Newsflash: Krashen Well; Monitor Theory Refuses to Lie Down

An open letter to Stephen Krashen

Dear Stephen,

When I got your comments on the post I’d written about Michael Hoey’s defence of your theory, I was almost as excited as I was when, in 1983, I read The Natural Approach; Language Acquisition in the Classroom (let’s not forget your marvellous co-writer Tracy Terrell, sadly no longer with us). When I’d finished it, I went out and bought your 2 previous volumes (SLA and Second Language Learning (1981) and Principles and Practice in SLA (1982)), after which I felt qualified to join in the enormously animated discussions that were going on in teachers rooms and bars all over Barcelona. I’m sure you’re aware of the huge impact your theory of SLA had on the ELT world; I can honestly say that for me, as, I suspect, for hundreds of thousands of teachers, your work affected my teaching and thinking more than any other writer before or since. Whatever its shortcomings, your theory of SLA is surely one of the most influential works in the field of applied linguistics that hs been published in the last 60 years.

To the issue, then. In your reply to the criticisms I made of your theory, you urged me to read a list of replies you’ve made over the years to a number of critics. I’m in the process of gathering the texts and once I’ve read them, I’ll write my comments. But to pave the way for a critical discussion, I’d like to briefly summarise what I think are the main points of your theory and invite you to correct any mistakes I might make. This summary is taken from Jordan, 2004.

Krashen (1985) re-formulated what Corder (1967) had called in relation to SLA a “built-in syllabus” into a Natural Order Hypothesis.

To my knowledge, this hypothesis was first proposed by Corder (1967). It states that we acquire the rules of language in a predictable way, some rules tending to come early and others late. The order does not appear to be determined solely by formal simplicity, and there is evidence that it is independent of the order in which rules are taught in language classes (Krashen, 1985: 14).

Krashen (1977a, 1977b, 1978, 1981, 1982, 1985) developed these hypothesis into the Monitor Model, which contains the following five hypotheses:

A. The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis.

According to Krashen, adults have two ways of developing competence in second languages. The first way is via acquisition, that is, by using language for communication. This is a subconscious process and the resulting acquired competence is also subconscious. The second way to develop second language competence is by language learning, which is a conscious process and results in formal knowledge of the language. For Krashen, acquisition, picking up a language naturally like children do their L1, is a process still available to adults, and is far more important that language learning. Furthermore, knowledge gained through one means (e.g., learning) cannot be internalised as knowledge of the other kind (e.g., acquisition), and only the acquisition system produces language, the learned system serving only as a monitor of the acquired system, checking the correctness of utterances against the formal knowledge stored therein.

B. The Natural Order Hypothesis

The rules of language are acquired in a predictable way, some rules coming early and others late. The order is not determined solely by formal simplicity, and it is independent of the order in which rules are taught in language classes.

C. The Monitor Hypothesis  

The learned system has only one, limited, function: to act as a Monitor. Further, the Monitor cannot be used unless three conditions are met:

  1. Time. “In order to think about and use conscious rules effectively, a second language performer needs to have sufficient time” (Krashen, 1982:12).
  2. Focus on form “The performer must also be focused on form, or thinking about correctness” (Krashen, 1982: 12).
  3. Knowledge of the rule.

D. The Input Hypothesis

If there is a Natural Order, how do learners move from one point to another, from one stage of competence to the next? The Input Hypothesis explains the learner’s progress. Second languages are acquired by understanding language that contains structure “a bit beyond our current level of competence (i + 1)” by receiving “comprehensible input”. “When the input is understood and there is enough of it, i + 1 will be provided automatically. Production ability emerges. It is not taught directly” (Krashen, 1982: 21-22).

E. The Affective Filter Hypothesis

The Affective Filter is “that part of the internal processing system that subconsciously screens incoming language based on … the learner’s motives, needs, attitudes, and emotional states” (Dulay, Burt, and Krashen, 1982: 46). If the affective Filter is high, (because of lack of motivation, or dislike of the L2 culture, or feelings of inadequacy, for example) input is prevented from passing through and hence there is no acquisition. The Affective Filter is responsible for individual variation in SLA (it is not something children use) and explains why some learners never acquire full competence.

In my book, I go on to suggest weaknesses in these hypotheses, some of which I referred to in my recent post on Hoey. For the moment, let’s concentrate on the theory itself. I wonder if you, Stephen, see the above as a fair summary of it? In particular, could you answer these questions:

  1. Is it right to say that the Monitor hypothesis claims that learning is available for use in production, but not in comprehension?
  2. You say in your comment on my recent post that your hypotheses “make correct predictions, predictions that are confirmed by many studies. The hypotheses are thus easy to test – one counterexample is enough to destroy them”. Could you give me an example of a counterexample which would destroy your hypotheses?
  3. You also say in your comment that we don’t need to know whether i+1 is present in input or in output, saying that “When the existience of electrons was hypothesized, nobody had seen one. The existence of the Higgs-Boson particle was hypothesized before it was observed”. I don’t get the connection between hypothesising the existence of so far unobserved things and not needing to know whether  i+1 is present in input or in output. Could you say a bit more about this, please?
  4. This comment prompts me to mention Nicola (1991) who defends aspects of your theory. Below I summarise Nicola’s argument (again, taken from my book) and I hope you’ll give your reaction.

Nicola (1991) reminds us that in order to explain why the moon moved around the earth (instead of travelling in a straight line, which, according to Newton, is what all bodies naturally do) Newton hypothesised that a body can exert a force on another body at a distance, and called this force “gravity”. Nicola says that Newton was subjected to the same main criticisms as Krashen – first that the onus was on him to prove his counter-intuitive hypothesis (about motion), which he did not do, and second that he gave no explanation for gravity any more than Krashen gives an explanation for how comprehensible input results in acquisition. Nicola continues the analogy by reminding us that, as Mach demonstrated, Newton’s laws were riddled with logical problems, such as the famous first law which states that every body perseveres in its state of rest or uniform motion, except when a force is impressed on it, which allows for a new “force” to be invented to explain any counter-observation. Mach re-formulated Newton’s theory and then Einstein took it an important step further. Nicola argues that while Gregg’s and McLaughlin’s critiques of Krashen are important, they are not necessarily fatal to his theory and that “by wholesale rejection of the theory the critics are passing up a valuable opportunity to accomplish for SLA theory what Mach and Einstein accomplished for physics.” (Nicola, 1991: 23)

Nicola suggests that in order to make the input hypothesis less than vacuous, i.e. to give it empirical content, we need to operationalise “comprehensible input”. While Nicole agrees with McLaughlin that comprehension is an introspective act that is “woefully inadequate” for empirical research, she argues that nonetheless “a workable operational definition for classroom purposes is not difficult to attain.” She suggests that classroom teachers can develop a faculty for “reading” student comprehension of input

in somewhat the same way as an experimental physicist develops a faculty for quick and accurate reading of laboratory instruments from extended work with them. The teacher can thus help the researcher in the quest for precise operational definitions of concepts (Nicola, 1991: 25).

Most of Nicola’s argument deals with what in the philosophy of science is known as the context of discovery. It is certainly true that many extremely important theories in the history of science, Newton’s and Darwin’s among them, started off with badly-defined terms and a poor track record in terms of empirical testability, and I agree that an awareness of the history of science should make us tolerant in our assessment of young theories. In order to give the hypotheses in Krashen’s model more empirical content, a good start would be, as Nicola suggests, to operationalise the concepts, starting with comprehensible input. The most important claim that Krashen makes is that no consciously-learned linguistic information can become part of one’s unconscious linguistic knowledge, and it seems that, unless we stick to circular arguments that make it necessarily so, this claim is contradicted by the evidence. But certainly it is true that as Nicola says, the hypotheses together have clear pedagogical implications, and so, in principle, any teacher interested in testing them could arrive at a good enough working definition of comprehensible input to begin the task of exploring them.

OK, that’s the first part concluded. I hope very much that you’ll respond, Stephen. For my part, I’ll write Part 2, replying to your list of responses to various critics, ASAP.



Krashen, S. (1977a) The monitor model of adult second language performance. In Burt, M., Dulay, H. and Finocchiaro, M. (eds.), Viewpoints on English as a second Languaqe. New York: Regents, 152-61.

Krashen, S. (1977b) Some issues relating to the monitor model. In Brown, H., Yorio,C. and Crymes, R. (eds.). Teaching and learning English as a second language: some trends in research and practice. Washington, DC: TESOL, 144-48.

Krashen, S. (1978) Individual variation in the use of the monitor. In Ritchie, W. (ed.) Second language acquisition research: issues and implications. New York: Academic Press, 175-83.

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

Krashen, S. (1982) Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford; Pergamon.

Krashen, S. (1985) The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. New York: Longman.

Krashen, S. and Scarcella, R. (1978) On routines and patterns in second language acquisition and performance. Language Learning 28, 283—300.

Krashen, S. and Terrell, T. (1983) The natural approach: language acquisition in the  Classroom. Hayward, CA: Alemany Press.

Nicola, M. (1991) Theories of Second Language Acquisition and of Physics: Pedagogical Implications. Dialog on Language Instruction Vol. 7, No.1, 17-27.

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22 thoughts on “Newsflash: Krashen Well; Monitor Theory Refuses to Lie Down

  1. Comments on your summary:

    Krashen (1985) re-formulated what Corder (1967) had called in relation to SLA a “built-in syllabus” into a Natural Order Hypothesis.
    No, I didn’t reformulate Corder. I found empirical evidence supporting the idea of the “built-in syllabus.”

    “According to Krashen, adults have two ways of developing competence in second languages. The first way is via acquisition, that is, by using language for communication.”
    This is incorrect: We acquire language by understanding messages. “Communication” includes output.

  2. Your questions

    1. Is it right to say that the Monitor hypothesis claims that learning is available for use in production, but not in comprehension? NO. It is available as a Monitor, but it is possible that conscious knowledge can make input more comprehensible. There has been no investigation of this possibiliy, to my knowledge.
    2. Could you give me an example of a counterexample which would destroy your hypotheses? JUST A FEW HERE
    a. Finding a natural accuracy order in a highly monitored situation, or finding an unnatural accuracy order in a spontaneous unmonitored situation.
    b. Showing a change in the natural order related to affect.
    c. Showing a grammar-focused class does better than a comprehension-focused class on communicative tests.
    d. Showing that free voluntary reading does not produce increases in language and literacy competence, or showing that formal study does it much better.
    e. Finding that formal study is a better predictor of competence than amount of free voluntary reading.

  3. I have more to say:

    According to a pure Popperian view the hundreds of confirmations of the hypotheses count for nothing – but I think they are good evidence supporting the hypotheses. EG: More comprehensible input consistently results in better competence in adult second language, child second language, native language, literacy. Comprehension-based methods have won EVERY method-comparison study ever done, for beginners and intermediates, sustained silent reading is a steady winner in L1 and L2 studies over traditional literacy instruction (in some short term studies, there is no difference, which makes sense, it takes a while for students to find a book), in multivariate studies self-selected reading is always a strong predictor of competence on several tests while instruction does poorly. There are no exceptions. Any exception would be serious counter-evidence to the comprehension hypothesis.

  4. Have you had a look at the literacy research, evidence in favor of real reading experience vs heavy phonics approaches, evidence showing that phonemic awareness does not influence reading comprehension, and the evidence supporting read alouds and free voluntary reading for literacy development?

    The results of studies of bilingual education are also consistent with the comprehension hypothesis. Programs set up that are consistent with the comprehension hypothesis result in more English development than all-English programs.

    • Yes, I know the work you refer to. The programmes you refer to certainly seem to me to support the claim that extensive reading helps SLA. Whether they support the comprehension hypothesis depends on whether that hypothesis is well-formulated: to be discussed. ;-)

  5. My turn to ask you: You wrote:
    “The most important claim that Krashen makes is that no consciously-learned linguistic information can become part of one’s unconscious linguistic knowledge, and it seems that, unless we stick to circular arguments that make it necessarily so, this claim is contradicted by the evidence.”

    What is the evidence that supports this hypothesis?

    • Just for starters, Schmidt’s work supports the claim that consciously-learned linguistic information can become part of one’s unconscious linguistic knowledge. I’ll go into this further, but, for the moment, see below a list of articles which contain reports on studies which challenge your claim. .
      (This list is taken from International Journal of English Linguistics, Vol. 1, No. 1; March 2011 An Evaluation of the Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning by Jin Jie.)

      Cai, Y. (2009). The effect of input and output modes on L2 learning. Modern Foreign Languages (quarterly), 32(1), 76-84.
      Chen Q. J. (2008). The Role of Awareness in Chinese Students Learning of English Prepositonal Structure. CELEA Journal (Bimonthly), 36(6), 63-71.
      Cross, J. (2002). ‘Noticing’ in SLA: Is it a valid concept? TESL – EJ, Vol. 6, No. 3. [Online] Available: (May 2, 2006).
      Cui, Y.P. & Wang, S. H. (2002). Language Awareness Activity and Communicative Competence. Shangdong Foreign Language Teaching Journal, 88, 78-81.
      Dai, M. C. (2005). Explicitness vs. Implicitness in Second Language Acquisition. Foreign Language and Literature Studies, 22(2), 101-111.
      Dai, W. D. & Ren, Q. M. (2008). Implicit and explicit learning in SLA: issues and reflections. Foreign Language Education in China (quarterly), 1(1), 13-21.
      Ellis, N.C. (1994). Consciousness in second language learning: Psychological perspectives on the role of conscious processes in vocabulary acquisition. In Hulstijn, J.H. and R. Schmidt (eds.), Consciousness in Second Language Learning. AILA Review, 11, 37-56.
      Ellis, N.C. (1994). Implicit and Explicit Language Learning – An Overview. In Ellis, N.C. (ed.), Implicit and Explicit Learning of Languages (pp. 1-31). London: Academic Press Inc.
      Fotos, S.S. (1994). Integrating Grammar Instruction and Communicative Language Use Through Grammar Consciousness-Raising Tasks. TESOL Quarterly, 28(2), 323-351.
      Gao, H. Y & Dai, M. C. (2004). The acquisition of relative clause extra position by Chinese learners of English: A study of the effects of explicit/implicit instruction. Foreign Language Teaching and Research.
      He H. (2009). The effect and content analysis of ‘noticing’ training on Chinese EFL learners. Journal of Northwest University (Philosophy and Social Sciences Edition), 39 (6), 179-181.
      Hulstijn, J. H. (2005). Theoretical and empirical issues in the study of implicit and explicit second language learning: introduction. Studies in Second Language Acquisition (special issues) 27: 129-140.
      Hulstijn, J.H. and De Graaff. (1994). Under what conditions does explicit knowledge of a second language facilitate the acquisition of implicit knowledge? A research proposal. In Hulstijn, J.H. and R. Schmidt (eds.), Consciousness in Second Language Learning. AILA Review, 11, 97-112.
      Hulstijn, J.H. and R. Schmidt. (1994). (eds.) Consciousness in Second Language Learning. AILA Review, 11.
      Liceras, J.M. (1985). The Role of Intake in the Determination of Learners’ Competence. In Gass, S. M. and C.G.Madden, Input in Second Language Acquisition: Series on Issues in Second Language Research (pp.354-373). Rowley, Massachusetts: Newbury House Publishers, Inc.
      Robison, P. (2003). Attention and Memory During SLA. In Doughty, C &M. Long (eds), The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (pp. 631-678). Oxford: Blackwell.
      Rosa, E. & M. O’Neill. (1999). Explicitness, Intake, and the Issue of Awareness. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21, 511-556.
      Schmidt, R. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11, 129-58.
      Schmidt, R. (1994). Implicit learning and the cognitive unconscious: Of artificial grammars and SLA. In N. Ellis (Ed.), Implicit and explicit learning of languages (pp. 165-209). London: Academic Press.
      Schmidt, R. (1994). Deconstructing consciousness in search of useful definitions for applied linguistics. In J.Hulstiyn and R, Schmidt (eds): Consciousness in Second Language Learning. AILA Review, 11, 11-26.
      Skehan, P. (1996). A Framework for the Implementation of Task-based Instruction. Applied Linguistics, 17(1), 38-62.
      Skehan, P. (1998). A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
      Tomlin, R. and Villa, V. (1993). Attention in cognitive science and second language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 16: 183-203.
      Tomlinson. (2003). Q1: How would you define language awareness? In Bolitho, R., R. Carter, R. Hughes, R. Ivanic, H. Masuhara and B. Tomlinson, Ten questions about language awareness. ELT Journal, 57(3), 250-259.
      Torlakovic, E. and A. Brook. (2001). The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Acquisition. [Online] Available: (May 2,

    • And I meant to say in my reply that Schmidt’s work supports the claim that consciously-learned linguistic information can become part of one’s linguistic knowledge,

    • I’ve responded to a few of these; my response has been that the effect conscious learning is evident just where you would expect it, when the conditions for Monitor use are met: time, focus on form or concern for accuracy, and knowledge of the rule, and even then the results are not robust. But there are many of these I haven’t read, a few in journals I have never heard of. So it will take some time before I can respond. It may be best to consider these papers one at a time, as I find them.
      It is good to see that some of them are available online.

  6. Stephen: What’s your take on Hoey’s theory of linguistic priming? Do you agree with Gregg that we need a property theory for SLA, and, if you do, do you think that Hoey presents a better theory of language than Chomsky?

  7. Stephen: A few more articles for you to ponder. These are about feedback.

    Li S. 2010. ‘The effectiveness of corrective feedback in SLA: a meta-analysis’. Language Learning 60/2: 309–65.
    Lyster R. 2004. ‘Differential effects of prompts and recasts in form-focused instruction’. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 26/3: 399–432.
    Lyster R., Ranta L. 1997. ‘Corrective feedback and learner uptake’. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 19/1: 37–66.
    Lyster R., Saito K. 2010. ‘Oral feedback in classroom SLA: a meta-analysis’. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 32/2: 265–302.

  8. I have not read Hoey’s work; I heard him speak a few years ago, and my reaction/fear was that textbook writers might start designing exercises designed to teach collocations explicitly. His observations are part of the “complexity” argument – we can’t consciously learn all of language, the system is too vast and complex.

  9. But the complexity argument gets 2 different treatments. Chomsky says the complexity is eased, or even overcome, by the LAD, an argument you seem to agree with in your most important works. Hoey seems to take the view that there’s no need for the LAD and that there’s no UG anyway. Hoey implies that there’s no need for parsimony: we store billions of bits of lexical information with no need for any underlying grammar rules and the ease of access to this store is a question of the frequency of collocations in the input. He also says that your theory is supported by his theory of language as lexically not grammatically based. What say you?

  10. No comment on Hoey’s view of LAD and UG. And no comment on anything else for a while. Returning in the morning from Turkey to the altered state of California.

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