The Net Hypothesis 1

The Case for Non-Targeted Comprehensible Input: The Net Hypothesis
Stephen Krashen
In nearly all foreign and second language classes, there is a “rule of the day”
as well as vocabulary that students are expected to focus on, often referred to
as “target” grammar and vocabulary. In traditional pedagogy, exercises are
aimed at the conscious learning of this targeted grammar and vocabulary.
They are also included in brief readings, which are generally packed with the
targeted items.
Targeted grammar and vocabulary is also present in TPRS, and in
“modified” Natural Approach, as manifested in the Dos Mundos textbooks,
although the goal in these cases is the subconscious acquisition of the target
items. TPRS provides longer, more interesting reading selections and
discussions, but typically utilizes a grammatical syllabus.
I present here the disadvantages of the grammatical syllabus and targeted
input in general, and then argue that comprehensible input effortlessly deals
with grammatical syllabus’ shortcomings.
Problems with the grammatical syllabus
The natural order problem. As is well-known, studies have shown that we
acquire the grammar of a language in a predictable order, and this order
cannot be broken. For an item of grammar to be acquired, the language
acquirer must be ready to acquire the item. It must, in other words, be at the
acquirers’ i+1, where i = aspects of grammar that were most recently
Targeted grammar and vocabulary is also present in TPRS, and in
“modified” Natural Approach, as manifested in the Dos Mundos textbooks,
although the goal in these cases is the subconscious acquisition of the target
items. TPRS provides longer, more interesting reading selections and
discussions, but typically utilizes a grammatical syllabus.
I present here the disadvantages of the grammatical syllabus and targeted
input in general, and then argue that comprehensible input effortlessly deals
with grammatical syllabus’ shortcomings.
Constraint on interest. The goal of the language classroom is to provide
input that it genuinely interesting, so interesting that students, in a sense,
“forget” that it is in another language, or “compelling” (Krashen, in press).
The Compelling Input hypothesis maintains that language acquisition
proceeds best when all attention focused on the message to such an extent
that thoughts of anxiety and focus on form do not occur.
The Compelling Input Hypothesis is influenced by the concept of “flow,’
(Csikszentmihalyi, 1993). Flow is the state people reach when they are
deeply but effortlessly involved in an activity. In flow, the concerns of
everyday life and even the sense of self disappear – our sense of time is
altered and nothing but the activity itself seems to matter. “Forgetting” and
flow occur in reading when readers are “lost in a book,” when they are
aware only of the story or the message in the text. It is when this happens
that language acquisition occurs most effectively. Note that this position is
the opposite of the “focus on form” or “focus on forms” points of view.
It is very hard to create compelling messages when the hidden agenda is the
relative clause. In fact, it is hard enough to do it this when there are no
constraints on what vocabulary and grammar can be used.
The review problem.
Traditional second and foreign language methods
work through what is considered to be the basic grammar of a language the
first year. Once a grammar rule is presented and practiced, it may not be
seen again until the second year when we review the entire grammar again,
because students did not master it the first year.
The unteachable and untaught grammar problem. The grammar
presented in class is nowhere near the complete grammar of the language.
Even the most accomplished linguists concede that they have only described
fragments of languages. Moreover, language textbooks do not contain all
that linguists have described, and teachers rarely teach everything in the
Denial of i+l. The impoverished input provided by the grammatical
syllabus will result in students not getting input in structures they actually
are ready for. Grammatical syllabi typically place easily describable items
early in the sequence and more complex ones later, but the natural order of
acquisition runs on different principles. Some rules that look easy to the
linguist and teacher (e.g. the third person singular in English) are acquired
late, while others that look complex are typically acquired early. The earlyacquired
items must be in the input for their acquisition to take place.
Individual variation. There is individual variation in the rate of
acquisition, because of input factors (some students may have had additional
input in the language outside of class) and affective factors. Even if the rule
of the day happens to be at i+1 for some students, it will not be for other
members of the class.
Non-Targeted Comprehensible Input: The Net Hypothesis
An important corollary of the Comprehension Hypothesis is the “Net”
Hypothesis: Given enough comprehensible input, all the vocabulary and
structures the student is ready for is automatically provided. In other words,
“i+1″is automatically there. In Krashen and Terrell (1983) this was referred
to as the Net: “When someone talks to you in a language you have not yet
completely acquired so that you understand what is said, the speaker ‘casts a
net’ of structure around your current level of competence, your ‘i’. This net
will include many instances of i+1, aspects of language you are ready to
acquire” (p. 33).
The same, of course, goes for reading: If you understand the text, and you
read enough of it, you will get i+1.
Before looking at the evidence, let us for the moment assume that the Net
Hypothesis is correct and see how non-targeted comprehensible input
completely solves the problems of the grammatical syllabus.
The natural order problem: Non-targeted comprehensible input,
according to the Net Hypothesis, contains the aspects of language the
acquirer is ready for. This means we do not need to know the natural order.
Rather, grammatical competence will emerge in a natural order as a result of
getting non-targeted comprehensible input.
Constraint on interest: With non-targeted comprehensible input there are
no target structures and target vocabulary that must be used in creating
activities and stories. Anything goes, as long as the input is comprehensible
and interesting (or compelling).
The problem of providing comprehensible and interesting input is the
fundamental problem of beginning language teaching. It is easy to get input
that is interesting but not comprehensible, from the real world.
Unfortunately school tends to provide input that is comprehensible, but not
interesting. It is hard to get both, to say interesting things using limited
language, even if one is not required to use specific vocabulary and
Denial of i+1: Non-targeted comprehensible input, according to the Net
Hypothesis, solves this problem easily: i+1 is always there, if there is
enough input.
The review problem: Non-targeted comprehensible input provides natural
review, especially if there is some topic continuity in the progression of
activities and reading.
The unteachable/untaught grammar problem: This is no problem for
non-targeted comprehensible input. “Unteachable rules” are only a problem
when the goal is conscious learning. Second language acquirers have always
been able to acquire rules that have not been taught and that cannot be
Individual variation: If the input is comprehensible for all members of the
class, everyone is getting what they need, even if i+1 is different for every
member of the class. See discussion of “picking out” i+1 below.
The evidence
The evidence supporting the Net Hypothesis comes originally from first
language acquisition. Caretaker speech to children is typically
comprehensible, but is not “finely tuned” to the child’s current linguistic
level. As the child develops linguistically, caretaker speech tends to get more
complex, but the relationship is not exact: The caretaker does not supply
precisely the next rule the child is ready for.
Evidence includes studies showing that the correlations between input
complexity and the child’s competence are usually positive, but are not
extremely high. Cross (1977) concluded that “… the syntax of mothers, even
to rapidly developing children, is not uniformly pitched just a step ahead of
the child in either linguistic or psycholinguistic complexity. Some utterances
are pitched at the child’s level, some even below this, and others are
considerably in advance of what the child themselves can say” (p. 180).
No studies of input to second language acquirers have examined input to this
level of detail, but we do know that teacher talk is roughly-tuned to the level
of students, not finely-tuned (Krashen, 1981). We also know that second
language acquirers improve from communicating with native speakers and
from reading authentic reading material (Krashen, 1981, 2004), input that is
certainly not finely tuned to the acquirer’s i+1.
Picking out i+1
There is, in addition, evidence that children are able to pick out the aspects
of the input that are relevant to their stage of development, that is, they can
pick out and make use of what is at their i+1.
First language researchers (Gleitman, Newport and Gleitman, 1984) studied
the relationship between the frequency of yes/no questions in caretaker input
and the development of the verb phrase auxiliary. A relationship was
suspected because in yes/no questions the verb phrase auxiliary in English is
often placed at the beginning of a clause and is often stressed, which makes
it very prominent (e.g. Is John playing the violin? Does Mary have a kite?).
They found that the frequency of yes/no questions was indeed very strongly
related to verb phrase auxiliary development for the older children in their
sample (23.9 to 24.8) months (r = .91) but was not significantly related to
verb phrase auxiliary development for the younger children (18.5 to 12.3)
The two groups received similar input; for the older children, however, this
structure was at their i+1. For the younger group, it was beyond their i+1.
This did not, apparently, impair the younger children’s comprehension. This
suggests that the best input for acquisition is input that contains maximum
richness but remains comprehensible. Such data will contain, inevitably,
some i+n (input beyond i+1), as caretaker speech always does, in the form of
later-acquired aspects of grammar. Including this “noise” does not impair
communication, nor would deleting it make the input more comprehensible.
Rich input, as long as it is comprehensible, provides the acquirer with a
better sample to work with, more opportunities to hear and read structures he
or she is ready to acquire.
Roger Brown summarizes this point of view succinctly. After reviewing
research on how caretakers talk to children, Brown offered this advice in
answer to the question, “How can a concerned mother facilitate her child’s
learning of language?”
“Believe that your child can understand more than he or she can say,
and seek, above all, to communicate. To understand and be
understood. To keep your minds fixed on the same target. In doing
that, you will, without thinking about it, make 100 or maybe 1000
alterations in your speech and action. Do not try to practice them as
such. There is no set of rules of how to talk to a child that can even
approach what you unconsciously know. If you concentrate on
communicating, everything else will follow” (Brown, 1977, p. 26).
The same, I am hypothesizing, holds for second language acquisition.
The Net Hypothesis is, of course, a hypothesis. As is the case with all
scientific hypotheses, it could be refuted tomorrow. I suggest here
some modest ways of introducing non-targeted comprehensible input
into classes, and at the same time further test whether the hypothesis
is correct.
In class
I suggest we consider loosening up class discussions and in-class
stories. The focus in TPRS has been making input 100%
comprehensible, with students being able to understand, and translate,
every word (Ray and Seeley, 2008). Some beginners, because of bad
experiences in other classes, might require fully transparent input at
first, but it might be more efficient, and easier, to gradually relax the
transparency constraint and insist only that the input appear to be fully
comprehensible. I am suggesting that it is ok, and even desirable, that
the input contain a small amount of “noise,” or i+n.
Note that some late-acquired structures have little communicative
value. The third-person singular –s in English is hard to avoid in
English input, yet it is acquired very late. English acquirers have no
trouble understanding input containing –s because it contributes so
little to meaning. “Teaching” –s to beginners is useless, because it is
late-acquired, and “simplifying” the input to exclude it is hopeless.
This can be tested by examining teacher-talk in non-targeted classes.
The Net Hypothesis predicts that the appropriate grammar and
vocabulary will be included and that substantial language acquisition
will take place.
A modest first step is the creation of readers that are not targeted at
certain structures and vocabulary. Instead of writing stories that
include just those items that have been taught or are about to be
taught, writers can just try to make the texts interesting and
comprehensible, based on their own experience with students at the
beginning levels. If beginning students understand the texts (and like
them), then the texts are appropriate; the Net Hypothesis claims that
just the right aspects of language will be automatically included.
To see if the Net Hypothesis is correct, as suggested just above, we
can examine the texts of comprehensible/interesting readers written in
this way and determine what structures and vocabulary are covered.
We can also compare the achievement of classes using these texts
with those using readers matched to a grammatical syllabus and
vocabulary list.
This corollary of the Comprehension Hypothesis makes life much
easier and more interesting for teachers and students: If
comprehensible input, when provided in quantity, contains all the
structures and vocabulary the acquirer is ready for, we are liberated
from the constraint of targeting specific aspects of form and can focus
entirely on meaning, on providing input that is comprehensible and
If only the feeling of full comprehension is required, if input is allowed to
contain some i+n, we no longer have to make sure that every word and even
every morpheme is completely transparent. If, in fact, if input is truly
compelling, it is likely that students will not even notice the “noise” or bits
of incomprehensible and nontransparent elements in the input.
*Thanks to Contee Seeley for helpful suggestions.
Brown, R. 1977. Introduction to Snow and Ferguson. In C. Snow and C.
Ferguson (Eds.), Talking To Children. pp. 1-27. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Cross, T. 1977. Mothers’ speech adjustments: The contribution of selected
child listener variables. In C. Snow and C. Ferguson (Eds.), Talking To
Children. pp. 151-88. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1992. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.
New York: Harper Perennial.
Gleitman, L., Newport, E. and Gleitman, H. 1984. The current status
of the motherese hypothesis. Journal of Child Language 11: 43-79.
Krashen, S. 1981. Second Language Acquisition and Second
Language Learning. New York: Prentice Hall. Available at
Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann and
Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited.
Krashen, S. The compelling input hypothesis. The English Connection
(KOTESOL). In press.
Krashen, S. and Terrell, T. 1983. The Natural Approach: Language
Acquisition in the Classroom. Hayward, CA: Alemany Press.
Ray, B. and Seely, C. 2008. Fluency through TPR Storytelling.
Berkeley: Command Performance Language Institute. (Fifth Edition)



11 thoughts on “The Net Hypothesis 1”

  1. “Organizing” a curriculum around flow will not be happening anytime soon. :o) However, this research and these writings are CRITICAL to any success we may have in moving away from language torture and towards language acquisition.
    Ben, I think that in many ways Stephen is right about most TPRS classrooms. We do organize around “grammatical” structures because:
    a) We have to placate administration.
    b) We have to play nice with colleagues.
    c) We want to keep our jobs.
    d) We have thought this way for so long that even though we THINK we are organizing differently, if we examine ourselves closely, those patterns still exist.
    In the ideal world, curriculum would not have to be controlled nor directed by teachers, but rather by the intrinsic motivation and interest of the students. We know this because of Stephen Krashen and others who tirelessly research and write about this. These truths push us to move our “real” closer every day to the “ideal”.
    This is also why TPRS has evolved so well over the years. Folks like Dr. Krashen peel away the layers of false assumptions one by one. We must then look at what we are really doing. We observe and question and change by letting go of what we once thought was true.
    The most difficult piece for us, as teachers, is to accept the idea that we are, in many ways, superfluous. We have an abnormally puffed up view of ourselves. Where else do you get to keep the image you created (or adopted) of yourself as a child/adolescent and perpetuate it for years on end? We don’t have to grow if we don’t want to.
    What Stephen Krashen tells us (and models for us) is that teachers should no longer be stellar-students-running a society designed to produce more stellar students. Our job is to be truth-seekers, truth-sharers and door-openers. With a little bit of butt-kicker added in from time to time (for ourselves as well as our students.) He repeatedly tells us that the human brain WORKS BEAUTIFULLY ON ITS OWN. Our job should be to put it in a position to do so and leave it alone.
    Education today is, instead, built around the idea that the brain must be directed, trained, fostered, and otherwise controlled by a system run by other people’s needs and goals.
    Those of us in the trenches can only pray that students’ brains survive that kind of treatment for the decade-plus years that they are subjected to it.
    with love,

    1. …teachers should no longer be stellar-students-running a society designed to produce more stellar students….
      This is the hard one, I believe, for people to get. Most teachers, if they don’t see a few kids leading the class discussion, get uncomfortable on some “collective educational unconscious” level where that has always been the model. The model Krashen calls into play, and he gets a lot of shit thrown at him for it, is that all kids can succeed and all kids do succeed in properly run TPRS classes when the input is interesting (if not compelling) and SLOW enough.
      No wonder the opposition to Krashen is so strong – he has given wings to the idea nascent in the 70’s that the world can be a place where cooperation and not competition is the model. All those early books about “Getting to Yes” and making things a “win win” for everyone have been met with great opposition and, rearing its head now more and more, war. And so it IS a war in school buildings. We’ll get there. Let’s keep the faith and get on into this new year with the best, most fearless attitudes that we can possibly muster. Let’s teach our kids the right way, with comprehensible input and in the TL 95% of the time.
      Everybody needs to just get over it – Krashen is right. Ball game over. Go home. Do it the new way. I cut and pasted the entire article above into my email and on Monday morning it is going to my principal and my AP in charge of our WL department. These are people, who unlike those in the building I was in last year, know the deal with Krashen and want to educate themselves on what Stephen says above about syllabi, etc.

  2. …we have thought this way for so long that even though we THINK we are organizing differently, if we examine ourselves closely, those patterns still exist….
    Very insightful Laurie. I notice this whenever I talk to people. I never know what to say, because the walls of the school building are breathing down on us, asking us to organize and be “teachers”, so it is very difficult to honor Krashen’s conclusions, which, as you say, are pure descriptors of the right way to teach languages and merely waiting for the clouds of ignorance and school curriculum design to float away into the past. One day, we will apply comprehensible input methods and Blaine’s staggeringly important first design of them and all of the targeted grammar stuff will be gone forever. Then we can say we will have grown up as teachers.

  3. Ben (and everyone else!),
    I finally got my hands on Krashen’s ‘The Power of Reading’! Very exciting to read some of the very compelling research that goes into our determined escape from the Termite Tower. I am still on such a ‘high’ of pure excitement – I am finally leaving behind the years of frustration! I look forward to the challenges of this method that is truly beautiful in its simplicity…
    You recently had made a quick, parenthetical remark here on the blog (I can’t find it!) along the lines of, ‘why aren’t there any interesting beginning-level readers out there!’…that comment, coupled with what I am reading about Krashen’s research into FVR, brings me to this thought:
    If reading is THAT important (and it is), then perhaps some blog brainstorming is called for: brainstorming about what story ideas, story elements, etc. would make good beginner reader material. I, personally, would love to write compelling (to the point of getting the reader into Csikszentmihalyi FLOW!) beginning reader material, but perhaps this is a very lofty goal! My first brainstorm on this idea is that most likely a GREAT reader would have to include compelling art to help pull in the reader and make things comprehensible…in other words, the ideal may be the ‘children’s book format’ but subject matter geared to middle/high school readers…perhaps a beginner reader MANGA/COMIC BOOK style? Just a thought.
    Any one final thought/question: Ben, you mentioned today on the blog (and yesterday in an email response to me) that the catch 22 for all this reading stuff is that the auditory foundation must be there first. This sounds absolutely correct on an intuitive level, but I was just wondering if you can expand on that thought and/or its origins in research/personal experience. Is that somewhere in the rest of Krashen’s book and I just haven’t gotten there yet, or…? This whole idea of ‘reading is everything’ coupled with ‘auditory input first is (obviously) TPRS in a nutshell.
    Okay, one last, related question: Would it be theoretically possible to have a highly compelling beginner reader that lends itself to self-study (FVR) without necessarily having that auditory foundation? (I’d love one for me to help me with reading Japanese – not much chance in my life right now to hear it).
    The vison: have a vast (wow, that’s a very idealistic word) library of highly compelling beginner reader material available for my students that is at the level they need, that is not a bunch of Spanish language children’s books, and that is not just (forgive me on this one!…) filled with readers as boring looking as Pobre Ana (ouch, sorry!…high schoolers and…well, many of us still slip up and judge a book by its cover…okay maybe its contents aren’t so exciting either), and that is not given PQA specifically targeted to that story (because there are SO many of these compelling readers in out class library that I, the teacher, couldn’t possibly PQA all of them!!…)

  4. ps I made that last post (above) on this older blog topic since Krashen, quoted above, mentions the idea of readers based on non-targeted comprehensible input. He also mentioned the idea of FLOW…good stuff above! Read it all again!

      1. Ah, funny how language is (or how my mind isn’t!): I took “non-targeted” NOT as no target structures (a key part of TPRS stories as you have showed us), but as meaning having the goal of CI without using any planned pacing guide of arbitrarily chosen thematic vocabulary units.

  5. Brian I’m not a research guy and my opinions are largely intuitive and/or based on my classroom experience, so it just seems true that kids new to the language, as is true with small children, would go to their sound database when reading. But then I don’t know the research at all.
    I don’t know on the Japanese question. I do know that Diana has repeated to us over and over that we need to be doing a lot more FVR than we do. When thinking about your question my mind keeps going back to the sound piece.
    Last point there in your last paragraph – I say we still need a communal reader, something to unite us all in an interesting endeavor, something we could backwards plan for. That book, those books, don’t exist yet.

    1. Thank you Ben for your candid response about research vs. intuition based on classroom experience…there is a very valid place for both. I hear so much truth in your ideas…but then again, that’s just my hunch 😉

  6. Brian, thank you for saying something I have thought for a while. As methodologically sound (easily understood, full of repetition) as Arme Anna et al. may be, they are actually pretty boring as story. It gets a bit harder each year to maintain the enthusiasm for reading in the face of my students’ rejection of the story, plot, characters, etc. Other books follow the same basic outline as Arme Anna. While “x has a problem, x goes to 1 and can’t solve the problem, x goes to 2 and can’t solve the problem, x goes to 3 and solves the problem” works for live storyasking because we are constantly moving away from the plot and returning and our students are “creating” the story, it doesn’t work for reading unless the story itself is compelling.
    Blaine and his writers/translators have, however, done us a great service by providing a start (but only a start) because it is incredibly difficult to write a compelling story that also meets the methodological and paedagogical criteria. I know because I’ve done it for upper levels. (I teach a unit on the Middle Ages in level 4/AP, and I wrote my own reader for the unit because there was nothing out there. A colleague at El Toro and I piloted it, and my students said they enjoyed it – but then maybe they were just being nice. My colleague’s students also liked it and commented that it was nice to have a book that was “actually interesting”.) A good starting point might be a series of short stories (not mini-stories). Maybe not, though. COACH, the group I work with here in California, has written a short story that we have adapted to Spanish, German and French. It revolves around a theft in an art gallery (Prado in Madrid, Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and Georges Pompidou in Paris, respectively) that is solved thanks to evidence gathered unwittingly by a group of students. It’s for upper-level students (just like my book). I’ll be using the story in my class this year. I’ve also started investigating other readers. Klett has some good ones, but not really for true beginners in the early days. Michael Miller has Hilde und Günter, and my level 2 students enjoyed reading the level 1 book on their own. Gerhard Maroscher has also published collections of short stories – but I haven’t read them yet. Sabine Lewis from OK State has some readers, but I haven’t had the opportunity to look at them. (These are all German readers)
    I would be interested in what might come about, but I am so involved in other things that I don’t know if I would have time to do much. At iFLT Karen Rowan talked about writing books. I remember one statement that she made because I disagree with it. Karen said, “If you think the story is interesting, it will be too difficult for your students.” What she should have said is, “If you think the language is interesting, it will be to difficult for your students.” I set out to write a story that had interesting characters, a compelling story line, verisimilitude and enough “hooks” – both in terms of capturing interest and in providing springboards to discussion and exploration – to promote rigor and relevance of instruction. I believe I succeeded. BTW, I have since discovered that I can use this book as an “organizer” for fully half of the AP German Language and Culture course I teach.
    BTW, there have been numerous people who have “learned” a foreign language through reading. At some point they have received aural input or come to some extremely strange pronunciations, to the point of not being understood when speaking. I learned to read Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, but I wouldn’t be at all comfortable trying to speak any of them. We just have to keep our goals clear – I wanted to read the Bible and early Christian writers in the original languages, so my course of study was suited to that goal. (My experiences with learning languages for different purposes is one of the reasons I always try to start conversations about methods, results, etc. with the question, “Why – to what purpose – are we teaching our language?” The answer to that has an immense influence on how we teach.)

    1. I know of a book that is compelling and 100% comprehensible. And it can be used in any language. It’s “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan. It’s a graphic novel with no text. I’ve tried using it with students and we have long discussions about each image. Of course, that’s not reading, but I’m wondering about writing up the story after our discussion as an embedded reading.

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