A Comprehensible Input Approach – An Introduction to CI in the Classroom

Posted on June 17, 2013 by


Well, it’s summer and we all know what that means: graduate work, thesis and book writing, preparing for conferences, and attending workshops! At the beginning of this summer, Rachel Ash and I had the privilege of attending a four day workshop led by two of our most esteemed colleagues: Keith Toda and Bob Patrick on the theory behind and ways to start using Comprehensible Input (CI) immediately in the classroom.

The workshop spanned four days and each day had a different theme or focus. Both Rachel Ash and I wanted to do write ups of this workshop, one for the Classicist and one for our own teaching blog. You can read Rachel’s write up (which is separated by days), here. I will separating my write up by topic, starting with the theory behind CI and a comprehensible definition of CI. Then I will cover a few examples that Bob and Keith went over.. I will link to these other posts here and at the bottom of each post for easy access.  Please, feel free to take away from this anything you can and I’d love to hear your feedback and comments. An imperative part of CI is discussion and I am always looking for new discussion partners.

What is Comprehensible Input?

Bob Patrick introduces CI

Bob Patrick introduces CI

It should be mentioned that Bob Patrick had just gotten back from a trip to Ireland. I say this because he pulled from this life experience when laying out Comprehensible Input. I am not sure whether or not he realised it, but I think this became a prime example of Comprehensible Input. Theory is not easy to discuss and can become boring, especially once statistics come out. Instead of projecting graphs and spending hours talking about the research, he made it comprehensible and interesting to those listening. All the research was included, but he made his delivery personal and interesting. The environment was friendly and inviting and I think I can safely say we were all intrigued, if not inspired, by the presentation.

The first piece to the theory is identifying what CI is, and what the mission is of those who use it regularly. Bob Patrick, Rachel, and I are all part of a group (although she and I have been also teaching online classes on the side and have not been as active as others) that has been working on a mission statement. While this statement is still a work in progress, it points out a few important pieces:

  • Latin is a language like any other with its level of inflection
  • anyone who wants to can acquire ability in Latin if it is offered in an approach which employs principles of best practice in language acquisition
  •  Most Latin teachers, like most language teachers are themselves, “four percenters” who enjoy questions of linguistics, grammar, and philology. While these are fascinating disciplines of their own, they are not language acquisition, and they interfere with acquisition whenever and where they are substituted for best practices.

So, what does this mean? Bob put it quite simply with an example lesson: How to make a cheesecake. First, Bob showed us a basic ingredient list. He asked us to memorise the list because it would appear on a quiz later. Then, he went through the different tools: a mixing bowl, spoon, measuring cups, pan, etc. Then came the quiz. Eleven questions, 10 short answer and 1 essay. I was golden until we got to the essay question: “Describe in detail how to make a cheesecake”. Now, I am the first person to tell you – I don’t bake. I cook just fine, but baking is a weak area. I did my best. I got the jist of what to do, but I missed some key things that probably would have severely ruined any cheesecake I tried. A few people got it spot on, but the rest of use were left with clever responses: “go to the store… purchase cake.” and “when cake comes out bad, call mom and have her make one.” The point of this exercise was clear – How can we expect students to know the language if all we do is teach around it?

To put it simply: CI is regular and constant understandable messages in the target language. Okay, so does this mean that we must be speaking Latin 100% of the time? No, Bob pointed out that one of the quickest ways to deliver and understandable message is by giving a quick English equivalent for a new word or phrase and then continue delivering messages in the target language. CI is not an immersion experience. While these can be helpful, they are typically most helpful to the four percenters who choose to attend them. An immersion experience is incredibly stressful and causes what is commonly called “Culture Shock”. This can stop acquisition in its tracks for most students.

All this being said, the goal is still the same: 90% in the target language. That can feel intimidating. Another key to CI is moving at one’s own pace. Take your time and take full advantage of the rotary principle!

The Rotary Principle


credit to en.wikipedia.com

           Here is where the personalised experience became real. In America, we have stop lights. In Ireland, they have rotaries (or roundabouts).  These clever devices allow a continuous flow of traffic and allow for people (like foreigners) who get confused or are still trying to figure out the left side of the road. There are two key principles to using the Rotary Principle

  1. The Directions you are given may not mean what you think they mean. – In Ireland, the GPS is very specific in the language it uses: “cross the rotary”, “turn right off the rotary”, etc. From an American perspective, we look at that and think, “but how can you turn right… you are always going to exit left!” After looking at the rotary for a bit, it becomes clear what you are trying to do. Using CI is much the same in that just because grammar is not the focus, does not mean you can’t use it or talk about it. What it does say is that students do not need direct, elongated, grammar instruction until they are ready. Bob suggested waiting until the third year or so when students start editing their own work.  Before then, use what is commonly called “pop up grammar” to instruct (i.e. very short 1-2 minute answers to questions).
  2. You can stay on the rotary as long as you like until you are sure where you are going. – The great thing about a rotary is… it is a giant circle. Feel free to go round and round and round until you are ready to jump off. The same is for teachers using CI. Bob was asked recently how long it took him to transition from a grammar translation approach to using CI. His response is that he has been “in transition” for 11 years and he foresees that he will always be transitioning. From teacher who have been doing this since they started (like Rachel and myself) to teachers who are just starting out, the message is simple: Move as quickly or slowly as you like. Stay on the rotary until you are sure. Only move at your own pace.

The GPS Rule

Use tools the way they can best be used in the location.

          Another example from the Emerald Isle Bob learned while away – The buildings have no numbers. When you put an address into the GPS, it can only get you so far. Instead, in order to use the tool as well as possible, enter a cross street. It will get you as close as possible. The same goes for a CI classroom, use what you can as best you can. If it doesn’t work for your classroom, it isn’t the right tool.

          One of the things I love about this approach is that it really about what makes both the teacher and the students comfortable. It is done at one’s own pace and can be easily customised to fits one’s needs. In my next post, we’ll take a look at the examples of CI that Keith and Bob showed us and how easy it is to try one of two of these immediately in the classroom.

Links to Other Posts

Rachel’s Write up

Miriam’s second post – Various Delivery Methods Under the CI Umbrella

Miriam’s third post – Vocabulary is more than just flashcards

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