Writing for Your Students

In my first- and second- year classes, we do a lot of reading. Starting in November in first-year and in September of second-year, we read in free choice texts for ten minutes at the beginning of class each day. But we also do a lot of whole-class reading too. Even in first-year classes, we are pretty much reading from the first week of school.

We are reading texts based on our class experiences, so the texts are highly-comprehensible. In early months, I tend to use only language that we have used in class. For later months, and in higher-level classes, I shoot for making the language in the texts about 90% words that are recycled from the oral input which has already been comprehended by the students during the activity. For non- beginners, I tend to add about 10% new words and language in the text, to expose the students to new language in context.

I either get these texts by writing them up myself prior to class or through writing with the students using a process called Write and Discuss.

If I write up the text myself, I sit down in front of the artists’ work – either the one word image or the story – and write the language we have used. As I write, I add in a few new words here and there. These words tend to be transition words, dialogue tags (“responded” or “asked” or “yelled” or maybe “sadly” or “with surprise” etc.) or descriptive words. I tend to use cognates and I also tend to embed the new words within a string of already-known words. I rarely introduce a string of unknown words such as an entire sentence or phrase comprised of all new words, so as not to overwhelm the students.

If you’re teaching a language with few cognates, I’d caution against embedding too many new words. Maybe one or two, but since the goal is for students to easily understand the text, I would encourage you – and all teachers – to err on the side of caution and introduce fewer new elements. Also, in any language at the beginning stages, I would remind teachers to embed very few new words in the class text.

There are advantages and disadvantages to writing the text yourself. The main disadvantage is that it takes your out-of-class time to produce the texts. Another factor to consider is that during Write and Discuss (creating the text together in class), students are interacting with the writing and seeing the written form of words take shape – words they’ve heard several times already. They are matching the sound to the visual form of the word and thus doing some metacognition that is not present when reading a prepared, finished, teacher-created text. Advantages of preparing the text in advance are that the teacher has more time to reflect on the writing, resulting in more “literary-sounding” writing. You also have more time to planfully insert the new language. You can even keep a list of any required or desired vocabulary near you as you write, and look for opportunities to embed those words in the text.

If we are writing the text together, it will be a shorter text, due to the time it takes to discuss and actually produce the writing. Students tend to be able to focus for about fifteen to seventeen minutes, about long enough to write ten sentences. I’ve been using Mike Peto’s comic book templates to write on, which can be downloaded here from his blog. The advantage to this is that the students visually see how much we have left to write, so it’s motivating. There’s an end in sight! Also, I can copy them hand them out for students to illustrate. Just like that, we have highly-comprehensible, engaging texts written just for our class. I’m amassing these in our class book boxes, to be used for free choice reading later in the year. In January, I’ll probably begin mixing the classes’ stories so they can read each others’ comics, once they have the reading ability to do so.

As I write with the kids, I’ll often embed new words by giving the students a choice between a previously-used term and a new, similar word. For example, I’ll ask “Was it small or minuscule?” Often, they will want the new term since it makes them feel smart and they sense the richness it brings to the text.


Pencils Moving, Mouths Shut, Happy Teacher.


So my eighth-grade class has its ups and downs. They are a group of 38 kids who were together last year in first-year French. We did a steady diet of input. Weather, calendar, One Word Images, stories, free-choice reading. Many of them read five or six novels last year. Most of them can write two to three connected paragraphs in ten minutes. They have a great base of proficiency.

They also love to talk.

At the beginning of the year, I did a short unit on French geography. It went well. We also began weekly grammar study. That went well too.

Then we did our first OWI of the year. They were happy to do more “artwork” as they call it. But their enthusiasm was very hard to manage. Then on Monday I thought I’ll take a break and do Special Chair. Once again, they were so engaged that they were hard to manage. They were calling out so many follow-up questions in English and though I kept sauntering over to the rules, I got very frustrated and so did they.


So, Tuesday I decided you know what? Time for some pencil-paper work. Martina Bex had very generously sent me a copy of her book Spanish Grammar in Context. I chose the part on page 54 that’s about the futur proche, saying “I’m going to…”. I translated some of it into French and did the grammar explanation page with them.  Her book reminds me a LOT of what I was doing in my French Two class three years ago, when I was at my wits’ end with the class I inherited from my predecessor in my new position.

I used to make readings for them that embedded the grammar points and do what I thought of as “noticing activities” where they had to interact with – and eventually use – the grammar feature.  At the time, I thought of it as a good way to give them the structure they wanted while also contextualizing the grammar in a somewhat interesting context.  Martina’s book has more to it than that, but it was right up my alley because I had already been trying out ways to contextualize grammar for those kids who just wouldn’t accept full-bore CI.

One thing that Martina’s book has that I did;t used to do is her grammar explanation pages, which explain in English what the grammar terms mean.  I was surprised to find that many students were stymied by the grammar terms. (I mean, I **LOVE** grammar…but to a kid, it’s just fancy words to describe something invisible!)  It just reinforced my position that explicit grammar study should be delayed as long as possible.  But it also reinforced my hunch that CI-based grammar study like what Martina has created is the only way we have any prayer of making grammar accessible to the majority of our students.  I mean, who on earth (besides nerds like me) would be able to conceptualize what an “infinitive” is without actually encountering them free-ranging in the wild in their natural habitat in, like, sentences and paragraphs and such.

That’s what I like so much about Martina’s book.  It provides concentrated doses of free-range grammar points.  To me, using a resource like this is the way we should be responding to the need or desire to work with conscious learning of grammar.  I used to try t got my stories and personalized questions and answers to convey grammar points.  But that required me to tether the fun down, to try to squeeze in a bunch of exposure to certain phrases and such.  And it made my CI harder to maintain.  It was draining on me and the interest of the kids was constrained.  My current thinking is to put conscious learning in its place with recourses like Martina’s and let our CI be free-flowing.

I call it Language Study Time versus Proficiency Time.  Language Study is when we use our conscious minds to learn about the language we have acquired during Proficiency Time.  I do not do much language study in Year One because I can get away with that.  I could get away with not doing it in Year Two as well (academic freedom clause in my contract and such), but since 90% of my kids are going on to a very entrenched textbook teacher, I want to give them a shot at the grammar.  So we have been spending about 20% of our time in learning mode in Year Two.

Wednesday I made a short reading passage for them with the “conjugated form” of aller in red and the -er ending on the “infinitive” in blue. We read it and then finished up our one word image – a very dumb socially-isolated bat who has a ton of imaginary friends and is psyched for Halloween. I felt rested enough to tackle twenty minutes of creativity with them.

Then yesterday, we reviewed our long-neglected calendar and did some talking about the days of the week. We spelled the days and did a little PQA on who likes what day. Then we reviewed the input chart (with the grammatical features highlighted) then we circled and underlined the infinitives and conjugated forms of the verbs in a passage I wrote for them, translated it, and finished the activities from Martina.

It’s clicking for them. One kid told me You’re a great teacher. Ha ha!! They agreed it was easy in the end.

Let’s make no mistake about it. This is conscious learning, not acquisition. I’m only doing this to take a break and to “prepare” them for the textbook-based program in high school.

But the only reason it was successful for the entire class, I’m convinced, is because they have seen and heard this grammar construction in context many, many times over their first year.

My thinking on Martina’s Grammar in Context is that it’s a fantastic resource for conscious learning if that’s your objective. It’s student-friendly. The grammar explanations are “light” and she provides multiple exposures to the grammar feature under investigation. Used as a stand-alone curriculum, it would be head and shoulders above the textbook, which is extremely light on providing contextualized exposure to the grammar. But ideally the students will have had a large base of CI before tackling the conscious study.

Another consideration is the fragility of consciously-learnt linguistic information. To combat that, I always keep recycling my consciously-learned points so that they do not “fall out” of the students’ memory. We keep discussing them and practicing their usage when we are learning the next points. I also make a point to highlight examples of the points we’ve studied when they come up in our class-created texts. So far this is giving me a way to gently work in some grammar that the high school wants them to know and also a nice little break.

Thanks Martina and I’ll keep you updated!

The Goldilocks Zone

I had a chance to see Dr. Beniko Mason this weekend at the COFLT conference in Eugene, OR. We had a moment to talk about her definition of the optimal ingredients for a CI program. I told her that in my way of thinking, we can use whatever delivery method we prefer to give input to our students as long as it is understandable and interesting/hopefully compelling.

She said she agreed with that but that in her view there are four necessary elements for the best comprehension-based teaching. I think of these as guideposts to keep our instructional train on the right tracks. Beniko said our language, to provide the optimal conditions for acquisition, must be:

1. Comprehensible

2. Compelling

3. Rich

4. Consistent

Beniko’s Story Listening provides the necessary ingredients. The language is made comprehensible by using drawings, writing on the board in L1 and L2, gestures, vocal inflection, and other tools from her Story Listening Toolkit which she developed with the Stories First Foundation in collaboration with Dr. Stephen Krashen and several classroom teachers who are using Story Listening in their classrooms.

I fully agree with her additions to the two elements I mentioned. We should be striving to make the language to which we expose our students as rich as possible, and of course we should provide them with consistent exposure across many class sessions.

The idea of rich language has been on my mind since I first heard Beniko use the term in Agen, France in the summer of 2016. It made me rethink what I considered possible in my classroom.

Rich language, the way I understand it, is language that contains a wide breadth of vocabulary and grammar. The richer the comprehensible input, the more linguistic data we are providing for our students’ Language Acquisition Devices to subconsciously analyze and build into a mental representation of the language, from which they can begin to form their own utterances to express themselves in the language. It’s like giving them the most varied foods we can – fruits, vegetables, and such – from which they can take the vitamins they need to nourish their bodies.

The fine line we CI teachers must keep in mind is the threshold of comprehension for our students. We cannot use a native-speaker-like breadth of language with our students. We still have to make sure we follow the Comprehensible guidepost.

I think of it like this. Each group of students has a different “threshold of comprehension” – the point where they can understand the message (the plot line of the story or the trajectory of the conversation, for example) and the language is as rich as possible, but they are comfortably following the messages. We want to spend as much time as possible right there by that threshold, without going over the line to incomprehensiblity. There’s an optimal zone of richness and comprehensibility in which we should strive to operate.

This zone is like the Goldilocks Zone in astronomy. That’s the zone around a star (or stars, in the case of twin stars) in which a planet can support life. Too close, and it’s too hot for water to exist. Too far away, and it’s too cold. Not enough solar energy in the system. In our classes, if the language is too rich, without enough supports, we cross over into incomprehensibility. But if it’s too supported, too planned, too transparent, we lose the richness.

This threshold is very important in language acquisition as well as classroom management. Students will not acquire from input that’s not comprehensible to them, plus their Affective Filters will be raised, impeding acquisition (according to Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis). Also, kids who are lost and confused will quickly tune out, become bored, and wonder what’s wrong with them or the class, because it feels unsuccessful to them. Bored, confused, and doubting students tend to turn to misbehavior or side conversations. This is detriment to classroom management.

So, we need ways to help us communicate comfortably while staying in that special zone where our language is not too simple or too repetitive.

I had already found that my language had become richer when I began using Ben’s Invisibles, characters created by the class, and ceasing to begin the class with target structures that I planned to repeat 50+ times. I had found that the following skills helped me to use more varied, natural language and make it understandable to my first- and second-year students.

Going slowly

Pausing and scanning the room, looking in their eyes, checking their posture

Using pictures

Using student actors

Using words on the board in L1 and L2 or sometimes just L2

Sketching on the board


Light TPR (small gestures to establish and reinforce meaning)

Facial expressions

Recycling back to the beginning of the story

Asking the whole class, “What did I just say?” Or “X en anglais?”

The work of CI teaching is to develop these skills of making our speech natural and varied and rich while also ensuring the students get the messages – the plot, the details of the class discussion, the information on the solar system or the geography of Spain or whatever.

Beniko has had great success with Story Listening in her classroom and she has decades of research to back it up. In my classroom, I do tell stories from time to time. Maybe one day I’ll experiment with a steady diet of Story Listening. I would daresay that the “literary” nature of stories selected for SL would enrich the language to its maximum within that Goldilocks Zone. Right now I’m happy to be working from their images and about to launch into telling stories from their characters. Jumping into an activity without a pre-chosen list of words has made my language richer already.

My Thoughtful Spot on the Internet

poohthoughtfulI was talking to Ben last night about his PLC and I just wanted to share some thoughts on what it – and Ben’s work in general – has meant to me.

I first began reading Ben Slavic’s thoughts on teaching with comprehensible input about nine or ten years ago, on his old blog and the More TPRS list.  This was pre-Facebook and before the absolute explosion of CI-related blogs, YouTube channels, regional conferences, and the like.  Immediately upon finding Ben’s voice out there in Internet Land, I knew I had hit upon someone who sees education the same way that I do – as a natural process of helping children unfold their imaginations, learn to be part of a community, and be known for their ideas, talents, and contributions.  We both have a deep sense of repose in the Comprehension Hypothesis and sense that if our only job is to deliver understandable messages in a safe, supportive community, then the actual day-to-day instruction becomes about delivering messages to that community in an engaging, personalized, creative way.

Ben made his blog into a private PLC (Professional Learning Community) about ten years ago in order to have a private space to share freely.  Ben’s PLC has, over the years, been an incubator of CI leadership.  It is a private, curated group, led by Ben, where many of the current thought leaders in this movement have developed through deep, sometimes intense, sharing.  Many ideas that are common today, such as the Interpersonal Communication Skills Rubric and Ben’s Classroom Rules, were hammered out in the PLC.  It is also where I personally go when I need to vent about my school life, without fear that it will be seen by administrators or parents or community members.  It is, quite frankly, the best use of $5.00 a month that I can think of.

There are many sites and groups online now, so we are very fortunate indeed, compared to 2006 when I was just starting my journey and the internet was not so chock-full of CI.  But I still return to Ben’s site almost every day, because it feels like home.  Many of the people on the PLC have become real-life friends.  And even if I had never met them in person, before I even made it to a single national conference, Ben’s group was like an ongoing virtual conference that I could turn to with questions, problems, and issues, to get support, ideas, validation, confidence, and, frankly, love.  It’s my little Happy Place online.  If it were not for Ben, I would not be anywhere near the person and teacher I am today.  Thanks Ben!

ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are a CI Teacher’s Best Friend

We just finished a week of assessment and I was very pleased with the results. The students universally reported feeling proud of their work, I got a break, and I got to see how well they’re comprehending in listening and reading, and how they write when given no support and are allowed to create with the language.

I’m sometimes at a loss for how to rate them on the ACTFL scale. The Proficiency Guidelines are designed to accommodate students from all kinds of classrooms, and if you read between the lines it’s pretty obvious that ACTFL almost expects kids to be working on thematic units and memorized lists. If you look at all the Novice sub levels, across all four skill sets (reading, writing, listening, and speaking), the text type students are expected to control is isolated words and phrases. My comprehension-taught students have never spent much time working with this text type, so I have never had a student produce Novice-level writing nor be unable to comprehend spoken or written passages above the Novice level. The only Novice-level performance I would expect to (briefly) see would be speaking, as speaking is the last to develop. I don’t assess speaking in the first year. By the time I ask them to speak, in the second semester of second year, they’re already able to form sentences and are thus at least Intermediate Low speakers.

Intermediate High listeners are supposed to be able to derive information from sentence-length speech. But my students, after five and a half weeks of class, can universally comprehend multi-paragraph discourse. That’s Advanced-level discourse. However, the text is a familiar (yet relatively complex) story created in class. So it’s a highly-scaffolded (and one might argue, practiced) text. I’m not clear where that puts my kids. To be safe, I say it’s Intermediate High until later in the year when I begin using previously-unknown stories and texts to assess. See the ACTFL Listening Proficiency Guidelines for more detail.

Here’s a randomly-chosen Listening sample from a first-year class. It’s a description of a One Word Image.

Reading comprehension develops more quickly than listening, most likely due to the reader’s ability to re-read as well as the extra layer of textual support (at least in phonetic, alphabetic systems). Intermediate High readers are expected to derive meaning from connected texts using high-frequency vocabulary. Again, due to the practiced nature of the class-created stories we are using now at the beginning of the year, I am more apt to rate them Intermediate Mid, which specifies that readers bring personal interest or knowledge to the task. See the ACTFL Reading Proficiency Guidelines for more detail.

Here’s a reading sample and the text I gave them.

In writing most of my students begin their journey at Intermediate Mid where, the ACTFL Writing Proficiency Guidelines specify that writers are able to produce strings of loosely-connected sentences mostly in present tense that closely resemble oral speech. There are sometimes significant grammar errors. Even Intermediate High writing contains so many errors that their readers’ comprehension might sometimes be affected.

Here are a few random writing samples.

I located a study from the University of Oregon and it says that only 2.6% of Oregon high school students achieve Intermediate Low and 0.4% achieve Intermediate High reading proficiency by the end of Year One. My comprehension-taught students are clearly reading at an Intermediate Mid or High level after six weeks. In writing, only 3.9% of students are writing at Intermediate Low and 0.1% at Intermediate Mid at the end of Year One.

On these charts the scale is

1-Novice Low

2-Novice Mid

3-Novice High

4-Intermediate Low

5-Intermediate Mid

My little seventh graders are outperforming high school fourth-year classes after six weeks. CI works!!

Eight and a Half Ways to Take a Break or Be Absent

Image result for teacher relaxing

We all have those days.  When we need a break, because we do not feel good, or because the kids need a reset.  Here are eight ways I have found to take it a little easier or ideas for things to leave for sub plans.

1.  Let another teacher do the teaching.  Mike Peto has a blog post about this.  Your students can watch the lesson and you can pause it from time to time to have them summarize in L1 (English for me) with a partner, orally, or on paper to turn in.  Some playlists/channels to try are:

Kathrin Shechtman (German)
Alice Ayel (French)
Ben Slavic (French)
Pablo Roman (Spanish)
Scotty Jimenez (Spanish)
Brett Chonko (Spanish)
Grant Boulanger (Spanish)
Alina Filipescu (Spanish)
Jason Fritze Elementary Lesson (Spanish)
Jason Fritze Advanced Lesson (Spanish)
Tina Hargaden (That’s me!) (French and Spanish)

2.  Have the students illustrate a class story.  I use Mike Peto’s comic book template (which you can download here) but you could simply use a piece of paper folded over with boxes on each page if you are feeling lazy.  You can give the kids a blank copy and they write the story as you do Write and Discuss to retell a previously- created story.  Maybe get the kids to vote on which one is the most popular.  You get a break, you get some texts you can put in the class library, and the kids get input – oral input during the Write and Discuss time and reading input as they illustrate.

3.  Do a Reading Vocab Story Challenge.  I just made that name up.  Basically what you do is have them read for 10 minutes in their free-choice book.  This is, in my class, just par for the course.  Then have them share with a partner for four minutes or so.  Their goal is to find two new words each that they figured out from context.  they should verify the meanings in a dictionary or glossary or  using the Wordreference app.  They add those four new words to a list.  Then they return to reading for another ten minutes, then they do another partner share and add two new words each to the list.  Then they work as a pair to handwrite a 1story using four of the new words from the list.  (I find hand writing cuts way down on the whole Google Translate thing!)  You could extend this by editing their stories, returning them to the students, and having them make comic books with the edited version.  In that case, I would have them work in a group of three kids just so I had fewer stories to proof.  I would also tell them that their stories had to be 12 sentences exactly to fit into the comic template, and make sure I am not proofreading long, drawn-out stories.  (You could even proof them on the overhead for the benefit of the whole class.  Grammar points are sure to come up, and you do not have any extra work to haul around!)
As the students read and share and work on their writing, you should plan to have a throat lozenge and rest up for the more talking-intensive CI days that are sure to return.

4.  Use Martina Bex’s resources (French and Spanish).  Martina has developed the amazing ability to write super-comprehensibly.  She makes resources that let you you just plug in or print out and go!  These are perfect for a day when you need a break, or a sub day.  I personally have an emergency sub folder with some of Martina’s sub plans printed out and ready to roll, in case I just can’t make it to school.
Fast Finishers Bundle (Spanish)
Substitute Lesson Plan Bundle (Spanish)
Substitute Lesson Plan Bundle (French)
You can enjoy watching your students work through these materials as you sip a nice hot beverage and relax your voice.

5.  Make artwork to fuel later input.  Using Ben Slavic’s Invisibles approach (The book on it is available here or you can learn more about it in the FB group CI Liftoff) has transformed my teaching, because it has woken me up to the engagement kids feel when their artwork and creativity is the basis of the lesson.  You do not have to go whole-hog 100% Invisibles day in and day out (though I did and I felt like it turned my classroom into a story-creating FACTORY) to reap the benefits of using student images and artwork to provide input that the kids want to listen to.  You can have them draw characters on regular-size paper using markers and color pencils  and add a little backstory on the backs (in pencil so it does not bleed through), and then plop the characters up on the overhead and simply describe them to the class. Some tips for getting good characters are:  They must be outlined in black marker.  They must fill up the page.  They must be colorful.  they must be simple in design.  They cannot be a real person or character.   Of course, they must be school-appropriate.  The backstory must contain at the least:  Name, Age, Job, Likes, Dislikes, Problem, Secret, Fear.  Often as you are describing the character, a little story emerges because of the thing they wrote on the back.  You can then do Write and Discuss on the little story.  You can then do Ben’s Reading Options Excerpt on the story, including Readers’ Theatre with student actors.  You can easily teach for three days off of one character, without ever really having to leave your overhead projector!

You can also have the kids make four- or six-panel drawings about themselves.  Each panel has a fact.  No language is used except dates and proper names.  They write their name on the back.  You can use this to play Who’s That Person?

6.  Dictée.  Dictée is the best thing ever invented for nice, quiet times with your class. It’s been used for generations in French school systems. In fact, my high school French teacher did them with us back in the nineties at First Presbyterian Day School in Macon, GA. But I forgot about them until I read about Ben’s using them in his TPRS classes about a decade ago. He brought them to the attention of the CI community and I’m glad he did too. Cause they’re relaxing as all get-out. Dictée is basically a spelling test.  You read sentences to the class.  You do not show them the words till later.  They write what they hear.  You read three times.  The first is a normal classroom conversational pace.  Slow, but normal.  The second is slow as Christmas.  Think molasses in January in Minnesota.  Super slow, so the kids can write.  Then the third time is more like classroom conversational pace.  They write then skip a line or two, then do the next sentence.  After you finish the list of sentences, reveal the correct versions to the kids.  They copy the correct sentence and circle the errors in their original sentence.  After the correcting, many students have questions on the spelling or grammar. I like talking about grammar with interested, motivated kids. (Just not with apathetic kids I’m force-feeding grammar to!) You can make this take a whole period if your class enjoys asking grammar questions.  Mine does.  I just don’t normally let them.  I like to leave ’em BEGGING me to teach ’em some grammar!

7.  Authors’ Chair.  You can either have them write for ten minutes (a standard freewrite) to prepare a story to potentially share with the class or have them look back through their portfolios and select a story they would like to share.  Have them write/select, then work with a partner to “clean up” the story, to make it more interesting, add details, suspense, and look at the grammar.  Then invite students to sit in some special Author’s Chair and read aloud to the class.  Encourage them to use expressive reading to make the story come alive.  You might model with a story of your own.  It is a special touch if you can have a special beverage for the authors to sip.  It also entices more kids to share.

8.  GAMES!  The Word Chunk Team Game, once it is set up and ready, practically runs itself, and you jut sit back, sip a nice hot beverage, and provide the word chunks.  It is totally worth setting this up and playing it a time or three, PRIOR to getting tired or needing a break.  It is not, and I repeat, NOT, a break to START the WCTG.  It is a total break AFTER you have trained them in their jobs and how the gameplay works.
Here are videos showing me setting it up:  Part One and Part Two
You can also do Board Dictées.  Teams line up facing the board.  They hear a sentence twice.  They run to the board, write it, and the one with the fewest errors wins the point.
There are tons of games to play.  It’s fun to take a break and just do a game.  Go for it.  Enjoy the kids.  YOLO people.

This is a bonus suggestion.  Watch these videos.  They are adorable.  I found one on Grant Boulanger’s website and then found a whole playlist of them.
LEGO en español