When I first read about Ben Slavic’s Invisibles story system back in February in his new book A Natural Approach to Stories, I was floored. And it took off in my classroom. Interest skyrocketed and long-term comprehension followed proportionally. It was a revelation.
So, my summer professional development naturally revolved around trying to get to know Ben and Tina Hargaden (who piloted OWI’s and the Invisibles in Portland last year and helped with Ben’s book A Natural Approach to Stories.) I met them in D.C. for a two-day conference and got to watch Tina teach French more extensively (for about 10 hours) in Vermont at the Express Fluency conference.
Watching Tina teach French was transformation for me. She is doing something new, and I think it is a real improvement on the way things are currently done in the CI community. I don’t know if there’s a word to describe what she’s doing yet. Yes, she is non-targeted. But lots of really awesome CI icons do non-targeted stuff—Ben and Tina’s CardTalk and Invisibles and OWI’s are non-targeted, Grant Boulangier’s extended PQA style, Bryce Hedstrom’s Persona Especial framework, Mike Peto’s free voluntary reading program, lots of MovieTalks and PictureTalks are non-targeted, Dr. Beniko Mason’s Storylistening stuff is non-targeted, and the list goes on. Non-targeted is well establishes as an effective way to raise interest.
But describing what Tina’s doing as just non-targeted alone doesn’t capture how rich her language usage is. It is expansive, non-targeted CI! Like hundreds-of-distinct-words-in-the-first-hours-of-instruction-to-beginners expansive. Yet the message of the communication—the meaning—still manages to be comprehensible! It’s very, very cool.
In a traditional CI classroom (that is to say almost all of the CI classrooms), the language is made 100% transparent, meaning the teacher makes sure the student understands every single word. The idea is that student anxiety increases with confusion or lack of comprehension, so the teacher should limit that anxiety by writing any new word that comes up on the board. The teacher is expected to keep new vocabulary to a minimum so as to not overwhelm the students. An activity that uses 2 to 3 new words is ideal. Ten new words in a day is seen as a problem.
In contrast, Tina is using way, way, way more language. The big difference is that she doesn’t restrict language usage to what students can translate word-for-word (100% transparency) as is traditional. As long as students can comprehend the message, the meaning, she lets the language flow.
In Dr. Stephen Krashen’s essay “TPRS: Contributions, controversies, problems, and new frontiers,” he identifies the “urge of transparency” as a problem in second language instruction. He says that instead of 100% transparency, we should shoot for the “illusion of transparency,” (pg. 2) meaning that the student is so focused on the message that they are not aware of the yet unknown words being spoken because the message is understood.
Having watched a bunch of CI teachers in action, I now see that there are perhaps two limiting factors to teaching to 100% transparency as is typical in the CI community and even in the non-targeted CI sub-community. First, in the effort to limit new vocabulary, conversation possibilities naturally become more limited. There is just so much more you can talk about if you don’t limit yourself to just a few new words a day that have to be written up on the board or lasered to.
The second shortcoming is that the process of pausing the conversation to write a new word on the board interrupts the flow of language and conversation. Momentum is lost. In a valiant and sensitive attempt to decrease anxiety, we sacrifice interest. And I have seen in Vermont while Tina taught a wide-age group of beginning French learners (age 10-75) that talking more expansively doesn’t necessarily have to raise anxiety if you tell students that the expectation is to merely understand the overall message of conversation, not to understand and identify every word. I thought that my language teacher brain learning French might be helping me comprehend things more than the kids in the room, but even the 10 and 13 year old were right there with Tina providing meaningful responses and filling in the blanks during quick comprehension checks.
The disruption of conversation and its toll on interest to spell out new words isn’t the only problem. The decoding process in the middle of a conversation instinctually brings the form of language to the learner’s conscious mind, when Dr. Krashen’s research indicates that we should focus students’ minds completely on the message with the ideal being that students forget they are even listening to a foreign language.
In my experience learning French from Tina in Vermont as a new French student, this richness of language is in fact still comprehensible–and not just to my language teacher brain but to the authentic students in the language lab. I was amazed at my brain’s capability to understand what was going on. I intuitively picked up on tons of vocabulary just by means of context. For example, the first four or five times I heard her say a character’s or person’s name, I couldn’t pick out the individual French words, but I still knew what was going on based on context. Over time I nonetheless picked up on the individual words used for naming.
The benefit is that from day 1 of French instruction with brand new French learners, she used hundreds of words—HUNDREDS—way, way more than the CI classroom that restricts itself to 100% transparency. And without a bunch of word posters on the wall to laserpoint to. And without going super slow. She didn’t have to pause to write up new words or restrict the conversation in an effort to restrict new vocabulary. Her only limit was whether or not she could make the overall message comprehensible via context, body language, gestures, acting, drawing, etc. It had the effect of making class way more interesting than when CI teachers restrict themselves to 100% transparency because these expansive, uninterrupted conversations were so much more engrossing.
Based on this description so far, one might mistakenly assume that Tina’s teaching is devoid of text. But text and reading is perhaps even more essential in Tina’s practice than most traditional CI teachers simply because she doesn’t provide many written words during the oral delivery of the conversation. To make sure students visualize the language enough, she uses the “write and discuss” technique at the end of most classes, literally putting words to the community’s ideas. “Write and Discuss” simply means that Tina wrote a summary of the conversation or story (either in handwriting or via typing on the computer) in front of the class, pausing each sentence to involve the class with review questions and comprehension checks that guided the writing: “Class, has Olivia read just one Harry Potter book or all of them?” –“All.” It was amazing to me to see Tina reveal the words that for the last hour I had heard and understood, but not yet visualized. I could feel my brain kicking into overdrive upon seeing the language written out. And having taught back in Virginia for a week, I can tell you that I also saw the same intensity of interest amongst my high school students during my “Write and Discuss” sessions at the end of classes.
So, it’s not that text explanation and clarification is avoided altogether, it’s just eschewed during the conversation and saved for the “Write and Discuss” in order to maintain flow and interest as much as possible.
Tina’s methodology is by far the closest practical application I’ve seen of Krashen’s SLA theories. There is almost zero discussion of the language itself (either its form or vocabulary) with almost all time and effort pushing forward on discussing meaningful, interesting messages. The positives I think are tremendous in terms of exposure to more vocabulary and more interest. With brand new students, she was able to have messages understood while using language richness equivalent to at least my end-of-year level 2 students if not my level 3 honors kids from last year. I cannot wait to see how much faster my kids improve once I let the flood gates out this year!!!
To check out examples of Tina’s teaching in Vermont to brand new French learners, follow this link to her YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnGgXoq9zfo&list=PL1tX0PTMbuLvogSABQpLEEX2hI8hHNm3j&index=5
Starting at minute 3:20 she has a really great explanation in her own words about the importance of understanding messages. She’s the bomb. Just watch the whole Vermont conference playlist!