Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

September 28, 2015
by leesensei

“I Figure I’ll Try One Thing” – Presenting Tech Options as Opportunities Not Necessities

Source: Creative Commons

On Friday last week I was lucky to present to a small group of staff interested in on-line and tech options to enhance their classrooms. I was surprised any came as the person who put out our Pro-D agenda wrote ‘Technology’ for my session. And if there’s anything that seems to turn many on my staff off it’s the idea that ‘technology’ is now needed/ useful for their classroom. The group that I presented to was really varied real – in both years of teaching experience (2-25 years) and subject matter (Home Ec to PE to Math).

I presented ideas that would allow teachers to enhance kids learning even when they were not actually in class. This was not a hands-on presentation – by choice. I find people are often pushed into a technological tool with no idea how it will really be useful for them. So instead I wanted to ‘sell’ them on these tools – that is ‘sell’ in its purest form – find a need that they have and meet it with something that I was offering. These included (and my handout is here):

  • Vocabulary Reinforcement/Review with Quizlet
  • Video Review/Enhanced Learning via curated YouTube Playlists
  • Video review by making your own videos with Snagit
  • Self Paced Learning/Checking in with Educanon
  • Learning, Self-Testing and Feedback with Google Forms/Flubaroo (my original post on using it here)

In addition I focused on the 3 tech tools that I had outlined in a previous post. What was key was not to leap into using ‘technology’ but rather – to really find out what a teacher wanted/needed in their room. For example, every one of these teachers, regardless of subject, have students who need to interact with vocabulary – and Quizlet is the ‘tool’ (not the goal) in helping them to do that.  Another key for me was to clearly show just how long a process this has been for me. It starts with a lesson, then a unit, then a course…one course …not everything changing at once.

After the presentation I spent some time visiting each teacher who had attended and offering further clarification/support. One teacher said that she had always been hesitant with options on-line – as they had always been presented with the focus on what it was –  not what it could do for her. She said “You know, that Quizlet is one small thing that I think I could use.” We have an appointment set aside to talk further about it.

As someone who has been quick to adopt new tools and has been frustrated for/with those who view it as ‘technology’ and not just a new ‘tool’, I learned it is more key to “sell” the service it can provide, not the ‘tool’ itself. Equally key is one-on-one followup to offer more explanation and support. And finally, I cannot stress more and more that those adopting new tools only do one at a time. It is more key to take a step than paralyze a teacher with all that they ‘could do’.

Baby steps…big payoff…



May 28, 2015
by leesensei
1 Comment

Colour-Coded Visual Cards…Vocabulary Learning & Sentence Building With Ease!

sentence cards This year I took on the challenge of a course – Japanese Beginner’s 11 – that I had not taught for 8 years . Wow has my teaching changed. It’s a unique course designed for students that don’t have a foreign language credit who suddenly need one. It tries to cover 2 semesters of language learning in 1 semester – and when you consider that in Japanese that includes 3 orthographies – yikes!

One of my goals this year has been to help students learn and use vocabulary more confidently.  So for this I have set out to develop flashcards for each unit. Not just word flashcards – those are easy to make (thanks Quizlet) but rather ‘picture only’ flashcards.  Yes you can add visuals in Quizlet but it is a paid upgrade.

Visuals for the Cards (and in the Stories) – for each unit I like to have a basic set of vocabulary that gives us a ‘common’ language to interact in. So for each word I sought out a clip art (it photocopies best) picture to try to encapsulate the meaning. I use a lot for this – to ensure that I am not using copyrighted material. I use the same pictures to supplement our stories that we read – good repetitions. The technical support comes via our office photocopier which has a ‘combine 8 pages onto 1’ option – and voila – easy to see small cards.  I keep them in smaller envelopes ready to put into student baskets on the table to be ready to go.  So at the end I have small card flashcards and the original large pictures to put on the board.

bag coverColour-Coding By Area – the other key for me is colours. Yes we still have access to coloured paper at our school (I know not everyone does). So I code based upon content area. For the “What I Did…” unit that meant ‘white- actions’, ‘pink – places’, orange – ‘time frames’, green- ‘describing words’ and purple ‘transport’.  Okay – it takes a bit to cut out and fill the envelopes but once it’s done – they are ready to go.

Adding on the Fly/Adding to Subsequent Units – It’s my first run through this and I discover as I go along that I do sometimes need to add pictures. The other thing I find myself doing is reusing certain pictures – especially the ‘actions’ as I don’t want to isolate vocabulary but build on it.

Easy to Practice by Group – Wow – this has made short snappy review of key words easy. “Take out your orange cards….” and they are away. I like the ease of doing this and the ability to focus on one area. Perfect 1-2 minute prep for an activity.

Sentence-Building With Ease – Love this for l¥practicing putting sentences together. Students can easily start with simple sentences such as “I play baseball at the park”. Then they can pull in another card group – and they are now “I played baseball at the park yesterday.”. It is easy to swap vocabulary groups in/out to target certain structures. For Japanese in particular this is a great way to reinforce particle use – for example in practicing “Place で 〜ます。” vs. “Place に  Transportで いきます。”.

Colour coding visuals is new for this course but is already invaluable for me student learning. I look to expand this idea to other classes.



April 13, 2015
by leesensei

“Minimal Lines” – Vocabulary Review With A Pencil!

IMG_2268I first saw this activity done in a Gr.10 science class by educational consultant Faye Brownlie (here in my school district in Coquitlam). It was fascinating to see kids engaged in this and it worked really well to help them reinforce the key vocabulary for the unit – so I wanted to try it in my classes.

Its not full on pictionary! I know it’s a staple for many – and I like to play it with sentences too. No – It’s pictionary with a minimal twist. That is – how FEW lines does it take for you to draw that object? And it turns out its also a great way to reinforce vocabulary!

What you need:

Big piece of paper – I use recycled large newsprint paper

Pen or pencil

Word cards or photos or a list – I use flashcards from Quizlet – cut up and put into an envelope.

Kids in partners or small groups

Reminder of key Target Language words for ‘guessing’  – “I think it is…” “It might be…” etc

Warmup – explain you are wanting them to draw – with the fewest lines possible – the following objects. “What are the fewest number of lines it would take to draw a hamburger?” – Have them draw & share. Two lines? Three lines? Then ask them to draw a tree (or any other object you want to give) and compare with their table the number of lines it took.

Now – down to business!

The Process – Students select a vocabulary word and begin to draw. Their partner aims to get the word. When they do – how many lines did it take?  If they don’t – then give a hint (target language) to help them. Guessers can use any notes or support they need – we are reinforcing not quizzing! There was lots of great fun and interaction in the room. Students were busy trying to draw, and guess the word.

A Scoring Option –  In my class we actually counted the number of lines – keeping a running total – to see who could guess with the fewest number of hints between the two partners. This is totally optional – and I wouldn’t do it with every group but it does reinforce the ‘minimal’ idea.

You May Need Extra Target Language – We even had to stop to reinforce reaction and clarifying words because kids wanted to be able to comment on their own and their partners drawing and/or guessing skills.

It was all in good fun and most importantly they really did a thorough review. If enthusiasm flags try switching up partner – this lends new energy each time they begin anew.

Note: Reinforce that it’s the fewest number of lines possible. Some pairs just start to draw (and they are still reviewing) but most were really competitive in their ‘minimal’ approach.

I’ll use ‘minimal lines’ again – as an alternative to my Pictionary/Phraseonary activity. Great fun and learning too!




December 8, 2014
by leesensei

Best of 2014: No. 4 “How Do You Say…?” Extending Beyond the Vocabulary List

MP900385754I’ll admit it. For every unit – a set of vocabulary. Used to ensure a basic set of words to discuss the topic.  My goal in this being that students have a common vocabulary with which to interact. But it’s the extra’s that are the key – the words that personalize the learning for the student – and expands their ability to express what they want to say.

Recent posts from Amy Lenord (@alenord) and others around”leaving the list’ behind – have challenged me to look not as much at the basic vocabulary but rather at how I deal with the requests for “What is the word for__? or “How do I use ____?”. And so a ‘shift’ for me  is happening – one that is enriching and empowering my students.

Teacher Shift – Attitude: Part of the move beyond the list does I think come when you are ‘comfortable’ with your program. Not only with ‘how’ it runs (PBL? TPRS?) but also where it is running to. It took me a while to come around to the idea of more choice. Not because I didn’t favour having a language vocabulary that is personal – but because I was still forming how the curriculum and the course would be delivered. I was so busy worrying about their ability to communicate – I forgot that this was the focus – and that it was my job to show them ‘how’ to communicate;  how to ensure their listener understands them, clarify or explain a word  or concept, adjust vocabulary as needed.  They could take it from there.

An example? My Grade 12’s regularly do a travel unit in which they ‘sell’ tours to various parts of Japan to their classmates. It can be tough to predict what vocabulary is needed in advance. This time, I asked them to add the words that they each needed that they felt were key to understanding their tour. Yes – we crowdsourced the vocabulary – the words stayed up on the board during the preparation time. Each day they spent a small amount of time (5 min) picking a word (or 2) off the board – telling their partner they didn’t understand – and playing out how to explain what the word meant.

Teacher Shift – Opportunity: Not only did my willingness to add vocabulary require a mental shift, it also required an opportunity shift. That is – I needed to provide students with the settings that allowed them to show/use the words that they needed to use.  Opportunities for personal expression – using the full range of vocabulary they have acquired had to be expanded. How did I allow them to show/use what they knew?

An example? For my first year students it has been as simple as adding a large empty box on their unit vocabulary sheet. I put a heading “Extras WE/I Want to Know:” on it. Whenever a phrase or word comes up in an incidental way in class I put it up for them and they are now recording it there.

For my more senior students it means a shift in how I ask them to show me what they understand. They can utilize any words at their disposal to complete the task at hand. Therefore it is becoming evident in the choice that I am allowing students. “Please show me that you understand the concept ___” means that students can use any vocabulary at their disposal – and are not limited to what is required. In class interaction the motto is “you can use it if you can explain it (or any other way you can share the meaning).”

The more I learn to step back, and empower my students to step up and use the language, the more that choice plays into the mix. I have learned that it is my job to coach and support – not constrict their language learning. It’s true that there are some times when students are not quite ready to take on a concept due to language ability. But if I ask my students to risk and try with a new language – why am I holding back their ability to express themselves?

I want to thank the #langchat community – especially those like Amy who regularly question, mentor and more importantly share their journey with us. It inspires teachers like me to strike off in new directions as well! More choice to come!


June 23, 2014
by leesensei

A Year of Change…. A Year of Choice (End of Year Reflection Part 1)

Eating CaterpillarWhat a year! It started with the usual rush in September and is currently ending with a province-wide teachers strike. Despite this unusual end to the year it has been one of amazing change – dare I say ‘metamorphosis’ for my classroom. And most thrilling for me is the almost organic way that the changes have come. I will confess that I didn’t plan my year to go this way – but I am thrilled with how it turned out. It has been a year of big changes in class – and I wanted to highlight a few of the key areas that emerged for me:

Words To Use: The resources and ideas shared by the #langchat PLN, led by Amy Lenord’s pointed blog posts, meant that I no longer felt comfortable with set vocabulary  as the ‘entirety’ of what my students should know. I still believe that a basic vocabulary is key – but as a ‘touchstone’ from which individual expression can come. My vocabulary choice journey is outlined in two posts from earlier in the year – one as I began to change – and an update on how it was going

Putting It Together: I got away from the word ‘grammar’ this year – instead changing my phrasing to ‘how you put your words together’ along with backing down from words like ‘adverb’ or ‘adjective’  After all – how many times do I use technical grammar words like ‘adverbs’ or ‘negative past tense’ in my daily interaction in English? I realize that the more I used ‘technical’ words – the more my students were learning ‘about’ the language rather than how to use it.With this shift came my need to give them what was required for the task at hand. I could no longer in good conscience not give them what they needed in order to do what I asked them to do. Letting go of the control of how they expressed themselves resulted in much more natural language in their interpersonal communication.

Showing Learning: I got rid of the word ‘homework’ this year. Instead in my markbook it became ‘out of class’ work or ‘practice’. And what that work was changed for me. As much as possible I got rid of worksheets and the workbook. Non-meaningful repetition of something seemed to be, well, pointless for me. Yes there is a time/place to ‘practice’ key items but I found that best done as a game, with partners or a group – rather than as a ‘homework’. I found that offering options for showing what they know – and sharing it – was far more meaningful for them. The Sketch/Share, Phone conversations and Story Game posts are examples of the infusion of choice in demonstrating learning.

Handing It In: If I am giving more choice in ‘what’ students are learning I also made the commitment to allow them choice in how they submitted work. This year any ‘hand in’ assignment became “online or on paper” – whatever worked best for them. I got a wide variety of submissions. About 30% of my students are now solidly ‘on-line’ people. They complete work on their computers or phones and submit via email. My rule is that I return it as I receive it – so if it is marked online – it is returned the same way. It took a bit to figure out ‘how’ I was going to to organize my on-line marking – and my thoughts were put into an initial and follow-up post.

I cannot thank the #langchat PLN for challenging me, supporting the change, and cheering the journey – special thanks to Amy, MP900314068Sara-Elizabeth, Laura and Catherine for their frequent input!  Oh there’s more change to come when school resumes….and I’m looking forward to it!



March 24, 2014
by leesensei

A Language Facilitator, Not a “Teacher” (or Learning to Give Up Control)

SeedlingI used to tell people that I was a language teacher. But I no longer think of myself that way. My shift started in earnest this year when I was challenged, via the #langchat PLN, to let go of my vocabulary list. Let go of the list? It’s safe to say that while I still have a set of vocabulary to use as a basis for common interaction, I have opened up my mind to the idea that it is now just a “start” for students. It is, however, in no way what will be key for each student, and what they will know, at the end of the unit. That I now know is up to what they, as individuals, need.

What it also means is opening up to the idea that students should have what they need now — to use now. You may know what I’m talking about if you get the following scenario. Student: “How do I say___?”. Teacher thinks – “ah, that uses the (fill in grammatical concept) but I usually don’t cover that until grade X.” and says “well you could say it like this __(using either incomplete or more basic language)”. Sound familiar? I’ll admit it does for me. Or it did.

When I loosened up on the”list” I also had to loosen up on the idea that there was an order to “teach” the language. Rather the idea of leaving the list is, for me, also making the realization that we don’t “teach” a language, but rather that we “facilitate the use of” one. Yes we may cover something more in depth later on but now I also give the information, gasp, when it’s needed by the student not when I deem it appropriate. Big leap of faith needed on my part. I had to trust that a student is asking for it because they want/need to use it now (not next semester). Believe that the world won’t end because I hadn’t fully ‘taught’ the concept yet. Be surprised when they actually use what you gave, and correctly, in interacting.

A perfect example for me is my Yr2 class. 30 enthusiastic students keen to interact. Believe it or not but it takes a whole second form of the verb in Japanese to say “I like to do something.” Traditionally then students don’t learn to express this until Yr3. But my grade 10s were asking for it now, and suddenly I thought it weird that I would not provide it. So I gave them the words they needed, in the form they needed. No great big explanations, no “be careful not to’s”, just gave it. And what happened? Shockingly they used it appropriately, in their spoken interaction and written work. If a classmate didn’t understand they used their communication skills to get the meaning across. Yes, we will revisit the concept in Yr3 but then it will be more of a case of “ah, that’s why we say it like that.” and less of a case of “why are we learning this?”

I want to reiterate that I still have a “list”. But now it is a starting point for learning and not the only words a student is confined to. More importantly my students have a teacher who now is more focused on my students using the language -all of language when and how they need it – rather than learning it. More to come!

February 25, 2014
by leesensei

Continuing the “Vocabulary” Journey – A Quick Update

To educateI wrote recently about my ‘journey’ with going beyond the vocabulary list and the challenge thrown out by Amy Lenord (@alenord) and others to go beyond a confined set of words in a unit. My post spoke about the ‘shifts’ that needed to happen in my mind, and my classes, to allow the vocabulary freedom that I feel students need.

Today was a day in my Yr2 class when it all came together for me. There is a peculiarity in dealing with the “I like to do (something)” phrase in Japanese. It involves an alternative form of verbs that my students don’t know. In fact they don’t see it typically until their 3rd semester/year of the language. But today they were speaking in a situation that really demanded it. I heard the incorrect phrase and suddenly I stopped the class.

“I think we need to know how to say we like ‘doing’ things!” I began “What do you need to know how to say?”. We added the phrases on the board that they needed. I even extended it so that they were giving opinions on doing those activities – which, coincidentally, is exactly what my Yr3’s were going to be doing the next period. My Yr2 students were reminded that this was a “level up” addition which means that they won’t be tested on it, but are free to use it. Most went on to include it in their ‘Extra things I want to know how to say’ section of their unit handout.

It felt great to give myself permission to let them loose with the most appropriate language for them. I threw out the worry that they didn’t know how to construct/use the altered form of the verb and trusted that all these students wanted was to be able to use it.

What hit home for me today?

  • Give them what they need now – don’t worry about the ‘how will they know how to make it’ or the ‘what if they don’t fully know how to use it’ – they’re using the language appropriately NOW
  • Let them choose to include the new vocabulary without the pressure that they have to. It’s about choice. Those struggling to master the basics may not be using the “level up” additions – but they’ve had a preview of where they are going.
  • Relax – they just want to communicate – help them do that

My journey down the “non-restricted vocabulary” road is now, I think, past the point of no return and I ‘m looking forward to where it will take my classes! Thanks for the push Amy! (and if you’re interested check out her awesome blog)


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