The Case of The Dancing Men!!! and extensive comprehensible input

A teacher said, “I agree that input must be comprehensible to be effective. That’s why we provide definitions of key vocabulary words for our students. For key words in each lesson, we tell them ‘this word means…’ because it makes the input more readily understandable. Expecting students to figure out the meaning of every word in a lesson on their own would be discouraging and a waste of time. If vocabulary explanations are helpful, why are grammar explanations anathema?”

First of all, by extensive comprehensible input we do not mean laden with vocabulary explanations. And because of that, we cannot assume grammar explanations are also going to be useful.

To make this clear, I’d like to share with you two samples of the opening lines to a Sherlock Holmes story. The first sample is the original text. The second sample is a simplified text that could be useful for extensive
comprehensible input.

SAMPLE 1:

From the original Sherlock Holmes story of The Dancing Men:

“Holmes had been seated for some hours in silence with his long, thin back curved over a chemical vessel in which he was brewing a particularly malodorous product. His head was sunk upon his breast, and he looked from my point of view like a strange, lank bird, with dull gray plumage and a black top-knot. ‘So, Watson,’ said he, suddenly, ‘you do not propose to invest in South African securities?'”

Words that may need to be explained:
1. curved
2. chemical
3. vessel
4. brewing
5. malodorous
6. head was sunk
7. his breast
8. point of view
9. lank
10, plumage
11. top-knot
12. propose
13. invest
14. securities

That is 14 vocabulary terms in the first paragraph. Certainly a teacher can explain all of those terms but wouldn’t you say it is doubtful that after reading the whole story the student will have much or any memory of them?

SAMPLE 2:

The same story, the Sherlock Holmes story of The Dancing Men from the “Oxford Progressive English Readers” simplified version:

“Holmes sat quietly for a long time, studying something in a glass bottle. ‘So, Watson,’ he said suddenly, ‘you are not going to buy any land in South Africa?'”

Now I think you and I would prefer the first version. But for our students the first example would require a forbidding amount of vocabulary explanation and much or all of it will be forgotten. The second example is much more accessible to students and presenting clear examples of basic grammar and vocabulary. For example, “studying something in a glass bottle” might be interesting to a student to see that “study” is not something you only do with a book.

This is what we mean by extensive input that is at or near the students level and is interesting.

(Image taken from the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Dancing Men”.)

“Teaching” the words or “immersing” in the words

A teacher is deriding me for my views on the importance of extensive comprehensible input. He says, “I must have missed the lessons on modern language teaching trends, so I am asking some practical questions hoping to update my obsolete views on teaching. Please anyone help me start the new semester after the Chinese New Year holiday as a different teacher.”

This teacher is being sarcastic with us. I understand because I used to feel the same way. I know that the claim that extensive comprehensible input seems in some ways to contradict all of our long-held beliefs and assumptions about teaching. It didn’t make sense to me either when I heard about it. But on the other hand it we can intuitively know that it works because (1) children learn their L1 in the same manner and (2) even you and I add to our English vocabulary in this way. Our language development did not stop when we left school. Additionally, (3) our students and many others are adding to their language without being taught (for example: shit) and not learning what we do teach (for example: mom=she, dad=he). (Photo: My students hanging on every word of the film, “Bruce Almighty”, a Jim Carey comedy but with some intense parts. The film is shown in English with English subtitles only. There are a lot of words they don’t know. BUT, there are a lot of words they do know.)

Let’s take a look at the example that this teacher proposes for use with a mid-intermediate level student. Does it meet the three requirements for extensive comprehensible input?

1. Extensive? I don’t think a student would read very much of this sort of text for the reasons below.

2. Comprehensible? No, not at all.

3. Interesting? I doubt it for two reasons. It is talking about a specific industry problem and it is so incomprehensible that only advanced students would be able to make enough sense out of it to begin to understand it and possibly enjoy it.

This is NOT how to do extensive comprehensible input!

However how would those who really want to teach the vocabulary out of it handle this situation? Here Stefan’s sentence plus the whole paragraph. It is only one paragraph of a four-paragraph article which is dense with not frequently used vocabulary. I have capitalized the text that mid-level and many upper-level intermediate students may not know:

Tourism is now among the world’s most important industries, generating jobs and profits worth billions of pounds. At the same time, however, mass tourism can have dire effects on the people and places it embraces – both tourists and the societies and human environments they visit. We are increasingly familiar with some of the worst effects of unthinking, unmanaged, unsustainable tourism: previously undeveloped coastal villages that have become sprawling, charmless towns. their seas poisoned by sewage, denuded of wildlife, their beaches stained with litter and empty tubes of suncream. Historic towns, their streets now choked with traffic, their temples, churches and cathedrals seemingly reduced to a backdrop for holiday snaps that proclaim, ‘Been there, Done that’. Some of the world’s richest environments bruised by the tourist onslaught, their most distinctive wildlife driven to near-extinction, with wider environmental impacts caused by the fuel-hungry transport systems used to take holidaying travellers around the world and back again.

So would a vocabulary teacher then teach these words?

1. generating
2. profits
3. billions
4. mass
5. dire
6. embraces
7. societies
8. familiar
9. unsustainable
10. previously
11. undeveloped
12. coastal
13. sprawling
14. charmless
15. poisoned
16. sewage
17. denuded
18. wildlife
19. beaches
20. stained
21. litter
22. tubes
23. suncream
24. historic
25. choked
26. temples
27. cathedrals
28. distinctive
29. driven
30. near-extinction
31. impacts
32. fuel-hungry
33. transport

We have 33 words to learn there and that is only one paragraph. After we do the other four paragraphs we may have new 100 words to learn from only one article in one lesson.

How many words can an average student memorize in one day? How many will he forget? Anyone know?

This is exactly what extensive comprehensible input is NOT. But it is also my contention that even those who favor discrete vocabulary teaching will not be successful in helping students acquire this vocabulary. Yes, teachers can “teach” it. But the students are going to feel stupid when they forget it.

This text would be suitable for advanced learners who already know 95% of the vocabulary. For them this would be adequate for their extensive comprehensible input. They would be able to add to their advanced vocabulary but I almost never teach those kinds of students. By the time they reach that level they are learning on their own from any English materials they choose.

In search of comprehensible material on the web

Students can learn vocabulary and grammar from extensive comprehensible input. In fact, even if students memorize some definitions of words they will only have a very shallow understanding of the meaning of those words unless they can be exposed to many usages of those words. Where can teachers find materials for their students that can provide extensive comprehensible input?

The graphic above shows Google’s rating of websites at Basic English level. When I rated a website that I use with my students it rated at 100%. As you can see, ESLPod, rates at 72% which is very good. USA Today, a newspaper that is supposedly written at an American 5th grade level, is perhaps the easiest mainstream newspaper for students to understand. The New York Times is more complicated. That little blue box at the top of the graphic is Bloomberg business news at 2%, very difficult for our students.

If we think of this material as a stairway to proficiency, our students can climb up to greater and greater complexity. You will have to select appropriate materials for your students according to their needs and interests. The materials listed above, for example the MIT university website, are not suggested reading materials. They are only shown to display levels of difficulty.

If you have suggestions of useful online materials, please use the comments section below to tell us.

Teaching with movie subtitles

WHY USE SUBTITLES?

There is only one reason I use subtitles, to make the movie more accessible for my students. Even upper-intermediate level students will have problems following a movie. Subtitles help increase comprehension tremendously. Perhaps advanced students would do better without them. But even I have to use subtitles when I watch certain movies like those of a Shakespearean story with dense rich beautiful language or a movie like “Wall Street” rich in financial terms.

HOW TO FIND SUBTITLES

They are very easy to find. Do an Internet search, for example, on the terms:

“Wall Street” subtitles

Replace “Wall Street” with the name of the movie you are searching for. Aside from the teacher developing materials for students in this way, I suggest the teacher demonstrate to the students how to find these subtitles on their own. I suggest the teacher even give the students an assignment to find the subtitles to their favorite English language movie, be it “Harry Potter” or “Titanic”, whatever, and to copy these subtitles into their smart phone, MP4 or even to reformat the text and print them out on paper. In this way the student will have a copy of the words to their favorite movie. This will mean the student can study the English that is highly interesting to him. I have an American friend who learned Chinese by watching one Chinese movie that he liked over and over and over again.

By the way, you can also find subtitles in almost every other major language in the same way.

HOW TO USE SUBTITLES

They are a text file and you can open them and edit them in any text program. Some subtitles have the extension .txt but some are .srt. In any case, you can examine them with any program for text like Word, Notepad, etc. If it does have an .srt extension then I suggest you change this extension to .txt. The file will still work if you want to use it in a movie but it will be easier for your students to simply click on it and open it with their text programs .

When you open these subtitle files they do look rather messy. There are the words but there are also a lot of numbers. These numbers are time codes or frame codes to help the subtitles appear at the moment they are needed. I suggest that you teach students to ignore them. Or if they are time codes, students can use them as a reference to find the specific subtitle for a specific place in the movie. These codes can be removed by making a macro in Word but it is not a real simple solution.

HOW TO TEACH WITH SUBTITLES

There are a million things you can do.

My general approach to teaching is to avoid pre-teaching if possible. I believe the dynamics work better if the students’ interest is first piqued, if they are highly curious about something, if something fascinating is happening and now they really want to understand it. So I would try to show a portion of the movie, something really intriguing making your students fascinated and desperate to understand, with or without subtitles, and then “help” satisfy their curiosity by going over the subtitles more slowly and carefully. First we make the students thirsty. Then we satisfy their thirst.

Pre-teaching might be necessary if there is some word that is very central to the meaning of what is going on and if the students would be really clueless without understanding that word. However, if there is a lot of vocabulary your students don’t understand then there are too many uncommon words for the students and it is likely, even if you “teach” it to them, they will not retain them.

Another thing you can do is to have students prepare to act out one scene of a movie. This would involve some memorization. Alternatively, you could have the students develop a script to say the same thing in the movie only in different words and then act this out. You could ask the students to attribute a different character trait to one of the people in the story. “In this scene the villain is very cruel. But what would he say if he was a very nice guy and very polite.” You could show the movie until it builds up to an exciting moment and then let the students write and perform a script or even just ad lib a role play for what happens next.

With the words to the movie available to them, you can have students watch a scene and then write a “letter to the editor” about some issue (“something must be done to improve the education of our children”), write a police report (“this morning at 9:35 AM, I saw a man dressed in a Spider costume help…”, or if your students’ level is low they could write a simple postcard to a friend beginning with, “Dear Mom and Dad, You won’t believe what I saw today!…”

Have fun with movie subtitles and tell us how you use them! I’m sure you have lots of ideas!

>Welcome to my party!…Or is grammar teaching necessary?

>To answer those who argue that grammar teaching is necessary, I would like you to engage in a thought experiment.

Imagine that I am having a party. There is music, snacks, drinks and many guests. All of the guests are my friends. I am delighted when you arrive.

“Hi! I’m so happy you could make it! Here, have a drink! Let me take you around and introduce you to some of my friends.

“This is Bob. He is a marine animal trainer. He’s American and trained the dolphins in the Guangzhou Zoo.

“Here is Richard. He’s a lawyer and the vice-president of the Guangzhou Law Association. He was one of my students.

“And this is Rauol. He is the manager of the golf course, he’s from Holland.

“This is Helen. She’s the Southern China manager for Cambridge University Press. She is from Hubei.

“Here is Zhou Jing. She is the general manager of Microsoft Technology Center in Guangzhou. She was one of my students and improved her English very quickly so she could attend a big Microsoft meeting in Seattle.

All of these are real people I know as friends and/or students.

OK, now a question. Who is Bob?

Maybe you don’t remember.

I agree that a brief introduction to a grammar form, just like a brief introduction to someone at a party, is not going to hurt unless you mix up all the people you met. But I don’t think it really does much to help you really know the grammar or be able to use the grammar.

You don’t really know Bob. You don’t know that the secret of his job is “hunger”. You don’t know he is from California. You don’t know that he also worked in Taiwan and in Japan. You don’t know that when he was in Japan he studied the ancient Japanese martial art of sword fighting and passed several tests to achieve mastery. You don’t know that he lives with his lovely Chinese girlfriend who is also an animal trainer.

What if I didn’t introduce you to Bob? What if you lived with Bob? What if you observed him while he worked? What if you went out to dinner with him and his girlfriend? What if you joined him as he practiced his sword technique with his Japanese tutor? Without any introductions, you would know Bob very well.

Sure, introduce me to your friends. It’s not going to kill me. (Unless one of them is a killer.) But to know them I don’t really need to have an introduction. I need to spend time with them, even live with them, to know them.

>How students learn for tests

>When our students take the big exams are the only questions they get right the ones the teacher “taught” them? I don’t think so. I would like to know how effective is teacher “teaching” as compared to indirect learning.

I think they are answering some questions on the test correctly for items that they were not “taught”. If so, then how did they learn them? I believe Comprehensible Input is playing a bigger role than we realize.

Krashen tells the story of how his French teacher wanted to only speak French to them and was explaining a grammar point, in French. Finally frustrated, she told them in English. However, her effort to explain it in French, all that French speaking to explain something, actually constituted Comprehensible Input for the students and helped their French.

Every time the teacher talks to the students in the L2 is Comprehensible Input. Teachers are naturals for adjusting their English speaking so students can understand them.

So between the teacher’s speaking and the student’s own study they are getting a lot of CI.

Perhaps the student is reading a business text and it is talking about international finance and the teacher wants the student to learn some language about stocks, bonds, interest rates, prime lending rate, etc. Perhaps the student has some degree of success in learning some of those terms but there are many things in the text that the student was not studying but was learning such as “carry on” when it says “banks cannot carry on making risky loans” or something like that.

>Reverse engineering vocabulary learning

>We hear a lot of advice about how to teach vocabulary, how to bring the mass of vocabulary to the student so the student has the right word when she needs it. But instead of looking at it from the mass to the useful word, let us look at it from the useful word to the mass. In other words, how did that student actually acquire that word?…a sort of lexical forensics, if you will.

I have been pondering the CET4 English test used in China. This is the most important English test in China and it’s hard for Chinese to claim they know any useful amount of English if they haven’t passed this test. (Following this test is the CET6 and CET8). I’m looking at an official sample test right now and have chosen a question at random to study. This is one line in a long paragraph and we know it’s talking about home care for someone who is ill. This is a cloze test question and it goes like this:

The responsible one in the home ___ on with the rest of the care during the _interval_ between the nurse’s visits.

(a) works (b) carries (c) looks (d) depends

The answer is “carries”.

Now the question is, how did the student come to choose that word? What was the learning process that enabled that student to correctly choose that word over the others? Were those words in a vocabulary lesson? Were those words on the student’s vocabulary list of words to memorize? How did our student acquire those words to be able to answer the question correctly? How did the student know she cannot say “…WORKS on with…” That sounds almost possible. How exactly did the student know it is impossible? What lesson was given to the student on this?

If we take a look at the correct word we can see in the American Heritage Dictionary there are many definitions or usages for the word “carry” plus six phrasal verbs with multiple uses as well, these being:

carry-45
carry off-2
carry out-3
carry over-7
carry a (or the) torch-1
carry the ball-1
carry the day-1

And…

carry on-4
To conduct; maintain: carry on a thriving business.
To engage in: carry on a love affair.
To continue without halting; persevere: carry on in the face of disaster. To behave in an excited, improper, or silly manner.

This makes a total of 64. Certainly, our student did not need to know every usage of “carry” to be able to choose it as the correct answer. But the student had to learn many of them. And how did she learn them, did the teacher teach them to the student?

My suspicion is that our student has not had English lessons in the multiple uses of the word “carry” that enabled her to answer correctly. Perhaps the student never had any lesson on the word “carry”. I believe that once an elementary vocabulary has been reached, the vast bulk of learning takes place indirectly through vast amounts of input as suggested by Krashen in his theory of “Comprehensible Input”.

>Still more on error correction

>On the TESL-L mailing list, a teacher asked the question below about error correction. As it seems to be something we’re interested in, I’m including my reply. – dk

“I,m an English teacher in China. I’m teaching 2 classes with 56 students each. When I teach writing, I’ll use differnt methods to encourage my students to write about their own ideas. To my joy, they like writing very much though it is hard work. However, I find it very difficult for me to correct their errors. I know fluency is more important, but it dosn’t mean we can ignore accuracy. Error correcting will take lots of time and energy, and the students don’t want to see their composition after I correect errors. Is there anybody who can help me use a kind of more efficient method?”

This is a common problem faced by many writing teachers. We could say it is even a trap because teachers feel obligated to this idea of correcting everything.

TRUSCOTT & ERROR CORRECTION

John Truscott famously or infamously, depending on what side of the debate you are standing on, has brought up research[1] indicating that grammar correction doesn’t really help students at all. So, generally speaking, all time spent at correcting is time wasted.

Truscott is in the same vein of English learning as Krashen. Indeed, Krashen has referred to Truscott’s research[2]. In this direction of English learning it is understood that students learn from indirect ways of teaching, things like Extensive Reading, that the students will absorb the language through massive exposure to it at a difficulty level of i+1.

After studying Truscott’s paper, and even organizing a virtual seminar for him on the TEFL-China list[3] where we interviewed him for a week, I began to pay closer attention to how my students responded to corrections.

Personally, from observing my students carefully, I’ve seen that my students do respond to some corrections.

But to be effective in this area, we have to understand some things first.

UNDERSTANDING CORRECTION

Our students cannot have a lesson, or even a correction, and simply “know” it. They only begin to know it. All learning in an area as complex as language takes a lot of time and repetition.

Choose your targets. Don’t try to correct everything. Correct what you think will be easiest for them to learn, that they are ready to learn. Remember, it is more like teaching a baby how to walk than teaching the fine points of running to an Olympic athlete. Teach only what can be learned or you are wasting your time and frustrating your student.

When you read over the papers, understand that this is the whole class speaking to you. Through their errors they are telling you what they need to be taught. In this way you can respond and give your class exactly what they need.

Group the corrections. Choose the Top 5 errors the students were making in their papers and show them how to do it correctly. Of course, some students may have not made those errors on the paper they submitted to you. But if they didn’t make this error this time they may make it next time so teach it to all of them. Even if they know, more or less, how not to make that error, such instruction will strengthen their understanding. As mentioned before, students begin to know something and slowly understand it better and better.

DIY RESEARCH

Do your own research. If you want to see how responsive the students are to correction, after you have taught them the 5 main errors and how to avoid them, ask the students to return their papers to you and ask them to rewrite the assignment. Collect those papers and check them. You’ll find that most of them will not repeat those errors, that they have learned from the correction. About two weeks or a month later, ask them to write the very same assignment yet again. You will find that a lot of the students will not make the same errors although many may have forgotten your correction lesson and are slipping again.

HASTE MAKES WASTE

Beware of the hurried writer. This guy really wastes so much teacher time. He’s the guy who forgot the homework and before the homework is to be handed in just dashes off a quick paper. He makes a lot of mistakes that, if he took his time, he would not have made. He knows they are errors but they were errors made in haste. But he doesn’t mind and he wants his paper to be corrected. The problem is, it takes your precious time to read his paper and deal with these errors. I refuse to check any papers unless the student has made it as perfect as he possibly can. Only then can I really help a student with what he doesn’t know. Check the paper for really basic errors, simple words misspelled, obvious grammar mistakes. If you find such things, hand the paper back to the student and tell him to correct it himself until he thinks it is perfect. If you find someone hastily finishing a writing assignment make sure you don’t accept it. If he doesn’t have time to try to write it well, you don’t have time to try to correct it.

[1] http://frenchgateway.coh.arizona.edu/F05/FREN579/truscott_grammar_writing.pdf
Also, see his webpage at his university:
http://www.hss.nthu.edu.tw/~fl/faculty/eng/John.html
Here you’ll find the grammar paper plus lots of other aspects of his research into correction.

[2] http://sdkrashen.com/pipermail/krashen_sdkrashen.com/2005-April/000102.html
http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/why_support/all.html
http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/eta_paper/all.html

[3] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/teflchina
This is a group of about 900 English teachers in China or involved with teaching Chinese students. If you are a teacher in China you certainly would benefit from joining this list.

>Making podcasts for low level English students

>Here are a few ideas for making podcasts for your students:

1. Make recordings of your experiences like the time you met someone famous or thought you were going to die in an accident. Don’t be boring but be simple.

2. Interview friends and other teachers. Don’t rely on the friends to be simple enough or talk slowly enough. If the friend is using some language that you feel is too advanced for your students then jump in and ask your friend to define it or define it or restate it yourself.

3. Take your students on a tour to a favorite local haunt. There is a shopping mall here that is immensely popular with all students in this area. Record a tour of the location that they could listen to and use to follow your footsteps. Describe what you see, tell some funny stories and go in to the shop and talk to some clerks about their products. I did this with my notebook computer in my bag running Audacity with a microphone clipped on my shirt. Many mobile phones have recording functions on them. You can include some insights into some of the businesses or some of the fashions even if you have to look them up on the Internet. Check this out.

4. Make your case for your method. Students always want to know what is the best/fastest/easiest way to learn English. Explain how you are teaching your students. Some of our teaching methods are counter intuitive. I think Grammar-Translation makes a lot of sense but is not as good as Communicative Approach. If our teaching method is not always easily accepted by students you should take every opportunity to “sell” your teaching methods over and over.

5. Don’t just make a recording on any subject but try to steer it in a way to augment units you are teaching in one of your courses. This way you can further the unit, even if you have to ‘assign’ the listening item, or you can use it as a collection of materials students can listen to on a voluntary basis. For example, if you have a unit discussing Human Resources you can interview a friend about their experience in hiring or with working with colleagues.

6. Record your lessons. This is normally quite boring but it can be very effective if you just extract some of the jewels, ancedotes you tell your students, special tips on learning English, fun facts, a story about your travels, etc.

I am also trying some projects along this line and am starting to post them at GCAST.