8 Keys for Bringing Comprehensible Input into Your ESL Classroom

Think of your students like robots.

Set aside the emotions, opinions, personalities and individual learning styles for a sec.

Your job as ESL teacher is to give your little robots the correct input.

Otherwise you won’t get the right output (i.e., properly learned language).

When you really think about it, it’s just that simple.

Communication is about receiving, processing and responding to information with appropriate expressions, words and actions — and learning is no different.

When a student learns, they must process information and respond to it appropriately. To help your students to learn a new language, you need them to not only understand the theoretical concepts of language, but also interact with it. To achieve this, ESL instructors need to take great care in the ways they communicate new ideas.

Formulating your ideas and presenting them at a linguistically appropriate level will help your ESL students to understand your input and sharpen their English skills. That’s why comprehensible input is a critical element in every ESL classroom.

What Is Comprehensible Input, Anyway?

Input is what you’re puttin’ in your students’ ears and eyes, whether it be audio, video or written language.

Comprehensible input is good-quality, relevant and understandable input. What is deemed “comprehensible” will depend almost entirely on the individual learner.

The type of input you provide to your listener is expressed as i + 1.

For an input to be comprehensible, it needs to be just one level above that of the listener (termed as “i”). Doing so ensures that the learner is able to understand the essence of the input and deduce its meaning and purpose base on other contextual cues.

First proposed by Stephen Krashen in his famous Comprehensible Input Hypothesis, the idea of integrating comprehensible input into the second language curriculum has received great popularity for its surprising effects on overall ESL instruction.

Comprehensible Input’s Role in the ESL Classroom

Comprehensible input doesn’t mean that the input contains words and phrases the students already know. Rather, comprehensible input seeks to effectively integrate new and unknown linguistic data (words and phrases) with familiar ones to make the received input just a bit more difficult. 

In other words, a successful comprehensible input provides enough known information for students to understand and interpret new linguistic cues.

Students understand most — but not all — of the words the teacher is using and is challenged to expand their knowledge of English.

Now that you know what kind of input you’ve got to be on the lookout for, Here are 7 keys that will help you to promote comprehensible input in your ESL classroom.

8 Keys for Bringing Comprehensible Input into Your ESL Classroom

Key #1: Diversify the Sources of Input

Language is a practical, flexible and living tool that assumes various purposes and forms in our lives. Your input should reflect just that. Because comprehensible input is related to more than just language development and curriculum content, teachers need to emulate the types of input students receive on a daily basis.

Be prepared to diversify the sources of input so that students aren’t only getting comprehensible input from you but also from each other.

Create opportunities for discussions and debates. Provide level-appropriate reading and listening materials. Monitor the context to ensure that the input remains comprehensible while giving students enough room to explore and experiment with the language.

Key #2: Use Labels and Visual Tools

When developing a comprehensible learning environment, both content and context are important. Increase the comprehensibility of the input (in this case, your teacher talking time) by using consistent language and providing frequent opportunities for students to share their thoughts.

Besides carefully controlling the vocabulary and discussion topic, teachers should also use graphic organizers, concrete objects and other visual aids to enhance understanding. Consider labeling new items and pictures to further ingrain new concepts in the minds of students.

Visual tools help students to:

  • Understand a complex/abstract concept or term
  • Sequence information with greater ease
  • Connect and develop personal and meaningful ideas/cues

Visual aids can be anything from blackboard doodles to cartoon drawings. They add colors and energy in ESL learning by enriching and broadening understanding of new concepts.

Key #3: Have Story Time

Everyone loves stories. Stories make our imaginations soar and fill our worlds with possibilities and adventures.

Stories that connect on a personal level stick the best. Because stories provide detailed information and context, they’re also some of the best comprehensible input sources you can find. When picking your stories, make sure that they’re:

  • Linguistically Appropriate
    Your students can understand most of the words, terms, phrases and sentence structures in the story. If possible, avoid stories involving complex plot development, characters and character personalities. Make sure you map out the main characters with your students and clarify any special nouns, geographic locations and other proper names in advance.
  • Culturally Related
    Stories that talk about culture are always interesting. They not only broaden your ESL students’ worldview, but also teach them to present their personal beliefs and practices comprehensibly. Oftentimes, stories like these spark great discussions and lure even the shyest students into participating. Go a second mile by hosting a special cultural food day so your students can showcase their cooking and language skills in a pressure-free environment.
  • Socially Connected
    If you want your students to be immersed in the culture, the stories you choose should also increase their social understanding. How do you host a holiday party? What do you say in a job interview? What are some tricks and tips for asking someone out? Stories that reflect these realities are appreciated for their authenticity and practicality. They also provide enough context for students to understand and interpret the words and expressions that may be involved in the process.

Key #4: Adopt FluentU as a Teaching Tool

Another great way to track down diverse input is with FluentU.

FluentU has tons of English videos — taken from sources ranging from “Friends” episodes and “the Hunger Games” trailers to documentaries, broadcast news and interviews.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

This might just be your new favorite tool to expose students to a wide range of English. Given the sheer diversity of content, there’s sure to be something every class will love!

FluentU is ideal for finding videos for in-class exercises as well as homework. Say goodbye to spending hours searching for good videos on YouTube and hello to focusing on actually teaching your students.

Plus, FluentU is dedicated to making English input comprehensible for learners.

Each video comes with interactive subtitles. If a learner doesn’t quite understand something that’s said, they can simply hover their cursor over the subtitled words to see definitions and real-word usage examples appear on-screen, instantly. By clicking on a word, they’ll add it to a running vocabulary list for later practice, and they’ll see more in-context uses of the word from other FluentU videos.

That’s not even the most interesting part. With FluentU’s “learn” mode, students can learn each part of the video bit by bit. FluentU delivers questions and examples that are personalized based on each student’s experience on FluentU.

Key #5: Try Narrow Reading

Instead of reading a bunch of books, articles or essays on a variety of subjects, why not narrow things down and master just one thing? Narrow reading does just that!

Narrow reading enhances your comprehensible input efforts. Students learn much more through narrow reading because reading about the same subject over and over builds up their background knowledge while improving their vocabulary, semantic and syntactic understanding in the area.

With narrow reading, you can read about the same topics through materials written by different people and recognize the sets of words and structures commonly used to express certain ideas. Supplement your narrow reading exercises by encouraging your students to choose topics of their own. You can also incorporate listening to podcasts and radio programs and watching movies.

Key #6: List Work

There are many names for this activity, but the “list work” involves students working in pairs to accomplish a multi-step task. To play you need to:

  1. Create a list (the best lists are the ones that help the students to complete a craft or cooking project).
  2. One partner will be the Teacher, and the other will be the Student.
  3. The Teacher will have the list and tell the Student what to do.

For the list to be effective, intentionally throw in new vocabulary, pictures and symbols for the Teacher to decipher. Keep the directions short so the Teacher will be encouraged to elaborate and explain things in his/her words.

Key #7: Songs and Nursery Rhymes

Homophones and words that rhyme can be a headache for ESL students. To help your ESL students to distinguish homophones or identical words, you need to provide contexts to illustrate their occurrences.

Songs and nursery rhymes are great because they usually integrate words of similar sounds in constrained contexts.

Through simple lines and consistent repetition, your ESL students will eventually recognize phonologically-similar words based on the context and environment in which they were used.

Key #8: Play Games— try ESL Simon Says

“Simon Says” is one of the fun games you can play with your ESL students. This fast-paced game not only tests attention and alertness, but also challenges your ESL students to understand the words and respond appropriately.

The ESL version of Simon Says integrates the idea of comprehensible input by:

  • Using vocabulary that has been recently studied.
  • Dictating a sequence of actions for students to perform.

Ex: Simon says, “Do four things: open your notebook, write two spelling words, trade your pencils and draw a smiley face on your neighbor’s notebook.

  • Asking students to undertake tasks that requires interaction.

Ex: Simon says, “Pick a color in your head and sit next to someone who picked the same color as you.”

Do You Understand?

At the end of the day, the keys to promoting comprehensible input in your ESL classroom can be summed up in these two words: meaningful and fun. 

The effect of comprehensible input is maximized when students can make meaningful associations with the input in a relevant and stress-free environment. Let’s help our students to understand better by providing them quality, relevant and engaging linguistic data!

Elena is a linguist who enjoys helping ESL teachers and students to find ingenuity beyond the conventional ESL learning process. Besides teaching, Elena is also a freelance content writer who provides engaging and SEO content for business of all niches. Read more about her writing service at My Content Hopper.

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe