What Is Comprehensible Input?

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What Is Comprehensible Input?

If you work with English Learners perhaps you’ve heard the term comprehensible input before. Comprehensible input is the foundation of effective instruction for English Learners. Simply put, it’s teaching students can understand, whatever their level of English language. It is not one thing, but rather answers the question for each individual teacher, “How can I modify or what can I add to the language to make meaning clearer?”  While there are some best practices when working with English Learners, they are a diverse group, who require individual consideration from educators.

Here’s an example, when I first started teaching it was not uncommon for me to eat while teaching. I know that sounds terrible, but there were many days I spent my lunch period taking care of sick kids, calling parents, or dealing with the myriad of minutia that plague teachers’ days.  Having missed lunch, I would stuff bites of peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my mouth between breaths during whatever subject followed lunch. I didn’t know that English Learners need clear and precise pronunciation.  I wasn’t aware that my mouth, as I shaped each word, could give a student information about what was being said.  I certainty wasn’t conscientious about facing my students when I was speaking or speaking slowly and clearly.  Most of my days were spent rushing through to the next lesson, always late for the recess, buses, or whatever came next. Two decades later, I’d like to think I know better now (although the sense of urgency hasn’t left and I’m still perfecting my pacing).

Comprehensible Input ChartClick here for a PDF of the chart above: Comprehensible Input Chart

When working with English Learners it’s important to speak slowly, articulating clearly each word and pausing between phrases. The average adult speaks at a rate of almost 145-160 words per minute.  Meanwhile, the average native English speaker ages 5-7 processes speech at a rate of 120 words per minute.  3-4 year olds are even slower. As adults, we already speak faster than most students can comprehend. For English Learners that processing time is even longer an it is even more important that we give them the time to process and translate.  They may need more explanation, more time, more examples, and more support than native English speakers. While no one strategy works in every scenario to add meaning, the chart above gives you an idea of the kinds of things that can make language more comprehensible, and thus more memorable, for students.

Keep in mind oral language is more contextualized, and thus often easier to comprehend, than written language. Checkout the adaptation of Judith Birsh’s comparison from Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills in the article 3 Ways to Use Comic Strips as Writing Scaffolds.

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