El Mundo es un Pañuelo

Back in the mid-90’s, before I knew about things like “comprehensible input”, “authentic resources”, or really, much about language acquisition, I still had a sense that the textbook way of language learning wasn’t really working for me and my students.  This lingering, nagging feeling was the impetus for what has become an unending quest to hone this craft of language learning and teaching.  I just completed year 21 of teaching, and I continue to grow as a learner and a teacher nearly every day… and I’m not done yet.

In the late 1990’s, I had the opportunity to go to a workshop by Pam Kaatz that dealt with something that she called “Building Artificial Realities”.  Though I didn’t know it at the time, this workshop would introduce me to teaching with comprehensible input and a teaching style that promoted acquisition.  I still teach a version of the lesson over 15 years later, though it also has 15 years’ worth of refinements.  I was working on it again last week and solicited some help from my Twitter PLN to expand it even more.  In today’s post, I’ll attempt to explain this unit of study that has been so successful for me.

The premise of this unit is that students receive a new identity from a new country and then are asked questions based on that identity.  In the course of this unit (which I use early in level 1), students will be exposed to a healthy list of fundamental concepts, all in the target language:

  • several countries (Japan, Italy, Spain, England, US, Mexico, Chile, Russia, Germany, Canada, & Argentina)
  • their capitals
  • languages spoken
  • national sport
  • money used
  • typical food
  • continents
  • nationalities
  • pronunciation
  • subject pronouns
  • basic present tense conjugations of be, eat, play, live, use, visit, speak, have, want to go to
  • question words
  • basic connector words (and, but, also, neither…nor)
  • a landmark for each country
  • flag of each country
    • colors
    • numbers
    • design elements (star, stripe, symbol)

Clearly, this is a unit that takes a while!  To begin, I take my laminated flags for each of the countries and we practice pronouncing their names in Spanish. Though it might seem odd to use these countries as opposed to all Spanish-speaking countries, they are strategically chosen to introduce students to the sounds of Spanish:  ñ in España, j in Japón (and accents too!), rr in Inglaterra, x in México, g in Argentina, and all the vowels too.  We can build their language ears with sounds of Frahhhnciahhhh and Roooooosia instead of the short a’s and u’s that we use in American English.  As we go through the countries, we also talk about the flags:  what colors, what designs, quantities, and even which direction they go, all through modeling and spiraling questions.  We start with yes/no questions (“Is there white on this flag?”), followed by either/or questions (“Is this red or white on the flag?”), and then progressing into more complex questions that finally result in sentence-length answers.


Our next step is to adopt temporary new identities by country groups.  I hang the large laminated flags around the room, and give students small flag cards like the ones above to assign them a new home country.  Each country group will have 3-4 students in it.  Once there, I model how to say “I am from…” and complete it with the country of the new groups.  So I say “Yo soy de los Estados Unidos…¿de dónde eres tú?”  And we move slowly through the groups calling on people semi-randomly, ensuring that everyone understands AND gets a chance to answer.  Once we have a good handle on where we are from, I add in the languages by modeling the names of the languages and then saying “Yo soy de los Estados Unidos y yo hablo inglés y español.  ¿Cuáles lenguas hablas tú?” and we repeat the process.

Over the first few weeks we continue to spiral through the concepts, reviewing as needed, until we have worked through the topics outlined above.  The process is generally the same: picture supported modeling, followed by question and answers that spiral from yes/no up through complete sentences, and eventually to comparison and contrast.  They learn to say that they live in the capital city, they eat a typical food, visit a famous landmark, use their currency, have a passport, speak their language, what nationality they are (complete with adjective agreement), and play a particular sport.  In the course of the questioning, they also get a good foundation in several question words:  Where do you live?  What do you eat? Which do you prefer?  Who lives in Paris?

Students “adopt” a variety of countries over the unit, so they are exposed to a variety of countries; for some students, this is new material in any language. They pick up conjugation and sentence syntax through intense “real” practice.  Though we start with I/you question and answers, we quickly expand into 3rd person scenarios (he is from Spain, but they are from France) and then also wrap around to we v. they to round out the conjugations.  By the time we are done, students have a sense of enough content that we can use it as an anchor all year long.  We continue to return to these concepts over and over.  When we start working on new verbs, it’s a quick, but effective review to remind them of the patterns they learned in their country groups, and it sticks with them.  The tentacles of this lesson wind their way through most of the lessons that we do in one form or another. As a side benefit I also find that these country names, places, and content come up over and over in the non-textbook resources that we use, and this lesson pays off then too.  When we talk about vacationing in España, Alemania usually pops up again thanks to Spain’s popularity as a vacation spot.

All told, El Mundo es un Pañuelo unit takes us about 2-3 weeks to do well, but we usually do other things along with it to keep it fresh and to allow the content to sink in.  This fall I think I’ll pair it with some World Cup activities and music to kick things off with a bang! But then who knows? As I continue to read, explore, and grow this summer, the plan may well change by then, but all for the better.  Will you join me on the adventure?


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