Dip your toes in CI: Ask a question

It’s a new school year and you, dear language teacher, are ready for a new YOU! You have heard about comprehensible input centered instruction, you perhaps attended a workshop or six over the summer…maybe you have even given CI instruction a go in the past! Whatever your background looks like, you have decided that 2017 is the year 🙂 Yahoo!

I was at our family friend’s camp a few weeks ago, and it is on a beautiful lake in Upstate New York. They have a deck down on the water. On the left-hand side of the deck, a wooden dock juts out into the lake. At the end of the dock, the water is at least 6′ deep. On the right-hand side of the deck, a set of stairs descend into the depths, and the water at the bottom of the stairs is no more than a foot or two deep, depending on the rainfall that year. I LOVE swimming in lakes. There is nothing that makes me feel like a kid again like sloppily swimming around in the open water, jumping off floating docks and trampolines, and feeling the reeds sneak up my legs as I shoot down toward the lake bottom, racing one of my siblings to see who can touch it and re-surface first! But at the beginning of lake season–or on a breezy summer day–I stand on that deck forever trying to decide how I am going to enter the lake for the first time. Will I run full-speed down the dock and jump off the end, instantly frozen as I bomb into the cold water? Or will I torture myself and test my mental stamina as I walk down the steps and then wade out into the lake, freezing just an inch or two of my body at a time?

Maybe you are standing on that deck right now, looking at the coming school year and wondering how to enter it. If you’re leaning toward going all-in, right away, there are a lot of awesome resources out there to help you. If you are going the non-targeted route, be sure to join CI Liftoff so that Ben and Tina can help you stay afloat. If you need a curriculum to help you learn to swim in this new lake, there are lots of them out there to choose from (Fluency Matters’ Cuéntame series (also available in French), Michael Miller’s Sabine und Michael, Teach for June’s Immediate Immersion (French and Spanish), Jalen Waltman’s plans, Adriana Ramirez’ Teaching Spanish with Comprehensible Input through Storytelling, my own SOMOS curriculum, Amy Roe’s Había una vez for elementary, and of course the original Look I Can Talk! series from TPRS Books…I’m sure there are even more!).

But perhaps you are not ready to go all-in. Perhaps you have chosen to descend the staircase, entering the lake of CI just one step at a time. This post is for you 🙂 Over the next…unknown…amount of time, I will share five really simple ways that you can ‘Dip your toes’ into CI this fall.

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Idea # 1: Ask a question–a discussion question. You can ask any question, but if you are new to this whole thing and have not yet mastered the skill of staying in-bounds, it’s probably easiest to ask a question that lends itself to responses with proper nouns. For example, “Where do you want to go?” Many responses to this question are easily recognizable in the target language, whether they are exactly the same (ex: McDonalds®, Argentina), similar (ex: Nueva York, el Gran Cañón), or cognates (una isla tropical, un concierto de [CNCO]), and so it makes a great question for dipping in your toes. Other question ideas are “What is your favorite sport/animal/song/etc.?” or “Where did you go last summer?”. Truly, you can ask any question that students might be interested in discussing. Here is how I discuss the question with my students:

  1. In English, tell the students to illustrate their answer to the question on a piece of computer paper. A simple line drawing is all they need. In the case of “Where do you want to go?”, I tell students “On a piece of paper, draw one place that you want to go. It could be now or in the future. Anywhere you want to go! Draw it nice and big and fill the whole paper. Don’t write anything on the paper, just draw.”
  2. Establish meaning for your question. I do this with a translation. I write “quiere ir” on the board in Spanish with a black marker and beside it “wants to go” in English with a blue marker. I say “‘quiere ir‘ means ‘wants to go’ in English.” Then I repeat ‘quiere ir’ slowly several times, each time pausing and pointing to the English translation. (I also make sure that I have the pairing “Dónde – where” posted somewhere in my room to reference; for me, it’s permanently visible on a poster.)
  3. Next, I walk around the room until I see a drawing that I feel confident talking about–something that has an illustration that I know that I can discuss and stay in-bounds. For me, this is much easier now than it was when I first started. For you toe-dippers, look for a drawing that you can describe with cognates or with proper nouns (a concert, an island, Europe, SeaWorld, etc.). Whisper to the student if you can show their drawing to the class, and if they say yes, then grab it!
  4. Walk back up to the board and point to the translations on the board, and ask in the target language, “Where does [student that drew the picture you are holding] want to go?”: “¿Adónde quiere ir Leonora?”. Pause and point to the translations of “dónde” (where) and “quiere ir” (wants to go) as you say them. You might want to repeat the question 2-3 times.
  5. Ask the class, “What does ‘adónde quiere ir Leonora” mean in English? Raise your hand if you have a guess.” Give students 5 seconds think time, then call on someone with their hand raised. Since this is as much a new thing for your students as it is for you, it’s important to use comprehension checks like this often. After a few such lessons, students will be confident interpreting questions because they will have language in their heads to draw from and they know how this sort of a lesson goes and the kinds of information you are soliciting.
  6. Walking around the room, continue to repeat the question as you show the student’s illustration to the class.
  7. Either call on students to get a response to the question or allow them to call out a response on their own. Either way, get a response from classmates!
  8. Since this is one of your first times doing a lesson like this, I recommend following a fairly structured circling format. Your students won’t yet be sick of circling, and the structure will likely help you develop your skills (it did for me!). Start with a classmate’s response (you might need to recast it): “Leonora quiere ir a China”, then ask a lot of simple questions about the statement. In my experience as a beginning CI teacher AND in my experience in language classes (Mandarin with Linda Li, Russian with Michele Whaley, French with Cara O’Brien-Holen, Japanese with Betsy Paskvan or Victoria Gellert, etc.), this feels good. Each time the teacher asks me a question about a familiar statement and then repeats the original statement, it feels like when I am standing on the beach, just beyond the edge of the water, and I am watching the waves come up to me and hoping that my shoes won’t get wet. And each time, the wave comes closer and closer and closer and I start to step back, but then the water pauses and recedes, and my shoes are still dry and I feel relieved. That’s what questioning feels like with a new language structure. Just at the moment that I start to feel like I am going to get confused–which I don’t like feeling–the confusion recedes and, instead, I feel a little more confident. As a learner, I like hearing a lot of questions about new bits of language. If you aren’t really sure what I mean, check out the circling resources in this document. So I would encourage teachers that are new to this whole rich CI thing to be really methodical in your questioning as you develop your skills. Make a statement (Leonora quiere ir a China), ask a ‘yes’ question (¿Leonora quiere ir a China? ¡Sí!), ask a ‘no’ question (¿Leonora quiere ir a Rusia? ¡No! Leonora quiere ir a China.), ask an either/or question (¿Leonora quiere ir a Rusia o Lori quiere ir a Rusia? ¡Leonora quiere ir a Rusia!), and so on and so forth following the model outlined in the linked document above. And guys–there is a lot of conversation happening right now about what is the best way to ‘get started’ in CI and about the value/importance of traditional ‘circling’ and targeting. So if you hear a great teacher-trainer telling you to do something different, it’s okay. There is more than one way to skin a cat (ew, worst expression ever). This is what I did and it worked for me, and it has worked for loads of other teachers. Try it out! Don’t run away at the first sign of discomfort–because doing something new is always uncomfortable–and you can also feel unafraid to try a different approach. Oh my word, where was I?….
  9. Create a vignette and connect the statement to other students in the class by asking YOU questions and WH- questions in the target language. “JaShaun, do YOU want to go to China?” “With WHOM does Leonora want to go to China?” “Oh, Leonora wants to go to China with Alexa?” “Well, does Alexa want to go to China with Leonora?” “Alexa wants to go to China with Leonora! Ryan, do YOU want to go to China with Alexa and Leonora?” “WHEN do you all want to go to China?” You can also experiment with a Three Ring Circus, but that might be too much to tackle for your first toe-dip (see a demo in German here or read about it here). I’d stay away from WHY questions if you are new to this and not super comfortable keeping things ‘in-bounds’ (limiting vocabulary to what is comprehensible to students), but eventually you will want to work those in.
  10. Once you run out of steam or the vignette finds natural closure, stop. You could grab another student’s picture and start the process from the beginning, or you could move on to something else and do another picture on another day. Do what you feel you can do based on your own confidence and your students’ interest. In my workshop last week, our story came to a natural close when we were talking about two different women that wanted to go to do different places but with the same person, and when we finally looked at that person’s paper to see which of the two places he might want to go, we learned that all he wanted was to go to sleep (he had drawn a picture of him in his bed). You won’t always have neat closure like that, so don’t feel like a failure if you have a frazzled spastic moment and just blurt out, “THE END!”. I have done that many times in my TCI life, and students have never thought less of me for it (at least, if they did, they didn’t tell me ;-)).
  11. That day or the next day, READ your story with your students. Type it up and project or distribute it or write it out on a flip chart and read it together. Why?

    “People acquiring a second language have the best chance for success through reading” –Stephen Krashen,  The Power of Reading (1993, p.4)

There! You did it. Your toes have been dipped in CI. Maybe you nailed it or maybe you failed, but you did it and you have survived to try again another day.

12 comments

  1. I am so thankful for your work and benefited SO much from your materials and emails. A question I have about circling: do you just require one or two word answers for awhile (si, no,etc), and then eventually work into having them chorally give you a sentence? Or do you begin with them reciting the whole sentence (Si, Leonora quiere ir a China.)

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    • I never force the output! Some students give one or two word answers, some give incomplete sentences, and some give the whole thing. Whatever comes out naturally, I take 🙂 Different things will come out of different mouths at the same time; it gives you a good read on where students are at in their acquisition

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  2. I attended a TPRS workshop this summer and plan to “dip my toes” in the process this school year. Thank you for this article to help me with the routine so I will have more confidence. Your blog is great!

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  3. Great post-Martina. It’s so important for people to know you can start teaching with CI little by little. If someone teaches upper level maybe they could talk about where they WANTED to go during the summer and didn’t get to visit.

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  4. When you say “read your story w the students”, what story are you exactly referring to? Does this refer to the story that you just created about students wanting to go to different places? Do you type up what was created in that period of time and then read it? Thanks!

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    • Yes, that is exactly right! You could type it up overnight and read it the next day in class, or you could write/type it together (recalling the story as you write/type) in class and then read it together the same day.

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  5. Martina… gracias. I have been searching and searching for “ways to get started in CI”, and this has to be one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen of what it might look like to circle and then progress to other steps. I feel so much more confident dipping my toe in tomorrow with my students.

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