So, you’ve heard a bit about teaching with comprehensible input (TCI) or TPRS, and you’re wondering what the fuss is all about. Is it really worth upending your entire way of teaching? While no one but you can answer this question, in this post I hope to summarize some of the diverse reasons that people may have for doing so. If you already teach with CI, please share a bit of your testimony in the comments! Why do you teach with CI?
Before I get to the actual reasons, I thought it might first be helpful to point you to some people who have described their journeys to TCI and how these methods have affected their careers. Maybe you’ll find someone’s story that you can relate to?
Also take a look at this superintendent’s positive impression of a TPRS classroom, this parent’s praise of Erica Peplinski’s classroom, and this collection of thoughts by new TPRS teachers from Grant Boulanger. Administrators, parents, and students also love TCI for the reasons below!
Why Teach with Comprehensible Input? 1
Please note that I am not claiming that TCI and TPRS are the only language teaching methods that show evidence of the reasons below. There are certainly non-TPRS/TCI teachers who are engaging, getting great results, reaching 90% TL, etc., and there are also self-proclaimed TCI teachers who don’t achieve on all of these levels. For example, not every TPRS teacher is intentional about including much culture. However, in general, the reasons below offer a summary of why many teachers become attracted to teaching with comprehensible input.
A program is deemed advanced for covering every tense, but students leave without the skills to hold a simple conversation 2.
- Proficiency: Many teachers find that their students are able to do more with the language when taught with comprehensible input than if they are instructed with vocabulary and grammar lessons. Certainly their grammar isn’t perfect, but every language learner makes lots of mistakes. That’s why accuracy doesn’t play a major roll in the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines until the Advanced stage. Because TCI focuses on communication, as the proficiency guidelines do, students are able to achieve quicker.
- Research: SLA researchers are in agreement that comprehensible input is an important part of language acquisition. Stephen Krashen is certainly the most well-known, but he is far from alone. For example, Lightbrown and Spada (2013) state that, “comprehensible input remains the foundation of all language acquisition,” and VanPatten and Wong (2003) note that, “Acquisition of a linguistic system is input dependent.” Research also supports the limiting of explicit grammar teaching, the delaying of output, and many of the other practices that are associated with comprehensible input-based methods 3. Certainly there are debates about many topics in second language acquisition (SLA); however, TCI and TPRS are the methods that are most intentional about turning SLA theory into classroom practice.
- Student-centeredness: TPRS and TCI are student-centered methods. For example, in TPRS, students collaboratively build a class story that is personalized to them and their ideas. With PQA (personalized questions & answers) and its spin-offs like Special Person Interviews, teachers are able to teach language by focusing on the students, not a textbook.
- Engagement: Because there is such an emphasis on students’ interests, funny stories, cultural topics, etc., students usually find TPRS and TCI classes to be more engaging than classes taught out of a textbook.
- 90% target language: It has been the position statement of ACTFL (the national organization of language teachers in the US) since 2010 that language classes should be taught at least 90% in the target language, beginning in Level 1. While this goal might seem difficult, it is actually quite simple if you focus on high-frequency language like we do in TCI.
- Mastery learning: Comprehensible input-based teaching uses many concepts from mastery learning. We make sure that we teach students where they are instead of where we think that they should be according to a textbook’s pacing.
- Language for everyone: This method of teaching makes differentiation very easy, and it allows all learners to acquire language at their own pace. Just as (almost) all people are able to acquire fluency in their first language regardless of their supposed intelligence, TCI teachers have found that all students, even those who have traditionally been unsuccessful at foreign language study, can succeed in a comprehensible input-based classroom 4. One reason for this (among many) is that, as Keith Toda said, we aim for “deep and simple” rather than “shallow and complex.” In other words, instead of covering a lot of content superficially, we recycle a smaller amount of high-frequency grammar and vocabulary.
- Increased enrollment: Our jobs often depend on the continued enrollment of students in our classes, especially in the case of less-popular languages like German, Latin, or Chinese. Due to the success that all students (not just the high-achieving ones) can feel with TCI and the enjoyment that naturally accompanies the methods, more students typically stay enrolled in the language through the higher-levels. Allysen Clancey, for example, saw her upper-level enrollment jump considerably after switching to CI.
- Culture & content-based instruction: Traditionally, culture in the world language classroom has been taught superficially, in English, or only in the upper-levels. With comprehensible input, students can delve deeply into culture starting in Level 1. People often have the misconception that TPRS and TCI only talk about ridiculous, make-believe characters, but this is far from the case. Martina Bex, for example, has developed an incredibly culture-based curriculum for Spanish I & II, and Fluency Matters readers such as Esperanza and Robo en la noche are also packed with complex cultural topics. For ESL teachers, comprehensible input is essential for providing content-based instruction.
- Teacher workload: Although there is a learning curve, teachers frequently find that comprehensible input-based methods lead to a lighter work load in the long run. Namely, there’s usually less grading, and lesson planning becomes simpler. For example, if you teach multiple levels, with CI it is possible to use the same resource/activity (i.e. a MovieTalk, a novel, or a story script) in several classes. All you have to do is change the complexity of your speech. That saves a lot of planning time!
- 21st century skills: ACTFL assembled this document about what 21st century skills look like in a language class. As Mike Coxon notes, their idea of a 21st century classroom looks a lot like a comprehensible input-based one! To his thoughts I would add that in the 21st century, the power of technology should not be underestimated. If a student doesn’t know a specific vocabulary word (i.e. for a topic like food or clothing), they can look it up. They don’t need to know every possible word of ahead of time (especially in the lower-levels). Instead, we should be helping students to acquire fluency with the most common forms of the language (i.e. the Super Seven Verbs) so that when students look up the specific words that they want to know (which is hard to plan for), they can use them in connected discourse.
- Social-emotional learning: Comprehensible input gives an opportunity to empower and encourage students. You can read more in this article.
- Adaptability: TPRS and other CI-based methods can be easily adapted to diverse student populations (i.e. adults or high-poverty schools) or to different cultures.
- Standards: Comprehensible input-based methods often do a better job of meeting state standards than a textbook-based curriculum. Why? In most states, there is nothing in the standards about grammar topics like verb conjugation. Instead, there are usually statements like Students can introduce themselves or Students can engage in conversations on known and unknown topics. As with the ACTFL proficiency standards, the emphasis is on fluency and communication, not accuracy. Certainly accuracy is important, but it takes time, and often the focus on accuracy detracts from the students’ willingness to communicate.
- Cost-effectiveness: Chris Stolz calculated the economic argument for TPRS and found that textbooks cost about thirteen times more. If you’re in a poor school with few resources for the language department, that’s a big deal! The quality of your instruction doesn’t need to be determined by the quality of your materials.
- Jillane Baros, What Is Compelling Comprehensible Input? (2016).
- Allison Wienhold, “Learning” Grammar vs. Communication (2015).
- Chris Stolz, The Research Supporting the Comprehensible Input Hypothesis and CI Instruction (2014).
- Kristin Archambault, A Second Language Should Not Just Be for Brainiacs (2017).