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Dip your toes in CI: Ask a question

July 30, 2017

This is the first post in a series about trying out Comprehension based instruction. Each post will present a single instructional strategy for you to try in class!

Idea # 1: Ask a question

Specifically, ask a discussion question. You can ask any question, but if you are new to this whole thing and have not yet mastered the skill of staying in-bounds, it's probably easiest to ask a question that lends itself to responses with proper nouns. For example, "Where do you want to go?" Many responses to this question are easily recognizable in the target language, whether they are exactly the same (ex: McDonalds®, Argentina), similar (ex: Nueva York, el Gran Cañón), or cognates (una isla tropical, un concierto de [CNCO]), and so it makes a great question for dipping in your toes. Other question ideas are "What is your favorite sport/animal/song/etc.?" or "Where did you go last summer?". Truly, you can ask any question that students might be interested in discussing. Here is how I discuss the question with my students:

First, students draw their response

In English, tell the students to illustrate their answer to the question on a piece of computer paper. A simple line drawing is all they need. In the case of "Where do you want to go?", I tell students "On a piece of paper, draw one place that you want to go. It could be now or in the future. Anywhere you want to go! Draw it nice and big and fill the whole paper. Don't write anything on the paper, just draw."

Next, introduce the question

Establish meaning for your question. I do this with a translation. I write "quiere ir" on the board in Spanish with a black marker and beside it "wants to go"in English with a blue marker. I say "'quiere ir' means 'wants to go' in English." Then I repeat 'quiere ir' slowly several times, each time pausing and pointing to the English translation. (I also make sure that I have the pairing "Dónde - where" posted somewhere in my room to reference; for me, it's permanently visible on a poster.)

Find a drawing

Next, I walk around the room until I see a drawing that I feel confident talking about--something that has an illustration that I know that I can discuss and stay in-bounds. For me, this is much easier now than it was when I first started. For you toe-dippers, look for a drawing that you can describe with cognates or with proper nouns (a concert, an island, Europe, SeaWorld, etc.). Whisper to the student if you can show their drawing to the class, and if they say yes, then grab it!

Pause and point to support understanding

Walk back up to the board and point to the translations on the board, and ask in the target language, "Where does [student that drew the picture you are holding] want to go?": "¿Adónde quiere ir Leonora?". Pause and point to the translations of "dónde" (where) and "quiere ir" (wants to go) as you say them. You might want to repeat the question 2-3 times.

Check for comprehension

Ask the class, "What does 'adónde quiere ir Leonora" mean in English? Raise your hand if you have a guess." Give students 5 seconds think time, then call on someone with their hand raised. Since this is as much a new thing for your students as it is for you, it's important to use comprehension checks like this often. After a few such lessons, students will be confident interpreting questions because they will have language in their heads to draw from and they know how this sort of a lesson goes and the kinds of information you are soliciting.

Repeat the question and provide think time

Walking around the room, continue to repeat the question as you show the student's illustration to the class.

Begin accepting answers/guesses

Either call on students to get a response to the question or allow them to call out a response on their own. Either way, get a response from classmates!

Ask processing questions about the answer

Since this is one of your first times doing a lesson like this, I recommend following a fairly structured circling format. Your students won't yet be sick of circling, and the structure will likely help you develop your skills (it did for me!). Start with a classmate's response (you might need to recast it): "Leonora quiere ir a China", then ask a lot of simple questions about the statement. In my experience as a beginning CI teacher AND in my experience in language classes (Mandarin with Linda Li, Russian with Michele Whaley, French with Cara O'Brien-Holen, Japanese with Betsy Paskvan or Victoria Gellert, etc.), this feels good. Each time the teacher asks me a question about a familiar statement and then repeats the original statement, it feels like when I am standing on the beach, just beyond the edge of the water, and I am watching the waves come up to me and hoping that my shoes won't get wet. And each time, the wave comes closer and closer and closer and I start to step back, but then the water pauses and recedes, and my shoes are still dry and I feel relieved. That's what questioning feels like with a new language structure. Just at the moment that I start to feel like I am going to get confused--which I don't like feeling--the confusion recedes and, instead, I feel a little more confident. As a learner, I like hearing a lot of questions about new bits of language. If you aren't really sure what I mean, check out the circling resources in this document. So I would encourage teachers that are new to this whole rich CI thing to be really methodical in your questioning as you develop your skills. Make a statement (Leonora quiere ir a China), ask a 'yes' question (¿Leonora quiere ir a China? ¡Sí!), ask a 'no' question (¿Leonora quiere ir a Rusia? ¡No! Leonora quiere ir a China.), ask an either/or question (¿Leonora quiere ir a Rusia o Lori quiere ir a Rusia? ¡Leonora quiere ir a Rusia!), and so on and so forth following the model outlined in the linked document above. And guys--there is a lot of conversation happening right now about what is the best way to 'get started' in CI and about the value/importance of traditional 'circling' and targeting. So if you hear a great teacher-trainer telling you to do something different, it's okay. There is more than one way to skin a cat (ew, worst expression ever). This is what I did and it worked for me, and it has worked for loads of other teachers. Try it out! Don't run away at the first sign of discomfort--because doing something new is always uncomfortable--and you can also feel unafraid to try a different approach. Oh my word, where was I?....

Create connections and fish for details

Create a vignette and connect the statement to other students in the class by asking YOU questions and WH- questions in the target language. "JaShaun, do YOU want to go to China?" "With WHOM does Leonora want to go to China?" "Oh, Leonora wants to go to China with Alexa?" "Well, does Alexa want to go to China with Leonora?" "Alexa wants to go to China with Leonora! Ryan, do YOU want to go to China with Alexa and Leonora?" "WHEN do you all want to go to China?" You can also experiment with a Three Ring Circus, but that might be too much to tackle for your first toe-dip (see a demo in German here or read about it here). I'd stay away from WHY questions if you are new to this and not super comfortable keeping things 'in-bounds' (limiting vocabulary to what is comprehensible to students), but eventually you will want to work those in.

Stop and move on

Once you run out of steam or the vignette finds natural closure, stop. You could grab another student's picture and start the process from the beginning, or you could move on to something else and do another picture on another day. Do what you feel you can do based on your own confidence and your students' interest. In my workshop last week, our story came to a natural close when we were talking about two different women that wanted to go to do different places but with the same person, and when we finally looked at that person's paper to see which of the two places he might want to go, we learned that all he wanted was to go to sleep (he had drawn a picture of him in his bed). You won't always have neat closure like that, so don't feel like a failure if you have a frazzled spastic moment and just blurt out, "THE END!". I have done that many times in my TCI life, and students have never thought less of me for it (at least, if they did, they didn't tell me ;-)).


That day or the next day, READ your story with your students. Type it up and project or distribute it or write it out on a flip chart and read it together. Why?

“People acquiring a second language have the best chance for success through reading”

Stephen Krashen The Power of Reading (1993, p.4)

There! You did it. Your toes have been dipped in CI. Maybe you nailed it or maybe you failed, but you did it and you have survived to try again another day.

Want more ways to Dip your Toes in CI? Click here. 

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