Storytelling Basics: Going Even Slower Than You Think You Should

Go even slower than you think you need to go.

It’s easy to get in such a groove with storytelling that we leave people behind. It’s less of an issue than with legacy methods of language instruction, but going too fast for learners remains a distinct possibility. Going slower than we think we need to helps keep the language we use comprehensible, which in turn makes the language accessible to more learners.

When learners are building up a mental representation of the language in their heads, they need to process the comprehensible input they receive. They need to receive and process, receive and process, receive and process. Then they need to process the language some more.

Learners need to process the words we think are easy (yo, tú, soy, eres, estudiante, pero, y, etc.).Not even cognates are immune to this need for processing. They often sound different in L2 and must go through the same processing… process. Going slowly ensures that more learners successfully negotiate meaning during the storytelling process.

Slowing Down Readings

I love to write and am enamored with the Artist’s Journey (I can’t recommend that book enough, by the way). During my years with storytelling, I’ve discovered that simple readings are the most difficult to make. It’s tempting to throw in new words and ideas because it makes the stories more interesting for me. Problem is, the readings I write for class are not for me, but for students. Throwing too much at learners in a reading will reduce its comprehensibility and, thus, its utility.

Two weeks ago, I gave students a reading based on some characters that we co-created at the beginning of the quarter (a modified version of the Hero’s Journey). Students read in groups of two and completed a short set of comprehension-based tasks to help them process the language they read.

I walked around the room as learners worked, answering questions and listening in as I am wont to do. Some of my very vocal students in one section expressed that they didn’t understand ni jota. Uh-oh, Spaghetti-o’s.

After hearing the aforementioned grousing, I solicited the opinions of a number of students that have given me good feedback in the past. Based on their feedback, I need to make the readings easier. They need to be able to process the language more easily, which will lead to their processing more complex readings in the future.

In my defense, I tried to make the reading approximately 90% comprehensible. The 10% of words and phrases I assumed students weren’t familiar with, I glossed. My intentions were good, but I didn’t account for some learners who would understand only 70% of the text easily.

Introducing too much at once reduced the comprehensibility of the language, and frustrated learners, especially the adults. Adults do not like having their ability to communicate taken away. Going slower than we think we need to and making easier helps keep the communication in L2 flowing.

I’m convinced that we need to go slower than we think in terms of reading complexity too. I don’t have an exact percentage, but something like 98-99% comprehensible would be better than the 90% I aimed for in this instance. Efficiency is the name of the game in the college classroom, and the higher the comprehensibility, the more efficient the acquisition process is. We want i + 1, not i + 10 (or i + 30).

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