Month: February 2015

Marc F.’s questions about “after story” activities.

T.P.R.S. newbie Marc F. has switched over from the grammar grind and has some good questions about what to do after we ask ask a story. I’ll give my answers and maybe others can say their thing too in comments.

Marc writes:

I have been impressed with the re-writes that my students have been doing in the 10 minutes that I give them after we ask the story. I always write down any “out of bounds” words (although I try to keep them to a minimum) on the whiteboard and define them in L1 to establish meaning. Obviously, I also write the three (occasionally four) target structures as well. Do you leave the board as-is when the students do their re-write? I have been leaving everything up, as I believe that them seeing it as they write is just more repetitions and helps them establish meaning even more. Is this a good practice in your opinion?

Hells yea! There are a LOT of reasons why leaving vocab on the board is a great idea

A) the kids are still acquiring— both the retellers and the listeners– and reps = good.

B) you want brainpower going into processing (understanding) the language, not remembering how to say/write it (which is very difficult for beginners).   Output is hard and ideally we want to delay it as long as possible, and support it as much as possible.

C) they are self-conscious, so support will make it easier = happier, less stressed kids.


Second, I know that a part of the story cycle is to re-write the story that the class told, but sometimes with variations and more detail. Is this what is considered the embedded reading?

Sort of. An embedded reading has two basic defining properties:

(a) It is a basic story, and two (or more) progressively more complex versions of the same story  These stories recycle the vocab you used in  the asked version of the story.

(b) Each version contains all of the target structures, and you can add a few new words.

There is an English sample (from my workshops) here: embedded reading 1 page summary. This should more or less clarify it.  The aim is basically “scaffolding:” you want to make people comfy with a simple, short version, then get reps (etc) from 2-3 longer versions.


Also, I have been combining elements from different classes’ stories to create one story that all four of my Spanish 2 sections will read. I’ve done the same with my two sections of Spanish 1. I’ve been doing this so that I am not re-writing four stories per night, and also so that students can be exposed to a slightly different angle to the story (they are all based on the same script however). Is this on point?

I think this is an AMAZING idea. Especially if the kids in the classes know each other, the idea of mixing details (especially ones they come up with) is great. This is personalisation. How cool is it to create cross-class connections and to put kids into stories? It is also a solid mental health strategy: you need to have time for your family, hobbies, sports, etc.  You are also creating novelty, which the brain craves to stay focused.

I personally don’t do this– we invent and ask one story in class, and I give them a reading that contains those structures– but my colleague Leanda does and it rocks. I think this is great. As long as you are repeating restricted amounts of high-frequency vocab in interesting (and, ideally, personal) ways, the kids are learning.

I think you’re doing everything right. You are supporting comprehensibility, making kids feel at ease, personalising vocab, putting a new spin on old vocab, and saving yourself from burnout by not spending 8 hours each night madly pecking away at your keyboard while the wife sulks and the kids act like it’s a country song, wondering who Daddy is.

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Student Output (sometimes) Makes Decent Input: recycling kids’ stories = win!

Terry Waltz has called peer-to-peer communication “the McDonalds of language teaching” (Krashen agrees) and so do I. The inevitably junky output of the kids is a terrible source of input. BUT…we can sometimes use this output.

A couple of weeks ago I was handing 40-min post-story relaxed writes back and there was Abbas’ story, which concerned a certain male Spanish teacher’s (failed) quest to get a girlfriend, and a certain Spanish student’s similar, successful quest.

The story was funny but Abbas is not much of a student. I have to work my butt off to get him to focus. (Now that I have him in 10th grade English, I can also see that he has majorly low reading skills, and he can barely write in English). He also misses about a day a week of class because of enabling parents. He’s also in my homeroom, and when I handed out report cards, I saw that he does poorly in all his classes. But he had written a funny story.

More or less on a whim, I told the class that Abbas had written a funny story. “Read it,” they said, and I did. I read it aloud, making exaggerated voices, fixing the grammar (without saying anything), going s.l.o.w.l.y., pausing and circling the occasional sentence, etc.

The kids liked the story– especially where Señor fails to get Angelina Jolie to be his girlfriend– and Abbas was grinning ear to ear. This kid, for whom school is tough, just basically hit the jackpot. I bet he doesn’t get celebrated for his work much in other classes. Afterward a few kids said “great story” to him.

So this is now a regular part of class. I will read two stories aloud after every writing assigment. The kids love it, the writer feels proud, the kids get good interesting comprehensible input, and I have ten minutes of lesson that requires zero planning. Homerun!

How should I teach SER and ESTAR?

Spanish teacher conundrum, recently brought up on the Yahoo moretprs listserv by teacher Marji:

How do I teach the difference between ser and estar? Marji is asking this question because the kids are making errors, and also she only sees them infrequently, so they seem “slow” in picking this up.

Ser = to be, for permament, inherent qualities
Estar = to be, for location and feelings

The essence of the question– like the French teachers’ eternal How do I get them to remember the difference between être and avoir passé composé verbs?— is this: how do I teach a “non-English” grammatical structure to English speakers?. The answer is simple! I’ve written about this before, so here is a Spanish and French-focused refresher.

First, I translate only meaning. So on the board, I write

era = was
estaba = felt, was located in _____

es = is
está = feels, is located in ______

Now, note here.  The kids do not get an explanation of the inherwnt essential aspects and differences of/between these verbs.  All they get is the meaning.

They also have the I/you forms in my simple PQA/direct questions chart:

IMG_0172

I narrate our first story– Adriana Ramírez’ Los Gatos Azules— in past tense but I question actors and do PQA (personalised questions and answers) in present tense.

Second, I keep it all comprehensible. I say el chico estaba en Watts and ask “what did I just say?” to make sure the students understand. I then say something like el chico era alto, going slowly, pointing and pausing, doing comprehension checks.

Now, they have not had the grammatical difference between ser and estar explained, but I will keep on using these appropriately. All they need to do is

A) clearly hear the difference
B) understand the meaning(s)

Because, as Blaine Ray points out, ser and estar are the most-used verbs in Spanish, we want to start using them on Day 1 and keep using them always.

Third, I will use these expressions in both past and present. For past tense, as noted above, I narrate (and ask class questions about the narration) in past tense. For present tense, I will direct-question the actors. ¿Eres un chico? — Sí, soy un chico. ¿Estás en California? — Sí, estoy en California. Then, I will do PQA by asking class members the same question(s) I have just asked the actors. If they can answer, great; if not, they can read off the PQA/direct questions chart.

(New trick: this year, to get more reps on 3rd person present, I ask the actors about each other in the present tense. So if I narrate había un chico en Brooklyn and circle that, I still want some present-tense reps on hay, so I will ask my main character about another character in the story. E.g. I introduce my parallel character by saying Había una chica en San Francisco. Then, I ask my boy in Brooklyn ¿Hay una chica en San Francisco? and he says Sí, hay una chica en S.F.)

The aim is for them to hear it a zillion times in proper context, in all necessary tenses, and slowly their “language acquisition devices,” as Chomsky calls them, will start developing subconscious pattern awareness and then performative competence.

Fourth, I will not lecture about grammar. As Laurie Clarq and Susan Gross have said (I am paraphrasing), “if they ask for an explanation, they can have a five-second one.”

I taught French last year for a colleague for two periods and we did a story where I used il est arrivé, il a oublié, and il/elle etait faché (this is two different passé composé verbs, and two past tenses).

The kids did not need to know that there are “Dr and Mrs Vandertramp” verbs, or the house-movement mnemonic, or the camera/video metaphors for p-c and imparfait, bla bla. All they needed to know was the meaning. Now, I suck at French, but the teacher was impressed because these Level 2s were getting “fourth year grammar,” and understanding it. The method generally works even when a hack like me uses it 😉.

BTW the story idea, improvised by student teacher Nicole Kunkel and I, was
— Jean est arrivé en retard à la classe
— La prof etait trés fachée avec lui.
— Il a cherché dans son sac pour ses devoirs.

— Dans son sac, il n’y avait pas ses devoirs!  Mais, il y’avait des autres choses…
— C’etait dommage– il a oublié ses devors! Madame Prof etait trés fachée!

(Jean had a backpack which we put random things into, and every time Jean looked in it for his hwk, a pencil, etc, he’d pull out something funny and Madame Prof would get more mad (and we got a zillion reps on both present and past forms of all 3 structures).

We also wrote up embedded (progressively more complex) readings of our story, and then did the usual with that, for even more reps.

It doesn’t matter what first or second language people have. We know that everyone can– and does– learn at least one language without any formal instuction at all. Any baby of any race or either gender can learn any language. We teachers can use this amazing potential. All we have to do is

— restrict vocab (to not confuse and overload people)
— use all grammar (so people can “pick up” what they’re ready for)
— keep it all 100% comprehensible
— provide a ton of listening and reading repetitions

In Hindi, we have “postpositions” as opposed to prepositions. Chinese has tones, and no verb “to be.” German has complex word-order rules invented by a sadistic language demon. Try explaining the difference between “some” and “any” questions to a non-native speaker of English. French and German have two past tense auxiliaries. Russian has cases. But whatever it is, people can pick it up.

The point? They don’t need to know anything other than meaning, and the brain– given enough input– will take over and start figuring the patterns out.

Adriana recommends…

My colleague Adriana Ramírez has done some cool c.i.-themed stuff. As well as writing a “textbook” for Spanish TPRS called Learning Spanish With Comprehensible Input Through Storytelling (you can buy it through Amazon), she has a few other things.

A) teachers pay teachers. Adriana has a set of Movietalk lessons. These include questions, readings, etc. You can find these here.

B) Youtube channel– watch Adriana doing bits of lessons. The link is here.

I have not seen the videos or used the movietalk stuff so if ppl buy/watch them and like them, please comment. Her book is good.

Mixed-level Spanish Class– Day 1

In 2004, I was given a Spanish 1/2 split and floundered big-time. This year, our beginning Spanish numbers are up, so I have 1.5 blocks of Beginning Spanish plus Level 2s, and today I started with my split…and unlike in 2004, this split is going to be just fine, thank you.

Class composition:

— a bunch of kids who had TPRS with me last year (full mix– all verbs and grammar from Day 1. A few of these had me 2 years ago, then didn’t take Spanish last year (schedule conflicts)).

— 3 very low native speakers

— 3 total beginners

– 1 kid who has had 2 years of full-on grammar grind at another school. Super-low output but understands a bit.

— 1 kid who had the grammar grind at another school until November last year, and who then got full-mix TPRS with me for 1.5 months (about 30 classes). She did terribly on arriving– she had spent 2.5 months doing “units” on numbers, colours, etc– but her fluency grew after about 3 weeks and eventually she got around 75% on her final.

Today I paired the beginners with my proficient 2s and told the beginners “you are sitting beside a dictionary.” They are supposed to ask their “dictionaries” if things are unclear or I am busy. The dictionaries are my most-proficient students.

They filled out their class questionaires. This (idea from Ben Slavic) is great: they write down their real name, and then favorite colour, pet, celebrity girlfrind/boyfriend, where they live, and secret skill. They can tell the truth (fine…) or lie (much more interesting). The key: I told them that they have to be OK with me talking about whatever they write down. So Jas– err, Bee Once– has three boyfriends (Jake T Austin, Dave Franco, and Theo James), while Chelsea has a pet dolphin, and Breileigh lives in the Florida Keys with Ashton Kutcher and her pet koala. Fahim I told, not more than 5 girlfriends, please. Jürgen, who has a certain admiration for Walter White, chose as his nickname Heisenjürg. This stuff will be used in stories, where the various kids will be parallel characters.

I handed out course outlines, made my seating chart, then jumped right into pre-story PQA– personalised questions and answers. On my board was the following:

— has, wants, is
— are you…? I am…
— do you have? I (don’t) have
— what’s your name? My name is____
— what’s his/her name? His/her name is ____

— good-looking, ugly
— girl, boy
— girlfriend, boyfriend

I got Ace to come up and sit in the megachair, and started asking him questions. What’s your name? Are you a boy? Do you have a girlfriend? What is her name? Is your girlfriend good-looking? I went s.l.o.w.l.y. and then asked my other Level 2s the same questions. I did a LOT of pop-ups today.

The energy moment came when I asked the class “Is Jürgen a boy?” and Fahim said “no, she is a girl.” “Fine,” I said, “if Jürgen is a girl, so are you,” and I got my blond wig out, and Fahim became Fahima, answering questions in an absurdly high girl voice. Fahim is quite a ham and happily messes with genders. This would actually be an interesting idea: have a willing kid wear/take off the wig (signifying gender change) and answer PQA questions in 2 genders.

I was able to spend about 45 min in random PQA. The 1s at the end were able to answer yes/no to various questions, and they understood the questions (I directly asked them).

I am gonna start Adriana’s story “Los Gatos Azules” (the blue cats) tomorrow and today was basically setting up for the actor questions. I will do a bit more PQA tomorrow with gustar (“to like,” more or less), querer (“to want”) and ir (“to go”), then jump into the story.

So the operative principles are

A) the 2s are providing comprehensible input for the 1s. Since everybody is rusty right now (1 year since last Spanish class and in some cases 2 years), they are using the Q&As on board, but output, while simple, is flawless. Elicited output from the 2s is going to be sí/no questions with the occasional one-word answer.

B) I direct comprehension checks mostly at the 1s, since the 2s are mostly answering quickly and accurately.

C) The biggest challenge is going to be reading: the 1s will be slower, and know a lot less vocab, than the 2s. I have embedded readings for our asked stories, but the question– and I would love advice on this– will be how to keep the 2s engaged and the 1s not lost.

Things I hate and don’t understand.

I hate exercise.

But I love hiking in the mountains with Samoyeds, climbing rock and ice, cycling, skiing, and longboarding (also with Samoyeds).

I don’t understand German grammar.

I don’t understand why adding time words to sentences changes the order of clauses. But I can order food, talk to kids, and plan a climbing weekend with German friends, in German.

I hate learning Spanish.

But I love being able to get exactly what I want on my plate of carnitas, reading Paz, flirting with beautiful Colombian women, and understanding the Escalona and Zuleta vallenatos interpreted by Carlos Vives.

I don’t understand how I onsighted Slot Machine (5.11) in the Creek.

I vaguely remember a bunch of knee and body jams, and weird liebacking off a left-hand arête, and slammer #2s, before– somehow– getting to the chains.

I hate work.

But I love hanging out in a class with kids, talking with them about things that they find interesting, and helping them understand those ideas and communicate them more effectively.

I don’t understand how to find the iPad user manual– or even whether it exists.

But I don’t seem to have a problem using the iPad my school gave me for blogging, email, Garageband, MovieTalk, Twitter, Wastebook, etc.

I hated Nepali grammar.

But I loved hearing about walking distances, tasty goat stew, and who sold the best rakshi in whatever town I was in.

I don’t understand how internal combustion engines work.

But somehow I’ve been driving a car for thirty years.

I hate history.

But there are really cool stories about how Anglo-Canadian arrogance toward– and cultural differences with– Québec led to significant disagreements about the value — and therefore implementation– of Prohibition in the early 1920s, which led, in turn, to significant differences in how alcohol is distributed and sold in English and French Canada, and which created an Eastern liquor establishment (many of whose founding members were bootleggers), a Canadian and U.S. Mafia, and a government system of liquor management whose economic incentive structures led to the mass production of alcohol in Canada, a reaction to which led directly to a demand for “craft” beer, which a friend, thanks to new laws, brews in Vancouver.

Go figure.

What should teachers tell kids about language learning methods?

Mark Koopman, an E.S.L. teacher and school organiser in Japan, asked about what we T.P.R.S. teachers tell our students when they come into our classroom.  Today’s question:

What should languages teachers tell their students about language learning?

My overall answer to this is, you tell them how people learn languages, and you lay out class expectations.

a)  My course outline (for Spanish) has this in it.  I read it to the kids and briefly talk about it

“People can only learn languages by getting comprehensible input—that means, they hear language they can understand (with translation, gestures, etc). They need to hear that language over and over, with variations, so they can pick it up and not be bored by it. They also need to read the language in comprehensible form.

 There will be no grammar worksheets, grammar notes, vocab quizzes or games built around grammar devices in this class. Contribute, pay attention, and learn!”

I don’t blather on at any length about this.  I want the kids to know they can easily learn, and don’t have to worry.  I also quote Blaine Ray: “I teach stories, and my stories always have a surprise.”  This year we started our first story 30 min after I first met the kids.

When I hear from Americans, a lot of teachers say their kids looooove worksheets and other legacy methods, and that it is a challenge getting “buy-in” from kids. I have not had this problem, partly because Canada is less insane than the U.S. (less poverty and classism affecting kids’ schooling, way less standardised testing, and much greater teacher autonomy), but mostly because if you run your class rigorously– what Ben Slavic calls “norming their behaviour”– they will succeed, and people who succeed are generally happy.

When I do get asked questions about methods, I refer people to the research. I also ask the kids “are you understanding everything?” They always say “yes,” and then I say “the more you hear and read it, the more you’ll remember, and eventually you’ll just automatically be able to say and write things.”

I also ask them “if you took another language before you started Spanish, how was it?” and I get a few responses, detailed here, and I then tell them “if you listen and read, and ask when you don’t understand, you will pick this up.”  Again I don’t spend a ton of time on this, as it’s mostly for my own interest.

b) Any teacher has to lay out some ground rules.  Mine are the classic T.P.R.S. rules, which I learned from the amazing Michelle Metcalfe:

— English only for places and names

— no blurting: only one person talks

— humour!

— ask for help

— eyes on teacher, sit up straight, no distractions

Buenas palabras — good words– “would you say it to Mom?”

c) I have had a few parents ask me about T.P.R.S., as their kids’ experiences with languages are so totally different in a comprehensible-input classroom than in others. I always ask them “does Johnny find it easy, and feel like he is learning?” I have never had a “no” answer. I also say “while this seems weird sometimes, it seems to keep the kids engaged,” and I also tell the parents to look at their kids’ writing assessments. This last always lets the kids impress their Mom and Dad.

As Robert Harrell (I think) said on Ben’s, “if you feel like you have to criticise me, look at my results, and if you wonder about my results, look at my methods.” I have never had to do this: kids getting T.P.R.S. find it easy, develop massive and very visible skills, and feel safe and capable in class.

There have obviously been some public arguments (e.g. recently on the A.C.T.F.L. forum) about what constitutes best practices. One thing is clear: people who teach with c.i. need to make sure they explain their methods– and the brain research behind them– to students, parents, colleagues and others.

But the bottom line, as always, is the kids. In a T.P.R.S. class, they can learn, and they generally like learning, another language.

What should assessment and evaluation look like in the second-language classroom?

Numberz. Kids, parents, Adminz and teachers all want ’em. “What’s my mark?” asks Baninder. “How can Suzy bring her mark up?” asks Mrs Smith. “How do we get marked?” ask the keeners on Day 1.

Well, here we go, here are some ideas about formative assessment (seeing how people are doing during the learning process in order to guide instruction), and summative assessment, (a.k.a. evaluation), where we assign a Number to a kid’s performance. Here’s a picture:

IMG_3353-3

There are a few general principles:

A) we should never use norm-referenced (a.k.a. “curved”) grading, for reasons discussed here.

B) We should be doing criterion-referenced grading– i.e. there should be a rubric, or what have you, which clearly defines what needs to be done to get what mark. There are a bazillion rubrics for evaluating second-languages writing, speaking etc out there, from ACTFL guidelines to various State standards to things in texts– I won’t get into details, except to say that any evaluative tool should be making an attempt to assess language use holistically, and should not include things like “students will use _____ verbs and _____ grammar structures.”

C) we should not mix up evaluation (a.k.a. summative assessment = numbers) and formative assessment (feedback). We need to see where learners are, and tailor teaching to what they can/can not do. This is assessment and we do not “mark” it, as per Rick Wormelli’s (and others’) ideas about “assessment for learning” (start here if you havn’t heard of this, then google away).

D) All evaluation and assessment practices should be explained to students. My kids have criteria in their course outlines, and we “mark” a couple of sample stories a month or so into the course. We do not do this in order to show kids “how to improve their work”– that can’t work for 95% of kids because it’s conscious learning– but rather so they can feel how assessment and eval works, and feel included.

ASSESSMENT (formative evaluation)

Assessment: seeing how people are doing along the learning road in order to steer the class car.

In a comprehensible input classroom, assessment should primarily answer one question: “do the students understand what they are hearing/reading?”

During story asking, a teacher checks choral responses to do this. We can also ask individual kids flat out– “Johnny, what did I just say/ask?”– or we can do P.Q.A. (personalised questions and answers) where we ask students in class the same question we ask the actor. If our story has “the boy owned a horse,” we ask the actor “do you own a horse?” and he has to say “yes, I own a horse.” We might ask a few more questions– “Do you own a dinosaur?” and get an answer like “no, I do not own a dinosaur”– and then we ask our keener kids in class “do YOU, Mandeep, own a crocodile?”

If, as Blaine Ray says, we get strong responses from class, actors or individuals, they are understanding. If we get slow, wrong, weak, or no answers, we have to go back and clarify, because either

1.  they aren’t listening = no input = no acquisition, OR

2. they don’t understand = no comprehensible input = no acquisition

Ben Slavic has advocated using what he calls Jen’s Great Rubric (jGR) which basically evaluates how “tuned in” kids are. The rationale here can feel ambigious. On one hand, it’s the old “if it’s not for marks, kids won’t do the work” thing: instituted by teacher cos the work is so boring/hard that no sane kid would want to/ be able to do it, so marks = carrot and stick.  (But then maybe kids need that if The System prizes Numberz and Markzzz above all else).  On the other hand, if Johnny is failing because he is on his phone, zoned out, or otherwise disengaged, use of jGR is a great tool for the teacher to say to Johnny’s Mom “look– here is how he acts in class, i.e. he is not focused, and that is what his writing, speaking etc are weak.” Jury is out on this one but lotsa folks like it.

In terms of writing assessment, as Leanda Monro, Adriana Ramírez and a zillion others have pointed out, explicit feedback (in terms of grammar) does very little. Leanda told me last year that the best thing she could do with her French kids’ writing was to ask for more detail. I have found the same: I can blather/write at length about verb tenses, adjective agreement, etc, but the kids simply don’t learn from this (Krashen and many others have repeatedly shown that we cannot transfer conscious knowledge into acquisition).  What does work is writing something like ¿Cuántos hermanos tenía la chica?

I have also found that kids make consistent writing errors– e.g. this year it took them awhile to acquire quiero tener (“I want to have”)– and so after each story the top five errors get circled more next story.

For speaking: good input = good output. However, Leanda and a few other French (and Chinese) teachers I’ve met have said that a bit of pronunciation work is necessary. This is because– for English speakers– the sound patterns of these languages are easy enough to screw up that with their output– even if it’s rock-solid– seemingly minor pronunciation errors can totally throw it. Chinese, with its subtle tones, and French, with its various “ay” sounds– é, è, ê etc– are easier than, say Spanish for English speakers to botch.

Another thing we should not be doing is, administering assessment without changes in instruction.  The old pattern– present, practice, produce, quiz on Tues, test on Friday– is useless.  Following a text or test series or a set of DVDs, and dutifully collecting quiz samples, and expecting the kids to look their quizzes over and say “oh my, I clearly need to bone up on pronoun placement and the vocabulary for discusing French art” is a great strategy…for the kids whoa re getting 95% already.

So what should assessment look like?  It should

  • be comprehension-focused
  • be ongoing: during storyasking and reading, we check for comprehension
  • actually cause us to change what we are doing.  If kids don’t understand something, or make repeated errors, they need more input around that thing

EVALUATION (summative assessment)

One problem– err, I mean, opportunity— we have is, students are never at a fixed point in their acquisition. If they are getting a ton of good comprehensible input, they are acquiring (albeit not all at the same rate, or in the same way.  Max may be picking up a few nouns from the most recent story, while Arabella’s brain is soaking up pronouns, or whatever). Students also “acquire” something, forget it, re-learn it, etc, in an ongoing, up-and-down process…so a “snapshot” of their skills is really not very useful or accurate.

For this reason, in my humble opinion, a student’s mark should always be based on their most recent output or skills. . We should not be setting up “units” and assigning a mark per “unit.”

Why? Well, maybe Rorie finishes a “unit” on shopping for clothes, and she gets 60%, so goes back and re-reads dialogues or a story, or studies the grammar. And gets better as a result. Maybe also the teacher uses the shopping vocab for the rest of the year. But how does the teacher now assess Rorie? Say the teacher assesses via units (10% of the year per unit, over 6 units = 60% of year, plus final projects or exam(s) worth 40% of year, marks for everything evenly divided between speaking, listening, reading and writing), and by end of year Rorie rocks at shopping for clothes, do they discard her crappy shopping unit mark and give her only the final exam mark? If so, cool, but why then bother with unit marks in the first place?

If the answer to this is “accountability,” you have a problem: marks are being used as carrot/stick (read: work is boring and/or not worth doing).  I have argued that topical (sometimes called “thematic”) units are a bad idea– they tie grammar sets to vocab rules, they are boring, they are artificial, they overuse low-frequency vocabulary, they can present grammar that students are not ready to acquire– and they present assessment problems too.

Of course, parents, kids, Adminz, Headz will want to get a rough picture of how kids are doing, so it might not be all bad to have some kind of “rough progress” report.  At my school, we are piloting a program where the kids get an interim report that offers feedback– neither numbers, nor just “good, OK, bad”– which teachers can customise.  Mine gets the kids to evaluate themselves (to what extent do you listen for comprehension, ask for help, co-crerate stories, etc) and if I agree with their evaluations then that’s what goes home.

My evaluation system this year was super-simple. After a story was asked, and its extended version read, and we did Movietalk around its structures, the kids had to do two things:

A) a speedwrite (5 mins) where they had to describe either themselves or a picture. Their course goal was 100 good words in 5 min. Their “mark” was 1/2 grammar (on a rubric out of 3) and 1/2 wordcount (out of 100). For the first 6 speedwrites, they got a bonus (40, then 35, then 30 etc), and after that no bonus.

(Note: the grammar rubric is out of 3 but is weighted the same as wordcount. A kid that gets 100 words and a 2/3 for grammar gets 83% (100% + 66% / 2).)

For their first speedwrite, they typically wrote 25 words + 40-word bonus, so average mark was 65% for words and grammar (for the first) was 1/3 but very rapidly climbed to about 2.2-2.5/3.

B) Relaxed write. For this, they had to re-tell (in writing) the most recent story, but they had to change details and include dialogue, etc. I marked these using grammar (/3) and wordcount (starting at 200 and going up by 50 each time) with no bonus. Their wordcount marks also went steadily up and their grammar got better after first 2 stories.

So, they had an “ongoing” mark which they could always improve on. I told them that “this is a rough guide to how well you are doing. You can improve, or you can stop paying attention (or miss a bunch of class), and your mark can drop.”

I entered marks into the spreadsheet every time we did a post-story writing assessment, and I’d post a printout, and I made them keep their relaxed writes and freewrites. They all got better with time and it was cool for them to “see” progress:  grammar marks were low for first 2 stories, then went up, and wordcounts steadily climbed.

For finals– with beginners– it was simple. They had two 5-min speedwrites (/100, and with an /3 grammar mark), one 45-min story (/800, with /3 grammar mark). These were combined. They had one listening assessment– dictation, where they listened, wrote and translated– and their reading assessment was, go back to stories we’d done and answer questions. Final mark: 100% based on final exam = 1/3 writing, 1/3 reading and 1/3 listening. Also, any kid who wants to re-do their exam can do that no problem.

This system was almost as good as it could be. The kids knew what they had to do, the work was easy, there were no surprises, and even the weakest ones were able to do well (writing functional 300-400 word stories in 3 verb tenses including dialogue), while at the top end Shayla, Manpreet, Khubaib and Jaskarn pumped out amazingly good 600-800 word stories. (Interestingly, I had equal numbers of strong (and weak) students of both genders).

(The only things I am going to change next year are

  • I am going to use a more complex rubric for marking final writing. This is mainly because the one I used this year does not adequately distinguish complexity from simplicity. Some kids write a sentence like Juan quería las chicas guapas (“John liked pretty girls),” while others write Juan quería las chicas guapas que tenían perros azules (John liked pretty girls who had blue dogs).  In both cases, good Spanish, but the second kid is clearly a notch up.)
  • I am going to give them one text they have not yet seen (for reading) and get them to answer comprehension questions on that

With my 2nd years, I’ll do a speaking assessment (3-min interview) and I’ll also do a couple of culture projects, plus Adriana’s movie idea.

So…what should evaluation look like? It should be

— holistic
— based on doing what the kids have done and reading what they have read during the course (no “gotcha” surprises).
— focused on interaction with meaningful whole language (no grammar testing)
— a picture of the kids at their best: at the end of the course, when they have had a TON of good comprehensible input