Making the incomprehensible comprehensible


January 21, 2015 by gemmalunn

I currently teach EAP to two classes, one of which is a lower level, or at least low in terms of the material and the level which this is aimed at. We have to follow the syllabus and use the materials (which I must add I actually like a lot and are very useful) as all students taking the course must cover the same material as they all sit the same exams. Some of these students will need to gain 70% in the final exams to enter their chosen university path. This is no mean feat, even for the stronger students on the course.

Thus, the problem I have is that most of the material is a bit too difficult for some students and totally incomprehensible for others. Yet I cannot skip it or replace it, I can sometimes supplement it but only if I have time that week once we have covered the core materials. I am frequently met with blank stares after explaining a term or asking a question or silence after setting an activity. I am grateful for the stronger students who have the confidence to attempt the task or a response. However, more often than not it is just these few who respond. These lessons require more energy than others because of the massive gap I’m trying to bridge plus as the weeks go on I feel like this gap decreases some students’ interest and motivation so I also have to try and keep these up. As a result, I feel like some students often leave the classes a bit confused, demotivated and not having learned a great deal or at least as much as they should have.

Photo from #eltpics @vickyloras

Photo from #eltpics @vickyloras

The main cause of this problem is that the input is not comprehensible. Thus, according to Krashen (1985) the material would not follow his Input Hypothesis of i+1 (i=learner’s current knowledge i+1= the next stage), it’s more like i+4! Long (1985) states that the best way to make input comprehensible is through ‘interactional adjustments’ i.e. through attempts by the learners and their peers to overcome comprehension difficulties by negotiating meaning. However, this is sometimes just too big a hurdle. My friends and I could sit looking at a passage in Arabic for years and never negotiate the meaning! I think that some of the material is just far too incomprehensible for the meaning to be negotiated. As you can imagine these classes can sometimes be a bit of a struggle, either I or the students or both feel frustrated at some point, this frustration can sometimes be wrongly diverted, i.e. I get frustrated with them for not understanding me and of course feel awful for this afterwards as obviously no one is too blame!

I covered a class yesterday which is a few levels above my usual class and the difference was immense. This was the level the material is aimed at and as a result it was effective and thus a much more enjoyable lesson for all. Most importantly, learning took place how it should: students successfully negotiated the meaning of new words and phrases; they tried using these when appropriate; they discussed issues in the activities with confidence yet with room for improvement; they enjoyed the lesson and it was not too great effort for either me or them and I think they left happy and with a sense of achievement. This class just reaffirmed my feelings that it is the material which is the issue rather than me or the students.

There are a few strategies I’ve implemented to try and bridge the gap and make the incomprehensible more comprehensible, the main ones are:

  • Asking students to read ahead, they have all the materials for the whole term so I’ve suggested they look at the upcoming week and translate and note down any difficult words. I also advised them to read texts and make notes / headings for each paragraph.
  • In the first class of the week I give students a table of new vocabulary which they will come across in the upcoming week and they spend some time completing parts of the table in pairs then explaining their words to others.

key words

  • Asking students to write down answers to discussion questions before asking them to share them (Fanselow, 1987). I now avoid direct class questions as I am more often than not met with silence or by responses from the same three students which does not benefit the rest of the class.
  • Similarly to the above, I get students to make notes before a speaking activity so they have had time to prepare their thoughts and suitable language. I’ve noticed this massively helps the less confident students and also gives the stronger students the opportunity to use more sophisticated language. It also allows me to correct common errors and deal with any misunderstanding before students begin the activity.

So far these strategies are helping. However, if anyone is in or has been in a similar situation and has any more advice it would be greatly welcomed, thanks.


Faneslow, J. F. (1987). Breaking Rules. New York & London: Longman.

Krashen, S. D. (1985). The Input Hypothesis. New York & London: Longman.

Long, M. H. (1985). Input and second language acquisition theory. In S. Gass, & C. Maddem (eds.) Input and Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. Pp. 268-86.

Shortly after posting this I found this quote…..

“You can’t make the incomprehensible comprehensible without losing it completely.” Max Frisch


8 thoughts on “Making the incomprehensible comprehensible

  1. Your point about letting learners make notes before contributing to a discussion or responding to questions is particularly important. I too had this issue for years – the same students would jump to answer, and you would let them, just so that you could avoid silence. However, I’m sure, given the nature of some ELT materials, even native speakers would like some time to think before replying to some questions.

    Doing this also gives the learners the opportunity to use phrases such as ‘Having had the opportunity to think about this…’ or ‘I’ve considered the question and come to the conclusion’, etc.

    However, the basic fact remains that institutions will all too often allow learners to join courses which are too far above their level to meaningfully contribute. Similarly, some learners think they are not learning unless the level of the course is way above them. In other words, if they can kind of follow it, it’s too easy! I would say it comes down to learner training / realistic target setting at a very early stage, which is not easy, nor very ‘sexy’ in terms of how it is achieved (through hard work, revision and honest self-assessment!, not to mention the idea that language, above all, takes time to learn!).

  2. gemmalunn says:

    Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for the comment. I very much agree that the root cause is allowing students to join courses when they don’t have the required level. I have been trying to drill into certain students how much hard work they need to put in to achieve their (v.ambitious) goals, I just hope it has sunk in!

    Thanks again,


  3. Rose Bard says:

    Hi Gemma,

    Very useful post!

    I find John FF’s suggestion of giving students time to prepare for discussions by writing down the answers very useful for the reasons you have already stated. You probably know that he also says that students using bilingual dictionaries is faster and more accurate leaving more time to put English into use than learning about it. The word table you are using is fantastic. It’s a great tool to use with dictionaries.

    I just learned about this tool through EVO 2015. Check it out. You can use the free account and print out the cards with instructions to use in class.


    • gemmalunn says:

      Hi Rose,

      Glad you found it useful 🙂

      I mostly agree regarding the bilingual dictionaries except that I have some students who are over reliant on these and seem to be lacking the skills to figure out word meanings from current knowledge so I’m trying to encourage that at the moment.

      Thanks for the link to word juggle, I’ve never heard of it but looks great so I’ll try it out soon.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.


  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Gemma,

    This is really frustrating what you have to go through and hats off to your perseverance. I remember I once had to take part in a fairly advanced German course, so I know what it feels like for a student, but I was strongly motivated back then (failing the course would have meant failing the whole MA studies programme), plus I was quite autonomous, which means I knew how to learn on my own and how to catch up on all the stuff I wasn’t familiar with.

    Bridging the gap between a student’s level of proficiency and the overall level of the course is certainly not an easy task. This reminds me that recently I attended a workshop where the presenter talked about the futility of starting an upper-intermediate coursebook right after finishing the intermediate level. Students usually struggle to keep up since they haven’t sufficiently mastered the language of the intermediate level (all the useful collocations and the huge amount prefabricated language chunks they need to become fluent). All of a sudden they are introduced to complicated grammar structures which they won’t even need unless they go on to study English at an academic level. I’m teaching such a class myself, and I’m not enjoying it the way I enjoy teaching other classes. All in all, although Krashen’s theory is not exactly a recent one, it still holds true.

    I really like your idea of introducing some of the material in advance – here we are doing flipped teaching? – and I’m actually about to post a handout to a Facebook group including material I want to cover in class on Monday, so that the weaker students can look at it and feel more confident.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.


    • gemmalunn says:

      Hi Hana,

      Thanks for your comment it’s great to hear about other experiences. I think flipped learning is really valuable in these types of situations, anything to make the students more confident with the material is a good thing! I can sympathise with the presenters point about the upper int book, it’s not a comfortbale feeling when students really struggle with the work. On the plus side students got their test results on Friday and the vast majority passed and did better than expected so that has boosted their confidence. Luckily they are all pretty motivated and really want to go to university this year so I think they’ll be ok despite the challenge.


  5. breathyvowel says:

    Hi Gem,

    A couple of thoughts: as far as I know Long’s interaction hypothesis relates more to more competent speakers modulating their output in order to facilitate their interlocutor’s comprehension. I like your idea of getting them to discuss, but I think if anything it would have to be you modulating the original text by supplying a graded version in writing or speech.

    Where I want to ask a direct question to the class these days, I write it on the board and have students ask the person next to them. In that way 50 percent of students answer and I can see who needs some help. I also wonder how much you’ve thoight about pairings and groupings in terms of shared L1 (for discussion of difficult concepts) and ability (better students explaining to less able ones).

    On my Korean course, reading and vocab learning in advance helped me a lot in a tough level. A daily quick vocab quiz provided some good motivation too. Something to think about.

    I third the giving of planning time.

    Hope things go a bit better.


    • gemmalunn says:

      Hi Alex,

      Thanks for your comments and ideas I’ve been keeping these in mind during classes this week and am trying to do regular vocab quizzes, something I always start term with then gradually forget about!

      Actually had a really good class this afternoon and was blown away by what the students managed to do- an annotated bibiliography with a fairly difficult text, but with plenty of support and explanations they managed it so something kust be working!

      Thanks again,


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