Starting Off the Year with Comprehensible Input

It’s August, so many teachers who would like to begin teaching with a comprehensible input (CI) approach have started posting in CI Facebook groups asking about how they should start off the year. That’s a pretty daunting question, because many of them (like me back in the day) are used to having a textbook. As textbook teachers, most of us used to start the year by doing what was on page 1 of our textbook and then just taught whatever came next in the book as the year progressed. But once teachers start teaching with CI, we abandon the textbook, which may leave many of us floundering over what to plan for our classes. So for what it’s worth, I’m going to tell you in this post how I plan to start off my year in my middle school Spanish French, and ESL classes. If you teach another language or another level, don’t stop reading just yet, because nothing I do is language or level specific. I did the same thing when I taught high school, and I have seen other teachers use similar approaches in Mandarin, Russian, and German classes.

At the beginning of the year, the first thing all teachers should do in any discipline is set expectations. I have spent the summer reading a lot of books about education. Every one of them, from Harry and Rosemary Wong’s The First Days of School, which applies to all levels and all disciplines, to Ben Slavic and Tina Hargarden’s CI language instruction specific A Natural Approach to the Year, agrees that the teacher’s most important job at the beginning of the school year is to establish behavior guidelines and class routines. In other words, you need to train your kids to act in such a way that it creates an atmosphere where you can easily provide them with the input they need to acquire language.

While I do have actual content that I would like to teach in class at the beginning of the year, completing the lessons I have planned is secondary to getting my students to meet these two goals. Without effective control of the classroom, your troublemakers will begin to take over. They will not acquire language because they will be too busy causing disruptions in the class, and the rest of your class will not acquire as much language as they should because they will have heightened negative emotions like frustration and anxiety caused by the classroom disruptions.

If you are interested in reading more about classroom management, read this post, where I summarize three classroom management systems that other CI teachers have spoken and written about and this post, where I talk about other facets of classroom management. You may also want to read this post by Cécile Lainé, who had some classroom management issues with one of her French classes last year and talks about how she adressed them. And finally, you might want to read this post by Bryce Hedstrom, a retired Spanish teacher, who writes about how negative behaviors impede language acquisition and what behaviors he absolutely never allowed in his classrooms.

Helping students adapt to class routine goes hand and hand with managing student behavior. Each classroom is different and has its  own set of routines, but mine involve how students should enter the classroom (with a password, which I describe below), what students should do when they enter the classroom (some of my students have jobs that they must do when they get to class, such as returning corrected papers or writing our class agenda on the board), and what activities they should expect that we will begin class with. I try to have a different activity every day, and over time students can come to expect that we will start class with a certain type of activity for each specific day. For example, on Mondays, I start class with Free Voluntary Reading (Called Leamos los Lunes in Spanish class and Le Lundi On Lit in French class) and on Friday I show a short video (Video Viernes or Vidéo Vendredi). Magister P. takes routines one step further with this two-week routine.

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Other teachers prefer to start class with the same activity every day.  Here is a post by Chris Stolz about what his daily, opening activity is in his Spanish classes. I don’t think having the same or different daily routines is really all that important. All that is important is that the routine is in place. It is comforting to some students to know what to expect when class begins, and if students know what is expected, teachers will be able to spend less time directing students to get to work.

Besides getting classroom management and routines under control, the other goal of the beginning of the year is to begin to establish community. Whatever activities I do in class have the same purpose, which is to help me get to know my students, help them get to know me, and establish a relationship between us. I have three activities that I use to do this, which are Password, Card Talk, and Special Person Interviews. Card Talk is a Ben Slavic activity that used to be called Circling with Balls. He and Tina Hargarden suggest using this activity to start the year in their book A Natural Approach to the Year as well. Password and Special Person Interviews are two activities originated by Bryce Hedstrom.

The Password activity involves the teacher meeting students at the door and engaging with each of them before they enter the classroom. Each student must say a special word or phrase in the target language (TL), which is the password, to enter the room. I post my password outside my front door for student reference and make sure to maintain eye contact and smile during each exchange (I know of male teachers who also require students to shake the teacher’s hand along with saying the password, but I don’t do that because it doesn’t feel natural for me). Last year when I started doing passwords I had my students say a phrase in French before they entered the room, such as “Je n’ai pas de crayon (I don’t have a pencil)” but I didn’t use the password in any activity that we did during class. I think this was a mistake because very few of my students retained the password for very long once we switched to a new password. I will be sure to include our passwords in other class activities to increase the likelihood that students will retain them. If you would like to learn more about Passwords, Bryce has this book available for Spanish teachers that is sale through Teacher’s Discovery or on his website.

What I like about using passwords is that it gives me the chance to connect with each student individually. I have some students who are very shy. Sometimes our password exchange is the only chance I get to talk to them and hear them talk to me. It is my hope that this quick conversation with me will give them the confidence to start speaking in class.

Once students have entered the classroom by saying the password, we will move on to greetings, take care of school business, and move on to Card Talk. To do Card Talk, students draw a picture or pictures on a card that the teacher can then use to ask questions. So, for example, if students are asked to draw something they like to play and any pets they have at home, the teacher can then use that to ask questions about what a student likes (or doesn’t like) to play and what pets s/he has (or doesn’t have) at home. I usually start with Yes-No questions and then progress to Either-Or questions before I move on to questions with an interrogative (You can read this post for more information about questioning in a CI class). This activity takes practically no time to prepare and can be done for multiple classes. I have been known to do Card Talk every day for the first month of school for about five to ten minutes or so (And you don’t have to only do Card Talk at the beginning of the year. Lance Piantaggini writes in this post that Card Talk is also a good activity to do after a vacation as a warm-up to reinforce class routines). If you would like more information about Card Talk or want to see it in action, Ben Slavic has a lot of information about it on his website.

Last year I did Card Talk on and off for about three weeks, but there is no set amount of time that you should do it. If it’s still interesting, keep doing it. If it gets boring, stop and do something else. This year when Card Talk gets boring I plan to ask students to write sentences together with me on a PowerPoint about our class, one student per slide. Then I will let each student choose a picture for his or her slide and print the whole thing out and make a class book. This is a nice extension of Card Talk that helps students make connections between the written and spoken language (BTW, if you teach a language with a different alphabet like Russian or Greek or a language with characters like Mandarin to students whose first language uses a Roman alphabet, I don’t see anything wrong with using the Roman alphabet initially for this activity, because you can then go back and rewrite it with your language’s alphabet or characters later on once you teach them).

Another great activity that can help teachers get to know their students is the Special Person Interview. It involves asking a student a series of questions about him or herself in front of the class. You can read more about it in this post. This activity is similar to Card Talk because it involves learning personal information about students, but the difference is that, unlike Card Talk, you ask only one student questions about him or herself. If you are a Spanish teacher, you can see questionnaire that I used for my Special Person Interviews with my third-year students on my Spanish Resources page. The questionnaire I used with my first-year French students can be found on my French Resources page.

What I like about Special Person Interviews is that it gives each student some positive, personal attention. For some students, this may be the only positive attention they get all day. This activity also helps both the class and me learn new information about each student. I especially like it when students who have known each other since kindergarten learn knew things about their friends.

Last year I did Card Talk in class for a few weeks, where I asked questions about something students liked to play and what pets they had. Then I did this Movie Talk as a change of pace before I started my Special Person Interviews. Since the class and I had spent so much time talking about our pets, doing a Movie Talk about someone else’s pet was a good way to use familiar vocabulary in a new way. The reason why I didn’t want to go right into Special Person Interviews after Card Talk is because I was afraid that these two activities were too similar to do back to back and felt that students would benefit from doing something completely different.

In conclusion, I already have a plan for my first two months or so of class, which is to start each day with a specific warm-up activity for each day of the week to establish class routines and then continue with Card Talk, which I will use as a vehicle to set my behavior expectations. When I feel that students are ready to move on, I will do the Movie Talk I talked about above and then move on to Special Person Interviews. And then what? With any luck, they will be ready to read their first novel. I’ll let you know!

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An Eye-Opening Conversation

Recently I had an amazing conversation with my mother that I have to share with you.

Two days ago, I told her that I would be leading a professional development workshop for a local school district. I then proceeded to tell her that I would be talking about second language acquisition (SLA) and how what I know about it has changed the way I teach my language classes (For more about my presentation, click here). I then proceeded to talk to her about Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis (formally called the Input Hypothesis) and what Bill Van Patten says about explicit instruction, which is that it does not lead to implicit knowledge because language is too abstract to be reduced to a set of rules.

When I talk about what I know about SLA, I am usually met with skepticism. The theories do not reflect what happens in our traditional classrooms. Even though few people learn a second language through grammar drills and memorizing vocabulary lists, most people still believe that traditional instruction is the way to learn a second language. So I was expecting my mother to possess the same skepticism when I talked to her about comprehensible input (CI). But instead, she said, “That makes perfect sense to me!” She then went on to tell me about her experiences in her high school German class, in which she, like most people in traditional classes, learned ABOUT the language but did not become proficient IN the language. She then went on to say that the only time she has ever felt that she was “getting” language was when she was in a country where that language was spoken and she was being bombarded with CI.

For my mother, this was a real eye-opening conversation. She is now in her early seventies, and she has spent all those years since high school believing that she couldn’t learn a second language because there was something wrong with her. Now she realizes that she did not become proficient in a second language because her teacher did not use methods based on SLA theory.

We in the United States have intellectualized second language instruction to such an extent that the only people who find any success in traditional classes are the cream of the crop, because those students who are not freaky language geniuses drop out. As a result, there are probably MILLIONS of people in the United States who had or are currently having an experience similar to my mother’s. It makes me really sad to think that so many former and current language students walk around thinking that they are too stupid to be successful in a second language.

One of the great things about teaching with CI is that, since it is based on theories of how people acquire language, any student who pays attention and stays engaged will gain proficiency, even if s/he doesn’t want to. As students are exposed to compelling written and spoken messages that they understand, they will receive input, which helps develop their internal language systems. As their internal language systems develop, students begin to recognize that they have developed some proficiency in the language. As a result, their confidence and motivation will grow and, with any luck, they will never feel that they are too stupid to become proficient in a second language.

This conversation with my mother has made me even more committed to teaching with CI. Not only do I want students to develop proficiency in the language, but I also want them to feel proud of themselves and become confident, motivated language learners. I don’t ever want students in my class to think that they are too stupid for language study and that they just can’t “get” it.

Now that my mother knows a bit about SLA theory and how to acquire a second language, I wonder if she will consider trying to improve her proficiency in a second language? My guess is that she probably won’t. But at the very least it is probably nice that she knows that her lack of proficiency isn’t her fault.