When Students Struggle to Speak

In my Japanese class recently we were talking about ‘what we want in the near future’. My tutor wants to travel again. I tried my best to express how nice it is to have a garden in the backyard during the pandemic. I want to expand the garden this Spring. Reflecting on my statement, my Japanese teacher responded: そとにいかずに、そとにいけます。Roughly, “you can go outside, without going outside”. A beautiful phrase extolling the peace derived from a backyard garden in the midst of a pandemic.

I have to laugh though because, while I understood and appreciated her comment in the moment, watching the video of the lesson later makes me realize that it certainly did not appear so. I furrowed my brow, stared up at the ceiling struggling to respond and, when I finally spit something out, I said: きゅうりがだいすきです。”I love cucumbers”!

It is okay if your students are not yet expressing complex statements that reflect higher-order thinking. The complexity of our spoken language is always several steps behind the complexity of what we can hear, read and understand. The only path for me to sound like a competent, clear-thinking adult in Japanese is to hear and read a lot more Japanese. Until then, I am stuck with my simple child-like observations. I do like cucumbers!

The better we get at the core skills of CI teaching (techniques to remain comprehensible, verify comprehension, and extend output), the less we ask our students to speak. I don’t want to waste class time forcing students to struggle with speaking. Understanding compelling messages will develop student speech much faster than speaking practice. The more efficient and effective route is to focus like a laser on developing their listening comprehension. As long as we remain comprehensible, the best path to rapid acquisition is a class full of rich hearing and reading opportunities with much less time dedicated to speaking and writing.

The CI Master Class proposes that we design instruction based on two daily class conversations; first an activity from the “Student Voices” module that explores students’ lives and makes students’ experiences our curriculum. The second conversation is designed around an activity from the “Voices of Others” module. It is in the second conversation that we slowly insert cultural observations. Together we witness the strangeness of ‘the other’, explore other ways of being human and slowly unwrap the lens which is our own culture. Both of these conversations require very little in terms of language from students. The teacher provides the linguistic support and paces the conversation so that students have time to process.

You can explore deep waters without forcing students to struggle with speaking.

Currently I am working on a maravilla presentation for high school Spanish classes that explores the tension between cultural relativism and the concept of universal human rights. I am centering the presentation on a community of transgender indigenous people in Colombia who have been exiled from their Emberá community. Does the majority of the community have the right to define what is part (and what is not part) of their own culture? Is culture a democracy? This conversation is one piece of a yearlong project to lead students to recognize how our unique cultural lens shapes our understanding of universal human experiences. Adolescents woke to issues of social justice will be fascinated.

The clever teaching trick will be to present the content in a manner that is comprehensible but does not require students to output beyond their abilities.

You can do this in level 1. Becoming conscious of one’s own cultural biases and blinders is a skill far too important to save for upper level students. We want our students to appreciate the diversity of human cultures without being a prisoner of their own cultural baggage.

I’ll start with a picture talk. I am looking for an image that allows me to communicate that (1) cultures belong to communities, but (2) individuals have power to interpret culture. Rather than weighing down the conversation with terminology, it would suffice to find an image of someone who is clearly part of a large community but has also significantly re-interpreted it. I am tempted to find a photo of Snoop Dogg for this purpose, if only I could be sure to not lose the thread of the conversation in class. Maybe I’ll keep looking for another photo. As for the video clip that I found, I will add English subtitles. It is too bad that I can’t simply caption it in Spanish but in this case the video is overflowing with language… c’est la vie. After watching the subtitled video we’ll read a very simplified text in Spanish that brings together the themes from the picture talk and the content from the video. Finally we end the activity with a quick Write & Discuss to verify comprehension, followed at the end of class by an exit quiz based on the W&D.

I am proud of this work to add depth to the CI Master Class. In addition there are four more maravilla presentations in the works centered on inspirational Latin Americans that will appear in the Maravillas library by mid-February. Some years ago I became well-known among Spanish teachers when I demonstrated that we can connect our students with authentic media like El Internado, even in level 1 classes, if we simply focus on providing the comprehensible input. I love popular culture. I love the silly stories in my Good Stories read-aloud book (available to all subscribers). But I also love going deep occasionally, using the same skills that made El Internado comprehensible. Without forcing output.