Transitioning to Teaching Languages with Comprehensible Input

Teachers often discover CI after several years, even many many years, of using other methods. Old habits are hard to break. A question that often comes up is how to transition from former methods to one that stresses Comprehensible Input. Where to find help?

Most university teacher training programs give lip service to Stephen Krashen as a forerunner, and mention Comprehensible Input, yet few present practical strategies for adopting it. They continue to promote courses based on grammatical structures and « communicative activities.» Very few university programs seem to actually prepare teachers with practical ways of using CI to favor acquisition. The methods they do promote have long been proven inefficient by every foreign language student who ever said, “I took Spanish in high school for x years, but I can’t understand a word they’re saying”.

Of course there are many workshops and conferences that demonstrate how to teach using CI. The presenters are inspiring, experienced, amazing teachers. They may perhaps, sometimes, be too brilliant. Many teachers see their presentations as a distant goal, even a Shangri-la, with few road maps showing us how to get from where we are to where they are.

When a teacher is convinced that her students will benefit from a change and decides to try maximize Comprehensible Input, the question that comes up is how? If you have been using textbooks built around gradually introducing grammatical elements bit by bit, how do you stop sheltering grammar ? When you have been using communicative activities which push students to produce language, how do you focus on listening and reading rather than speaking and writing, on input rather than production ?

My immediate response is that there is no one way. We are all at different places, we are all different people, and our situations are all different. What worked for me may or may not work for you. There is not a simple answer, a step by step model, that can be used by all teachers. If you talk to experienced users of CI strategies, you will discover that each one found their own way. Some adopted a new method all at once. I remember Ben Slavic writing about this young Canadian teacher, a guy called Chris Stoltz, who discovered TPRS during the Christmas holiday, became convinced that it was a much more efficient way of teaching, re-planned the rest of his year, and bingo! In January he began doing TPRS and never once looked back.

If only it could be that easy for all of us. Most teachers dipped a toe in, found that the water wasn’t too chilly, and gradually waded in until they were swimming. I have heard teachers say that it took several tries, several years even, before something clicked and they found themselves.

In hopes that teachers who want to transition may find a model that suits them I asked several friends to tell me how they transitioned into CI. Some of my friends began back in the early days, when the only widely practiced CI methods were TPR and TPRS. Others discovered it later, when there were other strategies. My sincere thanks to Teri Wiechart, Michele Whaley, Diane Neubauer, Elicia Cardenas and Leila El-Murr for sharing the stories of their journeys into the magic land of CI.

Within the first hour, I was hooked !

by Teri Wiechart

Teri Wiechart is well known as a Coach and conference organizer. She is the CI Summit 2023 Conference Coordinator. She was also vital in helping me organize the first CI conference in Agen, France in 2013. Here is her account of her transition:

After teaching for 24 years, and feeling that I was not effective in teaching French, I went to a workshop on Storytelling. It did not sound very interesting, but it was close to home and at a school with fabulous food, so I planned to go just until lunch.

The presenter was a Spanish teacher who started by teaching us Swedish. I was fascinated, then more and more intrigued with how it felt. Within the first hour, I was hooked! At lunch, I called home and said I would be later than expected. That night I started creating a brand-new curriculum—ten days before the start of school. For those ten days I wrote and wrote — stories, scripted questions, TPR lessons, readings, quizzes and tests. There was no going back.

I returned for a follow up session with the teachers from the workshop. I was so ready to ask questions and learn more. When I arrived, it became apparent that I was the only one who had so totally embraced it and was the “expert” in the room. OH MY. It became my first opportunity to train other teachers in a system of teaching that had so captured my imagination.

A few months later, I was introduced to a new internet concept—a listserv—a group that met on the internet. This one was dedicated to teaching with TPRStorytelling. All of the teachers there —at that time there were fewer than forty of us—were learning these new techniques of TPRS. Every day was another day of professional development. We shared, we helped each other, we grew in our understanding and expertise.

That was the beginning of a new chapter in my career and my life. I continued to teach with Comprehensible Input techniques for the remaining 11 years of teaching. There were days of doubt and struggles to know if I was doing it “right.” But I muddled through and never thought of going back to my old way of teaching—vocabulary lists and grammar worksheets. My students were thriving and growing in their ability to understand and speak French. They were pleased with what they could do with the language. My class sizes grew. Parents were happy. The administration was happy.

In addition, I discovered there was a need for someone to teach these ideas to other teachers. To do so, I learned more and more about Second Language Acquisition and better ways to teach students a new language. What I have determined over these 25 years is that this way of teaching reaches many more students and they are much more successful. Teachers find more joy in teaching, which brings more joy to the classroom.

Not every teacher jumps in after a few hours of training. Many take their time to sample it and test it out. It all works. Each will come to their own understanding and their own level of comfort in their own time. It’s all good. Life in the CI Community is a place of sharing and support and welcomes any and all newcomers.

Textbooks were not the Answer, by Michele Whaley

Michele Whaley teaches Russian online and Spanish at a primary school in Anchorage, Alaska. She trains teachers to use Comprehensible Input and shares methods at language conferences. She loves exploring and improving the process of language acquisition.

I knew from my first semester teaching Russian that textbooks were not the answer. But I didn’t know what the answer was! I started out by asking students to memorize lists of thematic vocabulary with fun (card stock) flashcard competitions, while also learning the answers to questions about themselves and areas of Russian culture. They could say and write the answers to those questions competently, but couldn’t speak in real life. I was frustrated, and my own Russian was not very strong. Luckily, I had the chance to study in the Soviet Union several times in my early years for my own growth, but it didn’t improve my students’ results.

I had attended an early TPRS workshop with Blaine Ray, and knew his system was far more effective than mine, but his early stories were too full of explosions and bad actors. I didn’t know how to adapt them. A later Melinda Forward workshop gave me about a month’s worth each year of material, as I could only get help making sure the Russian translations of her units were correct during what was by then an annual exchange with students to Russia. The original TPRS had multiple steps and was difficult to put in place using Russian.

But after three years of those one-month TPRS units, a girl approached me to point out that the students in her group were basically fluent when they created with the material from those three months’ worth of lessons. And only those lessons. I was shocked. It was as though the other months of each of their three school years had yielded nothing.

I Googled TPRS and found that TPRS had changed. Susie Gross came with me to Russia and I learned the new three steps and how to use the same high-frequency verbs in every story. Students helped me practice ideas in Ben Slavic’s books. I heard Bill Van Patten speak about providing compelling input, and asked him to come to Alaska to explain. Later I found out that a friend of Stephen Krashen’s had developed a system using movies as a first step in developing listening ability, and Ashley Hastings came to Alaska to talk with our teachers. Laurie Clarcq asked me to collaborate with her on a reading scaffolding system, and she also came to Alaska to visit, teach, and collaborate.

Learning how to ask stories for the new TPRS gave me the skills I needed to make anything comprehensible. If an important text was boring or too complex, we didn’t read it until we had co-created a more interesting and comprehensible parallel one. I still remember the story a group composed when I took out all the “variables” in a text introducing the city of Moscow. We did the same thing for IB-level texts about immigration and health systems. Parallel text creation allowed beginning students to hang onto the gist of a story while the advanced students created it. The beginners could still contribute their ideas, but the advanced students could fly.

I found that if a topic, song, or news item interested my students, I could backward plan to create lessons. It was often exhausting. I learned to save myself by stretching (“milking”) everything. If we wrote a story or a biography of a class member, we would break it apart so that students had to recreate it. Next, they might write a new ending. After that, we could use it for a game of some sort, illustrate a booklet, and ask for feedback from Russian colleagues and peers. I pushed to exercise all the modes: interpretive, interpersonal, and sometimes presentational. Listen, create, read, develop, discuss, argue, and share: these (while celebrating the students) were my general lesson plan.

Meanwhile, a group of like-minded teachers gathered monthly to coach ourselves and share ideas, and I started to attend summer CI conferences. Being with other passionate, enthusiastic teachers lights up my world. And the emphasis in my work on finding texts and asking colleagues to check our stories for grammar meant that my own Russian ability increased until I scored a Superior level on an ACTFL OPI.

I continue to teach both Russian and Spanish in an eclectic manner because there are not enough long-term support materials there for Russian. I follow grade-level themes but add current favorites for my preschool through third-grade Spanish students. I loved using SOMOS for Spanish in Middle School for the one year I taught that group, because planning, organizing, and creating slideshows was done for me.

Learning to teach with CI over the past 17 years has brought me incredible joy and satisfaction. I know that students will acquire language if I present it in a positive way that compels their interest and challenges them. There are still frustrating moments, and I look in awe at the young teachers who are so skilled and also so lucky to have begun using CI from the start. Teaching with CI may take time to develop but is a worthy life-long journey. I keep trying to improve, finding new ways to vary my routines, and learning.

“Never taught another way since!”
By Terry Waltz, PhD

I got to Thanksgiving break teaching Spanish 2 and was frustrated that they just didn’t retain anything. Many could pass the tests or quizzes but there just wasn’t any long-term retention. I messed around with stories and repeating them a lot on my own, but didn’t get the questioning piece through that, and it was boring. I started searching online (this was 2000) and hit on Blaine Ray’s book and VHS tape, which I ordered. Watched it twice, read the book, and came back into my classroom teaching (really awful) TPRS on Monday morning. Never taught another way since. Of course, I got to a workshop as soon as I could for more training.

Then, of course, Part Two was realizing that most of what’s said (other than the super-foundational basics) just don’t hold all the way through for “other languages” (i.e., languages that are not Spanish/French/German/Roman alphabet, Romance or European based). So, I started looking for other things that would support our literacy needs and our lack-of-cognate situation, on the base of comprehended input.

*(Terry does not mention that her book, TPRS with Chinese Characteristics, is a wonderful aid to understanding how to make Comprehensible Input work, not only for teachers of “other languages”, but for teachers of any language. – Judith Dubois)

How to transition?
By Diane Neubauer, PhD

Agen, France, 2019

To answer the question of how to transition towards more comprehensible input as part of language classes, I’ll begin with a little bit about my own process, and then point to a few key factors that helped me along the way: 1. starting small, 2. learning to ‘read’ and really listen to my students, and 3. learning from other teachers while developing my own style.

Why and how I got started
I fell into language teaching around 2005, beginning with small group classes and tutoring where I then lived north of Chicago in the United States. I wasn’t looking for a full-time job teaching Mandarin Chinese at the time, but I wanted to keep up & even expand my Chinese language proficiency after I moved back to the US from a few years living and working in China. In 2007, I was hired by a school to build their Mandarin Chinese language program, but I didn’t have official language teacher training. My “training” was my years of experience in language learning in French, Thai, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese, mostly in classrooms with a teacher. Like many other language teachers, I started out teaching with a lot of influence from those experiences. I had experienced a mix of comprehensible input – which I’ll define as language in context, which I could understand well – plus grammar study, vocabulary practice, and being pushed to repeat and to speak accurately, with standard pronunciation. I likewise started to do all those things with my own students. We also played games aimed at making those language learning tasks more enjoyable. My students seemed overall pretty happy.

However, I was somewhat disappointed. I really enjoyed working with students, but was not seeing the kind of lasting proficiency results I thought should be possible. Most students could do well on a quiz, or seem to have fun in class activities, but later on forgot the language. I was not willing to think that the students were the problem, nor that Mandarin Chinese, despite its reputation, was “too difficult” for people to learn. Then I learned about ACTFL, the US association for language educators, which advocated that 90%+ of classes should be in the target language. I was terrified by that! I might have had 20-30% at most. I was doing a lot of explanations in English about language meaning and language form – and instructions for all those games I was creating for students. The lack of results for my students, and the sense that I was far from a target language environment in classes, both drove me to look around for what other teachers were doing. I attended a TPRS training in which the instructor demonstrated often in Russian. Wow, high use of target language, and I could understand! It felt magical. On return to my classroom… I found that I couldn’t do any of the cool things with questions and interaction that I had experienced as a student in the training! So it was a process of about two or three years before I ‘felt’ like I had transitioned, and I had a lot of help from other teachers, and from my students. Here are a few things that helped me:

 

Start small.
I first attempted complex, vocabulary-dense story creation with every group of students on most days of class. TOO MUCH. I asked too much of the students, and expected they “should” understand much more vocabulary from prior study than they could. I contacted teachers with more experience and they advised that I cut way back on the complexity of what I was trying to do. Instead of TPRS story asking – something I gradually was able to do after a couple years – I did much more PictureTalk, using a variety of images and describing and imagining with students what was going on in the pictures, themed around vocabulary lists from the textbook I was still using. That was an excellent first step (more here about instructional activities that were easier for me to conduct, especially getting started with more use of target language and aiming for students’ constant comprehension).

Eventually I did shift away from textbooks that weren’t helping me reach my goals anymore, and I backwards-planned from graded readers and films (blog post here about that). But starting – or in my case more like restarting – small was critical, and allowed me to make decisions based on my skills, interests, goals, and especially – my students’ responses.

 

Learning to ‘read’ and really listen to my students.
In my first years teaching, me and my students were all bound to the curricular materials we used. We did the exercises, played some games, and made projects. In these tasks, it was pretty clear that the pace was mainly set by the materials and our class times were centered on mastering materials. Using more CI requires a shift in that relationship, where curricular materials used to be at the center, towards putting students and their comprehension of language in context at the center of everything.

That meant shifting my mindset from “how do I get them to remember and produce this textbook vocabulary and grammar” towards “are each of the students showing involvement in this moment of target language talk?”. This demands a change in the relationship of the teacher and students, too. I found it challenged students who were used to memorizing and producing language; now, they all had to listen and engage throughout class instead of during their turn in a game or an exercise from the book. The classroom became more relational, and I had to learn to read my students in real time for their comprehension and engagement. That is no small task! (In fact that kind of real-time evidence of students’ comprehension and engagement is part of what I investigated in my 2022 dissertation on classroom interaction.)

I found it helpful to talk openly with my students about their new experiences in class (more in a blog post on that here). And I had one class that really helped me, though it was somewhat painful at the time, through their “mutiny” and refusal to engage in story asking one day. I really had not been hearing or observing their resistance and feeling of overwhelm and boredom. I was controlling too much and asking too much of them, and finally they’d had it! We spent a class period talking through their complaints with my listening reflectively. I made adjustments (see point 1!). Through that experience, I learned how much I needed to rethink my ways of relating to students and to the language learning process. I began compiling quotes about second language acquisition and benefits of knowing another language (such as those in this PowerPoint file).

 

Learning from other teachers while developing my own style.
In these shifts, I frequently read, talked with, or observed – by video – other teachers about classroom practices. I am sure that without that support, I would not have made lasting changes to my teaching practices. I also shared things I was trying and finding either challenging or more successful, and that sense of mutual support and peer mentoring has been invigorating ever since. I began reading more widely about language teaching and about second language acquisition. (In fact, eventually that led me to earn a PhD in multilingual education – this is fascinating stuff!)
I find that language teaching is a sort of scientifically-informed art. There isn’t only one, exact set of procedures for everyone, everywhere, all the time, but there are principles we can rely on in making decisions for our own contexts. I am introverted and never questioned that I would be carrying out my teaching with the personality and skills I have, and several of the teachers I observed early on were likewise fairly quiet in their style. We bring ourselves into the teaching process. I continue to experiment and explore in my language teaching now! One of the joys of being a teacher is getting to keep learning ourselves, even as we facilitate our students’ learning. May your own continued growth as a teacher bring you, your family, and your students joy.

I looked for something else
Elicia Cardenas

Elicia Cárdenas, Director of Training, The Comprehensible Classroom and Founder of The Deskless Classroom
www.comprehensibletraining.com www.comprehensibleclassroom.com www.desklessclassroom.com
When I was hired to teach middle school Spanish, I had the confidence that I could teach- I had been in the classroom for a few years and felt pretty good about my skills, even if I had never taught Spanish at that level before.

I had two different documents for scope and sequence, and neither were aligned to the standards in any way that I could figure out. I had a handful of textbooks, some at the junior high level and some high school, level 1.

I have never worked so hard in my life to be creative and to do all the things that good teachers do: scaffold, differentiate, creatively teach, creatively assess, and provide learning opportunities for different kinds of learner profiles.

And you know what? The results were terrible.

Most of my students could not understand a sentence in the target language, much less produce anything. They could do a good job filling in a conjugation table though.

I realized that I was working too hard for unacceptable results, and that something needed to change. I looked for something else.

I started reading blogs about lesson plans and found Martina Bex (comprehensibleclassroom.com). She put together a comprehensive set of comprehension-based units that were easy to follow, even if I didn’t really understand the thinking behind them. I really liked the lesson plans, and started to read more about second language acquisition and the “why” behind the methodology. It made immediate, intuitive sense.

So I dove in. Imperfectly, clumsily, and making just about every mistake that could be made. And…

The change of tone and feeling in those classes was like night and day. Unmotivated students were laughing, I was working half as much and having more fun, and there was so much more Spanish happening. I could tell that I was doing a better job of teaching because students were able to use the language! Even caregivers were noticing- and calling the administration to say what a great job I was doing.

Diving in and having the confidence (with administrative support) to try something different worked for me to take the first step to a comprehension-based approach – with the scaffolding of a good comprehension-based curriculum.

Since success builds motivation, I kept being motivated to seek training. After attending my first formal training in how to ask a story, and later, being a student in a Japanese class and eventually getting the courage to get coached in front of my peers, I started to put together both the instructional strategies and the reasons behind them. I started to understand why I needed to go slow, why I needed to establish meaning, why I needed to personalize my classes. I learned a lot more about language acquisition and how languages are acquired – which is key when making instructional decisions. Now I understand why I need to give students input, why they need to understand, and I’m always looking for new ideas and strategies to meet those goals.

How could I do better for my students?
By Leila El-Murr

Leila El-Murr is a French teacher with 7 years experience. She began teaching in a university setting at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. Then she moved into the high school setting in Indianapolis for 3 years. For the past 2 years, she has been teaching internationally in Kuwait.

I was trained in a university setting, teaching French to young adults. I realized that many of the students could read and write but few developed oral proficiency skills needed in the first courses they took. Later, I transitioned to teaching high school. I used the same method, and I witnessed how so many students could barely string a few words together to communicate with me orally despite having perfect conjugation and perfect spelling. Furthermore, the school where I was working had many underprivileged students who were not always successful in traditional memorization classrooms due to a lack of study time after school. It was also at this time that I began meeting many people who said “I took French for x years and I don’t remember any of it.” How could I do better for my students?
My department head at the time suggested we attend a lecture by Stephen Krashen in October 2018. This was the launching point when we redefined our objectives as a world language department. We decided that we wanted to teach 3 things: good communication skills no matter the language, to reinforce learning and literacy skills from other classes, and that we wanted to center social justice in our classes. Consequently, as a department, we began watching videos and reading articles about CI/TPRS. We shared what we learned together and decided that the Spanish teacher and I, the French teacher, would attend the iFLT conference summer 2019 to learn how to implement CI in our classrooms. In the fall 2019, we purchased the Somos and Nous Sommes curriculum from Martina Bex and began implementing CI in our beginner classes. We supplemented it with activities and ideas we found online, through Facebook groups, through blogs, and through conferences.
It was such a big shift in how we taught and how our students learned. We witnessed how CI, based on neurolinguistic research, allowed our students to experience success and grow in confidence in subjects they once considered difficult and accessible only to certain “talented” students. To see how teaching a subject I am passionate about became accessible to all was incredibly fulfilling as an educator.
Furthermore, as we implemented CI, we were able to incorporate more cultural units allowing students to explore more diverse Spanish speaking and francophone cultures. For my African-American students, this was particularly powerful as they were able to see themselves as legitimate speakers and learners of the language, moving beyond the white, middle class, female-gendered stereotype of the French speaker. Thus, we were able to create more equitable spaces in our classrooms for students that made education accessible to all.

With a Few False Starts
By Judith Logsdon Dubois

I teach English in France. In order to teach in public schools I passed the CAPES, a kind of civil servant exam for teachers, in 1995. Two years later I passed the agrégation, which allows one to teach in universities. In 2006 I discovered TPRS. I was convinced that it was effective, but had no idea how to go about it and made a few false starts. Trying to mix CI with old habits can be disastrous. I remember trying Circling but still wanting my students to answer with complete sentences, as I had previously been trained.
Statement : Johnny went to school on a bike.
Question : Who went to school on a bike?
Students answer : Johnny went to school on a bike.
Question : Where did Johnny go on a bike?
Students answer : Johnny went to school on a bike.
Question : How did Johnny go to school ?
Students answer : Johnny went to school on a bike.
Question : Did Johnny go to school on a bike or did Mary go to school on a bike?
Students answer : Johnny went to school on a bike.
Fortunately I had a rather rude student tell me exactly what he thought about my “new method”. Then, even more fortunately, I discovered that Ben Slavic had written a book called TPRS in a Year. (https://benslavic.com/product/tprs-in-a-year/) In it he suggested trying one new strategy a week, or even over two weeks if it took that long to feel comfortable using it. By the end of the year the teacher would have completed the switch. I ordered the book and began doing TPRS without the compulsion that I had had to change everything all at once. For me this worked much better.
I found that in weaker classes, who had not acquired the fundamentals, TPRS could work quite well, but I also found that it was not well accepted by more advanced classes, who were more interested in dealing with authentic resources than in making up silly stories. Fortunately Karen Rowan, kind and generous Karen, visited my lycée and told me something about Dr. Stephen Krashen.
As I came to better understand the principles which Dr. Krashen promotes, I gradually realized that TPRS is one vehicule, but there can be many methods that privilege Comprehensible Input. Some of the things I had previously enjoyed doing with my students actually helped my students better understand English, our Target Language. Perhaps, being a native speaker, I had always been particularly concerned when some of my students did not Comprehend what I was saying. It had always seemed to me that being Comprehensible was an important part of my job.
Another aspect of teaching which seemed necessary to me was student engagement. (I had had an extremely boring literature teacher in high school, and because of her had always been determined NOT to bore my own students.) More and more I found myself looking for ways to interest and engage them while being comprehensible. When I heard Dr. Krashen emphasize the idea of Compelling Comprehensible Input, I found myself in total agreement.
Since I teach English as a foreign language, it was evident that I had one immense advantage : Hollywood. The movie industry was producing literally thousands of Compelling films. All I had to do was find a way to make them Comprehensible.
I began using English language films with English subtitles. We read, we acquired vocabulary, we watched the scenes again. I started using the script to make fill-in-the-blank exercises, but I realized that the blanks needed to be words that my students had ALREADY acquired. I called the exercise Very Narrow Listening, to credit Dr. Krashen’s discussion of the importance of Narrow Listening. The real interest of the exercise was that it justified listening to the same scene over and over again, giving my students repeated Compelling Comprehensible Input. Often they had difficulty recognizing very basic vocabulary when it was spoken, whereas they were quite familiar with the written forms. They blamed their difficulties on the actors’ accent or poor enunciation, but the truth was they had rarely heard English spoken by anyone other than their teachers.
We didn’t worry about new vocabulary. If it was important, it would come up again and again. If we never saw it again, it wasn’t important. Thanks to Dr. Krashen I understood the value of high frequency vocabulary and how unimportant it was to give students lists of words to memorize.
Personally, I am fascinated by grammar, but few students are. What I discovered was that they acquired grammar through repeated exposure to spoken and written English far more easily than they learned the rules. When one of my students recently used a rather advanced structure, I asked them why they had said that. They didn’t know. It just “felt right”. When students spend class time listening to natural English as spoken by native speakers and reading texts that are grammatically correct, their speech and writing mirrors the input they have received. When their output is spontaneous and not forced, it is far more correct than any grammarian would expect.
So how do I teach today ? I honestly don’t have any one method. Basically I do whatever I think will interest my students and give them comprehensible input. As long as they are listening to me or a film, or are reading, I’m sure that they will acquire the language.

In Conclusion…
As I thought back on my own journey into CI and read what my colleagues reported, what struck me was that several mentioned how important it was to understand why the methods they tried were effective. It was not enough to just imitate a great teacher’s methods or those of a brilliant presenter. Understanding the ideas of Dr. Krashen was vital to the process of transition. Once we understand the principle that acquisition occurs with compelling comprehensible input, we are better equipped to decide which methods and strategies best suit our own particular situation.

 

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