comprehensible input

Why Comprehensible Input is All It’s Cracked Up to Be

The year was 1993, and I’d just been hired to do a Spanish Immersion in Okinawa, Japan. While I was excited to be moving from chilly Chinhae, South Korea to the much warmer climate of Oki, secretly I was terrified. I had no idea how to do a language immersion. I spoke Spanish, but speaking a language is only one of many qualifications for an immersion teacher.

My summer schedule was filled with training provided by the Department of Defense, but the one training I couldn’t wait to attend was training for immersion teachers. Minneapolis/St. Paul was never so lovely as the days I spent filling my head with all things immersion. That is when I first encountered the theory of Comprehensible Input, first introduced by Stephen Krashen, and which states that students must be able to understand what we, as teachers, are teaching if there is any hope of being understood.

I was impressed with the numbers of ways that a teacher could be comprehensible without pulling his or her hair out – graphs, anchor charts, labeling, Total Physical Response, visuals, realia, and more. I also learned what works against the students’ acquisition of language: simultaneous translation, which is translating what I just said in Spanish into English (or vice versa, depending upon which language I want them to learn) so the kids would understand. This impedes language acquisition so much, in fact, that in some classes gains are not measurable.

Armed with this new knowledge, I headed to Okinawa and an enjoyable, successful year with fantastic kids, giving them their first experience with the Spanish language. I recognized that the information I’d received was a great start, and that there was so much more I could learn – and create – to be a great teacher of second language learners.

Years later I would be recruited to be a teacher coach and trainer on a Dual Language grant in a moderate-sized urban district. As we gathered our collective knowledge, the strongest piece I had to offer was Comprehensible Input, and trained them in what I knew. Even today, as I am called upon to consult to or train in schools and districts on the best ways to reach English Language Learners, one of the most important pieces I offer assistance with is Comprehensible Input.

Why? Because most teachers think that their students understand them simply because they are looking at them. That is mostly cultural, especially if you are working with students from Latin America. Respect is huge for teachers, and part of showing respect is keeping one’s eyes on the teacher.

I have a quick test for any teacher who thinks that they are comprehensible in their instruction. Set your phone to video mode and record a lesson which you are teaching. After you’ve finished, go to a colleague at a different grade level, mute the sound, and give them no introduction. Play back your lesson. Ask them to tell you what you’re teaching and everything they learned.

I did this with my graduate students while an instructor for Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University. Trust me, realizing how much more Comprehensible Input their lessons needed was eye-opening, and in some cases, life-changing. They became acutely aware that adding it in ample doses to their teaching is not an option in good second language teaching, it is mandatory – and highly effective. Even years later they remembered to include as much and as many forms of Comprehensible Input as the lesson required.

I will always be grateful for the very early start I got in effective ways to work with English Language Learners. That training for my second grade Spanish immersion class set my career in motion. Today I can say that after having coached hundreds, and trained many thousands, of teachers, I have shared those first strategies and many hundreds more with teachers who were just as eager as I was to be all I could be for my English Language Learners.

You can benefit today from my 23 years of experience working specifically with English Learners. I have created more than 150 strategies, 50 of which can be found in our online ELL strategies course. Take a moment, click on the link, and then make a decision to become an amazing teacher of English Learners. You’ll be happy you did!