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…

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CI, Equity, User-Error & Inequitable Practices

I don’t agree that the statement “CI is equitable” is harmful. Yet, I also don’t think the message behind “CI isn’t inherently equitable” is wrong, either. John Bracey said one can still “do racist stuff” while teaching with CI principles. Of course, we both know that’s an issue with content, not CI. Still, I get the idea behind that word “inherent.” In case you missed the Twitter hub bub, let me fill you in: People disagree with a claim that CI is “inherently equitable,” worried that such a message would lead teachers to say “well, I’m providing CI, so I guess I’m done.” I don’t think anyone’s actually saying that, but still, I understand that position to take.

Specifically, the word “inherent” seems to be the main issue. I can see how that could be seen as taking responsibility away from the teacher who should be actively balancing inequity and dismantling systemic racism. However, teachers haven’t been as disengaged from that equity work as the worry suggests. I’ve been hearing “CI levels the playing field” many times over the years from teachers reporting positive changes to their program’s demographics. What else could that mean if not equity? But OK, I get it. If “inherent” is the issue, maybe “CI is more-equitable” will do. If so, though, at what point does a teacher go from having a “more-equitable” classroom to an “equitable” one? And is there ever a “fully-equitable” classroom? I’m thinking no. So, if CI is central to equity—because you cannot do the work of bringing equity into the classroom if students aren’t understanding (i.e. step zero), and nothing has shown to be more equitable than CI, well then…

For fun, though, I’ll throw in a third perspective. Whereas you have “CI is equitable” and “nothing makes CI equitable per se,” how about “CI is the only equitable factor?” I’m sure that sounds nuts, but here it goes: Since CI is independent from all the content, methods, strategies, etc. that teachers choose, as a necessary ingredient for language acquisition, CI might be the only non-biased factor in the classroom. Trippy.

I don’t think that third perspective is really worth pursuing, though, so let’s get back to the main points. Again, I understand the message behind “CI isn’t inherently equitable” as a response to “CI is equitable.” However, I suspect the latter is said by a lot of people who aren’t actually referring to CI. Don’t get me wrong; some get it, and are definitely referring to how CI principles reshaped their language program to mirror demographics of the school. However, others are merely referring to practices they think is “CI teaching.” This will be addressed later with the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Otherwise, let’s talk equity…

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CI Sects

If conventional language teaching is grammar-translation, then we’re all somewhat a group of heretics! Still, there are so many sub groups of CI that it warrants a bit of elucidation. At some point, John Bracey and I were talking about if either of us just started discovering CI right now, we’d have NO IDEA what to do or where to begin. Here are descriptions of all the different CI groups I’ve observed over the past 5 years already in existence, or just emerging:

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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…

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Assumptions & Definitions: Establishing Meaning

1) Our goal is reading Latin via acquisition (universal to humans).
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?

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