Everybody loves a costume party. Especially educators. (I deliberately use this word in contrast to teachers. Teachers teach. Educators….well, they seem mostly to hold meetings, these days, and come up with new ways to say the obvious, or new Ideas that Absolutely Must Be Implemented or Every Child Will Be Left Behind. But I digress.)

This rather bold statement was recently made on a language teacher’s discussion list.

A syllabus as a list of vocabulary and grammar to cover is OUT. A syllabus of tasks and content to be learned (e.g. info about students & stories) is IN.

Well, I can’t say I’m that much of a fan of Heidi Klum (“one day you’re IN, the next, you’re OUT”), and maybe that has something to do with the fact that this statement just about gives me hives.

We have more and more new teachers coming to TPRS and CI teaching these days. Comprehensible Input is a hot word, and yes, we want to share its real face with these teachers who are curious about how best to implement it, lest they should be led astray by practices that really are not comprehensible or about input. So it’s important to think about the messages that we are giving, and to avoid categorical statements (with the exception of the one that we all espouse: “Language is acquired through comprehensible input, not output.”) Strike one against this statement.

So what’s so wrong with this statement? It simply reflects a basic lack of understanding of the situation in which the majority of teachers in the US work, and a less-than-ideal grasp of the technical terms of our profession.

Public school teachers are hired to deliver a curriculum. A curriculum is a document that sets forth the content that will be taught during a particular course (often a school year long, but sometimes a semester or quarter course).  A syllabus is a document given out to students which lists the expectations for the course, the schedule, and any other information a student would need to have when starting the course. So strike two: syllabi have nothing to do with the issue at hand.

But let’s ignore that problem for a moment. The writer’s intent was clearly to say that curricula that list vocabulary and grammar are bad, and curricula that list tasks and content are good. So, I guess I need a little clarification. How is “content” different from “vocabulary and grammar” in terms of second language classes? I would respond that there is no difference — it’s just another outfit, a costume that makes “words and grammar stuff” sound more Educator Acceptable in the 21st Century(TM) — a time when, obviously, all the digital natives learn and acquire completely differently than anyone in prior history (not).

So the other question is — why tasks? The sense of the word “task” here is really “function” (another costume). People who are talking about tasks and content are really talking about functions (like asking, telling, skimming for information, whatever) and words and grammar (like vocabulary and verb conjugations and so on).

But if we are teaching TPRS, it is rather meaningless, really, to expect that a (for example) 13-year-old child has no idea of how to ask a question. I mean the function of asking, not how to arrange the right words in Spanish to form a question. All these “tasks” are either things that students have known how to do since they were watching Sesame Street at age 3, or are really vocational training (like getting students to perform things they have never done in real life, like maybe reading a train timetable or something). But please, show me a 13-year-old who has never asked a question to get information, or exchanged biographical information with a peer (which, you realize, is just Eduspeak for being able to say “Do you have a sister? I do. Can’t stand her. She’s a pain.”)

The call for Tasks also bleeds over into “CI for the Non-Input-Focused”. This is a relatively new phenomenon in which teachers who do not teach using an input focus are encouraged to adopt a few techniques from TPRS or TCI and layer them on top of the things they have been doing all along, like having kids “do tasks” in pairs, or mix and mingle to complete an information gap activity, or whatever. The quality of the original task is marginally improved, since making ANYTHING more comprehensible will increase acquisition. But because the original structure and logistics of the Non-Input-Focused Activity are still there, the activity is still non-input-focused. In the best scenario, it might provide diffuse comprehensible input — where the hope is that over long enough a period of time, acquisition might occur, but who knows if there will be enough meaningful encounters with that language before the school year is over.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Acquisition happens when the brain matches meaning with those weird incoming sounds of a new language. Over and over. That’s what language teachers need to provide: comprehensible input. Not vocational training, and not a set of new clothes for the same concepts that have been around for decades. Calling vocabulary “content” doesn’t make any difference. Providing high density, highly comprehensible input of that vocabulary makes the difference.