Activating Readers for Successful SLA

This was a wonderful session presented by Carol Gaab. Once again she focused on the idea that the brain “craves novelty” and talked about how we need to mix things up often so that our students don’t get bored and tune us out. She suggested throwing something novel into the mix at least once per week in order to shake things up a little. She also reminded us to always keep in mind that the goal of an extended reading is to reinforce the teaching of a small number of specific structures, to help students develop confidence in the target language, and to improve literacy in the target language. Her advice is geared towards the reading of novels; however it is also applicable to other kinds of reading.

The first step of the reading process, the pre-reading activities, is sadly often forgotten in the rush to get reading. These activities are important because they get students excited about reading, which leads to higher engagement with the text and therefore better language acquisition. Below are several questions which will help to guide you in deciding what needs to be done before starting a novel with your class:

  1. What is the desired learning outcome? What should students gain from reading the piece?
  2. How much of the unknown vocabulary is critical to reading comprehension? What vocabulary do I need to pre‐teach?
  3. What is the best way to teach new vocab? (ie. within the context of the novel or through PQA and other CI‐based activities?)
  4. What background knowledge do readers need to have before reading? (ie. Houdini: none; Granada: geography of Spain, Alhambra, Granada, etc.; Esperanza: geography of Guatemala/Mexico, significance of unions and striking in S.A.; Piratas: history of Caribbean, pirates, etc., geography of Mexico, Caribbean, Atlantic Ocean; Robo en la noche: geography of Costa Rica, preservation of endangered birds/animals of Costa Rica; etc.)
  5. What amount of culture, history, geography or cross‐curricular connections will I be making?
  6. How much time should I devote to character development, setting, plot, etc.?

Basically you want to use this pre-reading time to isolate and establish the meaning of new vocabulary words and phrases that cannot be determined from context, to discuss previous knowledge (cultural, background, historical, topical) that students possess, and to predict the outcome of events and characters’ actions. It is often helpful to start by giving a description of the story which includes some sort of drama or mystery which will intrigue your students.

The time while reading is best used to establish meaning. This involves establishing/confirming the meaning of new vocabulary words and novel phrases and also ensuring basic comprehension by asking questions that help students to analyse characters, their actions, events in the story and the order of events in the story. It is also important during the reading to personalize and help students make connections with the text. Be sure to ask more personalizing questions than circling questions. Carol suggests thinking of circling questions like salt: if you use too much, you will kill the story.

Translation is a good strategy to use to ensure 100% comprehension, but students quickly get bored of doing it in the same way over and over again so we need to make sure we mix up the activities we use. The obvious choice and the one that many TPRS teachers use is the group choral read. In this activity, the teacher reads a sentence in the target language and the students translate it chorally until the entire text or chapter is finished. Of course, you can sprinkle in comprehension questions, personalized questions and circling questions throughout and do not have to translate the entire thing all at once. You can also skip reading it in the target language and just have students translate all the way through. Another idea is to break the class into groups and translate. The teacher still reads a sentence and students translate it, but you call out a number/colour/country that you have assigned to a certain group and only that group translates it chorally. The teacher can also do fill-in-the-blank by translating the bulk of the text out loud, but should pause at certain points and have the students translate this “blank”. Keyword response is similar to this, except that a word or structure is emphasized somehow (ie. underlined in the text). The teacher translates the whole text except the students translate that one structure each time it appears. Students can also read in partners and take turns reading one sentence aloud in English. Or they can do it jigsaw style, where they are put into groups and are assigned a certain part of the reading to translate. Then everyone comes back together as a whole class to translate the entire text. You can also have students listen to the audiobook version of a text. This can be especially useful as a review of a chapter in a novel.

Novels are a great way of incorporating reading into your class. As they are high-interest, the content is compelling and they are easily comprehensible due to the low number of high-frequency words used. They also provided many repetitions of the same structures but in a more camouflaged way. Do the novels however you want, just make sure you’re delivering comprehensible, compelling, contextual input and promoting acquisition. Remember though, you’ve got to get the students into the book before you even START reading it.

There are many activities that you can do during the reading that help to engage students in the novel, including:

  • acting out dialogues in partners
  • making personal connections between the characters and the students
  • doing readers’ theatre
  • using props and putting on skits
  • having a debate
  • doing interviews

Don’t forget about possible post-reading activities you can do as well, such as:

  • mind-mapping
  • Venn diagrams
  • webs
  • charts
  • glove retell/review

There are many more ideas and details about everything in the session handout, so I strongly recommend you take a look at it!

Source: Carol Gaab, NTPRS 2011, Activating Readers

Verifying Details

This session was presented by Blaine Ray and his son Von Ray. It was nice to get back to the basics and talk about how to verify details and add characters as I felt that these were two very important things that I needed to work on. They explained three key skills which Blaine demonstrated for us in German.

Skill One: Whenever a question is asked, verify the detail by repeating the sentence. (ie. Did John go to Walmart? Yes, John went to Walmart.)

Skill Two: Go from general to specific. (ie. Delaware –> Wilmington –> Burrito Bell)

Skill Three: Add multiple characters and by verifying the details with each individual actor.

Throughout the demo and session, they reminded us that there is no need to finish the story, and that it’s not necessary to rush to get to the end. Also, any time you can’t think of where to go in a story, the best thing to do is go back and re-tell it from the start. You can never have too much background information, so you can always add that in when you go back to re-tell it as well.

Source: Blaine Ray and Von Ray, NTPRS 2011, Handout

The Art of Going Slowly

In this session with Bryce Hedstrom and Lindi Li, I found the demonstration to be the most helpful for really getting the point across that we need to go SLOW in order for students to be successful. Although I recognized how slow Linda was going during the demo, having never learned Mandarin before, I felt that I really needed that pace in order to comprehend everything and still have time to process. As the teacher, I now know that I have to go slow, and then slow down some more.

Bryce interjected every once in a while during the demo in order to describe what Linda was doing from a teaching perspective, and I found this was very helpful. They offered us several strategies to help us remember to go slow, including the formula “personalization = compelling = slow” and a good acronym:

  • S – speak slowly
  • L – let them catch up (give mini-breaks to allow for processing time)
  • O – offer help (ask comprehension questions)
  • W – walk back (the time it takes for you to physically walk to the board will slow your speech down naturally)

In the lower levels, it may also help you to slow yourself down to physically touch the question words and to move close to students that you are talking to/about. Also make sure that you have a sign that students can use to ask you to slow down (ie. thumb pointing down), and not just to tell you that they don’t understand.

They also reminded us that “going slow” applies not only to the rate of speech, but also to the rate at which you introduce new material. You can talk about three structures for an entire week. Add them one at a time, only introducing what you are using at the moment, and create different situations based on how people are reacting.

This demo also reminded me of how important gestures are for helping to connect sound and meaning. I found that Linda’s insistence that we ALL do the gesture every time the word was said really helped the meaning to stick in my head. In fact, it worked so well that for weeks afterwards, I could retrieve the Mandarin word simply by doing the action. We also saw how important it is for the teacher to “teach to the eyes” of the students, as it made us really feel involved in the story and kept us awake and engaged, despite the fact that it was nearing the end of the week and everyone was exhausted.

Source: Bryce Hedstrom & Linda Li, NTPRS 2011, Handout

Classroom Management

This session with Tawanna Billingsley was absolutely wonderful. It was so great that no one wanted to leave when the time was up! The session started with her telling us the three things that we as teachers can control: how well we manage our classrooms, the relationship between the teacher and students, and how capable we are as teachers. We also need to remember that everyone deserves to be treated with respect. As teachers, we need to be mentally prepared for the fact that our students may not share this belief and may not reciprocate that respect. If this is the case, you will need to teach your students this concept just as you would teach them a new skill. Repeated practice will be needed.

The first step to successful classroom management is to assess, clarify and communicate your needs and expectations. One idea to help clarify expectations is that at the beginning of the year you can set up a jobs chart. On one side you put what your job is and on their other side what their jobs are. Post the chart and refer to it when necessary. For example, if a student comes to class without their pencil, instead of lecturing you can simply ask him or her, “Whose job is it?” and “How do you plan to solve the problem?” Another good phrase to use when students misbehave is “You know that’s not how we ______. Could you please ________?” For example, if a student who uses profanity, we can say to them, “You know that’s not how we talk. Could you please restate that in a positive way without the profanity?” It may also be necessary to have a frank discussion with your class about what respect is. Discuss what respect looks like, sounds like and feels like. Write down the descriptions that you come up with on a chart and post it for the class to refer to.

The second step is to create a warm and nurturing classroom climate. One of the best ways to do this is to greet your students at the door with a smile. When you greet them, you may notice that a student appears to be upset. If this is the case, have him drop his or her “problem/s” into the bitter basket (hold your arms out in front of you in the shape of a basket) and then instruct him or her to take an imaginary smile off of the wall before entering class. If they still look upset, you can say, “You still look a little heavy… put it ALL in the basket.” This funny little exercise can really help you to develop a good relationship with your students as it shows them that you notice and you care that they are feeling down. If students are really upset, you can tell them that you will check in with them in five minutes and when you do, give them the choice to either work or to go home.

Another way to show students that you care is to make time to ask them about their interests and their lives outside of school. You can later use this information to relate a lesson to things that you know they like. TPRS is great for this as we can use the information we get from talking to the students during PQA and stories in order to personalize the lesson. Students also appreciate it when you remember and recognize birthdays and other special events. Even little things like sprucing up your classroom with posters, a plant and/or a Glade plug-in can help students to feel more comfortable and relaxed.

Students need to feel safe in the classroom or else they may act out. Part of feeling safe is knowing that you are respected. You can achieve this by using students’ names, modelling respect for them with your words and actions, refraining from yelling at them and listening to their ideas. When speaking to students, remember that the words you use are important. Use “and” rather than “but” and say something like “I understand that you are upset and…” Don’t say “no,” say yes and qualify what you mean: “Yes and…” Tell students who are misbehaving that they will have another chance to get it right by starting with “Next time…”

Helping students to feel safe also involves being aware of what’s going on in the classroom at all times and establishing rules and procedures to help prevent misbehaviour. There also need to be logical, firm, and respectful consequences applied when these rules and procedures are not followed. It is often a good idea to develop a set of rules and consequences democratically with your class. These rules should be clear and specific and should be focused on the most important areas. They should be based on observable behaviours so that they are enforceable and should be stated in positive terms.

Below is an example of rules that are very general:

  • respect others
  • be on time
  • be prepared
  • follow school rules

This is a better example of a set of clear and specific rules:

  • be in class and in your seat and begin working on time
  • follow directions the first time they are given
  • bring all books and materials to class
  • no cursing or teasing
  • keep your hands, feet and objects to yourself

No matter what set of rules you choose to use in your classroom, the rules MUST be taught, practiced, evaluated and re-taught just like any other skill in order for them to work. Research tells us that for every year an individual practices a bad habit, it takes one month of intervention to change that behaviour. To make new behaviour a habit then takes 16-21 times of repeating a task.

When rules are broken and misbehaviour does occur, it is important that the teacher deals with misbehaviour quickly, consistently and respectfully. The consequences should be meted out with empathy, but the teacher needs to be firm and respectful. Remember that you don’t always have to use the same consequences for the same behaviour. You can tell students, “I am going to treat you fairly, but everything is not going to be equal.” For example, when a student is late to class and enters loudly, politely ask them to go back outside and try it again quietly.

When a student misbehaves, start by trying to redirect this behaviour. You can do this by using the evil eye, saying, the student’s name, using silent communication, or using proximity. Praising a student near them for appropriate behaviour often works as well. With all of these strategies, your goal is to make the student aware of the inappropriate behaviour in a respectful way and get them back on task. If the student continues to be uncooperative, try touching the student. Be ready for challenges! For several good examples of language you can use with students in confrontational situations such as this, see Tawanna’s handout.

If these tactics do not work to stop the misbehaviour, further consequences will be required. Since the student has already been given a warning, if they do not start to behave, try giving them a 10-minute timeout in an isolated area of the classroom. If they still require further consequences, give them a 20-minute timeout in a buddy teacher’s classroom. For maximum success, always send them to a classroom with a much older or much younger group of students, not a group from the same grade. If it is necessary to call home to report the students’ behaviour, try saying, “________ was acting up. Don’t worry, I took care of it.” Never ask a parent for suggestions on how to deal with a students’ behaviour.

In a classroom setting, it is helpful to develop a daily routine. Basically you will need to develop a procedure for everything that requires students to move. Try mixing TPR terms with classroom management to teach students when to stand up, sit down, pass things, get things, etc. They will need to practice these procedures over and over again in order to make them into habits. The end of class is another time when routines are very useful. Often students will start packing up to leave class before the bell has rung, leaving the teacher with 5 minutes or more of wasted time at the end of every lesson. To prevent this, you can set the time on your classroom clock behind by a few minutes. Exit tickets are another good way to keep students busy at the end of class. Try giving them an exit ticket (verbal or written) with a question that each student must answer in order to leave the classroom.

The last thing Tawanna said at the end of her presentation was to remind us that “students don’t misbehave, they give us opportunities to manage.”

Source: Tawanna Billingsley, NTPRS 2011, Handout & Slides

Co-Building A Story

The following day I attended Carol Gaab and Kristy Placido’s excellent session on building a story with the students. They started off by telling us that questions are the key to storybuilding. This is partly based on Eric Jensen’s book, Brain-Based Learning, in which he says that asking questions elicits deeper thinking. This is because when we answer yes or no questions, the brain continues to unconsciously process alternatives. And better yet, questions help to camouflage repetition so that students don’t get bored.

The content of a story can come from many different places. For example, you could use a cultural legend, a previously-planned “hook” to get students’ attention, or students’ answers given during PQA. Remember that while students can guess the details of the story, the teacher is the one who chooses the detail to include. When you are rejecting a student’s answer, avoid making them feel bad by conveying that although their answer was a great idea, that is just not how it happened in the story.

Once you have selected the content, plan your story by selecting 1-3 structures, depending on the age of the students. Focus on what is cognitively possibly. In other words, keep in mind how much new info students can actually handle. Next, create and select a character. You can use students, celebrities, animals, or even students’ family members. As a guideline, try to use 1-2 characters or more as the story/grammar requires.

Always keep in mind the purpose of the story – to teach the structure(s). Use them right from the beginning of the story. Remember that while details are fun and interesting, and they allow you to move the story forward and keep the students’ interest, you should ensure that you don’t go off on a tangent. Only continue adding details if the students are still engaged and are still getting repetitions. Don’t forget to go slowly and deliberately. The goal is not to finish, it is to engage students and get repetitions of the structures. By getting students to listen, they are able to acquire the language.

When co-building a story with students, it is important to LISTEN to them. Start by acknowledging their response – smile, nod, repeat it to the class, shake hands, laugh, or ask the class to give them a round of applause. Reiterate the information and attempt to encourage more responses. You can do this by asking the question, then selecting students to answer. Tell the class that so-and-so “thinks it’s possible that…” Always ask for input from students even if you have the detail already planned out. After several students have responded, select the best answer or give your own. Try to make it a NOVEL idea – something that is perhaps the opposite of what is expected. As you continue to ask the story, designate a different space in the classroom for each location in the story. Get the students up to act out the different parts and coach them to act so that they can act to the best of their ability.

Some miscellaneous tips that Carol and Kristy offered were also very helpful. They suggested using previous knowledge that you have gained about the students in stories. This adds personalization and thus creates interest on the part of the students. Only write down enrichment words on the board which are going to be used a lot in a story. If you write down every new word, it gets confusing for the students. When writing structures on the board, save the use of subjects for students in higher levels and underline the ending and the subject to show the relationship. Try to use one prop that has some sort of emotional tie to the students (ie. a well-known local person). One of my favourite tips was to use a “dialogue of the day”. Plan it in advance and have it written on the board so that it is ready for students to use.

Most importantly of all, remember that if you don’t make the story COMPLETELY COMPREHENSIBLE, half the students will simply check out.

Source: Carol Gaab and Kristy Placido, NTPRS 2011, Handout