What does an advanced CI class look like? (Part 1)

Teachers often ask me what CI looks like in upper-level classes. However, when we delve into the question, I sometimes realize that those teachers don’t always understand what happens in a lower-level CI class.

For example, a teacher recently asked how to develop a rotating curriculum for levels 3 & 4 so that a small cohort of level 3 & 4 students can be scheduled in one section. The teacher wondered how to organize the grammar so that the level 4 students are exposed to advanced concepts without confusing the level 3 students.

My quick response is that students should be exposed to all of the grammar in level 1.

Okay, maybe that is a little too much.

My longer response is that lower-level students do need repetitive, easy language to facilitate rapid acquisition. It makes sense to focus on simple language. But, within the context of the class conversation, students should also be exposed to natural grammar.

Shelter vocabulary (such as by using the Sweet 16 verbs) so that you are using a limited number of words when you speak to students, but also don’t stick to the present indicative when a native speaker would naturally use the subjunctive. Work to include prepositional phrases and transition words that lead to natural-sounding sentences. It is natural to speak in past tenses when asking about the past, even when discussing what happened yesterday. 

Don’t wait until level 2 to talk about what happened yesterday!

Below I have included a transcript of a part of a student interview that was conducted in a level 1 class. You’ll see that I am (1) trying to remain comprehensible and repetitive by asking questions to the audience & recycling language, but I also (2) use natural grammar while remaining comprehensible. With a transcript you don’t see the speed of the conversation; you don’t see how I pause between questions, stroll over to the question word posters and lay my hand on one before asking the question. If this were a rapid fire conversation it would have been far less comprehensible for level 1.

Some of the big differences between a level 1 class and a level 3 class are the speed of the conversation, the amount of scaffolds that I use to remain comprehensible, and the depth that I pursue topics (because an advanced class moves faster, I ask more questions and we naturally get more information in upper level classes). In terms of grammar, in an advanced class I spend more time exploring the conversation and, as a result, we spend more class time using so-called “advanced grammar”.

However, even in a level 1 class, I am using the subjunctive. In natural conversation native Spanish speakers use the subjunctive in about 15% of sentences. 1 in 6 sentences! I’m not counting, but it is pointless to avoid the subjunctive. Just make it comprehensible.

The phrases in red are translations of the Spanish included for teachers reading this article who do not speak Spanish. The red phrases are not a part of the class; presumably the students at this level understood what was being said.

Teacher: ¿Qué haces durante el fin de semana? What do you do during the weekend?

(Teacher points at the question projected against white screen, where it was written in both Spanish & English)

Student XXX: I dance.

Teacher: ¿Bailas? You dance?

Student XXX: Bailas. You dance.

Teacher: AH! (write on board “bailo = I dance, bailas = you dance”. Then points at “bailo” and says) Yo no bailo. ¿Y tú? ¿Bailas? I don’t dance. And you? Do you dance?

Student XXX: Bailo. I dance.

Teacher: Clase, ¿quién baila? Class, who dances?

Class: (They say the student’s name. If they didn’t I would have pointed at the “quién = who” poster. If still no answer, I’d give them the answer and then ask again).

Teacher: XXX, ¿quién no baila? Who doesn’t dance?

Student XXX: Usted. You.

Teacher: Correcto. Correct. ¿Bailas? Sí o no. Do you dance? Yes or no.

Student XXX: Sí. Yes.

Teacher: ¿Cuándo bailas? (teacher points at “bailas = you dance”) When do you dance?

Student XXX: on the weekend.

Teacher: el fin de semana the weekend (writes that on the board). Clase, XXX baila durante el fin de semana. Class, XXX dances on weekends. Clase, ¿baila XXX en la clase de español? Class, does XXX dance in Spanish class?

Class: No.

Teacher: Correcto, XXX baila el sábado y el domingo, durante el fin de semana. Correct, XXX dances on Saturday and Sunday, during the weekend. No hay clase durante el fin de semana. There is no class on weekends.

Teacher: XXX, ¿bailas todo el fin de semana? Do you dance all weekend? (Writes todo = all)

Student XXX: Sí. Yes.

Teacher: ¿Tienes tarea? Do you have homework?

Student XXX: Sí. Yes.

Teacher: ¿Cuándo haces tú (points at hace = does) la tarea? When do you do your homework?

Student XXX: Friday night. I have to do my homework before I can dance.

Teacher: Okay, tus padres… your parents (turning towards class) do we know that word yet? Padres are parents. (Writes on board padres = parents) Tus padres (point again at the board where it says parents) quieren (point at quiere = wants) que hagas la tarea. Clase, anybody know what I’m saying? (someone almost always will translate it immediately: “his parents want him to do his homework”). (Write on board: “tus padres quieren que hagas la tarea” and then, underneath, “your parents want you to do your homework”).

Teacher: Clase, ¿quienes quieren que XXX haga la tarea? Class, who wants XXX to do the homework?

Class: Parents

Teacher: Los padres de XXX. (Holding one hand up) Los padres… quieren (point at quiere poster)… que (hold the other hand up) XXX haga la tarea… antes de bailar. Before dancing. Wow that was complex, let’s write it all up on the board: “Los padres de XXX quieren que él haga la tarea antes de bailar.” XXX’s parents want him to do his homework before dancing. Can we do a choral translation here? Okay, 3, 2, 1…

Class: The parents of XXX want that he does his homework before dancing.

(The choral translation is awkward because students translate the words as I point at them. However, doing it that way allows any student to understand 100% of the phrase).

Teacher: ¿Quiero yo que XXX haga la tarea? Do I want XXX to do his homework?

Students: ….?

Teacher: Sí, yo quiero que XXX haga la tarea. Yes, I want XXX to do his homework. Todos sus profesores quieren que XXX haga la tarea. All of his teachers want XXX to do his homework. That’s the way we teachers are, we all want students to do their homework. Pero tú (looking at another student), ¿quieres que XXX haga la tarea? Do you want XXX to do his homework? Sí o no. Yes or no.

Student ZZZ: I don’t care.

Teacher: We have a good phrase for this! “Me da igual”. It means, “I don’t care”. Me da igual. (Writes “Me da igual = I don’t care” on the board).

At the end of the class period, during the Write & Discuss, I returned to this and inserted the information into the W&D so that it got into their notes. There was more in the W&D and, since a W&D is a conversation bouncing between students and teacher, they did not bring up exactly what I wanted to include. So I made sure to tack it on the the end. It looked like this:

A XXX le gusta bailar durante el fin de semana pero sus padres quieren que XXX haga la tarea antes de bailar. Señor Peto también quiere que XXX haga la tarea, pero a ZZZ le da igual.
XXX likes to dance during the weekend but his parents want XXX to do his homework before dancing. Mr. Peto also wants XXX to do his homework, but ZZZ doesn’t care.

We may have done a choral translation of the W&D, but I would be satisfied if students can answer questions without actually using the grammar. They may answer in one or two word answers, demonstrating comprehension. The purpose of this is to expose them to the full grammar of the language without yet requiring them to produce grammatically correct sentences.

In class I will not say anything else about the subjunctive or the conjugations as long as they can understand. I will not expect them to produce the subjunctive. Not yet. With time they will develop a solid paradigm of the language because they were exposed to the full grammar in natural communication from the beginning. I will eventually give them more and more opportunities to produce the language, but in level one I am most concerned with developing a passive comprehension of natural language.

In both upper level and lower level classes I am likely to ask all sorts of questions:

“Si pudieras, ¿bailarías aquí en la clase de español?” 
If you could, would you dance in Spanish class?

“¿Sabes bailar bachata? ¿Con quién lo has bailado?” 
Do you know how to dance bachata? With whom have you danced (bachata)?

¿Bailabas de niño? 
Did you used to dance as a kid?

In upper level classes I ask more of these questions, and we delve deeper into the answers, so the upper level students get a lot more exposure to “advanced grammar”. The W&D will be longer too, because we can write quicker.

In the lower levels I tend to ask more questions in the present tense. Every time I use a new word or tense, I need to slowly scaffold it so that students understand. It is useful to remember that with more complexity and more language, it will take longer before students start producing language.

If you studiously avoid “advanced grammar” in the lower levels, by level 3 or 4 students are not going to be able to quickly produce the advanced grammar that you are suddenly exposing them to. And that, by the way, includes the long, complex sentences that are a normal part of written Spanish. Get students used to reading a slightly more complex language in level 1 and, by level 3, they’ll be writing and speaking with more complex language easily.

If it is not grammar, then… how are advanced classes different?!

The upper-level classes expose students to a greater breadth of conversation topics. That is how I think we should organize our upper-level courses. Not in search of topics that will inspire students to use “si clauses” or some other advanced grammar, but rather in search of topics that inspire deeper conversations.