Why I Teach With a Focus on Comprehensible Input

For my first blog post, I thought it would be appropriate to explain why I choose to teach ESL with a focus on providing comprehensible input. This post is not meant to be an exhaustive explanation but rather a summary for teachers who are unfamiliar with the approach.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Stephen Krashen, Professor of Linguistics and Education at the University of Southern California, began to articulate the five hypotheses of his theory of second language acquisition. One of these hypotheses, the Comprehension Hypothesis (initially called the Input Hypothesis), states that people acquire a new language by receiving comprehensible input. Comprehensible input is any language that a person hears or reads that he or she can understand. As Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell write in their 1983 book The Natural Approach: “The central hypothesis of the theory is that language acquisition occurs in only one way: by understanding messages. We acquire language when we obtain comprehensible input, when we understand what we hear or read in another language” (p. 1).

Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis stands in direct contrast to what he calls the Skill-Building Hypothesis,” which currently seems to dominate the realm of foreign language and second language teaching. According to the Skill-Building Hypothesis, learning a language is like learning any other skill: you need to break the skill down into its separate parts and practice those individual skills until they become automatic. Eventually, with enough practice, a person will learn the new language.

In the second/foreign language classroom, this means that lessons usually follow a predictable pattern. Many language teachers use the “Presentation-Practice-Produce” (PPP) model in designing their lessons. The teacher will start the class period by introducing a new concept to the students—usually a new grammar concept or a set of new vocabulary words. The teacher will explain the grammar “rule” and give some example sentences to the students, or, in the case of a vocabulary lesson, the teacher will explain the meanings of the new words. Next, the teacher will lead the students through a series of practice activities. These are often matching exercises or fill-in-the-blank activities in which students are expected to apply their new knowledge. During the activity or after the activity, the teacher provides feedback to the students, correcting their errors in an attempt to help them refine their new skill. In the last stage of the lesson, teachers often ask students to apply this knowledge again in another practice activity, usually a more open-ended activity that requires students to produce more language than in the previous activities. For example, in a lesson on how to form the past tense, students might be asked to write four sentences in the past tense about what they did yesterday.

For many teachers, it’s pretty much a given for classes to be structured in this way. It’s the way that lessons are structured in most textbooks, and it’s the way that many teachers were taught to plan lessons. It’s also the way that many of us learned a foreign language when we were in school. In fact, it’s the way that we learned a lot of new things, like riding a bike or learning multiplication tables. We practice, practice, practice. We practice the skill over and over again until we can do it easily. Practice makes perfect, we like to say. And this approach does sometimes seem to work in the language classroom—at least, in the short term. For example, if a teacher tells their ESL students, “In English, when we talk about something that happened in the past, we add –ed to the end of regular verbs,” most students will understand the concept. If we give them a verb like walk, they can apply the rule they learned and form it into the past tense: walked. They can even put it in a sentence: I walked to school yesterday. Because students are able to complete these practice activities, it therefore seems logical that, if students do enough practice activities like this, the past tense will eventually become automatic for them. And, it seems, if students get enough practice like this with other grammar rules and with vocabulary words, they will eventually learn the entire language.

However, there is a problem with the Skill-Building Hypothesis: It doesn’t seem to work well over the long term. Over 40 years of research in the field of second language acquisition has provided a lot of evidence that people don’t acquire language by practicing it like other skills. Breaking down the language into separate parts and completing practice activities with these individual parts does not lead to language acquisition over the long term. Instead, people acquire language by receiving comprehensible input. I will not give a detailed explanation of the research here, as I don’t have nearly enough time or space to fully cover the vast amount of research evidence on the topic. However, I will briefly explain four reasons why language acquisition occurs by receiving comprehensible input and not by practicing it as individual skills: 1) Language is extremely complex, 2) Language must be learned within a meaningful context and in real communication, 3) Acquiring a language is different from learning other skills, and 4) Learning through comprehensible input is interesting and engaging.

  1. Language is extremely complex

Language is so complex that it can’t really be broken down into small, discrete parts to be studied and practiced. Even the best linguists in the world have not discovered every grammatical principle of the English language (or any other language), so it would be impossible for our students to learn and memorize all the rules. Furthermore, the grammar “rules” that are presented in textbooks are not prescriptions but are simply attempts to describe the existing language. They are simplifications of very complex, abstract concepts. The grammar rules themselves are often extremely complicated, and learning and remembering all of these rules in addition to the “exceptions” to the rules is way too complicated. The human brain is simply not designed to be able to memorize all of these rules and then apply them correctly in real-time communication, such as when having a conversation with another person. Giving students a quick explanation of a grammar form in order to help them understand the input they receive can be helpful, but forcing students to memorize complicated grammar rules and having them “practice” using those rules does not do much to improve language proficiency over the long-term.

We can’t really break up the language into discrete parts and teach each part separately. All those parts are interconnected. Michael Long, a researcher in the field of second language acquisition, writes in his book Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching: “Producing English sentences with target-like negation, for example, requires control of word order, tense, and auxiliaries, in addition to knowing where the negator is placed. Learners cannot produce even simple utterances like ‘John didn’t buy the car’ accurately without all of those. It is not surprising, therefore, that interlanguage development of individual structures has very rarely been found to be sudden, categorical, or linear, with learners achieving native-like ability with structures one at a time, while making no progress with others. Interlanguage development just does not work like that…The assumption that learners can move from zero knowledge to mastery of negation, the present tense, subject-verb agreement, conditionals, relative clauses, or whatever, one at a time, and move on to the next item in the list, is a fantasy.”

Similarly, memorizing sentences or having students repeat the same sentence over and over in an attempt to “get it in their heads” is also futile. Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, points out that learning a language is not about memorization. As he writes in his book The Language Instinct, there are an infinite number of sentences that can be created in the English language. In fact, many of the sentences that we hear every day are completely new sentences that we have never heard before. But yet, we can understand them. Language is too complex to learn by memorizing sentences, learning grammar rules, or studying word definitions. Fluent speakers of a language don’t rely on memorized sentences or conscious grammar rules when they produce the language. As Bill VanPatten, Professor of Spanish and Second Language Studies at Michigan State University, says: “The rules and paradigms in textbooks simply aren’t the things that wind up in our heads. They are not ‘psychologically real.'”

Research indicates that explicit grammar instruction (i.e., directly teaching students about grammar rules) is not very effective in helping students gain the ability to use those grammatical forms in their own speech in spontaneous communication. In fact, the field of Second Language Acquisition got its start in the 1960’s as researchers started to explore this question of how explicit instruction affects second language acquisition. Stephen Pit Corder’s 1967 analysis of student errors and Heidi Dulay and Marina Burt’s 1973 and 1974 articles became some of the most foundational and influential studies in SLA. These studies demonstrated that students tend to acquire the grammatical features of a new language in a similar, predictable order. Even the learner’s first language does not seem to have a strong effect; two language learners with different first languages will follow a similar path. To give an example: The –s ending on third-person singular verbs in English (e.g., He walks) is usually a very late-acquired form. Most students don’t consistently apply the –s ending until they are in the advanced stages of learning English—despite the fact that this grammar rule is often one of the first grammar rules presented in many textbooks. Research evidence indicates that this natural order in which learners acquire grammar forms cannot be altered by explicit instruction. As Bill VanPatten writes in his book From Input to Output: “These [acquisition] orders do not match instructional orders; that is, the order in which learners gain mastery does not necessarily match the order in which these things were taught in a classroom” (p. 17). Teachers can try to get around the acquisition orders by explicitly teaching a grammar rule, but it doesn’t really work. Students will only acquire a form when their brain is developmentally ready to do so.

There are some research studies that people use as evidence to claim that explicitly teaching students vocabulary words or grammar concepts is an effective way to teach a language. However, it’s important to carefully consider the methodology used in these research studies and to note how exactly the research subjects were assessed and how long after instruction they were assessed. Many of these research studies tested students only under very controlled conditions (not true communicative situations) and tested students only a short time after they received instruction, which gives no indication as to whether the students will actually retain the information in the long term. (For a more detailed explanation, see John Truscott’s 2004 article “Grammar Teaching and the Evidence”.)

There are some people who have successfully learned a second language and who claim to have learned it at least partially by studying grammar rules and memorizing vocabulary words. These people sometimes believe that studying grammar is a necessary first step before a person can start having true communicative interactions in the language. However, almost everyone who learns a new language will receive at least some comprehensible input. Even teachers who rely on a lot of explicit instruction and practice activities will usually provide at least some comprehensible input to their students, whether it is in the form of listening or reading activities or even just in giving classroom instructions (if those instructions are in the target language). The progress these students made was most likely due to receiving comprehensible input, not due to explicit instruction and practice. Successful language learners are always people who received a lot of comprehensible input—for example, most of the people who achieve high levels of proficiency in a foreign language have spent a significant amount of time in a country where that language is spoken. There are many recorded cases of people (including adults!) who acquire a language “naturally,” by simply interacting with other people and without consciously studying the language. However, there are no recorded cases of people who have acquired a language solely through the conscious study of grammar rules and vocabulary.

As Stephen Krashen asserts in his Monitor Theory, language learners are only able to use their conscious knowledge of grammar forms to “monitor” themselves when three conditions are met: 1) They have time to think about and apply the rule, 2) They are focusing on form, and 3) They know and remember the rule that applies in that situation. In real-life communicative situations, meeting all of these conditions is rare. When learners are in the middle of a conversation with another person, they don’t have the time to stop and consider numerous grammar rules. These limitations severely constrain students’ ability to use conscious knowledge. In contrast, language that students have acquired through comprehensible input has no such limitations. When students acquire a language by receiving comprehensible input, the effects are long-term. Certainly, acquiring language takes time. It is a gradual process, and learners need many exposures to new words and grammatical forms before they fully acquire them. But when students do acquire new forms, the effects are long-lasting. As EFL teacher and researcher Dr. Beniko Mason has written: “Consciously learned knowledge is fragile and easily forgotten, but unconsciously acquired language competence is permanent.”

  1. Language must be learned within a meaningful context and in real communication

In real communicative situations, language always exists within a context. Knowing the surrounding context of a word or a sentence allows us to interpret the meaning. Therefore, language must also be learned within a context. By “context,” I mean that the language must used in a meaningful way in a real, communicative situation.

Context is important because, first of all, encountering new words in a meaningful context makes the words easier to remember. Do you think you will remember the word “potato” better if you studied it on a flashcard or if you heard me say it several times in a funny story about a time when I was injured in a potato-related accident? Most likely the latter. Second, providing a rich context means that students get a better idea of the meaning of words. If students are simply memorizing words in a list, they will not know how those words are used in real contexts. Many words carry certain connotations, and many words are appropriate to use in certain situations but not in others. Certainly, a teacher can try to explain the nuances and connotations of word meanings to students. But it will be impossible for the teacher to explain every nuance of every word in the language, and even if the teacher could, it would be impossible for any student to memorize every nuance of every single word in the language. And think about all the words that have multiple meanings. The English word “run” has about 645 meanings depending on the context in which it is used. How would a teacher explain each of the 645 meanings to students? And how would the students remember them all and know when to apply each meaning?

  1. Acquiring a language is different from learning other skills

In my opinion, one of the reasons for the persistence of the skill-building mindset of language learning is because it does accurately describe how we learn some new skills and new information. For example, if we want to learn the multiplication tables, we need to consciously study and memorize the multiplication tables. After enough practice, we will know them well.

However, learning a language is different from learning almost anything else. Unlike learning the multiplication tables or learning facts about the process of photosynthesis, language is an innate ability. Every single human being (with a normally functioning brain) acquires at least one language. And we do it without consciously realizing it. Babies pick up language by listening to the people around them. After babies hear lots and lots of language (in other words, after they receive a lot of comprehensible input), they are able to produce language themselves. Children don’t need to consciously study the rules of grammar or memorize vocabulary words. Their parents don’t drill them on the difference between the simple present and the continuous present verb tenses. Rather, children naturally pick up language by listening to others and figuring out the meaning of the utterances they hear. And this process continues throughout our lives. Even as adults, we continue learning new words simply by hearing them or reading them in meaningful contexts. Over time, through repeated exposure to a particular word or phrase, we acquire it and are eventually able to use it ourselves.

Studies show that learning a second language is very similar to learning our first language. There some differences, of course, but the overall processes are largely the same. (For more discussion on this topic, listen to Tea with BVP episode 37: Are L1 and L2 Acquisition Different?) Similar to first language learning, when we learn a second language, we gradually acquire it as we hear (or read) messages that we understand. We slowly develop a sense for what “sounds right” in the language. We pick up vocabulary words and the “rules” of grammar implicitly (without consciously realizing it) rather than explicitly (by learning the rules and practicing them).

Another common misconception about language learning is that people learn a language by producing output—i.e., by speaking or writing. Again, I think this idea comes from our idea that “practice makes perfect.” After all, we learn to ride a bike by getting on a bike and riding it. We learn math by doing math problems. So then, the logic goes, we learn a language by producing it. However, a great deal of research confirms that people acquire a language by receiving input, not by producing output. On his Tea with BVP podcast, Bill VanPatten often talks about how language acquisition is a process of building a mental representation of the language in a person’s head. And, as he says, “Getting people to make output does not get language in their heads.” Asking students to do speaking activities before they are ready (e.g., having students say sentences in the past tense as a way of “teaching” them the past tense) doesn’t really make sense. It’s asking them to do something they don’t know how to do yet.

  1. Learning through comprehensible input is interesting and engaging

Another important point in favor of teaching with a focus on providing comprehensible input: Learning a language by receiving comprehensible input is almost always more interesting than memorizing a list of vocabulary words or doing grammar practice activities. Of course, there are many different ways to teach, but overall, I think comprehension-based approaches are usually more engaging for the majority of students. Most teachers who use a comprehension-based approach engage students by telling stories (using methods like Story Listening), co-constructing stories with their students (using TPRS or One-Word Images), having students complete tasks that relate to their real lives (as in Task-Based Learning), or by having students read books that they choose themselves (in Free Voluntary Reading). These are all ways to connect to students’ lives and communicate with them in meaningful ways—which is always going to be more interesting than filling in the blanks on a grammar worksheet or reading pages in a textbook.

Teachers who use a lot of explicit instruction and grammar practice activities often struggle to make their activities engaging for students. They try to come up with games or competitions that are essentially just the same old practice activities dressed up in a new way in order to distract students from what it really is. In my own classroom, when I transitioned from a skill-building approach to a comprehension-based approach, I was relieved to discover that I no longer needed to struggle to figure out how to make boring content seem exciting. Instead, when I teach using stories, tasks, videos, or books that are inherently interesting to the students, they are naturally more inclined to pay attention and to feel excited to come to class.

This increase in student engagement leads to increased motivation to learn the language. Unfortunately, many students drop out of language classes due to feelings of boredom or feelings of discouragement—they feel like they can’t learn the language because they keep forgetting vocabulary words or because they don’t understand the grammar concepts or because they feel like they are not progressing. They’ve bought the lie that only certain types of people are “cut out” for learning a new language, and they assume that they are not that type of person. If these students were instead given a chance to learn by receiving comprehensible input, I think they would come to experience language learning not as a grueling chore but as a joy and a pleasure.

There is a popular misconception in our culture that learning a new language is hard work and that it requires diligent study and intense concentration. But fortunately, many teachers are starting to realize that it doesn’t need to be that way. In fact, research evidence suggests that when it comes to language learning, a lot of the truly interesting and engaging ways of learning are much more effective than the boring drills and practice activities. Stephen Krashen insists that the input students receive should not only be comprehensible; it should also be compelling. “Compelling,” he writes, “means that the input is so interesting you forget that it is in another language.” He even goes on to say: “It is possible that compelling input is not just optimal: It may be the only way we truly acquire language.” When students receive compelling, comprehensible input, they enjoy the learning process, which motivates them to continue learning more.

I hope that this post has provided a helpful introduction to some of the reasons for using a comprehension-based approach. For me, discovering the role of comprehensible input and how to use it in my classroom has led to an enormous positive change. It has helped me to align my teaching practices more closely with the research in the field of second language acquisition, and it has brought more joy and enjoyment into the classroom for both my students and for me. I will conclude with a quotation from Stephen Krashen from his 1982 book Principles and Practice: “Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules and does not require tedious drill. It does not occur overnight, however. Real language acquisition develops slowly, and speaking skills emerge significantly later than listening skills, even when conditions are perfect. The best methods are therefore those that supply ‘comprehensible input’ in low-anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language, but allow students to produce when they are ‘ready,’ recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production.”

If you want to learn more about the research on language acquisition through comprehensible input, I encourage you to explore these resources:

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