OWL In My CI Classroom

OWL stands for Organic World Languages. Last spring, Darcy Rogers, who is the founder of OWL came to my school to do a workshop with our WL teachers. Up until that point, I had felt very alone in my department as far as how language should be acquired and taught. She was an outside voice with a VERY positive, enthusiastic approach to teaching. Darcy opened everyone’s minds to the idea of acquiring a language rather than STUDYING it. We found that there were much more similarities between us than differences!

She taught a lesson to all of us in Mandarin which was really fun! After teaching abroad in China, I can get by conversationally for quite some time with what I acquired, so it was interesting to see others with no background in the language muscle through her upbeat, fast paced teaching.

Everyone’s IMMEDIATE reactions were:

WOW! I am learning this!

OH MY GOD! She was speaking so slow, but it felt like 100mph! I am going WAY too fast in my own classroom!

Acquiring a language this way is INCREDIBLY rigorous, but I am ACQUIRING!

These are almost always the same takeaways that people have after observing a lesson taught with CI or TPRS for their first time. I was impressed and intrigued. The HUGE difference between the two methods that I noticed immediately, was that OWL completely eliminated the use of L1. There was literally NO English in our DEMO. The couple of times people tried to use English to clarify or to establish meaning they were quickly dismissed (but in a POSITIVE way, which I loved).

Why OWL Is Unique

The OWL methodology places a large emphasis on the importance of students learning to struggle or fight to negotiate meaning rather than have that meaning established with a quick translation written up on the board. An OWL classroom is truly Organic. Rather than “target” structures, the students steer instruction and with the teacher as the guide. THEY are aware of the need for the language to be sheltered.

The other BIG difference between a CI classroom and an OWL classroom is the presence of OUTPUT. It is expected and encouraged right away. My CI teacher brain had red flags going up all over the place, but then Darcy asked us to go home and reflect on a few quotes, which can also be found on their website. These are the two that really got my brain going….

Output fulfills certain functions for language acquisition that are not available through input alone.

Communicative effectiveness does not necessarily include proportionately higher accuracy or grammatical sophistication.

Hubert, 2011

My Experience In China

Darcy also challenged me to think about my time in China and how I acquired and learned to USE my Chinese so quickly. YES! I was in an immersive environment BUT, my colleagues at Disney English will tell you that EVERY day, I trained the Chinese speakers around me to teach me using ONLY high frequency structures, and speaking VERY slowly. I would IMMEDIATELY output with them, using those high frequency structures, absolutely BUTCHERING the Chinese as I went. They were DESPERATE to correct me, because I had absolutely NO sense of how to use the TONES. But, I refused to let them and explained that I wanted to learn Chinese as close as possible to how I TEACH Spanish.

I output and practiced my Chinese often with ANYONE who would have a basic conversation with me. It was BAAAAAD. I kept pushing, and by the time I left China, after 9 months, I was having hour long conversations with taxi drivers who were complementing my navigation of the language and my confidence. The noodle guy down the street who used to laugh and shake his head and IGNORE my pleas to speak and practice my Chinese, gave me hugs and told me he had never seen a foreigner learn so quickly.

The practice of “output” was important for me. Did I need it to survive in China? Heck no! I had friends who had been living there for YEARS (some actually there to STUDY the language) and I kicked their BUTTS in Mandarin! Did it enhance everything I did there? YES! It absolutely did.

So, before anyone jumps in to say that it ISN’T the same for our students, I will admit the following. YES, I was a motivated adult IN a country where I could be surrounded by the TL as much or as little as I desired. Even though I lived in a city with not NEARLY as many foreigners as Shanghai, it was SO easy to spend every minute outside of work with English speakers. YES, I am an adult who not only teaches a language but LOVES it, and teaches with a KICK BUTT method that leads to proficient, confident, language speakers.

HOWEVER, I create an environment in my classroom and my SCHOOL where students are eager, enthusiastic, and JAZZED about acquiring Spanish. We communicate in Spanish NOT ONLY IN MY CLASSROOM but OUTSIDE of the class too, because THEY WANT TO! So, this year, after the fantastic training that Darcy gave, here are the various ways you can see OWL in my CI classroom.

OWL In My Classroom

I have written my notes below. However, if you would like to see them in an “easier to read” format, please click on the link to this Google Sheets version that Derek Heckman created for me! He is the best!

What I observed in the OWL training

  • MOVEMENT – I am known for having LOTS of Brain Breaks and movement in my classroom. During the training we were moving every 10-30 seconds. It was AWESOME! and TOTALLY exhausting! HOWEVER, this leaves absolutely NO room for classroom management problems! Seriously. I got a better workout than I have in years in a gym! (Ok… I haven’t been to a gym in years…)
  • NO written English translations – Darcy did a DEMO lesson with Teresa’s actual Spanish 1 and Spanish 2 students. (Teresa had already been experimenting with TPRS and CI in her classes) When Darcy wrote a “structure” or verb up on the white board she would do so without any English translation. She would use gestures and act out meaning, draw pictures, and use the word in various contexts to try and ensure that it was comprehensible.
  • Organic “ness”- Darcy had NO idea where the lesson was going to go when the Spanish 2 students walked into the room. Some student’s jersey spun off into a discussion of sports teams then into a discussion of sports we play and where we play them and from there, on to what we like and don’t like.
  • NO spoken English: Darcy did EVERYTHING in the TL. When she went to explain activities and games I was curious to see if she was going to try and struggle through the explanation in the TL or switch into English. She did NEITHER! She made lots of sounds and did LOTS of modelling.
  • Circle – Darcy ran every class and Demo in a Circle and 98% of the time that circle was standing.
  • Games for breaks – Darcy uses lots of Brain breaks but they are 100 silent or 100% in the TL.
  • Output – Students were practicing using the input they were hearing throughout class time.
  • JOY- Darcy taught with the same passion, enthusiasm, and JOY that I do each day. Seeing it in another teacher was inspiring and proved how effective JOY and passion is at motivating even the most reluctant learners.
  • Circumlocution – Darcy doesn’t teach the phrase ¿Como se dice?, or How do you say?, but rather has circumlocution sentence starters posted in her room.

How it has been implemented in my classroom

  • This year, I have implemented a LOT more Brain Breaks into my instruction. This was evident when I taught my Learning Labs at iFLT too. My transitions have become seamless. I also have invented the idea of Brain Bursts which last 1-3 seconds. These keep kiddos on their toes and VERY engaged.
  • I recognize the importance of students learning to struggle through negotiating meaning, and they do that in my classroom when it comes to the many words I use AROUND the words I am focusing on getting them to acquire. Ex.:The verb tiene- s/, he has, will be up on the board WITH translation but all of the language I use around it are words the kids are working on comprehending using pictures, context clues, cognate recognition, and other language learning skills. I DO however, write the English translation of the word(s) we are focusing on (usually verb structures) until I am sure they’ve acquired it. Once they have, the English is GONE!
  • I had already been playing with “non-targeted” CI in my classroom and just going with what the students ORGANICALLY were driven to discuss. The challenge with this is mastering the skill of truly scaffolding and SHELTERING your language so that you are only using structures that they have previously acquired and maybe 1 or 2 new ones. This is an incredibly difficult task, but it can be done with time and practice. YOU know what your students know. YOU know what they NEED to communicate in your TL. This year, I have really allowed my class to be more organic. I look at it like being a PRETZEL. Be flexible and let students steer the discussions. YOU be the GUIDE!

More Ways…

  • When I went through my teacher training program at the University of Denver, I used to hear MODEL MODEL MODEL. Every minute of every day. This year, I have gone back to MODELLING everything and rather than ALWAYS switching into English to explain instructions, sometimes I just model and make silly noises. For example, if I have all the kids standing in two lines and I want one of those lines to move and rotate but the other to stay put, BUT these learners are in their FIRST week of Spanish, I simply run to the student that I want to move (Sarah) and say “hola, soy Sarah” and I wave to the class then model that I want Sarah to RUN to the other end of the line while all the other students move one spot over. (I actually do this pretending I am Sarah) For the rest of the kids I stand in front of them and move, but rather than explaining that “movement” I make the sound “zip, zip,zip” As I gesture that they all move. The other link and students I point to quickly and put my hands up and make a giant X. I point to my feet which are planted solid on the ground while saying “EEEERRRCH!” This takes THE SAME AMOUNT of time as it does to explain it in English BUT I am not having to switch into L1!
  • Some days I teach my class in a circle. I do use chairs though, but I get them up and moving a lot.
  • I use my longer Brain Breaks as an opportunity to provide students with an outlet to use their language in a “safe” not “forced-output” way. Their affective filters are low. ALL students are talking at the same time. Nobody is concerned with someone listening to them. ERRORS are ok! They are doing this output in a game type of format. **I only do this OUTPUT with structures the students have acquired and know WELL… It is January so I am doing the Brain Breaks with Spanish that they acquired in October!
  • I continued being ME!
  • I never saw what those stems look like but I created my own like, “It is the thing that you use for _____” or “It is like _____” . After the first few weeks of school I really pushed circumlocution rather than the use of ¿como se dice?.

The results I’ve noticed so far

  • I have not seen that “glossy/glazed over” look on any face ALL year! Students are more engaged than ever. My more “reluctant” participators are actively participating more without even realizing they are doing it! #winning
  • This has been a HUGE change this year. My word walls now look VERY different. I have all of our acquired structures (mostly verbs) posted around the room but they have NO translation. They are just in Spanish. Students still use the word walls but I have seen incredible growth in their confidence. Last year, many students, with the crutch of the English there on the wall, depended on it and didn’t trust themselves and their abilities to move forward withOUT looking for the English translations. This year, I see students referencing the walls during free writes, and even then only sometimes, and I have seen a HUGE boost in their confidence. It has also eliminated the problem of students trying to use structures they haven’t heard or acquired yet, just because it is on the wall. (ex. 3rd grade student trying to use a word from 5th grade’s word wall)
  • Engagement is through the roof… DUH! We are talking about THEM and what THEY want to talk about almost every day! It is WAY more PQA, and PQA is ALWAYS engaging.
  • Students are much more invested in listening to instructions. Often times when I used to explain in English I would get follow up questions IN ENGLISH (usually kids checking out or getting lazy when hearing L1), which weren’t even necessary if the students had just tried it once! They would’ve immediately realized what was happening and their questions would have been answered. NOW, they don’t ask those questions, and we just DO the activity, and they understand it immediately because 90% knew what I wanted immediately and the other 10% are taking risks. It is saving loads of time plus students laugh hysterically at my weird noises.
  • Students like the novelty of the circle a lot. I was worried about some students not seeing the word walls or question words behind them, but that hasn’t been a problem at all, they just turn and twist if they need to see a word that I am pointing to.
  • Students favorite Brain Break EVER is evolution. Anytime you can create/integrate new Brain Breaks you win! Kids LOVE them and NEED them. ALL ages! Do I say that enough???? haha! YAY Brain Breaks!
  • Parents who I had last year AND this, have told me that THIS year they have seen a huge increase in confidence of their students actually USING language at home or out in public. One parent, who is fluent, told me that she has stopped correcting her student’s errors because her student told her that if she focuses on rules she will not communicate as much and that she will learn grammar rules as she gets more input from Maestra in class or from reading! YAYYYYYYYY!
  • Students continue to LOVE Spanish and LOVE my class!
  • The students don’t need to be reminded to circumlocute anymore. Students USE the word circumlocution and actually help each other to make meaning of words they don’t know, using words that they DO! It is so impressive.

Additional Notes

  • I have also started experimenting with having students move to different seats a lot more (in the OWL circle students are NEVER by the same person for very long) and this movement has also been a great Brain Break for students and a great way for me to “manage” and control who they are sitting next to without them thinking I am just out to separate them from their friends.
  • Rather than the English translation, I now have the present tense s/he form of the verb in BIG BLUE letters first and under that I have the past tense s/he form of the verb in smaller GREEN letters and just below that in RED letters I have the present tense yo form of the verb. I have loved this and the students (especially my higher performing ones) do too. I don’t explicitly point this out, but when I am talking I can use my laser pointer to direct attention to it when I want to.
  • An example of what being a PRETZEL looks like: I teach a DICHO (idiom) of the week (which rocks) and one morning when I was explaining the DICHO using a picture of David Beckham and his son, half of the students in class didn’t know WHO David Beckham was. Of course, I was horrified (so were the other half of the students) and I proceeded to go into a discussion of soccer and soccer history  and soccer around the world and that turned into sports we play and just like that half the class was done! Then I mentioned something about Sexy Spice being so lucky, and the kids all looked at me like I was crazy and I realized… “OH MY GOD! These kids don’t know who the SPICE GIRLS are!?!?” So I pulled up a music video. Played it for a minute for a Brain Break. Then we put it on mute and “Movie Talk”ed the rest of it! THAT is being organic, and flexible, LIKE A PRETZEL! Guess how much “out of bounds” words we had? TWO! It was totally comprehensible!
  • It is important to be COMFORTABLE and confident in front of your students. If you are embarrassed to make weird noises, they will eat you alive (especially high schoolers). Don’t forget to make “weird” the norm in your class. It goes a long way in establishing that safe, “risk-taking” environment. If you go to my YouTube Channel, you can see lots of my Brain Breaks and how I give instructions in COMPREHENSIBLE Spanish.
  • She did a great break with us where we had to run around the room both “protecting” our knees from getting hit and trying to “slap” other people’s unprotected knees. It was hard work and hysterical. We looked like crabs sprinting around the room. I tried this with my kids and found that they were ALL defence and NO offence! At ALL! They were total chickens!!!! BOOOOORRRRING!
  • Here is a video of a sentence strip Brain Break and here is a PomPom toss video. Above ? is a photo from my Instagram of kiddos doing my pompom toss last year in 4th grade. #bageeraclass
  • TAKE THE TIME TO EXPLAIN WHAT CIRCUMLOCUTION IS!!!!!!! Explain it’s value and even give examples of how YOU have used it in your travels! STUDENTS LOVE hearing about YOUR life! 🙂 Teach them to be successful global citizens!

I recognize that this is an OVERLOAD of information. However, I hope that if you take ANYTHING from it, it is that we need to be OPEN and constantly learning and experimenting OURSELVES for the benefit of our students.

YOU know your students. Nobody knows them as well as YOU do. Do what is best for your kids in your room. Pick and choose the best bits of various methods and techniques and tweak them to what your students need! Use lots of techniques and alter them to fit YOUR personality and teaching style. BE OPEN, BE ENTHUSIASTIC, and BE INQUISITIVE.

Thanks for reading!

Until next time, HAPPY TEACHING!


La Maestra Loca


    1. I am glad it comes through in writing! Mostly it just comes out as word vomit through my fingers! 😀 It is so important for our kids to see that we LOVE what we do! If we want them to be rockstars, we have to rockstar role models! 🙂 Thanks for the feedback. Happy Teaching!!!!!!!!

  1. Great post! I agree OWL works and Darcy is a joy! Just a comment for your readers who might read your post and think, sure, this works for Annabelle who has an extraordinarily amazing, high energy personality….and I don´t! Well, I started OWLing 3 years ago after teaching for 15 years (CI, TPRS, TACTICS) and I do not have such a personality! Nevertheless, my classes are energized and fun! The kids are engaged and there is great ‘buy-in’. I have never seen the progress in my 2nd language learners that I see now. Best perk; the kids LOVE the class. They share that they look forward to Spanish because they know the will be moving, have fun and in the process ACQUIRE the language! That gives me joy!

    1. AWESOME!!!!! Thanks for your comment….Right now I am using it with my CI and I have seen HUGE growth and my students love the extra energy and movement, and you’re right! You DON’T have to be me or Darcy to do it!

  2. Hi, I am an old TPRSer that went to –
    and loved….an OWL workshop. I really enjoyed reading your comments. They put into writing many of my thoughts, thank you!

  3. I’m still curious about how students will actually pick up structures if you let them direct the topic of discussion. Don’t they need repetition? (You did say it takes time to figure that out and that you try to use as much of what they already know… what about for the youngest, very novel acquirers? They probably can’t?)

    1. The youngest can still stear the conversation. You just have to really manipulate the language to stick with those SUPER high frequency structures… Likes, wants, has, prefers, goes… You can do almost anything with those. EVERYONE needs repetition. That is why we have to shelter shelter shelter and make the high frequency structures our focus.

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