A Critical Exploration of Krashen's Extended Comprehension Hypothesis

Seminar Paper 2009 12 Pages

English - Pedagogy, Didactics, Literature Studies



1 Introduction

2 Outline of Krashenʼs Comprehension Hypothesis

3 Critical Exploration of Krashenʼs Comprehension Hypothesis

4 Conclusion

5 References


Stephen Krashen is/was one of the most influential contemporary linguists in the field of second language acquisition (SLA). He became well-known on account of various concepts that he created such as the Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis, the Monitor Hypothesis, the Affective Filter Hypothesis, the Input Hypothesis and the Natural Order Hypothesis. These concepts play an important role in the study of second language acquisition, but they are also seen as somewhat controversial in the field of SLA.

At the beginning of 2009, an article was published in which Krashen expands upon his own Input Hypothesis, also known as the Comprehension Hypothesis (Krashen 2009:82). In Section 2, an outline of the Comprehension Hypothesis (CH) will be presented. The subject of SLA will be the focus. In the concluding section of the above article, Krashen (2009:90-93) describes Animal Language and how aliens in the form of “psilocybin mushrooms” (Krashen, 2009:93), communicate. A discussion of this will be omitted as his claims have not been scientifically substantiated in an appropriate or empirical way.

In Section 3, a critical look will be taken at Krashen’s statements in which the Comprehension Hypothesis will be explored and opposing theories and approaches will be discussed. The Comprehension Hypothesis is controversial and absolute objectivity cannot be achieved, therefore Section 3 will also be influenced by own opinion. Several examples chosen originate from my own experiences. An attempt has been made, however, to support all statements by means of secondary literature.

Finally, there will be a focus on what can be inferred from the Comprehension Hypothesis and the discussion of this hypothesis. A conclusion will be drawn as to what this means for second language education at school.

The goal of this paper is to present the controversy surrounding Krashen’s CH by exploring its weaknesses and providing an alternative and critical perspective.


The Comprehension Hypothesis states that we acquire language and develop literacy when we understand messages, that is, when we understand what we hear and what we read, when we receive ‘comprehensible input’ (Krashen, 2009:81).

This sentence summarizes the concept of the Comprehension Hypothesis. As this quotation demonstrates, Krashen is referring to input and not output when he discusses comprehension in this context. Language acquisition, he claims, is a subconscious process which takes place when the acquirer is exposed to comprehensible input.

Krashen (2009:81) mentions “different affective variables” that contribute to the success in language acquisition (LA). First of all, a low level of anxiety is a necessary condition. The acquirer should feel comfortable and not under pressure. This results in a low affective filter that enables the acquirer to be “‘open’ to the input” (ibid.: 81). Another factor is self-esteem: The more self-esteem the acquirer has, the more likely it is that they acquire a language successfully. According to Krashen (2009:81) two types of motivation also play a crucial role: People who acquire a language desire a so-called ‘Club Membership’, that is, they want to belong to the group of people who speak the language. This type of motivation is called integrative-motivation and aims at the “long-term success” (ibid.: 81) in acquiring a language. Short term success, on the other hand, is the objective of instrumental motivation, when only a momentary task needs to be accomplished.

There is very little information offered by Krashen, however, as to how ‘Comprehensible Input’ should be defined and what conditions are necessary for its fulfillment. In conjunction with the Input Hypothesis, however, it can be assumed that the level of the input has to be a slightly beyond the capability of the acquirer. Krashen calls this concept i+1 where i is “the acquirer’s present level of competence” (Johnson, 2001: 93). Therefore most of the language (consisting of vocabulary, grammar, syntax, morphology, pragmatics, and so forth) which is used in the input has to be already known by the acquirer. Those items that are unknown at this juncture and are “beyond [the] current level of competence” (Krashen & Terrell; cited in Johnson, 2001:92) will be acquired gradually. Nagy and Herman (1987:26; cited in Krashen, 2009:88) state that “a small but reliable increase of word knowledge” occurs.

Krashen attempts to prove the effectiveness of the Comprehension Hypothesis by debunking rivaling hypotheses. He sets forth two main opposing hypotheses: on the one hand the Skill-Building Hypothesis; marked by direct instruction and thus conscious learning of rules of grammar and vocabulary and, on the other hand, the Comprehensible Output Hypothesis which surmises that:

Language acquisition occurs when we say something and our conversational partner does not understand, forcing us to notice a gap in our competence. We then try again until we arrive at the correct version of the rule (Krashen, 2009:82).

Krashen (2009:83) argues that “comprehensible-input based methods such as Total Physical Response and Natural Approach have been shown more effective than skill- building based methods” for second language acquisition. Reading, in particular, leads to enhanced literacy in first language acquisition and to language development in second language acquisition. Writing and speaking, on the other hand, do “not result in more language or literacy development” (Krashen, 2009:85). Krashen states that, on the contrary, ‘correlational studies’ have even shown “that the amount of ‘extracurricular writing’ and ‘extracurricular speaking’ reported were negatively related to TOEFL performance”. This indicates that, according to Krashen (2009:83), language can only be acquired by reading and hearing (the input), whereas the output, in terms of speaking and writing, is counterproductive and obstructs the acquisition process and the development of linguistic competence.

Krashen (2009:84) then states that direct instruction is not useful due to its “limited effect” which “typically fade[s] with time”. Grammar that is consciously learned, only functions as a Monitor that can, according to Krashen (2009:84), constrain the speaker from fluent speech production since too much time is demanded while



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University of Hildesheim – Institut für englische Sprache und ihre Literatur
Stephen Krashen comprehension hypothesis acquisition extensive reading extended second language acquisition SLA comprehensible input input hypothesis monitor affective filter natural order criticism instrumental motivation learning




Title: A Critical Exploration of Krashen's Extended Comprehension Hypothesis