What is Comprehensible Input?

Why are so many language teachers talking about CI?

More and more foreign language teachers are talking about Comprehensible Input and their conversations often become heated as they argue for and against. What are they debating? What is Comprehensible Input, familiarly known as “CI”? There are many answers, not all of them helpful. Some talk of the revolutionary approach of Dr. Stephen Krashen in the seventies. Others look to a Spanish teacher named Blaine Ray who wears Hawaiian shirts and talks about pink kangaroos. Others cite Ashley Hastings and Focal Skills. There’s ALG, Automatic Language Growth, which is founded on the idea of Comprehensible Input and developed in a school in Thailand. There’s Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki in Japan, who uses Story-Listening and has disciples around the world. They all believe that traditional methods of teaching foreign languages have been failing us for centuries and there must be a better way. They don’t necessarily agree on what the better way might be.

What CI is not:

It’s important to understand that Comprehensible Input is NOT a method. Dr. Stephen Krashen studied how the human brain acquires a second language, reviewing all the literature and studies he could find. He concluded that we acquire our second language much as we acquire our first language, through receiving messages that we understand. He called these messages Comprehensible Input. It doesn’t take much to realize that no one has ever acquired any language without receiving messages that they understand. Incomprehensible language cannot have meaning. There are ambitious scholars who have tried to build their own reputations by opposing some aspect of Dr. Krashen’s work, but since he published his input hypothesis in 1977, no one has been able to disprove it or propose a better explanation. His strongest critics seem to be saying, “Yes, but …”

The hypothesis that went around the world

So Comprehensible Input is not a method at all, but a hypothesis which attempts to explain how the human brain acquires language. I have heard Dr. Krashen himself say that as far as methodology goes, he is not the expert. The experts are the classroom teachers. It is up to them to find better ways and more effective methods of delivering Comprehensible Input to their students. As more and more foreign language teachers became aware of Dr. Krashen’s work, they realized that language classes that studied only the grammar and vocabulary of a foreign tongue, classes which studied French as if it were a dead language, were rarely successful.

Why are Europeans, Africans and Asians so good at foreign languages?

Many parts of the world are naturally multilingual. Different languages and different cultures rub up against each other and children may already speak two or three or more languages before they enter a classroom. (Living in a small town in Cameroon where there were dozens of different language communities, it was common to see people who spoke three or more different languages fluently.) Such students don’t see learning a language as an intellectual feat. They are confident that their teacher will give them what they need to succeed. The teacher who speaks to them and is understood, the teacher who gives them texts to read which they can understand will enable them to acquire the language, sooner or later, whatever the method. After all, humans have been acquiring second languages for as long as they have been encountering people from other lands.

Why are Americans so bad at foreign languages?

But the problem of teaching a foreign language in the classroom was particularly acute in the United States. Americans find it difficult to learn other languages because although the United States was a land of immigrants, monolingualism became the rule. The children of immigrants saw no advantage to being bilingual. They wanted to fit in and be accepted as “Americans”. Their parents were proud of how well they spoke English and did not encourage them to cultivate the language of their ancestors. In some cases, as with Native Americans and hispanophones, they were punished if they spoke anything that was not English. Even today you hear of people being called out in public for speaking in another language. Americans did not consider being bilingual as something perfectly natural, as Europeans and others often did. They came to believe that only very intelligent, very well-educated people could learn another language, that it was not something ordinary people did.

Learning a language without acquiring it. In the United States it is easy to find students with two or more years of language study who admit they don’t speak the language. What they are saying is that they have not acquired it. They may remember grammar rules and verb conjugations that they memorized, but they are unable to communicate in the language. We might conclude that while it might be easy to Acquire another language, it can be very difficult to Learn a second language. The distinction between Acquisition and Learning is a fundamental part of Dr. Krashen’s hypothesis.

What is Acquisition?

It happens naturally, without effort, when we receive messages that we understand. It can be totally unconscious. In my own personal experience, I used to live in Kribi, Cameroon, where I could hear over twenty different languages around me. I understood English, French, Pidgin English and a few words of Batanga, but made no attempt to master the others. And people didn’t wear signs, so when I overheard two people talking, I had no idea which language they were actually speaking. There were dozens of possibilities. But one day I heard a lady say to a workman, “Za fa,” and I understood that she had told him to bring her the machete. Without being conscious of it, I had heard people say “za” when they wanted something, often making a gesture, and I had actually acquired the word “bring” without knowing what language it belonged to. We sold machetes in our store, so I must have often heard customers ask the salespeople for a “fa” and then come to me to pay for their machete. I had heard the words often enough in a context that gave them meaning that I had acquired them unconsciously and instantly understood what the woman wanted from the workman. This is Acquisition.

What is Learning?

It is conscious and requires a lot more effort than Acquisition. The methodology of learning is derived from the study of Latin during the Middle Ages. There were no longer any native speakers to promote natural acquisition, so scholars had to memorize texts and vocabulary. They analysed the grammar and created rules to explain how the word forms changed. It took highly motivated students to invest the mental energy involved, but their reward was an opportunity for a career in the Catholic Church, more powerful than many states at that time. It became accepted that languages were something to be learned with hard work and perseverance, not accessible to the weak-minded. (Of course, at the same time, aristocrats who wanted their children to speak more than one language simply hired nurse-maids and servants, so that their offspring could Acquire French, German or English.) In the early United States, as schools developed, the popular languages among the early scholars were Latin and Greek. When modern languages like French and German were introduced, they were taught with the same methods used to teach the dead languages of antiquity.


What is the monitor?

Dr. Krashen calls the conscious part of our mind that looks at language the monitor. When we remember words that we have previously studied and apply the grammar rules that we have learned to make a sentence, we are using our monitor. This conscious effort takes time, so our output may be laborious. On the other hand, acquired language will come to us spontaneously, without any effort. The monitor can be helpful in producing output under certain conditions. The first one is that we actually know the correct grammatical rule that is required. And the second is that we have time to review what we know and construct our production. This is usually the case when we are writing, but rarely helpful in a conversation.

From theory to practice.

How does the Comprehensible Input theory of Dr. Krashen assist the classroom teacher? How can it be applied to their daily practice? The simplest explanation is that all the teacher has to do is provide messages in the target language that their students can understand. One of the first to apply CI to work with students was Dr. James Asher. Studying young children acquiring their first language, he saw parents giving orders to children who often showed their comprehension through physical movements. He developed three principles.

1) Language is acquired primarily by listening.

2) Acquisition happens in the right hemisphere of the brain, through physical movement.

3) Language acquisition is most effective when it is free of stress.

Dr. James Asher and TPR

As a result, Dr. Asher experimented with something he called, Total Physical Response, or TPR. Teachers gave orders to their students, modelling the actions they wanted. “Stand up. Sit down. Stand up and turn around. Clap your hands.” Students enjoy TPR. It gets them out of their seats and moving. It is easy because there is always someone modelling what you are expected to do. There is no anxiety about speaking because no one asks you to speak. TPR was instantly successful and many teachers in the United States began using it. It is still very popular and widely used. I was once privileged to see Berty Segal Cook teach Yiddish in a demonstration of TPR and was amazed, not only at how dynamic and fun the lesson was, but also by how well I understood what were fairly advanced structures in Yiddish.

Berty Segal Cook and advanced TPR

Many teachers use TPR with small children and beginners, but look for other methods when the language becomes more complex than simple orders. Berty Segal Cook was able to teach advanced grammatical structures with TPR and wrote books explaining how to do it, but we are not all the master teacher she was. Teaching Language through TPR is still treasured as the best way to start students on their way to Acquisition.

Blaine Ray and TPR Storytelling

Blaine Ray was trying to keep his job as a Spanish teacher in California when he discovered first Dr. Krashen, then Dr. James Asher. He tried TPR and had some initial success, but the students were soon complaining that they were always doing the same things. They wanted more variety; they wanted something more engaging. Blaine began creating stories with them. He began with a bare skeleton of a story, and the students added the details that made it interesting, that made it THEIR story. He and his students had a lot of fun, inventing ridiculous stories together. Then the teacher would give them the story to read and the students found his texts easy, because they had co-created the story themselves. Blaine Ray’s students were progressing far beyond what was expected at their level and some of them scored extremely high on state wide exams. Other teachers began paying attention, wondering what he was doing to get such excellent results.

Susan Gross, the creation of a system

One of the teachers who was curious about Blaine’s methods was Susie Gross. She taught French in Colorado and was proud of her advanced students, but she soon realized that Blaine’s students, who were Acquiring language, were far more advanced than her own students who were Learning French. She began following him around, observing him every chance she got. Blaine was a natural. He had a great relationship with his students and enjoyed his sessions with them, but had no idea how to explain to other people how to be Blaine Ray. Susie Gross took notes, saw patterns and was able to translate Blaine’s magic into a Method. They called it TPR + Stories, or TPRS.

More tprs

Teachers who saw Blaine and Susan Gross doing TPRS soon wanted to try it and began getting the same fantastic results with their students. Around the year 2000 someone started the moretprs list serve on the internet, so that teachers could ask questions, exchange ideas, experiences, tips and advice. Blaine Ray and Susan Gross often answered questions, but other leaders participated frequently and became known around the nation. Local TPRS groups formed and shared what they had learned from watching the pioneers. Blaine and Susan began giving workshops, so that others could learn the method.

Teri Wiechart and coaching

Teri lived in Ohio and was an early follower of Blaine Ray. She was able to attend a workshop training and went back to tell her fellow teachers about it. They wanted to try it out among themselves before going before their classes. They realized they needed a coach. Teri became their coach, giving her colleagues a safe place where they could practice before trying it out on their students. Eventually Coaching developed and became an important part the TPRS conferences. I met Teri at Minneapolis for the National TPRS conference in 2008 and was impressed by her empathy. We communicated by emails and eventually she agreed to help me try to create a week-long conference in France. She came to Agen and coached us, spotting the future potential in many of our teachers.

The Green Bible

TPRS was not easy for many teachers. It eventually evolved into three steps. The teacher begins by establishing the meaning of new vocabulary items, then asks the story, using the same vocabulary, then gives the students a written story to read. Susie Gross and others worked to codify the steps. Contee Seely helped Blaine put it all in a book called Fluency through TPR Storytelling. Known today as “The Green Bible”, it is now in its 8th edition.

Ben Slavic and TPRS IN A YEAR

A frequent contributor to the moretprs list serve was Ben Slavic in Colorado. He had trained with Susie Gross and had a gift for language. Seeing that many teachers found it difficult to change everything they were doing at once and were floundering and giving up, he wrote a book, TPRS in a Year, which explained how to begin using the new method step by step. Personally, this was the book that allowed me to actually begin teaching with TPRS.

Success and growing momentum

There was a lot of excitement about the change that teachers saw in their students. Language seemed to “fall out of their mouths”. The students were enjoying their classes and acquiring language faster than ever before. In the United States, because of Hispanic migration and connections with Spanish speaking countries in Central America and South America, the most often requested foreign language is Spanish. Teachers of other languages often had to accept half salaries because they didn’t have the numbers of students to justify a full salary. But when the French teacher or the Latin teacher began using TPRS, their enrolment went up. Students enjoyed their classes and felt successful. They told their friends and more and more students chose French or Latin instead of Spanish. Lynette St. George was hired to teach French with a half post. The following year she had enough students asking to take her class to justify a full post. A few years later and her school needed two French teachers. Bob Patrick’s story is even more amazing. He was hired to teach Latin part time in a large inner city high school in Atlanta, Georgia. Bob had decided that he could teach Latin as a living, spoken language using TPRS. Students found his classes engaging and felt successful. He soon had a full-time job and was a finalist for the national Teacher of the Year award. Today there are five Latin teachers who use TPRS in his school.

Meanwhile, elsewhere …

Blaine Ray has a dynamic, fun-loving personality. He loves crazy ideas and ridiculous, impossible stories. His students enjoy playing the game with him, the wilder the story the better. But not all teachers felt comfortable trying to be Blaine Ray. And there were others who had never heard of TPRS but wanted to apply Dr. Krashen’s ideas in their classes. Here and there other teachers developed other methods to privilege comprehensible input in their classes.

Dr. Ashley Hastings and Movie Talk

In 1987 the University of Wisconsin was developing a new approach to the traditional four language skills, Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing, known as the Focal Skills. Students would be tested and then assigned to a group that would study their weakest skill. Overall, the students that tested weakest in Listening were among the very weakest in the program. Dr. Krashen tells us that if students don’t understand what they hear, they are not getting the Comprehensible Input they need to progress. Dr. Hastings used films with the students assigned to the Listening module. She would show her students a scene with the sound, then show it again without the sound, narrating what they saw in Comprehensible English. Not only did her students enjoy the course and improve their listening skill, when they were tested at the end of the course, they showed that they had progressed remarkably in all four focal skills. Personally, I feel that we tend to neglect the importance of Listening as a fundamental skill. Teachers in the growing TPRS community heard of Dr. Hastings work and incorporated it in their lesson plans, using the expression she coined for it, Movie Talk. While Dr. Hastings used full length films, primary school teachers began using her technique with much shorter videos. Laurie Clarcq and Michele Whaley adapted Movie Talk and demonstrated how to use it with short clips. When teachers began using Dr. Hastings’ method to target specific structures in a grammatical sequence, she objected. Today, teachers who target specific structures using short videos are requested to use the term “Clip Chat”.

Dr. Marvin Brown and Automatic Language Growth

Dr. Brown was asked to create a program for foreigners living in Bangkok, Thailand who wished to learn to speak Thai, usually for business reasons. He accepted the principles of Dr. Krashen and added the idea that when beginners tried to speak, using their monitors, they were actually delaying their Acquisition. He claimed to be able to bring complete beginners to near native accuracy. His teachers talked to their students, told jokes, explained how to cook a traditional dish, described a trip to a famous shrine, in short talked about anything and everything as long as they ensured that the students understood what was being said. His success was remarkable and the school he founded is often visited by teachers from around the world who want to experience his method, called ALG or Automatic Language Growth, first hand.

Dr. Beniko Mason Nanki and Story-Listening

Dr. Mason taught English in a Japanese university. She had followed the work of Dr. Krashen closely and wanted to give her students pure Comprehensible Input with no concessions to academic traditions. Having studied in Germany, she was familiar with Grimm’s fairy tales, time tested but unknown to most of her students. She decided that she would give her students oral Comprehensible Input by telling them Grimm’s stories. She used the board to make sketches and note vocabulary, helping to make the stories comprehensible. Secondly, she gave them lists of easy readers in English to provide them with written Comprehensible Input. Since Dr. Krashen repeatedly stressed that Input should be Compelling as well as Comprehensible, she asked her students to choose the books they wanted to read, according to their own tastes and preferences. Her students did well on their exams, often better than students following more traditional academic programs. In 2015 Dr. Mason came to the Agen Workshop and presented Story-Listening to teachers from around the world. She continued her journey to the United States, presenting at a teachers’ conference in Oregon. Many teachers who saw her went home and began trying out the new technique. They often found it easier to implement than TPRS and their students seemed to enjoy it just as much if not more. Kathrin Shechtman, a gifted artist, was teaching German in an IB school when she began using it. She and Alice Ayel, another IB school teacher, began posting videos of their Story-Listening classes on youtube. More and more teachers are using it and there is a very active group on Facebook who share stories and their experience with the new methodology. Dr. Mason is always available with advice, clarifications and encouragement.

The Elephant in the Room

“Yes, but…” say many teachers. “Where is the grammar? My students are expected to speak and write using advanced forms correctly. How can they do that without studying grammar?” Part of the reply to this question lies in an aspect of all the methods discussed above which is the importance given to Reading. Observers see teachers animate a lively class, creating a TPRS story, leading a TPR activity, doing Movie Talk or Story-Listening and forget that they all follow up with assigned reading. Since existing texts were too difficult for beginners, TPRS teachers began writing simplified texts that their students could read with very little help, giving them written comprehensible input. Beniko Mason has a very complete catalogue of English language texts classed by order of difficulty which allows her students to choose their own books according to their level. No one disputes that readers acquire correct grammar; the difficulty lies in motivating them to read. Teachers in the CI community have developed several strategies to encourage their students to read more.

Readers’ Theater

An extremely effective and enjoyable strategy which gets students to read and reread a text several times is Readers’ Theater, which Jason Fritze helped to develop. If you ever have a chance to see Jason present, you’ll wish you were six years old and could be in his class. You know that every one of his kids adores him. The principle of Readers’ Theater is to take a text from a novel and make it into a scene on stage. To do this, students have to study the actions in the text and perform them with the correct dialog and the correct emotions. This goal involves constantly referring to the written text, which is then transformed into physical action. (Remember James Asher’s opinion on the importance of physical movement to acquisition?) I first saw Readers’ Theater demonstrated by Robert Harrell in Agen, and his presentation of the beheading of a crew of German pirates was captivating. I’ve been using the technique ever since.

Laurie Clarcq and Embedded Reading

Laurie had asked her students to write a summary of a story they had done in class. Her best students did an excellent job, using advanced structures and vocabulary. Her average students turned in something that was acceptable, using the frequent expressions called for. But one boy, who was very weak and often pretended to sleep through the class, handed in a short but effective summary, including everything that was important. The next day Laurie projected the student summaries to the class which displayed three different levels of complexity, but explained that they all were excellent examples of a good summary. The boy whose short but efficient summary was shown to the class as a good example was grinning from ear to ear, proud that his effort had been used as an example. Laurie realized that many of her students were helped by seeing three different versions of the same story. This experience helped her to realize that she could give her students the same text in different levels of difficulty, beginning with a short one that everyone could read easily, then offering something a little longer and more complicated. Her students, having read the first version, would have no real difficulty in decoding the second one. Then she could give them a third incarnation of the same text which used advanced vocabulary and grammatical structures. Having worked their way through the earlier versions, they would be able to read a text that they would have rejected as too difficult if she had begun with it. Embedded Reading is easily adapted to all sorts of texts. Teachers may start with a simple text and make it more and more complicated, or they may start with an authentic resource that would be too difficult for their students and simplify it to obtain three, four or even five versions.

What is pop-up grammar?

When CI teachers are using a structure that they want students to be familiar with, especially something that will affect meaning, they ask questions about the form. “What is the difference between “Il marche” and “Il marchait”? Students need to understand that the two expressions refer to different times. The teacher takes only a few seconds to explain the structure and then goes on. This is pop-up grammar, an intervention that takes very little time and does not interfere with the class activity. Different forms are only important when they change the meaning of a phrase. Long explanations and written exercises are considered a waste of time.

Can Comprehensible Input, Reading and pop-up grammar effectively teach grammatical forms?

My personal answer, based on my own experience, is yes, they can. Let me explain. In 2005 I had not yet heard of TPRS. I was a “professeur agrégé” teaching in a large lycée in Agen. It was a year I remember with pleasure because I was given a class of exceptional students who had been accepted in the very selective “Scientific” section which is considered the fast track to success in France. Most of the students in the class would have tested as “gifted.” They were bright, intelligent and ambitious. I had a ball teaching them. I began the year with the prologue of the film, Lord of the Rings. The entire prologue is in the passive voice. “Three rings were given to the elves … seven were given to the dwarf-lords and nine, nine were given to the kings of men … but they were all of them deceived because another ring was made.” (Among my colleagues I was known as “the queen of the passive voice.” They copied my schemas explaining the transformation from active to passive voice to use in their own classes.) I explained to my bright and gifted students what the passive voice was. I gave them written transformation exercises to do as homework which we corrected in class. Finally, I gave them a test and they almost all passed it with flying colors. Once again, I had succeeded in teaching my students to use the Passive Voice. Or had I? I couldn’t help but notice that once we had moved on to other grammatical structures, very few of my students actually tried to use the passive voice in their written assignments. And those who did, made mistakes. I began to detect a pattern. They were intelligent students. They prepared for the test and passed it with success. Then they began preparing for the next test and erased the passive voice clutter which their brains no longer needed. My students were very skilled at Learning. It was a game they knew how to play.

Acquisition and the passive voice

Fast forward to 2012. It is my last year teaching in the lycée. Because of a mysterious snafu in the ministry of education, I have no assigned classes. I’m expected to replace anyone who is ill. Unfortunately for me, my colleagues are extremely healthy and I’m being paid a lot of money to do nothing. So, I ask my colleagues to give me their pests, to send me the students that are perturbing their classes, so they can get on with teaching the ones that want to learn and I can have something to do. Unlike the wonderful class I had had in 2005, my students in 2012 had been failing English year after year. Some of them had sat through four or five years of classes and still tested as beginners. They knew they were failures and hated English classes, which is why they did everything possible to upset their teachers. By then I had discovered TPRS and had been applying the principles of Comprehensible Input to my teaching. I showed them the prologue to Lord of the Ring. I did not mention the passive voice, not even once. We talked about the ring and its powers and the story and its characters. We read the subtitles in English together and I did everything possible to make the film comprehensible. It’s a great film and my students were captivated and they soon forgot we were doing it in English. We continued watching the following scenes and about a month or six weeks later, I wanted to remind them that Sauron was behind the ring. I almost asked, “Who was the ring made by?” Then my teacher brain woke up and whispered, “That’s the passive voice. They won’t understand the question.” So, I asked, “Who made the ring?” A boy who had been sent to me because he was failing English and perturbing the class answered. He said, “The ring was made by Sauron.” He didn’t know that it was called the passive voice but he was able to use it correctly and spontaneously in exactly the right context, when we were more interested in the ring than in its maker. He had Acquired the passive voice structure, simply through hearing it used repeatedly in compelling comprehensible input. My former students were brilliant Learners, but in spite of my explanations and schemas and written exercises, in spite of their hard work and serious application, they did not Acquire the passive voice structure in a way that enabled them to use it spontaneously and correctly.

So, to answer my original question: Comprehensible Input is what allows a student to acquire language by being engaged in something they find compelling, without using their monitor to laboriously memorize verb forms and vocabulary.

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