Whether teaching Spanish or Mandarin Chinese, French or Arabic, every great foreign language teacher is very familiar with comprehensible input. Input is language that the student either hears or reads that aims at communicating something. For input to promote foreign language learning it must be comprehensible. Without comprehensible Input it would be pretty difficult for students to learn another language and also for teachers to teach it!
Comprehensible input can help students of any proficiency level: from beginner to advances students. For input to be comprehensible it must be in the form of meaningful language which students can understand with the help of embedded context, even though they don’t fully understand the meaning of each word. When using comprehensible input in the classroom, the teacher uses a language that is slightly higher than the level of the students (see Krashen i + 1 theory), allowing for students to “fill in the gaps” of specific words or structures they don’t understand, aided by contextual cues. When using comprehensible input in the classroom, students find it a little bit difficult to understand some of the vocabulary and structures, even though they can understand most of it. This forces them to use their initiative to determine the function of the incomprehensible vocabulary words.
Comprehensible input is not only about the choice of words that the teacher uses when conversing with the students. It requires that the teacher explains the content and, in some cases, reword some content to make sure students have a deep understanding of it. The teacher also needs to provide context-embedded lessons and always activate prior knowledge so that students can benefit from connections they can make to the content they will be learning and have a clearer understanding of what is being said, even if they don’t understand all the words. Some context cues can include visual aides, authentic artifacts and materials, textbooks, examples students are familiar with, videos, gestures and movement. The experience of trying to piece together the meaning of other words helps students create a higher engagement with the language and deepens students understanding and retention.
Apart from the methods stated above, teachers can also use other techniques to increase the comprehension and retention of students, such as giving the students ample opportunities to express themselves with the language, using graphic cues frequently, and use of consistent language are very helpful in the foreign language classroom. To increase students’ understanding, teachers should ensure that they always use comprehensible input and make extensive use of context cues, gestures, graphic organizers and physical objects (ideally authentic artifacts) that students can relate with the instruction.
Foreign language classes must also be highly interactive. This is achieved by project-based instruction, probing students, asking questions, letting the students actively participate in the class and encourage them to ask and answer questions in the target language. Teachers can encourage their students to use the second language by asking them to tell a story or share their thoughts over something using the language. As their usage of the new language increases, so does their level of comprehension.
Comprehensible input allows foreign language teachers to create an atmosphere where the students can figure things out by themselves using the context and background provided. When students can understand the meaning of some words but can’t interpret others, the knowledge of the background or context can point them in the direction of the unknown words. Over time, students will become adept at using these techniques to interpret words by themselves, which broadens their understanding of the target language.