Todd & A Series On CI (Part 14) – How To Make Input Comprehensible In A Foreign Language Classroom

Q- “How do you make input comprehensible?”

A- “Hmmm. I’m not sure what you mean? Do you mean something like Question #1 or do you mean Question #2?

  • Question #1: How do you help a novice student know that you want him to pass out the worksheets when you say the L2 sentence for, “Please pass out these worksheets?”
  • Question #2: How do you help a student come to a point of understanding a piece of L2 that he currently doesn’t understand?

If you’re looking for answers to questions like Question #1, it would be more clear to phrase the original question this way:

Revised Question #1 – How do you help a student find meaning in an L2 immersion environment if most of the L2 input is going to be incomprehensible for him? (For a list of practical answers to this question see ‘More Answers To Revised Question #1’ below.)

This is an important revision because Revised Question #1 and the question at the top of this post are definitely NOT interchangeable. The answer to Revised Question #1 is *PAIRING and the answer to the question at the top of this post sounds almost the same but is clearly different: REPEATED PAIRING.

*PAIRING happens when a teacher leverages different forms of extralinguistic input so students can find meaning in an L2 immersion environment even though the L2 input is incomprehensible. More specifically, *PAIRING is matching a piece of incomprehensible L2 with another piece of input (extralinguistic or linguistic) that is equivalent and meaningful. (i.e. 1- Like when a teacher gestures for a novice student to stand up while saying the L2 word for, “stand up.” The L2 word for, “stand up,” is the piece of incomprehensible L2 and the accompanying gesture is the other piece of input that is equivalent and hopefully meaningful. This is an instance of extralinguistic pairing. 2- Like when a teacher hands out a flashcard that has the L2 word for “stand up,” on the front and the L1 word for, “stand up,” on the back. This is an instance of linguistic, L1 pairing.)


  • …a teacher gesturing while saying the L2 word for, “stand up,” a few times on Monday, a few times during Tuesday’s lesson, a few MORE times on Wednesday and even more times throughout the rest of the school year.
  • …a student not just looking at his L2 vocab list on Monday night, but again on Tuesday and again on Wednesday night and again on Thursday night before the test.
  • …giving the learner multiple chances to see a meaningful equivalent of an incomprehensible L2 word/phrase.
  • …the answer to Question #2 (above) and is a correct way of answer the original question at the very top of this blog post.

The purpose of REPEATED *PAIRING is to make what was once meaningLESS meaningFUL. When an instance of PAIRING is repeated enough times (over a long enough period of time) a piece of L2 input that previously had been incomprehensible to a student can become meaningful.”

More Answers To Revised Question #1

There are SOOOOO many answers to Revised Question #1.

1- There are entire methods/systems of foreign language teaching devoted to providing answers to that question. Here’s a post I wrote two weeks ago containing 37 Links To Online Resources that discuss such methods.)

2- I write “Tuesday’s Tips For Staying In The Target Language” to give practical, step-by-step and (hopefully) reproducible answers to Revised Question #1. I’ve written practical advice/strategies for…:

…Teaching Grammar While Staying In The Target Language.

…Introducing New Vocabulary While Staying In The Target Language.

…Making The Interpersonal Mode As Easy As Possible.

Giving Activity Directions While Staying In The Target Language.

3- In an effort to answer Revised Question #1, some articles and blogs provide answers that are too vague and incomplete like, “make meaning clear through body language, gestures, and visual support.” I wrote a series on practical tips and specific examples for how to do this. Click on the links below to access those posts:

That should be more than enough answers to Revised Question #1.

Have fun repeatedly pairing so that you can make more and more incomprehensible L2 comprehensible for your students!

Señor Howard

Señor Howard – – @HolaSrHoward

Caleb Howard – – @calhwrd

*Disclaimer: These terms are my own and I’m using them for the purpose of reflecting on my own foreign language teaching practice.  The reader should not assume that these are the terms found in formal, academic writing.

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