The Compelling (not just interesting) Input Hypothesis

Dr. Krashen just sent me this today:

The Compelling (not just interesting) Input Hypothesis
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.
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).
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 only way we truly acquire language.
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.



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

  1. I don’t know to what extent TPRS has influenced Krashen but we certainly have provided him with food for thought during all the back and forth of the past years. I love this hypothesis. I love the way it is worded. It is crisp and clear and much more important than it may seem at first glance, in my opinion. Why?
    I think that this hypothesis is so important because it looks directly and in specific detail at exactly what the learner experiences when sitting in a language class. Is not this supremely important? We rarely focus on what that experience is, preferring rather to think about our method of instruction and presentation of the language.
    One might ask, “What’s the difference? It’s compelling, it’s interesting….I get it….” But I personally feel that Dr. Krashen is suggesting this new hypothesis because there is a world of difference between the two words.
    Read the hypothesis again. Compelling means that the learner is not even aware of the language. That is major. That is what we strive for. That is why our use of English in our classrooms is a total distractor and its use functionally destroys our ability to make our instruction compelling, because it invites the brain to analyze, which is not an unconscious activity.
    This loudly echoes the work of Bill VanPatten, who says that language acquisition is different from any other kind of learning. VanPatten suggests that the brain treats language differently from normal human cognition and therefore should not be studied cognitively, which is how it is typically taught.
    Compelling means flow, there is no way around it. It means that the mind is totally focused on the message only. So we can see how this hypothesis is an outgrowth of Krashen’s other ideas about the acquisition of language being an unconscious process – uconscious means unconscious.
    What about the word interesting? Or it’s twin, meaningful, which is a word that, for me, goes back all the way to the co-founder of TPRS, Joe Neilson, when I asked him years ago about comprehensible input and he said that it must be interesting and meaningful.
    Those terms just don’t imply full unconscious processing. They allow a certain coming and going by the conscious mind into and out of the L2 discussion, in my opinion. The words interesting and meaningful allow for some conscious analysis, for a kind of slip back into conscious analysis of aspects of what is going on in class, and that back and forth between the conscious and unconscious faculties, I think, is precisely what Dr. Krashen is signaling that we avoid at all costs.
    If we are to benefit from this new hypothesis in ways that we who use comprehensible input have benefitted from Krashen’s other hypotheses, then it is incumbent on us to fully appreciate that all of our instruction must now be informed by the desire to place our learner’s attention fully on the message.

  2. I want to add this to the above:
    One measurable difference between the words interesting and compelling may be found in the attention spans of the students. When input is compelling, as in a good story, the faces of the students reveal much more than interest. They (sometimes viscerally) care about what happens as they focus during the entire class period on what may or may not happen (their focus is entirely on the meaning).
    When a good grammar lesson gets off the ground, however,….well, grammar lessons don’t get off the ground; there is no meaning in what the students are trying and failing to focus on. It’s like pushing bricks around on the ground and arranging them in different patterns. It may be kind of interesting, but it certainly isn’t compelling.
    In an interesting class, a somewhat small percentage of students is still in touch with the lesson after five minutes. When a very large percentage of the class stays with the story the entire class period it is not because it is interesting. When the students experience compelling input, their unconscious mind, as it were, guides them along through the class period and, since language acquisition is an unconscious process, they acquire the language.
    Related link:

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