Myths 8 & 9: I don’t do it because they can’t handle it.
Because myths 8 and 9 are related, I want to address them together. The connection between them is that they both make us give up on giving novices authentic materials.
When I wrote about myth 7, I compared Taco Bell (audio made for language learners) to real Mexican tacos (authentic audio). What makes us resort to Taco Bell and abandon the real tacos is that we’re convinced they just “can’t handle the truth” – that is, they can’t handle real, native input. We have bought into myth #8:
Novice learners can’t understand authentic materials.
I’ll tell you, this is actually true for most materials. My intermediate learners often cannot understand the authentic materials as they careen fearfully toward the AP exam. The problem is that when we buy into this myth and let it affect our pedagogy it’s because we’re reading it as novice learners can’t understand everything in authentic materials. And so, because they can’t understand it all, we give up and don’t give them any.
The key to overcoming this myth is to approach the entire issue a different way. Instead of changing the materials, change your expectations. Change the question! Give students realistic expectations of what you want them to understand. Do you need them to get the main idea? Do you need them to hear something specific like where the person is from? Let them know and reassure them that the objective for the activity is this one focused thing, not for them to understand it all. As you continually expand your goals according to students’ rising proficiency, you’ll actually see that proficiency, in the interpretive mode, grow and grow – something we’ve been missing through many years of supposedly CI (comprehensible input)-influenced teaching methods.
Another reason we don’t give novices authentic materials is that we buy too much into CI. Believe me, I know CI (comprehensible input) works, and I believe in it completely, but many who fall in the CI camp, including many who adhere to my beloved TPRS method, are propagating myth #9:
Students have to understand everything they hear.
In some CI workshops I’ve been in, I’ve seen presenters advocate writing the translation of every unknown target word on the board and pointing to it while you say it. You’re supposed to fill everything else with proper nouns or words they already know. And don’t ever, ever think about using words they don’t know. Also, as you talk, imagine you’re dropping each word in a well like a coin, one at a time, and you’ll talk slowly enough for your students.
Yes, because that’s how people talk normally, right?
The problem here is that the input has changed from being i+1 -slightly more challenging than what a student can easily understand- to being just i. Or worse, i-1. So the result is that students feel successful because they understand everything that’s going on in class, and then they hit a real authentic source, or try to talk to a family friend or someone at a store, and they’re astounded that normal people don’t talk to them like that.
Now, we all make adjustments for language learners. When we talk to children, we talk in a voice that’s easy to hear. We talk in simple sentences and adjust the vocabulary we use. But no one thinks a baby can understand everything (or anything, depending on how early) we’re saying. We just keep talking and we know that eventually, the process will happen the way it was supposed to and the child will start to speak.
Did you catch that?
We just keep talking. We know the process works.
Now, as language teachers, we have one disadvantage and one advantage here. The disadvantage is that we don’t have the time. We don’t have the hours and hours on end to interact with students to feed them more and more and hours more of input. But we do have a significant advantage: we understand more about how the process works and as long as we’re building our pedagogy on what research shows, we can capitalize on what we know to counteract our time problem.
So if you’re going to feed your students (mostly) comprehensible input while using authentic materials, what does that look like?
1) Ask questions tailored to their current proficiency level.
2) Ask questions that push students to their next proficiency level.
3) Replay or re-present materials until every student is able to comprehend what it is you’ve asked them to.
4) Extend sources by asking for some kind of higher-level, proficiency-based thinking (i.e. do not ask multiple choice questions): compare, contrast, synthesize multiple sources.
5) Give an “open mic” for students who understood more than you asked – you’ll be surprised what they can tell you about the source!
6) Use some kind of guide to help students analyze what they’ve heard or read.
For more reading and lots of authentic-source activities for novice Spanish learners, check out my Spanish 1 tag.
Photo copyright 1992 Castle Rock Entertainment, Columbia Pictures Corporation.