“Teaching” the words or “immersing” in the words

A teacher is deriding me for my views on the importance of extensive comprehensible input. He says, “I must have missed the lessons on modern language teaching trends, so I am asking some practical questions hoping to update my obsolete views on teaching. Please anyone help me start the new semester after the Chinese New Year holiday as a different teacher.”

This teacher is being sarcastic with us. I understand because I used to feel the same way. I know that the claim that extensive comprehensible input seems in some ways to contradict all of our long-held beliefs and assumptions about teaching. It didn’t make sense to me either when I heard about it. But on the other hand it we can intuitively know that it works because (1) children learn their L1 in the same manner and (2) even you and I add to our English vocabulary in this way. Our language development did not stop when we left school. Additionally, (3) our students and many others are adding to their language without being taught (for example: shit) and not learning what we do teach (for example: mom=she, dad=he). (Photo: My students hanging on every word of the film, “Bruce Almighty”, a Jim Carey comedy but with some intense parts. The film is shown in English with English subtitles only. There are a lot of words they don’t know. BUT, there are a lot of words they do know.)

Let’s take a look at the example that this teacher proposes for use with a mid-intermediate level student. Does it meet the three requirements for extensive comprehensible input?

1. Extensive? I don’t think a student would read very much of this sort of text for the reasons below.

2. Comprehensible? No, not at all.

3. Interesting? I doubt it for two reasons. It is talking about a specific industry problem and it is so incomprehensible that only advanced students would be able to make enough sense out of it to begin to understand it and possibly enjoy it.

This is NOT how to do extensive comprehensible input!

However how would those who really want to teach the vocabulary out of it handle this situation? Here Stefan’s sentence plus the whole paragraph. It is only one paragraph of a four-paragraph article which is dense with not frequently used vocabulary. I have capitalized the text that mid-level and many upper-level intermediate students may not know:

Tourism is now among the world’s most important industries, generating jobs and profits worth billions of pounds. At the same time, however, mass tourism can have dire effects on the people and places it embraces – both tourists and the societies and human environments they visit. We are increasingly familiar with some of the worst effects of unthinking, unmanaged, unsustainable tourism: previously undeveloped coastal villages that have become sprawling, charmless towns. their seas poisoned by sewage, denuded of wildlife, their beaches stained with litter and empty tubes of suncream. Historic towns, their streets now choked with traffic, their temples, churches and cathedrals seemingly reduced to a backdrop for holiday snaps that proclaim, ‘Been there, Done that’. Some of the world’s richest environments bruised by the tourist onslaught, their most distinctive wildlife driven to near-extinction, with wider environmental impacts caused by the fuel-hungry transport systems used to take holidaying travellers around the world and back again.

So would a vocabulary teacher then teach these words?

1. generating
2. profits
3. billions
4. mass
5. dire
6. embraces
7. societies
8. familiar
9. unsustainable
10. previously
11. undeveloped
12. coastal
13. sprawling
14. charmless
15. poisoned
16. sewage
17. denuded
18. wildlife
19. beaches
20. stained
21. litter
22. tubes
23. suncream
24. historic
25. choked
26. temples
27. cathedrals
28. distinctive
29. driven
30. near-extinction
31. impacts
32. fuel-hungry
33. transport

We have 33 words to learn there and that is only one paragraph. After we do the other four paragraphs we may have new 100 words to learn from only one article in one lesson.

How many words can an average student memorize in one day? How many will he forget? Anyone know?

This is exactly what extensive comprehensible input is NOT. But it is also my contention that even those who favor discrete vocabulary teaching will not be successful in helping students acquire this vocabulary. Yes, teachers can “teach” it. But the students are going to feel stupid when they forget it.

This text would be suitable for advanced learners who already know 95% of the vocabulary. For them this would be adequate for their extensive comprehensible input. They would be able to add to their advanced vocabulary but I almost never teach those kinds of students. By the time they reach that level they are learning on their own from any English materials they choose.


Website English level ratings according to Google

26 websites rated according to the Basic Level classification:

1 MTV MTV.com 76
2 ESL Pod eslpod.com 72
3 Breaking News English breakingnewsenglish.com 62
4 Sports Illustrated sportsillustrated.cnn.com 56
5 VOA Special English voanews.com/learningenglish 42
6 National Geographic nationalgeographic.org 39
7 MSNBC msnbc.com 37
8 Business English Pod businessenglishpod.com 37
9 Detroit Free Press freep.com 36
10 Wikipedia Simple simple.wikipedia.org/ 29
11 Fox News foxnews.com 28
12 USA Today usatoday.com 28
13 Washington Post washingtonpost.com 27
14 The New Yorker newyorker.com 24
15 Yahoo News news.yahoo.com 19
16 CNN edition.cnn.com 18
17 China Daily chinadaily.com.cn 15
18 Wikipedia wikipedia.org 15
19 New York Times nytimes.com 15
20 VOA News voanews.com 11
21 The Standard (Hong Kong) thestandard.com.hk 8
22 People’s Daily Online english.peopledaily.com.cn/ 8
23 Wall Street Journal online.wsj.com 5
24 Aljazeera News Aljazeera.net 4
25 Bloomberg News bloomberg.com/news 2
26 Scientific American scientificamerican.com 1

26 websites rated according to the Intermediate Level classification:

1 Bloomberg News bloomberg.com/news 93
2 Aljazeera News Aljazeera.net 91
3 Wall Street Journal online.wsj.com 90
4 VOA News voanews.com 87
5 People’s Daily Online english.peopledaily.com.cn/ 86
6 The Standard (Hong Kong) thestandard.com.hk 85
7 Yahoo News news.yahoo.com 78
8 CNN edition.cnn.com 78
9 China Daily chinadaily.com.cn 78
10 Scientific American scientificamerican.com 71
11 Fox News foxnews.com 70
12 USA Today usatoday.com 70
13 New York Times nytimes.com 70
14 Washington Post washingtonpost.com 69
15 The New Yorker newyorker.com 68
16 Detroit Free Press freep.com 62
17 National Geographic nationalgeographic.org 60
18 MSNBC msnbc.com 60
19 VOA Special English voanews.com/learningenglish 56
20 Business English Pod businessenglishpod.com 53
21 Wikipedia Simple simple.wikipedia.org/ 51
22 Wikipedia wikipedia.org 50
23 Sports Illustrated sportsillustrated.cnn.com 42
24 Breaking News English breakingnewsenglish.com 37
25 ESL Pod eslpod.com 26
26 MTV MTV.com 22

26 websites rated according to the Advanced Level classification:

1 Wikipedia wikipedia.org 33
2 Scientific American scientificamerican.com 27
3 Wikipedia Simple simple.wikipedia.org/ 18
4 New York Times nytimes.com 13
5 Business English Pod businessenglishpod.com 9
6 The New Yorker newyorker.com 7
7 The Standard (Hong Kong) thestandard.com.hk 5
8 China Daily chinadaily.com.cn 5
9 Bloomberg News bloomberg.com/news 4
10 People’s Daily Online english.peopledaily.com.cn/ 4
11 Aljazeera News Aljazeera.net 3
12 Wall Street Journal online.wsj.com 3
13 Washington Post washingtonpost.com 3
14 Yahoo News news.yahoo.com 2
15 CNN edition.cnn.com 2
16 MSNBC msnbc.com 2
17 VOA News voanews.com 1
18 Fox News foxnews.com 1
19 USA Today usatoday.com 1
20 Detroit Free Press freep.com 1
21 VOA Special English voanews.com/learningenglish 1
22 Sports Illustrated sportsillustrated.cnn.com 1
23 Breaking News English breakingnewsenglish.com 1
24 ESL Pod eslpod.com 1
25 MTV MTV.com 1
26 National Geographic nationalgeographic.org 0

In search of comprehensible material on the web

Students can learn vocabulary and grammar from extensive comprehensible input. In fact, even if students memorize some definitions of words they will only have a very shallow understanding of the meaning of those words unless they can be exposed to many usages of those words. Where can teachers find materials for their students that can provide extensive comprehensible input?

The graphic above shows Google’s rating of websites at Basic English level. When I rated a website that I use with my students it rated at 100%. As you can see, ESLPod, rates at 72% which is very good. USA Today, a newspaper that is supposedly written at an American 5th grade level, is perhaps the easiest mainstream newspaper for students to understand. The New York Times is more complicated. That little blue box at the top of the graphic is Bloomberg business news at 2%, very difficult for our students.

If we think of this material as a stairway to proficiency, our students can climb up to greater and greater complexity. You will have to select appropriate materials for your students according to their needs and interests. The materials listed above, for example the MIT university website, are not suggested reading materials. They are only shown to display levels of difficulty.

If you have suggestions of useful online materials, please use the comments section below to tell us.

>Should we teach our students Shakespeare?

>Some teachers advocate the teaching of Shakespeare to our students. Shakespeare had a tremendous impact on the English language. There are many idioms and turns of phrase that originated in the writings of Shakespeare. So they feel teaching the old bard would really benefit our students.

It may be useful for a very small portion of advanced English students who are interested in literature studies. It is difficult to see how lower level students, business or non-literature academic students would benefit from such studies as it is likely they have many other basic English needs to develop.

If we take a look at a sample of Shakespeare and the complexity of the language we can see why. Here are the opening lines of Twelfth Night:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

We can see how archaic Shakespearean English is to any contemporary purpose beyond the study of literature. As EFL professionals, we speak at length on the desirability of authentic English samples to use with our students. Personally, as I am not a literature teacher, I would sooner use any ole studio hammered dialog over dear William’s finest.

Sitting here in China I wonder if we haven’t realized that there has been a divide in the motivation behind English learning today. Some students are intensely interested in understanding the historic culture and the roots of the English language. But I would suggest that 95% or 3-4% more of our students are learning it for employment or travel purposes. I think Shakespeare teaching belongs to the first camp.

Why should it not be taught to the second group? I think it would be nice to teach it to the second group…after they have learned how to introduced themselves and a friend, go the bank, negotiate a contract, make a report to the police about being robbed, give a presentation, make a marriage proposal and talk intelligently with a doctor about their patent foramen ovale. Alas, we may never have time to teach it to this group whose motivation is related to practical daily purposes in our short 3-9 month courses.

>Making reading comprehension more interactive

>A teacher asks: “How I may turn a reading comprehension exercise to be more activity orientated and also one which would encourage the students to talk or communicate with each other?”

Doing speaking activities in conjunction with reading activities is a very good idea. After a reading students have been exposed to some new vocabulary in context and with the appropriate grammar support.

This makes it easier than telling the students, “OK everybody, talk about pollution.”

1. Before allowing the students to see the story ask them what they know about the subject. You could have them talk in pairs and exchange what they know about it. Then read the story.

2. If the story is talking about different places or different people, have your pairs or groups talk about which one they think is best, worst, they’d like to visit, etc. and why.

3. If it is talking about a famous person this is a great idea (adapted from a list member’s suggestion). Have each student write down a question they would like to ask that famous person if they met him/her. Then have the students circulate around the classroom asking each other their question. The student answering the question would answer as the famous person. After both students get a chance to ask and answer they exchange questions and find other students to do it with.

4. You could try Nation’s “Say It!” (documented below).

5. A little simpler approach is to get two characters out of the story (if you’re doing pair work) or four characters (if you’re doing group work). Then assign students to tell the story from the characters’ perspective.

Say It!

In Say it!, learners work in groups of about four people. First they read a Say it! text carefully until they have reached a good understanding of it. They discuss their understanding of the text to make sure everything is fairly clear. Then they do the tasks in the Say it! grid, which is a collection of simple verbal tasks related to the reading (see the following example).

One learner chooses a square for the next learner to perform, for example square B2. The learner does this task while the others observe and, when the student has finished, s/he calls a square, for example, A3, for the next learner. This continues with some learners doing the same task several times and with some tasks being done several times by different learners. Often the tasks are like role plays and require the learners to use the vocabulary that was in the reading text, but to use it in a different way.

This helps the development of fluency by providing lots of associations with the vocabulary used in the task, that is the associations from the reading text and its discussion, and the associations from the Say it! role play. Although the Say it! activity does not involve large amounts of repetition, it involves preparation by the learners.

That is, the learners prepare for the spoken task by studying the written text. This preparation should increase the fluency with which learners do the spoken task.

The following is an example of a Say It! activity (Joe, Nation, & Newton, 1996, p. 6). The story is called “Castaways Survived on Sharks Blood.”

Three fishermen who drifted on the Pacific for four months told how they drank shark’s blood to survive. The fishermen from Kiribati told their story through an interpreter in the American Samoa capital of Pago Pago after being rescued by the ship Sakaria. Kautea Teatoa, Veaieta Toanuea, and Tebwai Aretana drifted 400 kilometers from home after their outboard motor failed on February 8. They said four ships had refused to help during their ordeal. When they were picked up on June 4 they had eaten the last of a one meter shark four days before and drunk all of its blood. “I have not prayed so much in all my life,” Mr. Aretana said.

You are Kautea. Say what helped you survive.
You are Tebwai Aretana. How did you feel when the ships refused to help you?
You are a sailor on the Sakaria. What did you do to help the fishermen?
You are Tebwai. Explain why you were in the boat and what happened after it broke down.
You are Kautea. How did you feel when you caught the shark?
You are the captain. Explain why you stopped.
You are Veaieta. Explain what caused the problem.
You are the interpreter. Describe the appearance of the three men.
The journey was called an ordeal. Why?

>Finding suitable authentic newspaper materials for reading

>It is not easy to find authentic newspaper materials that are at an accessible level for students and interesting as well. Krashen always recommended reading materials that were L+1, a level just slightly above the student’s level which causes the student to have to “reach” a little.

I have scoured the Internet for years for such things. Something I like is from a column called “The Boss” in the NY Times. They have a simple life story of a top boss. Typically the story touches on things about the person’s childhood, school, influence of parents, first jobs and the lessons of life.

They are also success stories and lots of students have some hopes to be successful in life and find these stories interesting. At the bottom is an example of one of “The Boss” stories that you can find in the NY Times.


There are a couple approaches involved in reading. I don’t recommend “pre-teaching” the vocabulary from the text as many course books do, notably in China is “New Concepts” (which is actually a very old concept course book being written in the 1960s and only receiving superficial modifications just recently.)

Although pre-teaching sounds like a practical idea it is very boring for the students. Good teaching allows an element of mystery and curiosity and the thirst for knowledge. Good teaching provides the salt first and then the water. The good teacher gets the student to search his memory, his personal resources in his recollection, and draw on what the student already knows to apply to the problem. Good teaching also gets him to personally recognize what he doesn’t know which causes him to be curious and want to learn it.

So typically, before letting the students look at the material, get them to talk about what they know about some of the points in the story.

Pre-teaching sort of digests the text for the student leaving little mental exercise beyond simply trying to remember what he was told a couple minutes ago.

Encourage the students to guess the meaning of what they don’t understand. You’ll find, in a text as below, that there are a few words the student may not know and may not really need to retain.


I think it was H.D. Brown who talked about the Active Vocabulary, Latent Vocabulary and the Unknown. Some vocabulary the students encounter is destined for their Latent Vocabulary, words that will be important for them to be able to read or recognize when they hear them but are not necessary for them to be able to produce them on the spot like their Active Vocabulary. Some words they may only see once or twice in their lifetime and could well do without ever learning them. So equal stress should not be made on all words that students will encounter. Some words should be pointed out more than others because they will be more useful for students.

I’ve always said that language learning is like packing a suitcase. You’ve got to choose what you will likely need and leave the rest behind. Our students don’t have an unlimited capacity to retain everything and that’s one place where the teacher is most needed. Decisions about what to teach are as important as decisions about what NOT to teach.

It is not a sin to finish a reading exercise with the student not understanding 100% of the words. The teacher has to remember that sometimes English is a buffet. The student does not need to eat everything but he should eat enough to grow.

In the sample text below the intermediate student might need to acquire vocabulary like: headhunter, recruiter, certified, pulled me out of school, over the course of my career, I was No. 2 for eight years, early on.

However, this following vocabulary may not be as important to retain in the student’s Active Vocabulary: Amgen (company name), squadron commander, adventurer, overstate, hammered people, flight physical, class of ship, at the top of his lungs.

Still, the student could be encouraged to guess some of these and should be encouraged to find that he can figure some of these out without a dictionary. He may be able to figure out: adventurer, overstate, hammered people, class of ship.

Some words the student can easily forget without serious damage to their English competency like: Admiral Hyman G. Rickover (name).


Of course it is an ideal time to do some speaking after all the time invested in reading the text. There is a lot of vocabulary covered in what they just read and some speaking can help to consolidate it and allow the student to test his understanding and usage of it.

If my goal was solely speaking and I wanted to use a text I’d use a very short one. “The Boss” is too long for that purpose. But if we used a long text for something else then let’s roll into a speaking exercise. Here are a couple ideas that could be done in pairs or small groups:

1. Students could be asked to talk as if they were the characters. In “Say It” fashion, they could do a short monologue explaining themselves and what happened and why they felt the way they felt and adding in made-up details and parts of the story.

2. They could try to isolate various aspects of the story such as the lessons of life and people of influence and discuss those. Then they could follow up with their own personal lessons of life and people of influence.



Ready for the Admiral
As told to GLENN RIFKIN – June 20, 2004

I had no background in health care or biology before I came to Amgen. The only time I touched biology was in ninth grade, and I didn’t do very well.

I was working at MCI when I got a fax one day from a headhunter, asking if I knew anybody who wanted to be president of Amgen. I had never heard of Amgen and didn’t know what it was. This was 1992. I checked it out and asked some friends, and called back the recruiter and said, “Yes, I want to be president of Amgen.”

It was already a 12-year-old company with 2,000 employees, two successful biotech products, and it was clearly going to be a success.

I was ambitious, and I wanted to be a C.E.O.

My dad, who is still alive, was a naval aviator and a career naval officer. He flew jets early on and was a squadron commander. It’s hard to overstate the psychological impact, as a young boy, of seeing airplanes come out of the sky, knowing that your father is flying one.

My mother was a very strong, independent woman who was a real adventurer. She loved travel, the arts, literature. When I was a senior in high school, my mother pulled me out of school to go to the Los Angeles Philharmonic to see Isaac Stern play the violin.

I went to the Naval Academy at Annapolis and studied aeronautical engineering on the misconception that it had something to do with flying airplanes. When I failed the flight physical in graduate school because of poor eyesight, I had to decide, at age 23, what to do with my lifelong ambition thwarted.

A friend had joined the submarine force, so I decided I’d go see Admiral Hyman G. Rickover about that option.

Rickover was famous for grilling people, and he asked me why I hadn’t come to see him when I was at Annapolis. I told him that I wanted to fly, but since my eyes didn’t work, he was the second choice.

It was not the answer Rickover was accustomed to getting. He usually hammered people for failing grades or poor performance, and I had none of those things.

After about 45 seconds, he said, “Get out.”

In those days, that was the highest praise you could get from him. It meant you’d been accepted.

Later, when I was the chief engineer of the Memphis, which is in a certain class of attack submarines, on its initial sea trials, I encountered Rickover again. Admiral Rickover would ride every ship on its initial sea trials. So there I was in the control room and Rickover was screaming at the top of his lungs, “Where’s the chief engineer?” He thought the ship wasn’t performing properly.

I told him: “Admiral, you’re wrong. I’m the chief engineer of this ship, and you certified me, and I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. The performance you are looking for is from another class of ship, and here’s the data.”

There was a real twinkle in his eye before he went on to attack me on another point.
That experience paid off when I left the Navy and was interviewing for a high-level job at General Electric. Jack Welch asked me, “Have you ever taken a risk in your life?”

I replied that at 27 years old, when you are guiding an attack submarine all alone in the teeth of the Russian fleet in the North Atlantic, that was a risk.

I mentioned Tom Clancy’s “Hunt for Red October,” which gives a pretty accurate depiction of what it was like.

I guess he agreed because I got the job at G.E. and later became part of Welch’s staff. I left the Navy because I was a typical young guy in a gigantic hurry.

In fact, over the course of my career, the one place I’ve been patient is at Amgen, where I was No. 2 for eight years before becoming C.E.O.