Ever since Stephen Krashen made it central to his Input Hypothesis, since rebranded as the Comprehension Hypothesis, “comprehensible input” (CI) has been part of both academic discourse and shop talk among language teachers. It’s easy to have misunderstandings surrounding a concept that has engendered so much spinoff research and so much water-cooler conversation, so let’s clear up some stuff!
Myth 1: Comprehensible input is a method
Fact: Comprehensible input neither is nor requires a particular method. It’s simply a type of language that occurs either by nature or by intention. If someone says or writes something and someone else who isn’t a native speaker understands, comprehensible input has happened. Many language teachers make an extra effort to provide their students with lots of language that their students can understand, because of the widely documented association of comprehension with the acquisition of language. Some teachers have combined ways of providing and sustaining CI into full-fledged methods, such as Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS®), but comprehensible input itself is not a method, approach, or philosophy.
See also: Ellie Arnold’s “CI Methods: an obvious epiphany”
Myth 2: The need for comprehensible input is hotly disputed
Fact: Just about every theory of second language acquisition (SLA) affirms the importance of target-language messages that learners can understand. What’s disputed is whether comprehensible input is all you need in order to acquire a language or whether other factors or actions (social interaction, explicit awareness of textbook rules, targeted practice,…) can or must play a role.
Even if there weren’t support for the value of CI from diverse researchers and practitioners, remember that, since comprehensible input is simply a type of language event, there is not really such a thing as being “for” or “against” it, any more than there is such a thing as being for or against trees. Trees spring up by nature. One can also plant trees. If one thinks that trees are good and that there aren’t enough, one plants more. Teachers convinced of the efficacy of CI for acquisition find and plant lots of CI. Teachers who haven’t heard, haven’t noticed, or aren’t convinced of the efficacy of CI spend more time on other things.
Myth 3: Comprehensible input is inauthentic
Fact: Since comprehensible input is any bit of language that is understood by a particular learner, and there are learners who can understand at least some “authentic” language, CI can be “authentic” even in the narrowest definition of authentic language as “language produced by a native speaker for other native speakers.” What is rare is that Novice and Intermediate learners thoroughly understand extended instances of language (several minutes of speech, several continuous pages of writing) that does not take their proficiency into account when it is created.
In any case, there are alarming problems with avoiding input produced by or for non-native speakers or implying that such input can’t be of great value. Some are philosophical: What is the point of calling anything a native speaker says to a non-native speaker “inauthentic”? What are the implications of labeling all the Spanish I will ever produce until the day I die, no matter how correct and situationally appropriate, “inauthentic”? What does it mean to say or imply that every single thing ever said in a language class is “inauthentic” because it is said either by or for the sake of a non-native speaker? Then there are practical issues: For one thing, good communicators modify their speech all the time in order to be understood better. Should a language classroom be the one place where we avoid this basic feature of human communication? For another, although it is not logically necessary, my observation is that students who are exposed only, or almost only, to “authentic” input tend to receive not only a much lower amount of comprehensible input, but also a lower total amount of target language input of any kind.
So, comprehensible input does not have to be “inauthentic,” and there are really good reasons to pursue it even when it is.
Myth 4: Comprehensible input is outdated
Fact: By now you know what I’m going to say–how can language that a learner understands be outdated?
That said, one does come across comments that Krashen’s work is outdated, and the question of the value of comprehensible input is sometimes attached to either the intention or the reception of such comments, even though Krashen is far from being the only scholar treating CI. These comments often originate in the UK, where, for various reasons (including, as rumors have it, non-academic ones), Krashen’s influence is not as apparent as elsewhere. In the United States, where I do most of my teaching, training, and observing, reliance on comprehensible input is as strong as ever–probably stronger than ever, as Krashen continues to interact with teachers more closely than almost any other researcher, as his work has had time to be taken up and expanded on by many other researchers, as the results of this research have trickled down to a critical mass of classroom practitioners, and as these practitioners have found their students to be unprecedentedly successful.
Have you heard other misconceptions about comprehensible input, or do you have something you yourself wonder about it?