What Is Comprehensible Input? (And How Do You Find It?)
- Mille Larsen •13 mins read
Stephen Krashen presented his Theory of Second Language Acquisition back in the 1980′s. It has been a leading influencer in thinking about language learning ever since and has had a big impact on my thinking of how we learn language and thus, how I can help others learn language for themselves.
The theory itself has five parts and while much of it has had an influence on language education, some of the ideas are more widely accepted than others. In it all is a lot of debate and a lot of scientific sounding language, but I want to focus on trying to unpack one part of it in a way that is useful for most language learners.
Krashen, in his great little book Foreign Language Education the Easy Way says:
“We acquire language in only one way, when we understand messages, that is when we obtain “comprehensible input.” Thus, we acquire when we understand what people tell us or what we read, when we are absorbed in the message. More precisly, we acquire when we understand messages containing aspects of language that we are developmentally ready to acquire but have not yet acquired.”
This is all best understood if it is demonstrated and so in the following video, circa the early 80′s, Krashen himself demonstrates what he means by Comprehensible Input.
Comprehensible input helps us internalize the language, recognize words and patterns and leads to our learning the language. I am not too concerned over what is meant by acquisition or learning. I am also not concerned with whether Krashen’s theory is 100% true or not. I’m pretty sure most of you don’t even care who Krashen is! I am only concerned with trying to take what I feel are the best parts of this idea and trying to realistically help learners apply them to their language learning journey. That’s what I am trying to do here.
The problem is that while most of us can agree that comprehensible input will greatly improve language learning, we don’t know how to go about finding it. It’s not something that can be standardized and turned into a nice little shortcut. And while comprehensible input is beneficial, the world we live in is not overly charitable in handing it out. In fact mostly, when it comes to comprehensible input, our world is downright cruel.
In the past, teachers have been the best at providing comprehensible input. They were trained in this thinking, in ideas like Total Physical Response, providing background knowledge and scaffolding. Most language teachers were, and still are very good at this. As independent, self-directed language learners however, we don’t have a teacher providing it for us and must find ways to find it for ourselves.
I would like to present ten ways that independent language learners can make sure that they are getting the comprehensible input they need to learn the language. If we can’t find comprehensible input on the market or in the world around us, then it is our job to create it for ourselves. Thankfully this is not all that difficult and can be a lot of fun.
How to find comprehensible input
Comprehensible input is too important to restrict to ten ideas.
As well, I find that I learn the language in one of three settings and so it seemed fitting to divide this post into sections reflecting those environments.
I learn language in the personal setting, by myself as I study on my own. I learn language in a lesson setting, where I intentionally work with a native speaker for a set period of time.
And I learn language in a community setting, when I head out to be with native speakers in an informal way.
Each of these settings is different and present their own unique challenges for obtaining comprehensible input. Regardless of the setting though, it is important as independent language learners that you find or create the comprehensible input that you need to learn the language.
It is your responsibility.
I have tried to do my best to offer brief summaries of the ideas below.
Are there more ideas out there? I am sure there are and I would love to see you share your ideas in the comment section below.
The Personal Setting
Children’s books are written with a narrower vocabulary and are usually supported with pictures, both of which help aid comprehension.
Dora the Explorer
Children’s cartoons can be a great source of comprehensible input. Some are better than others. Dora the Explorer for example narrates nearly everything she does in a repetitive fashion so that as Dora is walking down the yellow brick road she is usually saying something like, “I’m walking down the yellow brick road. I’m walking, walking, walking. I am walking down the yellow brick road.” Finding dubbed versions of these can be a great source of comprehensible input.
Finding resources like Dora the Explorer in the target language is usually the challenge. With Google Translate and Youtube though, you can find just about anything. Type: Watch Dora the Explorer into Google Translate and then copy the translated phrase into the Youtube search bar. You can use Google Translate to search for tons of things in this way. A few to consider: clothing catalogue, children’s stories, world news, or the name of your favorite hobby.
Passion Podcasts or Blogs
Using Google Translate, find podcasts or blogs about the things you are passionate about. If you are a Man United fanatic, find blogs and podcasts about Man United in the target language. What’s your passion? Harley Davidson? Fly Fishing? Star Trek? Apple Computers? George Cloony? Internet Marketing? Find a blog or podcast created by a native speaker about that topic.
Comic books use the pictures to tell half the story, giving you a tremendous amount of background knowledge. The reading is mostly just the dialogue between characters. A comic book or graphic novel can be a great source of comprehensible input.
Finding your favorite movie dubbed into the language you are learning can be an excellent source of comprehensible input. Your interest is high, you have great amount of background knowledge and you can watch scenes or the whole movie again and again.
Rather than skipping around and reading about a lot of different subjects, reading a variety of different texts about the same subject builds background knowledge and creates more comprehensible input. As an example you may read four different newspaper articles about the same current event. Each author writes from their own point of view, but each uses the same set of words and structures. This could also be expanded to other activities: watching movies, listening to podcasts and listening to other native speakers – all about the same topic.
Books in a Series
Reading a series (Narnia or Harry Potter for example) is another great way to create comprehensible input. A great deal of background knowledge, vocabulary and the writer’s style carries over from one book to the next. For example, as I have read through the Harry Potter series, there was a larger percentage of words that I knew in book 2 that had carried over from book 1. This allowed my mind to get integrated review of what I already knew while being able to focus on the new stuff that was coming up.
We have probably all at one time or another labeled the things in our home with the new language. This is great, but we can increase the amount of comprehensible input available by expanding this labeling to include statements about what the object does, or what we do to it. For example if you label the door, why not also write a few sentences below the word: I open the door. I close the door. I knock on the door. This will give you more interaction with more of the language.
Repeat – reread, re-watch, re-listen
Don’t be afraid to read the same book twice or watch a movie four times in a row. With each pass through, you will understand more, allowing your brain to make more and deeper connections of meaning with the words and structures you are seeing.
Side-by-side books have the story in both languages in the same book. One language on the right page, the other language on the left page. I would avoid reading sentence by sentence, but being able to look back and forth as you read does much to increase comprehensible input. Learn More.
This program will not do everything for you, but it can be a supplemental activity that will provides you with lots of comprehensible input. Do a lesson a day as part of your program and it can be a great resource.
The Lesson Setting
Home Furnishing catalogues like the ones IKEA gives away can be a great resource to use with a native speaker. You can do a lot of great activities that provide really great comprehensible input with them.
Total Physical Response
Total Physical Response is a classroom activity that language teachers have been using for some time. It is time tested and proven to really work. The challenge is to turn it around so that you the learner can direct what is going on while still receiving the great input. A good game of Simon Says may be a good place to start.
Language Acquisition Projects (LAPs)
Developed by Dwight Gradin, LAPs are an amazing way to get structured and ever expanding comprehensible input. There is a brief summary of how to use LAPs as well as 26 LAPs in Peter Pikkert’s FREE LACE Manual. I am hoping that a training video will be made for LAPs one day because they are amazing once you know how to use them. LAPs were the single most powerful tool I've used.
Handcrafted stories are stories that you have written. After you correct them with a native speaking friend, they become a great source of comprehensible input because they are interesting and filled with background knowledge (you wrote them after all). And since you wrote them, they are at your level. Perfect! Record your native speaking friend reading them, put them on your ipod and now you have an amazing source of comprehensible input that you can add to your personal study time.
On a large poster board, draw a map of your town with some of the main landmarks. Borrow one of your son’s matchbox cars (optional). Now sit down with a native speaker and have him tell you how to get to one place or another as if you are the taxi driver. This is a great way to get a lot of input and also really get a lot of practice at understanding directions.
Have your native speaking friend or language helper tell you a common story that you both know. Thinks of childhood stories, folktales, etc. You could also give them a bunch of props and have them use the props to make up and tell a story.
Have a friend or language helper re-tell something that you both saw. Last night’s football match. A TV show or movie. It has to be something that you watched as well. This will give you the background knowledge that will help create comprehensible input.
Speak to a Topic
Chose a common topic and have your native speaking friend talk about it for a few minutes. Have them tell you about their family, their favorite team, their favorite food, etc.
The Community Setting
The Grand Tour Question
The grand tour question is asked about a specific personal narrative of a person’s life. Examples could be questions about a favorite childhood memory, about a national event that everyone experienced, or about a future event. Questions about the past will give you answers using the past forms of grammar, questions about the future will give you future forms. The key to creating comprehensible input is to ask multiple people the same question. Each will give you their own story about the same topic. Grammar forms and much of the vocabulary will be repeated. Asking this question to four or five people in the same week and by the the time you are listening to the last one, your comprehension will have improved significantly. If it’s possible, record these narratives for later listening.
Admit it. You love to shop. For language learning, shopping strategically will increase the amount of comprehensible input you receive. Chose an item that you need (want) to buy. Before you head out to shop for it, prepare yourself by looking up key vocabulary and writing down some key questions. Then proceed to the first store and ask the clerk about the product. Listen intently. Ask questions. Ask them to repeat what they said if you need them to. Ask them to write new words down. Thank them and leave. Go to store two. Repeat the same process with a new clerk. Thank them a leave. Go to store three. Repeat the process.
One of my favorites, the Dumb/Smart question is dumb because you already know the answer to the question you are going to ask and it’s smart because this background knowledge gives you a a much greater chance of understanding what the person says and thus, receiving comprehensible input.
One of the best things you can do in the community setting to ensure you receive comprehensible input is to take control of the conversations. You can do this with some of the ideas above, but you can also do this by just asking people to slow down, or repeat things or to give examples.
Help them Help you
In general, people aren’t all that good at giving comprehensible input.
Usually they either realize you aren’t a native speaker and break into a really loud and generally grammatically incorrect sort of caveman dialect or they don’t realize and continue to talk a mile a minute with no concept that you may not be following them at all.
With a little gentle instruction however, most can become great sources of comprehensible input.
As an added bonus this will increase the amount of actual communication that takes place and your friendship will become much richer.