What Can CI Folks Learn from Teachers?

Nice of you to join us, Jon

Aloha wonderful CI community! I hope life has been treating you well. It’s been almost 2 years since my last blog post, and I promise I have an explanation! Not to make excuses, but I *did* sorta move across the country, get a new assistant principal job, and have to learn a whole new state, district, and school.  No big deal.

But, I’m happy to announce that I am re-entering the world of language acquisition in July of 2022 as Director of Multilingual Learners for my school district.  More thoughts on that to come, get excited.

My work as an assistant principal these past 3 years has really opened my eyes to k-12 education in ways I never understood when I was in the classroom. I could write about a plethora of topics (and plan to) regarding how much I’ve learned as an AP. Having a bird’s eye view (are birds even real?) of 2 different schools as an AP in different levels has taught me more than any PD or book ever has. I almost feel guilty for how lucky I’ve been to get to watch some AMAZING educators in action, with such a huge variety.  I got to observe and coach teachers in grades 6-12, teachers in math, science, ELA, PE, computer class, etc., teachers in person, teachers online, as well as teachers doing the hybrid dance.  I observed teachers using technology in ways I never imagined, bending over backwards to engage students and battle the TikTok generation.  Suffice it to say, I’ve seen a lot of good teaching, and I would be remiss if I didn’t share everything I’ve learned with our CI community.

How did I get here?

One of the biggest fears I had when transitioning to the AP role was whether or not I really knew what “good teaching” was. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “How in the hell did you get an AP job if you’re not a good teacher?”  Hear me out.  If you’ve spent time in the CI community – attended conferences, read research, participated in PLCs, etc. – you know that we often talk about the difference between “teaching” and “facilitating language acquisition.”  A few years ago, I attended iFLT in Chattanooga, TN, and attended Ben Slavic’s session on One Word Images where he said: “If you want to teach something, go teach chemistry.  We don’t’ teach languages.”  What he (and other leaders in our field) mean is that in language classes, we don’t “teach” in the traditional sense.  Instead, on good days, we set up our lessons in a way that maximizes our ability to provide comprehensible input to our students in an interesting and repetitive way so that they acquire the language instead of learning it.  If you’re unfamiliar with the learning / acquisition theory by Steven Krashen, do a simple google search, or just read Bryce Hedstrom’s beautiful summary here.  

To get more specific, Krashen argues that we should not be “teaching” students anything, really. We should avoid drawing students’ explicit attention to such things as grammar, syntax, pronunciation, spelling, etc., and instead focus solely on providing copious amounts of comprehensible input by using a variety of strategies (TPR, TPRS, clip chat, weekend chat, circle questioning, reading, reader’s theater, picture talk, etc.). Blaine Ray goes further by saying we should actively be working to make sure students don’t know that they are “learning” anything. Justin Slocum Bailey laments that in this great blog post here. 

So, going back to my fears of becoming an AP, this is what I mean. I was deemed to be a really successful “teacher” because my students did really well on normed assessments (AP, AAPPL, WIDA), but really I should have been called a “great facilitator of language acquisition.”  So in 2019, all of the sudden, I find myself coaching, managing, and evaluating (eek) teachers from all sorts of disciplines.  Sometimes, my bag of tips and tricks worked wonderfully.  I taught my staff how to do TPR, circle question, increase repetition of key points, and other things. These strategies, as well as basic classroom management and engagement strategies, were well received because they are highly transferable to all disciplines.  Or, in other words, they are just “good teaching” strategies.  

But then I started fielding questions about how to increase student achievement on the state ELA test, or increase students’ ability to weave historical context into their DBQs on the APUSH and APWH tests. I had teachers asking for my advice or opinions on how to get students to spell better, remember to cite evidence, and how to give feedback on rough drafts of writing.  I had to provide feedback and action items to a veteran geometry teacher who was trying to get her students to translate a diagram into an equation.  And, frankly, I felt a little in over my head.  

So I developed a game plan to increase my capacity and become a better AP for all of my teachers.  The first thing I did was to go and observe our strongest teachers and take lots and lots of notes, and boy did I learn a LOT.  Similarly to the transferable tools I already had, these new strategies, tips, and tricks I learned were things that I recognized as not only transferable to language classes, but, I would argue, necessary for language classes.  And I would like to present some of those findings here.

What I learned from great teachers

I would categorize the strategies I learned in two buckets: 1) Things most CI practitioners already do, and are really easy to incorporate in a language class, and 2) Things that seemingly go against all of the research in SLA, but that I strongly feel that we should be doing in our classes.  

Let’s start with some universal strategies that I believe most CI teachers already do, and if not, would be really easy additions to their repositories.  

Part I: Strategies that are easy to implement in CI Classes

Hook and anticipatory set

I’ve written extensively in prior blogs about the importance of a structured start to class. I argue STRONGLY against letting students trickle in willy nilly, have down time, and then try to get up and teach.  Teachers should have a structured start to class, be at the threshold of the door as students enter, have a Do Now / bell ringer / warm up ready to go, timer on, narrate behavior, correct misbehaviors immediately, etc.  All of this goes to set the tone for a strong class.

However, I’ve never really said what to do next. How do you actually start your CI activities once students are focused and ready to go?  Well, my answer is – hook.  There is a TON of research that students will learn / acquire information at much higher rates if they are interested and excited about what they’re learning. Additionally, they need to know the “why” they are learning.  If you simply try to start a lesson, say “ok students today we’re learning these words” / “today we’re doing a story” / “today we’re reading chapter 3”, you’re gonna have a bad time.  Instead, carve out time, even if it’s 2 minutes, to hook students in.  Let’s get more specific:

  • Hypothetical questions – Ask “would you … what would you do if ….” questions to start a discussion.  If student proficiency is low, just do it in their native language. Before doing a TPRS story, I would always ask a hypothetical question to start off a class discussion. If the story was about a character traveling, I would show a meme of a mansion in the middle of nowhere, and ask “could you live here for 1 year, all expenses paid, but no internet and no TV?” And we would go around a do a quick discussion, then I’d dive into our story in the target language.
  • Opinion Polls – I LOVE polling my students on binary question, displaying the results, and then using that to lead into the lesson. When I taught Nuevo Houdini, a beginner level novel by Carol Gaab, I did opinion polls before several chapters.  In one chapter, the main character blows off his best friend to go for a joy ride with his love interest.  So the poll that day was – “When you have to choose, do you choose your best friend, or your love interest?” Kids ate this up.  You can also use the SIOP / AVID strategies of “four corners”.  One variation I did was to put the words “Always, Never, and Sometimes” on the walls, spread apart in different corners, and then students move to a different corner based on their answer to my opinion questions.  Example – “You should always choose your best friend over your love interest”, and then students move to either “always, never, or sometimes”.  The conversations were intense, and then we would dive into the chapter to see what the character decides. 
  • Guessing games – I love making students guess what we’re going to be covering for the day.  One example is on Tuesdays, I would do animal of the week (ala Marc Fencil), where we learn about a different animal each Tuesday by doing picture talk, clip chat, and readings.  Before revealing which animal we were learning about, I would provide clues one by one, and have students guess.  Example – It can jump 12 feet … it only eats plants … it can be grey, white, or black … etc.  Students love guessing, and then when we finally reveal the answer, I say “so now, let’s watch a video and do some talking in Spanish.”  
  • Non-Language examples – I observed a PHENOMENAL history teacher in Texas named Heather Lee Joy who always did intricate hooks. When learning about ancient civilizations, she would take her students on virtual tours on websites where they could manually “walk” through the ancient city, and then jump to google maps to see what that same city looks like today. In another lesson, when learning about ancient writing systems, she gave her students the ancient alphabet as a hook and had them write their names with thick marker and then share with the class.  When learning about the Sistine Chapel and the Renaissance, a middle school history teacher (and good friend of mine) Samantha Buford would have her students lie down under their desks, facing the bottom of their desks, and paint paper plates using an art kit to get the full experience of the Renaissance.  At my current school, one of our 6th grade science teachers was teaching plate tectonics, and took students to a website where they could view a 4D model of the Earth and manipulate the dates, going all the way back to 6 billion years ago, to see how the continents have shifted. Then, she made them make predictions about what they would learn in their models that lesson before starting the actual lesson.  In all of these examples, when the “lesson” actually started, students were completely hooked.  

I would argue that in a CI class, doing a hook would be very easy, as we have much more flexibility in our curriculums.  So, no excuses … DO HOOKS!  If you need more ideas, I HIGHLY suggest the book Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. It’s all about … you guessed it … hooks.  … Cuz … pirates … get it?  

Questioning Strategies

This one again seems obvious, but I feel so strongly about this topic that I need to mention it. When I am working with teachers who are struggling to engage students, and I go and observe, one of the MOST common gaps I notice is that teachers struggle to ask questions in a way that engages students. Or, in some scenarios, they don’t ask questions at all.  I’ve also seen this in some language classes I’ve observed, so I want to give this one some attention.

Asking students questions, in layman terms, is teaching. My first year of teaching, my principal told me one piece of advice  – “It doesn’t matter what you teach, it matters what students learn.”  And the only way to know if students have actually learned anything is to ask them questions that prove they’ve learned. In CI classes, this looks like PQAs, circle questions, checks for understanding, and assessments / quizzes.  But, too often I’ve observed classes where I said, man, if the teacher would just ask more questions, students would be so much more engaged and way more learning would happen.  But when I try to break it down with teachers, I’ve learned that it’s not as simple as saying, “just ask more questions.”  So, I want to get really specific.  

When it comes to asking students questions in class, I argue that there are 3 variables to consider. The first is the ratio of questions to statements that you make, the second is the rigor of the questions that you ask, and the third is how you ask questions. These 3 variables matter greatly and can make or break a lesson.  

Ratio of questions to statements – This is going to sound crazy, but bear with me.  I believe that we should be asking a question every 5 seconds at the minimum.  Asking questions this frequently is beneficial for lots of reasons: 1) it keeps students engaged (asking questions, according to research, engages students much more than lecturing / making statements), 2) it gives the teacher in the moment data they can use to adjust the lesson (you figure out real quick if you’re going too fast, too slow, if students comprehend, or if they need more repetition with certain words), and 3) you can elicit interesting ideas from your students (if you’re doing a story, PQA, etc.).  Bill Van Patton, in episode 71of his FABULOUS podcast Tea with BVP, spoke on the topic of “Student-centered vs. Teacher-centered” classrooms. He spoke on the trend in k-12 education of administrators wanting to see more “student-centered” classrooms, which is hard for CI practitioners.  But, he argues that if you are asking questions after every statement, then you are, in fact, providing a “acquisition-lead / student-centered” classroom, and can better explain to your administrators why you’re doing good work. He calls this “talking with students”, not “talking to students.”  Some examples he gives are: “You are wearing a red shirt.  Are you wearing a red shirt, yes or no? Am I wearing a red shirt? What color is Walter’s shirt? Etc.  And if Bill Van Patton says it, it must be true!  (Dr. Van Patton, if you’re reading this, PLEASE BRING BACK YOUR PODCAST)!!

In other general education classrooms, the same stuff is happening with questioning strategies. I observed a 6th grade math teacher going over some homework problems with her students. Everything that came out of her mouth during a 5 minute review was a question. She intentionally asked yes/no questions (I divide here? Yes or no?  No?  So then I do what?  Right, multiply.  Then I move this down here, right? No?  Where do I move it?  And then this becomes a negative or positive?), then increased to what / where / how questions, then increased to open-ended questions to push the rigor (what do I do next? Why? What would happen if I put this number down here?).  100% of students answered at least one question, and student engagement on a Friday at 2pm was THROUGH THE ROOF.  Conversely, I observed another non-language teacher who asked me to observe one class in particular because there were engagement and behavior issues. I observed 30 minutes, and counted 2 questions.  I did a little coaching, had him “flip” his lecture by simply taking statements and turning them into questions, and viola, students engaged.  Ask. More. Questions. 

Rigor of questions – Another really important aspect of questioning strategies is the rigor of the questions you ask. In the best classes I’ve taught and subsequently observed, the best questioning moments happen when the teachers starts the rigor really low and gradually increases to open-ended questions.  To get more specific, I’ll discuss a class I did where I facilitated a picture talk. The picture was a dog on a skateboard. Here’s how I did it:

  • Start with easy yes/no, true/false, or either or questions. “This is a dog, yes or no?”  “The dog is a on a skateboard, right? Is it a dog or a cat? Is he on a skateboard or a bike?
  • Increase to “who, what, when, where, how” questions.  Where is the dog? What is on this skateboard? What color is his shirt? 
  • Increase to open ended / creative questions – “Where is this dog going? Why? What does he want? Who taught him how to skateboard?”
  • Increase to PQAs – “Who in here has a dog? Who in here can skateboard? Where do you skateboard? Where would you go with a dog on a skateboard?”
  • Increase to hypotheticals – “What would you do if you saw a dog on a skateboard?” “If you were a dog on skateboard, where would you go?”

Starting out with really simple questions is a great way to immediately engage all learners. Even my lowest performing students could answer questions like “is his shirt BLUE (I shake my head no) or RED (i shake my head yes).  But if you stay on low rigor questions too long, you’ll bore your students.  Similarly, if you only ask high level questions, you’ll disengage your students who can’t comprehend. The trick, though, in increasing and decreasing rigor of your questions, is the HOW you ask these questions to your students, which is variable number 3.  

How you ask questions

The biggest thing I’d say about how you ask your questions is to be very careful about which questions you ask whole-group and which ones you ask individually. When you ask a question whole group and invite everyone to answer, the question should be both simple and factual. Avoid whole group questions that are challenging or those that are opinions or feelings.  

Back in 2018, I was working with a new Spanish teacher on how to do the “Weekend Chat” activity. I was in the back of her class observing, taking notes, and trying to figure out how to support her. She was doing a great job, kids were super engaged, focused, etc., and all was well.  She was talking about what a student did over the weekend, that he went to see a movie. She asked “where did you go, with whom, and what movie did you see.”  Students were answering in an engaged yet focused manner, until she made the following statements:

“Oh, you saw Aquaman. Jason Mamoa is that actor, right?  He’s muy guapo.  Don’t y’all think he’s good looking?”

Then, suddenly, this class of 28 freshmen exploded in a heap of noise, and it wasn’t pretty. Kids got negative, homophobic, and started yelling at each other about who thinks Jason Mamoa is attractive and who isn’t.  The teacher had to shut it down, reset, give a mini-scolding, and get back into the lesson.  

In that moment, I had an “Aha” moment, and created the following formula for how to ask questions:

  • Whole group – Save your whole group / choral response / questions that you ask to the entire class restricted to:
    • Yes / no
    • Factual (is this a dog or a cat)
    • True / False
    • Simple
    • 1-2 word responses
    • Avoid opinions / whole group PQAs (NEVER ask a whole group PQA or opinion)
  • Individual – Save your opinions / PQAs / controversial questions for individual responses
    • Ask for hands
    • Utilize stop and jot (when I say go, write down who you think is the most attractive actor in Hollywood)
    • Cold call 
    • Drawings (draw your favorite movie so the class can guess)
    • Ask a provocative question and do turn and talk

Doing this will increase engagement while simultaneously keeping a lid on your classroom management.  Trust me, you’ll be banging your head against the wall a lot less.

This is an example of how asking opinion questions whole group can derail your lesson. Similarly, asking really hard questions as whole group / choral responses can have a similar effect.  When students are asked questions they cannot answer, they disengage.  Following the above formula will eliminate a lot of headaches around academic disengagement. An additional step you can take, and should take, is to get EVEN more specific with who you ask your questions to.  I would have my roster on a clipboard and carry it with me each lesson. Then, I would think of the questions I have in mind about the lesson, and assign those questions to students based on their ability level. I would “cold call” students with these questions, but would only ask questions to students that I knew was in their i+1 (or, in general education terms, zone of proximal development).  For example, if I was doing a picture talk of a haunted house, I would write out my questions and then categorize them based on difficulty level.  Then, on my roster, I would assign them to students.  Example:

  1. Is this a house or a school? – Novice – ask this to either Joe, Jana, Mike, or Linda
  2. Is this house old or new? – Novice – ask to William, Rebecca, or Tyshaun
  3. What color is this house? – Novice low – ask to ………
  4. How old do you think this house is? – Novice mid – ask to …..
  5. How many people do you imagine lived in this house? – Novice mid – ask to …..
  6. Something happened in this house. What do you think happened? – Novice high …..
  7. Why did that happen? – Intermediate low – ……
  8. What would it take to get you to stay a night in this house? – Intermediate high ….

Then, I would carve out time during my picture talk to do cold calling.  I’d say “I’m going to ask a question, pause, and then call on someone.”  Kids would get a little nervous, but I was “controlling the game”, so to speak, and made sure every student I cold called was able to answer a question.  In a 3-4 minute part of my lesson, every student, regardless of ability, could engage with this picture talk.  I found much more success doing this rather than just leaning on whole class questioning, which is what most CI folks do.  Give this a try, and you’ll have a better time. 

Questioning strategies are a VITAL part of good teaching. If you’re curious what your non-language teaching colleagues are doing in their planning meetings / etc., they are thinking about their targeted questions, key points, and checks for understanding to implement in each lesson. We do this naturally in language classes, but, in my opinion, we need to give this more time and more care.  Doing so will increase our impact and make the language acquisition process for our kiddos much more effective. 

Part II:  Teaching Strategies that are Harder to Implement, but still Important

Whew, I did not expect to write that much about hooks and questions; they are just that important. I would suspect that those two points are things that most CI practitioners are already doing, and if not, are easy aspects of teaching to implement. And if you’re in evaluation season and wanting to talk about transferable components on rubrics (Danielson, Marzano, etc.), talking about engaging students and questioning strategies is a great starting point with administrators.  Take it from me 🙂

Now, we need to discuss some other components of “teaching” that aren’t as prevalent or easy to do in CI classes, but are things, I argue, we should be doing. 


Feedback is a topic that I’ve been DYING to talk about with the CI community, for lots of reasons. Let me first start by talking about what feedback is, why I rarely ever gave feedback to my students, and why I hate myself for not doing so.  

I’m pretty sure we all know what feedback is. When students output (say something or write something), feedback is when we tell them what they did right, what they did ok but need to tweak, and what they did very wrong and need to scrap or do over. For example, students in AP US History class wrote a thesis, and before moving on to the 1st body paragraph, the teacher reads their thesis statement and tells them what to keep / change / trash.  Feedback in education is vital to student success. There is a lot of research that shows how badly students crave feedback and how instrumental it is to helping students reach high levels of academic achievement. An article I use often in PDs is from learning A-Z, and breaks it down well. You can find it here.

And yet, I rarely gave feedback to my students when I was a teacher. I actually NEVER gave feedback until I started teaching AP Spanish, when the learning got more “academic”.  The reason is, simply, I was told not to. I was told by experts in the field of SLA that not only is feedback not necessary to the process of language acquisition, but it could actually be detrimental to students’ progress. I was told that correcting students’ grammar, pronunciation, or word order by giving traditional feedback would increase their monitor, affective filter, and slow down their acquisition process.  So I didn’t do it. When students said things wrong, I would just ignore it, repeat it with correct grammar modeled, or just simply react to their grammatically incorrect statements with an authentic reaction. When kids said “De donde soy Memphis” as “I’m from Memphis”, I would just say “Oh, interesante, yo soy de Nashville”, and move on.  

Before exiting the classroom and jumping into the world of k-12 education, I didn’t fully grasp the importance of feedback until I saw it in action.  Now, I advocate that we MUST be giving students feedback, and often.

The highest performing teachers I’ve observed give feedback IMMEDIATELY. Meaning, they don’t ask students to write a paper, then (like my college professors too often did), collect those papers and hand them back a month later with red marks all over them. Instead, as soon as students say or write something, these teachers tell them what they got right, what they need to change, and what is just wrong.  The positive impact this had on student learning was noticeable. In these classrooms, when the teacher asked students to write something, they would write, and then almost every hand would go up as students asked the teacher to come over and tell them if what they wrote is right or wrong. Students in these classrooms understood that asking for feedback was crucial to their learning, and they came to CRAVE it.  

I experienced similar things when I taught AP Spanish to students I had had in Spanish I, II, or III, but never gave feedback. As soon as I finally started giving them feedback on their writing or speaking, they bombarded me with more questions and demanded I give more feedback.  Just as Carol Gaab famously says “The brain craves novelty”, I would argue that just as much, the brain craves feedback. 

So how do we give students in language classes feedback in a way that benefits them without increasing their affective filters, monitors, and slowing down their acquisition?  I have some thoughts.

  • The John Wooden approach – Hall of Fame UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was famous for how he gave his players feedback. In his book, Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, Jay Carty chronicles over 1,000 hours he spent observing John Wooden coach basketball to his players. He attended practices for an entire season, and not once did he ever hear coach Wooden tell his players “good job or bad job”. He never gave positive praise or negative praise. Instead, Carty points out that John Wooden gives “unemotional, specific, and concrete” feedback to his players every single time they do something. Wooden would break it down for his players by saying “you did this. That’s why this happened. Next time, keep doing this, change this, and don’t do this anymore,” and then have them try it again. This is exactly how successful non-language teachers are giving feedback in their classes. They are telling their students – you wrote this, that part is good, you’re missing this, and this part you need to delete and try again, and they avoid any comments in the realm of “oh my goodness you did such a good job, very well done, I’m so proud of you, etc.”  There is research to back up that this approach to feedback is best.  How, you ask, does this look in a language classroom?  Well, I’m unsure, but I want to find out. But to translate this to what we do in CI classes, I would start with these points:
    • Modeling – Every time a student says something wrong, we should be IMMEDIATELY repeating it back to students and modeling it correctly.  So when students say “Me llamo es Jon”, (which should be “Me llamo Jon”), we should not ignore it. We should say “Hola Jon.  Me llamo Mike.”
    • Playbacks – When students make mistakes in speech, say what they said back to them, pause, and see if they can self correct.  Example – “Me llamo es Jon”, the teacher responds, inquisitively, “Me llamo es Jon …..” with emphasis on the “es”, and see if the student can self-correct.
    • Natural responses – When students say or write something, anything, in the target language, they need positive and affirming feedback. However, we should avoid phrases like “great job, that was correct, etc.,”, and instead just simply respond to them naturally.  If a student says “Me gustan tacos”, the teacher replies “Me gustan tacos, pero me gustan hamburguesas mas.”  
    • Immediate – The research on giving students feedback tells us that feedback should be immediate. If you give students a timed writing activity, and you want to provide some feedback using the above strategies, your best bet is to get those writing samples graded quickly and back in their hands as soon as possible. The longer we wait to provide feedback, the less effective it is.
    • Bite-sized and Highest leverage– Just like the concept of immediate, bite-sized is equally as important. Feedback that is verbose, long, or confusing will have low impact for students and might even overwhelm them. Choose the highest leverage piece of feedback when giving to students. For me, the highest leverage feedback, in order, would be: 1) comprehensibility (can I even understand what the kid said / wrote? If not, they need that feedback)., 2) vocabulary – did they use the right vocabulary?, 3) word order.  

Admittedly, my thoughts and opinions on feedback in L2 classes are nascent. I can say that I’ve shifted from “don’t give feedback it’s bad for language learners” to “we need to figure out how to give good feedback to students, but I’m not sure yet what that means.”  Luckily, there are PhD experts in our field who have done this research and have some ideas.  I highly suggest the Cambridge University article on feedback for language learners here, as well as this blog from fluentU here


“Collecting and using student achievement data to inform instruction” is one of the hottest buzz-phrases (buzz sentences?) I hear in education circles these days. And, again, this is one of the hot talking points that many SLA experts in our field have either ignored or actively encouraged us not to pursue. It’s argued, similarly to the act of giving feedback, that tracking data and using it with students is at best an ineffective practice in SLA, and at worst a practice that slows down acquisition (increasing anxiety, pulling student explicit attention to learning rather than acquisition, etc.).  And, just like feedback, this is a point where I’ve had many opinions, and those opinions have changed drastically since observing general education teachers do this.  

To get on the same page about what “using data” means, allow me to give some examples. So, students in a history class complete an exit ticket about the lesson on writing a complete introduction. The teacher then pours over those exit tickets and finds trends in the data. The teacher notices that 92% of students included a hook in their introduction, 77% successfully wrote a thesis (thank goodness, you spent a month on writing theses), 63% of students developed a sentence addressing an original argument based on the evidence (good, but not great), but only 27% of students included a sentence addressing how the historical context of the time period affects the argument. So, the teacher determines that the whole group lesson tomorrow must be re-teaching how to craft and include a sentence about historical context, and that the class may need to do some partner work around arguments based on evidence to clean up the misconceptions.  This teacher has “used data to inform instruction.”  And make no mistake, in general education classrooms (really, in all classrooms), this practice is really, really important. At my current school, entire PLCs spend their entire PD days pouring over data from quizzes and practice tests and use that information to make adjustments and better prepare students. These practices with data guide teachers’ decisions, help teachers know what to reteach and when to move on, and help teachers calm down when standardized testing rolls around (there should be no surprises).  The highest performing teachers I coached and managed used data this way, and their results were noticeable.

But what does this look like in language classes? How do we use data effectively in a class like ESL or German, especially when we know that language acquisition is fluid?  I have some thoughts:

  • Vocabulary tracking – When teaching novice language learners in ESL or Spanish, one of the most important things I needed to know about my students was which vocabulary they have acquired, and which words they still don’t know. This heavily informed my instruction, as knowing this information would inform me when I could move forward with a chapter in our book, when I needed to do another CI session on vocabulary (TPR, quick mini story, write and discuss, etc.).  In beginner-level language learning, vocabulary is everything. If students don’t know the vocabulary, nothing else really matters. Specifically, I need to know that my students had acquired the super 7 verbs, the sweet 16 verbs, and the domain-specific vocabulary that was going to be in the chapter we were about to read.  There is nothing worse than trying to do a story-telling or read a chapter of a book when students are confused.  So, I would give unannounced vocabulary quizzes every week. I would vary the day so as not to let students “in” on when the quizzes would be, and would communicate it to them as “I don’t want to know how well you studied, I want to know how much you’ve actually acquired.”  I would track these quizzes and write on the board the percentages of students in each class acquired which words, and which words we needed to practice more. That transparency with the data helped students understand the “why” behind why we were re-reviewing (is re-reviewing a word?) certain vocabulary, so that they were more invested.  Knowing where your students are and having a strong pulse check on what words they know and what words they don’t helps IMMENSELY to better plan and prepare for lessons.  Highly recommend it. 
  • Proficiency tracking – The other piece of data I tracked as a teacher (and have since observed other language teachers track) is proficiency data. This is the practice of providing assessments that assess students’ proficiencies in the 4 domains of language – speaking, listening, reading, and writing. I only tracked the output proficiencies (speaking and writing), as I felt that those were good measures of how much input students have had. (I may be way off on that, but I digress).  
    • Timed writes – To track writing, I gave timed writes every Friday. I would give students some prompts with several options, and one option was always “write about whatever you want to…”, and give them the list of words we covered that week only in the target language, and encourage them to use it. I used the ACTFL standards to assess their performance, had students track the number of words they wrote and compare that from week to week, and then presented that data to the class the next week.  This was less to “inform my instruction” and more to keep students engaged and excited about the process of language acquisition. Meaning, when students know where they are at in their language learning journey and can “see” their progress in real time, they are much more likely to engage and try their best. If nothing else, this made data tracking worth it.  While I, a MA holder in language acquisition. understand that proficiency data isn’t super important (language is fluid and a LONNGG process), for my students, this was EVERYTHING.  They crave the data, the challenge, and the visualization of their progress.  
    • Partner speaking game – The other output source I tracked was the partner speaking game using the rubric from Tina Hargaden. This was also a weekly activity we did in my class on Fridays, where students were provided several prompts (picture prompts, questions, etc.), and had freedom to talk about whatever they could. Their partners would grade them using a rubric, and then we would add that data to a tracker. Students tracked their own progress and self-reported to me (I put in the gradebook whatever they told me they were at), and then we’d do celebrations for students who increased in growth each month.  Again, was this a data point that I used to “inform my instruction”? No.  But, just like the timed writes, students ate this stuff up. They enjoyed the challenged and they named that this was the part where my class “felt like school”, which meant they felt like they were “learning.”  The other people who ate this stuff up were the people who demanded accountability and proof of learning – administrators and parents.  

The current Spanish teacher at my school does these things better than I ever did. She has completely unpacked the ACTFL standards, translated them to bite-sized phrases that students can understand, and uses them EVERY DAY in her lessons as she folds in more vocabulary for her students in her CI activities. Some examples of how specific she has gotten in our timed writes and partner speaks are:

  • Novice – List of words
  • Novie mid – phrases 
  • Novice high – complete sentences
  • Intermediate low – complete sentences plus “because”, details, rejoinders, etc.
  • Intermediate mid – all of that ^^ plus opinions, beliefs, relation to self, etc., 

On the “output” days, this teacher explicitly goes over examples of what novice writing looks like, asks students how to move this to intermediate, and etc. Students engage heavily in these moments in class, and then when it’s time to write, the teacher is able to give quick and bite-sized … feedback.  

For my part, I knew from my studies in SLA that the time spent on these timed writes and speaking activities was, linguistically speaking, a waste of time. Output isn’t practice.  We know this.  But, I’m in my job, I’m not a 100% SLA practitioner. I’m simultaneously both a language facilitator and a teacher in a public k-12 school, and the implications of both of those realities matter. My students enjoyed the timed writes and speaking, my administrators used it as evidence in my evaluations, and parents used it to boast about me to their friends.  And for me? Well, it was time I got to turn my voice off and drink some coffee, which I’ll take any day.  


I think that last line I wrote sums up my thoughts here. If you work in a k-12 public education school, you are a “teacher.”  And as badly as we want to be pure CI practitioners, we aren’t. Our students, our administrators, and the parents we serve don’t understand (and some don’t care) about the research in SLA and what implications that has on our classes. There are some practices that general education teachers are doing that students are accustomed to and crave. I hope that in this lengthy blog I’ve spelled out some ideas you can take to make those practices come to life in your classroom. 

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