Comprehensible Input: The Key to Language-Learning Success

by: Guest Author | Last Updated March 24, 2020

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Everyone Can Learn a Second Language

Language learning can be daunting. Many students have tried and failed because of outdated and boring teaching techniques. But with comprehensible input, you can change your students’ frustrations with language learning into successes. What’s better, they may even start to get more enjoyment out of learning a new language.

Stephen Krashen coined the term comprehensible input after years of observing how children learn foreign languages. The USC professor and linguist has dedicated his life to finding out how children learned a second language. As a result, his findings in the field of language acquisition continue to shape modern teaching strategies for second language learning. 

From the start, Krashen seeks to put people’s mindset about the frustration of learning a new language at ease. He’s quick to point out that everybody has learned a language before, their native tongue. There’s nothing stopping anyone from doing it again. This makes the goal attainable for students who might question their foreign language learning abilities. 

Krashen argues that talent has nothing to do with learning languages. Instead, everyone acquires language in the same way. It’s a natural brain activity that is the same biological and psychological experience in every human being. Those who excel at languages don’t have a biological advantage over anybody else. They simply follow this process. So, there’s hope for anyone to become fluent in a second language.

Acquiring vs. Learning

According to Krashen, there are two components to second language performance: acquiring and learning. It’s important to distinguish between the two if you want to build a lesson plan that helps your students reach fluency.

Acquiring a language means that you use your subconscious to build knowledge. This is the process children go through with their first language. Meaningful interactions and natural communication in your target language enhance their language abilities. By concentrating on the communicative act of language, students can acquire these systems intuitively. 

Learning is what most people associate with language lessons. A conscious process of formal instructions, concentrating on grammar rules and vocabulary. While this approach has some benefits, outdated teaching methods limit progress. Students lack engagement and results. And over time, many students may even develop negative attitudes towards foreign language learning that reinforce the belief that they’re incapable.

While learning is a teacher-centered and deductive way of studying, language acquisition is a natural student-centered approach. It focuses on the child’s experience with the language. And he noted that, over time, the results were more effective. This is why Krashen himself favored language acquisition as a more effective approach.

Input Hypothesis

Acquiring a second language should be a natural process. Students who concentrate on acquisition often reach fluency faster. The Input Hypothesis, one of the five theories of second-language acquisition by Stephen Krashen, explains how that happens. 

According to the Input Hypothesis, a learner improves best when the material is one step ahead of their current level. If their knowledge could be described with ‘i’, then the optimal learning level would be ‘i+1’. The materials, in short, need to be just beyond their current abilities. 

Think of it as a Goldilocks Zone for language learning. When the input is too hard, students lose interest. When it’s too easy, they get bored, stalling their language learning progress. Language acquisition happens when students are exposed to ‘i+1’. (Teachers will note the similarities between comprehensible input and  Zone of Proximal Development.)

Foreign language learners need to aim for that level if they want to optimize their lessons. This keeps the material engaging and challenging at the same time. Krashen also argues that the input needs to be comprehensible, or easily enough to be understood on its own. The key to language learning success is to ensure your language lessons hit that ‘i+1’ range.

It’s also important to note that comprehensible input is the part of the target language that can be understood, but the student can’t necessarily produce it yet. Context, explanation, rewording, and visual cues all help a learner understand the material. As long as the meaning of the message in the target language is understood, comprehensible input along with the Input Hypothesis helps your students progress in their language learning journey.

The Importance of Comprehensible Input

Every second language learner wants to achieve the same outcome: to speak a language fluently and comfortably. Acquiring a language through comprehensible input will help your students reach that goal much faster. 

Listening is a very important part of Krashen’s theory. According to him, listening to understand before trying to speak can have many long-term benefits. In fact, young children have the same approach. They pay attention to tones, sounds, and grammatical structures before they ever begin speaking. And they only start repeating them when they’re ready.

By using repetitions, and recognizing frequent grammar structures and phrases, second language learners can benefit from the same approach. Language learning methods often fail students because they’re based on mundane and boring lessons. Approachable and engaging classes get through to learners better. No matter the subject.

It’s also important to underscore that communication is an exchange of coded messages. However, outdated language teaching techniques incorrectly focus on teaching students the code to understand the message.

A better approach is to have your students focus on the meaning of messages to break the code. That’s due to the adaptive and flexible nature of our brains. And this is what’s at the core comprehensible input. This approach combined with an increasingly difficult target level makes secondary language learning an achievable goal for everyone. 

Comprehensible Input Strategies

Creating a lesson plan that includes comprehensible input can be tricky because students are so dynamic. Finding the ‘i+1’ level in students is one of the biggest challenges language teachers face. Keeping classrooms fun and engaging, yet educationally challenging is a balancing act. However, the effort will pay off in the end for your students.

Effective Strategies For Comprehensible Input in the Classroom

  • Beginners: Students model the teacher when they’re at the beginning of their language learning journey. Even if they don’t understand anything at first, putting words and phrases into context can aid their understanding. Use visual cues, pictures, and videos to help them. They will need your full supervision at this stage. Instruct students on what to do, and show them how.
  • Developing: Once the student understands the basic logic of the language, it’s important to keep increasing the difficulty of the material. Guidance is still necessary.
  • Intermediate: Keeping the interest up in the classroom can be achieved through the use of videos, games, and stories. These methods can give more insight to students who can already form sentences and understand the majority of the language.
  • Advanced: Monitoring the progress and development of students who’ve reached a formidable level of language knowledge can be just as challenging. Teaching phrases and idioms while keeping the material interesting through conversations, videos, and stories can help students acquire language further.

How to Use Comprehensible Input Effectively

Understanding the meaning of messages can happen in various ways for your students. Creating a lesson plan or learning strategy with comprehensible input maximizes the success rate of the process. Use the Input Hypothesis to your advantage by providing engaging yet challenging material for all your language learners.

  • Put it in context: Although some words may be unfamiliar in a text or speech, learners can guess their meaning through context. Seeing the new material on a topic can also enhance vocabulary memorization.
  • Explain concepts: Every language has its unique logic, expressions, phrases, and idioms. Although translating these may be impossible, explaining their meanings will make learners understand the language and appreciate the culture. 
  • Reword unclear parts: Synonyms can help us understand foreign words and expressions, and enhance our vocabulary. Using different expressions can also broaden foreign language knowledge.
  • Use visual help: Pictures, videos, and drawings can help put the unfamiliar words and phrases into context. Visually inclined learners can find comfort in pictures, and perhaps express themselves better by linking visual cues to their target language. It also makes for more colorful and engaging lessons. 

Entrepreneur and Linguist, Jonty Yamisha created OptiLingo after his efforts to protect his native language, Circassian, from extinction. Using scientifically proven strategies such as Spaced Repetition and Guided Immersion, OptilLingo has helped thousands finally achieve fluency.

Guest Author

This post was created by a guest author – if you’d like to contribute something to ESL Authority please submit a request here.

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