The Urge for Transparency

Krashen wrote:

“Input is transparent if the acquirer understands every word. This is, of course, a crude definition. We could definite extreme transparency as a conscious understanding of not only every word but every grammatical marker and morpheme.

“Transparent is not the same as “comprehensible.” If input is transparent, it is comprehensible, but input can be comprehensible and not fully transparent, that is, it could contain some as yet unacquired language that does not interfere with comprehension (“noise”).”



31 thoughts on “The Urge for Transparency”

  1. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    Explained plainly like that, why would we even care if a novice received transparent language? Don’t the studies show that beginners ignore the grammatical finer points and go for the ‘big meaning’ anyway? This quote, as I read it, is a green light for NT and light targeting or 1 or 2 (or whatever you guys are calling it…)
    At the beginning of my T/CI journey, I really thought I was aiming for transparency, but now I see that comprehensibility is the goal. I still don’t know what this means for Mandarin and the like, but it’s comforting to me as a Hebrew and Spanish teacher.

    1. I used to pause and point at EVERYTHING.
      OMG how boring.
      Now I write “besoin = need” on the board and they hear this.
      Il a besoin (point, pause)……de……manger (gesture “eat”) des cochons (point to a drawing of a pig)
      and it is much more, uh, “flowy”.

      1. Yes FLOW is what is important. I do this too, Tina. I have 1 student who wants more exact meaning on an expression but the dude says things like “On a fini cette slide, monsieur” When I continue our Movie Talk. I am like “DAAAAAMN!” in my head.

        It is important to note that the context of the text and story is what gives the word meaning, it’s application. Isolated it is a fossil, a skeleton. Images and actors help too.

  2. I think this part of what Krashen says is important, “…it could contain some as yet unacquired language that does not interfere with comprehension (“noise”).”

    There are many unacquired words when I hear native French speakers talk. However, I am trying to know what they are saying. There can always be noise but not at the expense of comprehension of the message or story arc. I agree that what Krashen says, encourages use of NT. ONe thing I have noticed this year, when providing NT input, the tools for making it comprehensible are even more important. This is not a drawback as it drives us to become better language parents and developing and maintaining those relationships with students.

  3. …it occurs to me that ‘accelerating the processor’ also could mean improving one’s ability to cope with a chunk of language and decipher its overall meaning without getting tripped up by ‘noise.’ We can do this better and better over time, our processors accelerating as more parts of the chunk become automatically understood. So the noise, over time, is less and less of an interference. What was once noise becomes part of meaning…and comprehension is smoother and more complete…less problem-solving and fitting puzzle pieces together; more holistic processing.

  4. …what was once noise becomes part of meaning….

    This is only true with teachers who are able to trust in the researched truths involved in this short but loaded comment. If a teacher doesn’t trust that a student can pull meaning out of noise, which is a special talent of the human brain, the teacher, not trusting, undermines that process.

    And it is a process that I personally see as nothing short of divine, this ability via eye contact and shared good intent to extract meaning from noise. Teachers, wanting control over the brain (kind of a stupid and prideful thing in language instruction given the nature of what language IS), end up shooting the process in the foot by planning too much (results in squelching), teaching too hard (results in squelching), targeting far too much (results in squelching), repeating the word too many times (results in squelching), making it all about them (results in squelching), assessing in a way that results in shaming (results in squelching), etc.

    1. Dude great to hear your “voice”. I had thought that you were too busy with growing family and those 8 preps per day. (Or that you were still unhappy from the 2014 Series between the Royals and the Giants….)

  5. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    I wonder if there are studies on the ‘noise’ sweet spot.
    Every time someone moves to a new country without the benefit of scaffolded classes, there’s tons of noise!
    So I guess we are saying that our efforts to control and scaffold to eliminate noise are misguided; that a story with some noise flakes in it is good and healthy (and without that noise we’re not providing the much needed and elusive i+1 for regularity).

  6. In my view noise is very good. It’s only noise to the conscious mind, as I see it. The deeper mind is this big bad boy language inhaling system down there sorting it all out in ways that are beyond genius and beyond any conscious awareness. We are all idiot savants in that way, who can do math on a seemingly infinite level and at lightening speed but not “know” any basic math consciously.

    1. Ben, I agree with all my heart. Being with very young learners for many years has shown me that they want comprehension but they don’t bother about what you call noise. Eg if we do a song about birds building their nests (of course with movements) they go happily along without transperancy but I make sure they know what it’s all about.
      And if a child asks for a word I quickly give a German equivalent and on we go. The very young students ask rarely but when they get older they ask more often – fine by me.

      1. …if we do a song about birds building their nests (of course with movements) they go happily along without transparency but I make sure they know what it’s all about….

        This is a very beautiful image. This is what language teachers must do – makes sure that they understand. That’s all! We’re not so important after all. We facilitate, do not control. We help FLOW happen. What a privilege to do our jobs in that relaxed way in a world full of teachers who love to control every little detail of class. May God bless all of our hearts.

  7. So more drill-wielding extreme targeters & noise-haters defend their position by saying that the artificial environment of school, with it’s factory model and limited contact minutes, drove them to it?

        1. If you are trying to “Optimize Immersion” then I could see how you would want to make every word comprehensible. It seems to fit the very definition of comprehensible input. This is one problem I have with Invisibles. I’d get way off the path of comprehensible.

          I’m not salty about it though like that lady.

          1. I think the point is that “comprehensible” and “transparent” are two different things. “Comprehensible” input is necessary; “transparent” input may not be and may even be counterproductive.

          2. Oh Jeff I really needed a big belly laugh today:

            …I’m not salty about it though like that lady….

            You might have heard me burst out laughing over there in Illinois!

          3. And Jeff in my own experience w the greatly heightened interest from the kids I found that things became much more comprehensible for me w the Invisibles. We need to get into this. Why do you think there is less comprehension going on?

          4. I guess with the three targets or story listening I get to choose where the story goes and I can limit my vocabulary to words we have TPRd or have come up in class before. If I have a kid make up a complex problem on the spot, a whole galaxy of unknown words spills out and my board is filled. That is what scares me.

          5. Jeff, my solution is simplifying. With the invisibles, I would do only 1 location which would be a failure then a success… in the beginning of the year. For suggestions, I would write the simplest structures to translate the suggestions. For problems, I choose a simple but compelling one. I would not worry about the complexity though because it is coming from the students themselves. Therefore, the message is coming across instead of the false pursuit of mastery. It’s that weird thing we have to cope with as NT teachers.

          6. Steven said:

            …the false pursuit of mastery….

            This really resonates with me. There is something that feels false to me when we follow the conventional model of establishing meaning, getting reps via PQA or whatever method the teacher prefers, and moving into a story that sails carefully through the Straits of Corinth with the high walls to keep the boat/story safe from the buffeting ocean winds and high waves. What feels false?

            For me it is the feigned interest from the kids. They smell the rat that John Piazza described in the sense that the teacher needs/wants them to learn the words and that generates the decreased interest. It seems so much to hinge on interest! Which hinges on ownership. Which hinges back to their artwork and not the word list generated by the district. I know. I know, we don’t need to talk about how we have to teach those words. All we, like sheep….

            So Jeff thank you for good description of what happens. Perhaps I was able to avoid that in my own classroom in India because of the job hubs, the leveled questioning, and, like Steven said, the one location with either failure or success happening fairly quickly to get a story done in under 35 min. w 25 min. being the ideal.

            This is something I will address in the next months at workshops and such. It’s a big deal. I think that the Invisibles can be done in a way that keeps your board fairly blank by the end of the story. Part of it is your own discipline to keep the story from expanding so much that your board gets filled, of course.

          7. A lot of times the people who have run with invisibles describe their problems in the stories and they sound like super complex social justice issues and the such. That kind of scared me away. My problems are “he’s hungry” or “he’s embarrassed when the teacher reads the love letter to the class. ”

            I have always thought that invisibles are best for Junior High because of the drawing and the characters and such, but these types of complex problems (the language needed) would make for a dynamic upper-level curriculum now that I think about it. That’s another issue that nobody has ever solved to my knowledge.

          8. Yes but also a very dynamic curriculum from the elementary levels as well, Jeff, if our Alisa’s work is any indicator. It may not be the non-targeted/Invisibles/Story Listening non-targeted factor that fills your board with words that you introduced too many of during the story. I appreciate that you feel that conventional TPRS with its focus on three targets functioning as rails to keep you in bounds helps, perhaps, but when I was doing conventional TPRS for the first 10 of those 15 years my board was filled w words at the end of class more than they are with Invisibles. I am asking you to consider that you make it your intent as you go into a story, targeted or untargeted, to simply not go out of bounds. Blaine was the true master of staying in bounds because, as I observed him over the years, I was amazed at how he seemed to know exactly what the kids knew and didn’t know, even if it was a master class in some high school he had never been in before! So my position on this idea is that the safety from going out of bounds that the rails (mass reps of a limited amount of targets, usually three) provided by conventional TPRS are not worth the loss in interest and if you don’t want to have too many words on the board at the end of a non-targeted story then – and this is where you must plan I admit – choose a story listening story or make sure during the Invisibles story, or whatever from of non-targeted input you choose (Tina and I have identified nine forms that rock) that you simply make it a priority to just always stay in bounds. Very interesting topic. I am sure that we will have the answer to it by the end of the Cascadia conference. Since SK and BNM will be there, we will be able to fully resolve this excellent question.

      1. Honestly James I can say that I didn’t. Transparency was always the fourth bassist in my CI Symphony Orchestra and providing the right amount of noise to comprehensible input mixed with noise as you describe above was the concertmaster of my CI orchestra. It’s why I have drifted now away from conventional TPRS. I think that noise, the good kind of noise that we are discussing here, is most easily done using non-targeted instruction, with no massed reps, hardly any circling (what Tina calls Light Circling), except in the first year in the first months. and with no need for all the planning and struggle that conventional TPRS teachers put on themselves.

  8. When I was living in Cameroon I was immersed in thirty some different languages, besides French, English and Pidgin English, which I understood. Some of the languages I was hearing belonged to the Bantu family, many didn’t. I tried to learn the language of the local tribe, (not a majority) but knew I was not going to learn any others and didn’t try. It was all noise to me. Then one day I heard someone say “Za fa,” and knew they were telling the other person to bring them the machete. I knew that za meant bring and fa meant machete. I didn’t know what language they were speaking. (I knew that the speaker spoke at least three local languages fluently.) So, yes, noise does, eventually, become comprehensible. My subconscious had figured it out some time ago, I suppose, but I was surprised when that little bit floated up into my consciousness.

    1. The Story of the Machete by Judy Dubois.

      This is one I won’t forget and with your permission will use whenever the subject of noise comes up. You didn’t even know what language he was speaking and you understood it!

      1. This is letting your imagination run wild, getting wrapped up in the story or having it play in your head like a movie. It is like my daughter watching Star Wars Rebels in French and sitting on the arm rest of the couch practically falling off.

  9. And Jeff – Tina wrote this on the morelist today on the fear that non-targeted instruction will bring us out too wide and thus lose the kids:

    In my view the input can be narrow and not targeted. The teacher uses whatever language comes up within the context of the activity/story while still keeping it comprehensible with the “illusion of transparency.” The teacher must not overload the students though, so the language is narrow. You are not going off on every tangent that you would in real life. So you are confining yourself to a specific narrow topic that probably also has some visual support. Strategies like student artwork, drawings on the board, also Picture Talk and Movie Talk can help include visual support.

    My conceptualization of T vs NT is really one of intent.

    In T1 (as I understand it), the intent is to teach students the target words. The words/structures come from a list, many repetitions are made, usually in one sitting, and then students are expected to have some facility with those words/structures. The story exists to repeat the target words. The assessment is often at least partially based on the target words/structures.

    In NT anything goes. This could overwhelm the students. It’s like trying to get a drink out of a fire hose.

    In NT with T2, the intent is to do an activity – create a story, hear a story, fold paper airplanes, talk about a picture, etc. The words that come up, come up. The teacher uses T2 when needed when they sense (or know) that the students do not comprehend. For instance, you might be showing them a map of the USA. And they do not know the word “city” so you write it on the board and lightly circle/target it. “Tanya lives in a big city. Class, New York is a city. Portland is a city. Is McMinville a city? No class McMinville is small. A city is big. Portland is a big city. Right? Isn’t Portland a big city? But not as big as New York, right? Mcminnville’s not a city. It’s a town. So, Tanya lives in a big city not a town. So in the city of New York…”

    But the teacher’s intention is not to teach “city” it just came up and there was some light circling to talk about it. Just to be sure that the kids understand Tanya’s living situation. The teacher moves on and expects nothing regarding “city” from the kids in the future. The story exists to provide linguistic data by conveying interesting (and hopefully compelling) messages. The assessment is most likely more like summarizing the story or taking a Quick Quiz asking one-word answers about the story.

    Both can be narrow, scaffolded, and comprehensible. But yes I agree that NT input is easier to provide when one has a narrow structure to work within. Just “talking to the kids” easily veers off into incomprehensibility. Using a narrow structure like Story Listening (especially if you prepare a real simple story) Movie Talk, Picture Talk, Special Chair, One Word Image…these are ways to narrow the range of input and provide rails for the teacher to go down, instead of just widely talking about “whatever” which can quickly get overwhelming.

  10. Actually “just talking to the kids” need not take a class out of bounds. It can go fairly wide and not lose the kids but rather create that right amount of noise in the kids’ minds, just the right amount, that leads to real gains and happy interactions throughout the class period. So it might be said that there are two kinds of just talking to the kids.

    And on the topic at the other end of using targets, we might say that as long as the class is built around interest and not vocabulary acquisition and as long as it brings in the kids’ actual thoughts and opinions on the topic (the topic, the “what”, doesn’t really matter at all in what we do) then that is superior in my view to trying to use the discussion to teach certain words. Creating a story to “cover” certain vocabulary is where acquisition gets stuck in the mud of control.

    I’ve thought deeply about this for 15 years, could never figure out why it all seemed so fake. Now I know – it’s the forced massed circled reps on targets.

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