NOTE:  This is from a unit that teaches the subjunctive with a story-based approach and compelling comprehensible input.

You can get the entire unit here.

The example in from a Spanish 3 class, but the principles apply to any language and any level.

FOCUS STRUCTURE:         quiere que vaya [wants him to go] (present subjunctive with desire)

SECONDARY FOCUS:        gustar, parecer and other verbs like it; Vocabulary review


To get students to understand and use the higher-level grammatical structures that are required in many of the courses we teach, we have to purposefully use higher level grammar and vocabulary in comprehensible and engaging ways.  In order for students to be able to use and understand a structure like the subjunctive we need to explore it and use it a lot in class.  Structures like the subjunctive are a double whammy: the subjunctive mood 1) is being lost in English, and 2) it does not occur often enough in Spanish (only about 2% of verb use) for students to pick it up during normal classroom discussions. So it is a new and unusual concept for students and it is also relatively rare.

Studies indicate that extensive pleasure reading can give students enough input to acquire the subjunctive, but in typical classroom conversations there are not enough instances of it for students to get the feel of how the subjunctive mood works. We need to help them by purposefully focusing on it. This is an example of one way that we can give students enough interesting repetitions so that the subjunctive can begin to make sense to them at a visceral level.  This example will show you how to:

1)     Craft an engaging story that focuses on one grammatical structure.

2)     Get enough repetitions and comparisons for the students to get it.

This story and explanation is a simulated way of experiencing compelling comprehensible input-based teaching.  It is a way to observe an extended lesson in a detailed, analytical way with crucial time to reflect built in.  This time to process is something that is often missing in workshops and demonstrations of the method. Even though this example is appropriate for a Spanish 2 or 3 class, the storytelling principles apply at all levels.

The story in our example is from a Spanish class that focuses on a phrase using the present subjunctive: quiere que vaya [wants (him) to go].  The starting idea is from a Blaine Ray workshop demo: Two girls each want a boy to go somewhere.  This sets up a wacky sitcom-style situation that the students will quickly recognize and run with once we get it started for them.

Transcriptions of class conversations, questions and several models of class story-inventing are all included below.  Notice how that after the initial set up virtually every sentence leads to another question and that the answers given by the students direct the story.  This is not a lecture or just telling a pre-packaged story—it is inventing a story with the students.  This is the highest level of thinking according the The New Bloom’s Taxonomy and WL Teaching.  You might want to point this out to administrators when they check off “lecture” as your teaching style in a drive-by evaluation. Building class stories is far more than passively listening to a lecture—it is interactive co-creation of meaning.

In the complete unit, the entire resulting story titled Los Dos Problemas de Marcus follows this extensive commentary section.  Three more example stories from different classes titled Cazador Tiene Problemas, Riley y las Chicas, and Problemas con Megan y Danielle follow that one.  These stories were all created using the same set up and questioning method. All four stories are presented without commentary or notes so that they can be used as extended readings.  You can use them after your classes invent a similar story to reinforce the learning, or you can have students read them before you begin to invent your class story to give them ideas.

The lengthy example and explanation below is an attempt to show how a story is created and the reasoning behind it.  Your results will be different because your students are different.  The goal is not to teach this exact story, but to invent a unique story with your own class based on the initial situation and the target structures.  We are teaching a skill here:  how to create a compelling story that incorporates what are thought of as advanced grammatical structures.   Learning this teaching skill is quite different from acquiring language, which is not actually a skill, but a universal human ability.  The human brain acquires language on its own, given the right conditions. What we are trying to do with this example is to teach how to set up those conditions so that students will acquire the language.  The purpose is to clarify the skill of circling a new structure and incorporating it into a compelling class story.  Learning this comprehensible input-based story-asking skill takes practice and focus, but acquiring a language should be easy.  Makes a teacher’s brain hurt—we have to learn a hard skill so that the students can pick up language easily.

To acquire language students need a lot of quality repetitions.  We are shooting for comprehensible input that is meaningful, interesting and repeated.  We are trying to get as many interesting repetitions as possible using quiere que vaya; like 100 quality repetitions.  In the example below the target structures are highlighted for easy identification—there are more than 50 written repetitions of the structures in the example, but in a live classroom situation this number would increase because there is even more banter going on.  A quality repetition is one that is interesting to the students and more:  it is compelling. 

Compelling input is appealing.  Compelling means that the students cannot help but pay attention.  It is not enough to just repeat the structures over and over; the repetitions have to be woven into an engaging experience so that the students cannot help but be caught up in it.  We want them to be so into the story that they forget we are speaking Spanish.  This level of involvement is important because even though the subjunctive is relatively easy to understand, it is difficult to produce.  They need hundreds of quality repetitions to even begin to get the feel for it and even more repetitions to begin to produce it reliably.

This story is broken up into five parts.  Here are the parts and the general ideas behind each section:                                                           

            PART 1:  Introducing the Characters: Focusing on the Student Actors

                                    A)   A boy, M, has two problems: two girls, H & K

                                    B)   Make all three student actors look good.

                                    C)  Review the characters before jumping into the story

            PART 2:  Setting up the First Problem: Using the Structure

                                    A)   H wants M to go with her.  K wants M to go with her.

                        (Red print indicates the big questions that guide the development of details in the story)

                                    B)        • Where does H want M to go?

                                                • Why does H want M to go there?

                                                • Why else does H want M to go there?

                                    C)        • Where does K want M to go?

                                                • Why does K want M to go there?

                                                • Why else does K want M to go there?

                                    D)  Which will M choose?

                                    E)  Review the problem with many & varied questions            

            PART 3:  First Solution and Second Problem: Repeating the Structure in a Different Setting

                                    A)  M solves the problem

                                    B)  It leads to another problem:  H and K both want him to go somewhere

                                    C)        • Where does H want M to go?

                                                • Why does H want M to go there?

                                    D)        • Where does K want M to go?

                                                • Why does K want M to go there?

                                    E)  Review the second problem

            PART 4:  Interlude: Enriching a Character with Background Information

                                    A)  Explain something that gives insight into a character’s actions

                                    B)  Review the background information              

            PART 5:  Final Solution: Ending the Story

                                    A)  M solves the problem

Not every story will turn out this way. This particular story just happened to develop like this in this class. You will have different ways of dividing up a story, but building in breaks is important. At every break we take time to review the story (breaks can also help the teacher to think of what to do next). The breaks tend to happen in the middle of the class period and towards the end. Many times the story stretches over the course of several days so these reviews of the details of the story are important for all of us to remember everything.

Write me at or comment below with you questions.