On a teacher’s list, the statement was recently made in support of StoryListening and not worrying about noise (incomprehensible language) and checking comprehension during input:

What about the argument that one person’s noise is another person’s i + 1?

This is a great question. Because it seems so logical, doesn’t it? We know that people acquire language at different rates, and so what one student is ready to acquire might not be that which another student is ready to acquire at any given moment. (This holds whether or not one happens to subscribe to some natural order of acquisition, which I do not.)

Sure. That’s definitely true.

But we teach in schools. We teach (by and large) groups of students, not individuals. If I am teaching a one-on-one class (and I’ve done many of these), obviously I can tailor everything about my input to that particular student. (There are also far fewer issues of keeping the student engaged and managing the classroom than there are with group classes, especially in public school settings).

In a group, I do not have this luxury. Not if I don’t want to lose the majority of my students.

There is someone I know through the internet who says that when I tell you a story and draw on the board, …you might not understand the story while I am telling it.  Do you?  They laughed and said, well of course we understand it!  

The biggest damaging factor of legacy methods is that the input is not comprehensible. That cannot be said enough. The whole shift in our paradigm, all the good that we have done over the past 20 years, stems from the fact that we are now making input to our students more and more comprehensible.

To suddenly stand up and say “We don’t have to worry about all our students understanding the language when we say it” is to adopt a legacy mindset. It might be dressed up in CI clothing, but at the bottom, if we are not giving each brain in that room input that it can comprehend, we are not doing our CI job. If we are not making sure that brain is comprehending, we are not doing our CI job as well as we could. If we are not ensuring, as much as humanly possible, that there are constant matches between incoming target language and meaning, we are not really making use of CI in that teaching, because that is the essence of CI.

The strength of TPRS as the leading method of providing Comprehensible Input (and if you look closely, every other “method” or approach that has any sort of CI underpinning is an offshoot and a reduction of TPRS, simply leaving out one or another aspect of TPRS), the reason TPRS works so well, is that it does No Child Left Behind right for a change. No longer do we have the sink or swim mentality, the “students have to do the work and the teacher has no responsibility” thinking. We realize that what makes those students acquire is comprehensibility of input, and more to the point, the input that is actually comprehended. Comprehensible is only a potential state. Comprehended is what matters, and in the moment, so that the “match” can be made between the target language and the meaning. The less experience a person has with a language, the shorter the time window in which such a match can be made, because it takes time and a foundation in the language to develop a verbal memory in a second language. (Think about it. Even if you know your numbers in your second language, can you remember a phone number for the short term as efficiently in that language as you can in your native language?)

Proponents of StoryListening make the argument that they “just know” their students understand, or that the students say they understand, and so it’s not necessary to do comprehension checks. I would ask — what are they afraid of? What is so bad about checking comprehension that they refuse to do it? Because the first thing one learns in Education 101 is that the most useless question in teaching is “Do you understand?” If the student actually does understand, he says “Yes”. If he thinks he understands, but he really misunderstands, he also answers “Yes” in good faith. And if he is struggling in school and maybe has other social or home factors that are weighing on him, he says “Yes” because he doesn’t need more hassle and knows that if he says “No” the teacher will pounce on him and “explain”. He gets that all day long, so he’s learned — as part of playing the school game — to try to just “pass” as “getting it”.

Asking a student whether he “gets” some piece of language (as in “has he acquired it?”) is likewise meaningless. Students all think they “get it” when they can understand it, even using some external cue or simply because it is very recent in the mind. That is why we do not rely on the results of same-day quizzes in TPRS for evidence of acquisition. We look at what language is consistently used — output — correctly over time to judge that. We don’t simply ask the students “Do you get this language?”

In fact, to address nearly any difficulty any teacher reports in doing TPRS, the first thing to try is always “more comprehension checks”. And more often than not, the teacher realizes that there is not enough understanding going on. The input feels comprehensible to him or her, but not to the listeners.

There is just no substitute for simply asking a listener what has been said, at the time it’s said. Anything less than this is going to lose some of the listeners because they will not correctly understand. And none of us has that much time and luxury to simply hope for the best. We need to bring our A game and optimize our input to make best use of the very, very limited time in a school year. For beginners (those in years 1, 2, perhaps 3 of a typical middle/high school TPRS program) that means making the input as close to 100% comprehensible for everyone as possible. And it’s eminently possible using TPRS. TPRS trains teachers how to keep their fast processors interested while still providing the “meat and potatoes” of solid repetitions to the slower processors. It’s not rocket science. Anyone can learn to do it. It just requires accepting the fact that any student left not understanding the input at the moment it’s delivered is a student whose acquisition will not be optimal (at best), or who will totally check out (worst case, but more frequent than we’d like to believe.) And if you don’t believe students check out when they don’t understand, just visit a legacy methods classroom. There are still too many of them out there.