Today we’re talking about the foundational stuff – what even is comprehensible input? What is proficiency? Most importantly, what does the research say about those terms? The term CI and proficiency get used a lot right now in the world language teaching space.
Understanding what they mean and the research behind them will help you understand why they’re recommended by ACTFL for your world language class.
Let’s dive into what comprehensible input and proficiency oriented instruction really mean and the research behind them!
What Does Proficiency Mean?
This article on the research, findings and definitions behind comprehensible input and proficiency is based on a live class. Watch the replay below!
This is part 2 in a mini-series on how to start with CI. You can join class live every Wednesday by joining the Facebook group where I broadcast them!
Download the full schedule for the Start with CI PD series here. It’s made for beginners looking to dive deep into proficiency centered teaching rooted in comprehensible input.
What is comprehensible input and what is proficiency?
Proficiency Oriented Instruction
Let’s get started with the first term – proficiency. Proficiency oriented instruction means that you use a teaching method or style that focuses on increasing student proficiency levels.
What does that mean? Proficiency means what students can do with the language. That doesn’t feel very different from what a world language class should be about, but it’s a crucial difference.
If you look at many assessments that you’ve been given over the years as a world language student, a lot of your measurements were probably based on what you knew about language – likely even language features.
So what’s the difference?
If you’re focusing on proficiency, it means that you’re focusing on what students can actually do with the language.Alyssa villareal
Can they perform a communicative task? Yes or no? Somewhere between? Some parts of it? That’s proficiency.
Any kind of method that gets you there counts – that’s the beauty of it.
Why is Proficiency Important?
Why is it such a hot topic right now? There’s many reasons but I think this is a really good example:
There was a 2010 report done from students at UNC Chapel Hill. Many of them reported after going through a high-quality language program at UNC Chapel Hill, “after two semesters of language I still can’t do anything with it.”
“I took four years of high school insert language here and I still don’t know anything or say anything with it…” we’ve all heard that so many times.
I have felt that in my soul so many times with lots of language classes and programs.
ACTFL itself dug into this to see exactly what proficiency level language lovers were really at. In 2007 only 52% of Spanish majors were at Advanced Low. This is the measuring point for teachers and the recognized level of work level proficiency.
If only 50% of people who want to hit that goal are hitting it, something’s wrong. That’s why we’re focusing on proficiency.
What I’m showing you here today is a teeny tiny piece, a sneak peek of something that’s part of my course program called Practical Proficiency.
This is part of the one of the modules that I teach call Powerhouse Practice. In that module, we deep dive into comprehensible input research – so you’re getting a sneak peek!
Deepen your Understanding of Comprehensible Input
Here is our goal today. If you are looking into comprehensible input, CI rich teaching methods, or how to make your practice more proficiency oriented, then you’ve probably heard of Stephen Krashen. You’ve probably read articles that mention a lot of CI resources.
We’re going beyond that today to take you from the CI beginner to CI intermediate.
While I was trying to learn how to become a better instructor using comprehensible input, a lot of information I found is beginner level. We’re going to try and move you a little bit into advanced beginners today.
Let’s understand why proficiency is important and why it’s effective.
We’re going to use research today, not stories.
You have access to so many stories – from my website, and from many other creators and from other teachers that we know and love. So we’re going to look today at research because I know that you don’t have time to look at that stuff on your own. I did it for you!
Let’s get into it. Here’s the first definition.
Definitions Important to Comprehensible Input Rich Methods
Y’all know and love this one. Input is whatever language learners hear or see in a communicative context that they process for meaning. So what does comprehensive input mean?
Comprehensible input is whatever input language learners can understand. Many people also believe that the caveat is compelling and relevant. That’s the piece that makes it comprehensible. This essential difference that makes it stick. Go deeper by reading this full post on the definition – What is Comprehensible Input? here
Another important definition to comprehensible input is output. Output is whatever language learners use to communicate their ideas.
Input driven activities create mental representation of language which is of course essential. Mental representation comes first. This is the creation of the lexical map and deep understanding of the L2. Then BVP says is that interaction is what develops communicative ability.
These two work in tandem. So think about that for a second – what does that say to us about instruction and what that looks like?
Input driven activities help your students figure out what the language looks like: how it feels how, how it works and how to put it together in their heads. Then interaction develops that communicative ability.
Is CI a Method?
Every teacher uses CI. It’s not a methodology. It’s an essential ingredient in language acquisition so let’s use it intentionally. This means every teacher that you know whether they identify as a CI teacher or not. It just depends on how much.
Do they use it a lot? Do they use it intentionally? Is it accidental? Is it sprinkled in with what they’re doing?
Here’s the difference: comprehensible input is an essential catalyst to language acquisition. Researchers will bat around in their findings exactly to what extent this is needed.
Everybody agrees it is needed; it just depends on exactly what extent. Stephen Krashen thinks that it’s the only thing that’s needed. His findings are very popular and have significantly influenced modern world language teaching, although not without criticism.
He believes that comprehensible input is the most important piece of language acquisition. That’s what makes him the poster boy of all this stuff (not to mention all the books he’s written about it). But don’t be fooled, he’s not the only one to believe in the power of input and certainly not the only researcher on the scene.
What is CI in terms of how you hear it used in the world language space? CI when abbreviated is referring to teachers who use comprehensible input rich methods.
It’s not really a method. It’s along the lines of: “we believe that this is the essential ingredient in language and we’re going to focus on the communicative piece of class.” The important piece is NOT what students know about language features.
CI is like an identifier in world language circles. So if you say I’m starting to use CI, it means: I’m a teacher who believes in proficiency. I’m a teacher who uses the research in Second Language Acquisition to make instructional choices. I know that focusing on comprehensible input is the most effective path to proficiency.
In conclusion, it’s a calling card for various teaching styles, but it’s also a research term! Make sure that you know that there’s a difference between those two. I use the term CI all the time to make sure I’m reaching the right type of teacher.
I identify as a CI teacher as well. However, I’m not CI purist by any means.
My CI Teacher Experience
When I was still in the classroom I used comprehensible input rich methods about 60% of the time. I sprinkled on other things as well as more traditional practices in order to get towards going home on time every day.
I’m still a CI teacher and so are you! No matter what stage you are at.
Learn more here about Why I Switched to Comprehensible Input
Look at the belief statement above. If that’s what you believe about class, then it has nothing to do with what level of training you are. It also doesn’t matter what kind of expert you are, or any of that jazz.
All those things like training and expertise are important and will come later on your journey. But what CI teacher really means is what you believe about language teaching. And trust me, it’s not an easy journey. Learn more about the messiness here – The Truth About Teaching with Comprehensible Input
Input Hypothesis Krashen
I’m sure that many of you are familiar with Stephen Krashen’s input hypothesis. Which is of course based on mainly the idea that comprehensible input
What does that tell us about instruction?
input driven activities help your students figure out what the language looks like: how it feels, how it works and how to put it together in their heads. Then interaction develops that communicative ability. You need both.
okay so I’m sure that many of you are familiar with Stephen Krashen input hypothesis which is based on the idea that comprehensible input is the most essential piece of language acquisition. There’s also a strong difference between learning and acquisition.
Input at the i plus one level will lead to acquisition and you honestly don’t even really need that much output in order for this to occur. All you need is high-quality comprehensible input.
Since it can be hard to find, or to dig out your old college textbook, I have here for you a summary of what Krashen’s model includes so that we have a starting point.
All of the following comes from p.45 of Introducing Second Language Acquisition by Muriel Saville Troike.
“One of the last of the early approaches to SLA which has an internal focus is the Monitor Model, proposed by Stephen Krashen (1978). It explicitly and essentially adopts the notion of a language acquisition device (or LAD) which is a metaphor Chomsky used for children’s innate knowledge of language.
“Krashen’s approach is a collection of 5 hypotheses which constitute major claims and assumptions about how the L2 code is acquired. Caution is required, however, that Krashen’s model has frequently been criticized by researchers because many of its constructs (e.g. what constitutes comprehensible input) and the claimed distinction between learning acquisition are vague and imprecise, and because several of its claims are impossible to verify (see McLaughlin 1987). The hypotheses forming the model are the following:
“There is a distinction to be made between acquisition and learning. Acquisition is subconscious, and involves the innate language acquisition device which accounts for children’s L1. Learning is conscious and is exemplified by the L2 learning which takes place in many classroom contexts.
“What is “learned” is available only as a monitor, for purposes of editing or making changes in what has already been produced.”
Natural Order Hypothesis
“We acquire the rules of language in a predictable order.”
“Language acquisition takes place because there is comprehensible input. If input is understood, and if there is enough of it, the necessary grammar is automatically provided.”
Affective Filter Hypothesis
“Input may be not be processed if the affective filter is ‘up’ (e.g. if conscious learning is taking place and/or individuals are inhibited).”
“In spite of being severely criticized by researchers, Krashen’s model had a major influence on language teaching in the USA in the 1980s and 1990s.
–Saville Troike, p.45
Criticisms to Input and Monitor Hypothesis
I want you to know these criticisms because they’re harder to find. We need a balanced and well-informed approach, including criticisms. These are some things that we all need to know as we are diving into comprehensible input rich methods.
An important thing to note is that Krashen is not the only SLA leader to believe in the importance of input, let alone input that is comprehensible to the receiver.
Modern comprehensible input rich methods are rooted in Krashen’s theories, but would be lacking and outdated in classroom practice if that’s ALL we used. I have 3 papers to look at to show you why.
Yes, this research from 1978 are definitely heading in the right track but he is not the only researcher who’s looked into comprehensible input (or the role of input in acquisition). This has expanded far beyond that and it’s a much deeper and richer idea in modern world language.
4 Common Criticisms – Monitor Hypothesis
Here are the common criticisms to Krashen’s Monitor Hypothesis:
- It’s untested. What this means is it’s not empirically tested in a classroom environment. By the way that the theory is written it honestly can’t really be tested that well in class.
- It’s unclear. I+1, ci, I and learning versus acquisition are not very clearly defined or testable
- The model is very simplistic
- It diminishes the role of learners in your classroom
Maybe you’ve experienced this before when looking at this whole theory. Where does the learner fit into all this because it sounds like they’re just a bunch of absorbing sponges? There are other people who have responded to this.
Let’s take a look at a more modern paper.
Bill VanPatten, Wong and Processing Instruction (2003)
This study published in 2003 by Wong and BVP is all about the theory of processing instruction. It builds on this idea of input being really essential, then makes it a much richer idea.
Elements of Processing Instruction
Learners will pay attention to the meaning before they pay attention to grammar. This was studied in classrooms. In order to make sense of forms and use them in context, learners need to be engaged in input.
They went further into figuring out why input is such an essential ingredient.
They found that in order to make sense of forms and use them in context, they need to be engaged in the input.
It can’t just be something that is given to them. They need to be engaged with the input!
The third thing that they found is that mechanical practice really isn’t useful in language acquisition.They did a bunch of studies on this in different classroom environments to come to this finding. If you look up this style of teaching I think you’ll find some really cool stuff.
There are many papers evaluating the validity of this practice both for and against. Once again, we need a balanced and well-informed approach with a touch of classroom testing to see what works with our students.
Interaction Hypothesis Long
Here’s another one that builds on the other two. We have the Long Interaction Hypothesis. This comes from a paper called How to Make Input Comprehensible (1983).
Good read, right?
this was done in 83, around the same time as Krashen’s main book on the topic in 82, and this has three essential pieces:
How to Make Input Comprehensible (1983)
- Simplify in order to make your input comprehensible
- Use familiar structures that can be both linguistic and extralinguistic (gestures as well as phrases).Use vocabulary like cognates and things that students can latch onto for meaning
- Modify. This means work with the interactional structure of the conversation (teacher talk) and use lots of comprehensible input!
Output Hypothesis Swain (1995)
The last paper I want to introduce you to in our research intro (believe me, this is just scratching the surface) is the Output Hypothesis. This comes from Swain 1995. It’s also where I think things get juicy.
She disagress with the Krashen input hypothesis that input alone is actually not sufficient.
Learners need opportunities for output in order for their language abilities to grow. She found that students will achieve higher levels of competence when given the opportunity to speak.
How did she find this? This is where it came from. She did a lot of studies in classrooms in Canada based off of Krashen theories with immersive comprehensible input style. Students were receiving input input input input input more input input all the time. The students did not have opportunities for output often.
What Comprehensible Input is Missing
She found that those classrooms had a lot of deficiencies in both linguistic and socio- cultural competence. Because they were missing that interactional component, they were missing a lot of those essential language pieces.
Looking at all 3 of these in tandem, we can see that these 3 different researchers build on what Krashen proclaims and fills in the clear gaps in the theory. Many modern teachers, especially CI teachers, do not solely rely on one theory to guide their classroom practice, and neither should you!
Not to mention your own classroom experience –not on its own, but in combination with empirical research findings from other classroom experiences — should equally guide your choices.
The Need for Quality Output Opportunities
if you’re only looking at the language that occurs in your classroom, you’re missing the other essential pieces of language because there’s actually many features and facets embedded in language.
It’s not just the words it’s certainly not just the structure. There’s actually body language there’s culture, there’s embedded socio-cultural content, and all different kinds of competencies.
Now, let’s revisit the Output Hypothesis to dive into this missing piece more.
Output in Second Language Acquisition
Let’s get into some more SLA (Second Language Acquisition) with this.
Here’s some more features of Swain’s Output Hypothesis. Number one piece of this is that with output activities, we’re just getting it all out there with students imperfectly- speaking, signing, and writing.
1. It facilitates the whole process of second language acquisition. It moves the train along because it helps us figure out the gap between what they want to say and what they can actually say.
2. It helps students try new rules. It provides them a way to try things out and modify them accordingly
3. Reflection – how many times have you been trying to get a sentence out in your L2 and you realize you were doing a mental bookmark? “I need to figure out … What that thing is orI just don’t remember that past participle…“ It helps people actively reflect on what they do know about the target language system and where the gaps are.
Why Proficiency Matters
We learned today what comprehensible input actually is. We also revised a lot of ideas to build on what you probably previously learned about comprehensible input teaching strategies and methods.
We also learned about proficiency and that the focus on proficiency really needs what your students can actually do with the language.
Here is the number one reason why it matters.
The ability to verbalize a language rule with your students does not mean your learner’s can use it in communication.
Just because they know what the rule is doesn’t mean that they can use it. That’s why proficiency really matters.
Why Comprehensible Input Matters
Here’s why comprehensible input matters:
This is from a text with probably a lot of you from Shrum and Glisan.
“Research across language with a variety of grammatical structures has indicated that instructional strategies that include input are successful in helping learners build mental representation.”
That’s why CI matters because that input creates those beautiful lexical banks.
Why Truly Understanding CI Matters
Here’s why understanding comprehensible input really matters as a teacher. A variety of approaches, research, and perspectives (including your own) should inform your choices.
I like the output hypothesis the best because it really helped me to expand my definition of what C I teaching looks like.
Expand Your Understanding with Output
From the Output Hypothesis we’ve learned that not only do we need to provide high-quality input, we also need to provide meaningful, purposeful and motivational output opportunities so that students can consolidate what they know and what they still need to learn.
That’s why understanding CI matters. That’s what the whole tag of being a CI teacher means when you say that to another teacher in the world language teaching space.
I’ll drop the schedule for you so you can see what the whole start with c i series looks like.
More Resources for Teaching with Comprehensible Input
If you’re trying to move towards proficiency and you’ve no idea where to start, I’ve got just the thing for you. Like many teachers, you’re probably juggling a million different ideas in the air. But sequence is everything when it comes to proficiency and also having a life.
When would like to have both – proficiency in the classroom and a life – you need to do it in order. Below are the 9 steps to Proficiency in a roadmap.
Have you ever wished the transition to proficiency were easier to do? Grab the FREE toolkit here to learn the framework for updating your practice to comprehensible input rich methods with the roadmap to proficiency.
Free Conference for World Language Teachers
If you’re ready to jump in and get started with proficiency and teaching with comprehensible input, I have another resource to help you on your journey below:
Sign Up for the Next Practical & Comprehensible Free Virtual Conference! Every year, I gather together the best and brightest in the field of world language to share with you how to switch to proficiency through comprehensible input. All with practical ideas that you can use tomorrow. It’s a FREE virtual conference – join the waitlist and find out more about the speakers here.