Comprehensible Input Strategies for All Teachers

This is my fourth trip to Paris for the annual TESOL Colloquium and my third time as a speaker.  My topic was Comprehensible Input for All Teachers.  I began by introducing myself as someone who has been teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages for many years, ever since 1967 when I began as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small town in French speaking Cameroon. In 1984 I moved to France and began teaching adults in afternoon and evening classes for La Maison de l’Europe in Agen. In 1995 I joined the staff of a large lycée, having passed the Capes and later the Agrégation. Officially I “retired” in 2013 and since then have been teaching more hours than ever, giving private lessons to students and adults. During my days as a student and my career as a teacher, I have seen many methods come and go. I used to try everything and if it worked, I kept it. I considered my method “eclectic”. In my choices I was guided by two principles. To be an effective teacher my students had to consider me competent. Their trust in me was the most important element of whatever happened in the classroom. And I knew that my classes had to be interesting. Guided by these goals, I believe that I became a competent teacher. My students got good results and in the lycée I acquired a certain reputation. Students came into my classes expecting to learn and expecting to enjoy it.

Explaining the "Green Bible"
Explaining the “Green Bible”

Then, around 2004, I had a student who made me question my methods. He was a nice, friendly boy, sincerely motivated and willing to work. He had had four years of English previously, but tests put him at the A1, Low Novice, level. He had acquired nothing in his previous classes. But he wanted to learn and he played the game. Throughout the entire first trimester he failed every test I gave, but he was attentive and eager to participate in class. He studied hard and I was as disappointed as he was after every test. During the second trimester as I handed him back a test on which he had scored 8 / 20, I was surprised to see that he was delighted. It was the best grade he had ever had on an English test. He continued working hard and I continued encouraging him, and by the third trimester he was able to pass a couple of tests and get a passing grade for the trimester. He was happy and I was happy and his mother was ecstatic.

Unfortunately, he had a different teacher the following year, and his grades were back to what they had been before. In my classes he had not acquired enough English to allow him to continue to progress in a more traditional class. I felt that I had failed him and began to question my methods.

That was the year that we had an exchange visit from an American high school. One of the boys came into my star class, my “specialists” who had chosen to do extra English hours and were excellent students. I suggested they question the American boy, without specifying a language, assuming it would be in English. But the boy from the States was more comfortable in French than my “star students” were in English. I was impressed and afterwards complimented his teacher, Jeff Moore of Macomb, Illinois, asking how long the boy had been studying French. He was finishng his second year. I had assumed he was in his fourth year. Even more impressed, I said that he was obviously a brilliant student. Jeff smiled ruefully. “To tell the truth, he’s failing in everything but French.” As you can imagine, I began questioning Jeff about how he taught, and that was the first time I heard of TPRS.  Jeff did a brief demonstration with one of my classes, something that involved a story with blue elephants, and I was convinced it would never work in France.

Still, curiosity got the better of me, and the following summer I was able to attend a 2 day workshop in St. Louis. Jan Holter Kittok taught us enough Swedish in two days to enable us to read and understand an article about Swedish culture in Minnesota and understand an oral story. I went online to the moretprs Yahoo group forum and began following the questions and answers. Later I attended  National TPRS conferences and I tried to apply what I learned about the method to my classes. I was totally convinced that it was the most effective method I had ever encountered, either as student or teacher.

TPRS grew out of TPR, which originated in Asher’s attempt to put Stephen Krashen’s hypotheses about Second Language Acquisition into practice in the classroom. Dr. Krashen affirmed in 1975 that we acquire language through Compelling Comprehensible Input, or messages that are both understandable and compelling.  My dog, who hears certain words repeated in a certain context which gives those words meaning, is bilingual. It doesn’t matter whether you say “go for a walk” or “se promener”, she starts bouncing up and down in front of the door, because going for a walk is the most compelling thing there is in her world. Krashen developed the theory, but he has always said that it was up to classroom teachers to make it work. TPR, Total Physical Response, was one attempt to do this. Teachers give orders, “stand up, turn around, sit down” and the students perform the actions, eventually acquiring the language. It’s very effective, especially with small children, and is still being used today.  Blaine Ray was teaching Spaniish in California when he had the idea of adding narratives to TPR. The result was TPR Storytelling. He was very successful and other teachers began copying him and trying out his ideas in their classrooms.

Then something amazing happened. In the year 2000 the moretprs forum was created and teachers all over the United States, and beyond, began sharing their experience, their successes, their failures, asking questions, giving feedback, explaining things to newcomers, and working out the most effective means of applying the method. On the internet Blaine Ray’s idea developed and evolved into something ever more powerful, and is still growing and evolving. Today, the “Green Bible”, Blaine Ray’s book, Fluency through TPR Storytelling, is in its seventh edition and there are more than 7000 members on the moretprs forum. The evolution of the method is shown in the change in its name. Officially, TPRS is now Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. Many users feel that what they are practicing in their classroom no longer fits the narrow definition of TPRS, but has developed into something broader that they call “Teaching with Comprehensible Input”. They use techniques and strategies that were developed by TPRS teachers, but which can be used by all teachers in many different types of schools.

I want to discuss six of these techniques that can make any teacher a better teacher. The first is Circling, often called the “heart of TPRS.” Circling consists of asking as many questions as possible about a statement. I’ll demonstrate by asking someone to count the number of times I use the verb “have” in any form while another person keeps track of the time. Then I ask someone in the audience if he has a car, what kind of car, what color and I ask another person and another. We discovered that a man had a silver Jaguar but he only had half of the car because half belonged to his friend, and a woman didn’t have a car here, but she had a car in California. In two and a half minutes I used the verb “have” 28 times. That is circling, which provides the repetition students need without being boring. Compelling Comprehensible Input. Laurie Clarcq, a frequent contributor to the moretprs forum, discussed how to keep Circling fresh on Chris Stolz’s blog, TPRS Questions and Answers at

While I was asking people about their cars, the audience did not find the conversation boring. Because I was asking them personal questions and they were interested in learning about each other. This is the second pillar of the Comprehensible Input construction: PQA, Personalized Questions and Answers. Using a target structure, the teacher asks the students questions about themselves. Of course she never pries and students are encouraged to use their imagination and under no pressure to be honest. In PQA we are looking for answers that are memorable rather than answers that are true. How did Jean go to Paris? On his blue skateboard, of course. Everyone will remember the man that owns half of a car. We all like to talk about ourselves. We all like to learn more about our neighbors. PQA is compelling. Instead of inventing imaginary characters, we talk about our students; they become the heroes of our stories. In the stories we create, our students may interact with famous people, but the hero will always be our student. Some teachers never go beyond PQA. During an exchange that I had organized with Jeff Moore in Macomb, some of my students sat in on his French class. Afterwards I asked them what the lesson was like. They said, “Oh, they don’t have lessons. They just sit around and chat in French.” When I use PQA, I still have target structures that I use  in the questions that I ask my students.

The third technique that I want to talk about is the use of Pop-ups. Some people say that TPRS and Comprehensible Input do not teach grammar. And some of the people who say that are TPRS teachers. However almost all of us do teach grammar, in homeopathic doses. We do it through “pop-ups”.  A pop-up is a three second grammar lesson. When we have introduced a target structure and circled it, using it until we see our students are responding spontaneously, without having to stop and think in order to decode what they are hearing, we can introduce a pop-up.  If we have just said, “Jim goes to the movies in his silver Jaguar”, I can ask a barometer student to translate the sentence into French. Then I can ask another student what, “Jim went to the movies” means. Then I could ask a star student how to say “Marie n’a pas été voir le nouveau film.” My questions are not about grammatical jargon or vocabulary. They are about meaning. I adapt the question to the student’s level, so that they all feel successful and challenged. The purpose is to help students see how forms influence meaning. Pop-ups are not necessary for acquisition, but the grammar nerds will enjoy them.

A fourth strategy used by TPRS teachers is Embedded Reading, developed by Michele Whaley and Laurie Clarcq, it is a precious tool that enables even beginners to comprehend complex written texts. Reading is an important element in acquisition. Input can be either oral or written, and there are numerous studies which show how vital reading is to becoming literate and reaching an advanced level in a second language. The question is how do we make a written text comprehensible. The answer is through Embedded Reading. I use it often with films. After watching a scene, I will make a short summary with my students, using their words. Then I can write a second version which contains the first but has added vocabulary and more complex sentences. When we have read the second version and discussed it and I’m sure that they understand it thoroughly, I give them a third version which is even more complex and with richer vocabulary. It still contains the two earlier versions, so the students are not overwhelmed by novelty. Quite the contrary, they will find that it is relatively easy to read and understand. If they had started with the final version they would probably have been discouraged by its difficulty. Sometimes my final version is an authentic text, taken from a novel or newspaper article, which I have simplified progressively, making three or four versions. Embedded reading is also called scaffolding and within the last four or five years has become an essential tool in the TPRS teacher’s toolbox.

Laurie Clarcq and Michele Whaley also worked together to introduce the use of Movie Talk to CI teachers. Originally imagined by Ashley Hastings, Movie Talk was used in an immersion course where it was found that the listening comprehension of students being taught with Movie Talk progressed five times faster than that of students who were not given Movie Talk. The idea is to show a movie scene without the sound track, stopping frequently to discuss what is happening. The teacher tells the story, using vocabulary that is comprehensible and eliciting the students’ opinions about what is going on and what may happen next. The scene is merely a pretext for a discussion which allows the teacher to target the structures she thinks her students need to acquire. Ashley Hastings used Movie Talk with full length films in a long term immersion course. TPRS teachers in primary and secondary schools rarely have the luxury of immersion conditions, so they tend to use short videos, just a few minutes long. They often use silent films with no dialog, or mute the scene. It is the teacher which furnishes the commentary, allowing her to ensure that the input is comprehensible. During Movie Talk the teacher will circle her target structures and can introduce PQA by comparing the character to a student. Pop-ups can also be used with Movie Talk, and a Movie Talk session can be followed by an Embedded Reading on the same subject.

TESOL Coloquium 2015 Paris
TESOL Coloquium 2015 Paris

Lastly, I’d like to share with you my own small contribution to the Comprehensible Input edifice, which I call Very Narrow Listening. Long before I discovered TPRS, I used films with my students, because of their high interest. The difficulty of course was that my students found the films … incomprehensible. So I often gave them scripts and we worked with the scripts as a written text. But I wanted my students to hear what was being said, so I gave them scripts with blanks to fill in as they listened to the dialogue. And I quickly realized that blanks must be words that they already knew. Today I say words that they have already acquired. How could they possibly recognize a word they had not acquired? And I found an article by Stephen Krashen in which he encourages intermediate students to do what he calls “Narrow Listening.” He advises students to listen to numerous short recordings on a subject that they find compelling. Because the recordings are all about the same familiar subject, the vocabulary will be limited to a rather narrow field, thus fairly comprehensible. I realized that using my fill in the blank scripts was very similar. My students found the film plot compelling. They were familiar with the situation and context, since we spent several weeks studying the film and key words were frequently repeated. I explained unfamiliar vocabulary to my students when we looked at the script and the blanks were always high frequency, acquired vocabulary. So I call the technique “Very Narrow Listening.” Usually when I play the scene the first time without subtitles, my students shrug their shoulders and say they understood nothing. Questioned, they will come up with a few words they understood and hopefully they’ll have a fairly good idea about what is said. Then I ask them to read the script while I play the scene, but I don’t allow them to write anything in the blanks at this point. For the simple reason that they can’t write and at the same time follow the rest of the dialog. If there are words they don’t understand, I explain them. Then we listen to just a short speech, I stop the film and ask what they understood. Usually I have to replay the sound-bite several times before they can identify the missing word. What they are doing is learning to associate the actual sounds made by native speakers with the written words. Students who have had little chance to interact with native speakers often have a very false idea of how words are pronounced, so of course they cannot identify them when they hear them. When they have filled in one or two words in the first sound-bite, we proceed to the next. It can take up to an hour to do a scene which is only three minutes of the film. When we have filled in all the blanks and discussed meaning, I ask my students to turn over their pages and listen to the entire scene one more time, without the subtitles. They are amazed, because they now understand what they are hearing. It is no longer an incoherent jumble of noise. Preparing the script takes me some time, but I can usually use it over and over again with other classes. Having seen the progress it allows my students to make in their listening comprehension, which is so essential to their overall progress, I am convinced that Very Narrow Listening is an extremely effective tool in my kit.

My goal as a language teacher is to create autonomous learners, people who will continue to progress in their use of the language without teachers or classes. There is no doubt that people who read in English for their own pleasure and listen to films in English without subtitles are getting the comprehensible input that is needed to reach an advanced level. Embedded Readings and Very Narrow Listening are techniques that teachers can use to make themselves redundant. And a teacher that has become redundant is an effective teacher.


During my presentation, one person asked if, having switched to using Comprehensible Input methods in my lycée classes, I felt I could help the kind of student that I had previously failed. My answer was a very definite yes. My last year in the lycée I worked with small groups of students who were failing English. One of my colleagues told me last year that she had two of my former students in her terminale class, and they were among the best students in her class.

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