Sunday, April 19, 2020

Stay strong, Stay Input-Focused (with some ideas)

Staying input focused in a distance learning world where almost every on-line company seems to want you to use their platform to teach the subjunctive, give speaking assessments, and study vocabulary is really hard!

I have been a little discouraged by the trend I see in teacher collaborative groups to move away from input focused, comprehension based teaching to...well, the opposite.

And teacher friends, please don't take this as an insult- we are all just doing the best we can with the tools we have.  If you are struggling to remain input focused, please know that you are not alone!

For me, staying input focused means rejecting all the tools that are being thrust at me that don't align with what I know about how languages are acquired.  It means staying strong against the pressure to give speaking "tasks" and grammar study.  

It means going back again and again to what is known about language acquisition.  

It means working harder- because to make something comprehensible that students can do independently is really, really hard.  

But I refuse to give up.   I refuse to send out grammar packets and I refuse to give busywork and I refuse to make students speak before they are ready.  This is where the part of my personality that is stubborn and sometimes downright contrarian comes in: I have to say no. A lot.  But, being a comprehension based teacher in a system that is designed for something else has never been the easiest road, and I accept it.  I accept the challenge!

Now, what on earth am I going to do in my synchronous sessions?? What kind of work can I assign students that will be input focused and comprehensible...independently?

At the end of last week, Dr. Bill VanPatten, a leading researcher, teacher, and author (as well as being the Diva of SLA!) hosted a webinar for the CI SOS group.  I was fortunate enough to participate, and during the Q & A, I asked him: how do we keep input comprehensible?  How can we do our best to make sure students are understanding the input?  

His answer was surprisingly simple:  give learners easy short texts, broken up very frequently with questions that help them understand the reading, and follow that with some kind of meaningful reading task, such as a discourse scramble (or 9-square).

Wow!  So, basically, doing what I already do.  Cool.  Now...which of the BILLION platforms will do this?  

And of those platforms, which has the easiest learning curve for me and my students, has strong privacy protections, is compliant with any kind of copyright requirements, and works with few headaches?  

Well, Garbanzo* comes to mind. Short bits of text, with comprehension questions...check!  What else....hmmm...Sr. Wooly works like that too.   Fluency Matters e-books certainly fit.  Textivate, which I have never used, but hear great things about seems like a great idea, but a) it is a new tool, b) it costs $, and c) do I really need to learn how to do something else????   I might explode.  Kahoot is offering free premium subscriptions right now, and they offer a puzzle feature....maybe?  Google Slides?  Nearpod...GoGormative... Edpuzzle... Peardeck....
Flipgrid...SeeSaw...TeacherTube...oh wow.  Just typing this makes me feel overwhelmed.

Back to square one, so to speak.  What can I do right now, that feels manageable for me and my students, that is input based?

Here are some ideas that have worked so far:  

StoryAsking Adaptation for Synchronous Classes

I took a story from a previous year's class and instead of doing a more open-ended story-ask, I did more of a story-listen, where I basically re-used an old story (from a previous class) and let the kids decide character names.  

I used Zoom and created a document camera from my phone- just google "Document camera hack for zoom" and find a million ways to do it.  It worked *really* well.  I also used a whiteboard that I brought home from school, but my colleague did it on paper with a sharpie and it worked fine for her.  

I modified the classic TPRS story in a couple of ways as well- instead of being a  3 scene story (like most TPRS stories), ours was 2 scenes to keep it short. I also made sure that the elements in the story were things that I could draw quickly on a whiteboard.  

I used the chat function for kids to give suggestions and comprehension checks (e.g. what was the character's name? What did I just say? What does x mean in English?).
Finally, I had them draw along with me.  I would draw something and say a couple of sentences, do a comprehension check, then I gave them 10- 15 seconds to draw it too.  They held their drawings up to the camera and we all had a good laugh.  

Now, I have a story that is familiar to our class, and we can do a few things with it!  Plans for the next couple of weeks: CHECK and DONE! 

So, how to do this yourself?  Here are some tips and ideas for how to use the story in later lessons, both live and for independent work.

StoryAsking Adaptation for Live Zoom Class

  • Find a story.  Here is a link to some stories to adapt:  Collab Drive Unit Files or Tripp's Scripts (click here for TONS more resources about StoryAsking).
  • Simplify the story. 
  • PRACTICE the drawing once ahead of time with thick markers or whiteboard. 
  • Make a document camera out of your phone/ipad. (Google it.)
  • Have kids draw along- but only give them 10-15 seconds to do so, and intentionally pause for drawing time.  
  • Instead of asking for all the details, just ask for new names.
  • Use the chat function for student suggestions and to check comprehension.    
  • When you are done, use the story in a few different ways. 

Ideas for SYNCHRONOUS adaptations using the same story

Make sure that students have read and understood the story before doing any of these activities!  

For Asynchronous lesson adaptations using the same story

Make sure that students have read and understood the story before doing any of these activities!   

  •  9-square on google slides with story  (blank template to use) (original activity
  • Comprehension focused Kahoot* 
  • Read the story and illustrate it (as a mural, as a comic, etc.)  
  • Any of the activities from the COVID-19 Revista Literal Choice Board 
  • Edpuzzle reading of the story with questions and your delightful whiteboard illustrations.   (This seems really work-intensive because you first have to record yourself reading the story, but it would work AND provide listening input!) 

Some Resources to use and adapt  

What's missing? 

What is missing from these lists?  That's right.  Any kind of speaking or writing.  Why? Well, in class, we do speak. We speak a lot!  We talk and discuss and connect and we write too.  But, we are not in class.  (Obvious, but that has actually been incredibly helpful to remember!)  I have a limited amount of time that students are supposed to spend on language class, and a lot of levels to prep for, and I know that speaking does not help them acquire*. Nor does writing.  I am going to stay input focused for the rest of the year. 

*For some research and reading to back this up, please see While We're On the Topic, by Dr. Bill VanPatten (a publication from ACTFL), as well as Research Talks, by Eric Herman (available from Amazon).


  1. Thank you for sharing this message that I desperately needed to be reminded of today.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. As I fumble around and get distracted with all the digital "offers", after reading this, I realize I'm not far off the mark of sticking to comprehensible input.

  3. I am REALLY glad that this was helpful to you! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  4. I am so thankful for this post!

  5. SO helpful to read this as we prepare for an unknown start to fall. I feel less guilty about not getting kids' to speak/write, and now I can adapt to CI in a calmer fashion than this past spring...

  6. Thank you so much, I love the ideas! I'm a kanguage teacher in Sweden and reading comprehension is hard in distance learning, but you gave me some new ideas! Thank you!