Bilingualism Today Series: Comprehensible Input vs. Academic Language:  A Dilemma for the Dual Language Educator?

As we continue our timely conversation as to what makes an effective dual language educator, we are bound to reflect on which teachers can be called upon to transition to a dual language environment.  In today´s diverse schools, we can expect that dual language educators would possible emerge from among the ranks of experienced bilingual teachers with the appropriate linguistic skills in a traditional Spanish/English environment.  However, as our Chinese and Arabic-speaking master´s level students never fail to point out to me in my classes, dual language is for them also.  Moreover, the dual language model may also be the program choice for a group of English-dominant teachers who wish to develop expertise in delivering their content using sheltered methods in English.   These teachers would become competent language and content educators who are masters at delivering sheltered English instruction to two linguistic groups.

Regardless of the linguistic background of the prospective dual language educator, the task is the same:  delivering comprehensible instruction of their content areas while ensuring the development of academic language in the two languages of instruction.  Therefore, whether the adopted model is a self-contained program where one teacher delivers instruction in both languages separating instruction by time or content, or a team-teaching approach, where each teacher is responsible for teaching his/her content specialty solely in one language, the dual language teacher must modify instruction and shelter content.   This new role calls on the teacher to elevate the language output of their students and master the speaking and writing skills of that budding mathematician, scientist, and scholar.  This is no easy task, especially in today´s educational environment.

So, what is this comprehensible input (C.I.)?  Not wanting to review the content taught in Foundations 101, experts define this term as “…making a message understandable for second language learners“(Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2013). Further, Echevarria et al specify that comprehensible input involves the use of a variety of techniques to clarify instruction: speaking slowly and clearly, use of body language and gestures, employing paraphrasing, and simplifying sentence structure.  Further, it includes clear explanations of academic tasks, with focus on the concrete and contextual aspects of the concepts being taught.  How can we reconcile the goal of delivering this level of input with context and support and the need to develop the academic register of language?  Herein lies the challenge requiring specialized training and competence in the languages utilized for instruction on the part of the teacher.

The skills required of the teacher consist mainly of integrating a keen awareness of how language is used in the various disciplines with an ability to simplify our delivery for our students.  It requires research into how the two languages of instruction differ, no easy task when the students come from the less-commonly used languages.  Challenging, but it can be done.  It requires a focus on language itself, on vocabulary, the common roots of words in two languages, and difficult grammatical patterns used in the various disciplines we teach.  If academic language is “the ability to interpret and produce increasingly complex written and oral language”, then our comprehensible input should appropriately move our learners towards accomplishing this goal. “Comprehensible” need not always refer to simple usage of the languages.  Let’s make it our goal to continually develop our linguistic repertoire and allow the students to gradually be accountable for their own academic talk.  Training and support for aspiring dual language teachers should also provide a repertoire of strategies for integrating the goals of comprehensibility with rigor.

Dr. Higinia Torres-Rimbau

Chair, Dual Language and TESOL

University of St. Thomas

Houston, Texas

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