If you plant the seeds…

Many experienced CI teachers are not as effective as they could be simply because they have bought into one of the oversimplifications about comprehensible input. It is the shining promise that attracts many educators to CI in the first place.

Before CI, my classes were guided by large vocabulary lists, ‘drill and kill’ and complex grammar explanations. Recognizing that students (at best) memorize the content for a quiz and promptly forget it, many educators are drawn into the CI community by the promise that ‘if you plant the seeds, with time the language will grow’. Speak freely, play games, and the language will emerge with time.

In practice, this is an oversimplification and is the root of why so many CI teachers quietly retain so many legacy methods (i.e. flash cards, vocab lists, vocab drill games, conjugation assignments, assessments that students must cram for). Teachers are frustrated that ‘just talking’ doesn’t lead quickly enough to the learning outcomes they expect. We need proof for stakeholders that our students are learning. ‘Just talking’ is like scattering seeds on hard ground hoping that some plant will sprout. Plants do sprout that way, but we can help move the process along.

Today I will describe five scaffolds that you can apply to every class session so that you do not simply scatter the seeds of language on hard ground. Instead, cultivate a lush language garden for your students to harvest.

(1) A Place for Written Language

I am often surprised at how many teachers simply speak, letting the oral language disappear into the air. In my Japanese classes, my short term retention of a new word orally spoken is very short indeed. I have filmed the classes and timed myself; within 10 seconds an unwritten new word is gone from my memory. Sometimes that is okay if my teacher is trying to get me comfortable with a structure that is repeated in various guises. I don’t have to remember everything that I understood, especially in early stages of language acquisition, but if we want the language to stick quicker it is well worth the time to turn and write it down.

In face to face classes teachers use the white board to write notes (sometimes individual words, even better if the word is embedded in a short phrase) so that we can point and pause at the word. We also have our verb posters that we use to point and pause. Online classes should also include a place to write notes while we teach.

There are many ways to do this. I am a fan of simplicity; whichever way is easier for you is the best approach. It could be that you actually have a small whiteboard that you physically lift up like Diane Neubauer does in her Chinese classes. I have seen teachers simply share their screen opened to a word doc so that students see the word doc and their teacher in a small box. Simple. Or you might feel comfortable writing with a stylus on a projected screen like Terry Waltz does in her Chinese classes. I have a drawing tablet & stylus that I already use for illustration; while teaching I use a background with my question words and Sweet 16 verbs already posted around the borders and simply write with the stylus. However you do it, make sure that you have an arrangement that is easy for you to manage. Nobody wants to fiddle with tech tools in the middle of class!

(2) Monitor engagement

In face to face classes we have a host of techniques to monitor engagement and comprehension, including teaching to the eyes, artful questioning, choral translations, developing gestures, physically moving through the classroom and standing purposefully next to the student who needs us there to hold their attention… or even simply ask a student, “what did I just say?”. Engagement is essential, even if it is a low-level engagement that simply ensures that students can pass a simple exit quiz at the end of class.

Online teachers have discovered that this may be our biggest challenge. Honestly, teaching online is hard; do not judge yourself for not commanding their attention like you did when meeting face to face. My colleagues who do not require cameras on have reported that requiring emoji responses has kept more kids engaged. Like in a face to face class, creating a personal relationship with students is the ideal. Perhaps light-hearted student interviews are even more important this year than ever.

Two teachers who are truly rocking the “monitoring engagement” skill for online teaching are Brett Chonko, the CI teacher behind the ComprehensibleRVA blog, and Josh Rooke. They both use a system called Desmos to monitor student engagement live during in class. Check out Brett’s tutorial series on using Desmos to maintain student engagement throughout the class period. If there were only one tech tool that I could learn for teaching online, it would be this one. Other teachers have wholeheartedly recommended Peardeck.

(3) Write & Discuss review

We create oral language in class for the purpose of writing it up. I really believe that if you skip the Write & Discuss routine at the end of the class period, you are giving up the most valuable part of the class. Even if you have carefully written your class notes on the board or online word doc for all to see, a W&D text serves two extremely important functions.

First of all, the random words scribbled on the board are now embedded in a complete, grammatically coherent, comprehensible message. This is how languages are acquired on a most fundamental level. It feels satisfying when we finish class with a board filled with notes and drawings made to scaffold comprehension of the class conversation. However, remember that for learners those disconnected words and phrases have a very tenuous link in their minds until the words are cemented in place by forming complete messages.

The bonus is that by writing out a complete message we will include the necessary grammar that may seem obvious to us but is in fact essential for learners to develop an unconscious paradigm of how the language functions. In my Japanese class the other day one of my tutors was shocked that I tentatively used a compound verb yomihajimemashita (I started reading) because I had never been taught the phrase before. In fact, I already knew the vocabulary yomimasu (to read) and hajimemasu (to start), but I must have observed the grammatical pattern elsewhere. The compound verb just kind of popped out when I needed it. That is how grammar is acquired.

Secondly, the W&D text provides a good context to re-experience familiar language. This is so important that I am tempted to add to Krashen’s famous conclusion that “we acquire when we understand comprehensible messages” to make a more useful bumper sticker for language teachers: “we acquire much more when we are re-exposed to messages that we have already understood“. Not as catchy.

(4) Always Give an Exit Quiz

I used to think that this is a necessary trick to improve my students’ engagement, whether face to face or online, but I am realizing in my Japanese classes that this is another very compelling excuse to review the input provided in class. If you follow Brett’s lead (above, with Desmos) you will probably use the results of the questions posed in class as your recorded exit quiz. That is okay; you can still give a quick oral quiz ‘for fun’. For fun?! Yeah, it is actually very empowering to end class with an oral quiz that everyone does extremely well on.

(5) Start next Class with a Review of the Last Class session W&D

Let me explain this with a really catchy slogan: we acquire much more when we are re-exposed to messages that we have already understood. Are you beginning to warm to it?

These are the foundations of effective & efficient language acquisition. You may already have great conversation topics prepared for class: fascinating lessons, brain break activities, and media that students are excited to consume. However, without these five scaffolds, the seeds you plant will have a harder time taking root. Make the most of good language learning material by making sure that all of these scaffolds are present in your classes.