Todd & A Series On CI (Part 16) – Overcoming The Obstacles To Making Input Comprehensible

Nope. Not when you’re trying to stay in the target language.

Instead, #TL90plus foreign language teachers try something like this to help students find meaning in a piece of incomprehensible L2:

Instead of *PAIRING incomprehensible L2 with comprehensible L1, teachers try to *PAIR it with comprehensible extralinguistic input (i.e. *representational, *gesticulated, *inflectional, *incidental situational and *constructed situational input) (Teachers can also pair it with comprehensible L2 as student proficiency increases.)


Some students will look at the above picture and think, “Oh!!! Azul means SQUARE!” Another student might look at the picture and think, “SHAPES! He’s going to teach us about L2 shapes today!” (Do you remember any of this from last week’s post, which is entitled Obstacles To Making Input Comprehensible In A Foreign Language Classroom?)

Simply stated: the problem is the *PAIR is not matched properly (or specifically enough). (Click here for more details)

So…what can be done to overcome this obstacle?

1. Whenever possible, *PAIR EXACTLY.

AVOID using extralinguistic input that could mean more than one thing. For example, don’t use a THUMBS UP gesture to help a student find meaning in the L2 phrase for “I’m doing well.” He might think that you’re saying, “Good job,” instead. (Click here for more details on effectively using gesticulated input.)


Depending on the proficiency level of your students, DON’T hold up a picture like this…


…and say a whole sentence about it or sing an L2 song about it. NO! That would be like saying, “students: learn some L2 today by studying this L2 paragraph and, to help you out, here is an L1 paragraph that says exactly the same thing.” Especially if you’re teaching novice learners, that would be ridiculous! Students would think, “Okay!? Ummm. You gave us a translation, BUT how am I supposed to know which L2 words match up with the L1 words. This is too broad! There’s too much content. I need this broken down into WAY smaller chunks.”


  • Start simple.
    • Point to the bird.
    • Look at the students while pointing to the bird.  (This action suggests to the students that you want them to pay attention to the bird that you’re pointing to.)
    • Point to the bird again.
    • Say, “tweet, tweet,” while pointing to the bird.
    • Say, “bird,” while pointing to the bird.
    • Say, “bird,” again while pointing to the bird.
    • Say, “Class, repeat: BIRD.”
    • Say, “Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  BIRD,” while pointing to the bird.
    • Point to the elephant.
    • Look at the students while pointing to the elephant.  (This action suggests to the students that you want them to pay attention to the elephant that you’re pointing to.)
    • Point to the elephant again.
    • Make a motion/gesture that the students will know means elephant.
    • Say, “elephant,” while pointing to the elephant.
    • Say, “elephant,” again while pointing to the elephant.
    • Say, “Class, repeat: ELEPHANT.”
    • Say, “Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  ELEPHANT,” while pointing to the elephant.
    • Point to the bird and say, “A bird.”
    • Point to the elephant and say, “An elephant.”  (Repeat these last two steps)
  • Practice “the simple.”
  • Ensure that “the simple” is comprehensible
  • THEN add layers of complexity ONE AT A TIME
  • Click here to read an entire post about this.


If you’re trying to help students find meaning in the L2 word for blue, show them the blue square and then show them many other blue things (i.e. blue circle, blue crayon, blue bird, blue elephant, etc). Then they’ll know that you’re trying to teach them a color word and not a shape or other noun.


Provide a variety of exact pairing instances over an extended period of time. This will allow for students to gain confidence for how the L2 word or phrase is used in a variety of situations. Each time you revisit the *PAIR, the meaning will become more solidified in the learner’s mind.


If I’m trying to teach the L2 word for blue, often I will say/show what ISN’T blue (in the TL).

“This isn’t blue.”


“This isn’t blue.”


“This isn’t blue.”



blue azul

I do this all the time. When I’m trying to establish meaning for a piece of incomprehensible L2 (by pairing it with a corresponding piece of comprehensible linguistic input) I frequently say/show what it DOESN’T mean as well. In that way I eliminate incorrect/vague pairs.

Well, Sr. Howard…that’s nice…BUT:


angry teacher



All of these questions can be summed up with the following sentence:

One of the BIGGEST ‘making input comprehensible’ obstacles in a 90+% TL use classroom is: the *PAIR isn’t seen/noticed/processed by the learner.

This is a huge problem because, if a student doesn’t process the instance of pairing, there can be NO STEP TOWARDS ACQUIRING that piece of incomprehensible L2.

Realistically speaking, this obstacle CAN’T be overcome 100% of the time.

  • Some kids are just too distracted.
  • Some students just have too much going on emotionally in order to concentrate on L2 class.
  • Some people are just down right nasty and like to cause trouble in class.

A teacher will feel unnecessarily overwhelmed if she feels like she should be able to effectively control every factor AND enable her students to pay attention all the time.

There are, however, some things that can be done to help maximize the amount of time students are noticing and processing instances of pairing.

Identify which of the following three scenarios is the reason for the disruption:

1- OVERWHELMED. The learner is willing and focused but doesn’t process the instance of pairing because the incomprehensible L2 is too unsettling.

The solution to this problem is pretty simple and I’ve already discussed it (in detail) in this post“Why Aren’t They Getting This? – Input: Multiple Forms & ICI.” You might also want to check out:

2- DISTRACTED. The learner is willing (and sometimes focused) but external stimuli causes his attention to be on something other than the teacher’s instance of pairing.

There are many solutions to this problem. Here are some of my favorite tips:

3- UNMOTIVATED. The learner is unwilling to engage because he doesn’t value the lesson activities enough AND values something else MORE.

I have classes that go well, and classes that don’t go so well. The classes that don’t go well usually have a handful of students in them that care too much about what their peers think. They try to show off in front of their peers. They try to give me a hard time so that their peers will think they are cool/rebellious. The students are paying LESS attention to what I’m trying to do and MORE attention to verbal and nonverbal input (from peers) that effects their social status. It’s a MULTIPLE FORMS OF INPUT situation (except that the overwhelming/distracting/competing input isn’t coming from me, it’s coming from their peers!)

The situation is difficult, but not hopeless. Here are some tips on how to deal with it.

  • Present your material in attractive and meaningful ways. Textbooks, pencil and paper are useful. However there are more engaging ways of presenting/studying material. Be thoughtful about choosing activities/materials that are relevant, creative and inspiring. The more meaningful your class is the more students will be willing to temporarily set aside their worries about peers during your instructional time.
  • Consider the learner. At the beginning of your lesson are you thinking about your instructional plan ONLY? Do you think about the students and gauge how they are feeling? Do you adjust your plans to accommodate the ‘feel’ in the room without unnecessarily compromising your instructional goals? How much do you smile? How personable are you? How much do you know about the students you teach? The more your students feel considered, the more open they will be to the input you offer them. You don’t need to be their friend. However, the more they feel valued, the more they will be willing to value what you have to offer them.
  • Help students feel emotionally safe. Many of your students are emotionally vulnerable. They will always be wanting to feel emotionally safe. Is participating in class too risky? Will they feel shame if they make a mistake? Will they feel that making mistakes is okay? What will the teacher do if a classmate makes fun of his peer? Does the teacher pay attention to all of the students, or only the ones who are most verbal or popular? Students will be more motivated to pay attention to you when they feel emotionally safe in the classroom environment that you create.
  • Help students feel valuable. Students will be more likely to care TOO much about their peers if they don’t have positive conclusions about their own value as a person. People easily forget that they are valuable. People easily forget that their perceived value doesn’t have to change based on the opinion of others or based on their social or academic performance. Take time to remind vulnerable students that they are valuable apart from what their peers say. These kinds of things will help students care less about the opinions of their peers; freeing up mental capacity to pay attention to academic things.
  • Place distracting students at the fringes. If a student’s lack of motivation disrupts class continually, try putting them in one of the back corners of the room. Do your best to work with the students that ARE motivated. And, who knows…maybe the unmotivated student will start to show interest after they watch from the fringes for a while.

Señor Howard

Señor Howard – – @HolaSrHoward

Caleb Howard – – @calhwrd

*Disclaimer: These terms are my own and I’m using them for the purpose of reflecting on my own foreign language teaching practice.  The reader should not assume that these are the terms found in formal, academic writing.

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