Storytelling Basics: Going Even Slower Than You Think You Should

Go even slower than you think you need to go.

It’s easy to get in such a groove with storytelling that we leave people behind. It’s less of an issue than with legacy methods of language instruction, but going too fast for learners remains a distinct possibility. Going slower than we think we need to helps keep the language we use comprehensible, which in turn makes the language accessible to more learners.

When learners are building up a mental representation of the language in their heads, they need to process the comprehensible input they receive. They need to receive and process, receive and process, receive and process. Then they need to process the language some more.

Learners need to process the words we think are easy (yo, tú, soy, eres, estudiante, pero, y, etc.).Not even cognates are immune to this need for processing. They often sound different in L2 and must go through the same processing… process. Going slowly ensures that more learners successfully negotiate meaning during the storytelling process.

Slowing Down Readings

I love to write and am enamored with the Artist’s Journey (I can’t recommend that book enough, by the way). During my years with storytelling, I’ve discovered that simple readings are the most difficult to make. It’s tempting to throw in new words and ideas because it makes the stories more interesting for me. Problem is, the readings I write for class are not for me, but for students. Throwing too much at learners in a reading will reduce its comprehensibility and, thus, its utility.

Two weeks ago, I gave students a reading based on some characters that we co-created at the beginning of the quarter (a modified version of the Hero’s Journey). Students read in groups of two and completed a short set of comprehension-based tasks to help them process the language they read.

I walked around the room as learners worked, answering questions and listening in as I am wont to do. Some of my very vocal students in one section expressed that they didn’t understand ni jota. Uh-oh, Spaghetti-o’s.

After hearing the aforementioned grousing, I solicited the opinions of a number of students that have given me good feedback in the past. Based on their feedback, I need to make the readings easier. They need to be able to process the language more easily, which will lead to their processing more complex readings in the future.

In my defense, I tried to make the reading approximately 90% comprehensible. The 10% of words and phrases I assumed students weren’t familiar with, I glossed. My intentions were good, but I didn’t account for some learners who would understand only 70% of the text easily.

Introducing too much at once reduced the comprehensibility of the language, and frustrated learners, especially the adults. Adults do not like having their ability to communicate taken away. Going slower than we think we need to and making easier helps keep the communication in L2 flowing.

I’m convinced that we need to go slower than we think in terms of reading complexity too. I don’t have an exact percentage, but something like 98-99% comprehensible would be better than the 90% I aimed for in this instance. Efficiency is the name of the game in the college classroom, and the higher the comprehensibility, the more efficient the acquisition process is. We want i + 1, not i + 10 (or i + 30).

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.

An Example Quizizz

I intend to do a longer post on Quizizz in the future, but for now, here is an example that I made for my Spanish 1 students. It’s based on the story we co-created on Wednesday of this week. It’s my Friday treat for them during the last 10 minutes of class time.

Take the Quizizz

Students use their phones or laptops (if they don’t have one, they can partner up with someone who does). It’s more laid back than Kahoot, and my students love it.

Best of all, it’s another way to sneak comprehensible input into their lives (muahahahaha).

By the way, here’s the story we co-created.

Typos happen. Leave them in and see if a learner catches it. Then you’ll know that at least one learner is really paying attention.

The Best To-Do List to Boost Productivity

I’m always looking for ways to make my time more productive. I want to maximize efficiency and minimize the time spent on work tasks. Obviously, I want to do the highest quality work that I can, but I also need to have time for my family and hobbies.

Done correctly, storytelling can free up loads of time for family and hobbies. But it can also be this monster that takes over your life, writing endless stories and tasks for learners.

In order to combat task creep*, we need a battle plan. When we sit down to do grades or check email, we need to prioritize our “to-do’s”, or they will expand to fill every last available second. The tool I use to organize my day might surprise you.

*I read a book called “The 4-Hour Work Week“, by Tim Ferris. It has absolutely nothing to do with education or storytelling, but I took away many concepts that have made me a better teacher. One such concept is called “task creep”, which Ferris defines as “doing more to feel productive while actually accomplishing less”.

The Paper To-Do List

I choose a paper to-do list because it limits the amount of items I can write on it. There are only so many hours in the day, and this constraint forces me to prioritize what needs to be done.

I take a 4″ x 6″ index card and fold it half (pictured below). This gives me four sides to write on. The folded card fits perfectly into the pocket, and I carry it with me at all times during the day.

Amazon has a pack of 500 for less than 6 bucks.

I only have two preps this quarter (don’t hate me), and so I use the front and back to write that day’s plan. I you have more preps, you can write a separate plan on each side.

My Spanish 2 classes are M, W blocks, so today’s plan was blank for those sections.

When I get to class, I write the plan on the board and slip the folded notecard back in my pocket. Doing this every day makes my classes go smoothly. If I ever forget what we’re doing or where we’re going, I just glance at the board and we’re back on track.

During my office hours (when there are no students) or scheduled work times outside of class, I unfold the card and voila, I have my to do list. The limited space makes me focus only on the important tasks.

This is my to-do list for today, warts and all.

Since I only have two preps this quarter, I have a “Notes” section as well. I use this space to jot down anything that comes to mind throughout the day. These items that pop into my head can be very distracting, but my mind is freed up to complete the items on the to-do list once I write these interruptions down.

Two Final Tips for Writing Your To-Do List

1. Write your to-do list and lesson plan down the night before. Your subconscious will keep working on it while you sleep (also, sleep more) and your classes will go smoother the following day.

Whenever I don’t do this the night before, my classes are noticeably less cohesive.

2. Write your to-do list with “actionable” verbs and be very specific. This will help you know exactly what to do when you sit down at your workstation.

Examples:

  • Write story for French 1
  • Send stories to the point shop, 
  • Post In-Class Essay 1 scores for 101 & 102

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. 

25 Spanish Books to Build Your Free Voluntary Reading Library

The following is a list of books I have in my actual Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) library. I have multiple copies of many of these titles, and I like to get additional copies of the popular ones. Many of these titles are readers written with language learners in mind. If you missed it, check out my Tool Kit for FVR.

The List of Totally Rad Spanish Readers

This list isn’t in any particular order, except that I put the books I wrote first because it’s my blog, so there.

1. La espía huérfana – Andrew J. Snider (me)

2. Las tres pruebas – Andrew J. Snider (me)

3. La vida loca de Marta – Andrew J. Snider (me)

4. Superburguesas – Mike Peto

5. La vampirata – Mira Canion

6. Agentes secretos y el mural de Picasso – Mira Canion

7. La clase de confesiones – A.C. Quintero

8. Las apariencias engañan – A.C. Quintero

9. Robo en la noche – Kristy Placido

10. Felipe Alou: desde los valles a las montañas – Carol Gaab

11. Problemas en paraíso – Carol Gaab

12. Ataques de hambre – Eric Herman

13. Soy Lorenzo – Virginia Hildebrant

14. Las lagrimas de Xochitl – Virginia Hildebrant

15. En busca del monstruo – Pablo Ortega Lopez

16. La momia desaparece – Arturo De La Rosa

17. La casa embrujada – Arturo De La Rosa

18. La calaca alegre – Carrie Toth

19. Todo lo que brilla – Chris Mercer

20. La guerra sucia – Nathaniel Kirby

21. Estefania: El azote de la frontera – Marcial Lafuente

22. Estefania: Ley implacable – Marcial Lafuente

23. El hacha – Gary Paulson

24. El principito – Antonie De Saint-Exupery (one of my all time favorite books)

25. Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal – J.K. Rowling (I love Harry Potter)

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. 

Please also note that all the cover art is copyright © the publisher/author and is only used here to help readers find the appropriate books.

Andrew Snider’s Free Voluntary Reading Toolkit

My personal FVR Library currently has around 75 books for learners. Sadly, I am my own biblioburro.

For a long time, I struggled to find a way to keep students accountable during Free Voluntary Reading (FVR). Here’s my winning game plan, complete with free downloads below.

What is FVR? How and why do I use it in class?

FVR is self-selected pleasure reading. Starting in Spanish II, my students get to pick a book from my personal library (around 75 books) that I bring to class twice per week*. Students get 10 minutes to read whatever book they want and they read at their own pace. If they don’t like a book, they can put it back and grab a different one from the library.

It’s untargeted input. FVR has no grammatical or lexical agenda. It’s just language that learners can enjoy.

The goal of FVR is to get students to fall in love with reading. That way they’ll (hopefully) seek out more input in L2, even after the term ends.

I use FVR in class because I use it to learn new languages myself. I’ve experienced tremendous gains in various languages by reading for fun. I can personally attest that 20 minutes of FVR per week goes a long way. Fifty minutes would be even better.

*I keep my library in a blue-green crate. I lug the crate back and forth from my car because I don’t have an office (#adjunctLife #yoSoyElBiblioburro).

The FVR Accountability Toolkit (Free Downloads Below)

I’ve been searching for ways to keep students accountable during FVR in class. My solution is twofold:

  1. I have printed and trimmed bookmarks for FVR (free download #1).
    • Learners write their name on the top of the bookmark so they can see it when the book is closed.
    • Learners leave their bookmark in the book so they can pick up where they left off the next time they read (you know, like a bookmark).
    • At the end of each FVR session, learners write the title of the book they read and what page they ended on. That way they can still pick up where they left off, even if the bookmark falls out of the book (see #adjunctLife comment above).
    • I can glance at a few bookmarks and see the progress learners are making in different books.
    • I use a different color of paper for each class so it’s easier for learners to find their bookmarks the next time they read.

  2. I have printed and trimmed Book Review Slips (free download #2)
    • I have a stack of these I bring with me to each class when we do FVR.
    • Each time a learner finishes an FVR book, they fill out a Book Review Slip (Their name, the name of the book they read, a rating of 1-5 stars, and a brief review of the book they read. Did they like it (or not) and why?
    • The reviews and stars let me see what titles a particular student and/or class enjoys. I can then, among other things, use that knowledge to personalize the class to those tastes and topics.
    • I offer students 5 points of extra credit (our course has a total of around 1000 points) for each book review they complete.
    • These reviews (and the extra credit) motivate students to keep reading a book to completion.

FVR has no grammatical or lexical agenda. It’s just language that learners can enjoy.

-Andrew J. Snider (Me)

My Previous (and Failed) Attempts at Accountability

Just for fun, below is a list of several ways I tried to keep students accountable. I wasn’t happy with any of these solutions for a variety of reasons.

  • Students wrote down words they didn’t know to look up later
  • Students wrote down their favorite word that they read
  • Students told their partner in L1 what they read about (tried in in L2, and it devolved into L1 anyway).
  • Students wrote a brief summary of what they read.
  • Students drew a picture of what they read and captioned it in L2.
  • Students wrote down the three most essential sentences they read.
  • Students kept a journal of what they read

Maybe you’d have more luck than me with some of these, or know a way to make them better.

For now, I’m happy with my bookmarks and book reviews for extra credit.

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.

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: Planning Block Schedules

In an earlier post I talked about a weekly structure to make lesson planning a cinch. Please refer back to that post for more details about each item. In this post I will outline how to adapt that weekly structure into a two-hour block schedule. If you implement some or all of this into your classroom, this may just become your favorite kind of class to teach.

Block classes of 2+ hours are not ideal for maximally efficient language acquisition. Languages are better acquired in little daily chunks spread out over a long, long period of time. However, and for whatever reason, the powers that be seem to think that the total amount of time in the classroom is the only thing that matters.

Because of this, many of us (myself included) have ended up in block classes lasting two hours or more. We’re in this situation, and we have to make the best of it. So what to do now? How can we base our class around telling stories with such long blocks of time?

Let’s dive into my solution based on the weekly structure I talked about in a earlier post. Some of the items below are defined in much grater detail in that post, so please refer back as necessary.

For the sake of example, let’s take my class that meets Mondays and Wednesdays from 530pm-740pm. I will walk through two weeks worth of lesson plans to show you how this all fits together.

Week A – Monday (130 minutes)

Starting Class and Co-Creating the Story (55-75 minutes)

  • Routine Items – 5 minutes
  • TPR New Phrases – 5 minutes
    • 3-6 phrases pulled from a story outline
  • Co-create a story by asking loads of questions – 40-60 minutes
    • Have a student write a true/false quiz based on the story
    • Have a student draw artwork on giant stickies (see below). This sticks to the board and provides a visual representation of the story.
    • Have student actors to liven up the class and provide an opportunity for 1st person and 2nd person interactions with you and each other.
    • Give yourself some flexibility as to when the story ends. It doesn’t need to take the whole 60 minutes, but it can. It can also take more time than that. As the class gets better at inventing stories and keeping things going, they will get better at extending the story. 
      • At the beginning of the quarter, the typical learner is exhausted after about an hour of storytelling. Learners tend to build endurance as the term goes along, often sustaining stories for closer to 90 minutes. Read the room! 
  • Listening Quiz – 5 minutes
    • A comprehension quiz based on the story – True/False, multiple choice, and fill in the blank listening quizzes are a good way to evaluate listening comprehension. There are lots of ways to do this, the important thing is to do it.
An example of student artwork drawn on a giant sticky note

Break – 10 minutes

I stay in the classroom and am available for questions. Think of this like a brief “office hour”. Students are also free to get a drink of water, stretch, or use the restroom. Two hours and ten minutes is too long to stay seated. They need this break.

Extended Stories/Miscellaneous Activities – 45-70 minutes

  • This is a good time to incorporate story listening, movie talk, picture talk (like movie talk, but with a still image), Free Voluntary Reading – FVR, short films, music, book activities, or anything else that you see fit.
    • These activities should be lighter in terms of brain-power required to complete them. Mentally processing a story is hard work, even though it looks like just fun and games. Behind the scenes, learners’ brains are doing a lot of work.
  • Storytelling fits in so well with a block class, even if you use  more traditional methods, because you can easily tell a long story and still have time to do other kinds of activities.

Week A – Wednesday (130 minutes)

Starting the Class and Reading the Story – 60-80 minutes

  • Routine Items – 5 minutes
  • Review TPR Phrases and do PQA – 5-15 minutes
    • Review the 3-6 gesture phrases. Here I might point out some differences between the phrases. That is, if the target phrase is “he runs”, I might ask how to express that for me – I Run (not that much, actually).
    • Give 1st person examples about yourself, as related to the target phrases. (e.g. he eats >>> Class, I eat a lot. What do I eat? I eat pizza. Do you eat pizza? Who eats pizza?). Even beginner-level classes can have long conversations about open-ended topics because the vocabulary is tightly controlled. Go deep and narrow instead of shallow and wide.
  • Retell the story with student artwork – 20-30 minutes
  • Read Version A of the story – 10 minutes
    • I have typed up three versions of the story we co-created. This is version A.
    • Learners read version A of the story silently, underlining words they don’t know and can’t figure out quickly.
    • We translate the story from L2 to L1 out loud as a class. (Note: We don’t translate because we think it makes them better at the language. Instead, this is a non-graded, self-assessment of reading comprehension).
    • As we translate, learners write the translation of the words below the words in the text. This gives them a personalized glossary of the text when they’re all done.
  • Read Version B of the story – 10 – 20 minutes
    • Here we do a volleyball translation of the story. Again, this is not translating as a means to acquisition. This is another comprehensible input activity with an element of self-assessment of reading comprehension.
    • I didn’t know how this would play with adults, but I’ve heard on numerous occasions that this is lots of students’ favorite activity.
    • Time them for 2 minutes per group and have them switch groups after that. 

Break – 10 minutes

Reading the Story Part I – 30 minutes

  • Read and Discuss the long version of the story
    • Read a little bit of the long version of the story in L2 and have students read along in their copy. Ask lots of questions about the text, and personalized questions about your students.

Finishing the Class with Exhausted Learners – 20 – 40 minutes

  • Miscellaneous Activities – 20 minutes – 40 minutes
    • After about an hour to 90 minutes of storytelling, students are typically exhausted (although they tend to build endurance as the quarter goes along, often sustaining longer stories). This is a good time to incorporate short films, music, book activities, or anything else that you see fit.

Week B – Monday (130 minutes)

Starting Class & Recap of Last Week’s Story – 40 minutes

  • Routine Items – 5 minutes
  • Review TPR Phrases and do PQA – 5 minutes
  • Retell the story with student artwork – 10 minutes
  • Quizizz – 10 – 15 minutes
    • Check out the ones I made for Las tres pruebas and La espía huérfana.
    • I love this quiz game. It’s the best one out there that I know, though they all have pros and cons. 
    • This is a calm game students can play on their smartphones, tablets, or laptops. If not everyone has a phone (not sure this is the case anymore…), they can share with a partner.
  • Timed Write – 5 minutes
    • Students read this in class, but in order to do well on it they will need to read it at home as well. More input = more acquisition. Re-reading the story they co-created is good for them.

Starting New Story – 55 minutes

  • TPR New Phrases – 5 minutes
  • Co-create a story by asking loads of questions – 50 minutes
    • Again, have a student make artwork, have student actors liven things up, and have a quiz writer.

Break – 10 minutes

Insert the break whenever, but this just seems to fit for me on this day.

Review – 25 minutes

  • Review for Chapter Quiz
    • My textbook has a great review section for the chapter. We just go rapid-fire through the exercises to keep it fresh.

Week B – Wednesday (130 minutes)

Starting Class and Retelling the Story – 40 minutes

  • Routine Items – 5 minutes
  • Review TPR Phrases and do PQA – 5-15 minutes
  • Retell the story with student artwork – 20 minutes

Reading the Story Part I – 20 minutes

  • Read Version A of the story – 10 minutes
  • Read Version B of the story – 10 minutes

Break – 10 minutes

Reading the Story Part II – 30 minutes

  • Read and Discuss the long version of the story – 30 minutes

Chapter Quiz – 30 minutes

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.

C.I. Crash Course – Seattle, WA

Reserve Your Seat Today!
Reserve Your Seat Today!

A workshop for professional language educators looking to incorporate storytelling and comprehensible input into their teaching repertoire.

A “comprehensible input” workshop outlining how to maximize language acquisition using compelling, personalized stories. For beginning, intermediate, and advanced storytellers.

Tentative Schedule

Friday 3/1/19 5:00pm – 9:00pm

Meet and Greet – Light Dinner

Intro to Comprehension-Based, Communicative Language Instruction

Strategic Questions to Telling a Story

Storytelling Demo in Portuguese / French

Coaching in Small Groups

Saturday 3/2/19 8:00am – 2:00pm

Welcome – Light Breakfast

The Hero’s Journey

Continuation of  Storytelling Demo

Coaching in Small Groups

Lunch

Building Toward Literacy – The Power of Reading 

Portuguese Reading Demo

Coaching in Small Groups

Q & A

Reserve Your Seat Today!

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.