Meaning: Establishing & Cueing

I’ve written about establishing meaning not once, not twice, but thrice before today. It is perhaps the most fundamental equitable practice a language teacher can use to provide input. There really is no discussion here—a student must understand the input (CI). That’s step zero. So, the teacher must tell students what words mean! The only discussion lies in how teachers establish meaning. This discussion doesn’t have to be complicated, either, yet it has turned into a debate that keeps cycling ’round and ’round. At the heart of the debate you’ll find two perspectives on how to establish meaning…

  1. Use a shared language
  2. Use anything except a shared language

1. Shared Language
A shared language is one that both teacher and student understand. For the majority of K-12 students in USA, this is English. “English” is often a shorthand term for “shared language.” That is, a French teacher in Spain writing this very same blog post would say “use Spanish to establish meaning.” You and I share English, so if I were to teach you Latin, I would use English to tell you what Latin words/phrases mean. This perspective sees a shared language as the strongest connection to create meaning between two languages.

In place of “shared language,” you’ll often find “L1/native” because that tends to be shared. However, you don’t need a language to be native in order to establish meaning. For example, I understand a bit of Spanish. Therefore, I could pick up some Thai while in Mexico if a Thai teacher were to tell me what the words mean in Spanish. If I couldn’t understand the particular Spanish word, though, different strategies would be needed…

2. Anything Except A Shared Language
The other perspective in the debate involves using a variety of strategies to establish meaning, such as gesturing/miming, describing in the target language, using synonyms, drawing pictures, acting, etc. This could be anything and everything—basically what isn’t a shared language. Why not? On principle, this perspective sees using a shared language as a last resort, most commonly in an effort to provide as much input as possible.

It should be noted, however, that “providing as much input as possible” is actually a hallmark of both perspectives. The former just sees a shared language as the fastest way to continue providing CI, and the latter just sees the process of establishing meaning as part of providing that CI itself. It’d be nice if things stopped there and debate moved more to discussion. Alas…

The Debate
There are more efficient and effective ways to establish meaning, and less efficient and effective ways to establish meaning. Therefore, discussion turns debate as teachers from both perspectives argue which to prioritize. However, this latest cycle of the debate has featured a new argument. That is, I’ve observed it being argued that English shouldn’t be used to establish meaning because ELs (English Learners) would be at a disadvantage.

Full stop.

Using English to establish meaning for non-English speakers is an obviously bad practice!

Meaning hasn’t actually been established. That should be self-evident. For example, if that Thai teacher in Mexico used Finnish to establish meaning of a word, I would have zero chance of making a connection. I don’t know Finnish. The argument is a bit of a red herring. Yes, ELs can be at a disadvantage when English is used to establish meaning, exclusively, but no one—NO ONE—from the first perspective actually claims that only English should be used, especially when there are speakers of other languages in the Latin classroom! Such an argument sees the use of English to establish meaning as an insistence without concern for the students in the room. That’s just negligent teaching, and I don’t know anyone advocating for such. It might every well be that there is no shared language. However, that’s context-dependent. In my teaching context, there are 70% Latinx students. I don’t establish meaning in Spanish because that wouldn’t work for all students. I actually do so in English and Spanish as much as possible. Besides, the “insistence” is ironic. When it comes to insistence, teachers from the “anything except a shared language” perspective do insist on avoiding what can instantly create meaning—an already understood language. Therefore, the second perspective is more of a role-play.

Clearly, advocates for a shared language to establish meaning do so…when there’s a shared language…period. Yet an argument had to be made based on some misunderstanding. Perhaps the misunderstanding comes from thinking that ELs don’t understand enough English for it to be used when establishing meaning. That would be understandable, but such a context is rare in K-12 Latin classrooms in USA. That is, given the global status of English, even ELs of low level BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) understand as much English as you typically need to establish meaning in the target language. If that holds true yet ELs still don’t understand enough English for meaning to be established, I wonder if the Latin vocabulary itself isn’t frequent enough for ELs to make connection with. This most likely is the result of using curricular materials written at the Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished levels. Of course ELs wouldn’t have that kind of vocabulary! Other strategies would be needed for sure.

Either way, the astute teacher can spot incomprehension, which means however they thought meaning had been established is now irrelevant. The next step must be a different strategy.l This holds true for both perspectives. Still, whereas teachers who use a shared language have the option of other strategies, those who insist on avoiding a shared language miss out on the strongest connection to create meaning—an already understood language! Therefore, I recommend option 1 of using a shared language, yet I also encourage teachers to use other strategies as needed. In other words, the use of English (i.e. as “a shared language”) shouldn’t be exclusive, especially if your ELs don’t understand it. Even still, feel free to use the “anything except” option if you prefer. Either way, this argument can be put to rest.

Terry Waltz just tweeted this:

Cueing is a handy word. I’ve used “re-establish meaning” to describe the process of reminding students what a word means, but that has always felt a little odd. I’m adopting “cueing” effective immediately. As a student myself, I’ve needed a lot of cueing. I’ve most often experienced this as teachers posting the target language and its English equivalent for me to look at. Perhaps that’s another reason why I’m an advocate for using at least a shared language (+ pictures, gestures, etc.).

Practically speaking, if a teacher avoids a shared language, and so must describe a new word using explanations in the target language, for example, cueing would take a bit longer. That is, rather than just pointing to a word and its English or Spanish equivalent (for me), the teacher would have to re-explain the word. A student who needs lots of cueing means the flow of input gets interrupted by those explanations.

It turns out there’s more to the debate than just the initial establishing of meaning. Perhaps what’s missing is the detail of a learner’s memory—the wildcard I’ve written about. Students with an excellent memory can have a word explained or mimed to them just once without the need for any cueing! Therefore, I wonder if bringing cueing into the debate would help get back to a discussion on how to establish meaning. If teachers insist on avoiding a shared language, are they cueing at all? If so, how? If not, why? What is that experience like? I think that would be more helpful the next time this cycles back around.

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