Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Four Days of Comprehensible Input: Day 1

Bob Patrick presents Comprehensible Input theory.
I know I did a blog post about the the same topic this time last year.  What can I say?  When I find a method--or really, a philosophy--of teaching that works, I do as much research and training as I can in that method.  As Bob said today, there is always something new to learn.  The great thing about adopting comprehensible input as a teaching philosophy is that it can include so many, many different approaches and ideas and as long as I'm delivering understandable messages in the target language I'm doing it right.

So I'm attending a four day comprehensible input seminar again this year.  It's again led by Robert Patrick and Keith Toda (with Lauren Watson, a great TPRS teacher in French).  Yes, there has been some repetition--at which points I will refer you back to my previous post--but there was a lot of new as well.  And the approach is different this year, based less on discussion and more on demonstrations which has been fun.  Lauren Watson has led the breakout sessions for the Latin teachers so we get to learn some French and experience the method from the learner's perspective.

Testimonial Time


We began the day with a testimonial by Keith Toda (@silvius_toda on twitter).  Keith described his love of grammar, something I think most of us language teachers can sympathize with--after all, we got here because we love pretty much every aspect of language, including the chewy grammar center--and his very indirect path toward becoming a language teacher.

When Keith became a Latin teacher, he found that while he loved grammar, not everyone else did, and while he found it an easy and exciting puzzle to solve, his students just found it frustrating.  When he moved on to a reading focused textbook, things improved, the students were engaged, however there was a huge disconnect between the stories that had been written for the students and the high level Latin texts students are required to read to prepare for the Latin AP Test.  Keith said that he blamed himself ("Obviously I'm not teaching them well enough") and his students ("They're lazy") before he began to consider the method.  He started looking around and using comprehensible input.  This year, based on past success with his experiments in CI, he taught his class entirely using CI methods and found great success again this year.

Keith emphasized at the end of his testimonial that grammar is still part of teaching with comprehensible input--it's just taught in a different way.

Brief Interlude That Will Be Visited Upon in a Meaningful Way Later


We were asked to answer two questions on a piece of paper: What is important to you and why does it matter?  On the other side we were asked to write our names clearly and draw 1) our favorite pet or an animal we'd like to have as a pet and 2) something (music, sport, game) that we play.

CI Theory


After Keith's testimonial, Bob (@BobPatrick on twitter) stepped forward to provide some comprehensible input theory.  There were a few things I have already covered in my previous CI post, such as the Comprehensible Input Umbrella, the rules of the Rotary, and the cheesecake activity, but there were some topics that I only brushed on, or that were not fully developed by last year, that I am going to include below.

Language Teacher Affirmation (offered here word-for-word)


Our aim is to make the acquisition of the language we teach possible for all kinds of learners.  In order to do that:

  • We affirm that ours is a language like any other with its level of inflection.
  • We affirm that anyone who wants to acquire ability in our language can do so if offered an approach which employs principles of best practice in language acquisition.
    • A best practice is showing positive results, is reduplicable, and it can change and improve.
  • We acknowledge that most language teachers are themselves “four percenters” who enjoy questions of linguistics, grammar, and philology.
    • Although these are fascinating disciplines of their own..
    • They are not language acquisition, and they interfere with acquisition whenever and wherever they are substituted for best practices

Language teachers are not normal; for our programs to thrive we must become good at teaching normal human beings.

Principals of Comprehensible Input (also word-for-word)



  1. It is impossible to prepare students to read the great literature in 3-4 years.
    • It is possible to give them basic reading facility and an enjoyable experience of reading your language, which may encourage them to continue study, in school or on their own.
  2. Every student has a right to experience being in a second (or third or fourth) language
  3. Language teachers are not normal our language is not different
  4. Students only acquire language when they receive understandable messages in the target language.
  5. One of the quickest ways to deliver an understandable message is to give an English equivalent for a new word or phrase.
  6. Language acquisition, including the assimilation and understanding of grammar, according to the latest brain research, happens unconsciously.
  7. Direct grammar instruction does not advance acquisition.  It interferes.  It raises stress levels.  Rising stress = lowering acquisition.
  8. Error correction tends to put students on the defensive.  It focuses on the form of the language and not the message, thereby inhibiting acquisition.  Understandable messages are lost in the “endings”.
  9. Shelter vocabulary, not grammar.
    • All our texts do just the opposite
    •  Consider Tres Ursi: 52 vocabulary words, advanced grammar
    •  What to do with our texts, especially if they have good stories?
  10. Four percenters, both students and teachers, will interfere with their own language acquisition by focusing on my love for grammar, linguistics, and philology.
  11. We have an obligation to stay focused: am I delivering understandable messages in my language?
    • Delivering understandable messages will mean that WE are uncomfortable and that students are more at ease
  12. Reading another language is not translating or speed translating.
    • Reading is looking at squiggles on a page and seeing a movie in your head. Jason Fritze
    • Reading proficiency: what you are able to do, not what you know about the language.
    • Our methods have focused on knowing about and not allowed us to do much in our language
  13. True reading develops in stages.
    • Depends on acquired language
    • It does not correspond to a grammar curriculum
    • Reading is taking in understandable messages.  If the messages are not understandable, it’s not reading.
  14. i + 1
    • "i + 1" means the level of language that students fully comprehend ("i") plus a little bit that they don't ("+1").
    • where the students are, with interesting material plus a slight edge
    • Reading only advances acquisition when it is i+1
    • No textbook currently in use in the US provides those kinds of readings
    • Teachers are obligated to create and edit readings to fulfill this requirement
  15. What we teach
    • We do not teach a textbook
    • We do not teach standards
    • We do not teach AKS
    • We teach human beings
    • We teach a language
    • Textbooks are tools that may or may not be helpful
  16. Production of any kind, does not advance acquisition.
    • Production happens when the individual is ready to produce and not a moment before.
    • The individual will produce at the levels he/she is capable of and will advance at his/her own pace.
  17. CI is not Immersion
    • Immersion camps, here or abroad, in all our languages
      • Helpful and delicious in their own way, but…
      • Filled entirely with 4 percenters
      • Screened by prior knowledge of grammar
      • and not reduplicable in the classroom (with normal students)
    • Immersion camps can be stressful and rising stress = lowering acquisition
  18. CI does happen in all kinds of classrooms
    • In strict grammar-translation classrooms, moments of understandable messages happen, usually unintentionally
    • In immersion camps, understandable messages happen all the time, intentionally and unintentionally
    • How do we craft classes where we are 90% understandable and in the language?

Circling with Balls


I honestly have only dabbled in this particular activity, and really found this demonstration very, very helpful.  Remember the "Brief Interlude That Will Be Visited Upon in a Meaningful Way Later"?  Later is now.  First, though, check out this great explanation of Circling with Balls.

The papers that we decorated with our interests (mine had a wolf and a Portal Companion Cube) were brought back into play by the three seminar leaders in this activity.  It is by far the best "getting to know you" activity I have ever seen employed in a classroom and is definitely much more effective than pieces of toilet paper or M&Ms (though the latter tends to buy you at least temporary love from your students).

Each presenter took a couple of the papers, had the author identify him or herself, and began to ask questions.  The demonstration was in English, but I spent the entire time envisioning what it would look like in my classroom.  "Hello Susan.  Do you have a dog?  Yes?  Class, Susan has a dog.  Does Susan have a dog or a cat?"  And of course there are always students--even in a classroom of teachers--who draw dragons and unicorns.  They give great questioning meat (sparkly meat, in the case of the unicorn).  You can ask things like "Do you have a unicorn?  No?  Do you want a unicorn?  Do you want a blue unicorn?"  This brings the class into fantasy and that's really where you want them.  I love those students--they are perfect for setting a tone of fun and imagination.

This method gives teachers a chance to get to know students in a way that is both personal and conducive to learning.  I will be using it next year to begin my classes.

Learning French with Lauren Watson!

Learning with Lauren


I have been to more TPRS presentations and demonstrations and seminars and workshops than I can count and have presented quite a few of my own as well.  Why so many?  Because every time the method is demonstrated I get better at understanding it.  Every time.

And the rare times I can experience the method in a language that I don't already understand, I get the extra exciting opportunity of seeing the method from the point of view of the student.  I have already described my introduction to TPRS as a method here, including why I am so passionate about it and CI (hint: it has to do with real acquisition and a wish for equity--Bob's word, but also my wish--in my classroom).
Caroline est fâché.

There were a few things I noticed that were similar to past experiences, and Lauren did a fantastic job of teaching us seven primary words and several "icing words" (defined as words you don't expect students to acquire but you need for the current story) in French today.  One thing that stood out to me this time (re-emphasis: I get something new every time) that I will be contemplating over the summer is that, as a four percenter who loves grammar and rules, I was dying to see the French word "est" written on a board.  I just wanted to see this word we kept using, and find out what the secret letters (obviously they're secret, or they'd be part of the pronunciation) are in it.  It turns out that it's just like its Latin equivalent.  Which would have totally flavored my comprehension and pronunciation of the word, had I seen it first.  Since Lauren did not write the word down, I never internalized my incorrect pronunciation nor the Latin implications of the word and now understand the word when I hear it in French.
Un bébé et un oiseau enter the story.

That is something to contemplate.  I tend to write everything I say because I myself am such a visual learner.  Now I'm going to start working on discrepancy, choosing carefully between possible things to write on the board.

At the end of the day we regrouped and did a question and answer session.  The big question of the moment is how to deal with standardized assessments.  The simple answer is to teach to them, but using comprehensible input.  However, I'd love to hear your stories and advice or concerns about the same--or about anything related to the post!

Read the post for Day 2 here. For Day 3, read here.