Of Methods and Principles: Is There Only One Right Way?

We control our actions, but the consequences that flow from those actions are controlled by principles.
Stephen R. Covey

I’ve been at the work of teaching Latin for 30 years now, and the last 20 of those have involved growing into the use of Comprehensible Input as a framework for what I do.

One of the insights I’ve gained from teaching graduate courses over the last 6 years–all focused on some aspect of Comprehensible Input for teachers of second languages is just how much of a paradigm shift CI offers to us, and most teachers do not understand them well or quickly. I certainly didn’t, and even the very best and astute teachers in my graduate classes struggle to understand CI principles. It takes time. It takes making mistakes and running into some brick walls. It definitely requires a sense of humor!

Recently, I found a rather good blog post on my news feed.  The blog had nothing to do with language teaching, but the dynamics that the author focused on are exactly those involved in teaching languages. One observation in particular, which the author makes based on some ideas from Stephen Covey rang the bell for me. I hope that what follows is helpful in grasping the principles of Comprehensible Input for however you practice the art and skill of teaching languages.

From Covey: We control our actions, but the consequences that flow from those actions are controlled by principles.

From Hardy: The only way to avoid negative consequences, then, is to understand the principles governing natural consequences. Hence, highly successful people are continually learning and striving to better understand the world around them.

First a caveat.  We have to disavow the way the word “consequences” is used in school-talk.  In traditional school-talk, consequences means the way a teacher, or a school or a school system will punish you if you break one of the published rules.  In Covey’s original, in Hardy’s blog, and here in this post, consequences means those things that naturally result from our actions. They may be positive or negative or neutral.  If I wash my hands, I am less likely to catch the flu.  Good consequence.  If I ignore that warning, I may catch the flu. Bad consequence. And so forth. No rule keeper standing around to reward or punish.  Just the things that result from what we choose to do.

1. We can choose what to do in various circumstances, but we are not free to choose the consequences.  Consequences are governed by principles. This is key to a useful understanding of Comprehensible Input.  CI is made up of several principles that describe the consequences of certain actions regarding the learning of languages. There are many, many ways to teach languages, various methods, applications, activities, exercises, projects and procedures.  We who teach are free to choose among them all and decide which ones we will use with which classes. We know our students.  We know our circumstances.  We know the pressures and requirements placed on us by our local school and systems.  We choose how we teach.

2. Those things that naturally result from how we choose to teach are not governed by our choices of teaching methods, but by principles. CI offers a set of principles. One of the core principles is that learners make progress in acquiring the language when they receive understandable messages in that language.  When a teacher–using any method that they choose to teach with–offer their students understandable messages in the language, those students will make progress in their ability to understand that language when they hear it and read it with understanding. The delivery of understandable messages can happen whether the teacher intends it to or not, whether the teacher has heard of CI or not. Even in a classroom where the teacher has decided that the goal of Latin study is to improve student’s grasp of English grammar, who has no intentions of speaking Latin to their students or of reading anything in any extensive way, there will be moments when that teacher delivers understandable messages in Latin, and students will to some degree make some progress in understanding.

The Principle: learners make progress when they receive understandable messages in L2
The Activity: teacher places half a dozen words in Latin on the board for parts of a house and actions like eat, sleep, play, read with L1 equivalents, and then begins to slowly ask students in Latin whether they do certain activities in certain rooms.  E.g. Do you eat in the bathroom?  Do you read in the kitchen?  Do you sleep in the bedroom?
The Consequence: With practically no effort, the students will acquire vocabulary for parts of the house and the activities of eating, sleeping, reading and playing. They may have little idea of what a noun or verb is, or how to create various forms of each.

The Principle: language is acquired through unconscious use of the language with understandable messages, while the structure and grammatical rules for a language are learned through explicit instruction. Explicit knowledge of the language structures is useful for editing language that the learner can already produce.
The Activity: The teacher delivers a lecture about the inflection of Latin nouns and how each inflected form functions using grammatical designations in L1. The teacher supplies a graphic organizer for the rules of those inflections including a place to copy down the inflected endings for the first declension. Students are asked to practice chanting the endings with a partner and to finish memorizing them for homework.
The Consequence: If students have already acquired a good bit of the language, they will be able to collect these grammatical notes, organize them and then reference them when writing and editing their own written work.

The Principle: there is a natural order to the way in which learners acquire the structures of a language.  They will acquire a structure when they are ready to, and not a moment before.
The Activity: the teacher has created a movie talk using familiar and some new vocabulary and focusing on the use of the dative case with verbs of giving. The teacher has done a wonderful job of making sure that the dative case of familiar nouns are used in creative repetitions throughout.
The Consequence: The teacher observes over the next few days that students (a couple of exceptions) largely do not seem to have even noticed the dative endings on nouns, and are not necessarily using them correctly. They are, however, reading and listening with high levels of understanding despite their apparent inability to notice the dative case. The teacher should not stop using the dative case (by any means!) but realize that students are not ready to acquire it yet. A lecture on the dative case with drills will not make this happen any faster, but it may invoke the next principle and its consequences.

The Principle: When the affective filter is high, acquisition of L2 will be low and conversely, when the affective filter is low, acquisition of L2 will be high.
The Activity: The teacher has planned to read the next story in their textbook this week, the week of district level testing in several other departments. The teacher knows it to be an exciting story with a surprise ending and thinks it will be a good diversion from all the testing in other subjects. The teacher spends the fist 10 minutes going over the 23 new words that students will encounter in the story, and then begins the class reading with them.  Soon, the teacher observes students “checking out” in numerous ways: cell phones appear, doodling is happening, three students are asleep on top of their books, and there have been several outbreaks of chatting that have disrupted the reading.
The Consequence: Trying to read this story is a total fail. The class never made it past the second paragraph of a 6 paragraph story. In retrospect, the teacher realizes that 23 new words was far too much to take in meaningfully, and that created instant anxiety in a group of students who were already under the gun for high stakes performance that week in other subject areas. The behaviors in class were signs of high anxiety which made working in a second language almost impossible.

The Principle: When learners have access to the rules of the structure of a language, understand them, and have time to apply them, their inner editor will use that material to create better output of language they have already acquired.
The Activity: Students have been given time in class to respond to a writing prompt based on a story they finished reading the day before.  The prompt includes an extension of the story that they create. They are told that they will write their rough draft today, and then using their grammar notes from previous classes in the year, write a final draft tomorrow. They must stick to the vocabulary they know, but they may consult with you tomorrow on questions about grammar usage. On the second day, the teacher asks them to write at the bottom of their paper which grammar rules they consulted the most for their final draft.
The Consequence: The teacher can see from even a cursory glance at each students rough and final drafts that improvements were made in the quality of the writing from one day to the next. There are no “perfect” papers, but they all show improvement over the rough draft.  The teacher can also see that some students are making heavier use of grammar notes than others, but all have been able to identify which notes helped them.

The Principle: Learners acquire language much more quickly with material they find compelling than with material that they do not find compelling. Compelling material makes them forget (even if for moments at a time) that they are working in L2.
The Activity: The teacher has noticed how alive students become when they create activities using the collection of stuffed animals in the room. The teacher has created a story based on some of the weird and unheard of creatures from Pliny’s De Rerum Natura. The story is written with familiar vocabulary and at a level that the teacher knows only slightly challenges the students.  A half dozen new words are on the board with English equivalents and remain there for reference when they come up in the story.  The teacher spends 5 minutes introducing the students to Pliny in L1. As they read the story together, students are asked to use crayons and colored pencils to draw the various creatures they encounter. The activity takes much longer than the teacher had planned, stretching across three class periods rather than one.  Each time, students complain that time has ended. Returning to where they left off the day before is easy.
The Consequence: Students are drawn into a new story based on an ancient author with material that the teacher knows will be compelling to them.  While going for 3 days instead of 1 seems like a disruption in the lesson plans, the teacher has actually succeeded in three days of totally engaged reading of Latin instead of just one, and that is a huge win.

In these examples, I’ve given JUST ONE teaching activity (aka method, practice, approach). How we teach is our choice based on many personal and professional factors.  CI is NOT a method, practice or approach.  It is a set of principles. These principles indicate the things that will naturally result from whatever activities or methods we choose to employ whether we know it or not. One very practical aspect of seeing CI as a set of principles is that it can allow us to gear our choices toward goals that we value.  For instance, if having students be able to read and understand Latin at increasingly more complex levels is our goal, then choosing activities where we intentionally supply understandable messages in Latin creates a predictable outcome–consequence.

If we can appreciate the predicted (and now long tested and proven) outcomes of these principles, we can then begin to see our textbook and other resources as things that we control in order to teach rather than things that control how we teach.  Years ago, I taught a university Latin 1 course.  I was told that while I had to use Wheelock’s textbook, I could formulate the syllabus and course however I wanted to.  Based on what I know about these principles and their predicted consequences, I flipped what is ordinarily done at the university level.  Our class time (3 hours per week) was spent largely on the stories in 38 Little Stories which was written as a companion to Wheelock’s, and then I assigned a chapter and exercises for homework from Wheelock’s.  I spent the first 15 minutes of class (if it took that long) to answer questions about the previous night’s homework. Otherwise, we spent all our time reading and speaking in Latin about those stories.

Consequences? Out of 28 students, I had only one drop out (dept. chair had predicted that half would drop out by midterm because”they always do.”). I received very high student evaluations, and the lowest grade in the class was a C.  No failures, and the student who got the C had trouble getting to class on time (every time). You might be in a program where you are required to use a book or materials that you would not choose to use.  Seeing the principles as predictors of consequences–however we choose to teach–can help us see how to use our resources differently for the best outcomes we can imagine.

Bob Patrick