How do I make my classroom content more comprehensible to my students?

Making Content Comprehensible to All Students

The third component in the SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) Framework is Comprehensible Input.  This term, comprehensible input, was first coined by linguist, Stephen Krashen and pertains to making sure students are capable of understanding the language used.

A teacher's natural reaction to the importance of making sure students are grasping the main ideas of a discussion most probably will be an emphatic, "No, duh."  However, cultivating comprehension in the classroom takes more skill than merely speaking the same language as the students.

Under the SIOP Framework, Comprehensible Input has three features that serve to further define and flesh out its purpose.
  1. Use speech appropriate for students’ proficiency level.
  2. Explain academic tasks clearly.
  3. Use a variety of techniques to make content concepts clear (e.g. Modeling, visuals, hands-on activities, demonstrations, gestures, body language).
Notice the layers:  Pay attention to oral language;  make sure you're making all tasks clear; get your students to interact with content in a variety of meaningful ways.  Let's examine these 3 features of Comprehensible Input as outlined in the SIOP Framework.  As you will see, there is more to this teaching component than just 1-2-3.  In fact,  I'll bet you will discover the reason why so many teachers find this to be such a challenge.

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SIOP helps teachers make content more comprehensible

As teachers, we are always striving for ways to make things more comprehensible, more accessible, and more digestible for our students.  While it may seem quite easy to do, there are a number of layers to making content comprehensible that SIOP helps to shed some light on.

TESOL Trainers and John Kongsvik are the leaders in SIOP professional development
Comprehensible Input = Safety 
In a previous blog we explored the intimate connection language and content have throughout the SIOP framework.  Notice how this connection is reflected within SIOP Component #3:  Comprehensible Input.

The SIOP Framework provides 3 features for this component.  The first feature encourages teachers to pay attention to the language that they use.  

While this heretofore may strike you as rather banal, many students may not understand the language we choose to use even if they look like they do (just think of when you were in high school).

There are a lot of things that can confuse English language learners when it comes to the SIOP feature:  Use speech appropriate for students’ proficiency level.  

Here are a few:

  • Idiomatic expressions (e,g. get the hang of, drive someone up a wall, fixing to, etc) can be daunting to non-native English speakers as can the plethora of phrasal verbs.  Just think of how many verbs you can make with the infinitive 'to get' (e.g. get over, get up, get by, get through, get pissed off at something)
  • The use of academic language may also trip up some students who seem to be fluent socially but may have never been explicitly taught academic language such as content specific language (e.g. rational in  math class) or words & phrases that help to create meaning (e.g. transition words, passive language, etc).
  • Regional language differences can pose their own challenges as well whether that be vocabulary usage (e.g. in northern New England you will often hear 'for that' being used over 'because'). There are also obvious regional pronunciation differences (e.g. in the South it may sound like long vowel sounds are held longer).
As teachers, we can do a lot to support effective teaching and learning by paying attention to  language usage (both orally and written) and how comprehensible it is the the students in class.  This is also where comprehension checking becomes so important.

TESOL Trainers offers professional development on checking for comprehension in the K-12 classroom.

TESOL Trainers and John Kongsvik provide K-12 professional development in SIOP
TESOL Trainers helps teachers maximize student opportunities
The second feature of Comprehensible Input is explaining tasks clearly.

Being clear when we are teaching is something that even veteran teachers struggle with.   Ask anyone with a some teaching time under their belts and they'll tell you that giving clear instructions is challenging.  In addition to that, there are always things we can do to be clearer.

Here are 2 clear questions that come to mind:
  1. What can I do to make sure that my instructions clear?  
  2. How can I measure how clear my instructions are?
There are many strategies for giving clear instructions.  The outcome of cloudy instructions is pretty clear:  most students don't know what to do, some may get frustrated, and few actually get anything out of the activity that we have planned.  Likewise, the outcome of clear instructions is even clearer:  students engage in the activity willingly, the level of frustration is minimal, and the number of opportunities is maximized.

The final feature in this SIOP component is giving students a variety of opportunities to 'get it'.  If we explain something to the class and our students don't get it, it doesn't make that much sense to explain the same thing in the same way.

John Kongsvik director of TESOL Trainers SIOP PD K-12 PD New Mexico
TESOL Trainers give PD on increasing student comprehension.
Students are almost always better off when teachers vary their approach to working with classroom concepts and language.  Spicing things up with a little variety is more engaging (just remember how torturing some teachers' lectures were when you were in school).  Also, approaching things from a variety of different angles  invites all learners to the party (we may all be drawn towards different learning mediums).  Providing more opportunities also recycles important language and concepts which also makes things more comprehensible.

Once the teacher senses a lack of comprehension, there are a number of things that s/he can do to try and make the content more accessible.  Here are 5 proven strategies that you can use to set all of your students up for success:

    John Kongsvik director of TESOL Trainers SIOP PD K-12 PD New Mexico

  1. Use the board.  Rather than just speaking through something, give students something to visualize as well. Too often, when we are talking to our students or explaining something we forget that the biggest learning aid we have is the board (black, white, or smart).  Frankly, we are not all great auditory learners (my guess is that neither are most of you).  This is especially true with English language learners who may be drowning in a sea of oral language.
  2. Use students.  Students learn more from one another and are often better equipped to help their peers understand.  Think-pair-share is a fine example of how students can support one another's understanding.  Consciously planning group activities will help students cultivate the ability to help one another constructively.  
  3. Use another language domain.  The four domains of language (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) can also be used to increase comprehension (just look at #1 - Use the board).   Similarly, when students are asked to read something that is not comprehensible to then, we can give them a chance to listen to someone discussing the topic or view something on the same  theme.  
  4. Use manipulatives.  The more concrete we can make things, the easier they will be  nderstood. Putting things in the hands of our students can greatly increase comprehension. In Math class, teachers use Cuisenaire rods to help students understand fractions or bears to help students count.  Manipulatives can also be things like post it notes that students themselves post.  They include sentence strips that students sequence to form a paragraph or story.  They may be pictures of living and non-living things that students categorize.
  5. Use movement.  Getting the students up and out of their seats is not only symbolic of leaving confusion behind, it's also effective at helping students switch gears.  Getting students up also tends to wake them up a bit.  There are a lot of ways to use movement to increase comprehension.  Students can mingle around asking and answering questions to peers.  They can carousel around the room from station to station doing small, digestible tasks.  Students can also just get up and find a new partner to complete a task.
Contact John Kongsvik, Director of TESOL Trainers for more information on our SIOP Seminars.

Comprehensible Input is critical.  SIOP provides teachers with 3 objectives to strive for in order to increase comprehensibility.  Watching one's language, giving clear instructions, and providing students with a variety of ways to interact with the content and the language are things that we can work on as teachers.  While these features all see simple and straightforward, like any muscle, they need to be consciously developed.

John Kongsvik and TESOL Trainers supports all K-12 teachers in developing SIOP skillsAs I mentioned in the beginning, the trick isn't only making sure you are addressing these three The real secret is figuring out whether or not what you did worked. 

Checking for comprehension is a vital component of determining how comprehensible the input was to the students.

The more aware we are of this and the more adept we are at taking our students' pulses, the easier it becomes to make input comprehensible.

Next time we will look a bit more into comprehension checking strategies.  (Take a look at a previous blog on this subject).

The SIOP Framework can help teachers consider how best to set their students up for success.  It's 8 components and 30 features are proven to support learning.  Consciously attending to these can also support teaching skills.  It's a win-win.

TESOL Trainers, the leader in experiential K-12 professional development, offers dynamic SIOP seminars throughout the world.

Our approach to professional development not only inspire teachers to use SIOP strategies but also scaffolds them into being able to successfully integrate them into their daily classroom practices.

If you would like to hear more about how John Kongsvik and his team can transform teaching and learning in your district, contact us today.

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