Comprehensible input?

I just read an article in Language magazine that argued for Stephen Krashen’s theory of comprehensible input. (For you language teachers out there, it is often referred to as ‘n+1’) While nobody would disagree with Krashen’s basic premise, (given that Krashen has rock-star status in ESL and Applied Linguistics) the article was immensely frustrating. It suggested that pleasure reading, more than any other skill, provides comprehensible input to a larger degree than anything else.

Anyone who has been teaching ESL for more than 5 minutes knows that to get your students to ‘pleasure read’ in a second language is about as easy as pulling a tooth from a crocodile’s mouth. Anyone knows that the slightest bit of text that is ‘read in class’ (not pleasure reading) has to be scaffolded with an immense amount of vocabulary building. The one thing that ESL learners are unable to do is pleasure reading.

This is why I wrote in an earlier entry that teachers must make methods ‘work.’ Most of the research does not actually boil down to useable stuff in the classroom. For this reason, teachers constantly have to be adapting their material to the realities in the classroom. The only research based trope that I’ve been able to use in the classroom is Diane Larsen-Freeman’s ‘Form-Meaning-Use’ chart in the “Apple book” edited by Marianne Celce-Murcia.

It makes me furious that this sort of stuff gets published in major magazines! ‘Pleasure reading’ is what native speakers can do with their L1, nobody can read for pleasure in an L2 that’s being acquired. The statement “all horses are purple  with blue polka dots” makes more sense than the article by this anonymous author.

Ah well! ESL is like a blue and purple polka dotted beast! You can claim to understand it, but then we might ask how many articles you have published in TESOL Quarterly. None? Oh, that’s what I thought. So you’re not a researcher. I hope you’re a good and purple horse

Poxig and the evil orc

He  moved slowly down the riverbank, penknife in hand and his guitar strapped to his back. He had just lost his friend Jancuis in the evil swamp, and all around him he heard:

‘Ο Ποταμος, ‘Ο Ποταμος.

The talking trees were chanting again, and this time it was the Greek word for “river”. He had heard of a huge beast called the ‘hippo-potamus’, which meant ‘horse of the river.’ This beast had huge jaws and was very dangerous, but this was the least of his worries.

Poxig had yet to find his father’s friend’s house, Emissary Seljuk, who had known him before he disappeared. If he made it through the forest, he would be able to at least get to that small hamlet in the woods called Renfro, where the Emissary lived.

“These woods are spooky,”  he said. “I had better get out my guitar and start singing, and that way, the imps would be scared away. If I run into an orc, there’s no chance that I could defeat him. If only I had not lost Jancuis in the forest!”

The sun was setting as he got out his guitar and began to sing to the elven god, Releven.

‘O Releven, Releven,

You are the shining star

Bring us back to our senses,

Show us eternity from afar.’

As he began singing, the talking trees seemed to sing along with him, as if he were bringing life back to the forest. Just then, as he was smoking on his pipe and taking a small rest, he spotted a sinister figure through the underbrush. Poxig quickly hid behind a tree, for his friend, who was a skilled warrior, would have been his only protection from this beast.

It was an orc, of that much he was sure. The he-beast ambled through the underbrush, searching for forest creatures to devour whole.  He had a huge pig-like face, and three ugly horns emerging from his chemical green face. His jaws were dripping with blood. The beast was pregnant with evil, looking for more ways to trap his innocent prey like a poisonous spider.

Fortunately, Poxig successfully concealed himself behind the tree. Then, strangely, the trees began to shriek loudly. They were protecting him! The orc held his ears and then dove into the river. He swam down the river and disappeared out of sight.

Poxig wondered if this had been Trink-Zelfo, the orc who was formerly Sir Belhomme the dashing prince. He was sure that it was possible, for the descriptions of him fit the likeness that he saw. He had just missed certain danger and sudden death. The orc would have beaten him to a pulp, since Poxig did not have a weapon strong enough to repel him.

He would have to make sure to bring his bow and quiver next time he came to this evil wood. But Poxig’s luck was about to change. He would soon meet his confidante  and closest friend, in the most unlikely of places.

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Dedicated to…


Poxig is based on my son, Gabe. As understood from the prequel of the adventures of Poxig, he is a troubadour of sorts. Indeed, my son is also pretty good with a guitar. Of course, he loves baseball more, but Poxig lives in world in which baseball would be anachronistic. In all honesty,  these perfunctory literary efforts are all dedicated to him. All illustrations are colored by him.

I was reminded that a great vocabulary is the hallmark of an educated person. This is essentially true of the misanthrope, as well as the scholar. I only wish that my son would develop a better vocabulary, and that is the focus of my literary efforts. It is understood by most parents that it is always a work in progress. I would definitely concur.

Any parents out there know that we imagine heights that our children may never reach. But that does not mean that we shouldn’t dream.  It just means that as they grow up, we should prepare them  for reality as best we can. That magical time which is called adolescence should be a time of character development. These are tender years, nonetheless.

ESL journeys

cartoonI’m taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming to make a few insightful comments about teaching ESL.

Erving Goffman once wrote: “Not then, men and their moments. Rather, moments and their men…” (Goffman, 1967) I wholeheartedly concur with regards to teaching ESL.  Any day, you never know what semantic rigmarole you are going to get involved in.

In grad school, I had a great teacher named Carolyn Fuchs, and she always said that prescriptive grammar has its limits in the ESL classroom. Better to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. Better to do bottom-up rather than top-down instruction.

I’m not sure this is always the best approach, however.  There are some times when the students are just not saying anything. Many or most of Asian learners are going to be in the silent period for a while, and that has a lot to do with the fact that they were subjected to top-down for a considerable period of their education. (No one can argue that the scarves that Chinese girls must wear to school is aimed at having them express their individuality!)

So back to Goffman, the teacher is merely a conduit for the moment.  It is not about “him” or “her” exactly. It is trying to create the right moments for learning. And all of the lesson planning is going to try to make the right conditions for that. Like building a fire, it is better to get kindling to set it ablaze. You have a better chance  at getting a roaring fire that way. You just really can’t shove the lesson plan down the students’ throats. (If it isn’t working, it isn’t working.)

Some of my readers may wonder why I think there is any overlap between  my comments on “eslteacher576” & YA fiction. Actually, I think this stuff stimulates the creativity that is so vital in the classroom. If not for them, then at least for me. I am well-aware that it is not about me. It is about student learning. I am often humbled with how little I can actually get my students to do.

If there is any takeaway, this is it: “Methods mork; teachers work.” Unless you’re ready to put in the work, the results are going to be harder to get.

We have a long way to go…

The wind whistled through the trees. There were many reasons to be upset, since the Naxos had been overthrown. He was a dragon who helped rule the nether kingdoms, and actually persuaded King Charles to avert his war with the Elves of Elvira. Did they have enough gumption to follow the dragon’s advice? He would have to go alone, & nobody knew whether this would lead. This was the last stand of dragons against the forces of darkness and black magic.

They decided to take Carr along for the journey. He had a red three cornered cap, with a feather in it. Carr was a master of red magic, & he could wield a rapier. They were still trying to understand the prophecy, & many or us were still puzzled. What would be the outcome of this omen? No one could decipher what was written on the obelisk:

“The earth is rotting, the sea is wild…”

They could not understand why this would apply to our country, Marginalia, but we were struck with terror. What was the reason of the earth’s rotting? No one could be certain, but the sage Sarda would know. Tefl drew his sword and made an ‘X’ in the sand. “This is Nitla pass,” said he, ” and we will go no further. We will camp here for the night.” Every one of them, including Carr,  gathered wood for the fire, while Tefl folded up the map. The sun was setting, and the sky was crimson red and burnt orange. The wind was dying down, and they could hear the jeweled scarabs making noise as they unfolded the sleeping bags.

Poxig talked of the fool on the hill that night. It was well known that on the top of Mt. Crump, the Jongleur lived, with his massive library. It was no secret that the imps had been trying to torch the library, but King Charles protected the great library with soldiers from the elite guard.

“We thought he might be nuts,” said Lakfi, “but he is actually intelligent.”

“I didn’t know, ” said Sheila Nesta, the translator and healer. “But I knew he tells riddles.”

“Won’t you tell one, Poxig?” said Lakfi.

“Ok. Here it goes. What flies but has no wings?” asked Poxig.

“That’s easy,” he said.

“Oh, then what is it?” she asked.

“Well, my money seems to fly away,” Tefl rejoined.

“Time.” he said.

“Ah, yes.” said Nesta.

“Well, there are many others, but I’ll let Jongleur tell you himself,” Poxig said.

Tefl grunted in assent. Due to the warrior code, he didn’t say much. He would only speak when he had something meaningful to say. Tefl was shining his metal helmet with a rag. As he cleaned his sword to get the imp blood off of it, he said:

“Sic Transit Gloria…”

“Glory fades,” said Nesta.