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: 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.

Assessing with Storytelling: Final Writing Project

Doing writing assignments in class is key to avoid the dreaded Google Translate mosnter.

In another post I talked about using timed-writes as an assessment tool. This is great for people who over-monitor their writing, and it affords me the opportunity to see a snapshot of my students’ true level of spontaneous written production.

When I learn languages on my own, I will often use timed-writes to track my progress. The benefit of having someone correct my writing is limited because my interlanguage is constantly evolving as I get more comprehensible input.

The same is true for students. As long as they keep getting comprehensible input, their interlanguage more closely approximates native level L2.

While I believe timed-writes good enough evaluate student progress on their own, I also like to afford students the opportunity to demonstrate what they can produce with their monitor activated.

On the last day of instruction I have students write an original story in class using the language they have learned during the quarter. While the timed-writes show much how fluently they can write, the original story lets me see their best writing.

The Final Writing Project

I give students two weeks notice of the content of this assessment (although they have access to the rubric all quarter), and they can prepare as they see fit. Some plan out a well-structured story and other wing it the day of. Students get a whole class period to write the story (not to exceed 300 words, I don’t want to read these things for more than a couple of days), and they can leave when they finish. Some leave in 20 minutes, others take the whole class period.

Note: To avoid the headaches of Google Translate, this assignment only works if it’s done in class.

The structure of the assessment asks students to use all the big verbs: to be, to want, to have, to go, to like, etc., and I have a rubric that makes grading a piece of cake, pan comido. Below are the instructions students will see on the day of the assessment (or in the course documents from the beginning of the quarter if they bother to look there):

You will have the approximately 45 minutes to write an original story in Spanish. Your story should have a minimum of 200 words and a maximum of 300 words. Previous writing assignments have focused on word count under a time constraint, but this exercise is different. Here I am looking for your best writing. Please take your time and edit your sentences carefully.

The events in your story are entirely up to you, but your writing should flow nicely and reach a logical conclusion. Below is a sample story structure (similar to the format we generally use in class to co-create stories) that may help you write more:

  • Introduce and describe your main character(s)
    • Where are they from? How old are they? What are they like? How are they feeling? Etc.
  • Define the problem
    • Your character(s) should want something but be unable to get it at the beginning.
  • Movement 1
    • Your character(s) should go somewhere and ask for help to get what they want (dialogue).
    • Your character(s) should not solve the problem in this location.
  • Movement 2
    • Your character(s) should go to a new location and ask for help (dialogue).
    • Your character(s) should solve the problem in this location.
  • Tie up loose ends
    •  -How does the story resolve? Are there psychological or moral changes in your character(s) (i.e. How do(es) your character(s) grow?)
    • Use the falling action to close any loops you may have opened.

How I Grade the Final Writing Project

Naturally, I have a rubric for grading this assignment. It makes it easy to evaluate and allows me to be more objective. You will find it below:

Communication and Flow

10 203040
Student failed to demonstrate successful  communication in Spanish. The message was difficult to discern and was difficult to follow.  Many choppy sentences.Student demonstrated limited communication in Spanish. The message was somewhat difficult to discern and was often difficult to follow. Many choppy sentences.Student demonstrated level-appropriate communication in Spanish. The message was somewhat clear and was mostly easy to follow. Few choppy sentences.Student demonstrated successful communication in Spanish of the events of a story Spanish. The message was clear and was easy to follow. No choppy sentences. 

Communication is the most important factor that I look for when grading this assessment. I want to see students express themselves clearly and with good flow. This part of the rubric shows the four main categories student work may fall into, but I can break it down more if need be. Perhaps a student has too many choppy sentences to earn all 40 points, for instance. I could give the student a 35 and call it good.

Grammar and Vocabulary

10203040
Student demonstrated poor accuracy in grammar forms covered in class and understanding of relevant vocabulary. Many spelling and accentuation errors.Student demonstrated below-average accuracy in grammar forms covered in class and understanding of relevant vocabulary. Some spelling and accentuation errors.Student demonstrated acceptable accuracy in grammar forms covered in class and understanding of relevant vocabulary. Few spelling and accentuation errors.Student demonstrated above-average accuracy in grammar forms covered in class and understanding of relevant vocabulary. Very few or no spelling or accent errors.

This is one of the few times in my course that I evaluate grammar in context. Since students have time to think about what they are writing, I feel it important to evaluate them on this point. If they mess a few things up it will not destroy their grade, nor should it.

Spelling and accentuation also count here, but not that much. In the process of acquisition it’s okay to make spelling mistakes. I still misspell things in English and Spanish all the time (especially in English), and those are the languages I speak best. I would dread it if someone evaluated my spelling in my beginner French (Je ne parle pas très bien le français… yet).

Creativity 

5101520
Student’s work was not original (e.g. wrote a summary of a story we co-created in class). Student failed to include details from the outline above.Student’s work was minimally original. (e.g. Student copied the details from a previous class story, but changed a few details). Student included some details from the outline above.Student’s work was original and included many details from the outline above. Student included some creative dialogue.Student’s work was original and included all the requested details from the outline above. Student included creative dialogue and went above and beyond by showing how their character(s) changed at the end of the story.

The last part of this rubric is the one that I struggle to justify with 100 percent confidence. This quarter I have included it because I need a way to hold students accountable for preparing for the assessment. In the past I didn’t include this section and some students used a story we had co-created in class and just changed the names—not exactly the spirit of this assignment.

I also want to reward students for going through the process of writing a story in L2. It’s difficult, but by the end of the quarter even the lower students should be able to approximate the stories we co-created in class and make enough modifications to be original.

One Last Note on Rubrics

No rubric is perfect and, the way I see it, most of them are too crude to give a highly precise assessment. For example, is this rubric really sensitive enough to give an 83.5%? I don’t think that it is. For this reason I round all scores to the nearest 5%. It makes grading easier because it gives larger error bars to help assess the grade, even though the assessment tool itself is imperfect.

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.

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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My Story

My name is Andrew, and I am a husband, father, friend, teacher and author. I am drawn to excellence and love to explore new ways of doing things. I have been teaching Spanish at the college level since 2010, but I got my start in the language way back in high school. I wasn’t the best student in the world, and that’s why I believe I am living proof that comprehensible input is the way to acquire a language.

I started taking high school Spanish in 2001, and for an entire year I learned in a traditional way. We used the textbook, listened to CDs I couldn’t understand, took grammar tests — all the usual suspects. I did okay in the class, but didn’t really learn all that much Spanish.

In 2002 everything changed for me. I got into a Spanish 2 class with a different teacher who used stories and daily comprehensible input to drive acquisition, rather than the textbook (although we did use the textbook). For the next two years I acquired tons of Spanish by hearing, reading, and retelling stories. I didn’t know it at the time, but my teacher made a lifelong impact on me by using highly comprehensible language in his classroom.

In college Spanish was my easiest subject, mainly because of my strong CI-backed base. Since then, I studied abroad in Quito, Ecuador and earned an M.A. in Spanish Language and Culture from Washington State University (Go Cougs!).

In 2012, I stumbled across TPRS© (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) by accident. I was looking for information on TPR (Total Physical Response), a technique my brilliant high school teacher used to help us acquire vocabulary. I was floored by the elegance of it all. I spent the next couple years reading as much as I could and I was able to attend intensive workshops (do this, by the way).

Taking the plunge into Storytelling at the college was frightening for me, but it was 100% the right move. My students now benefit from a comprehensible, low-stress environment. This atmosphere lowers their affective filters and allows them to mentally process the language at their own pace.

Now that I am raising my own children to be bilingual, I am floored at how Storytelling and other CI delivery methods mimic the natural process.

I have seen firsthand the power of comprehensible language both as a student and as a teacher. Because of these experiences, I now use stories as my main CI delivery vehicle in the classroom.

I am convinced that hearing, reading and retelling stories is the best way to acquire language. Reading and storytelling really work as a method of acquisition, and they work really well.