Comprehensible input

For the last 28 or so years, I have been working with computers. When working with machines, input is an important concept. In the nineties, I read, heard, and thought a lot about input in the context of language learning and in – what Stephen Krashen called – language acquisition. I struggled with his input hypothesis and his no-interface hypothesis. In all discourses after that, researchers in Applied Linguistics and trained language teachers focused their attention on more applicable and theoretically better founded concepts. In other words, all quiet at the input front … until recently when I started working in the world of teaching of languages labeled less commonly taught, heritage, community … and often also – in the US – critical and strategic. Here it re-appeared; comprehensible input, the whammy of the 1970s and 1980s, is left, right, and center in these classrooms and discussions. So, how come, and why am I worried about it?

Input is a metaphor that has been borrowed from the world of machines. Machines receive input, and then, if you are lucky, they produce output. For humans, we do not talk about input when we eat, when we breathe, when we drink. Why would anybody want to do this when we listen or read? Why would language teachers conceptualize language, texts, utterances as input for their students? I really don’t know. What I do know is that my students are not machines that I need to feed with input so that they produce output. Language learners are multilingual subjects, which implies that they have – what theorists call – agency. They make their own decisions what text or utterance they take in and which ones they do not; and they decide whether to say anything and what it is they are saying. Only for a machine, some input will trigger some output.

But perhaps the meaning core of ‘comprehensible input’ is in the adjective? I am not sure. I find that ‘comprehensible’ is not very comprehensible [pun intended]. So, teachers want to expose their students to some language, which they in turn can learn; but how do teachers make these texts comprehensible?

There are two main strategiesappropriate selection and pedagogic augmentation – and neither one can just be derived from the concept of comprehensibility. Appropriate selection: Teachers select linguistic units – words, constructions, sentences, paragraphs, and texts – that are relevant to the students’ learning and their current or future life contexts, so that they are motivated to engage with them. Teachers select these linguistic units such that they optimally impact the language use of their students by selecting texts that reflect current language usage in a variety of genres, give priority to vocabulary, grammatical constructions, and communicative functions that their students will need in realistic interactions in the language they are learning. Teachers select the same building blocks – words and grammatical constructions – as frequently as is needed by their students and pay attention that these words and grammatical constructions are repeated in different contexts, that is in different places in a sentence, in different texts, in different genres, and both spoken and written. Students need to encounter these words, constructions, sentences, paragraphs, and texts repeatedly in chunks that are conducive to language learning. Sometimes pauses need to be left between words (each word is such a chunk), sometimes students need to have the chance to study a sentence word by word, sometimes a text can be better understood if read paragraph by paragraph, a video clip might have to be interrupted a couple of times, so that students can iteratively engage with each chunk.

Selecting appropriate texts is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Since most texts that teachers select contain material that is new to the students, the (linguistic) information contained in the text needs to be augmented. In other words, information needs to be added. How? Each text contains parts that are less salient, which means students – or anybody else for that matter – will find it more difficult to notice them. Well, and if we do not notice something, our chances of learning it or learning about it are pretty slim. Grammatical features such as prepositions or, in a number of languages, verb inflections are very difficult to notice because they are not always salient. Augmenting means here making them more salient. In a written text we use graphical means (underlining, color-coding, bold-face print, …) and in spoken texts we use sentence and word stress, intonation, and pauses to make the words and constructions we want students to notice stand out. Multimodality is the second important concept when it comes to augmenting texts to which language learners are exposed. When a text is presented just as such it is in one mode – printed or spoken – only. The students have to rely on only one “channel.” Providing captions for a listening text or reading aloud a text students also have in front of them gives them the same information through two “channels.” Even better if the text is accompanied by pictures or a video. This redundancy – information being given more than once – is very useful for cognitive processing and hence (language) learning, particularly if the information is in different modalities – printed, spoken, pictorial, video. As providing the information in different, complementary modalities augments the text from which the students are supposed to learn something, so does additional linguistic information. The most obvious ways of scaffolding the students’ understanding of a text are providing monolingual or bilingual glosses or captions, the use of a dictionary. The same also works for grammatical features – word morphology and syntax – with the help option to look up declension and conjugation tables. Online texts can have the additional functionality of providing the base form for each infected form. In a language like German it is difficult to distinguish between proper nouns and other nouns because they both have a capital initial letter. The opportunity of looking up who Kohl, the former Chancellor of Germany, was, as opposed to looking up the word Kohl in a dictionary and finding out it means ‘cabbage’ means learners do not get distracted from the actual language learning.

Of course, there would be more that could be said about selecting and augmenting texts for learners, and other strategies can and should be used. So, is it really better to replace one phrase – comprehensible input – by a set of strategies?

  • selecting utterances, constructions, words which are necessary to learn, relevant to the learners’ cultural, social, and biographical contexts, and pedagogically appropriate;
  • selecting texts that are socially relevant and that reflect current, appropriate language usage in the speech community of the learned language;
  • repeating linguistic units frequently and in different textual, communicative, and genre contexts;
  • making the texts and smaller units teachable by chunking them appropriately, that is breaking them up into a pedagogic sequence of smaller parts;
  • augmenting texts by
    • making the words and constructions that are in the teaching focus stand out (saliency);
    • exposing learners to multimodal texts – combining text, picture, animation, video, gestures effectively to help them notice new information and obtain through different channels;
    • providing the necessary (meta-)linguistic help and scaffolding so that learners can handle the new texts successfully.

I realize it took me far more words than just a simple phrase to express what I think is necessary when exposing learners to examples of how the language they are learning is used. Well, I would think sometimes more really is more. In my experience, teachers find it much easier to apply this detailed information in their daily classroom practices. Admittedly, many of these strategies also get listed when teacher developers or trainers explain ‘comprehensible input’, but why use a machine metaphor first and potentially lead them down a garden path, when you can start with practically applicable strategies?

Language Proficiency

It has been a few weeks during which I did not add anything to the blog. I have been travelling: attended the Third International Conference on Heritage / Community Languages at UCLA; travelled up to Victoria, BC, to meet with friends, colleagues, fellow researchers to discuss approaches to (language) learner-computer interaction in computer-assisted language learning; went to San Francisco for the meeting of the CSU World Languages Council, and then to Washington, DC, for a meeting at the Institute of International Education. After having been slowed down by a nasty flu bug, I have been working on a grant application over the last weeks. The goal of the project is to reform and augment an undergraduate language program so that its students can reach professional proficiency (ILR 3 and ACTFL calls it superior proficiency) upon graduation. The short snippet below, in which I talk about proficiency, is from this grant application.

In Applied Linguistics, proficiency is operationalized – for research, teaching, and testing – as a collective variable consisting of the complexity, accuracy, and fluency of a learner text. The make-up of complexity is diversity (a larger range of vocabulary (lexical) and a larger inventory of linguistic constructions (syntactic) are more complex) and sophistication (longer words with a more elaborate morphological structure (lexical) and longer sentences with additional adjectival phrases, modifiers, and sub-clauses (syntactic) are more complex). Linguistic constructions, sentences, and texts that deviate less often and less significantly from an expected norm are more accurate. Uttered texts that contain more linguistic constructions, for example words, per time unit or task unit and that are more coherent and cohesive are perceived as more fluent by listeners and readers. Increasing complexity and fluency of learner texts normally correlate; for example, learners with a larger accessible vocabulary tend to be more fluent. On the other hand, there are trade-off effects between accuracy and complexity; when students focus on producing more complex and longer texts, they tend to make more mistakes proportionately.

In very broad strokes, this is what, I believe, teachers can do to foster their students’ development of proficiency:

  • provide very frequent opportunities for the students’ language practice and use;
  • focus on fluency development to increase and maintain the Flagship students’ strong motivation;
  • teach for successful broad vocabulary acquisition and the mastery of a wide range of relevant linguistic constructions and patterns;
  • introduce and develop the students’ strategies of successful language use so that they can communicate effectively with L1 (first language) speakers of Russian and L2 speakers with professional language proficiency;
  • increase the Flagship students’ language awareness of patterns of form-meaning mapping, useful linguistic patterns in Russian, and different conventions of language use in relevant communicative situations;
  • improve their textual accuracy and to build a strong and positive L2 learner identity, by integrating language practice, focus-on-form, and contingent corrective feedback episodes in their teaching.

Student Centeredness

I writing this to kill two birds with one stone (Germans hit two flies with one swat—zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen. This sounds a little less brutal to me. 😉 ). The result should be my first substantial blog entry, and I am preparing for a seminar on this topic at the Language Acquisition Resource Center (LARC) tomorrow.

Let’s start off with the word itself—as I often like to do. Student centeredness. A compound noun with two constituents that are both nouns. We will talk about student some other time and just accept any prior, also pre-theoretical notion of what a student is. Centeredness is, of course, derived from the past participle centered. Past participles in English are used to form the perfect tenses: past perfect (I had centered sthg. yesterday), perfect (I have centered sthg.), and future perfect (I will have centered sthg. by tomorrow). These verb forms all denote an action was (past perfect), is (perfect), or will be (future perfect) complete with a result relevant to the speaker/writer. The past participle is also used to form the passive voice (Sthg. is/was/has been/had been/will be centered). Why is it important to consider all these verb forms? Because—as all past participles—centered retains some important meaning facets from these forms, even if it is used like an adjective as in the construction student-centered. Thus, centered  denotes a process of centering that has been completed in the past and the result is part of the speaker’s/writer’s reality now. In other words, whatever has been centered was not in the center before and is in the center now. Centered also retains its passiveness. So, in student-centered, students are not the actors or carriers of the verb event (the grammatical subject), they are the (passive) direct objects; they suffer the event the verb describes.

The metaphor of student centeredness thus conjures up images of a process of her/him being moved by somebody else from somewhere that is not the center. They then arrive at the center and stay there while never actively participating in the process of moving. So does the student-centered approach in language teaching suggest that teachers should move students around like pawns on a chess board? Probably not; but the problem is the metaphor does suggest that. This, I believe, has led to some misunderstandings in classroom practice. Also, nobody would want to suggest, I hope, a student-centered approach consists of or can be achieved with a single move and the student is in the center for all time.  And there is another – linguistic – problem.

Center—now the noun, not the verb—is always the center of something. Yes, the student has ended up in the center, but in the center of what? The center of the classroom? The center of the universe? The center of attention? The center of a circle? The center of gravity? Okay, I am being facetious: it is neither the universe nor the circle nor gravity. Time to leave the realm of linguistics and move into didactics, the theory of teaching.

Does the student-centered approach to language teaching imply that the student should be—metaphorically speaking—in the center of the classroom? Yes, it does. As many have suggested, students should be given the most possible time to speak, to do, to practise, to act, to apply, … They need to have frequent opportunities to come to the front of the class to present, lead an activity with their fellow students, to perform, for example, a role play, … So, students being at the center of the classroom is necessary to achieve a student-centered approach, but it is most certainly not sufficient. To put it bluntly, a teacher asking students frequently to give a presentation in front of the class or even to lead a learning activity, does not make for student-centered teaching (alone).

Students also need to be at the center of attention of the teacher. When designing the curriculum, a unit, or a lesson, not the topics the teacher likes, the linguistic constructions the teacher believes to be interesting, and the facets of the language community’s culture the teacher has experienced or finds fascinating should be included, the topics, constructions, and cultural facets that the students need to grow in their development of language proficiency and cultural awareness at this stage in their learning and with their learning goals and objectives need to be included. Not the methods of instruction the teacher finds convenient and the activities they enjoy or are comfortable with should be introduced, the teaching methods that are proven to be most conducive to the students’ learning and the activities they most fruitfully engage in need to be used in the daily teaching.

Student-centered teaching is a repeated attempt grounded in reflective practice. Teachers constantly learn about the changing needs of their students, the instructional methods through which their students learn best, and the activities through which they engage best with the language and culture. To put it more holistically, everything in the process of teaching and learning (what Russians like Vygotsky call обучение and German teachers call Unterricht—the unity of teaching and learning) is appropriated, designed, or employed such that the students make optimal progress in their development of the second language and culture.

So it is both—surface and essence. With a student-centered approach, language teachers constantly strive to give center stage and prime time to students speaking, activity, practice, and performance; and more importantly, the students’ needs, their goals, and optimal achievements are first and foremost on the mind of the teacher in everything they do when learning and preparing for class, working in class, and reflecting on learning processes after class. And with this approach, students are never passive pawns and teachers can never rely solely on what they did in the past; the center and focus of all learning processes is a teacher-led collaboration with active students that never stops …