Assessing with Storytelling: In-Class Essays

Timed-writes are an effective way to evaluate student progress throughout the term.

My class is 12 weeks long, ten if you don’t count Thanksgiving and finals week. The first week I don’t have students do much writing, especially in Spanish I. Instead I want them to listen and read. They need to get used to hearing the language, seeing it written out, and using it to communicate. I do, however, want to start to get a baseline for my students’ abilities, and so I have them begin to write about topics they are familiar with by the end of week 2.

In my Spanish I classes, this takes the form of a story summary under a constraint. During the week we learn, read, and discuss a story in the target language. On the last day of the week, students get five minutes to handwrite as much as possible in Spanish about that week’s story. In that time they write as much as they can without pausing to think about “correctness.” I see the same grammar mistakes you can expect to see on grammar tests, but I also see a more complete picture of their emerging out, even from the low students.

The idea behind this is twofold. First, the time constraint forces students to turn off their conscious mind and let the words bubble up naturally from their subconscious. This is what I’m most interested in seeing, since this is the language they are able to successfully recall and access, that is, the language they have acquired.

The second benefit of the timer is that of Parkinson’s Law: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If we give students 20 minutes to do a summary, they will take the whole twenty minutes.

I grade these timed writes on word count because I’m not interested in the improving grammar from week to week, although I do see that progress. What I most care to assess here is that students make the expected progress in fluency (i.e. adjective agreement, subject-verb agreement, verb morphology, etc.) by the end of the quarter. I don’t want them to ignore grammar entirely, but I tell them to do their best with grammar and spelling. Not only do students write more this way, but they also write better when I tell them I’m not grading for the things that most concern them: grammar and spelling.

The word count is a moving target. At the beginning of the quarter a student that writes 50+ words in 5 minutes earns a 25/25, 40-49 words earns a 22.5/25, 30-39 earns a 20/25, 25-29 earns a 17.5, and < 25 earns a 15/25.

Depending on the results, I challenge students to push themselves. The next week I might make 60+ words a 25/25, 50-59 a 22.5/25, and so on. By the end of the quarter I expect a good number of students to write 90+ words in 5 minutes. Many students end up writing 150+ words in five minutes. That’s more than I can write in that amount of time.

I play the timeline of this sliding scale by ear. That means that at any given time I have some sections that need 75+ words for a 25/25, and others that 60+. This makes total sense to me because it allows for differentiated instruction. Not every class will progress uniformly, and this is especially true for a language class.

I love this assessment because I can track student progress throughout the quarter. I can see some students make leaps in their abilities and I can see the steady progress of others.

Another reason I love this assessment is that students find it hard to cheat. They only have five minutes and are graded on word count. If they stop to Google Translate a word, they’re not going to get a good grade. This is, of course, by design. The time constraint takes the temptation of translation away from students and allows me to see their true ability.

Yet another reason I love this assessment is that I can put students to work self-grading their work. I put the grading scale up on the board, and they count up their words and write their number and grade on the top of the page. Chalk this up as another win for systematizing the grading process.

I still read their work, but now I get to read it for entertainment, not for grading purposes. Naturally, I still offer feedback to anyone who asks for it, but in my experience this rarely ever happens. Occasionally someone will come up and ask for feedback, and I am more than happy to go over their essay with them.

If it’s possible, I love this assessment for yet another reason: students re-read the story we made up in class, sometimes a few more times. As they prepare for the timed-write, they seek out comprehensible input. Not only that, but it sets the expectation that they will need to recall the information in the story at a later date, which washes back to the next time we co-create a story together. It’s a positive feedback loop that leads to increased engagement on the next story, which leads to improved recall on the next timed-write, which leads to the endorphin rough of successfully learning something new, ad infinitum.

This is a phenomenal assessment tool for the storytelling classroom.

Assessing with Storytelling: Interpersonal Communication

Communication is king/queen/the democratically elected executive officer of the week.

This is the daily grade that has replaced the “participation” grade in my syllabus. In reality, this is the way we norm students to set themselves up for success — These are the habits we want them to have so their affective filter is lowered and their focus is on communication in the target language.

This is a daily grade, but it goes into the gradebook only once per week for my own sanity (5pts per day x 5 days = 25pts per week). Systematizing your gradebook like this will save you hours of data entry over the course of the term. I highly recommend you figure out this kind of trick sooner rather than later.

The Interpersonal Communication Rubric

Good artists copy. Great artists steal. – Pablo Picasso

Another way to systematize your course is to use rubrics — really good rubrics. The rubrics that I use for Interpersonal Communication is a modified version of jGR (Jen’s Great Rubric – I’m sorry, but I cannot for the life of me remember who the Jen is from this as I first read about it many years ago… Jen, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry!).

My version of this rubric also borrows from Mike Peto, whose work you can find at My Generation of Polyglots. It is outlined below:

5/5—Pays attention and Contributes at the 4.5 level and Goes Beyond by:

  • Adding interesting and useful comments that are appropriate and in the target language
  • Speaking aloud voluntarily with longer spontaneous answers in the target language
  • Helping build a positive classroom community by volunteering for jobs (e.g. acting, which lets us use more and different language naturally)

4-4.5—Pays attention and Contributes by:

  • Using English only with permission
  • Regularly using the “I do not understand” signal or the “slow down” signal to help keep comprehensibility high
  • Playing the game by answering with one-word answers or short responses, participating enthusiastically, and particularly by showing that you get the idea that, “Anything is possible in this class.”

3-3.5—Pays attention by:

  • Showing your intent to understand with body language and responses
  • Sitting up; Maintaining eye contact with the instructor, peers who are speaking, and media
  • Having nothing on lap or desk—particularly cell phones—in order to more completely focus on communication in Spanish
  • Observably listening when others speak
  • Not distracting or disrupting
  • Not blurting out in English and not having side conversations.
  • Late to class (especially if more than twice per week)

2.5—Does not pay attention regularly as evidenced by:

  • Having something on lap or desk (such as a cell phone)
  • Slumping in chair; Showing limited effort and/or eye contact
  • Using English more than once without permission


  • Why? It is not possible to contribute or pay attention if you are not in class—this includes excused absences. You cannot demonstrate interpersonal communication if you are not here! – Note: You get three free absences without affecting your Interpersonal Communication Grade. Refer to the syllabus for more details.

You’ll notice that students cannot earn a lower score than a 2.5/5 per day if they are present. Interpersonal Communication is a formative assessment, and I see no reason to penalize students more than 50 percent, even if they are really not living up to expectations. Fifty percent is already an F.

This rubric is powerful. It norms the class for storytelling, keeps the class  90%+ target language, builds classroom community, is easy to keep track of (you know instantly who is doing all the right things to succeed), and can be systematized into a once-per-week data entry task.

This is by far one of the best tools for getting storytelling to work at the college level.

Storytelling for Adult Learners – Part 1

Harry Potter dies a literal death and comes back to life on his archetypal Hero’s Journey.

Human beings are wired for story. The archetype of the hero’s journey, for example, is one that speaks directly to the core of our kind, and has done so for thousands of years. Frodo takes the One Ring to Mount Doom to restore Middle Earth, but first must prove himself time and again along the way. Ultimately, he passes through trial by fire and is able to do what the other, “stronger” men could not: destroy the One Ring (and poor Gollum along with it).

This is the power we draw on when we use storytelling to teach language. Students focus on negotiating the meaning of the message (i.e. the events of the story) while grammar takes a back seat. This is how we learn languages as children. We focus on communicating and the grammar takes care of itself over time.

Storytelling has been gaining popularity as a vehicle for CI delivery over the last decade, especially at the high school level. Just check out YouTube to see some examples of these. It doesn’t take much searching to find numerous videos showing kids acting silly and making nonsensical stories (nonsensical only to those not involved in the co-creation process). This way of teaching is extremely effective in the elementary, middle, and high school levels, but many still express doubt about how this would transfer to a college class filled with adult learners. 

I think this is a valid question. After all, we are serious language instructors with serious course outcomes to hit by the end of our brief 10 weeks with our students. It would be easy to all but throw storytelling out the window because we think it won’t translate (pardon the pun) to the 19-75-year-olds in our respective classrooms.

That would be a costly mistake, in my estimation.

My Storytelling Journey

Storytelling is not an easy thing to implement in your courses, but it is well worth the effort. I first started using storytelling in my classroom in January 2013 after reading Blaine Ray’s book Fluency Through TPR Storytelling and having watched the few YouTube videos that were out there at the time. It was almost a total disaster.

I was disorganized. My curriculum didn’t fit perfectly with the textbook (yet). Many of the tips in Blaine’s book were aimed at high school students and didn’t seem to work in the college classroom. TPR, which had been an effective tool for me in the past, got too repetitive for students and I started to lose them.

One student told me my teaching didn’t match his learning style (Based on discussions with other professors who had him I’m convinced to this day that he has no learning style, but I digress).

I was in hell. I was disillusioned with the textbook style of teaching I had been using, with unacceptable student results. But I was not yet rehearsed enough in storytelling to make it work properly.

I kept at it despite the temptation to throw in the towel. I knew this form of teaching was powerful, and I was determined to make it work for me. I read as many storytelling materials as I could get my hands on. I watched all the YouTube videos I could find, though there weren’t many at the time. This one was the one that originally sold me, and I must have watched it a few dozen times. No exaggeration, Ben Slavic’s One Word Image video sounded through my computer speakers over one-hundred times. Each time I watched I gleaned another detail of how to make this thing work.

I stumbled through winter, spring and summer quarters using Anna Matava’s story scripts, which more or less mirrored the sequence of the textbooks I was using. Spring went better than winter, and summer went WAY better than spring. I was going to make storytelling work for me. It felt right.

With this spirit of resilience, I attended a TPRS© workshop in Vancouver, BC in the summer of 2013. Three days with other teachers and demos in other languages was what I needed to see the world through my students’ eyes.

When I returned to the classroom I was nearing paradise. Everything was going smoothly until I hit another snag. There was one class was that was  “too grown up” for my stories and they didn’t want to participate in the co-creation process.  It was spring 2014, and I was sinking back into the inferno.

Somehow, I survived that quarter. Good thing, too, because summer 2014 brought a the fresh start and a realization.

Adult Learners Need Personalization

This is what a typical college student looks like, probably.

A good friend of mine is a pro at asking questions. Whenever I’m with him I feel cared about because he asks the most intriguing questions about my life, the people I love, and the things that I enjoy.

One summer evening in 2014 spent answering questions with my friend lead me to this realization: most people love to talk about themselves, whether they admit it or not.

Later, somewhere amidst countless hours spent pouring over books, posts, and videos,  I stumbled PQA – Personalized Questions and Answers. This is the key to tailoring the comprehensible input to meet the unique needs of each class.

The first week of each of my classes is spent getting to know students. I learn their names. I learn what they like to do. I learn what pets they have or want to have. I learn where they live. I learn how old they are, assuming they are telling the truth. I try to learn at least one or two facts about each student.

Of course, I also share about myself.  My students learn that I have two young children. They learn that I love to drink coffee almost more than life itself. They learn that I don’t want a dog or cat, because that’s a boring, expected answer. They learn that I want an elephant, but not just any elephant. My house isn’t very big. I don’t have room for a big elephant. I need a small elephant if I’m going to have any elephant at all. 

I know the tiny elephant is super cheesy, but it’s also true. I would love science to Jurassic Park a miniature pachyderm I could have as a pet. It’s also an unexpected thing to talk about in a language class. It’s novel, and “the brain craves novelty”. Depending on the class, the students think it’s hilarious. I’ll refer back to this many times throughout the quarter as a reminder of our connections made during the first week of class. In reality, the first week we do very little storytelling, except that we learn the story of us.

The student buy-in is through the roof because we’re speaking entirely in Spanish but for an occasional word or phrase I translate on the board or a pop-up grammar explanation. It’s off the charts because we are 90%+ target language on the first day. It’s skyrocketing because they are successfully negotiating meaning from the very beginning! Furthermore, buy-in is mostly uniform across all student populations and, surprisingly, the non-traditional, adult learners tend to have even more enthusiasm than their younger counterparts!

The “true” storytelling begins in week 2 for my classes. Week 1 was about connecting with students, but it was also about setting expectations and norming the class. They know that they don’t know what to expect in terms of what I’m going to say next. They know that they have to pay attention and interact in order to get a good score on a pop listening quiz. They know that they have to “play the game” in order to avoid the textbook in class. They know that their participation leads to a more engaging and fulfilling class.

We are the leaders of our “tribe”, and it helps to communicate what it means to be a member of the classroom community. As author Seth Godin likes to say, “people like us do things like this.” Our students are smart. They will understand the method to our madness if we do a little metacognition from time to time and explain it to them. I do this from the very beginning: I explain why I structure class the way I do in my syllabus. This gives me some leeway in terms of trying to get them to build an emotional connection to the language, often through laughter.

Personally, I’m comfortable being silly with my students because it’s who I am. If I weren’t called to be a teacher, perhaps I would have become a standup comedian. But being silly isn’t required—not in the least. Being authentic and making connections with students is.

I have a lot to say on this topic, so stay tuned. If you have another topic you’d like to discuss, please drop me a line.

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