Recently, the great Tina Hargaden asked me to write a reflection about how I came to teach using Comprehensible Input strategies. So here it is, in my normal long-winded format!!! (Sorry…) I hope newcomers to the world of Comprehensible Input instruction can gain some insight from this walk down memory lane.
Stage 1: The Awakening
For 4 years, I was a pretty normal Spanish teacher. I used the skills-building approach that almost all WL curricula are founded on that teaches students a progression of grammar skills and integrates thematic units of vocabulary. I had more fun than a lot of teachers. For the house unit, I remember having students build cardboard houses and then make collages of different rooms from magazine clippings, all leading to an oral presentation about their house design. But it was at its core the skill building approach to WL.
The catalyst for change in my teaching career came by way of learning about Second Language Acquisition research back in the winter of 2015-2016. A colleague of mine passed along the link to Dr. Krashen’s Principles and Practices in Second Language Acquisition (http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/books/principles_and_practice.pdf). I read a bit and was absolutely shook to my core. I read the whole thing in a night or two! It was like a freight train of common sense meticulously and scientifically researched, tested, and verified over the course of decades of linguistic analysis. If you are a CI practitioner, or are remotely interested in teaching using input, or are a WL teacher who just wants to read the research about Second Language Acquisition, just stop what you’re doing, and go read it.
Lots of Krashen’s findings resonated with me. Like that our brains are set up to learn a second language the same as our first language (of course). Meaning we should be teaching our WL classes like kids learn their first language, with lots and lots of language experience. And very skills building, which is complete absent in every native speaker’s acquisition of their mother tongue until about middle school, by which time they have already reached a significant level of fluency. The skill-building approach that 99% of world language teachers still employ doesn’t resembles how we all become fluent in our native language in any way, shape, or form. We’re not talking about theory or hypothesis here. We’re talking about decades of linguistic research confirming how all languages are acquired. All across the globe. As 1st, 2nd, or 3rd languages.
I could go into what makes sense about the SLA research, but to be frank, you need to read it from Krashen.
After these two nights of reading, I was sold! I went all in! I quit skills-building language teaching cold turkey, and have never gone back.
Stage 2: First Steps
The question remained, though, in how to implement Dr. Krashen’s input hypothesis in a classroom of 30 high school students with various degrees of motivation. I thought to myself, “What do I do? What do I talk about? How do I hold their attention for 85 minutes of listening and/or reading!” Over winter break, I had feverishly read up on the CI blogosphere. Circling. Slow. PQA. PictureTalk. TPRS stories. Novels. The list was endless, but none of it was a coherent plan. None of it was a curriculum, or at least a unit for the next two weeks, like I had used for my entire teaching career.
Later on, I would grow to feel like the skills of a CI teacher are all I need for a “curriculum.” That I can walk into class and turn anything into comprehensible, personalized, compelling content. But at the beginning, I felt like a lot of new CI teachers feel. I needed a long-term plan that would scaffold my growth, that I could articulate to colleagues and administration, that would give me the foundation to start developing my skill.
I simply googled “Comprehensible Input Curriculum,” and up popped Adriana Ramirez’s Teaching Spanish with Comprehensible Input Through Storytelling. I bought a copy and used that for the rest of the year.
There are a few other coherent CI curricula out there now for Spanish at least. There’s Fluency Matters Cuéntame series. There’s TPRS Book’s Look I can Talk series. There’s Tripp’s Scripts (and Anne Matava Scripts). Martina Bex has her curricula. And nowadays, there’s Tina Hargaden’s Year 1 book, which is what I would now recommend any new CI teachers use.
The Ramirez curriculum is just what I happened to stumble upon. The long-term plan it provided was exactly what I needed, and each story unit was extremely structured. It helped me feel comfortable in front of a class of listening students. It directed my speech to be very comprehensible. I didn’t have to plan units. I could focus 100% of my efforts on in-class CI teacher skills.
Ultimately, I didn’t continue to use this curriculum past this first semester, but I am a firm believer that many new CI teachers need something like this—a sturdy platform to start building their CI practice. As of the Spring of 2019, I would now recommend using Tina’s Year 1: A Natural Approach to Proficiency-Based Instruction for the First-Year World Language Classroom to use as your platform. It a monster of a book, and is set up to walk you through each day in the beginning of a CI teacher’s practice. It’s a godsend and will help teachers advance through the learning curve much faster than I did without such loving and knowledgeable guidance!
Stage 3: Conferences, conferences, and more conferences!!!
Going to a national conferences is a transformational experience for many in their CI practice, and I was no exception. I would go as far as to say it is nigh impossible to sustain a CI practice without attending a multi-day intensive CI conference. There are a bunch nowadays: iFLT and NTPRS are the big guys on the block with 500 participants over the course of 4 days. But smaller conferences can be just as powerful, and oftentimes the intimate environment of the smaller conferences is more impactful. In addition to the big guys, there’s also Express Fluency in Vermont, Comprehensible Cascadia, and Tina Hargaden’s Summer Institutes with 5 locations spread out over the continent. They’re all wonderful, really. Just make sure you go to one! Or many!
I was so psyched about how the winter and spring went that I applied and got funding to go to iFLT 2016 in Chattannooga. I loved every second and soaked in as much as possible. National conferences jump start your learning curve in so many ways. It’s intensive instruction from some of the best practitioners in the country. You make new peer contacts that will help you later on when you need a hand and need to regain momentum. You meet and develop relationships with some of the visionaries like Ben Slavic, Tina Hargaden, Diana Noonan, Grant Boulanger, Annabelle Allen, Mike Peto, who open new and wonderful doors for professional development and engagement. GO TO A NATIONAL CONFERENCE!
The best part about iFLT (and also Express Fluency in Vermont) is the live language labs in which a master CI practitioner teaches actual students for 2 hours a day and conference attendees watch in the background in the same room. By chance I picked to observe Grant Boulanger, a true master teacher. I was blown away. I’d never seen teaching like this. He was able to engage brand-new language learners in meaningful interaction for hours. His teaching was like one long conversation, a true two-way interaction in which Grant sought out the students’ interests, preferences, thoughts, personalities, and experiences, and used the language to bring voice to their thoughts. It changed my practice for forever.
I could go into pages and pages of what I learned from Grant and later from other language labs with Tina Hargaden and Mike Peto, but none of it will have any impact on you, my dear reader, from this computer screne. You just have to go observe a really experienced CI teacher in action for yourself. You have to be in the same room. In the same momen. Following along with each decision the teacher makes, and how they observe the class, and use that constant stream of feedback to inform their next steps.
In a way, learning how to teach with CI is exactly how our students learn a language. You have to get the input of what teaching with CI looks like, not just consciously study it! Reading blogs about CI isn’t enough. Watching YouTube videos of CI teachers isn’t enough. Even attending CI presentations isn’t enough. You need to be in the room feeling it with actual, authentic learners, so that months later, when you’re back in your own classroom and need to make a decision, you’re not drawing upon abstraction, but actual in-person experience. The input of language teaching has to go into your subconscious, just lie language, so it can later come out instinctually, spontaneously.
Stage 4: Finding My Voice
There’s a natural stage in the CI practitioner’s journey where experimentation is really important. For me, it was the following 2016-2017 school year. I had left the classroom the previous June only having done Ramirez’s story circling. I came back from iFLT with a treasure trove of ideas and got to work! I did targeted stories. I tried out a few Tripp’s Scripts. I sampled some PictureTalks. I found out about Bryce Hedstrom’s “persona especial” format and did a few weeks of interviews. When four kids walked in with football uniforms on, we talked about their game that afternoon. During spirit week, we talked about everyone’s outfits. I bought my first wave of CI novels and launched a reading program for the first time. I did Book Talks. I tried a Whole Class Novel that sunk a slow, painful death. I found out about Sr. Wooly and did “Puedo Ir al Baño.” I got a copy of Ben Slavic’s The Big CI Book and tried Circling with Balls, Write and Discuss, Reading from the Back of the Room, Word Chunk Team Game, and implementing the Interpersonal Communication Rubric. Then Ben and Tina published everything about One Word Images (OWIs) and Invisibles story co-creation. Then Tina started publishing successes with other conversation formats. So I tried Card Talk, Calendar Talk, Academic Card Talk. Then I turned each class’s Write and Discuss compilation into an illustrated Yearbook. And it goes on and on!
The point is, every day I pushed forward with experimentation. You’ve got to fake it until you make it. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew my students’ Spanish was improving in a way I’d never witnessed before. You’ve got to try things out to determine what types of conversations will resonate with you and your students. Every CI teacher is different in that way. Some like the high-energy activities like story co-creation, and others like the more low-key activities like Calendar Talk. For some, student interviews is a wild, free-form exploration of a student’s personality. For others, student interviews is a highly-structured series of interview questions that focus on building on prior student interviews. Go out there and get your hands dirty! Get to work! Figure out what engaging with students in compelling, comprehensible input means for YOU.
Stage 5: Establishing Rhythm
After a year of experimentation, I started to learn what worked for my interests and personality. I learned that I had intuitively developed a daily pacing to my lesson, based on what Tina Hargaden calls the Star Sequence (Create, Review, Write, Read, Extend).
My daily lesson template for 85 minute classes is:
- (5 min) SSR inspiration: such as a book talk or a preview, something that introduces students to new reading material in a fun, engaging way
- (15 min) SSR with optional 5 minute post-reading conversation in English to explore reading, new books students have started, generally build a reading culture
- (5-10 min) Reading of last class’s write and discuss that is now expanded and illustrated
- New Daily Star Cycle of
- (10-30 min) create new oral conversation
- (2-3 min) review
- (5 min) Write and Discuss
- (5 min) Read the write and discuss using a myriad of reading strategies
- (remaining time) Extend– a quick quiz that comprises the bulk of my grades
I also started to learn a sense of how to pace the year for me. I like lots of student interviews all throughout the year in relation to the school community or thematic unit: beginning and ending of sport seasons, school plays, vacations, birthdays, band competition season, show choir competition season, etc. I also try to do Culture Talks once a week, a new country every week, where I collect a few images and videos of 1 cool aspect of a Spanish-speaking country to discuss. It could be a geographic site, or a festival, or a holiday, or a famous person, or whatever. I like a heavy dose of OWIs and Invisibles October-December, and then one every 2 or 3 weeks throughout the rest of the year so that it doesn’t get old. I start MovieTalks after Christmas break. Then some Sr. Wooly as winter moves to spring. And after Spring Break, I do lots of Storylistening, because it’s easy to manage and relaxing for everyone! I also do some explicit grammar lessons in the 4th quarter to ease the transition to the traditional world language instruction they are likely to have at the next level. In terms of bringing SSR to WL, for level 1, I do Book Talks each class in November and December, and the SSR program launches after XMAS break. For levels 2 and up, we read from the beginning of the year and I do Book Talks throughout the fall.
And I always throw in some new activities as they hit the scene. For 2018-19, a weekly Culture Talk, MovieTalks are new to me. For 2019-20 Sr. Wooly, Textivate, and Guided Writing are all on my try-for-the-first-time list!
Your own personal rhythm will be different. But you won’t discover it until you put a year or so into dedicated, uncomfortable experimentation.
Stage 6: Advocacy
It’s been a transformative 4 years since Christmas break 2014-15. When I think back to how I used to teach, my traditional skill-building practice seems like a hollow shell of what my CI classroom experience has become. I still have my areas of improvement as we all do. I still have to redirect wayward attention, make calls home, and all the rest. However, there’s been a fundamental improvement. Before, the only point of the L2 communication was to cover vocab lists and grammar material. Students were uninspired, even with my attempts to jazz it up with tactile, integrated, project-based units. You know what, it’s worse than that. Students were actively developing a distaste to world languages despite my best efforts to have them fall in love with them, for a whole host of reasons:
- Students were uninspired because our communication was completely meaningless and contrived. The only point was to learn language, and that’s not enough to capture the hearts of our students. It’s not enough to get them past the measly graduation requirements and onto a lifetime of WL study.
- Students were frustrated because as the teacher, I was constantly forcing output before it was comfortable, making the students feel anxious and inadequate. World Language teachers forget how hard it is to speak in L2 in the beginning years. In asking students to produce, we are communicating to our students that they should be able to produce, which the research indicates just isn’t the case. Many students feel embarrassed and inadequate when teachers require production, which is the opposite of what we want to do. We want to inspire confidence and joy in order to keep students in WL past the graduation requirements!
- Finally, students were developing a distaste of WL because of the feeling of confusion and ineptitude that grammar study gives most of our students. Grammar is difficult. Even in L1, best practices indicate that most to all grammar is actually learned via reading, not via grammar study. It’s exponentially more difficult to understand in the L2, and it’s nearly completely unnecessary in developing fluency as demonstrated by every L1 speaker who hasn’t yet started grammar in middle school.
Our students need more and deserve more from our world language classes.
Grant Boulanger said it well in this Twitter post:
We have to shoot for more than just thematic units, and not just at the very upper levels, but also at the lower levels where most of our students are. We have to strive to make world language classes more than a conscious study of the language, because linguistic analysis only interests a small percentage of kids. The goal has to be bigger than that. The goal has to be to capture students’ hearts, and inspire them to pursue WLs long past the graduation requirement.
With CI style instruction, world language classes CAN be more. In my CI practice, we use the language to achieve objectively interesting human interactions—the types of things people do in their friend circles in L1: we celebrate and explore students’ personalities and uniqueness; we share about important events in our lives and communities; we share our hopes for the future, our thoughts and feelings; we create fun, interesting little stories–stories that students care deeply about and proudly celebrate to other sections, and even return to my room years later to reminisce about; we learn interesting things about the world outside of the USA and develop a curiosity and openness to different people, ideas, and cultures; we read interesting novels, participate in a supportive reading club, and support the development of lifelong reading habits.
In short, we create a strong sense of community, and then language usage arises out of that community as a means to an actual intrinsically interesting end. This community-creation has become my new course objective. It’s my profession’s objective.
- My TL usage has soared through transitioning to CI, since I’ve mostly eliminated grammar discussions that have to take place in L1. My students’ experience of the TL as a function of class minutes has soared as I’ve largely eliminated skill-building practice (which we all know means that students chat in English while filling out worksheets and practice sentences in the TL).
- Student interest has soared in my classes. Ability and achievement have soared. Reading rates have broadened and quickened as even level 1 students finish 3 or 4, sometimes as many as 7 or 8, novels from January-June. Spontaneous speech has improved. Literally everything is better. Even their grammar control is better! It’s a win for everyone.
- Most importantly, success has been shared by all types of students in my CI program–boys as well as girls; students of color as well as white students.
That type of equity simply doesn’t exist in traditional world language programs. The reason why: In traditional skills-building classes, the way material is covered lacks intrinsic value to most students and/or the grammar semantics are too difficult or boring for all but a select group of kids. The only kids who succeed and stick it out are (a) the few real language junkies who end up becoming language teachers, and (b) the kids who come from families who prioritize education even if it’s boring, who know that getting through a few years of world languages is a stepping stone to getting into college, who voice that it looks good on college applications to continue to a fourth and fifth year of a language instead of stopping after three.
Don’t believe me? Analyze your program’s upper level language classes. Once you get past the graduation requirement, my bet is that the classes are comprised of mainly white students, with a disproportionate number of girls. Almost all are honors students in other subjects. If there are students of color, chances are they are Heritage Spanish learners who have succeeded for reasons other than equity in your lower levels. Most don’t qualify for free or reduced lunches. Males are underrepresented in comparison to the general population of your school. African Americans are underrepresented. There are almost no males of color outside of Heritage learners.
Want some hard data to back up my experiential observations. Go check out Grant Boulanger’s analysis of his Spanish program’s unintended discriminatory trends before CI implementation and how things changed with CI here and again here.
This lack of equity is PREPOSTOROUS. We can’t mince words here. It’s a scandal.
The truth is, all of our students, not just the white ones, not just the well-to-do ones, have already demonstrated a wonderful ability to learn languages by achieving at least Advanced ACTFL proficiency levels of English. The myth that some students just aren’t good at world languages is a product of ineffectual teaching, not the difficulty of language itself. If we adopt a pedagogical method that mirrors how the human brain actually learns language, the vast majority of students will succeed.
At a certain point, seeing the greater and more equitable success in my classes turned me into an activist for teaching with Comprehensible Input. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t go out looking for a cause. I passed nearly 6 years as an educator just minding my own business. But I couldn’t help it! The lack of equity in world language education is downright scandalous and discriminatory. How could I not become an activist for change?
Once again, Grant Boulanger talking about the effects of teaching with CI in his comparison study:
“What I found most interesting about these results was this: In class I was seeing success and confidence in the eyes of students who, in the past, would never have been successful in my classes. I was seeing more students of varied backgrounds engaging at higher levels and learning more. These results suggested that there wasn’t much of a bell curve – more students achieved at higher rates. The bell is flattened.
And the call to action from Grant himself:
“And – if – there may be a better way to do things – a way that will increase the number of students studying in your program – a way that will work for all types of kids in your school – a way to equalize opportunity for your school and our society – a way to make language learning an inclusive experience rather than an exclusive one – a person has two choices: criticize the approach or embrace it and dedicate 3 or so years to learning about it, getting better at it and measuring the results in your own teaching and your own students.
“Would you fight for it in your department? I would. And I did. And a lot of kids have had better experiences in their language classes as a result.”
You’re the man, Grant. Thank you for caring, executing a legitimate study, and then sharing your findings.
Starting in May of 2017, I also started to fight for it, and I hope I inspire you to take your own steps.
My first step, like many, was to start a blog with a colleague to raise awareness and provide an outreach opportunity to likeminded colleagues. I started posting demonstration videos on my YouTube channel. After all, I had learned so much from other blogs and videos, perhaps I could repay my debt by passing it forward!
Next, I started connecting with colleagues to create a local PLC. I emailed friends and other folks who I knew had mentioned something CI-related. My colleagues and I organized some local meet-and-greets to connect CI practitioners from neighboring counties. I invited folks to visit my classes and went to observe their classes to expand my knowledge.
Then I started submitting proposals to present about CI topics at county, state, and national conferences. I’ve spoken regularly at our WL back-to-school county in-service on various topics. I’ve given after-school trainings that educators can attend for recertification hours.
If you get so inspired by the positive results of CI that you catch the advocacy bug, here’s a few words of advice in your dealings with colleagues.
First, go read Mike Peto’s essay on transitioning a department to CI. He makes a number of salient points in working with your peer teachers. Here’s a great one: “Reaffirm respect for the professional educator to determine their methods.” Just as you want to follow the CI path, one must allow and trust other educators to follow their hearts in how they feel is best for their teaching personality.
Mike also says in this wonderful essay, “Voluntary commitment is the only way a true paradigm shift will ever take hold.” Save your outreach efforts for folks who demonstrate interest in Comprehensible Input. Make your beliefs known, extend an open invitation to your colleagues, and let those who are interested seek you out if they so choose. Don’t pursue the rest. It will only lead to frustration for both parties to try dragging a colleague to change.
Second, go read my blog post about how ACTFL supports comprehensible input, both implicitly and explicitly. The organization as a whole is committed to encouraging actual research-based WL instruction.
Third: Collect your own data. We will make big waves if we can bring to our school board’s attention how we don’t have many students of color in our upper level classes. And it should raise alarm. We should all know the demographic breakdown of our general school population in comparison to our level 1 classes, and then our level 4, 5, and AP classes. We should all be actively looking for discriminatory trends in our practices and trying to alleviate them.
You should also track attrition data to see how many kids your program is losing every year, who those kids are, and why they aren’t continuing. My guess is that you’re going to find a disproportionate number of students of color, males, and students of lower socioeconomic status not continuing on. I think you’ll find an enormous drop off after your state’s graduation requirement (for me in Virginia, moving from level 3 to 4). This is an alarming realization that every world language program should be addressing. Other than just graduating, students who drop your language after the course is compulsory most likely means they don’t value your program. It most likely means they aren’t going to continue to study it. And it most likely means they won’t become functional in the L2. We have failed these kids. And we have missed an opportunity to create communities that are open to people who are different.
Stage 6: CI Content Creation
There are a few educators out there showing amazing leadership in the CI world because they have left the classroom partially or altogether to concentrate on supporting educators and/or creating CI content. I’m thinking here of all the content that Tina Hargaden has produced recently, the trainings that Mike Peto goes around the country doing and the new books he’s publishing (Go get you a copy of Pleasure Reading in the World Language Classroom and Meche Y Las Ballenas, y’all), Martina Bex and all the content she produces through her website, TPT store, the new Garbanzo platform, Ben Slavic and his PLC not to mention all the content he came out with as a full-time teacher, Sr. Wooly and his whole world, and of course Carol Gaab, Lisa Ray Turner, and Blaine Ray in the realm of publishing.
We need more CI teachers out there to find a revenue stream like these others so they can leave the classroom and focus more on outreach, publishing, training, pedagogical development, research, curriculum development, and support. We need more people given trainings in every state of the country, producing high quality instructional videos, coaching other teachers in their own classrooms live with students. We need world language education undergrad and MAT professors with appropriate knowledge of SLA research and experience with its implementation in k-12, public school settings. We need more researchers to analyze discriminatory trends in world language programs across the country and possible solutions (like Grant did, but on a national scale). We need more CI authors and books, especially outside of Spanish, and especially in addressing the dire need for more true beginner books (like less than 50 words beginner books, picture books).
As incredible as it sounds to folks who have been into CI for years and years, sometimes decades, this is the very beginning. The CI presence in world language instruction is a baby chick that has just emerged from the egg and is looking around the world, wide-eyed and eager to explore. It’s only going to get better. Enjoy the ride!