Tasks for Communication


Have you been listening to Tea with BVP? You need to. It is hosted by the self-proclaimed “diva of second language acquisition” Dr. Bill Van Patten and co-hosted by Dr. Angelika Kraemer and Dr. Walter Hopkins, of my alma mater, Michigan State University. What I really like about this show is that it is fun, funny, I learn new things, and I feel challenged by it. Today, the topic was “The nature of tasks.” Bill really spends a LOT of time talking about being communicative and having a purpose for the things we communicate about. These ideas are really challenging my thinking right now. I am not sure I buy in completely, but I am for sure thinking about this a lot lately.

I recently had a chance to go to MSU’s campus and observe Bill teaching his Spanish 342 class. Some things I observed:

  • He taught almost 100% in Spanish.
  • He did clarify what some words meant by saying them in English. I would say he did this 4-5 times during the 80 minute class.
  • He engaged with the students A LOT. He joked with them, asked them questions, and exchanged information. They seemed to understand for the most part and seemed to really enjoy the interaction.
  • He had students engage with / process the same information in multiple ways. Reading followed by conversation, or viewing a film clip followed by reading.

At one point he showed the students a slide with a little overview of the formation of the present perfect. I thought A-HA! I caught him teaching explicit grammar! But no, not at all. It was just a quick little overview and then he had the students do a mixer activity in which they had to seek people who could sign their name as having done certain things. Examples of the things people HAVE done (they were in Spanish for the students):

  • Have you offended someone?
  • Have you broken a rule?
  • Have you broken someone’s heart?

After the students found other students who had done the various things, Bill had them return to their seats and he then began a discussion with them. It was VERY much like what TPRS practitioners would call PQA (personalized questions and answers).

The way I saw it, the activity was helpful because it got the students moving a little and it generated some new and novel things to want to communicate about. BUT the real GOLD in this task was not the task itself. It was the information it generated which then allowed the instructor to weave the whole experience together in a lovely web of compelling comprehensible input.

I got to thinking about TASKS again as I listened to the Tea with BVP podcast. I believe that comprehensible input is where language acquisition happens. I am 100% on board with that idea. I think that the amount of CI available in these types of communicative tasks is negligible at best, and therefore are not a driving force in language acquisition. However, we can exploit these types of tasks and create fodder for more CI. The fact that the students get to mill around for a couple of minutes and feel like something is being accomplished provides a little brain break for them. These types of tasks (at the novice level especially) serve the same purpose in my view as authentic resources. They are not inherently promoting language acquisition (except in perhaps negligible amounts), but they provide new material to be discussed and give a sense of purpose to the lesson.

One of my favorite communicative activities is the 4 corners activity (or in some cases you may need more than 4 locations!).

Grab a marker and write on some paper. Write something like agree/disagree (in the TL) or like, like a lot, dislike, hate. Tape them up. Talk to the students. Have them go to the poster that best matches their feeling, belief or opinion. Then TALK with the students about the results of the survey. It is fun, it is interesting, it is kinesthetic, and it is FODDER for your CI agenda!

If you don’t feel like writing on paper with a marker, I have some cute posters I made for sale on Teachers Pay Teachers. Either way will yield the same result!

4 corners SQUARE COVER


Using audio books when teaching a novel

I am a big fan of audio books and podcasts. They are a great way to pass time in a car or on a plane, especially for those who suffer from extreme motion sickness like me! I also love using them in Spanish class at all levels. TPRS Publishing now has audio books available for almost all of their Spanish novels and I am experimenting with ways to maximize these awesome resources! Here are some things that I have tried. Please comment with ideas that you may have!

1. Doodles

Have students listen to a chapter they have already read, or a chapter you are confident that they will be able to comprehend. As they listen, have them doodle little sketches of what they are hearing.

2. Talk to the Text

Talk to the text is a technique we have learned about at my school as part of our Reading Apprenticeship training. Basically, the gist is that you take a text that you are reading and mark it up, making your invisible thinking visible. Since in this case, the text is audio, student just write anything they want on a blank paper as they listen. They can doodle, write English or Spanish, make connections, etc. Any thought they have can be recorded.

3. Cold intro to a chapterillinoismap

Sometimes I have students listen to an audio recording before reading the chapter. I call this a “cold listen” if they have NO preparation at all. Normally I don’t like to do a completely cold listen, so I will have an intro conversation prior to the listening. I will often write things on the board and leave them up during the listening.

For instance, this week we prepared to listen to Chapter 3 of La Calaca Alegre by Carrie Toth. I had traced a map of Illinois on the white board and we discussed where Carlos was born (Chicago) and where he lived currently (Carlyle) and where St. Louis was located. We discussed how one would travel to Chicago from Carlyle and we also discussed the various ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago. These visuals were helpful to the kids as they listened. We then did a “cool listen” (not cold because I had them a little warmed up to the topic) and did a Talk to the text (see #2 above).

4. Post reading

I often will have students listen to a chapter the next day after we read it. Sometimes I will periodically pause the recording and ask questions while other times I will give the students an activity to complete. This is generally a really satisfying activity for them because they really understand!

5. Assessment

I like to include listening assessments on my tests. What I do is pre-select some segments of the audio CD (just mark down the track # and the time stamp where the segment begins and ends). I make up some “main ideas”


In this section of the audio book, which is the main idea:

A. A letter explaining that they have an appointment to apply for political asylum

B. Alberto is in trouble for organizing a workers’ strike

C. Aunt Tete helps Esperanza

D. Esperanza is about to cross the border at the beach

Students listen as I play the section of the audio recording and select what they believe is the main idea of that section. I usually have them listen to 5-10 segments on a test.

6. Listening for specific items

Make a list of PLAUSIBLE facts that the students may or may not hear in the audio recording. As they listen, have them mark the items that they actually hear.

7. Paper dolls

I got this idea from Cynthia Hitz and Krista Applegate. The basic idea is to use this activity when you have a chapter with a lot of movement. On a paper, make a “map” or layout of the area(s) where the movement takes place. For instance, the second half of my novel Robo en la noche really lends itself to this. For Chapters 9-10, sketch out a map of Costa Rica. Label the hacienda in Alajuela, the soda, and Curu in the Nicoya Peninsula. In Curu, make a little more detail and show the various areas where action takes place in that chapter. Copy enough of these maps for each pair of students (or for individuals if you prefer).

Now, make little stick figure “dolls” of each character. Either sketch them or trace them out of the novel. Make a little “minivan” also. Copy these figures for each pair as well.

Now, give each pair some scissors to cut out their little paper figures. As they listen to the chapter, have them move the figures around accordingly. Observe the students as they move the figures to see how well they are comprehending.

Have YOU discovered a great way to use audio books in your classes? Please share in the comments!

Future ideas for stations

Stations are a fun alternative to traditional whole-class activities!
Stations are a fun alternative to traditional whole-class activities!

I am going to use this post to compile ideas for future stations, general or specific! Feel free to comment if you’d like to add your own ideas!

Textivate.com – Using a reading that we would do in class, create a textivate. My station can be located in front of the big screen and use my wireless mouse and keyboard with my desktop computer! (Accountability: group takes a screen shot of completed puzzle and saves on computer at designated location.)

Commercials – Create a cloze activity, Q&A, put phrases in order, etc with any of these commercials.

Puppet Pals – Using my ipad in Guided Access mode (locks the ipad so that only the chosen app can be used until a PIN is entered by me), students create an animated video. NOTE: because ipad won’t turn off in Guided Access mode, bring a power cord!

Lingro.com – Set up on a computer with a google doc listing several articles. Students choose an article to read together as a group and use lingro for when they need a word defined. A good introduction to this useful tool?

Jenga game / Don’t Break the Ice game – both of these games can be labeled with a permanent marker with numbers or letters. Provide the students with a list of questions or “problems” that correspond to the letters or numbers on the game. By answering the questions/completing the task/problem correctly students get to play that game piece.

Good old-fashioned flash cards. A simple idea but could make a good station!

I have a large “library” of children’s books and magazines in Spanish. I would LOVE ideas for incorporating these into stations. Currently we do Sustained Silent Reading twice a week for 5 minutes in my level 2 classes. Ideas?


Stations – What I’ll do next time

I had a great time doing stations the past two days. The absolute best part for me was the station where I sat with each group and just conversed. It was really fun and I definitely got a feel for who is really on their game and who needs a little bit of help. 

The listening stations were GREAT! The only minor problem was the audio book CD station took 9 minutes and the other stations tended to go more quickly. I will try more carefully to balance out the times. The kids really liked the 2 music stations.

The describing the scenes station was good but needed some accountability. I tried having them record but ran into a few glitches. I need to think about that one some more.

Bananagrams station was a lot of fun but some groups were more into it than others. I might offer a choice of a couple of different games. I really want to get a Jenga game to make into an activity center! (I saw a cool idea on pinterest…more later!)

The cognate station was also good, but again, could have used some accountability.

Next time I will have groups rotate IN ORDER and set a timer. By the end there were a couple of groups who didn’t get into certain stations because there was no order to the whole thing.

I ended up putting out an Apples to Apples game in Spanish as an extra “bonus” station. They actually played it! I will use games more for sure next time!

All in all it was a success and will definitely be revisited in many forms in the future!



Today I tried stations in my class for the first time! It was great! I had 7 stations (since my largest class is 34!).

Station 1: Waka Waka (the “song of the week” this week)

Waka Waka Station

I cut the lyrics of this song into strips. I also wrote a 33-letter sentence along the left side of each of the 33 strips. “Shakira is from the country of Colombia.” I plugged a Belkin 5-port headphone jack splitter into a desktop computer and attached 5 sets of headphones. Students played the music video from Vevo on the computer as many times as needed to line up the lyrics in the right order.

Station 2: Superman es ilegal (song from movie “La Misma Luna” which we are in the process of watching right now–they heard the song in the movie yesterday).

Superman es ilegal Station

I made a large cloze activity out of the song lyrics. Instead of writing the missing words in, the words were on little slips of paper which had to be physically placed on the space in the lyric sheet. The whole lyrics sheet was the size of 8 sheets of paper which I taped together.  I plugged a Belkin 5-port headphone jack splitter into my classroom’s Chromebook (thanks so much to @edbacker, an anonymous donor, and Hudgins Real Estate for the financial support on that!) and attached 5 sets of headphones. Students played the song from Youtube on the computer as many times as needed.

Station 3: Esperanza

Book on CD Station with Esperanza by Carol Gaab


Students listened to the next chapter of their novel, Esperanza by Carol  Gaab on the audio CD.  I plugged a Belkin 5-port headphone jack splitter into a desktop computer and attached 5 sets of headphones. I provided novels for students to use if they wanted to follow along as well.


Small group conversations with Señora Placido!










Station 4: Conversations!

I sat with students in this group and we chit-chatted en Español about their plans for that afternoon, what sports they play/watch, and the book we are reading in class. SO FUN!


La misma luna scene description station

Station 5: La Misma Luna

I made some screen shots of the DVD and printed them out. In this group, students worked together to describe their photos based on their knowledge of the movie. I started out also having them make a puppet pals video (an app I have on my ipad) but I abandoned that for lack of time after the first class.

Find the cognates in the children’s books!

Station 6: Cognates

I made a large alphabet on a huge sheet of paper. I put a sticky note next to each letter. Students searched through my large collection of children’s books trying to find at least 1 cognate for each letter, and no more than 5 for any given letter. This was pretty easy, but hopefully tricked them into finding some new books to read for SSR next week!

Station 7: Bananagrams

Students played bananagrams in Spanish!

A game makes a quick station and a nice brain break!














Authentic resources versus TPRS? Or a happy marriage of the two?

This week’s #langchat was a particularly lively discussion. The topic was about choosing texts that best promote proficiency. However, it seemed that there was a debate forming about the value of authentic resources (#authres) and whether or not TPRS teachers would use them.

I am usually considered a “TPRS teacher.”  Makes sense considering that I present at the National TPRS Conference as well as at TPRS Publishing’s summer conferences and have even co-authored some TPRS curriculum. However, for the past couple of years I have been calling my self a “CI teacher.” CI, or Comprehensible Input, refers to Dr. Stephen Krashen’s Input Hypothesis. I use many of the elements of TPRS every day, but since I do not specifically focus on storytelling all of the time, or adhere to all of the steps of TPRS, I feel that “CI teacher” is a better descriptor of my methodology.

Personally, I also really enjoy finding, sharing, and using authentic resources in my classroom. On Thursday, during #langchat, I felt like there were some attempts to pin down the exact role of #authres in the classroom. I would like to share my view on this as well as I how I treat #authres in my own classes.

First of all, I do believe that my classes should be VERY comprehensible. I don’t like a lot of ambiguity. And as a general rule, the less interesting something is, the less ambiguity high schoolers are going to tolerate. So, in selecting an #authres I am looking for something that is readily comprehensible, or at least comprehensible enough that I can exploit it for some teacher-provided comprehensible input.

For instance, if I want to discuss a news story, I might show my students an article or a short video about it (in Spanish). However, if the items are incomprehensible, I might use them primarily as a visual and speak about them myself in simpler language, focusing on a small amount of new vocabulary, relying on cognates, visuals, and previously-acquired vocabulary, and using very natural grammar and syntax. For higher-level classes, I might even type up an “embedded reading” in which I simplify the story for reading/discussion prior to delving in to the authentic resource.

Secondly, I believe that my classroom should be robust with language. I want to narrow the focus onto a handful of structures at a time (for instance, on Friday in Spanish 1 my students worked with the phrases “eats with good/bad manners; takes the food; doesn’t see that X happens) while recycling previous high-frequency structures (I was recycling puts, wants, likes–among others). While authentic resources are beautiful and look impressive, I cannot get as deep into conversation with my class by focusing on #authres. Storytelling–relating and comparing ideas and events to students own experiences, asking questions, making inferences, expressing opinions–all of these things are rich and lovely and so valuable to the acquisition process. EVEN IF I AM NOT A NATIVE SPEAKER I can provide my students with a rich, deep and authentic language experience.

In terms of reading, many people criticize the use of non-authentic level-appropriate readers. First of all, as a community we have yet to even agree on what the word authentic even means. Second of all, I will put my leveled reader-raised kids up against kids with a pure “#authres” reading experience any day of the week. Those readers are teen-engaging, real language, edited by multiple native speakers, and written by fluent users of the respective target languages. They focus on repeated use of high-frequency language structures in the context of a fun story. Full-disclosure: Yes, I have written a couple of these readers. I wrote them because I needed reading material my students would enjoy. I am not getting rich, so please don’t accuse me of promoting these readers to pad my own pockets! My full-time teaching job is MUCH more lucrative than writing novels for Spanish students, believe me!

Anyway, the bottom line I am try to arrive at is don’t knock it until you try it. Don’t worry about what “looks good” or what others might think (yes, even ACTFL or #langchat). Try new things and when something works well and helps language stick inside your students’ brains, repeat it often! When you find something else that works better, do that.



5 tips for using #authres

300px-PIÑATASo, if you follow very many world language teachers on Twitter, you may have noticed the hashtag #authres.  Authres is short for “Authentic Resources.” Authentic resources are so abundant thanks to youtube, online magazines, twitter, and more. In my experience, students are excited to use authentic resources in their own learning. I do think there are a few caveats for teachers to keep in mind.

1. Adapt the task for the level of the students.

There is no such thing as the “perfect authentic resource” for level 1. Many times these resources will be way over the heads of most of our students. However, this doesn’t mean they cannot be enjoyed and exploited for language acquisition. For beginners, the focus won’t be anything close to total comprehension. They might be listening for some key words, or a main idea, or even some cognates.

2. Don’t worry about the level of the resource, but you might consider shortening the length.

A full-length feature film would be fairly useless in terms of language acquisition for a beginner, but a carefully chosen 2 minute clip might really enhance the acquisition experience! A magazine article might overwhelm a beginner, but an infographic next to the article might work really well.

3. Language acquisition might actually take place in the “space surrounding” the authentic resource.

Often I will have students look at, watch, or read something authentic very quickly, and then exploit that resource to provide my own comprehensible input to my class. For example, if my students watch this video, I will describe the video to them verbally and discuss it with them using vocabulary they know (or that I have deliberately pre-taught). The authentic resource serves as a high-interest item which then gives us something to talk about.

4. Don’t be a snob.

Your students don’t need a steady diet of authentic resources in order to successfully acquire language. Teacher-provided input, embedded readings, and items created specifically for language-learners like this shameless plug are completely useful for language acquisition! Even non-target culture items such as this can be really great and motivating resources! Yes, we want kids to be comfortable functioning in the target cultures, but sometimes, especially with teens, motivation is key.  Likewise, when you do select authentic resources, they can and should still be appealing to your students. Save the Borges for the university!

5. Just try it.

You will make mistakes, choose things kids don’t always like, or make the task impossible. Approach #authres with an open mind and a willing spirit. If it flops, just laugh along with your students and try again the next day! And when you do find something that works well, be sure to share it with your twitter PLN using the hashtag #authres!

TPRS Mad libs

Remember the fun of Mad Libs?

People often wonder how TPRS teachers can maintain the creativity and stamina required to use such a method.  The teacher tends to be a major source of comprehensible input for the students and it is sometimes a challenge to be cute, funny, engaging, 90% in the target language AND comprehensible!

When I first started using TPRS, I used to script out my stories, leaving room for a few personalized details.  Now, after having used the method for over 15 years, I am capable of “winging it” most of the time.  However, there are days when it falls flat or certain classes that just don’t really get into it.  I am also now mentoring a fantastic intern teacher from Michigan State University who is openly embracing the concept of teaching with comprehensible input, and I am trying to find ways of making the whole process easier for her.

In reality, the storytelling process (or “storyasking” process as it is often affectionately known by TPRS practitioners) is quite a bit like the concept of Mad Libs.  You have the skeleton of a plot and then fill in the details.  Once you start filling in those details, you “circle” the details with questions.  Here are some videos of Carol Gaab teaching with great examples of TPRS if you are interested!

Today, in Spanish 1, we literally made a Mad Lib for students to complete with a partner.  After that, we asked students to share some of their stories.  We then verbally circled those stories.  Great comprehensible input! And it was fantastic for those couple of reluctant groups to see how fun storytelling can be!

Here is a Mad Lib that I created and a second Mad Lib I created, feel free to use, adapt, steal!