Is CI a method?


I have a strong opinion about calling CI a teaching method. It has become common place for language teachers to use the term TCI (Teaching with Comprehensible Input) and to call CI a method.  I have done the same and I see a problem with it. Nowadays, information spreads so quickly via social media and there is an increasing distortion of SLA principals related to optimizing Comprehensible Input. Misinformation about how we acquire language is being promoted by “CI teachers.” This can happen because CI is in fact NOT a method!

There is no clear definition as to what CI teaching means. Flashcards are a form of input that could be comprehensible. Listen and Repeat practices are input could be comprehensible. Story lecturing or Story listening is a form of input that could also be considered comprehensible. It is a slippery slope when teachers don’t TRY and use terms found in the field of SLA.

In terms that academics would use, TCI is not taken seriously to mean much at all. The implication to most language teachers is obvious (or at least to me).  The term TCI most likely means that a teacher is attempting to OPTIMIZE comprehensibility of a language in a classroom setting. Here is the problem… simply attempting to optimize comprehension does not necessarily lead to acquisition. In fact, I am arguing that the term TCI or CI as a method HURTS the progress being made in many Professional Learning Communities.

In order to have a method in place, Approach, Design, and Procedures must be accounted for (Richards and Rodgers 2001). TCI does not have any of this and TCI seems to borrow much of what informs its teaching from TPRS.  Which I am sure is fine except when a “CI idea” strays away from the underpinnings of the theories that guide the techniques in the first place. This is why we need CI police. If we are in fact, in what SLA people call a post-methods era, than perhaps it makes no difference at all.  However, I see many teachers trying to figure out effective strategies and techniques for building language in the minds of their students. Methods matter and so do definitions!

I continue to read and reread certain books.  I often reread The Natural Approach. Krashen has argued for some 40 years that second and foreign language acquisition — the development of real language skills — occurs through comprehensible input, not through “learning.”

He particularly opposes the use of repetition, the learning of grammar rules (with few exceptions), extreme correction of students and forced speech beyond the acquisition level of the student. He says, “Real language production happens only after the acquirer has built up competence via input.” (1983: 298) Krashen’s ideas are laid out quite fully in The Natural Approach (Krashen and Terrell, 1983: 5-62), a book which advocates the use of a method of the same name which was developed chiefly by Tracy Terrell (1977).

Where TPRS differs from the Natural Approach, broadly speaking, is in the use of techniques that foster efficient acquisition. More specifically, the major differences are in the deep ingraining of vocabulary aurally through a variety of techniques like TPR, direct translation, gestures, etc. (Ray and Seely 1997).

Despite the fact that Krashen co-authored The Natural Approach, TPR Storytelling seems to adhere more closely to Krashen’s guidelines for acquiring a language in school courses than does the Natural Approach, at least as it is practiced in most circumstances. (Ray and Seely 1997).

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  • Thanks, Mike! I also find it interesting to note that Krashen often writes and comments in interviews that he likes TPRS better than his own Natural Approach.

    JJ Epperson 4 months ago Reply

    • Hi JJ. Great observation. I think that is an important point you bring up. I think the popularity of “Comprehensible Input” is so great to see. The talk of CI in so many circles is a sign of progress. I am not sure that people pay attention enough to the evolution of CI strategies and specifically how TPRS plays into it all. A lot of teachers are finding great excitement in the discovery of optimizing CI with their students. Some ideas in the evolution of TPRS and CI have been left behind because they didn’t yield the desired results.

      I hope my post helps others to critically think about what they do and why they do it. Labeling everything with a “CI sticker” doesn’t automatically put in a category of effective teaching strategies.

      Michael Coxon 4 months ago Reply

  • Hello Michael,

    I do agree with your post, but I will add this passage I wrote for one of my grad papers:
    “The reason some teachers have decided to ascribe the broader TCI label, rather than TPRS, to their teaching strategies, is that they do not necessarily use stories designed and /or published by Blaine Ray Workshops. They do espouse Blaine Ray’s approach in teaching and still employ many of his techniques. However, they bring in other material as input in the target language (more often authentic material) which reflects the culture(s) of the target language, because the TRPS stories themselves may not include cultural elements from the countries and regions where the target language is spoken.”

    It is clear that TRPS’ main goal is to develop proficiency through the acquisition of frequent vocabulary, with which any topic of course can in the end be explored and discussed in the target language. But some teachers may feel that they need to incorporate specific cultural material within the story, or story retell.

    Self-professed TCI teachers (like Martina Bex, Carrie Toth, and many others) have made their own TPRS stories as ESSENTIAL stepping stones to full fledged lessons that revolve around the target cultures. They use a variety of “TCI” strategies. TPRS is one way to implement TCI, but the list of strategies keeps growing thanks to the contributions of teachers around the country (in the largest grass-root movement to affect world language education from what I have observed online). These amazing teachers all build their lessons through backward design (Embedded Reading, anyone? Laurie Clarq and Michele Whaley continue to inspire!).

    I absolutely agree that CI should not be described as a method to those who are not familiar with CI teaching strategies. It is confusing and does not help our “cause” to help language teachers rethink, reframe and reinvigorate their instruction (and advocate as a result).

    We should remember that the teachers who proudly claim the TCI label are all quite familiar with TRPS. TPRS was, is still, the starting block for most of us CCCI teachers (the “compelling and contextualized” is as important as the “comprehensible” in the input we strive to provide, but we can hardly label ourselves CCCI. The term CI is already difficult enough to handle :)
    After discovering TPRS years ago, inspired teachers wanted to personalize their STYLE of instruction and supplement TPRS with other material. They introduced / practiced the material using novel strategies; PQA and Embedded Reading came about as a direct support to TPRS stories, then came strategies like Movie Talk in non-ESL classes, and so on. Again, the list is growing (400 pages so far in Ben Slavic’s Big CI book).

    BOTTOM-LINE: I will (go out on a limb and) claim that TPRS training was the starting point for all of us. It was an epiphany that we had to experience ourselves in order to (want to) bring the same experience to our students.
    I cannot imagine making the most of all the TCI strategies found on all the blogs and now workshops around the country without going through this seminal experience of at least one TPRS workshop.
    Wherever teachers want to take TCI is all for a great cause, but it is most likely that the first posts came out after the same discovery I made (for me it was 3 years ago, after 16 years of teaching two world languages at all levels each). The workshop did change my teaching forever. I discovered a network of amazing professionals. I am learning to bring my own expertise and my own personal touches to the strategies that are so expertly shared online and now in conferences around the country (and in Holland, Australia, France, China from what I have read online, again…).

    The “TCI” community is moving forward, but those who have not accompanied us in our journey may feel even more estranged if they only see where we are and not what brought us there in the first place.

    My two (hundred, judging by the length) cents.

    Elisabeth Roten

    Elisabeth Cheminel-Roten 2 months ago Reply

    • Hi Elizabeth,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We do agree on much of what you wrote. However, if we read early and late additions of Fluency through TPR Storytelling we still see so much of what others mention to be TCI. You specifically mention techniques of PQA, Embedded Readings, and MovieTalk which are all included in TPRS. There are so many layers in TPRS that most teachers need years to un-peel the various layers.

      TPRS is a living and constantly changing/evolving teaching method that has always claimed to be searching for the BEST ways to maximize class time and the exposure to Comprehensible Input.

      If there are techniques and procedures that yield a better result for fluency… then TPRS will adapt and include such techniques. PQA is a an early example of this and Embedded Readings and MovieTalk are later examples.

      If the greater TCI community does things that DO NOT yield such results those other practices and techniques will NOT be included. This is the partial point of my blog post.

      You wrote, “is that they do not necessarily use stories designed and /or published by Blaine Ray Workshops.” Published materials really have little to do with the TPRS method per se. As a classroom teacher, I use a variety of materials that come from a variety of sources. Personally I think using just one type of resources is limiting.

      MovieTalk, PictureTalk, CultureTalk, ArtTalk, MusicTalk, PropTalk, StudentTalk are just some examples of what TPRS has adapted from ESL’s TeacherTalk strategies. This is begins as Oral Input with Readings (2 Parts of TPRS) that include the 3 steps of TPRS (Establish meaning, Ask-a-story, and Read and Discuss).

      Love your thoughts…so glad you shared 😀

      Michael Coxon 4 weeks ago Reply

      • Hello again Michael,

        Thank you so much for your time in reading and replying to my comment. Everything you said was actually what I was trying (clumsily, and apparently not as clearly as I would have hoped :) to, myself, explain to anyone who has come across this “TCI” denomination. As I mentioned in my first comment, TPRS, as a comprehensive methodology, was a revelation to me and opened the doors to a rich network of professionals I discovered online. Without the BASICS, meaning professional training in TPRS techniques such as circling and questioning, and effective ways to incorporate readings into a lesson, it is very virtually impossible to understand how to teach with, and through, CI. I have been teaching for 20 years. I knew instinctively like anyone else to make my input comprehensible to students. But discovering a systematic way to provide repetition WHILE providing input that is both compelling and contextualized, THAT was the revelation! What I was attempting to state, from my humble observations, is that TPRS, already far from being universally and completely understood, will be even less recognized when newcomers who hear about these “wonderful TCI strategies” have not experienced the basics of TPRS for themselves. Only then can they realize how “seasoned” TPRS teachers have contributed to the methodology over the years and how they are inspiring others to do the same.
        You said it best: TPRS is a living teaching method that is constantly evolving. It is certainly easy to see from the inside. Unfortunately, as I have heard and met many language teachers over the years, not so easy to grasp “from the outside”. How do we advocate for this common cause as a cohesive group? Labels have been applied to many, by many, too many times. Hopefully only the good, i.e. the strategies to make CI effective and interesting, will prevail :)

        Elisabeth Cheminel-Roten 4 weeks ago Reply

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