Unicornio Malo (Bad Unicorn) is an elementary version of the popular game Mafia. I was inspired to try this by the amazing Martina Bex. Martina has a wonderful explanation of this game on her blog, here, that is appropriate for older students, and if you know the directions for this game, my version is very similar. Keep reading for an explanation of my elementary version.
The Rolls: In a class of 25 to 30 I would assign the following parts:
4 Unicornio Malo (Bad Unicorns)
3 Policía (police)
2 Monstruo Bueno (good monsters)
All other players are 'la clase' or the class.
The Plot: The 'Unicornio Malo' (Bad Unicorn) has been very bad all school year. So bad, that he has to go to Summer School, ALL day EVERY day. He is the only student that has to do it, so he wants to make the entire class go with him. Each night when the class goes to sleep at their houses, the Bad Unicorn goes to their house and does something REALLY bad to get them in trouble. If they are lucky, the Good Monster will save them, by fixing the problem the Bad Unicorn made and they won't have to go to Summer School. Will the Bad Unicorn win the day? Or will the class, police, and Good Monster save summer? Below the pictures of the cards, are instructions on how to play, as well as a link to download the cards!
How to Play: Have your class sit in a circle. The teacher is the narrator. The teacher says in the target language(TL from here on): The class goes to sleep. when the teacher says this, everyone closes their eyes. The teacher than says in the TL: The Bad Unicorn wakes up. The Bad Unicorn then open their eyes. Without saying the word (using VERY quiet gestures and hand movements) the Bad Unicorns have to agree on who's house they are going to that night. Once they have agreed the teacher says in the TL: The Bad Unicorn goes to sleep. All the Bad Unicorns then close their eyes. Next the teacher says in the TL: The Good Monster wakes up. The Good Monsters then wake up. In the same way as the Bad Unicorn (with quiet gestures and as few words as possible) the Good Monsters have to agree on someone to save (yes they CAN save theirselves). Next the teacher says in TL: The Good Monster goes to sleep. The teacher than says in TL: The police wake up. In the same manner the police have to try to locate a Bad Unicorn. When they have AGREED on who the Bad Unicorn is the teacher indicates silently if they have found a Bad Unicorn or not. The teacher than says in the TL The police go to sleep. Next the teacher says in the TL: The class wakes up. When the teacher says this everyone in the room opens their eyes. The students have a tendency to want to start talking the moment they open their eyes so I remind them to be quiet when they wake up. In a very dramatic voice I tell the class who's house the Bad Unicorn went to last night. In order to get in more TL I start by describing the student (it also adds to the suspense). For example: 'Last night the bad unicorn went to a boy's house. A boy with brown hair. A boy with brown hair and blue eyes. Lots of different variations here as (depending on what your students know) you could describe what the student likes, or what they are wearing as well. Finally I reveal in the TL where he went (for example): Last night the Bad Unicorn went to Bob's house. Next I describe what they did, if possible, I try to do something that makes a connection with the student that was chosen. For example, if it is a student that loves chocolate ice cream, the Bad Unicorn ate the entire carton of their mother's chocolate ice cream. Or if the student is into baseball, the Bad Unicorn held a late night baseball game in their living room and broke all the windows. An artsy student? The Bad Unicorn painted all over the walls, lots of variations here depending on your students proficiency level.
Once we know who was attacked I reveal whether or not the Good Monster saved the student. If the Good Monster saved them they are safe, and still in the game. If not, they are out and sent to Summer School. Once they are in Summer School students are no longer able to verbally participate in the game. Many students enjoy just watching as it is hilarious. For students not interested in this, I let them play on my website, Duolingo, or they can draw a picture of what happened to them, and add some basic Spanish.
After this it is time for accusations. I ask the class in TL: "Who is the Bad Unicorn". It's time to make accusations. In my classes students are so excited that everyone wants to accuse something, so to help the game move on, I usually limit it to 3 accusations. Since I have elementary I try to keep the language basic. A conversation might go like this:
Teacher:"Who is the bad unicorn?"
Student: "It is Maddy."
Teacher: "Why is Maddy the bad unicorn?"
Student: "Maddy is the bad unicorn because, she wasn't at my party." etc.
Kids love to get very creative here, and are allowed to lie. I love listening to their creative reasoning, and emergent attempts to express themselves in unique ways.
Teacher: " Maddy, are you the bad unicorn?"
Student: "I am not the bad unicorn". (Though sometimes they will fess up).
Teacher: "Why are you not the bad unicorn?" or "Where were you last night?"
Student: "I was at Sara's house with video games." (there is often emergent language that I encourage in this game. Sometimes I allow other students to defend the person).
Student 2: "Yes Sara was at my house".
Finally the class votes. If the majority of the class agrees that the person is guilty they are out of the game.
The cycle starts again. Keep scrolling, for some 'pro tips', and a free download of the cards!
Pictures of playing Mafia/Bad Unicorn at iFLT16.
1) Play suspenseful music (think Twilight Zone) in the background quietly while students have their eyes closed. It will make it harder to guess. (Thank you Gregg Gross and Kristy Placido for this idea).
2) Try projecting an image of the 'scene' on your board (may take planning ahead/screen shots).
3) Check out 'Elf in the Shelf' ideas as these are also usually good "Bad Unicorn" attack ideas too.
4) Come up with some scenarios ahead of time to make it easy for you.
5) Change up the vocabulary to fit what you are playing!
6) I've heard (thanks Gregg Gross again) that there is a different version of the game called 'Werewolf' that has different 'special players'. (For example, a 'magician that can bring someone back into the game once they are out). These are enough rolls for my students for now, but I may try adding a few more 'key players' once they get better at it. If i do, I'll add an update and post the cards!
6) Is your group a little TOO excited about playing Bad Unicorn? Stop and 'circle' a detail. Did the Unicorn go to a boy's house or a girls house? Was it a boy with brown hair or black hair? Who's house did the unicorn go to? Was it Bob's house or Maddy's house? What did the Unicorn do?
7) Keep a sheet of paper out for each class and quickly jot down the rolls of the key players to make it easy to remember everyone's part during play and next time. I like to keep a blank sheet of paper on top of my 'key players' paper because I constantly set down my notes to do different things, and I often don't think about students trying to read the answers when I'm in the middle of a game. This way I don't have to remember to be so careful!
8) Don't be intimidated, it seems like a lot of rules, but once you start playing it is so fun. Even if it's not perfect the firs time, the students will have so much fun they won't care!
If you'd like cards in a different language, feel free to send me the words or characters, and I can make a set. :)
Frequently asked questions
1) If the police guess correctly about who the bad unicorn is, is the game over?
No, if the police guess correctly it's not over. You quietly nod or thumbs up that they are right. They will know who the Unicorn is, but nobody else will. They can use the information and try to accuse them. They could even say they were police and knew that "Bob" was the Unicorn. However nobody knows if they are lying or not. They could even be a bad unicorn and be trying to get someone to vote out a "good guy". If they reveal they are police (and really are police) the "BU" usually try to get them the next round. Students quickly learn to be careful about when to reveal this roll.
2)What happens when a bad unicorn is found by police? (Are they out?)
Someone is only out of the game if the class votes them out because they think they are a bad unicorn OR if the B.U. gets them and the GM (Good Monster) doesn't save them. If the police correctly identify a B.U. they can decide to use the information however they choose.
3)Do you announce to the group if the police guessed the bad unicorn?
No I never announce that they know who it is, it gives a lot away. Usually a game lasts 2 class periods for me (36 minute blocks). You could stretch it and make it longer OR you could just say at the end of a period that if there are more Monsters and Police left in the game than Unicorns then the "good guys win"; but if there are more "BU" then the bad guys win.
My 2nd and 3rd graders were so excited if they had a big part that a lot of them had a hard time keeping it completely secret between classes. If two much is given away, I just started over the next class (students didn't mind).
It's already that time of year when we think not necessarily of summer (well at least not exclusively), but also of the coming school year. Over the summer, and for next year I am excited for the following:
Thank you for all of your support this year. I feel very lucky to have such an incredible group of students and families. The support has been phenomenal, especially with the work involved in starting a new program. It is this very support that made it possible for your student to make such gains in their language learning this year.
As with many skills, when long periods of time go by without being used, the part of the brain involved with the skill becomes less active, and begins to shrink. This is especially critical with a new language, as most students are not exposed to their new language in a regular manner. Luckily there are many things that you can do to help your son or daughter continue to use their language skills during the summer (even if you do not speak Spanish). Encouraging your son or daughter to spend 15-20 minutes, 3 to 4 times a week when possible, will have a major impact on their language retention over break.
Class website- My site has many free resources. Each time we changed topics in class, I created a new page on the website. These pages include cartoons, games, stories, and music that matched what we are doing (or did) in class. Before the end of the summer I will put up ‘ALL’ the topic buttons, so students can play on any of the pages I created this year over the summer. Student Music videos are also available under the ‘videos de música’ button on each grade level page.
Harvest Website- http://peplinskispanish.weebly.com/
Netflix adds more Spanish programming everyday. Many (if not most) of the original programming (both for adults and children) allows you the option to change the language (both spoken and subtitles) to other languages. This is an invaluable resource, as there is a lot of very compelling for young learners. Simply push the 'up' button on your remote, and click on the speech bubble to change your language!
Sr.Wooly is a site made by a Spanish teacher that focuses on teaching frequently used words through hilarious songs, and games. Second and third grade students at Harvest already have an account. While many students have already set up their accounts, please feel free to e-mail me for your student’s access code if they do not already have an account (codes expire after one week so I cannot post them).
Sr. Wooly- https://www.senorwooly.com/
Duolingo is a free (and add free) site that allows users to practice new language skills in a fun, effective, and highly customized manner. Students complete mini lessons in a format similar to Rosetta Stone, answer questions, translate, and more. The program assesses your language ability, and the lessons change to match it. Your learner can earn experience points, badges, and compete against classmates in a fun way. I can also monitor student progress, and during the school year run a prize drawing each month for students that play. To participate go to my website and click on the link below with your classroom teacher's name and help your student register. All you need is an e-mail address! Duolingo is used in many classroom and is considered a safe site. Students can receive friend requests (so they can compete against friends to earn badges), however private messages cannot be sent via Duolingo. Parents should evaluate the site to before signing your son or daughter up to make sure it is right for your student. My own children love it when I play with them! An Android and Apple App are available to play on handheld devices. While this site is mainly used by 2nd and 3rd graders, I do have a few 1st graders that also love it.
Youtube is a great resource for Spanish TV shows, songs, stories, and movies. Try putting your son or daughter’s favorite show, story, or movie in the Youtube search bar, and add ‘en español’ after the title. For example, “Peep and the Big Wide World en español”. This year students really enjoyed the following Youtube cartoons: Pocoyo, Peppa Pig, and El Perro y El gato (no ‘en español needed after the last title).
Many DVDs include the option of changing the language in the options menu. Changing the spoken language to Spanish, and adding English subtitles is another great way to practice. This is also an option on many shows on Netflix. We recommend tailoring this activity to individual students. If your student is bored with this activity after 15 to 20 minutes, turn it off and be done with it for the day. However, if they are enjoying the movie, there is no need to stop early.
There is a lot of great music available for young Spanish learners. Some of my favorites include: Basho & Friends, Baila Baila, and Barbara Macarthur. All of these are available for download on Itunes and Amazon, however you can also find many of the songs free on Youtube. Another favorite available on Youtube is Kevin, Karla y La Banda (a group that takes music students know, into Spanish songs (Shake It Off, Hello, etc.). On the 'El Verano' page, I added our 'Youtube' play list for the year. Hit play, and 'enjoy' over 40 songs. ;)
Games- There are a lot of traditional games from different countries that are a great way to practice Spanish (your student will love to teach you if you don’t know Spanish). A favorite counting game this year is the Peruvian card game, “Mano Nervioso”. If you’re student can’t remember it, check out the rules at the first link. If you are in need of a new game for your student’s check out children’s games from around Spain at the second link.
Spanish Street Games
The World Around You-
Consider finding Spanish in the world around you a game for your family. Did they notice the Spanish on the aisle signs at Meijer, or on the back of their shampoo bottle? Eating out at a Mexican restaurant? Try practicing with the server if they speak Spanish. This is a great authentic way to practice.
As you can see, there are many resources available when your student is not too busy enjoying their time off. However you spend your summer, please know that your student did a wonderful job this year, and we cannot wait to see everyone in the fall.
The main goal of the elementary language program is to help students communicate in the target language. As the best way to do this is with lots of repetitions of high frequency words (it takes between 40 to 100 repetitions to acquire a word in a new language), this means I talk a lot in the classroom. I also try to make the words sound fun to say (our brains naturally want to imitate what sounds fun), and I create actions or signs with students for new words that help convey the meaning (tying the new information to a different part of the brain). This method of teaching forced me to think about 'noise' from students in the classroom in a very different way. In past years I have always led a classroom where students do not talk when the teacher is talking. While I definitely do not encourage students to talk over me, I've had to let go of this a little bit. This revelation occurred one day in class when I moved to stand closer to two students that had been whispering during a story we were acting out. My intention in moving closer to them was to gently remind them to be quiet listeners. However when I stood closer to them I could hear that the things they were whispering. These two students who I had assumed were not paying attention, were repeating (to themselves and sometimes each other) almost everything I was saying. This was a major revelation for me. Much like a baby learning their first language, these students were just quietly practicing their new language. I began to listen more closely to all student conversations, more often than not students were repeating me speaking and/or telling each other things in Spanish (para=stop, silencio=silence, yo, yo, yo (me, me, me) when I ask them to raise their hand). I had to make a major adjustment to my teaching style. While I definitely do not want behavior to get out of control, squashing these early attempt at communication is contradictory to teaching students to communicate in the target language. I've adjusted my teaching to be more selective at what kinds of 'noise' are acceptable in the classroom. Rather than move to keep the students quiet, I now carefully "choose my battles". After all, when teaching a baby new words, you wouldn't want to silence early attempts to communicate. This has forced me to listen at a new level in the classroom. Not only have I developed a greater appreciation for how much my students are trying (and succeeding) in learning, but it has also given me greater insight into what motivates my students to try to learn a word. Is it a cool prop? A motion we made up? The tone of my voice? The mood of the room? All of these change how language is acquired, and really listening to my student helps me become an expert in this area.
When I first became a teacher I handed out study guides for tests, sent notes home telling parents to remind kids to studied, and spent time reviewing in class. Over the last 11 years in the classroom, my attitude has changed significantly on this topic. In fact, now I don't even announce a test ahead of time, and although we discuss correct answers, students do not generally get individual results (though I would at a parent or student request). Why has this changed so radically? Read below to find out more..
I believe the main goal of assessment data should be to improve student learning. Especially when learning a language, there is a lot of information to cover. All of my research both about the way the brain functions and about how students learn languages, points to the fact that if you want the kids to learn something involving lots of memorization (like a language) you need to make it both important to acquire and fun. When students feel anxiety about learning the language, they don't do well. The brain doesn't work as well when we are truly anxious. A little bit of stress (like in a slightly competitive game played in class, which I do in my class), is good for learning and brain function. A lot of anxiety is not. As a science minor and educator, I have always had a special fascination about the function of the brain, and have taken many classes, and read many books about our brains and how they work. Brain research backs up the importance of a desire to learn, having a purpose, and it being fun, as necessary components for maximizing learning. I often use this information about how the brain works, in my classroom management, and lesson structure.
After several years of teaching Spanish, and comparing the way my Middle School students learned, to the way the Elementary kids learned, I've noticed a major difference based on the way the systems require the students to learn the information. The upper level Spanish moves at a very fast pace, with frequent quizzes and tests. When students receive vocabulary lists and grammar rules they have to study these for long hours before high stakes quizzes and tests and they are anxious about it. Generally speaking, spending lots of time trying to memorize grammar rules is not fun for students. This anxiety, combined with a boring task that your brain won't want to do, while good for learning a lot of information quickly if you can force yourself to do it (and many students cannot), only stores the information (unless you continue to use it and study it) in short term memory. Which meant, that when I asked my MS students to answer a question (how are you?), or recall a word verbally, they had to seriously think about it, and lower to mid-range students often had a hard time retrieving the word from their memory at all. Doing the Spanish the way we are at Elementary (making it fun, connecting it to student interests so they want to learn the language, teaching the kids phrases they can use to communicate with each other, etc.) puts the information in long term memory. When I ask most of the elementary students 'how are you?' they can respond quickly and naturally. Even struggling learners respond quickly and naturally if I give them a cue to help them retrieve the information (for example, I would say 'happy' in Spanish, or smile/make a sad face, depending on the level of cue the student needed). The students needing a cue will respond with other emotions too, not just the one I gave them. Even more importantly, all of the students keep working and keep trying, nobody is giving up, and learning a language is a hard task. In contrast, at the Middle School, even the highest students in a class would have a hard time remembering information learned a few moths before.
When I assess, I want to test what has made it to long term memory. Therefore, I never tell the students when a test is coming up. I make it low pressure (I tell the students I am mainly measuring whether we have learned enough on the current topic and can move on, or whether we need more practice). While I don't make the test a big deal, I try to make the test rigorous. I assessed over 40 vocabulary items from the year, and ask students in 1st-3rd grade to illustrate a new story and answer comprehension questions about the story in Spanish. In addition, I added comprehension questions about a chapter in a book I had read to students. Since the goal of the class is to make the students able to communicate in Spanish, I decided to grade for meaning when grading comprehension questions and story drawings. Although this testing paints a pretty complete picture about what the student understands, this is just one way I assess students. I also assess them during stories based on their response time, how they respond to things I ask them to do, how they answer questions, how they communicate in class, etc. There are MANY ways a student can show understanding of a language without saying or writing anything down. I constantly assess student progress, and change the pace of the class to match student's needs.
After testing, I use the information to show me what we may need to practice more, who might need a bit of extra help, and who needs to be challenged. When I first started testing students this way, I was surprised to see that not ONE student asked me to see their actual scores, but many students told me they felt good about the test and thought they had done a great job. Some even cheer when they see the computers set up for a testing day!
Afterwards, I make sure to tell the kids they did a good job on the test (I give a Spanish sticker or prize privately to the kids that get 100%), but I don't show students the actual scores (though I would go over them with a parent at their request). Happy learners, are learners that are willing to keep trying, even with a large task in front of them, seeing lots of mistakes is very discouraging. I have the information, and know who needs more help, and that is what is important. Parents are contacted if there are large concerns, and I do talk to students about behavior or participation problems (though I don't usually have too many) . I have enjoyed great success with this method and get a lot of effort from my learners. This also does not mean that students don't receive feedback. We do many writing and reading projects that I work with them on, and give them feedback on, but I feel that I get the best information from my assessments about what students have actually learned and internalized when I do it in this manner.
Kindergarten is assessed with a 35 question matching test that includes coloring circles the correct color, and matching pictures to vocabulary phrases. This is a great way for me to confirm that Kindergarten students are beginning to acquire the language, and is helpful for sending up red flags (though I don't get too many). This is good, because the Kindergarten students are just starting to verbalize the language independently, and research shows that it is important not to push this stage. A matching test is a good way for them to show me what they know in a non-stressful manner. I only do this test at 2nd and 3rd trimester. At first trimester I do a more basic test by watching how they respond to classroom commands, and asking them to touch certain color crayons. They are so new to the language at that point that I don't want to make it stressful, and they don't know enough to assess more in the above manner quite yet. I know which students are native speakers, and I assess them authentically in class (by varying the level of complexity of what I say in my speech to them, and seeing what they can respond to).
When learning a new language new words must be repeated many times before they are moved in to long term memory. In elementary Spanish, we focus on the most frequently used words in the language (the top 100, make up around 60% of all spoken language), and the most frequently used grammar phrases in both past and present tense. This is great as the students are exposed to a lot of important input that will unlock a large chunk of the language for them. However, our brains also get bored with repetitive tasks, so we need to keep things fresh in order to keep our brains focused. One major component of the elementary classroom is to use these words and phrases in stories. While the stories may repeat a lot of the same vocabulary, the students get to "choose" the story. Giving them creative control, and making the stories about them keeps students very interested. Learning language through a story does even more then that, student brains mimic what is going on in the story, and actually tie the information to new places in the brain. This increases retention, interest, and makes it a lot more fun. The article below is a great explanation on exactly what is happening in the brain as students process stories. ¡Disfruta! Enjoy!
One of the ways I like to help students make a connection to the culture, and practice Spanish at home is through a "class pet". Each grade has a different stuffed animal from a Spanish speaking country. Kindergarten has a bull, first grade has a llama, second grade has a jaguar, and third grade has an eagle. When I first introduce students to their pet for the year, we talk about how each animal relates to an element of the Spanish speaking world.
Each week, one student from each class takes home the 'pet'. Students are encouraged to speak to the pet in Spanish at home. They also pretend to be the pet and fill out a worksheet all about what the pet likes and doesn't like. Not only is this a fun way for students to practice important phrases, but it helps me get to know a little bit more about each student. Students share their pet experience with the class, and their picture hangs in the hall for the rest of the school year. Students love to look at the great variety of pictures in the hall throughout the year, and are always excited to take the picture home at the end of the year!
This is a favorite activity of the students, and many of them have even told me that they got their own version of the pet to keep at home!
How was your student graded? Below you will find a detailed explanation of how Spanish is graded on the report card.
This year we will be grade students in three areas in Spanish. The ability to understand the spoken language, the ability to communicate in the target language, and their attitude towards learning about a new language and culture. Please read on for further details about what I look for, and what to expect on report cards.
Below you will find a detailed explanation of how Spanish is graded on the report card.
This year we will be grade students in three areas in Spanish. The ability to understand the spoken language, the ability to communicate in the target language, and their attitude towards learning about a new language and culture. Please read on for further details about what I look for, and how students should be graded at each point in the year.
Goal # 1: Understand
The first Spanish goal is to understand the spoken language. Each day in class students are given commands in class in Spanish (stand up, sit down, etc.), listen to, or interact with a story in Spanish, and usually follow directions in Spanish to complete a project. This grade is an indicator of how well they respond to the Spanish they hear. Learning a language is a large task, and most students will receive a ‘2’ at this point on their report cards. This means they are developing these skills and are right where they should be. In this area students are not expected to achieve a ‘3’ until the end of the year.
Goal # 2: Communicate
The second Spanish goal is the student’s ability to communicate in the Spanish language. This focuses on whether or not they can respond to questions such as ‘What is your name?’, ‘How are you?’, ‘What is the weather’, etc. For older students, this also includes responses to interactive stories with TPRS, and using more complicated sentences in new ways. Also included in this goal is the ability to sing the songs we learn in class.
At this point in the year, very few students will have a ‘3’ in communication. This is a normal place for students to be at in their language learning journey. Delayed communication (as students are processing lots of information, like a baby actively learning but waiting to speak) is the expected beginning stage on the path of learning a language. It does not mean students are not working hard, just that they aren’t quite ready to be ‘active’ communicators. When you see a ‘3’ in this area, you know your student has achieved a big step in language acquisition. For some students this may take several years to achieve. That is okay, it just means that there brain is processing the new language in a different way. They will get there, as long as they keep putting in effort, and having fun with the language. This level of achievement can only be reached with time and exposure. Trying to force this step usually slows the learning process. Most students will receive a ‘2’ in this area at this stage in the process.
Goal # 3: Attitude and Effort
The last goal, is the student’s attitude towards learning about a new language and culture. This includes the student showing effort in Spanish, participating in the activities, having a good attitude, and behaving well in class. The right mind set when learning new information is very important to language acquisition (to read more about this please see my blog post entitled "Classroom Theory". Students willingness to be an active participant in the process increases the rate at which they can learn a language. I consider a student to be doing their personal best in my class at school if they receive a '3' in this area. In this goal a ‘3’ can be expected (and is hoped for) at any time of the year!
New to the district this year?
Finally, if your student is new to Harvest and did not start the program in Kindergarten, it is likely that your student will receive a ‘1’ in the area of communication and comprehension. This does not mean that they aren’t working hard, just that they have not had as much time to learn the language as the other students. Generally speaking students that join the program after Kindergarten (i.e. they moved to the district in the middle of the school year, or at the start of 1st-3rd grade); generally “catch-up” on most of the information in roughly one school year. As long as they are putting in their best effort, it is a matter of the brain needing time to process all the new information. Playing on my website is a great way to support this process.
I hope this has helped you understand my grading system. Your students are doing an amazing job at the large task of learning a language, I enjoy learning and growing with them. If you have questions or concerns about your student’s progress, please feel free to contact me at any time for a more detailed explanation of where they are at in their language learning journey!
Erica M. Peplinski
I am entering my 12th year as a teacher in Saline, MI. In the past I taught 3rd grade, 5th grade, Spanish/French/German Intro Class, Quest (Elementary Science), Middle School Spanish, and Elementary Spanish. My Bachelor's degree is in Education, with minors in Spanish, Science, and Structures of the Discipline. My Masters was in Education, and the 30+ additional credit hours I've taken since have focused on Spanish and Science. In particular, my Science classes focused mainly on the function of the brain. As a teacher, and throughout my life this has always been an interesting topic for me. I use the information I have learned about how the brain functions to guide me when I teach. It helped me when trying to decide HOW I wanted to teach my students language; to me, all the research seems to support TPRS/CI (Teaching Proficiency Through Storytelling and Comprehensive Input). In this post, I will explain my theory on why I think TPRS/CI is the language learning method our brains were made to do naturally (Thanks Blayne Ray, Dr. Krashen, Dr. VanPatten, and all the many amazing teachers who have been sharing this method of teaching).
The basic way the human brain functions is to send messages between neurons, along axons. For example, when someone you know walks into the room, one part of your brain tells your head to look up, another recalls the name of the person or tries to recognize them, a third causes the muscles in your face to react, etc.
All of these parts of your brain communicate via signals sent between neurons, along neural pathways. When you first start learning a tricky new skill it is hard work. That is because forming new neural pathways is hard work. When the brain learns a new language, you are creating an entirely NEW neural pathways between neurons (different than your first language). You are strengthening your brain (hooray)! However you are also challenging it. That is why when you first learn a tricky new skill ( a new sport, a new language, a musical instrument, etc.) it can be frustrating as it makes our brain work very hard. However, with practice, the neural pathway becomes stronger and faster (like working a muscle). The activity then becomes easier and more fun, and we become better at it, we enjoy it more, we do it more, and we get even better at it! The more you use the neural pathways, the faster signals can fire on them, and the quicker processing becomes. More neural pathways and communicating neurons, lead to more brain activity (a good thing)!
In addition, when we do things like create a gesture, connection, or image with a word and use it consistently, we are causing the same neurons to fire together. When neurons fire together on a regular basis, they sometimes continue to do so. Getting bonus strengthening of targeted neural paths. We are strengthening our brain (hooray).
What does this mean for language education?
It's great to strengthen our brain, but because we are making our brain work so hard, motivating it is important. One way we motivate the brain to continue forming the neural pathway is by making the activity meaningful. This is done in my classroom by focusing on the students in my lessons. What student doesn't like to talk about his or her self? In fact what person doesn't like to talk about their self? Personalizing lessons helps keep students focused. There is research in neurology done with brain imaging to support this (and it and a list of other suggested reading, can be found back under the 'Why TPRS/CI?" tab. I update this list periodically).
A fantastic way to personalize lessons is "Special Person" (Persona Especial via Bryce Hedstrom); read about it by clicking on his name. Another way is to use structured grammar targets to ask about students own lives (Personal Question Answer via Ben Slavic). Student interest surveys are also a helpful way to personalize. All of the above methods not only give you great inspiration for stories to tell with your students (in the target language); but also create a warm classroom climate, and teach you about your students.
One way I personalized recently when learning the 100 most frequently used words, is with stuffed animals from the "Minions' movie. Seeing familiar (and funny) characters, in a silly scenario makes students pay close attention. Look at how many hands go up n the below clip!
The setup is: I put together some words the students have learned this month into a 'sticker' challenge. Anyone contributing part of the correct translation gets a sticker. This is great, because I can reward students for effort, no matter what level their Spanish is at; some students are ready for complex translations, and some are just beginning to sort out the words. All levels are making great progress, and I love rewarding their work. I usually only use stickers at the start of the year when students are getting used to each other again (it helps warm up the classroom). However the stickers ARE in Spanish so I try (and often fail because I'm talking about something else) to say the words as I give them out, and teach them to the kids (more Comprehensible Input that they leave the classroom wearing)! Even though students make mistakes, you can see that they feel their effort will be rewarded, and they are safe to take risks, by the eager hands that pop up. An example of this in the videos below. Please excuse my loud voice at the start of the first video (each video is less than a minute long).
Another way to personalize lessons is by focusing stories on students, student interviews (through class pets); and through this website (by finding videos/games/songs/cartoons and books that enhance what we study). Students seeing Spanish applied to things that are important to them (such as the Frozen soundtrack) helps them see that Spanish is an active and important part of the world. It also keeps them interested in learning more! One of my favorite moments of last school year is when my Kindergarten class showed up dressed for "Frozen Day". I didn't know it was coming, but I DID have a version of "Let It Go/ Libre Soy" on my website. I quickly taught them to sing 'Libre Soy' and told them to listen for the word 'frío' and we had the best dance party ever. Those kids were singing their hearts out, and many little voices left the class quietly singing, "Libre soy, libre soy!"
This ties into another way we encourage the brain to learn, by keeping things novel. Our brain likes to focus on what is important to us, and in the past (and present), new behavior was (is) something that interests us. In addition we like to enjoy ourselves. If we are doing the same thing over and over and over our brain gets bored and less likely to want to continue paying attention. This isn't very helpful, when repetition is also important when learning a new skill as it helps keep the neural pathways strong. This is especially important when building a new neural pathway (as in when acquiring a second language). Think about trying to teach a baby to talk. If you want the baby to be interested in the word, you repeat it in different ways. You use silly voices, make faces, and repeat it frequently to help them learn the word. You do not sit with the baby talking about modifying nouns, vocabulary lists, and pronunciation. We do not think of these rules in natural conversation either. This is the same concept, applied to older learners. You don't stop trying because the student does not immediately process language, they will get it eventually if they keep getting comprehensible input.
How do we keep something both novel and repeat it a lot? One way is with humor, as seen in the above post, I try to make stories have a funny twist. It keeps the students paying attention (and even joking in Spanish). Another way is by changing up how we do things. I am always monitoring the 'mood' of the students. I want to push them to try just a little bit more (strengthening the neural pathways); but when I can see they are done, we move onto something else. I hesitate to call this a 'brain brake' as it is actually just practicing the same information in a new and novel way. Sometimes it is through a game, sometimes through directed (in Spanish of course) exercise (also great for the brain and neural growth/plasticity). We also use stories, a cartoons, music, games and much more. There are so many ways to practice the same language skills in new ways. It keeps the classroom interesting and fun! I try not to add to much new information until I see students start to process what we have already learned at a quicker pace.
I hope this helps to shed some light on what goes on in my Spanish classroom!
To learn more about brain plasticity and short term memory, check out one of the videos below. There is great information in the first video about growing neural pathways, but one big error. The speaker says the child's brain has more plasticity than the adults. This has been proven to be untrue. He states this is why the child can learn to ride the "brain bike" much more quickly than he could. It is not this, but rather the strength of the original path overriding the new path in the adult brain that causes it to be harder for an adult to learn, not lack of plasticity. :)
Want to know more?
If you'd like to read more about any of the topics in my article, please click on the "Why TPRS/CI" button below, and then on "Further Reading" this is a constantly updating list (as I read good articles I add them here, most of the time). ;)
A short version of this information via Google Slides is also available. Feel free to use it if if will help you explain this to others, as long as you credit me. :)
The three below videos also support my Classroom Theory. The only one I have a slight disagreement with is the "Backwards Brain Bike" (though most of it is good, so I kept it); in it the speaker says that adults brain are not plastic (having the ability to change, learn, and grow). This has been proven to be false, especially if we take care of our brains by challenging them, physical exorcise, and good food (but that is a whole different topic).
I hope this post helps others in their language learning journey!
If your curious how these learning rules apply to adults click here.
Learning a new language creates a whole new path in our brain (different than when we learn a first language). For more on this topic, please see my blog entitled, "Classroom Theory". This is hard work for our minds, and based on what else is going on in your young learners mind this process will be quicker in some brains, and slower in others. All students are making progress, but the speed of progress can vary. This is okay, everyone's mind works differently (it's part of what makes the world such an interesting place). I vary instruction in school to suit all students needs, and my website has a variety of information available for every type of learner. To learn how to maximize the website's potential for your student, read below:
Students in need of help:
Please don't worry if your student struggles a bit with Spanish, or seems to not know much of what is said in the videos. This is all part of the process. Active listening is till hard work, and will help your student progress, even if they don't know a lot of what is being said. If your student seems confused with the longer cartoons, or Duolingo, and could use a bit of help please try the following:
Students in need of a challenge:
Some students are ready for a challenge in their second language, and some kids come to school already speaking Spanish at home (the amount varies), for kids ready for a special challenge my website is a great resource. Simply let the students play on the suggested buttons on their homepage. They will naturally gravitate towards high interest and usually harder activities. This natural play with the language is great for language acquisition. I also HIGHLY recommend DuoLingo.
I am in my 11th year teaching in Saline. I've taught: 3rd grade, 5th grade, Spanish/French/German Intro, Quest, Middle School Spanish, and Elementary Spanish.