story is key. But because I want students to read at their own pace I had to find a way that they could have the audio with them. A couple of days before the read I post a private link of the audio that students can put on their phones. They listen as pairs (sharing headphones)  and are asked to remove the audio once reading is done.

During the Read – Independent ‘Pair’ Reading

Read as a pair – Students opt to either in the classroom or in a quiet place in the hall. They typically listen to the page first. Then they read it aloud with their partner using what we call ‘Two and Talk’. That means that they each read a sentence (or two) then stop and talk about meaning. They understand that they don’t need to ‘translate’ 100% of the words but rather figure out ‘what’s going on’.

Read until… – I don’t set out reading goals prior to the time but rather base it on ‘checking in’ with each pair during reading time. I then ask all pairs to be at a specified page by the end of reading time. All groups are typically within 1 page of this point. If you are past it – that’s fine.

During the Read – Capturing Meaning/Summarizing the Tale

Prior to Reading Time Each Day – Generally at the start of the class we do a Q/A summary of the story via the images. I project an image from each page that we have read and we explore – orally – the story so far using ‘who, what, where, when, why…’. It’s a great way recap the story so far and remind everyone of where we are.

After Reading Time That Day – Students work on that ‘summarizes’ their reading so far. I pull key images from the story pages for this and ask them to ‘tell me what’s going on’ related to the picture. I stress that they are to write their 1-2 sentence summary as if they were talking to someone who had missed reading that page. They are not to ‘translate’ or ‘copy’ but rather to provide the basic details as they unfolded.  This is “marked” holistically on a ‘minimal’ or ‘meets’ the expectation of being a general story summary in Japanese.

Summing It Up – After We Have Read The Story

Retelling With Partners – After we are done the story the students retell the story in pairs – using a set of all the images from the story. They are to ‘talk’ about what has happened and use their story reading summary as support. What is key for me is that they are talking about the story rather than reading their summary to their partner.

Story Plot Graphic Organizer – My students complete a 1-page graphic organizer in English to show understanding of the story. This is a typical character & plot diagram sheet that they are used to doing for stories in their English class. Again it is marked holistically at ‘minimally’ or ‘meeting’ the expectations of plotting out the story (from start to finish).

Yellow Brick Road Recap – After all this work I like to have my students find a new partner for the Yellow Brick Road review. This is such great fun and I am grateful to Carrie Toth‘s post on this wonderful idea she came up with. My only twist is that, instead of key words, I again use the images from the story laid out around the room. Because they start their recap at different points in the story it really works at their ability to recall and discuss. It’s fabulous. We debrief via the ‘how did that go’ rubric.

I really like this process for the group read. My students like the readers because they are written for people learning Japanese and not just ‘children or baby’ stories.  And they feel great when they ‘actually read something and understand it!’ they say!




December 1, 2015
by leesensei

The “Read & Think/Respond” Class-Generated (& Targeted) Reading Activity

readingWe all get students to write things. We all take the time to read things. But how much to we tap the benefit of students reading each other’s work? Especially when we are trying to hit a targeted structure/vocabulary and have them see it over and over. I have gradually been including more and more of the ‘we read/we look/we ‘evaluate’  opportunities.  I use it with written ‘messages’, infographics they make, pamphlets and other student produced text.

The Set-Up: Here is the example from my Yr2 class. The targeted structure is ‘want to do/don’t want to do’ and “want/don’t want’. To start the students read a text message between a recurring character and his on again/off again sweetheart. They loved it. I quickly abandoned the boring ‘game’ I had for practicing the structure. Instead I asked them (in partners) to create a text message between two characters of their own. But I hadn’t prepped the assignment. Again I turned to them. I asked them what I would want to see in the piece. They generated a better list of ‘elements’ than I could. Then they set to work. They were so into it and so involved in their message that I gave them 2 periods on it. Some wrote on paper, a couple did text message screen shots – every group decided on ‘how’ they would produce this (we are NOT a high-tech school).  New words are allowed (up to 5) as long as a glossary is provided for the readers.

Reading Day:  We set out what is to be read on top of the desks. I ask the students to step out of the room for instructions (because in my space I can). I ask them to move from piece to piece with their partner and to read thoroughly. This is NOT a race to read all. Quality reading is expected.  I find that pulling them out and then sending them back in ‘sets the stage’ for the type of activity that I want and focuses them on their in-room activity a little more than just giving instructions in the classroom. Then they enter the room and begin.

Students move from table to table with their partner. They record their names on a post-it on the table to note that they have been there. In this case it was a text message so they each read a ‘part’. If it isn’t a message then they take turns reading the text and talking about what they are reading.

They have about 45 minutes for the reading. They move from place to place as they open up. I don’t specify how long they have to read – they take the time they need. For some readings I expect them to read them all (infographics etc). For others – with more detailed text I don’t. So sometimes they go to all of the tables, sometimes they don’t finish.

The Post-Read Activity: The KEY for me in this is the post-reading task which requires them to evaluate/use the content. This means that they have to comprehend what they are doing. For the Yr2’s I asked them to read for the required content “We saw…” and then to give their impression of the overall piece. This is quite ‘target structure’ specific but for this – it was my goal. Each team is asked to read 4 pieces in this way. (The sheet they got for this is here). For my higher grades I ask them to do things like choose something to fit a category and use the information on it to defend their choice (in the TL or English). A link to this style of post reading (from the Sumo Cultural Activity) is here. Generally the reading/post-reading happens in 1 (80 min) period although asking them to read for specific targeted content in text-heavy pieces may take longer.

My students like the class because they move/work freely with their partner. One Yr2 told me that “It’s fun and interactive – I like reading all the messages and its great because I understand what I am reading!”. I like it because they see the same structures over and over and, best of all, are creating with the language that they are learning.






May 19, 2015
by leesensei

The New Story Unit Part 2: Independent Story Reading – The Process & Reviews


Image source:

I’ve introduced a new story unit to the Year 4’s. This grew out of a need to replace a unit I disliked and also wanting to make use of the large collection of Japanese-language graded readers that I have – but never did anything with!  I learned a lot as I went through this process – some of it went well and some needs refinement for next time!

Pick Your Partner (or not) – We read our class story in partners but for this I wanted to offer options. Students could choose to read solo (about 4 did) or with a partner (the rest of the 26 picked this method). I even had group of 4 develop as 2 groups of boys banded together to work through the reading.

Pick Your Book – The first story we read, as a group, was from  “level 3” and designed for those reading with a 2500-5000 word vocabulary. So for the “pick your own story” option there were choices at level 2 (1500-2500), level 3 and level 4 (5,000-10,000). I laid out all the options and allowed students 20 minutes to look at the story books. Not one group dropped down a level – all choose stories at level 3 or above. (To me this meant that the group read process had made them confident to continue!) They received a ‘copy’ of the story as I didn’t have class sets of originals. The stories on offer were varied and the most popular choices were – at Level 3 – かぐや姫、魔獣、かげのこいびと and at Level 4 – 雪女、はしれメロス. What I will do next time: On the back of these books is a brief blurb – which I hadn’t initially noticed. For next time I will copy these and offer them up to help choice – as many students chose based upon the pictures or the title with little info beyond that to inform them.

Pick Your Reading Pace/Location – This is a new unit so we discussed, as a class, how long they should have to read. Most of the stories were 20-30 pages – not terribly text dense though  – and with pictures to support reading. However, unlike the previous story, they would have no provided grammar/vocabulary information – they would have to look up/figure out what they encountered. We decided on 5 class periods with the understanding that we could adjust as we went along. In the end that turned out to be the perfect time  – the majority finished on day 5. In their ‘reflection’ many students said that they liked that they could read at their own ‘pace’ – and didn’t feel pressured to skimp on reading for details in a rush to finish more quickly. Students who were done did not go into the project right away but had a day to work on other academic items while they waited for their peers to finish.  Students also chose where they read – some read in the hall (quieter with so much reading aloud!), in our class and even in nearby empty classrooms. This contributed to a more relaxed reading atmosphere.

Pick Your Supports for Reading – It became clear as they went along that four items were essential to aid in reading. One was an electronic dictionary – which was faster and offered more choices than a traditional paper one. The second was the audio of the story – I only offered this up on day 3 of reading and, as it turns out, should have offered it sooner. The third was the teacher who took on the role of grammar coach – frequently putting key ‘bits’ of language up on the board to assist in meaning. The fourth was in attitude. There are a lot of Chinese characters in these books (with furigana reading) and in the class story I provided the definitions. So in their own stories they had to look up via the reading what they didn’t know – and relax about all the kanji on the page. For next time I will offer up the audio sooner than day 3.

Pick Up Your Reading Log – They used the first page of the log to note key vocabulary that kept coming up over and over again in the story – and would become part of their project on the story. Students also filled in a reading log at the end of each day responding to key questions in both the TL and English (TL questions/answers & Eng questions/answers). I would post the questions on the screen so that it allowed us to come together at the end of reading time as a group. Next time I may alter the TL and English question balance to more TL.

Pick Your Project to Show Understanding – I wanted to offer up a couple of ways for students to show their understanding of the stories. So I pulled from the group story project – a graphic organizer –  and offered a video review project as well (info and rubric here). In both cases the criteria reflected the need to show complete understanding of the story. Students had 3 days to complete the project in class. (Although the video pairs took an extra day). We didn’t show the videos in class unless the students’ involved said ‘okay’ (one group did/one didn’t) For next time I think I will ask for a couple of the ‘beyond the page’ questions to be in the TL instead of just English.

Pick Your Retelling Day Partners – Students engaged in a 1 hour class of ‘telling about their story’. They had a day with their partner to prepare for this and many used the pictures from their stories to do so (see the Carrie Toth idea in my previous post). Then on story day they circulated among themselves giving a summary of their story and recommending it to others (or not). Note that I did no evaluation on this day – to me this was a day to share only – and celebrate the accomplishment! For next time I will provide key pictures from each story for this instead of asking them to talk without support.

The reviews on doing this from students were so positive and enthusiastic about reading. Many spoke of their pride in reading actual stories, as well as in the freedom that they were given to learn in their own way. Others said that they never really knew they were learning to communicate in another language until this accomplished this. Still others said “do this in earlier grades with less difficult readers!” (and I will). What a fantastic unit it turned out to be for my students’ confidence in using the TL. More to come – more reading for this group – and more of a chance to read at the lower levels!



May 7, 2015
by leesensei

The New “Story Unit” Part 1 – Establishing An Environment for Successful Reading

testI really hated the ‘clothing unit’ I used to do in Year4 – the one that I did it because it was in the text I used to use. And I just.couldn’ So what to add in. At the end of the course I used to do a 1 day story read. But….I wanted to incorporate it more into the course. So this year out with clothing and in with a story. The story is from a graded reader series in Japanese – and it’s a fun tale of a restaurant that (we learn in the end) eats the customers that visit there. Just enough ‘scary’ and ‘interesting’ to capture their attention and designed for readers with a vocabulary of 2,500-5,000 words.

I’ve taken lots of inspiration from my #langchat colleagues in setting this up…and I am pleased with the first pass

What Did They Read?  The story is called “注文の多い料理店” (The Restaurant of Many Orders) and is at the gold level of readers provided via White Rabbit Express in Japan.  The book contains a mix of text and key photos that aid in following the story. The text does not shy away from using Chinese characters with ‘furigana’ provided for each on how to read them.

How Were They Supported? This is was my students first foray into a text heavy ‘story’ and the key for me was to inspire confidence and spur them to want to read more. So ensuring success was my key ‘mandate’.

Grammar/Vocabulary Support: The story contains grammar and vocabulary students had not yet encountered. Because I wanted them to be successful and experience confidence in reading I provided a reading guide. It contained two key items – information on unknown vocabulary on a page by page basis as well as links to brief grammatical notes. In truth there wasn’t much on the grammar side they hadn’t seen and what they hadn’t was repeated enough to allow them to become familiar with it. Two key pieces of grammar were reinforced via a flipped lesson (read on!).

Pair Reading: I asked them to read with their seat partner – and to follow our typical “two and talk” practice – each reading a short amount and then stopping and talking about what they read.

Flipped Lessons for Two Key Grammar Areas: I first saw this in action during a visit with Catherine Ousselin in Mount Vernon – the combination of video and google forms to check understanding. I wanted to reinforce two grammar points that occurred over and over in the story. Students had also heard these items before but never looked at their technical construction. I am the first to admit that the videos (produced via screencasting program Snagit) are not anything but me annotating notes. Once uploaded to my YouTube channel students could view and then they were directed to a link to a google form ‘quiz’ that tested their understanding. The form was in turned tied to Flubaroo to provide instant feedback. My full post on this is here.

Graphic Organizer: Using a recurring item in the story, in this case “doors” the characters encountered. I created a large (11 x 17″ both sides) graphic organizer for the students. As they read  – and encountered the doors – they were asked to fill in ‘characters’, ‘setting’ and then the stages of the story. Students filled this in in the target language. I also added strategic questions – in English this round but I will TL them the next time I do this – asking them to go ‘beyond the page’ and show deeper understanding. The organizer was used after reading as the students used it to initially ‘recap’ the story.

Audio Support: I am lucky that these graded readers also come with audio of the story. So after finishing reading we read the story again as we listened along to the reading. A great way to re-hear the story.

Time to Read: Students were initially given 4 1/2 class periods to read the story (about 25 pages). They were not asked to meet any particular schedule other than finishing by the set date. As this was the first crew to do this, we all agreed to review the time requirements as we went along and indeed found that the time worked for them – this ensured that they would give themselves permission to read for understanding and not feel pressure to ‘finish’ that might compromise comprehension.

Teacher as Coach: I was not the reading leader during this process. Instead my job was to ‘float’ and ‘coach’ as needed. It worked well. I think it taught students to ask for help as needed and not to be concerned that they were checking something out that they felt they might not be understanding (and more often than not they were ‘getting it’!)

Oral Recap – a la Carrie Toth: I loved this idea when I first saw it and was determined to use it. Once students were done readingIMG_2292 (1) we had a ‘recap day’. Instead of ‘key words’ from the story, as Carrie did, I chose to use images from the book (there was almost one per every two pages of story).  I copied the images from the story and laid them out in the hall and my classroom (1 set/14 students). Then students had 90 seconds at each picture to talk about what was happening in the story at that point. It was really successful and a great way to recap what happened.

An Amazon Japan “Review”: What would be more natural these days then to ask for ‘reader reviews’ of the story. I did a mock-up of an Amazon Japan page for the book for this. Students were asked to provide a star-rating, a summary of the story, and their review – recommending that a person should/shouldn’t read the story.

This was great! Students were engaged in reading and their confidence grew daily during the process. It was the perfect setup to their own ‘independent’ read (new post on this to come!). Thanks again to my #langchat colleagues for their sharing of ideas, and input, as I developed this unit!



Skip to toolbar