How to Get Started with CI: Foundational Techniques

Another school year is starting and more than ever before, departments are full-up with conversations about teaching to proficiency, about moving away from explicit grammar, moving away from the textbook, adding more TL usage into our teaching. It’s so wonderful to hear! Our students are going to really benefit!!!

Some teachers might also be leery to take the jump. It’s scary to start down a new path, especially if you are an experienced teacher with an established practice. But it’s worth it for your students’ sake! And for your own! Teaching to proficiency is much more rewarding!

Joining the online CI community can be complicated as there are many different brands of CI, a number of entire curricula, and lots of people with their own take. However, the key to sustained success with any of the styles of CI is to focus on developing some foundational CI techniques and conversation formats.


First, the Techniques:

  • CI class rules:

    In CI classrooms, or during CI activities, students spend a lot of time listening and/or reading. There is typically very little time spent with students practicing individually, very little time spent practicing writing or specific linguistic chunks like the singular of the verb to have or whatever. The thing is, student practice work, particularly writing, is like a magic silencer. Without that typical practice, it can be hard to get students to focus. Lots of people use Ben Slavic’s classroom rules here. I have slightly altered the rules to fit my needs, and this is my current version:

    Try to understand/Clarify Meaning
    Look at the Language
    Sit up…legs forward…clear eyes
    Do your 50% to be interesting
    Avoid English (3 words)
    1 Person Speaks, Everyone Listens

    The rules are reinforced by what the CI community calls the Interpersonal Communication Rubric. Here’s a post I wrote about the ICR which includes a few examples from different teachers around the nation as well as my current version.


  • Post question words

    . The question words are what drive the class conversations forward. And having them posted means they are tangible. You can literally go over to them when needed and touch them. It slows you down giving your students time to process the TL and clarifies the input.

    Here’s an example video from my YouTube Channel. Skip ahead to about the 2 minute mark. Notice I walk over to my question words and gesture to them, signaling to the class that they should drive conversation forward by asking interesting questions about the cake.

  • Personalization

    To get students to pay attention to 90% of class in the TL from Day 1 in level 1, you have personalize the content and conversation to the students’ interest…to make class about them. If you’re working with the “getting to know you” unit at the beginning of the year, find out who plays which sports in class, who plays what video games, who is the oldest, who is the youngest, tallest, shortest, when the next birthday is, who has the biggest family……literally whatever content you need to get done. Just do it by talking about the kids in the room!

    I have put together a list of personalized questions for Chesterfield County’s level 1-3 curriculum that serves to demonstrate how you can ground thematic units in student interest. This is how thematic unit curricula can be written in partnership with the CI teaching methodology.

  • Visual Support

    In level 1 in particular, but really whenever saying any new vocabulary in any level, you need to make the new content obvious using something beyond the text itself–like body gestures, acting, pointing, drawing.  When I talk about height, I get two students to stand up back-to-back and then use my hands to point to the taller one and gesture really tall as I’m describing her. When we’re talking about dogs, and we find out that little Johnny has 5 dogs, I walk over to the board, write “Johnny,” speed-sketch 5 little stick-figure dogs and write the word “perro.”

    In this example video, if you skip ahead to about the 4 min. mark, you can see me drawing and taking notes on the board to help clarify the TL. It’s also really important to have those visual cues on the board for when co-creating the daily textual summary. Skip ahead to about the 23 minute mark, I transition into the co-creation of the textual summary (the Write and Discuss) which draws heavily on the visual scaffolding on the board.

  • High Frequency

    All words are not created equally. There is a core of the language, the top 300 words or so, that represent the vast majority of communication, particularly everyday oral communication. In the classroom, focusing on the highest frequency verbs, in particular, drives all conversation to the rest of the highest frequency words. In the CI community, these verbs are known as the:

    The Super 7:

    is (2 verbs in Spanish)
    there is

    The Sweet 16:
    those above plus….

    should (These are mine. Other CI folks have some differences in their lists)
    Frequency studies have demonstrated that the vast majority of everyday communication is comprised of a shockingly small range of vocabulary words. Bryce Hedstrom has some really valuable blog posts on his blog about this topic, and HERE is one particularly good explanation of high frequency verbs.

    Mike Peto also has a nice article HERE and HERE about how he grounds his classes (all levels) in circumlocuting with the highest of high frequency words to such a point that his curriculum is basically his Sweet 16.

    The point is, you can communicate a lot with a little. Many folks in the CI community (including myself) believe it is much more valuable for students to know the Sweet 16 in all forms and tenses with as much instinct/control as possible, rather than long lists of lower frequency verbs. This grounding in high frequency verbs gives your students more repetition on the most important parts of the language, thus increasing their communicative power more quickly.

  • Gesturing high-frequency verbs

    Take a look at one of my videos. You can see me gesturing a lot of verbs. I reach out and grab at the air for “wants.” I walk my fingers down my forearm to signal “goes.” I tap my heart to signal “likes.” Etc. I have a gesture for every single one of the Sweet 16 verbs that helps reinforce its meaning. I don’t do gestures for all new vocabulary like TPR teachers do, just the Sweet 16 verbs, because they’re that important. I also point my thumb over my shoulder for the past tense in combination with a verb, and combine the signal for “goes” with another verb to signal the near future (is going to say…). The signals don’t matter much. I got most of them from Grant Boulanger’s language lab at the iFLT conference, but some I modified and created.

    The point is two-fold: First, the visual gesture helps scaffold learning.

    Just as importantly, I’ve found that having a gesture also aids in encouraging student output/speaking. Students constantly start sentences that they don’t know how to complete. When they get stuck, I frequently can predict what word they need and can gesture it. Then, voilá, they say it! It’s guided output! And it’s MAGNIFICENT!!! Check out my guided output of “nosotros……necesitamos” at 21:45. I do this constantly! And it’s also the reason I teach the gestures to upper level classes too. They don’t need the reminder of what “quiere” means, but often they still need guided output when they get stuck mid-sentence.

  • Write and Discuss

    Write and Discuss is what many in the CI community call the daily textual summary of the oral conversation. It is a co-constructed text that solidifies the spoken conversation in text. You can watch an example here. The oral conversation goes from about minute 3-21:30. At about 22:00 I start the write and discuss. I have written extensively about the importance of the Write and Discuss. Just click here to pull up all the blogs on that subject.

    I can’t over-emphasize how important the Write and Discuss is. In CI teaching, most teachers don’t use a textbook or an outside source for thematic unit reading material. The students’ interests within the themes is the curriculum. The students themselves is the resource. So, the Write and Discuss is the source of most of your reading and textual analysis. Doing it on a regular basis can in a way create your own textbook that is completely unique to each class. Check out a few examples from my 2017-18 school year.

    Level 1 Example

    Level 2 Example

    It’s really useful to assign a student to type up the daily Write and Discuss in a class-shared google doc and then print out every new page to add to your classroom library. I also assign a digital editor to add photos, which really brings the class textbook or the class yearbook to life.

  • Daily Lesson Pacing

    Warm-up (5 min/10 min. for reading program): At the beginning of the year, it’s just some review. But for levels 2+, I start my FCR reading program ASAP, definitely by week 3. That becomes my warm-up. With level 1, I’ve started the FCR program in January usually.

    Oral Conversation (20-45 min): The meat of the lesson is the oral conversation creation for the day. It could be a “Question of the Day,” a “Topic of the Day,” a “Student Interview,” “Story Creation,” whatever! I try to engage the students on their interests within the content. I try to put voice to their thoughts in the TL. This is where new vocabulary is comprehended in context.

    Textual Summary (5-10 min): Also known as the “Write and Discuss,” this is when I shut the conversation down and we as a class create a paragraph about the conversation. They give me information–sometimes in words and phrases, increasingly in full sentences as the year goes by–and I take that information and write it correctly on the board. Lots of teachers omit this activity, but it is essential. Students make huge literacy gains working with text in this way. Plus, it’s great cognitive work, synthesizing new pieces of language! Some teachers require students to write this down afterwards. I wouldn’t recommend having students write it during because their concentration will shift from reflecting on the conversation to just copying. In place, I hire a class secretary that types a copy of what I write on the board in a google doc for the class. That way I can project it the next day and assign reading practice, etc….

    Reading (5-10 min): I use a variety of reading strategies to review the textual summary from translation to partner reading, etc. Google search “Ben Slavic Reading Strategies” to get a load of examples. I often use this time to talk about grammar some as well, to point out conjugation patterns and noun-adjective agreement.

    Assessment (optional 5 min.): I use a variety of quick formative assessments usually. Sometimes it’s to translate a few sentences of the textual review. Sometimes its a quick listening quiz of 4 or 5 questions. Just a quick grade.

    Sometimes I don’t get through the whole daily cycle. Sometimes I do the reading the next day because I ran out of time. Sometimes I don’t assess. It all just depends on the timing.



Conversation Formats

In addition to techniques, you have to have conversation formats to teach thematic units with CI. There are many, but I rely most on TWO high-powered activities to talk about the vocab themes:

  • Question/Topic of the Day-I used this activity a ton. Here’s an example video about John Cena, the wrestler. It popped up in my 1st block one day because they were weirdly into him. So, we talked about it a few class periods later.  I just asked the class a question and fleshed out how they felt about the topic. It’s just conversation, but I made sure to survey the class, get multiple perspectives, and take note on the board as we went. For example, in the food vocab theme, a sample question of the day might have been: “What is your favorite dessert?” I would have tried to figure out what two or three desserts were the most popular, and who in class liked each of them. Then, I would have tried to get some specifics about flavors or restaurants that feature the desserts, etc. I would have encouraged some healthy rivalry between the different opinions in class. All along, I would have taken notes on the board and probably projected images from google for the different desserts that came up. In the end, I would have written it all up via a Write and Discuss.Here’s a sample for the dessert question of the day:


You could go through your entire year’s worth of vocab themes just via questions of the day: who’s your favorite basketball player, what’s your favorite holiday, what is your favorite place to shop online, which smartphone app do you use the most, what’s your favorite social media platform, what’s your favorite class, what’s your favorite pet, etc…


  • Student Interviews (aka Persona Especial/special person)-I called students up front on a regular basis to ground the conversation in their interests. I tried to solicit volunteers based on the vocab at hand. So, when we were talking about sports vocab, we interviewed the athletes who played for the school. When we talked about clothing, we interviewed the student who loves to collect stylish shoes. This is where getting to know your students really pays off. You know who would be interesting to call up for an interview.A few logistics for this type of interview:–For high school, the interviews went anywhere from 15 minutes to multiple days depending on how interesting the subject was.

    –I found it most effective to let the students in class ask the questions, rather than ask them myself. Of course, I rephrased them in correct, full sentences. But the engagement was better when I let them direct the questions.

    –I called it “Hablando Con Chonko” and set it up like a talk show where I was the host and the class was the audience. It was fun!

    –It was best when I could get the interviewed student to send me actual photos of them doing the activity: the shoe collector surrounded by all his shoes, the horseback rider at a competition, etc…

    Here’s an example from the shoe conversation:


There are many other CI conversation formats: PictureTalk, MovieTalk, CardTalk, CalendarTalk, StoryListening, Storyasking, Story Co-Creation, the Invisibles, One Word Images, etc. I encourage you to check them out. However, in reflection of my own practice, those two above comprise most of my practice.


Good luck everybody!!! Jump right in this September! The water is warm!


  1. Hey, Brett. I’ve been watching your videos on YouTube and love them! I want to follow your blog here, but I can’t find the widget to follow. Can you point me to it? Thanks! Keep up the good work!


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