Albert Fernández’ Story

World Language Thought Leaders Share Their Story

Albert Fernández’ story speaks to the natural tendency of teachers to replicate the same methods that our own teachers used, especially when we are in “survival mode”, and just getting our teaching legs under us.


Albert’s blog, Señor Fernie, shares his thoughts on CI teaching from a stance of “I’m trying this all out and sharing how it’s going for better and for worse…and if I can do it, anyone can do it.”  On his blog, Albert also shares stories that he and his students have written, and you can download them here.

I recently chatted with Albert about his session on the Spanish Teacher Success Academy online conference.  You can access that conference FREE through March here.

Here’s the 30-minute video on Albert’s session “Moving Away from Grammar-Based Teaching”.

Comment Contest!

Contest - World Language Thought Leaders Share Their Story

Each story in this series will offer an opportunity to share your story too, and enter for a chance to win prizes that will help build our collective capacity as a teaching community.  My goal in sharing these stories is to help people see the commonalities in the struggles that we all go through at one point or another in our journeys.

If Albert’s story speaks to you, please leave a comment below that shares part of YOUR teacher story.  Two comments will be randomly selected to win one of two prizes:

30 minutes of phone guidance time with Albert OR a guest post on Albert’s blog, to share your experiences trying out CI methods.

If you want to see more of Albert, check out his session at the FREE online conference, Spanish Teachers Success Academy, which runs March 10 through 15, 2019.  Be sure to block out some time on your calendar so that you can watch during that time, because the sessions are only available for free during that window, and you don’t want to miss them!  You can get your free ticket here.  And you can download the free playbook here, which has information from all the presentations!  You can purchase lifetime access to the conference or binge-watch as much as you can from March 10 through 15 — your choice!

Albert was a guest on the We Teach Languages podcast in fall of 2018, giving advice for new language teachers.  You can listen to the interview here.

Now, on to Albert’s story.

¡Hola a todos! My name is Albert Fernandez.

My CI journey started way before I knew about “CI” as we know it now. I went to graduate school for an MAT in foreign language education and I was familiar with the idea of comprehensible input (language that is comprehensible to the students that is necessary for them to acquire language). But in the 10 years since I graduated, the term “CI” has evolved to mean something much more than just a term used by linguists to describe the kind of language that learners need in order to acquire language 

“CI” is now a movement. It’s become a catch-all term for the methods and techniques used by teachers who have decided that after years of starting novices out by teaching them about the language rather than giving them comprehensible input, maybe it’s time for a change. As I see it, the “CI Umbrella” covers all kinds of activities and methodologies that focus on allowing students to acquire language in as natural a way as possible. I have fully embraced this idea. 

But how did I get here? 

My first job out of grad school (and the job I currently have) is teaching 1st – 8th Grade Spanish (and now I also teach Kindergarten). I applied, interviewed, and was hired in a whirlwind (all of it happened within 2 days). The principal who hired me, once I got into my room and started setting up said, “OK. Have fun.”

And then I was on my own.  

I didn’t have resources from the previous teacher, no order of instruction, no unit plans or lesson plans, no partner teacher to work with, just a set of books originally published in 1987 (this was in 2010, btw) and a classroom. If I left my teaching job now, with almost 10 years of elementary and middle school teaching under my belt, and had this level of freedom, it would be a dream come true. But as a baby teacher, with only a slip of paper saying I was a “Master” of foreign language education, it was terrifying; it was paralyzing. I knew what I should do, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it.

Needless to say, that first year was tough. I fell back on all the things that I knew from going through 12 years of Spanish classes in my life. I didn’t do anything like what I learned about doing in my Master’s program. I was fully in survival mode: Get information, any information, about the language into the kids’ heads, test them on it, and repeat. As the years went by, grew in confidence and competence in classroom management and teaching (well…teaching grammar) and by my 3rd year of teaching, I was able to control a classroom. The kids and I were able to enjoy Spanish class and have fun learning

But I still had this voice in the back of my head telling me that I still wasn’t living up to the expectation I had of myself as a Spanish teacher. I wasn’t able to put into action all the strategies and methods I had learned about in grad school. I didn’t have a community of teachers to guide me through. (At the time I called myself a “Lone Wolf” because I thought it sounded cool; the term for it now is “Department of One.”) I was all alone in the school and struggling to live up to the high expectations I felt I was being held to by admin, the legacy of incredible professors, and my own knowledge that teaching grammar rules doesn’t really help students communicate in the TL There was a gap between my goal for my students (that they move up the proficiency levels) and my instruction (grammar, discrete vocabulary memorization, forced output). 

As I went through the first few years of my career teaching grammar rules and having kids memorize hundreds of vocabulary words a quarter, I felt this gap get wider and wider. I felt more and more like I was doing them a disservice. I felt like no matter how well I taught them to fill in blanks, they weren’t learning the skills they would need to actually communicate to someone who isn’t their Spanish teacher. 

I have to stop myself here for a moment to point out that there is no correct way to teach language. A criticism of the CI movement is that there is snobbery or elitism and that we look down on teachers who use more traditional methods. I get it, and from the outside, that’s how it might seem, especially with the sort of passionate rhetoric about how much better “CI” is than traditional methods.

But that’s not been my experience. I believe that at the end of the day, it’s our job to do what we feel is best for the students. Every teacher and every class is different and what works for one may not be the best approach for another. Regardless of where you are on the CI spectrum, whether it’s a fully grammar-based curriculum on one end or a Non-Targeted CI curriculum based on students’ interests on the other or anywhere in between, there is no wrong way to teach. There are just ways that are better for us as individuals.

The 2013-14 school year is when the world opened up for me. This was the year that I stumbled upon The Comprehensible Classroom, Sra. Spanglish (now PBLintheTL) and Musicuentos. These are the blogs of Martina Bex, Laura Sexton, and Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, respectively, and they opened my eyes to the world of “CI” as it is known now.

Suddenly, there was a whole world of ideas and approaches to teaching that had high efficacy and were based on the kinds of teaching methods I had learned about in graduate school Their blogs led me to TPRS and attending a TPRS workshop. This changed my career and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it has changed my entire life. Their blogs also led me to #langchat, a weekly (now bimonthly) twitter chat between language teachers to share ideas and advice about language teaching and to the CI Liftoff and iFLT/NTPRS/CI Teaching Facebook groups. And they inspired me to start my own blog sharing what I do in my classroom and my students’ work. This has only helped me with making more connections in the world of language teachers.

I encourage everyone I meet to start their own blog (I even wrote a blog post about it!) for reflection and connection with other teachers. Before the language teaching blogger community and before Langchat and Facebook, I was a lone wolf in a dark forest. No one in my school could understand that me doing a good job using outdated methods was not my idea of the best job I could be doing. But the world of CI teachers understood. They had gone through the same things as me! This community is filled with incredible teachers and content creators whose main goal is to help other teachers provide students with the skills to communicate effectively in a language that is not their own using the most modern research-based methods available. 

Albert Fernandez Quote.png

Without the CI movement and TPRS, I would not be where I am today. I am not sure I would even still be teaching. I definitely would not have started blogging or presenting at regional and national conferences. CI has given me a voice in shaping how languages are taught. Come and join us and be part of the conversation. Let your voice be heard, too.

Comment below to share your thoughts and your own story!

A Strong, Flexible, Infinitely Repeatable Daily Lesson Sequence that Helps Us Maintain Our Energy

Blog Graphics

In building acquired language competence, we really only need to do two things.
(1) Give them understandable messages.
(2) Make it interesting enough to pay attention to.
That’s it.

In building acquired language competence, we really only need to do two things.

(1) Give them understandable messages.

(2) Make it interesting enough to pay attention to.

That’s it.

There are a lot of ways to give them these messages. It’s not one size fits all.

We can tell stories, or create stories with the class.

We can do Card Talk and have a discussion of the class’s likes and dislikes, or their favorite and least favorite school subjects, or whatever else we ask them to sketch on their cards.

We can create characters using the One Word Image process, conduct Special Person Interviews, find fun Movie Talks, or do daily Small Talk about the calendar and weather.

We can teach them content like history and geography through Input Charts, bring them a series of pictures and do Picture Walks, and we can “angle” any of these activities to talk about content or to target a certain function of the verb.

And of course we can read.  We can do free-choice reading, shared reading, reading authentic resources, reading Scholastic magazines.  So much to read.

The list of strategies we can use to deliver those messages goes on and on.  It could very well be infinite.

So, there are lots of ways to create those messages.  However, what they all tend to have in common is that the teacher is leading a class activity, and providing the language for the class to engage in the activity, while “pitching” the language at a level that is a tiny bit challenging to understand, but not too challenging.

This can be an exhausting job, day after day!

That’s why I don’t do it much.

That is not to say that I do not give lots of input to my kids, on a daily basis, as much as I can.  I do.  Giving those understandable, interesting messages to my students is my number-one goal in class.  It means that I cannot be “on” all the time.

I am a 43-year-old woman.  I get tired.  I simply cannot spend all my time creating and leading class activities.  

I rely on a daily lesson sequence that begins with creating, but moves on to different modalities of teaching and learning after about 8 to 12 minutes of creating in the language together.

I call it the “daily dose of language” because it gives students a good dose of listening, reading, shared writing, and opportunities for interpersonal speaking and communication.

I really, really rely on this comfortable daily routine. It makes class lot less energy-consuming.

The school day is long, the school year is longer, and our careers, well, we want them to be long, so that we can impact as many kids as we can.

This daily sequence is a strong, flexible daily sequence of instruction and formative assessment that we can re-use every day, all year.

This sequence helps us to relax because every day we only spend about 8 to 12 minutes co-creating new content with our students’ ideas and input.  Sometimes the “create” phase is so fun that it goes longer, but this is average.

The amount of student input into the “create” phase varies, depending on the strategy we choose for that lesson, but the more student voice and personalization we can bring in as you create, the more engaging the lesson tends to be.

This sequence thus launches from a place of student voice and choice.  When we ground our instruction in students’ interests, engagement is higher than lessons that come fully-formed from the teacher’s mind.  But since the “create” phase is short, only 10 minutes or so, student voices do not overwhelm us.

We harness their ideas and creativity during this “create” phase and then lead them through a strong, reliable instructional sequence.  We can relax more and rely on this sequence to support us.

Reading Sets the Tone

I like to begin my classes, before the “create” phase, with reading time.  It helps us transition into class and usually has a calming effect on the students.  For me, the gold standard is free-choice reading.  I love seeing kids sprawled all over, with books they want to read.  I love helping kids who hate reading to find texts they can tolerate.  It feels like I am doing such powerful teaching during those first 10 minutes of class, but all I really have to do is sort of quietly and unobtrusively walk around and whisper to readers, perhaps bringing them different texts or reading with them if they are struggling with engagement.

Some of us prefer to do shared reading, either because we love sharing books with our students or we do not yet have a classroom library that supports free-choice reading.   Shared reading or even just reading aloud from one text in front of the whole class can be quite enjoyable too.

Reading is most enjoyable for me and my students when I hold them “lightly accountable” which is to say that I do not quiz them on the content of their books, or require them to read a certain number of books.  Instead, I grade them on their habits as readers during free-choice reading and their interpersonal communication skills during shared reading.


It’s now time to “create” something with the class, using whatever strategy appeals to us or meets our curricular goals, for 10-12 min.

Sometimes we need to work with certain language features, so we might “angle” the “create” activity to elicit certain words or language forms or functions.  For example, to work with vocabulary about chores, and the verb devoir/deber/must, or the function of expressing necessity or obligation.

We might do Calendar Talk and ask students what chores they have to do, and write them on the calendar, and talk about who else has to do those chores, and what our feelings are about different household tasks.  Any “create” activity can be “angled” in this way.

The beauty of using this sequence of instruction if we are working within a framework of a required curriculum is that we do not have to rely on the “create” portion to “fully teach” those things.  This first part of class simply sets us up for more work with the language that was used to express the students’ ideas in this first phase of the lesson.

So, we can cool it on wanting to repeat and repeat and explain everything all at once, and get kids to output certain things correctly.  We can relax, spend about 10 minutes creating some real-world communication that uses this vocabulary and language feature in context, as many times as feels natural to accomplish the task of communicating our feelings and obligations with chores or narrating a few stories from kids’ kindergarten days, or whatever we are communicating about that day.

Keeping my “create” to a shorter time frame made it more doable. I used to not do a lot of stories because I used to let them go on so long and they were exhausting ! But it is not too much to just get through 10-12 minutes of actively creating language with the kids. Then, we COAST through the rest of the lesson using familiar, powerful instructional strategies that basically manage themselves. Into these strategies, we can put new ideas and creativity each day, but we can rely on this sequence of instructional strategies to carry us through the bulk of every day’s lesson.

After we “Create” for 10-12 minutes, or maybe 15-20 if things are taking off and everyone is feeling good, we move on through Review, Write, Read, and Extend.

There is probably an infinite number of excellent activities that you could plug into each of these parts of the lesson, but I have found that for me there are just a few go-to strategies that really serve me well.

Oral Review

To review orally, you can simply display student artwork and use it as a visual aid to review.  I try to have our student artists capture the “create” part in artwork each day.  You can simply have the artist draw in a class notebook and put it under your projector and point and talk about it.  Sometimes I like to have my artists work on a big piece of chart paper, as is often the case with One Word Images.

For more information on student artists and One Word Images, see the Bite-Size Book of Student Artists and the Bite-Size Book of One Word Images.

You can also simply ask the class review questions.  You could also have them listen to a retelling of what the class created and sketch to demonstrate their understanding.  You can give them a Quick Quiz and have them write the answers to turn in at the end of class, or have them listen and retell in L1 (English for most of my students) for a quick formative assessment.  You can add on more quiz questions at the end of class as a closure activity, or you can retell additional information at the end of class and ask them to sketch or write more in L1.

Shared Writing

My go-to for shared writing is Write and Discuss.  Write and Discuss can be free-flowing or it can be used as a tool to model ever-increasing complexity of the texts we produce together during this activity.

For example, we can first write simple sentences, then compound sentences, then connected sentences, then paragraphs, then paragraphs with topic sentences, then paragraphs with conclusion sentences.

During the Shared Writing part of our lessons, in later years of language study, we can begin asking students to write more independently, first with partners or in groups, and on their own with scaffolds such as graphic organizers or mentor texts, or even decks of word cards that help them to remember useful words (e.g. connector words like “Therefore” or “Because of that”) that the class has used in Write and Discuss.

Through lots and lots of guided shared writing and scaffolded partner work, students finally internalize a strong sense of the way more complex discourse tends to go, and they will gradually begin to produce it on their own, with less and less scaffolding, until one day they can stand on their own as academic writers in their new language.  Maybe this does not happen in the time they spend with us, for it is a long process.

Especially for students whose L1 literacy is weak, building literacy in L2 will take a long time.  It takes a lot of modeling, and a lot of input, and at first the input needs to be simple, and highly-comprehensible, and far from the academic discourse that is the long-term goal.  Furthermore, it is painful to rush students to produce academic writing, and involves force and memorization and stress and, sometimes, tears.  But just because it is a long journey, there is no reason to not get started.  And shared writing with Write and Discuss is, in my experience, one of the most powerful ways to launch students on that trajectory towards being able to produce rich, complex academic discourse.

During this shared writing time, we can also have students work with us to write pages for the class yearbook or fill in Process Grids or Cooperative Paragraphs or Sentence Patterning Charts (Strategies from Project GLAD) or partner writing, or any other written processing of the day’s content.

Write and Discuss is my bread and butter during this phase, though.  It is where the magic happens, because YOU, the teacher, are their proficient guide, modeling how to compose in the language, in an interactive, student-centered way.

Shared Reading

When we finish the text, having written about three to six sentences together, I first read what we have written aloud to them in L2, with intonation, expression, and phrasing, so that they can hear it as a whole.  Then we switch into English and Conscious Learning Mode. I have them do Choral Translation and Discussion of the Grammar, then I ask them to share their noticings and questions.  Doing this daily creates a sense of comfort for those students who feel like they will explode with curiosity if they do not get to talk about what their conscious minds are noticing about their new language.  It also builds confidence in their ability to notice features of the language.  This confidence will help them tackle any future formal language study we might do, or with more traditional teachers later down the road.

After this, we usually move back into Language Acquisition Mode, unless we are doing some conscious Language Study using the PACE model.  If we are moving into a Language Study Day, we sort of bail here, and work with a prepared text that provides an input flood using the feature of the language that I set up the “create” portion to elicit.  We add our explanations of how the language “works” to our Class Editing Checklist, which students can use when they write and peer edit.

Most days, I switch back into L2 and do some quick Reading from the Back of the Room and maybe some very basic Readers Theatre with no props, the actors seated on stools, and heavy on having the actors repeat the inner thinking (which is thought aloud) and dialogue that I feed to them. Because I have permanent class jobs, and actors I can rely on, and because I make the job of actor fun and rewarding as I can, I usually find Readers Theatre to be quite relaxing and fun. There are tons of other reading options, but these four are my workhorses. To learn more, you can download a comic I made of some go-to reading options, several of which I learned from Ben Slavic.

Student Application and Assessment

The very basic option here is a Quick Quiz, oral or written. You can have them do a retell in English as they hear the day’s language again, either from the text you wrote during Write and Discuss or from your oral retelling of the day’s information, perhaps using the visual aid that the student artists created to scaffold comprehension. Written dictation is also a good option here.  You can read a post that contains information on Dictées here.

Quick Quizzes, English retells, and Dictées are easy to collect and grade.  It is nice to end with some closure and get some grades to enter, if that is something you have to do.  And these three activities are simple, authentic uses of the language, and true formative performance assessments of listening and reading comprehension.

You can also play games or do something more fun like Running Dictation.  There are so many options for extension activities.  Martina Bex is the queen of creative ideas to re-use language to give students more interaction with the day’s content and the language used to create it.  Just looking at her “Games” category, you will find 50 posts on language games to play!

If your admin wants to see a gradual release of responsibility, or an “I Do, We Do, You Do” model, you can have the students freewrite and use their Editing Checklist, which means that they would apply the day’s learning to their own independent work.  They can also play the Question and Answer Game,, which means that they would be using some of the day’s language when speaking to their partner to answer your whole-class questions.

Thank you for reading my blog!

I truly appreciate your time and your commitment to the profession.  I love reading your comments, so if you have thoughts or questions, please post them below.  I hope that if you try this lesson sequence, and have feedback, that you will leave it here for me.  Thank you and please take good care of yourself so you can take good care of the kids.

Assessment — It’s All About the Context!

I had a nice chat on FB Messenger last night about assessment with a colleague from CI Liftoff.  You can read the whole thing below.  I put a little “wondering face” emoji over their picture so they are anonymous.

The first question “Do you have them retell in English or French?” ended up going kinda deep.  The thing that got deep is that assessment can be done in any context.

With portfolio assessment such as what is explained in the NATTY (Natural Approach to the Year) book, we are assessing performance — how kids can perform in different contexts.  So, what that means is that assessment is simpler than we think.

Can we let them use the glossary?  Sure.

Can we let them pick the chapter?  Yeah.

Can we let them pick any text from their free-choice reading and read that?  Okie-dokie.

Can we ask them to talk to us individually?  Uh-huh.  

Can we ask them to talk to a partner?  Yup.

Can we ask them to describe a picture?  Yes.

Can we ask them to describe something they have never seen before?
You probably know the answer is going to be affirmative.

The thing is, we can ask them to do all kinds of things, because each thing they do is a snapshot into their ability to perform in that context.  So, if they can talk way better with a prepared outline, yeah, most of us can.  That’s a more supportive context.  And if they can write a ton better with Google translate, then that is to be expected.  In that context.

(Little teacher secret:  I use Google translate or just normal Google like all the time to double-check my French and Spanish…so what’s wrong with using it in composing in class?)

But if we want to see what they would do without any glossary, or technology, talking about a picture of something they have never been before, with one hand on their foot and the other hand on their belly button…well, that’s another (very specific) context.

The reason I love portfolio assessment is because it can serve as a collection of different contexts within which our students can demonstrate their performance.

One important note:  In discussing assessment, performance does NOT mean “performing” like in a memorized sense, like in a play or rehearsed speech/presentation.  THAT is called “presentational speaking” and it s TYPE of performance.

“Performance” just means how do students do when they are using the language.  In other words, how do they perform, in this context, today.  And how will they preform in another context, later?  And with portfolios, we can lay those out alongside each other and see patterns of growth, or an ability to perform better and better in more and more contexts.

In portfolios, we are collecting snapshots of performance in different contexts, and asking kids to reflect on their growth, and including the context under which they did the assessments.  You can download portfolio reflections sheets and rubrics here.

So, if we can ask them to perform in all the different contexts, what is the “rule of thumb” of assessment?  What would be a “good” versus “not-so-good” (which is to say, aligned with the reality of how we acquire language or not aligned with reality)?

My own personal answer to any question on “is this OK for an assessment?” is this:

We can ask them to do this, and that, and whatever, as long as it is asking them to DO SOMETHING NATURAL WITH the WHOLE language, like understand it when they read it or hear it, or say things in it, or write stuff in it…and NOT asking them to remember certain words, or write using certain verb forms, or correctly output certain things.

As long as we are letting them interact in a natural way with the whole language, I say, it’s all good.

OK now for the text conversation that unleashed this onto the world.

Anonymous Dot



Go Easy on Yourself

I want you to know that I’m tired too. I want you to know that I once spent the whole period talking in English about violence and kindness in schools.  Because the students were protesting gun violence and it was on all our minds, and our hearts.  And Monday I had them watch videos of me and other teachers on YouTube. And Tuesday they read the whole period. I want you to know that half the kids were in a field trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on Thursday and Friday so I felt sorry for the poor kiddos who didn’t get to go. And so we watched the new Sr. Wooly videos and played Quizziz in French. And I especially want you to know that yesterday I played Classic Rock Kahoot with them. Boy did we have a good time.

I want you to know that I am not always running after language acquisition. Sometimes I’m running after being there for my kids. And for myself. I’m trying to be gentle on myself.

How many of us work a second shift? As an employee, a business owner, helping our spouses or partners, on our Other True Calling, or as a parent or caregiver or as a volunteer? Let’s allow ourselves to take some breaks. Heck, my kids already know do much more than the other teachers’ kids! No need to rush.

Let’s allow our class to take some breaks too. Kids need those times too. There’s too much stress on them nowadays. I can’t even imagine.

Go easy, people.

Some Good Questions

I received some good questions from a teacher in Kansas.

Q:  When do corrections in writing happen? I know the point is for comprehension and to make meaning. On our state test, the writing rubric consists of only 1-2 points that come off for tense and spelling, so long as a native speaker could understand it, they get credit. My question is, when does spelling and gender become clarified? I would assume at higher levels once they are more proficient in speaking and listening and reading…

A:  Yes, these things start to sort themselves out in the students’ heads as they gain more input and that builds the mental representation of the language in their heads. I do teach these things explicitly in my second year with my kids, in Spring, before sending them off to the high school which is super grammar focused.

Q:  In the meantime, perhaps I could do spelling tests, like kids do in elementary school? Give some key words they already know (or new words) and have them spell them like we did in fourth grade!  I also saw on Ben’s webpage, he had some resources of benchmarks required by his school. In the sample benchmark test, it was testing meaning of vocabulary (multiple choice style) with some grammar included (ex: noirs/noir when asking about the color of les deux chats…or something like that).

A:  Dictée are also good for teaching/correcting spelling. They are very valuable, according to my students.  Yes you can mix in conscious learning at any time. My advice is to wait till Spring though since the kids will have confidence from almost a year of listening, reading etc.


Q:  I know for me, and my students, I always try to get them to memorize if a word is masculine or feminine once the word is learned. I am still teaching the traditional textbook way (for now), and it seems easiest to memorize the gender when you learn the word. I suppose if students hear the word, they will automatically here the le or la….or un or une…but when does the definition of these words come out?

A:  The students should be able to understand the meaning (definition) when they hear and read the words. If they do not know the word you need to establish meaning. That can be done by writing English by the French on the board, or gesturing, pictures, etc.

My students do not just “pick up” on the genders in general. Because I only have them for two years, and I think that the ability to remember m/f is something that takes a LOT of exposures. So, I teach them the concept along (generally during reading time, when I am reading something back o them that we did for Write and Discuss) by just pointing it out in English as we read. “Hey kids notice this is grand and this is grande. That’s because dog is masculine (see how it says LE Chien) and mouse is feminine (See how it says LA souris or UNE souris). In French everything is either masculine or feminine.” Then

in the end of year two we consciously study that since the HS is traditional. If I had them for years and years and did not feed them to the HS I would likely make less of a deal about this.

Q:  Or the difference to listen in sounds? How do you teach masc/fem? I can say I did watch a video of a native speaker doing circling, and she wrote “le forêt” on the board; I had to double check myself, when I knew it was supposed to be “la” (and it is), I realized natives make mistakes too. They aren’t taught masc/fem as we are, but…when/how is genders taught?!?!

This leads to agreement. I just spent a lot of time with my level 2s on adjective agreement and spelling and pronunciation. They have learned to write with agreement, even though in hindsight I realize how difficult that can be, especially since we don’t have gendered nouns in English. How is this taught, as the pronunciation may come from CI and listening activities, but how is grammar like agreement corrected, and when? It seems like it could be frustrating for students, asking, “Why didn’t we learn this the first time?” (I know I’d be upset as a student, but I’m a perfectionist!)

A:  Most kids are not such perfectionists as we are. I offer the kids the option of having me point out their errors in their writings if they leave me a note to do so. Most kids do not really care but some do like the feedback.

It’s a mind shift to start to allow them to just “pick up” on the genders. But like I said it CAN be explicitly taught in cases of urgency. But if you have them for years I would lay off the grammar and agreement and such till late in their careers. It is a question of equity and student engagement. Most kids just do not care and for a lot of them it is HARD to conceptualize all the grammar stuff, so it impedes their engagement/enjoyment of the class. So, if we teachers can just realize that the agreement/ conjugation errors are really, in my vide at least, merely SPELLING errors, and do not usually impede comprehensibility of the message, then we can relax some unless there are grammar assessments that we simply MUST administer. In that case, I would say just TEACH the stuff. But if it is a question of us just being antsy and feeling like “they should GET this by now” then that means we need to do some inner work on letting go and trusting the natural process of SLA…which can be hard for some of us, like me, who DO love grammar. 🙂


Q:  Lastly. verb conjugations. UGH! Students, of course, are expected to know what a verb chart looks like and need to know the grammatical structures for upper level courses. Besides the issue of having students feed into grammar based teachers, who will be upset at us CI teachers for not teaching grammar, how or when do you do a verb conjugation chart? I’m sure students would get funny looks if they continue French in college and not know what that is (although their speaking and listening/reading skills will be great!).


A:  I do these at the end of the second year, and the kids still struggle with them! Well, most of them are like, “That makes sense” but she of them still just have such a hard time with it conceptually. Historically I feel that languages have been taught to the élite and therefore the kids who struggle with the traditional grammar approach just did not persist with languages. Teaching with CI and putting grammar and conjugations into a minimal place in our courses really does help to level the playing field, equity- wise. So it is a very important issue to me. I do allow them to do as many re-takes as they need, to finally get the grammar concepts. I feel like that is my duty to the kids.

The teacher added on:

I saw the importance of SLOW in a video! I was watching some YouTube videos, and some other circling/ CI videos came up from other teachers. There was a

Spanish (native) teacher doing it, and she was not going slow enough. You could tell the students were a little lost (but the native speaker didn’t pick up, as what she was saying seemed simple to her), I still learned some things and picked up words, but it was not nearly as good as going SLOW…it takes time for the gears to turn and process everything that is going on up there!!! SLOW is where it’s at!

My comments:  Yes, it is the king, the foundational skill of CI. And yet so hard to do!
Sounds like you are on the right track…just need to separate the “gotta do” in your grammar/spelling instruction from the “this just makes me a little uncomfortable” stuff…and try to work to get yourself comfortable with letting go a little, maybe.

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:…/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.