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Strategy 7: Providing Meaningful Input


For decades, scholars in the field of language education have cited the central role of “comprehensible input” (Krashen, 1982; 1985; among others) in the process of second language acquisition. Input* is considered “comprehensible” when it is slightly above the current proficiency level of the learner (“i + 1”). This concept is related to the work of Vygotsky (1962), who argued that real learning only occurs when the learner is presented with new concepts that are just beyond his/her grasp. It is through the interaction and assistance of a “more capable peer” that the learner progresses. “…successful coordination with a partner—or assisted performance—leads learners to reach beyond what they are able to achieve alone…” (Gibbons, 2002, p. 8). Language use is at the core of this theory; in other words, learning is socially mediated because it requires linguistic interaction. The relationship between the sociocultural theory of learning and second language acquisition is emphasized by many scholars (e.g., Lantolf, 2000).

Authentic texts as input

In order to lead to language and content learning, input (be it oral or written) should be authentic. An authentic text is one that is not originally produced for language-teaching purposes but rather for the purpose of communicating meaning (Brinton et al., 1989; Tedick, 2003). See Tedick's discussion of authenticity of text.

Authentic texts (oral or written) serve as the main source of content in CBI and are absolutely essential for CBI curriculum development. When working with authentic texts, teachers are faced with the difficulty of identifying textual materials that are appropriate linguistically (texts that match the proficiency level of the students or that are just a little above) while challenging enough cognitively (texts that contain content appropriate for the age/maturity level). The selection of authentic texts must vary depending on what needs to be assessed at the specific level the students are at.

For the novice level, where tasks should focus on students’ identification of key words and main ideas, selected texts should be shorter (not too lengthy) and highly contextualized so that learners can use their background knowledge as support. Examples of such texts include TV or short radio programs, commercials, songs, letters or email correspondence, etc.) (Glisan et al., 2003).

At the intermediate level, where tasks should emphasize the identification of key ideas and supporting details, text selection should include narratives, short stories, information rich texts, and so forth on topics of interest to students. The texts should also include cultural content related to the target culture (e.g., segments of appropriate TV programs such as soap operas, interviews, magazine articles, etc.) (Glisan et al., 2003).

Finally, at the pre-advanced level, where tasks should emphasize the identification of main ideas and supporting details as well as the identification of varied perspectives on a given topic and the ability to make inferences, selected texts should reflect a higher degree of complexity: they should be longer, reflect more complex discourse, and should cover a wide range of topics from personal to those of general interest (the text types may be the same as for the intermediate level but the task should be more complex and demanding of students) (Glisan et al., 2003). The selection of authentic and appropriate texts is key to CBI as it naturally provides a context in which students can focus both on content and linguistic features simultaneously.

Because appropriate authentic texts are difficult to identify, teachers are wise when they reuse the same text for different purposes and at different levels. For example, this webpage from the Belgian government titled “Comment préserver l’eau à la maison?” (How to conserve water at home) is a highly contextualized text that can be used with novice level learners as well as more advanced learners. Novice learners might be exposed to this text in the context of a unit on the home/shelters and might be assigned a task that requires them to scan the text for key vocabulary words and phrases (toilet, bath, shower, cleaning, doing the laundry, gardening) and to see if they are able, through reliance on background knowledge and the graphic support provided, to find places in the article where the amounts of water that are used for household activities are identified. Intermediate level learners might use the same text in the context of a unit on water conservation and might be expected to identify key ideas in the text related to water use and water conservation as well as supporting details. Advanced level learners might use the text in the context of a unit on global environmental issues, with water conservation being a topic related to the overall theme. They might be expected to understand the article in its entirety and perhaps to draw cultural comparisons with similar information on water use in the U.S. context.

Input that provides diverse perspectives

Stoller (2002) argues that students need exposure to input from various content sources, representing diverse perspectives; exposure to diverse perspectives provides for positive tension. Positive tension is the tension that comes from different perspectives on the same theme. It results from the thoughtful consideration of multiple perspectives, different but complementary views, and opposing viewpoints. For example, in a university classroom, students were engaged in a unit on the Hopi. They were exposed to multiple texts (written, oral, and pictorial depictions) with diverse perspectives, allowing for positive tension, which resulted from students considering views such as these:

  •  traditional vs. nontraditional Hopi views
  •  the perspectives of young vs. elderly Hopi
  •  U.S. vs. tribal government viewpoints
  •  scholarly perspectives with facts and statistics vs. personal interpretations from Hopi guest speakers
  •  historical vs. contemporary viewpoints

Finding appropriate materials that are authentic and that expose learners to positive tension is a challenge. This is where technology can play a key role; teachers and students need to use the Internet and other technological resources to find appropriate resources that can serve as the comprehensible input for a particular CBI lesson or unit.

Building in redundancy: Revisiting input for different purposes

In CBI, learners are both learning a new language and learning other things (content, cultural concepts) through the medium of that language. Because many of the concepts and the linguistic structures/vocabulary needed to access and discuss those concepts will both be new to learners, it is imperative to modify instruction to build in redundancy (Cummins, 2000; Stoller, 2002). Stoller (2002) suggests the following techniques for revisiting content (input) for different purposes:

  •  Report (e.g., in a jigsaw activity, in a written report)
  •  Reexamine (e.g., by re-reading with a different goal in mind)
  •  Repeat (e.g., in a dictation, dicto-comp, role play)
  •  Reformat (e.g., in a graphic organizer)
  •  Review (e.g., for a quiz, an oral presentation, an interview)

In a similar vein, an immersion teacher argues that CBI teachers should be “language environmentalists,” making it a practice “to reduce, reuse, and recycle” vocabulary and key structures (Maureen Curran-Dorsano, personal communication, Feb. 28, 2003). As mentioned above, the same text can be “recycled” by the teacher by having learners with different proficiency levels use the same text for different purposes.

*We would like to acknowledge that some scholars have begun to question the use of the terms “input” and “output” (e.g., Kramsch, 1995; van Lier, 2000). In lieu of “output,” Swain (2000) has used terms such as “speaking, writing, utterance, verbalization, and collaborative dialogue,” even though she considers such substitutes as “an interim solution…[until]…the appropriate terminology…emerge[s]” (p. 103). Due to a lack of other, widely accepted alternatives in the field, we maintain the use of “input” and “output” on the CoBaLTT website.


Pam Wesely’s unit—Stereotypes of the French:
Lesson 2, Lesson 3

Following Stoller’s (2002) call for creating positive tension in the language classroom (tension that comes from different perspectives on the same theme), Pam organized her curricular unit following Kramsch’s Kaleidoscope model, a model that is particularly effective at stimulating cross-cultural comparisons. By utilizing this model, Pam ensures that her students get an in-depth analysis of the concept of “stereotype” as well as get the opportunity to explore culture from varied perspectives (e.g., the meaning of stereotype, other’s view of Americans, Americans’ view of the French, etc.). In lesson 2, for instance, Pam has her students read excerpts from the book Xenophobe's Guide to the Americans (1999), a book which reflects some common stereotypes about Americans, without being overly negative. Later in lesson 3, Pam has her students explore American’s stereotypes of the French by having them identify examples of stereotypes of the French in the American media (e.g., examples from Disney movies, television commercials or shows where French is spoken or the French people are portrayed, etc.).


Barbara Anderson’s unit—Le Moyen Âge en France: Lesson 02 ("During" phase)

During this phase of the lesson, students are exposed to multiple perspectives as they are asked to share their finding in groups as well as with the entire class. It is also important to note that, while reporting, students are intensively engaged in language production. In this particular instance, after having researched a specific topic, the class first meets in large groups and does a jigsaw task. Following the presentations, each group must list three similarities and three differences among the events described and answer the question: Why was this event a challenge for people living in the Middle Ages in France? Then, one designated speaker from each group presents the group's list of similarities and differences as well as their answer to the discussion question to the class. This activity concludes with the entire class brainstorming a list of current events that have similar causes and/ or effects. Such jigsaw activities serve as examples of students providing input to one another and creating output.



Brinton, D., Snow, M. A., & Wesche, M. B. (1989). Content-based second language instruction. Boston: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.

Cummins (2000) Immersion Education for the Millennium: What we have learned from 30 years of research on second language immersion. [online] [also online at CoBaLTT website].

Gibbons, P. (2002). Scaffolding language, scaffolding learning. Portsmouth, NH : Heinemann.

Glisan, E.W., Adair-Hauck, B., Koda, K., Sandrock, S.P., & Swender, E. (2003). ACTFL integrated performance assessment. Yonkers, NY: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Kramsch, C. (1995). The applied linguist and the foreign language teacher: Can they talk to each other? Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, 18(1), 1-16.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practices in second language acquisition. NY: Pergamon Press.

Krashen, S. (1985). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. NY: Longman.

Lantolf, J. (Ed.) (2000). Sociocultural theory and second language learning. NY: Oxford University Press.

Stoller, F. (2002, March). Content-Based Instruction: A Shell for Language Teaching or a Framework for Strategic Language and Content Learning? Keynote presented at the annual meeting of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Salt Lake City. [online at CoBaLTT website]

Swain, M. (2000). The output hypothesis and beyond: Mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue. In J. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural theory and second language learning (pp. 97-114). NY: Oxford University Press.

Tedick, D. (2003). CAPRII: Key concepts to support standards-based and content-based second language instruction. CoBaLTT Web Resource Center. [online at CoBaLTT website]

Van Lier, L. (2000). From input to affordance: Social-interactive learning from an ecological perspective. In J. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural theory and second language learning (pp. 245-259). NY: Oxford University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


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