Hero’s Journey: New Year, New Adventure

I’m in love with the Hero’s Journey as a way of delivering comprehensible input to my learners. It’s so open-ended and makes it easy to personalize the story for each specific class.

Today my two o’clock class (2 hour block, Spanish 2) defined their protagonist, a friend of the protagonist, and the antagonist. This took about 30-35 minutes to accomplish, and was done entirely in Spanish. Through this dialogue of me asking questions and the learners making decisions, they arrived at our Hero’s Journey premise:

Carlos lost his hair during a mad scientist’s (Andrés*) experiment. With the help of his friend Marisol, Carlos tries everything in his power to get it back.

This premise is ridiculous. I think it’s the perfect way to bring up a variety of topics in context. Here is one possible tangent.

Me: Class, does Carlos comb is hair every morning?
Class: No.
Me: Why not?
Class: Carlos doesn’t have hair.
Me: Class, do I comb my hair every morning?
Half the class: Yes.
Other half of the class: No!
Me: I don’t?
One of the cheeky ones: No, you don’t have time.
Me: I don’t have time to comb my hair?
Same cheeky one: No, you’ve got two kids. It’s either comb your hair of drink coffee.
Me: Oh, that’s a good point. Class, I don’t comb my hair in the morning. I drink coffee.
Me: Class, who combs their hair every morning.

This is an example, but not too far from an actual conversation I’ve had in class. The authentic and comprehensible interactions lead to more engagement, which leads to more input, which leads to more acquisition. It’s a virtuous cycle, and one that you don’t get from the textbook.

A Deep Dive on Culture

I’ve been trying to come up with a way to incorporate more culture in my class. I decided that Hero’s Journey would be my in. My two o’clock class decided that the main character is from Colombia, and so we will do a deep dive on that country (Do I smell coffee in my future?).

The characters will also make trips to Cuba, México and Paraguay. We will explore these countries too, albeit to a lesser extent.

One more thing

I haven’t had a chance to type up the character descriptions yet, but you’ll be able to read them soon over at Read to Speak Spanish.

*My students know me as Andrés, so I always play up how handsome, young, and smart I am. I really lay it on thick, and students generally have a blast understanding sarcasm in Spanish.

How to Make an Original Story from an Engaging Premise

The right premise can lead to a wealth of comprehensible input.

An engaging premise is the key to an engaging story. The right premise can make for a no-prep, highly communicative and engaging story (and “no prep” is my favorite kind of prep). This activity is open-ended, you can modify the stories you spin out to use any grammar and vocabulary you want to target.

This may take some storytelling chops, but the result is comprehensible and engaging communicatively-embedded input: the secret sauce for language acquisition.

A Simple and Effective Plan

  1. Find a premise that you like and modify it to match your desired outcome
    • Maybe you have a different vocabulary word to insert.
    • Maybe you want to change the premise from third person singular to first person plural.
    • Briefly plan this out in advance to free up your mind for the juggling act that is storytelling. 
  2. Start telling the story to the class and dive deeply into the co-creation process.
    • “Class, there is a woman who works at bank.”
    • What’s her name?
    • Where’s she from?
    • What’s she like?
    • At what bank does she work? In which country?
    • Does she like working at the bank or does she dream of doing something else?
    • How is her day going?
    • Cast the net deep and narrow here. Find out as much as you can about this woman without boring the class.
    • “Class, in that very moment a bank robber comes in.”
    • Cast your CI net deep and narrow again. Find out as much as you can about the bank robber. Compare and contrast with the teller.
  3. See where the story takes you.
    • This is a little scary because it can go anywhere. Lean into the unknown. Your learners are highly creative, even if they don’t think they are.
    • If the learners in your class find this story engaging, you could spin another out of it, perhaps a sequel or a prequel. If that happens enough times, you could squeeze a whole novel’s worth out CI out of this one premise.
    • Have a student type up the story as you co-create it. They can email it to you for easy editing. This is a huge time-saver and helps you keep the stories straight across multiple classes.
    • Make sure to have a student draw out the story so you can refer back to it later.
    • Have a student write a listening comprehension quiz (t/f, multiple choice, etc.)
    • Have learners act out your story so you can interact with them in the TL.

25 Story Premises

  1. A bank teller’s day is ruined when a robber comes in and demands that she open the vault.
  2. It’s August in Arizona and the air conditioner broke at Emilio’s house.
  3. I have to wait in line at the supermarket when a fight breaks out.
  4. Elena thinks that she can fly. She’s right.
  5. I learn to play a musical instrument overnight.
  6. We need to buy a new house because ours is haunted.
  7. Billy asks Susie to the big dance, but he doesn’t have the money to rent a tuxedo.
  8. Two brothers are in a hurry because they believe that the sun is going to burn out tomorrow.
  9. An elderly couple decides to run a marathon for charity. It doesn’t go well.
  10. I feel like eating out, but my wife feels like making dinner.
  11. Sam’s mother-in-law cries every time she sees him.
  12. Tim the firefighter moves to Argentina and finds himself through learning to dance tango.
  13. María’s head always hurts because her boss always yells at her.
  14. Paulo needs to sell his car because he has to leave the country.
  15. David’s idea to make a million dollars seems like a good idea to Amelia, but it goes horribly wrong.
  16. A waitress receives a huge tip one night and decides to quit her job to pursue her passion.
  17. Amanda is too sick to go to her job at the hair salon. Her boyfriend goes for her and it turns out he’s a natural.
  18. Diana moves to Alaska but soon realizes she doesn’t like the cold.
  19. Rita’s husband Simón is very ugly, but their kids are really cute. Simón pays for a DNA test and the results are shocking.
  20. A young man decides to travel the world and sees something he shouldn’t have seen.
  21. Oscar is afraid of almost everything on earth. That’s why he decided to be an astronaut.
  22. Gael needs to lose some weight. He joins a gym and starts a new diet where he can only eat five different foods.
  23. Rebecca wants to give her mom a present for her birthday. Her mom loves clothes but has an odd fashion sense.
  24. Ramón wants to be an archeologist. He goes to the library every day to watch Indiana Jones movies on Netflix.
  25. Hector goes to the same café every day because he thinks the barista is cute. After 365 consecutive days, she agrees to go on a date with him. Hilarity ensues.

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.

Free Voluntary Reading at Home and in the Classroom

In his fabled garden, Pareto observed that 80 percent of the peas were produced by just 20 percent of the pods.

It’s uncanny how the Pareto Principle works in everything around us. Sometimes called the 80-20 rule, the Pareto Principle states that 80 percent of the results are produced by 20 percent of the effort. For example, 80 percent of the peas in a vegetable garden are produced by just 20 percent of the pods.

This number can be even more skewed in some circumstances: 85-15, 90-10 or even 99-1. You’re probably familiar with that number from economic discussion during the last decade – It stems from this non-linear distribution that occurs almost everywhere in nature. Note: If you weren’t familiar with this concept previously, you’ll probably start to notice it being talked about everywhere. That’s what happened to me when I first learned about Pareto and his fabled garden.

Applying Pareto’s Principle to Language Acquisition

For language acquisition, it’s clear that the vast majority of gains comes from one source: the unconscious/subconscious processing of comprehensible input. I can’t give an exact percentage, but I’d imagine that something like 95 percent of acquisition happens from input. Since we have such limited time with learners in the college setting, helping them seek out their own sources of comprehensible input is vital for their continued acquisition in and beyond our classroom.

My favorite source of comprehensible input is reading level-appropriate fiction.* Dr. Stephen Krashen, famous author and Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California, has long championed this activity. I am in total agreement, and have started a steady diet of reading in my own language acquisition endeavors.

Krashen terms pleasure reading as Free Voluntary Reading (FVR), which is a term you’ll see thrown around the storytelling and the comprehension-based communicative language teaching community. Many instructors have even started using FVR as a part of their weekly routine (some twice per week, some every day).

My firsthand experience with FVR in French and Brazilian Portuguese have convinced me that reading is the most important source of comprehensible input for language learners. In terms of a Pareto distribution, I’d wager that FVR produced 90-95% of the gains I’ve made in those two languages (I’m still acquiring!). I found that more I read, the easier it is to think in those languages.

If you aren’t learning a new language right now, I recommend that you try, and to do so with FVR. It will remind you how difficult it is to learn to speak a new language and how powerful reading is. I’d also challenge you to not look up grammar rules or verb tables (at first). Instead, focus on processing as many messages as you can in your new language. Below is my daily routine for language acquisition:

1. 10 minutes of Duolingo in the TL as a warmup 
2a. FVR – at least two pages of a level-appropriate novel
2b. Watch at least 10 minutes of a show in TL (with subtitles in TL) / Listen to at least 10 minute of a podcast in TL (with transcript in TL, if available)

*What is “level-appropriate fiction”? I don’t know that there’s a good answer. I’ve heard people say if you understand 98% of a text without having to look words up would make it level-appropriate. Naturally, there is some wiggle room in the exact percentage.

FVR at Home

Since I have had such good success with FVR on my own, my initial idea to implement FVR in my courses is to ask students to read at home too. This frees up class time for more listening and structured reading input, but therein lie two potential problems.

1) Students don’t have access to an abundance of level-appropriate fiction. That means if a reader finds a particular novel boring, they can’t just put it back and grab another. This is a tenet of FVR. If the student isn’t enjoying a given text (for any reason), they just return it to the shelf and select something else.

2) I can’t be sure that learners are actually reading if I don’t have a system of tracking (e.g. number of pages, word count, number of books, etc.). Such as system is not viable, and even if it were, it wouldn’t be fair. I, for one, am a slow reader. It would take me much longer to read a certain number of pages than it would someone who reads quickly. 

The only thing that I can think of that might work as a tracking system is some sort of a streak system. For example, students might post to Canvas (Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) that they read their nightly two-four pages in L2. That’s still the honor system, though. It’s not ideal, but at least it’s a feasible option.

I don’t ask my students to do FVR at home, but I’m still convinced there is a way to make it work. It’s what I do on my own, but I’m highly motivated to keep learning. I’ll continue working on a viable solution to this.

FVR In Class

Implementing a FVR program in class is, in my opinion, the best solution for presenting to learners a wide range of pleasure reading texts. A growing number of instructors are building personal libraries of level-appropriate novellas and allowing students to self-select a book to read. They act as curators of fascinating stories for their students to peruse, and they give access to books in L2 to students who wouldn’t have it otherwise.

This is a flexible option that you can easily add to your teaching repertoire. For instance, you might plan for students to have 10 minutes of FVR time, three days per week (perhaps after doing routine items such as the date, weather, etc.). If they respond well, you could up it to four or five times per week.

The goal is to get learners to fall in love with reading in L2. In this way, they will continue to seek out things to read on their own and extend their language acquisition journey indefinitely, well beyond the 10-15 weeks they spend with us.

As instructors, we know that those who read more have better vocabularies and command of grammar. Scheduling a time to pleasure read in class is a way to ensure that learners actually get that opportunity.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, FVR is actually an efficient use of class time. Why wouldn’t you want your students to read more? Give them the opportunity, and they will benefit greatly from it!

A Call to Authors and a Thank You

The thing about story is that we have an insatiable appetite for it. To this end, there are many storytelling educators who are trying their hand at writing short, level-appropriate novels for language learners. I am one of them. Below are the FVR novels I have published to date, and there are more on the way. I am sincerely grateful to all those who have read my work and/or have supported me to this point. It’s been quite an adventure. 

Las tres pruebas – Spanish
La vida loca de Marta – Spanish
La espía huérfana – Spanish
A espiã órfã – Portuguese

If you have ever thought about writing a novel, I highly encourage you to do so. It’s easier than ever to publish a novel, and our students need many thousands more titles to choose from. Perhaps this is the medium for you. There’s something deeply spiritual about an artist journeying to and from the divine.

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: A Weekly Structure

Find increased freedom through intentional planning.

Using storytelling to teach language dramatically reshaped the the structure of my courses. A progressively complex series of stories now anchor my lesson plans, instead of being shackled to the “communicative” activities in the textbook and its grammar-driven agenda. In addition, storytelling freed me from hours of lesson planning, since the stories we tell contain all the elements of the language I need students to learn. The mere act of telling and retelling a story (and later reading a story) affords learners the comprehensible input necessary for acquisition to take place.

Since I know that everything I need to teach is embedded in the stories we co-create, retell and read, I learned to systematize the way I plan my lessons. After I make a tentative calendar of the course before the term starts, I barely have to think of how I’m going to fill the lesson plan with activities. This alone can save you ten hours during the quarter, and more if you are on semesters.

Allow me to detail a sample week in my Spanish 101 course.

The Goal

It’s essential to start with a goal in mind, some activity you want students to be able to do by the end of the week.

My primary objective for the week is for students to write a summary of a story in L2 that they helped co-create, listened to, read several versions of, and discussed at length in class (See Friday).

Secondary objective: Have a class discussion about the most complicated version of the text (see Thursday).

Monday

Below you will see a numbered list and details of my lesson plan for a typical Monday. Something I learned from working at a high school for a semester (it was the longest six months of my life, but a great learning experience) is to write an abbreviated version of this plan on the board in L2. It keeps me zoned into the plan and allows students to see where today’s lesson is going.

1. Routine Items

An essential way to talk about simple (and often boring) things. Things that need repetition to acquire, but that don’t make much sense to talk about in every single story. I mix and match these to keep them fresh.

  • The date
  • Months
  • Days of the Week
  • The Weather
  • Interrogative words (I have a little song that I do to help them memorize, although they do this during stories, too)
  • Tongue twisters
  • TPR (Total Physical Response) words/phrases that aren’t easy for me to work into every story. Prepositions of place (next to, near to, far from, etc.), indefinite/negative words, etc.
  • What did you do last weekend?
  • Body Parts
  • Short songs that don’t target anything in particular, but help students remember the language in a natural context (a natural way to introduce subjunctive, by the way).
  • Anything else that can be routinized

1A. Free Voluntary Reading (FVR)

2. TPR New Phrases

I take 3 – 6 phrases/words out of the script for this week’s story that I think the students won’t know very well. These are the anchor phrases that will help us scaffold into telling a comprehensible story. Without these phrases, the story will be too incomprehensible to maximize the potential of the input. By pre-teaching these phrases we ensure that the essence of the story be comprehensible.

I know my students and their level, so I can confidently guess what they know and what they don’t. These phrases will help scaffold lower-level students to each progressively difficult version of the story.

I write the phrases on the board and explain what they mean, one by one in English, a mix of Spanish/English, or a mix of Spanish/drawings/photos depending on the level of the class. This weeks target phrases:

  • he likes to celebrate
  • he receives a package
  • it’s moving
  • he’s afraid of
  • Can you open it?

We make up gestures for each phrase and I “quiz” them on these gestures. I say a word/phrase, and they show me the answer. After a few days of this, I might show them a gesture and ask them to say the word in Spanish.

As I discussed in an earlier post, TPR is a great way to reduce L1 in your classroom after Monday. The next day I don’t tell them what things mean in English, I just do the gesture.

3. The Hero’s Journey

I use Mondays (depending on the week) to continue the Epic Hero’s Adventure based on our co-created heroes. I use Storylistening as a primary way to recap the story with students, and I use TPRS© to co-create the next phase of the story.

While students are listening, I ask them to draw what happens in the story to help them stay focused on processing the information. I don’t collect this,  though, and they could just listen along, and I would be content. Really it’s just a way to stop people from being on their phones (I hate smart phones in class – learning a new language requires deep mental work with limited distractions).

You can make this phase last as long as you need.

Mondays are not fundays for most college students. Some are coming in sluggish from a weekend out partying, while others are dreading getting back into the swing of things after a relaxing weekend (or not so relaxing, depending on the student). With this in mind, Mondays should mostly be listening days. Get their ears used to hearing L2 again, and you will be rewarded with students who are more prepared to think and talk in L2 throughout the rest of the week.

Tuesday

1. Routine Items

Keep on trucking with these. They pay dividends in the long run.

1A. FVR

2. Review TPR Phrases from Yesterday

If you used L1 to establish meaning yesterday, now is the time to go right to L2. Most will not need it on this day, and by removing L1 you are showing students the importance of L2 in your classroom.

3. Co-create the Story

Here is the bread and butter of storytelling in a language classroom. I introduce a character and build a story from there using many circular questions (fewer for upper-level classes, since I mainly use this technique to introduce new vocabulary). Students decide many details about the character as they would in a OWI (i.e. hair color, height, intelligence, nationality, etc.).

Next, I follow the story script (I always have this with me so I can refer back to it) and guide the story along until the next detail I let them decide (e.g. Where does the character go?,  Who sent the package?, Why is the character afraid?, etc.). After each unique detail (sometimes called a surprise detail in the TPRS© community), I continue on with the script until we have reached a good stopping place or if we run out of time in the class period.

In this way, each class has its own unique story generated from the same script. They all have the target phrases in them, but each story has the potential to be wildly different from the others. This is what personalized instruction looks like in a storytelling classroom. It beats the hell out of a cookie-cutter and textbook-heavy approach.

Some Bonus Tips

  1. When you get to a target phrase or structure, cue students to do the appropriate gesture. This will help cement the phrase and gesture in a communicative context.
  2. During the co-creation of the story, I have a student write a brief listening quiz based on today’s story.
  3. Also during the co-creation of the story, I have a student draw out the events of the story on a giant sticky note. Four-six frames usually works perfect for this. Look at Wednesday’s plan for more details on what I do with this.
An example of student artwork on a giant sticky note.

4. Summarize the Story

Usually we have discussed a lot of information during the class period, so it’s nice to review what you’ve told. Some storytellers I know like to write up a brief summary of the story in a word document with the help of students. I would call that an efficient and beneficial use of time.

Full disclosure, I don’t always do this. I like students to hear the language a number of times before they see it.

5. Listening Quiz (if There’s Time)

There’s probably not going to be time today, unless it’s the beginning of the quarter. When students are less proficient, there’s more time for assessments like this because they can’t sustain the necessary conversation as easily (yet).

Wednesday

1. Routine Items

Stick with the same routine items until you sense it gets boring. Students need more repetition than they let on, and doing things like talking about the date or weather goes a long way towards acquisition of those items. I would do those even if they’re boring. Routine is a powerful thing.

1A. FVR

2. Review TPR Phrases

Try quizzing students by showing them the gestures and having them say the word/phrase in L2. Mix up the order of the words. Really make sure they know these phrases since they anchor this week’s text.

3. Retell the Co-created Story with Student Artwork

Student artwork from a different class.

Remember the artwork from Tuesday? Here’s where this comes into play. After reviewing the TPR phrases again, I put the giant sticky on the board and let the students process the artwork for the first time. This lets students see the story visually and it puts them in the right frame of mind (read: activates schema) to hear the story again.

Now I begin to retell the story that we made up yesterday. This artwork is important for me too, since I have four classes and can easily jumble stories together Did that happen in the 8am class or the 11am class? – I don’t have to remember (thankfully). I just have to look at the artwork to jog my memory.

I do a blend of storytelling and story asking here.

Me: Class, there is a _____.

Student: man.

Me: There is a man. What does he call himself?

Student: Chuy.

Me: Yes, he calls himself Chuy. Where is Chuy from? Is he from Ecuador?

Student: No.

Me: No, he’s not from Ecuador. Where’s he from?

Student: He’s Spanish.

Me: Yes, he’s Spanish. He’s from Spain. Is Chuy handsome?

Student: Oh yeah.

Me: Oh, yes. Chuy is very handsome.

Me: One day, Chuy receives a package for his birthday. He likes to celebrate his birthday. He loves to celebrate his birthday.

Back and forth we go, recounting the events we made up yesterday. We can do this for 5-15 minutes, depending on the complexity of the story and the quality of the conversation. The important part is that students are mentally processing all the input I’m giving them, which primes the pump of acquisition.

I started doing this part of the storytelling process more regularly last fall when I found a pad of giant stickies in my classroom. What a stroke of good fortune.

4. Read Version A of the Story Silently

I break the story into three readings, each increasing in complexity.  I have students read Version A silently for a 2-5 minutes, depending on the length of the story. Before they read, I instruct them to read for fluency. If they come across a word they don’t know, they should quickly try to figure it out from context. If they can’t do that in 2-3 seconds, they underline and move on. Consider an example of a Version A reading below:

After students have read the text, we come together as a class for students to do a self-assessment of comprehension. We do this via a “choral translation” or a translation done as a group. I read a little bit in L2, and the class responds out loud with a translation into L1. 

Occasionally I will throw in a brief (under 30 seconds) grammar explanation in L1 here, or use colors and underlining in a Word Document projected on the screen to highlight meaning (e.g. He drinks the milk >>> He drinks it).

A lot of people feel very strongly about never doing a translation in a language classroom, perhaps because we know how inefficient and ineffective the grammar-translation method is for language acquisition.

Personally, I don’t think we should throw out any tool completely (even the textbook-style activities).

That being said, I think it’s important to note that this activity is not the grammar-translation method. It is a way for students to self-assess comprehension and for me to get a feel on their level of comprehension.

In all honesty, if I wasn’t confident this was a beneficial activity, I would not hesitate throw it out. I truly believe this is worth the five-ten minutes we spend on it per week.

5. Read Version B of the story à la TPRS© with a Volleyball Translation

Another translation activity? Yes. This one is also worth the 10 minutes per week we spend on it.

Students form two lines and make sure they have a partner across from them. They read Version B of the story in the following way:

  1. Student A reads a sentence of the story in L2.
  2. Student B translates that sentence into L1 and reads the next sentence in L2.
  3. Student A translates that sentence into L1 and reads the next sentence in L2.
  4. The partners volley back and forth from L2 and L1, with the goal of getting back to L2 as quickly as possible.
  5. After two minutes, I yell for students to switch and one line rotates so that everyone has a new partner (Note: If there is an odd number of students I like to have a group of three at the front of the lines where one member rotates out each round).
  6. After switching, students pick up where the person that got the least far left off. For example, if student A got to line 4 and Student B got to line 6, they would start at line 4. That way each student gets a chance to get through the whole reading.
  7. If students finish Version B, I have them start again from the top. I’d love it if they could get through it at least 3 times, though often it doesn’t happen. 
  8. Repeat until you want them to stop. I usually let them go for at least ten minutes, but rarely more than 15.

Students love this activity because it helps them build confidence speaking the language. I love this activity because students help each other out, and it allows them to hear a number of different voices.

Below is an example of a Version B

I first learned about this technique at a TPRS© workshop I attended in Vancouver, BC. At the workshop, Von Ray presented a German story and a French story, and we did a volleyball translation. The act of participating made me realize how valuable this activity is. It’s not really a translation activity at all, but rather a comprehension-based reading where the students assess their own understanding. Totally different things.

If you’re not convinced by my explanation and advocacy for this activity, you need to try it in a language with which you are not familiar. You will be convinced that it has nothing to do with the grammar-translation approach, even though translation is involved.

Attend one of these workshops, by the way. It’s well worth the three days. Von Ray was fantastic as a presenter. Mike Coxon is another great presenter. I am not an affiliate of theirs – I just think they are awesome at what they do).

6. Listening Quiz (If there’s time)

Sometimes there is time on Wednesday for a listening quiz. I write it on the board, but I’m not heart-broken if we don’t get to it today. That just means that our comprehensible input lasted the whole class period. That’s more important for acquisition than squeezing in a quiz.

7. Retells in groups (if there’s time)

If you still have time left over, now’s a good time to do a retell. Pair off students and have them retell the story in L2 for one minute each. Put the artwork back on the board if you took it down. This will help students remember more details.

Thursday

1. Routine Items

Same as previous days. There’s something comforting about a routine. It also helps you focus the class on a common theme to start the class. Make sure students are all participating. Call them out by name or they will start to use their cell phones. (Cell phones are the bane of my existence as a professor of a subject that requires deep focus).

1A. FVR

2. Review TPR Phrases

I keep a running list of TPR Phrases on Canvas, my school’s LMS. On a typical Thursday we go through the whole list.

At the end of the term I give a significant quiz (~5% of the overall grade) based entirely on this vocabulary. Reviewing it once per week helps keep it fresh in their minds.

3. Retell story with student artwork

Another repetition of the story using the artwork. Today I ask more questions and do less telling of the story. Students are starting to build confidence in their knowledge of the story and remember most details at this point. 

4. Read Version C of the story and Discuss

As a class we read Version C, the longest and most complex version of the story. I read out loud in L2 while students listen and read along. There are two goals with this activity:

  1. I want students to hear and read (and comprehend) the text. It gives them an opportunity to simultaneously hear how the text sounds and how it looks on the page.
  2. I want students to discuss the themes of the story in L2.

As I read out loud, students follow along in their copy of the text. I read until I find something interesting to talk about, and then I start asking questions. In the example of Version C (see below), there’s no coffee at Kevin’s house. It’s a problem because he has an important chemistry exam that day. I might ask the class something like this:

Class, where do you all go when there’s no coffee at your house?

If someone answers, great. Ask follow up questions in L2 that are interesting and keep the language flowing.  Build up your students and don’t correct them if they make mistakes. Any output is good, and we don’t want to scare them away from speaking.

If no one answers, that’s fine. Now’s the time to do a quick conversation with their “elbow partner”.

With your elbow partner, ask this question: Where do you go when there’s no coffee at your house?

I usually write the beginning of a potential answer on the board to keep the conversation going. (i.e. When there’s no coffee at my house, I go to…). After a brief conversation in groups, I call the attention back to the front of the classroom and ask the question again. Now I look for volunteers to share their answers with the class. Once the mojo has been used up for that particular set of questions (read the room), I keep reading the text and find a new line of questioning.

An example of Version C of a story.

Continue this as long as possible. If you do this right, the conversation can spill over into Friday’s class.

5. Listening Quiz

This is usually the day where we end up taking the listening quiz, although if the conversation is really good during Version C of the story, perhaps not. It’s possible that you need to continue the Version C exercise on Friday. If so, that’s great! I’d much rather have a real conversation in L2 than do a listening quiz.

6. Oral retells in groups

If there’s time you can have them practice retelling in groups. However, there shouldn’t be time if you played your cards right during the class conversation based on Version C of the story.

Friday

1. Routine Items

This is my first quarter using this as a way to start the class on a regular basis. I’m shocked at how good it is, and upset I didn’t try this earlier. Make a routine for the beginning of your class if you haven’t already.

1A. FVR

2. What are you doing this weekend?

This is an easy discussion you can throw in the mix each Friday. Share your plans for the weekend with your students, and have them ask their elbow partner what they are going to do. Circulate around the room while they are talking and select a few students to hold a conversation with.

After a few minutes, return to the front of the class and ask for volunteers to tell you their plans. This conversation could last 5-25 minutes, depending on the quality of the conversation. I think it’s better to hold an interesting, un-targeted conversation than to do just about anything else in the language.

2a. Do the listening quiz if you didn’t get to it yet.

I mean, you need to evaluate their listening skills at some point. Right? This also has the side benefit of reminding students think that there could be a listening quiz on any day, making them less likely to miss class. (Maybe?).

3. Review TPR Phrases

Go back to just the target phrases from this week. You don’t need to review the whole list each day, just enough to help it stay fresh in learners’ minds.

3a. Continue Version C Discussion (If Desired)

Did you have more story to read through/more discussion to get to in the Version C of the story? Now’s a good time to do that if you want,. but don’t feel pressured to read each and every word of the story. You don’t want to beat a dead horse.

5. Timed-Write Summary of the Story/In-Class Essay

This is the primary goal of the week. Students probably studied their story at home last night, and now they should feel fairly confident in their abilities to write a summary in L2.

6. Presentation of art, music, or culture, short videos, textbook activities, etc.

What are the things you’re passionate about when it comes to the cultures surrounding  L2? Art? Music? History? Culture? Politics? The textbook? Whatever it is at the moment, I have a good chunk of time reserved for those topics and activities here on Friday. I like to pick the activity out in advance so I know how much time to I have to spend on the other important items on Friday (i.e. timed-write summary). 

Even though I use a textbook in my class on occasion, it is not my primary vehicle for delivering CI. It is a tool I can use when desired (which is not often). I use it on a typical Friday, but only if there’s time.

Conclusions

This weekly plan is a stelar template for storytelling. It’s a system I have in place that allows me to spend virtually zero time making a lesson plan. If something isn’t working, it’s just a slight modification to the plan and I’m back in business.

Developing this lesson plan system (parts of which are borrowed from quién sabe dónde) is one of the most important steps for me as a storyteller. The structure helps me stay focused on what matters most: delivering quality CI to students in a variety of ways.

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.

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: 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.

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.

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