Building a Proficiency Based WL Program

We have had numerous inquiries this past year about our program we have been building over the past several years.  We are finishing our fifth year teaching with Comprehensible Input (CI) in our small K-12 School in Van Meter, Iowa.  In 2010, I started teaching with CI at the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, California.  I am forever in debt for what I learned from the amazing educators with whom I worked there.  From that moment, a spark was ignited as I began to envision a program where students were placed in classes according to their proficiencies rather than moved from level to level despite their struggles/deficiencies.

Traditionally we move students to the next level if they “pass” but realistically many of these students who squeak by are not ready to move on to the next level, we just have nowhere else to put them.  Sometimes, we have students who move into district with no experience, but Spanish I doesn’t fit their schedule, so they are placed with their classmates despite their lack of foundation.  These situations are frustrating for students and also for teachers as we know we are not reaching them at their level, but there are no other options.

We have developed a program with a two year rotating curriculum where students can spend two years at each proficiency.  Since it is a rotating curriculum, students who are in year one are mixed with students who are in year two, but it is listed on their transcripts as 101 (first year) or 102 (second year).  We are still in the process of building program and are learning as we go.  We have tried to give numbers to classes as they might correspond with college level classes.  A student who has demonstrated proficiency beyond Novice Mid level would most likely place in the the “2nd year” of a college level course.  For that reason, at the novice high level, we have changed the number from the 100 level to the 200 level.

The names of our courses as we currently have (subject to change) them are as follows:

Novice Low 101, 102

Novice Mid 103, 104

Novice High 201, 202

Int Low 203, 204

Int Mid 301, 302 (We do not currently offer this course, but as we have a K-12 program, we anticipate some of our current elementary students placing into Novice High as 9th Graders.)

After five years we have students unofficially producing confidently at the Intermediate Low level.  We are looking into official tests to place students according to their proficiency.

These are our expectations after one or two years at each proficiency level:

Novice Low

Students confidently produce Super 7 present tense, all forms

Students begin to produce Super 7 past tense, some forms

Students produce Super 7 future tense (is going to + infinitive), some forms

Students are exposed to a sheltered amount of other tenses in context

Students are exposed to a variety of reactions and idiomatic expressions

Novice Mid

Students confidently produce Sweet 16 present tense, all forms

Students confidently produce Sweet 16 past tense, all forms

Students produce Sweet 16 future tense (is going to + infinitive), some forms

Students are exposed to various other tenses in context

Students are using a variety of reactions and idiomatic expressions

Novice High

Students confidently produce Sweet 16 present tense, all forms

Students confidently produce Sweet 16 past tense, all forms

Students confidently produce Sweet 16 future tense (is going to + infinitive), some forms

Students begin to produce a variety of other tenses in context

Students are using a variety of reactions and idiomatic expressions

Intermediate Low

Students confidently produce Sweet 16 present tense, all forms

Students confidently produce Sweet 16 past tense, all forms

Students confidently produce Sweet 16 future tense (is going to + infinitive), some forms

Students confidently produce a variety of other tenses in context

Students are using a wide variety of reactions and idiomatic expressions



We are looking into an exam that our school can purchase and give from year to year that assesses Listen, Reading, Writing and Speaking.  Recommendations appreciated!


Student Sample Intermediate Low (with Intermediate Mid tendencies)

The following are 15 minute writes from a student in our Intermediate Low group, a class for college credit through our local area community college.  She speaks as well as she writes.  You will see that she makes errors, which is normal.  Typically in our Novice level classes, we do not correct errors, but give two suggestions per writing sample and give them time to reflect.  More than that is overwhelming at this level.  Before the next timed write, we ask they review the suggestions from their previous entries (they are all kept in a notebook from year to year and we hold them over the summer so they don’t get lost).

In the Intermediate level classes (and sometimes Novice High), I make corrections directly on their writing samples and give two suggestions.  I took photos of the samples before writing on them.  Wish I had thought to do that in previous years!

April 12, 201820180426_104551.jpg

April 24, 2018 (a reflexion at the end of the year – This course finishes the 2nd of May, 2018)


I am sure there are many questions I did not think to address.  Please ask and I will add to this post so that others can see the answers you are seeking.  Our Spanish team in Van Meter is Megan Fandel, Stacey Wigant and Melissa Evens Newell.  We do not claim to be experts.  We are simply professionals doing what we think is best for students based on the experiences we have had!  🙂


Coco – El almuerzo de Dante

Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 1.38.04 PM.pngWow!  I am SUPER excited for this movie to come out November 22, 2017!  It is by far one of the most anticipated movies on my list (aside from all the superhero movies) in a long time and I’ve been counting the days!

In class, we have been doing activities designed around one part of the trailer, El almuerzo de Dante (Dante’s Lunch).  The students are super engaged and come eager to class every day, as do I!  Yesterday, I spent a fair amount of time organizing a slide show to support the mini-story I wrote using screen shots from the trailer.  Today, we read the story together while looking at the pictures.  I gestured the story while reading using the TPR in Context list I created and front-loaded for several days.

Here is a link El almuerzo de Dante – Story and Materials where you can find the materials I have created.


Below are the activities that we did leading up to reading together in class today.  Many of the structures I have used in the storyline are recycled from past stories.

  • Front-load TPR in Context – I hit this hard for a few days and then do it nearly every day after.  (Below you will find  two videos of me showing my students these gestures.  I was out sick and wanted them to still have some sort of input.  Here are the videos.  No judging.  I was sick.  In jammies. 😉 )



  • Tell / Circle story while watching video clip several times over several days on and off (just the Dante’s Lunch part)
  • Reverse Charades with TPR in Context (Brain Break)
  • Reverse Pictionary – with TPR in Context (Brain Break)
  • Quizlet with TPR in Context
  • Project and read story to students using gestures pausing to check for comprehension
  • Project and read story to students with student actors
  • Pinzas – Teacher reads phrases or projects phrases out of order
  • Rompecabezas – puzzle
  • Draw – Teacher reads or projects phrases out of order and students draw on paper or white boards
  • Match phrases to photos  – Reading and Listening)
  • Write story using photos as a guide
  • Tell story using photos as a guide

Frase de la Semana

(Password inspired by Alina Filipescu and Bryce Hedstrom)

Week 1: ¡Eso me hace agua la boca! (That makes my mouth water!)

Greet students at the door and help them through the phrase of the week each day until they are able to say it fluently.  I have it posted with the translation for reference.

Week 2:  ¿Qué te hace agua la boca? (What makes your mouth water?)

After students tell you the phrase of the week, ask them the question and help them translate their answer.  I usually warn them on Friday that I am going to ask the question, so they should have something in mind.  You might want to suggest they refer to for help with translation outside of class as they are deciding their answer.

Other Materials!!!

After tweeting out my phrase of the week yesterday @newellystories, I discovered that Elena Lopez @lopezelena has also created an awesome movie talk and accompanying resources of the same clip in Coco!!!  Her story is amazing and our stories and materials combined could make a great embedded reading and unit.  With Elena’s permission, I’m sharing this link  Coco – La cena de Dante to her materials!  Thank you Elena!


¡Dibuja! / Draw!

I’ve been concerned about my students not getting enough input of the “I” and “you” forms and have been exploring new avenues to deliver our story through engaging activities to our novice classes.  In our upper levels, we are still sometimes hearing students using the the subject “I” with the third person singular form of the verb.  Yo quiere / Yo tiene / Yo mira…  (I wants / I has / I looks…).

We typically have our students draw our stories.  They LOVE drawing on our white boards!  (And wearing the socks on their hands…)  Why not have them draw the story while they listen to it from the perspective of one of the characters!?

I explained that they would have two tasks.

1.  To mark the times they heard the “o” / “oy”at the end of the action word in the sentence, indicating the subject “Yo” (I)

2.  To draw what they hear

I make sure that there are no side conversations during my activities because everything I say in Spanish is important.  🙂  I have 20 minute classes for elementary and 30 minute classes for middle school and secondary, and we use every minute.  (High School also has a Spanish enrichment time which I will describe in a different post another day.)

Also, to encourage the students who need me to know that they got it correct and typically shout out “Yes!” or “I got it right”, I request that if they need me to know they got it correct (and most of them want me or someone else to know) they give me a thumbs up and a big smile.  “¡Pulgares arribas, sonrisas enormes!”

I did this activity with 3rd through 8th Grades today.  They loved it.  I loved it.  We will do the activity again tomorrow from the perspective of yet another character.

Below is a clip I filmed in one of the classes.  At the end of the video we count the number of times they heard the “o” or “oy” to indicate that the subject is “yo” (I).  If you look closely in the pictures, you will see the tally marks on their white boards.




Batdora:  Mi mamá me dice, “Yo no sé.  Busca en tu habitación.”  Yo busco en mi habitación, pero no puedo encontrarla.


Batdora:  Yo le pregunto a mi mamá, “¿Mamá, tu sabes dónde está mi mochila morada?”


Batdora:  Yo le pregunto a mi mamá, “¿Mamá, tu sabes dónde está mi mochila morada?”


Cuando el matador sale al balcón, las mujeres le tiran flores.  (El matador guapo – El ratón Pablito –


Hola, yo soy Traigon y soy cruel.


Simón:  Yo estornudo y el gato va volando.


La puerta se abre y hay silencio.  (El matador guapo – El ratón Pablito –

¡Entrevista! Interview!

I recorded my class the other day and I thought the activity went well.  Of course the class after the one that I recorded went better, and the one after that, even better.  Buuuut…  I didn’t record those classes and after I realized that I was getting more creative and engaging as I went, it was already too late.

I teach K-12 Spanish this year.  Yes, every grade.  It’s both awesome and overwhelming.  As I was looking ahead at the beginning of the school year just three weeks ago, I didn’t know how I was going to adapt and get through it.  But change is good.  I thrive on change.  And honestly, when there is no change, I get bored and look for new jobs.  This is my fifth year at my current school and we have had change every year.  Soooo….  I’m thriving!  Right?  And exhausted.  But it’s awesome and I love it!

The night before, as I was trying to think of how to deliver our class story in yet another engaging activity, I didn’t think I could possibly come up with anything to keep them distracted to the point that they didn’t realize we were speaking Spanish.  Then, bam!  An idea I’d done years ago came flashing back.  Interview.  The last time I tried this was probably six or seven years ago.  I didn’t script as well as I should have then and the ideas that I did script were were dull and dry.

But not this time.  I crafted questions to reach my audience.  “Do you jump onto the bed or do you jump in the toilet?”  “When the bottle of water falls to the ground, do you wake up or do you vomit?”  Not all students appreciate my humor, so I designed some normal questions and some interesting questions.  Later in the day, I began asking students if they wanted a “personal question” or a “normal question”.  Most picked “personal” which made the activity way more fun!  I tried to keep the class engaged as well by asking what they thought our characters would say, “What does the class think?  Does the cat jump into the bed or does the cat jump in the toilet?”  Looking back to our actor, I told them what the audience thought.  Then I asked him/her what she did.  They did not have to answer truthful to the story for this particular activity.  It kept it more interesting!

My classroom is a disaster.  I am unorganized and untidy.  I write ALL over the board wherever I can find space and I think it’s ALL important, so I don’t erase it.  There.  I’ve hopefully left no room for judgement.  🙂


My Formal Good-Bye to my Former Students

I am recovering from an emotional flashback to about eight to ten years ago in my teaching career.  As a younger, not-so-hip educator trying to connect with my students, I coined a term.  It was an experiment of a sort with a class or two of positive, innovative kids.  I was teaching in a smallish town, Ellington, Connecticut, where I taught French and Spanish at the local middle school.  7th and 8th grades to be exact.  It was, and still is, I’m sure,  a lovely school, with awesome kids and a genuine, caring staff… I miss them all dearly.

I don’t remember exactly when I coined the term or how I chose the word that I did, but I wanted to see if I could make up a word and have it travel across the country, eventually gaining international momentum.  So I introduced the word to my students.  I told them that I wanted to include them in an experiment.  I explained my expectations and told them that if they used our term enough, naturally, in everyday conversation, someday, it would be an accepted term in the English language, perhaps even earning a place in the Miriam-Webster dictionary.   I told them that one day, as they heard their own children use the term THEY had been a part of coining, that they would be able to claim their part in the experiment.  I said that their children would not believe them, but they themselves would know.  And there is satisfaction in knowledge.  I left Ellington seven years ago in an unexpected move to California after the school year had ended.  In the years years since my move, I had forgotten the experiment.

Until today.  While parked and waiting for my groceries that I had ordered online yesterday evening (Who doesn’t love online shopping?!), I chatted with a friend about words that I’d heard on the east and west coasts (wicked hot, rad, stoked, etc.) that I didn’t acquire into my own running vocabulary.  We had been debating the spelling of the word pigeon, which I ALWAYS spell with a “d” and have to spell check EVERY time I use it and how he lost an elementary spelling bee for the same reason.  Devastating.

He suggested we start using the phrase “totally pidgin” to describe something rad, and suddenly, it all came flooding back.  Not the word.  The experiment.  The faces of all my former students.  The emotions surrounding our experiment.  Near tears, I wondered where those students were today and if they had continued to use “our” term beyond middle school.  I didn’t get to say good-bye to my students, so it was an emotional, unresolved mess of a departure for me, leaving a job I loved, yet looking forward to new adventures.

As I drove home from the grocery store, I nostalgically reminisced the memories of my students randomly using the word in class, in the hallway, and shouting it to me across the crowded lunchroom at a school dance.  I smiled at such fond memories.  But… I. Couldn’t. Remember. The. Word.

Continuing the short drive to my house, I tried to put it in the back of my mind and let my dendrites work on it while I started mentally composing my formal good-bye.  It was always a regret, leaving like I did.  I wanted to pull over, grab my computer from the passenger seat and write.  But… I had perishable groceries in the back and it was HOT outside.

As I turned the corner from the main street to the one that intersects my own, as suddenly as I had remembered the experiment, the word came back to me!  My little dendrite buddies had done their job!  How could I have forgotten?  And then another flash as my mind’s eye glimpsed our gangsta-like gesture that we made up to go along with our term, creating a brotherhood of familiarity among us.

Once I got home, I couldn’t get the groceries unloaded fast enough.  My mind was composing faster than I could move.  As I shoved food, still in bags, into the fridge, I hoped that they had appropriately sorted the frozen items at the online fulfillment center.  I just needed to get to my computer before I lost it all.

And here I sit with a tender smile, remembering moments with those special students.  To my fellow term-coiners who happen across my blog…  You know who you are!  To you all, I tilt my head and raise my thumbs and index fingers and give you a hearty cheers and my formal good-bye.  I apologize that I didn’t say it in person and I’m sorry it took so long.  I REMEMBER each and every one of you!  You were all awesome and made me want to come to work EVERY day.  It was ANGLE-LICIOUS.

Yesterday, I was ready to retire… Reactive Reading

Yesterday, I was ready to retire.  Yesterday, I thought, “This is it for me.  20 years is a good run…  I don’t have the energy to do 15-20 more.”  I’ve had blah days, but yesterday it was a different sort of blah.  I’d finally lost the spark.  It wasn’t the kids.  It was me.   On normal blah days (and after a BIG cup of coffee), once my 1st graders walk through my door, I am usually back to smiles.  But not yesterday.

Yesterday, I dreamed of becoming a YouTube sensation.  Yesterday, I thought about composing and recording a song.  Yesterday, I decided to write my book.  Yesterday, I wished I could go home to bed.  For several days… And binge-watch Netflix.  Yesterday, I tried to think of anything I could do so that I could  Just. Be.  Done. Teaching.

But today…  Today, I woke up.  I woke up and looked in the mirror.  Today, there I was, myself again.  Today, the spark was back and I was excited.  Perhaps because it’s pajama day for Dr. Seuss week and I didn’t have to think of an outfit.  Perhaps because seeing all my little elementary kiddos in their jammies just makes me smile.  Or… perhaps, yesterday was really just another ordinary “blah” day after all.

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.”  -Bil Keane

Yesterday, I did not become a YouTube sensation.  Yesterday, I did not compose and record a song.  I did not write my book.  And I did not go home to bed and binge-watch Netflix.  Yesterday I did not retire.  Today, I’m am excited to share an activity that I have been doing in my class for several years.  Today, I recorded it!

Reactive Reading / Reactive Listening

Since it is Dr. Seuss week at school, like last year, I decided to read Huevos verdes con jamón with my elementary students.  This activity can be adapted for any age and any level of Spanish.

I call this activity Reactive Reading or Reactive Listening.  As the students read or listen to the story they react with gestures, expressions or noises.  Before I read the book, I explain the reactions I expect to see and hear.  Sometimes, they give it their own twist, which is what happened in class today.

As I tell stories in class and students act, whenever I introduce a character, I have the actor wave at the audience and say, “¡Soy yo!”  (That’s me!)  In the book Huevos verdes con jamón, the first line is, “Yo soy Juan.”  I had initially asked the students to point to themselves and then cross their hands over their chest to gesture, but once we started, after I read the first line, they all automatically said, “¡Soy yo!”  It was amazing, really, and caught me by surprise!  I loved it and used it in the rest of my classes.  You will hear my surprise in the first video

I spend time thinking of engaging reactions for my students during different parts of our stories.  Too many is too confusing, too few is not as engaging.  In the first video below, I modeled the reactions I expected to see and hear before beginning the activity.  Once I started reading, I realized that some students thought they were supposed to repeat.  I clarified by asking, “La clase dice ‘¡No me gusta nada!’ o ‘¡Para nada!’?”  And they responded with the correct answer ‘¡Para nada!’.  It only took a couple of reminders before they were all on the same page, reacting instead of repeating.  Unfortunately, I did not get the whole activity recorded because my iPad ran out of room.  Fortunately, I deleted some videos between classes and have examples of other grades.  The best quality video to view is the 2nd grade video, however, I am partial to them all!

3rd Grade – Reactive Reading:  Teacher modeling reactions

2nd Grade – Reactive Reading

4th Grade – Reactive Reading

5th Grade – Reactive Reading