What Is Comprehensible Input–Really?

Good news.  A lot of Latin teachers make reference to Comprehensible Input. So many that I think we can call this a movement.

Bad news.  The way some people use “comprehensible input” seems to indicate that we are still trying to understand what it really means and at times getting it wrong.

It is good news that so many of us reference Comprehensible Input. CI has become a helpful if not also challenging way to step out of the confines of traditional Latin teaching and open up the wonders of this language to many more students than we once were able to do.

It is bad news that what Comprehensible Input means eludes us for the same reason–it really can help and challenge us to step out of the confines of traditional Latin teaching and open up the wonders of this language to many more students than we once were able to do.

What Comprehensible Input is not

CI is not active Latin. While the term “active Latin” can itself be an elusive term, I generally understand it to mean actively using Latin as a language for communication.  It almost always focuses on speaking Latin in various gatherings, formal and informal, as well as in the classroom.  In most of these experiences, Latin is employed immersively, and those who participate in it agree, formally and informally, not to use their first language. In the active Latin immersion programs that I have participated in and know about, the traditional assumption that one must know one’s Latin grammar in order to participate in active Latin gatherings is well ensconced.  Speaking is a form of language output, and CI recognizes by its very name that input always precedes output. Active Latin as practiced among us certainly depends on the dynamics of CI in ways that I suspect are completely overlooked by participants in active Latin gatherings, but CI is not “active Latin.”

CI is not communicative Latin. “Communicative language” is one of those terms that has come to mean many things. In general, it seems to mean that teaching with communicative Latin means using Latin to communicate.  In this respect, it is a lot like active Latin though likely more confined to classrooms rather than Latin speaking gatherings. Bill Van Patten has done us an extraordinary favor in defining the communicative classroom” as one involving the expression, interpretation and negotiation of meaning with a purpose in the context of the classroom (p. 13, While We’re On the Topic). In this respect, all of the observations made by the theory of CI are at play, but Van Patten himself is clear that when most people talk about a “communicative activity” they mean something else–something more like forced output or a classroom where no L1 is allowed.

CI is not one among many approaches by which you can achieve the same thing. I will take this up below in my discussion of what CI is, but the claim that the outcomes of CI can be achieved in many other ways is simply evidence of a serious misunderstanding of CI.  It seems to betray the idea that CI is some set of external activities and practices which drive an L2 lesson plan.  What this claim really requires is the answer to what “thing” CI is attempting to achieve or, in fact, what other “things” other approaches are attempting to achieve.  More below.

CI is not a method. A method is a set of procedures for accomplishing or approaching something. CI is not a set of procedures, although it lends itself to creating many procedures.

CI is not a set of activities or tricks. Activities and tricks are other words for procedures in a language classroom, and as already stated, CI is not a set of procedures. So, CI is not something you can “add to your bag of tricks or toolbox.”

So, what is Comprehensible Input? CI is actually involved in most of the things listed above, which can only make this more confusing, so let’s see if we can parse this out.

CI is a theory describing how human beings gain ability in language.

Stephen Krashen proposed originally five hypotheses that came to be known in all as Comprehensible Input. Based on research into the human ability to develop language, he made five claims about how that happens for adults learning second languages. What are those claims? All italicized quotations are taken from Krashen’s work, updated in 2009, Principles and Practices in Second Language Acquisition and which can be found at his website collection of his works.

  1.  Adults have two distinct and independent ways of developing competence in a second language. The first way he calls “acquisition.” This is a subconscious process in which the person is largely unaware that they are picking up the language as they receive it from others around them. The second way he calls “learning.”  This is the conscious, explicit approach of learning things about the language in which the person is aware of attempting to know things about how the language works. When an adult develops competence in a second language BOTH of these ways are ultimately involved, and in our traditional Latin approaches, we have largely focused on the second even though there are moments when the first one is happening unbeknownst to both teachers and students. Teachers whose work is informed by CI aim to focus on setting up a variety of activities and experiences in which the first becomes most significant to the process. It also includes at appropriate times the second way. I often hear teachers say that they use the terms acquisition and learning synonymously.  The theory of Comprehensible Input uses them distinctively and not at all synonymously. To say that one’s work is informed by CI is to recognize this distinction in the planning and teaching of second language.
  2. The acquisition of grammatical structures proceeds in a predictable order. Krashen characterized this as perhaps the most exciting development in recent years.  He documents multiple studies which show that adults learning second languages acquire grammatical structures in particular patterns even while showing occasional variation on those patterns. This is an important thing to notice:  Krashen says that adults ACQUIRE grammatical patterns in a certain natural order.  He does not say that they LEARN those grammatical patterns.  So, the observation is that in the first way of developing language–acquisition–there is a natural order to those grammatical structures.  That’s why even if one knew the natural order for Latin acquisition, creating a grammar syllabus to parallel it would not hasten the acquisition.  Learning and acquisition are different aspects of developing language. If teachers understand this aspect of the human development of language, we can observe what our students seem to be acquiring in grammatical structures and when, generally speaking. It is my own observation that acquiring noun/adjective inflections comes very slowly and later than verb inflections, but that is just the observation of one teacher.
  3. Acquisition and learning are used in very specific ways. Acquisition is responsible for initiating output–speaking and writing, and is responsible for our fluency in the language.  Learning has only one role–that of the monitor or editor.  Once we are able to produce (speak and write) the language we then use what we learn about the language to edit it.  This is a significant observation leading to decisions about the delay of teaching about the grammatical system in Latin. Knowing the rules of grammar are only useful for editing the language that one can already produce, and production of language (speaking and writing) are the work of acquisition. Those who do not understand what CI is often declare that CI influenced teachers “don’t teach grammar.” That is utterly not true and a gross misunderstanding of the theory of Comprehensible Input. Krashen offers another caveat in this observation of how human beings acquire language.  When the internal monitor is over developed, it interferes in the acquisition and production of the language.  I find no greater testimony to this observation than the reluctance of Latin teachers (almost all traditionally trained) to speak Latin in front of other Latin teachers. The fear of making a mistake and having it publicly noticed is paralyzing.
  4. In order to make progress from one stage of acquisition to another, the student must understand the input (listening or reading) where the focus is on meaning and not form. Krashen restates it this way: We acquire, in other words, only when we understand language that contains structure that is “a little beyond” where we are now. Krashen notes that this is the newest and most important of the hypotheses, and he observes that it will have the largest impact on both theoretical and practical aspects of language pedagogy.  This is why, in my opinion, people often erroneously think of CI as a method. CI is a theory, but this particular principle of CI has strong impact on the many applications that teachers will make of it. Krashen’s own words are worth quoting here at some length:The input hypothesis runs counter to our usual pedagogical approach in second and foreign language teaching. As Hatch (1978a) has pointed out, our assumption has been that we first learn structures, then practice using them in communication, and this is how fluency develops. The input hypothesis says the opposite. It says we acquire by “going for meaning” first, and as a result, we acquire structure! (For discussion of first language acquisition, see MacNamara, 1972.)In summary, this fourth hypothesis has two parts: Input pertains to acquisition, and progress in acquisition happens when the input is understandable at a level slightly beyond where the student currently is. For the Latin teacher who has up to this point been thinking that they have no interest in students speaking and writing (output), it is well worth noting that CI principles focus on input (listening and reading) as the engine that drives acquisition.
  5. Acquirers vary with respect to the strength or level of their Affective Filters. This hypothesis is built on prior work that notes how a student’s affective variables such as motivation, self-confidence and anxiety impact language acquisition. Krashen notes that with regard to language acquisition even if the input is comprehensible a student with high anxiety, low self-confidence and low motivation will not acquire the language as successfully as a student whose affective filter is low.  This hypothesis also observes that input (the fourth hypothesis) is still the primary cause of acquisition of language, but the affective variables can impede or support that process.
  6. Compelling means that the input is so interesting you forget that it is in another language.It means you are in a state of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). In this follow up to his original five hypotheses, Krashen adds this “compelling hypothesis” noting that acquisition is more successful when the input which must be comprehensible is also interesting.  But, it is most successful when it is, in fact, compelling as he defines here.I have delayed to the end the driving question: what is the goal of employing these principles of Comprehensible Input?  The goal of those who embrace Comprehensible Input as a set of principles for that understanding is to advance the acquisition of the language they teach. After working with these principles for 20+ years now, I can make some of my own observations about the use and application of these principles in classroom practices and in conversations about what we do as Latin teachers.
  • The six hypotheses are research driven claims about how human beings acquire languages–even this ancient language of Latin.
  • If helping students acquire Latin is not at least a part of your aim, the principles of CI are of no help to you.
  • Most of us, regardless of how we teach or of what we believe about language learning recognize some aspects of these principles in what we do and likely that they call into question some other aspects of what we do.
  • Methodology based on CI principles develops when a teacher affirms that they want to help student acquire the language and then asks: what things can I do that reinforces these 6 principles?
  • Here are some basic beginning places toward methods that adhere to CI principles.  Beginning places which lead in myriad of ways but which always point back to the 6 principles which are observations about how human beings acquire language.
    • I will focus on acquisition in the early years and add learning in the later years.
    • There is a certain order in which students will acquire the structures of the language, and that depends on the input they receive from me.
    • Teaching them grammar rules is only helpful after they are able to speak and write some Latin and does not help them acquire the language.
    • If I overdo or emphasize grammar too early, I create a barrier to acquisition.
    • The central focus of my role as teacher is to give students understandable messages in Latin (by speaking and through readings).
    • Anything I can do to lower anxiety, build self-confidence and encourage motivation will help with language acquisition.
    • I must constantly work to secure and provide understandable messages that make use of content that my students will find compelling.

Returning to these principles iterum iterumque teaches me how incremental my own understanding of them is, how powerful they are, and how informative they can be to my classroom practices. The fact that too often Latin teachers make inaccurate statements about CI tells me that already even they have felt the impact that this set of principles holds for us and that they, too, are struggling to understand them. I do get the occasional dismissal as I did recently from someone whose work I respect, that I should stop quibbling over whatever we want to call this.  That is frustrating, of course, and even that is a sign that CI is making its impact.

I shall continue to “quibble” about what these principles are, why they are significant and how they may be applied if for no other reason than this.  It has become clear that when I align my practices, methods and activities in the classroom with CI principles, all kinds of learners are able to make progress in Latin. Not only is this vital to the future of Latin in our academic landscape, it’s a vital and central principle of human equity and justice.

Bob Patrick


Brain Breaks That Stay in Latin

Last spring, I began collecting brain breaks that can be done in a way to stay in Latin. I compiled them in a document and invited members of LBP to help me make them better in terms of rules, variations and of course, the Latin. Many people did so. Here is the draft that comes out of that great collaboration. I tried to give credit as much as I could for variations on games and humbly took all corrections for typos and suggestions for better Latin.  My students had a lot of fun with these last year. I hope you find them useful.


Brain Breaks that Stay in Latin
Collected from various contributors on LBP
Collated by Bob Patrick and Edited by the LBP community

(Any mistakes or erroneous explanations are Bob’s–contact him to repair the problem)


  1. The Counting Game (Ludus Numerandi): Students form small groups (3-4) standing in circles.  They close their eyes, and they count to 10 in Latin. No two students can say the same number at the same time.  If they do, they must start over. If/when they get good and fast at this, raise the number 1-15, 1-20, etc. (From Julie Fox)


Hic est ludus numerandi. Discipuli, surgite.  Claudite oculos et numerate Latine “usque ad decem.”  Duo discipuli eundem numerum simul dicere non possunt.  Si simul dicunt, necesse est iterum incipere. Numero decem dicto, omnes considere poterunt.


  1. Praedictio: Hold up a playing card, have students predict whether the next card in the deck is higher or lower by saying maior or minor.. Elimination-style. Lots of opportunities for questions re: predictions. (From Lance Piantaggini)


Demonstrabo vobis chartam lusoriam.  Vos praedicabitis utrum proxima charta maior an minor sit.  Vos dicetis: maior aut minor.


  1. Saxum, charta, forfices: They know and you know how to play but they must use the Latin words.  Have students stand and play in pairs with eliminated players sitting and winners re-pairing until you have a victor/victrix. (From Anne Halverson Stock)  Bob’s addition: play twice, have two victores, and then a championship.


Saxum, charta, forfices.  Dicite mecum: saxum, charta, forfices (iterum, iterumque).  Discipuli, invenite comitem et ludite saxum, charta forfices.  Victor alium comitem inveniet et iterum ludet. Iterum iterumque ludetis donec victor vel victrix restat. (Justin Bailey offers the alternative of O rem ridiculam as they throw the rock, paper scissors. Ann Martin adds: You can also have the loser form a chain behind the winner, and then the chains duel until all are in one chain with the “winner” at the front.)


  1. Unus, duo, tres (on tres, look at someone. If that person is looking back at you, you’re both out! The circle gets smaller until one person remains.) For larger classes, perhaps have students play in circles of 6 or 7 with eliminated players sitting.  When a group is down to 2 or 3 they reform with others for a new group of 6 or 7. (From Anne Halverson Stock) (Justin Bailey notes that if you start with an even number you will end with a pair that wins–just as fun).

Hic ludus “unus, duo, tres” vocatur.  Discipuli, state in circulis octonorum discipulorum.  Spectate ad pavimentum et numerate: unus, duo, tres. Statim, alius alium spectat.  Si tu in oculos alius spectas, ambo consident. Facite iterum circulos et ludite donec unus restat.


  1. Trigon Vocabulorum:  Students stand in a triangle shape (or with large classes more like a circle around the room). Have three balls ready to throw. Students say a Latin word and throw the ball to another person. That one says a Latin word and throws it to another person. And so on. You have to keep three balls going as long as we can. When a ball is dropped, it is out of play. When all three balls have fallen to the ground, the game is over. This could go one longer than the usual brain break–but could be used for 2-3 brain breaks in the same class–or brain breaks all week long–or for an extended game pre or post assessment. (From Chris Buczek)


Hic ludus “trigon vocabulorum” vocatur. Discipuli, facite circulum circum conclave.  Sunt tres pilae. Discipulus qui pilam habet vocabulum Latinum dicit et pilam ad alium discipulum iacit. Pergite hoc modo. Cum pila delabitur, non iam iaci potest.  Cum omnes pilae delabuntur ludus perficitur.


  1. Ecce Vacca: Achi pachi (a nonsense spanish word that I render as Ecce vacca). Students sit in chairs in a circle. One student in the middle asks random students a Latin question and the student answers in Latin (anything: How are you? What day of the week is it?). When he/she asks the one (predetermined) student, that student yells “Ecce vacca!” And everybody gets up and runs to a different seat. The one who doesn’t get a seat is the new person in the center. (With a large class, you might just have 5, 7, 9–whatever your space allows–chairs in a circle. Student whose birthday is closest to today is “it” in the center.  Students close their eyes and teacher walks around outside of circle and taps one person on the back and that person is the one who yells “Ecce vacca!” when asked a question. As with Trigon Vocabulorum above, this might be used for 2-3 brain breaks in one class period, the same brain break all week, or an extended game pre/post assessment. (From Sam Spaulding. Justin Bailey notes that it is also played with Metius Fufetius. May also let students decide what phrase to use here).


Hic ludus “ecce vacca” vocatur. Discipuli in sellis sedent, uno discipulo medio in circulo stante. Magister/Magistra post discipulos circumambulat et unum/unam in tergo tangit.  Discipulus/a tactus/a est “ille/illa.” Discipulus/a medio in circulo alios de variis Latine rogat. Cum rogat illum/am, ille/illa respondet “ecce vacca!” et omnes surgunt et in aliis sellis consident.  Unus/una qui/quae restat nunc quaestiones rogat.  


  1. Facite gregem….All Ss stand up. Teacher announces, “Facite gregem ______ (numerus) discipulorum” and Ss have to SILENTLY (though this rule is often broken) form a group of that number. I go around and count the kids in the groups. Kids that don’t make into a group sit down. Keep going until 3-5 Ss remain, then I usually declare them all the winners, lest we break any friendships and/or ribs. (From Eric Mentges)

Discipuli, surgite.  Ponite sellas ad marginem conclavis.  Hic ludus “facite gregem” vocatur. Dicam “facite greges (numeri) discipulorum.”  vos circumitis circum conclave et greges huius numeri facitis. Si gregem huius numeri facere non potestis, e ludo excludimini.


  1. In Ordine: Write anything on a small whiteboard and then form into a logicial line. e.g., Write your age in the full Latin number form (or even a full sentence) and then line up oldest to youngest; write any number down and then line up low to high; write any word down and then line up a-z; write how many siblings you have and then line up least to most, etc. All pretty low effort but gets the kids up and moving at least. (Eric Mentges)


  1. Comites collidentes: Stand up and face the kid sitting next to you. When I say sinistra manus, clap your left hands together. If I say dextra manus, clap your right hand to each other. Sinister pes, clap your left feet. Dexter pes, clap your right feet. I’ll speed up and slow down and vary it so listen closely and do not fall down!! (From Elaine Virginia Zamonski)


Discipuli, invenite comitem.  Alter contra alterum stat.. Cum dico “manus sinistra”, collidite manus sinistras.  Cum dico “manus dextra”, collidite manus dextras. Cum dico “pes sinister, collidite pedes sinistros.  Cum dico “pes dexter,” collidite pedes dextros. Cum dico “summutate comites” omnes novum comitem invenient.


  1. Vocabulum volans: Everyone stands up. Everyone must say a word/short sentence (whatever works best), and you cannot repeat a word/sentence. If you say a word, you can sit back down. If you say a sentence (or a longer sentence if they’re already doing short sentences) you can sit down AND choose someone who is sitting to stand back up and say something again. Very low pressure output. (From Eric Mentges)  Variation: Use a ball with this activity, and allow for 3 strikes.  Student says word or phrase in Latin and throws ball to another person.  That person says word or phrase and throws ball to another person. Strikes happen when a word is repeated.  Three strikes and game is over, or it’s over when everyone in the room has received the ball and given a different word. (Bob Patrick’s variation).


Hic ludus “vocabulum volans” vocatur.  Omnes circum conclave stant. Quisque discipulus/a vocabulum Latinum dicit.  Vocabulo dicto, discipulus/a considit. Si quis sententiam integram dicit, potest considere ET eligere aliquem sedentem qui nunc stare iterum debet.


  1. Naufragium–based on a game played in Costa Rica. You tell your class there has been a naufragium and the ship is taking on water. To survive, students must get into the life boats (rates is what I said), but there’s a catch. They must enter the life boats in numbers according to your directions. You might start saying “ad rates…bini”, so kids two at a time huddle together. Then you might say “ad rates…octoni”, so kids have to form groups of eight, exactly. If there are nine trying to get in, the group must decide whom to kick out. If there are seven, and therefore not eight, pro dolor, they all perish. You can alternate odds and evens, high numbers and low numbers, in an effort to widdle the group down to two or one or even none! This break can be a lot of fun, it can be noisy, and I have even seen students volunteering “to take one for the team”. Enjoy, and any ways to improve the Latin in this are appreciated. For this activity, use distributives: singuli, bini, terni, quaterni, quini, seni, septeni, octoni, noveni, deni, etc.


  1. Poculum–picked up off one of the CI FB pages, I sadly cannot remember who the source is.  If someone knows, I’ll gladly add the name. Two students play at a time (you could have several “play stations” set up, though).  They face each other with a stool or other item standing between them. On top of the stool is a plastic cup. The teacher calls out various body parts in Latin.  The students have to touch that body part. So, “caput” means they touch their own head, manus sinistra–they touch their left hand, nasus–they touch their nose, etc.  When the teacher says “poculum” they grab the plastic cup. The one who gets it is the winner. At any time that a student touches the wrong body part or goes for the cup when a body part is called, he/she is out and a new player takes their place.  The winner of the round can remain and face challengers, or you can have a winners round where they play off for a victor/victrix omnium. 


Hic ludus “poculum” vocatur.  Duo lusores alter contra alterum stant scamno interposito.  In scamno est poculum. Magister/ra partes corporis vocat. Si magister/ra “caput” vocat, lusores tangere caput debent.  Si “manus sinistra”, lusores tangere manum sinistram debent. Si lusor prave tangit, considendum est. Cum magister/ra “poculum” vocat, lusor qui prior poculum capit est victor/victrix. 

Staying in the Target Language

I’m not sure what to call this.  It’s a little bit process, a little bit of a game, a little bit (okay, maybe a lot) classroom management.  I learned it from my friend and extraordinary CI teacher, Lauren Watson, and to be fair, this is what her process has become in my room.  I’m sure I’ve modified it from her original, and so you can make modifications, too, as you use it and find out what works and what doesn’t in your classroom.  I know now from using it for the last 2-3 years that it is something that students look forward to.  It works like this.

Somewhere on part of a whiteboard in the room, you set up a chart that has a column for each class period that you teach (so part of the brilliance of this is that you can use it for any level that you teach as long as you, the teacher, keep things on level for the class at hand). The horizontal lines indicate three important jobs for this process and a way to document points earned. The effect of the process/game is to encourage students to use positive peer pressure to stay in L2.  This by no means relieves us, the teachers, from having compelling content to work with or from making sure that everything said and read is comprehensible to everyone in the classroom.

The “other goal” which students will be excited about is earning 100 points as a class so that they can have a “Fun Friday.” Fun Friday means doing something fun with L2 (playing games of various sorts) and bringing food if the class wants. You should never let this become “do whatever we want to” but doing something fun and different with L2. Teacher can give choices for them to choose from. If food is brought, it must be with common understanding that you are bringing food to share and not just something for yourself to eat.

Here is a document with the chart laid out and basic descriptions of the rules and process.

The process requires three student jobs.  I usually change the students who hold these jobs every month or every week.  Let students decide.

Iudex–the judge who determines within the first minute after the bell rings whether all cell phones are put away into bookbags.  If so, this earns 1 point.

Horologiarius/a–Time keeper.  This student may have phone out to keep time of uninterrupted time in L2.  For every 12 minutes, class earns 1 point. At the end of class, minutes over a factor of 12 can be banked and added to another day.  E.g. 39 minutes = 36 (3 points) + 3 banked toward the next day. When anyone says anything in L1, time is stopped. If there are more than 12 minutes, points can be earned and then the clock starts again at 0. Minutes under 12 earn nothing.

Auditor–the listener.  This student’s job requires paper and pencil where she/he puts a hash mark for every rejoined used correctly in the process of class.  Rejoinder list should be on walls for reference. Auditor’s job includes both listening for and determining if correctly used. For every 20 rejoinders used correctly, 2 points are earned.  Can only earn in factors of 20, but anything over a factor of 20 can be banked for another day. E.g. 48 = 4 points (2 sets of 20) and 8 points banked for another day.

I have found that the chart on the whiteboard (rather permanently) keeps class interest high, and they begin to see each other’s class score.  “How did 3rd period get 48 points yesterday?”  Any class that raises the bar like that effects all the other classes.  I am often surprised by which classes seem to make the most out of this, and they are most often NOT the class that at first glance seems the “best” or “strongest” class.  The positive peer pressure is real.  If a class has a student who is being something of a “jerk” this process will call him/her to account as one stray word of English and it resets everyone for that day at zero.  They simply won’t allow “jerkiness” to do that to them for very long.

Bob Patrick