Comprehensible Input goes traveling

The newest buzz in the communicative language teaching community is — guess what — “Comprehensible Input”.

Unfortunately, there seems to be some confusion about what “comprehensible” means.

Sitting in workshops given by respected presenters in the communicative teaching world, one hears repeated references to “Comprehensible Input”, but what is really being said is usually one of the following:
1. Use gestures/pictures to “introduce vocabulary”. Never translate. Translation is Bad.
2. Have learners deal with some sort of input (in writing or oral) that is way over their level of proficiency. This used to be called “skimming” or “scanning”, but now it has been transformed into “Comprehensible Input” (in name, at least).

It is encouraging to hear communicative practitioners talk about using real-world language and rejecting words and phrases that would never be heard “in the country”. However, the use of partially comprehensible or low-comprehensible input (written or oral) wastes time that could be used for real acquisition. This kind of exercise is only training the ability to “mine” for information when you lack sufficient language. There is plenty of time for students to do this later in life. It’s not that this is a skill without value, but we are not training them to “do okay” with Chinese, we’re making them fluent.

So based on the exercises that are being proposed, it sounds like the goal of communicative language teaching is to make students “sort of okay” in the language. The ACTFL standards back this up. “Complex sentences” (using because, therefore, although, and other connectors) are considered to be “intermediate” or higher level language. Beginners are not expected to use anything other than “memorized utterances”. One presenter actually proposed a pairwork exercise where students brainstormed for memorized utterances and then regurgitated them in an “interpersonal communication” task. Why not use the same amount of time to get structure into the students’ heads, so that they can say whatever they want?

Oh, but then ACTFL would have to re-write its standards. Which, based on what I see kids do in real comprehensible-input based classrooms, is overdue.

Maybe it’s time for the original comprehensible input folks to change our terms to “processible input” or “parsable input”, now that the meaning of “comprehensible” is being compromised.

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