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by Erica Fischer on Feb 25, 2014

Using Centers and Stations to Teach World Language

centers stations postSometimes, it takes focusing on a certain strategy to help remind you of just how effective it can be.
This seemed to be the case last Thursday, as the #langchat participants discussed station activities and how they can be tools for fast, deep language acquisition. Not only did they talk about the purpose for station learning and how it meets learning objectives, but they shared great tips for preparing for station lessons, implementing them and specific lesson ideas that work for the world language classroom.
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Why Use Stations?

Learning stations or learning groups are a great way to differentiate learning, broaden student understanding of a topic or theme and engage them in a variety of learning tasks: all at the same time! @tmsaue1 said, “Stations can be used at every stage of the learning sequence for the students’ #personalization.”

But, differentiation and engagement aren’t the only reasons #langchat teachers think they’re so great. Station learning also allows students to have deeper exposure to the language and have a variety of acquisition experiences.

  1. An engaging way to review or preview a theme or set of linguistic skills.
    @SECottrell said, “Most often I use as a preview and don’t bother to assess it. Point was language exposure and exploration, not a grade.”
  2. Allows for more varied skill practice, in a variety of acquisition methods (small groups, guided activities and small group instruction).
    @tmsaue1 said, “Centers allow you to address so much we keep talking about: personalization, technology, small group practice, free reading, ….”
  3. Movement between groups is fun and physically engaging for active or younger students and teachers. @muchachitaMJ said, “I’m walking around the room a lot. I love seeing what they are learning. Keeps lazy moments at bay!”
  4. Allows easy differentiation in the types of skills students are learning for the whole lesson. @tmsaue1 said, “Why I really like stations: you can #differentiate the learning not the teaching. Not every student needs to go to every station.”
  5. Can be designed to support language acquisition for interpretive, interpersonal and presentational skills, all in the same station activity. @senoritareid said, “One purpose is to have students use all three modes of communication interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational.”
  6. Facilitates more “risky” language behavior. @tmsaue1 said, “If output activities, they can be great to “practice” safely, if they are input they allow for personalized exploration of “new””
  7. Gives students more ownership of their learning, especially if stations are paired with choice activities. @muchachitaMJ said, “Motivation goes way up when kids get a say in what and how they learn. They learn how to teach themselves!”

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Implementing Stations

Implementation is the key to a successful station activity, and the main reason why many world language teachers balk at the idea of setting it up. Station learning can be noisy, confusing and chaotic if not prepared and managed carefully. Here are some tips from the pros on making your station activity run smoothly and effectively.

How Many Stations, How Many Students, How Much Time?

Although answers vary, many #langchat teachers agree that the fewer the students at each station, the more intensive the learning process is. That being said, you must remember that you need to create enough stations that differentiate the learning, without overextending your ability to manage and monitor the activity at each one. @tmsaue1 said,

I’ve also seen failed stations where teachers were trying to cram a bunch of boring review activities. Students didn’t respond.

There were some good suggestions of how exactly to set up the size and number of stations. @SECottrell said, “In a 50-minute class period, I find 3 stations at 10 minutes each is perfect, time for transitions and tech glitches.” @ldpricha said, “I do four stations in two 35 min classes. Sometimes we’ll add a 3rd day to finish 1 station, but that’s rare.”

What Types of Activities at Each Station?

There are number of ways to set up a station lesson that can meet or exceed the Common Core State Standards and ACTFL proficiency standards’ guidelines. Some teachers, like @SenoraWienhold and @ProfeKing, run their station activities based on the skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. Other teachers, like @ProfeKing, set up their station activities based on the ACTFL modes of communication: interpersonal, interpretive and presentational. @alisonkis shared her unique spin on station goals as a way to foster higher orders of thinking about the language process:

Stations can be set up based on level of thinking. Define vocab, apply vocab, etc.

How to Manage Transitions?

To use a timer or not to use a timer?

To use a timer or not to use a timer?

One of the key concerns with doing station work is the tendency for transition times to get out of control and waste instruction time. For a lot of #langchat teachers, that means that preparing students for transitions and helping them build habits for responding to station activities is vital to the success of these lessons. @SECottrell said,

I use a timer because my perfectionists would stay in one place trying to complete every possibility perfectly. They get bogged down.

On the other hand, some teachers felt that the unstructured nature of station work is a part of it’s attraction and effectiveness. @muchachitaMJ said, “I let most classes move freely with stations … Go where you want for how long you want. Students can’t believe how fast class goes!”

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How to Prepare Stations

The most important thing when designing a station-based learning lesson is preparation. Still, this doesn’t mean that every station activity must take hours to set up and implement. @alisonkis suggested that stations can now be set up through web tools, which cuts down the preparation time dramatically.

There were many teachers that talked about reusing stations or stretching them out over a few days to limit the amount of overall preparation for a station activity. @tmsaue1 said,

If you have plenty of stations you can implement it more than once and just rotate thru different stations. One prep = multiple days.

@SECottrell responded, “Or, you can duplicate stations to get the benefit of small groups without extra work.” @ProfeKing said, “It takes a little logistical work, but not much prep. Keep tasks simple and low material. Novelty is what excites.”

@SECottrell shared her final thought on preparing both students and lessons relating to station work:

I learned a key is to make sure you have a point. Tied to targets, fits in your sequence, not random.

How to Prepare Students for Station Learning

The other element of successful station learning is making sure that students are ready to participate. @tmsaue1 shared a very important point about how to best prepare students by teaching them transition habits. He said, “What I learned from @muchachitaMJ is this: routine, routine, routine. That way, you don’t have to waste time constantly explaining the purpose of the stations. My students always know they will do 1 interpretive task, 1 interpersonal, 1 presentational, although overlap is possible. When students know what’s expected and the center task is meaningful, transitions can take as little as 90 seconds.”

Types of Stations

Despite having similar objectives, all the #langchat teachers had unique ways of setting up stations to meet those same objectives. @tmsaue1 mentioned some ideas he had seen in action:

  • iPad games
  • free reading
  • interpretive audio activity
  • small group chat
  • short free write

@mitchellsensei said, “How about stations that are thematic with opportunities to develop interpretive, interpersonal and presentational WL skills?”

Other stations mentioned were craft stations, investigative stations, picture stations and role-playing stations. Also, several teachers mentioned the value of including technology stations, with references to tools like Google Voice, QRVoice and LiveScribe as viable learning options.

Monitoring and Assessment

@mitchellsensei said what many #langchat teachers were thinking when she commented, “My only concern with stations is being able to effectively monitor and assess listening and/or speaking.”

Being able to accurately assess station activities is one of the inherent difficulties in this format of teaching. Still, many #langchat teachers had valuable perspectives and tips to share to help alleviate the burden of assessment:

  • @alisonkis said, “Centers are not busy work, but serve as formative assessment opportunities.”
  • @mitchellsensei said, “I think the stations are the formative assessments designed to build and develop the skills for an authentic performance task.”

@SenoraDiamond55 had a great question:

Any concerns about students staying on task? With over 25 students in a class, I’d be concerned about straggling and hiding behind the number of students.

@muchachitaMJ responded,

Variety is key! Sometimes a quiz (reading sample from that station) or exit slip – what did you figure out today?

It was clear that, regardless of the potential problems with monitoring and assessment of station activities, these types of lessons allow students to truly explore the language, as long as assessment isn’t the most important goal. @CoLeeSensei said, “Do we have to always assess at stations – it’s also a place to try new things? Perhaps stations work as they move us from ‘teacher’ role to ‘facilitator’ one?? I want to coach, not be the ‘focus’ in the room.”

Some quick tips on assessing stations:

  • @muchachitaMJ said, “I don’t grade their learning like its a worksheet…Scares them from taking risks. I have kids jot down 1 thing learned at each station. Neat to see their “ah-ha” moments.”
  • @SenoraDiamond55 said, “I say assess at some (or a) stations, always. Not all stations, always. No, no, no!”
  • @MmeCarbonneau said, “You could have students write the assessment for you! One of the stations is to help create the criteria/scoring.”

Lesson Ideas for Incorporating Stations

  • @alisonkis said, “Try Tic-Tac-Toe kind of station. Differentiation based.”
  • @andrearoja said, “I did modified stations today for my doctor unit. I had several infographics related 2 body vocab. Students skimmed for main ideas and details. Then they sketched a body on butcher paper and printed labels from Quizlet (cut off the English). Label. One station was reading a patient info form and identifying cognates”
  • @SECottrell said, “A recent station in my class was to listen to music nominated for @premiolonuestro and pick the winner. Another station, I gave students conversation questions on cards about concert experiences, music preferences.”
  • @frenchteacher11 said, “I had a restaurant center with students taking orders and playing the role of customers. I also had flash card games and a reading center with food books.”
  • @crwmsteach said, “Four corners is another station-like activity. Students go to their favorite corner and say why they like it: ex: food, sports, music, books.”
  • @cbloodworth said, “I regularly have a Jefferson County-inspired stamp sheet station going in my class.”
  • @KrisClimer said, “No tech: what about lots of games, role-play conversation, cloze activities”
  • @muchachitaMJ said, “I just printed off 10 little comics/tweets with unit vocab and left it for a reading station. They had to vote for favorite.”
  • @CaulfieldAndrea said, “Pile of post-its with specific items that have to be labeled (une chemise rouge), etc – timed activity and the fastest group wins!”
  • @muchachitaMJ said, “Or print lyrics to song and cut them up in to words or chunks… Students listen and put in order.”
  • @ldpricha said, “Pizza wheels: Velcro a picture on each section. Match clothespin with word to the picture.”
  • @ProfeKing said, “One of my favs is with emotions. Play a brief varied music selection and have students write what emotion it makes them feel.”
  • @ldpricha said, “Idea: Cut up sentence strip. Students build sentences. Put a picture on the back for meaning. Color code part of speech.”

Thank You

Thanks so much to @CoLeeSensei for attempting to reign in a focus for our conversation about how to make stations work in the world language classroom. As usual, there were a number of excellent points and resources that were shared that we couldn’t include in the summary. If you’d like to see what you’ve missed, check out the full transcript here.

#Langchat wouldn’t be the same without weekly participation by you! We love to meet with you and find out what is working in your world language classroom. If you have ideas that you’d like to see discussed on #langchat, please share them with us. Last Thursday’s topic was a perfect example of a suggestion that turned into a very valuable discussion for the whole PLN.

Additional Resources

Review in 7 Minute Stations
Stations Centers
Spot-checking conversations
Centers Sheet
Corporate Spanish sites
Stations – What I’ll do next time
Belkin RockStar 5-Way 3.5-mm Headphone Splitter
Visuals for Foreign Language Instruction
#LangCamp 2013!


Elementary in Spanish
Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.


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