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Skill building versus comprehensible input

In what Krashen calls the "skill building hypothesis" a language is viewed as a complex system which has to be gradually mastered by learning and practising all its complex elements. Emphasis is placed on conscious knowledge of how the system works, cognitive analysis and repetitive practice. There is a strong focus on form. It was the basis of most language learning approaches of the past, including grammar-translation, audio-lingualism and the oral-situational approach.

On the other hand what he calls the "comprehension hypothesis" assumes that language acquisition occurs best when learners are presented with language they understand. In this view second language learning is likened to child language acquisition. The focus is on meaning and much less on analysis, repetitive practice and form.

The terms learning and acquisition have often been used as shorthand descriptions of the above two hypotheses.

It is hard, maybe impossible, to prove which model fits best in the context of school foreign language learning, but I don't believe we have to view these two hypotheses as mutually exclusive. It is quite possible to run a language course which incorporates strong elements of both skill building and comprehensible input. We all, as teachers, have an implicit or explicit view of how language learning best takes place, and it is often borne out of experience as much as theory.

A British Ofsted languages inspector recently commented that achievement appears to be highest when a sensible mix of traditional activities are done very well. Ofsted get to see thousands of lessons, have a huge database of evidence and therefore tend to know what they are talking about. So, an eclectic approach including large amounts of target language input, a structured, graded approach to grammar (including explanation), repetitive drill-style practice, bits of translation, question-answer and communicative tasks of all types, including games, should provide a suitable diet for progress to occur. The needs of comprehensible input supporters and skill-building apologists should be largely satisfied. We may well be in the area of false dichotomies here. When we add to this the fact that children vary in their learning styles and teachers have their own preferences, all the more reason to provide an eclectic approach.

In practice, I would not be surprised if the majority of teachers employ the broad approach I have just described. I am sure most "skill builders" provide lots of meaningful comprehensible input, whilst CI fans sometimes use explanation and structured practice. Most teachers accept the need for input and motivation, but they also recognise that most learners appreciate explanations and structured practice. I also suspect that where things may go wrong, in the school context, it is (other things being equal, such as teacher skill, relationships, extrinsic motivation etc) when lessons become too form based or too pure meaning based.


  1. After changing to CI teaching this year I think some of my skill building lovers (students) are just good a memorizing for a test. I don't know as in most it produces any real learning or ability to use the language meaningfully or correctly. They just happened to be good at the school game. I think students like it because it's easy and specific and they know what to do. I was not able to blend well.

  2. Thanks for the comment. As I say, I never saw this as an either/or issue. I saw pupils blossom from the age of 11 to 18 with a mixed diet of structured grammar practice, vocab building, testing and plenty of CI. I'm not sure about this, but I wonder if target language teaching has been less well established in North America, so CI seems more revolutionary. By the way, I don;t think skill practice need necessarily be easy for able students; it depends how challenging to make it and how cleverly you structure it. leading from controlled practice to more open-ended communication.

  3. I agree with your thoughts on this. I start with CI to model language in context. Students benefit from contextualized structural practice so they have models to which they may refer as meaningful examples. What is not so well done is simply teaching iwith a structural approach so there isn't bigger story to help keep it all meaningful. In addition, Essential questions and learning targets can help students connect what they are learning and acquiring to the bigger outcomes. Best wishes!


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