My first day of teaching in a public school, I planned the coolest lesson ever. Having committed to teaching 100% in the target language, my objective for the first class was to show my students that YES—they can understand me when I speak in Spanish, even when they don’t yet speak any! I wanted them to feel confident and excited.
Since I had just spent my first summer in Alaska and was totally obsessed with salmon fishing, I decided to tell my students a fishing story. To prepare, I gathered a trunk load of fishing and camping gear and hauled it into my classroom. I made a list of all of the specialized, fishing-related vocabulary that I planned to use in the story and printed a copy for each of my students. I greeted my students at the door and introduced myself in Spanish. Then, in English, I told my students that the class would be taught entirely in Spanish, and that the following activity was designed to show them that they would be able to understand me even without English. As evidence, they were to listen for the words on the vocabulary list and write down what they think each one meant in English beside it. That—I promised them—was the last time that they would hear me speaking English that year.
With that fair warning, I laid out a sleeping bag on the floor of the classroom and crawled inside. I closed my eyes, and when I re-opened them, a steady stream of Spanish flowed from my lips, my arms never stopped moving in an endless series of fantastical gestures, and props flew left and right as I told the thrilling tale of one of my summer fishing adventures.
You know what? When they left my class that day, my students did feel confident and excited. Their vocabulary lists with freshly scrawled translation guesses proved that—yes—they could understand me when I spoke entirely in Spanish.
A few months later, I met the formidable Michele Whaley, and of course the rest is history. I have come to realize that even though the input that I provided that day was ‘comprehensible’, it was not…um….comprehensible input.
Confused? Join the club! A teacher wondered on Twitter yesterday why comprehensible input is a thing, since obviously the purpose of all language teachers when speaking the target language is for their students to understand them. It is a completely valid question, and I think that not having an answer to it has been the source of many an eye roll from teachers that hear their over-enthusiastic colleagues gushing about the magic of comprehensible input. “Of course your students learn language when you provide them with comprehensible input!”, they think, “had you seriously been trying to teach language without it?” Anyone that cares enough to attend conferences or form a PLN is trying to provide their students with comprehensible input. So why make such a fuss about it?
I am fairly certain that both the buzz and the confusion surrounding comprehensible input is due to a range of understandings of what it means. Some teachers show their students authentic resources at the beginning of each unit before diving into output activities. The authentic resources, they say, provide students with the comprehensible input they need in order to acquire the language and create intelligible output. Other teachers start out a unit by giving their students a vocabulary list with definitions before launching into multi-modal activities. Defining the terms, they say, is comprehensible input. Other teachers follow the three steps of TPRS® precisely, over and over again throughout the year, in every unit. The three steps of TPRS®, they say, are comprehensible input.
How can all of those things be true? In a Novice class, how could exposure to authentic resources, a vocabulary list with definitions, and a three-step lesson all be forms of comprehensible input?
I would argue that they are not. So, how comprehensible is comprehensible when it comes to input intended for language acquisition? Or perhaps, “How comprehensible should input be if it is intended for language acquisition?”
Speaking from my own experience—which I believe to be common to many teachers—I spent my first years in the classroom speaking to my students in the target language in a way that they could mostly understand (as I did with the fishing story). Had I been asked, I would have said that absolutely my goal was to provide my students with comprehensible input (meaning ‘language that they are able to understand’). However, the kind of comprehensible input that gets me excited and makes me feel giddy and powerful is something altogether different. It is input that is way more comprehensible than what I used to consider to be comprehensible input. It is input provided at i+1; input that is just a step beyond my students’ current level of proficiency. Language learners can function (usually with great labor) at proficiency levels beyond their own. When we provide input that is two or three or four sub-levels beyond students’ current level of proficiency, they can still get something out of it. It won’t be a total loss. As with almost anything in life, however, baby steps are best. Baby steps are the most effective and efficient path to progress.
Let me tell you a story:
When I was in college, my best friend invited me to go skiing at her family’s condo in Vermont at Smuggler’s Notch. “Do you ski?”, she asked. “Ummmm, chyeaaaah I ski!”, I responded. I had, after all, taken a six-week learn to ski class at Four Seasons in Fayetteville, NY. When I was in third grade. And the mountain was a hill that literally took 20 seconds to descend, if you were slow. And only had T-bar lifts. So off I went to Smuggs! We arrived late one night and awoke to 14” of fresh powder the next morning. In the company of some avid skiers, we woke up at 5:30am to ensure that we would be the first ones on the mountain. My friend and her boyfriend were quite unaware of the “extent” of my skiing experience, and so we headed up the main lift (a chair lift! yikes!) to the top of the mountain. I, of course, crashed coming off the lift. I very unglamorously heaved myself back onto my feet and waddle-skied over to Kate and Chris, who were trying to decide which run to take back to the chalet. As it turned out, there was no choice: the only run open was a BLACK DIAMOND. I of course had no idea what that meant; Four Seasons had no such rating system. So off we went down the mountain!
…two hours later, I crawled into the chalet for some hot chocolate. I had very, very slowly switchbacked my way back and forth down the mountain, falling *literally* every time I turned my skis. With 14” of powder, I could barely walk or stand for the next few days. It was horrible! I made it down the mountain and eventually worked up the courage to try some GREEN CIRCLE runs, and by the end of the day I had some basic ski skills.
When I arrived at the chalet after that first descent, I was a better skier than when I had first climbed on the chair lift that morning. I survived. But those Green Circle runs with Kate coaching me helped me infinitely more.
The same is true with language acquisition. Throw a newbie language learner into an immersion situation, and that person will more than likely understand and pick up some pieces of language. But when you throw a language learner (like me) into the linguistic equivalent of a wading pool, that person will understand and acquire almost all of the language that they receive. The new language and language features can reasonably fit into the linguistic web in their head as it currently stands; their ‘mental representation of language’. They will likely acquire more, faster, and with way less pain than if they had been thrown into a total immersion experience.
I remember my Spanish IV class with Señor Franks. The curriculum was ‘legends’, and for each unit we were given a packet. It contained a brief background on the legend in English, a massive vocabulary list, the legend itself written in Spanish and divided into several sections, and then a bunch of vocabulary and grammar activities based on the text. Our first homework assignment for each unit was to learn the vocabulary words, which we were tested on after one night with the packet. Our next assignment was to read the first section of the legend and answer the comprehension questions, since we were of course now able to do that with ease since we had just learned the vocabulary words needed. Want to know how I read those legends? I plopped myself in front of my parents’ computer, logged on to AOL with ye ol’ dial-up connection (“weeeeee-awwwwww-tssshhhhh-weeeeee”), and retyped the entire text into an online translator. Then I read the legend in broken English. Finally, I wrote the English translation in-between the lines of the Spanish legend printed in the packet so that I could hunt-and-peck the answers the comprehension questions, which were in Spanish.
How much language did I acquire that year? Even though my class average never dropped below 100%, hmmm….”Palabras claves” (“Key Words”). That’s what I remember, and only because Señor Franks said it and wrote it like a million times during every unit as he reminded us to do our assignments related to the vocabulary words. I had a similar experience in my first Spanish literature class in college, the only one that I took before my study abroad. I read so.much.classic.literature in that course–like really read it–and I remember feeling so frustrated because it would take me 20 minutes to read one page because I had to look up so many words, and of course by the time I finished a chapter I couldn’t remember anything that had happened in it because it had taken me so dang long to get through it! The input was simply WAY too far beyond me! Now, I can’t help but think how much more valuable that class would have been to me if (1) I had taken it when my Spanish proficiency was higher or (2) if we had worked with embedded readings of the texts for the course. I still own all of those novels, but I really don’t remember what any of them were about. On the other hand, I remember at least some details about all of the texts that I read when working on my Masters in Spanish Literature–a time that I would have tested comfortably at Superior.
Gosh this has been a rambling, long post. Ultimately, the reason that I sat down to write it was to say that I agree; the conversation surrounding comprehensible input is confusing. What I call comprehensible input is not the same as what some of my colleagues call comprehensible input. I suppose it’s a great reminder to be quick to ask more questions and slow to take offense when speaking with other language teachers about what they are doing.
I’m going to follow up this post with a related one soon, but for now, I’m off to read some comprehensible French before bed 🙂