This was my first SCOLT Conference and it was my very first time presenting at a conference. It was super exciting! I met a whole bunch of my langchat friends who live in the Southern Region of the US. As a conference, it was just big enough to get a lot of perspectives from a lot of different places and just small enough to keep bumping into presenters and people who I wanted to interact with. The ACTFL conference is always filled with great presentations, but it is so enormous that it’s hard to connect with people. SCOLT, on the other hand, was the best conference experience I’ve had so far. Their conference next year is in my back yard: Orlando, FL. I hope to see you there!
This year’s SCOLT will also have a special place in my heart and mind because it was the first time I presented. My presentation was:
The Switch: Shifting from a Grammar-Based to a CI Curriculum
If you weren’t able to attend and are interested, click the link for an adapted transcript of the presentation:
What is the Switch?
Basically, it is moving from textbook, grammar-based teaching methods to CI methods. It is a switch from teaching for knowledge about the language and its mechanics to teaching for proficiency in the language.
- Identify reasons to transition to Comprehensible Input (CI) Methods
- Explain how to transition to CI
- Learn about online and print resources to guide the transition
- Learn about activities that will enhance CI Instruction
CI stands for comprehensible input. CI methods is a catch-all term that encompasses any method that focuses instruction on getting the student to understand and interact in the TL first rather than learn about the surface features first. The focus in any of these CI methods is proficiency in the language.
Research in SLA has shown again and again that comprehensible input this is the driver of acquisition. This is the base of pretty much every theory that has since come out of SLA research. Basically, the idea is that the students need to hear/read/interact with the language in order to get it in their heads. You can believe what you want about the validity of various theories like the comprehensible output theory or sociocultural theory or anything else. If the students are not getting any language that they can understand, they will not acquire anything.
What is proficiency? What is acquisition? Isn’t it the same as learning?
Proficiency is a high degree of competence or skill. Ted Darrow, the ACTFL Teacher of the Year, described it like this: “The ability to communicate and comprehend increasingly complex ideas with increasing accuracy.”
When discussing methods for language teaching, this is one of my top goals. I want my students to be able to use the language well and spontaneously with a variety of different speakers. The ACTFL Can Do statements provide a great window into what proficiency looks like at all language levels – novice, intermediate, and high.
In the 1970s and 80s, Stephen Krashen, a linguist from USC, did a lot of really important work for the field of SLA. He came up with the monitor model, which includes 5 hypotheses that you might know about. These 5 hypotheses are the background of this whole approach to language learning. They are:
- Input hypothesis
- Acquisition learning hypothesis
- Monitor Model
- Natural Order Hypothesis
- Affective Filter Hypothesis
These are all important, but the most important ones for this presentation are:
- Input Hypothesis: Learners need input…lots and lots and lots of input….in the target language to build the mental representation of the language in their heads. They can get this through reading and through listening.
- Acquisition/Learning Hypothesis: Acquisition and learning are inherently different processes. Acquisition works internally and subconsciously and is driven by input…it is the idea of learners “just getting it” with language. Learning is the active learning and/or memorization of rules. This is not a bad thing, but the theory goes that it does not drive actual acquisition
The Big Question
Do you focus on learning or acquisition? Is your instruction geared towards proficiency? Do you get the outcomes that you want?
A few years ago, when I asked myself those questions, I had a realization: My class was grammar based, which is great if I want the kids to learn grammar. It’s not as effective if I want them to get to proficiency. I realized I was doing the job of the ELA teacher and the Spanish teacher and it was just too much for their little brains.
After research and experimentation, I decided to reverse the order—I started teaching for comprehension first, with the understanding that grammar is important for making statements comprehensible, so we will touch on that later, once the kids know how to interact in the TL.
How to transition to ci
In order to Switch, to make the transition, there is a lot of research that has to be done. The first thing you need to do is decide the goal of your program. Ask yourself: What do you want your students to do with the language at the end of your language program?
Let this question guide you.
When I started teaching, I didn’t know what the goal was. I thought it was that they could Speak Spanish when they graduated, but looking back, it’s pretty clear that my actual goal was to get the kids to be quiet during class. I gave them worksheets, thinking that they were quiet and working and they would be able to use language. But these worksheets didn’t really do a good job of teaching them to communicate; I quickly ran into a wall.
The second thing you need to do is Research.
- Google and Pinterest and Twitter and Facebook are your friends!
- Go to conferences
- Talk to and observe other teachers in your school/district/state and observe their classes
The third thing you need to do is Experiment!
- Try the techniques that intrigue you in your research
- Figure out what works best for your personality and teaching style
You need to do all this to figure out exactly what you want to do. Once you are proficient in your knowledge of your plan (see what I did there?), you can confidently present it to your admins, parents, students, and other teachers in your department/district.
- Presenting to Admin
The first hurdle is administrators. They need to be on board with you. You need the following things to help you:
- Research: When I was making the switch, I made sure to get lots of research to back me up. I have included a link with lots of research here (just scan the qr code to follow the link or follow the link here: and the link is right here).
- Standards: how does this curriculum change align with the standards? Does it do a better job than the textbook? In Florida, it really does. There is nothing about noun-adjective agreement in the standards; there is nothing about verb conjugation in the standards. What is there are things like: students can introduce themselves, students can engage in conversation on known and unknown topics. Grammar is helpful in achieving these standards, but learning grammar alone won’t get the students there.
- Clear goals and outcomes for the new curriculum. Let them know that you’re not going into this half-cocked. Research shows that grammar instruction alone does not do very much to help with acquisition and as such it is very difficult to get students to proficiency with grammar-only (or grammar-heavy) instruction.
- Expectations: they need to know what you expect from the students and they need to know what to expect from you. If you are a teacher who likes a loud and lively room (like me), then let the admins know that it is supposed to be that way and refer back to your research and methods explanation to show why it is effective (for example, I tell lots of funny stories-funny stories stick in the kids minds better because memories are tied strongly to emotions—ergo, if they are happy and making happy memories, then they are remembering better and they are focused and acquiring better, too)
- System of Evaluation: How are you going to give grades? Will you used standards-based assessment? Will you only grade final drafts? Will you grade for participation/attendance? I grade for participation, effort, and comprehensibility—I teach k-8, In Middle school, students get A – F grades and they are based on their writing, oral presentations/conversations, and participation in activities.
- Differentiation: How will we be able to tailor our instruction and assessment to individual students? How will our methods facilitate this?
- Student examples: I did a lot of experimenting before I went to the administration. Any time that I could add in a new type of CI activity, I did, just to see what would happen. I brought in examples of writing from the same students before I started using TPRS and after I had done a few stories in the beginning of the year. The work from before was standard fill in the blank worksheet work. The work from after was a copy of the story the students read and a comics that they wrote and illustrated to re-tell the story. They showed an ability to comprehend that the students had never shown before. That’s what got the admins on my side the most.
- Presenting to parents
Like admins, parents are another large potential hurdle. They need to be on board with you as much as, if not more so, than the administrators because the students are their children. We need to show we have their best interests. There is a lot of overlap with admins here:
- Education: Most parents are not experts on SLA and most don’t really have much interest in SLA research as recreational reading. What parents are interested in is the success of their kids. We need to educate parents on our methods and their efficacy. Sometimes parents think that the way they learned is the only or the best way. We need to show them how CI Methods are different and the long term effects of teaching for acquisition rather than learning.
- Marketing: Our students are our best commercial. If our students come home speaking more or singing songs from class or able to understand more than they could in years past, the parents will get on our side. They see that their kids are successful and they will be on board because of it
- Standards: Make sure the parents know that even if there are no more (or substantially fewer) worksheets/grammar exercises, the level of rigor is still high.
- Evaluation: How are you going to grade the kids? Basically, you have to answer this question: “How will my kid get an A in your class?”
- Long-term Outcomes: How many parents say to you, “I took four years of Spanish/French/German/whatever and I don’t speak a word of it”? My answer to the parents who tell me that is this: “I’m here to break that cycle.”
- Presenting to Students
This is pretty easy, because once the kids see the differences (that you’re using the language to explore interesting things, that you’re having fun, that they are able to improve in their abilities in the language), they get on board.
- Consistency: Students need consistency, so once you make the change, stick with it!
- Explanation of what it will look like: I explain to them that language class is different from any other class—they are not just learning things that can be memorized for a test and then forgotten, they are learning a whole different way to interact with the world. Some will push back, the star students mostly, because it will be a lot messier and ambiguous on a day-to-day basis. There is a certain security in worksheets-knowing how to complete each step to get the grade. But language just isn’t learned like that.
- Evaluation: Let the students know how they will be graded. In CI classrooms, we should not expect perfection from day 1. I let them know that I expect them to try their best. If they do that, then they should be fine. I am there to help, not to give them bad grades. Just like the parents, you need to be able to answer, “How do I get an A?”
- Presenting to Other teachers
This is the thorniest and potentially most controversial part of the presentation. Many teachers are very set in their ways and don’t want to change. And they shouldn’t have to. This is also where I have the least amount of experience because I am the only language teacher on my own in the school. I reached out to some of my langchat friends, though, and this is what they had to say:
A French teacher from Virginia said:
“When the students advance to upper level teachers, there has been some mis-understanding…[The] teachers say things like “well, the students can speak well and with confidence and they write pretty well but they can’t conjugate verbs in chart form and they are not as accurate as when they do workbook exercises…so AIM [the CI Method Mrs. Dorsey uses] isn’t working.” It’s non-sensical from a proficiency and language acquisition viewpoint!”
A French teacher and teacher trainer in Michigan said:
“Since I’ve begun presenting to other teachers, there has been some pushback. The biggest questions I’ve gotten are…
- What about grammar?? (THE biggest question)
- How much work does this take? (The second biggest question)
- What about the AP test/National [Language] Exam?
What I’ve done to help my case is…
- Present the research that supports what I’m saying.
- Do a TPRS/PACE model demo to show them that what I do works – I’ve also welcomed teachers in to my room to watch me teach.
- Share student results and feedback.
A Spanish teacher from NC said:
“I would start w talking about proficiency & what we want students to be able to DO, & tie it to local/ACTFL standards. That takes the “personalities” out of it. A solid rubric for assessment based on standards can really help.”
Another NC Spanish and Latin teacher said:
“I haven’t been that successful anyway. I had to give up TPRS in my Spanish classes.”
Sometimes, we can’t get everyone on board and sometimes even when others see your results, some won’t be convinced. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer for that other than what the other teachers here have proposed. If those things don’t work, then I suggest you keep at it, adding in CI activities as much as you can within your curriculum framework.
Online and Print Resources for making the switch
Starting with print resources, many (if not most or all) modern methods textbooks make the case for teaching with CI. For example, the books that I used are: Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen by Bill VanPatten and James Lee and Languages and Children: Making the Match by Helena Curtain and Carol Ann Dahlberg. These books both discuss extensively the need for 90% or more TL use and making input comprehensible for students to be able to acquire. Their focus is on acquiring, not learning grammar rules (not that grammar rules are bad, but the research in SLA shows that they don’t help with acquisition of the language in beginning levels).
Online, there is an entire universe of resources for language teachers. There are multiple blogs out there that can help you to make the switch. You can stick with blogs about one type of method, like TPRS, or you can shop around and learn about others like PBL, CBI, AIM, OWL, Where are your keys?, Immersion, etc.
Online, A great place to start is google. Google CI methods and see what you find. Additionally, search for Comprehensible input or language teaching on Pinterest and see what you find. When you find something you like, see who pinned it because they probably have a blog or a website. That is how I got started. I googled and pinterested (is that how you’d say it as a verb?) TPRS and CI Methods and that’s what got the ball rolling. The key is to just be open to the new ideas that you find and also to be discerning. Be picky when you’re looking for resources. Find the ones that you think will work for you and your students (or that you can adapt to work for you) and try it out.
The link above, titled “SCOLT Links” has links to lots of different online resources, from blogs to conference presentation videos to academic articles that are freely accessible online. Check some of them out and see what you think.
I guarantee you that CI methods are being used in your classes every day. There are lots of activities that will seem familiar and are already ci-friendly in our teaching. I found that I could add a lot of the things that I was already doing.
Activities in CI classes have only one goal: to get CI into the students’ heads. Any activities that do this in the TL and get lots of repetitions of high-frequency vocabulary (like the super seven verbs) will be beneficial.
- Picture descriptions – any time you are using a PowerPoint presentation or showing photos and describing them in the TL, you are using CI. For example, when teaching family vocabulary, one of the things that lots of language teachers do, I know I do it, is to show pictures of their own families and describe them. This is a common instinct for us. And it is totally CI-friendly: We are targeting vocabulary and helping our students to understand what we are saying in the TL without using L1.
- Telling or Reading stories to students – The field of psychology tells us Storytelling is a powerful medium for getting our message to other people, especially to kids. My kids remember stories that I told at the beginning of last year, they might not remember all the TL, but they remember the details. This power is something that we should all be tapping into, whether or not we use stories as the majority of our curriculum.
- Movietalk-show a short film, pausing often to discuss in the TL what is happening in the plot and what the students see on the screen, all in the TL. It is a great way to practice vocabulary for checking comprehension (what is he/she doing, what does he/she want, etc)
- PQA – personalized questions and answers – after establishing meaning of the target words for your lesson, use them to ask students questions about themselves. This works best when using high-frequency vocabulary
- Games – any games that you can play in the TL are positive
- Simon says is always a favorite (senor Fernandez dice)
- Telephone – great for practicing production and for listening
- Cultural Content – This is just like storytelling. Frame this content into a compelling story and use it as input. Sometimes, we can find this content in our textbooks and can adapt it to create a target-language story to tell or for students to read and interact with.
- #authres – Authentic resources, in this case I’m specifically talking about resources made for the TL culture by native TL speakers can be a powerful tool for delving deeper into the cultural products, perspectives, and practices of the target culture. When used correctly (at the right level for the students, with the proper amount of comprehensibility), they can provide lots of comprehensible input.
- infographics – great because they have words and visuals all tied together so that we can understand what all is going on and make meaning from the text. These are easy to find on Pinterest or by Googling “infographics in _(name of language)_”
Challenges of Making the Switch
- It took a while to figure out my style and the best ways to get students to understand everything I was saying in TL (that still can be challenging)
- It was (and still is) difficult to get students to talk in TL spontaneously (although that could be because of acquisition orders and other acquisition factors)
- Explaining to parents and admins how it works and why there is almost no homework and no more grammar tests
Rewards of Making the Switch
- Kids look forward to Spanish class
- My rapport with the kids has never been better
- It fits my style of teaching – active, loud, silly
- Student engagement – the students are not answering contrived questions whose purpose is to use all of the vocabulary in the chapter. By sheltering vocabulary and using high-frequency, multi-context vocabulary, they are better able to express their own thoughts and opinions. We are not beholden to using the vocabulary only in the context of textbook characters who encounter the different themes of the textbook chapter by chapter…(maybe?)
- Less planning time (now, at the beginning, it was about the same amount of time planning)
- Less grading (there are no more worksheets to grade and there is no more grading for perfect accuracy–these kids aren’t at the point where they are perfect in L1, there’s no reason to expect them to be perfect in L2–the fact that they are trying and are comprehensible is the best part!)
I will send you off with a simple question:
What do you want your students to do with the language?