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Building Student Language Proficiency with Comprehensible Input

Comprehensible input is an important aspect of language acquisition. A theory developed by the researcher Stephen Krashen in the 1980s, comprehensible input is the idea that for second language development to occur, learners must be exposed to language just beyond current understanding. Krashen argues that meaning is more important in acquisition than learning about the language, such as grammar rules. Students should understand the meaning of the message, even if they do not understand every word or phrase they hear.

Your input as a teacher should be comprehensible, or understandable, to your students. When students understand the content and instructions, they can engage, no matter their language proficiency. 

As an educator who supports students with different needs and backgrounds, you can use comprehensible input for multilingual learners (MLs) in your classroom. Comprehensible input uses a variety of strategies and techniques to help students understand academic content while building their language proficiency. Here are a few ideas for how to use comprehensible input to help your students grow and succeed.

Use appropriate input to ensure understanding

As a teacher, understanding your students’ language proficiency levels is critical so that you can provide the right level of input. Newcomers who are just learning English will need teachers to model what they are asking students to do first. They will watch a teacher modeling before they are invited to participate. This builds comprehension of the message and content.

As MLs progress, the teacher shifts from modeling to guiding students to follow more complex instructions. Be sure your instructions and expectations are very clear for students so they can participate successfully. 

Students are invited to contribute more as their language proficiency progresses, and the teacher shifts to an observer who provides feedback and support when needed. As you provide input that is just beyond a student’s current understanding, they will grow in their confidence and language acquisition.

Expose students to new vocabulary in a variety of ways

As you provide the right level of support and input for MLs, they will be exposed to new vocabulary frequently. To aid student comprehension, be sure to show them the new vocabulary in as many ways as possible. This includes: 

  • Going over key vocabulary before beginning a new lesson
  • Displaying pictures with labels representing new words
  • Using gestures, facial expressions, or total physical response (TPR)
  • Showing videos in which the vocabulary is used
  • Using realia to represent the vocabulary

Supporting student understanding of new vocabulary builds their proficiency and ability to participate.

Break up your instruction into understandable chunks

When you are sharing new information or instructions, it can be especially helpful for MLs to receive this input in small, understandable chunks. Depending on a student’s proficiency and age, break up the information as small as necessary to ensure comprehension. This could be two to three minutes of instruction supported with the vocabulary strategies above. 

Give students time to process new information and demonstrate understanding before moving on to new concepts or instructions. Ask students to show their understanding in a variety of ways—this could be through drawing a picture, sharing with a partner orally, a written summary, or giving a thumbs up or down to a series of questions.

Create a safe, low-anxiety environment

A key part of Krashen’s language acquisition theory is that students need the right environment to develop proficiency. Students need to feel safe to produce language when they are ready, rather than being forced. A low-anxiety environment allows students to take risks and the opportunity to practice language skills as they are comfortable. 

Establish a classroom environment where students are encouraged and supported as they practice new skills. Reinforce often that making mistakes is part of the learning process and reward students’ efforts. Be sure to honor the language skills students already have, and encourage them to continue growing and trying out new words and phrases.

With comprehensible input, all students, regardless of language skills, can understand content and be an active participant in your classroom. Providing the right level of support ensures that students are challenged, not lost in a sea of words they can’t understand. Help all of your students succeed with comprehensible input so they can confidently build their language skills.

For more tips on creating an optimal environment for your students, see these five strategies to support language learners

At Participate Learning, we strive for all students to have equitable education opportunities. Learn more about our bilingual education resources and teacher professional development.