Four Ways to Deliver Comprehensible Input

Comprehensible input takes four forms in my classroom:
1. PQA – this means that we use Circing to talk with the kids. There are no key structures (guideposts), as there are with stories. The target structures come randomly from the information given to us by the kids, as in the Circling with Balls activity (see the resources page of this site, click on “ben slavic workhop handouts”). PQA may be the hardest aspect of delivering comprehensible input, because it is random, but if the instructor is willing to let go of the side of the pool and swim about a bit in the language, it can be most rewarding.
2. Stories – we focus – in the PQA – on three structures that we want to get enough repetitions on so that the story is easy to understand. The more we PQA those structures, the easier it is for our students to understand. I have chosen to PQA three structures all day on Monday and I still feel that my students could benefit from even more than those hundredes of reps gained on Monday. PQA aimed at stories brings more comprehension – setting up a story and doing a story is less random than the PQA described in (1) above. Therefore, there is less fear in doing stories because the story script guides us safely through the lesson as explained in the Conclusions and Sample Stories at the end of TPRS in a Year!.
3. Backwards Planning from a piece of literature or music (any text that we want to teach, really – it could be jokes, as Bryce Hedstrom showed us at NTPRS) – we take a targeted text that is not a story and we try as hard as we can to circle and get repetitions on as many structures in the target poem, etc. as possible. Thus armed, when the kids go to hear or read the poem, they are able to recognize a lot of the structures and a whole new world – French pop music, for example -opens up to their eyes instantly. Backwards planning can be used in level one classes, but my suggestion is to save it for higher level classes.

The point about all three of these methods of delivering comprehensible input to our students is that all we have to do is have something that we actually want to share with our kids and then get multiple repetitions, hundreds if possible, on that something’s main structures.

In PQA we get repetitions on what they tell us, in stories we get repetitions on the target structures provided in the story script, and in backwards planning (the most difficult to do because there are so many structures that need to be repeated in even a short poem, we get repetitions on the published target text.

We take structures, we circle them enough so that the kids can decipher their meaning instantly when they hear it later, and those repetitions, once they have been repeated enough, turn into comrehensible inut in the three forms listed above.

4. Reading. Our students should be reading 50% of the time in a classroom. Reading as comprehensible input is the logical outcome of the three kinds of listening comprehensible input listed above. Once the listening has been done, it would be a waste to not read about what was discussed in the previous days, since we just went to all that effort to establish sound identification in our students’ minds for whatever our target structures were. I believe that kids can read only because they can understand the spoken language first, as per the Sesame Street model.
In PQA and stories, we write up what the kids gave us (in my case from notes taken by a superstar in class during the discussion). In backwardly planned pieces of literature or music, we have the reading right there, the object of days of circling the structures contained in it.
Reading, though it must follow (as per the above) listening comprehensible input sequentially in weekly lesson plans, it is no less important than PQA, stories and backwards planning. How valuable is one glove when we have two hands?
Both listening comprehensible input and reading are input skills, so the student need do nothing but enjoy processing the sounds of the langauge in class for a few years before the output emerges naturally at different times in each student. The output skills of writing and listening should therefore be introduced far later than the four input skills described herein.



12 thoughts on “Four Ways to Deliver Comprehensible Input”

  1. Thank you for this breakdown. It is so clear and helpful. Ben, you have a real gift in expressing these ideas so simply. I have been writing up some “working drafts” of documents I have to turn in at the beginning of the year–kind of a “syllabus/ overview plan.” I thought it would be good to take a stab at it while everything is so fresh from NTPRS. Basically I decided I cannot explain any of this without sounding pedantic and without dissing the tradtional way of teaching, so I ended up simply telling the story of me being a student in the sessions. I don’t want to sound preachy or like I “know better than anyone else” because I don’t feel like I know a whole lot, so it’s important to me to just share my experience in language learning. Btw, I really don’t think anyone even reads these syllabi. They just get compiled in a huge handout that they give to parents for curriculum night.
    My question is about output in “upper level” classes that have not had an input background. I want to be clear to the students (and parents and my dept. head, admin, etc) what my expectation is. I’m fortunate to have some freedom with my plans, so I’m toying with the idea of delaying output assessment even in the level 4 class. Would this make sense? My idea is that even though they are “level 4, ” they have not been in a CI-based classroom, and most of what they know is memorized and resides in the conscious, external “zip drive” or whatever??? So I’m thinking of giving them a chunk of time to be immersed in input. It seems that as our department transitions into TPRS we need to be more flexible with the “upper level” students. Yes? No? Someone in a previous post mentioned that it’s difficult for kids to “catch up” but I’m not really thinking of “catch up” as much as providing them an opportunity to hear language so that they can begin to allow their brains to do its brainy thing. Then they might hang on for another year and take level 5. We don’t have AP at our school, so we can actually meet students where they are. One or two students per year take the SAT 2. The level 5 teacher spends the first part of the year doing test prep. Glad that ain’t me. I see that if we transition into full TPRS teaching we will obviously be ramping up the level in the not too distant future.
    I would love to hear any thought on this. My current “plan” is no output assessment for level 1 (duh). Level 2 I also will not assess output at least for the first semester or 3/4 year, because they are also coming from a non-input situation. Level 4 I was thinking maybe transition into output assessment in 2nd semester, but only as they are ready. I think I will know when the level 2 and 4 are ready???

  2. Ben,
    Bryce recently posted this:
    This blog is an ongoing graduate level seminar about the implications of comprehensible input-based teaching. What a gift to us all. Thanks for infusing your understanding and contemplative nature into it.
    Jen just posted this:
    Thank you for this breakdown (on ways to deliver CI). It is so clear and helpful. Ben, you have a real gift in expressing these ideas so simply.
    Skip would like to say:
    Ben, I am grateful for your ability to write. Your gift has been so helpful in enabling teachers to bring CI so effectively to students.. Someone at the NTPRS conference was commenting on your two books “TPRS in a Year” and “PQA in a week” and how they are, hands down, the two most useful books in helping folks understand and “learn” TPRS. I am re-reading them this summer and could not agree more. I cannot overestimate how useful and powerful this blog is. It gives a place for all the helpful voices to encourage, teach, correct, disagree etc.
    Sometimes I feel like I don’t contribute much to this blog. I want to make sure everyone is aware of how much I appreciate all those who do.
    There was recently a post regarding the brain research of Becky Bailey and its application to classroom management. With Laurie’s endorsement 🙂 I went immediately to check it out. Where else would I have learned of Becky Bailey’s site. REALLY helpful stuff! THANK YOU!
    Thank you to you Ben and to all of those that dedicate their time, energy knowledge, skill and insights here on your blog.
    Have a GREAT weekend

  3. …I’m thinking of giving them a chunk of time to be immersed in input….
    Jen this only looks like a good idea, if my own devastating (no hyperbole in my use of that strong word) experience with this is any indicator. Two years ago I arrived at East High School in Denver to teach four level 1’s and I inherited a level 4 class as well. The level 4 kids had had maybe 1% of the CI that a TPRS group would have had in their first three years.
    Characteristically all full of hope and confidence about how TPRS would get them up to speed and get their CI engines running, I went through the first few months of the year trying to speak French to them. That was a dumb idea. Out of the 22 kids in the class, 4 went with me, but their auditory legs were broken. The others resisted with the strength of mules.
    I stayed awake at night all fall trying to figure it all out. Finally, I gave up and started giving them the grammar they wanted in January. But even their grammar was fracked, so I didn’t even know how to teach them grammar despite 24 years of experience in South Carolina doing exactly that. I couldn’t take the stress of it. What an experience in futility!
    …as our department transitions into TPRS we need to be more flexible with the “upper level” students….
    Some direct advice would be to lower your hopes here. Just sayin’. By the end of the year, my level 1’s had far surpassed those 4s. This is going to be much more of a challenge than you think, again, if my own experience is any indicator.
    …level 4 I was thinking maybe transition into output assessment in 2nd semester, but only as they are ready….
    Speaking candidly, in my opinion they won’t ever be ready. My kids were damaged beyond repair. It’s not how many years they have had, but how much language they have heard, how much reading they have done. Mine were like beginning students but with a nasty muley edge to them because they knew the deal – they didn’t know anything. It was pathetic how they tried to hide it from me by avoiding eye contact, etc. which only made the affective filter go further up.
    It soon became clear to me that these kids had a single item on their agenda – they were fighting for class rank, as they came from the best Denver families and had been taught that the grade was what counted. They played me for A’s to get into Ivy League schools, Stanford, and schools like that. That is what brought their “good will” into class each day.
    Can you imagine? Here I am wanting to share this great culture with them and they only wanted the A, except for those four who were my only friends in there. The demographics, by the way, were three Latino boys, one refugee from the African wars, one white boy, and 17 white girls. The kid from Africa (Congo) was fluent in French, but after those three years of grammar based instruction, couldn’t write a correct sentence in French in spite of his fluency and his three years of grammar instruction.
    I am sure that I am not the only one in this group who wants to hear how this deal plays out in your classroom this year, Jen. And I really want to stress that this is only my opinion and experience. I am sure others with more tact than my Taurean self might find a way into such kids’ hearts and have some success. I could possibly have found a way but didn’t. My mistake, looking back, was being much too cavalier that TPRS could win the hearts of kids whose hearts had been buried under a sea of object pronouns and other worksheet driven travail.
    If there are any answers, they lie in SLOW and in giving the kids permission to maybe accept in some way what has happened and to open their hearts consciously to a new start. But that gets real political and blame goes out. So this is really tough. I know I blew it with SLOW. I didn’t really GET the full magnitude of the importance of SLOW with them, even though I thought I knew it (do we ever fully grasp SLOW?).
    Laurie’s recent comment in a recent comment to another post rings true here – if there is an answer it lies in SLOW – when she said:
    …I know that I am a broken record on this….but it is about creating a clear clear clear picture in the individual minds of the student AND in the collective mind of the class. When we go slowly we can keep those pictures clear….
    And thank you so much for the kind words above, Skip. Our shared fighting on behalf of our kids and our own sanity (no hyperbole there for me) is made a sweeter kind of fighting when we have each other to fight alongside of.

    1. Yikes. Gut check. Thank you for sharing this. I obviously can’t know how this will all work, but it will be good not to go in with blinders on. I know all the kids I am getting, and there is one student that immediately came to mind in terms of how she will handle the change (almost compulsive about grades and dare I say no clue that learning a language is not about amassing information and then spitting it back out). That said, I decided I need to not predict or begin in defensive mode. That is sometimes a default for me, and I am working on being open. It is so hard after so many years of maintaining the great wall. Many of the sessions I attended at NTPRS gave me firsthand experience of openness, which cannot be taught, only modeled and shared. My awareness of the challenges of this class is acute, so I will need to fumble around in order to find a balance I guess. I just want to hold space for these kids to experience some of the real magic that can happen. My idealism is showing. Oops. That is why I am so lucky to have found this group, because I can lean heavily on all of you! I really do feel like I am not alone in this!

  4. You will succeed if our conversations in St. Louis are any indicator. Those kids are lucky to have you as their teacher. I would consider openly discussing it with the parents and the kids in some kind of meeting before the year starts, if you can get away with that level of openness and honesty in a place where verbal fallout can damage careers (i.e. a school) and where suggestions for repair are taken as accusations, like Laurie implied in a comment here this past week that I can’t find. But, in my own nightmare, even that wouldn’t have helped – the school had already decided that TPRS doesn’t work. I still don’t know why that guy hired me. I think your goal here, Jen, is to tactfully convince all parties that they could perhaps use “a little more listening to and reading of the language than they may have formerly experienced”. And then you have to do that without implying blame on the past teacher(s). It’s a tightrope that I personally would fall off every time.

  5. Ben, in the backwards planning part you say “we take a targeted text that is not a story.” I am lucky to be working with a first year text that has very engaging stories from the first chapter, but which presupposes too much vocabulary. My goal for each chapter is to PQA about 50% of the words, develop a story with the kids (which introduces a few more words), and then go into the textbook story/stories. When we do arrive at that text, how should I deal with the additional words that they won’t have seen yet? I was thinking of providing them in the margins of a xerox of the text, which is how the text is set up, being a “Reading based” approach. Is this a disaster waiting to happen from a CI perspective?

  6. Too much new vocabulary CAN be a disaster waiting to happen – at least this is our current thinking in Denver. Ideally, we never have to introduce a single new word. Point and Pause, ideally, is a skill we would never use. But, of course, that is impossible.
    So, John, and I hope Laurie and others chime in on this great question, in my opinion, you want to do all you can to limit the AMOUNT of said new vocabulary in those margins. I think that will work, with the reading-based approach as you say. Reading is different, we WANT to introduce new vocabulary in readings. That is when their vocabulary skies. (Just my opinion and experience here – certainly not gospel.)
    Are you going for 50% auditory and 50% reading in the fall?
    Look, I have been getting away with introducing too much new stuff for years. Or have I? My classes split more than I wish. I have trouble reaching the slower processors. My big take-away from St. Louis is that my new ability to go slower than in the past will be the big ticket to keep the class from splitting.
    Not a real cohesive answer, but ultimately the only way to know is by trying it. Armed with SUPER SLOW and a judicious minimum of new vocabulary in the fall, I am sure it will work just fine. Pls. keep us informed on how this plays out in your classroom.

  7. Just a thought John. You really want to backwards plan; but don’t get too many words, like Ben says, because then you can’t let the right ones breathe. You’ll still be okay with the other ones they might need with a quick trick before reading.
    So which are the right words to PQA? Get the list you think you need and then look through them to see a) which ones are the liveliest for a PQA setting (i.e. can be acted out, something that can be easily embellished, relate to student life, etc.) and b) which are the most common overall. Those are the ones you want, because it makes the “prep” days worth doing in their own right.
    And the reading trick? I got this from Michele and her training on what’s termed “Scaffolding Literacy.” Before you read a chapter, tell them what’s about to happen in the language. Use all your Kindergarten day skills: dramatize the telling, use props, act parts out as necessary, put key words on the board in the flow of the telling in both languages. In short, you be a storyteller that helps them process in the language. Then turn them loose to read either in groups or as a class. I tried this towards the end of last year at all of my levels (from 1-4) and it made a huge difference as far as helping people get confidence they could do it.
    You’d think that people would get bored doing the story twice, but not so; by having the “movie in the head” in place before they start the reading, the stress level goes down and people can focus on doing a much closer reading. That also makes for better discussions of the reading, because everybody actually understands what you are discussing and not trying to introduce as many tangents (which are really run-out-the-clock moves because they didn’t understand the reading.)

  8. …because then you can’t let the right ones breathe….
    What a great way to say it!
    …look through them to see … which ones are the liveliest for a PQA setting….
    This is huge. That is why Anne Matava and Jim Tripp, in their story scripts, choose target structures that are interesting as well as common. We need both. We don’t write some story based on parts of a car because that is in the targeted pacing guide chapter published by the district.
    Those words are not only infrequent, they are boring. College professors and a lot of AP types place the learning of boring and unnecessary words under the term “rigor”. Learning boring and unnecessary words is rigorous. Riiiight!
    …by having the “movie in the head” in place before they start the reading, the stress level goes down and people can focus on doing a much closer reading….
    This is why I vastly prefer going to the trouble of writing my own readings from stories we did in class and not using a novel. We read novels, yes, but in two week blasts as per Susan Gross (see the link on reading on for an explanation). We do both types of readings – based on stories (Step 3 of TPRS) and just reading novels straight through (Susan Gross advocates this).
    Jim Tripp’s new story scripts have a version of the story that is longer and can be turned into a reading – those scripts are embedded in that way. He gives us a few more structures to give greater body to the script we originally built the story from.

  9. So this weekend was the first time to report to my community at ceremony on my language experiences of this summer.
    The Maker of Medicine (who is my grammer/linquistic/Elder and won’t stay out of English as he teaches me) began a story in Mvskoke. He didn’t stop and translate to English after the first two sentances. He kept on, using simple, really simple vocab and slow, painstakingly slow. All the time looking at me. The story was for me.
    SLOW. SIMPLE. but words I knew the English speakers didn’t have a grasp of. He never stopped the language (15 minutes without an English translation). Then he said–Translate Kate. And I did. I had missed the nuances in my rush to get the gist for him. He stopped me and went back and told it all in English for it was the one of the second cantos of the Creation Story and ever so important for all to know.
    This is what I learned. SLOW. I heard most of the words. I learned, Don’t stop listening because you hit a word you don’t know. Keep listening for the crux of what you do know. SIMPLE repetition. The story for the dividing of day and night offers a lot of repetition. And once I figured out that was the story (I knew it well in English), my mind flew taking in the Mvskoke.
    He made the ethnographer sitting with a recorder dump the story into my computer and erase it from his recorder because as he put it “I don’t want any speaker thinking I talk Mvskoke like a hick, but if it helps you learn you use it Kate. Just don’t let anyone else hear it.”
    Now who let him in on the TPRS secret?

  10. Drawing? I didn’t go through all the comments here but the power of drawing under a projector is the one thing that seems to quiet and focus the kids at the school where I work (a disproportionate number of IEP and behavior kids)…
    Meaning is attached to the visual not just word to word translation.

  11. It’s no doubt a great tool but at what point in drawing do the kids and the instructor together turn away from the hard work of engagement via reciprocal eye contact which alone insures SLOW and the actual real processing of CI?

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