The Compelling (not just interesting) Input Hypothesis

Dr. Krashen just wrote an article – in draft form – after St. Louis and sent it around. I will publish it here with his permission but first it might help to read the text of his new – but I think still being developed – Compelling Input Hypothesis for a little background before reading the actual new article tomorrow:
Stephen Krashen
The English Connection (KOTESOL) in press
It is by now well-established that input must be comprehensible to have an effect on language acquisition and literacy development. To make sure that language acquirers pay attention to the input, it should be interesting. But interest may be not enough for optimal language acquisition. It may be the case that input needs to be not just interesting but
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 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. Flow occurs during reading when readers are “lost in the book” (Nell, 1988) or in the “Reading Zone” (Atwell, 2007).
[ed. note: related blog posts here on this topic are and
Compelling input appears to eliminate the need for motivation, a conscious desire to improve. When you get compelling input, you acquire whether you are interested in improving or not.
The evidence for the Compelling Input Hypothesis includes improvement as an unexpected result, the many cases of those who had no conscious intention of improving in another language or increasing their literacy, but simply got very interested in reading. In fact, they were sometimes surprised that they had improved.
I included several cases like this in The Power of Reading (Krashen, 2004, pp. 22-24): Both students and teachers were surprised by the students’ startling improvement in English after they became avid readers in English.
More recently, Lao (Lao and Krashen, 2009) described the case of Daniel, a 12-year-old boy who came to the US at age eight from China. Daniel’s Mandarin proficiency was clearly declining, despite his parents’ efforts: They sent Daniel to a Chinese heritage language school but it was clear that Daniel was not interested in Mandarin. He was also not an enthusiastic participant in a summer heritage language program supervised by Dr. Lao, even though it included free reading.
Then Dr. Lao gave Daniel a few books written in Chinese to take home. One was an illustrated chapter book, “The Stories of A Fan Ti.” Daniel loved it. The book was a bit beyond his level, but thanks to the illustrations and his ability to understand some of the text, Daniel was very interested in the story, and begged his mother to read it to him. When Dr. Lao learned of this, she loaned Daniel more books from the “A Fan Ti” series, in comic book format. Daniel begged his mother to read more, from two to five stories everyday. Daniel liked the books so much that he would do the dishes while his mother read to him. Both Daniel and his mother were quite happy with this arrangement. Daniel’s Mandarin was clearly improving, but he wasn’t aware of it, nor was he particularly interested. He was only interested in the stories.
The Compelling Input Hypothesis also explains why self-selected reading is typically more effective than assigned reading (e.g. S.Y. Lee, 2007).
An important conjecture is that listening to or reading compelling stories, watching compelling movies and having conversations with truly fascinating people is not simply another route, another option. It is possible that compelling input is not just optimal: It may be the only way we truly acquire language.
[ed. note: of course, that crucial last sentence – “…it (compelling input) may be the only way we truly acquire language…” – vividly points up our dilemna as classroom teachers. If Dr. Krashen is right, then how could we make ANYTHING compelling to all of our students when they are forced to be in our classes? It is a real conundrum. It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole with some of our kids, right? TPRS, as Dr. Krashen has said many times since 2009, is the “best thing out there”, but this new hypothesis certainly might not apply to most if not all school language teachers when sometimes even a fire in the classroom might not qualify as “compelling” to some kids. Maybe this hypothesis is for people who don’t work in schools, who don’t have to grade, who don’t have to make up lesson plans and put up objectives on the wall every day, who don’t have to deal with kids lost in trances, many of whom have yet to develop and appreciation for what taxpayers are buying them, and who are split off from the joy of learning by the very fact that they go to school.]
Atwell, Nancy. 2007. The Reading Zone. New York: Scholastic.
Csikszentmihalyi , M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York:
Harper Perennial.
Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Second edition. Portsmouth: Heinemann and
Westport: Libraries Unlimited
Lao, C. and Krashen, S. 2008. Heritage language development: Exhortation or good
stories? International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching 4 (2): 17-18.
Lee, S. Y. 2007. Revelations from Three Consecutive Studies on Extensive Reading.
Regional Language Center (RELC) Journal , 38 (2), 150-170.
Nell, V. 1988. Lost in a Book. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.



11 thoughts on “The Compelling (not just interesting) Input Hypothesis”

  1. Ben,
    Krashen’s compelling input hypothesis feels so right to me. I have seen you teach this way and it is my goal to teach like that, but the rub indeed is how to do it with adolescents that are not always psyched to be in class and are daily dealing with many other issues further down Maslow’s hierarchy?

  2. Bryce and Ben,
    The compelling input hypothesis flies in the face of every torturously boring class I ever sat through. Of course, as a student I internalized the implicit message that learning is dreary by nature. As a result, I’ve unawarely accepted that low standard for my own teaching.The notion of compelling input being perhaps the only way language is learned turns everything upside down.
    I think back to last year. One of my favorite memories was of a week I decided to show some photos on the screen and use them to prompt our discussions and PQA. One collection of photos I call “Parent of the Year” which shows negligent parents doing crazy things like letting their 3 year old shoot a pistol. The kids eyes were so big and the laughter was so genuine as we joked and bullshitted about how many pistols we had at home, etc. It was definitely compelling to the kids, effortless for me, and fun for all.
    Could I do that all year? I am so fortunate to have the academic freedom to do it. It’s a very tantalizing prospect.

  3. Compelling input is a challenge. Pictures are a great idea. To me, the idea is kind of like Kindergarten day, but using more mature material to start with. speaking of funny pictures, I saw some pictures yesterday called London Looters Photoshopped, or something like that. the pictures are completely ridiculous, possibly really useful… things like stealing a Justin Bieber poster, stuffed animals, and giant cookies; dancing the maypole dance, madly dashing toward the kiddie pool… Nathan Black also posted a website recently on Michele’s blog that was hilarious. Where do *you* find compelling pictures?

  4. And my question, which comes under the heading, “When do we find the time to do all the things that this method offers?”, is about when in the first/second year sequence would be the best time to start with pictures, given the personalization and rules establishing stuff we do in the first few months and then the stories next on into the winter. And all the reading. Just wondering. My own suggestion for me since I use a very ordered schedule during the academic week ( is on Friday.
    Actually, I could find pictures that connect to the structures taught that week. This idea is brand new to me, Carla, so thanks for lighting up that idea. I had previously always chosen a poem or a song for Friday to align with the structures, and now this idea really adds that third option of pictures to connect with structures on Friday. It would be easier, too.
    Carla I don’t think I had told you about this new schedule of mine because we had that hiatus since San Antonio, so please check that link above out. I really think you will like it. It gives order to my week, which, since you know me, is a good thing, right?

  5. One of the statements that Michele and I came back to …over and over again…in St. Louis is this: the goal of communication is to put a picture in the mind and/or heart of another person.
    Then there is that other saying…you know…A picture is worth a thousand words.
    Seems like the picture is the key. Carla has the right idea to use it to open the door to the language.
    with love,

  6. I was walking and thinking about Compelling Input. Dr. Krashen’s theory pertains to language acquisition in ONE mind. But We teach GROUPS of kids. Compelling Input means many more kids come along for the ride, not just those few who are the focus of PQA or the actors we’ve invited up. Compelling Input might be the best classroom management approach yet. This is not news, we all know that engaged students aren’t causing problems. But somehow for me it’s another practical reason to move toward high-interest activities. To that end I’m making a powerpoint to teach my kids how to play “Thunder” (a type of basketball game) in Spanish and so, when it gets flat in my classroom, we can go outside and bump into each other and laugh, but no English allowed, of course.

    1. ooh, please post this! i don’t know what “thunder” is but it sounds FUN, and i would love to try it. thanks/gracias 🙂

  7. I wonder how moms would do, as the greatest language teachers in the world that they naturally are, with 35 vastly different teenie babies to speak to each day. I hadn’t thought of that, Ben. So, the jury is out for me on the word compelling. I wanted to ask Krashen this summer about what he considers compelling. In my view, the gap (not just because of the numbers of kids in the room all of whom have vastly different interests) between interesting and compelling in the way I think Stephen thinks about it, is a chasm. I want him to say something about that. I want him to concur that we in classrooms don’t neatly fit into any kind of language acquisition theory – that it is harder for us. Maybe he has said that somewhere and I missed it. We have too many variables for any clear conclusions to be made. If that makes any sense. I mean, I totally love what he says, but I just keep coming back to “Can I actually do this in my classroom – can I actually make my instruction compelling?” I need to be able to give myself permission to completely fail at making Krashen’s stuff pop into form in my classroom. As you say, Ben, we are not in neat one-to-one situations with our students. Many of us have students who definitely do not want to be in our classrooms. I need to be able to take each class as it is, another step in a long career where I tried my best to make what I did interesting, and then let it go and be happy.

  8. Well said Bens.
    Based on my elementary understanding of what Krashen is telling us, I think he is arguing for even more self-selected reading in the FL classroom. Thirty-five (damn that’s a lot of kids in one room) kids CAN find their own compelling reading material (ideally), but it is seemingly impossible to accomplish this with auditory input (perhaps unless learning with self-selected songs and twext for example).
    I also would like clarification from Dr. Krashen on this point Ben… “interesting” may be the best we can do with the majority within the current paradigm.

  9. “Maybe this hypothesis is for people who don’t work in schools, who don’t have to grade, who don’t have to make up lesson plans and put up objectives on the wall every day, who don’t have to deal with kids lost in trances, many of whom have yet to develop and appreciation for what taxpayers are buying them, and who are split off from the joy of learning by the very fact that they go to school.”
    Ben, I just read this part, thanks for yet another brave observation!

  10. So with stories, the best I can do is “teacher-select” in whatever kids I can into the reading, adding more and more in with each embedded layer if I choose to do that. There is a true limit to what we can do. And, of course, in FVR, which is the only real place where self selection of reading can occur, we are limited by the size and quality of our classroom libraries. It’s amazing, if you think about it, that Dr. Krashen is so high on us as being “light years” ahead of everything else (his term to me in private conversation last summer), when we are shackled with the limitations that clearly weigh us down. And I bet Dr. Krashen, in fact, fully gets all that, but just hasn’t addressed it in writing yet. Maybe he will at some point. Or maybe he has and I missed it. I would like to hear him say that he is aware of the chains that come with school buildings and CI.

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