Comprehensible Input

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 the everyday language learner.

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.

In watching this video it becomes all too clear that 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 learning method product we can purchase from  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.

In my next post I would like to present ten ways 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.  So be sure and check back on Thursday for some great ideas.


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47 Responses to Comprehensible Input
  1. Philip
    May 30, 2011 | 11:30 am

    I’m looking forward to read your next post!

    • aarongmyers
      May 30, 2011 | 11:51 am

      Thanks. My list of ten has grown though. Excited to give new ideas to everyone. Do you have any ideas you’d like to share (Philip and everyone) for getting comprehensible input?

  2. Peter
    May 30, 2011 | 2:39 pm

    ……the reading-listening method works well to get lot of comprehensible input, though it helps more to improve comprehension rather than speaking,

    nice blog!


    • aarongmyers
      May 30, 2011 | 3:56 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I think any comprehension will eventually also work its way out into our speaking as well. As long as we are well rounded in what we are doing with the language, all we do will interact with one another and improve our overall game – so to speak.

  3. Andrew
    May 31, 2011 | 4:56 am

    Yup, this has been the basis of a lot of people’s language-learning, and it can work very well. Pete over at Language Fixation and Ramses at Spanish Only have particularly emphasized the importance of listening. I, too, agree that it’s extremely valuable, though I’m really hesitant to say that speaking too soon is a bad idea (sorry, I just really don’t agree with that one)–I think maybe it can be done wrong, but I think if done right it’s not only not harmful but helpful.

    I find that, in particular, the listen-then-repeat-after-the-native-speaker method, whether it’s via a language-learning ‘system’ of some sort, or whether you’re doing it with TV shows and music videos as I’ve advocated many times is really, really effective.


    • aarongmyers
      May 31, 2011 | 7:11 am

      Andrew – thanks for the comment. But I think I may need to clarify. I’m not really into the whole “input” vs. “output” debate of whether we should put off speaking or not. I think we should find native speakers as soon as we can to interact with. Mostly I think this because they are the reason we are learning and we need to be experiencing at least some of our dream to speak another language if motivation is to be sustained. Also, they will be our biggest fans and support on the journey. Are they good sources of comprehensible input? Not always, but there is a lot we can do to help them provide comprehensible input for us. In fact in the next post, over half of my ideas are ideas to be used while speaking with native speakers. Anyway, so I am not talking about just sitting at home listening and reading and watching the language until some point in the future when we are ready to talk. I am talking about maximizing whatever situation we find ourselves to get as much comprehensible input as is humanly possible. And that will be different for someone living in Kansas wanting to learn Thai than it is for me living in Turkey and learning Turkish.
      Thanks for pushing the conversation forward!


  4. Lana
    June 1, 2011 | 12:35 pm

    An explanation of comprehensible is really important for language learners. That’s why I prefer learn language through the conversation. In this way we can use foreing movies, news, music. life situations etc.

    • aarongmyers
      June 1, 2011 | 12:58 pm

      I agree. We do better when we know why we are doing what we are being asked to do.

  5. [...] my last post I promised ten ways to find or create comprehensible input. As I started writing though, ten seemed like just a beginning and so I kept writing. [...]

  6. Miriam Ramos-Warth
    June 4, 2011 | 2:33 pm

    Hi Aaron
    I taught Spanish for 11 years at an elementary private school in Minnesota. The methodology I used was TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) that is based in comprehensible input. My students were very happy with the results, they were successful with the language, they were able to understand, use the language very comfortable, and today many of them are in Universities and speak the language fluently. To teach with comprehensible input was very successful because we were able to create a lifelong learner. They had the success of understand the language that they were eager to learn more and more.
    Few years ago I move to Germany and I couldn’t teach any more in a present classroom and I decide to teach my American students through videoconference by using TPRS and I have another successful situation. My youngest students are 4 years old and without comprehensible input and TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) I won’t be able to teach my classes. You have to keep in main that my 4 y/o don’t read and write and I have to use a methodology that keep the kids engaged in a learning situation for 30 minutes. I’m very happy with the result they can answer questions and fallow directions and understand short stories. By using comprehensible input my students in both situation (present or videoconferences) felt or feel successful with the language. They understand the language and they have fun with the language and they are motivated to meet with me one time per week per 30 minutes. I like TPRS and I recommend to teacher to use TPRS in their classrooms, your students will love it and you too. You won’t teach books any more you will teach your students. You won’t teach the language in a vertical situation (yo como, tú comes….) you will teach horizontal in a context, how the language is spoken. Have fun by learning or teaching.
    This summer I will attend a full week TPRS conference and Stephen Krashen will be there. I’m looking forward to learn more.
    Have a great Summer

    • aarongmyers
      June 4, 2011 | 3:33 pm

      Thanks for the great comment and telling us more about TPRS. It is exciting to see teachers using these methods in the classroom. I think the challenge for the independent learner is to take these tested classroom methods and tweak them so that they can be utilized to draw out input rather than produce it.


  7. [...] the meaning of the story, wordless books offer a context rich opportunity to create and receive comprehensible input.  Here are a few ideas how you can do [...]

  8. [...] me from learning the language.  I often say that language learning takes two main ingredients: comprehensible input and time.  When I don’t feel like reading Harry Potter in Turkish and scan ESPN for news [...]

  9. [...] are best learned when the learner receives lots of comprehensible (understandable) input. In other words, for a true beginner, listening to a radio broadcast in the language is not nearly [...]

  10. [...] independent language learners as well – fun and games rock.  If you’re getting good comprehensible input in a rich language environment, you will learn the language.  Those students who outscored their [...]

  11. [...] of maximized language learning is the ability to create opportunities for massive amounts of comprehensible input.  There are of course a host of different ways to do this and much will depend on your situation, [...]

  12. [...] watch.  Background knowledge is an important element in creating opportunities for recieving more comprehensible input and the more we can take control of learning opportunities and make sure we have adequate [...]

  13. Should I teach using TPRS? | Señora B
    December 23, 2011 | 3:39 am

    [...] this blog I refer often to TPRS people and their ideas.  I am very much attracted to the idea of comprehensible input, and I want to put much more emphasis on input in my classes.  It has been my experience that the [...]

  14. [...] Comprehensible Input [...]

  15. Suisei
    January 23, 2012 | 5:40 pm

    Hmm so, if you’re watching a movie with subtitles on something when watching something in L2 language, then it wouldn’t help that much? Sadly I’ve learned a few phrases when watching something subbed but don’t really know much about the speech pattern. Maybe the subs are affecting me?

  16. [...] A parallel text resource for learning another language is a book or text in which the target language and native language are presented side by side on the same page or screen.  The side by side nature of the text makes for a robust learning resource for language learners and can be a good source of comprehensible input. [...]

  17. [...] of planning and preparing for our time together. He was my source for the language, my source of comprehensible input and he became my friend.  I did a range of activities during our lessons, many of which can be [...]

  18. [...] classroom has usually been some sort of conglomeration of communicative and comprehensible techniques—TPRS, the “Reading Method”, Compelling Input, to name a few.  Depending on the [...]

  19. [...] You need comprehensible input (read about comprehensible input) [...]

  20. [...] It is really a pretty simple activity. Start small and start with what you know, but write about your daily life using the new words expressions and grammar forms you are learning.  It will be all simple sentences at first (if you’re in level 1) but you will soon have created a growing collection of written journal entries that are interesting, emotionally connected and filled with context and background knowledge – all important elements to high quality comprehensible input. [...]

  21. [...] and is absolutely essential.  We learn another language when we interact with it, when we receive comprehensible input.  The more we interact, the quicker we learn.  I think it’s this way with a lot of things. [...]

  22. [...] story more and more. All of this conspired to keep me reading so that not only was I getting more comprehensible input, I was also spending more time reading and subsequently, more time with the [...]

  23. Posted
    June 28, 2012 | 7:34 am

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  24. Alex
    August 25, 2012 | 6:50 am

    Thanks for this article. Looking forward to the follow-up piece.

  25. [...] Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. [...]

  26. [...] is helpful because it is presents readers with copious amounts of comprehensible input.  Most articles are about common current events and so for most, will include valuable background [...]

  27. Eldon
    November 10, 2012 | 6:10 am

    Interesting take – as an extra note, I think I read somewhere that what counts most is *noticed input* rather than just input (comprehensible or not) – input’s no good at all if you’re not paying attention!

    I only mentioned it because I (wrongly) though I could get away with replaying Cantonese TV shows I understood while I did other things – it wasn’t really all that helpful.

  28. [...] you can find simple audio or video that gives you comprehensible input, that’s great, but any listening you do will help your ears begin to hear the language [...]

  29. Ryan
    December 1, 2012 | 2:00 am

    First time to come across this theory. As someone who lives overseas and who is a university language instructor, I’m always interested in finding new theories. I’ve come across lots and lots of learning ideas and principles, but when actually learning and teaching on a daily basis, I always end up back in the same old place–with flash cards and vocabulary tests. The reason is because all of these great theories seem to forget about the beginning, the building blocks of second language acquisition, vocabulary. They should be called something like “2nd stage language development theories.” Still, though, this is interesting, and I hope to find something to incorporate into my teaching–and learning.


    • jwkelley
      January 31, 2013 | 7:31 pm

      While I have used flashcards I have found their retention to be lacking. Using a Space repetition program like smart FM I have found it takes me about 10-13 hours to actually hold and retain about 100 words.

      I have found reading things slightly above my level (graded readers.), tpring myself or using gestures, and repeatedly listening to dialogues to be far more effective.

      While doing these other activities I am also learning to use the language as I acquire the vocab. There is far less lag time between moving something from tpr or reading into use than from moving it from flashcard into use.

  30. [...] Englischsprachiger Originalartikel “Comprehensible Input” auf [...]

  31. Paul Carroll
    February 8, 2013 | 9:37 pm

    I noticed something when I was in Mexico. With every thought that entered my brain, I thought of how I would say it in Spanish. When I got home to the US, I noticed that I was still doing this. Slowly the urge to translate left me. That was odd.

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    February 23, 2013 | 1:51 am

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  33. [...] article about comprehensible input is one of the most popular posts on The Everyday Language Learner blog.  I believe that [...]

  34. [...] the opportunities for finding comprehensible input have increased exponentially in the last ten years, why have our language classrooms not changed as [...]

  35. [...] theoretical practice was ineffective. He refuted the “sink or swim” ideology in his Comprehensible Input Hypothesis described in his book, Foreign Language Education the Easy Way: “We acquire language in [...]

  36. | The Everyday Language Learner
    May 8, 2013 | 12:28 pm

    [...] [read more about the importance of comprehensible input] [...]

  37. [...] Comprehensible Input [...]

  38. Leonardo
    June 11, 2013 | 3:13 am

    Hey! I know this is kinda off topic however , I’d figured I’d ask.

    Would you be interested in trading links or maybe guest
    authoring a blog post or vice-versa? My blog addresses a lot of the same subjects as yours and I think
    we could greatly benefit from each other. If you
    happen to be interested feel free to shoot me an email.
    I look forward to hearing from you! Terrific blog by the way!

    • aarongmyers
      July 6, 2013 | 7:40 pm

      Send me an email. It’s on the contact page.

  39. [...] matter how many props, visuals, modeling, comprehensible input, and body language I use, I worry after my first class: will the students come back or will they [...]

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