Amy & Gisela’s great Elementary Spanish Classes

Minneapolis part 2: I got to see Amy Roe and Gisela Schramm-Nagel’s elementary Spanish classes.  These are two master teachers and I sure learned a ton.  Maybe others can too.

They teach at a ritzy private school (literally every car in the senior students’ parking lot is a $100,000 S.U.V.) and have short (30 min) classes with about 10 kids/class.  First, Amy:

  1. The kids come in and she says hola, ¿cómo estás? etc etc and they can all answer
  2. Today they are learning weather.  She projects a picture of a tall grumpy bald man and his dog.
  3. There are a few Spanish words on the screen (está lloviendo, hace frio etc)
  4. She gets a kid to be Mr Grumpy (Señor Marrero) and every time she says his name he has to go “bah!”
  5. Another kid wants to be the dog, so she kneels down beside Señor Marrero (who starts petting her!  ha!)
  6. She says a sentence or two, and then asks the kids a question or two.  The sentences are things like “it’s cold and Señor Marrero is not happy (BAH! yells the actor).” She asks simple Spanish questions like “does Señor Marrero like the cold?  Dos his dog like the cold?”
  7. The class is input-focused and the kids are all following along.  Everybody wants their turn acting and all are quite good at it and at hamming it up.  I saw every kid answering every question.
  8. At one point she said something like “do you like the cold?” to the dog.  The dog said yes.  Then she asked me, and I answered slowly, and then I asked a few of the kids “do you like ____” and they said yes/no.
  9. She also put pictures of weather on the screen, and asked questions about that.
  10. This class went by really quickly.  As soon as a kid fidgeted, she switched actors or activity.
  11. At the end the kids lined up and she has a routine (using Spanish) where she says “who is the first?  who is last?”

She was able to be in Spanish most of the time, the kids were engaged (and understanding), and went s.l.o.w.l.y., she pointed and paused, etc.  It was high input, fun and comprehensibility.

I next got to observe Gisela.  she has Grade 1s so they cannot yet read (though they know their letters).  I have never seen a C.I. class where kids could not read so I was excited.

Gisela’s main trick is to have a ton of routines in Spanish.  The kids follow the routines, so basically they are doing T.P.R.: they hear a command in Spanish and do an action. So they come in, and she says (in Spanish) “sit down please” and “watch me.”  (By the way literally every word was in Spanish for the whole class)

  1. She spent a minute or two on the weather (she had pictures on the screen).
  2. She then got the kids to sit on the floor on a big circular rug with emoji faces and Spanish the matched the emojis.  So the smiley face had a estoy feliz beside it.  She asked them how they were doing and they all answered in Spanish.  She later told me she had never “taught” them these but they had basically picked them up by osmosis.
  3. She then did this suuuper-cool activity to do with jobs and parents.  She held up a picture of a doctor. She asked “who’s Mom or Dad is a doctor?” and little Johnny put up his hand.  Johnny got the doctor pic.  Then she said “who has a businessman/woman in their family?” and another kid put up their hand.  Then, she said “Ok, who needs____” and held up realia.  So the doctor needed a stethoscope, the fireman needed a hat, etc.  The kids “collected” realia.
  4. Eventually each kid had a picture and at least one item belonging to that picture.  Then she asked questions like “who has ____?” and “who is a ____?”
  5. There was also a ton of “filler” Spanish going on, like “con permiso” and “ven aca” etc.
  6. For leaving, they all had to line up and she had a bunch of questions and commands for them:  who is first?  where is the door? etc.
  7. At one point she was asking ages and one kid didn’t know how to say “seven” so she said “figure it out” and he did by scanning the room and finding the #s 1-10 chart.
  8. Another thing she did: her room is labeled with all the masculine things (e.g. el escritorio) were red and the feminine things (e.g. la puerta) were red.  But Gisela doesn’t “teach” gender.  It just shows up in the input.

This class like Amy’s had lots of engagement, variety, movement, etc.  Gisela was able to be in Spanish basically the entire time.  The kids were clearly understanding everything and she managed without any written input (although some of them clearly had figured out the basics of reading and sounding out letters in Spanish).

Both classrooms had some Spanish (e.g. #s etc) on walls but the rooms were not Spanish-overloaded.

The two ladies are in the process of giving their elementary Spanish program a makeover and are in their 4th year of 100% comprehensible input.  When I asked how it was working, they said that the middle-school teachers (who had just received their first batch of C.I.-taught kids) were delighted because these kids had two things:  solid command of the basics, and a good “feel” for the language.  The ladies are not focused on output (although the kids are able to say a fair bit) and deliver loads of interesting input.

We talked about “what should an elementary curriculum look like?” and the suggestions only I could think of were:

  • it should start with the “super 7” verbs:  to be, located, have, want, like, go, need
  • it should use unsheltered grammar
  • whatever kids found interesting would be good subject matter (even if that meant lower-frequency vocab)

But I didn’t have much to say– the ladies are the experts and know their stuff.  I also wondered about speed.  Both are speaking at what sounds like adult speed.  They said they knew they should be slower, but said it felt “boring” to slow down.  But we all agreed that it was amazing how much the kids had picked up (especially the grade 1s, who had almost no written support for their Spanish).

I was reminded of a recent Ben Slavic post, where he describes observing the brilliant Mandarin Chinese teacher Linda Li.  He saw her 2nd year kids spitting out perfect Mandarin sentences.  When asking her how they got so good, she said “I am convinced that the reason these kids can speak and write like this is because of all the input over the past year in level 1 and now up to this point in level 2. I NEVER make level 1 kids speak or write. It’s all input at level 1.”

This is well worth thinking about: you do not need output to develop fluency.  Li showed it, so did Amy and Gisela.  The aim of language teaching is to build mental representation:  gut feel for what sounds good, and understanding.  Everything– everything— flows from that.

Anyway, Thanks to Amy and Gisela for a very interesting chance to watch elementary c.i.

What are the pros and the cons of A.I.M.?

I was recently chatting with a couple of Vancouver teachers who used to use the Accelerated Integrative Method (A.I.M.) of language teaching.  A.I.M., developed by Wendy Maxwell, is both a method and a program.  It begins  with “total immersion”: the teacher speaks only the target language in class, and uses gestures to support meaning.  Students are expected to speak from Day 1, and to also use the gestures.  There is reading, some grammar instruction (not a ton), and the whole thing is built around a set of stories, which are read, listened to, acted, watched, acted with puppets, etc, as well as responded to.  Oral output is rehearsing a play, which is performed at the end of the year/semester.  They have some reading materials.  The curriculum is super-structured:  you need to “do” all the stories in order to perform the play and they have very detailed lesson plans (and procedures) starting day 1.

Now, I have not used A.I.M.– I found out about it at the same time as T.P.R.S. and the latter intuitively appealed to me more– but I get asked a lot about what I think.  So since I can’t speak for A.I.M., I’ll let Catherine and Natasha explain what they did and didn’t like about it:


  • used AIM for about 2 years for French
  • liked the intense “immersion” it offered– lots of French spoken in class and the T.P.R. (total physical response– words accompanied with gesture) aspect
  • initially appreciated the rigorous structure: it was “easy to start” and there was no need to copy/borrow/adapt “materials” and “resources” from others.

Natasha abandoned A.I.M. and here is why:

  • the TPR was only superficially and initially useful and eventually became a pain in the butt.  Students also generally refused to do it.
  • TPR created problems with ambiguity, and fossilised.  For example, if a gesture accompanied “walks,” Natasha found that they would keep using “walks”in the wrong place with the gesture (e.g. “we walks”).
  • the oral assessment– can the kids recite their lines in the play?– in her view was silly as it wasn’t even close to real language use.  She also noted that the performers didn’t always know what they were saying.
  • she found it very difficult to keep the kids focused on the stories, because they are the same in all their iterations.  E.g. they would listen to it, read it, watch it, act it out, act it out with puppets, etc.  There was, according to Natasha, no variation.  No parallel characters, student-centered improv a la t.p.r.s., etc.

Catherine also used A.I.M. for two years and repeated most of Natasha’s comments (both positive and negative), with a few of her own.  On the upside:

  • if the whole languages department in a school is using A.I.M., the transitions between grades– i.e. “what should they know when they start grade ___?”– is very easy, as the curriculum is majorly locked in.
  • the theatre pieces in which each year or semester culminates are pretty cool to look at (and, if your school has the resources for costumes etc, can be a lot of fun to put on)

On the downside:

  • because the curriculum is so rigid, it inevitably leaves some students out.  If students have not acquired ___, the curriculum marches ahead anyway.
  • there is very little room for improvisation in stories
  • teachers with a creative bent will be severely limited, because the whole A.I.M. package is “unified” and one has to “do” or “cover” everything for the final goal– theatre pieces– to work.  This means that teachers’ ideas will have very limited room for exploration.
  • much of the introductory stuff is boring.  E.g. the class sits in a circle and the teacher says “this is a pen,” and “this is a desk,” etc.

(One of the interesting things for me was oral assessment:  A.I.M. uses “real” language– i.e. student-generated output– right from the get-go, but assesses something other than “real language” in the theatre piece, while T.P.R.S. uses “fake” language– acted-out stories with simple dialogue– but assesses “real” language– teacher interviewing the kids one-on-one.)

T.P.R.S. answers a few of these criticisms:

  1. T.P.R. is only (and optionally) used for awhile, and generally with true beginners
  2. The method is infinitely flexible.  We have Blaine’s “holy trinity” of story asking, PQA and reading…and we now also have Ben Slavic’s PictureTalk, Ashley Hastings’ MovieTalk, dictation…and even when we are using a “text” such as Blaine Ray’s Look, I Can Talk, or Adriana Ramírez’ Teaching Spanish Through Comprehensible Input Storytelling, we– and the KIDS– can change story details, locations, etc etc.
  3. The comprehension checks in T.P.R.S.– if regularly done– will provide super-clear feedback about whether or not students have acquired (on understanding level) whatever they are being taught.  If a teacher gets a weak choral response, or slow/poor responses from the actor(s), we go back, add a character, etc.
  4. There is no “end goal” in T.P.R.S.  If we are in the target language, and the kids understand, and we don’t overload them with vocab, they are acquiring.  Blaine Ray has famously remarked that he spent four months doing ONE story with his grade 9s.  We are not working toward an exam, a play, a portfolio.  All we want to do is tell the kids interesting fun stories with vocab we can repeat zillions of times.
  5. If a story is boring, we add a parallel character, or bail out and start another one, or throw something random in.  While we do want to stick to our structures, we can basically do whatever we want with them.
  6. If there’s ambiguity we just translate.

Another colleague, Katy-Ann, has this to say about A.I.M.:

“I loved using the AIM program!!  It was a lot of work at the beginning to learn all the gestures, but I found that it worked so well. I could speak French for the entire time with my 8’s, and the majority of the kids loved the way the program worked. At the end of the year the students were capable of telling a story (based on the play that we read) in their own words, with a partner. The activity was completely unrehearsed, and as the students alternated back and forth telling the story, they had to listen for details and continue on where their partner left off. Most groups talked bath and forth in this way for a good 10 minutes. They were also capable of writing a massive story. I loved hearing them create more complex sentences and I could help them with the words they were stuck on without actually telling them the word. I could gesture and it would jog their memory. I found that this gave the students confidence. They were actually recalling things and not just repeating words back to me. At the end of the year the feedback from the students was overwhelmingly positive and the parents were very supportive of the method as well.

I’m a fairly animated teacher, so I felt comfortable making a bit of a fool of myself with the gestures, songs and games. My colleague and I collaborated a lot during the process and reworked the songs into raps to make them a little cooler. This style really suited my personality and I loved that I could actually stick to my French only rule in the classroom.  I haven’t used TPRS in the classroom and unfortunately I’m not teaching French this year, so I can’t really compare the methods. If I was teaching French (and I had some pull at my new school) I would totally beg to do the AIM program again with the jr French classes. I’m not sure how the older kids would react to it.

Anyways, I hope that this helps. I think that the program is AMAZING. The kit that my school purchased is called Salut, mon ami. I only got through one kit in the year, because we added in a couple things, but I would recommend two per grade – or if you are just starting, then one.  Of course there are some holes in the program, but the main thing that I noticed is that the kids were speaking in full sentences every day, they were successful and engaged. I could really go on and on about it because I’m a believer. I would totally take the seminar if you can. I did the three day course and by the end I knew it was for me.”

Anyway there you have it, some A.I.M. ideas.  Anyone with experience with A.I.M. please leave some comments.