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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.

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