Recipe for a fantastic year

Pre-planned targets, emergent targets, Light-circling, heavy-circling and not targeting at all: they all have their place in a level 1 classroom

A few years ago, when all of my stories had targets, we created a fun class story called Frankie el mentiroso. You can see the original lesson here. Looking at that post helps me see how far I have come in these past years. This is a story that I created with a Spanish 3 class. This year, about seven months into Spanish 1, my students are just sitting back and enjoying hearing this story.

Back in those days I targeted obsessively, mistakenly believing that students acquire what I target and mostly do not acquire what I do not target. I must have been confused if I had read Stephen Krashen´s suggestion that most of what we acquire is almost certainly non-targeted input. I was too close to the grammar syllabus that I was in the process of rejecting to be able to recognize that a vocabulary syllabus is just as absurd.

My experiences this year working mostly with emergent targets has flipped everything on its head. While before I would carefully lay a foundation of essential structures, this year working mostly with One Word Images (OWIs) throughout the first semester has ironically led to a stronger foundation due to incredible student interest generated by the process. Here is my recipe for an awesome year:

(1) I started the year with student interviews and quickly getting students familiar with the third person of the Super 7 verbs. I purposely chose interview questions that featured these highest of high-frequency verbs. It sounds ridiculous, but I actually used this power point with the interview questions in both Spanish (large letters) and English (small letters). During August kids would just turn around and read the question I asked… until they did not need to. It happened naturally while we were busy paying attention to their answers.

(2) Early in the semester I taught my students the process of creating OWIs. We made them twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. These might take 20 minutes each time; the rest of the time was used on interviews (one student could easily take another 20 minutes) and other CI activities. OWIs are definitely the WOW! activity that I incorporated into my teaching this year, and I am not the only one enamored with this powerful technique. Take a look at one of Cameron Taylor´s blog posts about using OWIs with his daughter. Important: we ended each class with a short Write & Discuss activity to summarize what happened in class that day and then added that writing to an FVR binder.

(3) Very quickly kids wanted to start expanding their OWIs into stories, which we did on Tuesdays and Fridays. Both OWIs and the narrative vignettes that emerged on the following day depended heavily on the Super 7 verbs, but there was also a lot of emergent structures. When, for example, students wanted a fountain from which blue chocolate flows, I needed to slowly circle the new information (una fuente de que salía chocolate azul… notice how I carefully simplified the language). Here you can see a story they made in early September (a month into the school year) about that fountain; if this had been a pre-planned class story the story would have been a hopeless failure. Look at how complicated it is! But this OWI turned class story was THEIR story unlike any TPRS story I have ever worked with before. It is fascinating how powerful the OWI technique is.

(4) By mid-October I was occasionally sprinkling in a pre-planned target structure. Mostly this was by “asking” one of the stories that I have used before. In the past I prefaced these targeted lessons with a lot of PQA; this year I would just work with the main text in one single class period. If the lesson required more than one period then I put it off and waited until later, when we could finish the targeted lesson in one period. Here is an example of a “one class” targeted story that we did to focus on the word ningún. The first power point took most of one whole class. We then read the additional story “Panqueques” about two weeks later, and that was also completed in one class period.

(5) But I was also telling completely non-targeted stories via the Story Listening technique, as you can see in this lesson.

(6) We also started watching El Internado in January using an emergent approach. No way I am going to pre-teach all of those structures!! Instead I look at each scene and ask myself, “What do the characters want?” That question is enough to simplify the tv show to make it comprehensible to my students… no need to doddle translating all of that dialogue!!

(7) A tremendous amount of reading is essential, starting in the first semester with class-created texts being added to the FVR binders every day. By September I was doing short, simple book talks (mostly on Wednesdays) about the books in my FVR library that they would eventually start reading independently. By January we started FVR for the first 5-10 minutes of class… students who do not feel confident reading from the TPRS books pick up the FVR binders that we created during first semester and reread texts that we created together.

Watch the video below and look at how easily students are interacting with a story that I originally created for a level three class. As I watch this, I can recognize that there is no such thing as “hard structures”. After telling them the story in a story listening style presentation, students read a copy of the story on their own. Afterwards I quickly read the story aloud, clarifying any remaining doubts. By slowly exposing them to (a) a lot of non-targeted/emergent-targeted input as well as (b) a well-curated foundation of targeted high frequency input, my students are all superstars.


  1. Student biographies binder! Great idea! We have done “estrella del dia” interviews, but don’t do anything with them afterward. I will do this.

  2. I know I should know this but what does OWI stand for? (I remember one time I asked someone, who was using it a lot, what NCLB meant. When they told me I felt like “d’oh!”)

    • It is a “One Word Image”, a technique that Ben Slavic describes in his new book.

      Here is a video of Tina presenting and demonstrating how to create a 1 word image:

  3. This is wonderful! I have had lots of success doing the Monday and Friday weekend chat (¿qué hiciste? ¿qué vas a hacer?). It gives us our own high frequency vocabulary for the class and effortlessly and naturally starts vignettes-stories that they remember all year! It takes the pressure off me finding and selling a targeted story. I agree that the key is to keep spiraling-recycling core, high frequency vocabulary all year, then kids feel comfortable and confident that they can understand and speak, and that keeps them enthusiastic as they move on after my Spanish I class. Also, Scott, keeping in mind the -teach for June- philosophy helps me relax and be patient because I know by spring I will see serious growth in all my students, including those who need more repetitions. THANKS!

  4. I love this post! Thank you for sharing. Although I do target most of the time, I don’t always and I have yet to try OWI. I need to read more up on them. I know when I do Persona Especial or Power PQA (circling with pictures drawn by students), there are no targets and I don’t worry about out-of-bounds vocabulary, because I just write what it means on the board. I need to read and experiment more. 🙂

  5. I am applying for a mini-grant to build a library for my native speakers. I, by accident somehow ran into your blog and was floored. (Your blogs on this topic have really inspired me) I have been on an island by myself trying to find the best way to teach native speakers and fighting to keep classes to separate native speakers from non-native speakers–but that’s a topic for another blog.

    An email was sent a couple of days ago of this mini-grant and the deadline for the application is today! I really need to build my library so, I am trying to work on this between classes and such. Here is a question I am having trouble answering.

    Briefly describe the evaluation methods used to measure the success of your program.

    How would you answer this? I am not sure I can put it into words, or maybe it’s just that I am so pressured and on a time limit.

    Please advise.

    • Hi Marcy,

      I am a little late here (sorry!), but here are a few ideas. First of all, FVR should be low to no accountability. Avoid putting grades in a grade book. However there is certainly data you can collect that will satisfy the needs of a grant. I would propose to study the impact of FVR by doing a year long study in which one section is not exposed to FVR (heart-breaking!) while another is. I suspect that FVR eventually leads to richer language acquired. To try to test this, have students do 5 minute quick writes once a month and count original words used (ie if they wrote “tiene” 10 times, only count it once). Over the course of the year I would expect to see the FVR students have a greater count of original words, indicating that their active vocabularies are bigger. But maybe not… it would be an interesting experiment. Problem: the control group that does not get FVR will presumably be getting more aural CI, so you might want to frame your research question around the idea of whether level 1 students benefit more from FVR or additional listening in the first year of instruction. In any case, I think you should make this a year long study since the impact of FVR is well-known to be best seen in the long-term.

      I am not an academic researcher; if you are going to do such a study you should get advice from an academically trained researcher who can help you design a valid study. I know that there are some researchers like Karen Lichtman who might have grad students who are willing to help you. You might even be able to get one who makes it part of their research and thus will design statistical analysis of the study. To do this right is probably too much for most teachers, but partnering up with eager grad students might be a win-win.

    • “One Word Images” is a CI method designed by Ben Slavic that has its roots in some classic TPRS strategies, but I think Ben has refined it to such a state that it is an incredibly powerful, non-targeted tool. For me, this was the WOW! technique that I learned this year. I know that Ben and Tina Hargaden are publishing a new guide on how to create these images, so I think the best advice is to tell you to purchase their new guide when it comes out. On Facebook there is a group called “CI Liftoff” that Ben & Tina created to discuss their approach. You might join that group, look at previous posts (Cameron Taylor has been posting beautiful examples from his classes) and when they eventually publish their book I am sure they will mention it on their group. If you can come to their conference in Portland (last week of June) there will be a lot of practice with OWIs and other non-targeted/emergent targeted approaches. I will be moderating a session led by Adam Ziad in “Beginner´s Arabic” where we will be using OWIs to teach Arabic to non-Arabic speakers… I am pretty excited about this 🙂

  6. Thanks for sharing your experience, it’s so relevant and practical for me! Can you describe the write and discuss activity that ends the class each day?

    • “Write & Discuss” is probably the second most powerful thing I did in my classes this year, second only to OWIs. It is simply a summarizing activity where we explicitly write down a description of whatever happened in class… for example, after a student interview we then write it down and record it. So many times I used to do all of the aural work of creating characters & stories, but then failed to cement the language in students minds by explicitly writing down the information we learned. I have a process in which I start a sentence and students chime in with suggestions and we gradually build long, complex sentences using multiple student suggestions. The final written version goes into an FVR binder for future reading; we currently have binders about student biographies, class stories, characters (without stories), fantasy lives of students (we call it “in a parallel universe”), students pets… all of that writing is then recycled in other class periods rather than just evaporating.

      It goes without saying that “learning how to conjugate the verb tener” is never the subject of Write & Discuss. If you have not learned anything new about your students or the characters you create in class, then I am not sure what you would write in a Write & Discuss session. In my class pretty much all we do is learn about each other, create imaginary worlds and watch our favorite tv show. That is what we write about. The “discuss” part comes after the writing, just some simple circling of the text that the class created.

      • I would love to see a video of this process if you ever have the chance. I think you posted a video once where you were writing out the story on the board…in this activity, is everyone making their own binder, or are students watching you write and chiming in? Sorry I’m not quite able to picture it yet…thanks so much for sharing!!!

      • I write while students suggest answers. For example, after a student interview I might write “George” and then turn back to the students. A student says “tiene tres perros” so I write “tiene tres perros que” and I turn back to the students. A different student might suggest “gordos” (assuming that came up in the interview) so I add “son gordos y”. Another students suggests “muy felices” so when I add that the entire sentence thus far reads, “George tiene tres perros que son gordos y muy felices”, then I add the word “pero” to keep it going. This is a summarizing activity; all of the information has already been revealed in the interview. The writing places the information in a group created, beautiful set of sentences which I can then circle with the class without fear of catching a student unawares because this will literally be the fourth or fifth time they have encountered this information. If I write on the board I often take a photo of paragraph created so that I can then place it in a binder that we keep at the front of the class… in this case this would be put into the student biographies binder. Often I type it into a word doc or textivate, projected against the screen as I am typing in class, so that when we return to the subject/interview I can add more information to the original interview and then replace the first version with a new version. The FVR binder up front can be used by any student during FVR time. Other uses: say you decide to give an assessment, if you keep a doc on your computer that can be easily be shared to the whole class via google docs, email or a private blog. Choose five readings that students must read before the exam and just have the questions on the exam. Nice, easy, personalized.

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