Tag Archives: world languages

Going deeper with PBLL planning

This question was posted recently on Edutopia

Dear Don,

Thank you for your article. I am a French teacher at the American School of New Delhi and I am currently preparing a COETAIL program (Certificate of educational technology and information literacy) . As part of my last course, I have decide to implement a PBL task. I am teaching a beginner group and our next unit is about ‘food’. I have been inspired by your article to ask the students to set up a restaurant in a francophone country. As a novice with PBL, I would be really grateful if you could give me some advice to ensure a succesful and enjoyable experience for my students : do you give your students any vocabulary or structures beforehand? how do you make sure that they communicate with each other in the target language (considering that I have a beginner group, they might use more English than French)? How do you assess them along the way? How do you track individual’s participation in the group? I’ll appreciate any advice, rubrics, resources I could use to help me set up that project. Merci beaucoup!


Hi Julie – you have some GREAT questions! Well done on experimenting with PBLL (project-based language-learning) as well.

I usually introduce a PBLL-aligned unit with some form of comprehensible input in the form of a story related to the learning targets and including a driving question for inquiry. For example, for this “food unit,” the driving question(s) is/are: How can we help to preserve the rich culinary heritage of the Francophone world? The learning targets are formulated in “I can statements” = I can + language function + theme. For example:

  • I can describe how to prepare a recipe from the target culture.
    I can ask and answer questions about the foods of the target culture.
    I can help someone select a dish from a menu.

My story will model all these learning targets. I include key vocabulary and structures (not grammar! but syntactical relationships, or sentence frames) as a model of the language they will learn and produce. My story may have episodes as well, to break it down into segments, as all at once could be overload. I do not provide lists of words, I ask students to share out new words they are learning, and we create a word wall – usually on Padlet.com, but also the walls of the classroom. I am not keen on a “defined list” – I want students to own their vocabulary. There can be choices here.

Students work in groups of four ideally. More is too many, three is the least. They have assigned roles (decided by the group) to ensure everything is done well – project manager, secretary, questioner/clarifier, producer…). I help scaffold interpersonal communication between students with sentence frames – on Padlet and on paper. I also circulate around the room constantly, checking in with groups as they do their research. I ask and answer questions in French, and support their use of the target language. Students are encouraged to use target language as much as possible, but they are not required only to speak French.

I have rubrics for several things: collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and of course communication: oral and written, in the three modes of communication – interpretive, interpersonal and presentational. I am working on updates of my rubrics, including making variations for novice, intermediate and advanced level fluencies. The ones I have made are on my website at https://drdmd.wordpress.com – see the tab labeled “PBLL” – note that this page is under construction, but there is a link to my old site where there is all I have posted so far. More to come on this! You will find a lot of resources there.

I am writing a “how to” book on PBLL, but it is in draft, not yet done. More to follow on this!

I hope this gets you started! Thanks for your post, and best wishes on your good work!



The Importance of World Languages and Intercultural Competence

The national debate about education seems omnipresent in the media, whether on TV or the radio, in newspapers and magazines, or in social media, from Facebook to Twitter, and more. As a nation, we look to our schools to educate students for participation in an increasingly flattened global economy. We hear about the importance of teacher accountability, of better test scores in math, sciences, and English. We also need to hear much more about creating increased opportunities for students to learn other languages, starting in early grades, so they may have sufficient opportunity to reach high levels of communicative proficiency and intercultural competence. The time has come for us to open up the debate more fully about this important question.

While it is true that English enjoys a position of prestige on the global scale, we should not to take it for granted; we cannot predict what the future may hold. Even so, America must develop citizens who can communicate well in other languages. We have to address national security concerns, to be sure. We must also to prepare students who can demonstrate respect for our trading partners. Beyond those concerns, we do well to ensure that students are prepared to understand our neighbors, friends, allies, foes, and those within our own borders who are members of language minority communities. Language learning opportunities open doors for mutual appreciation, understanding and respect. As a world leader, America needs citizens who show an interest in building positive and equal relationships with other nations. When we make that kind of investment, we gain much more than a business transaction. We also gain the prospect of making new friends and allies.

There is another benefit to language study that warrants our attention. Students who learn other languages also gain insights into other cultural perspectives, and intercultural competency, which is defined as the ability to communicate in culturally appropriate ways, while showing appreciation and understanding of others, and maintaining a spirit of openness and respect for others. To attain to a high level of intercultural competency, students require enough time not only acquire another language to sufficient proficiency, but also time to explore, explain, investigate, and reflect upon the perceptions of other cultural groups, their values and their beliefs.


As students investigate other cultures through authentic resources, they gain insights into the commonalities and the differences between cultures. According to studies by Kramsch, Deardorff, Moeller, and others, cultural inquiry leads to greater insights into one’s own culture, a greater awareness of the similarities and differences between cultures, and greater self-awareness. As students reflect on the results of their inquiry, they come to realize how culture impacts one’s attitudes and worldview. They reach a deeper understanding of others, and they also grow in flexibility, adaptability, empathy, and respect.

Intercultural Competence – A Conceptual Framework

To achieve these worthy goals, we must be bold in our efforts to increase language-learning opportunities in the early years of our children’s educational journeys. In my own school district, for example, we recently completed a group inquiry into the ways we could offer more opportunities for students to begin language study in early elementary years. We have a Spanish-English dual immersion magnet school, which has been in existence for several years. This highly successful program is modeled on the French immersion schools of Canada, which have a long-proven record of success in supporting students to become bilingual, interculturally aware, and cognitively more advanced than their monolingual peers. In my district, we have added a second dual immersion magnet school, and plan to add others. In addition, we have worked to establish clearly defined language learning pathways in K-12 so students will be able to pursue language studies across their educational journey. Efforts such as these should be considered and implemented across the country.

Clearly there are many advantages to establishing such language-learning opportunities for the future of our country and its citizens. Let us begin in earnest to discuss how we can ensure we meet these strategically essential goals, and how we may prepare our children to be globally aware and communicatively proficient in more than one language. The future of America’s standing in the world is at stake. Now is the time to act thoughtfully, thoroughly and intentionally, to meet these important objectives.

My PBLL Webinar on Infusing Culture for the NFLRC at University of Hawaii


A New Resource for World Language Teachers

This article was first posted on Edutopia at this link.

I want to spread the word about a new resource from the National Capital Language Resource Center. It is free, on-line to consult, and to download in PDF format. What is it? Let me tell you!

The resource is a well written and well documented book called Teaching World Languages, A Practical Guide. You can download it here:


Why do I recommend it? Well, not only is it free, but it references our ACTFL National documents, including the World Readiness Standards, and the Can-Do Statements, then explains how to apply them to the classroom.

I wonder if you have ever struggled with trying to interpret the ACTFL National standards without going back to the usual ways of teaching World Languages? For example, in teaching a unit on the family, do you find yourself going with the traditional vocab list with all the family relationships? Do you add in a verb conjugation here and there? Do you couple these with the “possessive adjectives” or something similar? Of course we do want students to know those things, but in the end, how well do the students perform when we teach that way? How many novice mid to novice high students remember their verb forms and possessive adjectives really well? Really, how many? Most? Many? Some? Few? Be honest! Now, don’t you ever wonder if there isn’t a better way, especially when you go to grade the assessments which come with the traiditional textbooks most of us have for our classes?

There is a better way! And this practical guide can help you explore some of the many strategies and options which will help you become a more communication-based language teacher.

The book is divided into principles and practices. The section devoted to principles starts with an overview of 9 essential concepts:

  1. Communicative Competence
  2. Cultural Competence
  3. Learner-Centered Instruction
  4. Standards for FL Learning for the 21st Century
  5. Understanding by Design (aka Backwards planning)
  6. Performance Assessment
  7. Transfer in Language Learning
  8. Language and Culture are Inseparable
  9. Authentic Materials

Each of these terms is well defined and the authors give examples. Later chapters develop these concepts in greater detail.

The chapters devoted to practices break down the concepts into the areas where a teacher seeking to implement a proficiency-based curriculum will devote her or his focus in create authentically communicative units of instruction. The chapters in the practices section are organized according to the 5 C’s of our ACTFL World Readiness Standards. The first C, for Communications, is divided over three chapters, each one for the three modes of communication:  interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational, in oral and written formats. There are lots of examples included in these three chapters. In addition, the other 4 C’s of the World Readiness Standards are addressed: Cultures, Connections, Comparisons and Communities. These also come with examples of ‘how to’ do it!

Whether you are a new or an experienced teacher, I think you will find this resource useful, if for no other reason than that it is so full of great ideas for engaging students in real-world, real-life activities, to help them become competent communicators in another language. Go get a copy and have some fun making creative ways to help your students really speak the language! As I always say, ‘no one ever went into a restaurant and conjugated a verb!’

Seriously! No one ever did that!

Driven to Distraction

This article also appears on Edutopia at this link

In a recent post on Edudemic, author Leah Levy suggests “7 Ways to Deal With Digital Distractions in the Classroom.” I appreciated her ideas, and wondered if anyone in our community has other ideas for things that work?! So what do you think? Have you tried something that works?

Personally, I am not keen to “fight the fight” that many of my colleagues choose – not that I blame them, nor am I suggesting that they are wrong to do so. I simply don’t have desire to spend the time or the energy to stop the cultural shift toward tech devices in every hand, 24/7.  I may be guilty of the same thing anyway!

Rather, I prefer to accept that the devices are in hand and in class. I have decided to lay out a set of common agreements, which we all must embrace, including me. We don’t hide them under the table. We use them out in the open in honest, appropriate ways, for academic purposes. I tell my students that I am choosing to trust them, and that if they want me to continue to do so, then we need to keep our agreements. For most students, this works very well, but I must admit, there are times when it does not and I am disappointed.

Then again, there has never been a time in my 32 years of teaching that everything went perfectly 100% of the time! Why should things be any different today? And are the technology devices really any more of a challenge than things in the past? I really rather doubt it.

Your turn now. What have you tried that helps you keep your cool, and your sanity? No ranting here, please, just frank discussion about how we can “psyche” ourselves into shifting in good ways, so we stay the course.

I look forward to your thoughts!



Blended Learning and World Languages

This article appears on Edutopia at this link

Getting Smart has posted a new infographic on how World Language Teachers are creating blended learning environments. Here is the document:


What do you think? How are you incorporating digital learning opportunities in your classes? Does this infographic spark any ideas for you? What have you tried? What are you thinking of trying? Share your ideas, and let’s think together about it!



The Berkeley WL Project Connects on G+

This article also appears on Edutopia at this link

My journey as a connected educator began one day while I was stuck at home, convalescing after surgery. I picked up my iPad and decided to check out Twitter because I was curious to find out what all the fuss was about. I admit I was skeptical that 140 characters would really amount to much — until my professional journey started expanding by leaps and bounds. I am still amazed that, in less than a couple of months, I was part of the #LangChatteam, and a facilitator for Edutopia!

Now I have stepped into yet another role. After 25 years working as a teacher trainer with the Berkeley World Language Project, I serve as co-director. Our project offers ongoing professional development opportunities for teachers of other languages, including ESL, heritage languages, American Sign Language, and all world languages one might imagine, from French and Spanish to Arabic and Japanese, from Hindi and Swahili to German and Italian . . . It’s a great deal of fun to work with such a diverse array of educators seeking to meet the needs of students in our service region of the greater San Francisco Bay Area.

My role as co-director includes handling the technology we use and our developing social media presence. Once a skeptic, I am now an enthusiastic proponent for using social media as professional development and collaboration tools.

In addition to offering workshops, the Berkeley WL Project seeks to support colleagues, nearby and farther afield, through social media. Our connections include Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. Each has its advantages, of course, but the Google+ platform seems to offer the most flexibility for our purposes. Here are some of the ways it helps us engage with the global language community.

1. Language Acquisition Theory

We have the unique privilege of being located at the University of California Berkeley and being part of the research and activities of the Berkeley Language Center. We’ve established an online presence, in part, so that we can share the wealth of information flowing through our halls at Cal, which comes from all over the world. We share information about the latest developments in language acquisition theory and best practices.

For example, there have been significant discoveries about how the human brain learns languages. We are especially keen to share this research so that we can think together about how best to design curriculum which will allow students to be successful in language acquisition. We know that we don’t really learn languages through structural approaches, which have been the predominant methodologies used, especially in the U.S. How often have we heard someone say, “I took two years of French, and all I can remember is that we conjugated verbs.” And of course, that’s what we have done, but no one ever went into a café to conjugate a verb!

We’ve discovered that the brain learns languages best by imitating patterns. We hear/see/read chunks of language, and then we imitate them until we have a sense of how they function. Afterward, we begin substituting words within the patterns, adding more patterns to our repertoire, until we really own the language. We’ve also learned that if we teach structures on the side, we can help students improve their accuracy, particularly in writing, but only once they reach intermediate fluency, so that they have enough language to which they may apply their improved accuracy. Google+ allows enough space to post important research online and foster a conversation about these and other articles.

2. The Power of Conversation

We seek to connect with people at a deeper level beyond our workshops and tweets. Google+ allows for longer conversations, which sometimes lead to setting up a hangout for face-to-face conversations. I’ve had chats with language educators all over the globe, from France, Canada, and South Africa, to Hawaii, Japan, and China. It’s been enriching to have these connections as we explore incorporating newer strategies for learning languages based on what we learn from the research. We’re exploring what really works to help students achieve the proficiency-based the outcomes we desire.

3. Extending the Workshops

Most of our engagement with language educators has been with those who come to our workshops. Each of our programs offers 40 hours of contact per school year. However, that’s often not enough time for our participants to process how to implement the new skills they are learning. We’ve started experimenting with discussion forums on Google+. We post an article with a few questions to support a deeper conversation about what works in the classroom. We will eventually post videos, photos, and other sorts of media as well. We think this development will serve a need that we were previously unable to meet.

4. Sharing Results

We also plan to share examples of student work with our Google+ participants. In fact, we hope our participants will also share their own examples of student work as we engage in action research together. The G+ platform allows for a lot of options to this end.

It’s amazing to live in a time when things happening on the far side of the world can affect what we do in our classrooms with students. The world is indeed our classroom, and all the more in a language class, where we support students to connect globally. We have found a useful home on Google+ to support the conversation about what really works in language acquisition, and how to put these strategies into practice.

Have you also have found ways of using G+ to connect with other educators around the world? I hope you’ll share your thoughts and comments below. And I look forward to learning with you as we share ideas here on Edutopia!