Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

April 2, 2016
by leesensei

Building Student Responsibility For Learning: Pre-to-Post Oral Activity Ideas

DSC05583The ideas in this post deals with oral interpersonal activities in my classes. However I think many of them can be used for presentational and interpretive activities as well.

One of the big things that I have learned, and continue to learn, in my teaching is that, in order for learning to occur, my students need to be as aware of/involved in it as I am. Increasingly I’ve been building in opportunities for them to take on responsibility for their learning and provide feedback for themselves (and me) on the process. I’ve done a variety of posts in the past on parts of these but thought I would put it all together in one post that spans the ‘pre to post’ activity process.

Pre-Activity – Setting Our Expectations – I’ve learned that I can’t just set out ‘what’ we will be doing, but, in building in self-responsibility I also have to address ‘how’ and ‘why’ we will be doing an activity. With that in mind I now employ a range of pre-activity strategies (sometimes I use all of these at once, sometimes just a few) including:

  • Rubric in advance – Wow have I learned how powerful a rubric can be in establishing expectations. But what I have also learned is to use it to see if they both understand the expectations and their impression of how they are meeting them. So now I often ask them to mark the rubric before we do the activity so that I can see how they are expecting it to go.
  • Intention and/or Post Reflection Starters on board- new for me this year is to put either the ‘intention’ of the activity  or the actual post-reflection sentence starters on the board in English (or both!). In reading out the intention it gives an opportunity to remind my students why they are doing the activity. “Today we will discuss our favourite activities with partners. The focus is on communication and understanding – not on finishing quickly.” I’ve also experimented with writing the post-activity ‘reflection starters’ on the board – another way to set/build expectations.
  • Checks/Smile – Again a new one for me this year that expands beyond just having students read the rubric in advance. I am seeing results in using “Checks & a Smile” in the reflective comments of students afterwards.
  • Sharing with partner – We know that if we share a journey of change and growth with someone it helps us to make the change/take a risk. In a quick ‘share a challenge with your partner’ students share, and often learn, that everyone, regardless of perceived ability, has areas that they can still grow in

During Activity – Focus On Communicating – The goal during any activity that’s interpersonal is ‘good communication’. We work a lot in class on this. What does it for students to be good communicators in class? Students know that top ‘marks’ go to those who:

  • Are as good at listening as they are speaking
  • Don’t confuse good communicating with dominating/making speeches
  • Say when they don’t understand & help out when someone doesn’t
  • Asks a variety of appropriate related follow-up questions
  • Know that it isn’t about ‘finishing’ it’s about participating

Post Activity – Reflecting and Evaluating: Yes there is a rubric to fill out. It may be a simple ‘how did that go‘ or a more complex one specifically designed for the activity.  But before they fill it out students know they will also be writing. And they know that I will be reading these reflections and responding to them. Some of my favourite post-activity starters include:

  • That went ….because…
  • I am most proud that….
  • A challenge that I set out for me was to …and I met/didn’t meet it because…
  • My work in class today reflected/did not reflect our year level because…
  • One challenge for me for next time is…because…
  • We should do more/less of this type of activity because…

It’s taken time, and the great support of my #langchat PLN for me to realize that it’s what my students think/know/feel about their learning counts the most.



April 6, 2015
by leesensei
1 Comment

“What Was Your Challenge? How Did You Overcome It” – Student Responses and What I Learned…


In my last post I wrote about my goal of ‘traction’ for my students. But the key for me is “Is the lesson on how to communicate/what to do if there are challenges?” getting through.

My Year4’s do a group interactive oral based upon a taste test. In the past I would not have been too strict on it but this is the new me and I asked that they do their 2-day preparation for the activity all in the target language (gasp! yes – I didn’t used to think they could!). It took some time – and some work to give them what they needed – and many ‘support/needed phrases’ went up on the whiteboard. Afterwards I asked them to reflect on how it went using my usual activity rubric. More importantly I first asked them to write their answer to the following prompt: “What were the challenges in doing this – and how did you overcome them (or did you?)”. Their answers tell me that many of the skills we try to acquire to communicate are there… and also that there is some work to do.

“Personally I do not think that I completely overcame the challenges I faced, but the use of hand gestures and examples helped me through…”

“Speaking Japanese for the whole time was a big challenge. I wasn’t sure how to connect the words to make sense at items but I tried to use language that we had learned in the past. This totally helped me to go on and talk with my partner.”

“I honestly got stuck several times with my partner – at a loss for vocabulary – but I got through this by (like Lee Sensei said) finding other words to get out of the ‘hole’ and use words I do know.”

“We used body language to express what we were trying to say (when we didn’t know) and to be honest its a good thing to do – it worked!”

“It was a challenge to ask something that the other person would be able to understand – I overcame this by testing sentences until they understood what I wanted to say.”

“To overcome this I tried to use similar words, and then rephrasing to make my point get across.”

“Yesterday when I was stuck I resorted to English – but today we learned from yesterday’s mistakes and used actions and simple words – instead of English to overcome the language barrier.”

“I can converse in a conversation but planning I tend to need to use more complicated sentences and that was more difficult. I tried to overcome it by trying out different sentence starters, rewording as I needed to..”

“When my partner and I worked together I felt more comfortable to overcome the challenges of not knowing certain words”

“It was very uncomfortable at first but I focused on only using Japanese and it worked okay and I gained some confidence (in using it)”

“I think we didn’t really have a clear strategy in not using English except that we both tried our best not to and that really helped us overcome the challenge of not using it! In the end it was the effort that did it!”

“It was difficult to talk completely in Japanese – we used our unit book notes etc. to help – but it was do-able.”

And what did I learn from this?

I learned that all the work we do with assisting, circumlocuting and rephrasing is sinking in.

I learned that they will commit to using the TL only if they think it is worthwhile to do so.

And I learned this should be the norm – they should be able to plan (and do) in the target language (do I see the influence of PBL @sraspanglish?). BUT this means I start them doing this in earlier years – with lots of language support they will need. Then I can scaffold up my expectations of their language use as we ‘raise’ the bar in their TL use while planning/preparing.

It was a great to see them ‘digging in’ to do this and to learn how I can support them more as they try to move forward with language use.





March 17, 2015
by leesensei

Reflecting on Reflecting in the MFL Classroom


I didn’t start out with a conscious ‘plan’ to build a reflective classroom. Honestly early in my career my goals were all about ‘grammar-based’ linguistic elements. But somewhere along the way (as my teaching changed) it crept in – and I ‘m glad that it did. Yes my students are learning – but just as important to me now as what the ‘know’ is their ability to articulate, and reflecting, on the process. How it’s going for them? What’s sticking or isn’t? What’s engaging them or not?  How did they feel about what they did in class?

How to build this reflective practice in the classroom? As I fumble my way through I have learned some things that are helping me in this process:

Pre-Activity Expectations: We don’t throw kids into an activity without a establishing a ‘why’ and giving them the tools for what they are going to do. I think it is equally key to set up a reason why they are reflecting before they begin to do what they ask them to do. So often I will give out my activity rubric activity out prior to interacting and ask students to think about what’s coming up. Most times I ask them to ‘choose their challenge’ – what are they going to try to stress /work on during the activity. Sometimes it will be to put a star beside what they think will go well for them.

Share and be Accountable/Support: Students often have the false sense that they are the only one in the room who is struggling or isn’t ‘getting it’. Before we launch into what we will do,  I frequently ask them to them to tell their activity partners what their challenge in the upcoming activity will be. Is it not using English at all? Are you trying to ask more questions not just respond to them?  It is powerful as a learner to hear that others share the same concerns too.  It also helps the student if the partner/group is aware of what someone is trying to do. It makes them accountable for trying to meet the challenge that they have set out. It also allows the partner to support the change. If I know that my partner is trying to ask more questions I may give her/him the time to formulate them – and assist in reaching her/his goal.

Talk to Yourself Post-Activity: Yes I have a rubric for informal interpersonal activities but to me the descriptors (while modelling how I want the activity to be carried out) are not as key as the pre-rubric written response. We do not go straight to the filling in the rubric but always start on the back with a ‘response’. This is in English and is one or two ‘complete the phrase’ type statements like “That went __because…” or “A challenge for me today was ___because…”. Not all students respond in great detail (and sometimes I do ask them to ‘think again’) but the vast majority take the time to seriously craft an answer. These comments are pure gold for me as a teacher and the responses show that they are really considering the process of their learning.

Show Them A Reflective Teacher: Trying to encourage reflective students is all for naught to me if they don’t see it modeled by their teacher. Now when I try something new I like to tell them (often after the case) and debrief it. This is not generally whole class but often done as I walk around the room (when they have finished their own reflection) I ask them if they have any feedback for me – on how it went, what worked, what didn’t. I also talk to them occasionally about the ongoing shifts in my teaching – how I have changed/am changing my teaching practices and why.  One of my students, in an ‘end of class’ feedback time told me that he liked how I was always trying new things, trying to change things up and admitting when it did (or didn’t) go as expected.

When students can reflect on their use of language they see the value in what they do in class and what they are learning from it. When teachers reflect on their practice with their students they share the learning that they are doing as educators and model ‘life-long’ learning in the process. How do you build a reflective environment in your classes?






June 26, 2014
by leesensei

Developing A Reflective Classroom (End of Year Reflection Part 2)

Eating CaterpillarIn my previous post I wrote about the “choice” that I am trying to inject into my classroom. If choice is key – then it seems that I also need to make sure that what I’m doing in class, the choices I am offering etc, are effective. To that end my other stress this year was to develop a more reflective classroom. What were the key things that I found to establishing a culture of ‘reflection’ in my classes?

Consistent Expectations/Feedback – I don’t think that students can actively, or accurately, offer a reflection on how they are feeling about their learning without a solid understanding of what it is they are trying to master. To me that comes down to consistency – and two key areas are in what I expect from them and how I offer feedback.

Expectation – What I Value: I worked this year to try to align my expectations, and how I communicated them, through the use of various rubrics. I began with 3 basic rubrics taken from the DELF program, and began to alter and adjust to suit my classes needs. I removed all of the ‘numbers’ from them – that screams ‘mark’ to me – and instead tried to come up with a descriptor that might mirror my students’ language like “comfortable” or “pretty good”. I began to use an ‘activity rubric’ as well – not all the time – but enough that they might expect it to come. What’s on it is key to me for the type of learner I am trying to develop, as well as ‘how’ I hope they learn (such as  ‘not using English’ ‘working with partner to communicate’).

Expectation – Consistent Use (Reflecting Before You “Rubric”):  Another way for me to get my students thinking about their learning is to not allow them to use rubrics for an activity without ‘reflecting’ first. I wrote about this when I talked about my activity rubric but I use this strategy for almost any time that I use a rubric. The questions/leading statements that I ask them to reflect on may change but the idea that students are to ‘think before they evaluate’ does not.

Expectation – Consistent Feedback: My feedback to my students became more consistent this year as well. This isn’t about how often I offer feedback but the format that it came in – specifically for written work. I decided upon the idea of marking by ‘colour’. As my post explained, this allows students to quickly see where their challenges are, and I found that the corrections that I asked for in the writing also showed up in their oral communication. My challenge for next year is to possibly expand my colour codes to one more colour – focussing on using the correct form of the verb for specific grammatical constructions.

Pre/Mid/End of Term Formal Reflections – This is the first year that I did 3 ‘formal’ reflective exercises with my students. The information that I received and that they shared was invaluable. I’ll never not do this again!

Pre-Term: I started the year with an idea shared originally by Martina Bex.  This year my first ‘homework’ assignment was to read my class FAQ’s and complete a series of questions designed to get them thinking about class, their role as a language learner and what works for them. Several said they had never been asked before what worked for them in class – and as the emails came in I responded with 1 or 2 sentences that touched upon their information. It was a great way to establish both expectations and a relationship at that beginning of term.

Mid-Term: Just before the first report card I asked for a mid-term reflection from students. As I read each I made comments on their sheet – offering support and suggestions before handing it back to them. This was, for me, a student generated ‘report’ and a chance to further dialogue. After reading all of the “I’d like to learn more..” I made sure to speak about what I learned from them – and talk about how I would be incorporating their suggestions into second term.

End of Term: Finally, and just before finals, I asked again – the same form as the mid-term with only a change to the last question – asking them to give 2 pieces of advice to a student taking this course next. They gave great advice that I’m going to use to start my classes with in September.

The final piece that, for me, starts to build a culture of ‘reflection’ in class is mine. I cannot in good conscience ask my students to reflect on their learning journey without doing the same. My participation in the #langchat PLN and this blog are, for me, my way that I do that.MP900314068 The twitter chats force me (in 140 characters) to really see what is important to me as a teacher for any given topic. This blog is a way that I can ask key questions and, in writing a post, answer them first and foremost for myself.  And if you have not yet jumped into #langchat or blogging, I urge you to take that step!



March 10, 2014
by leesensei
1 Comment

“Today I took a risk and….” Asking for Student Self Reflection

b  We often tell students what we value in the classroom but how do we know the message is getting through? How do they interpret what I am trying to get them to be: risk-takers, supportive classmates, inquisitive learners? I never know unless I ask.

It is my custom to use various rubrics after an oral activity. This can be for a short interaction or a longer conversation circle. In any case I like to get them to think before they fill in the rubric and self-evaluate. I think it leads to more honest and meaningful choices once they get to the rubric itself. The thinking, for me, means that they are asked leading questions. Typically I put two ‘starters’ on the board and they are asked to respond to at least one.

This week my Yr 3 and Yr 4’s both completed their 30-40min conversation circle activities and I wanted to find out if they were stretching, risking in their interaction or just happy to stay in that comfortable place. So on the board I wrote “Today I took a risk and….” and “I didn’t use English and here’s how I did it…” as their pre-rubric response options. Over 75% of students responded to the risk statement and their replies, some of which are below, show me that they are ‘getting it’.

Today I took a risk and…

-tried to use follow up questions so the conversation could go on more easily

-talked about something we didn’t necessarily have all the vocabulary for and it was an interesting conversation

-didn’t resort to English when someone didn’t understand – I used gestures and synonyms (it worked!)

-asked questions that I hadn’t written down in advance

-just used what I knew – I didn’t rely on any notes

-tried to create sentences with more details than usual in them

-asked my table – in Japanese – to explain something when I didn’t know

-asked more questions than I usually do

Their answers show me that my message  – to be a risk-taker in using the language – is paying off. If it didn’t – then I know that I have work to do to get them to be willing to step out of their comfort zone. My favorite response?

“Today I took a risk and tried to include my own personal ‘sass’ in my speaking!”

 Yes –  I’ll take that!


January 1, 2014
by leesensei

Language Sensei: Most Popular Posts of 2013

MP900289582Language Sensei is a forum for me to explore both teaching an MFL (modern foreign language) and work to integrate/explore technology both in my classroom and for personal development. It has been my project for the past 2 (almost) years and it is the contact into the greater PLN that I have enjoyed the most. The people who take the time to comment, Tweet and Facebook ‘like’ only serve to confirm to me that we, as teachers, are at our best when we collaborate to learn (and share with others).  So what were Language Sensei’s most ‘popular’ posts of the year?

MFL/Foreign Language Teaching:

No. 1 Conversation Circles…or “I spoke in the TL for 45 Minutes?!” – ideas/tips for conversation circles in class

Runner Ups:


No. 1 Homework? A Quick Phone-Recorded Conversation Please! – using smart phones/digital recorders to demonstrate learning

Runner Ups:

I am looking forward to where Language Sensei will take me in 2014 and welcome the comments/suggestions that come from my PLN. If you want to connect more as a modern foreign language teacher why not join in on #langchat? We ‘meet’ Thursday at 8pm and information on the how and when can be found here.

Happy 2014! I’m looking forward to another great year.





Two Ways To “Power” Up MFL Students’ Learning

Visual Learning – Visual Cues


December 3, 2013
by leesensei

Taking the Time to Ask “How’s it going?”


As teachers we’re often so concerned about finishing a class in time that sometimes we forget how far we have come. This year has started a new emphasis for me on reflective learning. As I take the time reflect on my learning via my blog and interact with my PLN, I want my students to develop a self awareness of who, and where, they are as learners.

I started this year with a set of opening day questions for my returning students. The idea came courtesy of Martina Bex (@martinabex) and was a set of questions designed to find both what works for them in class -and what their challenges might be. The emailed responses were very enlightening both as an insight into how my students see themselves as learners but also what class materials supported their learning. As we came through our first half of the course (I teach on semester system -so Nov is mid-way) I thought it would be nice to check in and see how class is going – and how students are feeling about their learning.

The reflection form asks students to initially consider their success in class.  The responses show what they value – and if what I value (risk, stretching, communicating) is resonating with them. “What have you done really well?” and “What have you improved on?” brought a wide variety of answers. Many talked about overcoming initial hesitations – especially about communicating with peers – and their increasing comfort in working in the target language.

“One thing that surprised me about class” gave me a real insight into how class is going for them. I was surprised to have so many focus on the pleasant surprise of our oral challenges – be they daily interactive with their peers or the class summative assessments. One grade 12 student remarked on how ‘freakishly committed’ the class seemed to be – in preparing work and participating in class activities. A great number of students mentioned that they never thought learning a language could be ‘fun’ – imagine that?

I put a question on the sheet this year about preparing for tests – keeping in mind that ‘test’ refers to any of our summative (and some of my formative) assessments. Most of my seniors used this to reiterate how they prepare – and that it a successful strategy for them. I have worked a lot this year with my new Grade 9’s in evaluation skills. Many of them talked about ‘preparing for the evaluation we’re going to have’ as a change – that is practicing reading for a reading piece, and writing for a written evaluation. A large number commented on how they used my “power 7” idea (short bursts of concentrated study) – even now in other classes.

After the reflective piece I also wanted students to ‘project’ into the future – the second half of the course. “A challenge for me will be…” is really a chance for students to set out what is important to them going forward. A large number talked about their wish to keep doing what they are doing now (because it is working). A portion of students also talked about what hadn’t been going so well for them – and used this answer to articulate what they wanted to change or improve going forward.

Asking students ‘something they want to know more about’ – lets me see if I am hitting the right ‘notes’ with the scope of what they are being introduced to. My grade 9’s were very big on ‘more conversation’ and, as I hadn’t done it yet, it was a perfect opportunity to work with them to create a ‘phrases’ sheet that they use in peer to peer conversations and more.

I plan to revisit this type of questionnaire at the end of the course. It’s valuable to my students not only to have them realize where they have come from – but also in asking them to articulate actions going forward. It’s value to me is summed up in my favourite Grade 9 response:

“I didn’t like Japanese at first – It was hard, especially when I was trying to learn my characters.    But look at me now, I’m reading and talking with my partner and it’s great!”

Enough said.



Skip to toolbar