For many teachers who are new to the idea of teaching with a focus on providing students with comprehensible input, it’s difficult to figure out how exactly to implement it in the classroom. Many of us are so accustomed to the traditional textbook-based/rule-based approach of language learning that it’s hard to escape from that mentality.
I definitely struggled for a while in figuring out how to create an input-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 hypotheses about second language acquisition were certainly mentioned in my methodology textbooks, and I remember thinking that the idea of acquiring language through comprehensible input made sense. However, my textbooks only gave a little information, so I still didn’t know much. 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 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 all language teachers should know. And it contradicted a lot of what I was doing as a language teacher.
But 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? 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 was teaching, there was a little voice in my head reminding me of what I had learned about acquisition orders and the ineffectiveness of explicitly taught “grammar lessons.” 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 so-called “practice activities.” It was a huge change in mindset for me. It took a while for me to fully understand the concepts, but I eventually started to understand, and it made sense based on 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.
I eventually heard about TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling), which ended up being my entry into comprehension-based teaching. I found that my students enjoyed the stories we co-created, 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 and helping them engage in meaningful communication.
For me, comprehension-based teaching didn’t really click until I had the structure of TPRS to guide me in designing my classes. So if you’re looking for some kind of structure to guide your own teaching, here are some 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 8th 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. Click here to see my posts related to using whole-class novels. For ideas on specific books for ESL students, see my post that reviewed graded reader series.
4. Free Voluntary Reading
In Free Voluntary Reading (FVR), 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.” You can also see all my posts related to FVR here.
5. Task-Based Instruction
In Task-Based Instruction, a teacher designs tasks for students to complete. In order to complete the tasks, students need to meaningfully communicate in the target language (either by listening, reading a text, talking to a partner, etc.). Tasks are, ideally, based on real problems or situations that students might encounter in their every day lives. If you want to learn more, I recommend Mike Long’s book Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching or Neil Anderson and Neil McCutcheon’s book Activities for Task-Based Learning (I wrote a review of the book here). You can also listen to Bill VanPatten’s Tea with BVP episode “Tasks and Communication in the Classroom.”
6. Content-Based Instruction
In content-based instruction, the class focuses on teaching a particular area of content to students while making it comprehensible to them as language learners. It’s 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. In these settings, the content students learn is usually related to academic subjects (e.g., math, science, social studies). But content-based instruction 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. The content could be anything—a cooking class, a karate class, a painting class, whatever. 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.” 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.
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. 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 are on their way to acquiring the language.