Todd & A Series On CI (Part 15) – Obstacles To Making Input Comprehensible In A Foreign Language Classroom

It happens to all of us:

  • The kids don’t try. Students are always saying, “Teacher, I don’t get it. I don’t know what that means!”
  • The kids don’t pay attention. We work so hard to prepare a high-quality lesson and it seems wasted because some of the kids aren’t even motivated enough to pay attention.
  • Some kids aren’t the brightest crayons in the box. We make the answer as obvious as possible and the students still look at us confused.

Research and workshops CAN BE helpful, but when you try to implement those proven techniques in a classroom full of 24 students (all of whom have their own problems) it’s not so easy to get the results you hoped for.

What goes wrong? What are the obstacles that teachers have to overcome if they’d like to use the target language over 90% of the time? Although the following list won’t be comprehensive, here are some common obstacles that can keep a teacher from reaching their TL use goals.

Problem #1 – The student says, “I don’t get it! I don’t know what that means!” (i.e. Students keep saying they don’t understand even though teacher is using visual aids and gestures to help students find meaning. Teacher works hard to find good visuals. Teacher works hard to speak L2 slowly. Students still don’t get it.)

Examples from class:

  1. Teacher says the L2 word for “to play” and shows a picture of kids playing in order to help students find meaning. Teacher later finds out that the students misinterpreted his picture. They thought he was trying to teach them the L2 word for, “sports!”
  2. Teacher says the L2 word for “with” and shows a picture of a big, bold, red plus sign. Teacher later finds out that the students thought he was teaching them the L2 word for “doctor” or “hospital.”
  3. Teacher stands, points out the window and says the following L2 sentence, “It’s a nice day out today, isn’t it?” Students give her a blank stare and don’t respond to the question at all.

The problem is in the *PAIRING. The *PAIR is not exact or is not matched properly. (Click here for more details.)

Don’t give up! When these things happen, some teachers conclude that students just aren’t ready for L2 immersion. Teachers conclude that they should stay in the target language with level 2 students but not with level 1 students. There are things you can do to pair more effectively. (Stay tuned for tips in next week’s post.)

Problem #2 – “The blank stare” from your students. Maybe your *PAIR is effective and matched properly, however sometime’s there still is a blank stare.

Examples from class:

  1. Recently I was SURE a student would be able to respond when I said, “Stand up,” (in the target language) especially because I even used my hands to motion for him to stand. I thought I was making it as simple as possible.  One short command.  One very obvious gesture.However, he gave me a blank stare.  NO RESPONSE. I thought to myself, “How much more obvious can I make it?”

The problem is that there are multiple forms of input (which are coming at the learner) and one of those forms of input is too overwhelming. It’s so overwhelming that it’s limiting the learner’s ability to process any of the other forms of input. (Click here for more details.)

Don’t give up! When this happens, you don’t have to revert to L1. Try communicating (for a while) with fewer words or even NO WORDS. It will help the student grow accustomed to paying attention to the extralinguistic input that you’re offering him. (Check out these examples.)

Problem #3 – The most obvious problem: some students just don’t pay attention. They lack motivation.

Examples from class:

Maybe the students are…

  • …not the studious type and are too bored by school work.
  • …worried about a boy that they like.
  • …thinking about the science test they have next period.
  • …upset about something that’s happening at home.
  • …angry that a friend intentionally ignored them in the hallway before class.

These problems are huge BECAUSE *pairing can’t happen if the students aren’t watching or focused on each instance of *pairing.

It’s an unfortunate reality that we have to deal with. It’s unfortunate that we not only have to do OUR job of TEACHING but ALSO have to bend over backwards motivating students to do THEIR JOB of LEARNING.

Don’t give up! All the things you do to motivate your students are very worthwhile! (Don’t forget the starfish story! “It makes a difference to that one!”)

If you find yourself particularly overwhelmed with unmotivated students, check out next week’s blog post, on Tuesday’s Tips For Staying In The Target Language. Maybe you’ll find one or two things that you might be able to use in your classroom. (If you can’t wait for a week, you can check out this post or this post in the meantime.)

Señor Howard

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

Caleb Howard – www.SoMuchHope.com – @calhwrd


*Disclaimer: This term is my own and I’m using it for the purpose of reflecting on my own foreign language teaching practice.  The reader should not assume that this is the term found in formal, academic writing.


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