We teach kids to speak real Spanish. For Life

by Erica Fischer on Aug 28, 2014

How to Incorporate More Comprehensible Input and Authentic Resources in a “Traditional” Language Program

Last Thursday, #langchat was in full swing, Q&A style! @KrisClimer started off the hour, “Let’s get the #langchat rocking!” anticipating “a flurry of ideas!” As always, Langchatters did not disappoint. They rapidly tweeted their thoughts on ways to incorporate more comprehensible input (CI) and authentic resources (#authres) in a “traditional” language program.

Thanks to those who tuned in for another action-packed hour! We extend a big thank you to Kris (@KrisClimer), Amy (@alenord), Sara-Elizabeth (@SECottrell), and @CoLeeSensei (Colleen) for moderating a rapid-fire #langchat!

Q1: What exactly makes a world language class “traditional”?

Langchatters began by discussing what constitutes a “traditional” language class. They overwhelmingly associated “traditional” classes with repetition, a lack of innovation, and boredom. @sonrisadelcampo characterized a traditional approach as “teaching how it’s ‘always been done,’ no risk, no creativity, no acquisition, no joy.” @mmecushmore, among countless others, agreed that “[Traditional world language] learning is prescribed, boring, stale, and unconnected. [It’s not] relevant to [students’] lives.” Participants highlighted the salient features of a traditional class, namely, grammar and vocab drills, textbook-based instruction, and the absence of technology.

Grammar and Vocab Drills!
Langchatters generally agreed that “traditional language classes tend to have a grammar backbone” (@SraSpanglish). @CatherineKU72 noted that, “Traditional class tries to teach grammar skills through unconnected vocabulary sets at predetermined time set by a textbook,” and @GaryDiBianca observed that grammar drills and vocab lists are often presented “without context.”

Textbook-Based Instruction:
The traditional classroom was associated with heavy dependence on the language textbook. @SrtaJohnsonEBHS commented that a traditional approach entails blind acceptance of lessons as dictated by the textbook: “Traditional = by the book, teaching units [because] the book said so.” @CoLeeSensei proposed that “[Traditional instruction consists in] relying on the text to determine what you teach and the workbook to reinforce it?”Many langchatters reflected on how using excessive textbook-style worksheets fails to engage learners.

Absence of technology:
@clowningar highlighted another characteristic of the traditional language classroom: the absence of technology. He imagined students from traditional classes in “a non-internet world,” “raising [their] hands instead of tweeting [an] answer” and exchanging with “penpals instead of [communicating through Skype] and hangouts.”

…So, Are Traditional Classes All Bad?
@SECottrell wrote that “traditional isn’t a bad word but in language teaching it’s got 100 years of failure behind it.” Although Langchatters readily voiced criticism, participants did highlight the utility of a traditional approach. @CatherineKU72 said, “This is not to say that some traditional things are not useful for our students, [even with] all our new ideas,” and @SraSpanglish acknolwged “‘Traditional’ is often used as a euphemism for ‘outdated,’ but it can also refer to the ‘tried and true’.” @CoLeeSensei reminded instructors of the comfort a traditional approach can offer new teachers: “It’s where most of us started as language teachers I would suspect – giving structure and security.”

Q2: What things “had to go” in order for you to move towards proficiency based instruction?

Instructors brainstormed what to throw by the wayside in seeking to make a language class less traditional. They emphasized the need to become less dependent on the textbook, isolated grammar-based instruction, translation exercises, vocab lists and charts, memorized dialogues and worksheets.

The Textbook:
An overwhelming majority of Langchatters urged instructors to ditch the textbook! @srtajohnson13 listed it as the number one item on her give-away list: “Number one: Textbook.” @SECottrell agreed “My textbook had to go.” @CoLeeSensei did not focus so much on the book itself but on the limiting structure it places on instruction: “What had to go? The ‘it’s chapter 1 so we can only say these things using these words’ idea!” She added that, while “the textbook did give [her] unit ideas as a new [teacher,] now….the unit gives [her] ideas!” Boredom and rigidity aside, @xianb8 questioned the values contained in textbooks: “[Textbooks are] full of racial stereotypes, [a] weird value hierarchy of styles of [language], [and] content [that is] not relevant to students.” Although textbook critics predominated, a few Langchatters did write in defense of textbooks. One participant said, “I feel like tonight’s chat isn’t for me! I love my textbooks :(.” Another participant chimed in: “In defense of texts, some have good readings/videos/etc.”

Grammar-Based Instruction:
In addition to the textbook, many deplored isolated grammar lessons common to the traditional classroom. @srtajohnson13 said, “Grammar-based instruction had to go!” because, again, it wasn’t engaging her students. @KrisClimer described grammar instruction as a waste valuable class time: “I HATE grammar explanations in [level one] as part of our devoted time together […] [I find them] devoid of real.” @SrtaJohnsonEBHS finds that, alternatively, “Pop-up grammar [i.e. occasional explanations, when necessary] is working just as effectively, with way less boredom (and wasted time).”

A staple of the traditional approach, translation also came under criticism. @SECottrell commented, “Because translation is high skill, I think asking for it encourages [the] brain to continue routing through English.” She added, “Translation assessment had to go. All of it.” @CoLeeSensei also questioned the value of translation for the development of communicational skills: “[Translation focuses] a lot on the word for word [analysis] – not a [communicational] purpose I feel. I want them to ‘gist’ and keep talking!”

Vocab Lists and Verb Charts:
Huge vocabulary lists and verb charts also found themselves on the chopping block. @MmePoulet criticized “recitation of word lists out of context,” and @MmeMurphy agreed: “For me, themed units with big vocab lists […] And games that focused on big vocab lists out of context had to go.” Similarly, natural acquisition of verbs through exposure over time was favored over memorization and recitation of verb conjugations out of context. @SraSpanglish said, “I let go of conjugation charts to introduce language–process after repeated exposure MAYBE.” Emphasizing the importance of communicational skills, @alenord added: [I also] gave up [the] need to only have [students] work with one tense at a time after level 1. That isn’t how we talk!”

Worksheets were also viewed as disconnected from natural language production. @MmePoulet encouraged instructors to cut out “Worksheets,” pointing out their “Non-relevance” and describing them as “Insulated. Not real-world.” Similarly, @alenord wrote that “Fill-in the blank tests had to go!” @SenoraDiamond55 is “currently still fighting the good fight against wordbanks on assessment. What’s the point!? Hate, hate them.” @SECottrell voiced a contrary opinion, pointing out that copying words is a defined ACTFL proficiency skill at novice low level and word banks are often critical for students of character languages at that level.

Q3: What do you do to incorporate more comprehensible input, target language and authentic resources in your instruction?

Instructors discussed ways to make target language input more comprehensible [See the summary on Comprehensible Input here!] and brainstormed how to incorporate authentic resources [See this post to learn more.] They highlighted the importance of getting students excited about class material, the benefit of technology [Check out an old post about technological resources here!], and the support that can be gained from a professional network.

Get Students Excited:
As before, Langchatters strongly encouraged instructors to be aware of student interests in order to get them excited about content. @SenorG said, “[I have always] viewed ENGAGING [comprehensible input] (CI) as key. Start [the] year [with] interest surveys, tailor [the] content to be CI they want to pay attention to.” @CoLeeSensei wrote, “Great idea – I use [Google forms] to create surveys – [Students] love to learn about themselves!” @mmecushmore reiterated the importance of making materials relevant to students, prompting instructors to also: “Have fun. Be silly.”

Technology (Especially Social Media) is Your Friend:
Several Langchatters cited technology, and social media, in particular, as a valuable resource. @SenoritaGilbert said, “[I follow] every blog I can for ideas.” @SenoritaDiamond55 described herself as “a digital hoarder,” writing, “I tag everything as much as [possible] to see how I can fit [it] in [with a] theme or concept.” While authentic resources (#authres) abound online, @CoLeeSensei reminded Langchatters of a difficulty for instructors of character languages: “Keep in mind not all languages are a,b,c’s. [There are] 2000 characters for [a native speaker] in mine [so] my [students] can only use modified [#authres].”

Following comments to make comprehensible input engaging for students, @SenoritaDiamond55 encouraged giving students what they want: “[Students] love media—let’s give it to them!” @MmePoulet echoed the benefit of social media: “[The truth] is that social media is an absolute blessing for [language] teachers! I’d die without it.” @mmecushmore also reminded instructors about the possibility for interaction with target language speakers on social media platforms: “I like social media [because students] can [follow] kids their age in other countries. We had French [students] visit [and] they [follow each other] on Instagram.”

Build a Professional Support Network

Finally, Langchatters stressed the value of a professional development network. @sonrisadelcampo suggested instructors “get together [with] like-minded [teachers] in [their] community [or] state to share ideas[, coach, and] encourage each other.”
@MmeMurphy provided an additional piece of advice: “get on […] the [MoreTPRS] (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) listserv. It has been an AMAZING resource for me.” To do so, “send a blank e-mail to [email protected]” (Thanks, @CoLeeSensei!) And, of course, #langchat is here every week for instructional support and advice! @KrisClimer voiced the inspiration he derives from chats with fellow Langchatters: “You people make me want to be a better teacher!!!! Thank you.”


If you want to develop a less traditional language classroom, Langchatters have plenty of suggestions. First and foremost, they advise you to consider ditching the language textbook or setting it aside more often. @SrtaJohnsonEBHS encouraged instructors to take it slow: “Don’t try to change everything at once, or you’ll go crazy. Be aware of pushback from older groups who like old way.” @profekister emphasized that improvement is gradual: “Takeaway ~ we are never done, always changing, always getting better, it is getting easier to find [authentic resources now than before].”

Thank You!

Thank you again to our moderators, Kris (@KrisClimer), Amy (@alenord), Sara-Elizabeth (@SECottrell), and @CoLeeSensei (Colleen), and to everyone who contributed to yet another engaging #langchat last week! To view the entire conversation, you can access the full transcript on our tweet archive.

As @SECottrell reminded us that “you -yes YOU- are the one who suggests and decides #langchat topics! What do you want to talk about?” Do send us your ideas for future #langchats!

P.S. Get Your #langchat Gear!

@CoLeeSensei announced that #langchat gear is on the way! Starting September 1st, a #langchat shirt can be yours! Shirts will be available in 7 different colors and will cost $11 plus shipping. Stay tuned for more details:

Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

One comment

  • Trish

    I am torn because I teach at a university where there are multiple sections of a language course that are required to follow a textbook and associated content/multimedia. As much as I might want to “ditch the textbook,” as many langchatters are urging, some of us are bound by having to follow a norm out of fairness to other instructors. Please bear in mind that not all of us who use textbooks are “outdated” or “out of touch.” I enjoy social media and multimedia and would love to be able to use it more. I’m glad language learning is embracing the digital age, using social media, etc. I offered to have my students follow my instructor Twitter account…nothin’ doin’; and these are college students. I thought they’d be excited for the opportunity! Also, not all of us have technology in our classrooms and are struggling with set up and tear down of the little technology we lug around campus. For that reason, I use Blackboard to post multimedia in order to and connect with students outside class, but I’m also up against the “I-don’t-do-extra-work-without-extra-credit-points” mentality. So, on one hand, I greatly appreciate the idea of making textbooks less central, wish that could be my situation…at the same time, those of still using them are not dinosaurs and have our own ways of making class interactive and relevant 🙂 Thanks!

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