Friday, June 14, 2013

A Comprehensible Introduction to CI in the Language Classroom

Bob Patrick discusses Comprehensible Input and what it contains.
Over the past four days, Miriam and I have been attending a workshop over Comprehensible Input (CI) in Latin.  The workshop was run by our friends, the estimable Keith Toda and the indefatigable Bob Patrick.  Both of these men have been delving in comprehensible approaches to Latin for years; Bob in particular has been incorporating aspects of CI into his teaching for 11 years.

Each day has had different focuses; and the teachers at the workshop vary from experienced teachers who have never spoken Latin to teachers like Miriam and myself, who have been using CI in our classrooms since we first began teaching.  It's a good mix; the teachers new to speaking Latin in the classroom are able to ask pertinent questions that about things that I know I often take for granted, and the teachers experienced in the method can add advice that the presenters may or may not think of themselves (though they most likely have the same practices).

And of course, I never pretend to know it all.  There are concepts and ideas that have been introduced in this week that I didn't have familiarity with myself.

I should also add that I didn't even get to attend the entirety of every day.  I had to leave early each day to pick up my son from a writing camp (that he chose and loves!), so I'll be linking Miriam's thoughts on the workshop here to fill in the gaps in my descriptions.

Day 1: Vocabulary is more than flashcards.

Our first day of the workshop was led by Keith, who incorporated his ACL presentation (that I have already written about here) into our introduction to a comprehensible approach.  Then we played some vocabulary games--unfortunately, I don't have any pictures (I was too busy playing!) but the games themselves are described below:

Whiteboard Games
These games are best played with whiteboards (you can easily get "whiteboards" made at Home Depot or the like; buy a showerboard and have the nice men cut it up into 1 ft x 1 ft), but you can always have kids write or draw on their own notebook paper.

Latin Scattergories: Give students a time limit (we had 1 minute) and ask them to write all the words they can think of in a certain category.  In the workshop, we did "starting with the letter ___," but you could do grammatical forms, rooms in a house, etc.  When they're done, assign them to a partner and have students compare their words.  Every word they have in common, they have to cross out.  Afterwards, the student with the most original words wins!  You can repeat this as many times as you want, and it can be a great closer for a class to see what students remember.

Fill in the blank: This doesn't sound as fun as it is.  Or perhaps, since I have a morbid sense of humor, I made it fun, but I believe your students will, too, if you create a classroom culture that is open to creativity.  You write a sentence on the board, such as "femina in via ___" ("The woman in the street ___").  The students then fill in the blank with whatever they decide fits.  Pair them up, have them read their sentences to each other (not just show each other their written boards), and decide a sentence to share with the class.  Mine was "femina in via cordia consumit" ("The woman in the street is eating hearts"--because "is walking" just wasn't exciting enough for me), and we had a good time trying to match the morbidity of that line for the other sentences we were asked to complete.  This allows repetition of certain forms and formats, yet still asks students to show off what they can easily recall, which makes it a low-stress review or activity.

Guess the word: With two students (or teachers, in our case) seated in front, facing the rest of the class and away from the board (the important part), the teacher writes a Latin word on the whiteboard behind the two students.  We then draw the word as best we can on our own whiteboards and when the teacher says, show the students our whiteboards.  The students try to be the first to guess the Latin word.  It's important to emphasize a quick turnover on this--don't give your students too much time to draw or the energy will wane. Concrete words such as "navis" ("ship") are easiest--but you end up with more of a 4 Pics 1 Word effect with more abstract concepts, and that can be fun.

Draw a connection: You put 3-4 words on the board and the students use their whiteboards to draw an image involving all of them.  If they can spin it into a connected story in a couple of sentences, so much the better, but as long as they get all the words down in some form, they are successful.  From there, you can have students share their images and describe them to a partner, you can take an image and project it (Keith has a document camera, which is quick and easy, but I also have been known to take a quick picture with my camera and email it to myself, and other options abound) and discuss, question, etc.  An image can become a spring-board for a shared class story or even something to use to open class the next morning as a review.

It was at this point, unfortunately, that I had to leave to pick up my son.  However, you can find out the rest of the day's activities by reading Miriam's post here.

Day 2: What is Comprehensible Input?

Bob took the lead this day, fresh off the plane from Ireland.  This is relevant--he had several revelations that connected language teaching to driving in Ireland.  I won't be able to do his stories justice--you'll have to meet him and ask him yourself--but I can describe some of the revelations and perhaps what they meant to me and my particular language teaching experience.

What Bob had to say first is, I think, one of the most important messages a teacher new to comprehensible input can receive.  Namely, it's a process.  Honestly.  It's a transition from one way of teaching to a completely different paradigm, and few people can simply shift modes like that.  You need training and practice and, above all, a slow, comfortable transition into the method.  Bob pointed out that it has taken him 11 years to reach the point he's at, and he still considers himself to be transitioning.

The next point Bob made that really stood out to me was this: he teaches with comprehensible input because he wants an equal classroom.  He wants equality for all students.  He doesn't want to just teach the elite, "smart" students that traditionally take Latin, he wants to teach them all, including the unmotivated, the ones supporting their own households, the kids who always struggle but work hard, and the kids with legitimate learning disorders.  Every kid.

My motto, when I had to write a teaching philosophy at the end of my first year, was "all students can learn," so this struck a chord with me.  It is exactly why I began researching methods like TPRS before I even began teaching and why I am devastated by any student who does not succeed in my class.  And why, even though it can be uncomfortable, terrifying, and overwhelming, I still encourage all language teachers to find ways to incorporate comprehensible input into their classrooms.

It's really okay to be scared; I didn't know how to speak Latin when I started, and I was scared myself.

Making Cheesecake
After discussing these things with us, Bob had us gather around a table.

"Class, I'm going to teach you how to make a cheesecake."


He pulled out a list of ingredients and rattled them off.  He then put the list on the table.

Next, Bob started pulling out cooking accouterments, including a whisk and various measuring spoons.  He paused with each one, told us the name of each, but said nothing about how to use them.

What you need to make a cheesecake.
Then it was quiz time.  Questions over what each item was and one question that asked us to list all of the ingredients.  We were able to tackle those questions with some ease--after all, we had just discussed it and, generally speaking, were previously familiar with the cooking implements.  However, the last thing we had to do on our quiz was to write an "essay" explaining how to make a cheesecake.  Those of us with prior knowledge had no problems--I've made cheesecakes before, I'm familiar with recipe format, so it was pretty simple for me.  That was about three of us.  For everyone else, there was nothing in what we did that would help them figure out how to heat the oven, mix the ingredients, bake the crust, then the cake itself, etc.

You can see where this is going.  Having a list of ingredients (vocabulary) and knowing the names of tools (grammar) doesn't give you the ability to bake.  Even though some of us were able to come up with a decent description anyway, that was based on prior knowledge (students who have language experience or are already fluent in a second language), not on the information that Bob had imparted.

Even though we offer vocabulary lists and grammar terms to students, that doesn't mean we've taught them the skills necessary to function in the language--even if all you want is for a student to read in the language, as a student who learned grammar-translation, I was very good at analysis and very poor at just comprehending what I was reading.  I love analysis, I love grammar; neither is a good way to help students comprehend language.

Rules of the Irish Road (and Comprehensible Input)
Once we completed and graded our quizzes and discussed the experience, Bob explained how driving in Ireland compares to CI:

  • The directions you are given may not mean what you think they mean.  Bob explained that the way a GPS describes direction in Ireland ("Go left at the rotary") doesn't always make obvious sense to our American training.  In the same way, often you think comprehensible input means one thing (everything must be in Latin!  you can never talk about grammar!), and it's not until you've had some experience that you learn that you were only really hearing part of the discussion.
  • You can stay on a rotary as long as you like until you are sure where you are going.  If you've had a chance to drive a rotary (also known as a traffic circle) before (I have, in Arkansas), you know that you are free to continue going around the circle until you know which road you're actually meaning to take.  The same goes for CI.  You don't have to jump into anything; you can keep working on one part, or trying a little, or incorporating 10 minutes a day, or any number of things, until you figure out what is right for you.  
  • Use tools the way they can best be used in the location.  In Ireland, there are no building numbers. In order to find a location, you have to use a nearby crossroad, and enter that in the GPS.  Which, though less precise than American addresses, can still get you where you want to go.  In the same way, you can customize the way you use CI methodology to your own classroom and your own situation.  
So, what is Comprehensible Input?
Comprehensible Input is regular and constant understandable messages in the target language.  Anything you do that keeps the language understandable is comprehensible input.  All student activities that include reading or listening can be made comprehensible, and if they are comprehensible, students are able to learn.  Very importantly, CI causes unconscious learning.  As Keith discussed on Day 1 (and is described in my blog post here), to acquire a language, to have it for use later on, the learning has to be unconscious.  If a student "learns" something by memorizing a list, it doesn't move into long-term memory, but instead is usually held for as long as it takes to complete a quiz, then dumped in favor of the next list the child needs to memorize.

What CI is not is immersion.  Immersion in a language implies that anything goes; students often are exposed to language that they do not understand, and that tends to be more frustrating than helpful--it's only through understandable messages that students can learn.  For an example of this, turn on an unfamiliar movie in a language you don't know.  Try to understand any of the conversations happening.  Sometimes you might get an impression of what is going on, but generally speaking, you are not going to learn the language this way.  At least, not quickly.

So if comprehensible input is not immersion, then how do you achieve the 90% target language goal recommended by ACTFL?  The answer is as simple as it is intimidating: practice.  Don't start out expecting to hit that 90% goal.  You're not going to do it.  Your students won't suffer, and they won't know you're missing a goal unless you've told them what it is (which would also be fine--sometimes it's nice to have them helping you stay on target).  Start small--20%, 40%, however much you think you can do.  Most Latin teachers have not been taught to speak the language, so often a slow start is the best way to find a comfort level with it.

And it's worth finding a comfort level with comprehensible input.  Direct, explicit grammar instruction (charts, lists, rules) only informs a small percentage of students who are naturally inclined towards grammar and strong in logical thought (you are probably one of those people if you are reading this post).  This is hard to face, or even to see, as a Latin teacher, because as a Latin teacher, grammar and translation aren't just ways to approach a language, they're a lifestyle and life choice.  Most of us completed degrees in Latin precisely because the grammar enticed us.  Which is also why it's hard for Latin teachers to differentiate between true reading and speedy translation.  Many Latin teachers, especially if they have translated a text more than once, can very quickly go through the text and turn it into English.  However, if you aren't forgetting that you're reading and experiencing a movie in your head (as fluent readers do in their native language), then you aren't reading--you're translating, possibly very quickly, but not reading.

And reading--real, fluent understanding--is my personal goal for my students.  I don't want my students taking Latin as a stepping-stone or to improve their SAT scores (though I know that's why many do); I want them to take Latin to learn to think in Latin.

This is as much as I got to experience the theory before I had to head out to pick up my son.  As before, Miriam was able to finish out the day and posted about it here.

Day 3: TPRS

The third day had a focus on the methodology of TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) and what a year and week of TPRS-centered Latin pedagogy look like.

This inspired me to see what I have posted about TPRS, and it turns out I haven't posted much (just an explanation of the method here and a video of my own lesson here) .  When I reflected on why I haven't posted much over a method that I use almost every day in class, I realized it's because I consider TPRS old news.  I have been using the approach for nine years, have known about it for eleven, and it has existed for at least twenty.  I think I forget that not everyone knows about it, understands it, and knows how to do it.

Aside from my general rundown linked above, here are some observations about TPRS as a comprehensible input method.

TPRS is comprehensible because it "shelters" vocabulary.  What this means is that the vocabulary is limited; you only introduce a few words at a time (generally four or so a day).  Grammar does not have to be sheltered because comprehensibility actually tends to be centered in vocabulary.  Try an experiment in your own class.  Using words you have used over and over in class, speak a sentence that uses unfamiliar grammar but completely familiar vocabulary.  Then check understanding.  There will be kids who recognize you did something different and want to ask you about it.  Overall, though, your class will have at least a basic understanding of what you said, because it's the words, not the grammar, that communicate most meaning.

Bob himself, along with some other Latin teachers (I am in on the conversation, as is Miriam, though we have not been actively participating; I believe for both of us, our online classes take up much of our free time) have been collaborating on a generalized list of the 400 most important vocabulary words for students to learn--based on Latin authors they want their students to read--which is intended to be taught slowly, over three years.

To check understanding in TPRS, you can ask students what something means or test them over their comprehension, but the biggest clue is to teach to the eyes.  If all eyes are on you, all eyes are focused, and students are responding appropriately to your questions (called circling; it is also discussed in my blog post), that generally means they are not only engaged, but they are comprehending what you are saying.  There is a TPRS maxim: Teach to the Eyes.  Kids lose interested when they don't understand you.  When kids start looking elsewhere, when they stop showing any focus, that is when you should take a step back, focus on those kids, and bring them back to the conversation.

If you have kids who have trouble maintaining focus, one thing you can do is assign them a "job" to help you keep up with your success as a teacher.  Several jobs are suggested here, in a blog post by James Hosler; my favorite two are the ones who count your repetitions for you, and the ones who let you know when you slip into English.

Bob also advises a teacher new to the method to just begin using comprehensible input and TPRS with Latin I students, then follow them through their different levels.

And if you're curious what a year in the life of a Latin I Comprehensible Input teacher looks like, here it is (I simply typed up Bob's powerpoints at this point of his presentation):

What a year looks like:

  • Day 1: Cards for circling with balls, teach safety net rules and daily engagement in the first day
  • Two weeks of TPR with classroom objects and commands and circling with balls
  • Circle with balls until you know and have interviewed every student in the room
  • Establish 4 words/phrases for 3 days per week to circle via TPRS and PQA
  • Read Stage stories when students are handling the vocabulary well
  • R and D the story: read and discuss, or read and draw.  Assess comprehension.
    • Teach to the eyes.
    • Ask them questions, Latine
    • Ask them to re-tell the story to you if they seem ready
  • When they seem ready to produce, introduce Timed-Writes, with and without drawings
  • Create portfolios of timed writes and word counts. (Bob uses portfolios as an exam--students have to choose their best writing and write about why they chose those and why it's their best writing.  They give themselves a grade, then teachers check portfolio and decide if they agree with the grade)
  • Begin using embedded readings* when students begin to be overwhelmed with vocabulary.
  • When individuals seem ready, ask for them to retell the story.  Use tag-team approach if students seem reluctant: choose two students who can help each other along.
  • Pop-up grammar (quick, no more than a one-minute explanation IF a student asks a grammar question)
  • As story lines become more complex, use Dictatio to introduce characters and some new vocabulary
  • Create a word wall on which you put the most important words, about 100 per semester
  • Culture and word study can still be done in English discussion periods, for homework, as flipped classroom, etc.
  • Stage tests which focus on comprehension, in Latin with Latin questions and answers, in context isolated grammar (the natural grammar that has been surfacing with the kids), m/c culture and derivatives
  • 80/80 rule: if 80% of students have gotten 80% of the material you can move on

And to move from a macroscopic view to a more day-to-day guide:

What a week looks like:


  • Die Lunae: Dictatio based on model sentences or key sentences from a story.  Reminder of dictatio and engagement rules.  Collect Dictatio and grade as a daily quiz.
  • Die Martis: 4 new words delivered by TPRS, asking or telling a story.  PQA mixed in.  Teach to the eyes.  Use jobs.  Collect data from jobbers (kids with TPRS jobs) at the end of the period
  • Die Mercurii: 4 new words delivered by TPRS, asking or telling a story.  PQA mixed in.  Teach to the eyes.  Use jobs.  Collect data from jobbers, quick end of period assessment of yesterday's words: choral or pass out of class.
  • Die Iovis: 4 new words delivered by TPRS, asking or telling a story.  PQA mixed in.  Teach to the eyes.  Use jobs.  Collect data from jobbers, quick end of period assessment of yesterday's words: choral or pass out of class.
  • Die Veneris: there are options
    • Review word wall and all the new words this week--largely English, point out derivatives.
    • Read and discuss the story you've been asking all week, typed up from Scriptores notes and including artwork from Articices
    • Read and discuss a story, embedded or from text.
    • Timed write.
    • Word chunk game

*Embedded Readings.  Go through a text and mark all the new words for your class.  If there are too many words, shelter the vocabulary.  Choose 4-5 new words that are important, and circle them.  Then either rewrite the story with a synonym to avoid certain words, exclude a sentence if it is not important to the story, or rewrite sentences to avoid certain phrases.  Read this version first, then read the original.  For particularly difficult texts (such as Virgil), you can actually embed at several levels to help students reach the text with a real understanding of the vocabulary and words.

At this point, I had to leave to pick up Phoenix.  Miriam, however, continues the day here.

Day 4: Practical Application


Patrick Yaggy asks a story.
So, the great thing about having teachers at various levels of experience is that we can be mixed into groups that allow a more experienced person to help out someone with less experience.

On day 4, the last day of the workshop, we were asked to break into groups to work on a story together.  Our groups were assigned to choose 4-5 words or phrases, prepare a plan for practicing them out loud, then create an embedded version of the story.  Bob and Keith provided feedback on our repetitions, practice, and stories so we could best know how to improve.

There's not a lot to add here; the practical application was time well spent, though not easily expressed or experienced via typed descriptions.  The best thing you can do is either find a teacher to mentor you through (almost any TPRS and comprehensible input teacher will be glad to do so), so you can watch the method in action and hopefully be watched and coached in turn.