Archive for February, 2016

“All You Need to Do is Study” — But How?

February 24, 2016

I teach a mixture of age levels in high school, but a majority of my students are freshmen.  They come into high school fresh from middle school where the culture shift both academically and socially is huge.  One of the biggest gripes we teachers have is that our students, primarily freshmen, don’t study.  One of the main reasons for this is that they simply don’t know how.

In learning a foreign language, it can be particularly challenging for some students because how do you study for a speaking assessment?  A reading assessment?  How about a writing assessment?  There is no one size fits all answer.

Our plates as teachers are always full, but if we work in some study and practice methods during classtime that they can take home with them in addition to whatever homework is given then the end result should be better, right?

Here are a few nuggets and strategies that I’ve learned.

Use Technology Whenever Possible

Over the years, I have discovered several websites that are great for practice and drilling that offer immediate feedback.  Among them are Conjuguemos, Quizlet, SpanishSpanish, BKNelson, Duolingo, and 123TeachMe.  The great thing about these sites is that they can be used in class where you have a chance to get the students to practice for a set amount of time, and it is easy for them to practice at home or on the go.  Also, access to these sites offers students a variety of methods that allow them to find out what best helps them.

A Few Notes Go A Long Way

I am a huge fan of comprehensible input because experiencing a word or phrase beyond its translation does wonders for building proficiency.  But when it comes to introducing grammatical concepts, I firmly believe that direct teaching that involves giving notes provides a concrete reference tool.  While many campuses utilize electronic note-taking programs such as Evernote I prefer having my students write down the notes given to them in a binder or composition book.

It’s one thing to take notes and a whole other thing to get the students to use them.  That’s where some in-class activities that encourage use of those notes can be effective.  I often give my students a quick assessment immediately after note-taking to hold them accountable for having paid attention during my direct teach.  I also redirect struggling students to their notes when they have difficulty understanding a lesson.

Model, Model, Model!  Repeat!

One of the most effective ways to get your students to study is to model how and repeat.  A one off demonstration wears off after a short while.  Repetition is key.

Of the four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) that are essential to foreign language acquisition, it is possible for students to study all four of them outside of class.

Here’s how.


Using a prompt, some sentence starters, and graphic organizers, students can practice at home.  In practicing for a test or a project, prompts that mirror exactly what you expect them to produce give students less apprehension as to what will be expected of them.  Also, make sure they have access to the rubric and some exemplars.


To be a better writer you must write more.  To be a better reader you must read more.  In helping students study this skill, I like asking them to document a few things as they are reading various pieces of material.

  • Words I know
  • Words I didn’t know and looked up
  • Cognates
  • Main idea
  • Answers to comprehension questions


As with reading, having a few sample recordings for students to review along with the following questions to answer is effective.

  • Words I understand
  • Cognates
  • Main idea
  • Answers to comprehension questions


This is perhaps the most difficult skill to study.  Start with giving students a sample speaking prompt and examples of answers based on your rubric.  Then ask them to record themselves more than once and self-assess based on the rubric.  Though they will strongly dislike hearing recordings of themselves, learning to self-assess is very valuable.

In the end, the students have to learn different methods of studying in order for them to find out what works best, but most importantly, evolve with your students, and keep those resources ever accessible to them!


You will NOT use Google Translate (but you will use an online dictionary)

February 15, 2016

Recently, our students were to complete a project that revolved around a Latin American dish of their choice, its recipe, cultural significance, with the objective being that students could successfully give affirmative informal commands.  Ultimately, the recipe had to be taken from English and translated into a relatable manner that showed that it was their work and not the work of a copy paste skewering through Google Translate.  They were also responsible for videoing a demonstration of their recipe and saying the commands once they’d written their translation and scripts.

I will not argue that Google Translate serves a purpose, but its purpose is not in the foreign language classroom.  So, the challenge was how could my colleagues and I come up with a way that would allow them to branch out and use new vocabulary while being held accountable for doing the work and not overwhelming them?

Here are a few ways that we were able to overcome it.

Break it down piece by piece

I started off by letting them choose a recipe.

They then had to break it down into four different charts with the English word in one column and the Spanish word in the other for the following components:

  1. the ingredients – name only such as “tomato”
  2. portions – 1/2, 1/4, etc.
  3. cooking utensils – knife, bowl, frying pan
  4. verbs/commands – add, fry, bake, cut

My students already had a broad set of vocabulary words that had been given to them.  The words that appeared in their recipe were ones they could look up either on or Word Reference.  All other verbiage in their recipes wasn’t addressed at this point.

Once they had just their ingredients listed, I walked them through a review of adjectives and gave them a very informal lesson on present participles (canned, diced, fried, etc.) to allow them to successfully and completely describe their ingredients.

They got a lesson in learning how to use an English-Spanish dictionary

Using a dictionary is a lost art among high schoolers, and using an English-Spanish dictionary is no exception.  Through this exercise where they were allowed to use the above websites, they still struggled as they wanted to select the very first word that popped up regardless of whether or not the part of speech or denotation was correct.

For example, when using ground cinnamon, I got a few “canela del suelo” translations, which means cinnamon from the  floor/ground instead of pulverized cinnamon.  This provided a valuable opportunity to get the students to look into the meaning they were actually trying to convey from the words.

They learned how to simplify

For a second year student, translating a recipe beyond “add onion” and “stir for 5 minutes” can be a recipe for disaster.  Many recipes go into some superfluous detail that goes way beyond the expected proficiency level of a non Pre-AP student.  There is a lot of subjunctive that occurs, and that isn’t even taught until the third year.

I gave kids instruction on how to greatly pare down their recipe with a constant reminder to keep it to what they know.  There is a tendency to want to translate word-for-word, which is impossible from one language to another.  They give up, give in, and then the exercise loses its efficacy.  Simplification is key, and teaching them to simplify is valuable in and of itself.

They were impressed by their final product and how “easy” it was

By the end of the assignment, the students had done all the legwork.  All they had to do was piece it together, much like a puzzle.  Their recipes and scripts came together nicely, especially after being provided with a few sentence starters.   After working through all the steps, they had the following components already done:

  • the ingredient names with their adjectives and/or present participles
  • the amount of each ingredient
  • the list of their cooking utensils
  • all of their verbs in informal command form listed in sequential order of use within the steps of the recipe

Their final translations were impressive and didn’t reek of extraneous vocabulary or grammar tenses that are foreign to a majority of my students.