Transitioning to Proficiency Part II: Baby Steps to Comprehensive Input

by Alex Terwelp

I have a two-year-old son, and watching him grow, I have discovered there is nothing more fundamental than the process of a child learning to walk. I see four stages to this process, namely supported standing, cruising, staggering, and finally, walking. We can apply the metaphor of learning to walk to a journey toward Comprehensible Input (CI). I am taking that journey in my Latin Classroom, one step, and one stage, at a time.


Supported Standing

This stage is just the beginning. It requires full support to keep an unstable body from falling. I first heard of CI when a colleague of mine mentioned it in passing.  My curiosity forced me to ask what it was. I left the building approximately a half hour later, awestruck. CI has three main parts: it is comprehensible, compelling, and caring. When something is comprehensible, it is easily understood, like simple sentences spoken or words repeatedly studied. Something is compelling when it is more than just engaging; it piques curiosity. And caring may sound cheesy, but caring for a classroom is no easy task, and designing a curriculum to educate while keeping every student in mind can be challenging. Nonetheless, I have conducted the research necessary for me to continue with CI, so my supported standing stage is behind me. It is time to cruise!


Cruising

This is the stage when support is still necessary, but it is being removed little by little, day by day. I am in this stage of my journey with CI. I have tested specific activities, but I am not yet fully immersed.

One activity I have had great success with is simply telling a story. I got the idea from Keith Toda’s video with the Paideia Institute. For example, during one activity, I introduce the verb tangere by first playing a game akin to Simon Says. I start out by saying tangite caput, tangite capillos, etc., and my students repeat each action. Then I tell a story about a puer about to tangit a statuam. When the boy touches the statue, his mother grimaces.  But why? Here is the compelling part: What was the statue of? I have a conversation with the class about whether it was a pop star or a nude female statue the Romans were so known for. Who knows? Leave it to their imagination!


Staggering

It may not be pretty, but staggering is the next stage of this metaphor. This is the first real immersion of CI in the Latin classroom, when students will not be sure what is going on, and I will struggle to get my points across. I will stand at the board waving my arms with the utmost animation, attempting to connect the vocabulary with my students’ emotions, so their memory will hold. My students will understand neither my arm waving nor the vocabulary. Because I will not know ahead of time what will confound my students, I will not have rehearsed responses, so now we will all be struggling. I plan to tell my students that I was taught to read Latin, not speak it, so my speaking abilities are more limited than they might think. I have rarely taught any other way, so this CI is really going to be a big baby step!


Walking

I like to imagine I will be established in my Latin I class when I have fully rotated CI into my Latin IV. That said, my teaching strategies are always improving, never perfected. At this point, though, I will have muscle memory guiding me through the ups and downs of the school year and the curriculum. I am learning so much from my journey and am looking forward to beginning to concoct my own comprehensible, compelling, and caring activities and stories. It is all a learning process that shapes and is shaped over time, and I have the passion to carry the CI torch through the rough patches! 

How was your first experience with teaching Comprehensible Input?

Share your story and leave a comment below!


Alex Terwelp is a Latin teacher at Rock Bridge High School in Columbia, Missouri. He is currently the co-chair for the state Junior Classical League, Chief Organizing Officer for the Missouri Classical Association, and the central Missouri representative for the Foreign Language Association of Missouri.
Alex has presented at various conferences on the integration of imagination in the language classroom. 

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