C is for Comprehended


I’ve thought about how I teach. And I’ve realized I do not teach with comprehensible input. I teach with comprehended input.


Comprehensible is not enough. Something that “can” be comprehended is not always comprehended. Especially with all the kinda-sorta definitions of “comprehensible” floating around these days.

There must be a match between meaning and the incoming language in order for the brain to acquire that language. If there is less than total comprehension (not total transparency, which means understanding of the analytical aspects of the language) then there will be less than a total match.

Allowing anything less than a total match means wasted time. It’s like mixing rocks into your mashed potatoes. You might manage to swallow them, but they’re not going to be digested. And nobody wants pebbles in that buttery goodness, do they?

It may also mean increased anxiety. Those rocks in the mashed potatoes interrupt the pleasure of eating the delicious, warm, soft mass of potatoes with the buttery flavor (it is nearly dinnertime, can you tell?), injecting the abject fear of cracking a tooth. Have you ever done that? I don’t think I’ll ever be able to enjoy Rocky Road ice cream again. Uncomprehended chunks of language work the same way, prompting fear of not “getting it”. Of not succeeding. Of being not quite enough.

TPRS is all about success. We reject the “no pain, no gain” idea. There was no pain in acquiring the first language, and there doesn’t need to be pain in acquiring the second and subsequent ones. We do need to let go of the idea that we can serve two masters at once. Either we are facilitating acquisition, which means providing easy-to-digest language, or we are doing other things, mostly things that other people who are not language acquisition facilitators are telling us to do, like “building grit” or “helping kids to deal with ambiguity” or “helping them learn to handle unknowns”.  If we do those things, we will exponentially reduce the effectiveness of the acquisition going on in our classrooms.

The gift of success in a language classroom is something that we can give to an incredibly high proportion of students through TPRS (or, for Chinese, with COIN, which uses TPRS for oral language plus CCR and TRW as specific extended literacy techniques). As always, I am talking about beginners. I care about beginners because — especially in Chinese — this is when they are lost to us if we do not give them what they truly need. More advanced students can handle a bit of gravel in the potatoes if they have to, but the beginners can’t. They shouldn’t have to. We have only one chance to convince students that they can succeed. The chance to convince students who may never have felt they were as good as everyone else that they can be just as good as everyone else in a language is too valuable to sacrifice for some trendy edubabble goal that can perfectly well be promoted during other classes.

Because, remember, what we “teach” is different. There are no native speakers of math, chemistry or baseball. Only language. If we give in and teach the same way, letting our eyes slip from the ultimate goal of acquisition, we’re reduced to arguing about which kind of rock goes best with Idaho russets.

No rock. No uncomprehended language. And that means checking that students do comprehend. Checking at the time the language is used. Checking over and over to make sure, because beginners are delicate and it’s easy to break them without even meaning to, just by confusing them.  A confused kid would rather look like a bad kid most of the time, and then the classroom management issues start. Or else the confused kids just check out and sit inert, putting up with the class period the same way they do anything else they can’t do anything about, and then they drop out of language the first minute they can.



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