28. Comprehensible Output: What Students Can Do

Comprehensible Output ELLs, What Students can Do

Part 9 of WIDA’s Essential Action Series. Click here to return to the first article in the series.

Last week, I described strategies that empower ELs to understand instructions. This is one of two priorities for an EL teacher; scaffolding student engagement is the second.  The first focus enables ELs to understand what we expect of them, while the second one propels them to communicate to their fullest ability.

Comprehensible Output: The Hypothesis

Merrill Swain, the originator of the comprehensible output hypothesis, suggested that people learn language by noticing that one uses it incorrectly. The learner then corrects herself and uses language that correctly follows the grammatical rules (1985).  Krashen (1998) strongly disagrees with Swain’s hypothesis.

When I talk comprehensible output, I am not referring to Swain’s hypothesis.  Instead, I see comprehensible output to mean anything the student is doing to demonstrate understanding.  This can mean engaging in learning experiences or completing assessments. I borrowed the term “comprehensible output” because content teachers usually need help in two areas:

1. getting the EL to understand instruction (comprehensible input) and

2. determining if the EL understands the instruction (comprehensible output).

The output produced by ELs indicates the degree to which they comprehend the instructions and content.  With this formative information, teachers can modify instruction.

Comprehensible Output: What Students Can Do

Comprehensible output is the belief that ELs can communicate at the level of their language proficiency (Haynes, n.d). ELs and non-ELs can demonstrate similar understandings in different ways. Twitter  Indeed, forcing an EL to communicate in ways that are beyond their current language capabilities often frustrates them and creates an emotional distance between them and school – further widening the education gap.  After ELs understand the instructions, I offer differentiated tasks that allow them to communicate their understanding in alternative forms and in ways that honor their current language development.  

The bottom turqouise section of the diagram below represents the variety of ways ELs can signal that they understand.  It is broken up into four sections based on increasing language proficiency starting with Beginning and proceeding to Developing, Expanding, and ending at Bridging. The sequence of these categories also denotes the quantity of words ELs can produce orally and in writing.

For Beginning ELs, maybe all they can do is gesture and repeat a few words, while Bridging ELs can independently merge written text, voice, and images together to create something new and sophisticated.
Housed in this menu of options is the belief that communication isn’t limited to printed or spoken words – gestures, images and videos also have a valid place within any classroom.A28 comprehensible output

You will find a fully completed diagram at the end of this blog.  It’s a free downloadable PDF.

Beginning ELs

Even though Beginning ELs are not as proficient in English compared to other ELs, they can still point, label, match, and gesture to show understanding.  Though these forms of output are not as linguistically sophisticated as writing extended pieces of text, they do demonstrate comprehension. Comprehensible output means valuing what students know over how well they say it.Twitter

Beginning ELs, for example, can be expected to produce oral or written words or simple phrases.  Watch this video of me working with Zhang Ho, a 7th grader from China.  The science teacher wanted him to know some specific science vocabulary.  Based on Zhang Ho’s English skills, gesturing while saying the vocabulary words was sufficient evidence of his understanding.

The newer the EL is to English, the more I lean on technology as a crutch to produce comprehensible output.  Google Translate is an EL teacher’s best friend – always there to help but sometimes adding to the confusion.   By providing easy rewordings that simply teacher instructions, Google Translate explicitly honors the importance of students’ home languages and frees ELs to display intelligence when their current English level betrays them.

Here’s a screenshot from Zhang Ho’s history project created in Google Slides.  He was expected to analyze the impact of dams.  Notice the academic quality of his writing, which he initially wrote in Chinese and then used Google Translate to communicate in English.  Zhang Ho’s use of the before and after images were additional tools that communicated his analytical thinking.  These pictures carried us along his analysis when his words no longer could.

I also recommend watching this video by Carol Salva, a passionate, experienced education consultant specializing in EL instruction and author of Boosting Achievement: Reaching Students with Interrupted or Minimal Education. She describes what Beginning ELs can do in a secondary setting even when students have interrupted educations or no prior educational experience.  Carol works miracles!

Developing ELs

Developing ELs can transition from gesturing basic ideas to communicating through graphs and images that incorporate simple text.  These ELs can be expected to produce text at the sentence level because they have a growing stockpile of basic and content-specific words.  They can stitch these words together to form simple – though often grammatically inaccurate – sentences.

Here is a series of images Ayaka drew to demonstrate her understanding of the main ideas in this World Vision’s video on access to clean water.  Notice how she produced simple sentences with basic vocabulary words to communicate her ideas.  Ayaka is morphing from an EL who used to point, label, and gesture to a student who can use images combined with simple sentences to communicate her ideas.

I again depend on technology to scaffold Developing ELs’ communication of ideas.  Google Slides, Adobe Spark, Wixie, and Buncee are FANTASTIC ways for ELs to demonstrate their content knowledge and create from their understanding.  The video and voice functions in these programs augment the limited text that ELs can produce.  

Here’s a video that Ho Jung created using Adobe Spark (there’s a 10-sec intro).  His fellow classmates were writing mini-reports in history class to describe early human life.  Because Ho Jung was only able to create simple sentences, his history teacher and I honored his level of English by allowing him to produce basic sentences enhanced by the creative use of voice recording, images, and animation.  

More importantly, these freemium programs promote critical thinking – requiring students to evaluate what content to use and how to communicate it.  No longer just consumers of content, ELs become prosumers, people who consume and create content.

Expanding ELs

These ELs have sophisticated control of the English language.  Educators can expect Expanding ELs to sew sentences together to form a coherent paragraph. Expanding ELs are able to learn text structures such as describe, sequence, cause-effect, problem-solution, and argument.  Jennifer Gonzalez, one of my favorite education bloggers, explains how teaching text structures can increase students’ comprehension of nonfiction texts.  

Gonzalez suggests that as students are reading a text that describes an object, we can outline the traits and details of that object on a diagram.  Doing so helps students see how a descriptive text structures sentences and paragraphs.  I produced a mini-poster series called Bathroom Brief 18-23 that depicts each of the text structures.

comprehensible input outputBridging ELs

Bridging ELs possess a heightened ability to switch from social to formal language on command.  They’re skilled enough to communicate divergent and analytical thoughts with precision, sophistication, and accuracy. Because of their ability to communicate connections between ideas, Bridging ELs should be expected to produce a central written message with multiple paragraphs and organize a coherent oral presentation aided by visuals, videos, graphs, charts, texts.

Service-learning is an appropriate output for Bridging ELs because of the rigorous demands on literacy needed to conduct research, organize findings, make suggestions, take actions, collaborate with others and reflect on the results. One notable example of service-learning is taken from Matt Colley’s history class.

Students were to research a social issue they cared about such as LGBT rights, police brutality, and access to healthy foods. They then analyzed the root causes of the issue. Students were instructed to plan actions they could take to address the problem.  After identifying how their social issue is manifested in their own communities, they started planning actions such as creating a petition, meeting with the mayor, and working with the school cafeteria to provide more access to healthier meals.

Service-learning bridges social and academic language because students have to be conscious about using the appropriate register.  They use social language to plan and collaborate with classmates, but they shift to academic language when drafting their petition letter, writing an analysis of their survey to send to the superintendent, and organizing their presentation to a potential donor.


Now that I’ve adopted these two priorities – 1.)  develop comprehensible input, then 2.) foster engagement – I see my work from a completely different perspective.  I search from the menu of strategies for approaches that can develop comprehension, and I offer a rainbow of options to demonstrate their ideas in a way that honors the language they can produce. With these two lenses, I walk hand-in-hand with ELs as they learn to master English.

Next Post

I hoped you’ve enjoyed this short detour from WIDA’s Essential Actions, though it is a tangent of Action 8’s.  Please visit the blog again next week when I’ll share WIDA’s Action 9 and describe ways to create a language-rich classroom.  When ELs are creating with language and immersed in language, then they’ll truly develop mastery and control of English.

Comprehensible input output

Krashen, S. (1981). Second language acquisition and second language learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Krashen, S. (1998). A Comprehensible Universe. 175-182. doi:10.1007/978-3-540-77626-0.

Swain, M. (1985) Communicative competence: Some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development. In Gass, S. and Madden, C. (Eds.), Input in Second Language Acquisition, pp. 235-256. New York: Newbury House.

Comprehensible Output: What Students Can Do
Article Name
Comprehensible Output: What Students Can Do
Comprehensible Output is how ELLs show they understand your content and instructions. Explore the output you should expect from ELLs at every level.
Publisher Name
Empowering ELLs
Publisher Logo

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *