What I Learned About Comprehensible Input From My Crawling Infants

One of the biggest things that has influenced the way I teach a foreign language has been being a dad and helping my daughters move from L-ZERO to L1.

Being a dad has shaped the way I teach L2 and my views on comprehensible input.

Being a dad has shaped the way I teach L2 and my views on comprehensible input.

tuesday's tips for staying in the target language

I love creating moments when language input is comprehensible to them.

The other day a teacher emailed me and asked how I started teaching they way I do.
Here’s what she wrote:
I was wondering how you got so involved in your teaching style? I used to be a high school teacher, and I would have LOVED to know more about how to teach the way that you do! Were you introduced to it in your undergrad, graduate, or just through practice? I’m thinking some workshops/books/websites to suggest to fellow teachers would be great! I’ve already shared your site with many of them.

At first I didn’t know how to answer.  But as I started writing back to her…I realized some of the major things that have influenced the way I teach.  …and I want to share them with you.
Here was my answer to her question:

“so…how did I get so involved in my teaching style?  …hmmm.  good question.
A huge influence is actually something that you’d probably never think would affect my professional life…but it has!  BEING A DAD has significantly influenced the way I teach a foreign language!
Why/How has being a dad influenced the way you teach a foreign language?
I’ve loved helping my daughters learn their first language.  Talk about a great opportunity for ‘staying-in-the-target-language’!  When a baby is learning his/her first language (mostly from family members in a home environment):
  • there is no option BUT to stay in the target language.
  • There’s no language besides the target language!
  • There’s no way of using L1 to explain L2.  There’s only helping a baby move from L-ZERO to L1.  🙂
  • It’s language learning at it’s best: the most natural way, the least work-intensive way, the most meaningful way…and it all happens pretty much by accident.
  • The L1 teacher (parent) and the L1 learner (baby) hardly even notice that L1 acquisition is happening.
  • No L1 wordsearches for baby.
  • No extensive/overwhelming L1 grammar explanations for baby.
  • No flashcards to make and memorize.
  • Baby doesn’t even have to try.
  • As long as baby is watching, and living and breathing…L1 acquisition happens!
I loved (and still love) creating moments where incomprehensible language is PAIRED with comprehensible extralinguistic input.
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.
Through situations like this, I realized that my daughters don’t learn L1 by only hearing L1.  They acquire L1 a piece at a time (or one baby sized step at time) whenever they experience a moment where L1 is made comprehensible for them.  They don’t just need to hear L1.  They need to hear L1 in a meaning-filled context.  They need to hear L1 in reference to noticeable, tangible objects.  They need to hear L1 as a corresponding gesture is being made.  Etc.
Teaching them their first language has helped me make a philosophical distinction between language immersion and COMPREHENSIBLE language immersion.
I guess I used to think that staying in the target language meant just talking to my students in L2 instead of L1.  I thought it was saying everything that you say in L1 but switching to L2 and holding up an occasional picture to make sure that I was checking of the “make input comprehensible” box on my foreign language teacher strategy checklist.
I’ve learned that you have to make it a goal that every student understands pretty much every thing your saying…even though you are saying it in a language they’ve never heard of before.
Now, in my classroom, I talk to my students like I talked to my 1 year old when she was learning English from us at home.  I use fewer words.  …and create scenarios where the students pretty much know exactly what I’m about to say…but instead of saying it in a language they know…I say it in a language that I want them to learn.
Here are some examples to show you what I’m talking about:
1- I eat a bite of cupcake and put on a face that says, “I really enjoy this,” …and when they are all watching (and wishing they could be enjoying what I’m enjoying) I say, “Delicioso,” or “Que rico.”  (they wouldn’t know what it means except that the scenario I created made it unmistakable that I was talking about good taste.)
2- I have something in my hand (something attention grabbing) that the students watch me drop or see me thoughtlessly set down.  Then, I pretend that I lost it…or can’t find where it dropped.  I look around, with a slight sense of urgency, like I can’t find it.  Finally, when all the students undoubtedly notice that I can’t find something, I say, “¿Dónde está?”  It creates a wonderful moment for language acquisition:
  • The item was noticeable and attention-grabbing.  So every student knows where it fell.
  • The students are bursting with a desire to tell me where I dropped it.  They are pointing and sitting on the edge of their seats wishing to be the one that tells Sr. Howard where it is.  Some even start to say something in English because they are so excited that they know where it is.
  • Then…at that climax of attention…and climax of student desire to say something…I use the two-hand method to help them say, “allí está!!!”  …and then i pretend like I still don’t say it…and we go back and for saying, “¿Dónde está?” “allí está!!!” a few times.
  • They wouldn’t know what those words mean except that the scenario I created made it unmistakable that I was talking about “where is it?”  and. “There it is!”
So every moment of my Spanish class becomes moments like those.  In a 40 minute period, the students experience hundreds of meaningful PAIRING moments.  Every moment is intentional.  Every moment is on purpose.  A lot of times the students are so focused on the meaning-filled scenarios/situations I create, that they forget they are learning another language and even functioning in an L2-immersion environment.
“When a teacher uses PAIRING to facilitate L2 acquisition, it’s like she puts a puzzle together…all but the last piece.”
To me that phrase means…I create a scenario (and then another scenario and then another and another and another) where my students unmistakably know what I’m about to say next…but instead of saying it in L1…I say it in L2.
…and then I repeat it…and repeat it…and repeat it.
Sometimes I repeat it immediately.  Sometimes I say it once but repeat it daily/weekly by including the L2 phrase in one of my routines.
Repetition is important because each piece of incomprehensible L2 input will never be acquired unless students have the opportunity to hear it repeatedly PAIRED with an equivalent form of comprehensible extralinguistic input.
The last thing I should say about that is in regards to performance objectives, curriculum and state standards.
All of what I just said sounds very impromptu and improvised.  And, to be honest,…some of it is.
But I’m a firm believer that, in a formal academic setting, a teacher should be an instructional leader.  She should set daily performance objectives and short and long term performance goals for her students.  A teacher should have a standards based curriculum.
I don’t think that teachers who use this style of teaching should believe that all learning should be spontaneous and student led.  I believe that teachers should leave some room for that…but still be intentional with using this approach to move students through all the required components of a proficiency based curriculum.
So that’s a long explanation to my first answer: “Being a dad has helped shape the way I teach language professionally.”
Another thing that has shaped how I teach has been taking advantage of good PD opportunities.
Going to ACTFL 2012 jump-started me on this staying in the target language journey.  …and a lot of what I do has snowballed from there.
It’s really fun.  It makes the classroom so much more meaningful and worthwhile because we don’t emphasize things that students have a hard time finding meaningful (like L2 skills practice or L2 vocab memorization).  Instead, we do REAL.  We do MEANINGFUL.  We do FUN.  We do “STUDENTS TAKE OWNERSHIP.”  And yes…we do worksheets.  We do assessments.  …but we do it in an L2 immersion environment that’s RICH with instances of PAIRING. We do it in a way that all the students (even the kindergartners) understand pretty much everything I’m saying even though I’m talking to them in a language they don’t know.)
If you are interested in sharing resources with fellow teachers about this way of teaching…I don’t have much to offer…cause I don’t do any research or reading myself.  But I would say…:


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Señor Howard

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

Caleb Howard – www.SoMuchHope.com – @calhwrd

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