What About Comprehensible Output?!

I train all teachers and leaders all over the world and focus so much on comprehensible input for our learners...most recently I began to dig deeper into COMPREHENSIBLE OUTPUT...yes, it exists.  So what do you need to know? There are many popular theories about second language acquisition. In this blog we will learn about the comprehensible output hypothesis and research-based strategies to develop ELL students' communication skills.

How Do ELL Students Learn English?

As an ELL educator, you probably wish you had the key to how students learn English. Wouldn't it make teaching English easier? That's one reason why researchers have studied second language acquisition for years.

Scholar Merrill Swain proposed the comprehensible output hypothesis to describe how a second language is acquired. According to the hypothesis, ELL students learn language when they realize there is a gap in their language skills. For example, a student makes a language mistake, becomes aware of the mistake because of feedback, and then tries again. Producing the correct message through trial and error enables the student to modify language appropriately in the future.

Although this hypothesis is only one of many, let's take a look at how it works and how you might apply it to teaching.

Functions of the Hypothesis

The comprehensible output hypothesis has three functions:

  • Noticing function
  • Hypothesis-testing function
  • Metalinguistic function

Noticing Function

The noticing function is when language learners realize there is a gap between what they want to say and what they are able to say. Speakers use this function when they are unable to correctly communicate a message and know they are making a mistake. Imagine Eh Ta Khu and Abdi,  ELL students, are talking about cars. Eh Ta Khu wants to describe a type of car, but realizes he doesn't know where to place the adjective in his sentence.

Hypothesis-testing Function

The hypothesis-testing function describes when the ELL student speaks a sentence to test whether it is correct. If it is incorrect, the other speaker will give feedback by correcting the sentence. Think back to the car conversation. Eh Ta Khu says, 'I want to buy a car blue.' According to the hypothesis-testing function, Laura will fix the mistake by correctly using the phrase 'blue car' in her response.

Metalinguistic Function

Using the metalinguistic function, ELL students reflect on the sentences they produce and the feedback they receive from others. In our example, Eh Ta Khu becomes aware that he made a mistake and what the correct language should be. In the future he will say 'blue car' and not 'car blue.'

Applying the Hypothesis in the Classroom

The comprehensible output hypothesis demonstrates the importance of feedback and interaction for an ELL student. You must give ELL students the opportunity to practice using the language in a variety of settings. In addition to reading and writing about new vocabulary, ELL students should also use vocabulary words when speaking. For example, you could ask the class a higher-order thinking question using the target vocabulary and have students discuss the answer aloud with a partner.

Small groups are great way of getting ELL students interacting with others. Benefits of small groups include allowing the speaker to more easily adapt the message to the needs of the ELL student, and allowing for more frequent check-ins.

Cooperative learning teams are a type of small group that would help ELL students. In cooperative learning teams, students work together to complete a task, which offers plenty of opportunities for communication for every level of ELL student. Beginners can use gestures or short words to communicate while more advanced students can use more complex language. Another benefit to cooperative learning teams is the immediate feedback ELL students receive.

Take Away

The comprehensible output hypothesis argues that language is acquired when a learner becomes aware of gaps in knowledge. It is broken down into three functions: the noticing function, the hypothesis-testing function and the metalinguistic function. You can apply the comprehensible output hypothesis to your teaching by using cooperative learning teams, which give ELL students many opportunities to practice listening and speaking skills.

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Dr. Martina Wagner | Wagner Educational Consulting | www.wagneredconsulting.com