Story Listening Lesson with my Spanish 1 students

A copy of the story, video of my lesson and power point full of student drawn pictures for class review the next day

In early May I told this story to my Spanish 1 students. It is inspired by a classic fable but I added an unexpected twist at the end. Here is a copy of the story as I wrote it before telling it to my students. I think it is good practice to encourage students to read the story later.

I do not choose stories based upon language that I want to introduce in class. For story listening I never hunt for a story that has the imperfect tense or a certain group of target words. I do occasionally teach classic TPRS stories with target structures that I want to nail down, but that is a small part of my teaching routine. Instead I normally search for stories that I think will interest students and then rewrite the story so that it will be comprehensible. There are definitely some words that my students did not know, such as chismosa, pueblo, injusto and entierro. I wrote them on the board as they came up in the story and perhaps circled them very lightly just so that students understood in this one context, this one time. The words menor and mayor also came up, and have shown up in other stories, but I felt like I needed to give a little extra attention to those words.

Finally at the end of the video I tell students watching the video at home to write a 150 word version of this story in Spanish. That was simply for the group of students that had been pulled out of my class for a motivational speaker. That is not how I normally follow up a Story Listening activity. Normally I will have them quickly write about the story in English so that I can glance through the papers and verify their understanding. Today I gave them a paper with only one sentence from the story and had them illustrate that one sentence. At the end of the week we will revisit this story with a power point full of their illustrations (which I will insert here when it is done). I will retell the story using their pictures, and perhaps I will have them also retell in pairs but I know that what makes them speak fluently is not the speaking practice… it is the multiple comprehensible exposures to hearing and reading the fable.

Added the next day:

The next day we did a quick retell and I then gave students five minutes to write as quickly as possible everything they could remember. Here are three random writing samples. Since many of the grades that I record are simply based on completion it is meaningless to say whether these students are “A” or “C” students. What I can say is that they are rarely absent, so this is what happens when they come to class:

Click here to watch the video of the story listening part of the lesson (which is about 15 minutes long):


  1. Mike, I’m with you on assessments. The only “fair” assessment I can think of—when it comes to acquisition—is an authentic interaction with one particular student in which no other student is considered, and is independent of any language features (including phrases/structures). Why? It is a fact of SLA that students progress at their own rates, and we have very little control over those internal constraints.

    My assessments? For example, when a student doesn’t understand me, I have just assessed them. My response? Make the language more comprehensible for them.

    Of course, assigning scores and grades are a completely separate issue. I’ll be at NTPRS this summer presenting on that very topic (for anyone else reading this who is interested).

  2. Very interesting! Thank you for posting. I’ve been seeing a lot of buzz on Facebook about Story Listening, and I’ve been wanting to see a demonstration. I have a couple questions for you that I have been contemplating:

    1. If you are not using target structures, how do you know what is comprehensible to students and what is not? Because I use target structures, I know what students SHOULD know, and because I can assess their comprehension and usage of the target structures, I somewhat know what they actually know. How do you do this if you are not targeting?

    2. How much of the language you were using was comprehensible to students even without motions or drawings?

    3. Also, I can test students fairly because I can keep a running Quizlet list of target structures. How do you fairly assess students without target structures?

    Thanks so much for your input! I have learned so much from your work!

    • Great questions. You recognize that what students “should know” is often different from what students have actually acquired. Acquisition is always messy, whether you are using a strictly targeted curriculum or just talking to a child. Some phrases seem acquired, maybe just in a particular context, and then seem to disappear from their abilities altogether. A Spanish 3 student says something gorgeous and I think “wow, they are really getting it”, and then soon after that same student messes up a high-frequency phrase from the first week of Spanish 1. The process is always messy.

      To answer your questions:

      (1) These are Spanish 1 students, I am their only language mother (for the most part). We have been talking all year and it is has been a slow process of getting more and more natural, but this looks very different in May than it did in September when our common vocabulary was much, much smaller and feebly anchored as well. Now in May the phrases that I am saying quickly without hardly making eye contact are familiar territory from a full year of being together. I have stopped before, a little freaked out wondering are the really following me, demanded full translations of everything I am saying… they do it. What you are seeing is something a good TPRS teacher does: nobody circles what students have already acquired. Every good TPRS teacher nonetheless remains attentive to their body gestures, signs of confusion or disengagement because there will be some student who for whatever reason does not recall a phrase that was seemingly acquired many months ago. That is true whether you target or not.

      I have given students copies of the story after doing a story listening session and asked them to translate it in class. Then watch: if they speed through the translation then everything is good, but if they struggle then you know have to slow down. In this particular story the word castillo was new, I do not think I have ever used it before. The should speed right through that word in the translation.

      The way Beniko Mason checks her ability to read her students comprehension is by asking them to write down the story in L1 after having heard the entire thing. This is obviously not to check if they acquired a certain target structure; it is to check if they understood the story. Yes, it is more holistic, but her data from years of teaching like this indicates that it is an effective and highly efficient way to facilitate acquisition.

      (2) I think close to all of it, except for the words that I wrote down on the board. The illustrations I think help them maintain the string of the plot in their minds, help them create the movie in their minds. It is a way of relieving the cognitive burden so that it is easier for them to hear. The idea is to try to use all words they have already played with in class to create a novel experience, but a few new words manage to sneak in. That is a way that their vocabulary expands, but I am really trying to give them more exposure to words we have already used often.

      My experience with non-targeted and emergent targets is that, over the course of the school year, students are naturally exposed to a much richer vocabulary than they were when I targeted heavily. At the end of the year when I teach a targeted lesson (I still reach into my old files now and then to keep things fresh) I am using stories with Spanish 1 that I used to save for Spanish 3. They are getting it no problem (take a look at my recent blog post called “recipe for a fantastic year”.

      (3) I believe both Van Patten and Krashen agree on this key point: we cannot guarantee that a student will acquire what we target because what they acquire depends upon their internal syllabus. They can memorize (and quickly forget) a discrete grammar point or target structure, and so they can pass the vocab test, but those gains fade quickly and as far as acquisition goes, it is negligible. The idea that vocabulary lists lead to “fair assessments” (because presumably students know what they have to memorize) is more likely to lead to shallow language learning. A fair assessment, in my mind, does not involve an arbitrary deadline for acquisition of X structure. In short, it is not valid to assign grades based on a students ability to manipulate discreet language chunks.

      Let me phrase it differently: the pressure to learn X phrase and be able to use it correctly is actually not helping! Language acquisition occurs unconsciously, whenever we place conscious pressure on the student we run the danger of actually short-circuiting the very process that we want to happen. When students are not conscious of the language chunk we want them to learn but rather are just interested in the message, that is when acquisition occurs. Whether it is targeted or non-targeted, it is the intrinsic interest in the message (not the effort to memorize) that leads to language acquisition.

      Thank you so much for your comment, comments like yours always help me think through what I am doing. I am by no means a language guru, just another language teacher trying to carefully make sense of what is really happening in my classroom. In any case, targeted CI is certainly a successful method. Keep doing what is successful in your classroom 🙂

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