The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 131 Transcript

Jennifer Gonzalez, host

“I took French for three years, but I can’t speak any French.” Some version of this is expressed by so many of us who took a language class in school. The lack of connection between school-based language classes and actually learning how to speak that language seems to be something we’ve just accepted.

This is probably due to the way languages have traditionally been taught: Lots of vocabulary and book work, verb conjugations, occasional bite-sized “culture” studies, and scripted dialogues that don’t give students much real-life practice using the language in authentic situations.

But if you stopped by a world language class today, you might be surprised to find that a lot of those traditional practices are disappearing: textbooks are being replaced with more authentic resources, culture is integrated in a more authentic way across all activities, and there’s a much bigger emphasis on helping kids learn to actually communicate in the whole language, rather than just master parts of it. 

I first became aware of these shifts when I met Rebecca Blouwolff, a French teacher in Boston who interviewed me for the We Teach Languages podcast this past spring. Getting to know Rebecca, I could see how excited she was about some of the changes she’d made to her practice in recent years, and she mentioned how different things were getting across the board in the world language teaching community. So naturally I wanted to know more, and I think teachers of any subject would benefit from listening to our conversation. As professionals, it’s a good idea to have a working knowledge of the philosophies and best practices in other subject areas, and a lot of times learning about these things ends up informing our own work in ways we never expected.

Today Rebecca is going to share six of the most significant changes she has made in her own French class. If you want a more comprehensive look at all of shifts in world language instruction, I’m going to give you links to two documents, both of which come from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). The first is the six core practices for language learning recommended by the ACTFL, and the second is a Skills Map produced in collaboration with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Both are really interesting documents that will help to flesh out the thinking behind these changes. You can grab these by going to, clicking podcast, and choosing episode 131.

Before we get started with the interview, I’d like to thank Public Consulting Group for sponsoring this episode. PCG is a national organization that supports teachers and school districts in providing high quality professional development. PCG’s online professional learning catalog is approved for continuing education credits nationwide, allowing teachers a cost-effective and efficient way of engaging in professional development, leading to license renewal and pay increase. PCG’s courses range from short 1-hour workshops to in-depth graduate level courses, allowing teachers to create a customized playlist of content to meet their individual career needs. PCG has teamed with leading educational experts to bring you valuable tricks, tools, and strategies for immediate application in your classroom.  You’ll also receive individualized coaching from PCG’s virtual facilitators throughout your course. PCG believes that the learning never ends and they want to help you help your students succeed. Visit to find out more and use the code CULT20 to get $20 off your first course.

Support also comes from ViewSonic. ViewSonic transforms classrooms into immersive learning environments. Their education solutions drive engagement, energize and motivate students, and make teaching more fun. From ViewBoard interactive displays and myViewBoard digital whiteboarding software to projectors and monitors, ViewSonic’s award-winning solutions are here to help teachers stay connected and collaborate in their classrooms. To learn more, visit

The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast is part of the Education Podcast Network. The EPN family is the home of dozens of different podcasts, and each one is focused on education. Check out all of our shows at

Now, here’s my interview with Rebecca Blouwolff about how world language teaching has changed. 

GONZALEZ: I would like to welcome Rebecca Blouwolff to the podcast. Rebecca, welcome to the podcast. 

BLOUWOLFF: Thank you, Jenn. 

GONZALEZ: So I’m gonna just sort of let people know how we landed here. I actually appeared on a podcast that you hosted a couple of months ago, it was a world languages podcast. 

BLOUWOLFF: Yes, We Teach Languages. 

GONZALEZ: Yes, yes. And so I’ll link people to that too, so that they can hear that conversation too. But you said something either in that interview or maybe just in some of our conversations around that that really intrigued me. You said something along the lines of the way we teach world languages now is so different from the way you and I were taught when we were students. And we never really got much into detail on that, but I, as soon as you said that, I thought, that is something that I want to follow-up on, I want to hear more about the differences now in the way world languages are being taught compared to in generations past. So we agreed to have you come on here and you have sort of whittled it down to about six major differences that, or sort of trends, a direction that, that things are moving in. So before we start, why don’t you just tell us a little bit about what you do on a day-to-day basis in education? 

BLOUWOLFF: Sure. I’m a veteran middle school French teacher, and I believe I’m entering my 22nd year this fall, and for the first 15 years of my career, I was pretty focused on imitating my own favorite French teachers who were pretty traditional, definitely textbook focused, grammar based. And things looked okay in my classroom. I’d say my students appeared successful. I teach in a pretty affluent district. But I learned some things about the students I wasn’t reaching, and I also learned more about the national standards that we have for foreign language, and so I began what I like to call my own French Revolution where I basically totally blew up my practice, rewrote my entire curriculum and reinvented myself as a teacher. So I’m not an expert in any of this. I don’t have a degree in second language acquisition. I’m not a methods professor. I’m not even a department head, but I’ll be really speaking from the role of someone who was very reluctant to change who loved the old way who was a very successful student, having learned myself that way, and now doing this new thing, it’s been like a professional rebirth, and I just could not be more excited for sort of what’s going to be the second half of my teaching career going forward. 

GONZALEZ: Oh, that is, that is all just music to my ears. That’s perfect. I would actually rather speak to somebody who’s actually going through the process of change in a way that is exciting to you than somebody who’s speaking at it, you know, from an expert standpoint. So this is great. So here’s what we’re going to talk about. You’re going to just share some key differences, these six key differences in the way world languages are being taught, and then what I’ve asked you to do for each one is just explain a little bit about why the shift is happening and then an example of what that looks like in the classroom so that we can get a handle on this. And I think this is valuable for non-language teachers to be listening to also, because I just always think that as a teacher of anything, it’s a good idea to know about shifts in other specialty areas. 

BLOUWOLFF: Yes. I’m really glad you’re saying that, because we gave a little presentation at a school department meeting to let folks in our school know what was different, and it opened up so many awesome conversations with teachers in other departments. So now I have friends in the science department who want to talk to me about standards-based grading, and the art teachers want to know more about the portfolios that we do. So I think there’s something in here for a lot of subjects and also to those of you who are parents, I know people like stop me in the supermarket and want to talk to me about, why is my kid’s Spanish teacher not using a textbook? And, my kid doesn’t even know what the word “conjugate” means. So I’m hoping we’re creating something that I can just, you know, give these people the QR code and they can listen to this and they’ll know a little bit more. 

GONZALEZ: Perfect, perfect. Okay. So let’s go ahead and just start digging in. What’s the first big change that we’re seeing in world language instruction? 

BLOUWOLFF: Okay. So I think the biggest one of all, and it almost kind of forms an umbrella over all the others is that today the focus is on students learning to use the language instead of learning about the language. 


BLOUWOLFF: So the goal of our classes is what we call proficiency, which boils down to what can the students do in the language? And in order to make this happen, the class has to be run in the language. So the industry standard, if you will, which is set by our national professional organization, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, or ACTFL, they say we want to aim for 90 percent plus teacher use of the language and student use of the language during class time. 


BLOUWOLFF: So I teach 42-minute periods. That means that I’ve got maybe four minutes of English that I might choose to use at a maximum during class time, and that’s the way — I think so many of us who have learned a language in a deep way have done it by studying abroad, and I like to think of this as, you know, you get 42 minutes abroad every day when you come to my room, and every minute that we do something in English, I’m stealing that time from you. 


BLOUWOLFF: So that’s what we’re aiming for. And now of course it can’t just be that I get up there and yap on in French and, you know, maybe the kids are listening and maybe they’re not. 


BLOUWOLFF: It has to be what we call comprehensible input. So I’m providing meaningful messages to them in a way that they can digest them, and I am designing my lessons so that I’m getting tons of feedback on which parts they’re able to process and understand. And I’m scaffolding for them so that from the very first days, they know enough French to be able to respond to me either nonverbally or with very, very simple words. 


BLOUWOLFF: And I would say that, you know, really what world language teachers do is we teach communication. The content is super flexible, and I love that. We kind of fly under the radar in terms of state testing and national standards. We could basically talk about anything as long as we’re doing it in the language. And that the language that we use has context and purpose. 


BLOUWOLFF: So the why, the why behind that is really, you know, I think everyone who takes a language class, when I ask my kids, why are you doing French? They want to talk to people in the language. And, but I would say we had not been delivering on that promise, you know, in previous generations, and so often when I introduce myself and they ask, you know, oh, what’s your job? Because it’s America, and we always ask that about people, then they’ll say, oh I took four years of high school French, and I can’t speak a word. 

GONZALEZ: Yep, yep. 

BLOUWOLFF: And some variation of that sentence haunts every, or should haunt, every world language teacher in the United States today. No one is signing up for my class because they’ve always dreamt of learning the subjunctive, right? 


BLOUWOLFF: Some language teachers love that stuff, and we’re in this business because that got us excited, but we are a small minority. 

GONZALEZ: Okay, I have to stop you, because that is so true of English teachers too, you know? A lot of, that’s my background. A lot of us were really good at grammar, you know, just diagramming sentences and, and just because you’re good at that, it doesn’t mean, like that, that’s the reason, it’s not the reason people want to become good readers and writers. You know it’s, ah, I don’t know, I’m not making a lot of sense, but there really is, I think, an issue with teachers who were good at a piece of school when they were younger and how that translates to what you think is important as a teacher. 

BLOUWOLFF: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think I would be a better teacher if I had been a weaker student. So I have to, I have to thank those students who have IEPs, because I am learning so much from them, and I’m having to be much more creative and flexible and thoughtful about my work as a result. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. 

BLOUWOLFF: So a couple classroom examples, just starting with something really simple. A lot of us have in our classrooms a two-sided poster that on one side says “we’re speaking English” and then on the other side, you know, mine says “nous parlons français” (“we’re speaking French”), and I do not allow myself to turn that poster from French to English unless I have asked the class permission to speak English, and then I have to walk over to that poster, and I have to turn it over, and it takes a lot of time. So it forces me to be very intentional about when it’s worth switching to English, and the rest of the time can I possibly power through by staying, you know, staying in French? 


BLOUWOLFF: So that’s really the focus. When you kind of zoom out a lot more, it can look like designing some really interesting units that happen to be in French. So instead of doing an old style textbook unit on school, maybe we can explore the question, why can’t all children go to school? And it’s just a little shift, the language does not have to be more difficult, and it’s, the kids are actually learning new information about the world and maybe, hopefully, wanting to change the world, but it’s happening in another language. 

GONZALEZ: Right, right. I’m trying to picture an early French, you know, maybe two months into French 1. 


GONZALEZ: How do you pull this off? Because they don’t even have the sentence structure —


GONZALEZ: — really, to put sentences together yet. They may have some vocabulary. So how do you scaffold for that? 

BLOUWOLFF: Sure. So let’s say, let’s take that example of the school unit. And this is a little bit of a cheat. It’s not two months into French. It’s in the spring of French seven. 


BLOUWOLFF: So they’ve had six months, let’s say. We start by looking at photographs of classrooms around the world, and they know that, the phrase “there is,” “there isn’t.” 


BLOUWOLFF: And we look at images of different school supplies, and then we start saying, oh, in Afghanistan, there aren’t tables and chairs in the classroom. And I can give them the sentence frame, “In X there is Y in the classroom,” “In X there isn’t Z in the classroom,” and we can just fill in. So it’s that sort of see, think, wonder routine. 


BLOUWOLFF: Where the see part can just be looking at images. You know, you know the kids are having deep thoughts. What’s coming out of their mouth is quite simple. 


BLOUWOLFF: But it’s a way to talk about school supplies in a way that matters, and we can count how many boys are in the class, how many girls in the class. Are the children wearing shoes. And then we can go from that to maybe some scaffolded wondering. I wonder why the children aren’t wearing shoes? I wonder where are the girls in this school? 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. 

BLOUWOLFF: So it sounds very simple, but there’s a lot of deep cognitive work that’s going on, on the part of the kids. The teacher has to be super prepared and intentional. You can’t just kick this off and see what happens, in my experience. You have to really be ready for, what am I going to give them so that they don’t get frustrated, so that they don’t break down and fall into English? You know, it does require some intentional planning, for sure. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, okay. All right. I’m picturing the, the images and the exercises that I did in language classes, and they were always deliberately as simple as possible. And so this really is a different direction. 

BLOUWOLFF: Yes. I think something could be linguistically simple, but still cognitively engaging. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. So that is the first one. Students are using, using the language instead of learning about the language. What is the second shift that we’re seeing? 

BLOUWOLFF: So the next one, very related, is just the centrality of communicative activities to what’s happening in class every day. And I think so often as teachers, our talk with students is evaluative in nature. So teacher asks a question, student gives an answer, and then the teacher says something like, good job, yes! 


BLOUWOLFF: And so if we want to create a, a language speaking community in our classroom, we really need to quell the desire to give that evaluative answer and instill, try to be more interactive, like, oh really? Tell me more about that. You’re going to the movies this weekend? Are you going to go to this movie theater? And thinking about all the things that we can ask to show that we’re insatiably curious about what our students have to say, so we’re encouraging them to keep talking in the language and, and really putting ourselves as one participant in a conversation that takes place in class. And again, to get back to that idea of having a simple activity that’s still cognitively challenging, you know, I think so many of those textbook exercises ask stupid questions like, I’m looking right at you, Jenn, and I say, Jenn, what color is your shirt? And there is like, we both know there’s no point for me to ask that question. 


BLOUWOLFF: There’s certainly no reason for you to answer. I teach pretty compliant students who would probably tolerate that. 


BLOUWOLFF: Which is not right, but they would. So instead, we could just flip that and say, you’re going to write to your ePal. Tell them how they would recognize you in a restaurant. So you’re still, you know, there’s a reason, there’s a context for that task. It doesn’t require more language, but it just has so much more meaning. 


BLOUWOLFF: And I think the piece that we’re adding there is that notion of an information gap. Why should I listen to you? Where is this all leading? And, and so I think there’s a lot more motivation there if students understand that there’s actually something they don’t know that they need to find out. 


BLOUWOLFF: And it also, then they have to be better listeners also. 


BLOUWOLFF: So it, I don’t care what your answer, what color your shirt is, but if it’s something where we’re, you know, gathering data to create a chart for the class or whatever, then there’s a reason to be involved in communication. So I think the teachers have to be creative about thinking about why, why would this be worth discussing. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. Gosh, that’s a, I can see how people who have been teaching languages for a while would resist this, because I’m guessing that maybe textbook companies have not quite caught up with this anyway. But, you know, you just don’t have the exercises there waiting for you that you just would do. Would this be one of the things that you really resisted after doing it one way for so long? 

BLOUWOLFF: This wasn’t the hardest for me, because I actually came from a previous department head who had insisted on 100 percent French in my classroom. So going down to 90 percent plus felt like a relief, and communication, I mean I understood that communication was important. I think that trying to go deeper, it wasn’t something that I resisted so much as I just frankly had no idea how to do it. 


BLOUWOLFF: I, I did not, I couldn’t come up with these scenarios that were just a little more interesting. 

GONZALEZ: Right. That’s what I’m thinking. You have to be creative —

BLOUWOLFF: — a little trickier, yep. 


BLOUWOLFF: Right. Well, and honestly, I haven’t been creating most of them. I’ve been trying to find people who already know how to do this and just use their stuff. 


BLOUWOLFF: And then, you know, I think that’s kind of like the fake it ’til you make it. 


BLOUWOLFF: And then once, once you’re comfortable with this as a routine, you start thinking that way, and it becomes more natural, and you can start to see gaps in your practice. Oh right. Why am I telling them to ask each other about their weekends if they’re not going to do anything with that? That’s dumb. 

GONZALEZ: Right. It sounds like just much more interesting classes in general. 

BLOUWOLFF: I love it. I mean I feel like I’m on fire when I’m doing this work. 


BLOUWOLFF: It’s just, it’s super, super interesting. 


BLOUWOLFF: You know, if we know that students are in the classes because they want to be speaking the language, then learning how to communicate in a language is the first thing we do, and we just have to create as many opportunities as we can for that to happen, and for reluctant students, we have to create specific tasks that require them to use the language to do whatever they need to accomplish. 

GONZALEZ: Yes. So give me another example of what this looks like in the classroom. 

BLOUWOLFF: Sure. So I mentioned earlier this idea of, you know, ask your partner what they did this weekend, and I used to do this all the time. And some kids ate it up, and other kids just kind of sat back and waited for it to be over. So now I might do something like, talk to your partner about their weekend until you found two things that you both did and two things that were different. And then I might say, having done that, decide who had the more physically active weekend. And then if I’m really got my act together, which is only a little bit of the time, maybe then we’re going to survey our ePals on how they spent their weekends and we’ll compare that to what we just learned. So I think what’s exciting there is that the students eventually are going to take the language beyond the classroom to local communities, to ePals. They might be using social media, and then, you know, they’re really sharing and eventually maybe even publishing their work to a broader audience. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Tell me, tell me what ePals is. Is this a, is this a platform that they use? 

BLOUWOLFF: Sure. ePals is a free website run by Cricket Media, I believe, it kind of looks like Facebook for teachers around the globe. So you can create a profile for yourself, and then you can go looking for teachers in any country who would like to collaborate with you on a project. 


BLOUWOLFF: So I know a lot of language teachers who get on that site at the end of summer, and they start looking for English teachers in the countries of the language that they teach. And then once you’ve made your match, you know, you don’t need to be on the site any longer necessarily, but I just have used that as a place to find English teachers in France who want to do communication exchanges with my classes. 

GONZALEZ: Okay. Great. That’s great. I’m going to put that in my Tech Guide for next year, because I’ve got a language teaching section, and I don’t think I have that. So okay. So we have now, we’ve talked about students learning to use the language instead of learning about it. We’ve talked about much more communicative activities beyond just sort of exercises. What is the third shift that you’ve seen? 

BLOUWOLFF: So this next one attacks the question of grammar, which often comes up when teachers are talking about changing their language teaching practice. And it’s all about teaching that grammar in context. So in the past, I think we had this idea that we had to give students all the rules before they were allowed to create with language at all. 


BLOUWOLFF: So don’t even think about the past tense until you know all six forms this way and that way. 


BLOUWOLFF: And now what’s happening is we’re really backing up and saying, from a backward planning perspective, where are we heading, what do we need students to be able to do, and then in order to do that specific task, what grammar would they need? What language would they need? And rather than teaching it with the idea of conjugations, which is a word that my students cannot even get out of their mouths in English —


BLOUWOLFF: — we might just teach that as a what we call a language chunk. So even my first-year French students can say, “I went,” and if I give them that, they can tell me all the places they went over the weekend. But if you were to look at a traditional textbook, absolutely no way would students be allowed to form a past tense irregular verb in the first year. That’s just not going to happen. 


BLOUWOLFF: And so when we present those chunks as vocabulary and not as tricky grammar, the kids are able to use it right away. 


BLOUWOLFF: And I think, frankly, the fact that we don’t tell them that it’s tricky grammar makes it go down a lot easier. And I think the focus now is really on, do you know enough so that you can convey a message, and then the question is who would understand your message? So depending on how accurate you are, maybe only another world language teacher can understand your French right now. 


BLOUWOLFF: Or maybe next year you’ll be able to be understood by a patient native speaker who’s accustomed to non-natives. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, right. 

BLOUWOLFF: And then the goal, goal would be some day you could stop a busy person on the streets of Paris, and they would listen to you. 


BLOUWOLFF: But we’re not aiming there right away. 


BLOUWOLFF: And if we insist on perfection from the get-go, most people just drop out, because that’s not how we’re built to communicate. 


BLOUWOLFF: We’re built to make tons and tons of mistakes, over and over and over again. 

GONZALEZ: Absolutely. 

BLOUWOLFF: And then eventually we improve. So it’s not to say that grammar’s not important. 


BLOUWOLFF: But I think grammar’s only important when students are ready for it. 

GONZALEZ: I agree, 100 percent. I mean this is, this is what I’ve been pushing really hard too with English, you know, which I mean I know this is kind of like a big duh, because we’re still teaching language, it’s just that if we’re teaching English to native speakers, we’re years and years ahead of when they first learned it. But it’s the same thing. The National Council of Teachers of English keep saying teaching grammar outside of context does not work. Have them do authentic writing projects and then plug the grammar in as needed for that particular project. 


GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. And this really fits into what you’re describing about, you know, giving them those irregular verbs to use early on. This really mimics how a baby and a toddler learns to speak their native language. Nobody’s giving them grammar exercises. They just muddle along, and people correct them as needed. 

BLOUWOLFF: Right, and as just said, I go, “I go-ed to the store.”

GONZALEZ: Exactly. But we know what they mean. 

BLOUWOLFF: And we know what they mean, and we think it’s adorable. 


BLOUWOLFF: When they’re 2 and we smile and nod, and then we get all upset when they say that in the language classroom, when they’re really, they are toddlers linguistically. 

GONZALEZ: Exactly, exactly, exactly. 

BLOUWOLFF: I think in terms of the why, I might just add that unlike some other subject matters, language is much more complex than a set of memorized rules, and if you think about English, I think that is more than apparent, and that memorizing a lot of rules is not going to make you a better speaker. 


BLOUWOLFF: And in many cases it actually hinders communication. 


BLOUWOLFF: Last year I was doing interviews of my former students who are now high school French students, and I would ask them, oh tell me about something you did last summer, and they would start, and then you could watch them pause, you could almost see the gear in their brain trying to crank out the correct conjugation, but it really kept them from being able to express their ideas. 


BLOUWOLFF: And so some of the ways that we might approach this differently, for example right now my students are learning to say different places that they go in town. I might curate a set of tweets that I pick off of Twitter by putting in a search term, like “go to” in French, pull all those tweets, have them look through them, and then see if they can identify a pattern. 


BLOUWOLFF: Work with them to co-construct a rule that they’re observing from that pattern, and then eventually ask them to talk about where they go using some of what they saw in those tweets. 

GONZALEZ: Yes. That is —

BLOUWOLFF: But I think it doesn’t, they don’t like have a box in their brain yet for that information if you try to front-load it. And so I do have a couple verb conjugation charts hanging in my classroom, and I notice that around February in eighth grade, kids start coming up to me and saying, that chart’s really good. I know this now. And I’m like, yes, yes you do. But it only means something to you once you know it. It’s like when you learn a new word and all of a sudden you start hearing that word all the time. 


BLOUWOLFF: Like that word was being spoken around you before, but it just, it was like wah wah wah wah wah. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. It’s so true. It’s really true. That’s really neat. And so they’ve seen it, but all of a sudden it gains a lot more meaning which is, it’s such a better way to come to knowledge than to have it front-loaded like that and just not care. I mean so many times kids just don’t care about what they’re learning, because they don’t see the value of it yet. Okay, so what’s No. 4? 

BLOUWOLFF: So No. 4 is using authentic cultural resources. 


BLOUWOLFF: Which means that we’re using audio and text that were created by and for native speakers. So these are not materials for language learners. 


BLOUWOLFF: These would be things like children’s books, YouTube videos, finger plays, pop songs, advertisements. I mentioned tweets earlier. And so the textbook really is not the curriculum anymore, and when we take these authentic resources and we start using them at the center of our courses, then culture becomes the curriculum. But again, it just happens to be taught, for example, in French. 

GONZALEZ: Got it. 

BLOUWOLFF: And I think that’s really exciting, because for far too long, culture was relegated to like these little blurbs in the textbook chapters, and if you had extra time you would read them and sometimes they were really awful. Or maybe some teachers were doing a thing like culture Fridays. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. 

BLOUWOLFF: So, and what’s happening Monday through Thursday, right? So I think this is a way to get at content that is way more engaging and current, because you buy a textbook and then your district can’t afford a new one for 15 years, so you’re stuck with, you know, these 1980s things that I was using. 

GONZALEZ: Yep. The kids always looked outdated in our textbooks, always. 

BLOUWOLFF: Yes, yes. And you would sort of, you know, try to make a joke of that and have fun with it with your students, but honestly, you’re dealing with just a totally inadequate document. 


BLOUWOLFF: And you can also really tailor things to what you see going on in your classroom, and you can have your students become curators of resources for your classes. So the key here though is that we have to teach the kids how to attack an authentic text. They need strategies. You can’t just be like, oh, well this is cool. You love pop music, here’s some pop songs. You know, they’re not going to be able to do anything with it. So we do have to be very intentional about the texts that we choose, making sure that they’re appropriate for the level of our learners, that there’s tons of visual support, that the way they’re laid out really makes it clear what’s going on. And then we can create tasks that are appropriate. So for a text that’s a little bit of a stretch for students, maybe they can do some sort of processing like sequencing or true/false, something simple, but that lets them engage with something that really has some meat to it. 

GONZALEZ: Right, right. So, so give us some examples of what this looks like in the classroom. 

BLOUWOLFF: Absolutely. So ACTFL, our national organization, talks about looking at culture through products, practices and perspectives. And I will give you an example. I’m just going to warn you this is a very middle school example. It’s about bathrooms. 


BLOUWOLFF: So get ready people. So the product that you might examine, for example, if you’re doing a unit on the house would be that the toilet room and the bathroom are two separate rooms in France. 


BLOUWOLFF: So if I, if my students observe that when we’re watching maybe a real estate video or something, they will initially often have a yuck factor, like that’s so gross. How can that, how can the sink not be with the toilet? So we can try to take some of that judgment off of it by looking at it as a cultural product and then thinking about, okay, well what’s the practice? So in France the way it works is you know you do your business in the toilet room, and then you walk yourself over to the bathroom to wash your hands. So it’s not that people are not washing their hands, it’s that it’s happening somewhere else. And then the perspective is really getting at, like, what, what is the thing going on in this culture that makes this practice make sense? And so in France, the perspective is you’re keeping the dirty area of your house separate from the clean area of your house. And it’s just a different way of looking at it. And then you could ask the kids, now from that perspective, what do you think French people think when they show up in our bathrooms — 


BLOUWOLFF: — and the sink is in the same room as the toilet? Like, that’s kind of mind-blowing. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. Huh. And that’s really, I mean you’re sort of allowing them to travel a little bit in class. 


GONZALEZ: They’re getting the same benefits that they get, that a person gets when they go to another country and you see those differences. They’re getting a taste of that, at least. 

BLOUWOLFF: Right. And frankly, I mean, hopefully they’re getting that when they go to see some of their neighbors down the street, and maybe they can practice some of that non-judgmental curiosity about other cultures and other peoples tomorrow. 

GONZALEZ: Which is another thing that the language teacher can model, is that non-judgmental curiosity. 


GONZALEZ: Yeah. All right. So what is No. 5? 

BLOUWOLFF: Backward design. 

GONZALEZ: Love backward design. 

BLOUWOLFF: Yes. And so, you know, this one is, this is a harder one, I would say, but I love it. I mean I think it’s so important that we start with the end in mind and what do we want our students to be able to do at the end of a unit? And I think the more explicit we can be about that the better. Like, maybe we should write what we hope our students will be able to write at the end of this unit, or we should say aloud, what do we hope they will be able to talk about at the end of the unit? What would that sound like with their language level? 


BLOUWOLFF: And what I think backward design can do for world language teachers is allow us to go deeper and not broader while still staying focused on all these really important national standards that we have for world language learning. So you could write a very focused, realistic assessment up front for your unit, and then, you know, just every day between now and then is sort of how are you marching kids towards having the capacity to do that? 


BLOUWOLFF: And I, I even like to share the assessment with the kids at the very beginning of the unit and say, so guess what? 

GONZALEZ: I think that’s great, yeah. 

BLOUWOLFF: At the end of this unit, I’m going to ask you, tell me about your town and then compare it to Quebec City. So there’s no stress at the end. Everyone knows. But there’s also some motivation. Like, how close am I getting to be able to do that? Why is she talking about this? Oh right, because at the end of the unit, we have to be able to XYZ. 

GONZALEZ: Oh yeah. Definitely. I mean that’s great. Especially since there should be some small sense of disbelief when they see that goal, you know, almost that it’s out of reach a little bit, and then there’s a lot of pride at the end when they actually get there. 

BLOUWOLFF: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think it also, it’s super exciting for the teachers, because they’re like, OK, let’s see how we can get there, what’s going to happen, you know? It’s, there, there is that discovery moment at the end that’s very different than correcting your publisher written unit exam. 


BLOUWOLFF: And I think there’s so many benefits to backward design in the world language classroom. I mean it really puts the teacher in control. For so many years I just felt that I was a necessary prisoner of my textbook, and that that was my curriculum. I remember my new department head showed up and said, so, what’s your curriculum? And I was like, uh, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3. I thought, I thought he was an idiot asking me this question. And you could imagine what he thought of me, right? But we, we I have learned a lot from him and thanks to him and you know I think the textbooks that I have seen for world language cover a ridiculous amount of vocabulary and grammar, and maybe that sells more books because you get so much for your buck, but it’s totally unrealistic in terms of what kids are going to retain. 


BLOUWOLFF: And then the teachers start trying to race to cover everything, which makes the kids —

GONZALEZ: Oh yeah. 

BLOUWOLFF: — kids are getting less and less. And then, you know, you’re writing the assessment the night before, and you’re like, oh, well we didn’t really get to that, but oh, I should put in one question just to see who remembers that exception and it becomes this, it can become like a real gotcha thing —


BLOUWOLFF: — which just, I think, I stresses everyone out. 

GONZALEZ: Yes, yes. 

BLOUWOLFF: So I think this, this way of doing it really lets you create assessments where the students can kind of shine and have that showcase moment where you see what they can do, and you know, it’s just, it’s exciting. I think it’s exciting for students, and it’s exciting for teachers as well. It’s hard work and I really stunk at it when I started, and I’m only in my sixth year now, and I can still, I still look at these units like, oh my gosh, how did I create this mess? What else can I take out? So this is one that diving in tomorrow I would not recommend but it is really exciting. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Well, I’ve noticed that when I started to shift to backward design too that sort of every year I had more stuff sort of done from the year before. 


GONZALEZ: That I wasn’t, it was hard to overhaul everything all at once. It’s sort of a multi-year process to really get there and do it in a way that’s satisfying. 

BLOUWOLFF: Yep. And you have to do it badly if you’re ever going to do it well. 

GONZALEZ: Like everything else, yes. 

BLOUWOLFF: The painful story for all of us perfectionists, yep. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. So, so tell me, give me an example of, of what this looks like. 

BLOUWOLFF: Sure. I’ll just tell you the story of an old textbook chapter I had on free time and how I turned that into a thematic unit about screen time and sleep. So at our school, the kids don’t really sleep anymore, and they come in exhausted because they’ve been up all night playing video games, waiting for texts from friends, their phones are in their beds in some cases. 


BLOUWOLFF: And they just seem frankly much more fragile than the kids I taught here 20 years ago. 


BLOUWOLFF: And I know that I’m fragile and I will cry easily if I haven’t had enough sleep. So I understand why, why that is, but I really felt like where I’m at, the kids are eating all this healthy food, they’re doing a million sports, they think of themselves as very healthy, but if you ask them how much they slept last night and they tell you five hours, that’s kind of an access point to talk about well-being in a way that feels real. Like, they know about the food groups. They’re good with that. 


BLOUWOLFF: This, this is the one where everyone kind of just pushes it under the rug. So I, I sort of was on a mission with this one, frankly. But what we did in this unit is, you know, the students still learned to talk about what they liked to do, what they need to do, all the things that we would have covered in free time unit, but it was a lot richer. They were reading infographics in French about what, how much sleep teens need, and the effect of screen time on sleep. And then they surveyed their ePals, and they took the survey themselves, how much did you sleep last night? Was your phone in your bedroom? Was your phone in your bed? What are your family rules for having a phone? Can you have a phone during mealtime? And then they were able to compare themself to their peers here, themself to their ePal, our whole class to the class in France. And then for homework, they were trying different sleep increasing techniques, so maybe their homework, they might choose, like, I’m going to take a nap for 20 minutes tonight, or I’m going to sleep with my phone in the kitchen, and then in class they would journal about what they did. And again, you know, this was all, I was giving them sentence frames. 


BLOUWOLFF: You know, “last night I … ” choose one of these 10 things that you did. “Today I feel … ” choose one of these three ways you feel. So it was very simple. But by the end, they were able to create these little wellness program posters for their ePals where they said, gee, you know, I was looking at your data, and I noticed that you’re sleeping with your phone in your bed. Did you know XYZ? Maybe you’d want to try this. Tell me how it goes. And it was just a way to dig into something that was real to them, I think find some real parallels with kids in France and come to a place where they’d actually done something with the language where there were so many different paths to get there and show what they knew in a real world way at the end. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. Man, that sounds like a much more engaging project than, than a lot of the things that I did in my own French class, really. So that’s a great example. Let’s, let’s move to the last one, No. 6. 

BLOUWOLFF: All right. Let’s talk about appropriate feedback. So our students are doing all this wonderful, exciting work. What, how do we respond and push them forward so that they’re ready for the next great thing? I mentioned earlier that we’re really focused on what students can do, and I think we have to keep that front and center as we try to give them appropriate feedback. So we’re absolutely not marking every error and all the more so when they’re speaking, we’re not going to interrupt students speaking to let them know that they said this or that wrong. 


BLOUWOLFF: No. 1, it’ll just shut them down. 


BLOUWOLFF: No. 2, they’re never going to remember the correction and reuse it in all likelihood. They’re too busy thinking of what they’re going to try to say. So I think what teachers can do is look for patterns of error and think about giving maybe one or two pieces of feedback to students on their work. I really like that model of glow and grow, so here’s something that you did really well, here’s an area where you could improve. 


BLOUWOLFF: ACTFL, our national organization, defines various proficiency levels that students go through as they progress in their language. And it’s great when whole departments can set targets for their courses so that I know, for example, in French 7, I need to get my kids to what we call a novice high. And that level has very particular characteristics that I want my students to know and understand in a really deep way, so that they know what they need to do to reach that level and then even to surpass it. 


BLOUWOLFF: So we’re talking all the time in our classes about how they can level up, how they can go to the next stage and I think that if we want kids to stretch beyond where they are now, we have to think about creating an assessment system that really only rewards risk-taking and doesn’t, doesn’t shut them down, because too often, students are going to end up playing it safe —


BLOUWOLFF: — so that everything, so that everything’s right and as a consequence, they’re going to say much less, it’s going to be much less rich, and they’re going to kind of sacrifice all these other really important things of their language in order to not make a mistake. 

GONZALEZ: Yes. Gosh. I mean this is all resonating so much with me when I think about my own forays into language learning. Even as an adult. I mean it really can be exhausting, because you really are afraid of making a mistake, and that, that does hinder, and I’m thinking how great it would be for students to be sort of brought up in a school culture for a few years where that risk-taking is encouraged, how different it would be. 

BLOUWOLFF: Yep. And I think, at least for my middle schoolers, you know, they’re super concrete. So I have to show them how, you know, if you write me a baby sentence, and it has no mistakes, that’s still not good enough, because we are working on complex sentences, people. 


BLOUWOLFF: And so even if you think you maybe didn’t spell this right or you’re not quite sure what that word should be, if you’ve got the complex sentence, that’s the most important thing. And we actually say that what we call text type, so if the students are communicating at the word, phrase, sentence or paragraph level, is the primary determinant of their proficiency. 


BLOUWOLFF: And so even if you’re not quite there with your rich vocabulary or your accuracy, if you can push yourself on that text type piece and try to expand those baby sentences into complex sentences and then stretch those sentences into string sentences, you are pushing yourself in the right direction. 

GONZALEZ: Got it. So you had an example of, of this type of a feedback and what it kind of could look like. 

BLOUWOLFF: Absolutely. So I try to assess all major pieces of work using a rubric, and I found this rubric called the TALK rubric from Shrum and Glisan’s “Teacher’s Handbook,” which is like a classic of world language teachers education. And so the talk rubric is used to assess students’ speaking, and it’s an acronym. The T, are you talking in French? So that’s No. 1. You’ve got to be doing it in the language. The A is accuracy, which basically means who can understand you. So accuracy is part of the picture, but it’s not the only thing. It’s one of four letters, right? Once you’re talking in French and you’re accurate enough to be understood, the L is for listening. So if I ask you, what did you have for breakfast? You’re not going to tell me, my shirt is green. You have to be listening to my message. 


BLOUWOLFF: And if someone else already asked me what I ate for breakfast, you’re not going to now ask me what I ate for breakfast, because you should have been listening and heard that that was covered. 


BLOUWOLFF: And I think listening skills overall are something kids need to work on in general, and when they’re in an assessment situation, that’s even harder, and so really rewarding them for listening. If they’re able to ask a follow-up question, that’s like the best day ever for me if I hear a kid ask a follow-up question. That’s incredible. 


BLOUWOLFF: Incredible listening. And then finally the K in TALK is for being kind, which I explained does not mean that you’re being nice, though you should be nice, it means that you’re doing your part to keep the conversation going without taking over. So sometimes kids will think, oh, it’s a speaking assessment. My job is to speak more than everybody else. 


BLOUWOLFF: But that’s not your job. Your job is to draw everyone out in the conversation. And also say some things yourself, but you shouldn’t be only making comments. You should also be asking questions. 

GONZALEZ: My gosh. 

BLOUWOLFF: And so I think when we give the feedback in those four domains, it really creates balance in terms of what we expect in terms of their language performance but it also creates motivation. Like, I should really go ahead and ask that question, because that’s something that we’re looking for. 


BLOUWOLFF: And it’s very, it’s very clear to students what they need to do to level up, and that playing it safe and saying as little as possible and only when you know it’s perfect is not going to be enough. So that’s been, that’s been a real game changer for me. I would say, you know, years ago I was having kids recite skits where it literally did not, did not matter what the other person said, because you’d memorized your half, and you were reciting that no matter what happened. And this, this is much more like what they’re working towards, which I want to talk to people in a language. How does that happen? What does that look like? 

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. I love, there’s that little SEL piece in there, you know. You’re kind of teaching them how to have, there’s something, I’m thinking they would even take this rubric into their regular conversations in native languages, because it’s the same, really. These would be the same goals in any conversation. 


GONZALEZ: So, yeah. 

BLOUWOLFF: And sometimes I’ve even given them the exercise of, I put them in groups of four. I’ll give each person a number. I’ll say Person 1’s going to ask a question. Person 2 is going to answer it. Person 3 is going to ask a follow-up question, and Person 4 is going to make a comment. And they’ll, I’ll give them a little chat map that has sample comments and question starters on it, and I’ll say, okay, 1, 2, 3, 4, now change. It’s going to be, now you’re 1, you’re 2, you’re 3, you’re 4. And I find that if you do that super explicit practice, when it comes time for the talk, they’re more purposeful about asking the follow-up questions, making the little comments. And all those little gambits are what makes their language sound more real. 

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Absolutely. Man, thank you so much for sharing all this stuff with us. I think this is going to, this is just going to help people who are just learning to become language teachers, maybe people who are still using some of the older methods and are trying to really understand why all the changes, it’s going to help parents, it’s going to help other teachers, so this has just been fantastic. You, you’ve got some stuff online too that people can maybe learn a little bit more from you. So where can they find you online? 

BLOUWOLFF: Sure. So I’m very active on Twitter, @MmeBlouwolff, and I also have a blog called “Ma Révolution française,” which you can find at 

GONZALEZ: Great. And I will, I will provide links to both of those places over on my website too so that they can, that people can find you. Rebecca, thank you so much. 

BLOUWOLFF: Thank you. This was a lot of fun. 

GONZALEZ: It really was, and I think this is gonna be a long-lasting episode that’s going to help lots and lots of people for years and years. So it’s been time well spent, I think.

For links to all the resources I mention in this episode, visit, click Podcast, and choose episode 131. To get a weekly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.