Todd & A Series On CI (Part 2) – Why Do I “Use Fewer Words?” …Input Has Quantitative Qualities

“Use fewer words.”

“Train yourself and your class to feel comfortable with silence.”

“Generally, if something I’m about to say in the target language is not going to be PAIRED with another MEANINGFUL form of input, it’s not worth saying.”

“Try to reduce the amount of words for a direction you give.”

These are rules of thumb that I follow in my foreign language classroom.  I’m passionate about them.  I feel that they are extremely important.  I believe that they are a huge part of why my students are acquiring L2 and thriving in an L2 immersion environment.

Instead of saying a longer phrase like, “Boys and girls, please sit around the edge of the rug,” I say shorter/simpler phrases like, “Aiden…sit here.”  “Jessica…sit here.”  “Rebecca…sit here.”  “Roneem…sit here.” Etc.

Instead of saying a longer phrase like, “Roger pass out a sheet of paper to every student in the class,” I say shorter/simpler phrases like, “A paper for you…a paper for you…here’s a paper for you…a paper for you…and for you…here’s a paper for you.”  Etc.

Instead of saying a longer phrase like, “Today we are going to write down the numbers from 1 to 100,” I say shorter/simpler phrases like, “With a pencil (and I hold up a pencil) write here and here and here and here and here (and I point to each of the lines that they will have to write on.”

Instead of saying a longer phrase like, “It’s time to put away your notebooks,” I say shorter/simpler phrases like, “Goodbye notebooks.”


A STORY about “using fewer words” with my daughter.

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If you have followed this blog for a while, you’ve probably already heard this story of how I “use fewer words” with my infant/toddler daughters.

One day my daughter was crawling around on the floor while we were with our extended family in the living room.  She was at that age where she was just starting to be mobile and loved her independence and ability to explore new things.  During this same stage her mom and I had to keep our eyes glued on her because she didn’t know which of her exploration items were dangerous or not.  We loved letting her explore, but it was exhausting to constantly spend energy keeping her from exploring electrical sockets, stair cases and fragile decorations.
On this night I didn’t want to supervise my exploring daughter.  I wanted to stay in the living room talking with the other adults.  So I decided to try to tell my infant/crawler to stay in the living room and NOT CRAWL INTO THE KITCHEN.
I realized that she would’ve never understood my language if I said something like:
“Ava, there are some dangerous things in the kitchen.  Furthermore your father and mother are not in there to supervise you.  Therefore our desire is for you to stay in the living room with us.”
But she WOULD understand my language if I said/did something like this:
I took my daughter to the threshold between the kitchen and living room.  I knelt down at her level.  I pointed to the kitchen side of the threshold and (with serious looking eyes) said, “NO, NO, NO.”  I pointed to the living room side of the threshold and (with smiling looking eyes) said, “YES, YES, YES.”  I took the extra time to repeat these statements 3 or 4 times.  She was able to understand because I used fewer words and I made their meaning obvious.  If I would’ve used 4 sentences with complex ‘native speaker level words’ my daughter wouldn’t have even listened or looked at me.

Here’s my RATIONALE that explains why I have a “use fewer words” practice. 

Todd is a stick figure and he is helping me with my current blog series on input and comprehensible input.

Todd - Comprehensible Input

Check out the two pictures (below) that help explain the theory behind this “use fewer words” practice.


Picture 1:

input has quantitative properties

Todd can receive small amounts of input. (i.e. Todd has been sitting alone in his jail cell.  The guard slides his lunch plate in and says, “Lunch time,” and leaves.)


Picture 2:

there can be little input or lots of input

Todd can receive large amounts of input. (i.e. Todd is a graduate student and is taking notes during a two-hour academic lecture.)


Sr. Howard’s Explanation Statement #1: Input has quantitative qualities.

In less formal language,

  • “Input: there can be a lot of it or a little bit of it.”
  • “Input: you can measure how much of it a person is receiving at a given moment or during a certain period of time.”

Why does Explanation Statement #1 matter in a foreign language classroom?

Last summer I was replacing a garage roof with a bunch of friends.

EODC Home Renovation

While he was up on the roof, one of my friends realized that HE HAD LOST HIS WEDDING RING!  He was frantic!  He wasn’t sure if he lost it while he was shoveling off shingles.  He wasn’t sure if he lost it while he was walking on the grass and among the plants.  He wasn’t sure if he lost it while he was carrying arm-fulls of shingles to the dumpster.  He wasn’t even sure if he lost it in his car on the way over to the job site.

Right from the beginning of the search for his lost ring HE FELT HOPELESS.

There was soooo much to look through.  There were so many possibilities of where the ring could be.  Where should he look first?  Would it be in the weeds?  In the rafters?  Would it be in the dumpster with a ton of shingles?

needle in a hay stack

It’s possible for L2 students, who are searching to find meaning in a foreign language immersion environment, to feel the same way that my friend did when he was searching for his ring.

If a student, especially a novice L2 student, is presented with large quantities of unfamiliar L2 input, his search for meaning will feel hopeless.

Foreign language teachers will be doing their students a disservice if they think teaching in the target language means that they must string together long, complex L2 sentences.

When teachers use too much L2 it’s like they are asking their students to look for a lost ring inside a dumpster full of shingles.

Teachers should make an L2 student’s search for meaning easier by eliminating needless, non-essential, incomprehensible L2 words.

The smaller the quantity of unfamiliar input, the greater the chance is that the L2 student will find meaning in their foreign language immersion environment.

If your language student is Todd, then Todd will be more successful in the L2 immersion environment if his experience is like this:

input in a language other than your native language can be incomprehensible

…rather than like this:

 incomprehensible input


A quick word for curriculum writers…

Students who acquire L2 in an L2 immersion setting need lots of time and space.  They need to spend a lot of time with new material in order to become comfortable with it.  They need to have repeated and comprehensible encounters with the L2 input in order to acquire it.  Too much curriculum content doesn’t allow the time and space a student needs for L2 acquisition to occur.

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to re-write our district’s world language curriculum for the grades that I teach.  The “use fewer words” principle influenced what I wrote.

I reduced, reduced, reduced, reduced.

It’s good to keep in mind that one thing you can’t do when you teach in the target language is cover lots of material fast.


The conversation is just beginning.

Over the next several weeks, the posts on Tuesday’s Tips For Staying In The Target Language will delineate the massive implications that simple sketches (like these) have on foreign language teaching and foreign language acquisition.

Todd will help me discuss and/or continue to discuss…:

  • …the nature of input and comprehensible input.
  • …different forms of input and comprehensible input.
  • …a qualitative analysis of the various forms of comprehensible input and their usefulness in facilitating foreign language acquisition.
  • …making input comprehensible.
  • …how making input comprehensible and meaningful (to foreign language students) can cause language acquisition “magic” to occur.
  • …obstacles to making input comprehensible in a classroom full of students.
  • …strategies for overcoming the making-input-comprehensible-obstacles that exist in a foreign language classroom.
  • …a comprehensive rubric for assessing the effectiveness of a foreign language teacher.

STAY TUNED!

 See what others are saying about Tuesday’s Tips For Staying In The Target Language.

Señor Howard

Señor Howard – www.SenorHoward.com/blog – @HolaSrHoward

Caleb Howard – www.SoMuchHope.com – @calhwrd

Your voice is valuable! Share your target language teaching experiences!

Leave comments below or add to the conversation on twitter by using #TL90plus (for staying in the target language” comments) and/or #langchat (for general language teaching comments).

4 thoughts on “Todd & A Series On CI (Part 2) – Why Do I “Use Fewer Words?” …Input Has Quantitative Qualities

  1. Pingback: Todd (The Stick Figure) & A Series On Comprehensible Input – Part 1 | Tuesday's Tips For Staying in The Target Language

  2. Pingback: Video Recording: 1st Graders Learning Days Of The Week and Colors In The Target Language | Tuesday's Tips For Staying in The Target Language

  3. Pingback: Todd & A Series On CI (Part 9): “Pairing” | Tuesday's Tips For Staying in The Target Language

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