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53 thoughts on “OWATS”

  1. My 3/4/AP classes is getting ready to read a short biography of Marlene Dietrich, and I will be doing this with the words they need for that reading. (We have been listening to some of her music.)

    I’m also going to try it as a review with my 1s and 2s just to see how it works at the different levels. I expect it to work well with my 2s but am not so sure about the 1s; it may be way too early to ask them to do this; I’ll let everyone know.

  2. I’d love to hear how others who try this find it to work (or not). Robert, trying it with lower levels as review was an insight that one of my colleagues jumped to. I was sharing at lunch the day I did this with 4 other colleagues (Latin and Spanish teachers), and the one who teaches our Spanish 2 trailer course (a room full of kids who failed Spanish 2 first semester last year and are not “trailing” a semester behind) jumped on this immediately. “Oh, I’m going to try this with the trailer class.” It should be said that he has taken these class full of “failing students” and by using CI with them brought them ALL along with solid progress and passing grades. He reported that it went very well with them as a review. So, it strikes me that this OWATS serves different levels differently, and if it works well that way, could be a really valuable piece to have–especially as exhaustion kicks in.

  3. James said about Chinese:

    …if it’s not taught through the ear, there will be no success…

    And Diane said:

    …there aren’t many cognates…

    …reading isn’t phonetically-based…

    So this is big stuff. It makes Chinese the ultimate testing ground for CI.

    Diane, could you comment on pidgin vs. true writing in Chinese, just for those of us who don’t know? And maybe add when in a program you would start both/either?

    1. Such a great question Ben. I always wanted to know more about “cold reading”.

      When teaching pre-lit kids we also rely on what’s “taught trough the ear” to some extent.

    2. I started a reply, Ben, and it got so long I’ll send it to you as an email, which you can use as you want. It’s what I spend a lot of my school time thinking about! But some terms:

      pinyin = phonetic writing system developed in the 1950’s to show standard Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters; its goal was to help Chinese understand each other’s speech and standardize one overall “Mandarin”

      characters = pictographic symbols combining meaning and sometimes some phonetic indicator that is real Chinese, used throughout all dialects, and at one time used for Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese, too. Chinese characters are not random lines; there is embedded meaning — it’s full of unconscious potential if you ask me

      cold character reading = Terry Waltz developed this method of learning to read following massive aural input; students see new words in pinyin only, and within a day or two are ready to read in characters only (hence, “cold,” without prep work in individual characters)

  4. Diane I will probably publish it as an article. I would suggest publishing it elsewhere. Those terms are not in the general vocabulary of language teachers but should be, I think. We rub shoulders too much to not know what you do in Chinese. It’s not a minor language on the national radar anymore.

    Also Diane I am meeting with Diana Noonan and the new Kent Denver Chinese teacher next week, along with Reed Riggs, so if you are in town please contact me if you want to join us. Notice how it’s moving south to the suburbs?

    1. Thanks for seeking understanding of Chinese. I keep finding it to require tweaks in teaching compared to western languages, though of course there’s a lot in common, too. I can post it as a blog entry on the blog I contribute to… it’s a blog mainly for Chinese teachers started by Haiyun Lu (it’s written mostly in English). I could throw it a few ways Chinese compares to Japanese, Korean, and SE Asian languages if that helps. People in the US generally don’t have much experience with them and mix them up.

      I would enjoy meeting Diana Noonan as well as Reed. I know of him, and was once in a conference video call with him, but haven’t met. Kent Denver… don’t know that school yet. It’d be fun! I have no school next week, so that’s convenient. I got to meet Annick in person yesterday as I visited the Chinese school where she teaches on Sunday afternoons. Very fun to meet her and see her teach for an hour. She’s a powerhouse – full of energy.

  5. I’m back on the original cool OWATS idea: I might have my kids write their sentences on a white board, and then once it’s right, the whole group copies that sentence into their notebooks. Then I can collect just one notebook for transcribing stories, but the kids have had that additional input of re-reading and writing their stories.

  6. I did some OWATS with both Chinese 3 and 4 today. I waited until after a day and half of class working with some new targets (3 or 4). I added recent vocab to the list of words I gave to them, and gave them in different order to different students. I had them work alone. It was a nice break for me from needing to write something and will end up with several short stories (they all finished with 1 paragraph in length) using the same targets plus a little review.

  7. I did OWATS the “Michele way” yesterday. I used new structures/vocab words from the first chapter of a novel we will be reading. The kids were so engaged and I couldn’t believe the great (short) stories they created using what seemed like completely random words. I had about 5 groups of 3 kids in each class and 24 words/structures (I realized that this was too many). During the 40-minute period (where the first 10 minutes were spent going over other stuff) most groups only worked with about 5 words. So, next time I will choose fewer structures/words so each group will get the same ones at some point.
    Today we will read all the little short stories. And when it comes time to read the book, it should be a breeze for them.
    Thanks for another great tool!!!!!

  8. I’m not sure I quite get this activity. Does the group have to receive a word from either the teacher or another group (not sure how that would look) in order to write another sentence? They can’t move on til they have had each sentence approved?

    1. Jim, the way that I did it is as follows:

      1. Prepare word cards with one structure or word each. I concentrated on verbs but gave a couple of noun phrases.
      2. Divide the class into groups of 3 or 4. I let my students self select.
      3. Provide each group with paper, pen/pencil, and hard writing surface. (Since I don’t have desks in my room, it was nice to go outside to the picnic tables with white boards as the writing surface.)
      4. Give each group a word/structure/phrase.
      5. The group writes a sentence using that word/structure/phrase.
      6. The group raises their hands when done.
      7. I then checked the sentence and made corrections.
      8. Once I had checked the sentence, I gave the group a new word/structure/phrase.
      9. I continued this until time to stop (end of the period).

      I had made enough copies of the cards that the groups never had to trade cards with each other. Sometimes I had a couple of groups with their hands up at the same time. The groups that had to wait were impatient to get their new word. Several times when I gave the group the new card I heard someone in the group exclaims, “This is perfect!” Somehow the word fit what they wanted to say in their story.

      One or two groups throughout the day didn’t quite understand that they were creating a story, so they wrote a series of fairly unrelated sentences. (Guess what, these were the students who generally pay the least amount of attention in class. Imagine that.) I still typed them up and showed them to class.

      The stories provided opportunity for more oral input as we talked about them (content, not grammar).

  9. I did it the way Michele suggested, with one whiteboard for a group of 3-4 kids. I had 24 words (way too many, as I realized), written on index cards in L2/L1. I randomly distributed one word to each group and instructed them to make a sentence with this word. When each group was finished (not all at the same time, which was perfect), I would check their sentence on the whiteboard and then ask each student in the group to write that particular sentence on a piece of paper or in a notebook. Then I gave them another word from the stack and they had to use that word to write another sentence that would make sense as a continuation of the first sentence. I walked around and randomly handed out words to groups as they finished sentences, and each time I collected that word that they were no longer using. So I always had a lot of different words to hand out.
    Like I said, most groups wrote around 5 sentences but they ALL managed to write coherent AND compelling stories with their words, no matter how random the selection seemed to me.
    It was even better today when we read them because the kids were absolutely enthralled by what they created.
    Jim, you should definitely give it a try!!!! I am also one of those people who actually have to DO an activity before the instructions make sense.

  10. I did this activity with all of my levels. Here are my observations:
    1. It went most smoothly with third and fourth-year students (as could be expected). They enjoyed both the activity and reading the stories afterwards. There was a great deal of laughter and discussion in German.

    2. It went well with second-year students but not quite as smoothly. The differences in ability to put sentences together was evident. Some groups got only a little bit done while others wrote a lot. Some even changed the perspective. I gave verbs in 3rd person, but a couple of groups wrote in 1st person without any prompting. This provided a good opportunity for more input on the 1st person form when we read them in class and an opportunity to recognize these students.

    3. First-year students did okay with this, but I have a couple of students (especially in period 6 – the last period of the day) who want to hear their own voices so badly and have such low impulse control that they continue to blurt despite extremely low jGR grades, constant stopping and pointing to the Interpersonal rubric, and communication with parents. These students did okay with the assigned word (primarily verbs) but simply reverted to English when asked to wrap up the story on their own. We took two days to do the activity with first-year students and went outside to sit at picnic tables and write; students in all classes enjoyed the opportunity to get outside. This is one of the advantages of teaching in Southern California – no polar vortex. (I hope those of you in frozen areas are surviving.)

    I will do this activity again, but not until we have built up a lot more vocabulary and heard a lot more language (years 1 and 2) or are preparing to read another text – but not the next text (years 3/4).

    In one of my second-year classes, a student just got back from a family trip to Costa Rica. We talked about his trip for a while, and he even showed us some of the pictures he took on his phone. Then we read the class stories. He understood them well, and his friends were excited to share what they had written. It was actually kind of nice to have an audience who had not been involved in the activity itself.

  11. In 3rd grade I tried this:
    1. We started by reviewing 30 words written on note cards.
    I read the word out loud and the kids translated chorally.
    2. I explained in English how we would create a story using some of the words.
    2. I picked a word randomly and made a short sentence using that word.
    3. A student picked a word randomly and I read it out loud.
    I gave the kids a minute to think about a sentence.
    4. The kids raised their hand when they were ready.
    5. I listened to a few answers and picked one.
    6. Using one word at a time the class built a 5 sentence mini story.

    Here is one “story” they came up with:
    Madame eats a baguette. She goes to the supermarket because she is hungry. She is
    sick because she eats a lot. At the supermarket she sees a bike on a table. She touches the bike
    and throws up.

    It was a success. Definitely something I will try again. Thank you.

    1. This talk of having students create stories based on word/structure cards makes me think of storytelling games. . . before I knew anything of TPRS, before I was hired to teach FL, I was teaching short sessions of English and had created my own Talecraft cards. Also, check out Rory’s Story Cubes. I imagine these could be games for upper levels. Or combine with storyasking.

    2. Ha! I love your kids’ little mini-story Catharina. And wow…those 3rd graders are lucky to be acquiring real language and not just learning a bunch of nouns (colors, seasons, foods, ad nauseum).

      And I like your twist on OWATS by pulling the word and having the kids think of sentences silently. I’ll be trying this.

    3. Thanks for sharing what you do with younger students Catharina. I teach 2-year olds (not a typo) through Spanish I, so I like the idea of making the class story with a younger students. And I did have the same hesitation as Greg did about the older groups falling into English during the writing process, but we are 99% Spanish all other days and I think for variety this activity with English is a treat for them for a break. Then we can dig back in with repetition and PQA once we share the finished stories.

  12. Ok, I was picturing it being a bit more complicated, but it seems to be a pretty simple deal. But simplicity is beautiful, of course. Thanks Robert for the idea, and to others for trying and writing about it!

  13. Thanks Bob for this awesome idea.

    I tried it two days ago, great success.

    French IV kids who are supposed to be reading the Le Petit Prince. They are in way above their heads. But I can’t exactly not do the book because the book IS their curriculum for the entire year (which I guess is kind of a cool concept) and the teacher I’m subbing for (maternity leave) would probably be sorely disappointed to come back to work and find that her class didn’t read any of the book.

    Two days ago, I came here for a plan 20 minutes before class trying to think of what to do with my kids. Luckily (!!!!!) I found this idea.

    I didn’t even have time to type up words. I had kids move their desks into groups of 3 or 4. I announced that I would be passing out words and that they had to write a sentence using each word. And that their sentences had to combine to make a story.

    I walked around the room with my copy of Le Petit Prince and a stack of big post it notes. I worked my way through the chapter (a very short one), writing words and their translations on the post its and passing them out, giving each group one word at a time until each group had all the words (which means I was writing the same word/structure 5 times, once for each group….this went much faster today by writing the words on a paper and sliding it under a doc cam). The beauty is that this requires ZEROOOOOOO planning, which I absolutely love.

    You could even do this with any random reading you want kids to do. (Add to Bail-Out moves, Ben?). You can literally pick up any reading that you have handy, at any moment of class, and start pulling out the words they don’t know.

    I typed up one of the stories and passed it out the next day in class, with 4 or 5 words of my own added. They loved it! Then, I did some read and discuss with the kids using the one group’s story.

    It just so happens I got observed by my supervisor and a French teacher colleague for the first 15 minutes of this class while the kids were reading and during read and discuss. Here is the feedback I got from my supervisor:

    It was great! [Your colleague] mentioned to me that for a [level 4 class] she was very impressed and that it was a fabulous way to get the students engaged with the vocabulary.
    The students were listening, responding, chuckling and all in the target language!
    I believe I do need to write up an observation. I will definitely use this visit.”

    Also, I when I announced today at the beginning of the class (same group) that we were writing stories again, I heard a couple of “Yays!”
    The only issue I had was that the kids of course used a ton of English during the story writing, since they were in groups (To be honest I didn’t care because I knew we’d be getting lots of repetitions on the words/structures when we read everyone stories the next few days, and also when we finally read the chapter the words are taken from. I also didn’t care because it was a nice break for me, and the kids were happy). However, Catharina’s idea above seems like a great way to avoid English use, by running the activity just like a TPRS story.

    To sum up this LONG comment – Thank you Bob for sharing.

    I am already a huge fan of OWATS.

  14. Greg what you do sounds just great. How clever to quickly write down essential structures on post-its and work from there.

    The way I set up this activity was to avoid the “writing” part. It became an oral class activity instead. It did resemble “co-creating a TPRS story” minus the circling since the words were already acquired by the kids.

    My favorite thing still, is to small talk with the kids. One little bit of information leads to the next , and if I keep the sentences short and simple, everyone seems to understand and contributes in their own way to our class conversations. It does sometimes feel like I’ve not “covered” whatever words I had in mind, but huh, who cares. What else is there really to a language?

  15. Catharina said:

    “My favorite thing still, is to small talk with the kids […] everyone seems to understand and contributes in their own way to our class conversations. It does sometimes feel like I’ve not “covered” whatever words I had in mind, but huh, who cares. What else is there really to a language?”

    Thank you to Catharina for speaking sanity.

    It’s funny, the WL department of the school that I’m currently at prides itself on using thematic units. All WL teachers are supposed to base their instruction around the predetermined themes. Now, I suppose that’s perfectly fine, and maybe even great (After all, a compelling theme can set a great stage for some CI to happen). However, I am left confused by the following:

    1. A colleague of mine (who I like very much; this comment has nothing to do with liking or not liking people) had a student in our WL office the other day after school, giving the kid some help with class material. Specifically, from overhearing my colleague and her student, they were talking about how the imperfect tense in Italian. This help session lasted about 10 minutes. And I kid you not that the whole entire thing happened in English. The only Italian used was to say the verb in question. The kid seemed frustrated and kept giving the teacher the wrong “ending”. It almost felt like a math lesson. So, where does the type of language learning this teacher is encouraging fit into the Thematic Units the department so prides itself on??? Unless the theme is “The Imperfect Tense…In English!” The poor kid probably thought, maybe was even excited about, learning Italian when he chose this class. Little did he know.

    2. I overheard another colleague of mine this week say that her kids had just started the imperfect. I was puzzled by this idea, as I often am since joining this PLC three years ago. How do you “start” the imperfect? What does that even mean? And if the department prides itself so much on organizing instruction on thematic units, why is instruction still be organized around grammar.

    This is my whole issue about thematic units. I think the idea of themes can be great (see Robert Harrell’s units), but I think in most schools thematic units just equate to using different themes as an excuse to teach a grammatical syllabus.

    This is all to say, thank you Catharina for your statement above. Talking with our kids. “What else is there really to a language?”

    1. Grammar teachers make ACTFL fit into their paradigm. I do not see ACTFL supporting that kind of focus given to the “imperfect” tense. This is a matter of getting educated in ACTFL-speak. Granted, that’s hard to do, since it seems they throw around terms without defining them or citing research to support them. If everyone attended ACTFL workshops on proficiency, then this could really help. Grammar cannot be a theme. Helena Curtain will tell you that.

    2. “How do you “start” the imperfect? What does that even mean?”
      Greg, I am not sure you are still connected. But that is quite the oxymoron. Viewing the “imperfect” from the preterit aspect. By way of contrast, the preterit just keeps going on and on.

  16. I promise I’ll start making my comments shorter one of these days. I just have to “speak” here, because I’m certainly not getting many listening ears from many of my colleagues at work. Love them, but can’t talk language acquisition with them because it’s like we’re speaking different languages. You all understand.

  17. Thanks for this distinction Eric. And yes, it doesn’t seem that ACTFL in any way promotes any type of grammatical syllabus. The problem lies with supervisors who, for whatever reason (and there could be endless reasons), require mastery over grammatical elements by the end of each level of language, AND who want this to fit in with thematic units.

    Supervisors with this mentality need to chose either one or the other. And this is where expectations have to be set by whichever entity is going to have the needed impact on supervisors.

    1. It’s deeply sadens me to think of the missed opportunites for all the students you describe Greg.

      Laurie suggested we work from within, so I’m hoping that the FL director will recognize the smiles on your students’ faces. One cannot argue that. The joy on a kids’ face says it all.

      1. ACTFL, methods’ courses, and conference key note speakers may promote proficiency and CI but fail in breaking down the theory into practical chunks that teachers can apply.
        (Because they don’t know how to do it in my opinion.)

        Brigitte said something like “OWATS is what the doctor ordered.Thank you Bob.”
        TCI is the answer. We walk the walk. They just talk.

  18. I just did the OWATS exercise with my French 1 (7th grade) and French 2 (8th grade) classes. Big success! I used 24 words chosen from the 200 Most Common/High-Frequency Word list. (I had given the 8th graders the list and I had asked them to identify the words they didn’t know.) I used the same words for both grades.
    All the groups produced 5-6 sentence stories. The 8th grade stories were better than the 7th grade stories, but all were good!
    All classes and almost all students were very engaged. And I was rushing around from group to group giving them the new words! One student said that it was really fun and we need to do this again. Yay!

    1. Hi Ben,

      Here are the words I used last year. (Thanks for the reminder – I will do this again next week!)


      sait (knows – il sait, elle sait)
      doit (must – il doit, elle doit)
      met (places, puts – il met, elle met)
      croit (believes – il croit, elle croit)
      commence (begins – il commence, elle commence )
      perd (loses- il perd, elle perd)
      produit (produces – il produit, elle produit)
      tombe (falls – il tombe, elle tombe)
      un morceau (a piece)
      un mot (a word)
      un conte (a story)
      met (places, puts – il met, elle met)
      dernier, dernière (last)
      heureux, heureuse (happy)
      sinon (Otherwise)
      sans (without )
      déjà (already)
      durant (during)
      jamais (never)
      vite (quickly)
      à côté de (next to)
      fait (makes, does – il fait, elle fait)
      voit (sees – il voit, elle voit)
      peut (can,is able – il peut, elle peut)

  19. Thanks Don. Nice list! Did you get the reading from Sahanna’s class? Too many words? I tend to over-embed. But the class responded well to it. ROA just opened up a can of Whoop Ass on that reading. Tell Sahanna the class says “Hi!”

  20. Has anyone tested this out to the extent of taking the vocabulary from a targeted authentic text like Bob did with the fables? I ask because I am thinking that the text targeted in this funky backward planning OWATS way would best not be a long text, but a nice well built one page text like a La Fontaine fable or maybe a Baudelaire prose poem – nothing too extensive in terms of new vocabulary. Bob got 21 original words from those fables his kids chose to read. Narrow and deep work, this. This is a great way to get kids writing, and then puts automatic interest into the next day of reading. What a great way to get through these last few weeks before we get a break for the holidays! I’m loving OWATS. And the kids make up such crazy things. Today one group came up with the idea of a cheese tie.

  21. I just did OWATS again last week to introduce a chapter of a novel. I also used about 20 words but found that to be too many. Since not all the groups got to use all the words (and some words were not used at all), the resulting stories were not comprehensible to all. In the future, I may limit the words to 10, thus making sure that all the groups get to use all the words. It will also ensure plenty of repetitions of those words.
    Love, love, love OWATS – a definite “home run”, not only during these squirrely pre-holiday weeks.

    1. Ok, that’s convinced me. That’s what I’m going to do tomorrow with any time “leftover” with all the classes. Handing out words & seeing what happens. They’re all getting ready for end-of-semester assessments that happen next week, so it’ll be a review list of words.

  22. Btw, instead of walking around and handing out words to groups, I leave all the words on a table in the center of the room. This way, any group that is finished writing a sentence can get up and pick a new word (at the same time, putting the word they used back on the table). This allows me to walk around and check the finished sentences without any group having to sit there idly while waiting for me to get to them.

    1. Good idea Brigitte! Question: how do you keep the students from going through all the words on the table and picking the word they want? Or would that matter?

  23. Would it be possible to do this activity without the group check-in between sentences – just let it roll?
    Also, I’m thinking I color code 4 sets of words on card stock – one set per group – they finish a sentence and raise hands, I give ’em another word…maybe all groups get words in the same order, maybe each group receives the words in different order…does that matter?
    Then I correct as I read aloud, and/or type up for next day reading. I could then store the words in paper clips in an envelope for a ready-made activity for next year (One can dream of such organization and memory, no?) We could do this with any words extracted from whatever we’re working on, right? I do little to no writing (an occasional dictado) but I’d be willing to try this – highly scaffolded – late in 4th grade.

  24. OK let me update Bob’s article with these two important new bits of information, to wit:

    1. Use 10 instead of 20 words.
    2. Put the words on the table and let them choose.

    Thank you Brigitte!

    I have to say – we never really tested or talked about OWATS in the past to any real extent. Now it is proving to be a potential top shelf activity. 2015-16 may be the Year of the OWAT. It fills a CI classroom need because it provides kids with a chance to do some personalized output. This is a fine addition to free writes as meaningful output while providing lots of good personalized reading as a bonus. It makes stories/ROA and Read and Discuss of novels that much more valuable – 2 input activities and 1 output activity – 3 monster activities that provide topflight CI. Throw some free writes and dictees into the mix, and we are talking smooth sailing in calm waters for the rest of the year. Of course, we could plan our classes, but that has never worked for me. It just made me nervous because I couldn’t control everything and the more I planned, the more the kids zoned.

  25. This seems like something I want to try, but I´m having a hard time visualizing it (could just be me right now!). Any chance someone can snap a picture of a finished story a group wrote, so I can see an example end product?

    Must students try to correct their sentence after you give a pop up grammar explanation on something incorrect?

    If I am not “pre-teaching” and picking words before a new story/fable/whatever, should I be picking a certain ratio of verbs, adjectives, etc., or doesn´t matter?


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