Establishing Meaning: Confusion

Step 1 of TPRS is “establish meaning” to show what a word/phrase means in the target language (TL) before using it to co-create a story. The most efficient and effective way to do this is by using a native language (L1) common to all students (e.g. “fēlēs means cat“). In TPRS, we write the TL on the board, underline it, then write the L1 below in a different color. We refer to this throughout class by pointing and pausing.

Establishing meaning is also Step 1 for anyone providing comprehensible input (CI), regardless of the method or strategy.

If this step doesn’t occur, teachers are providing input (I) that might not be comprehensible (C). Although there’s some role that noise in the input plays (Incomprehensible Input?), it’s clear that acquisition doesn’t happen with high levels of that noise. This is why no one—NO ONE—disputes that CI is necessary; it’s the sine qua non of acquisition, which is why establishing meaning is so important.

Still, there’s been confusion over establishing meaning, and that confusion has to do with purpose…

When the purpose is to learn words, as opposed to communicate ideas, teachers look for ways to make the process more enjoyable. Kuhner’s 9 Vocabulary Strategies, for example, are super interactive, creative, and fun. In my experience, however, most of those strategies result in limited exposure to words if the strategy is successful. There are plenty of reasons to use Kuhner’s strategies. In a conventional grammar-translation, for example, they would be great as activities used to interact with a text that otherwise would just be translated. The purpose of these strategies, then, is to teach words in a fun way. The strategies are their own activities because translating a text containing those words is the goal.

This is not establishing meaning for the sake of providing CI.

In TPRS, for example, Step 1 occurs so that the word/phrase can be used in a communicative context (N.B. reading is an act of communication, too) in which students focus on the meaning of the message, and not the individual word itself. Whereas the purpose of Kuhner’s strategies is to teach a word in a creative way, the purpose of establishing meaning is to actually communicate ideas. The messages that follow are the focus of meaning. This is why an L1 equivalent is all that’s needed to establish meaning. Anything else places focus on the words themselves in a less than 100% reliable way.

CI is not Immersion
There’s also confusion about speaking Latin all the time. Since Kuhner’s strategies are used to maximize time in the TL by using Latin to teach a new word, exposure to that new word is lower (i.e. when you take longer to establish meaning, there’s less time for the word to occur in messages that lead to acquisition). This misconception that providing CI means 100% immersion encourages teaching the same old stuff, such as explicit grammar with the expectation of identifying and producing correct forms. Someone mentioned disappointing results “over the past 20 years” from using English to establish meaning to “work on building comprehension AND translation skills…in a grammar-heavy textbook-based system.” If they’ve actually been teaching for acquisition for 20 years while focusing on translation skills in a grammar-heavy way, I’m not surprised at all that they’ve been disappointed! CI and explicit grammar are different data sets, so the role of English for this teacher hasn’t really been to establish meaning for providing CI in a communicative context. This is why terms and definitions are important, and probably why most of the profession is in the dark about CI, and the nature of language, in general. Many say unsolicited advice is unwelcome. I prefer to see it as a responsibility to the profession, and more importantly the effect it has on our students.

With conventional grammar-translation goals, there isn’t a need/desire for multiple exposures to words in communicative messages, so sheltering vocabulary isn’t being practiced. Limiting vocabulary in order to increase exposure throughout class by establishing meaning with an L1 equivalent, then, is abandoned in favor of speaking Latin in order to remain in the target language 100% of the time using Kuhner’s strategies. This occurs, despite approval from at least one current SLA researcher. This is a big misconception about what teaching with CI means. CI doesn’t mean 100% immersion. In fact, there are many teachers who conduct grammar-translation class entirely in Latin. The likelihood of CI occurring in these class is little to none.

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