If Only It Were That Simple: Schoolifying CI

It’s all there. All the evidence that humans baaaaaaasically need to hear/view/read language (i.e., input) that they understand (i.e., comprehensible) is at this point un-questioned. N.B. While the second language acquisition (SLA) field has dropped the word “comprehensible,” now referring to “input” only, teachers are far more likely to identify these researched practices under the broad “CI” term. Bottom line, CI-based practices cannot be dismissed. They can’t really be expected to cause a stir anymore. Instead, it’s discussion involving a mix of opinion and research about “the X amount of Y beyond input” that causes a stir these days. However, let’s recognize the outcome of that discussion is not nearly as important as providing input. It’s not equal. It’s not even 3/4ths. Focusing on input gets us probably 90% there. Add some interaction and purpose for hearing/viewing/reading input, and that’s like 99%.

If only it were that simple.

Some of the most compelling research comes from Beniko Mason showing how [intermediate] students acquire language primarily from listening to stories (i.e., no acting, no speaking, no interaction, etc.), plus a LOT of reading. So, input, input, input.

If only it were that simple…everywhere…all the time…

Granted, it is that simple, just not in everyone’s context. Once you bring in a different mix of cultural expectations, a different mix of students with different motivation levels, a different mix of schools, a different mix of class policies & procedures, etc., we see that even the simplest way to acquire language is less and less effective with each difference. We’re talking about generalizability of research, and a lot of what’s been researched is context-dependent. Even if it were shown that all humans can acquire language from just listening alone, that doesn’t make someone’s context conducive to that.

School & CI
The more I research education, the more it seems like school is not actually conducive to learning. That’s pretty messed up, but one of our truths. Think about it. We force kids to take classes they have zero interest in while at the same time demanding they achieve a minimum level of “success” to take classes they’re actually interested in (e.g., “Oh you wanna take Spanish 2? Sorry pal. You gotta have a C in Spanish 1, and it looks like you have a C-. You’ll have to retake the course, or start a new language if you want to meet your state’s graduation requirement.”). We have them try to learn at times of the day and for lengths of time they’re developmentally not ready for (e.g., teenagers, prior to 9am, for college-length courses of 1.5 hours). Oh, and we also test them for a shockingly large percentage of learning hours (<– check your calendars and lesson plans on this. You’d be surprised how much class time is eaten up by quizzes, tests, and standardized tests!).

Similarly, the more experience I have with a comprehension-based approach to language teaching, the more I realize that CI rarely exists in the ideal. For example, even if 100 language teachers have a teaching environment conducive to students listening to stories every class, there are probably 10,000 who don’t. These teachers are gonna have to “schoolify” what we get from research. Consider all the research on extensive reading. It’s pretty clear how effective reading a LOT of below-, and at-level books is for language learning. It’d be nice if students could just sit and read on their own for 45 minutes to an hour every single day, right?

If only it were that simple.

Schools are underfunded. Some will only purchase corporate-lobby-driven textbooks, and others are under fire from the most absurd and abhorrent policies like what’s been happening in Florida. Besides problems with $$, there’s the basic stuff, like how most students need breaks. Most students need variety. Even the most compelling games get old. It only makes sense that spending even just one entire class a week on a super-effective way to get input—reading—is doomed!! This doesn’t mean we should abandon reading entirely, though. We just need to schoolify it all:

Reading can’t be done for too long, too often. Contexts determine limits. Find yours!

  • Consider planning frequent (but short) opportunities for students to read on their own, starting with 1 minute, every text, every day.
  • Plan opportunities for students to interact while reading, too, like read & translate for shorter texts/longer activity time, or read & summarize for longer texts/less activity time. Don’t just sit there. Constantly moving about the room allows you to monitor, as well as increase likelihood that the time is being well-spent.
  • You might be tempted by a flashy activity. Make sure there’s still high levels of language! But sometimes, you need a team game to keep things novel. The trick? Make sure you set aside more time for the prep (e.g., read in groups) than you’ll spend on the actual game. Most students won’t even notice because class ends with high interest.
  • If students don’t like games, don’t do them. “Gamification” is actually not that great. Kids smell a rat, so don’t patronize them. Instead, maybe you need a series of pencil/paper reading tasks that allow students to chit chat and then get back to content when you come around (so constantly move around the room!). It’s still worth it. They’ll get input.
  • Studying word/phrase meanings in isolation could have a very small effect, making it generally a worthless pursuit. Yet getting a flurry of highly-repeated words during an activity that precedes actual communication, like reading, is well worth the 5-10 minutes. So, frontload some vocab in Quizlet before reading, maybe play the Live game in teams, and then get reading. This hits everything we know to be beneficial in the context of most schools: a clear task, individual/pair/whole class groupings, and of course, reading.

Also can’t be done for too long, too often. Contexts determine limits. Find yours!

  • Consider going no more than two sentences/utterances before asking a question, or having students do some kind of annotation task real quick on paper, or in their notebooks, like “circle the word that means…” or “write down the phrase that describes…”
  • A little bit can go a long way. Maybe you’ve got a squirrely class that can only focus on the first 5-10 minutes of class listening (vs. reading). It’s still worth it. They’ll get input.
  • Don’t let students talk over you. It sounds basic, but they’ll get ZERO input if they’re talking. If you can’t go more than a few minutes without constantly being interrupted, you’ve found your limit. Do more reading instead.
  • Look for schoolified activities that demand listening (see below).

Any assessment that doesn’t give the student an opportunity to adjust their learning is practically worthless. Avoid these high stakes summative as much as possible. However, any assessment that’s input-rich and could show students how much they actually do understand (i.e., boost confidence) is a good use of time. No need to work hard crafting these. The best ones are sometimes impromptu.

  • End class with a quick check, right in notebooks. No need to collect, or even go over responses if there’s no time. If you’ve got a portfolio system, have students upload these along with their work.
  • Class getting crazy? Do a quick quiz right in the middle. It’s pacifying (re: can demand listening). Point to a projected text, ask Qs (or T/F statements), and bring the energy back down.
  • Celebrate full comprehension while at the same time tossing out a big challenge. If you’ve asked 3 simple Qs, and 1 super-complex one, even students who know the first 3 understand most of the language. Acknowledge it.

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