Does comprehensible language = simple grammar?

CI teachers don’t value incomprehensible noise.

Unlike other approaches that value immersing students in a sea of language noise, CI teachers range from (a) those that want their students to understand 100% of what is said in class to (b) those that want students to feel like they understand 100%.

I am in the latter group. I seek to create an environment of flow. I want class conversation to be so compelling that students are not even aware of processing the language; they are simply engaged with the messages.

Some CI teachers limit themselves to present tense in level 1 because they are trying to maintain very simple, comprehensible messages. Other CI teachers who restrict the grammar in their language may have built their program around a legacy method (or textbook) scope & sequence. Negotiating a common curriculum with non-CI colleagues may have created a ‘best-fit curriculum’ in which you can at least teach as you see fit.

Today I want to suggest that you loosen the reins on your language (while remaining comprehensible) for one important reason: your students are developing an unconscious instinct for the language based on what they hear. This is the natural paradigm that Krashen speaks about when he says that we all acquire grammar unconsciously. Your students should be hearing and understanding the full grammar of the language as spoken naturally, but you should limit the vocabulary so as not to provide too much incomprehensible noise.

How do you do that?!

Below is a link to a 5 minute video excerpt of a class I taught recently in which I was trying to give a lot of comprehensible repetitions of the word “vas”, or “you go” in Spanish. This is definitely a typical Spanish 1 situation. However, as you watch you’ll see that I use the infinitive “ir” in a verb clause, I use the past tense “fuiste” (you went), and I even use a conditional clause (“if there were… would you go”). Watch my student’s eyes: she understands without explicit explanations. I could have used the subjunctive and I am certain that she would have understood me if I used my hand gesture as I asked, “When you go tomorrow, will you eat more tacos” (“Cuando vayas mañana, ¿vas a comer más tacos?”).

It is key to use hand gestures to reinforce meaning. You’ll also notice that when I used the verb “irías” (would you go) I also couched the unknown word within a context and language that made the meaning clear. I did not explicitly define every word because that would have drawn too much attention to the language and interrupt the flow of the conversation, or the illusion of comprehensibility (although I did code switch). If I were teaching this in a classroom I probably would have written the word “vas” on then board, pointed and paused, and then ended the session with a Write & Discuss so that students could see the rich written language we produced.

Most CI teachers don’t shelter grammar anymore; that means we speak slowly and choose high-frequency vocabulary so that students understand. Even if you are in a department that has agreed to only ‘teach the present tense in level 1’, you are doing your students a favor by still speaking in a more grammatically-rich manner. You don’t have to assess the grammar and certainly don’t ask them to produce it (you’ll notice Tatiana says come when she should have said comí ). You are building a foundation so that other tenses sound natural and will be acquired easily when ready.

For example, rather than waiting to teach “fue”, it might come up on the very first day of school. During a student interview I ask what Jon does after school (I am speaking Spanish but the words & translation is projected against the whiteboard). When Jon says that they like to go to In-n-Out Burger after school. I then say in Spanish, ¿Vas a In n Out Burger? (Sí)

— Clase, ¿va a Burger King o In n Out Burger? (In n Out Burger)

— Clase, ¿Quién va a Burger King? (a few hands raise).

(Turning back to student) ¿Vas a In n out Burger hoy (write “hoy = today” on the board)? (Sí)

— ¿Fuiste… (throw my hand behind my shoulder, then write on the board “fuiste = you went”, say “Fuiste” again and throw my hand back), ¿Fuiste (throw hand back) a In N Out Burger ayer? (Sí).

— Clase, ¿fue Jon a Burger King ayer? (No).

We focus on the Sweet 16 verbs, but use a natural diversity of verb tenses to discuss life. Students don’t memorize the verb tenses, they get exposed to them in context and slowly acquire them without having to memorize them. Seeing the written language through a Write & Discuss at the end of the conversation will speed up the process of acquisition dramatically.

My collection of level 1 short stories (available in FrenchGerman & Spanish) is a year-long literacy module for level 1 that provides progressively more complex language. Every two weeks I read aloud one of these stories with my level one students. I don’t expect my level 1 students to speak or write grammatically complex language, but I read and make comprehensible the language so that my students understand. Within the first few weeks students are being exposed to small amounts of past tenses, and by the end of the year they have been exposed (through highly scaffolded, comprehensible situations) to many of the major grammatical elements of the target language.