The CLT Hyperbola


In the TESOL certificate program where I work (STG), students come for close to eight hours of study every Saturday. The first four hours are spent in Methodology class, then the remaining time is split between SLA and ICC. This semester’s SLA course follows four hours of Meth and often students are drained, understandably. Last week, however, many of the students realized that they misunderstood some of the major Methodology concepts and were quite distraught. My demand to connect recent SLA content to Meth only made things more confusing. After asking a few questions to find out exactly where the gap in their understanding was, I decided to run through some content I had done when I was a Methodology instructor. One of the visuals I shared really seemed to vibe with the group and other faculty members, so here I will present and explain a visual (something I put on the whiteboard) I’ve used over the last six years that ties several CLT principles together.

SLA applied to Meth

The SLA concepts I asked to connect to classroom practice were sense, meaning, complexity, and difficulty. Sense and meaning are criteria for long-term storage of the lesson’s target language content (TLC). To help students leave the class with a deep understanding of the TLC, teachers should activate schema and connect students to the context (sense) in the preview and create an authentic reason to interact with the listening/reading source (meaning). Difficult and complexity connect to the teachers choice of tasks and lines of questioning throughout the lesson. Both of which should increase in complexity (# of though processes required to answer a question, solve a problem) and difficulty (effort required to answer or solve a problem). Essentially, the teacher has to balance task complexity and difficulty with student proficiency and remember that low proficiency does not mean that the student can only REMEMBER (Bloom); low-proficiency students can also APPLY, ANALYZE, EVALUATE, and CREATE, if the difficulty level is appropriate.

The Hyperbola

Here is the whiteboard that brought it all together for my class.

hyperbola original

Input Stages

The hyperbola illustrates several concepts in the lesson. First, moving from top to bottom, it narrows and then widens. This represents the increasing focus on form or increase in the amount of detail paid to specific language content. At the top, in the lesson preview, besides pre-teaching a few vocabulary items, no attention is paid to specific TLC – the focus is purely on context, fluency, and schema activation (non-threatening personal questions related to the topic). Following the preview, students will interact with the source several times. Initial interaction with the text is brief – they identify genre and find the main idea. Next, they read or listen for details. Finally, they read or listen for specific language information. For example, students could read a request letter and identify ways that the request was made politely, or, more traditionally, listen to a recipe and list different types of ingredients. To sum up the input stages, student interaction with the source begins with a focus on meaning and ends with a focus on form.

Output Stages

The stages that follow are a mirror image of what just happened except students are expected to produce language. They began understanding the source with the main idea, focusing on meaning and ended with a focus on form. In this half, students will start with the form by isolating and practicing it. Here, using language from the text, the teacher needs to elicit its form, meaning, and use. Students can practice the form in decontextualized  exercises. Remember, this is the narrowest section of the hyperbola.

After the TLC has been isolated, students will practice and produce it in two or more activities that increase in complexity – the hyperbola widens as the focus moves from form to meaning.

In addition to the actual stages of the lesson, the hyperbola also illustrates a few other concepts the teacher needs to consider such as teacher/student-centeredness (narrow represents teacher-centered), the quantity of error correction (narrow represents the need for EC), fluency, and accuracy.

After going through this with the class, I offered one extra point to the first student to post a picture and summarize the hyperbola in our google+ community. Here is the summary:


The above hyperbola demonstrates the way a language teacher will facilitate students through input and output of TLC in a lesson.  As an instructor moves from above to below there are several factors occurring.  Moving from learner-centered tasks to teacher-centered and again to learner-centered.  There is also little error correction from the teacher during the preview as fluency is elicited in the preview.  Then when learners are focused on the isolation phase of the lesson there is error correction as accuracy is important.  Towards the practice stage into independent production students are again focused on fluency or automatization and the teacher is not focused on error correction.  If students happen to continue to show errors throughout the independent production then the instructor can re-explain the forms after the task is completed.

Into the hyperbola the preview stage is the top.  Students schema is activated.  Then for a top-down task students give information about the main idea.  Then there is an interactive processing utilizing top-down and bottom-up while students focus on the details of input.

Then language features and details are focused on after details of the input are covered in the presentation stage.  There is a bottom-up process for language isolation where accuracy is the key.

Moving on to controlled practice students use the form from the isolation with repetition or drills or exercises.  They can also begin to incorporate context into the controlled practice by the teacher having the practice related to a function or task related to the real world for communication.

After controlled practice students will do an activity for independent production of the target language content that reflects fluency and is learner-focused without the teacher involvement (or much).

The group even went on to create a cleaned-up version of the hyperbola which is something I’ve wanted to do but never got around to actually doing.

Stuff for STG

I’ve been sharing this visual with my classes for a while now, but the reception I got from this group prompted me to blog about it and share. I hope this can help you and/or your students in some way and look forward to some comments.

6 thoughts on “The CLT Hyperbola

  1. This is an ambitious attempt to capture key elements in the CLT approach Bill, and I’m sure that lots of teachers and students will find it useful. I like the fact that the group worked so hard on your initial “scribble” to produce such a well-organised version – it’s worth pointing out that if you click on it, you get a nice big, clear picture!.

    It strikes me as a bit over-prescriptive, but that’s a very subjective comment. Perhaps more “objective” is the general view among SLA researchers that we still don’t know as much about parts of the SLA process (what, how, when and why aspects of L2 knowledge pass from short-term to long-term memory for example) as your excellent pedagogical tool might suggest.

    1. Thank you for the feedback Geoff! I agree with your comment about it being over-prescriptive. Often, we have to start with something like this and let the lines and colors dissipate over time as students apply some of the ideas. That’s the challenge I guess – presenting the vague in a clear, comprehensible way.

      I really like your blog, by the way. I am a bit past halfway through my dissertation and have considered blogging summaries of articles, theories, and some other things. Your site has inspired me to do it – to get it all out there and see how much more I can learn in the process. Thanks for that.

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