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Making input comprehensible

Teachers are often urged to use the target language more often in class. There are good, evidence-informed reasons for this, but we all know that that there are times when it doesn't seem right to persist with TL because pupils just don't understand what's being said. The following extract from Chapter 6 of our forthcoming book about teaching listening, Breaking the Sound Barrier, focuses on ways to make input comprehensible.


Input comes in various forms. Kumaravadivelu (2005) makes the distinction between three types:
     interlanguage input: the developing language of the students and their peers, including both accurate and deviant language forms;
     simplified input: the language used by teachers, textbook writers and other speakers when they are talking to language learners;
      non-simplified input: the language of competent speakers and the media.
In most classrooms it is the first two which are most commonly encountered. Non-simplified (‘authentic’) listening input is also used, but chosen by the teacher to be accessible. Bear in mind, however, that input does not necessarily become intake, i.e. even though the language students hear may be comprehensible, it may not actually be comprehended (noticed and processed). As Corder (1967) pointed out, language has to be comprehended to be acquired.  Anything you can do to help this happen is valuable.
Kumaravadivelu (2005) has put forward an apt acronym for the factors which affect intake:
        Individual factors: age and anxiety;
        Negotiation factors: interaction and interpretation;
        Tactical factors: learning and communication strategies;
        Affective factors: attitudes and motivation;
        Knowledge factors: language and metalanguage knowledge;
        Environmental factors: social and educational context.
Thus, a key skill for teachers when doing interpersonal listening is to make the input understandable to students at all times, (e.g. Pica, Doughty and Young, 1987). If classes are subject to lots of language they simply cannot understand they will soon switch off. Alongside the skilled use of QA, a number of specific techniques can be used to make language comprehensible and learnable when talking to students. These techniques include what Long’s (1981) modified input and modified interaction, whereby we simplify input and check for understanding (as a caregiver would with a young infant). They form part of effective use of formative assessment.
        In general pitch your language at or fractionally above the current level of the students’ comprehension. Avoid using too many new words or phrases.

        Modify the input to make accessible by simplifying the syntax, e.g. by using simple sentences and avoiding subordinate clauses.

        Select vocabulary students are more likely to recognise, e.g. cognates or vocabulary they have encountered before.

        Do not speak at native speaker speed; use repetition, rephrasing and pausing.

        Allow students to ask questions or seek clarification, including by gesture. Teach them simple phrases such as Can you repeat, please?

        Maintain eye contact with as many students as possible, using facial expression to enhance meaning. ‘Teach to the eyes.’

        Use generic teacher skills to hold attention, such as varying your physical position in the class, scanning left to right and front to back.

        Use humour to reduce anxiety and produce more engagement. Research suggests that students echo their teacher’s behaviour and are more likely to use language spontaneously when relaxed (Hawkes, 2012). Put another way, students learn better when their affective filter is lowered (Krashen, 1982).

        As mentioned previously, make judicious use of translation into L1 when there is no efficient alternative. Do not feel obliged to use 100% L2.

        Use gesture, pictures and classroom objects. You can spot a language teacher by the number of gestures they use when making everyday conversation!

        Be predictable in your routines, including questioning style, use of choral and individual repetition; students become familiar with what is expected of them.

        Reinforce listening by using the written word, e.g. writing words and chunks on the board or providing transcripts of dialogues.

        Use formative assessment techniques such mini-whiteboard responses to check for meaning, e.g. students may write true on one side of their board and false on the other. Or check for understanding by asking individual students to translate back what you have said

  • Avoid talking for too long; observe when a class may be losing enthusiasm for an activity. Make use of your emotional and cognitive empathy skills.

Making it comprehensible: an example classroom exchange

Here is an example of a typical classroom dialogue which allows you to model language repeatedly in an organic, communicative fashion (adapted from a lesson observed in Nava and Pedrazzini, 2018).

Suppose you want to explain the new word sporty.

Teacher:           Are you sporty? I love sport. I’m very sporty. I play football, tennis and love to go walking (gestures). Do you like sport? Hands up (gesture)if you like sport.
(Students raise hands)
Teacher:          Lionel Messi is sporty, isn’t he? Harry Kane is sporty. Who else is sporty?
Student:           Rafael Nadal.
Teacher:          Yes! He’s sporty. Is Homer Simpson sporty?
Students:         No!
Teacher:          Homer loves sport!
Students:         No! He loves donuts!
Teacher:          Is an elephant sporty?
Students:         No!
Teacher:          Is a hippopotamus sporty?
Students:         No!
Teacher:          All together: “sporty”.

And so on. Note how students receive plenty of modelled L2 input, including multiple repetitions of the words sport and sporty, before they are expected to produce much language themselves.

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