2020 Update: Using CI in Elementary School

Way back in November, 2014, I wrote a post about using CI in elementary classes. It was (and remains) one of the most popular posts I’ve written.

Check out the information at the end of this post to find out about an opportunity for you to learn more about using CI in your teaching practice.*

2014-2015 was my first full school year using CI in the classroom. I had gotten rid of all my old-school materials, I had thrown myself into the deep end and was making my way through. I wrote that post as an idealistic teacher with a brand new method that was showing results. It was awesome.

Now, here we are, in 2020 and schools are shut down until the end of the month in some places, for the rest of the year in others. I know that we’ll be going back to school at some point and in anticipation of coming back to school in a few weeks or as late as next year, I want to update what I wrote about using CI in elementary school.

Telling Stories

The first thing I want to say is that I still believe (and see every day) that storytelling is one of, if not THE best way to get engaging CI into students’ brains. And involving the students in the creative process of the story, whether it is as actors in a pre-written story you are reading or telling or as co-creators of a brand new story that belongs to just that one class, is incredibly powerful for building the students’ proficiency and engagement in the content of the class.

That being said, here is Update #1: I have moved beyond telling stories as my primary source of compelling and comprehensible input.

Anytime I am introducing new vocabulary, I show lots of pictures and/or videos and we discuss them through picturetalk, movietalk, calendar talk, and PQA. All of these activities give kids an opportunity to be immersed in language that is about and for them. Just like with involving students in the creation of a story, getting the kids to be involved and expressing their own ideas and opinions is an extremely powerful tool for building engagement.

And this extends as far as Kindergarten. For example, when we talk about things and activities we like to do, students as young as kindergarten get to tell me (in the TL or L1, while I stay in the TL) their opinions. This is always a favorite activity because kids want to be seen, heard, and validated. Some relish the fact that they like something no one else likes or that they dislike something everyone likes.

Update #2: I take a lot less time to tell a story.

Back in 2014, I described the 4-week-long process I took to tell a story to my elementary classes. 4 weeks. 4 class days. 2 hours of instructional time…It was too much. Waaaaaaay too much. I was fortunate that the kids enjoyed the stories enough to remember what was going on, but in retrospect, I should have shortened the stories.

Nowadays (well, up until a month and a half ago due to the school closing), I don’t tell a story in a way that lasts longer than one period.

There are two main ways that I have shortened my stories: the first has been to circle less. Circling is the process of going back after every sentence and asking questions about it. Take a sentence like, “Bobby liked the pizza.” Circling questions would include things like,

  1. Did Bobby like pizza?
  2. Did Bobby like pizza or hamburgers?
  3. Did Tina like pizza?
  4. Who liked pizza?
  5. Did Bobby eat pizza or like pizza?
  6. And it can go on and on

Back when I wrote the original post, I made sure to ask every question I could think of about every detail of the story. Nowadays, I have lightened up on the circling. Circling is great for getting repetitions of high-frequency vocabulary from the story, but it can get tedious for the teacher and the students. You should definitely still circle the details of the story, but maybe not 5-7 questions about every single sentence. The kids will still get lots of good repetitions throughout the story without all the questions.

The second thing to reduce the time it takes to tell a story has been to plan less about what will happen in the story. After years of practice, I have learned how to incorporate the target vocabulary into a story that is mostly improvised. I start with the topic I want the story to be about (likes/dislikes or pets or foods or school activities or whatever else) and I can use the students’ creativity to fill in the rest of the details. What are the characters’ names? Students can tell me. Where do they go? Students can tell me. What is the reason they can’t get what they need in a particular location? Students can tell me. The students are involved in the creative process and therefore more engaged in class.

Building Relationships Before Proficiency

Update #3: I see my role as a language teacher in a whole new way.

Back in 2014, I was amazed by how much the kids remembered of the stories. I was blown away by the fact that I could tell a story to them in the L2 and they could remember the details after 1, 2, or even 3 weeks. Back then, I said:

“They retained so much of the first story that they can still tell me all the details (in English) and tell me which student was which character.”

At the time, this realization energized me. I got into full-acquisition mode. The pospect of getting kids to acquire language was so exciting. I suspect this was a result of my ego, a feeling of “I’m gonna do what no one has done before at this school!” This fed into my goal as a teacher: to get the kids more proficient in a shorter amount of time. I wanted them all to be in the Novice mid or even Novice High level by the time they had 1-2 years of Spanish. I thought CI was the answer. And in a lot of ways, it was possible.

What I didn’t really understand back in 2014 was that there are no shortcuts to proficiency. There are certainly methods and techniques that are better than others, but I was never going to get 60 kindergarteners proficient in another language with 30 minutes a week over the course of 1 school year…that’s just not possible.

At the end of that year, I felt a little bad because they weren’t as proficient as I was expecting. My ego was bruised because I had failed in my (extremely arrogant and hubristic) goal. And yet, even though I “failed” in my mission to boost students’ proficiency, what ended up happening was even better: I gave them a reason to love Spanish.

Update #4: I am not so laser-focused on proficiency

Rather than just coloring and filling out worksheets and singing songs (all of which are things that we do sometimes because they can be lots of fun), the kids in elementary grades are participating in engaging stories and they were the stars. Back then, my main takeaway from starting to use CI with elementary students was:

“Instead of learning vocabulary through songs or lists, the students learn through contextualized stories… [and] they are engaged at a level that is much higher than with regular methods. They retain the input and they are able to follow along with almost no use of English.” 

As I said, I was amazed by the way they could understand.

But what I didn’t see at the time and see very clearly now is that by engaging them with CI and storytelling, I was building a relationship with them that has not faded, even into 5th grade. 6 years later, they still love creating characters and acting in stories. The only difference is that now, they can create their own narrative stories in the TL to act out. And, even though those Kindergarteners are in 5th grade, they can still tell you details of stories I told way back then, especially the story of Paco Pinguino.

6 Years Later, 6 Years Better

Back in 2014, at the beginning of my CI journey, I didn’t know (I couldn’t know) the true power of using CI and storytelling in elementary school. It’s not just about language acquisition; it’s not just about input: The true power of using CI and storytelling in the classroom is building relationships and creating a lasting impression. The time spent building these relationships will not only provide students with lots of comprehensible, compelling input, but it will yield students who are interested in using the language. They (for the most part) like being in Spanish class and like doing the activities we do in class. This has a compounding effect:

The more they like class, the more they want to participate in it, which provides them more quality input, which makes them feel successful, which makes them like what we’re doing even more.

Will my students be at Novice High at the end of 1st grade? Probably not. Will they be engaged and interested in continuing with me on their proficiency journey? Absolutely.

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