For me, this is a must read every day. It is one of the two or three most important of the 4,000 articles written in this space. I will post and repost it over and over through the year. I have to remember to check for understanding via a thorough questioning process. As we teach for full comprehension and therefore eventual fluency by our students, we sometimes move on to a new statement, a new idea involving new targets and therefore new and unfamiliar sounds, when all of the students are still searching with their eyes for the last thing we said.
This is a big mistake – the student needs to:
- make that visual connection with the word or structure that is written in L1 on the board for acquisition to take place.
- have time to do so.
We can’t leave the student searching for the L1 translation on the board and go on to new things. We cannot have them searching around a messy board, one that is too messy for them to find it and in cavalier fashion move on to the next thing. No wonder our students get confused and we feel as if we can’t do comprehensible input and the whole thing becomes so emotional for us.
We must learn to wait until all our students have time to find the word on the board with its handy dandy English translation right next to it and then we must give the student the time to process what they see there on the board into their minds before moving on. It is as simple as that. That is really what SLOW means.
SLOW doesn’t mean just going slowly. It means going at the pace and doing the things necessary (finger pointing, waiting for the “kathunk” moment, watching their eyes, being patient) for every single student in the room to fully understand what was just said, and we do that by questioning.
To repeat – we don’t go on to the next thing until we have verified that all the students in the classroom understand the thing we just said. We do this by asking more yes/no and one word answer questions than we every thought we could in a million years. We check for comprehension in a way that we have never done before – that is the subject of this article.
Finger comprehension checks don’t work. We only need to use them when an administrator is in the room. Those unfortunate people (unfortunate because they don’t understand current research in foreign language acquisition and act as if they do – which is really a sad thing) are looking for things like that. Building managers are happy when they see such creative formative assessment with all those sets of ten fingers in the air but that is about all the hands checks are worth.
Finger comprehension checks don’t really tell us anything because the students lie to us. Only use finger comprehension checks when administrators are in the room and need to check the “uses formative assessment during class” box. Isn’t it crazy that we have to teach to our observation goals and teach our students at the same time just to be seen as competent teachers? It is all so strange!
We are looking for real, not bogus, indicators of comprehension. What is a real indicator of comprehension? There is only one that really and truly works. We verify by questioning. Here is how we do it:
1. We say something.
2. We go to the board where it is written (or write it if it is not already there) and we point to it and its translation into L1, then we put our hand on it, or we laser point to it.
3. We wait about four seconds. At this point some kids have gotten it but others haven’t. That’s not enough kids. So we move on to step four here.
4. We ask a number of questions about what we just said. What does that mean? It’s what I said above – we verify by asking more yes/no questions or questions that require one word answers than we ever thought we could ever ask in a million years. We do not ask a few of these y/n and one word answer questions – we verify by asking a very large amount of them, so many that we don’t go on to the next thing until we see that every single student in the room has fully understood the question we just asked.
5. Only when everyone in the room has fully understood do we move on. We look for comprehension in each student’s eyes and we also feel the strong choral response in response to each question we ask from the group.
Here is an example, taken from the middle of a PQA session I did at NTPRS on Thursday using the structures works, lazy and the boss yells to set up the Anne Matava story Lazy:
I started the circling in the usual way:
- Class, Malcolm works at Wal-Mart. (ohhh!)
- Class, does Malcolm work at Wal-Mart? (yes)
- Class, does Malcom or Mickey work at Wal-Mart? (Malcolm)
Note carefully: what happens in the process above, how most of us circle, is that we continue to circle half heartedly but never feeling really feel convinced that the kids fully know, as a class, what they are hearing. That has been the big problem for us up until now – those half-sincere Ohhhs! and yesses and nos and generally weak answers that we have largely accepted in a game of understanding that has been basically almost a sham. A few kids get it, lead the responses from the class, and we take that to mean that the class understands and we go on like the Tarot fool about to walk off the cliff with his faithful dog following right behind him.
Those weak responses are no greater indications of understanding than the bogus finger comprehension checks and the bogus intimidating random pointing to a kid and “What did I just say?” We have to go deeper with our checking for understanding – that is the point of this article. We have to verify that all of the students have understood by asking more yes/no and one word answer questions than we every thought we could in a million years, or at least in a hell of a long time.
That means that, after we circle, we don’t just go to on to the next thing. We stay on the first thing keeping in mind the idea that we are going to circle Malcolm works at Wal-Mart until we get a strong choral responses and full clear eyed understanding and head shaking up and down from every student in the class, even if we have to do that one thing for the rest of the class period. We wait them out.
And note most importantly that we are not just waiting them out until each student in the classroom has indicated that they understand. We are also establishing strong classroom discipline in those moments. We are:
making sure that each kid is actively involved with us, which is the best and most powerful form of classroom discipline ever devised
encouraging the class to turn on the few kids who think – wrongly – that they can wait out the teacher with their non-responses. Yes, I am saying that if we go so slowly that 80% of the kids in the room have to wait while we wait for the other 20% decide to climb onto the comprehensible input train, then we have a situation where the 80% will get so frustrated with waiting that they will turn on their classmates and provide for you an instant classroom police force.
This is what we haven’t done in the past, most of us. We haven’t waited it out to get full understanding via much more fuller questioning around each statement and it has screwed us. We should, from the moment we have finished the first round of circling about Malcolm, stay on the originial statement much more than feels natural by asking:
- Class, does Malcom work at Wal-Mart with me? (hand or laser on the word) (NO! – strong choral response)
- Class, does Malcom work at K-Mart with me? (hand or laser on the word) (NO! – strong choral response)
- Class, does Malcom work at Wal-Mart? (hand or laser on the word) (YES! – strong choral response)
- Class, does Jerry Lewis work at Wal-Mart? (hand or laser on the word) (NO! – strong choral response)
- Class, does Malcom work with Jerry Lewis? (hand or laser on the word) (NO! – strong choral response)
- Class, does Malcom work at Wal-Mart? (hand or laser on the word) (YES! – strong choral response)
- Class, does Malcom work at Wal-Mart with Mickey? (hand or laser on the word) (NO! – strong choral response)*
If you ask 5 to 10 questions per minute in this way about the same sentence before moving on to the next sentence, you will see what happens in a positive way for your teaching using comprehensible input.
Let’s do the math. Let’s say you can average ten of these kinds of intense yes/no and one word answer questions, these barrage questions, in every minute in each class. It is possible! Therefore, in one 45 minute class, minus fifteen minutes for the bullshit, doing the math on 30 available minutes of instruction time, you could get 300 questions per class. In five days that is 1,500 questions or 6,000 per month over 9 months = 54,000 questions per year. That is a lot of questions and, if the child understands each one of them through the process described above, they will have had a great year of comprehensible input – a great year, and the gains will be visible.
The only valid way to know if your students know is by asking them questions.** Do it, and you will have found what I consider to be the most effective tool yet made in teaching comprehensible input, a tool which, if you properly incorporate it into your teaching, might possibly even prove to be the missing piece in your instruction and may change your effectiveness and your entire relationship with the method in ways you may have never thought possible.
*if you find yourself having trouble coming up with such an unatural barrage of yes/no one word answer questions – slow to you but not to the students! – try turning to the actor(s) and act them such questions, then turning back to the class and asking them, and back and forth like that.*** It will make it easier to ask all those one word answer questions.
**[credit: Blaine Ray]
***[credit: Von Ray]
One last point. Do your best to introduce no new vocabulary into your lesson. This is where it falls apart for a lot of people. Yes, it is almost impossible to use only two or three new structures and to have the rest of what you are going to say already acquired by the kids. But do your best. Start simple and stay simple, and since the kids will NOT have acquired a good deal of the CI in the story beyond the target structures, then just slow way down. It’s better to do one sentence of CI in various forms that everyone gets than to try to deliver CI that they don’t get bc there is too much for them to understand. Build slowly slowly into the year.