Creating Comprehensible Input Videos for Beginning English Learners

They say that it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, and that you should be the change you wish to see in the world.

I’ve written a lot about the lack of content that presents languages in ways that make them understandable so that even beginning learners can just watch, listen, and pick up languages efficiently without study, practice, or translation.

Experts widely agree that exposure to a new language in ways that you can understand what is being said—known as comprehensible input—is critical to acquiring the language and becoming fluent in it.

Yet decades after linguist Stephen Krashen popularized the concept of comprehensible input, for practically any given language, there is still very little material that lower-level adult learners can easily understand without added study or instruction.

This kind of comprehensible input seems to be so rare that I had to go halfway around the world to the unique AUA Thai Program in Bangkok in order to find it in abundance.

For a long time I’ve complained about the lack of comprehensible input and lamented the opportunities silently lost because of it.

Now I’ve decided to do something about it.

Comprehensible input video for beginners

A hand points to part of a drawing telling a story in a frame from a comprehensible input video for beginning English learners.I’ve started creating English comprehensible input videos that people who want to learn English can simply watch, understand and begin to pick up English from, even if they don’t know any English at all—no matter what their first language is.

In these videos, available on my YouTube channel for English learners, I teach English in English, using plenty of non-verbal communication alongside what I’m saying to make it highly understandable.

The non-verbal communication tools I use include drawings, pictures, gestures, props, realia (objects from real life), pointing to what I’m talking about, and so on.

A hand holding a marker adds to a drawing illustrating the process of making a cup of coffee in a frame from a comprehensible input video for beginning English learners.My teaching style is largely based on the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) method that AUA Thai Program teachers use to make Thai comprehensible without translation in a classroom setting, as shown on the ALG YouTube channel.

While in the AUA videos, the teachers are shown mainly talking to each other in Thai and making it understandable for the students in the class, in my videos, I am communicating directly to the viewer using English along with the non-verbal tools so that they can understand what I’m saying from moment to moment, even if they don’t know any English at all.

By creating content for video, I can also edit it and do things like add extra graphics to increase the level of comprehensibility and interest.

The lack of understandable content for English beginners

While I’ve thought a lot about other languages, I’ve overlooked the need for content  that’s highly comprehensible without study or translation for English learners, especially lower-level learners.

I assumed that there would be a lot out there because of the huge amount of content there is that teaches English, and because much of this uses English as the medium of instruction.

However, the teaching of English in English appears to be the result of factors that have nothing to do with creating input that’s highly comprehensible without translation.

These include the fact that English learners have many different first languages, the fact that many English teachers don’t speak another language fluently, and the fact that many English learners have some ability to understand English already.

As it turns out, English content that’s both highly understandable and interesting in itself is hard to come by, not only for beginners, but even for more advanced learners.

Adult ESL teacher Allison Lewis notes this lack of content in a post about finding videos for English classes:

There are a ton of videos aimed at English learners on YouTube, but most of them are simply explanations about grammar points or lists of words/phrases (“Learn 10 English idioms about food!”). It’s hard to find videos that give students real exposure to the English language (i.e., comprehensible input) instead of just telling students facts about the language.

It’s especially hard for teachers of low-level learners. Unfortunately, I don’t know of many good-quality videos out there for absolute beginners.

Lewis observes that while many of the videos for higher-level English learners on one site are interesting, most of the ones for lower-level learners are not:

“For example: a video called ‘Women’s Clothing’ simply shows pictures of women and recites isolated sentences like, ‘She is wearing a dress…She is wearing jeans…She is wearing a skirt.”

While along with the pictures they show, these sentences may be comprehensible to beginning learners, they’re not really communicating anything that’s meaningful or of interest to them.

Therefore, while this kind of content might be comprehensible input, it is not good comprehensible input—it is trivial, and hardly compelling.

For similar reasons, I would rule out much of the content aimed at children learning English as good comprehensible input for adults (a lot of it’s probably not good input for children either, but that’s a subject for another post).

Content for children that’s highly understandable to beginners is usually not interesting to adult learners (for example, just showing things and saying what they are called in English), and unfortunately, content that would be more interesting usually ends up being much less comprehensible for beginners.

What I’m doing in my videos

In contrast to most of the existing content aimed at beginning English learners, in my videos, I’m not merely saying what things are called or saying sentences for the sake of teaching the language.

I’m using the words and sentences in many contexts that are meant to be not only highly understandable to beginning English learners, but also meaningful and ideally interesting to them.

For example, in my video where I make coffee, I talk about what I’m going to use to make the coffee with the help of drawings that I point to, then I talk about and show what I’m doing as I make the coffee, then I talk about how I made the coffee using drawings to show what I did.

By using language alongside visuals and actions in this way, the learner can repeatedly hear nouns, verbs, structures, and other language in clear and meaningful contexts and thus easily start to understand and pick it all up.

The main difference between this video and a typical video you can find online that features some activity like making coffee is that I’m using far more non-verbal communication with what I’m saying, and using language directly alongside what the viewer is seeing so they can comprehend it and pick it up.

In short, from moment to moment, I tell what I’m showing and I show what I’m telling.

Another important difference is that I provide of a lot of meaningful repetition of language in various ways.

This repetition both enhances comprehension by adding redundancy and as well as enhancing acquisition more directly by giving the viewer more exposure to words and structures more often in a variety of similar but different contexts.

In contrast, many videos aimed at language learners seem to go in the opposite direction, using less language in a misguided attempt to keep things simple, rather than giving learners the chance to hear new language in a lot of different ways that they can understand.

Increasing comprehensibility for total beginners

All the videos I’m currently making are intended for beginners regardless of their first language (though they do assume a basic knowledge of modern urban life), so viewers should be able to understand what is happening at each moment and start to pick up on what words mean quite rapidly.

However, I’m trying to make content that’s even more comprehensible to total beginners from the very start, while still being interesting to watch.

A goal here is to make learners comfortable with picking up a totally new language starting from scratch by just watching and listening, even if they don’t have any experience with acquiring a new language in adulthood.

Having more success right away understanding without the need for translation, and dealing less with the “noise” of unknown words whose meanings won’t be clear from immediate context, should support this goal and also make acquisition more efficient.

Recently I tried to do this with a very simple story I came up with, inspired by the “Super Seven” list of essential high-frequency verbs (but not using only those verbs), about a woman who’s hungry and wants to buy pizza.

In telling this story, I tried to make it fully understandable for total beginners using a clear drawing, pointing and gesturing while telling the story, repeating the same simple language a lot, and speaking fairly slowly and clearly.

Then, in another video, I retold the story, asking many questions after most statements, and leaving a space after the yes–no questions so that the viewer could answer if they wish (I don’t expect beginning viewers to speak beyond what comes up naturally without trying, keeping with the ALG approach).

My experience with this technique of “asking a story”, based on what’s known in TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) as circling, is that the meaningful repetition and structure it provides can make a new language more transparent and understandable.

It also provides far more exposure to new words, and also to many different structures in the language such as questions, which are used frequently in conversation but far less frequently in a lot of content where one person is talking.

Making comprehensibility a priority

Almost all of the comprehensible English videos I plan to create will be aimed at English beginners, but they’ll tend to fall into two categories.

There will be videos like the one about making coffee, where a total beginner should have a good idea from context and non-verbal communication what is happening and what I’m saying from moment to moment.

Beginners should acquire English efficiently from watching these videos and start to get the meaning of some words very soon, but they may not understand a lot of the language itself right away.

Similar to the AUA Thai beginner level classes, it may take a couple hundred hours or a few months of input before a beginning learner finds they can hear much of the language very clearly.

They should understand and pick up more and more language with repeated viewings, but some words might remain unclear for longer without encountering them in further contexts and getting more experience with the language.

More advanced learners will be able to watch these videos as well and be able to pick up new language that might be too unclear, difficult or infrequent for beginners to pick up, such as specialized vocabulary.

In the other kind of content, such as the story videos, the language should be clearer from the start even for total beginners.

The language will tend to be simpler, and feature very common vocabulary and structures, and this be made more directly understandable through things like pictures and gestures, and spoken more slowly and clearly

Learners who are beyond the beginner level will probably tend to find much of this content too simple and lacking in new vocabulary or structures.

These more comprehensible videos are inspired in part by “Effortless English” teacher A.J. Hoge’s critique and suggestions that the AUA Thai Program would be more efficient and encouraging by using simpler language at lower levels, doing more to make it comprehensible, and providing much more repetition of language.

I have suggested that these things, especially repetition, may be necessary when the language can’t be delivered in the context of rich experiences and memorable happenings intended for ALG, as is often the case when it comes to contexts like classroom or video.

However the less directly comprehensible beginner videos should still also be helpful beginners, because among other reasons they can choose them based on interest, and watch them repeatedly if they like.

While I want to make content that is highly interesting and ideally, so compelling that viewers forget they’re watching it to acquire English, my priority is to create content that’s highly comprehensible and interesting enough to be watchable, as without comprehension language won’t be acquired efficiently, if at all.

Eventually, I want to create highly comprehensible input that’s also really interesting and compelling, including more elaborate content with higher production values, not only by myself but working with people and helping and inspiring others to do the same.

Developing video as a medium for comprehensible input

Much of the development of comprehensible input-based language teaching has been in classroom contexts, so it appears that providing comprehensible input through media such as video is relatively unexplored territory.

Therefore I think it’s worth trying many things, playing and experimenting a lot to see what works best on video.

For example, while I’m trying out techniques that have been often used in classroom teaching such as circling in TPRS, other ways of providing meaningful repetition might be more suitable to non-interactive media like video, such as the use of “parallel structure”, which seems to be relatively unexplored in the classroom context.

With my videos I plan to continually try new things—different topics, techniques, and kinds of videos—and getting feedback from English teachers and learners.

Shifting gears with Beyond Language Learning

In this blog I’ve focused a lot on the theoretical aspects of second language acquisition, discussing things like ALG theory and the need for more research as well as content.

I’m still very much interested in the theoretical side and want to continue my academic work, help advance research on second language acquisition, and bring about studies on things like comprehensible input and how well adults can acquire languages.

However, I find that thinking, talking, and writing about theory is useless and unfulfilling on its own—it should also be contributing to actually benefiting people in practical ways, improving their lives and making them more enjoyable.

While there’s much more research that needs to be done on things like comprehensible input, comprehensible input has been well-known for decades and yet there are still far too few opportunities for people to access and benefit from it maximally to acquire languages.

With these videos, I hope that they can help beginners who want to learn English but don’t know what to do, especially those who don’t have the time, money, or resources to buy materials or attend a school.

I also hope that these videos will provide models and examples so that more other people will begin to share their languages, as well as their lives, cultures, and stories, in ways that anybody, anywhere, can understand and start to pick up their language as well as learn about these other things in the process.

What’s more, the more comprehensible input is available the easier it will be to carry out research on comprehensible input and just how well adults can acquire languages, creating a virtuous cycle.

In coming posts I will share more about what I’m doing with these videos and break down some of the ways that I make language comprehensible and meaningful in them.

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