Training Students to Ask for Clarification (while reading)

Students, in my case teenagers, do NOT like saying they don’t understand something.

This is frustrating for me. It’s one of my expectations to ask for clarification, or rather I put it on myself. Tell me when *I* am unclear. Tell me when *I* go too fast.

I get frustrated because when students don’t tell me I am being incomprehensible, I can’t clarify, and I can’t help them acquire new language. Then because they aren’t acquiring new language, they have the misfortune of being left behind at some point. They get frustrated because they don’t understand, I get frustrated because they haven’t been doing what they need to do to succeed. I do do my darndest to preemptively clarify things. If I know it’s a new word I’ll write it on the board. But if I use it again and don’t clarify I need students to tell me that I didn’t do my job of making language comprehensible to them.

In comes lap reading. I read about lap reading from Jon Cowart. I really like that I can give students more reasons to re-read a text, and do a comprehensible input style “close reading” activity.

I’ve made my first lap (and I think it will permanently be this) to highlight what you UNDERSTAND. Obvi, the first reason I do this is to show students they are understanding more than they think they are.

Second reason is the review period for the lap. I bring the class back together and start reading the text aloud with the instruction: When we come to something that you have NOT highlighted, tell me.

This allows for on the spot clarification, they are rereading the text, and I can maybe have some collaboration going on by having other students help clarify.

The review period is SO IMPORTANT of this. Because we can’t just go back and tell students what a word means after the fact. It does nothing for real-time processing of language. You MUST re-read the text with students. Cold call students after reading a sentence, ask if they DIDN’T highlight something, then go back and re read the sentence, check for understanding after and then go on.

I’ll let you know if this gives students any long term confidence of letting me know when something is incomprehensible to them.

What did you learn today?


I’m sure my parents were so tired of hearing that response to their daily question. For me, it was undiscovered introvert-ness. I had peopled all day and just wanted to go to my room for a bit.

Of course I learned. But I didn’t have anything to talk about. Seven hours of class after class, you need time to digest that.

Something similar happens EVERY DAY in the Comprehension based communicative language classroom. Or the TCI classroom. Or the TPRS classroom. Whatever you want to call it.

When we teach to the subconscious mind, that is, for acquisition, students DON’T feel like they’re learning. They can do more on assessments, they can write more on timed writes. BUT they don’t see it like that. Students want to know they can do something with language. They want to ‘FEEL’ like they’re learning.

This semester I have remedied the “I don’t learn anything in his class, all we do is tell stories in Spanish” problem.

And it is with a few simple questions.

“What new words did you learn today?” This is a cheap trick, because they probably didn’t acquire the words yet. BUT it gives students a chance to think about the fact that we ARE slowly but surely building their vocabulary and their ability to uphold discourse.

“What words/phrases are you ready to use?” This one surprises me when I hear answers. Today someone in Spanish 2 said they felt more comfortable using the word ‘blanco’ (white). In my mind I’m like, we did colors ALL THE TIME last year, and you just now feel comfortable using the word for white? But on the other hand, each student is special, individual, and the speed of their acquisition is different than others. Today was the magic number for that student to be able to use the word ‘white’. But you know what? I drew their attention to the fact that they are learning something.

Daily Lesson Structure and CI with a Textbook

I’ve written about using CI with a textbook before, but I think I’ve made some leaps in how it’s going. So here we go, here’s what a typical class looks like. If you are a fan of Tina Hargaden I’m sure you’re going to see some similarities.

Bell Ringer: 

The daily bell ringer is what students are doing as they enter the class. I need to get better at the bell ringer process, but that’s on me. Bell ringers MUST be something students can do on their own, without my help. My bell ringers are one of two things. Silent reading, or grammar practice. I want to make sure students feel they are prepared for other classes that might focus more on grammar than I do. I have found though, the 5 minutes of grammar has been AS effective as full class periods of grammar.


After the bell ringer we go into input time. This can be anything. Story asking, movie talk, picture talk, PQA, special person, ANY activity that provides input. I try to go for about 15-20 minutes of input with high comprehension and frequent checks for understanding.

Write and Discuss

Students have now heard a lot of input, now is an opportunity for them to get more repetition of the language by reading it as I write out what we talked about.  Sometimes this is difficult depending on what we talked about. What I’m still struggling with is honoring all students in the class. If we have a PQA day then I typically talk about only one student, because I want to have something substantial to write about. I’m still struggling with talking about multiple people and writing about multiple people during write and discuss. Recently I’ve added, thanks to Tina, a word by word translation followed by the question “What do you notice about how Spanish is different than English?”


I’ve got a big ol’ stack of Anne Marie Chase’s ACTFL aligned Quick Quizzes. I can use these WHENEVER we do write and discuss to get a listening or reading grade. I’m going to be much more attentive next semester to give one every day that we write and discuss as a way to keep students accountable for input.

Getting Critical Thinking OUT of My Class

NOTE: This is not about language acquisition, there is input involved here, but the focus of this post is to draw attention to getting students to use what we are doing in class to think critically.

I’ve been thinking critically about critical thinking.

Producing ouptut AT ALL, in my opinion, is critical thinking and requires so many steps from processing input, making connections, thinking about how you want to answer (probably in the L1) and then coming up with the language in the L2.

If that’s not enough, then we also have WHY and HOW questions which can inspire critical thinking. If it’s a WHY question, you have to process the question, process the information you already have, think about prior knowledge, and then think about how to answer and then put that language out into the world. Same with HOW questions.

Then we’ve got comparisons of culture, which is what Interculture is all about which allows for critical thinking in English. In ACTFL’s Intercultural Reflection Tool they state that “Deep reflection normally occurs in one’s native language”. They even suggest maybe having students do the reflection outside of class.

The time we have in class is precious. We need to give students as much comprehensible input as possible to build mental representation and lead them towards acquisition. So any activity that does not provide input should not take up (too much) class time. So I think that having critical thinking activities as homework is a sweet spot. Students get input in class, and critically think about the information from the input outside of class.

Here’s my plan: I am going to use Martina Bex and Maris Hawkins’ collaboration project: El mundo en tus manos to get some critical thinking going. We will read the articles together in class and discuss them then students are going to have some homework. I am thinking it could be individual, or a group discussion on our Canvas page.

Here are questions that I might give to students  for any given issue of EMETM:

I am MOSTLY taking these from Readicide by Kelly Gallagher

  1. Summarize the articles in SPANISH.
  2. Choose 3-5 quotes from the issue and explain in ENGLISH why you think they are important. (Discussion option: Post your quotes, other students discuss WHY you chose those).
  3. Choose the article that you think has the biggest impact on the world, explain. (This could also lead to good discussion)
  4. Choose the article that you think is the least newsworthy, explain.
  5. Create a TChart with important info on one side, and on the other information that you think could be missing from the article.
  6. In Spanish OR English, re-write the title of the articles.
  7.  Create an action plan on how you can get involved with one of the events discussed in the issue.

I would do these activities out of class as homework so that we don’t take away from the opportunity for input IN class. The time we have in class is limited so we need to make it input heavy, and while I don’t think this is a valuable use of class time, I think it is valuable for students.

Simplifying My Gradebook

I have long struggled getting enough meaningful grades in my gradebook. I think, if it’s worth me spending my time grading, it’s worth being in the gradebook. However, that’s not always the case with things we do in our classes. No, that doesn’t mean that we do busywork, but if I give a student an activity for the purpose of providing more comprehensible input, and they ask me to clarify a word or phrase for them, THAT is what I need to know to inform instruction.

Anyway. Grades. We are on an 18 week semester schedule which is divided into Three, six week grading periods. We are supposed to put at least one grade in the grade book every week. Well, I have found something that works for me.

Every week I have a 5 point participation grade. There are a few different ways that this could go in the gradebook. It might be that the class is working on a reading activity and I go around the class with my clipboard and mark off who is actively on task. It could be that I decide to collect a paper students are working on. It could be an eLearning assignment (though this threw a wrench in my plans last year because we had more than 1 eLearning in a week). Or it could be that I check off bell ringers. I do mark bell-ringers every day with a stamp, or a signature, but I don’t always put them in for points, really bell ringers are a back up if it’s friday and I didn’t get a participation grade in.

So, 18 weeks, 5 points = 90 pts.

Reading and listening quizzes. Every week, students have either a reading or a listening quiz. 18 weeks, so they have 9 reading and 9 listening quizzes. I’m STILL working on the format for these because I want them to be performance/proficiency based. THIS is a great post by Señora Chase about listening and reading quizzes. AND great news, Indiana’s new standards are ALL “I Can” statements and they look pretty darn close to ACTFL’s Can-Dos. Sometimes it is hard, though, having a reading or listening that is “meaty” (Or “impossible burgery” for vegetarians and vegans) enough that makes the quiz meaningful. I’ve been looking for #authres to maybe use Sra. Chase’s quiz on.

9 Reading quizzes, 9 listening quizzes, 25 points each= 450

Writing “tests” are every 3 weeks. That’s not to say that we don’t write more, but these are the ones that I give CONTENT and STRUCTURE feedback on. Structure as in, “Let’s try to use transition words”, or “Do you think you could combine any of these sentences”? NOT grammar, unless the student asks. So, yea… ALL students get personal feedback from me on writing EVERY time they do these writing ‘tests’. How do I have time?! Because the day following the writings, all students are working on Señor Wooly, or Textivate, or something else individual so that I can give students feedback to their face.

Why am I calling it a Test? Because that is the word that my students know and respect. There was an instant change this past semester when I started calling timed writes “writing tests”. There was a sense of “Oh this class does matter because we have quizzes and tests”. Such is grade driven school culture.

6 Writing tests, 35 points each= 210

Speaking. I DO assess speaking and you can read more about that in my previous blog posts.  Essentially, every time we do PQA we get in a circle, and I try to see how much students can do when I ask them follow up questions. We do PQA at least once a week, and I try to hear each student speak at least once every six weeks.

3 Speaking “quizzes” 25 points each=75 points

So in total I have 825 points possible in my class. I chose to do points instead of weights because I had a hard time explaining to students why a 5 point quiz took their grade down so much.

What this amounts to though:

In-Class work ≈ 11%
Reading/Listening≈ 55%
Writing ≈ 26%
Speaking ≈ 9%

And of course there are decimals, but the points to add up! I’m not THAT bad at math!

Big Takeaways from NTPRS

Well, the events of “Summer Camp”, sing-a-longs, TPRXXX, Immersion Dinners, open mic night, made me way too busy to do a daily reflection blog. So here are some of my big takeaways!

  1. Triangling
    This was the newest thing for me. We’ve all heard of circling (make a statement and ask questions that are answered by the statement). Triangling is another questioning technique that gets students to hear different forms of the verb that is in the original sentence. So the teacher makes a statement (3rd person), asks the actor a question (2nd person), and coaches the actor to answer the question (1st person), verifies the statement with the actor (2nd person again) and restates to the class (3rd person, again). I think this was pretty much putting a name to something I was already doing, but it was nice to think about it in depth with others.
  2. Visual representation of the main tenses.
    Adriana Ramirez lays down tape on the floor to give  a visual representation of when she is speaking in the present or past tense. I think this could be super helpful to start mixing tenses from level 1. For my particular classroom, I’m thinking of maybe having a floor mat to signal that I’m switching tenses.
  3. Grafted Writing
    Eric Richards talked about using ‘grafted writing’ to get students to re-read for the purpose of writing. My favorite activity that he shared was “Rotating desks”. The teacher prepares a mini story on slides, one sentence per slide, each slide has a blank for a detail. Students copy sentence 1 and add their detail. Then students stand up, leave their paper at their desk and go to a new desk. The teacher reveals the new sentence with the new blank, and repeat. By the end of the activity you will have 25 or so(however many students you have) parallel texts! You can then have students read and vote on the best version, OR you could collect them all for FVR!
  4. Vocabulary Graveyard
    Vocabulary graveyard is a space on your wall where we display words students are no longer allowed to use. If your students have learned ‘bonita’ and keep using it to describe things, kill it off and put it in the graveyard. Now that doesn’t mean students can’t call things beautiful, it means they now have to start using synonyms. When a word is in the graveyard, we put words that students ARE allowed to use around the ‘dead’ word. So if ‘bonita’ is dead, we can give students the words ‘hermosa’ or ‘linda’.
  5. Literature Circles
    This is nothing new, but I have never really thought about it. Michelle Kindt does Lit circles with her level 3s as an entire unit, but I think I’m going to try to do it as an alternative to FVR. In Michelle’s example, students are in groups of four and they read for about 20 minutes of class time. They read and translate. Each day students have a job, Vocabulary writer (they write down words that can be used in different contexts, or words that are important to the story), a Summary writer (writes a summary of what they read IN the TL), A question writer (Writes 2-3 discussion questions, cannot be yes/no or either/or questions. Every day, Michelle chooses a group and discusses their discussion questions with them), and a Culture comparison writer(Student writes in L1 OR L2 to make connections from the content of the book to their own life). Students switch jobs daily, and Michelle has a google doc where students spend the last 7-10 minutes of class filling out the doc for the job they had that day.
  6. Classroom research favors TPRS over traditional methods
    Dr. Karen Lichtman was at the conference and she did a couple sessions on research regarding TPRS. Big take away from her presentation was that when compared to traditional classrooms TPRS has NEVER underperformed. This comes from a corpus of 74 classroom studies. Yes, there are times where TPRS and traditional methods are equal, and there were for sure studies where TPRS came out on top, but NEVER underperformed. Of course as the body of research grows there will be research that states otherwise, and I’ll be happy to read it when it does.

NTPRS was such a great time and I can’t wait to go back when I get the chance!

NTPRS Day #1

While I tweet all day to collect my ideas from the day, I’m going to go back through my tweets to try to synthesize what I learned, or what I had already learned and had a chance to revisit.

My one of my first tweets of the day was to acknowledge how happy I was to have MSU MAFLT alum, and author Rachel Emery in my group! I am so excited to share this week with her! We both have a couple years of research and reflection under our belts now and we are still riding the high of having our Master’s degrees and are ready reflect on what we learned in our program and how those things are being put into practice in the method known as TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling).

I have not been to NTPRS before. I had always heard of it as summer camp for teachers, and we for sure started off that feeling as the NTPRS Coaching team got up to sing their rendition of Sister Sledge’s “We are Family”, appropriately changing it to “C-I Family” the lyrics reflected how jumping into CI theory and practice is not a task that should be taken on by oneself. We have thousands upon thousands of TCI teachers around the country and everyone that I have met has been willing to practice, and reflect upon our practices.

After introductions we went into our separate cohorts. There is a dedicated Mandarin cohort, beginners, intermediate, and advanced. I am in the advanced group and in the introduction to the group, Karen Rowan specified how we are going to be focusing on skills to get to know students. We in the advanced group have been actively using TCI/TPRS in our classes and feel confident in our skills so now is the time to use those skills to get to know our students IN the TL.

Jeff Brown spoke to the power of CI. He is currently learning Farsi, his 8th language. However, he told us about his journey learning Arabic. He sought out input that was comprehensible to him, and spent time in Egypt to get better. He did ZERO reading or writing to be able to speak Arabic, ZERO grammar instruction, yet he felt comfortable living in Egypt and interacting with locals because he received input that was comprehensible to him.

Blaine Ray, the father of TPRS, values the importance of getting to know students personally. He offered extra credit on quizzes for students to write to him about what’s going on in their life. What a great way to have an opportunity to find out something about EVERY SINGLE student.

Blaine also talked a bit about Triangling, something that I am not super familiar with. I THINK I’ve been doing it, talking To students, having them answer, talking TO the class about what the student said, confirming with student, repeat.

Then we listened in as Blaine talked to his granddaughter, who has received 70 hours of input in Spanish. BOY OH BOY was she able to speak! Perfectly? No. But fluently. This point of fluency was a big one for Blaine, and from reading tweets it was also big in Von Ray’s group as well. We want students to speak with CAN, confidence, accuracy, and no hesitation. How do we get there? By giving students repetition of structures, functional chunks, etc. If students ARE still hesitating, GREAT. That is feedback for the teacher, they are not confident yet with the structure you can include it more in the input.

Going back to Triangling, Blaine requires complete sentence answers. I need to reflect more on this. It doesn’t HAVE to be forced output, because you can have sentence stems on the board. BUT is always requiring a complete sentences ‘authentic’ communication? Hmm.

Something that I thought was great was that Blaine shoots for subject verb agreement in answers from students. There are some other things we know to be late acquired, gender agreement, articles, ser/estar, BUT we can give students a lot of input to subject/verb agreement.

Some things we can anticipate hesitation. For example, the question word do versus the action word ‘do’ can cause issues because the verb isn’t already embedded in the question. “What do you like ‘to do'” doesn’t require a ‘do’ in the answer so students might hesitate.

Blaine says our job is to make students fast processors. That means that we shouldn’t add new vocabulary until students are confident and using current vocabulary without hesitation.

Dr. Karen Lichtman talked for a little bit about research regarding TPRS, in comparative studies of TPRS and other methods in *CLASSROOMS* TPRS always performed better, or at the same level as other methods. Never, in classroom settings, have other methods out performed TPRS. I look forward to Dr. Lichtmans presentations later this week to delve more into this research.

Going back to Blaine, he talked about a ‘lesson plan’ for a story. He has 4 parallel characters in his story. Each time he has a sentence, he circles the sentence five times, triangles the question with 1 character 5 times, and then repeats, and has 10 review questions. What this does is allows a structure or a word to be heard 50+ times in interesting yet repetitive ways.

Later we went on to a session with Bryce Hedstrom and talked about Special person, which deserves its own dedicated post.

After the end of the day there was after hours coaching which also requires another post. But I might just revise my post from last year.

Assessing Speaking


Let’s talk about it.  First, I’d like to state that based on the research I’ve done through my grad program at MSU, I’ve solidified my beliefs that speaking does not aid acquisition. It is a product of acquisition.

Students don’t need to speak to learn more. BUT being able to speak is the goal for most students. They want to be able to communicate. So I of course encourage students to speak, but I do not often assess speaking formally. I also think that showing off can be a great motivator for students, when they try to produce language and get positive feedback (the interlocutor confirmed that they understood the message) then they are more willing to try.

On a recent #langchat twitter chat we were talking about Task Based Language Teaching. There are two types of tasks, essentially. Input oriented tasks and output oriented tasks. I often times do input oriented tasks, but I make sure there are opportunities for students to speak when they are ready.

Swain’s (1985) Comprehensible output hypothesis is often misinterpreted, I think. In reality the goal of CO is twofold: to notice the gap (students see what they don’t know) and providing a prompt for an interlocutor to give them more input.

I’m torn on the noticing hypothesis… I think the idea of noticing is real. Students probably DO notice what they don’t know when they are trying to produce language. I’m not sure of the long term effects though. Do learners put puzzle pieces together? They notice the gap, and look for the matching piece in input to modify their own language? And even if they do, are they getting enough examples of that missing piece to form mental representation?

This is not where I thought this blog post was going… So I’m going to move on to assessing speaking now.

This year, I tried assessing speaking online. I recorded prompts (similar to how the AP test is set up), gave students a time limit to complete the prompts to ensure spontaneity, and also shuffled questions (I recorded 10 questions, each student only got 5). It… worked. However, it did not work well. So I switched my approach.

Whenever I do PQA, I arrange the chairs in a circle. Some students absolutely LOVED “circle time” others were indifferent. Oftentimes I would give students the PQA questions ahead of time, they could try to formulate some sort of answer and they liked being able to speak Spanish to participate in class. However, that is not really authentic, is it? We don’t often write down what we are going to say when we have a discussion. If I wanted to assess what they wrote I would have a writing assessment!

Once in a circle I would have my iPad open to our LMS and mark students on how well they participated interpersonally. That is, how well could they follow up with what they initially say. Their pre-written answers were really topics for ME to make comprehensible and facilitate discussion with other students in the class.

You could of course have your rubrics printed out and jot down scores as you go, maybe make a copy for you and a copy for students so they can receive feedback.

Throughout the last semester I (tried to take) took 3 speaking scores. Which gave me six weeks to to hear everyone speak at least once, and I would always put in their most recent score on the LMS, but put their highest score in the gradebook at the end of the grading period.

I did start off using Martina Bex’s rubrics, but since Indiana changed their standards to I-Can statements I am using those to be better aligned with the state.