Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Need for Establishing Meaning

A few months ago, a college student in a language education program asked me about TPR, since she was having to lead a lesson in Latin for elementary school students. As she had never worked with any type of oral Latin before, I explained the basics of TPR and how one could do it in Latin. I then told her, "Be sure to write the Latin word and the English meaning on the board or if the students cannot read yet, define the word aloud in English in order to establish meaning." She immediately responded, "We are not allowed to use any type of English. It has to be full immersion." 

We world language teachers are very familiar with the ACTFL guideline of 90% classtime in the target language, and in our methodology classes in college, we heard all about the necessity of an immersion classroom. But we also must be mindful of the following: immersion can turn very quickly into submersion for students. To quote Carol Gaab, "In an immersion environment, students cannot control the comprehensibilty or the amount of language thrown at them." The 4%rs may be able to keep up, but they are the exception. An incomprehensible immersion environment is simply just noise to students.

In order to avoid the use of English, many times, we rely on props, pictures or gestures to convey meaning. The problem with that is what seems obvious to us as meaning is not always obvious to students. Lauren Watson, a fellow CI teacher in my district and co-CI presenter/facilitator, uses the example of showing a picture of a swimming pool for the word piscine. To Lauren, it seems obvious that she is trying to communicate the word swimming pool, but students can interpret the picture in other ways: water, to swim, swimmer; and if she were to gesture the act of swimming in a pool, some could interpret that as to dance!

Once with Latin 1 students, I was demonstrating the word carry in Latin via TPR. To me, since the action matched the meaning of the word, I did not feel the need to establish meaning. At the end of class, after doing lots of repetitions via TPR of the word, I asked in English, "What does porta mean?" One student answered "To hold something and to walk with it at the same time." I was a bit dumbfonded and responded, "Do you mean carry?" He replied with a smile, "...Oh yeah..." While we all had a nice chuckle, I realized, "Oh my gosh, I just wasted that student's classtime by not establishing meaning. If I had just told him the meaning right away, he could have acquired that word SO MUCH sooner."

So what is the best way to convey the meaning of a word so that everyone understands? Quite simply: write the word and its English meaning on the board. So many times, we will try to define the word in the language, to draw a picture, to use props, to use synonyms, etc. In my language learning experiences where it has been an immersive situation, my attitude is "Just tell me what the word means in English so that I can move on! You are wasting my time by trying to do everything else, because I do not understand what you are saying!!"

Already, I can hear folks saying, "Hey, that is translation!" My answer is "No, it is not - it is establishing meaning. If you are going to hold 90% of classtime in the target language, then consider this as part of your 10% classtime in English."

Writing the word on the board with the English meaning allows the following:
  • immediate comprehension of the word for all
  • a opportunity for me to "point and pause" whenever I use the word
  • a reference for students whenever I use that word again in the lesson
If I get in the necessary repetitions, then students will no longer need to use the written words as a reference. They will no longer be focusing on the written English translation whenever they hear that word, because after time, they become very familiar with it and begin to internalize it. At my first TPRS workshop with Blaine Ray, where he demonstrated this in German, and at NTPRS with Betsy Paskvan, where she taught us Japanese, each of them had the target words written in the language and in English. Whenever the word was used, both of them "pointed and paused" for us and then continued on. I so appreciated this, because in the beginning, I was clinging to those cues. After awhile, though, due to the massive amount of repetitions and of interactions with the language, I noticed that I was no longer having to look at the English meanings. I was now comprehending what they were saying!

You can also conduct comprehension checks in English to ensure that meaning has been established for everyone. Take a 1-2 minute timeout, where you ask, "When I said 'X,' what was I saying?", "What does 'X' mean again in English?" "What word means 'X'?", etc. If you receive incorrect responses, then that tells you that you need to re-establish meaning again.

Whenever I introduce a reading for the first time (assuming that I have done pre-reading activities), I will have the class do a choral reading in order to establish meaning of the story for all. To me, this is a necessary step, since I plan to do 4-5 post-reading activities of that reading; if I do not establish meaning right away, then it becomes much more difficult for students.

So try establishing meaning right away - your students will thank you for it!

1 comment:

  1. Nice, succinct post! I like Blaine's idea that the role of the teacher isn't to teach students new words, but rather to make those students fast processors of language. Now that I no longer see my role as getting them to "remember the words" (if they don't remember I'll just point to it on the wall) my focus is on getting them to process so quickly that they don't even need to look at the translation.