Can Comprehension Methods Succeed In Schools? – 1

This is a repost – with ensuing discussion – from 2012 on the topic of whether or not instruction using comprehensible input can even work in our schools:
Especially in my school, students move around the building with impunity, with tardies being out of control, absences being off the chart, and statements to teachers very often being resisted as untrue and somehow the fault of the teacher.
Behind this obvious impunity is a second level of impunity in the form of a culture of disengagement that defies description even in gifted students. That fact causes many of us to think incorrectly that we can’t keep a handle on classroom discipline, when in reality the problem has much less to do with our classroom management than with the broken culture described above.
Comprehension based language instruction depends almost entirely on human values and skills connected to the art of conversation*, which is something that is often missing even in gifted students. And so again, the failure of comprehensible input  in schools may not be due to the inability of teachers to make it work, as if there was some flaw in the teacher, but rather to the giant culture of ghostness in which we all live in our school buildings.
We are like rats trapped in a cage with other really big and mean rats in the form of a wide spectrum of people who don’t see the culture for what it is – destructive to anything that brings real human values into the classroom. That IS what we do – try to point towards authentic human interaction. So, in the end, what we have attempted here is much much much much more difficult than we had any idea going in.
We don’t have some two dimensional approach to teaching. We require our students to show up as human beings for the instruction we give them. That is not a real widespread thing in the ghost culture. Then, when we can’t control the ghosts, when we have classroom management issues, we dutifully blame ourselves and agree with everyone who says we have those kinds of issues. But it’s not fully us at all.
Jeanne Gibbes, the author of many books about engaging kids in school learning communities which focus on self-esteem and the importance of group process, recently expressed her astonishment that the ideas in her books are still even around these days, in this culture of rudeness and standardized testing**, etc.
Parents fall into two categories – those who come down too hard on their kids for mistakes, which action destroys the qualities necessary in their children for success in our classrooms by snuffing out self-confidence, and those who immediately turn around any mistake made by their child back on the teacher as being somehow being the result of the teacher being unable to maintain classroom discipline. See category on this site on “bullying of teachers” for more on that topic.
I personally don’t know how to deal with out of control disrespect across the board for us and our work, in all areas and from all sides – from administrators who are pushed from above to move against us with data, from counselors (they simply can’t keep up with the chaos and thereby by their being buried in a mass of work that is too big for them become part of our problem when we need real help), from students and parents as discussed above, from not so unseen political forces, etc.
Look at the most successful (I won’t say best) teachers. They are the ones who are somehow perceived as having the most control of their classrooms.  To be a successful teacher you must be in control, is the message. But isn’t it an odd statement to say that the most successful teachers in school buildings are the ones who can most effectively muzzle kids into submission?
If the most successful teachers in school buildings are not the best teachers, but the best prison guards, those who can best keep records on who did what when and who got what grade on what test, etc., then we who with so much of our hearts involved in our work, we who are trying to make schools less like a prison, are in deep shit.
I write this with the deepest respect to every teacher who has shed tears this year in reaction to the absolute emotional pressure of their jobs. I bow down to that pain.
This thread of classroom discipline came up here for about a week in the beginning of April but got engulfed in a series of other threads, but I am going to try to resurrect it again. Of all the many important threads over the year here on this site, none is more important than the issue of classroom discipline.
I fear it all may be too much for us. We are in trouble, y’all. It may not be because we can’t do stories right, but because of the cultures in our buildings. Not being able to do stories is a symptom of a larger problem rather than any single flaw in us. It is merely the tip of an iceberg. We can’t do stories right largely because our students don’t have the social skills needed to make stories work. I am saddened to realize that. It implies many things about where we go from here.
**”The greater the preoccupation with standardized tests, the more adult-centered it becomes. It is no surprise that many youngsters’ natural excitement and curiosity about the world are more thwarted than nurtured by the school experience”. (Roland Barthes –



22 thoughts on “Can Comprehension Methods Succeed In Schools? – 1”

  1. What I see in my school is a product of an old system. Kids sit down at their desks, listen to the teachers and take notes. No need to open themselves up or show what they are made of. So when they get to my class and not only have to listen but also have to think and process, it freaks them out. Then their negative guards are up and the filters are congested. This is something I will observe and think about more to see if I can change their perception for next year.

    1. …then their negative guards are up and the filters are congested….
      I would say that it depends on the school, of course, but in my current school, that describes 80%-90% of my students.

  2. I hesitate to chip in here, because I don’t teach in the States, so my experience may be different. But it’s not all that different, because my students watch the same films and videos and clips and play the same brain-numbing games and do their best to have the same look and attitude. What I have found is that students can be reached, and it is possible to turn them around. Not all of them, but often it’s enough to reach one or two, and the others fall in line. How do you reach a student? By giving them credit for existing. I teach in a big lycée, 1500 students, and we generally get the kids that were turned down at the other, more prestigious lycée in town. I remember my first year I was given a class that no one wanted, all boys destined for factory jobs. There were three that had Mohawk hair cuts and matching attitudes, and frankly I was somewhat scared of them. It was so easy to cast them in the role of bad guy with a chip on a his shoulder. I had an old television set on top of a tall cupboard to use for films and just to turn the sound on I had to climb on a chair, and I couldn’t get any color, it was all black and white. One day while I was gritting my teeth and cursing under my breath, trying to get the monster going, I overheard a student say that Jérémie could probably fix it. Jérémie with the Mohawk. I asked him to try, he sauntered up, was so tall that he didn’t need the chair, and in three seconds had the film going and in color to boot. From then on Jérémie was my TV expert, and whenever I wanted to use it, I just gave him the tape. (This was the old days!) But I couldn’t help but notice that his attitude in class changed and he became interested in what we were doing and began participating. From the moment I recognized that he was a super-duper television fixer, he no longer had to play the role of bad guy. I’ve had similar experiences with other students, which all boil down to recognizing that this person has something of value to offer. It doesn’t matter if it seems to be something insignificant. Once they feel that they have been accepted as a person worth knowing, they can begin to become curious about what you have to offer. I guess that what I’m trying to express is that many kids feel that they have nothing you would be in the market for, so why should they take any interest in you? Once you acknowledge their existence as someone worthwhile, they can lower their protective barriers and let in some fresh air and sunshine.

    1. Judy, thank you for your reminder about accepting our students for the people they are. That’s very important. Sometimes, though, by the time a student reaches high school he or she is unreachable by us. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but we also shouldn’t beat ourselves up when we aren’t successful. It is far too easy to buy into the “silver bullet” mentality – if we just had the right strategy/loving concern/mindset/whatever, we would reach all of our students. It just isn’t going to happen.
      On the other hand, sometimes our students do show us a side of themselves that surprises us. I’ve shared some of the strain of my fifth period class on the blog. Let me share a joy.
      We are getting ready for standardized testing, and at the beginning of the period I went over the calendar for testing with them in German. We covered all of that and then somehow (I really don’t know how) moved into a discussion of films they liked. Suddenly we were just hanging out together talking about films we like and don’t like. A couple of times I had to get them to back off a little just because everyone was trying to talk at once – but they understood this wasn’t “discipline” in the negative sense, I genuinely wanted to hear everyone and couldn’t.
      About half way through the period that wound down, so I gave them a brain break – get up and go say “Guten Tag” to five people who don’t sit near you. While we were doing this, a science teacher and his student teacher came in. They asked me to sign the observation sheet for the student teacher’s class. I said, “Only if you stay and actually observe”, so they did.
      Yesterday we had PQAed the vocabulary for Anne Matava’s “Take Two Gummy Bears” script. Today we told the story, only it was an elephant and Anthony who went shopping. One of my students who loves attention played the elephant, and the science teacher played Anthony. They went to Petco and saw tube socks for elephant trunks. Unfortunately, there were no pink ones. Then they went to Victoria’s Secret, but the ones there were too small. (Then the science teacher needed to leave, so the real Anthony took over.) Finally they went to Target and found what they wanted. The end.
      Everyone – even the most troublesome* – was engaged for most of the period. I did have to take away one cell phone for texting, but after school when I was turning in the phone to the AP per school policy, I could genuinely sympathize with my student because he didn’t have his ID and so can’t get this phone until tomorrow.
      Then I went to talk to the science teacher and his student teacher to thank them for stopping by. They both were very positive about the visit, and the student teacher said that even though she speaks no German she could follow everything that happened because of writing on the board, repetition and acting it out. She also commented on how welcoming the room seemed and how she likes chairs only. We then brainstormed some ideas of how they could use a “storytelling” type of approach in science. I told them that I want to come observe when they do this with their students. I’ll let everyone know how it works out.
      *There were two absences. One of the more engaged students is out with appendicitis. “Grape soda boy” (I don’t think of him this way, but that’s sort of his tag on the blog) was also out. I found out yesterday that he has a certain affinity for and attraction to the Nazis (He wore a T-shirt with an SS theme and quote – and was told to keep it covered up), even though he is someone who would have been considered “inferior” by them. I think the fascination with the Third Reich affects his behavior (even though most neo-Nazis I have had in class have been some of the politest students). I find it interesting how the presence or absence of various individuals affects the group dynamics.

  3. Thank you Judy! And thank you Ben! This morning’s crosswalk discussion as I sheparded the students across with a teacher who was feeling bad that the middle school had moved yesterday evening to assign seating during lunch because of the lack of respect for the campus grounds and each other. It really is only a few and she didn’t want to punish the whole.
    What we agreed we saw was a school wide culture that said caring and being responsible for our actions wasn’t important. And that attitude starts very young.
    The responsibility does lie with the adults to foster a climate of safety where students don’t want to hide themselves behind walls of attitude and apathy. And that takes system work by the entire faculty to agree on what will be the school values and then make time to teach it.
    By the time students get to high school and middle school it is really hard to teach social skills. And today the testing climate really cuts into teaching anything beyond the test. So we think the teaching must be done at much lower grades, but the reality is that is has to happen everyday in every setting we encounter.

  4. I agree with Jody, students will buy into what you’re trying to give them IF you recognize them as people, and maybe this is my shortcoming as a teacher, but I don’t think I could ever make time to do this for as many students who are really disengaged, often enough to thwart recurring disengagement/apathy. I try, and even with 20 students it can be quite difficult.
    I appreciate these threads Ben. I think it’s important to really be critical of our school system and school culture. Especially when you hear what really creative and intelligent people say about them.

      1. @Jim, Correction: Judy, not Jody
        I know you know we are two distinct people. 🙂
        I’ve been miscalled Judy my whole life–something about that vowel.

  5. I’m new to this method, but have bought Ben’s books and have been reading furiously (The Big CI Book and A Natural Approach to Stories). Classes start in two weeks, and I want to make a change and do this. I just ordered the new Year One set and am impatiently waiting on it to come in. What I need is day 1 advice. What does it look like with 36 14-15 year old students crowded in my room? I have to have a syllabus. Do I go over rules, etc? How does that look? I’m nervous. I need a list and a plan–for me. What if I freeze? Or forget or don’t know a word I need? I’ve looked for YouTube videos of day 1 & 2 but haven’t found any yet. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Gracias!

  6. You don’t need to keep reading in the Big CI Book, Tina. And I will send you an electronic version of Year One so you can get to reading it as soon as you finish A Natural Approach to Stories. Your questions are actually all answered in Year One. There are some links we are still getting finalized but in the meantime if you search on YouTube:
    Ben Slavic Pringle Man – that is the first Invisibles story ever done (in 2016) and I was lucky enough to get it on videotape. Also one called
    Kandy the Korn.
    Tina Hargaden – she videotaped and uploaded to YouTube every single class she taught in her first year of doing this way of teaching (2016-2017) and it is a gold mine that, along w the two books, is just so full of videotaped information for you that aligns with book – there are certainly videotapes that she has done that address Day 1 and of course it is all described in the Natural Approach to the Year/Year One book.
    If you don’t know a word, it’s probably good. I know that doesn’t make obvious sense but it is best to keep things as simple as possible. This is discussed in the book as well.
    You won’t freeze. The Year One book is too detailed for that to happen.
    Also go join the CI Liftoff FB group. It is dedicated to defending and illustrating and supporting the work we talk about in the two books. Lots of great support there and of course we welcome your specific questions here as well. Just remember to stop teaching and write it down whenever a question comes up, or have a kid do that, and send it here during your planning period. It benefits all of us.

    1. I am relieved to have found this PLC and all the useful resources and immediate support. I am on it! Thank you!
      I have been talking with my colleague who teaches another language, and he, also, is highly motivated to learn about teaching with comprehensible input. I just spoke to my principal about what I plan to do this year, and he was enthusiastic and supportive.

  7. Since this blog has been focused on teacher mental health, I wanted to share this resource that I found on Teachers Pay Teachers. It’s done by SpanishPlans.Org, who is a local (Chicagoland) CI teacher that I am friends with.
    I’ve found that the Timed Write Data is really what wins over students, parents, and admins and keeps them happy with what you are doing. If there is an easy system to track this data, I welcome it.

  8. Here is the product description:
    …this file includes instructions on how to use Timed Writing as a data collection to show student growth, which can be used for SLO as well as a great way to communicate growth to students and parents….
    Included in the Timed Writing SLO (which can be used for ANY language class)
    -a 6 picture sequence prompt for students to write about.
    My comment: I feel that until they get to level 3, we should just let them write about what they want. This is not very reflective of the Net Hypothesis. Rather, it clearly was written to align w some sort of list – perhaps the 180 Spanish words – and to align possibly with some test. What this does then is to make free writes no longer free but part of a curriculum the way they used to do them in targeted circles. My long-term comment for years now on this idea of teaching from lists is that if the words are common, then they will show up in class anyway, but without the destructive feeling put on the kids that they HAVE to learn them.
    -a writing sheet for students to use during the timed writing
    -a writing rubric (not necessary to be used for grading, but to show proficiency levels)
    My comment: This is not what we want. Too many teachers will use it for grading and the message will be that the class is about the grade and not about aligning with the research. Timed writes (free writes) should always allow the child the freedom from being graded/compared to others.
    Included in the Spanish Vocabulary SLO:
    -a list of 180 common Spanish words (with translation)
    -a file for students to write out the translation of these words (3 pages)
    My comment: How does translation help? This activity sounds punitive to me.
    -GOOGLE FORMS quizzes of these words that will automatically grade students
    My comment: Again, free writes are for building confidence in young writers and when we grade them we again favor the few.
    I know you know I’m not trying to be gnarly here Greg. It’s just what I think is best myself as a teacher. The bar graphs are still the best. They can be written right there in the composition book and eliminate more “stuff” to put in the teacher’s hands, not good for mental health.
    Anyone new to the site – we have developed a refined ability after a decade to speak plainly with each other w/o taking offense. Just FYI if you are new. It is because we feel that the lack of being able to honestly and directly and in a collegial way challenge each other in our profession over the years has led to the cult of the loudest personality saying how things ought to be. Not so here, where we get to say what we think w/o having to make nice. That is our strength here.

  9. All good points Ben. I like that you never stop challenging us and our ingrained thinking as part of the educational system.
    I got the product and I think just for the data charts it’s worth it. What I do with Timed Writes is the following: I call them “Free Writes” and I use your rules. I use Scot Benedict’s lined template (with numbers). I let the kids write about anything for 10 minutes. I then have a crate in my classroom with every student’s folder in it. At about 1 minute left in the free write I pass out each students folder and put it by their feet. When the 10 minutes is up I collect the folders and give them to the class alphabetizer (classroom job).
    Sometimes I do nothing with these timed writes, but the evidence is there. Occasionally I put the word count in the gradebook as a 0% category (it doesn’t affect their grade at all) as number of words/100 (I tell them that the goal by the end of the year is to try to surpass 100 words). This gives me a quick entry into the gradebook and parents love it.
    Occasionally I will “grade” these writings with Blaine Ray’s rubric but generally everyone gets an A or a B and of course the other grades in the gradebook will balance things out. If I don’t at least have the semblance of grading I have noticed that students will start to write nonsense.
    I have also found if I don’t grade stuff that I will actually have students complain to their parents that I am not grading anything (I teach in a school with an affluent population- they are trained that if the teacher is not making it “challenging” something is wrong).
    Then the good part is that when parent teacher conferences come I have this crate (with all student names alphabetized) and when the parents come to me with the attitude of “how is my child doing” (sometimes they even have the attitude of almost wanting to trip you up or something, it’s crazy). I pull the student’s file and I can lead with where they are in regards to the timed write goal in addition to where their grade is at.
    It’s saved my life so many times and takes virtually no work. I like to keep the evidence myself as I can use that data later. Then if a parent “calls a conference” with me (usually a student that is not following the classroom rules) and they are coming at it from an accusatory standpoint I can show them that their child only wrote 20 words and it’s March.

    1. Can’t resist commenting on your last paragraph Greg:
      …if a parent “calls a conference” with me (usually a student that is not following the classroom rules) and they are coming at it from an accusatory standpoint I can show them that their child only wrote 20 words and it’s March….
      This is wonderful. Some kids want to hang themselves and we are happy to oblige, once we have done all we can to make the kid feel welcome. Some kids don’t want to feel welcome. So… “Yes, Mrs. Smith, if you look at that list of classroom rules over there on the wall we may be able to find a link between those, especially Rule #2, and Johnny’s only being able to write 20 words now in March. Johnny, what are your thoughts on the subject?”

  10. Greg this right here is a gem of a paragraph:
    …sometimes I do nothing with these timed writes, but the evidence is there. Occasionally I put the word count in the gradebook as a 0% category (it doesn’t affect their grade at all) as number of words/100 (I tell them that the goal by the end of the year is to try to surpass 100 words). This gives me a quick entry into the gradebook and parents love it….
    It reminds us that with timed/free writes (I prefer the term free writes) that:
    1. we don’t even have to read them.
    2. we can set up our category for free writes at 0%. Very clever. The snooping admin sees the grade, so do parents, and rarely snoop deep enough to notice that it is a neutral grade, as it absolutely should be with free writes.
    3. telling the kids that by the end of the year they want to surpass 100 words is genius. Of course they all can do it easily. And yet it sounded as if you set the bar high and when they do it (most after only a few months in level 1) their confidence skyrockets.
    We have talked a lot over the years about using reading but the use of free writes as a main way to communicate with parents should also be front and center as you point out. When we show people numbers (but numbers that don’t compare one kid to another) everyone seems to become happy.

    1. I’m digging that 0%. I wonder if I can still put in a final assessment alongside with the 0% and not have my NEW admin or PARENTS call me on it. But yes! We should do our best to get rid of even grading proficiency… remember the Silent Period?

  11. Greg wrote:
    …when the parents come to me with the attitude of “how is my child doing” (sometimes they even have the attitude of almost wanting to trip you up or something, it’s crazy). I pull the student’s file and I can lead with where they are in regards to the timed write goal in addition to where their grade is at…..
    It is crazy. Those parents are crazy and they are making their kids crazy. But you are so right, pulling the file, or in my case having the composition book there at the parent meeting with all the free writes from the whole year (one about every three weeks) as well as the bar graph on the inside cover of the composition book, is the perfect way to start a parent meeting, with something concrete and something positive. Why is doing it this way positive? Because I consider it as “worst practices” to compare how many words a child can write to how many other students can write. If Johnny went from 52 words over ten (precisely timed) minutes in October in Level 1 to 212 words by April when the parent meeting takes place, there is no reason to compare him to Wendy who wrote 116 words in October and 504 words in April.
    And then when Wendy brags about how many words she wrote as she walks out of class we can always use that as a teaching moment to start class the next day by explaining how with languages everyone gets better at different rates. I find that with nontargeted I am able to constantly eviscerate the received idea in schools that faster is better.

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