Pandemic Denial and Comprehension-Based Teaching

The pandemic is very much still happening in the United States. Hundreds of people are dying every day, life expectancy has plummeted, and COVID-19 has become the 3rd leading cause of death. Despite this reality, our leaders have decided to embrace denial as their primary strategy. As a result, the dominant narrative in the U.S. is that the pandemic has long since ended and that, despite the well-over one million lives lost, our earlier attempts to protect human life were a harmful overreaction. This narrative can be seen at its strongest in our discourse about schooling. What does this have to do with comprehension-based language teaching? I believe this narrative to be one of the biggest obstacles impacting our success and growth as language teachers.

According to popular discourse, schooling in 2019 was near perfect, the months in 2020 when most schools were remote nearly ended human civilization, and now 2023 is the fight to undo the harms of 2020 and return to the glorious “normal” of 2019. (This narrative is problematic for many reasons, but I’ll try to stick to the ones that pertain to the language classroom.) When schools first went remote in 2020, this was viewed as a chance to pause and reexamine our priorities as educators and reimagine how we approach schooling in general. Suddenly the emphasis was removed from standardized test scores, competition to get into the “best” schools, micromanaging of movement, etc., and shifted to the physical and emotional well-being of educators and students. By the summer of 2020, all of that was gone and replaced with “the urgency of normal” rhetoric that championed a return to the status quo. Once this took hold, a cognitive dissonance was formed between the observable reality of our classrooms and the urge to pretend like it’s 2019 again.

How is this showing up in the language classroom? I’m hearing stories of utter dispair from comprehension-based language teachers. Many have either left the classroom or are actively trying to do so. The common theme in all of their accounts is how what used to work in 2019 just isn’t working anymore, but since everything is “back to normal” the reason must be that they just aren’t good teachers. They attempt basic PQA, but none of their students respond, all of them are trying to sneak phones, some are fully asleep, some have earbuds in their ears, and others ask to go to the bathroom and disappear for 30 minutes at a time. Things are VERY different in the classroom right now, but there is no space to express these struggles other than blaming the 2 months their students were on Zoom, 3 years ago. Between the toxic positivity of how wonderful “normal” is and lamenting the one fleeting break from the status quo, these teachers are left blaming themselves, burning out, and/or quitting.

I’m not blaming any individual, we are all coping with the largest mass death event in U.S. history and one of the largest in human history, while facing the grim reality that no one in power has any interest in doing anything about it. We’re all trying to get by however we can. My aim here is to suggest that we as a community address the realities of this moment and start coming up with ways to deliver comprehensible input to the students, given the real conditions under which we are working. The world of 2019 wasn’t perfect and it’s never coming back. There is a very real 2023 living in our classrooms that we can no longer afford to deny.

In the coming weeks and months, I’m planning on sharing specifically what changes I’ve felt the need to make in my classroom and the challenges I’m experiencing. I’m hoping this tiny effort will create space for more of us to break the spell of denial and start really thinking about what comprehension-based language teaching looks like in 2023.

Thanks for listening,

-Magister Bracey


Middle School Latin teacher committed to teaching with comprehensible input.

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