Calm & Clear is better than Loud & Lively

How do you nudge a group of timid Level 1 students to overcome their initial awkwardness with the target language and become adventurous, curious, talkative explorers… all in their second language?

Even the best of us have fumbled this, praising the few highly vocal students in September and then finding ourselves in March with a group of sullen, snarky adolescents who fill the classroom with grumbling or worse… in English, of course. You could log onto Facebook and gripe, “It is impossible to teach these brats!” but let me instead suggest something that could sting: it might be your fault. Let me explain.

Many teachers instinctively rely on a common sense approach to language acquisition called the Skill-Building Hypothesis. Those teachers present a rule and some vocabulary, lead students to memorize the words and practice the rule, and eventually, with lots of practice, the idea is that students learn to juggle it all in their minds fast enough to finally manage to speak the target language. It is very logical, seems so embedded in common sense, yet linguists who study second language acquisition tell us that the process that actually occurs in the brain is quite the reverse.

My first department chair in a suburban school near Boston explained it to me like this: you don’t have to explain why X means Y, just tell them that X means Y without the explanation. “Quería que supieras” means “I wanted you to know.” Don’t mention the names of tenses, don’t explain that in another context you’ll need to change the sentence structure, don’t even say anything in English. Just write it on the board with the English written below, underline the part, and continue with the story, or the interview, or whatever communicative activity your students are engaged in. As long as they understand, with time their brains will naturally grasp how the language is put together with lots of exposure. Everyone’s brain works like this. This is how children learn their first language. Just focus on communicating the “what,” and their brains will unconsciously unravel the “how.” This is the essence of Stephen Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis.

Krashen’s research tells us that our students need a lot more listening and reading (called input) before we ask them to write or speak (output). A LOT more. There should be so many comprehensible messages that the words eventually spill out of their mouths, without effort.

A few years later I had moved to a Title 1 public high school outside of Los Angeles where, at the time, completing homework was not really part of the culture and perhaps 20% of students went on to a four-year college. When we followed a textbook (which was a skill-building curriculum), the only students who managed to pass the AP® exam were students who spoke Spanish at home with their families. Then our high school transitioned to an IB approach, while our department also happened to be in the midst of a transition away from the textbook towards principles derived from Krashen’s researchAs department chair, I asked my colleagues to hold off on all speaking assessments for the entire first year of language instruction. Instead we focused simply on delivering comprehensible messages in oral and written form. Almost all assessments were comprehension quizzes, without any requirement that our students speak.

We knew we were on to something well before our first cohort took their exams. Still, it was gratifying to transform a department with lots of excuses as to why our students did not succeed into a department with a 100% pass rate on both AP and IB exams. Our program did not start in middle school; after four years of instruction in high school, 100% of our students passed their exams, once we stopped stressing kids out with speaking assessments and instead simply focused on delivering comprehensible input.

Sometimes adolescents are unpleasant for reasons other than our instructional choices, but forcing them to speak before they are ready leads to uncomfortable situations that rightly rouse their counter-will. It is the skill-building approach that indignantly cries out, “They need to practice speaking in order to learn to speak!” yet the resentment that many adolescents feel when forced to speak in front of their peers has no practical function in language acquisition. I can assure you that if you wait until the words effortlessly drop out of their mouths, their spoken language will flow naturally like a mountain stream. You might ask yourself, “Do I just talk all day and expect them to listen to me?” There are creative ways to deliver the massive amounts of comprehensible input that they need.

A language teacher who wants to maximize the amount of comprehensible input in their classes might spend portions of their class conducting student interviews, doing MovieTalks through a process originally developed by Dr. Ashley Hastings, story-asking, or even chit-chatting about the weekend. My favorite activity is to create a One Word Image with my students. However, it is essential for all of these oral sources of comprehensible input to be supported by a well-thought-out approach to reading.

All of these activities as well as a detailed description of
the reading program is described in the CI Master Class

Krashen’s Reading Hypothesis is a special part of his well-known Comprehension Hypothesis. Just as students acquire language when they understand what the teacher is saying, the Reading Hypothesis emphasizes that students acquire language when they understand written texts. Seems pretty straightforward, right? So, why is this a big deal?

This is a very big deal because, in my practice, I have found comprehensible reading to be an incredibly efficient accelerant to language acquisition. Of course everyone needs to hear the target language, but the teacher needs to balance the amount of listening and reading in class so as to optimize the acquisition. I find that the quicker that students are reading regularly, the quicker they acquire rich language. In fact, I suspect that the most effective CI teachers are not necessarily the marvelous performers whose kids are constantly laughing in class; I believe that the most effective language teachers are highly aware of the balance between oral and written sources of CI and are providing the maximum amount of appropriate reading to their students.

I am not suggesting that we push students to read hard texts earlier. Instead, we need to provide more opportunities to read easy texts, texts that are so easy that students read them effortlessly. The best way to do this is by meticulously reserving the last 10 minutes of class each day for an activity called Write & Discuss (W&D). W&D creates a summary of the day’s discussion through a class conversation that is recorded on the board. Linguist Paul Nation stresses that rereading is excellent for acquisition, and I think that is why W&D is so fantastic. Not only does it provide a context to immediately reread and redeliver excellent CI, it also really supports the literacy piece as we write out our summary in a way that is often more articulate than speech. We then save and reuse these comprehensible texts so that they serve as the very foundation of our reading program.

Provide a brief, independent reading time at the beginning of every class, and make class-created texts at the end of the period to ensure that there will always be something comprehensible for students to read. If you are a Spanish teacher, we are now in a golden age for the publication of comprehensible texts that even our Level 1 students can read independently. Learning to support a reading program with effective strategies for reluctant readers is a key professional development goal. Learn more about browsing strategiesaccountability for reading programs, and the secrets of powerful display in the CI Master Class.

You do not have to be an entertainer, a clown, or even the perfect adult role model that effortlessly inspires respect. Perhaps that is a teacher goal, but in the meantime try focusing on simply learning about your students, turning it into a text, and maximizing the reading experiences afterwards. Quiet classes with lots of reading build language efficiently. You might find, when you conduct an interview or lead a One Word Image, that students begin to take delight in their short time on stage. Thus surges forth the group of adventurous, curious, talkative explorers that we were hoping to develop all along.