Promoting Student Success, Pt. 6: Back-up Plans

The sixth part in the ongoing series about how I can encourage success and not set students (and myself) up for failure.

It has been a while since I have returned to this series of ways to avoid failure and promote success. Overall, I think I have been doing a pretty good job of helping the kids to be successful. I have tried my best to meet them where they are, to assess them for what they can do rather than what they can’t, and to manage myself so that I can manage them (more on this last point later on).

Level Appropriate Activities

The latest issue for helping kids to be successful: Knowing what they can and can’t do. I have a tendency to overestimate what kids can do. I assume that the kids can do the same things even when they are at different grade levels. But that is not a realistic expectation. And it isn’t a problem with the students themselves or with the content that I try to teach; it’s a problem with me knowing what is developmentally appropriate. If the kids get content that is too advanced for them (for example, younger students getting stories that have lots of independent-subordinate clause structures in sentence), they have trouble following along. An 8th grader who has had more experience as a reader (in their native language) is going to be better at figuring out what is going on in a complex sentence than a 4th grader.

The disconnect that exists between what older kids can do and what younger kids can do, I have recently figured out, is wide not because I am a bad teacher. It’s wide because the younger kids are simply not ready. They haven’t had enough practice with the types of texts that I am presenting to them. This causes trouble because when they get overwhelmed, they shut down; when they shut down they get bored; and when they get bored, they will let you know it by acting up and being “bad.”

So enough with the description of the problem: How can it be addressed? The answer, interestingly, is easy…and, for the same reason, it’s difficult:

The Answer, Pt. 1: Easy

Have a bunch of backup activities/lessons ready to go.

It’s easy because it is a common-sense answer to the problem. If the kids are not successful with an activity or lesson, I can’t just give up and have them read quietly (or maybe I can, see below) or talk with their friends in a free period. That would be a big waste of time. Instead, the kids should have something to do that uses their language skills.

As soon as you see “the blank look”—you know the one: a mix of being bored and perplexed at the same time—have something ready to go.

The Answer, Pt. 2: Difficult (or rather, time intensive)

This is the potentially difficult thing: having lots of stuff ready to go. Some activities take a lot of preparation and getting them ready can involve a lot of extra work outside of the work you’re already doing with lesson planning and finding/creating materials.

But, as I have found through trial and error this year, it doesn’t have to be difficult. Remember, the whole point of what we do with CI instruction is to keep the class going in the target language. This can be through simple PQA (personalized question and answer), games (Simon Says, telephone, other word games), or, if your school has the resources to help you build it up, TL reading time from your FVR (free voluntary reading) library.

Personally, I trend towards lazy, so anything that doesn’t take a lot of extra effort outside the classroom is what I almost always try to use. I will play a simple game of Simon Says before I go and create a whole separate lesson plan for class periods that might go wrong. That’s just me, though. I like to be spontaneous.

Now, you might be thinking, “Wait, you’re rewarding that ‘bad’ and ‘disrespectful’ behavior you talked about earlier with games? Don’t you lose in that scenario? The kids get what they want, which is to do something that is not rigorous and doesn’t give them instruction. Aren’t you just letting them win?” And you might have a point, but I will answer with another question:

If the game or conversation is in the TL, Spanish for me, and the kids are participating and using the language, do I really lose? Yes, the kids win because they get to do something that they enjoy that isn’t “instruction.” On top of that, I win because I keep the class going in the TL.

The class’ ‘disrespectful’ behavior is not acceptable, but it is understandable. They are lost. When they are lost, as I said before, they get antsy and don’t buy into the lesson. In these situations, I could lecture them or harangue them about what it means to be respectful. I could use my force of will to make them try to complete the activity that I had planned.


I could take my cues from them, realize that they are lost and keep the rapport good by doing something that I know they can do in the TL. I could continue providing input, even if it’s not the exact thing that I was planning.

Why can’t everyone win?

The main purpose of my instruction is to give the kids input in the TL and it doesn’t always matter if they’re getting it from a story or reading that I meticulously crafted or from something “insignificant” like a game or PQA session. Granted, the things that take time are my first go-to for activities when I am planning before classes because of the amount of thought that went into them. I have crafted them to focus on certain things that I want the kids to be able to do. (I don’t want it to sound like all I do is play games, but if something falls flat, I don’t abandon it forever, I take it back to the drawing board and rework it.) Before I can do that, I can’t just give up on the current lesson. I have to keep them getting CI. And having back up plans is the way to do it.

So What Can You Do?

Lots of activities can be used when your lessons don’t work.

Activities that Require Little to no Teacher Preparation

  • Simon Says
  • Sparkle (a spelling game that I learned from the ELA teacher at our school in which the students spell words one letter at a time–each student says one letter of the word, then when the word is spelled, the last student says, “Sparkle” and the following student is out)
  • Telephone
  • Broken Telephone (like telephone, but instead of repeating the word they hear, each student says a word related to the word they hear)
  • Comecocos (fortune-tellers–the students can make them and fill them with any TL information related to what you have been talking about)
  • Word Races (write target words up on the board in no particular order, then teacher calls out one of the words and students race 2 at a time to find words first)
  • Word Sneak (better for older students, this game comes from Jimmy Fallon’s late night talk show: students are given 3 random words each. Then, they have a conversation and each one has to use the three words as casually as possible; each student has to guess what the three random words are-for an example, watch this.

Do you have other suggestions? Tell us about them in the comments!


  1. I do a lot of dance parties – where we listen to music from the target culture. When I stop the music students can do a variety of things: find a partner and have a conversation in the TL, “My name is ____. Nice to meet you” for example, listen to the teacher call out a number and then make a group with that number of students, or quiz quiz trade. The dancing in between is a good way to get some wiggles out.

    My students also like I spy or Yo veo. I recently made cards with images I got off the internet but you can play with what’s in the room too.

    Liked by 1 person

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