(This is the KEY point)
Interesting, Repeated (many times),
These are the crucial elements of language teaching. Interesting and personalized input adds up to meaningfulness. If our teaching becomes meaningful to the students it will stick. Here is what master teacher Joe Neilson of Salpointe High School in Tucson says about optimal comprehensible input: “I think that the essential elements are: comprehension, interest and involvement, and meaningful repetition. As long as any activities have these elements, the students are learning.”
In my experience (and it seems to be bolstered by research) this is where students really learn, so we will break these parts down to explain them one by one.
Interesting. To students, stories can be mildly interesting, but their own lives (and those of their peers) are really interesting. A contrived conversation that focuses on a new vocabulary theme starring Paco and María from the text book is not so interesting to kids. Stories are a big part of language use, if not the major part. Think about how students use language in their everyday life: they spend much of their time telling stories, listening to stories, reading stories and watching stories. Adolescents are trying to figure out the world and figure out who they are. It is normal for them to be obsessed with themselves and with one another. We can take the issues they are dealing with and incorporate them into the stories we tell in our classrooms.
Repeated. In order to start internalizing a word students need to hear it a lot. Students may need to hear some new vocabulary words 60 or more times. This does not mean simply saying an individual word over and over. We have to get the students to attend to it. The repetitions have to be meaningful. We get these meaningful repetitions into their ears by embellishing basic statements, by asking many different types of questions and by expecting multiple levels of answers—all in various contexts and at various speeds and all having to do with a topic that is interesting to the students—which is often themselves.
Personalized. When what we talk about is has to do with actual individuals from time to time, what we say becomes much more meaningful to the kids. We find out a few silly details about a few kids and just speak Spanish as naturally as we can and as well as we can. We include actual details about the kids in our stories. We talk to kids in the class and we ask them questions and then we talk to the rest of the class about those kids.
Meaningful. Discourse in the classroom must mean something to the students. Mindless repetitions do not do that. Students can repeat without knowing what the teacher is saying. Meaning gives them a reason to listen and to engage. Our conversations and stories become meaningful when there is a personal element and are intrinsically interesting to the student.
Comprehensible Input. This is the big one. Everything we are saying here is just another way of explaining and advocating comprehensible input because Comprehensible input may be the ONLY way languages are learned. At the very least, it is an incredibly important component of language acquisition. So it makes sense for us to concentrate on input activities in class rather than output. Input is listening and reading. Since students can read outside of class we focus on listening in class with frequent opportunities for students to respond so that we can check to see if they are really getting it.
Language acquisition comes from trying to understand the meaning of a message. The message can be listening or reading. As long as the learner is trying to understand the message and is focused on the message, he is acquiring. But when a student is NOT listening for the purpose of understanding what is being said, then he is not acquiring.
Our goal is for students to understand everything we say. We want to shoot for 100% comprehension. We need to stop teaching frequently and encourage them to let us know whenever they do not understand or when we are talking too fast.