Dr. Baros is a dedicated researcher, educator, and LGBTQ advocate. Her areas of expertise are proficiency-based language teaching and creating inclusive environments for LGBTQ students and people.
Must teachers be 100% comprehensible? Is there room for noise? And, if so, what amount or type of noise is acceptable?
First, here are a few comments from this article, The Case for Non-Targeted Input (Krashen, 2013)
"For an item of grammar to be acquired, the language acquirer must be ready to acquire the item. It must, in other words, be at the acquirers' i+1, where i = aspects of grammar that were most recently acquired."
"An important corollary of the Comprehension Hypothesis is the "Net" Hypothesis: Given enough comprehensible input, i+1, all the vocabulary and structures the student is ready for, is automatically provided. In Krashen and Terrell (1983) this was referred to as the Net: "When someone talks to you in a language you have not yet completely acquired so that you understand what is said, the speaker "casts a net" of structure around your current level of competence, your "i". This net will include many instances of i+1, aspects of language you are ready to acquire" (p. 33)."
"Ray and Seely (2008) emphasize the importance of translation because they feel that students must understand every word of what is said in class and what they read. As noted earlier, this may indeed be very helpful at the very beginning, but the transparency requirement should give way to the requirement that students feel that they are understanding everything. If only the feeling of full comprehension is required, if input is allowed to contain some i+n, we are no longer restricted to translation as a means of making input comprehensible. We are free to use pictures and realia, as emphasized in Natural Approach (see also comments by Carol Gaab in Ray and Seely, p. 235), as well as other means of making input comprehensible that do not obviously provide a one-to-one mapping from form to meaning (e.g. background readings that provide a general context for a story). If, in fact, the input is truly compelling, it is likely that students will not even notice the "noise" or bits of incomprehensible and nontransparent elements in the input."
I believe there is a difference between "total translatability" and "total comprehensibility" (I dislike the word "transparency" because I think it is confusing and could apply to either case).
Total translatability - students have a one-to-one connection for each and every word. This limits what you can communicate to students as well as the intention of communicating it: the emphasis is on learning forms, not on understanding messages.
Total comprehensibility - I'm beginning to think that acceptable "noise" does not come in the form of incomprehensibility, but rather that the meaning of words that would be incomprehensible on their own are made clear through other methods. For instance, when Diane Neubauer told us the story about the Zodiac, there was a part where the rat jumped over the ox's head. Had she focused on us understanding the words in that part of the story, it would have been overwhelming as well as disrupted the flow of the story - we were right at the climax and focused on what was happening, so it would have been much less compelling (not to mention out of bounds) to sit and focus on the somewhat more-complex language involved in communicating that idea. However, we completely comprehended that very critical part and kept the "flow" of the language going thanks to her gestures. We learned plenty in the process - and she could still use that story for valuable input (as opposed to being "barred" from an otherwise comprehensible story because a key part would have been "out of bounds"). This still counts as noise, however, because I didn't make any connections with the actual target language and couldn't have told you what the words were, even just after hearing her say them. And, frankly, I didn't care - I understood the message and wanted to hear the rest of the story! They key is that the message was, in fact, 100% comprehensible even if it did include noise, which was important because it lowered my affective filter and kept me in "flow". In other words, I didn't get stressed about trying to achieve a deeper level of comprehension than I was ready for nor was I stressed that there were details I was missing, because I felt confident that I had comprehended the entire message.
With regard to i+1 - there have been a few that say if everything is "100% comprehensible", then it is not providing the "+1". However, this position confuses what is acquired with what can be understood. It is important to understand that "i" is NOT what can be understood - it is what is already acquired, meaning that it can be used by the student. The "+1" is the language that is not yet acquired but can be understood (and therefore has the potential to be acquired). This area of "+1" is very broad and flexible as it contains all of the language that can be made comprehensible. For instance, novice students who have never been exposed to the target language before, have zero "i"; thus, the entire first lesson (or series of lessons) are all within the "+1" range. As students acquire "i" from the "+1" input, their ability to comprehend additional "+1" expands, although much of the language that was "+1" will remain "+1". This is why I agree with Krashen (2013) that non-targeted language is ideal for differentiation - students convert the "+1" into "i" at different rates according to the natural order, but as long as students are provided with a "Net" of language that includes "+1" for all students, all students will be able to continue acquiring the language they are ready for at their own pace .
With regard to noise, I don't think that "noise" can be acquired - the grammar and vocabulary from the language used MUST be made comprehensible before acquisition of that particular form can occur. In my above example with the Zodiac story, I had no chance of acquiring the structure for "jump over" because I never really even wrapped my head around the target language words in the first place. However, that was not a bad thing - in fact, it enabled Diane to tell a compelling story while staying "in bounds" and keeping the affective filter low. I believe that teachers need to skillfully judge and plan how they will tell a story knowing that the majority should be comprehensible at an level which students can acquire it, but be able to bridge these sections with tiny bits of comprehensible noise (if that makes sense) in order to make up for bits of language that might be beyond the "+1" level yet are still necessary to be compelling.
So, to answer my initial questions:
YES, teachers MUST be 100% comprehensible - meaning that students feel that they are comprehending everything. Some misunderstandings will occur - that's fine. That is part of language development and their understandings will become refined as they receive more input (also noted in Krashen, 2013). This keeps the affective filter low as students become comfortable and confident about comprehending messages, forgetting to focus on individual words and whether they can translate them.
YES, there is room for noise, but it must be comprehensible noise that is strategically used only when necessary. In other words, the messages must remain comprehensible even if the language is not. Moreover, teachers need to use their best judgement in order to maximize the amount of "+1" at a level that is possible for students to acquire. Yet, they should not feel constrained to only providing input that is at the "+1" level - comprehensible noise can be used as a tool to help students access input opportunities that might be otherwise compelling and comprehensible for students.
Someone recently asked about how much time I plan my lessons, especially now that I'm working to differentiate for my classes. While it may look like a lot of work, my lesson planning is even easier and more enjoyable than ever before. Here's what I do:
Step 1: Select contexts and strategies for providing compelling CI
What will my stuents find compelling? I use a variety of contexts for authentic and compelling input for my students. I emphasize auditory input, with the "critical input" activities followed by reading what students heard. Here are a few examples of contexts, although this is by no means exhaustive:
Step 2: Select the language that will be used and how you will make it comprehensible
What will you talk about and how? What do you need to do to "stay in bounds," or in other words ensure that students can comprehend what you are saying and not get overwhelemed or oversaturated? This involves identifying:
When I get to class, I pick word cards that correspond with the story to guide me and to show to my students as I provide input (these are like my verb word wall, but in GIANT magnetic form with Spanish on one side and Spanish/English on the other). For more organic activities, I just have an idea of what language I might use to facilitate the conversation and then adjust the conversation and make it comprehensible as appropriate during class. This does require skill to think on-the-spot about what will be "in" and "out" of bounds, and what you will do with that language. For this reason, I feel that Story Listening, Comprehensible Comics, and other pre-planned activities are easier for new CI teachers.
Step 3: Determine how you will check for comprehension
This can be done a variety of ways, although the teacher must be careful not to raise the affective filter and make students anxious or feel put-on-the-spot. I use a variety of methods, and they differ based on the activity.
Step 4: Determine whether a grade will be attached to an activity, why, and how
This is where each teacher will have to determine what fits with their philosophy, goals, and program. I've changed my grading system three times this year alone, but I do feel that the most recent system might stick because it's easy and authentic. I grade anything that is formative as a completion grade - these make up 50% of their overall grade. Students are letting me know how well I am doing my job - it's my 50%, so as long as they let me know how I did, they get the grade. The other 50% is based on their behaviors aligned with my expectations for them, since those behaviors will lead to acquisition. Because I have pretty clear routines in my class and pre-made forms, this requires no extra preparation beyond printing copies of resources.
That's it! As long as I'm not trying anything new (or blogging about it!), it usually only takes me about 15-30 minutes to plan for all of my classes each day. I take about 15 minutes to plan my weekly outline ahead of time. Then, all that is left to do during the week is picking language to use and writing up the reading and any related materials. Assuming I already have a story, comic, or other context in ind, this takes about another 15-30 minutes to create the resources and differentiate them by class level and student need.
To be completely honest, what takes much more time is finding stories and other contexts to talk about, especially for Story Listening. Selecting the right context and/or story means becoming familiar with many stories and how they might be both compelling and comprehensible for your students. However, this is becoming easier and easier as I build a bank of resources (such as this, this, or this, with more listed here) and listen to stories other teachers are telling. One of my best stories was one I learned as a student of Chinese Story Listening!
I have some students in my regular class (about 40 hours of instruction so far) who are VERY low - as in, out of thirty students, all but three will highlight that at least 95% of the story (indicating they understand it when we read it), and three will highlight about 10% of the story. When I've spoken to their other teachers, they struggle with focusing their attention and retaining information in their regular classes as well. Many of them have low English reading skills and/or low motivation. In any case, I just haven't reached them yet the way I would like to and I'm afraid they're getting left behind by the rest of the class.
This month, my "professional goal" is to meet these kids where they need me. Here are a few of the ideas I've come up with, but I'm also curious to hear your thoughts.
One strategy I'm experimenting is by using the videos of my instruction. Not only am I recording their stories from class and putting them on my YouTube channel (my kids think having a YouTube channel is so cool haha), but I'm also including the reading and a carefully chosen set of Quizlet flash cards that parents/students can practice.
In addition, I just started teaching novice students (0 hours of previous instruction) and am telling them a novice version of the stories ahead of telling my regular class their more intermediate version. I'm encouraging students who might want/need some extra practice and support to pre-listen to these easier versions of the story to understand the basic problem, characters, storyline, and vocabulary that they'll hear in their in-class version of the story (on the condition that they'll still pay attention when I tell it and won't spoil the story for others). These include the reading and flash cards as well. My hope is that by scaffolding the story this way, they'll increase their comprehension level, get more meaningful input, and I will still be able to tell the more difficult versions of the stories that the rest of the class is ready for.
Here are some other ideas that one of our excellent ELA/SPED teachers suggested after I described Story Listening to her (I'm still processing whether and how I would use them; these could be whole-group or small group) - she pointed out that typical students need 40 or more exposures to something to understand it and use it in a new way; students with learning challenges or exceptional needs can need twice that exposure to comprehend. Thus, these activities are aimed toward increasing that exposure in order to comprehend words in new contexts (PLEASE NOTE - I know that these do not lead to acquisition. Acquisition isn't my goal; rather, I would be using these strategies to increase comprehension of the input so that the stories are more comprehensible and effective for acquisition - perhaps think of these as "practical preliminary steps" in order to provide quality CI for all of my students given the particular challenges and demands of teaching in K-12 public schools) :
Interventions for students who are not comprehending the stories in the first place:
Interventions for students who are understanding the story, but are not transferring what they hear to what they read, whether in context or when applying to new contexts (in addition to providing more auditory input):
I think I will explore using the graphic organizer and pre-teaching in the coming weeks, although I will have to re-arrange my class activities to do small groups. As a secondary teacher, this seems a bit daunting - but I have to give it the good ol' college try! If I can pull it off and my students are able to comprehend (and therefore acquire) more, then it's absolutely worth it.
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