Classroom Set-Up

What Is My Daily Intro Routine?

I open every class with an intro routine.  I add one or two words per day, and by the end of the course, the kids have picked up about 90 expressions from just intro alone.  Here’s how I do it

  1.  I ask, class, what is the day? and class, what is the date? Then, I answer in the affirmative and ask a few questions:  class, is it Tuesday or Wednesday?  That’s right, it’s Wednesday.  Class, is it the 28th or the 29th?  That’s right:  it’s not the 28th– it’s the 29th.This will teach kids days and numbers 1-31 with zero effort.  Time: 1 minute

  2.  I ask class, what is the weather like today? That’s right, class: it’s snowing.  Class, was it snowing yesterday? That’s right:  yesterday, it wasn’t snowing: it was sunny! If the weather where you are never changes, talk about weather elsewhere.  Time:  1 minute.

  3.  Next up is The Missing Kid: I ask, class, where is [a kid not in class]?  Sometimes kids know (Johnny’s at the doctor, or Manjeet is in a soccer tourney).  Then, I ask some y/n and either/or questions about that kid. Sometimes, we have no idea, so here we speculate:  Class, is it possible that Baljit is playing soccer with Leonel Messi in Barcelona?  For people with the subjunctive tense in their target language, this is a goldmine.  Time: 5 minutes

  4. Finally, we do what did you do last night?  First, I model it myself:  I tell the kids about my evening, thus: Class, last night I drove my  purple Ferrari home, and then I had a date with Angeline Jolie.  That’s right, class:  Ang is single so we had a date.  Our date was fun and romantic.  We went to McDonalds!  Ang was very happy.

    I ask, Suzie, what did you do last night/yesterday?   Yes, I do this with Day 2 beginners.  I use the following “past tense PQA” chart.  Initially, the kids just read off it.  On Day 2, the question was what did you do last night? and they could only pick I went to…. and I played…

So I would ask a kid what did you do last night? and they would (in the first few days) read something like last night, I played GTA 5 or yesterday, I went to Wal Mart.  I would ask questions about their answers, re-state in 3rd person, and then do compare and contrast questions.  Here is a sample dialogue from today (we have had about 27 classes):

T:  Manpreet, what did you do last night?

S: last night, I went to Wal-Mart.

T:  class, did Manpreet go to Wal-Mart or to Safeway last night?

C: Wal-Mart.

T: Manpreet, did you go to 7-11 last night?

S: I went to Wal-Mart.

Here we are getting 1st, 2nd and 3rd person reps on the basic past tense.  I “allow” one new word per day, so after 8 days the kids at least recognise the basics (ie what is on the chart).  Yes, you can do this with total beginners and it’s a not-bad idea…because the longer people hear  _____, the more chances they have of picking it up.  After they recognise everything on the chart, I add a new word or two on the board per day.

Time: 5 minutes.

5. Finally, we do soap operas, which grew organically out of  me blatantly lying about my evening activities.  Kids, were like, well if Sr can date Angelina Jolie, *I* can kiss Dave Franco.  For soap opera details, read this.  Soap operas have two parts:  creating the story, and (once enough has been created to fill a page) printing it out and reading it.

Anywaythe aims with the intro routine are to

  • keep all language 100% comprehensible
  • introduce a variety of grammar and vocab incrementally
  • tailor language to student interests
  • recycle things daily
  • avoid themes or topics
  • unshelter grammar



Should I Mark Behavior? The Great JGR Debate, and a Silver Lining for Behaviour Rubrics.

Some years ago, a teacher built a rubric for her C.I. classes, which Ben Slavic named JGR and which was discussed on his blog and then elsewhere.  Here is a version I have played around with: INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION rubric.  I initially opposed the use of JGR, then used it, then ditched it, and now I use it (but not for marks). Note: this is a modified version of the original JGR; and I don’t know for how long she used her rubric, or if she still does, or what the original looked like.

JGR was developed because– like all of us, especially me– the creator had some challenges managing her C.I. classes in her initial year with T.P.R.S., which can in (especially my) rookie hands turn into a “woo-hoo no more textbook!” clown show.  JGR basically “marks” classroom behaviour.  JGR specifies that students make eye contact, add story details, ask for help, not blurt, not use cell-phones etc.  Jen used it (and if memory serves Ben also recommended its use) by making part of her class mark a function of behaviour as marked by JGR.  So the kids might get, say, 20% of their mark each for reading, writing, listening, speaking and 20% for their in-class behaviour.  Part of the thinking here was that some behaviours lead to acquisition, while others do not and also wreck the classroom environment, and so “acquisition-rewarding” behaviour should be rewarded.

JGR– for many people, including me– “works.”  Which is why– especially when linked with allegedly “acquisition-promoting” behaviours– lots of people are interested in it.

JGR is a kind of “carrot-and-stick” marking tool:  if the kids engaged in the behaviours JGR specified, their marks went up, partly because (a) they got marks for those behaviours, and partly because (b) the behaviours should– in theory– help them acquire more language.

This can of worms was shaken around a bit on Ben’s blog, and recently, thanks to the always-remarkable Terry Waltz, there have been FB and Yahoo discussions about it.  So, today’s question:

Should we assess in-class behaviour for final marks purposes?

My answer: no, never.  Why?

1. Behaviours typically asked for in JGR– or other such rubrics– are not part of any     curricula of which I am aware.  Every language curriculum says something like, students of the Blablabian language will read, write, speak and understand spoken Blablabian, and maybe say something about Blablabian culture.  Nowhere does any  curriculum say “students should suggest details for stories” or “students will lookthe teacher in the eye.”

If it’s going to get a mark, it has to be part of course outcomes.  Any assessment guru (Wormelli, Harlen, etc) will tell you the same thing: we do not mark attitude, behaviour, homework, etc, as these are not part of final outcomes.

To put it another way, how do we judge the New England Patriots football team?  By how well, often and/or enthusiastically they practice and look Bill Belichick in the eye, or by how many games they win?  How should Tom Brady be paid: by how often he shows up for practice, and how nice he is to Belichick, or by how many yards he successfully throws?  That’s right.

We could– and I often do– end up in situations where a “bad” kid does well, or a “good” kid does poorly.  I have had bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teacher’s pet-type kids who were not especially good at Spanish, and I have had giant pains-in-the-butt who were quite good.

My best-ever student in TPRS, Hamid Hamid, never added story details, never looked up, and always faced away from the board.  Yet he CRUSHED on assessments and got 100% in Spanish 2.  Two years later, his younger brother, Fahim (also a great student) told me that Hamid Hamid was both shy and deaf in his left ear, so always “pointed” his right ear at the board (and so appeared to be looking away).  This kid’s mark would have been lowered by assessing his “in-class behaviour,” which– given his epic Spanish skills– would have been absurd.

2. As Terry Waltz points out, neurodivergent kids can– and do– acquire language without engaging in many behaviours typically required by participation and behaviour rubrics. She also points out that forcing neurodivergent kids into the “normal” mold is at best less than productive. If you are autistic, anxious, suffering from PTSD (as my stepdaughter does) or facing any other neuro challenges, “engagement” rubrics can make your life miserable while not appreciably meaningfully measuring what you can do with the language.

3. The only thing required for language acquisition is reception of comprehensible input.  While the focus of behaviour rubrics is designed to get kids to tune in, it does not follow that many behaviours which do make for a good class– e.g. people adding good details to stories, looking at each other– are necessary to acquire language.

All of us have been there: you have a plan, you did your story warmup or whatever, but the kids aren’t into it.  You bust out a Movietalk but they aren’t into that either.  Dead class. Now, in a C.I. class, we don’t have recourse to worksheets or whatever, and we still have to teach the language. I have a bail-out move here: direct translation, and I always have a novel on the go, so I can read aloud, and Q&A the novel.  If I’m being particularly non-compelling, I’ll throw an exit quiz at them.

The point: if the kids are getting C.I., they are acquiring.  If they are miserable/tired/bored with stories, fine.  They are gonna get C.I. one way or another.

4. Any kind of behaviour rubric plays the awful “rewards” game.  Ask yourself this question:  why do I teach? The answer– other than because I have to make a living— is probably something like, because it’s interesting, I have some measure of control over my work, and I love kids and my subject.  Some will add that teaching, properly done, opens doors for kids.  Teachers do not teach because they want to be evaluated, or because they want to use the latest gizmo, or because they want public praise, etc.  They are, in other words, intrinsically motivated.  They want to work because the work is good and worthy in itself.

When we institute rewards for behaviours, as Alfie Kohn has spent a career arguing, we destroy intrinsic motivation.  We turn something interesting into payment for marks.  The point stops being paying attention to the story– or adding to it cos you actually care about it– and becomes something rote.

5. Using behaviour rubrics can dampen professional self-examination. If my practice is such that I have to use marks as a stick to keep kids in line (the policing metaphor is not an accident), there are two possibilities: tough kids, and/or I am doing a bad job.  The question why are they not tuned in? might be answerable with any of the following:

— I am not being sufficiently comprehensible

— I am ignoring the top or the bottom end of the class– too fast/slow or simple/complex

— my activities are not interesting, varied or meaningful enough

— the kids see no purpose

— accountability: they don’t see tuning in as something that results in real gains

— I lack basic skills (smart circling, control of vocab, etc etc)

— my story sucks 😉

I had better be able to look in the mirror, consider and then deal with these possibilities, rather than merely acting like a cop and demanding obedience.

Now, behaviour does matter.  You cannot run a T.P.R.S. class without rules etc.  My basic rules:

  • no phones or other distractions (including side-talk, blurting etc)
  • no insults of anyone other than oneself or of rich entitled people
  • listen, watch and read with the intent to understand; ask when you don’t
  • do not create or engage in distractions

The tools that we have for dealing with distracting behaviour include

  • warning the offender, standing by their desk, calling Mom and Dad, etc
  • pointing, with a smile, to classroom rules every time there is a problem
  • sending them to admin if necessary
  • taking their phone until 3:15 (most kids would rather die)
  • detention, where we discuss behaviour
  • assigning read & translate (quiet seatwork)
  • taking the kids outside for a walk, or doing some other kind of physical brain-break
  • changing activities
  • doing a quiz
  • talking to kids one on one and asking what do I need to do to get you focused?


The upshot?  We should not, and need not, mark “behaviour” or “participation.”


Addendum:  is there ever a use for classroom behaviour rubrics?

Yes.  I get my kids to self-evaluate using JGR every 2-3 weeks.  My version generates a mark out of 20.

Nineteen out of twenty kids will very honestly self-evaluate their behaviour, provided they understand exactly what is expected.  One kid in twenty will heap false praise on him/herself.  For the false praisers (“I never blurt in class!”), I sit them down and explain what I think, then we agree on a more realistic mark.

I save these JGR “marks” and once in a blue moon, when a helicopter parent or an Admin wants to know, how is Baninder doing in Spanish, I can point to both the spreadsheet with Numberz and JGR.  This frames the inevitable discussion about marks in terms any parent can understand.  Any parent, from any culture, understands that if Johnny screws around and/or does not pay attention in class, his mark will drop.

JGR– in my experience– accurately “predicts” the marks of about 80% of kids.  When I can show a kid (or a parent or admin), look, here are Johnny’s marks AND Johnny’s own description of how he behaves in class, we can have an honest discussion about marks, Spanish, etc.  Win-win.

How do I start the Year with T.P.R.S.?

Craig West asked me, “how do you start your year?”  Good question.  So here is what I do on Day 1.

A) Kids come in, I take attendance, they sit where they want, I make a seating plan. If it turns out they can’t work together, I will move them later.

B) I hand out the COURSE OUTLINE , the INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION rubric (a modified version of Ben Slavic and Jen Schongalla’s jGR) and kids fill out paperwork.

C) I basically tell them two things. First, general expectations (no swearing, sexist or homophobic etc language, don’t make a mess, yadda yadda).  Then, I ask them “if you took another language, and it didn’t work for you, or you didn’t like it, I want to know why” and they tell the class.  Usually they say things like “[language] was boring, hard to understand, bla bla.”

Then, I tell them, “Ok, here we learn through stories and it’s really easy. All you have to do to learn a language is listen to words you understand in it, or read it.” I also tell them, the amount of fun in class depends on how much energy they bring to it (suggestions), I show them the rules poster, and I tell them how to do responses.

Then, I hand out my vocab sheet for my first story–Los Gatos Azules— where the words are written in Spanish.  They write down the English. Then I start asking the story. I write a few of the first sentences on the board.  Había un chico.  Vivía en ________. Se llamaba ________.  I get the kids to suggest funny names etc.  I ask for a volunteer to act, or appoint a native speaker if I have one, and I ask him questions from the PQA chart.  On Day 1, I probably won’t get much further than quieres, eres and tienes– questions.

This (below) is my PQA chart.

So if I narrate Había un chico, I ask my actor ¿eres un chico? and he answers soy un chico by reading off PQA chart.  (If I have a native speaker, I’ll use him/her.) I’ll also ask ¿tienes un perro/gato? and he answers Sí, tengo un gato and/or no tengo un perro, and I’ll ask ¿cómo te llamas? –me llamo _____ and ¿vives en _____? — sí/no, no vivo en. I make sure I do a LOT of comprehension checks with both actor and class. A comp check involves asking either one person or the class “what did I just say?” or “what did I just ask?” and checking if they understand.

I’ll also start with another kid as my first parallel character.  Usually a girl (so we can start in on feminine nouns etc) and my parallel character stays in her seat but I will give her a prop to help be a visual anchor.  So, with Los Gatos Azules, the main character (boy) has a dog (I give him a stuffed dog) but wants 10 blue cats.  The parallel character– a girl, seated– has a cat (and prop) but wants 27 purple dogs.

I have realia– for this story stuffed animals– which are good “meaning anchors.” Anything you say which is comprehensible– and which has any other kind of meaning support, such as realia, props, gestures– will help kids acquire language.  Below, gato and perro are vocab from the story; ratón is an obvious easy cognate that provides easy contrast for circling a pair of sentences.  I could even vary the story…el chico quería tener diez gatos azules…but…el gato quería un ratón blanco

I will stop my story 10 min before the end, and then I’ll do an exit quiz. This sets tone– yes, T.P.R.S. is fun BUT you still have to tune in– and also an exit quiz is easy. The kids “get” Spanish on their first day and that feels good.

For homework for day two, I’ll have the kids make simple desk signs. On one side goes their name (can be fake), a picture/drawing of something they like to do, and another of something they own (or a pet).  On the back goes ¿puedo ir al baño? and ¿puedo ir a tomar agua? and ¿puedo ir a mi armario? This is a Ben Slavic idea.  You can always pick one kid’s sign, write a sentence about it on the board (or write a sentence about another kid’s sign also) and presto!, instant mini-c.i. activity.  Plus, the signs help me learn the kids’ names and get to know them better.

There are a zillion other activities you can do on start-up day/week (Ben Slavic has a whole book called Stepping Stones to Stories where he describes his start-up system). Some teachers have to “norm” their classes, i.e. teach them how to behave.  But I have found that, for me, the best thing is to go straight into stories.  It seems that kids learn best when vocab is “packaged” into stories, and when they have to read embedded versions of stories.  I have basically learned that said in September, forgot by December, so if it gets said, it has to be read if I want the kids to remember it.  I do enjoy scene-spinning and improv though…

On Day 2, I start by circling weather and date (good to put boring stuff in background). I review the story, and we continue on– I’ll be able to introduce vas, te gusta(n) and queria— and this day I start personalised questins and answers.  For me, P.Q.A. is basically asking the class members the same question as the actors.

So, if this was Day 2 PQA, I would do the following before reviewing and then continuing the story.  I would first say “OK, yesterday we started a story, and today, I want to get to know you guys, so I’ll ask you some of the questions I asked [actor and parallel character]. Answer with whatever you are comfortable with: sí/no, a word, or a sentence.” Then I’ll point to the PQA chart, make sure they know what the questions mean– and how to answer them– and off we go.

I pick a random kid and ask ¿eres un chico? and he has to answer , or soy un chico.  I’ll repeat the same with a girl, then I’ll do ¿tienes un gato/perro? This is where personalisation starts.  Little by little, you start to learn about your kids.  Who has a dog? Who likes/hates cats?  I also tell them, if you want, totally lie, as long as it’s not inappropriate (e.g. if you said it to your Mom, would she laugh or perma-ground you?) so some kids will want to say tengo un dinosaurio and that can become part of class culture.  It is also fun to ask a boy ¿eres una chica? etc.

Then, we go back to our story. I’ll review details from Day 1, then ask for more details, introduce the problem, etc. This year, I started changing things a wee bit– I now ask characters in my stories present tense questions about other characters– e.g. Donald Trump, ¿es un chico Barack Obama?–  which gets me present-tense reps.

So there you go– starting the year with t.p.r.s.

What should we have on our walls?

I was recently asked “what’s on your walls?” (that’s Spanish-related).  Here it is: everything on my walls to do with Spanish.

First, colour chart.  100% comprehensible with no English.  (Pink is getting faded😞)

Next, the front of the room. I have class rules and PQA chart and question words– that’s it. On the board is vocab from the story we are starting today: Adriana Ramírez’ El Rolls Royce y el Perro Rosado.  I will write a few sentences from the story– the ones with new structures– plus some dialogue once the kids have copied this vocab (and its English equivalents).  There will be WAY less junk on the board.

Finally, here is the PQA chart from above pic, closeup. This is what we use when we start with beginners.  Some kids– the fast processors who I use as actors– pick this up quickly. Others need way more reps. I just point to it.

Here is desk layout.  I like the idea of deskless (Mike Coxon does this) but I need desks for English and Social Justice.  We have a pretty good acting space at the front. It works well.  This is an English 10 class.  In the far back row in the red is Novneet. He was in my Spanish I  class last semester and majorly crushed it– 750-word 3-tense stories, with superb grammar– but he is not as strong a student in English.  My other superstar beginner, Shayla, is also in this class, and is the same: not an analytic English crusher.  Interesting that academically average kids can majorly excel in a language if taught with comprehensible input.

You will also note other teacher essentials: coffee mugs and a mandolin 😉

Even though I also teach English and Social Justice, and I need wall space for projects, I wouldn’t put any more Spanish stuff on the walls. Why? Because visual clutter is annoying and doesn’t help the kids. Maybe it was Ben Slavic who mentiond “the Ikea room.”

Some teachers ask me, “ok, where is your word wall, or where are your number and location-word posters?”

A) I had a word wall, with eveything from connecting phrases– therefore, after, etc– to location words to labeled pictures of verbs, objects, etc, and guess what? The kids copied stuff off the walls (as I hoped they would), trying to beef up their writing, and misused almost everything on the walls. This was I think because stuff that’s not acquired gets manipulated by the conscious mind and so they say ok, how do I say ____? Ok there it is, I’ll toss that into this sentence…yo tengo fui al cine.  With less on walls, what I get in writing is what they actually know.

B) Numbers, location words, time, date, weather etc are boring so I just throw one into each story and the kids pick it up that way. Voilá less junk on walls. I deal with boring stuff this way.

C) The fewer visual distractions, the more mental energy we have for focusing on and processing the essential stuff in stories.  T.P.R.S. is “narrow and deep”-focused.  We want our kids to master essentials– teach for mastery, not presentation, as Blaine Ray puts it.

Ok there we go. One teacher’s room layout.