What are the “Six Bridges” to Traditional Teaching?

Everybody reading this blog has talked to colleagues who either don’t like or don’t get T.P.R.S. and other comprehensible input strategies. Yet it’s pretty obvious our profession needs modernising. At least in Canada, a program such as Core French (regular classroom French) does not work very well: we do not, despite between four and eight years of instruction, produce fluent graduates, and savvy parents want their kids in French Immersion partly because it actually works (and we Spanish, Japanese etc teachers are not much better). This is not because teachers aren’t hard-working, innovative, etc– I havn’t yet met a languages teacher who doesn’t work his or her butt off– but because we don’t use researched, scientifically-sound modern methods.

I think T.P.R.S. (and A.I.M., and narrative paraphrase, and reading) are the best ways (so far) for upping our game. If comprehensible input works, we T.P.R.S. teachers must do our part to modernise the profession. For my part, I will– and do– demo T.P.R.S., talk to colleagues, coach, share materials, write this blog, etc, but we require something else: a simple, do-it-now bridge between comprehensible-input teachers and people who have learned more traditional methods. We need to start somewhere simple: by showing people what we do which works. So, today’s question:

What can comprehensible-input practitioners share with others?

Here are Six Bridges between c.i. and communicative and/or grammarians: simple things ANYONE can do to up their game without doing stories. If your colleague sees how well T.P.R.S. works in your class, but is reluctant, here are six easy ways to start.

A) Go s-l-o-w-l-y. As I have shown, if any teacher– and not just in languages– speaks too quickly, they will lose the kids.

B) Reduce the vocab load, focus on high-frequency vocab, and increase input via repetitions.  A person who uses their textbook can make life much easier on the kids by reducing the number of words the kids must memorise per unit. Do you really need to know all ten ways of saying “goodbye” in Spanish? Do the kids really need to know the words for “underwear” and “socks” in French?

When I taught “communicatively,” with ¡Juntos!‘ massive vocab lists, the kids only ended up using half of the words anyway. Pick the most-frequent, necessary stuff, and focus on that.

Think this way: you have 60 min in a class. If you use 60 vocab items, you have on average 1 minute/item if you want the kids to learn them all. If you have 30 items, you have 2 minutes/item. What do you think the kids are going to better remember: many items superficially “covered,” or fewer items presented in depth?

C) Do more reading. The novels by Karen Rowan, Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab etc, will work in any classroom. If the kids understand, they are learning.

In my view, a lack of reading is the single-greatest flaw that “communicative” teachers’ practice has: they are so focused on talking and writing that their kids don’t read nearly enough. It doesn’t matter what you “believe” or “feel” about language acquisition: there isn’t a teacher in the world who would argue with the value of reading. All we have to do is provide reading that’s comprehensible and interesting.

D) Always clarify.. No kid in any class should ever be guessing what something means. Ambiguity or misunderstanding = no or less acquisition, and frustration (read: behaviour problems). A bit of English is just fine, thank you, if it helps kids understand.

To those who think that the process of establishing meaning (guess, look it up, think of cognates etc) aids acquisition: The involvment load hypothesis suggests that the more meaning processing that happens to an item, the better it is retained.  However, we get a lot more processing via stories, circling etc than through dictionaries, collaborative sentence creation, etc.  Best idea:  give translation where necessary, and make focus the meaningful use of language.

Do you learn a sports skill by Googling and then watching a demo video on Youtube, or by practising? That’s right: in language acquisition, getting comprehensible input is practising. The more you hear/read which you understand, the more you learn.

E) Don’t force output. This will be the hardest pill for “communicative” teachers to swallow, because they like the idea that talking results in acquisition (while we know that the reverse is true). So how should a “communicative” teacher downplay output? Here are some ideas:

1. Use the tapes/DVDs/movies and reading exercises that come with your textbook package before you do any speaking activities. This will provide more input and put the kids on a more solid footing for when you do want them to speak.

2. Confine output– at least initially– to the superstars. If you have a couple of kids who are quick on the uptake and lovers of French/Chinese etc, get them to do the practice dialogues first when you get to new vocab, grammar, etc. If Rorie and Arabella love to chat (and are good at it) have them practice all of the info-gap activities with the rest of the class listening, so that the slower Samba and Max can get some input before they have to try talking.

3. Provide input by using sock puppets, educational software, etc. With various free things such as Bitstrips, Educreations, Storyboard That,and a zillion other apps (most of them free or dirt cheap), it is very easy to provide input– and tons of dialogue modeling– without using kids.

F) Use MovieTalk (a.k.a. “narrative paraphrase,” developed by Ashley Hastings). Kids love it, it’s easy, it requires minimal prep, it’s very effective, and it’s infinitely flexible. Here is how to do Movietalk. Just remember: MovieTalk is not for introducing new vocab.

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