Category Archives: Foreign Language

I’m fascinated with languages and cultures. How does teaching language to kids intersect with story? Here’s how!

Comprehensible Input: Language Tips

Homeschooling and

I’ve been thinking about foreign language a lot recently. My daughter is currently attending a foreign language immersion camp in Minnesota. She has a little bit of German and was nervous about going to a camp where the adults were going to speak to her only in German. All. Day. Long. She’s doing okay, if the pictures are any indication:

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Seriously. Who gets camp food like this?

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I’m interested in the way the camp engages kids with little language experience. I suspect there is a lot of Comprehensible Input going on. Stephen Krashen first told us about Comprehensible Input (CI) in the 80’s. Giving a language student access to new structures, words, and language patterns that she is ready to acquire and make her own; that’s Comprehensible Input in a nutshell. I imagine Olivia gets to see someone at camp hold up an apple and say Apfel; I do not imagine someone holding up an apple and saying the German equivalent of “An apple a day keeps the doctor away unless you happen to be allergic to apples.” Comprehensible input gives students just enough new wording to be understandable.

I’ve blogged about using storytelling as a way to give students comprehensible input. We use words, movements, and visuals to communicate a story that sticks in students’ minds. Teachers limit the amount of vocabulary and the grammar structures used in the story to allow students to understand it. I’m amazed at the new stories my beginning French students are able to create after a short interaction with structures I use in my stories.

Comprehensible input comes somewhat naturally to homeschoolers. Since our kids will show us lack of comprehension in a myriad of ways – shouting, glazed eyes, refusal to do work – we parents have learn early on to be adept at reading these cues and adjusting our input. If we don’t, a toxic learning environment arises.

Still, we homeschoolers do sometimes lose patience with the process. Why can’t my son grasp these multiplication facts? We’ve been working on them for a billion years! We can benefit from incorporating some tenets of the Comprehensible Input methodology. [Source: What Is Comprehensible Input?]

To make sure new language (or new content of any kind) is comprehensible, we can:

  • Provide the back story. If a child is learning about the Constitutional Convention, it’s helpful to call up as much relevant background knowledge as possible. Remember when we took that trip to Philadelphia to see Independence Hall? Do you remember how small the room where everyone met was? And no air conditioning! Wow, what a sweat fest that must have been. Giving your child a hook to hang new information on will give him not only a stronger recall but also a sense of wonder as he realizes how interconnected everything is. Those were my best moments in school. 😉
  •  Connect with a student’s experience. Our American history study will center around Hamilton the musical because my daughter has seen the show and is fascinated with the music and the world of Alexander Hamilton. When new content is introduced in the context of your child’s culture, that content pops with vivid life in her imagination.
  • Use lots of language and visuals, Now, spewing lots of language at a foreign language student isn’t helpful, but repeating the word girl many times in the context of a story about a girl who wants to buy an elephant (along with pictures of said girl hopping on airplanes to fly to different cities in search of an elephant) gives students a chance to make a connection between the visual and the aural input. Showing one picture and saying one sentence isn’t enough. Similarly, watching one video about the Civil War isn’t enough to help your child grasp the era about which he is learning. Delve deep into books, videos, websites, and image libraries to help him live with the material for a while. Then he’ll be able to write about it.
  • Worry more about accuracy of content than accuracy of expression. Brave Writer teaches this lesson, too: The quirky insights a child expresses in writing matters much more than her ability to correctly punctuate a sentence. In foreign language, if a student can tell me a story about a gorilla who gives his banana to a mouse, I’m riveted despite the plethora of errors that accompany this tale. As homeschoolers, we can value the ideas above all else. Accuracy of expression will come with practice.
  • Involve students, ask questions, and allow students to express their ideas. Gone are the days where students are expected to be quiet receptacles for information. [Well, those days should be gone by now. Are they gone by now?] Telling a story that features the students and their interests – There was a boy named John. He loved skateboarding, but he was tired of skateboarding in Baltimore. He wanted to skateboard somewhere else! – pulls students in and helps them feel part of what is happening in the classroom. Asking them to contribute their own ideas – Where did he want to skateboard? In Rome, you say? Yes! He wanted to skateboard in Rome.  – enhances their engagement even more. At home, we can invite our kids to have a say in everything. We can have conversations about movies, asking our kids who they would cast in the sequel and what the plot line would be. We can invite them to create their own version of the sequel by writing scripts and making a puppet show. The possibilities to allow our kids to participate in the learning process as equal partners are endless.

Are you ready to give your kids some Comprehensible Input? Just remember: it takes forever for kids to acquire new skills. Well, it feels like forever to us parents, but it’s really just a small dot on the timeline of our kids’ lives. Be patient. Take your input down to where the kids are and give them just enough to get their brains whirring with ideas. Then let those ideas guide you as you figure out what comes next.

Teaching a Foreign Language? Tell a Story.

In my early teaching days as a foreign language teacher, I often didn’t feel good at my job. Kids were hard to control and I felt they didn’t retain anything I taught them for long. When I took a job in a school that taught level 1 through full immersion (where the teacher doesn’t speak English at all in class), my teaching hit an all-time low. I had students looking at me and begging, “Please, just tell us what you want us to do! We don’t understand you!” Ugh.

I went to a conference that summer and learned about teaching language through stories. People, it revolutionized my classroom. It turns out that teaching through Comprehensible Input, giving students stories to use as a context for understanding, made those students not only relax but also produce language on a level that astounded me.

Imagine the difference between teaching a set of vocabulary words like kitchen, bathroom, basement, garage, dining room, living room, attic, and house and teaching them a story such as:

The boy doesn’t have a pizza. He wants a pizza, but there aren’t any pizzas in Topeka, Kansas. He goes to Phoenix, Arizona and sees a girl with a pizza. He says, “Hi! I don’t have a pizza. I need a pizza. Do you have an extra pizza?” The girl says, “Yes, I have an extra pizza.” She gives the boy the pizza. The boy is happy.

Which group of vocabulary words do you think will stick best in your kids’ brains? Stories give us a hook for our everyday memories, right? They also can provide hooks in the subjects we study. History taught as a list of dates? Blech. History taught as a series of stories? Yes! I’m in! Foreign language is just the art of sharing our stories in another language. Storytelling and language study go hand in hand.

If you would like to adopt this approach in your homeschool, I guarantee your kids will have a blast.  I am teaching a homeschool co-op class to middle schoolers and high schoolers in French this year, and we’re using this book:

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If you know the second language a bit already, the resources found at this site will work great for you. The book just includes a series of stories and comprehension questions. Grammar isn’t taught directly; it’s acquired through practice with the language. [Note: I do quick “Grammar Pop Ups” in my class where I’ll explain the difference between tu and vous, how nouns have a gender, how adjectives have to agree with nouns in number and gender, etc. They are just quick asides, though. We get back to storytelling as soon as we can, always.]

The idea is to give kids lots of chances to hear the vocabulary words and interact with them. Take the story above, for example. I introduce the first line with unknown vocabulary words written on the board in French and English. There is also a paper on the wall with question words in French. My script (with student responses in parentheses) might go something like this:

Class, there is a boy. He wants a pizza. Is there a boy or a girl? (A boy) Does the boy want a pizza? (Yes, the boy wants a pizza) Does the boy want a hamburger? (No, the boy doesn’t want a hamburger) Does the boy want a pizza or a hamburger? (He wants a pizza) Who wants a pizza? (The boy wants a pizza) What does the boy want? (He wants a pizza) Claire [class member], do you want a pizza? (Yes, I want a pizza/No, I don’t want a pizza)

And so on. It takes a while to get all the way through a short story using this question and response method. Just think of how many encounters the class gets with the words the boy, wants, a pizza, doesn’t want, and a hamburger! When we finish the story, we might draw the story cartoon-strip style, pointing to pictures as I say part of the story. They might try to tell the story in their own words using their pictures and the vocabulary. They also could write a new version of the story where the boy wants an elephant instead.

I love the way my level one students are adept at telling simple stories instead of labeling all the rooms in the house. Storytelling seems more authentic since the chance that they will tell a story in France one day is greater than the chance they’ll name the rooms of the house, right?

If you’re trying to approach foreign language with your kiddos, I invite you to make a simple story. Introduce how questions and question words work, then tell them a tale!

If you’d like to learn more about this method, this book does a nice job laying it out (though the language is chock full of education-eze; reader beware!):

fluency through tpr storytelling

While these products focus on classroom teaching, they’re easily adaptable for home use. Let’s get going telling some stories! Dust off that rusty high school French, Spanish, or German today!