Energy for Learning: Keep Instruction Comprehensible
What makes comprehension so energizing in learning? This can best be answered by considering what happens when we don’t understand something essential to our needs. Imagine yourself lost someplace where everyone speaks an unfamiliar language. You know the name of your destination but not how to get there. How will you ask for the information you need? How will you comprehend what you’re being told? You would probably communicate with local residents largely through nonverbal techniques-gestures, visuals or pictures, and body language. The locals might also slow their speech and repeat important words while employing nonverbal cues. They might draw a basic map to indicate the best route for you to take. All of you might be surprised at how well you’re able to communicate with one another, even though you’ve had to be inventive to do so. Let’s consider this situation in more detail. You’re a little lost in an unfamiliar setting, and the people around you possess information that can get you where you’re going. If you had a common language, you could easily access that information just by asking a question and listening to the response. But your lack of language constitutes a lack of access. No matter how willing, eager, and helpful those around you might be, it’s challenging for you to fully connect. Communication with gestures, maps, and so on rescues you, but both you and your helpers are a little uncertain about whether you understood the intended message correctly and will be able to find your way. In other words, everyone (including you) can only hope you achieved comprehension. To varying degrees, this state of partial comprehension is the experience of ELLs throughout the school day. Partial access leads to partial comprehension and, in turn, to partial achievement. Just as a 25-watt bulb is inadequate for bright illumination, so a student’s inability to fully grasp the content and meaning of classroom interactions can leave
him or her in the dark, unable to participate meaningfully in learning activities. Lack of understanding casts a shadow over a student’s otherwise bright potential for learning. The concepts of understanding and illumination are so commonly linked that greeting cards, comics, and advertisements commonly represent the idea of comprehension (“I see!” “I get it!”) as a glowing lightbulb above someone’s head. Light and understanding are figuratively synonymous. Therefore, this symbol appears throughout the rest of this chapter when teaching approaches in support of “making it comprehensible” are discussed or illustrated. As we’ve already considered, learning happens only when understanding occurs, so our interaction with our students isn’t complete until they reach a point of understanding. Remember that we’re teaching the student rather than just the content, so we may need to redirect our approach several times during an interaction. Comprehension isn’t something we can demand. We need to coax and encourage it to emerge, using every means we can find to reach our students and move them forward. One point of entry with our ELLs is to couple our use of language with other forms of communication that yield meaning. Pantomime and signals are examples of communication through which ideas are conveyed and meaning is achieved without spoken language. Some of our best allies in nonverbal communication are the conscious use of body language and the employment of supplementary materials (visuals, real objects, hands-on experiences, etc.). Physical gestures and postures can (and do) “speak” to our students, while supplementary materials help students relate to content. In academic settings, making adjustments to speech so that the message is understandable to students is referred to as the use of comprehensible input (Krashen, 1985). Krashen believes that second-language acquisition results from listening to and understanding the spoken language in low-anxiety environments. To aid in language acquisition, adjust the rate at which you speak, enunciate clearly, and be aware of complex language. Teachers can also employ a variety of nonverbal techniques to make content understandable, including modeling, visuals, gestures, total physical response, and body language (Krashen & Terrell, 1983). As teachers, we constantly adapt our language to the comprehension level of students, but we need to do it more thoroughly and thoughtfully to meet the needs of our ELLs.