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.

IMG_1017

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?

Roll Out the Red Carpet! (part 2)

Image

In the previous post, I described some of the activities that I used with my students to work through describing our favorite movies. To me, though the proof was in the pudding when we got to the end of the unit as evidenced by their assessments.  Our goals in the form of “I can” statements for this unit were:

  • I can describe the activities that I do in my spare time.
  • I can describe movies and shows that I’ve seen.
  • I can ask and understand about movies and shows that others have seen.
  • I can make plans to go out with friends.

The assessments for this unit took on four forms: informal listening assessment with feedback provided, reading assessment based on authentic resources, and presentational assessment about an impressive film, and an interpersonal assessment in the form of a guided, but improvised conversation.  More details follow…

presentational assessment

Students were asked to select a film that was meaningful to them, and to present about it.  I borrowed a template from Crystal Barragán, and developed questions that walked students through the basic skeleton of a movie review.   You can download it here.  Students started a first draft in class, were asked to finish it overnight if it needed more work, and then submitted it for feedback. I handed it back and we spent some time revising and answering their questions.

Next they received the assignment of presenting their film in class a couple of days later, but I still had one more trick up my sleeve.  They would only be able to use a symbolic notecard for their presentations; that is, a notecard with no words other than names. Instead, they can draw symbols, stick figures, etc. to represent what they want to say, but cannot read directly from the card.  I have found this technique to be very helpful in providing notes for students as they create increasingly complex presentations but yet requiring them to know their content instead of just reading the card to us.  Here’s a sample of a card from a student–can you guess which film he was describing?

Image

Finally came presentation day, and we tried a new technique that was a real winner!  Martina Bex had written about simultaneous presentations, and I decided to try it out.  Overall, students loved it. Their comments after the assessment indicated that it reduced their anxiety about presenting and that it gave them additional practice, and this was evident in their body language.  They were relaxed and chatting, not stressed and fretting.  This process also resulted in the first time all year that all students met the proficiency target on the first attempt.  It has been a long journey getting to this point and we’ve had many obstacles to overcome.  Now it’s time to build on our progress!

interpretive assessment/interpersonal assessment

1.  Students completed a brief reading assessment based on reading information about a theater in Madrid as well as movie offerings.   2.   One of the other major objectives of this unit was to work on asking original questions of others. Amy Lenord’s questions workshop was very helpful in developing an approach to doing this successfully. After completing the reading assessment, students wrote out some questions they might ask in order to invite another person to see one of those films.These questions were not graded, but served as a security blanket for students who wanted it on their oral interpersonal assessment.  I called students back in pairs and asked one of them to invite the other to a movie on the reading assessment page and another activity (like going to eat), including other arrangements like time, place, and my favorite original contribution:  who’s driving.

Next up: we complete our free time unit with the topic of tv–especially the concept of binge watching a series at a time.  We’ll pull some things that still need work from the movie unit into some targeted practice in this unit to see if maybe we can’t clean ’em up a little.

Until then: happy adventuring! Only 9 school Mondays left!