Language Educators

What is Comprehensible Input really?

Eric Herman10-30-2014 23:47

  • 1.  What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 10-27-2014 22:47
    It's important we ask the big question: "How comprehensible are teachers really?"

    ACTFL's position statement is that 90%+ of instruction time be in the target language at all levels. No where are you going to find someone argue that INcomprehensible input leads to acquisition. The aim is for comprehensible immersion. So how do we "use the target language as exclusively as possible" and make it comprehensible? 

    Many claim to teach with CI, but they hugely overestimate the actual comprehensibility. It's probably all too common that a teacher speak too fast, assume that his/her game of charades is being understood, and introduce too much new vocabulary. That's why taking a TCI* class in an unfamiliar language is so eye-opening - you feel great when you comprehend everything, you can also see how easy it is to be incomprehensible and you can feel the effects of that incomprehensibility - anxiety of not understanding, loss of focus, etc - a strong cause of disciplinary issues in the classroom. In fact, if we were truly teaching with CI and truly trying to reach all of our students, then ALL kids would say that class was easy - because they'd understand everything! What is difficult for students in a TCI class has more to do with trying to sustain focus (1 of the 4 aspects of a "rigorous academic program" - http://www.state.gov/m/a/os/44875.htm).

    When taking a class that does maximize comprehensibility, you gain more respect for the natural process, in which tons of input precede any real output. Then, maybe more people would start to see just how often they put the cart before the horse with all the "communicative partner work and role-playing." And teachers needn't worry that focusing primarily on listening would not develop the other skills. There's plenty of research (e.g. Elley in book flood studies, Lightbown's reading study in Canada, 1989, the FOCAL SKILLS program of Hastings, 1995, VanPatten and colleagues in Processing Instruction studies) that shows how input-based approaches develop comprehension and production skills equally and often better than other approaches (e.g. multi-skill, output-based).

    In fact, what we do in TCI, at least at the beginning stages, is more than comprehensible, it's transparent (translatable). The whole idea that we avoid all L1 means you give up a way to speed up a student's acquisition of word meaning. It's commonsense. What do you think the students are thinking when the teacher is playing charades? . . . Student: "Is a 'mesa' a desk? Maybe a chair. Maybe it's a surface? Oh, it's a table." That is, the student automatically links the L2 to L1 as per the following quotation:

    "Research shows that particularly at low proficiency levels, L2 words are directly connected to their L1 equivalents (Jiang, 2002; Kroll et al. 2002; Kroll and Stewart, 1994). Whether words are learned with L1 translations or pictures does not affect connection to the L1, it happens regardless (Altarriba and Knickerbocker, 2011; Lotto and De Groot, 1998). However, even newly learned words can also access meaning directly without going through the L1 (Finkbeiner and Nicol, 2003)." - Nation, 2013, p. 45

    I understand Nation to be saying first that we automatically create a link to the L1 no matter how we are presented the vocabulary (and since translation is the most effective and we make the L1 link anyway, then that is most efficient), but we also can access the concept without dependence on L1. So, when presented with a new word: L2 -> L1 -> concept, but when later accessing the words (either for reception or production) we can go directly from L2 -> concept. We don't have to worry that just because we gave the L1 gloss that the students will depend on that L1. In TCI we can quickly give the L1 meaning, which makes the tons of CI that follow more comprehensible. 

    And just because the teacher speaks slowly doesn't mean the students will speak slowly. All of this (input-based, targeted, translatable, slow) does wonders for student confidence. A big element of making it comprehensible is targeting language (restricting vocabulary) and that language targeted is chosen due to it's high frequency and/or high-interest. I repeat, targeting structures and concentrating the repetitions greatly increases comprehensibility, while also providing the contextualized repetitions necessary for acquisition. It is especially necessary to target language when it's a FL situation in which class is only 1 period every day or every other day - insufficient time means that if we did not target, then we'd risk students forgetting before they got the next repetition. One advantage of a story is to improve memory of vocabulary by embedding it in a meaningful context.


    Furthermore, when we make the discussion all about the students (personalization) and let them co-create stories (customization) and we talk about issues and interests relevant to them, then we get more sustained focus. Then, class is frequently more compelling than were we to try to use the target language to teach linguistics, another academic discipline, a thematic unit, even culture. The greater the interest, the greater the attention the students place on the comprehensible messages being delivered. CI is not sufficient. The students can zone it out and not make the attempt to understand the message. That fact means we have to change how  we try to reach our students with CI (personalize the content) and change what we expect from our students. We expect them to make eye contact, we expect them to signal verbally or nonverbally when they do not comprehend, and we expect them to answer the easy yes/no, either/or questions that serve as comprehension checks.

    *Teaching with CI = TCI  - ways to TCI include TPR, TPRS, Natural Approach, MovieTalk, and FVR. 



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    Eric Herman
    eric.herman.pchn@gmail.com
    Spanish Teacher
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  • 2.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 10-28-2014 00:20
    You start with an important question. Another way of asking it would be "To whom is the teacher comprehensible?"

    Unless the input is comprehensible to the learner, it is not comprehensible. It doesn't matter how slowly the teacher thinks he is going or how simple she thinks the sentences are, if the learners (students) don't understand then it is for naught.

    Perhaps a more useful idea is that of "ComprehendED Input". Then the question becomes one of finding ways to enable the learner to comprehend the utterances quickly so that time in the language is maximized both quantitatively and qualitatively, i.e. achieving the 90%+ goal while making sure the learner finds the language comprehensible, compelling, even "transparent". When there is a common L1, as is the case in most elementary and secondary schools in the US, a gloss (often written rather than oral) often serves as an effective tool. When there is no common L1, as in many ESL/ELD classes, the situation becomes more difficult: teachers must resort to more ambiguous expressions of meaning, and students must tolerate higher levels of uncertainty and ambiguity. There is, however, as far as I can tell, no reason for the teacher in the former situation artificially to create a situation identical to the latter situation, especially if - as Finkbeiner and Nicol (2003) indicate - students resort to L1 for meaning anyway, particularly at the beginning of acquisition.

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    Robert Harrell
    harrellrl@aol.com
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  • 3.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 10-30-2014 23:39

    We can start to think of ways to provide more input that is comprehended if we better understand possible causes of comprehension problems.

    This list comes from VanPatten's "language is complex" argument:

    •lexicon - words & meanings
    •phonology - pronunciation
    •morphology - inflections, prefixes, etc.
    •syntax - sentence order
    •pragmatics - what speakers intend
    •sociolinguistics - tú vs. ud.
    •discourse competence - cohesion across sentences

    Christine Goh (2000) did a study of listening comprehension problems.

    http://www.finchpark.com/courses/grad-dissert/articles/listening/listening-comprehension-problems.pdf

    Some factors listed by Goh in the introduction are speech rate, phonological features, background knowledge, lack of interest/motivation, cognitive demand of content. Flowerdew and Miller identified 3 problems: speed of delivery, new terminology and concepts, and difficulty concentrating. Then, Goh's paper examines 10 factors related to processing problems (see page 59).

    Perception

    1. Do not recognise words they know
    2. Neglect the next part when thinking about meaning
    3. Cannot chunk streams of speech
    4. Miss the beginning of texts
    5. Concentrate too hard or unable to concentrate

    Parsing

    6. Quickly forget what is heard
    7. Unable to form a mental representation from words heard
    8. Do not understand subsequent parts of input because of earlier problems

    Utilisation

    9. Understand words but not the intended message
    10. Confused about the key ideas in the message

    Comprehension increases when . . .

    -repetitive, e.g. targeted input
    -substantial vocabulary coverage (translatable = 100% coverage)
    -slow
    -in manageable chunks (e.g. shorter sentences for beginners)
    -compelling
    -relaxed
    -focused
    -content is cognitively appropriate
    -person has visualization skills
    -there is background knowledge
    -in some instances for some people linguistic knowledge can help

    There are degrees of comprehension. Many teachers are comprehensible to an extent. Studies of reading comprehension based on vocabulary coverage indicate that for a text to have a chance at being reasonably comprehensible, students need 98%+ coverage (know 49 of every 50 words). Now, if you include pictures, gestures, etc. to support the text, then comprehensibility can increase. And those are great techniques to use when teaching with a text that doesn't have 98% coverage for all the students in the class. (On assessment: it makes sense to me that if I wanted a test purely of what language has been acquired, then the subject should have only the language to rely on for comprehension).

    The power of CI can be explained with reference to Krashen's Comprehension Hypothesis or by a cognitive psychology based explanation of attention. When the CI we deliver is repetitive, slow, and there is high vocabulary coverage, then it can be argued that students are absorbing form and meaning. I read this explanation in Mangubhai, 2001.

    "The argument is based on cognitive psychology, more particularly the role of attention, claiming that second learner learners can focus on the language once comprehension is relatively easy and therefore does not take up all the attentional resources. . . the greater the frequency of the occurrence of a linguistic item in the input the higher the probability it will be noticed. . . it might be possible to infer from the results of reading programs that readers do attend to form once it is relatively easy to extract the meaning. . . If we take a more cognitive approach to SL learning and accept that learners process input for meaning before they process it for form (VanPatten, 1996) and that such processing can take place only if there are attentional resources available, then the first three factors [highly comprehensible, repetition, recycling] mentioned above would suggest that attentional resources would have been available to many of these students because of the relative ease with which meaning could be extracted."



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    Eric Herman
    eric.herman.pchn@gmail.com
    Spanish Teacher
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  • 4.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 10-30-2014 23:47

    Sorry. I don't know why there was a huge space between the link and the quote from the article. Here's that quote again, this time at the top of the comment ;)

    "The argument is based on cognitive psychology, more particularly the role of attention, claiming that second learner learners can focus on the language once comprehension is relatively easy and therefore does not take up all the attentional resources. . . the greater the frequency of the occurrence of a linguistic item in the input the higher the probability it will be noticed. . . it might be possible to infer from the results of reading programs that readers do attend to form once it is relatively easy to extract the meaning.


    "If we take a more cognitive approach to SL learning and accept that learners process input for meaning before they process it for form (VanPatten, 1996) and that such processing can take place only if there are attentional resources available, then the first three factors mentioned above would suggest that attentional resources would have been available to many of these students because of the relative ease with which meaning could be extracted. One could argue that in the Canadian immersion context there would also have been numerous instances where the easy extraction of meaning would have left learners with attentional resources that could have been devoted to processing the form. But the evidence suggests that either (a) they did not, or (b) there were insufficient number of such instances to have made an impact upon their grammatical competence to the extent that researchers were looking for."  

    - From "Book Floods and Comprehensible Input Floods: Providing Ideal Conditions for Second Language Acquisition."

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    Eric Herman
    eric.herman.pchn@gmail.com
    Spanish Teacher
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  • 5.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 10-31-2014 07:33

    Eric,

    You bring up very important points and research.  You are also right that it is not a matter of which methodology to implement, rather understanding how language learners learn.   The one thing I feel is missing in the conversation is the degree to which we make learners responsible for their own learning.  Much is said about what topics or comprehensible input to provide learners with at what level of language proficiency.  From this perspective the teacher is still a teacher, not a coach or facilitator of learning.

    All "teachers" are not created equal, neither are learners.  Furthermore, research and methodologies, as you point out, have their flaws.   Much of our frustration as "teachers" comes from the "one size fits all" approach of curricula, textbooks and assessment.  Textbooks are created with learning in mind, yes, but also with profits in mind.  Publishing companies sell colorful, packed-full packages we cannot resist.   Yet, I am less and less satisfied with such textbooks.  One of the reasons is the lack of integration of vocabulary, grammar and cultural topics in many instances. 

    In my opinion, one problem is that the thematic vocabulary lists often come at the end of the unit or chapter, and the culture is tacked in a corner somewhere for the most part.   A better integration of vocabulary, grammar and "cognitive appropriate culture" (by culture I mean just about any topic deemed appropriate) would provide the repetitive, vocabulary coverage in small chunks that Goh claims are needed for language acquisition.  

    My experience has also taken me to focus more on the learner.  Not all learners in a classroom have the same background knowledge, aptitude, attitude or learning style or needs.   One way to individualize learning is to lecture less and expect more from the learner.  It takes skillful facilitators to successfully address learner needs in this way, but it works (not without flaws).  That is, facilitators briefly introduce topics, vocabulary and grammar not in isolation, but rather with integrated small chunks of input at increasingly higher levels of difficulty.  We then create activities that require learners to research further, practice, think, collaborate and add information for the purpose of establishing meaningful communication (Krashen) in the classroom.   These activities can be very simple at first, but they encourage engagement and ownership.  It is important that the topics be age and level appropriate, and that learners' research, while connected to the general unit's topic, be of particular interest to each individual learner.   Easier said than done, indeed, and the reason why we, educators, need to closely collaborate with textbook publishers and maintain healthy dialogs such as the ones in this site.  The flipped classroom (Socrates, Dewey, Holt, Montessori...) is actually a move in the right direction and finally beginning to go main stream.  What is getting on the way?  It's the way we assess learning, a whole other chapter I am afraid.  Again, thank you! 



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    Engracia Schuster, author "Critical Thinking in Language Learning"
    schustee@sunyocc.edu
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    "The argument is based on cognitive psychology, more particularly the role of attention, claiming that second learner learners can focus on the language once comprehension is relatively easy and therefore does not take up all the attentional resources. . . the greater the frequency of the occurrence of a linguistic item in the input the higher the probability it will be noticed. . . it might be possible to infer from the results of reading programs that readers do attend to form once it is relatively easy to extract the meaning. . . If we take a more cognitive approach to SL learning and accept that learners process input for meaning before they process it for form (VanPatten, 1996) and that such processing can take place only if there are attentional resources available, then the first three factors [highly comprehensible, repetition, recycling] mentioned above would suggest that attentional resources would have been available to many of these students because of the relative ease with which meaning could be extracted."



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    Eric Herman
    eric.herman.pchn@gmail.com
    Spanish Teacher
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  • 6.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-01-2014 01:24

    I would love to see more comments here. Let us stick to the question: the title of the thread.

    The question has been put in other ways in this thread:
    -How comprehensible are teachers really?
    -How do you make input comprehensible for all the students?
    -To whom is the teacher comprehensible?
    -How do we enable the learner to comprehend the utterances quickly so that time in the language is maximized both quantitatively and qualitatively?

    Here is the link to ACTFL's position statement. 
    http://www.actfl.org/news/position-statements/use-the-target-language-the-classroom-0

    I reason that if
    1. 90%+ of the class is to be spent in the target language and
    2. incomprehensible input does not aid acquisition, then
    3. ACTFL is asking us to teach as exclusively as possible with comprehensible input 

    Blaming the students is over. Input that is compelling, that which makes the students want to know what you're talking about and want to listen, means that person does not have to be motivated to improve in the language. 

    http://skrashen.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-end-of-motivation.html 

    And VanPatten in recent research has also shown that grammatical sensibility (traditionally defined as "language aptitude") is not a factor on the ability to process input.

    "If you believe that there's some kind of rule you have in your head and you teach a rule and practice that rule, aptitude is actually predicated on that paradigm. It's an outdated paradigm." (minute 3:38)

    ". . . acquisition too complex to say, 'Ok class. Today we are going to learn ser and estar'. . . you can do that and you can test it, but then you're not doing language acquisition." (minute 7:20)

    from 6th video: http://learninglanguages.celta.msu.edu/sla-vanpatten/

    We respect the implicit nature of SLA. I gave the cognitively-oriented hypothesis in an earlier comment, but Krashen's Comprehension Hypothesis is the well-known explanation. Learner preferences aside, it has been theorized that we all acquire in the same way.

    "We acquire language in only one way, when we understand messages." (Krashen)

    "Language acquisition is a subconscious process; while it is happening we are not aware that it is happening, and the competence developed this way is stored in the brain subconsciously." (Krashen)

    90%+ instruction with comprehensible/comprehended input is a game changer. This is a huge paradigm shift. Comprehensible immersion is how you "teach" the language.



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    Eric Herman
    eric.herman.pchn@gmail.com
    Spanish Teacher
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  • 7.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-01-2014 18:21
    Perhaps, Eric, you are not getting many replies because people are taking the question at the surface level, i.e. they think you want only a dictionary definition of Comprehensible Input. In that case, the answer seems absurdly easy. But is it?

    Let's start with "Input". Webster Online defines "Input" as 

    1in·put

     noun \ˈin-ˌpt\

    : advice or opinions that help someone make a decision

    : information that is put into a computer

    : something (such as power or energy) that is put into a machine or system

    In the full definition, Webster begins "Something that is put in ..." How's that for defining something in terms of itself?

    Cambridge Dictionaries Online gives:  informationmoney, or energy that is put into a systemorganization, or machine so it can operate:

    MacMillan Dictionary has, among others, perhaps the most pertinent definition: 
    1. 3
      [UNCOUNTABLE] PHYSICS electrical or other energy that is put into amachine
    Most of the definitions center around computers and systems. However, do those definitions really work when we are talking about humans? Can we reduce human learning to a system or process?

    Perhaps the definition provided for psychology is the most useful for us in second language acquisition: Information that your brain receives from your eyes, ears or nerves.

    Next is "comprehensible". There, we have, I believe, a more common understanding of the term. Something that is comprehensible is something we are able to understand; it is intelligible.

    So, our working definition of Comprehensible Input for the foreign language classroom would be something like "Information that your brain receives from your eyes, ears, or nerves that you can understand".

    From your follow-up questions and comments, I know that this is not the end of the matter. You don't want a simple dictionary definition, though I think this is a good starting point.

    I believe you are also asking, "What constitutes Comprehensible Input that is most effective in helping students acquire a second language?" From this point of view, all Comprehensible Input is not created equal. I can deduce this from personal experience. While equally understandable via my eyes, two books might differ radically as far as their effectiveness in communicating information is concerned. One might be well written and capture my attention so that I remember its message and even change my behavior based on what I read. The other might be boring and dull so that I forget its message immediately or even fall asleep while reading it. In addition, not all Comprehensible Input equally addresses the goal of language acquisition. Again, using person experience as an example: If my goal is to learn to play chess, comprehensible input about the finding of the Lewis Chessmen (elaborately carved walrus ivory and whales' teeth figures from the Isle of Lewis, dating to about 1150-122) will not advance that goal, no matter how interesting the information may be to me.

    Your citations from various sources shed light on what is necessary for Comprehensible Input to be effective in conveying information. Thank you for them.

    I find that I disagree with the idea of "death of motivation", but only insofar as it is interpreted too broadly. The research cited by Van Patten, Krashen, and others indicates that motivation to learn a foreign language is dead as far as the ability to acquire is concerned. However, in each of the instances cited by Krashen, the learner/acquirer was motivated to do an activity or learn about something, and the information was available solely in the target language. The motivation was to do something the person found enjoyable or interesting; the fact that it was in a foreign language was merely incidental. Perhaps I am undermining my own position on the necessity for motivation to do something, but during the time I lived in Germany, I began acquiring Swiss German from my association with the Swiss-speaking mother of a family I knew. I never intended to learn the language, and I certainly never studied it either formally or informally. However, my friend spoke Swiss German with her children, and I was able to connect what she was saying to them sufficiently to my knowledge base that I began to understand. The proof of this came at a Sunday dinner. The family, a couple of other local people (Stuttgart), and I were eating and talking when the phone rang. One of the children answered and came to tell his mother that a friend was on the line. The mother told the child to ask what her friend wanted and if it would be all right to call her back later in the evening. The child did as asked and reported back. One of the local people then asked, "What was that all about?" I responded, "You mean you didn't understand that?" Everyone at the table looked at me and said, "And you did?!" I had unconsciously acquired enough Swiss German to follow a conversation that was unintelligible to native German speakers with a different dialect even though I had never made any conscious or overt attempt to do so. What was my motivation? I think it was just a general interest in watching the mother interact with her children.

    In the classroom, I believe there must be sufficient interest (if not motivation) - hm, maybe I do agree with the death of motivation - for students to pay attention. That means that the instruction needs to be sufficiently interesting, beyond being understandable, that students attend to it. It seems to me that the mere sensation of molecules moving at a certain wavelength striking the eardrum or light of a certain frequency striking the lens of the eye does not constitute input because it does not truly reach the brain. If, for example, I look at a traffic signal while driving, the wavelength for the color red may strike my lens and proceed to the retina, but if my brain does not register that, I will keep on driving and potentially be involved in an accident or get a ticket. If I am deep in thought, the sounds of another person's voice may strike the eardrum, but if my brain does not process those sounds, there has been no input, and I will ignore the person and create a potentially embarrassing situation for both of us.

    This brings us to a consideration of both the teacher and the learner. Ms Schuster mentioned making learners responsible for their own learning. That is potentially a fruitful avenue of discussion but can easily digress from the focus on what constitutes Comprehensible Input. Often taking responsibility for their own learning is interpreted as doing certain kinds of homework, memorizing word lists, and doing any number of things that are not directly related to Comprehensible Input in the classroom.

    So, let me rephrase the question and give some context. First the context: We teach in an artificial situation. Our students come to us not only with widely disparate abilities and background knowledge, they often come to us with zero interest in anything they believe we have to offer them. Some of our students would rather be nearly anywhere else but in school, and they tolerate it because they believe they have no other alternatives if they are going to achieve what our society describes as success. (We won't go into all of the potential psychological, social, and communal ramifications of this.) Often this lack of any sort of interest is exhibited by various kinds of disruption, refusal to do homework, and other "unacceptable behavior". We teachers then bemoan the fact that our students are unmotivated. Yet, we see those same students enthusiastically spending hours doing drills for football, running miles for track, attending early morning practices for water polo, reading their favorite books, playing League of Legends or other computer games, practicing their skateboarding skills, and doing any number of other activities (many of which adults consider a waste of time). These students are not unmotivated; they are simply uninterested in the normal fare offered them at school and do not respond to the things that adults think should be motivational. The problem is not with the students but with the system and its requirements, including the rewards it offers. (Most high school students, especially freshmen and sophomores, do not yet have sufficiently developed brains to be able to deal with delayed gratification such as grades - and those do not particularly motivate many of them, anyway.) Thus the challenge for the teacher is to find ways to engage these students, present them with something that they will find interesting. We will not be equally successful. One teacher will not be as successful as another. The same teacher will not be equally successful with all students. The same teacher with the same students won't be equally successful from one day to the next. That doesn't mean, though, that we don't keep trying to find out what works best both to keep student interest high and to most effectively communicate in a way that students acquire the language.

    So, to rephrase the question: How does a learner take responsibility for his own learning when the way he learns a language is through Comprehensible Input? (Those who wish to do so may substitute acquirer/acquiring/acquires) To me, it is primarily a matter of paying attention, of making certain that the information in whatever form (oral, written, stories, questions and answers, songs, informational texts, etc.) is not merely the passive reception of light or sound at certain frequencies (as in my examples above) but the active perception and processing of a message that reaches the brain. This means that students are responsible for indicating both understanding and lack thereof. When a student does this in any class, be it foreign language, math, history, science or anything else, he or she is taking responsibility for his/her own learning. Otherwise, they look and don't see, they listen and don't hear, and they don't even try to understand.

    Of course, the other side of the coin is the question: How does a teacher make certain that the information he or she is presenting is interesting/compelling as well as understandable so that students want to make an investment of their time and energy to receive, process, understand, and respond to the information?

    I think Ms Schuster's final paragraph contains some beginning answers to this question:
    1. Information is presented in context and in an integrated way, never as isolated "bits"
    2. We begin simply
    3. The things we present and how we present them are age and acquisition-level appropriate
    4. Depth and integrity of investigation speak to the particular interests of the individual learner

    I call these comments a beginning because we as teachers need to take them from the realm of theory and translate them into daily practice. One thing seems certain to me (and I think Ms Schuster will agree), simply following a textbook won't accomplish this. Neither will following any other prescribed curriculum that does not allow the flexibility of exploring students' general and particular interests.

    I would also add that part of the teacher's responsibility for making information interesting/compelling includes
    1. Allowing students time to process the text (whether visually or aurally; did you know that most adults speak faster than children can hear in their native language? The problem compounds itself in a foreign language.)
    2. Finding out what students' interests are, and addressing them as the curriculum. (Last year I had a class that repeatedly came back to Harry Potter because every member of the class had an interest; we also explored particular interests, such as the student who owns and rides a horse, the students who skateboarded from Huntington Beach to San Diego, the student who writes poetry, the student who goes hunting, etc.)
    3. Making certain that the information the student receives via eyes, ears or nerves is genuinely information the student can understand, even if not yet capable of expressing it.

    What else would you consider part of the teacher's responsibility?

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    Robert Harrell
    harrellrl@aol.com
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  • 8.  RE:What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-02-2014 07:25

    Maybe the topic is exhausted and it is time to move on. Much was stated,debated and revealed. People need time to ruminate and take what inspires them.

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    Luann Smith
    luann.smith@pps.k12.va.us
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  • 9.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-02-2014 12:28

    Please do not confuse this thread with others. This is about answering a very specific question: What is CI really?" and so far there are only 3 of us commenting.

    It's about alignment with a game-changing ACTFL position statement. If 90%+ of a teacher's instruction time is already in the target language, then I'd like it to be shared how he/she ensures the input is being comprehended by ALL the students.

    It's especially relevant to the subject of the Oct/Nov 2014 The Language Educator. The editor, Sandy Cutshall, asked similar questions on this listserv on Oct. 13th and got no responses posted to this online community. This thread is about answering the first part of Cutshall's question: "What have you done in your classroom to support learners in understanding what they heard, read, or viewed (input)?"

    Good points, Robert, about all CI not being created equal and about the necessity for a flexible curriculum. The last paragraph from my 1st post agrees with what Robert says is the learner's responsibility. Robert also asks what teachers can do to make "students want to make an investment of their time and energy to receive, process, understand, and respond to the information" and as he said, success of that will vary depending on the students and the day, but we keep trying. Besides saying that compelling makes the CI more effective, it may be, as Krashen suggests, necessary. It may be part of the C in CI. If not compelling, it may not be comprehended, even if heard.

    "It is possible that compelling input is not just optimal: It may be only way we truly acquire language."
    http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/articles/the_compelling_(not_just_interesting)_input_hyothesis.pdf

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    Eric Herman
    eric.herman.pchn@gmail.com
    Spanish Teacher
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  • 10.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-03-2014 15:59
     We can probably agree that we mean something more than merely decipherable when we use the term, 'Comprehensible Input.'  My own children comprehend the (English) message, "Please make your bed," but alas, it is un-compelling!  I see no indication whatsoever that they are considering, weighing, or formulating any response to my utterance!  They have nothing to add or contribute!  Sometimes it seems like they don't even understand the message!  A pre-condition to CI is that the message is understood, that its parts and it's whole are transparent and clear to the learner/student.  
    "Who wants ice cream?" Now there's a message.  It's comprehensible plus compelling.  What kind of ice cream?  When & where are we going to get it?  It lends itself to lots of possibilities for personal opinion, discussion, speculation, elaboration.  It is exciting. It's a crowd pleaser.  
    Both inputs, "Please make your bed," and "Who wants Ice cream?" can serve as points of departure for effective Comprehensible Input.  Both have possible back-stories that can be exploited for student participation and collaboration in a personalization or story asking sequence.  I can imagine a story about the kid who never made her bed, despite the fact that she was asked repeatedly.  The bed police was finally called...

    A lesson focusing on a the awe-inspiring sawdust carpets of Antigua, Guatemala (I created a unit on it) also has potential for a compelling flood of CI, however, unless the Ss already know a lot about the holiday and the traditions the teacher wishes to transmit, the teaching is rather one-way.  The concept-centered theme may constrain and make it  harder to control for low-frequency vocabulary and structures. The concept itself may be too difficult to explain at the learner's proficiency level.  The teacher may present artifacts, videos, a reading.  Peoples, products, perspectives.  But at least initially, the 'story' is already written, and the students aren't part of it.   I have found that many of the culture-based thematic units I have created in the past must be reconsidered and re-tooled to focus on practical, hi-frequency target language.  No matter the context, a story, a scene, a picture, a video clip, a cultural artifact or practice, etc. - Comprehensible Input refers to language whose meaning is accessible to the student, and ideally, compelling enough for the student to interact with it again again (to provide sufficient repetitions - so that the language can be acquired).  In the earlier proficiency levels, this language must be narrow and simple and represent the high-frequency building blocks of the language.

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    Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg
    alisashapiro@winnetka36.org
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  • 11.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-03-2014 17:08
    So I understand that themes like sawdust carpets might be less interesting to kids than their cell phones and only the good students will pay attention? Makes sense!

    Also Alisa you say this:

    ...comprehensible Input refers to language whose meaning is accessible to the student, and ideally, compelling enough for the student to interact with it again and again (to provide sufficient repetitions - so that the language can be acquired).  In the earlier proficiency levels, this language must be narrow and simple and represent the high-frequency building blocks of the language....


    So the input, then, has to be at least interesting and ideally compelling and, if it is those things, then students are likely to make it what you call "accessible". That also makes sense. It is a rather radical point of view, actually, because it implies that the student, not the teacher, determines what actually goes into their minds.

    So I hear you saying that thematic units in general, in spite of ACTFL's stance, do not lead to comprehension because the students, except for the "good" ones, will choose not to access the information presented to them. That makes sense as well!

    But what do I do for my lesson plans?

    Thank you!

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    Ben Slavic
    benslavic@yahoo.com
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  • 12.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-03-2014 19:39


    Thank you Alisa for the examples you offer as well as the commentary you provide.  Your approach comes across as being very student-centered both with regard to the interests, involvement and comprehension of your students.
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    Nathaniel Hardt
    nhardt@dcrsd.orgTeacher
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  • 13.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-03-2014 09:55
    I agree with Luann.  While it is good that the thread was started, albeit from a bit of a negative slant, there has been much good conversation and research that has been brought up.  Personally, I don't believe that any of the various pedagogical approaches and theories that have been discussed (teaching with CI, use of authres, TPRS, etc.) are mutually exclusive.  We should be working together to see how all of these work in our classes so that we see those faces on our students, as stated by Ben S. in his post.  I have read all the posts and I believe that it is important conversation, but we don't have to insist that one theory or body of research be wrong in order for the one we espouse to be right.   Wishing you all an awesome week doing the good work that you are doing! 

    Sandy   

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    Sandra Harvey
    sandy.harvey@fortbendisd.comWorld Language Coordinator
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  • 14.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-03-2014 12:34
    Sandy, you wrote "... we don't have to insist that one theory or body of research be wrong in order for the one we espouse to be right."

    I agree with you fully but feel compelled to point out that this is precisely why Mr Herman asked the original question. ACTFL, in the 21st Century Skills World Languages Map, lists ONLY "use of thematic units and authentic resources" as being used in the classroom of "Today". In the context, it certainly leads to the inference that ACTFL considers other organizing principles and materials to be wrong. As far as I can tell, no one ever said that thematic units, however defined, are wrong. The challenge or question was for a representative from ACTFL to provide access to research indicating that supports listing thematic units as the SOLE organizing principle. It was - as Mr Herman has stated repeatedly - a request for inclusion, not exclusion. ACTFL appears exclusionary, not Mr Herman or others who have asked for the research.

    Besides, the conversation is not about "right/wrong" - I am not certain why you chose those terms - but about greater and lesser effectiveness in moving all students toward fluency and proficiency in communicating through a second language. In that context, ACTFL certainly takes a position that some practices are "wrong", i.e. ineffective. Note in the Skills Map (p. 4) the comparison between "In the Past" and "Today".

    I'm glad you have found the thread valuable but wonder why you see questioning absolutist statements and asking for research to justify them as "a negative slant". I see it as a very positive step toward holding our parent organization accountable and challenging simple acceptance of what is said. Academic Rigor includes the constant testing of hypothesis and suspension of premature conclusions, as well as both sustained focus and depth and integrity of inquiry. Should we be practicing that in our professional lives as well as teaching it to our students in our classrooms?

    If you have garnered everything from this discussion that is valuable for you and do not wish to participate in it further, that is certainly your prerogative. However, there are others who continue to find it profitable and edifying. That's why they continue to post. When the thread has fully run its course, it will "die a natural death"; there is no reason to request its early demise.

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    Robert Harrell
    harrellrl@aol.com
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  • 15.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-05-2014 13:50
    Upon further reflection and reading, I find that I must change my initial reply to Ms Harvey. Actually, I don't agree fully with her.

    This group of teachers is unusual because of their willingness to engage in debate and dialogue about effective teaching. How many teachers belong to a national organization dedicated to exploring teaching methodologies and practices? How many teachers belong to a local organization dedicated to those same aims? How many teachers go to workshops, conferences and in-services and then spend time reflecting on their practices? How many teachers go beyond "covering the material in the textbook"?

    Far too often teachers fail to define their goals for teaching, and so anything that gets them through the day "works". Once we have defined our goals, then we can evaluate theories, methods, strategies, and practices in light of that goal. Some things will indeed be "wrong" because they do not further the goal, and it serves no good purpose to say otherwise.

    Having, like many teachers, been exposed to a variety of teaching methodologies, I have a basis for evaluating them in addition to what I discover from research and reports by others. If my goal is oral fluency, a method that emphasizes written output is wrong. If my goal is communicative use of the language to talk about things of interest to the learner, then a discussion of the target language in English (or whatever the native language is) is wrong. The California State Standards state this explicitly. The 21st Century Skills World Languages Map also states this by rejecting teaching from the textbook, i.e. adhering to the textbook's scope and sequence and creating a curriculum that simply moves page-by-page through the textbook.

    These methods and practices are wrong because they do not further the goal of equipping students to communicate effectively in an increasingly global society through a second language. They are also ethically wrong if I deliberately reject what I know to be the most effective method of accomplishing my goal because of fear, intimidation by others, laziness, or any of a number of other reasons.

    Does that mean that I must reject every other method or practice? No, but it means I must evaluate every method, strategy, and practice in light of how effectively it accomplishes my purpose. There are many valid reasons to change a strategy or activity, but it must be done within the parameter of furthering the goal of instruction. It also means that I cannot take the post-modernist view of "well, that may be your truth, but I'll just use whatever works for me." What do we mean by "works for me"? Makes my life easier? Satisfies my boss? Gets me through the day?

    As I wrote above, this group is unusual. Far too many teachers simply follow the textbook that was adopted by someone else and teach without reflection. Thank you for the discussion.

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    Robert Harrell
    harrellrl@aol.com
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  • 16.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-03-2014 20:19
    I agree, Luann, that we can become exhausted by the topic.  But if Krashen and others are correct in their claim that there is only one way to learn a language, viz., through comprehensible input, then it follows that comprehensible input is not a topic from which we can move on.  If it is only through understanding spoken messages (and, consequently, written messages) that we acquire language, then we can never stray from source of acquisition.  In fact, our whole professional duty becomes one of understand what comprehensible input really is and how we make that a reality on a daily basis in our classroom.  If comprehensible input is all that we can provide for acquisition, then it behooves us to stay focused on this target.  

    The ACTFL position paper on Use of the Target Language in the Classroom does not let us walk away from this topic.  Rather, it challenges us to provide "maximum target-language use" (input) coupled with comprehension of that input.  Let us work together to stay on topic.

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    Nathaniel Hardt
    nhardt@dcrsd.orgTeacher
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  • 17.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-05-2014 02:40
    I think that these questions are in urgent need of further discussion since certain teaching approaches are being touted as the only ones with official approval. The underlying problems are manifold.

    We do not really have a testable way to define "acquisition" of a language (OPI testing suggests, for example,  that certain structures can be mastered with easy enough context etc., but may be 'lost' in speech acts and topics that are above the proficiency level of the person being interviewed). We also have not had a discussion in recent years whether "acquisition" without critical insights into a language is really to only goal of language instruction. The 5 Cs suggest not, but the 90% rule might not square with the 5 Cs as an instructional method.

    We do not have a testable way to determine what "comprehensible input" is and to whom it is comprehensible and the degree to which it is comprehensible. While the concept itself is extremely attractive (who could possibly want incomprehensible input in principle??) and a definite advance over notions of blind pattern-drilling in the 1960s, the details of comprehensiblity are quite vague.

    We have really no evidence that "authentic texts" are really the optimal way of teaching a language (and the wide use of baby talk, graded readers, etc. for native speakers strongly suggest that first-language learners are not fed with "authentic texts", but instead are given authentic communication which is adjusted to the emerging proficiency of a budding native speaker). "Authentic texts" for beginners are almost automatically the opposite of authentic communication since they usually do not directly speak to over-aged language learners from a different language. The goal is for students to engage with authentic texts either as participants or observers, but as far as I can see there is no real proof that the goal and the way to that goal need to be identical. If our students engage in real communication with native speakers, the natives will not speak 'authentically' but simplify their language to a point where they think our students will understand them (or they switch to English right away).

    We do not know how we can motivate all students in a class at the same time and even less so how we could motivate all students in a scientifically proven way. There will be huge differences between what students and teachers will find mutually interesting and instructive and each teacher will have to find things that motivate his/her students. We can be pretty sure that comprehensible input will be more motivating than the incomprehensible variety. We can also be sure that it will be more motivating and effective than traditional grammar instruction.

    I will stop here, lest this become too long, but end with the general observation that any scientific study has to control for its variables, while a teaching situation always has innumerable variables in place so that any of the scientific truths may be completely drowned out by the noise of the individual situation. This is the reason why teaching is an art and not a science, and it behooves us as a profession to acknowledge this and not promulgate as iron-clad truths ideas which cannot by their very nature be iron-clad.

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    Eckhard Kuhn-osius
    ekuhnos@hunter.cuny.edu
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  • 18.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-05-2014 19:25
    I wish to thank Dr. Kuhn-Osius for his insightful comments. Certain teaching approaches are indeed touted as the only ones with official approval, and any given approach assumes and implies an underlying methodology, unless the approach is to grab strategies and practices willy-nilly from hither, thither, and yon - but I doubt that anyone would advocate such an approach. I believe we, as professionals, need to hold two things in tension. On the one hand, we need to be sufficiently informed about research, methods, practices, etc. to be convinced (not just opinionated) that what we do in our classrooms represent the best practices of which we are capable. On the other hand, we need to hold that conviction loosely enough to abandon it when someone shows us the evidence of something more effective.

    Unless Dr. Kuhn-Osius has posted in the other thread, I am going to consider his comments sufficiently public to copy and paste some of them into the thread about authentic resources. That thread is available here -
    http://community.actfl.org/communities/viewdiscussions/viewthread/?GroupId=439&MessageKey=9f740d6a-8223-4bf4-b0ad-7aeb20a553ae

    I once again thank Dr. Kuhn-Osius for his contribution to the discussion.

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    Robert Harrell
    harrellrl@aol.com
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  • 19.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-07-2014 12:13

    Thank you this reminder about ACTFL's message, Mr. Hardt:

     ...[ACTFL] challenges us to provide "maximum target-language use" (input) coupled with comprehension of that input.  Let us work together to stay on topic....

    In my view, a large part of the frustration felt in the recent vibrant threads here (finally!) may in fact be described as resulting from a distinction between an organizing principle and an approach. Robert Harrell made that distinction in the past week and anyone serious about language teaching would do well to read it, since it reveals a gross, even egregious professional error by most language teachers:

    ...an example of incongruity between the organizing principle and the approach would be to claim to Teach with Comprehensible Input but organize the course according to a grammar syllabus....

    Harrell continues:

    ...many teachers and educators use the analogy of "choosing the right tool from the toolbox". This is a useful analogy if we understand the limitations. Unfortunately most teachers use this analogy to mean that they feel free to borrow and use whatever practice or strategy looks inviting to them without regard for the method or approach to which it belongs. If we extend the analogy a bit, they are taking tools from a completely different toolbox. It is like taking tools from a plumber's toolbox to do surgery. Could there be something useful to the surgeon in the plumber's toolbox? Potentially (after all, surgeons sometimes use pen cases to do a tracheotomy in extreme situations), but isn't it much better to use the tools in the surgeon's toolbox to do the surgeon's job? Borrowing practices and strategies from another method or approach is similar. Sure, there may be some ability to adapt them, but wouldn't it be better to use the tools designed for the job? I fear that the "eclectic approach" generally results in a hodgepodge or jumble of quickly successive practices that lack cohesion....

    This non-alignment described by Harrell, this inability to use the right tool (comprehensible input) for the right job (teaching languages), is slowly making its way into the consciousness of some language teachers now in 2014, but it remains largely buried under a massive pool of educational sludge that has been sitting on top of our profession for over a hundred years, one very connected to the textbook and to the idea that people can learn a language by thinking about it hard enough or by speaking it often enough. So the clean-up will not be fast and easy. No amount of surveys from Bill Gates or the ACTFL leadership will bring the changes needed - it will be a grassroots movement from the bottom up and it will happen from teacher to teacher.

    Chris Stolz, in commenting on Harrell's article, adds:

    ...we must remember one thing about APPROACH and what Robert called "the toolbox": not every approach/tool works in every subject....

    Stolz continues:

    ...you CANNOT learn basketball by watching it: goal = process.  You CANNOT learn a language by speaking it: goal does not equal process.  Direct feedback to a kid in an English class about writing will improve it; all the language feedback in the world will not and cannot change what happens with language acquisition.  Jigsaws and peer teaching are superb tools for a novel study, or a social studies unit on the Romans, and absolutely useless in languages....

    When Stolz says that you cannot learn a language by speaking it, he shuffles the deck on many teachers. He knows that input must precede output by many thousands of hours if one is to in fact master a language. He knows that working on input in the form of listening and reading for thousands of hours before expecting any quality speech or writing output to emerge is now a fact in our work and one that is finally just beginning to get proper attention. What Stolz outlines in the second paragraph of his comment above is true and changes everything for language teachers.



     



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    Ben Slavic
    benslavic@yahoo.com
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  • 20.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-05-2014 11:50
    In his original post Eric Herman mentions the idea of a language class being "easy."  This entire discussion on Teaching with Comprehensible Input hinges on this idea in my view.  To offer another response to Eric's original question, Comprehensible Input equals "easy" language learning.

    Eric says, "In fact, if we were truly teaching with CI and truly trying to reach all of our students, then ALL kids would say that class was easy (...)."

    Not to divert from the question of the original post, but a secondary question might be:  Should our classes feel easy for our students?  Robert Harrell offered definitions of "Comprehensible" and "Input" -and we see that even these two words themselves can be defined in more than one way (And the very fact that we are having this discussion implies that we all might have different ideas of what Comprehensible Input even looks like in the classroom).  But if we take "Comprehensible" to mean that students understand the majority (around 90%) of any given input, we can say that Comprehensible Input  is "Easy Input."  Should I be worried, delighted, or something else my students feel that my class is easy?  Of course I would not want a student to feel that they are not learning in my class, but if language acquisition is happening in my class, is it not a sign of acquisition success if a student feels like the language I teach is "easy"?

    In my experience thus far in language teaching (almost four years in six different public schools in the U.S. and France), I have spoken with several colleagues who pride themselves on having "hard" classes, especially at the upper levels.  For many of my colleagues I learned that "hard" means they require students to keep up with a large and constant stream of new vocabulary which they are assessed on.  For others, I learned that "hard"  refers to the level of grammatical, pronunciation, spelling, and other types of accuracy taken into account for grading. 

    If our goal in the classroom is mutual understanding with a lowered affective filter (which is one result of high comprehension), shouldn't language teachers pride themselves on having "easy" classes?  Acquiring a language for most people is a time-intensive process, but should this process not feel easy?  Comprehensible Input is "Easy Input"  or, maybe more accurately, "Easy-Feeling Input."

    Greg Stout, French teacher




  • 21.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-08-2014 16:50

    Thank you for taking the time, language educators, to dialogue on the question, "How do we make input comprehensible for our students?"

    Greg expands on the idea that Comprehensible Input makes learning easy in the foreign language classroom.  I like that.  I thought I'd build off that idea.

    If I use a word or word chunk in the TL in my classroom of which I have not established meaning (i.e., written the word on the board, translated through writing and verbally, shared a gesture or sign language for that word, and asked students to try to sound out the word with emotional effect) than I can't expect that word or word chunk to be comprehensible for the student.  Right?  

    Now, we have cognates that we may not need to establish meaning for, and we have little words (for the lack of a better term) that we may not need to establish meaning for - e.g., I may use a reflexive pronoun while in a conversation with students alongside a verb that they already have intimate familiarity with, but not fuss with establishing meaning of that reflexive pronoun until we read that reflexive pronoun in a passage (mini-story) and translate that passage together.

    That said, it takes training and discipline as a teacher to stay in-bounds and make the TL comprehensible for their students.  It is what we have to do.  Contrary to what others have said in this thread, I don't see how I could ever be exhausted with finding ways to teach comprehensible input.  My students' ability to acquire the TL depends on it.

    If my students say that learning Spanish (my TL) is easy in my class AND they are showing me strong interpersonal communication skills including; good posture, clear eyes, responding non-verbally, and responding verbally (starting with answering yes/no questions), then I know that the TL is settling in, nestling, getting cozy on the sofa next to the fire in that space we call the unconscious, where language acquisition occurs.  I want my students to say that learning Spanish is easy in my class.

    I also know that a student who demonstrates strong interpersonal communication skills won't say that learning Spanish in my class is easy unless I make the input comprehensible and compelling.  Making input comprehensible and compelling is not an easy task.  Yet, it is not a complicated task.

    So, no.  I won't tire of learning from and learning with others how to teach comprehensible input.  Thank you all who have helped me along the way.  I wish I could turn to ACTFL more for help in this regard.  The 90% in the target language position statement and the articulation of interpersonal communication skills has been helpful.  But we need more from ACTFL on how to help us teach comprehensible input.

    Thanks for reading!

    Sean Lawler
    Spanish teacher
    ChicagoQuest HS
    Chicago, IL.



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    Sean Lawler
    seanmichaellawler@gmail.comSpanish Teacher
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  • 22.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-09-2014 12:20

    I would like to respond to Engracia Schuster's comments, in the hopes of her clarifying one of her ideas.  I appreciate her response to Eric Herman's original question.  She says that "it is not a matter of which methodology to implement, rather understanding how language learners learn."  Indeed.  Ideally, any language teacher would organize their instruction based on what is most beneficial for students' language acquisition, not based on his/her own preference of methodology. 

    My confusion comes from Ms. Schuster's comment on how she thinks a language teacher could best organize instruction.  She says that after "facilitators briefly introduce topics, vocabulary and grammar not in isolation..." students then do "activities that require learners to research further, practice, think, collaborate and add information for the purpose of establishing meaningful communication..."

    The title and central question of this thread is "What is Comprehensible Input really?"  So, my question for Ms. Schuster is, in which part of the instruction she describes do students receive Comprehensible Input?  It sounds like the students' attention is on the "facilitator" only briefly before they are directed to "activities".  What is the facilitator presenting?  If he/she only "briefly introduce[s] topics, vocabulary, and grammar", I don't understand how this could be a significant source of Comprehensible Input.  If there is extended TL conversation with the students on the given topic, I see how this could be Comprehensible Input.  However, "vocabulary and grammar", even if presented in the TL, are not Comprehensible Input if we understand Comprehensible Input to consist of messages that the learner understands.  Vocabulary and grammar are merely vehicles for a message.  Vocabulary and grammar, even if understood by learners in the TL, are not Comprehensible Input, unless they are embedded in messages.

    Also, I wonder how Ms. Schuster ensures that Comprehensible Input continues when the students are directed to the mentioned "activities."  Or does it continue?  What are the students researching further?  What are some examples of what they are practicing?  Is their collaboration done with fellow learners and, if so, is it done in the TL?  Even if the students are collaborating with each other in the TL, doesn't this create a situation where they merely get repetitions of Input they have already received (this would not be harmful, I simply wonder to what "collaboration" refers)?  I.e., language learners cannot possibly generate new TL that they haven't yet acquired.

    To summarize my above questions to Ms. Schuster, where exactly does the Comprehensible Input happen in your classroom, and how do you ensure 1) that your students understand the TL and 2) that they get a sufficient amount of repetitions for acquisition to happen?  I wholeheartedly agree that students should be actively, not passively, involved in the classroom, but I would like to know how you recommend facilitating this while simultaneously ensuring that students receive a steady flow of Comprehensible Input. 

    I look forward to maybe reading some examples of how you provide Comprehensible Input in a student- (not teacher-) centered classroom.

    Thank you for your participation in this question that is crucial to students' success and the advancement of our profession.  Thanks also in advance for your response to my questions. 

     Greg Stout, French teacher 


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    Gregory Stout
    gregoryastout@gmail.com
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  • 23.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-10-2014 08:51

    Hello Gregory, and many thanks for your questions and the opportunity to clarify my position.  I apologize in advance for my long response.  I will begin by pointing out that there have been three related messages/threads in this blog:  "What is comprehensible input?",  "Why thematic units, why authentic resources" and "Share your authentic resources opinion".   I have found valuable research cited as well as experience shared in all three threads.  I will also add that I teach at the college level (elementary and intermediate Spanish) and my needs may be different from those who teach young children.  My focus is on advancing students' learning (language and culture) and doing so in the most interesting, effective and efficient manner, given the amount of material to be covered and the tight time constraints.  I have had many failures and successes and, after more than 20 years teaching Spanish, have come to the conclusion that the only way to teach culture is by integrating it in the language learning process as much as possible (most efficient way).  That said input is then extremely important, of course.  I do not dispute the value of reading entire novels and watching movies in language learning.  Besides immersing yourself in the target culture, these are the best ways for the motivated learner to learn a language and understand a culture.  On the other hand, my students do not have the luxury of time to read novels or watch movies in class.  Whether the content of an "authentic" novel or movie is "easy" (comprehensible) or not, we do not have the time in class and it is difficult to keep all students engaged (I prefer to refer to students as learners, but I will continue referring to them as students for practical purposes now).  Another problem I have faced is the textbook.  I use textbooks because students need a reference for consultation and to study from.  In my opinion, though, most textbooks are too inductive.  They are written more like lesson plans for the instructor than from the student's perspective.   In fact, they do not provide enough "comprehensible input" and, if they do, it is seldom connected to the language learning process.  Often language and culture are presented as two separate sections of a chapter or unit. They should not be.  By culture I mean engaging context.  Context should strive to always be engaging and often be "authentic" (inclusive of the foreign products, practices and perspectives).  It should also be "comprehensible" and, in my opinion, challenging.  I envision textbooks having two components:  the teacher's instruction book (not annotated on the margins but specially designed for instructors) and the student's manual.  The student's manual should include the strictly necessary grammar and vocabulary, lots of input opportunities, and lots of activities that require students to think critically about the language and culture(s) being learned, integrate the target vocabulary, grammar and culture per chapter, and provide opportunities to perform a function, or functions, in the target language and in culturally appropriate settings. 

    Now to your main question,  "... in which part of the instruction she describes do students receive Comprehensible input?"  My short answer is ... always!   As I speak to my students in Spanish, require they ask questions in Spanish, present material in Spanish, provide learning activities in Spanish, require they research in Spanish, write about their research in Spanish and share their findings with their classmates in Spanish input is always present.  It is made comprehensible by keeping it at the right level of the students' functional ability (our job as teachers is to know what the right level is and where we must take them from there).  

    Now comes my longer answer.  In the absence of time in the classroom environment, brief introductions to topics may be my own short lecture, a videoclip, a short story or reading, a song and more (as "authentic" as possible).  These are the topics or themes I imbed throughout a unit of language study.  Throughout that unit the theme or topic is always present, making sure the basic vocabulary presented in the unit is simply a springboard for further learning, not a list of vocabulary they must memorize and regurgitate.  I also make sure the grammar presented is not done so in isolation, but we recycle past grammar at all times, connect it to new grammar points and practice the new grammar points.   I try to take advantage also of the opportunities to bring other grammar points not in the unit when the opportunities arise (are brought up by students).    Input in class is connected to output (also a springboard to output).  Students learn best by doing.  We introduce, we model, we ask students to produce...  The classroom may be the only opportunity for many of our students to practice the language and I make sure they do.  If I take too much time with input then they are not producing enough.  But, we said "comprehensible" input was important. I agree and we need to strike a balance.  Homework is usually done individually (at least at the college level).  I give two kinds of homework weekly.  One is input to output driven, the other is skill building.  We know what skill building looks like, mostly taken from the textbook or workbook.  The trick is creating the other type of activities (so far mostly not present in textbooks or workbooks).  That is, creating engaging (learner-centered) activities that promote further research and output (I would have said communication, but both input and output are components of communication).  The secret to a successful outcome for these types of activities is carefully thinking about how the activity fits in the entire learning process (learning outcomes and objectives) as well as giving very clear and specific instructions to students.  It would be impossible to provide much detail here (this post is already longer than my book!).  Here is a simplified version of what such an activity (or series of related activities) may look like:

    1.  Introduce the topic of topics in class (input - see examples above). I like this to take no more than 20 minutes.
    2. Practice any specific related language (vocabulary, grammar...).
    3. Provide clear instructions for students tofollow-up (homework) activities.  These include:
      • Further research the topic (provide additional opportunities for comprehensible input).  Depending on the nature of the research, the language level of proficiency of the students, their age, and interests we will direct them to (mostly online) magazines or newspapers, videos, movies, music sites, Spanish television and more.  They can also find native speakers to interview.  Would you agree with me these examples provides additional comprehensible input.
      • Students then summarize their findings in Spanish (usually up to one page) and provide, if needed, supporting documents such as list of sources, pictures, or other.
      • Students prepare to present in class. 
    4. Presentation in class - Once again, there is no time for each student to individually present every week on the topic researched.  I solve this problem by spending 15-20 minutes weekly in a round table setting, where students exchange their research, ideas and opinions.  I have very specific questions I ask at that time, it is not a simple report session.
    5. Assess results - I assess the particular activity with a rubric that includes all of the components (research, quality of writing and of the written presentation, quality of speaking and whether they ask questions to other students....).  Further assessment would include an additional (related) functional activity that requires some kind of problem-solving or dialog with another, or other students).

    I have not cited any research, others have done that.  I am speaking mostly from my own experience and I am happy to share it with you.  I may have forgotten something important but, in sum, comprehensible input is not only possible in a controlled environment and does not necessarily need to be extensive (but it is in everything we do), it can take place also outside of the classroom.  Comprehensible input is most effective (and I would say efficient) when it is of interest to students and it is connected to output.  In my opinion, quality is more important that quantity.  Should it be "authentic"?  Not necessarily as far as I am concerned, but it should authentically reflect the target culture(s).  Please do not hesitate to ask further questions, or let me know if I did not answer your question or questions. 



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    Engracia Schuster, author "Critical Thinking in Language Learning"
    schustee@sunyocc.edu
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  • 24.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-11-2014 00:01
    Hi Engracia,

    Thank you for your thorough answer. I do not see any reason to apologize for answering Greg's questions fully. Your answer leads to a few questions on my part.

    1. You wrote that you teach elementary and intermediate Spanish at the college level. Are your elementary learners true beginners? If so, how do you begin with them (first day, first hour) to bring them to the point they are able to use the outside resources independently, and how long does it take you to do that? Each year I wrestle with the best way to move learners from "I can say 'Bratwurst'" [pronounced with a broad American accent: Brat worst] to using German for communication.

    2. When you explain grammar (I really like that you address address questions as students pose them and that your classroom is open enough for them to feel comfortable asking), do you do so in Spanish? How do you ensure it is comprehensible and comprehended - and how difficult do you find it to do this? After 20 years experience, you may now find it pretty easy, but did you have much of a learning curve of your own to accomplish this?

    3. While I certainly agree that online resources can be comprehensible, how do you ensure that the resources are in fact comprehended? How long did it take you to find, gather, organize, and evaluate them? I'm sure you continue to find new resources and integrate them into your course, so maybe you could estimate how long it took to establish a foundational corpus of resources.

    4. Given your (very valid) critique of textbooks and your comment about this post being longer than your book, did you write your own textbook? (Or was that a reference to "Critical Thinking in Language Learning"?) Instructors at the college and university level generally have greater freedom of choice when it comes to a textbook and other materials than do public school teachers, whether elementary, middle school, or high school. If you wrote your own textbook, how did you organize it and what did you include in it? If you are using a textbook from a major publisher, how do you adapt it for various factors such as order of acquisition, necessity of comprehensible input, and contextualization?

    5. Learner language, especially at the Novice level, is likely to contain numerous errors in grammar, syntax, pronunciation, etc. Do you have concerns that having students give significant amounts of output will reinforce errors through repetition? If not, what is your view about why not? If so, what do you do to counteract that?

    6. When I was in college and graduate school, much study was indeed done alone. However, some of the most fruitful study was in study groups or just getting together with friends and working on the same course. Do you encourage your students to pursue this as an option?

    7. Would you describe your course format as "flipped" (or "blended"), to use the current buzz word?

    Sorry for jumping about on the questions and for having so many. If you don't have time to respond fully, I certainly understand. At least a couple of comments would be greatly appreciated

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    Robert Harrell
    harrellrl@aol.com
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  • 25.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-11-2014 08:33

    Good morning, Greg!

    I appreciate your interest and questions and will address each of your questions briefly below in italic:

    1. You wrote that you teach elementary and intermediate Spanish at the college level. Are your elementary learners true beginners? Most of my experiments with this approach are with advanced beginner and intermediate students, but I do have my true beginners also research culture from the start in the target language.  It is good to expose students to the target language.  They actually realize they understand more than they thought they would and feel good about it.  The assignments are very easy at first (titles of current events, biographies of famous people...).  If so, how do you begin with them (first day, first hour) to bring them to the point they are able to use the outside resources independently, and how long does it take you to do that? I am not sure I understand the question.  The very first day of classes (for true beginners) I give an overall introduction to Spanish-speaking cultures and world languages in English, but I go on to teaching how to introduce each other in Spanish and they do.  Next is teaching them how to ask for help in Spanish and so on.  Each year I wrestle with the best way to move learners from "I can say 'Bratwurst'" [pronounced with a broad American accent: Brat worst] to using German for communication.  I never teach vocabulary in isolation.  I introduce vocabulary and grammar,  and immediately start creating sentences, or simple questions and answers.  If the sentences are personalized (not memorized textbook sentences) and/or accompanied by pictures the better.  When introducing a second language they already have a first language as a reference, so it is not starting at 0, we can make comparisons between both languages.

    2. When you explain grammar (I really like that you address address questions as students pose them and that your classroom is open enough for them to feel comfortable asking), do you do so in Spanish? I try, but if it is a difficult concept and too advanced for their level of language proficiency, I may repeat in English or provide examples in both, English and Spanish (again comparing both languages).  How do you ensure it is comprehensible and comprehended - and how difficult do you find it to do this? After 20 years experience, you may now find it pretty easy, but did you have much of a learning curve of your own to accomplish this? My students' reactions guide me.  If they look at me like I have two heads, I change my approach. I repeat or provide more examples.  If they seem to understand I ask them to practice to double check and work on fine-tuning.  Then move on.  I don't strive for "mastery" but for constant improvement.  I want my students to feel comfortable trying and making mistakes.  I usually thank them when they make a mistake that provides an opportunity for me to explain something.  Then we practice the right way.  As I stated in my previous message, I take advantage of opportunities.  This semester my students have been wrestling with the reflexive verbs (they always find them difficult) until in one of my classes a student was trying to tell us a friend got drunk last weekend (practicing preterit).  She didn't know the verb in Spanish and I explained it was "emborracharse", a reflexive verb. Suddenly, all students became interested in reflexive verbs and understood the concept (whatever works!).  I would never have taught that particular verb, but used the fact that I had the students' attention to quickly go over reflexive verbs.

    3. While I certainly agree that online resources can be comprehensible, how do you ensure that the resources are in fact comprehended? How long did it take you to find, gather, organize, and evaluate them? I'm sure you continue to find new resources and integrate them into your course, so maybe you could estimate how long it took to establish a foundational corpus of resources.  I select a few sites that I feel have simple Spanish language and are safe.  For example, es.wikipedia (Wikipedia in Spanish).  It is very easy language, short readings, mostly accurate information.  Other good sites for starters are department store sites (to view the products offered in other countries), official tourist office sites, and so on.  For news, BBC in Spanish is great.  Start with titles, continue with sports or music or art, and so on.... I am more careful with other sites, such as YouTube.  I constantly look for new and appropriate videos.  For listening activities I do use the textbook activities often, adding music, videos, short stories and other depending on the level, the topic, and time.  Students need to bring a summary of what they have comprehended.  I don't ask them to write extensively and I am flexible.  Sometimes they copy directly from the site (I don't allow the entire report copied) but that is good language they are copying.  I ask students to skim over the information and answer some guiding questions (generic for that particular assignment).  I tell them my questions are just that, guiding questions, and that they can do more or less depending on what they find out and what they can handle.  This week my (advanced beginner) students did a report on a famous historic figure.  Each student had a different Spanish-speaking country.  Their reports were brief, but the information was great and provided another teachable moment for me.  One student spoke of Atahualpa, another of Queen Isabella of Spain and another of Simón Bolívar (among others).  In a few minutes, following their reports, I explained (in Spanish) the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the fall of the Inca Empire, and the wars of Independence in Latin America.  I kept it simple.  They were so proud to have contributed the basis to such an interesting discussion!  I thanked them for the opportunity also.... 

    4. Given your (very valid) critique of textbooks and your comment about this post being longer than your book, did you write your own textbook? (Or was that a reference to "Critical Thinking in Language Learning"?) I did not write a textbook, I was referring to my first (and very brief) "Critical Thinking in Language Learning" book.  Instructors at the college and university level generally have greater freedom of choice when it comes to a textbook and other materials than do public school teachers, whether elementary, middle school, or high school. If you wrote your own textbook, how did you organize it and what did you include in it? If you are using a textbook from a major publisher, how do you adapt it for various factors such as order of acquisition, necessity of comprehensible input, and contextualization?  I adapt to the textbook we have selected as a department (the ideal textbook simply does not exist). I start each unit with the culture (mostly tacked in the end of most units), give students a small related project (research to writing to speaking) as follow-up and continue with the lesson.  I always try to integrate the culture into the language activities and make personalize them also as much as possible.  Students do many of the book or workbook activities at home (drills). 

    5. Learner language, especially at the Novice level, is likely to contain numerous errors in grammar, syntax, pronunciation, etc. Do you have concerns that having students give significant amounts of output will reinforce errors through repetition? If not, what is your view about why not? If so, what do you do to counteract that?  I am not concerned at all.  I do believe in correcting students as they speak (some teachers do not), but do this in a non-threatening manner.  I explain these are typical errors at that stage of the language learning process and what the correct way is.  I believe students need to feel free and motivated to try. When they realize they can communicate in another language they like it and keep trying.  For the most part it works.  Some students need more structure and reinforcement and I work with them, but I don't feel holding the entire class hostage to boring drills is fair.

    6. When I was in college and graduate school, much study was indeed done alone. However, some of the most fruitful study was in study groups or just getting together with friends and working on the same course. Do you encourage your students to pursue this as an option?  Absolutely!  My students naturally do work together, or sometimes I ask them to do some research together particularly if they share an interest.  Mine is mostly a commuter school, so group work outside of class is not always feasible.   They work together primarily to practice speaking, but I prefer they do the research and writing individually so that they concentrate on what they are doing and learn from the activity, not from other students at that point.  We do a lot of pair and group work in class, students get to know each other well and are comfortable with each other.

    7. Would you describe your course format as "flipped" (or "blended"), to use the current buzz word?  Yes, I believe my class resembles more a "flipped" class.  While they do some writing at home (results on their research) they also write a lot in class (not long composition, there is no time).  The reason being that in class they cannot use translators, or have a friend do the writing for them.  Some students are shocked when I first ask them to write a few sentences right in class, they can't hide!  They are used to having to speak in Spanish from day one also. I guess they get over the shock the first day.  They become comfortable speaking to each other in Spanish and I try not to put them on the spot (in front of the entire class), unless it is a skit or play and they agree to do it. 

    Sorry for jumping about on the questions and for having so many. If you don't have time to respond fully, I certainly understand. At least a couple of comments would be greatly appreciated  My pleasure! I certainly do not have the answer to the many challenges we all face as foreign language teachers. I am simply sharing some approaches I feel have worked for me. 



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    Engracia Schuster
    schustee@sunyocc.edu
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  • 26.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-11-2014 11:30

    Like children talking through tin cans tied together with string, we continue to have poor communication around these publicly stated recommendations by ACTFL:​

    1. the use of thematic resources in the WL classroom.
    2. the use of authentic resources in the WL classroom.
    3. the use of comprehensible input in the WL classroom.
    4. the use of the TL in the classroom.

    An upgrade is in order so that we can better communicate on these topics. The discussion needs to be less muddled. Too many teachers are involved now, and many are confused, and if the teachers are confused, so will their students be.

    Specifically, we need clarification from ACTFL on these questions:

    1. Will ACTFL continue to advocate solely for the use of thematic units as an organizing principle in foreign language classrooms in America?
    2. Does the recommendation that teachers use authentic texts in the way described in the ACTFL literature still stand, in consideration of recent discussion on this list?
    3. Is it possible to agree on a definition of what comprehensible input is and what it is not? It has become clear in recent weeks that definitions of this key term vary widely among members of this group.
    4. In the same way and closely linked to the question about what comprehensible iput actually means as a pedagogical term, ACTFL's recommendation that we use the TL in our classrooms 90% of the time can be interpreted in varying ways. Thus, it also needs clarification.

    The professionals listed below  are charged with leading ACTFL forward into this new century of change, and  they, as the ACTFL leadership, are asked to respond to the questions raised above. We all need to get back to our teaching and spend less time here jousting about the recommended foundational principles on which our language instruction lies. It's time for that to happen. Too many students are being indirectly affected by the existing confusion.

    Marty Abbott
    Executive Director

    Paul Sandrock
    Director of Education
     
    Elvira Swender
    Director of Professional Programs

    Andrew Amadei
    Training & Certification Coordinator

    Amanda Cynkin
    Assessment Development Coordinator

    Tony Unander
    Media Coordinator
     
    Lori Haims
    Senior Manager of Training and Certification

    Yesenia Olivares
    Quality Assurance Coordinator

    Michelle Paradies
    Project Manager

    It is suggested that among this list we contact in particular Paul Sandrock, Elvira Swender and Amanda Cynkin, since their job descriptions seem to most align with our four questions. To contact any of the people in this list by email, the reader is invited to go to:

    http://www.actfl.org/about-the-american-council-the-teaching-foreign-languages/staff-directory

     



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    Ben Slavic
    benslavic@yahoo.com
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  • 27.  RE: What is Comprehensible Input really?

    Posted 11-13-2014 09:35

    Slavic writes:

    "An upgrade is in order so that we can better communicate on these topics. The discussion needs to be less muddled. Too many teachers are involved now, and many are confused, and if the teachers are confused, so will their students be."

    So, if teachers don't agree with you they are confused? Too many voices? Really?

    Slavic writes:

    "Specifically, we need clarification from ACTFL on these questions:

    1. Will ACTFL continue to advocate solely for the use of thematic units as an organizing principle in foreign language classrooms in America?
    2. Does the recommendation that teachers use authentic texts in the way described in the ACTFL literature still stand, in consideration of recent discussion on this list?
    3. Is it possible to agree on a definition of what comprehensible input is and what it is not? It has become clear in recent weeks that definitions of this key term vary widely among members of this group.
    4. In the same way and closely linked to the question about what comprehensible input actually means as a pedagogical term, ACTFL's recommendation that we use the TL in our classrooms 90% of the time can be interpreted in varying ways. Thus, it also needs clarification."

    As an actual member of ACTFL, I hope their answers are as follows:

    1. Yes. There's no compelling evidence to change and compelling and current evidence has been proffered to support it.

    2. Yes.  I've been to many sessions on how to do this skillfully, even at beginning levels. Using authentic documents not only provides content about which to communicate, but also provides an instant cultural context - a two-for-one!

    3.  Apparently not. Most of us "get" what i+1 means.  It's not 100%.  Translation is not necessary to guarantee comprehensibility.

    4.  The lengthy explanation of the rationale for the 90% recommendation on the ACTFL website is sufficient and 100% comprehensible.

    Slavic writes:

    "We all need to get back to our teaching and spend less time here jousting about the recommended foundational principles on which our language instruction lies. It's time for that to happen. Too many students are being indirectly affected by the existing confusion."

    Given the paucity of replies, I wager that most have already gone back to their teaching because "jousting" at the straw men you and others continue to raise is tedious and fruitless.  Using the ACTFL Listserv to attempt to bully and badger people into validating your beliefs (through an organization many of you don't even support) is offensive and counterproductive.  There is no confusion. Students are well-served by teachers who embrace proven "best practices" of communicative language teaching. The new NCSSFL/ACTFL Can Do Statements reflect the latest evolution and refinement in how we can more effectively build ongoing growth in proficiency for all learners.   Disclaimer: I am not peddling "how to" manuals, workshop tickets or controlled vocabulary readers.



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    Bill Heller
    heller@geneseo.edu
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