Comprehensible input – an effective way to teach languages

Comprehensible input

Comprehensible input is a method of teaching world languages that focuses on providing comprehensible material that students can understand, helping them to acquire language without the need for explicit teaching. This method has a long history and has been one of the most successful approaches to teaching foreign language for over 40 years. It’s a big change for teachers who grew up with the grammar-translation method of learning, and many teachers are reluctant to try it due to its differences from typical textbook-focused learning.

The term comprehensible input was first used by linguist Stephen Krashen in 1982 in his book, Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. In this book, he proposed comprehensible input as an effective tool for acquiring a second language. He suggested that comprehensible input plays a major role in second-language acquisition and that simply providing comprehensible input leads to language acquisition over time.

This idea was based on the notion that learners acquire new language through exposure to natural language input rather than studying the language. While studying may lead to students being able to conjugate verbs and explain how the language works, he felt that it didn’t necessarily lead to proficiency and the ability to use the language. Since most learners take a language course with the goal of actually being able to speak, read, write and understand the language, comprehensible input was a better way to reach those goals.

What makes comprehensible input comprehensible?

In order to learn through comprehensible input, it’s important that the student receives input, and that the input be comprehensible. Input can be any sort of language that is given to the student – it could be the teacher speaking, a video, an audio clip, a text message, a social media posting, and advertisement, or a reading passage. The level of the input is more important than the media or the content – in order to grow, the input should be at the level just slightly above where the student currently is. Students should be able to understand everything that is said, with new vocabulary and structures being added a little bit at a time.

In the beginning, many teachers used silly stories to provide input. This meant being very creative and planning for instruction that required the teacher to perform. It could be tiring for students to come up with scripts for fun stories that included structures and vocabulary that they wanted to include. As the technique has developed, there are many resources available to teach using CI, and teachers have started using resources that weren’t developed for language learners but can easily be adapted. They start with the resource and determine what it is the students should be learning from it – a new vocabulary term, a new grammatical feature, a new phrase or structure.

Once you have a resource in mind and have found your target structures, you can adapt it for different levels as necessary. This is one area where AI can really come in handy! You can input the text and ask AI to rewrite it at easier and more difficult levels. This means that the same passage can be used in multiple classes, cutting down on your prep time. I was quite disappointed when the site ActuJour – L’actualité à mon niveau stopped publishing new articles, because this was a great source for this sort of thing! Take a look at their articles and the different levels to get an idea of how this can work for you.

Since its introduction, comprehensible input has been studied extensively by researchers who have identified various techniques teachers can use to create such an environment for their students: using visuals such as pictures or videos; using realia; using gestures; speaking in simple sentences; using repetition; and focusing on meaning rather than form. These techniques help teachers create an environment where students can easily comprehend the messages they perceive so that they can focus more on understanding than translating words when learning new languages.

What does a comprehensible input focused class look like?

While every teacher does things differently, there are some things that are common to most comprehensible input classrooms. You will hear the target language spoken throughout the class, with English being used only at specific times or for specific tasks. You will see a variety of activities centered on the day’s lesson – an introduction of the vocabulary and structures for the day, followed by an initial exposure to the input.

There will be a lot of discussion of the input, with questions and circling used to make sure that students get repetition of the target structures and vocabulary. Finally, students will do some individual work with the input. Depending on the level of the course, students may or may not be required to provide output in the target language.

A common question about CI is “what about grammar?” While grammar is taught in the CI class, it isn’t necessarily going to consist of verb charts. Instead, grammar will be introduced in little pieces, often called “pop-up” grammar. For example, if you are reading a passage in the imparfait, you might point out that there are many words ending in “ait” and point out that this means “used to” in many cases.

No lengthy explanation about how to form the imparfait in all 6 forms, or the differences between the imparfait and the passé composé – you just want students to get used to that ait ending meaning “used to.” Eventually you will get to different endings, but you might not go through all of them – some forms are much more common and useful than others.

Is Comprehensible Input effective?

All of this is great, but does CI actually work? This is something that can be very difficult to answer empirically. There is a wide variety of students with a variety of backgrounds and motivation levels, and just as great a variety of teachers. Some will do CI well, others may not be as good at using the technique. There haven’t been any peer-reviewed study that can say that comprehensible input works better than other methods. There have been studies about different parts of the CI formula, but nothing as a whole.

What we do have is anecdotes from teachers who have used it and found that students can do more with the language than when using other methods and that more students feel success using CI than other methods. So what can we do with this information?

The nice thing about comprehensible input is that it’s a teaching method, not a curriculum. You can add some elements of CI to your class every day or every week while still using other teaching methods alongside. It can be used with any curriculum, any textbook. You can dip your toes into the CI water without having to dive in.

Even among CI teachers there are many different ways to approach the method and which input to use. Some teachers prefer a free-range approach where the day’s discussion could be based on anything – maybe a story in the news that determines the vocabulary and topics, with no particular plan for topics over the course of the week or month. Others prefer a more planned-out approach, with specific structures, vocabulary and topics at certain points. If you have a district curriculum or common exam where students need to learn particular vocabulary or structures, this might be best for you.

For teachers who are wanting a bit more structure or scaffolding for their CI program, Frenchified has an entire set of units for level 1 and level 2 French. Level 1 covers the basic vocabulary and structures that are commonly done in a first year program, while level 2 introduces the past tenses and additional vocabulary.

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