Comprehensible Input Strategies to Make Learning Meaningful and Connected

I have been teaching English and Spanish for about 10 years now and have had many experiences with assessing curriculum resources – identifying whether textbooks or novels I find will suit my learners. As a coordinator in a private school in Mexico, I remember having the overwhelming responsibility of requesting book samples, ordering novels for our students to learn, and then using the resources in my classroom. I was so excited to use these new resources, but most of the time, the resources were above and beyond my students’ proficiency levels, even in a bilingual school setting. I ordered novels, thinking they could read them in small groups or as a class, but once again, they were too hard. What was wrong? They weren’t comprehensible to my learners.

Once again, the same process occurred when I started teaching Spanish in a high school in Oregon. I was given a textbook to use, and as I was going to have 4 preps, I was in survival mode – I had to use that dreadful textbook just to make it through the year. Luckily, the other Spanish teacher in my building teaches using the tenets of TRPS in Spanish 1 and 2. I decided to ditch the textbook in Spanish 2 and observed her consistently, worked through numerous hours of lunch to co-plan and tried out some new techniques of CI and TPRS on my own. I was no longer feeling like I was trudging through muddy waters, and dragging my students along with me. Those days of the horrid textbook activities where students had to ask me the meaning of every other word and skipping over the readings that were way over their heads were long gone.

During the next school year, I worked endlessly to design my own brand new curriculum for Spanish 3 and 4, using CI and TPRS strategies as much as I could. Students had a strong basis of present, preterite and imperfect by the time they got to Spanish 3, but it was my job to boost their proficiency levels. Our school offers AP Spanish, so I really have Spanish 3 and 4 to get students ready to be able to even attempt AP level readings and audio activities.

So what did I do? I felt like I needed a guide, as students really do need to know a wide range of vocabulary and grammatical tenses to be successful in AP. At the same time, I wanted to make learning comprehensible and accessible to all of my students, not just the highest achievers. I also wanted students to feel like they were learning something useful and practical that they could practice in Spanish speaking countries. Therefore, I decided to create my Spanish 3 curriculum to focus mainly on practical functions a student would need if they were to travel abroad. I used some of my old textbook as a guide when it came to vocabulary and grammatical features, but my main focus was to use ACFLT proficiency descriptors to guide my instruction.

Read on to identify the steps I took for each unit (with an in depth description of the first one only for now!)

STEP 1: Backward Planning: By using backward planning, I identified the end goal I wanted my students to be able to achieve at the end of each unit and by the end of the year.

STEP 2: Student Created Characters: In order to increase student motivation and buy in, I had each student create a character at the beginning of the year. They each drew their character and wrote a short description about it on the back – where s/he lived, how old s/he was, favorite activities, family, etc. We also created a class character to be the main character of our “novel.”

STEP 3: Create the Story Line: After we had the main character’s physical description, personality traits, age, family, occupation, hobbies and whatever else the students decided to add, I told students that our main character won the lottery and decided to take a trip to Mexico. S/he had to get ready for the day, thus starting our first unit on “La Rutina Diaria.”

STEP 4: Make the Story Line Comprehensible: I used pictures and props to make the story line comprehensible, used student actors to reenact our story line and gave printouts of the story with follow up comprehension activities for students to practice. The language I was using was comprehensible since I used all of these strategies and it was scaffolded as well, allowing for easy access for all students with diverse levels of proficiency. Many students like to have a resource to fall back on and while the story I print is one great resource, they don’t seem too motivated to read through the whole story to try to remember one word they might need in the future. Therefore, I provide vocabulary pictures (not lists!) to teach and reinforce vocabulary. We reviewed the student created story on a presentation where I found images to demonstrate the meaning of new words. As they listened to the story for the second or third time, they wrote down the words for each vocabulary picture. As a result, students had a vocabulary list easy to reference if they forgot any of the words before they tried the reading.

STEP 5: Reinforce Language Structures: I had secret motivations for teaching/reviewing reflexive verbs, clothing vocabulary and verbs like gustar during this unit. Instead of isolating each of these items, I taught what we needed at the time in order for our story line to move along. While some vocabulary and grammatical concepts were a review, it was a great way to start the year. Students felt successful since they could understand the teacher who was speaking entirely in Spanish, they were engaged since they helped come up with the story line, and they were motivated because language was meaningful and relevant to them.

STEP 6: Review Essential Vocabulary: At the beginning of each consecutive class with this story, I started out with a picture of the vocabulary word and students would try to tell me the word. I would have the word on the next slide so students could reinforce their answers and their understanding of the vocabulary.

STEP 7: View Structures in Context: As students became more familiar with the story line and vocabulary, they were ready to interact with the structures in the context of a printed version of the story. Students would complete different reading activities to ensure comprehension of the reading before moving on.

STEP 8: Practice Structure in Context: Students engaged in writing and speaking activities based on the story we had already completed in order to solidify language structures.

STEP 9: Make It Relevant: After students demonstrated that they comprehended the story and reinforced language structures, they were able to use the same structures to express their own ideas relevant to their own lives. They write about their daily routines, clothing preferences and things they liked.

STEP 10: Extend the Knowledge: I always try to include culture wherever possible, and this is a great opportunity. Allowing for students to compare and contrast different cultural practices based on daily routines, clothing preferences, etc. gave another opportunity for repetition of the language structures, but in a meaningful and contextualized way.

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