Saturday, March 20, 2021

Things to avoid Part 1: Grading accuracy, participation, and engagement/effort

Things to avoid: grading for accuracy, participation, effort. Text is overlaid on a terracotta and lavender background.


There was a discussion on a Facebook group page that asked for guidance regarding grades and grade books.  I was surprised to see the number of teachers who count things like accuracy, participation, and effort.   

Now, my thinking has changed a bit, especially on participation and effort, as I continue to decolonize my classroom, my teaching practice, and my curriculum in my journey to become a more equitable educator. 

 (Update on that: I am also a Teaching Assistant now for the MITx class, Becoming a More Equitable Educator, that was so impactful for me last year, and it is just as impactful going through it again and working with learners from ALL OVER THE GLOBE in their pursuit to become more equitable educators.  It is *free* and great.)  

I am really struggling with where classroom management, white supremacy and systems of oppression, and my classroom practice intersect, but I have no clarity, so I am going to keep struggling on that and asking questions and seeing what I can think of.

However, over the course of my work and collaborations with amazing educators, I have really come to understand more about the role that grading for effort, accuracy, and participation/engagement play in a comprehension based classroom. I don't think I have all the answers, but I have some strong thoughts! 

 In terms of grading for participation, effort, and accuracy, I would say that all of those concepts may allow teacher bias to strongly interfere with grades.  They create systems of  rewarding some students for being better at "playing school", and reinforce a "numbers=learning" mindset.  And of course, if some students get rewarded, other students are going to be penalized.  

As I continue to work with teachers on assessment and grading practices, this student (and caregiver) mindset about numbers (percentages, points) being the equivalent of learning is consistently the number one issue that teachers have, so it is worth considering how our classroom practices play into creating the situation in the first place.  Remember that effort and participation might look a lot like compliance, and grading for compliance is never a good idea. Read my previous posts about grading for accountability, which is another way to say compliance.

Text reads: Students have no control over the rate at which they acquire language. Grading for accuracy on a daily basis rewards faster processors and punishes those who are not. Image of a girl with an afro sitting and smiling on a terracotta and lavender background.

Grading for Accuracy 

Since students have no control over the rate at which they acquire, grading for accuracy on a daily basis is going to reward only faster processors and punish other students for not being faster processors.   

Research about Ordered Development tells us that language features (verbs, word order, what we think of as grammar, etc.) is acquired in an order that is independent of instruction. 

That is to say, it doesn't matter how many times or how creatively a Spanish teacher teaches the difference between ser and estar (to be and the other to be) or the difference between the preterite and imperfect past tenses, students will not produce them until their brain is ready, and when they have traversed the developmental stages of acquisition for that word (or language feature).  Furthermore, learners move through those stages in a non-linear fashion!   They may be able to use a feature accurately one day, then in another context revert back to an earlier phase of development.  This developmental order plays out in every language, for every language feature, no matter what the learner's first language is. We see it in first language development as well.  For more information about ordered development, there is a paywalled article in Hispania by Dr. Bill VanPatten, as well as his great books available from ACTFL: The Nature of Language and While We're On The Topic".   

Accuracy is probably the least important component of proficiency.  Consider: for those of you that have very young children, can they communicate with you?  Of course! It is usually imperfect and often adorable, but it is communication. For those of us who prefer four-legged furry friends, do you know when your dog or cat wants something? I sure do, and I speak terrible Dog and her English is just as poor. But we communicate! (Usually.)   

Why would we expect our students to communicate about something accurately after mere tens of hours of instruction? Even after hundreds of hours (600+) of instruction, the rather small percentage of students who reach a proficiency level of Intermediate Mid (ACTFL proficiency scale) can only do so much.  For example, they can handle concrete, familiar, and predictable situations but might have difficulty linking ideas and time frames, and they are not expected to be accurate speakers of the language.  Read about that study here, and my soon-to-be published analysis of it when published! (I will add the link!)

In short, we should not grade students for accuracy, especially on a daily or weekly basis.  

Grading for Effort

Effort is another tricky concept. Many teachers say that if students are trying, then they are making the effort. But what does that look like? Does "trying" look the same across cultural contexts? Does my "trying" look the same as someone else's? And if the teacher sees someone trying, but doesn't see someone else, who gets the reward (the grade)?  

This goes right along with the familiar teacher practice of "well, little Johnny tried really hard so I will just bump up their grade because they deserve it."  Now, that is coming from a place of love and support, but wow- there are so many issues with that!  

First, if we bump up one kid's grade, why don't we bump up another? Who are we to judge how hard one kid tried and value that over another? Do we have the right to make those calls? 

Again, I guarantee that our implicit biases are going to come into play.  If we bump up the grade, do little Johnny and their caregivers have an inflated idea about what they can do in the language? Or does it mean that little Johnny gets credit despite not being able to meet a performance target?  

Grading for effort is a dangerous road, fraught with opportunities to let implicit biases reward students who understand the dominant cultural norms of the classroom and/or fit the teacher's definition of trying hard.  

Text reads: PARTICIPATION: Learners don't have to speak in order to acquire language. There is an image of a black man with a beard holding coffee, in terracotta, yellow, and beige.


Participation is also one of those concepts that needs to be carefully considered. The silent period (lasting 6 months to two years) is a documented stage of language acquisition. We also know that students do not need to be speaking in order to acquire language (they do need to be participating in communicative events, but that doesn't mean speaking!) 

Students who are not neuro-typical may demonstrate participation differently, as might students from other cultures. Again, teacher bias may strongly affect these grades, rewarding kids who are good at "playing school" and/or who understand the norms of the dominant culture.

But What About Engagement?

But wait! Don't you ask students to engage in class?  Don't you expect them to take risks and try to use the language?  

The answers to those concerns are COMPLICATED.

Engagement and participation are DIFFERENT in my book. Participation often looks like forcing kids to speak before the words come pouring out of them, or to speak in complete sentences. It also might be coupled with the belief that students must take risks in order to acquire language.  

I do not believe that students should feel like they are taking risks in speaking in my class.  My goal (and it *is* a high bar, I recognize) is that they feel like they have so much to say and they want to say it so badly that words just pour out.  

Engagement is something that I am really working through.  In order to meet the need for enough grades in a grade book, in my last school placement I asked students to self-assess on behaviors that support language acquisition, then I recorded that grade. (You can read more about what I used to do in this blog post: What goes in the Grade Book.)  After a while, I continued to ask students to self-assess, but recorded it less and less.  The practice was useful in some ways, but now I am really asking myself some hard questions about how I was rewarding those kids who played school (and penalizing others, including students from different cultural backgrounds and those who would be considered to be neurally diverse), and how I can try to reach the same goals (helping students self-regulate and attend to the input) while eliminating white supremacist culture in my classroom.  This is an ongoing exploration for me.  Whew!  

Text reads: the ways we grade can help us become more equitable educators. The ways we grade should help all students believe that they are capable of acquiring another language. Text is beige on a terracotta and lavender background.

I truly believe that the way we grade can help us become more equitable educators, and that the way we grade should help all students believe that they are capable of successfully acquiring another language. 

Friday, January 29, 2021

Part 2: Reframing Accountability in a comprehension based classroom

If you haven't read Accountability, Part 1,
please do so!  

Image description: geometric figures in dark blue, brown, and light green with the words Let's talk about accountability.

What does it mean to reframe accountability for a comprehension based classroom?

Thanks for asking!  I think there are some very concrete steps that we can take to support learning for the sake of learning and move away from the point based transactions in our classrooms. 

Please remember that changing the culture of a classroom, department, school, and community is not going to happen at once. Sometimes, all you can do is start behind your closed door, and that's ok.  Sometimes you might have to be
quietly subversive- which is OK too because being subversive might mean doing what is best for your students behind closed doors.  

Image description: geometric figures in dark blue, brown, and light green with the words 1. Grade and report on mastery. 2. Set achievable standards. 3. Change the focus from points to proficiency. 4. Build relationships and community. 5. Teach content that is relevant.

But what do I do???

1) Grade and report on mastery of standards.  

This is also known as standards based grading. You can do this even if your school reports grades on an  A-F scale.  A key idea in standards based grading is that teachers report accurate information about mastery of standards, and exclude information about engagement, timeliness, behavior, and practice in the mastery grade.   

2) Set standards that your students can reach, and celebrate what they can do!

Here is a brief article with suggestions for reasonable standards in a comprehension based classroom: Performance Targets.  

3) Change the focus from points to proficiency.

Teach what different levels of proficiency look like to your students and share that information with administrators and parents,  and be transparent in how you grade and assess.  Put rubrics directly on assessments and use consistent language for all assessments.  This helps change the conversation from "how many points is this worth?" to "look what you can do"!  Here are some ideas and a lesson plan to address how I did this with students.   I am proud to mention that the head of the school used the display  that we created from this lesson as a regular stop on tours for prospective families and school visitors.  It helped frame expectations for all stakeholders and create a common language. 

4) Build relationships and community. Connect with students.

Use all the wonderful comprehension based strategies that you learn in workshops (or wherever you get training!)  to build relationships, connect with your students, learn about their interests, and build a community where students feel seen, safe, and joyful.  

These strategies might include: Special Person Interviews, One Word Images, Chit Chat, Card Talk, Weekend Chat, Personalized Questions and Answers, and my all-time favorite: Story Asking.  There are SO many more things that can be done in comprehension based classes-don't be limited by my imagination!  

 Remember that learning how to do this kind of collaborative teaching takes some skill, practice, and might feel different for you as the teacher and very different for students. That's ok!  Give yourself some grace. 

Also remember that these strategies, when grounded in a framework of communicatively embedded input, are based on a principled understanding of the mechanics of language acquisition.  While it may look like just talk and play, these principles truly meet the definition of "student centered."

CARLA (The Center on Advanced Research for Language Acquisition (CARLA) defines student centered instruction as “Instruction that builds upon what students need, already know, and can do.” Note that the definition does not dictate roles or activities in a lesson, but instead tells us that the content of the lesson is what makes something student centered.  In our framework, what students need is consistent and comprehensible target language input, what they already know is about their own lives and interests, and what they can do is communicate (which includes interpretation) about those interests. Thanks to Martina Bex for making this important and relevant connection and her explanation in her article Proficiency Oriented Language Instruction.

Here are a couple of video resources about connecting with students: (Although I have been ignoring this little blog quite a lot lately, I have been incredibly busy doing other things!)

5) Find and teach content that is relevant and moderately interesting.

Use the information that you learn to find and create comprehensible content that is moderately relevant and interesting to your students. You don't have to have a home run story or unit each day or week or month- but trying to keep class personalized and connected to their lives is important.  

Even if I know that I want to teach about something that is content-related, I am going to try to use student experience and background knowledge to build interest and connect them to the content. Pro Tip: The SOMOS / Nous sommes / Sumus curriculum uses this framework for all units and it works incredibly well.  

A concrete example from my own classroom might be a learning sequence that looks something like this: 

Novice Spanish 

Note: I have done variations of these activities in Spanish 1a, 1b, and  1 honors. 

Content: Brandon Brown Quiere un Perro, by Carol Gaab (Fluency Matters)

Connection/relevance: Pets that students have or want to have/have had.  Responsibilities and fun/not fun parts of pet ownership.  


Students submit 1-2 pictures of their pets (or pets they want/have had, stuffed & mythical animals included)  and a short L1 paragraph about their pets. I put together a slideshow of their pets with L2 sentences that I am confident that we can read together.  I show 1-2 slides each day as a warm up and lead a comprehensible L2 discussion about the information.

Discussion: Which pet would you rather have? I present 2-4 different types of animals as pets and we discuss the pros/cons of each, in a scaffolded L2 discussion.   

Story: We co-create a story or two (TPRS©) to pre-teach vocabulary from the book that is unfamiliar. Using actors, pictures, and student ideas, we build the story then play with it.  The story becomes part of our community narrative- relevant, personal, and usually hilarious.   

Having created some community experiences around pets, shared opinions and laughter and probably disagreed about pets, moving into the book (the content) suddenly feels more relevant. When Brandon's dog chews his favorite pants in the narrative, we can relate that to the time Luis' snake ate his sister's hamster, and then perhaps have a whole discussion about gross things that pets eat and shouldn't. (True story. One of my best classes ever!)  

Image description: geometric figures in dark blue, brown, and light green with the words My Vision: All students feel like they can succeed. Classrooms are places of joy, language acquisition, and equity.

But wait! Don't you have to give grades? Sure, of course!  The difference is that I don't want to trade points for behavior.  I want students to be interested in what we are doing in class because they are motivated by relationships and relevant content. (For more great information about motivation, please check out Liam Printer's The Motivated Teacher resources and podcast.)    

You can read about what goes in my grade book if you like.  Notice that I had to fit my beliefs about standards based grades and what should go in the grade book into the culture of my school (and make compromises).  

I recognize that all 5 of these steps are big. None of them can be accomplished over night, but I do think that in reframing accountability and points-as-motivation,

I am positive that we can make sure that all students feel like they can succeed and center our classrooms as places of joy, language acquisition, and equity. 

Part 1: The A word (Accountability)

Image description: geometric figures in dark blue, brown, and light green with the words Let's talk about accountability.

Let's talk about the A word. I'm talking about accountability, friends.  I have been chewing on some ideas about this word for a long time, and have recently been able to put to words some concerns I have about this idea.  

Holding students accountable for their learning is not inherently bad.  Conflating compliance with evidence of learning (or in our case, acquisition) is not the same as holding students accountable for their learning.  And in fact, the whole idea of accountability might have some problems, at least the way it is used when applied to students.  

Accountability often comes up in discussions about student engagement.  It usually sounds like this: "How do I hold them accountable for ___?" and when teachers are more frustrated (sometimes feeling defensive, especially when we are talking about the intersection of grading, assessment practices, and equity), "but they won't do it if I don't hold them accountable/give them a grade for it."  

First, I hear you, and I feel you, and I am not in your context, and I am not here to judge.  We are all just trying to get through this crazy year, and all the crazy years.  

Second, I want to unpack a few ideas wrapped up in what teachers mean by student accountability.  

Finally, I hope to offer some fairly concrete ideas for how to reframe accountability in a comprehension based classroom.  (See Part 2.

Since this is my blog, this is real talk. This is me, unfiltered, and asking hard questions.  It's ok if you don't agree with me, but I do think it is worth asking hard questions about our classroom practice. Don't give up on me. 

What "holding students accountable" looks like (based on observations and discussions with teachers) 

  • Assigning point values to every thing done in class and collecting and grading it all, e.g. collecting and grading bell work/starters.
  • Requiring that students complete "proof of learning" such as graphic organizers (that don't prove anything, really) or filling in guided notes. 
  • Giving students assignments to complete that have little-to-no relevance for learning or acquisition, e.g. assigning busy work to be completed after free voluntary reading to prove that students did something.
  • Believing that students won't do work unless there is a grade attached.
  • Rewarding compliance (doing the work) and conflating compliance (or lack thereof) with learning.

(Please know, I have done most of these things and held these beliefs, and I am not in your context nor do I have to comply with your school's expectations. These are just examples.  #nojudgement)

Who gets held accountable in our general adult world?

Well, I am accountable for being licensed to drive and having insurance- or at least, if I was caught without those things, I would have some kind of consequence.  Often, our society talks about holding people accountable for misdeeds and violence against others.  In fact, accountability seems to be very closely related to punishment or consequences for doing harm. 

I am sure that there are a million other ways to consider accountability, so please forgive me if this is just one facet of this complicated concept.  But- as we are seeing such a disproportionate rate of students of color receiving behavior referrals1, it does seem pertinent, right? Holding a kid accountable for their behavior/compliance  often results in punishment. This punishment might be low grades, which research shows is not a motivating factor2.

Why do you do your job? What makes you accountable?

Then there is the idea of holding people accountable for doing their job.  I am expected to show up to events and workshops and classes that I have scheduled and contracted, and provide the services that I have agreed to provide.  I am held accountable by the very real consequences of losing my job.  But that's not why I show up. I show up because I chose this work, I like this work, and I am motivated to engage in this work.  

Few teachers are motivated by money (although there is *no* doubt that we should be paid fair and equitable wages, and not be shamed into working 60+ hours a week or risking our lives "for the children").  And if you are just motivated by having a job- that's ok- we all need a job! 

 So what motivates you to be accountable for your work? Is it fear? Is it the paycheck/health benefits (no judgement!)? Is it the sense that you are doing something bigger for your community? Is it that you adore the students and love what you do? Is it your love of your school community and colleagues?  Are you motivated to show up for work or are you held accountable? Are those factors in balance?  

Let's talk about the kids in the classroom

Considering a few different reasons to be held accountable and some motivations for doing what we are asked to do- as adults-is it reasonable to expect kids-to be motivated by external factors?   I mean- we are talking about kids, not fully formed adults.  And to be clear- I am speaking now very specifically about kids in a classroom context, and how they are held accountable or not for doing their job of learning in the classroom.  

Image description: geometric figures in dark blue, brown, and light green with the words External Motivation (low grades) is not effective motivation.

 This leads me to consider motivations- my own and those of students.   Giving grades to increase motivation really comes from a behaviorist framework of punishment and rewards.  This framework, also known as extrinsic motivation, has some problems.  Joe Feldman shares this critique:

[...] extrinsic motivation is not an effective motivation strategy for authentic learning. While extrinsic motivation yields benefits for menial and repetitive tasks- such as offering prizes for stuffing the most envelopes [...]extrinsic rewards and consequences have been found to be wholly ineffective to engage people in tasks that require higher-order and creative thinking [...]. (Feldman, Grading for Equity, 2019)3 

Grades as Rewards

This idea of grades as rewards- also known as a points economy- is so deeply embedded in our school culture that it is incredibly hard to reframe.  But consider: do we want students to be engaged in learning for the sake of learning? (Also, do we want them to be engaged in order to contribute to their community, to develop connections with each other and their community, and all those things we talk about when we create vision statements for learning?) Or, do we want students to be engaging in points transactions in classrooms?  Are we, as teachers, the brokers of points or guides for learning/language acquisition?  Rick Wormeli, a teacher and leader in supporting teachers in implementing equitable assessment practices, wrote this amazing response to a concern about moving to standards based grades. Take a moment and read it.  

OK, welcome back to talking about accountability.

When we talk about giving points for assignments (because otherwise students won't do the work) and rewarding the "good" behavior, we are doing harm.  Grades should not be rewards for compliance.

Image description: geometric figures in dark blue, brown, and light green and an image of a standardized test, with the words Grades are not rewards for compliance. They are indicators of progress.

We are engaging in points transactions rather than engaging learners. And, if students aren't engaged in the work, if they are not "paying attention" or "just turning in blank papers", isn't that a big neon sign pointing to the lack of connection and relevance of the learning to their lives?  Or...perhaps something else that is really important to know about the learner?  

This is a BROAD statement- but dig in with me here.  I know that teachers are social workers, food providers, emotional support providers, nurses, therapists, tech support, and all the other things that have been put on our plate.  And I know that it might feel like I am telling you that you have to do more. And it might feel overwhelming-especially this year, especially with remote and hybrid and roomies and zoomies and the global trauma that we are living through.  Give yourself some grace, but please, keep reading.  

When a teacher says to me "but I have to hold them accountable" by assigning a grade to each piece of learning, I want to ask the following questions:

1) Do you know why the student is not engaged? Have you asked them or their care givers? Have you listened to the answer? Have you used that information to support that learner within your means? (And if the answer is yes, or I have done all I can, that's ok! Read this great article: When is it ok to say you've done "enough" for a student? from Angela Watson.) 

2) Is what you are asking the students to do something that they can and wish to engage in?  Is your content relevant to their lives or at least moderately interesting? Do they feel respected as learners? Do they feel like they are capable of doing the task, and that it has a point?  Do they feel like they are part of a community? Do they believe that you care for them and see them as for who they are?  

3) How deeply are you and the students engrained in the points transaction universe?  

4) Do students think that they have a reasonable path to success in your class, despite not having the requisite points or making the choice to not do work? Can they recover? 

The Hard Work

I know. I KNOW.  I am telling you the hard stuff. I am asking you to think and dig in and reflect and perhaps admit something uncomfortable, and yes, work more, and harder.  

But this work- developing engaging curriculum, connecting withs students and building relationships, and giving students the opportunity to succeed- this is good work. It is important work.  If you can focus on this, and try to minimize (or even eliminate) the work that doesn't serve students, then you will have more time for building connections and creating curriculum that is truly engaging and relevant.  Here are some thoughts about focusing on what matters.

OK, you've made it this far. Thank you. In my next post, I will talk about reframing accountability and what this looks like in a comprehension based (acquisition driven, proficiency oriented, CI) classroom. This is getting REALLY long!  


1Riddle, T., & Sinclair, S. (2019). Racial disparities in school-based disciplinary actions are associated with county-level rates of racial bias. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, 116(17), 8255-8260.)

2Selby & Murphy, 1992 as referenced by Tom Guskey, "Five Obstacles to Grading Reform," Educational Leadership, ASCD, November 2011

3Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a Sage Publishing Company.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

ASSESSMENT: a new three-session course focused on learning to love assessments

 I am super excited to share this news! In February, I will be launching a new Teacher Lab series focused on assessment and grading.  This has been in the works for a LONG time but it has taken me a while to figure out how to fit the content into something that actually makes sense for teachers.  

I truly believe that the way we assess and grade students can help us become more equitable educators and I want to share the work that I have done with teachers.  I also believe that grading doesn't have to be the worst part of the job.  Did you know that for most teachers, grading is the #1 least-satisfactory part of their job?  It doesn't have to be!  It *is* something that we have to do, but we can at least take the agony out of it.  

Grading for Equity (Joe Feldman) is a book that I recommend to all teachers.

We will look at some research about language acquisition (how our brains acquire language) and consider the implications, take a deep dive into what traditional grades don't do well and why (and look at alternatives), and finally, dig into assessments can we give in comprehension based classes.  We will also look at how to grade so that our reporting is accurate, representative of what students *can* do, and resistant to bias.   WHEW! It's a lot for 4.5 hours.  

Plus, I get to stretch myself and see how to make some Zoom classes more interactive and collaborative.   

Click on the picture above or visit our page for more information.  I am also revisiting a couple of great workshops from 2020, including Teaching for Acquisition (90 minutes) and All About the Texts (60 minutes) in January.  Please join me!  

Friday, November 20, 2020

Timed Free writes: one practice that serves many purposes

Timed Freewrites

 I have been thinking a lot about timed free writes lately.  Like, a lot!  I have been thinking about how they are a fairly simple, easy to implement practice that solves a rather large number of challenges in a comprehension-based classroom.  While timed free writes (aka fluency writing) do not help students acquire language (only input that students can understand does that!), they are an amazingly useful tool.  In this post, I will share some of my big reasons for loving them, ideas about logistics for implementation, some frequently asked questions, and finally, some resources to help you. 

Here are a few common challenges that I feel like timed free writes have the potential to resolve:

  • Students, families, and/or administrators feel like they are not "learning" without having long lists of vocabulary and conjugation practice.  
  • Teachers need to write measurable goals for student learning (because they can't be trusted to just teach and assess, they have to do more than that...but that's another issue.)
  • Teachers need students to produce written work in order to comply with department, school, or district assessment requirements.
  • Departments want valid assessment that focus on student performance while allowing teachers the professional autonomy to teach in the way that they feel best serves their students. 
  • There is an increased pressure on teachers to create portfolios and evidence of student learning; in particular, for student reflection and evidence of growth.  

Timed free writes have other benefits too, based on my observations and experience:

  • They help students feel a sense of ownership of language; they can look at a page, or a chart tracking word counts, and see their growth.  This builds confidence, which builds motivation, which is, of course, a great thing.  
  • The freedom to just write about anything can be pretty joyful for many students.
  • Sometimes, students are willing to share what they really think and feel, and their writings provide a window into their lives and wellbeing.
  • The teacher ends up with a whole lot of very personalized writings that are student-centered and usually very comprehensible.  These are a goldmine if you choose to use them. You can just type up a few and add them to your class library, or perhaps share them in class the following day.

Timed Freewrites: A glimpse into the language in students' heads

So, aside from all these amazing benefits of Timed Free Writes, why do I love them?  Giving students the pressure of a time limit is the best way that I can think of to see what is really in their head. This leads to...
  • Evidence, evidence, evidence. Evidence of what they really have in their head! On paper! 
  • The joy of giving students their first writing from the beginning of the year on the last day of school: let them compare it to their most recent writing; there is truly nothing more incredible than listening to them share about their own growth.  
  • The joy of having a predictable routine: this is how we spend 15 minutes a week. No planning necessary.
  • When students write, so do I.  In the target language! If I knew the plot of the novel I am working on, it would probably be complete by now!  

Here's the nuts and bolts of timed free writes, as I use them in my classroom.  I learned most of what I do from Scott Benedict (Immediate Immersion), who deserves ALL the credit for helping me think this through and implement in my classroom.


1) Teach the kids the expectations.

Mine are: write the whole time, it's ok to use the word supports on the walls but I want you to write as many words as possible and that will slow you down, the prompt I give is optional, write one word per line, and your story does not have to make sense. If you don't know how to say it in Spanish, say something else. Absolutely no talking.

2) Give an optional prompt.  

Sometimes, I used a silly picture from the internet. (Here are some great ones!) At other times, I created a little scene from props and stuffed animals.  Students who needed ideas could use the prompt as a starting place, OR they could write whatever they chose.

3) Use special paper. 

This paper that has a space for each word so it is easy and fast to graph word counts. I downloaded mine from Scott Benedict.  I copied mine on the back side of copies from the recycle bin in our school's copy room to save paper. 

4) Don't grade them at first.  

When and if you decide to grade them, read this first:  Grading Writings.  If you prefer to watch a video, here you go: Assessment Hacks and Hope.

5) Start when students have a lot of language in their head.  

My advice: start with novices about 9 weeks into the year, after a very rich diet of tons of listening and reading to language they understand.  I usually start 2nd year students writing in about the 3rd or 4th week of school.

6) Be consistent. 

Do this once a week.  If students complain, remind them that the expectation is to smile and be positive. In fact, I tell them that they are expected to cheer.  I have also been known to tell them that if they groan when I announce a free write, they have to do another one tomorrow. That usually ends the groans very quickly.  

7) Write for a predictable, short amount of time.

10 minutes is a good amount of time for students to write.  From start to finish, the whole activity, once we got into the swing of things, takes about 15 minutes.  

8) Set a goal- but remember it is just a goal, not a requirement. 

A common goal is for all students to be able to write 100 words in the target language in 10 minutes, and then reduce the minutes while keeping the goal. So, after everyone can do 100 in 10, try 100 in 9.  The purpose of this may be because a reasonable goal for fluent speakers is to write 100 words in five minutes in their first language.  

9) Students track word counts.

Ask students to keep track of their word counts in a graph and save their writings!  These portfolios are immensely powerful.  (Scroll down to download a data tracking sheet.) 

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some questions that I see all the time about implementing timed freewrites. Hopefully my answers will help you feel like you can do this in your own classroom!

What if a kid just writes one or two words over and over? Honestly, I have never had this happen.  My students with IEPs and 504s, students who struggled with writing, students who hated writing...they all were generally able to produce a few sentences.  But, if this happened,  I would consider the following: the student does not yet have much of a mental representation of language, so the task is not appropriate for them, yet.  Maybe while everyone else is writing, you sit with them and read texts that are comprehensible to them. 

There could also be other reasons for this- did they just have a terrible day? Is this more evidence that they need support and relationships rather than an assignment? Did their dog just die?  I would look at the whole picture of the student and decide how to respond based on a lot of different kinds of information.   

Do you let students look at the word walls in your room? Yes! But..I tell them that if they are relying on the words in the room to impress me, they are going to write less, and I want them to just spill out all the words.  But it's fine if they do!

Do you read all of them?  Nope. Not at all. *If your district requires you to read everything that students write, I would consider doing something different than what I suggest.* I did choose to read one group's worth of writing a week. And I tell them that! They didn't know which class's writings I was going to read!  However, after a few weeks, students started asking if I would read their writing, even if it wasn't for a grade, because they were proud of what they had written.  So, I invited them to put a star on the top, and when I collected them, I made sure to read those and either comment or talk to the writer.  

How do you grade them?  Read this: Grading writing for details about rubrics, error correction, and keeping the workload manageable. 

Do you let kids type? Actually, no.  Even when teaching virtually, I asked students to hand write their free writes and submit pictures of their writing immediately afterwards to our Learning Management System.  I know that for some teachers, this might be madness, but I don't want to open the box of translation/accents/etc.  Handwriting is just fine.  

Finally, I will leave you with this joyful piece of writing from a very special young lady.  Because it makes my day! 

Here is a collection of my favorite resources about timed writing.  Please leave questions below if you wish! 





Friday, October 9, 2020

October, 2020: Really? Just...REALLY? A reminder and an update

 I haven't written much for a long while.  Well, that isn't true- I have been writing a lot, and thinking a lot, and trying new things- A LOT- but not over here on this blog.  Truth be told, I miss this old friend, but I am struggling a bit with a) who wants more screen time? and b) what this blog is, now that I have this whole new job (Director of Training, Comprehensible Classroom).

And, just like so many of you, I am overwhelmed by the new unexpected demands placed on teachers right now.  I never expected to be training teachers how to use Zoom, or advising teachers on how to connect and build community with students that they have never met, online.  I never expected to be working in my 8 x 11 foot office, with a (new) obnoxiously green wall (my green screen) and a whiteboard.  But I am surviving. Not necessarily thriving, but right now, survival is enough.

I swing day by day between relief that I have a job, a home, and that my family is healthy and safe, and all the other really big, scary emotions that living in a pandemic has brought.  I still grieve for the goodbyes I didn't get from my graduating students, from the farewell party that I never got when I left my school, and for the teaching I didn't get to do in the spring.  Oh, and all the conferences and weddings that I didn't get to go to in person.  I know I am supposed to focus on the positive, but sometimes it is REALLY hard. You feel me, right?  I keep reading and re-reading this article:  For Teachers Who Are Not OK right now, Angela Watson (Cornerstone for Teachers).

So, what is going on with me? I am teaching. A LOT! I have been running small cohort style virtual classes to support comprehension based teachers teaching online/hybrid/whatever, and adapting the courses as new realities are hitting us (scattered, anyone?). I have been thinking a lot about the kinds of issues that come up again and again, and trying to create resources to help address those issues.  I have been busy!  

Here are some of the things that I have collaborated or created in the past few weeks. 

Blog about Becoming an Anti-Racist Educator - Blog about assigning work in different Learning Management Systems- Virtual Assessment Video- Unboxing Flex video- Conversation with John Bracey about Connecting with Students of Color, tons of short articles and resources about really important things, like 90% Target Language and Distance Learning Resources and Projects in Comprehension Based classes- Upcoming: Trainings abut SOMOS Flex, Pear Deck, Differentiation- Rewriting the curriculum of my Methods of Secondary World Language Class and making it 100% virtual / synchronous, and creating all my assignments to be virtual (some synchronous, like our starters, and some asynchronous), and adding demos to every class.  Playing with new tools like Go Formative and Interactive Digital Notebooks- Planning a really extensive series of courses on assessment (coming in the new year, probably)- doing a small # of district trainings- trying to stay active and not get too sad.

On the other hand, even if my summer was spent in front of a screen, I had a blast at the various virtual conferences in which I participated and presented/moderated.  I had the joy of attending Latin class with Justin Slocum Bailey and Chinese with Diane Neubauer, two of my favorite humans and brilliant teachers who were using the teaching labs to experiment and push their own practice.  I watched a ton of other teachers teaching kids in a few different languages, including one memorable class where the students had no cameras, some had no mics, and they *still* created community and acquired language and participated.  (Note- they were there by choice, and highly motivated, but STILL!) 

I attended some mind-blowing sessions from brilliant presenters and teachers and started to remember that all we need to support language acquisition is a way to talk to our students (or give them things to read) and a way to check that they understand the input. Input, that students understand, works. All the other things are shiny and pretty and may or may not actually support learning. (And they ARE a huge time suck for teachers.)

Also, I made some new friends and collaborators. That was really lovely! 

Anyway, as we all struggle through the pandemic and the new realities of teaching, I hope you will give me grace as I find the new identity of this blog and my own teaching practice.