This is a repost from 2014. I ask the language community: “Who is going to orchestrate the obvious changes needed in ELA to get them up to speed with the research?” Someone has to do that. The chasm between WL and ELA pedagogy needs to be bridged:
We have 2000 ELA instructors in Denver Public Schools, yet there are only 100 WL teachers in the district. I have often lamented the fact that Krashen’s research is not fully appreciated by the ELA folks (it is given lip service only) and that if a bridge could be built between them and us, so that we work together, it could really help the kids in their struggles to learn a second language.
So I wrote this letter to my principal this morning:
Josefina and Gabriella sorry about the long email here but I have a lot to say that I think can ultimately help Lincoln kids take the fast track to mastery of English. I’m copying Annick Chen and also Karissa Radford, since Karissa has experience as a student (one of my best ever) with stories.
My first point is that I wanted you both to know that our DPS WL Writing Team (which usually writes Pre/Post Tests for the district) has just begun a new project of major importance. It is the first ever – in any major metro district nationally – WL Scope and Sequence that aligns fully with current research. This represents a major shift from how things have been done in the past. This document will have teeth and will impact ALL second language acquisition theory including ELA in DPS. How we react to it is up to us but it could serve to bring together all professionals in the district whose sole responsibility is to help kids learn a second language.
The team had its first Scope and Sequence all day meeting yesterday and it was very successful under Diana Noonan’s inspired leadership. It will take more such meetings (Saturdays into April) but we will emerge with a Scope and Sequence that is impossible to ignore. It is based on readers – short chapter books – that have been in use by district WL teachers for many years now.
I think that this fledgling document represents a step up, a level up, on the Colorado Standards and ACTFL as well, because we play down output and play up input, just as Krashen says. The key thing about this new Scope and Sequence is that it is going to be far less vague and far more concrete and specific than state and national standards, which can be and have been twisted to align with a textbook or whatever to meet the needs of the teacher and not the kids, and to sell expensive programs to districts that merely serve to frustrate kids and teachers.
In my opinion, the problem is that the ELA team has their eye on the wrong target – they think that they are teaching the language but really they are focusing on CONTENT. By focusing the child on the TEXT, which always contains unfamiliar words that the child may have learned but has not acquired, the child becomes bewildered and gives up. We should instead be teaching THE LANGUAGE, which should be presented (as we do with stories) so that the child is in full command of all new vocabulary which keeps their motivation at a high level throughout the class.
In the new Scope and Sequence we will provide a clear description of what we are required to do to align with all standards and with the ACTFL Proficiency Levels and the Three Modes of Communication. We will give a full description of which of the three modes bring the best gains and why. In our opinion, the DPS ELA team currently overly focuses on the Presentational skill whereas we in WL focus on the Interpretive and Interpersonal skills, which focus on input before output, which is the key to this whole discussion.
I also would like to provide, below, a most important document by one of our colleagues, Robert Harrell in Los Angeles. This document explains in very succinct terms the underpinnings of what we do in DPS WL, the underpinnings for our new Scope and Sequence document:
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about TCI
1. What do TCI, TPRS, TPR, etc. stand for?
TCI stands for Teaching with Comprehensible Input and means just that: the teacher uses messages in the target language that learners find compelling and understandable to help them acquire the language unconsciously. TPRS® stands for Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling. It is one excellent way of providing Comprehensible Input. TPR® is Total Physical Response and is another way of providing Comprehensible Input. Don’t confuse TPR and TPRS. The rest of the alphabet soup is best learned in context.
2. Isn’t TCI just another name for TPRS?
No. While TPRS is a prime example of TCI, Teaching with Comprehensible Input is more than that and includes anything the teacher uses to make certain the messages in the target language are both compelling and understandable to students. (The “Comprehensible” part of the name means comprehensible to the students, not just to the teacher.
3. Speaking of “compelling”, isn’t this all about flying blue elephants?
While many classes enjoy the creative freedom that TCI offers and do come up with bizarre stories, “compelling” simply means that students get so involved in the content of the message that they forget they are speaking a foreign language. This may result in flying blue elephants, but it can equally easily result in a discussion of bullying in school, the upcoming football game or school dance; in other words, “compelling” means it’s something the students truly want to talk about.
4. So what is Teaching with Comprehensible Input?
To help answer that, let’s see what it is not: it is not a grammar-driven curriculum; it is not a textbook-driven curriculum; it is not long lists of vocabulary words; it is not the teacher talking at students; it is not learning about a language; it is not immersion.
Teaching with Comprehensible Input is speaking with students in a way that every students understands what the teacher is saying all the time; it incorporates relevance by exploring topics to which students have a connection and that are connected to real life; it is student driven and student centered because students give input and direction to the flow of conversation; it is going “deep and narrow” with the language rather than “shallow and broad”; it is relational; it is aimed at acquisition of the language rather than learning about the language; it is contextualized.
5. But what about rigor? I hear many students and teachers say that TCI or TPRS is “easy”.
Teaching with Comprehensible Input, including TPRS, definitely seems easy to students and is certainly different from most of their classes. But we need to distinguish between rigorous and onerous or burdensome. Doing more work does not mean more rigor, it just means more work. Are 40 math problems that practice the same concept twice as rigorous as 20, or just more work?
According to the US Department of State, rigor includes a sustained focus, depth and integrity of inquiry, suspension of premature conclusions, and continual testing of hypotheses. Students in a TCI classroom are exposed to this kind of rigor. The Interpersonal Mode of Communication requires them to sustain focus for the full class period with no zoning out, side conversations, etc. The student-driven nature of the course means that they can explore deeply and fully in the target language the topics that truly interest them. As students are exposed to the language in a contextualized, meaningful fashion, they suspend conclusions about how the language functions rather than having those conclusions forced upon them at the outset. The unconscious brain continuously tests the students’ hypotheses about what sounds correct in the language.
So why does all this seem easy? Imagine you have a travel trailer that you want to take on vacation. Since all you have is a small four-cylinder car, you hitch the trailer to it and take off. Your car will strain to pull it and probably break down as a result. Your neighbor comes along with his large V-8 pickup truck; you hitch the travel trailer to the pickup and take off. No strain; the pickup handles the load with ease. What’s the difference? Did you travel trailer suddenly become lighter? Is the work any easier? No. You simply got the right equipment for the job. That’s the difference between learning a language and acquiring a language. Learning accesses the conscious mind, which is not designed for languages. TCI accesses the unconscious mind, which is powerfully designed to acquire languages. Learning or acquiring a language (whichever one you want to call it) is hard work, always has been, and always will be. It just seems easy when you use the right equipment.
6. Okay, but what was this about the “Interpersonal Mode of Communication”? What about the skills of reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar, and culture?
The newest state World Language standards, the National Standards, ACTFL (American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages) and the College Board (AP courses and exams) all revolve around the Three Modes of Communication: Interpersonal, Interpretive and Presentational. Since the purpose of language is to communicate, this is rightly the emphasis. Presentational communication is when the “author” speaks or writes without the opportunity to interact with the audience and so must think in advance about how to present compellingly and understandably. Interpretive communication is when the recipient reads, hears, or sees a “text” without the author’s being present. The text must be understood without direct help from the author. Interpersonal communication is when two or more people exchange information and language with each other and have the opportunity to clarify, negotiate meaning, express lack of understanding, etc. This is really the core of both language acquisition and Teaching with Comprehensible Input. Interestingly enough, real-life communication incorporates all six of those skills in a holistic and organic way, rather than as a laboratory sample to be dissected.
7. That all sounds interesting, but can you back it up?
Good question. We should always be able to give a reason for what we do. Second Language Acquisition researchers disagree on many points, but the one thing that they all agree on is this: The single most important element in language acquisition is comprehensible input. As Wynne Wong from Ohio State University puts it: “A flood of input must precede a trickle of output.” TCI and TPRS are built around this one indisputable principle.
In addition, brain-based research indicates that the brain requires certain things; among these are meaning, repetition and novelty. We can see these at work in all sorts of ways. The need for meaning is why we see shapes in clouds, the face of a person on a tortilla, etc. Children exhibit the need for repetition when they watch the same film or read the same book over and over. The novelty aspect comes out when we remember that unusual event on our routine drive to work. How many times do you get there without remember how you did it? But see a plane land on the freeway, and you will remember it because it was novel. There is a lot more at work here, including chunking and automaticity, but that is for another discussion.
8. What does a TCI classroom look like, then?
As with any method, strategy or approach, TCI will look a little different for each teacher. Some common things to look for, though, include: the teacher speaks and encourages the students to speak the target language at least 90% of the time or more; the teacher and students engage in a conversation or dialogue in the target language; the teacher checks for comprehension regularly and often; the teacher encourages but does not force students to express themselves in the target language at all times; the teacher shelters vocabulary but not grammar; grammar is contextualized and embedded in the language; the teacher explores those topics and items that interest students as shown by their responses, reactions, and requests; the teacher incorporates rigor in the classroom by requiring sustained focus from students for the class period; the teacher and students develop a relationship with one another.
What you won’t see are lots of worksheets, lots of homework, and lots of mind-numbing drills.