The need to ask

On a social media site, a general question more or less like this has been flying around of late:

Why can’t we just look at our students and gauge them that way? Why do they need to actually respond? I can already tell if they are listening and interested.

The answer goes back to the root of what we are trying to provide to our students: comprehensible input.

If the students are listening and interested, we can assume they are getting input (as long as they are not “putting on the school face” and actually thinking about lunch, or the fact that Suzie put her math book into José’s locker yesterday so maybe she likes him and not me, or…). Input is good. Input is half of what we need.

But the other half is the “comprehensible” piece.

Comprehensible means “able to be understood“. Really it might be clearer to explain to language teachers that we want to provide comprehended input. We don’t want to put some potentially understandable language out there — meaning is not where i+1 lives — we want to provide messages students can understand.

The question is, how do we ensure that we are doing that? It is such a crucial element of our practice that it really cannot wait for a summative assessment. It can’t even wait for the end of a class period, because if a kid hasn’t been “getting it”, that is a period wasted for that student’s input, not to mention the message the kid is getting (“I will let you flounder in confusion”). We do not want our language babies to flounder in confusion. They have plenty of time later to use the tools they are getting now, in their linguistic cradle, to deal with ambiguity and talk to unsympathetic speakers and all that. Now is their happy time of rapid growth through 100% comprehensible input.

So once more, how can we tell that input is comprehended by them?

We ask.

Without asking what was understood, without having them tell us what they made that meaning out to be, we — and they — are only guessing. Guessing is fine when you have virtually unlimited time (as in natural acquisition in children). Guessing is much less fine when you have 100 hours a school year or even less.

Judging comprehension by gauging the level of attention on a student’s face is like saying we will tell if the car is going to run out of gas by looking at the oil gauge. They are two unrelated things. A person can look perfectly attentive and even calm, but not have a clue about what’s going on. Not all miscomprehensions will be so broad and deep, of course, but the principle still holds: without having the student give us a precise snapshot of what’s inside his head, we will never know.

Leaving doubts as to whether language was comprehended means we are providing potentially comprehensible input, not comprehensible input. Of all the variables that surround us in language teaching, this is the one that is the most easily and immediately controllable.

Nothing does the trick to let the teacher know for sure like asking “What did I just say?” or “What did that mean?” I am at hour four or five of my latest language, through a rough approximation of TPRS methodology (the teacher is not experienced but is doing his best to follow the method). Comprehension checks are so far absent. It’s not a skill the teacher has as yet picked up. The other day, he asked me a question. I answered it in the target language (yes/no). Then he gave the “long” answer — and it turned out I had entirely misunderstood what he was asking, even though my short answer was appropriate. Because I’m a confident, adult language learner doing my 1xth language, and because I pay for my lessons, and because I don’t have any peers to feel silly in front of, I stopped him and asked for an English translation of the question he’d just asked. Because I realized I hadn’t understood it.

Kids don’t do that. We’d all like to believe our kids are different, that they will use the stop sign or hold up the card or whatever to indicate a lack of comprehension. But first of all, the kids who need that the most are those who will become embarrassed the soonest for their frequent use of it — all the more frequent when no one makes sure that meaning has been established correctly and everyone is comprehending what’s being talked about. So they stop signaling. And even if they do signal, all they are signaling is the failure to comprehend. A signal or even a look of confusion is an indicator that there is A problem, but it doesn’t tell us anything about what THE problem is. Only a “brain dump” can do that — the student telling us what he understood, so that we can compare that to the actual meaning and judge where the train went off the rails.

So for TPRS, the slogan is much more positive than for the military. Ask. Then tell.

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