Simple Features that Pack a Punch

Pythagorean theorem. (pĭ-thāg'ə-rē'ən)  (thee-er-uh m). Where c is the length of the hypotenuse and a and b the lengths of the other two sides.

The word, the pronunciation, and the basic definition. As a student, I would probably walk away after a 50 minute class period vaguely knowing these three things. Students that are learning English, however, probably would not. “Pythagorean theorem” isn’t the type of phrase that just sticks in the brain. Learning a new language is a process, it involves mastering basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), which most researchers say requires 4-7 years to achieve.

Even though it is more effective to learn concepts and language simultaneously, it is challenging and oftentimes overwhelming to students and teachers alike. Researchers have found that methods, such as comprehensible input, effectively combine the instruction of language and content to enhance and accelerate learning. Such methods enlarge students’ memory capacity and consequently they are better able to understand new vocabulary at micro- and macro-levels and master new concepts.

One example of comprehensible input is captioned audio. Various studies show that English language learners benefit from captions. Researchers at the University of Auckland  discovered that students who had captioned film clips made greater progress decoding unknown words, phrases, and phrasal verbs than students who did not have captions. Researcher Brij Kothari discovered through controlled tests that “captions contributed to word-recognition and -comprehension skills.”

Our team at Positive Learning designs every Primer so students can understand new academic language with captions. To enhance the impact captions have on the learning process, we’re utilizing word-by-word highlighting. “There is nothing more annoying than when captions or highlighting isn’t right,” Dan, chief officer of technology, said jokingly, “that is why we made sure that the highlighting is spot-on.” In fact, the word-by-word highlighting is precise down to 20 milliseconds.

Highlighted captions that are properly synced to the audio provide benefits beyond just avoiding annoyance. Thanks to the highlighting feature, students understand that the sounds “itsinthere,” is really made up of the words “it is in there.” They also get a feel for how English syntax functions, which is much more rigid compared to most romance languages such as Spanish. As they hear and see each word individually, they have a better chance of recognizing, recalling, and pronouncing new words correctly, which helps students feel more comfortable participating in class.

Real life examples and visual anchors also support captions to help students decode meaning. Some researchers have suggested that having different inputs, such as visuals and text, may be overwhelming; however, a study by the University of Auckland shows that students will unconsciously select and pay attention to the medium they need most. A student who feels comfortable with the audio, for example, may glance occasionally at the captions to examine difficult words, and struggling students may focus on the captions almost exclusively. This study suggests that several inputs available do not overwhelm students, instead, students are empowered to tailor their learning. That way, when students complete a lesson about the Pythagorean theorem, they will comprehend much more than just a2+b2=c2.