What CI Isn’t (reboot)

**Updated 5.1.2020 with CI is not immersion.**

Nearly three years ago, I wrote about misunderstandings I kept observing with the term “CI.” Since then, CI has not changed at all, of course, but my own use of it has. I now tend to avoid the term because it’s been misrepresented at best, and corrupted at worst. Whenever I can, I refer simply to “input” because in a comprehension-based and communicative language teaching (CCLT) approach, comprehension (C) is not only implied, but step zero. However, I think there’s a need once again for a reminder of what CI is not, as I’ve found non-examples to be just as helpful when it comes to explaining pedagogy.

CI is not optional.
For language acquisition, CI is necessary. No one disputes this. Of course, this has pedagogical implications right away. Acquisition is an inherent human trait. Therefore, any teaching that prioritizes acquisition over skills is going to be more universal. This is just a fact, independent from anyone’s teaching preferences.

CI is not a method.
The messages students listen to or read are received as input (I). When students understand (C) those messages, they receive CI. Terms such as “CI teaching” or “CI strategies” therefore *must* be understood as teaching using practices that focus on making language (I) more comprehensible (C). However, no input (I) can be considered comprehensible (C) by anyone other than the one receiving it—the student. That is, CI isn’t automatically provided just by following a set of procedures (i.e. method). Also, there’s a tendency to associate certain practices with particular methods, giving the wrong impression of what CI is.

CI is not a tool to be added.
When teaching in a way that focuses more on making language (I) more comprehensible (C), and less on expecting accurate identification and production of forms, the effects on teaching and learning is profound. Common advice is to add CI-based practices to one’s teaching slowly over time. However, this often results in overwhelming burnout. Many former expectations, teaching tools, and resources become irrelevant, or even obstruct acquisition, creating an environment with conflicting principles. Conflicting practices must be replaced by a different set of comprehension-based practices that are more aligned with acquisition. I’ve seen this set of comprehension-based practices referred to as a “CI framework.”

Providing CI does not require speaking.
Many teachers provide CI by asking questions, making statements, and telling stories. While this allows for the most relevant personalization, real time adjustments, spontaneous interaction, and immediate feedback, it’s still just one of two options. Reading—itself—is input (I). When students comprehend (C) what they read, they receive CI. The tendency to associate providing CI with *only* speaking the target language is false. This misunderstanding has probably contributed most to Latin teachers avoiding comprehension-based practices to use with texts. Note, too, how the combination of associating CI with using a particular method, as well as speaking, has kept many teachers resisting best practices.

CI is not immersion.
Immersion just isn’t the same thing. Above all else, immersion doesn’t guarantee that all messages (I) are comprehensible (C). Can they be? Sure, it’s possible, but immersion is a model in which there’s an insistence on remaining in the target language, exclusively. This insistence risks overriding comprehension, whereas a “CI framework” uses practices that focus on making language (I) more comprehensible (C). One of these practices—the most efficient and reliable, in fact—is establishing meaning using English/L1/native. This has been referred to “judicious use of English/L1/native,” which makes up a small fraction of the language use in the classroom, but ensures more comprehension.

CI is not a means to the end that is learning grammar.
Grammar is abstract content that can be learned. Yet, it isn’t required to comprehend (C) messages (I). Yes, learning grammar could be part of course content in the target language, just like learning about how Romans constructed their aqueducts. However, all interest or lack thereof in studying grammar aside—which is not insignificant—memorizing grammar rules and applying them in order to derive meaning is a skill. This skill is independent from receiving CI. Therefore, learning about Latin grammar in order to comprehend (C) messages (I) in Latin is both inefficient and cyclical, as well as lacks purpose…

CI is not enough.
CI is necessary for acquisition, but that’s step zero. Humans communicate (i.e. interpret, negotiate, and express ideas) for just a handful of reasons. In the classroom context, there are only three: entertainment, learning, and creating. If there’s no purpose to listening to and reading understandable messages (CI), acquisition likely won’t take place.* Consider what was mentioned above with grammar as course content. If students have no interest in learning about grammar, they’re less likely to acquire any target language words used while exploring that topic, even if the messages (I) were comprehensible (C). Consider a typical lesson in which students receive CI but with the purpose of accurately identifying and producing different forms of the verb “to have.” First of all, note how the purpose isn’t learning about grammar, it’s to identify and produce it. That’s not communicative. The language could be comprehensible throughout as the teacher uses props to say “I have this” and “you have that,” but in the end, what is learned? Nothing, in fact. From the very beginning through observation it’s clear who has what without uttering a word.

*An extreme view is that a message must have a communicative purpose to even count as input (I) data for acquisition. A less-extreme view would be that the more purpose there is, the more likely words within the message are acquired. Bottom line, keeping purpose in mind is going to be more beneficial than not. And if that extreme view turns out to be true, a communicative purpose is just as necessary as CI itself.

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