How to Make Input-Based Language Teaching More Efficient: Comprehensibility, Repetition, and Memorable Experience

With around a million followers across social media, A.J. Hoge is perhaps the most influential former student of the AUA Thai Program so far in terms of impacting language learning in the wider world.

A.J. Hoge Effortless English ad
A.J. Hoge in an online ad for his Effortless English system

In developing his Effortless English system to help learners who have studied English for years but still can’t speak it well, Hoge (rhymes with “rogue”) surveyed a variety of language-teaching methods, especially ones based on comprehensible input.

His research included attending AUA in Bangkok for over 600 hours of classes taught uniquely using the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) methodology, where students pick up Thai without study or practice through listening to teachers who speak it using non-verbal communication and context to make it understandable.

Thankfully, Hoge blogged about his experiences at AUA around 2004 and shared his thoughts and analyses, and his writings have remained online since then.

I didn’t give his posts much thought when I first read them, but after attending AUA myself for over a year, noting how it differs from what was intended for ALG, and surveying other comprehension-based approaches, I realize that I’ve arrived at very similar views on how AUA’s implementation of ALG could be improved.

As I’ll explain though, there is another aspect of ALG that I would emphasize much more in improving how the approach is implemented: the power of highly-memorable experiences in the target language.

The Success of AUA and ALG

In a critique of the program, Hoge (with Kristin Dodds) writes of how AUA is unique in that students just listen to comprehensible input for hundreds of hours without trying to speak.

He reports that this listening approach is “getting excellent long term results from those who complete the entire program”:

The most promising result is that many students end up with excellent, even native, Thai accents. All of the students at AUA are adults, so this is particularly impressive— it is, in fact, a direct refutation of the “critical period hypothesis” (which claims that adults cannot learn a foreign language as effectively as children). AUA’s Thai program gets results— it produces fluent speakers with very good Thai pronunciation.

ALG theorizes that adult language learners typically end up with accents and pronunciation problems because they try to consciously produce the new language before they’ve internalized how it sounds through sufficient listening.

In contrast, through listening to Thai for hundreds of hours first and only gradually beginning to speak—a long so-called “silent period”—AUA Thai students who follow the ALG approach end up sounding a lot like Thai speakers.

But, as Hoge notes, most students do not stick with the program for the hundreds of hours necessary to achieve the “speaking threshold”—the point where they’ve acquired a clear “mental image” of how the language should sound and start to produce unique sentences without having to think about it.

The Need for Comprehensibility

In his post, Hoge writes that there a number of likely reasons for AUA’s retention problem, which I’ve also come to appreciate after going through the program myself.

What they come down to is that the classes are not comprehensible enough, which frustrates many students, and furthermore makes it take longer for them to acquire Thai, frustrating them further.

“In general, the AUA program does not simplify their language enough,” Hoge writes.

“At levels 1 and 2 [the beginner levels] the teachers do use a lot of gestures, drawings, actions, and games to aid comprehension. This is generally effective although the language complexity is still much too high in my opinion.”

He writes that things get much worse going into the intermediate level, where students described experiencing “shock” as many of the visual aids they were used to were gone, and they could comprehend little until their understanding improved after many more hours of classes.

By the time I had started at AUA in 2013, nearly a decade after Hoge was there, it seemed that this transition had been smoothed out, and going from beginner to intermediate was much easier.

I think the language in intermediate at this point was more simplified, and more visuals were used, so while I expected shock at the transition I was pleasantly relieved instead.

Other students who went from beginner to intermediate after even fewer hours than me didn’t seem to have a problem either.

Overall though, I agree that from the beginner level on there are still too many classes that students find only partially comprehensible or even incomprehensible, such as stories and discussions where many students don’t really know what’s going on, or find themselves having to guess a lot.

Hoge considers much of students’ time at AUA—over 50%!—to be wasted because so much of the input is incomprehensible.

He guesses that the first 400 hours could be cut in half by using TPR (Total Physical Response) and TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) in the beginner levels.

“These two methods are compatible with a silent period,” writes Hoge, “and they are a superior means of providing language that is very simple, meaningful, and highly interactive.”

There are certainly aspects of these approaches in AUA, especially at the beginner levels: as with TPR, for some activities the teachers give students commands in Thai and model the actions, and as with TPRS, the teachers tell many stories.

However, the techniques aren’t applied in the kind of systematic way prescribed by the methods that would ensure high levels of comprehension throughout the AUA classes.

For example, Hoge writes that TPRS would ensure high levels of comprehension by “1) using actions to demonstrate all stories, 2) Re-telling each story or situation at least three times, 3) Building complexity gradually– teachers start with very short ‘mini-situations’ and slowly build to longer stories, 4) Using drawings, illustrations, and props with all stories.”

Hoge doesn’t mention translation here, which is commonly used in TPRS to “establish meaning”, probably because the ALG method avoids translation.

That’s because translation is thought to interfere with its approach of focusing on meaning rather the language and picking up words through experience with the goal of developing a native speaker-like representation of the language.

As Hoge has described, there are many techniques that can increase comprehensibility which are compatible with the ALG approach of focusing on meaning and picking up the language implicitly.

I agree that the greater use of these techniques in ALG classes could produce results much more efficiently by increasing the level of comprehension.

The Power of Repetition

In another post a couple years after his time at AUA, Hoge added something more to his critique and recommendations for how AUA could be improved:

The final piece of the puzzle. The Linguist has shown me what was missing at AUA’s “Listen First” (ALG) Thai program. They were close. Very very close.

But what they missed was the power of REPEATED listening. At AUA we listened for hours everyday. The content was fun and interesting. But the problem was there wasn’t enough repetition. Every hour, a new set of teachers came in with a completely different topic. I enjoyed the classes, but progress was painfully slow. So slow that I eventually gave up (after 600 hours of class time).

Hoge refers here to The Linguist, the forerunner to the input-based language-learning website LingQ.

The Linguist advocated listening repeatedly to content in the language one is learning—advice which Hoge echoes here:

“So my advice to language learners is this: Focus on listening,… and LISTEN TO THE SAME CONTENT MANY MANY TIMES (30-50 or more). That repetition is very powerful. It will improve your comprehension. It will improve your speaking. It will improve your grammar. It will improve your vocabulary.”

“If only I’d known this when I was in Thailand. I would have taped an hour or two of class… then listened to that recording repeatedly. This approach would have dramatically increased the power and efficiency of AUA’s method.”

What Hoge writes about the importance of repetition here resonates with me, although I don’t agree exactly with what he recommends here for the ALG approach (Also, last time I checked, recording is now explicitly banned in AUA classes, so I won’t suggest you do it there).

I’m not sure, but I suspect that listening to the same content many times is more suitable for people like Hoge’s students, who may have good reading comprehension in English but lack listening comprehension, and perhaps also for those who are learning languages that quite close to languages they are already very fluent in.

One reason for this I think is that in such cases one has a lot of knowledge of the language through study or cognates but lacks the listening experience, so one can probably improve one’s comprehension of the same content enough with repeated listening that doing so remains interesting and worthwhile.

When learning languages like Mandarin and Thai using the ALG approach, I find without this same knowledge of vocabulary, lacking additional context I don’t get much more through repeated listening alone, at least at the lower levels.

Where I find repetition becomes more useful with an ALG approach is when it’s done with meaningful variation in context: hearing the same words and phrases in different but related contexts that allow you to understand and acquire them.

Going back to what he said about AUA, Hoge mentions how the topics changed every hour, meaning one would be exposed to quite different lower-frequency vocabulary from one class to the next.

If AUA had many more teachers, or more programs like it existed, instead of having to take what class is available at a given hour, you could perhaps spend as many hours as you want on the topics that interest you the most.

This would provide a form of what linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen calls narrow listening.

With this narrow listening, you would get to hear the same vocabulary and expressions over and over again about topics that interest you.

All this repetition would help you pick up that language, which would in turn help you understand better what you’re hearing on the topic.

The result would be a positive cycle where you understand more because you’re picking up the language that’s being used and pick up more language because you understand more.

Another way to provide a lot of repetition in ALG classes would be through the TPRS approach that Hoge advocated in his critique.

Hoge didn’t specifically mention it there, but an aspect of TPRS that provides an enormous amount of meaningful repetition is circling, where a statement is made and then many questions are asked about it.

This means that students are hearing the same word many times in different sentences, and getting natural repetition of grammatical forms such as the ones used to ask questions in the language.

Keeping with the ALG approach, the students are focused on meaning and not language because they are answering questions about the content.

This is a form of natural communication as long as it’s used in an interesting and dynamic way to communicate the story and doesn’t become a drill.

Hoge has used this technique for retelling the mini-stories in his Effortless English course and has described it as “very, very powerful“, something I have found too from using content like this.

By providing a lot of redundancy, the repetition can make content like stories much more comprehensible then they otherwise would be.

At the same time, the meaningful repetition increases the chance that the words will be picked up and remembered—if not in the same lesson, then from encountering it again and again in various contexts across lessons.

The Power of Experience

Besides what Hoge has suggested in his critiques of the AUA Thai Program, there’s another way that I think the implementation of ALG could be improved, which, if successful, could be far more powerful than the use of repetition.

This is to really carry out the idea that’s at the heart of the ALG approach: picking up the language through not merely understanding messages but hearing it the context of understandable, compelling, and memorable experiences.

Hoge touches on this in another post, a detailed journal about his experiences and thoughts at AUA:

I had a long discussion with David Long today about my observations, but he did not seem very interested, so I stopped commenting and just asked him more questions. The goal of AUA lessons is to create memorable “happenings” that are understandable and interesting to the student. AUA’s idea of “understandable” is different than [Dr. Stephen] Krashen’s idea of comprehensible input. At AUA, a lesson is understandable if the students follow the gist of the topic, even if the language itself is incomprehensible. Sometimes this is akin to a game of charades…. with most comprehension coming from gesture, pictures, and body language. Acquisition does seem to take place under these conditions, but quite slowly. This helps to explain the very large number of hours that AUA requires in its program… and why the silent period lasts a whopping 800 hours.

I think the problem here is not that ALG’s goal of creating memorable happenings is wrong, but that the AUA lessons fall short of meeting the goal of creating these experiences powerfully and consistently enough.

Dr. J. Marvin Brown, the originator of ALG, envisioned providing learners with thousands of these happenings through which they could pick up languages—hearing the language in the context of meaningful experiences that one could remember for a lifetime.

Even if what’s said isn’t immediately understood, when the language is heard in these strong contexts it can leave traces in memory that can contribute powerfully to future understanding and acquisition.

When these happenings are powerful enough, for example through their strong sensory or emotional components, even just one or two of them might be enough to acquire a word or expression for a lifetime.

However, this is difficult to deliver on consistently—especially in the classroom context—and AUA understandably falls short of it.

Hoge suggests AUA would be more successful by using techniques from approaches like TPR and TPRS to make the language more directly understandable and provide more repetition:

I suspect that a slight adjustment of their definition of “understandable”… to bring it closer to Krashen’s i+1 theory, is all that is needed to drastically improve AUA’s program and drastically cut down on the 800 hour silent period.

At the same time, this implementation could retain the unique aspects of ALG such as the long “silent period” that it appears makes it possible for students to effortlessly approach native-like abilities.

I think when it’s not possible to consistently deliver language in the context of such strong experiences, repetition provides a way to kind of compensate for the weaker experiences.

Hearing the same word many times in a weaker context, such as with an action as in TPR, circling questions as in TPRS, or many times over many classes that cover the same topic, can make up for the lack of a stronger experience.

But I think an important goal is to develop these kind of experiences—fun, exciting, compelling, and memorable experiences through which we can pick up language while enjoying and learning other things.

If AUA could provide this level of experience consistently I think it would produce much more efficient acquisition of language.

In developing and implementing ALG, I think we should work on both aspects: providing a lot of repetition of language in interesting and understandable ways, and also working to create wonderful compelling and memorable experiences through which language can be acquired effortlessly.

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