One Word Images – 1

I am concerned that the term “One Word Image” is being redefined, on other CI sites and at workshops. This eight-part series from A Natural Approach to Stories defines the term in the way I originally intended:

We can begin to collect compelling portraits via a shared classroom strategy called One Word Images. The class has so much fun generating these images together that, after a period of one to two weeks setting up each new academic year using student questionnaires (Chapter 5), we can easily build a handful of unique and compelling characters using the One Word Images strategy so that, by the end of the second week of school, we are ready to select the star of our first story and begin!

One Word Images is a simple strategy that trains the class in working together to produce compelling visual images. It trains students to use their imaginations to build imaginary characters as a group. The desired pedagogical by-product of this activity, of which the students are not consciously aware, is the delivery of large amounts of engaging comprehensible input including many high-frequency words and structures.

The language is easily retained when we do this because to the students it seems that the right word or phrase showed up just in the nick of time to help them express a shared vision. The new language is attached to that happy emotion and therefore “sticks” in their minds far better. It’s not even close.

To start building a One Word Image, we tell the class in L1 that we are going to work together using our imaginations to create an invisible character as a group and that we will create it out of thin air right here in front of the class. The character could be anything—a car or a house, a cloud or a starfish, a sandwich or a cat, a pencil or a watermelon.

We ask the class to suggest some random object in L1, asking them to call out various suggestions in L1 for a minute or so. Students vie for the honor of having their object chosen. We wait for the “right” suggestion. We don’t translate any of the suggestions into the target language at this point. We just listen to what the kids suggest, weighing each suggestion for potential fun.

Sometimes the suggestions are hilarious. Sometimes they are adorable. Eventually we hit on something that seems to strike an emotional chord in the group mind. We know when that happens because it is obvious—the overall group wants that object. We then write the word on the board with its translation.

Why do we start in this way? It is because we want to begin with an image in L1 that we feel the class identifies with in a strong emotional way. We do not want to start with an object to which the class has a tepid reaction. Our work will fall at in that case, as many of us know who have tried storytelling in the past.

It is worth a minute or so of L1 to hit upon an object that gets people interested—including us! Especially us! Is it not important that we choose a subject that we will enjoy talking about as well as our students?

Of course, we ourselves should never pick the image. Anything from a teacher is suspicious, could be on a test or related to a grade. We blew the students’ trust a hundred years ago when we first started making ourselves into judges and test-givers and know-it-alls in our profession.



6 thoughts on “One Word Images – 1”

  1. Hi, Ben! I just did an OWI *your way* today, for the first time. With Levels French I, II, III(H) and IV – AP in my self-contained high school program in SoCal, nonetheless.

    They liked it — it was fun for them. I was floored. I thought the process went well.

    I was surprised that it was really hard for me to give up control… I like to think of myself as mellow. But I’m not…I want control.

    Hmmm… who knew that teaching French would present such an excellent opportunity to go further & further down the rabbit hole [with the help of 200 high schoolers]?

  2. Congrats Leigh Anne and that is exactly why many teachers do what I would call a watered down version of OWI. It does require an ability to let go of control. It’s not a rabbit hole, for me at least. I was down a rabbit hole for over 15 years with this work, years ago when we first met in L.A. but now I can say that I’ve climbed out and the weather is lovely out here.

  3. When I speak of ‘rabbit holes,’, I refer to :

    A journey into the unknown…. [nothing more is implied …. ] 🙂

    ::: No snarky tone :::

  4. No of course I get that Leigh Anne. But you know more than most, since the two of us have what, 30 years in TPRS, that the term rabbit hole is actually very commonly used to describe what is largely a failed method (in terms of being easy to put into a classroom, which all successful methods must by definition be).

    I have heard more than a few people say that they went to a conference and it took them “down into the TPRS rabbit hole” and the only way they could get out was to go back to the book but they didn’t want to do that either so it drove them nuts. That’s what I meant. Different interpretations of the word rabbit hole.

    The thing is, what is the TPRS Rabbit Hole? I think it is the result of mixing school with the research on CI. What Tina and I are doing is saying, and I would never say this anywhere but here where it is private and safe, that we don’t have to mix school and the research – which are two completely incompatible things.

    So then we can finally just stand up and yell to the world, “Dammit, I’m not going to compromise the research anymore because I have to give a freaking common assessment to please someone who has no idea how languages are acquired and should not be teaching!”

    Starting to rant but you get the idea.

    1. I like talking about this stuff. Thank you, Ben!

      And, yes, I have seen ‘rabbit hole’ used variously. I like my distinctly Carrollian slant… 😉

      And I am so glad I don’t have to deal with teachers outside of your blog! My hat is off to you for even trying to dialogue with those who critique our approach to CI.


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