For many teachers who are new to the idea of teaching with a focus on comprehensible input (CI), it’s difficult to figure out how exactly to implement it in the classroom. Many of us are so used to the Skill-Building mindset of language learning that it’s really, really difficult to escape from that mentality.
I definitely struggled for a while in figuring out how to create a CI-focused classroom. I got my first hints about the importance of comprehensible input when I was in grad school, getting my master’s degree in Linguistics/TESOL. Stephen Krashen and his ideas about second language acquisition were certainly mentioned in my methodology textbooks, and I remember thinking that the idea of learning through comprehensible input made sense. However, my textbooks only gave a very small amount of information about his theory, so I still knew very little. Then, during my last semester of grad school, I took a class on Second Language Acquisition. When we read a research paper that referenced Pienemann’s Processability Theory, our professor explained the concept of acquisition orders—that learners acquire new grammar forms in roughly the same order, no matter how much classroom instruction they receive on that particular form. I was completely shocked. How was that possible? I even remember feeling a little angry. At that point, I had already been teaching ESL for about three years, and I was in my very last semester of grad school. How had nobody told me this before? It seemed like something that is REALLY, REALLY important for language teachers to know. And it contradicted a lot of what I was doing as a language teacher.
But yet, even after this shocking revelation, I went back to teaching in roughly the same way I had always been teaching. Why? Because I didn’t really know any other way to teach. And I had been given a textbook that I was supposed to use for my class. So…I should just go through it, lesson by lesson, right? Surely the textbook authors knew what they were doing, right? And even when I deviated from the textbook and created some of my own materials, those materials were essentially just more of the same: I would explain a grammar rule or introduce a list of vocabulary words and then lead my students through a series of practice activities. Sometimes when I taught a grammar lesson, there was a little voice in my head reminding me of what I learned about acquisition orders. But yet, I kept doing more of the same because I had no idea what else to do.
Then, I started listening to the Tea with BVP podcast. I heard Bill VanPatten talk about how people acquire a language by receiving comprehensible input—not by speaking, not by explicitly learning grammar and vocabulary, and not by doing practice activities. It was a huge change in mindset for me. It took a while for me to fully understand the concepts BVP was talking about, but I eventually started to understand, and it made sense based on what I had seen in my teaching experience.
But I still didn’t really know how exactly to teach with a focus on providing comprehensible input. I knew that listening was important…but did that mean I should just lecture to the students? I knew that couldn’t be right, but I didn’t know what to do.
Then, one day on Tea with BVP, a person who called in mentioned TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling). I remembered that my middle school French teacher had used TPRS. I vaguely remembered it as a method in which our teacher told silly stories and made us do hand motions to help us remember our vocabulary words. I wasn’t sure if TPRS would really work for an adult ESL class. I was worried that the students might find it too juvenile or silly. But, I figured, at least it would be a way to provide comprehensible input for my students. So I read everything I could find about TPRS, and I slowly started using it in the beginning-level class I was teaching.
TPRS ended up being my entry into comprehension-based teaching. I found that my students enjoyed the stories we co-constructed, and it seemed to help them learn new words and pick up grammar. Since then, I’ve branched out into using other methods and techniques in addition to TPRS—all of which are focused on providing comprehensible input to my students.
For me, comprehension-based teaching didn’t really click until I had the structure of TPRS to guide me in designing my lessons. So if you’re looking for some kind of structure to guide your own teaching, here is a list of possible ideas:
TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling) is a technique developed by Blaine Ray in the 1990’s. It involves the students and teacher co-creating a story together. Usually, the teacher focuses on two or three words or phrases that s/he wants the students to learn and makes sure to include those structures in the story. The teacher usually has a framework or general outline of the story in mind. The teacher tells the story to the students but also asks them some questions about the story, allowing the students to decide on some of the details. Also, the teacher usually selects a few students to be characters in the story, and those students stand up and physically act out the story while the teacher tells it. After the story has been told, the teacher types up the story (or a similar story), and the students read it. Personally, I have found TPRS to be very effective and engaging for lower-level students. For more information on TPRS, I recommend reading Blaine Ray and Contee Seely’s book Fluency Through TPR Storytelling, now in its 7th edition. Bryce Hedstrom also has a helpful article called “The Basics of TPRS.” And Terry Waltz has a great video, “What is TPRS?”
2. Story Listening
Story Listening was developed by Beniko Mason, an EFL teacher in Japan. In Story Listening, the teacher tells students a story while they listen. The teacher often draws pictures on the board to help students understand the words in the story. The teacher also usually writes new words on the board, sometimes along with a translation into the students’ L1 if possible. After telling the story, some teachers have their students read a written version of the same story. The key is to use simple stories that your students can easily understand. You don’t want to overload the students with too many new words in one story. Over time, the stories can become more complex and use higher-level vocabulary, as your students acquire more of the language. The Stories First website has information about how to get started with Story Listening. And ESL teacher Claire Walter has posted a great explanation of story listening along with a video on her blog.
3. Whole-Class Novel Reading
Some teachers like to choose a novel and read it together as a class. These are usually graded readers—books that are written specifically for language learners. You can use this approach with any almost any level of students, as there are graded readers available at all different levels. The lowest-level novels I’ve seen usually contain about 200 unique words. When I teach using a novel, we usually read one chapter of the novel each day in class. I usually start by introducing a few of the words from the upcoming chapter that I think might be unfamiliar to the students. Then, I read the chapter aloud as students follow along in their own books. After reading, we discuss the chapter. I usually ask a few comprehension questions as well as some discussion-type questions to get them thinking about the themes of the book on a deeper level or to help them connect their own lives and experiences to the book. For ideas on specific books for ESL students, see my post that reviewed graded reader series.
4. Free Voluntary Reading
In Free Voluntary Reading, teachers provide time for students to read any books they like. The teacher usually creates a small library of books that students can choose from. The library might also include other types of print media like newspapers, magazines, or comics. Allowing students choice in what they read is probably the best way to ensure that they are getting compelling input. Although I love reading a novel together as a whole class, one of the drawbacks is that it’s impossible to find a book that all of your students love. But if students can choose their own books, they can each find something they truly enjoy. FVR is a great way to help students discover that reading can be enjoyable, which will encourage them to keep reading outside of class. Stephen Krashen overviews the research supporting FVR in this article. For some ideas on how to start implementing FVR, see Spanish teacher Michael Peto’s blog post, “A Map to Transitioning Your Class to FVR.”
Bill VanPatten uses tasks as a way to provide input in his college-level Spanish classes. I am admittedly not very knowledgeable about tasks because I haven’t really used them in my class. From what I understand, the students are given a task, which is usually some kind of problem to solve or a question to answer. The students use the input they receive from the teacher and/or interactions with their peers in order to complete the task. If you want to learn more, you can listen to the Tea with BVP episode “Tasks and Communication in the Classroom.”
6. Sheltered instruction in a content area
Stephen Krashen developed the idea of sheltered instruction. Essentially, it’s teaching academic content to students (e.g., teaching them about concepts in science, history, etc.) while making it comprehensible to them as language learners. It’s most commonly used in K-12 ESL settings, where there is a strong need for students to build and maintain content area knowledge while simultaneously learning English. But it can be used in other settings, too, as a way of providing comprehensible input to students. The students feel like they’re just learning about the content, and they often don’t even realize how much language they’re learning along the way. I recently watched this Ted Talk by Roberto Guzman, an English teacher at a university in Puerto Rico. In describing what he does in class, he says: “We don’t use textbooks. We use whatever is happening in the world.” He has his students watch videos and read articles about current events, and they talk about the issues together in class. The students are learning about topics that are interesting to them. And because they’re listening and reading about these topics in English, they acquire a lot of language.
7. Authentic materials
Authentic materials—materials made for fluent speakers of a language—can sometimes be used effectively in a CI classroom, even with lower level students. For example, Spanish teacher Jillane Baros posted this great video of her using a comic strip with her beginning-level students. She chose a comic strip with a small amount of fairly simple language. Then, she showed her students the comic strip one frame at a time, and she described each part using simple language that her students could understand. Songs are also a good source for comprehensible input, if you can find ones with fairly simple language and in which the words are sung slowly and clearly. I also sometimes use articles or random interesting things I find on the Internet. Buzzfeed can be a good resource because their “listicles” are mostly pictures with a relatively small amount of text. For example, I just used this post, “18 Bizarre 2016 Inventions That Are Actually Borderline Genius” with my higher-level students. I didn’t have the students read any of the actual text on the page; instead, I just showed them some of the pictures and explained, in my own words, what each invention was. Then the students discussed and voted on which invention they thought was the best. With a lower-level class, posts like “Can You Tell If These Animals Are Real or Fake?” can be fun. Although these posts don’t contain a lot of language themselves, the teacher can use them as a jumping-off point to provide input. The teacher can point to the pictures and talk to students using language that is appropriate for their level.
This list of ideas is just a starting point. Almost anything could potentially be a way to provide comprehensible input to your students. I’ve seen teachers post on the iFLT/NTPRS/CI Facebook group about having students do a popcorn taste-test, do yoga, or make simple art projects. Anything goes, as long as students are listening to or reading language that is comprehensible and compelling.
As teachers, our job is to provide students with comprehensible input. We want our students to focus on meaning, not form. As Stephen Krashen has said, we want our students to be so interested in the meaning of a message that they “‘forget’ that the input is in another language.” My goal is always to find topics or stories that my students will find interesting. If they are interested in what they are listening to or reading, they will acquire the language.