How to aid comprehension

Principles and Practice: How to aid comprehension

Excerpts from p. 63-78 of Stephen Krashen’s Principles and Practice, 1982

Full text available at: http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/books/principles_and_practice.pdf

 

  1. OPTIMAL INPUT IS COMPREHENSIBLE

 

How to aid comprehension

If we are correct in positing comprehensible as a crucial requirement for optimal input for acquisition, the question of how to aid comprehension is a very central one for second language pedagogy.  Indeed, the comprehension requirement suggests that the main function of the second language teacher is to help make input comprehensible, to do for the adult what the “outside world” cannot or will not do.

 

There are basically two ways in which the teacher can aid comprehension, linguistic and non-linguistic.  Studies have shown that there are many things speakers do linguistically to make their speech more comprehensible to less competent speakers.  Hatch (1979) has summarized the linguistic aspect of simplified input which appear to promote comprehension. Among these characteristics are:

Linguistic

  • Slower rate and clearer articulation, which helps acquirers to identify word boundaries more easily, and allows more processing time;
  • More use of high frequency vocabulary, less slang, fewer idioms;
  • Syntactic simplification, shorter sentences.

 

Non-linguistic

Another main task of the teacher is to provide non-linguistic means of encouraging comprehension. In my view, providing extra-linguistic support in the form of realia and pictures for beginning classes is not a frill, but a very important part of the tools the teacher has to encourage language acquisition.

Good teachers also take advantage of the student’s knowledge of the world in helping comprehension by discussing topics that are familiar to the student. Certainly, discussing or reading about a topic that is totally unknown will make the message harder to understand. There is a danger, however, in making the input too “familiar”. If the message is completely known, it will be of no interest, and the student will probably not attend. We want the student to focus on the message, and there must be some message, something that the student really wants to hear or read about.

Comprehension is a necessary condition for language acquisition, but it is not sufficient. It is quite possible to understand input language, and yet not acquire. This can happen in several different ways:

  1. First, it is quite possible that the input simply does not contain i + 1, that it does not include structures that are “a bit beyond” the student.
  2. Second, in many cases we do not utilize syntax in understanding–we can often get the message with a combination of vocabulary, or lexical information, plus extralinguistic information.
  3. Finally, the “affective filter” may be “up”, which can result in the acquirer understanding input, even input with i + 1, but not utilizing it for further acquisition.

 

  1. OPTIMAL INPUT IS INTERESTING AND/OR RELEVANT

Optimal input focusses the acquirer on the message and not on form. To go a step further, the best input is so interesting and relevant that the acquirer may even “forget” that the message is encoded in a foreign language.

  1. OPIMAL INPUT IS NOT GRAMMATICALLY SEQUENCED

In acquisition-oriented materials, we should not be consciously concerned about including i + 1 in the input. Part (3) of the Input Hypothesis claims that when input is comprehensible, when meaning is successfully negotiated, i + 1 will be present automatically, in most cases.9 This requirement could be stated in a weaker form. (3) could be rephrased as follows: there is no need to deliberately include i + 1, since it will occur naturally. The strong form may be called for instead: it may be better not to even attempt to include i + 1.

  1. OPTIMAL INPUT MUST BE IN SUFFICIENT QUANTITY

It is difficult to say just how much comprehensible/low filter input is necessary to achieve a given level of proficiency in second language acquisition, due to a lack of data. We know enough now, however, to be able to state with some confidence that the profession has seriously underestimated the amount of comprehensible input necessary to achieve even moderate, or “intermediate” levels of proficiency in second language acquisition.

 

  1. Other Features that Encourage Acquisition

THE STUDENT SHOULD NOT BE PUT ON THE DEFENSIVE

The phrase “on the defensive” comes from Stevick’s well known book, Memory, Meaning, and Method. What it means to me is that methods and materials should not be a test of the student’s abilities or prior experiences, should not merely reveal weaknesses, but should help the student acquire more.

PROVIDE TOOLS TO HELP STUDENTS OBTAIN MORE INPUT

Our responsibility goes beyond the language classroom. Indeed, our task is to provide the students with the tools they need to continue improving without us. Scarcella (forthcoming) has stated that there are at least two ways conversational competence can help the acquirer gain more comprehensible input: devices that help control the quantity of input, and devices that help control the quality. …These devices range from focusing on a single problem word by repeating it… to utterances such as “What?”, or “I don’t understand.”