Not Everybody Likes Teaching With Comprehensible Input

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.

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More Anecdotal Evidence about the Power of Comprehensible Input

My oldest child is home for a month from college, and she brought with her an affinity for Korean music and television. Korean music became popular a few years back after the release of the song “Gangnam Style” by Psy. It turns out that there is a whole genre of music, aptly called K-Pop, and television shows, which my daughter says are called K-Dramas, that we in the US can listen to and watch. 

After a few months of watching and listening to Korean in songs and television shows, my daughter is reporting that she has started picking up some Korean by watching K-Dramas and music videoswith English subtitles. She has not done any formal language instruction, although she has downloaded an app to help her learn the Korean writing system, which is called Hangeul (By the way, I have done a bit of research on the writing system and it is surprisingly not as complicated as it looks. If you’ve ever been interested in learning Korean, don’t let the writing system scare you off). “I’m at the point where, when I’m watching a K-Drama, I can sometimes tell when the English translation is wrong or missing part of the dialogue, and I can recognize common expressions,” she says. All this from exposure to compelling, comprehensible input.

In other news, my husband has decided to brush up on his Spanish, which he is doing by reading La Clase de Confesiones by A.C. Quintero. It is a reader designed for students of Spanish. It took him about four hours to get through the first chapter, but as he has read more and more he is getting through the chapters more quickly and reports that he doesn’t need to look up as many words as he did when he was working through Chapter 1. 

My husband is not completely convinced that comprehensible input is the way to go. He is the product of traditional language classes and isn’t so quick to discount that instruction, even though I am quick to quote Bill Van Patten, who says, “Explict instruction does not lead to implicit knowledge.” And also, in typical husband fashion, since he only hears about comprehensible input from me, he needs to hear it from other people to whom he is not married before he will buy into it fully. Nevertheless, he is enjoying the book and is looking forward to reading Mira Canion’s El Escape Cubano next. With enough reading and acquiring of language, I’m sure that eventually he will see the light!

Using L1 in an L2 Classroom

I woke up this morning thinking about using L1 (one’s first language, which is English in my case) in an L2 (second language) classroom.  The American Council on the Teachng of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has guidelines stating that L2 teachers should spend 90% of their classroom time in the target language (TL, or L2).

Back when I was a traditional teacher, I absolutely did not even come close to reaching this goal. First of all, I taught a lot of grammar, and only in my very advanced classes was I able to teach grammar in the L2. Even then, however, its use was limited to concrete concepts such as a new verb conjugation. I absolutely could not have explained more complex topics like when to use subjunctive or the difference between the preterit and imperfect in the L2. During this time I also did a good number of exercises from the textbook, which usually needed at least some explanation in English so my students would know how to do them.

Another reason why I used to use English in my L2 classroom is because of another ACTFL guideline, which states that students in the L2 classroom needed to work with authentic materials. The message I received as a result of this guideline was that, as a non-native speaker, my language and any materials I created with my language was inferior and possibly detrimental (I don’t think this was ACTFL’s intention but my interpretation). As a result I found myself speaking very little in the L2 and exposed my students to it using the audio and video activities that went along with the textbook and things that I found online produced by native speakers (I am very thankful to Señor Wooly, who gave a presentation in Denver at the IFLT conference this summer that helped make me feel much better about whether or not my language could be authentic. You can read more about that here.)

One of the benefits of teaching with comprehensible input is that I spend much less time speaking in the L1 in my classroom. I am aiming for that 90% and have taught classes where I have reached that but I haven’t been able to do it consistently. And I have given myself permission to speak English in my classroom in a some situations, which I have listed below.

1. To discipline. 

The fabulous presenter Jason Fritze said in a workshop this summer that one of the first words he teaches his elementary students in the L2 is “stop,” which allows him to discipline in the TL. I teach my students some similar expressions in order to handle small discipline issues in the TL, such as asking students to stop talking or to put away their cell phones, but when big issues arise (which are rare, thankfully) I use English. In some cases it is an matter of student safety, and I do not want a student to get hurt because s/he doesn’t understand what I am saying (Like the day I had a student hang out a window from my second floor classroom. What was he thinking?). In other cases, hearing me discipline in English has awesome shock value. I have created an environment in my classroom where students know that when I discipline in English, I mean business and/or am really angry. I do this when I hear students use derogatory or inappropriate language, suspect that a student is getting harassed by a classmate, or see disrespectful behavior. It’s similar to those situations where a parent uses a child’s whole name when said child has done something very wrong.

2. To explain procedure.

This year I used a lot of comprehensible input (CI) games in class (You can read more about some of those games here). We played each game multiple times, but the first time we played I always explained the rules in English, simply because I didn’t want to waste time explaining in the TL, which would take at least twice as much time. Any other procedural issues (such as what to do during an evacuation drill, how to make up work after an absence, or where to put a completed quiz or test) I also did in English the first few times until students got comfortable with the language. Nevertheless, in all classes, I was talking about procedure in the TL by the end of the first quarter of the school year.

3. To explain grammar.

Yup, I still teach grammar, even though I don’t do it in a traditional way. I don’t do comprehensive grammar lessons anymore. Instead, I point out grammatical structures as needed. For example, I may say, “Look class, this French verb ends in -ons. That means “we” are the people doing this action.” That would be the extent of my grammar “lesson” about this topic, but it would be something I would point out multiple times to make sure students remembered it. Similarly, if a grammar question comes up in class (because some students just feel that they need to know why certain things are the way they are), I explain as quickly and as concisely as possible in English and move on.

4. To introduce vocabulary. 

Some concrete words and expressions can be taught quickly using visuals or gestures, but the easiest and quickest way to teach more abstract vocabulary is to translate it from the L2 to the L1. I usually just translate these on the board and leave them up during class (Jason Fritze writes the L1 and L2 in different colors and underlines the L2. I will start doing that this year.).

5. To check comprehension. 

This year I started using videos I found on YouTube to provide comprehensible, authentic input in class (French teachers, check out Alice Ayel’s YouTube channel, where you will find videos like this one. Spanish teachers, check out Pablo Pankun Roman’s YouTube channel, where you can find videos like this one.). Then to check comprehension I ask students to write a summary in English (I suppose if I really wanted to I could have students answer a prepared quiz in the TL about the video they see, but that tends to be stressful for my students and raises their Affectve Filter, thus limiting their intake. Moreover, I don’t use these videos as summative assessments. And finally, making up quizzes can be time consuming, and with four preparations, I just don’t always have the time).

To check comprehension of abstract vocabulary, I may ask a student to translate a word into English. When we are going over a reading, I may ask students to translate as a group, which is called choral translation.

I may also ask students to summarize a reading in English. Traditional textbooks usually check for comprehension of reading passages by asking questions in the T2 for students to answer in the T2. But in my experience, students usually don’t read a passage when asked to answer questions about it. They look for words from the question in the text and either read that small section to find the answer or, even worse, copy the sentence from the text containing those words from the question without even reading the sentence at all. Having students summarize in English requires them to read the whole passage (BTW, I don’t advise asking them to summarize in the TL, because that may lead to direct copying as well).

I think many second language teachers go through their teacher training being told that they should try to make students use the TL as much as possible. According to the Dr. Krashen’s theories of Language Acquisition, however, it is input and not output that leads to language acquisition. That means we should not feel guilty when we check our students’ comprehension through use of the L1.

6. Connections.

Yes, my main job is to teach French and Spanish, but my secondary job is to form connections with my students. Grant Boulanger, a 2016 ACTFL Teacher of the Year finalist, said in a presentation at the 2016 ACTFL annual convention that he tends to only use the L2 around 70% of the time at first and tries to establish connections and create a classroom community, which requires use of the L1, especially in elementary levels. Sometimes I feel that, by using the L2 and insisting that our students use it, we teachers create a wall between us and our students and prevents our students from getting to know us and feel comfortable in our classroom. This is not the kind of relationship I want with my students, because besides helping them acquire language, I also want them to feel comfortable coming to me if they are having issues and need someone to talk to.

Friends, I don’t want all of you to read this and think that I talk in English all the time in my class. As I stated at the beginning of this post, my goal is to use the TL in my classroom at least 90% of the time. But what I am saying is that sometimes the use of the L1 is quicker, clearer, more efficient, and necessary to create a safe, supportive, and productive classroom community. We do not need to feel guilty for using English in our class appropriately!

Nevertheless, I still want to create an environment where use of the L1 is not encouraged, so I plan to borrow two more tricks from that Jason Fritze presentation (I really can’t stress enough how fabulously practical and informative his presentations are! If he is at a conference in your area you should totally go!). Trick #1 is establishing a procedure where students must ask permission before using English (except for comprehension checks) and SO DOES THE TEACHER! I envision that students will take this rule much more seriously if even the teacher has to ask permission to speak English. I also envision me asking the class for permission to speak English but being told no. Trick #2 is called “The Toad of Shame.” Jason has a plastic toad that he bought at a pet store. When a student speaks English without permission, he gives the toad to him/her. The student with the toad must then try to get rid of it by during giving it to another student who speaks in the L1 without permission because, at the end of class, the student with the toad must stay after for a few minutes with the teacher. The consequence in this case is not punitive. I will probably have the student erase my board and have a small conversation with me in the L2.

I am very much looking forward to trying these two tricks in clas this year! But in the meantime I will be enjoying my last few weeks of vacation. Off to the beach!