Teaching an Epic Story: The Hero’s Journey

There’s a hero inside each one of us. Telling that story is an essential part of what makes us human.

Recently, I’ve been awestruck by Joseph Campbell’s famous work The Hero with 1000 Faces. In this book, Campbell’s love for story shines through every page as he details numerous manifestations of the Hero’s Journey across the globe and throughout the ages. The idea of a collective myth fascinates me, and reading this book led me to two important questions.

  1. Why is the story of the Hero’s Journey so compelling? 
  2. How can I teach using the Hero’s Journey to immerse my students in the story (i.e. negotiating the meaning of the language), instead of losing them in the conscious and intellectual exercise of learning grammar rules?

Why is the Hero’s Journey so Compelling?

So many stories throughout history are just a fresh take on the Hero’s Journey. Star Wars, for instance, follows the proper hero’s journey stepsto a “T”. Among the steps, Luke Skywalker finds himself in the common world, is called to adventure, finds a mentor, faces challenges, confronts evil, and returns home changed.

I believe this archetype speaks to us on a deep level. There’s something about leaving the metaphorical cave (or our ancestors’ literal cave) and confronting the unknown. It’s a story that we seem to yearn to live out. 

Obviously, many of us do not actively live out this story. But we do seem to enjoy watching other people live out the Hero’s Journey, as evidenced by the recent craze for superhero movies. It seems we can’t get enough of them. According to AMC’s Website, the top 10 movies of 2018 (as of October 8th) are as follows:

1. Black Panther
2. Avengers: Infinity War
3. Incredibles 2
4. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
5. Deadpool 2
6. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
7. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
8. Ant-Man and the Wasp
9. Solo: A Star Wars Story
10. A Quiet Place

Each of these superhero movies is a different manifestation of the same old story, changed only slightly to fit the context. The people in Hollywood don’t necessarily make the deepest films, but the people in charge of the story are not stupid, either. In general, they know what will pique audiences’ interest and what will maximize box-office sales. More times than not, this means  the same old story (and I mean old) wrapped in a new package.

I’ve seen the same story of the hero capture my own son’s imagination. The film that caught his imagination last year was Moana. I love this film. It was incredibly well done and the story speaks to something deep inside my being. There’s just something great about seeing a character go on an adventure and experience personal growth. Dr. Campbell didn’t live to see this particular animated film, but it’s just another version of the same old story.

As Campbell explains, the origins of the monomyth goes way back in history. Waaaaaaaaaaaay back. It’s possible that our ancestors were communicating the message of this story before they had language. The hero leaves the safety of home, fights the dragon (or some other unknown monster) and returns home a changed person. It makes sense that this would have been the story for our ancestors, from virtually every (if not every) culture. The oral traditions of our ancestors were painstakingly passed down from generation to generation, being refined all the while. Clearly, the story resonates with us and has done so for thousands of years and across perhaps every civilization the world has ever known. I can’t think of a better way to help students see the utility of the language than through the Hero’s Journey.

Using the Hero’s Myth to Teach Languages

As a language instructor that uses storytelling as a primary vehicle to deliver comprehensible input, the thought of using a story that embodies the collective unconscious excites me. I know this could be a powerful way to help build mental representation in a way that speaks to students on a deep level.

Wouldn’t it be something special to write a brief novella based on a story we co-created in class over the course of the term? Students could take away a story from the class that they helped create, and perhaps this would inspire them to continue their own language-acquisition journey, even after the course ended.

Okay, that sounds really good. We could teach with “authentic” texts written for native speakers. But we know how comprehensible that would be for most students. Not very. Instead of i + 1 (input the learners can easily comprehend plus a teeny-tiny bit they can’t), think i + 100 (where full immersion means drowning in incomprehensible input). I am confident that “authentic” texts are not the answer for lower-level students.

An alternative to this, and one that I think is the best solution, would be a level-appropriate text. So our goal should be to take the students on a Hero’s Journey without overwhelming them with vocabulary, especially in a 101 course. Conversely, it is easier to make an interesting text when we don’t limit ourselves on the number of unique words we can use. How, then, can we make use of the Hero’s Journey without drowning our students in vocabulary?

I propose that we make a personalized Hero’s Journey for each and every class, taking into account the varying degrees of limited vocabulary of each unique group of students. Each group of students is different, and we as instructors need to be sensitive to what they can comprehend and what they can’t.

If you want to add more vocabulary, you’ll need to spend more time making sure that vocabulary is comprehensible to them. Don’t assume they’ll acquire it if you give them a list of words with no context. Most won’t.

The goal of this exercise isn’t to have students acquire the maximum number of words. Instead, we want to provide a compelling story that will inspire them to seek out more stories, which will teach them new vocabulary (which will allow them to read and listen to increasingly complex stories, which will teach them new vocabulary, ad infinitum).

Again, the language-acquisition power of this story structure lies in communicating a compelling story in L2.

A Blend of Storytelling and Storyasking

We need to follow the proper steps in order to make a proper hero myth. There is a structure by which we must abide for students to accept the story, and with this in mind, I bring a script into class with an outline of where the story is headed.

It follows, then, that a large portion of this adventure is a Storylistening Activity (a technique pioneered by Dr. Beniko Mason). For this portion of the story, students need only listen and try to understand what is happening. Get off your phones, put your laptops away. It’s story time.

I go out of my way to make the story comprehensible using visuals (gestures, drawings on the board, etc.), repetitive language, and limited vocabulary. I don’t want to drown anyone with the immersive input I’m providing them.

Of course, I want this to be a personalized story, so I also have many underlined portions of the text where students can change the events/feel/outcome of the story. This portion leaves room for more of a Storyasking experience, à la TPRS©.

The script keeps me from drowning students in new vocabulary, and the underlined portions keep the story fresh and personalized to that particular class.

The Process

The Characters

At the beginning of the quarter, we did some one word images to help build listening comprehension and to actually do something useful with the language. For three straight days we talked about three different characters that will appear in our personalized epic adventure. Each day we reviewed the previous day’s character(s) and stretched them out before adding a new one.

We were left with three detailed characters that I can refer back to and insert into various situations, make examples with, or compare and contrast throughout the quarter. 

This part of the epic adventure alone is a goldmine for engaging comprehensible input. Sometimes I will ask about these characters during other stories just as reference point for comparisons or to ask how one of them would respond in the same situation. It is a stelar way to keep L2 flowing in the classroom.

Character 1: The Hero

This is the main character of the epic. Is it a man or a woman? What are they like? Are they tall or short? Are they smart or not? Is the person a superhero? What do they want? 

What do they want is the key to the epic, as it tells you so much about the character. One character wants money, another fame, and another a family. In another class, the main character wants a girlfriend.

The possibilities here are truly endless, and will change the timbre of our story dramatically. What the character wants leads the story in a unique direction, and ensures personalization for each class. It helps determine if the story you co-create is going to be a funny or a serious, a comedy or a tragedy. All of these are fine, and the differences keep things from getting stale.

In one class the hero is a superhero, n another it’s just an ordinary person.  The personalization is so much fun here, and letting the students decide who these people are make the story as engaging as possible for that particular group of students. When the material is relevant to students, they will care about it and master it.

Character 2: The Helper

Our hero needs a friend, someone who can help her overcome the trials and tribulations on her journey. This character should parallel the main character. They should undergo a similar transformation, but perhaps in a different way. Maybe they want the same thing as the hero. Maybe they want something different. What do they want? Compare and contrast.

Having two characters is essential because it lets you use the “they” and “we” forms in your epic. These forms are criminally underrepresented in a language classroom.

Using these two characters in many different scenes also lets you compare and contrast. You could teach comparisons from the the very first week of [your language] 101 this way, and it would be entirely comprehensible. There’s really no need to wait until chapter 8 to do comparisons.

Character 3: The Villain

The antagonist of the story doesn’t need to be a villain, but it does help make it more exciting. The antagonist should want the same thing as the hero, which will create tension. During the Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sauron both wanted the ring, albeit for different ends. Frodo wanted to destroy the ring of power, but Sauron wanted to wield it.

Maybe the antagonist of your story wants the same thing as your protagonist, in a negative way or for a negative end.

With three characters, it’s now even easier to do comparisons. The hero is brave, and the helper is as brave as the hero. The villain is a coward. The villain is the most cowardly of the three.

The Story

After the three main characters are defined, I move to the story. We return here once or twice per week and will try to complete the story as we go through the quarter.

It’s the perfect activity to start the week since it’s listening heavy. When we have a short week (e.g. Thanksgiving), you can do this for the whole week and move the story along a bit more.

However you decide to break up this epic adventure, you’ll need to make sure to follow the proper steps to make sure students have maximum buy-in.

The Hero’s Journey Steps

  • Step 1: The Ordinary World
  • Step 2: The Call to Adventure
  • Step 3: Refusal of the Call (optional)
  • Step 4: The Mentor
  • Step 5: Crossing the Threshold
  • Step 6: The Road of Trials – Tests and Tribulations
  • Step 7: Trials and Failure – The Helper
  • Step 8: Character Growth – The Helper
  • Step 9: Death and Rebirth
  • Step 10: Revelation and Change
  • Step 11: Atonement
  • Step 12: Receiving of a Gift and Return

Depending on the length of your course, you may want to condense the story. I do this by combining a number of the previous steps. For example, chapter one in this quarter’s Hero’s Journey encompasses Steps 1-2, chapter two covers steps 3-5, etc.

You get a copy! And you get a copy! Everybody gets a copy!

I keep track of each story and write it out as we go along. At the end of the quarter, I post the Hero’s Journey to our classroom site (We use the LMS Canvas), and students can download a copy for their reference.

I tell students that re-reading our story is a good way brush up for their final, since all the relevant grammatical and vocabulary items are in the story. I made sure of that when I wrote the script.

My hope is that students also refer back to this text with fondness as something they helped create in L2. 

Conclusions

I am convinced that a properly-implemented and an appropriately-leveled Hero’s Journey is one of the best ways to deliver comprehensible input to students. If we want learners to get serious about reading fiction on their own in L2, this compelling introduction will help them learn to love doing just that. As an aside, who doesn’t want that? Reading self-selected books in L2 exposes learners a wealth of comprehensible input, and will help them develop proficiency on their own, even long after they have left our classrooms.

If you haven’t read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with 1000 Faces“, I highly recommend it. This book helped me discover a new depth to the power of myth, and made me want to be a better storyteller. In his book, Campbell closely examines the stages that occur during almost every Hero’s Myth.
I think it is required reading for anyone serious about getting better at storytelling.

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these books/products and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.

Storytelling Basics: Asking “Circular” Questions

Circular questions allow leaners to process the language, negotiate meaning, and think of a response.

Asking repetitive questions is the key to teaching a language to someone else. Questions allow learners to mentally process the language and to negotiate meaning, and they force learners to think up a response. I see this everyday with my children. The questions I ask them drive their acquisition of language. Circling is an intuitive (although not necessarily at first) technique to ask many, many more questions in a way that keeps the questions from being repetitive. 

Circling was made famous in TPRS©, which is essentially a pre-reading strategy that is engaging and comprehensible. I highly recommend learning more about it, if you haven’t already.

The Basics of Circling

There are some simple steps you can take to begin circling in L2.

  1. Decide a statement to circle. In the storytelling classroom, this is generally about a character.
  2. Repeat that statement in question form.
  3. Once the class has answered, re-ask that question in various different ways (A questions with a “yes” answer, a question with a “no” answer, an either/or question.
  4. Ask a question with a “W” word. Who, when, what, where, why…. how?

Here is an elementary example:

Prof: The boy has a red cat.
Prof: Class, does the boy have a red cat?
Students: Yes.
Prof: Yes, the boy has a red cat.
Prof: Does the boy have a blue cat?
Students: No.
Prof: No, the boy doesn’t have a blue cat. He has a red cat.
Prof: Does the boy have a red cat or a blue cat?
Students: A red cat.
Prof: That’s right. He has a red cat.
Prof: What does the boy have?
Students: A red cat.

Notice how you ask a bunch of questions around the basic sentence. In essence, you are teaching the same sentence over and over. But since it comes in this varied way, the students’ brains don’t pick up on this trick as easily. This is especially true in L2, where they are hanging on for dear life just to comprehend what you are saying.

You don’t have to ask questions about the object. You could circle any part of the sentence that you want to highlight. For example, you could circle the verb (Does the boy have a red cat or does the boy eat a red cat?). Or you could circle the subject (Does the boy have a red cat or does the girl have a red cat?).

Many people get confused at this point. They think they have to exhaust all the possible questions in one line of questioning. Not so. In fact, circling the subject, verb and object each time would be painfully boring. The point is to ask lots more questions, but you should also ask a variety of them.

Read the room. You’ll know if the students are getting too many repetitive questions.

When and how often should I ask circular questions?

The most important time for circling is during the first few weeks in the term. Students need to get more comprehensible reps on the high frequency verbs/other vocabulary so we can actually start telling stories that are worth telling.

Once students seem to get the hang of the basic vocabulary, you don’t need to circle as much. It doesn’t make sense to circle and circle and circle things to death. It might lead to more acquisition in the short term,  but students will get burned out on this technique if it’s overused. Instead, focus on asking relevant questions and keeping discussion interesting.

Besides a heavy dose of circling at the beginning the term, I only ask circular questions when presenting the foundational vocabulary for a story during PQA or when I want to highlight a particular structure.

Comparing Form with Questions

Here’s where circling with questions gets better (and I mean waaaay better). Ask a specific student a parallel question to one of the statements you make. This will let students hear the “tú” form in context (or “vous”, “você”, “du”, “you”, etc.). Next, add yourself while you are asking varied questions around the subject. This allows you the instructor to model the “yo” form for students  (or the “eu”, “je”, “ich”, “I”, etc.). 

Since the Input Hypothesis states that we only acquire language when we hear/read comprehensible messages in L2, it’s imperative that we model forms other than “he/she”, which tend to be overrepresented in language learning materials. If we really want learners to internalize all the different forms, we have to provide them enough chances to negotiate meaning in those specific contexts. Furthermore, as instructors it’s natural that we use the “I” form in a natural way. Circling provides the opportunity to do just that. 

Here’s another example where I ask questions without using all possible variants.

Prof: Mikey went to the store.
Prof: Class, did Mikey go to the store?
Class: Yes.
Prof: Yes, that’s right. Mikey went to the store.
Prof: Did Mikey go to the restaurant?
Class: No, he didn’t.
Prof: That’s right. No, Mikey didn’t go to the restaurant. Mikey went to the store.
Prof: Did I go to the store?
Class: No.
Prof: No, I didn’t go to the store.
Prof: Class, where did I go?
Student suggestion: You went to the gym.
Prof: Did I go to the gym (self-deprecating joke – No, I didn’t go to the gym. Ha! Ridiculous!).
Prof: Where did I go? I didn’t go to the gym, so where did I go?
Student suggestion: You went to the library.
Prof: Yes! That’s right! I went to the library.
Prof: Who in the class goes to the library?

Student raises her hand.

Prof: Mary, do you go to the library?
Mary: Yes, I go to the library.
Prof: Class, Mary goes to the library!
Prof: Mary, why do you go to the library?
Mary: To study.
Prof: Excellent! Class, Mary goes to the library to study!
Prof: Mary, do you study alone at the library? Or do you go with friends?
Mary: I go with friends.

The amount and quality of input I provide is high. It’s also highly personalized which makes it more engaging, especially for that person involved in the one-on-one interaction.

The other thing I like about the modeling with “I” and “you” is that it allows the quieter students to see other students succeed using the language in a highly comprehensible, low-pressure context. It mimics how children observe adults using language in a conversational context by being the proverbial fly on the wall. Talk about lowering the affective filter for those students.

Final Thought

In another post I will explore the idea of using circling in a storytelling context. Some people refer to this as asking a story, and I think it’s the best way to build a collaborative story.

However you decide to employ circling, be sure to ask your students many, many questions. They will negotiate meaning and they will acquire language as a result.

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these books/products and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.


Storytelling Basics: The One Word Image

Along with CardTalk, which is the story of us, the One Word Image (OWI) is perhaps the best way to begin storytelling in your class. You can ask the student for any noun (in L1 or L2) and begin to ask a series of questions about that noun in L2. Unlike a true story, you’re not trying to get anywhere. You just want to create a vibrant mental image of something or someone using L2.

Example:

There is a cat. Class, is there a cat? Yes, there is a cat. Class, is there a dog? No, there is not a dog. There is a cat. What color is the cat? The cat is green. Class, there is a green cat.

The technique in this example is called circling. We know that there is a cat, and we want to circle our questions around that first sentence. Perhaps it is more of a spiral than a circle, because with each line of questioning we expand the circle to touch other areas that lead to related but different discussions. How much it spirals is up to you.

How smart is the cat? How fat is the cat? If it’s fat, does it eat a lot? What does it eat? Where does it eat? What’s the cat’s favorite restaurant? What does the cat study? Where does the cat study? Does the cat have friends? What language does the cat speak? What does he talk about?

Each one of the questions above can lead to a long, engaging conversation in L2. Obviously, you don’t have to hit each question, and I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, try to go deep and narrow with the questions you ask. Stay on one line of reasoning and ask repetitive questions in different ways.

The cat is smart. Is the cat smart? Yes, the cat is smart. Is the cat smart or less-than-average. It’s a smart cat. Is the cat really smart? No, the cat isn’t really smart. He’s just smart. What is smart? The cat is smart.

The above line of questioning focuses on one statement and repeats it nine times. “The cat is smart.” is the sentence, and the questions and answers are a way of tricking the mind into accepting the repetitions as novel. Compare that to writing the example on the board and moving on. It’s not even close which way is better in terms of student acquisition. (I will do a separate post on circling in the near future – I believe this to be an essential tool as we deliver compelling and comprehensible input to students.)

Perhaps the best example of a OWI I have seen is of Ben Slavic, from whom I have learned a tremendous amount. This example is obviously of a group of younger students, so you may need to adjust the content to match your students. But here’s the thing… you might not need to. Each class has its own unique dynamics, but it is clear to me that adult learners yearn to tap into their youthful (if dormant) imaginations more often. 

Conclusions

The OWI is a key tool during the first week of class. It can break up the monotony of CardTalk, which can get boring for certain classes. Always be assessing the level of engagement, but don’t mistake a quiet class for a disengaged class. That’s not necessarily the case. 

The OWI is also the perfect segue into stories, as you can be sure to cover the basics – is, has, wants, goes, likes, etc.

One final thought (but definitely not an afterthought): An Epic Use for One Word Images

I am using OWIs in my classes this quarter as a way to define three basic characters for a hero’s journey story that we will revisit and flush out once per week during the rest of the quarter. I will revisit this idea in a separate post as it plays out. Stay tuned.

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these books/products and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.

Storytelling Basics – Day 1: Getting to Know You with CardTalk

CardTalk
Having students generate the “vocabulary list” via CardTalk is a brilliant way to build community and establish L2 norms.

Each of us has a story to tell. We need to leverage this as language educators. I start out the term using something that has been termed “CardTalk” in the comprehensible input community.

Conversation Gold

In this activity, students take a sheet of paper, fold it “hotdog style”, and complete these three items:

  1. Write their name in big letters on the side facing out. We will use this to learn names of the members of our newly forming community.
  2. Next to their name, students draw something they like to do. It can be any activity. The idea is that it’s something that interests them. I want them to drive the vocabulary we learn in the first week of class. It’s much easier for them if it’s relevant vocabulary. That means relevant to the students, not to any agenda of mine. This is especially important to making storytelling/TCI work for adult learners.
  3. On the back of the paper, students draw an animal that they either have or want to have. It can be any animal. Here I have an agenda. I want to teach the words “to want” and “to have”. 

I give students a few minutes to do this and then begin. This is the first day of class, so I have two goals. First, I want to start immersing students with CI in L2. I do this by circling, which is making a statement and then asking of repetitive questions about that statement (I will be doing a “Storytelling Basics” series of posts in the near future, and “Circling” is one of those incredibly important tools that lead to tons and tons of CI). 

I begin this activity by making a statement about myself, usually something about my love for coffee

Instructor: Class, I drink coffee.
Instructor: Class, do I drink coffee or tea?
Class: Coffee.
Instructor: Yes, that’s right. I drink coffee. I drink lots of coffee. I don’t drink tea, that’s ridiculous. I drink coffee.
Instructor: Class, do I drink Coca-Cola?
Class: No.
Instructor: No, I don’t drink Coca-Cola. I drink coffee.
Instructor: Class, what do I drink?
Class: Coffee.
Instructor: Yes, that’s right. I drink coffee. Who else drinks coffee?

With that transition question at the end I start to talk about that student and move away from myself for the time being. I’ve modeled “I” questions and answers, and will now ask “you” and “s/he” questions. Like a cow in a tornado, students immediately get sucked into the vortex of communicating in L2.

My second goal with this exercise is to set the tone and expectations for the class. I want students to know that we will be communicating in L2 90%+ of the time. I want students to know that when we have a class conversation (e.g. when we co-create a story), I need them to answer out loud as a class unit. That way I can see who is processing and who is just sitting there. Lastly and, perhaps most importantly, I want students to know that they are the focus of this class. If we want to build community, this is a sure-fire way to do it.

We use this activity every day during the first week of class. You could extend this activity to last a month, but I don’t recommend doing so, as it tends to lose some of its novelty after the first week. Novelty is your friend, especially in the first weeks of instruction.

L1 or L2 Instructions

When I was in college I took a year of German. I remember the first day being completely lost in the language. With this experience in mind, I decided to give instructions in English on the first day. It’s faster, and we can get to working on real meat and potatoes sooner.

However, this year I have decided to do this in L2 and have made a slideshow (which you can download here for free) to help make the instructions highly comprehensible. I will edit this post and let you know how it goes. I think this is a happy compromise, and also further norms the class to expect comprehensible instructions in L2, with the keyword being “comprehensible”. 

Edit: I’m really satisfied with how the slideshow instructions turned out. It kept us in L2 from the very beginning. I’m not convinced everything was 100% comprehensible, especially to the slower processors, but the keywords I was targeting were absolutely clear. I will be making more of these slideshows and embedded videos to use in various contexts, but more on that later.

Takeaways

I’m not sure who invented this activity, but it is absolutely brilliant. Students need an unbelievable amount of repetitive and comprehensible input to start making substantial progress in the language, and this is much easier to attain if the input is relevant. By having students draw an activity that they like to do, they are already learning something relevant to them. This helps build rapport with students and helps me make an individual connection with each student as I go around the room.

With a rudimentary grasp on this personalized vocabulary and some of the key verbs that always seem to come up – to be, to want, to have, to go, to like — and handful of one word images under our belts, we will be ready to co-create our first story beginning week two.

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these books/products and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.

Assessing with Storytelling: Listening Comprehension Quizzes

We want to assess listening comprehension because being a competent listener is essential to learning a new language. Why? If you can understand what is spoken to you, there is a wealth of “authentic” and comprehensible input available to aid with acquisition. If not, listening to a million hours of the language won’t help you or, in this case, it won’t help our students.

Case in point, I used to listen to Korean radio station on my commute. I loved listening the flow and rhythm of the language, but I can’t tell you how to say a single thing in Korean, even after many, many hours of listening. It was incomprehensible to me and, thus, not very useful for acquisition.

Okay, so we know that student listening comprehension is important. Probably didn’t need me to convince you of that. But how do we know that students are learning to listen?

The answer is, perhaps, quite obvious: test them on their listening comprehension. 

This will lead to a washback effect, and students will subconsciously try to get better at listening and participating in the story co-creation process.

Listening Quiz Specifics

The typical listening quiz in my class is “true or false”, lasts only six questions, and is student-generated and corrected. Sound like a good assessment? Let’s look at it deeper.

For this quiz I read the questions out loud, and only twice per question. I want students to show me that they can understand the language. I also don’t want this quiz to take too much time—it’s meant to be a quick assessment.

After the quiz, students quickly exchange papers with a partner and we correct it as a class. I read each question one more time and if it’s true we say “cierto”, and if it’s false we say “falso”, and correct it so that it’s true. The following is a good example:

Me: Mario is a fat man with short arms.

Class (and me confirming) False. Mario is a fat man with long arms.

The grader writes her name on the quiz, shows the taker his score, and they pass up the quizzes to the front of the class where I collect them. 

If students have been paying attention and actively negotiating meaning, it will be an easy quiz. Very easy. This is a good thing. Doing well on a quiz boosts their confidence, lets their brain give them a metaphorical pat on the back, and allows me to build reporte by giving some easily-earned (but not entirely insignificant) points.

Another benefit of these quizzes is that they are a way to “trick” students to negotiate meaning with another repetition of the same comprehensible language. It’s a quiz, so you know they are paying attention. They have to successfully negotiate meaning at least twice – once when we co-created the story and once when I read the questions during the quiz – in order to earn the easy points (easy only for those who paid attention).

Generation of the Quiz

You could make a listening quiz take place after a reading day, in which case it would be feasible for you to make the quiz ahead of time. That’s a perfectly fine route to go with it. I prefer to have a student volunteer to write the quiz based on the story we have co-created that day. This has numerous benefits.

  1. It keeps the level of difficulty to approximately the level of the class.
  2. It saves time. I have students grade a partner’s quiz and do a random spot check to make sure they are being honest. All I have to do from there is input the scores into the gradebook.
  3. Lastly, it frees up my mind to focus more intently on the story. This is huge. I can’t imagine having the mental flexibility to co-create a story, monitor comprehension, and stay “in bounds” without outsourcing this job to a student.

Final Thoughts

This is the fastest way to grade the quiz that I have found. One quality of a good assessment is that it takes a representative sample without having to spend much time to grade. Since language acquisition takes place over many, many years, grading a lower-level quiz is perhaps the biggest waste of time for language instructors.

Ideally, I would go full-hippie and not have any grades in my class. I don’t give my son a grade on his acquisition of English or Spanish, but instead give him more opportunities to communicate in the language. Of course, that is not the context in which I find myself, and so I strive to find the best assessments that fit storytelling at the college level.

I love this assessment. It’s one of the most efficient ways to help me me to see if students are really learning to listen.

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these books/products and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.

Assessing with Storytelling: Chapter Quizzes (Pretests)

Chapter quizzes offer students a different kind of feedback that will help them prepare for the grammar final (If you give one).

In a previous post I talked about the grammar final I give students, and chapter quizzes go hand-in-hand with these. After each chapter I give students a one-page quiz.

I make this quiz based off of the stories that we’ve co-created, but I also ensure they draw heavily from the relevant structures covered in the chapter. Let’s say that in chapter one we cover the verb ser, to be. I will use variations of the examples found in our stories as the base for the quiz. 

Consider the following example story fragment:

There is a girl. The girl’s name is Samantha. Samantha is a tall and intelligent girl. (Instructor question to class) Are you all popular? Yes, you are all very popular. Samantha has a sister. Her sister’s name is Beth. Beth is smart too, but Beth is not tall. She is short. Samantha says to her sister, “Are you smart?” Beth says, “Of course I’m smart. I’m Beth!”

The chapter quiz (no notes) may look something like the following:

The first girl’s name ________ Samantha.

The second girl’s name ________ Beth.

Samantha and Beth ________ sisters.

________ you all very intelligent?

Of course! You all ________ very intelligent.

I ________ very intelligent too.

We ________ very intelligent people.

This is similar to a traditional chapter test, but I want these to be very brief: a maximum of one page. This is an assessment based on sampling, and is not meant to be exhaustive. As a result, I grade heavily for comprehension and minimally on accuracy. If students understand the language on the test, they are providing evidence that they are on track.

In this way, chapter quizzes are more of a pretest, even though they are given after the chapter. I often call them pretests because they are a low-risk a way for students to see where they are doing well, and where they need to focus to succeed on the grammar final, the post test.

Each chapter quiz is only worth 25 points. This helps me out in another area: if students miss one of these assessments, they miss it. No make-ups will be given unless there are extenuating circumstances, but it’s not that big of a deal. It won’t penalize them too much to miss one of these quizzes.

A lot of students feel the need to study for this, and as a supplement I give students an exhaustive study guide for all the material covered in the text. Between storytelling and the study guide, most students are in really good shape.

If I didn’t give a grammar final, I don’t think I would give these quizzes either. But I like to afford students the opportunity to prepare for all the different assessments that happen at the end of the quarter.

Assessing with Storytelling: Final Grammar Test

People who excel at math also tend to excel at grammar tests. Pattern recognition is fine and even useful, but we testing for proficiency?

On the second to last day of instruction my students take a traditional grammar final. This exam covers all the relevant grammar covered in the course. You know what this looks like if you’ve ever given or taken a grammar test, so I won’t explain it further here.

To be completely honest, I’m not a fan of this kind of assessment. I don’t think it assesses proficiency in any meaningful way. In his book Assessing Proficiency in the Classroom, second language acquisition expert Eric Herman agrees. “New approaches require new testing methods,” posits Herman.

Note: Herman proposes some very interesting ways of evaluating students for proficiency, which I will discuss in greater detail in a another post.

I totally agree with this sentiment, and it’s why I put so much emphasis on the Oral Story Test and Final Writing Project. I think these assessments do better at evaluating proficiency than their traditional counterparts. This begs the question of why do I still give a grammar test at all?

I’ve experimented with eliminating grammar tests entirely in the past, and it made me a little nervous. Frankly, the main reasons I still give grammar tests are to prepare students who go on to take Spanish from a more traditional instructor, and to have proof that my students can still pass a traditional test. That’s it.

If everyone jumped on the storytelling/teaching with comprehensible input/feed the acquisition monster train tomorrow, I would abandon the grammar test entirely. Until then (or until I become a department head somewhere), I will keep the grammar test, despite my conviction that it doesn’t assess what I want it to assess.

With that said, you’ll notice that the grammar final (and pretests) are worth only ~18 percent of the final grade. This is by design. It minimizes student exposure to the assessment of discrete grammar items, and gives me the proof that they can still pass this kind of exam.

For now, I think this is the best solution in my context. Perhaps you have more freedom that I perceive to have. In that case, I would encourage you to think about creating some exams/assignments that better align with assessing proficiency. 

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these books/products and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.

Assessing with Storytelling: Final Vocabulary Test

Gestures help establish meaning in L2, short-circuit English from the acquisition process, and can be effective for assessing knowledge of vocabulary.

Most college language textbooks include too much irrelevant vocabulary. Instead of focusing on essential vocabulary from the beginning, they want students to memorize personal pronouns out of context and every form of the verb “to be”. Unsurprisingly, this is not how we acquired our first language(s). Instead, we learn new words in context when the communicative need arrises. The thing is, I want my classroom to mimic first language acquisition as much as possible (I know L1 and L2 acquisition have differences, but I’m sure the processes are more similar than different).

How, then, do we create a storytelling system that lines up with the textbook?

I find myself in this position: my department uses a textbook and I’m the only storytelling instructor. I need to ensure that my students can leave my classroom and be successful under the tutelage of a traditional immersion-style” teacher (I would argue that an instructor who uses storytelling is also an immersion-style teacher).

The key to pulling this off is to focus the high-frequency vocabulary and hammer it home every day. I’d much rather they be able to use the most important verbs to be, to want, to have, to go, etc. than to know how to correctly conjugate every single stem-changing verb. Students are still responsible for all the vocabulary in the text on chapter pretests and the final grammar exam, but I will use our precious class time on the vocabulary that will help students learn to teach themselves additional vocabulary (i.e. teach them the words that will help them be competent readers in the language).

Assessing Vocabulary

This quarter I’m trying something new to teach and assess essential vocabulary. Throughout the quarter I am creating a running list of high-frequency vocabulary for which we will create TPR gestures (Total Physical Response — See James Asher’s book for more information) in class.

Each day we will learn five words/phrases, assign gestures, practice them a bit, and use them in context for as long as student interest remains high. The next day we will review the previous day’s gestures, learn five more, and repeat the process. This is a powerful way to build essential vocabulary fast as it does the following:

Day 1

  1. Present Word in Spanish
  2. Translate Word to English
  3. Invent Gesture (repeat 1-3 with all target vocabulary for the day)
  4. Discuss the gestures in context using L2 via Personalized Questions and Answers (PQA)

Day 2

  1. Review TPR gestures from the previous day (present word in Spanish, show comprehension via the gesture we invented).
  2. Present New Vocabulary in Spanish
  3. Translate New Vocabulary to English
  4. Invent Gesture (repeat 2-4 with all target vocabulary for the day)

Day 3

  1. Review TPR gestures from the previous day (present word in Spanish, show comprehension via the gesture we invented)*.
  2. Present New Vocabulary in Spanish
  3. Translate New Vocabulary to English
  4. Invent Gesture (repeat 2-4 with all target vocabulary for the day)

Repeat the process everyday, or as often as you’d like. The more frequent the better.

*Reviewing all the TPR gestures will get lengthy, so perhaps you do all the gestures for a few weeks, but then only do a sampling of gestures before adding that days new vocabulary.

Students are asked to recall the meaning of the Spanish word using a gesture. Notice how the English translation is removed from the process? TPR short-circuits English and establishes meaning in the TL by the second day. From that point on they are recalling the meaning via a gesture and not via English like they would be with flashcards or some other method. Powerful stuff.

Note: I learned Spanish in high school and beyond. TPR was instrumental to my acquisition since it gave me chunks of language that I used to read stories in Spanish, which recycled this vocabulary enough to make the words stick in my brain. I can still clearly remember the TPR gestures we used for many words. I think that letting students pick the gesture is a way for them to take ownership and gives gestures a more personal meaning.

Another benefit of TPR is that students can self-assess whether or not they know this vocabulary as we review as a class. Furthermore, they can ask for clarification, and they can quickly study and learn this vocabulary in class.

We will go through this routine at the beginning of class all quarter, except for a few days when we have a chapter pretest or are doing some other activity that takes a while.

There are roughly 50 class days in my quarter. At five words per day X 50 days, students are responsible for approximately 250 TPR words and phrases. At the end of the quarter they will have a Final Vocabulary Test where I show the class 50 random gestures in a video, and they will have to write down the correct word on a piece of paper.

Since this is my first time doing this assessment, I will report back the results. But I suspect this to be a large enough sample to accurately assess how much vocabulary students actually possess.

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these books/products and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.

Assessing with Storytelling: Homework

 Online grammar workbooks are the trend in higher education, but they aren’t the most efficient use of time.

When I learn languages on my own I read, read, and read some more. This is perhaps the best way to acquire vocabulary and, therefore, grammar. As linguist John Pasden puts it in a post entitled Flashcards: That’s Not How It Works!, “reading is the original spaced repetition.”

I am convinced that the ideal homework for language learners should be to listen to and read level-appropriate language that they find compelling. I define level-appropriate input as i + 1, not i + 100. This means that Language 101 students would be better served to read and listen to language that shelters vocabulary. Reading the newspaper in Spanish won’t hurt beginners, but it will be highly incomprehensible and, thus, an inefficient use of time.

With this in mind, I am piloting* a digital workbook in my 101 classes that will help students acquire 50 of the most important words in Spanish through reading. Each night, students will have reading homework that puts the vocabulary and grammar I want them to acquire in context. The readings build off each other and at the end of the workbook I will test to see what they have acquired.

I will detail this pilot homework program in another post, but this nightly reading homework will give students another chance to negotiate meaning and mentally process the language.

The ultimate goal of this homework program is to prepare students to read one of the many CI readers available for beginners. The earlier learners start reading for fun in the language, the faster they will acquire, the more they will acquire, and the easier our jobs will be as educators.

This kind of homework fits nicely with storytelling. We tell and co-create stories so our students can seek out other stories that interest them. In this way, we create lifelong, independent language learners.

*Unofficially. This is just an experiment my classroom.

Online Textbook Homework

My department adopted Panorama from Vista Higher Learning. This comes with an online workbook that students use to practice the language. It’s better than some online workbooks, but it has a definite grammar focus with videos explaining grammar concepts in English. These videos are dreadfully boring, and they don’t help students build mental representation of the language (Further reading: an excellent post by Chris Stolz that summarizes Dr. Bill VanPatten’s idea of mental representation).

In some cases we can’t escape using the textbook entirely. In my context, for example, I am required to use the online workbook for homework. And since students have to use it, I want to ensure they get the most out of their effort. I do a few things to accomplish this:

  1. I assign mostly listening comprehension, multiple choice fill-in-the-blank, and fill-in-the-blank translation activities (i.e. Pablo ________ [to eat] una pizza). I do assign a few of the paragraphs with random blanks, but they have diminishing returns.
  2. I spend some time in class going over the assigned activities and “PQA”*-ing some of the unfamiliar vocabulary. This helps keep this homework comprehensible and makes it somewhat worthwhile for them to do.
  3. I limit student exposure to this homework in terms of their final grade. In fact, some of my students choose to never complete these assignments, but can still pass the class. The most skipping all the online workbook homework can do is drop their grade by a little less than 10 percent, or about a full letter grade. It’s there to give students a chance to improve their skills, not to as an assessment tool.
  4. I tell students about other things they can do to increase their proficiency (e.g. reading, listening, seeking out other forms of compelling input).

*PQA – Personalized Questions and Answers

I should also note that students always complain about the online homework as being too hard, and I agree with them. It is hard because we don’t learn language by practicing but rather through the mental processing of input. To quote the great Carl Sagan:

“The brain does much more than just recollect. It inter-compares, it synthesizes, it analyzes, it generates abstractions. The simplest thought, like the concept of the number one, has an elaborate logical underpinning. The brain has its own language for testing the structure and consistency of the world.”

Indeed, the brain has its own language for grammar too. Textbook rules only attempt to explain the phenomenon of language as we observe it. They are not what our brains use to produce language.

One day I would like to see us move away from these language “practicing” systems and over to ones that provide more and varied forms of compelling, highly comprehensible input. In this way, students will have the opportunity to acquire language in a more natural, efficient, and self-sustaining manner.

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these books/products and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.

Assessing with Storytelling: Oral Story Test

Picture notes are a personalized way to help students stay in the TL while retelling a story.

This is my favorite assessment of the quarter. Students pick any story from the quarter that we have read and they retell it to me as if I have never heard it before. Each story is about the same level of difficulty, so I don’t mind letting them pick one from the beginning of the quarter. The last story we co-create might even be easier for them since it’s fresher in their mind (In the past I have also just assigned the last story we co-created. It really doesn’t matter).

After students have completed the test, I ask questions about them that are related to the story they chose. For example, let’s say that in the story a character goes to a café and drinks a coffee (mmm, coffee). I may ask a student something like, “Do you drink coffee?”, “Do you prefer coffee or tea?”, or “What do you drink when you are thirsty?”. This provides a way to assess their conversational ability during a spontaneous interaction.

In a way, I suppose that I do prepare these questions. I make sure to include specific vocabulary and phrases in the written version of the stories, and this lends itself to asking certain questions. But I don’t write out a list of questions ahead of time, and instead take them from the text itself. 

(Note: I will do a separate post about how I introduce and structure stories throughout the quarter after I finish this current Assessing with Storytelling series.)

Notes

I allow students to use picture notes on this assessment with as many hand-drawn pictures as they like — one picture for each word or even each syllable if they want. The only caveat to these notes is that there can be no words on the paper or they can’t use it. In this way, students can focus on how to express themselves instead of being pressured into remembering every detail of the story.

The picture notes are not required, but maybe the should be. Students who take the time to draw out the story tend to perform way better than those who just try to memorize or remember everything without notes. If they draw enough pictures they always remember how to say something, even if it’s not perfectly accurate.

I use this assessment as my final exam, which is usually a 2-hour block for me. When I’m done with the block of tests I’m mentally exhausted from listening to all these students, but I’m done grading. I’d argue that this is the mark of a great assessment.

In Groups or Individually?

I keep going back and forth on this one. Some quarters I have had students go individually. This provides the best feedback for students, but takes way longer and gives me the impression that I may be intimidating some students (I’ve had some students cry one-on-one due to the test anxiety—Granted, they also could have cried in a group).

Other quarters I’ve put students in groups of two and had them each tell half the story. This way they have to listen to each other and pick up where the other left off. If you let them pick the story

I pick the groups, and they don’t know which half of the story they’re going to retell. That way they have to prepare the whole thing. Really the whole thing is to get them to do a deep dive on a story and get more comprehensible input. My son does this naturally by picking the same story to read over and over, but adults need a little prodding to do this behavior. This is the perfect way to get them to reread a story from class.

Note: If you want then to tell the story in groups and let students pick which story they want to retell, you need to know ahead of time which students studied which story. That way students who studied Story A can go with other students who also studied Story A. 

In Front of the Class or in Private?

I let the small groups go privately at an assigned time. The rest of the students wait out in the hall/lobby until they are called into the classroom. The idea behind this assessment is to see what students can produce, and talking in front of the class on a test doesn’t do anything but raise the affective filter. The test itself is enough anxiety, even though I aim for it to be as low-key as possible.

How I Grade the Oral Story Test

Just like the Final Writing Project, I have a rubric for grading this assessment. It helps me to be more objective, and it lets me finish grading as soon as they’re done taking the test.

Note: While students are talking, I scribble notes on a blank piece of paper so I can remember what students said on the test. This practice has come in handy on more than one occasion when a student has come seen me for additional feedback or the time I forgot to circle the scores on my rubric. Let’s just say I’m glad I wrote down what they said.

Communication and Flow

10 203040
Student could not communicate in Spanish. Student could not respond freely to instructor’s questions using emerging output in Spanish.
Use of English.
Student demonstrated limited communication in Spanish. Student responded to some of the instructor’s questions freely using emerging  output in Spanish that approached the expected level.Student demonstrated level-appropriate communication of a message (i.e. the events of a story) in Spanish. Student responded to most questions using level-appropriate emerging output in Spanish.Student demonstrated above-average Successful communication of a specific message in Spanish. Student responded fluently to all the instructor’s questions using above-average emerging output in Spanish.

Like it’s written counterpart, communication is the most important factor that I look for when grading this assessment. I want to hear students being able to communicate the events of a story using only their emerging output in L2.

Grammar and Vocabulary

10203040
Student did not demonstrate understanding of relevant vocabulary. Student did not demonstrate natural or accurate production of grammatical forms, especially those covered in class.Student demonstrated some understanding of relevant vocabulary. Student demonstrated accurate production of  relevant grammatical forms below the expected level.Student demonstrated level-appropriate understanding of relevant vocabulary. Student demonstrated accurate production of vocabulary and grammatical forms, especially those covered in class.Student demonstrated above-average understanding of relevant vocabulary. Student demonstrated above-average production of  grammatical forms, especially those covered in class.

This is another one of the few times in my course that I evaluate grammar in context. Students have been afforded the opportunity to select and study the story and bring in picture notes. I’m looking for their grammar and vocabulary to be accurate.

Despite the generous design of this assessment, it’s still incredibly difficult for students to remember everything.  It is easy, however, to identify the forms and vocabulary students have acquired successfully.

Natural Progression of Fluency

5101520
Student demonstrated a lack confidence while speaking and interacting, which was highlighted by frequent and long hesitations in Spanish (e.g. long pauses. Many “ums,” “uhs,” and/or other English filler words).Student demonstrated a lack confidence while speaking and interacting, which was highlighted by some hesitation in Spanish (e.g. some long pauses. Many “ums,” “uhs,” and/or other English filler words).Student demonstrated adequate confidence while speaking and interacting, which was highlighted by  a lack of hesitation in Spanish (e.g. few pauses and very infrequent use of “ums,” “uhs,” and/or other English filler words).Student demonstrated a high degree of confidence while speaking and interacting in Spanish, which was highlighted by few (if any) pauses. Use of Spanish filler words such as  “bueno” “pues”, “este”, etc.

Last summer I attended a second TPRS© workshop, this one in Seattle. The presenter was Mike Coxon, and he defined fluency as students demonstrating “confidence, accuracy, and a lack of hesitation”. I like this definition of fluency. As a long-term goal, we want students to speak confidently and accurately, not with a bunch of errors in their speech. we also wan them to speak without hesitation. We don’t want them to think about the language; we want them to think in the language.

I’m sure this isn’t the perfect rubric, but I also believe it gives me a fairly accurate picture of my students’ ability to speak the language.

I look forward to this assessment every quarter. It’s the easiest thing in the world to grade, and it lets me see how far they have come during the short time we spent together.