Assumptions & Definitions: Establishing Meaning

1) Our goal is acquisition with the purpose of reading [Latin].
2) Comprehensible Input (CI) is necessary for acquisition.
3) Teaching with CI means providing understandable messages in [Latin].
4) Receiving understandable messages as a student means listening and reading—not being forced to speak [Latin]. N.B. Single word/phrase responses are not considered “forced speech.”

This was the opening slide to my recent CANE presentation on how to continue Teaching with CI after discovering it, largely influenced by the 13-post series on a CI Program Checklist containing many resources and support materials for people just getting into this way of teaching. #3 above deserves more attention. How do we actually make something understandable?

Establish Meaning
One of the most common topics in language teaching is “doing X in order to remain in the target language.” Note, however, that this pursuit doesn’t have to apply to establishing meaning. The only time you MUST remain in the target language during establishing meaning is when there is no shared language (i.e. teaching English to Korean speakers and you don’t know Korean), but there are other strategies for that, anyway. Teachers misinterpret that ACTFL recommendation of 90% target language use to mean “avoid native language at all cost.” This is a grave error given how little time we have in the classroom. Establishing meaning is not a guessing game. Guessing is an extremely inefficient use of instructional time. That kind of inference is a useful skill AFTER acquiring some language, not DURING the acquisition process itself. We establish meaning in order to make something understandable as quickly as possible so that students can then hear and read it in context (= Comprehensible Input). Here are ways to establish meaning of words/phrases:

1) Write the target language on the board, and an English equivalent below/beside.
2) Show a super-clear* image along with the target language.
3) Show a super-clear* physical item.
4) Use a super-clear* gesture.
5) Use a super-clear* synonym/antonym.
6) Mike Peto’s “béisbol” routine (if the word is a cognate).

*Super-clear might be hard to define. Presenting an image of just a football along with “harpastum” is probably a sure bet that the student will understand its meaning in Latin. An image of a tree that happens to have foliage and a bird on a branch surrounded by grass isn’t so clear…there’s too much left to chance that a student will misinterpret the meaning of the new word. Establishing meaning of more abstract ideas rather than just objects complicates things further. The same holds true with a gesture for a verb of motion…does the word mean just “goes,” or does it mean a specific type of movement, like “walks?” Many strategies come close, and might even be reliable, but the only way to be sure is with an English equivalent. After his own experience as a participant of a TPRS demo in Mandarin, Stephen Krashen has come around to supporting increased use of English in the classroom in order to establish meaning and acquire the target language. If it’s good enough for Stephen, it’s good enough for me.

Other ways to establish meaning fall a bit flat, like listing examples, miming, or defining, like in the Oerbergian strategy of explaining a new word by defining it with others found in previous chapters of Lingua Latīna Per Sē Illustrāta (LLPSI). This is helpful for the autodidact, but otherwise takes too long in a CI classroom. Even then, there are often questions from those learning Latin on their own that illustrate how easily someone can misinterpret a word’s meaning if ONLY the target language and images, such as in LLPSI, are used to establish meaning. When given the choice, err on the side of zero room for misinterpretation.

In a recent comment elsewhere , Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell criticized how the use of English to establish meaning has been appropriated by certain teachers, and touted as the only way to get the job done. It certainly isn’t the only way, but nothing is more efficient. She defended her own strategies on the basis of having a different purpose of a less-efficient process to establish meaning. That longer process might contribute to some development, but who knows. I certainly am not going to take that chance. Make It Stick is her resource, which basically expands the “struggling vine” concept of depriving the vineyard of adequate water which, in turn, creates a tastier grape through the fruit “working” to thrive. I do believe this works for most content areas, but I don’t believe that students acquire language by working hard. If you do, check out that book.

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One thought on “Assumptions & Definitions: Establishing Meaning

  1. Pingback: Kuhner’s 9 Vocabulary Strategies: Not for Establishing Meaning | Magister P.

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