Comprehensible Output for ELL Students

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  • 0:04 How Do ELL Students…
  • 0:51 Functions of the Hypothesis
  • 2:06 Applying the Hypothesis
  • 3:17 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Jennifer Garcia O'Neill

Jennifer has taught ELL classes more than 10 years and has her Master's of Education in ESL.

There are many popular theories about second language acquisition. In this lesson, you'll learn about the comprehensible output hypothesis and research-based strategies to develop ELL students' communication skills.

How Do ELL Students Learn English?

As a prospective ELL teacher, you probably wish you had the key to how students learn English. Wouldn't it make teaching English easier? That's one reason why researchers have studied second language acquisition for years. Scholar Merrill Swain proposed the comprehensible output hypothesis to describe how a second language is acquired. According to the hypothesis, ELL students learn language when they realize there is a gap in their language skills. For example, a student makes a language mistake, becomes aware of the mistake because of feedback, and then tries again. Producing the correct message through trial and error enables the student to modify language appropriately in the future.

Although this hypothesis is only one of many, let's take a look at how it works and how you might apply it to teaching.

Functions of the Hypothesis

The comprehensible output hypothesis has three functions:

  • Noticing function
  • Hypothesis-testing function
  • Metalinguistic function

The noticing function is when language learners realize there's a gap between what they want to say and what they're able to say. Speakers use this function when they're unable to correctly communicate a message and know they're making a mistake. Imagine Laura and Nicolas, an ELL student, are talking about cars. Nicolas wants to describe a type of car but realizes he doesn't know where to place the adjective in his sentence.

The hypothesis-testing function describes when the ELL student speaks a sentence to test whether it's correct. If it's incorrect, the other speaker will give feedback by correcting the sentence. Think back to the car conversation. Nicolas says, ''I want to buy a car blue.'' According to the hypothesis-testing function, Laura will fix the mistake by correctly using the phrase ''blue car'' in her response.

Using the metalinguistic function, ELL students reflect on the sentences they produce and the feedback they receive from others. In our example, Nicolas becomes aware that he made a mistake and what the correct language should be. In the future he will say ''blue car'' and not ''car blue.''

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