I was first exposed to teaching with comprehensible input (CI) at a Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) workshop led by Blaine Ray, the creator of TPRS and the founder of TPRS Books. As my friend Melanie says, I was “Blaine-washed,” meaning that I totally bought into the theory and practice behind TPRS and wanted to jump in and try it in my classroom right away. I couldn’t contain my excitement and eagerly went back to my school overflowing with enthusiasm to implement the methods I had learned. My department head, however, said, “Whoa, not so fast.” This was quickly followed up by, “Stick to the program we already use.” I was absolutely deflated, but I learned a valuable lesson, which was that not everyone would be so quick to buy into the idea of teaching with CI.
Then last month, Stephen Krashen, the creator of the Comprehension Hypothesis (formerly called he Input Hypothesis), gave a presentation at the annual International Forum on Language Teaching (IFLT) conference in Denver in which he discussed why more people don’t support teaching with CI. At another workshop, Carrie Toth touched on the topic as well. Below is the list that I have created based on what they said and my own ideas about why some people may not share your enthusiasm for all things CI. Just who are these people?
1. Textbook and computer software company representatives. In Denver, Stephen Krashen referred to this as the “greedy capitalist argument” (BTW, I follow Dr. Krashen on Twitter and have discovered that he is both very funny and very liberal).
People who work for these companies want schools to purchase their textbooks and software and, as many of you know, they are not cheap. Schools spend thousands of dollars every year on new textbooks and even more on software licenses. However, most CI teachers do not use these products, simply because they are not usually a source of compelling, comprehensible input. Teaching with CI hurts these companies’ bottom line, which is to make a profit, so you will find that, when speaking with their company representatives, they will either tell you that they have lots of CI activities (I’d like to believe that they say this because they don’t know what CI is and not that they are lying to you outright, but who knows?) or downplay the awesomeness of CI by telling you what the textbook or computer software can do that is better than CI. As far as I’m concerned, that’s just bells and whistles, because by and large these products are still based on traditional methods.
2. Grammarians. When teaching with CI, grammar takes a back seat to the message, which students who like grammar will find problematic. In my experience, those students who truly like grammar are usually the ones at the top of their class or are those who want to be second language teachers someday. My response is, what about everybody else? What about those kids whose brains just aren’t wired for grammar? I don’t know about you, but I want to teach a class where the C student feels that s/he is making progress by having success in the classroom. Those successes don’t come all that often in a grammar-based classroom for anyone except the freaky grammar geniuses. Besides, catering to this small population in a second language class is the exact opposite of what we’re told to do in our classroom by our administrators (“Teach to all students!” “Differentiate!” “Reach all learners!”). Which brings me to point #3…
3. Administrators. A second language classroom is different from other classrooms. As Bill Van Patten says all the time, “Language is not subject matter.” Unfortunately, most administrators don’t know this. They erroneously think that the methods a math or history teacher uses should be the same methods they see in a second language classroom. Administrators come in to evaluate us with their little checklist that they use for classrooms of all subject matter, even if those methods may not be appropriate for a CI language classroom.
At the school where I work, for example, the two buzz words being used these days are “student-driven instruction” and “project-based learning.” Both of these are fine and appropriate for subject matter, but not necessarily if the end product is language acquisition. There are some days where I speak for the majority of class, which is a huge no-no these days in public education. But what my administrators don’t understand is that when I am spending the majority of class talking to my students I am doing my main job, which is delivering comprehensible input.
4. Veteran language teachers. As Carrie Toth pointed out in Denver, one must be vvveeeerrryyyy careful about criticizing traditional methods in front of teachers who use these methods in their classroom. In many cases, those veteran teachers will interpret those comments as personal attacks on them and may become very defensive. My friend Melanie, for example, will be attending a CI conference this October in Maine. She teaches in a six-person department, and all but one of those teachers will be attending. That one who is not going has the attitude of “This is what I’ve always done in my class and it has always worked fine for me.” When this teacher was asked if she wanted to attend this conference, she got angry, because she took the invitation as criticism.
Veteran teachers may also be overwhelmed by how much they will have to change in order to teach with CI. It is not easy and it is not an overnight process. It takes a lot of work and trial and error to convert to teaching with CI. For some teachers, it is just too much. They may be too intimidated or too busy outside of school to commit to the change. They may not have the financial means to attend workshops and conferences. And some, unfortunately, just might be too lazy and may just be riding out their remaining years until they can retire.
Friends, it certainly is disappointing and deflating to be unable to share your enthusiasm and knowledge with others. There will always be some people you will not be able to convince. Don’t sweat it. Your main concern should be that you do not end up with your job in jeopardy because of lack of information or willingness to learn about CI. So with that in mind, I would take the following steps.
1. If applying for a new job, ask if the department is CI friendly. If you can help it, don’t get stuck in a department that will expect you to teach traditionally.
2. If you are switching methods in a current teaching position, be proactive. At the beginning of the year, schedule a meeting with your direct supervisor and principal and explain what you would like to do and why. Find out what they will allow you to do in your classroom. You may have to compromise and only do limited CI at first, but hopefully over time you can make adjustments or learn how to “teach” required material via CI. Before an evaluation, schedule a meeting to educate your evaluator on what to look for in a CI classroom. Bryce Hedstrom has this Administrator Checklist on his blog and Ben Slavic has an evaluation form in The Big CI Book that you may wish to consult and share with your evaluator. If your evaluator needs to use a traditional rubric, you should discuss that rubric with him or her about what areas might not be relevant in your classroom (And as an absolutely last resort, if it is a scheduled visit, I wouldn’t blame you at all if you veered from your normal teaching style to teach in a manner that gave your evaluator what s/he needed to see).
3. Appease your grammarians. Explain your teaching philosophy and methods to your students. Explain that you won’t be teaching grammar explicitly in class but tell them that you will be willing to answer any grammar questions they might have (Just make sure that when you do you do so as succinctly as possible). I had a couple of grammarians this past year who had questions from time to time. I would usually answer their questions quickly and then offer to explain more after class. When they stayed after class, I would them direct them to explanations in the textbook.
Nevertheless, in spite of the skepticism and outright rejection of CI, I would still plan on talking about it and sharing your thoughts about it, because not everybody will respond negatively to the idea of teaching with CI. And helping other teachers discover how much fun and how effective teaching it is to teach with CI is very rewarding.