Six Ways to Establish Meaning

When we talk to the class, we can say whatever we need to say in order to keep it comprehensible. But that doesn’t mean that we can just talk normally. Establishing the meaning of what we are saying is the most foundational skill in comprehension-based teaching. Here are six ways to establish the meaning of our utterances.

1. SLOW. This is the absolute most foundational skill of them all. It’s hard to master, though. I’ve been watching myself on videos for a year now, on the daily, and so I’ve seen myself go fast and I’ve seen myself go slow. I’m so happy when I watch a vid in which I’m achieving the ideal slow, calm, unhurried pace. The feeling in class is just different. Calm. Happy.

One way to train ourselves to slow down is to get in the habit of taking a breath and sweeping the room with our eyes between words and phrases. Their eyes can tell you, if you’ll let them, if they’re with you or not. But in order to connect with their eyes, you need those long pauses. You need those silences. You need those deep, calming breaths.

It is easy to respond to their energy with frenetic, fast speech. It is natural. It’s a trap though. We must fight human nature. We’re not just talking naturally. We are teaching artists. We are providers of comprehensible input. We must learn to speak Motherese to entire groups of children. We must learn to parent the next generation. We must treasure their comprehension above all else. Above our own comfort. Above our own egos. Above “getting to” or “getting through” or “covering” or “teaching”. We. Must. Go. Slow. Slower than is comfortable. Slower than we thought possible. And in those -precious pauses, those golden moments of silence, we can monitor their comprehension.

Management is easier when we go slow too. In the spaces between the words, we can let ourselves sweep the room with our eyes, check in with the students’ eyes and posture, gesture to them to sit up, lean in, get their eyes on us. Because it’s super important that they put their eyes on us. Considering the next ways to establish meaning, it’s of the upmost importance. Because we will rely on those visual cues to establish meaning.

Management also undergirds their comprehension. We must, absolutely must, find the personal power to keep them focused. We must, absolutely, without fail, cease speaking and saunter over to the rules and point to them and smile calmly, each and every time any child even thinks about speaking over or blurring out or having a side conversation. For more on that please see a video I made at Ben’s request.

Visual skills to support SLOW.

So you’re speaking slowly. You’ll also need to think “Say the word, show the word.” Here are four visual skills to establish meaning.

1. Concrete visual aids. This is a pre-chosen visual aid that literally shows meaning. It could be a calendar. Or a weather chart. Or the kids’ name cards on which they’ve drawn something they like. Or a picture that you plan to Picture Talk. Or a drawing your class artists made. Or a moment in a video you’re using for Movie Talk. An object you brought in for Show and Tell. Someone’s outfit. An infographic. Anything that you can point to and describe. Point to the visual aid and speak about only that which you can see. That which you can literally lay your hand on. “This is a table. This is a woman, a mother. This is her daughter, a girl. These are their

color pencils. They are drawing on paper.”

Say it, touch it.

Instead of planning lessons, plan compelling visual aids. Make them, print them, draw then, find them.

2. Gestures. I use a lot of gestures for verbs and concrete nouns that can easily be assigned a gesture that we can perform seated in our chairs. Whenever I need to establish the meaning of a new word, I say, “Ella come. Come means eats. Show me come [gesture here]. Come.” Then I cycle through some previously-established gestures. Then I always try to end with the new word so I can flow into the utterance I was in the middle of.

I used to have the classes come up with their own gestures but now I just assign a quick little hand jive and establish meaning in my own way. Makes it easier to keep up with what gesture means what.

3. Body language. Think of a mime. They can convey a whole story using no words, just gestures, body language, and facial expression. You can do that too. Narrate your speech with your voice and your body. The kids will follow your body (Ben is fond of saying that 90% of the human experience is visual and I’m starting to agree with him!) and make meaning from that and the language will support your body language, if you can allow yourself to loosen up enough to be a mime in your own classes. It takes humility to strip away your adult decorum and use your body expansively, aggressively making meaning with your face, your arms, your hands. But if you can do this, you will find you can say so much more, as long as you say it slow and narrate with your body.

4. Writing on the board. I used to write everything on the board. But I don’t do that anymore. If I can establish meaning (and check in with their eyes and posture and get a strong choral response) without writing, nowadays that’s my first choice. But if I can’t point to it and I can’t gesture it and I can’t use my body to establish meaning, then I write on the board. When we write on the board, we can write in L1 (English for me in Oregon) and L2 or just L2. When to write both and when to write just L2 takes some thinking.

If it’s an obvious cognate, like spelled almost-identically, then I write it in just L2. Oftentimes I spell it as I’m writing it. If it’s a new word that isn’t a cognate and I can’t establish meaning with a visual aid or gesture or my body, I’ll write L1 and L2 together on the board.

I used to write everything on the board and limit myself to using just a few words in class each day. But now I’ve changed my approach. I’ll use whatever words are needed and not work too hard to get repetitions on the new words, as long as the conversation is flowing and the students are grasping the message I’m conveying. Therefore my board might have ten to twelve new items on it by the end of the period -which I used to think was anathema to CI – but if I’ve spoken slowly and checked for comprehension, and used visual aids, I no longer worry. My goal now has shifted from teaching parts of the language to using the language to convey whatever meaning is needed.

One thing I would never give up, though, is the practice of pointing and pausing. When I write a word (or words) on the board, I put my hand under it as I say it, then leave my hand there as I take a breath and sweep the room with my eyes, and perhaps redirect wayward students’ attention, and after they tune in, point and pause some more, and THEN, once I’m sure everyone has gazed upon the words, then I move on.

5. Sketching. We can make quick sketches on the board to establish meaning. We don’t have to be major artists to do this, either. We can draw quick stick figures or smiley faces, frowny faces, etc. if you’re particularly challenged, I suggest the Draw a World books by Ed Emberly or the book Chalk Talks. Both books have easy-to-follow rough sketches for the artistically-challenged.

I used to fret that some kids might infer the wrong meaning from my visual aids, drawings, or other extralinguistic supports if I didn’t write L1 and L2 together but rather relied on drawings and such. I’ve rethought that as well. I now think that if they gets slightly wrong idea about a word at the time, but can still follow the general meaning of the conversation, it’s ok. In fact, I’m starting to think that it might even aid memory when the emotion of “Oh! I Didn’t Think That Meant That!” kicks in.

This last way to establish meaning is sneaky and utilizes your fast processors for the benefit of your slow processors.

6. Whole-group questioning – “X in English” or “What did I just say?”

If have a hunch that a good percentage of the class might not understand a word or longer utterance, then I will ask the entire class one of these questions. If there’s a string choral response that’s correct, I will state in L2, “Yes that’s correct. X” (where X is the L2 restated for the word that just said in L1). It sounds like this.

T: Clase, la chica era muy guapa. Clase, ¿guapa en inglés?

S: pretty

T: sí clase. Era guapa.

This allows the fast processors who understood the meaning to establish it for the rest of the class. Because you verified the meaning, it’s like a definition.

If there’s a weak or incorrect response then you will want to go back to establishing leaving through other means.

Bonus strategy: synonym stacking. This is what I called the practice that I noticed Beniko doing in a Story Listening demo. It is a way to enrich the language students hear, using known words to “stack” synonyms that might be uptaken to increase their vocabulary. She would begin the utterance with a new word such as “cruel” and then use a known word such as “mean” and then circumlocute to say something like “he killed innocent people. He kicked his dog” then repeat a known word and conclude with the new term, “cruel”.

1 thought on “Six Ways to Establish Meaning

  1. Carin Misseldine

    What a great reflection on the actual doing of CI in the classroom! I find that I tend to speed up when the class is full of energy and/or wiggles when I should be slowing down. It is a constant struggle! The slow that matches my students’ needs is still almost painful for me. But it works, so I will persevere.


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