How to find out about your learners interests in a compelling way?

New photo by alice ayel / Google Photos

I have started teaching French to a group of 3 girls aged 10 years old. They are native German but they have been attending a primary school where they were taught French intensively, it was like an immersion type of school so their level is very good. Last week was a “Schnupperstunde” meaning it was my first try out lesson with them. I must admit I was a bit anxious, I did not know how nor where to start! I was afraid to either teach stuff that would be too easy or too difficult for them. I find it hard to start with a group of learners who have with previous knowledge of the language! However TPRS came to the rescue and asking a story is an activity which adapts itself to any learners! Since they are young girls, I thought of starting with Ben Slavic’s marvelous one word image . The problem was how to start talking about something? What is the “something” you choose? Do you choose an object, an animal, a piece of cloth? How do you let your learners choose from a wide range of anything? It can end up being confusing for a group of learners who have never created stories before.

Best is to get to know your learners first and to get to know what interest them. I therefore decided to start with personalized questions using ” L’étoile du jour. This was the perfect starter to dig for information about my girls.

I then started looking for resources in the FLE world (Français Langue Etrangère) and I found this great activity called ” Portrait Chinois “. Originally a clever word game, the Portrait was in vogue in the salons précieux. In time, it expanded with different variations, the most famous being the Chinese portrait, so named, because of its ingenious complications. It is basically a set of questions based on what you would be if you were… It is not too complicated in terms of structures: ” Si j’étais…, je serais… ” and it allows learners to talk about what they like and their interests. For example, I found out that a girl would be climbing if she was a sport because it is her favorite sport! In terms of vocabulary, even if your learners are beginners, you can help them by giving them examples using cognates or near cognates, for instance: ” Si tu étais une planète, tu serais Mars ou Vénus ? “.

You can find a whole list of different questions here:

Not only was this activity perfect to get tons of repetitions of a complex structure using the conditional tense, it was also great to find out even more about the girls’ interests in a fun way! It led beautifully to then describe one of the things the girls would be and thus to create an image together.

We actually could not start creating an image because we spent a long amount of time talking about ourselves and I showed the girls an example of ” Mon Portrait Chinois “:

We also did a brain break disco party which the girls loved!:

Phew! I think I have successfully passed the “Schnupperstunde“! What I love about facilitating comprehensible input is that it is not restrictive. Even if a structure seems too complex, the fact that we establish meaning first means that you can talk about anything, you can communicate in a real natural way!

What about you? Have you done le ” Portrait Chinois ” with you learners? How do you start a one word image?

Tomato soup

Days are getting colder here in Germany and it is time to enjoy a filling soup. It is our habit to have a soup at dinner time during the cold seasons until days get warmer again. I usually make a soup using whatever vegetables are in season and to adjust smoothly to a real “wintry” kind of soup, I like to make tomato soups first. Warming yet light, they are perfect to transition from the summery salads. At the moment, tomatoes are quite cheap. I tend the use the ripest ones I can find and since I don’t live any longer next to a market nearby which sells the squishy ones off cheap, I buy a whole crate of them a good few days ahead and I ripen them at home.

The easiest and tastiest tomato soup recipe I like to follow is the one from Jamie Oliver’s 30 minutes Meals cookbook which is another staple in my kitchen. This book is as practical as it is beautiful, showing that with a bit of preparation, the right equipment and some organization, hearty, delicious, quick meals are prepared within minutes (though I would not say that a whole meal shown in the book could be made in 30 minutes, unless you are as fast as a chef as Jamie!). This tomato soup recipe makes for a rustic soup where we enjoy all the wonderful ripe tomato flavors!

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/ gas 6. Peel 2 to 3 garlic cloves and cut 2 red onions into big wedges. Halve and lay approximately 2 kg tomatoes in a large roasting tray, cut-side up, then scatter over the garlic cloves and onion wedges. Sprinkle with oregano (optional), season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with olive oil. Roast in the hot oven for about half an hour, or until the tomatoes are soft and sticky.

New photo by alice ayel / Google Photos

Scrape everything from the tray into a large saucepan. Roughly chop and add basil stalks with most of the leaves. Simmer for a couple of minutes. Add a splash of balsamic
 vinegar to the soup, then blitz with a hand blender until fairly smooth.

New photo by alice ayel / Google Photos

Ladle into bowls, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and scatter with the remaining basil leaves if you wish!Wha

New photo by alice ayel / Google Photos

What about you? What is your favorite soup to transition to cold days? What is your best tomato soup recipe?

Professional development at your fingertips!

New photo by alice ayel / Google Photos

I think I am becoming a pro at multitasking! To be clear I am not fond of household chores, I find them so boring and I always end up thinking I am wasting my “brain time” and could do something much more productive! However my whole life is a constant dilemma: I cannot stand being in a messy and dirty house! How to keep home tidy and clean whilst having some sort of “brain activity”? Thank goodness the Internet has been invented so that I can now comply with my household duties whilst learning and teaching myself about language acquisition and TPRS techniques. In other words free professional development and full body workout at the same time!!! Why complaining???

Here is what I usually do: when I am ironing (or cleaning the bathroom!), I listen to Tea with BVP a weekly podcast that discusses topics related to second language learning, teaching, and acquisition. It is hosted by Bill VanPatten, Professor of Spanish & Second Language Studies at Michigan State University who questions important points about language teaching. For instance the role of grammar in second language instruction and the difference between focus on form and grammar instruction. To me grammar has always played an important part in my teaching simply because I love grammar (I know I am nut but apparently most language teachers are grammarian!), hence this obsession in teaching verb conjugations and so on. However looking at my recent learners’ impressive results, I have come to realize that grammar is not compulsory and that in fact it should come later when learners have acquired enough language and are already fluent. When I discovered the power of comprehensible input, I drastically switched my way of thinking!

Coming back to multitasking, I have also tuned in TPRS Hangout which is a Youtube channel where Tina Hargaden videos herself teaching in her classroom. So that you know (just in case you are interested!) I usually watch Tina when I am cooking, trying not to splash my phone with cooking oil or any other food! As a matter of fact watching Tina has taught me so much about how to apply TPRS techniques. I have not yet been able to attend a TPRS workshop so having access to a TPRS classroom live is a big bonus for me: thank you so much Tina!

One activity that I have yet to try is when Tina writes down the story the class has created. She writes it in front of the class and the students are expected to watch her write. Of course, they don’t seat silently watching her write the entire story! They do re-tell her the story so that she can write it down. What I very much like about this activity is that students have the chance to see someone writes (without mistakes) in the other language. They have a role model so that they can then write on their own later when they are ready. Writing is like speaking, it is output so learners should produce output when they have had enough input to be able to do so. What Tina does is giving them another form of “reading and listening” input. The other thing I very much like is that she takes time to spell the difficult words as she is writing them down and she also tells the students the punctuation she is using.

Have a look at one of her demos in French. Tina first explains why it is important to listen before writing:

What about you? Are you a king/queen of multitasking? What are your best professional development sources online? Have you tried Tina’s writing activity?

Coconut flan

Although I had already waved goodbye to summer a few weeks ago, it has been unusually hot here in Germany and I have been trying not to use the oven too much. Salads in all shapes and forms were on the menu these last few weeks and as for baking, I would either bake in bulk in the morning when it was still cool or I would try to prepare “cold” desserts. Indeed, I forgot to mention that French people and families need to have a dessert at the end of a meal!

Last Christmas, my dear mum offered me a beautiful cookbook which has turned out to be very useful for planning meals. It is entitled The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià. It is written by one of the world’s greatest chef, Ferran Adrià but do not be afraid! The recipes are not three stars complicated ones! They are meant for a family dining at home! The book features meals that anyone can prepare, inspired by the dishes eaten every day by the staff at his legendary restaurant El Bulli. What I like about this cookbook is that it is organized into three-course menus, with appetizers, mains and desserts and each recipe is shown with numerous step-by-step full-color photographs, and conversions on how you can prepare a meal for a small or large group, from 2 to 75 people!!! I have not cooked a whole menu yet as in my humble opinion they are not well-balanced enough. For example one menu starts with carbonara pasta and then as a main a fish sandwich with mayo! To me, it is way too heavy and too high on carbohydrates! However, I have cooked a few dishes successfully, in particular this creamy coconut flan!

New photo by alice ayel / Google Photos

I had always been scared to prepare a caramel sauce because of my fear of the sticky spoon glued to the pan as I would let the sugar melt for too long in the pan! But this time I decided to go for it (at the risk of loosing a spoon and a pan!) and as I followed the step-by-step instructions from the master chef, I discovered to my delight that it was not that difficult! The flan itself was super easy to prepare and did not require many eggs which is unusual for a flan and is a relief if like me you never have enough eggs! One thing my boys didn’t enjoy so much was the grated coconut so I will do without next time I make one.

For the caramel sauce: in a pan, heat one tablespoon of water and 50g sugar. Mix together until the sugar dissolves in the water, then continue to heat the mixture until it starts to come to the boil and it looks dark. Pour the caramel sauce into an ovenproof dish.

For the flan: whisk 4 eggs together. In another bowl, mix together 500ml coconut milk, 30g grated coconut and 50g sugar. Add the eggs to the mixture and whisk until it is well blended. Pour the mixture into the ovenproof dish on top of the caramel sauce.

New photo by alice ayel / Google Photos

Cover the ovenproof dish with aluminium foil and put it in a larger roasting dish. Add cold water halfway through the roasting dish and put the dish in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes. Watch over it from time to time because the water should not be boiling. When the flan is cooked (it is firm when you touch it), let it cool down in the oven, then take it out and put it in the fridge. Before serving it, remove the flan from the mold. Sliding a knife around the flan can be useful!

New photo by alice ayel / Google Photos

What about you? What is your never fail flan recipe?


From story-telling to story-asking

I am reading TPRS with Chinese characteristics: making students fluent and literate through comprehensible input by Terry Waltz and I am learning a great deal! I definitely recommend this book if, like me, you want your learners to truly develop fluency and proficiency in another language and on the other hand you do not consider yourself advanced in TPRS and comprehensible input, as I do!

New photo by alice ayel / Google Photos

For example, I noticed that YES, I was getting kind of good at telling a story and circling the target structures I wanted my learners to acquire. However I was not asking a story, which is quite different from telling a story! In the past I always planned my story scripts and my learners didn’t have much ownership of what was going on in the story. As a negative consequence, my classes would soon get bored because they didn’t contribute enough, they were listening to comprehensible input which was good but they were not part of the story. Therefore, they were passive listeners when the point of this approach is to become active listeners, in other words to listen to input with the intent of understanding. This year, I started to move towards story asking with my individual French learners and as I was having them contribute to the ideas and details of the story, I was sensing much more interest from them. Terry Waltz wrote a whole chapter about story-asking and what I have taken from it is that: “the teacher contributes the correct target language sentences and paragraphs; the students contribute the content and ideas.” Therefore there is no need to think about a whole story and to write down a script before the lesson. All you need to think about is the target structure you want your learners to acquire. It is best to stick to one or two structures so that you don’t fall into the trap of planning a story like I used to do!

My other big new discovery is that instead of starting with an actual story which demands creativity from your learners (which is something they are not accustomed to at first, especially in a language classroom!), you can start off with a one word image. This wonderful trick comes from Ben Slavic (a massive TPRS and Comprehensible Input expert) and it is about picking a word from a word list and ask the learners a specific set of questions about it, such as its color, where it lives, if it has a super power…
Starting with a word image means that learners can imagine anything about a single noun. They see that as well as listening with the intent of understanding, they can also be creative and have fun. For not advanced teachers like me, the one word image is also not so complex as asking a whole story but I am still able to ask many questions and get many repetitions.

New photo by alice ayel / Google Photos

I have already used this technique twice and instead of having a list of words, I showed my finger puppets (which I found hidden in a drawer the other day!) and I asked my learners to choose one puppet and then invent a little story around it. One was the rabbit called ” Neige-Carotte ” who loves eating carrots but hates chocolate and frogs. The target structures were: ” Elle aime/ déteste manger …” with tons of repetitions. The other one was the mouse called ” Mouse “! Mouse has a super power because it can run very fast on its legs and tail! Needless to say that we were all having fun!

Watch out this demo with Ben Slavic where it all starts with a picture of a snail. The story gets funnier and watching it gave me the confidence to try it out.

What about you? Are you story-telling or story-asking or both?


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