After many online lessons as a beginner in French and then Arabic, I struggled to know what exactly I wanted from teachers. Intermediate conversations were great, but it took some time for me to be able to only communicate in French or Arabic. Real conversations as a beginner were a struggle, and textbooks and grammar exercises didn’t exactly excite me.
My classroom experiences, experimentation when tutoring English in Paris, and a CELTA english teaching qualification, led me to believe that online tutoring could be more inventive and satisfying. After reading about the theories of Stephen Krashen and coming across teaching styles like Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS), I now believe that teaching via video calling needs to use more “comprehensible input” for beginners and intermediates.
What is comprehensible input? Input is comprehensible when the meaning of language is clear for learners, despite them not understanding all the input's words or structures. Theories of comprehensible input argue that it is the key to acquiring language. The emphasis is on subconscious acquisition, which contrasts with the theory that we learn language through conscious learning, skills building, and the drilling of grammar. See here for an overview of the comprehensible input literature).
Comprehensible input is defined by helpful contexts to infer meaning and drive language acquisition. To demonstrate, guess what the word in bold means:
Cet hameçon représente un pêcheur avec un flétan sur son chapeau et un autre dans la bouche, ne laissant aucun doute quant au résultat désiré. (source: musee-mccord.qc.ca)
Now guess what a chapeau is from this comic strip:
Source: Tintin Vol 714 pour Sydney by Hérge (1968)
Chapeau is of course the french for hat. Which example was more memorable and engaging? This contrast may seems obvious, but it’s remarkable how much lesson input looks like example one and fails to provide these contextual clues. In a similar vein, see Stephen Krashen, the professor behind the idea of comprehensible input, give you two contrasting lessons:
Krashen’s second lesson is both comprehensible and entertaining. This is the real challenging task when teaching beginners: to provide content that is both comprehensive and compelling. It’s easy to find comprehensible, or compelling content, but both together, that’s much harder.
Conversation with patient natives is the mainstay of online tutoring. Community tutors on www.italki.com are a great way to provide comprehensible and compelling input while building speaking skills. But many online conversations are hard for beginners and intermediates. Too often conversations with natives rely on lots of translation, and students struggle to sustain the conversation. These online conversations need more context and focus around an easily understandable subject.
To focus their lesson, teachers usually give their students an article to read before the lesson, or use worksheet during the lesson. The difficulty of chunks of plain text or grammar rules leads students to over-translate; over-translation reduces learning time and creates a false equivalency between languages. Likewise, success in grammar translation drills gives the false impression of fluency. Alternatives inputs like games, cartoon, and video provide more context, with less translation. Instead of “normal” lessons based on an article, or a worksheet, I recommend:
1. Use screen-sharing activities over traditional thematic worksheets:
When “screen-sharing”, the teacher can see the student’s screen, or vice-versa (for a guide to Skype see here). Then work through real-life activities together like Google Maps for directions or guessing where you are (Geoguesser), shopping online, or doing a quiz. The teacher can then guide students, or get the students to direct the teacher. This is often more engaging and fun than thematic worksheets. The potential here is the internet itself, i.e. limitless.
2. Use graded readers over textbooks:
Assuming the learner is not an absolute beginner, graded readers are underused. I’m self-studying Arabic at the moment with a great series called Sahlawayhi; it introduces new words at the rate of one or two per page, and its often clear from context what they mean. The sheer quantity of repetitions in different contexts anchors the vocab in your memory much better than thematically organised textbooks. Thankfully there are many graded readers and stories out there for English as a second language (see here).
Source: Sahlawayhi 2 by Ahmed H. Khorshid, on Amazon here.
3. Use images over text alone:
Draw easily visualisable ideas. If you like drawing, you can use a separate webcam/smartphone to shoot a birds-eye-view of your drawings, like those Buzzfeed cooking videos (this prevents the “wrong-way-round” problem). It helps to use one of those small whiteboards. There’s further potential here: explore a comic together, use realia. e.g. I used all the things in my pockets to go over the vocab for basic possessions. If that sounds too much effort, get in the habit of using a simple Google image search while screen-sharing. Alternatively, you could try starting the lesson with an image description game using instagram, flickr, etc.
Source: theguardian.com/news/gallery/2017/dec/22/fog-ice-and-unicorns-fridays-top-photos the Guardian and other newspapers have best image compilations, great for guessing games.
4. Use cartoons over text:
Pictures within a narrative are great for for helping contextualise language. Use cartoons before literature and news, cartoons are easier to understand with their simpler contextualised dialogue. The natural progression from simple images is to small cartoon stips. Start with small (comic) strip cartoons like Garfield. Once students get better, try comics like Hergé’s Tintin, or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Comics really helped me progress in French. Try classics like Watchmen or Maus, and there are many non-superhero “graphic novels” aimed at adults.
5. Use videos over text or listening alone:
The teacher can pick videos, mute them, and re-narrate them slowly and simply. The teacher can then check for learner comprehension and explore the video. For example, I did a lesson based on animals and movement verbs using a Planet Earth II Trailer. Trailers, favourites clips from movies, and viral videos are all great. If you want ready made videos, check out sites like Martine Bex’s MovieTalk which is based on this idea (poor internet connections can make this difficult).
6. Use storytelling over thematic lessons.
The best comprehensible input based classroom teaching for beginners uses personalised storytelling. This can be replicated when video calling. The most recognised storytelling pedagogy is Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). TPRS focuses on repetition of structures, circling/comprehension checks, and personalisation (for more detail see here). The key is using the same language many times and in new contexts. More theatrical teachers often use props and act out examples to improve understanding. But teachers find it hard to move away from easier grammar-translation or conversational-worksheet teaching; TPRS teaching is a real skill, and hard to find as a student. If this idea of storytelling is unclear try this helpful article.
Finally, all these more comprehensible inputs benefit from the following: discover the students interests and then use content related to their interests; regularly ask basic questions to check students understand; circle around and repeat core structures in a range of contexts; focus heavily on one area before moving on.
I hope this has encouraged you to use more comprehensible input in your online tutoring lessons. If you have any ideas questions please get in touch, or leave a comment.