Incomprehensible Input

Incomprehensible = NOT understood

Input = Language heard or read

There is no reason to do this. This does not promote language acquisition. On top of that, it’s a miserable experience for everyone involved. On some level, we all know this. The question is WHY do we still do it? If we can identify the WHY, perhaps we can figure out HOW to stop.

Often times this is an honest mistake. A number of antiquated theories of language acquisition are centered around being exposed to mountains of incomprehensible input and trying to figure out what it means. A lot of us were taught that way and are simply repeating what we think worked for us. This is easily fixed by attending some professional development put on by Comprehensible Input practitioners. This is perhaps the easiest fix. It takes time, but it’s worth it.

Other times the issue has to do with unrealistic expectations. For example, imagine the final objective of a high school French program was to be able to translate Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” into literal English and identify the tense, mood and voice of all of the verbs. The goal is essentially for students to engage a completely level-inappropriate text at an absurd level of detail. It is easy to understand the temptation to provide incomprehensible input to students in “preparation” for even less comprehensible input in the future. The solution to this one depends on the amount of power we have to decide our own curricula. If we are able, we should just ditch that goal entirely and replace it with a more appropriate one. Ultimately, if your goals make you feel like you need to provide incomprehensible input to your students, those goals needs to change.

Along the same lines, the problem has to do with our selection of sources of input. For example, say you find a great novella that you would love to read with your students. You decide to use it in your level 2 classes, but you quickly realize that it is well beyond the reading level of those students. What do you do? Often times, we make the mistake of trying to plow ahead anyway, going through heaps and heaps of pre-reading activities to try and make the language comprehensible, one paragraph at a time. Although the impulse is admirable, we end up just providing far more incomprehensible than comprehensible input, and killing any possibility of students enjoying the actual story. The solution here is to either create a more level-appropriate adaption of the same story or to pick an entirely new novella for those students.

In the end, the most important thing for us to remember is that whatever it is that we want for a our students, it will not be achieved through incomprehensible input.

– John Bracey


Middle School Latin teacher committed to teaching with comprehensible input.

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