Coming from an era in which English Language Learners (ELLs) were mainstreamed into regular education with the assumption they will linguistically “sink or swim,” researcher Stephen Krashen wrote why this theoretical practice was ineffective. He refuted the “sink or swim” ideology in his Comprehensible Input Hypothesis described in his book, Foreign Language Education the Easy Way:

“We acquire language in only one way, when we understand messages, that is when we obtain “comprehensible input.” Thus, we acquire when we understand what people tell us or what we read, when we are absorbed in the message.”

Krashen’s research and writing highlighted the need for teachers to create comprehensible input in their classrooms. To that end, comprehensible input practices can be categorized into three types: visual, graphic and linguistic. Use one, two or all three types per lesson, and your ELLs English acquisition will accelerate as well as their content knowledge learning.

Visual supports include meaningful, relevant pictures, icons, symbols, videos, skits, and realia. What is realia you ask? These visual supports represent real-life objects through miniature versions, pictures of the real object as opposed to a sketch, and/or the real thing itself. For example, in my ESL classes I brought in all ingredients to make chocolate chip cookies. I brought a little extra of each ingredient to pass around the class and discuss the adjectives related to each item as they touched them. When we felt the butter, we came up with words like “greasy, slimy, and smooth”. Those new words were comprehensible input through visual and multisensory learning.

Graphic supports include all forms of graphic organizers. These include: Venn diagrams, T-charts, character maps, timelines, and story sequencing maps. Graphically organized information can deliver content knowledge and understanding of categories of items being taught. In a science lesson on polymers, for example, items can be sorted into man-made vs. natural polymers. In social studies, historical figures can be divided by which side of the war they supported (e.g. Allies or Axis in World War II).

Linguistic supports consist of not only the obvious use of bilingual dictionaries, first language translations, word banks, word walls, and even English dictionaries, but also interactive activities as well. Small group and pair work can be considered a linguistic support because it provides the ELL with a non-threatening situation to ask for clarification on a word or phrase he may not understand. This is especially beneficial because the English-speaking peer can often provide comprehensible input that will resonate better with the ELL than what the teacher presented in many instances. Peer-to-peer learning is well documented as an effective learning tool.

Review your lesson plans for these 3 types of supports for English Language Learners – no matter which content subject you teach. Keep it comprehensible. As you complete your lesson plans, be sure to include visual, graphic, and/or linguistic supports. This practice will make a difference for both your ELLs and English-speaking students.

By Dr. Eugenia Krimmel – Dr. Krimmel has taught ESL for over 23 years and has worked as a K-12 ESL consultant for the past 8 years.