Students Need Compelling Input

In beginner Mandarin Chinese classes, talking about family is a foundational topic. When I first started teaching, I would show a class of adult learners a photo of a Chinese family and teach the different words for family members. This approach did not work for two reasons. One reason is that many of my American students could not tell the relative ages of the people in my photo. This made it difficult to distinguish parents, grandparents, spouses and siblings. More importantly, the whole exercise was not meaningful for the students. They were just trying to memorize terms while looking at an artificial family.

Students need comprehensible input in order to learn language. That input needs to be compelling, too. For beginner students, comprehensible input uses short sentences, has a slower pace, uses appropriate pauses, has repetition, is concrete, and also engages the learner.* On top of this, comprehensible input should be interesting to the student. Obviously, not everything in class can have students on the edge of their seats. Talking about a fake family in a photo can be slow, and use lots of repetition, but it is definitely not interesting.

Respect the Authenticity of the Classroom Itself

Good input should respect the authenticity of the classroom. The classroom is not a restaurant, it is not a train station, it is a classroom filled with students. There are many reasons why lessons built around pretending to sell train tickets or take orders for soup do not work. Students need to be interested in the content they hear during class, and a fake train ticket is just not very compelling.

Now, instead of talking about a made-up family in class, I talk about my own family. I show the students a picture of my family and I talk about us. I also talk about my husbandโ€™ family and tell a little story. I come from a family of three daughters and he comes from a family of three sons… It is not Hemingway, but it is vastly more interesting than pointing at strangers. My students can talk about their own family members after many fewer classroom hours now. They learn the words for family members faster because they heard those words through compelling comprehensible input.

photo of Chinese family used in class
Sorry guys, you don’t make for compelling input!

*This list comes from Bill VanPattenโ€™s excellent book While We Are on the Topic

Leave a Reply