What Are Our Goals?

Many teachers say that they feel a “lack of structure” in a communicative language teaching context.

I wish I could wave a magic wand and make it all be ok. I wish we had never heard of textbooks that take the language and spread it out like a cadaver on a table to be dissected and discussed. I wish I could make everyone feel comfortable with the FLOW. I don’t know how to do it.

But it is a question of perspective.  It is a question of what are our goals?

Are your kids really “drowning in vocabulary” or could you shift your perspective to “marinating in rich language”? I get so angry at the bill of goods the snake-oil textbook companies have sold us, that language is to “cover” and not “uncover”.  We provide rich, understandable, interesting experiences in the language, and then we step back and think, “What did they get?”  “What stuck?”  “What did they learn?”  The problem in questions of that nature is that every learner in the room will have “gotten” different elements of the language.  If we provided language data that they understood, and that accomplished a real communicative purpose, then we have done our jobs.  We just need to shift our thinking about our goals and objectives.  We need to lighten up on the idea that our daily goals are to “cover” or convey certain pieces of the language.

What if our daily objective were to learn about each other, or create something together, and understand the main ideas of paragraph-length speech (Intermediate performance)? Not “learn colors” or “learn the past tenses?”

Our national standards, and most of our state and local standards, too, do not specify certain words, language, or grammar to cover.  I blame the textbook companies for perpetuating the belief that our students should “be at a certain place at a certain time” which leads to impatience in our classrooms, wanting students to master the unpredictable and uncontrollable process of language acquisition piece by piece.

Rubrics to Assess Typical Proficiency and Performance Levels in Years One through Three

I just wrote this, the first time I have formalized the “system” I had inside my head to assign grades to portfolio assessments.

We use an ACTFL-Aligned Rubric (provided at the end of this Manual) to provide feedback to the students on their level of performance on the task. Generally, first-year students score an Intermediate High or Advanced Low on reading and listening performance tasks. This is because they are able to derive “substantial meaning” from narration in paragraph-length discourse with which they have personal experience and some developed background knowledge. In the lower levels of proficiency, the students are able to “derive partial” meaning from sentence-length discourse. Clearly, the students are able to handle longer discourse than sentence-level discourse, because they have heard and read full sentences and paragraph-length discourse since their first day of school.

See this research publication from CASLS at the University of Oregon: https://casls.uoregon.edu/…/tenqu…/TBQProficiencyResults.pdf

Excerpted from the study:

Question: What level of foreign language proficiency does the typical student achieve in a high school program?

Answer: The majority of students studying a foreign language in a traditional high school program reach benchmark level 3 or 4 by end of the fourth year of study, regardless of the language studied. These levels are similar to the ACTFL levels Novice-High and Intermediate-Low.

I get back to my own writing here:

Because students who receive high doses of comprehensible messages in the language and opportunities to interact in L2 generally meet or exceed the expected perfoemance/proficiency targets, either these research findings or the district/state expectations, most students make As on the summative assessment. I set a “moving, achievable target” for an A. For example, Portland Public Schools expects students at the end of the first year of language study to demonstrate a Novice High to Intermediate Low proficiency level in Group One languages (cognate-rich languages such as Spanish, French, and German) and Novice Mid to N0vice High in less-closely-related languages sich as Mandarin Chinese and Arabic. Therefore, I backwards plan my grading from that expectation by the end of Assessment Cycle Six, and set my grades at the following levels throughout the year. Note that at first, the level is based on performance and later it is based on proficiency (facility with an unfamiliar text). You can choose to make the Proficiency Tasks Optional or Required, depending on your students’ social-emotional needs.

Most students will score As and Bs on these summative assessments. This can raise eyebrows in some school populations. This is why it is important to keep portfolios and align our assessment to the standards, using an ACTFL-aligned rubric (such as the one provided in this Manual). In my opinion, we should be celebrating the well-informed educator who can, through using best practices that align to the national standards, guide almost all of their students to achieve the performance/proficiency targets. A mark of truly effective teaching is the educator’s ability to guide all students to achieve the standards of their subject matter.

The chart below is based upon the expectation that by the end of the first year, students will have a proficiency level in the range of Novice High to Intermediate Low (PPS’ expectation) and may need to be modified to fit your individual situation.


Year Two



Year Three



Lesson Planning Tips

These lesson planning tips are for teachers wanting to make a change in how class is going, or for folks who are starting a new approach, beginning to introduce more of a focus on using the language in class to communicate.

You might well want to meet your students in the hall at the beginning of the mini-unit and tell them that you need to change up the routines for this “Listening Comprehension” unit.  Maybe new seats or even a new room arrangement.  

1.  Have an opening routine.

Some teachers need to get their pencils on paper right away.  In that case, you will want to institute a routine of their coming in and getting started with some writing right away.  Maybe give them a weekly packet so they have something to get going on.  It should be something very easy.  Choosing the words that match up with a selection of pictures for instance.  If they do not enter the classroom like you want them to and get to work and work with focus, then I might re-teach and re-do till they execute the opening routine as you want it to be done.  It is a little awkward to do this because there might be one kid that is messing it up for everyone, but you want the kids’ peers to be helping you to motivate the kid, by their frustration.  Eventually they will do what you want them to do, and then you probably will not have to re-do it again and again the net day (except that with some classes, you DO, ha ha)

Myself, I have the opening routine of letting them settle in and talk in English for a minute or so (sometimes more) and then having a clear signal to begin class.  I go over what we are going to do that day and the grades that they will get, and the objectives in student-friendly terms, for example:  We will have a class discussion in French about TV shows we like and do not like and then we will take a listening assessment about what we discussed.  At the end of class, we will turn these in for a grade.  We will also practice speaking in pairs.  Then I set them up (usually in English) with the materials they need and then I have a kid give a signal to start the French portion of class.  I let each class choose the signal.  For instance, some classes say a “catch phrase” and others sing a song etc.  Then we start the French portion and during that time I ruthlessly enforce the “no talking over” rule.  I literally STOP EVERYTHING every single time anyone interrupts me as I am talking.

2.  Provide input in small doses mixed with writing and speaking.

That means going super-slow in your speech and also taking breaks.

Many of your administrators want to see more student-to-student interaction.  It is easy to put that into the lesson.

All you have to do is, after a few minutes of providing input, maybe 5-6, have them jot down some things that they heard.  You can even do this together.  Then have them turn and talk and give them a sentence stem to use.  Give the instruction in English and the sentence stem two times in the target language.  It sounds like this:  “Turn and tell a partner a detail about X.  Say, “Aujourd’hui il fait…/Hoy hace…” “Aujourd’hui fait…” OK!”  

Then you can follow up with some whole-class questioning.  

Then I would suggest reviewing what was discussed so far, just simply repeating it while referring to a visual aid, such as pausing and pointing to the H-chart we talked about, with “Likes” “Does Not Like” and “Hates” at the top, and then giving them a written Quick Quiz on five questions.  I repeat the question three times during the Quick Quiz.  I generally tell the kids they can write in English or French.  But if your admin wants to see more output, I would tell them to try their hand at writing the answer in a French sentence.  (I mean, I would NEVER grade the sentences for accuracy so it is fine to ask them to give that a try, no harm no foul there!)

3.  Then give more input (about the same topic or a different topic) and repeat the whole process I gave above in #2.

You might put up a picture or two of a related topic, such as pictures of people watching a movie or pictures of movie ads in the culture or an infographic about TV/movie viewing habits or such.  Talk and discuss it for 5-6 min, and then do the turn and talk and quick quiz on five questions.

Then repeat the whole process again if time permits:  short 506 min of discussion/input, and then turn and talk and a quick quiz.

4.  At the end some closure is good.

Write and Discuss is like the BEST closure.  You can have them copy.  Even if all you do is write two or three sentences to summarize what you talked about, and they copy into their notebooks/packets, they have a feeling of closure.

Write and Discuss from my French class last year:

Write and Discuss with a Paragraph Frame from my Sheltered Social Studies class this year (starts about 34 min. in):

Or you can end with a final Quick Quiz.

Lockdown at Madison High School

I am a teacher. I truly love instructional films, and books, and kids, and construction paper, and scissors, and glue, and markers, and pens, and imagination and fun and learning and games and creativity and words and growing stronger people. I’m a lover, not a fighter.

And when I decided, age 5, in 1981, that I wanted to do what my kindergarten teachers were doing, make a world where kids could be happy and creative and play, school shootings were not a Thing.

I never practiced a lockdown drill as a child. So it is not like I ever thought, “Despite the danger, I want to work in a school building.” I never, ever considered that being a schoolmarm could be more dangerous than, maybe, getting ink from the overhead projector pens up and down my wrist and arm.

Things have changed since then.

Now, pretty much every day that I walk into the schoolhouse, I think about how this could be the place I die by murder. I spent the tense hours of the Reynolds High School shooting in 2014 getting texts from my best friend who was locked down with her Graphics class three miles down the street from my school where I was in class with a student of mine who was the child of a teacher who was wounded. And then yesterday it got a lot more real.

We had a real honest-to-God shooter-on-campus lockdown yesterday at school for like 30 minutes of real soul-searching, sitting-in-the-dark-on-the-floor-with-17-scared-teenagers, It Just Got Really, Really Real realness. At first, I was sitting there, facing my kids, and whispering to them, “This is really real, I know it. I know it because the principal sent out an email this morning saying that we were having a fire drill on Friday, and never in any school ever have I seen two drills in one month, much less one week.”

So, it got really, really real, really fast. I felt like hugging them all. And I realized how little I know them, really, and yet how much I love them, and how teachers take strangers, year after year, and make them family, and fast. Because I realized that I would literally die for them, and I knew it viscerally, and it only took like 30 seconds for that to sink in. And I knew deep down that I would die trying to save them, if it came to that. I just knew it. I felt it. Like some primal thing.

I thought about how some of them have seen so much trauma already. Almost every single one of my students is from another country. Or, in a few cases, their parents are. And many of their families came here to be SAFER and to have a better life. And I thought about my life, and how sheltered it has been, and how this was literally the closest to looking death in the eye I had ever come. I hope it is the closest I ever, ever come. But I do work in a school building in the United States of America, and I do plan to go back to work, so one never knows if it is the last time. Not nowadays.

After sitting there like looking at the kids for a few minutes, it occurred to me that looking at the kids was not going to be much help if someone really did bust through the classroom door with the intent to harm us. A training we had in Gresham from two police officers came to mind: First option, flee. Second-best option: fight. Fleeing from a second-floor classroom with teensy-tinsey windows did not look like much of an option. So, fight.

So, I turned around and sort of crouched in a Ready to Spring Up position, and watched the door like a hunter. But I felt like the hunted. And then, I began to think, what can I do, with my bare hands? If someone puts an assault weapon through the glass of the door, and a hand comes in to turn the doorknob, what could I do? And then I began to look around the schoolroom. It was a sobering moment, looking around the schoolroom through the lens of What Can I Use in the Way of School Supplies to Defend Myself and My Students?

That’s NOT why I love school supplies. I love them cause they are fun. But it’s school, and what we have around us is school supplies. School supplies and people. That’s pretty much what school is made of. School supplies, people, time, and love.

I silently extracted a pair of scissors from the cup they live in. A student caught my eye. He reached for a stapler. You would not think that in a moment like that, we would find anything funny. But it was so very pathetic, so laughable, that we sort of cracked up a little bit, him with his stapler open and ready to fire, and me with my plastic-handled Wal-Mart scissors. I passed him a pair of scissors. I figured they were slightly more lethal in a fight than a stapler.

We sat and sat, and I breathed deeply and thought, if it my time to go, if it is our time to go, then thank you for this opportunity to have been alive. I had the absurd thought, “At least they died doing what they loved — learning English.” Absurd because (a) why joke about my own potential murder and (b) most of them actually do not like English class.

At least now I know that you can be terrified and your mind will still do its best to amuse you. That is a small comfort.

What also surprised me was how we were not getting any updates. I managed to text my best friend, the one who survived the Reynolds High School shooting, and asked her to look into it for me. She called District Office. No one was there to answer her call. I would have thought that there was a red phone down there, some kind of Information Central to send teachers updates as we cower with our students, wondering if the sirens we hear are coming to our school. (They were.)

After the lockdown lifted, we spent a few minutes just sitting. Processing. I was afraid to talk to the class. I did not know what to say. I wanted to say, “I love you all, so much.” I wanted to say, “I am sorry that the adults have not fixed this problem of you not feeling safe.” I wanted to say to them, “I know life feels a little fake most of the time, and I know that there is not a lot in school that feels real, and meaningful, and true, and important. But we are here, and we are here for a reason, and let’s find that reason, not in worksheets and video clips and books, but in each other’s faces, in our hearts and in what is possible in a group that knows that they are together for a reason.” I wanted to say a bunch of things. But I knew I would cry too much. So, I just said, “I was so scared, you guys. Weren’t you? Let’s take a few, to calm back down.” And then after a few minutes, mostly spent staring into their phones, I told them that I had once heard that the best thing to do after a shakeup was to get back to business, so we just picked up our reading on Bob Marley and kept on keepin’ on.

Then, after school, I went home and I cried for a couple hours. I wondered, as I blew and re-blew my nose, as the waves of tears came and went, I wondered if any of the students were also processing their fear and their feelings at their homes.

I thought, for the first time ever, that this culture of fear in schools, this epidemic of school shootings, has more victims than just the people – the far, far too many people – who are murdered or commit suicide in America’s schoolhouses, or survive active shooter situations. Kids all over, every single day I bet, all around us, go home after having had to hunker down with their class, as a precautionary measure, not knowing what was happening outside their locked classroom door, wondering how, with just school supplies and time and people and love to protect us, what would happen if that door opened. Straining their ears to hear: Is someone screaming down the hall? Are those sirens for us? Are they police…or ambulance?

I do not know what to do with all these feelings and new thoughts. But I do know now, in a much more real way than before, that it is deeply traumatizing to this entire generation to grow up experiencing lockdown drills, lockdowns, shootings, massacres, and this culture of fear, this pervasive feeling of threat. Not many grownups KNOW. But school employees do. Teachers know. So, what ARE we going to do about it, Grownups Who Know? Maybe the first step is telling our stories, and helping our kids tell theirs. Can you imagine seeing something as commonplace as a lockdown drill through the eyes of a five-year-old who does not speak English? Maybe that is the first step.

I am a teacher. I love books. I love writing and I love creating things. And I love kids. And I am not so naive as to think that we can write our way out of this mess. But I do believe that there is a healing power in writing, and that sharing our stories can change the world. In fact, stories might just be the only thing that do change the world.

Hang in there, everyone. And hold on tight to each other.

Making Card Talk Interesting

Sometimes teachers will be like, “Card Talk gets boring fast.”  First things first, if anything in a CI classroom feels boring, my advice is to stop doing it and move on to another activity.  Our job, from a purely language acquisition standpoint, is to simply provide comprehensible, interesting interactions in the language, so that students can take in contextualized linguistic data from which their brains construct, without any conscious effort on their part, a mental representation of the language.  This internal linguistic system is what then, in turn, drives their eventual ability to produce their own messages in the language.

So, Card Talk is not a requirement for this process to happen.  It is simply a “container” or a vehicle for delivering interesting messages.  And since the information that is being discussed is the information that the students provided themselves, the chances of the messages being somewhat interesting to that same group of students is higher than if we were, say, discussing the Periodic Table of the Elements (though to some kids, THAT is way more fascinating than learning about their classmates).

One way to make Card Talk more interesting is to involve more of the class in the discussion.  This not only makes it more about “Us As a Class” and less about “Kenya as a Person”, but it also quickly gives us a lot more information to discuss.

I quickly transition from one person to the whole class. After just basically stating that Felicia likes X and just acting generally sorta amazed at her awesomeness, I ask her to look at the class. I ask the class to raise their hand if they also like X. I tell her to look at the class with their hands raised.  I then ask them to raise their hand if they ADORE X and if they hate X. We can usually have fun with this for a while, especially if Felicia is an expressive student of good will who will look at the class with her emotions visible.  (I do not ASK student to express emotions, but some of them are naturally more expressive than others.  If so, it is fun to be like, “Class Felicia is happy!  Cheeseburgers are popular in our class!” or “Felicia is sad.  Five people hate cheeseburgers.”)

I tend to pre-pick cards (in my mind; I leave them on the floor till I “pretend” to notice the card that I PRE-SELECTED) that have to do with each other. Like two kids who like traveling. Or a kid who likes cats and one who likes dogs. Like, either the same or close to the same, or “opposites within a category” like coffee versus tea. This quickly leads to some good collections and comparisons. I don’t ask a ton of individual PQA type Qs generally such as “Felicia where do you eat cheeseburgers?” or “Felicia do you eat cheeseburgers on the moon or on Earth?”. It gets kinda boring unless the kid/topic is super-and-I’m-talking-abnormally-interesting interesting.

I save the Qs for Write n Discuss where I usually add a couple of details in.  I will just be writing the summary of the card talk, in which I try to include references to what the hands-raised poll of the class’s opinion was — for instance, “Felicia likes cheeseburgers and the majority of the class likes them too,” and I will then stop and ask Felicia, “Hey, what is your favorite restaurant?” or “Do you put mustard on them?” and add that detail into the writing.

WAFLT Sessions


Cycles of Instruction and Assessment Video Series

Listening Assessment French One Video

Speaking Assessment French One Video

Setting Up Writing Video French One

Reading Assessment Video French One


Assessment Chapter 

The Whole Book – $77

The Whole Book plus the Square Peg, Round Hole Book – $97

Content-Area Instruction:

GLAD Strategies

Five Foundational GLAD Strategies

Video of Input Chart with Tina

Video of Guided Oral Output with Tina

Video of Reading Strategies with Tina

Video of Writing Strategies with Tina










Classroom Management Plan B

The following text on Plan B is excerpted from the Bite-Size Book of Classroom Management by ben Slavic and Tina Hargaden.

The foundation of classroom management is student engagement.  Student-centered and student-driven instruction, student jobs, relationship-building…this is the foundation of a successful classroom.  

Plan A is to speak slowly enough to notice every time even ONE student is not focused on the language and walk, without fail, consistently, at the slightest hint of inattentiveness or disruption, over to the Classroom Rules and point to them, with a smile and good humor, taking a deep breath, until the class gets back to a focused state and you can continue on with instruction.  More information on the power of SLOW can be found in the Bite-ize Book of Classroom Management and also in the Bite-Size Book of SLOW.

Plan B. This is where we move physically to the student who is at ground zero of the disruptions.  Dr. Fred Jones, the great classroom management trainer, and the author of the must-read book on classroom management, Tools for Teaching, calls this the Queen Victoria Stare.  He suggests a specific sequence of movements and actions that use our body language and physical presence to establish our leadership and set firm limits with our students, without spiraling into those “But I wasn’t doing anything!” or “You’re picking on me!” arguments that end up with someone (usually the teacher) losing face.


Please note that Plan B is for correcting the behavior of students who exhibit garden-variety patterns of misdeeds.  It is not designed for students exhibiting seriously dangerous behavior.  These suggestions are provided for dealing with commonly overlooked (except in your classroom) behaviors such as side conversations, using a cell phone, talking back to the teacher, interrupting, calling out, laughing at inappropriate times, making weird random noises, tapping pencils or coins, excessive pencil sharpening, congregating by the trash can, etc.  


Fred Jones says, “Open your mouth and slit your throat.”  This means that when dealing with behavior management, talking is the enemy.  We do not want to talk to the student about their behavior;  we want the behavior to change.  That is the only “win”.  Fred Jones asserts, and the authors have found it to be true, that the more we speak, the more we diminish our personal power.  Therefore, body language, silence, and patience are our best allies in our work with challenging students.  


When we have a student (or a group) who reveal themselves as needing some personalized attention to come into alignment with our expectations, and we have found ourselves pointing at the rules several times, just for them, this is when we use Plan B.  When we direct our assertive, calm leadership more directly at them, using only our body language to silently redirect them, we are using Plan B correctly.   


Fred Jones calls it the Queen Victoria Stare.  It is a stare that says, “Oh you poor fool, I have seen this kind of nonsense before and I will stop it just as I have a thousand times before.”  Even if it is your first week of teaching, you can fake this stare.  Soon, you will not have to fake it.  You will own it.  And you will love it.


Use Plan B when a student who has displayed a pattern of small infractions displays yet another one.  You stop instructing just as you did for Plan A.  At this point, everyone expects you to go to the Rules poster.  However, you will instead turn your feet to face the student who continues to disrupt.  You will plant your feet both facing in the direction of the student.  By this point you are silent.  


Plant your feet, then turn your entire body in their direction, silently.  Keep your arms down;  do not point at the student.  Do not say anything.  Do not call their name.  Do not say, “Shhh.”  Say nothing.  Simply turn your entire torso and shoulders in the direction that your feet are facing, so that it is abundantly clear that you are stopping instruction to address the distraction.  If the student does not notice your attention is directed at them, because they are so deeply distracted, enjoying themselves, simply wait silently until they notice.  


Remember, opening your mouth is your last resort.  You do not want to invite a conversation.  You want to see a different behavior, not have a talk with the student.  There is no need to discuss this with a fifteen-year-old.  If you cave and allow the student to engage you in a verbal interchange in this moment, you may as well do a happy dance out of the classroom because you will have lost your class for the rest of the year.


Everyone knows the rules by now. You have pointed to them about thirty-five thousand times in the three days of school that have elapsed so far.  Now simply wait until the disruptive student notices the energy directed at them.  They will notice.  95% of classroom management is energetic and happens in the realm of body language and nonverbal communication, anyway.  They will sense that you and the class are focused on them.  They will eventually look up.  It only feels like it took six minutes.  In reality, it was probably eighteen seconds.


Once they have noticed you and are looking at you, take a few slow steps in the direction of the disruptive student.  Do not get overly close, though.  And do not assume a combative posture.  Keep your arms at your sides, not on your hips or crossed in front of you.  Relax at the shoulders. Relax your jaw.  Take a moment to take some deep, calming, centering breaths.  Think to yourself, “I am fortunate that I have the tools to exert calm leadership, and I have worked too hard to get to this position professionally to let some rude child ruin it for everyone.”  And mean it when you think it. That could be the root concept of the word mean – to simply “mean” what your say.


In moments like this, Tina likes to think, “I am lucky that I am getting paid to breathe and relax.”  You need to keep yourself in a positive frame of mind, and not allow your reptilian brain, your fight-or-flight system, to take over.  Deep breaths work wonders to drop you into a calm, centered emotional space.  

Do not say a word.  Simply make it clear that you are looking at them, so that they – and their peers – know without a doubt that you are dealing with them.  Stare at them with a patient, withering, “Been There, Done That” stare.  Do not say a word.  Breathe.  If they say something, perhaps, “What?” or “What’d I do?” then simply respond with what Fred Jones calls a look of boredom.  It is not very productive for a student to argue with someone who is just staring at them silently, with a calm look of “I have seen this all before” on their face and no desire to win at anything but compliance with the rules.  


Once the student is listening, or has put the cell phone away, or has turned to face you, or has done whatever you need them to do to comply with your expectations, simply take another deep breath and resume instruction as if nothing had happened.  

It is important to note that Plan B is only the next step in a series of increasingly-pointed interventions.  So how do we know when to move on to Plan C with a particular student?


If we sense that a student’s behavior is going to require us to move to Plan C and beyond, the authors tend to put that student at the top of our to-do list for the next several weeks.  We call home immediately after school and make the student the center of attention for a few days. We talk about their card during Card Talk.


We may choose to assign them a job, not in a threatening way but rather in a way that allows them to develop a positive role in class.  We try to learn something that the student is good at, generally through the use of the Card Talk activity  (discussed later) and tell the class about this student’s accomplishments in glowing terms.  An example of how to do this is found in Appendix XX. Of course, some disruptive students do not like being the center of attention, so if the student appears even a bit uncomfortable, then we immediately drop the Make Jimmy the Center of Attention campaign.


When the class in general continues breaking the rules, we continue using Plan A. But when a particular student continues on breaking the rules, we do not use Plan B more than a couple times on that child.  We move to Plans C and D.   (News flash:  You will use Plan A all year, every day.  It is the default setting. It is your cruise control until June.)  If other students test your limits, execute Plan B on them a couple of times.

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!