The Secret to Language Learning: Comprehensible Input

Let’s Get Right to it, What is the Secret?

It is really not that much of a secret for language learning, since there is decades of research of proof for it. But since there are so many language education programs out there who don’t seem to “get it,” we will go ahead and still call it a secret. The secret to being able to acquire a language is something called comprehensible input. What is comprehensible input, you say? There are already so many posts on this blog about it. Here, here and here, for example. I realize, however, that I have never written a standalone piece that is all about comprehensible input. We also call it CI.

Why Have I Not Heard of Comprehensible Input Before?

In short, comprehensible input is language that we hear or read that we can understand. Many students (or their parents) start from the assumption that we learn language by breaking it down into lists of vocabulary and grammar “rules.” This actually is not a very good way to learn. It is how many high school programs still teach language. They’re not very effective, are they? Ask most people what language they studied in high school and they will probably tell you that they don’t remember a word of it. To understand more about why the old grammar + vocabulary recipe usually only yields disappointing results, check here.

Finally, a Definition

Back to comprehensible input. We know it is not teaching students a grammar “rule”, handing out a sheet of words and telling students to “make a sentence.” What is it exactly then? Comprehensible input is language that the students can understand. For beginner students, this means that the language is slower, uses simple words, and also uses shorter sentences. Where does this language come from? It comes from the teacher. In a beginner language class, the teacher has to do a lot of talking.

**GASP**

But wait, you say, everything you have ever read about quality education for the past ten years tells you that if a teacher in the classroom does all the talking, the class is bad, bad, bad! Ah yes, student-centered learning. Of course, all teaching should be focused on outcomes for the students. If you are not there for the students, find another career. Teaching is not for you. Having said that, in a good beginner language class, the teacher needs to do most of the talking.

Where Can Students Get Comprehensible Input?

Why? The short answer is that the students don’t know any Chinese yet! The students need to hear language that they can understand in order to learn it. They can’t learn it from each other since the other students don’t speak Chinese. They have to learn it from the teacher since she is the only person in the room who knows the language. There are of course videos, songs, etc., that can also provide input to the students. The main source of input is still going to be the teacher, however. She has to do a lot of talking so that students can get the input that they need.

girl listening to headphones
Get that comprehensible input

Don’t Look to the Other Students for CI

I know that talking about a teacher doing most of the talking, while students just listen gives a lot of education people a case of the vapors. But it true. Students can’t learn from each other in the language classroom because they DON’T KNOW ANYTHING. That is why they’re there. You simply can’t learn from someone who does not know how to do it themselves.

The teacher not only has to do most of the talking, but she also can’t just talk the way she normally would to another person who is fluent in Chinese. Nope. She has to make sure that the students can understand what she is saying. Remember the Charlie Brown teacher voice? Wah wah wah wah, wah. Yep, that is what we are trying to avoid.

So, teachers need to talk slowly to their students, using words that the students know (or can quickly get the meaning of), and using short sentences. What exactly does that look like? It can look like this. This is a Chinese teacher doing a basic picture talk example on Twitter (video). Notice all the repetition, easy to understand words, and short sentences. This is comprehensible input. It is language that the students hear and understand.

Reading is an Important Source of Comprehensible Input Too

We do not just hear language, we read it too. Reading is a major source of comprehensible input. For beginners, comprehensible input is usually not a storybook meant for native speakers. Nor is it a photo of a menu from a restaurant in China. Just like with aural/oral langue, it has simple words, short sentences, and most importantly: the students can understand it!

person reading at the beach
Read your way to comprehensible input

More Sources of Input

There are many teachers who have worked on developing great books that provide comprehensible input for beginner readers. Haiyun Lu has a whole series about kittens that I have used with beginner students. Terry Waltz has also written many chapter books that beginner students can read. Her books are available on her website.

As for aural/oral langauge, there are several ways for teachers to make sure that there students get comprehensible input. I like movie talk, which you can read more about here. Picture talk is also a great tool for getting students the input that they need. I talk more about picture talk here. Movie talk and picture talk are great ideas that several teachers who have come before me developed.

There is another way to give students the comprehensible input that they need. It is the ancient art of having a conversation. It is not easy to create a conversation between 2-15 people in a second language that most of the participants don’t speak yet. It can be done, however. It won’t look like a conversation between native speakers. That is okay. Often, in my adult classes we will talk about the siblings we have, and look for commonalities.

Why isn’t Everyone Using CI?

So if comprehensible input is the secret sauce for language learning, why are so many schools still handing out textbooks and teaching grammar “rules”? Well, it is much easier to follow a textbook than is it do create comprehensible input. In district schools, there are also lots of pesky rules that teachers need to follow. Sadly, many teachers don’t have the confidence to ditch the textbook. What’s worse, is that they might not have the level of fluency needed to come up with lessons on their own. So there we are. Comprehensible input is what the students need. Very often, however, it is not what they get in the classroom.

Diverse Books for Chinese Classes

Diverse Books in the Classroom

The Lotus Chinese Learning library of books in Chinese and wordless picture books has dozens of volumes. Books are an incredibly important teaching tool. They are what I would bring with me to a desert island where I have to teach :). It is a known problem in the world of children’s literature that there are not enough diverse books out there. For the purposes of this blog post, diverse books means books that feature African American, Asian American, Hispanic and or Native American main characters. There are lots of books, such as my beloved David series by David Shannon that show diverse children, but they are not the main characters. They are still great, but they don’t count as diverse books.

Why are Diverse Books Important?

Just as in the city of San Antonio as a whole, the majority of my students are Hispanic. I also have many Asian American students and African American students. If you’re a white person in America, you probably grew up seeing characters in picture books that look like you. If you’re an adult now, it might be easy to assume that things have changed since you were a kid. This infographic  (from 2015!) shows that that this is not the case. Kids deserve to see themselves represented in their books, and there aren’t enough books out there so we have to work a little harder.

infographic for diversity in children's books
This infographic shows the need for more diverse books for kids!

Getting Diverse Books

Getting books in Chinese in the US is not super easy to begin with. As I have written elsewhere, wordless picture books can be a good substitute for books in Chinese. All the teacher has to do is point to the pictures as she tells the story in Chinese! Pool by JiHeyeon Lee is a wordless picture book that features Asian characters that I use often. There are lots of things to count in the illustrations, so it is especially fun for the little  kids to count along with me. The website China Sprout also has many diverse children’s books. Their shipping costs are a little pricey (cough cough) but when I need to add a couple more books to my collection, I know that China Sprout will have at least a few options.

IMG_0774
Some of my books from the Lotus Chinese Learning Library that Feature Diversity

Using The Books

Yes, February is Black History Month, however we can read books that feature black characters the other eleven months of the year too! This past week (April), I read Alfie the Turtle That Disappeared with some of my kids. The story features birthdays and pets, both hot topics for the lower-elementary crowd. It works all year-round. It is a missed opportunity to only focus on diverse books when the calendar calls for it. The lesson’s topic does not have to be about diversity in and of itself to use diverse books.

On Gender

There are plenty of books about boys and male animals for kids. Most of the classics that I have on my shelf feature boys and male animals as the main character. I’m looking at you Hats for Sale and the Hungry Caterpillar! The conventional wisdom is that all children will read books about boys, and only girls will read books about girls. This wisdom sucks. Children will read a book about any kind of child. As veteran children’s book author Shanna Hale explains, it is the story that counts. I wouldn’t hesitate to use books that feature girls as the main characters for the whole class and neither should you :).

What are your favorite books with diverse main characters? Share in the comments!

More Sources About Diversity in Children’s Literature:

Pragmatic Mom

We Need Diverse Books

How to Use a Wordless Picture Book in Class

Hooray for Wordless Picture Books

I have sung the praises of using wordless picture books in class. This post is about how exactly how I use them in class. Remember, the best use of class time is giving input (through listening and reading) to students that they can understand. Story books are a great teaching too because they help students catch the meaning of what the teacher says in the target language. The beauty of wordless picture books is two-fold. They are an easy way to add books to your library even if books in your target language are not easily available. Teachers can also easily adjust how they tell the story to suit the level of the students.

Pancakes for Breakfast

One popular wordless picture book is Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie DePaola. When I am using it with beginner students, one of the first things we do is to count all the pancakes! Even though they are often not ready yet, kids love to participate in class by talking. While we are counting the pancakes, advanced students can count along with me. Students who are not as advanced can just listen and follow along and still get that good input.

photo of cover of Pancakes for Breakfast
An example of a wordless picture book
photo of pancakes illustration
There are lots of pancakes to count here!

Asking the Story with Students

The beginning of the book shows a picture of a little red house in the snow. For very beginner students, I would talk about the picture, very slowly, with lots of pointing and giving translations. With students who have a bit higher level of Chinese, I will ask them questions to help me tell the story. For example, I will ask “Is the house big or small?” “What color is the house?” Asking the students these questions helps to keep their attention on what we are doing in class.

photo of illustration from Pancakes for Breakfast, a wordless picture book
There are so many questions that you can ask students about this illustration!

While we are looking at the story, we can go as slow or as fast as we need to. If we are going slowly, I can ask the students to give all the characters names. With little kids, we are going to end up with names like “Pickle Juice” or “Maluma Baby,” but that is okay :). If we need to move through the story faster so we have time for other things, I will skip this step.

photo of illustration of Pancakes for Breakfast, a wordless picture books
It is easy for students to participate in telling the story by giving characters names. The names don’t even have to be Chinese names!

Wordless Picture Books and Assessment

Wordless picture books are also useful for assessment tasks. Having students describe a page from a wordless picture book will give some idea about what kind of a student is capable of producing. This by no means everything that you should use to assess student learning. There is so much that a student may be capable of doing with the target language that is not captured through looking at output. However, lots of people** (parents and administrators) like to see some sort of output for assessment and wordless picture books can be a tool to elicit output.

The ACTFL Can-do Statements are all about student output for example.

#Authres vs Graded Readers: What to Read in Chinese

What are Graded Readers

For most Americans, the words “graded readers” probably bring the Dick and Jane series to mind. Graded readers, also known as basal readers, use a very controlled set of vocabulary words to tell a story, typically in a series. While many schoolchildren in the US encounter graded readers in English, they are also available in Chinese.

How Graded Readers Work

Graded readers are a great resource for students learning to read in Chinese. Many adult students are highly motivated and want to start reading in Chinese right away. So they pull up an article in the New York Times in Chinese and try to read it. But they have to look up every other word. With copy, paste, and Google Translate, this is not too difficult, but it is not reading. Students just don’t get the fluency that comes with reading. To a fluent reader, graded readers seem really repetitive. It is this repetition however, that helps students learn. This guiding reading about Mid-Autumn Festival is an example of how repetitive a reader should be. Even if you don’t understand Chinese, you can still see that the same characters are repeated over and over again.

Why Use Graded Readers?

In contrast, some adult students really don’t care about learning to read. This is unfortunate because it really limits their ability to learn later on and leads to misunderstandings later on. I recall one person who was fairly fluent in Chinese telling meant that the word for shark was “killer fish.” It’s not. They’re both sha1yu2 in pinyin, but shark is actually 鲨鱼 NOT 杀鱼. With graded readers, students can learn to read in Chinese as they acquire their oral proficiency. This is far less daunting than building a vocabulary in written Chinese much later.

All About Authres

So where does that leave authentic resources? Authentic resources (or #authres on teacher Twitter), are those texts written by native speakers for native speakers. Many teachers love using authres because they give students a glimpse of the target culture(s). The trouble with authres is that they are often too difficult for beginner and intermediate students. Some adults try reading children’s books only to find that they too are filled with words that they don’t know. Furthermore, children’s books often contain low-frequency words. The example below has a lot of high-frequency words like 吃 (eat), but also low-frequency words like 粽子 (a type of food).

Mid-Autumn Festival Song Lyrics Chinese
Dragon Boat Festival Song

Make it Short and Use Pictures

While it is challenging to use authres for beginner and intermediate students, it is worth it for the cultural knowledge. To work around the issue of authres having too many unfamiliar words, I usually use very short texts. This way students don’t get overwhelmed from having too many words. In an hour-long class, we definitely have enough time to go over a few short texts.

photo of Chinese cartoon
This is authres because it is a cartoon by Chinese people for Chinese people. The illustrations aid student comprehension

I also like to make sure that my authres have a strong context. If there are accompanying photos/illustrations it is so much easier for students to figure out the meaning. Remember, students need to connect the words that they see and hear to meaning if they want to acquire language. If they don’t “get” what they are reading, it just will not sink in.

Two is Better Than One

In order to acquire reading proficiency in Chinese, students should use both graded readers and authres. Graded readers help non-native speakers read fluently (without checking the dictionary every other word). Authres give students a view into the target culture and by their very nature, are interesting to students.

Graded Readers in Chinese:

Ignite Chinese

Mandarin Companion

Are There Four Skills in Language Learning?

What are the Four Skills?

When people talk about language classes, they often reference building up four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. In the early days of Lotus Chinese Learning I used to talk about the language skills that my students would learn. I did this because I thought that was what people expected. While we often put our languages in the skills section of a resume or CV, language is not a skill. Language is a complex and abstract system. It is not a skill that you learn like knitting.

But wait! Many students say, language is a skill that you can learn. It is exactly like knitting. You learn the rules, then fill in sentences with the vocabulary words. Rules are great for textbook publishers, but they don’t adequately describe language. I promise you that you know more about English than what you could put in a textbook about English grammar.

picture of speech bubbles
Do we learn speaking as a skill in isolation from reading, writing and listening? I don’t think so.

Language is a Complex and Abstract System

Say that you want to paint your house. You paint it and decide you hate the color. Can you repaint your house? Yes, of course! Then, you go inside and you decide you hate how your living room looks, can you redecorate it? Yes, of course! Then, if you go into the kitchen and bake a cake that doesn’t taste good, can you rebake the cake? Nope! Reading that last sentence, I’m sure your brain protested the use of the word. I’ll bet $5* that no one ever taught you that you can’t use the word “rebake.” But you knew this anyway. That is what we mean when we say that language is more complex and abstract than rules in a textbook.**

Can We Work on Skills in Isolation?

Furthermore, it is not really that useful to separate language into the four skills or speaking, listening, reading and writing. This implies that in a language class, we spend some time working on our speaking, some time working on listening, some time reading and some time writing. This is not how a good language class works. Teachers should know that it takes a long time before students are really ready to speak the target language beyond a few words or phrases. This does not mean that they won’t be communicating from day 1. Rather, they will start with a few yes/no type responses, nodding, etc., before they are ready to speak in full sentences. Especially at the beginning, students need to spend far more of their time listening than anything else.

Language is too complex and abstract to be described as a skill. Speaking, reading, listening and writing are also not really discrete skills that students can work on in isolation. We learn to write from reading and listening and we learn to speak from listening and reading. A language is not a pie that you can slice into four equal pieces called speaking, listening, reading and writing.

One more thing

World language classes often also focus much of their “speaking practice” on presentational speech. Presentational speech is basically when students stand up in front of the class to talk about something. Students can often do fairly well at this, even when they are beginner or intermediate students. They can memorize chunks of speech and just get through whatever they have to do. We already know that memorization is not really language learning. But there is a different reason to do less presentational speech in a language class. The reason is that we don’t just do that much presentational speech in our lives. Teacher do lots of presentational speech… but everyone else, not so much.

photo of student at graduation
We just don’t make speeches like this one too often in our lives

*If you can honestly remember someone telling you that “rebake” is not a word, I will Paypal you $5. Email me.

** Hat tip to Bill VanPatten for inspiring this example