The Goldilocks Zone

I had a chance to see Dr. Beniko Mason this weekend at the COFLT conference in Eugene, OR. We had a moment to talk about her definition of the optimal ingredients for a CI program. I told her that in my way of thinking, we can use whatever delivery method we prefer to give input to our students as long as it is understandable and interesting/hopefully compelling.

She said she agreed with that but that in her view there are four necessary elements for the best comprehension-based teaching. I think of these as guideposts to keep our instructional train on the right tracks. Beniko said our language, to provide the optimal conditions for acquisition, must be:

1. Comprehensible

2. Compelling

3. Rich

4. Consistent

Beniko’s Story Listening provides the necessary ingredients. The language is made comprehensible by using drawings, writing on the board in L1 and L2, gestures, vocal inflection, and other tools from her Story Listening Toolkit which she developed with the Stories First Foundation in collaboration with Dr. Stephen Krashen and several classroom teachers who are using Story Listening in their classrooms.

I fully agree with her additions to the two elements I mentioned. We should be striving to make the language to which we expose our students as rich as possible, and of course we should provide them with consistent exposure across many class sessions.

The idea of rich language has been on my mind since I first heard Beniko use the term in Agen, France in the summer of 2016. It made me rethink what I considered possible in my classroom.

Rich language, the way I understand it, is language that contains a wide breadth of vocabulary and grammar. The richer the comprehensible input, the more linguistic data we are providing for our students’ Language Acquisition Devices to subconsciously analyze and build into a mental representation of the language, from which they can begin to form their own utterances to express themselves in the language. It’s like giving them the most varied foods we can – fruits, vegetables, and such – from which they can take the vitamins they need to nourish their bodies.

The fine line we CI teachers must keep in mind is the threshold of comprehension for our students. We cannot use a native-speaker-like breadth of language with our students. We still have to make sure we follow the Comprehensible guidepost.

I think of it like this. Each group of students has a different “threshold of comprehension” – the point where they can understand the message (the plot line of the story or the trajectory of the conversation, for example) and the language is as rich as possible, but they are comfortably following the messages. We want to spend as much time as possible right there by that threshold, without going over the line to incomprehensiblity. There’s an optimal zone of richness and comprehensibility in which we should strive to operate.

This zone is like the Goldilocks Zone in astronomy. That’s the zone around a star (or stars, in the case of twin stars) in which a planet can support life. Too close, and it’s too hot for water to exist. Too far away, and it’s too cold. Not enough solar energy in the system. In our classes, if the language is too rich, without enough supports, we cross over into incomprehensibility. But if it’s too supported, too planned, too transparent, we lose the richness.

This threshold is very important in language acquisition as well as classroom management. Students will not acquire from input that’s not comprehensible to them, plus their Affective Filters will be raised, impeding acquisition (according to Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis). Also, kids who are lost and confused will quickly tune out, become bored, and wonder what’s wrong with them or the class, because it feels unsuccessful to them. Bored, confused, and doubting students tend to turn to misbehavior or side conversations. This is detriment to classroom management.

So, we need ways to help us communicate comfortably while staying in that special zone where our language is not too simple or too repetitive.

I had already found that my language had become richer when I began using Ben’s Invisibles, characters created by the class, and ceasing to begin the class with target structures that I planned to repeat 50+ times. I had found that the following skills helped me to use more varied, natural language and make it understandable to my first- and second-year students.

Going slowly

Pausing and scanning the room, looking in their eyes, checking their posture

Using pictures

Using student actors

Using words on the board in L1 and L2 or sometimes just L2

Sketching on the board

Gesturing

Light TPR (small gestures to establish and reinforce meaning)

Facial expressions

Recycling back to the beginning of the story

Asking the whole class, “What did I just say?” Or “X en anglais?”

The work of CI teaching is to develop these skills of making our speech natural and varied and rich while also ensuring the students get the messages – the plot, the details of the class discussion, the information on the solar system or the geography of Spain or whatever.

Beniko has had great success with Story Listening in her classroom and she has decades of research to back it up. In my classroom, I do tell stories from time to time. Maybe one day I’ll experiment with a steady diet of Story Listening. I would daresay that the “literary” nature of stories selected for SL would enrich the language to its maximum within that Goldilocks Zone. Right now I’m happy to be working from their images and about to launch into telling stories from their characters. Jumping into an activity without a pre-chosen list of words has made my language richer already.

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