Timothy Mason's Site

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.


This lecture, like the others in this series, was given to students of English at the Université of Versailles St. Quentin, for a course in the Didactics of English, which I taught from 1993 to 2002.

It offers a simplified introductory account. The embedded links, most of which point to material off this site, are for readers who are looking for greater depth and complexity.


Didactics - 10 : Critique of Krashen VI

The Monitor Hypothesis

A : Recap

In lecture 9, we looked more closely at Krashen's input hypothesis. We saw that Krashen believes that language is acquired through the learner's efforts to understand the L2, rather than through their efforts to use it. Speaking and writing are simply the end products of the learner's attention to input. Krashen goes on to suggest that the learner needs to be provided with comprehensible input. In the real world, this is often done automatically :

  • - Mothers use 'mamanaise' when speaking to babies
  • - simplified language - concentration on the 'here-and-now'
  • - child 'reads the language off the context'
  • - Foreigner talk
  • - Teacher talk - teachers adapt language to level of the students
In the classroom, it is, says Krashen, the teacher's business to provide a rich variety of language - just beyond the learner's present capacity to understand, so that she is forced to make an effort of comprehension. At the same time, the teacher provides contextual clues that aid the learner in her task. 

We have seen that there are a number of objections that have been made to K's hypothesis.

  • 1. Some observers have pointed that if the learner is not asked to produce language, the teacher cannot know what her needs are, and therefore cannot provide appropriate material. So even if we accept K's argument that only input leads to acquisition, we need output in order to provide the input. Note - in the experiment reported by Lightbown, the learners were largely responsible for choosing their own material.
  • 2. Jacqueline Boulouffe and others suggest that the learner needs to produce language in order to learn it. Boulouffe holds that, if we stick to the input method, the learner will understand the language only at a superficial level - in particular, she will not be able to either understand or to produce language which implicates the speaker's own judgements, feelings, beliefs, and so on - as expressed through modality. In order to reach this level of understanding, the learner needs to struggle with the demands imposed by self-expression.  The teacher must force the learner to produce as well as to understand. Ultimately, we understand through using language - I do not know what I mean until I've said it?
  • 3. Lydia White criticises the idea that input should be comprehensible. If we make understanding too easy, through contextualization, the learner will not make the effort necessary to appropriate the language - hence the tendency of learners in immersion programs to produce a 'classroom pidgin'
We may conclude by saying that - 
  • Krashen's input hypothesis has usefully brought to the attention of the language teaching profession the need to provide a larger and richer range of language materials than it has been customary to provide in the language classroom. There is no reason why all learners in one classroom should be working on the same text at the same time. Nor is it necessary to oversimplify texts to the extent that the learner is exposed to very little authentic language.

On the other hand, it certainly cannot be said that Krashen's belief that input alone is necessary is widely shared by other workers in the field. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind the Canadian experiment reported by Lightbown which suggests that under some circumstances, pure input methods are more effective than classroom teacher methods.

B : The Monitor Hypothesis

Krashen believes that formal learning is only of use to the learner in certain situations - when she has the time to check her output. Thus he writes 
  • Our fluency in production is thus hypothesized to come from what we have 'picked up', what we have acquired, in natural communicative situations. Our 'formal knowledge' of a second language, the rules we learned in class and from texts, is not responsible for fluency, but only has the function of checking and making repairs on the output of the acquired system. (The Natural Approach, Krashen & Terrell, p. 30)
This checking function is carried out by what Krashen refers to as the 'Monitor'. It can only occur if three conditions are fulfilled - 
  • 1. The performer has to have enough time. Monitor use in rapid conversation may only disrupt communication - that is why over-use of the Monitor is counter-productive.
  • 2. The performer has to be thinking about correctness. On many occasions, the speaker may be more concerned with what he is saying, rather than how he says it.
  • 3. The performer has to know the rule. This is a problem on many levels -
  • a) the learner may not know the rule because
    • - it has never been taught to her
    • - she has not reached the level at which the rule is taught
    • - the rule has not yet been formulated by linguists
  • b) the learner may not have properly learnt the rule
    • - there is always some learning loss due to psychological processes
    • - the teacher may have taught the rule badly
    • c) the learner may apply the wrong rule
    • - the teacher may have taught the wrong rule - teachers often function with out-of-date or partial grammars, and hand these down to their students

By and large, says Krashen, the Monitor will function best with simple rules, - like the 3PS - but not with more complex ones,  such as the grammatical shift demanded by Wh- questions, or the semantic rules underlying use of the articles in English. (See Krashen & Terrell, pp 31/2).

Learners will be most likely to use the Monitor in formal exam situations, where their attention has been drawn to linguistic form, and where they have enough time. If all these conditions are fulfilled, the Monitor may be used, but may be used inaccurately.

C : Criticisms

As you might expect, Krashen's Monitor theory has been criticised. A major criticism is that he relegates language monitoring to a peripheral position in language acquisition. It is seen as simply being a post-learning process, a tool for use of language in certain restrained conditions. However, researchers such as Rubin, and Naiman have pointed to monitoring as a basic learning strategy. These observers have been particularly interested in studying whether people who have been identified as 'good learners' have any specific characteristics. Let us have a look at their results :
  • According to Ellis, the results of these studies demonstrate that there are five major aspects of successful language learning. These are :
  • - attention to language form
  • - this includes monitoring and formal practice
  • - attention to communication
  • - this involves searching for the meaning of what one reads and hears, and attempting to make oneself understood
  • - an active task approach
  • - setting specific short and long-term behavioural goals
  • - awareness of the learning process
  • - organising one's work, and thinking about how to learn
  • - ability to use strategies flexibly
Thus, Rubin, in a first study carried out in 1975, using video recordings of classroom behaviour, identified the following strategies 
  • - good students paid attention to form
  • - they monitored their own and others speech
  • - they were prepared to guess
  • - they attempted to communicate, to get their message across
  • - they were willing to appear foolish
  • - they looked for practice - initiating conversations
  • - they attended to meaning - by attending to context

The first two were particularly effective. In a second study, carried out in 1981, based on observation and on self-reporting by the learners, Rubin found the following strategies important -

  • - clarification/verification
  • - monitoring
  • - memorisation
  • - guessing
  • - deductive reasoning
  • - practice - learner practices on her own
Naiman et al, (1978) in a study of advanced learners - mainly through interview - found the following strategies were used 
  • - active task approach
  • - realisation of language as a system
  • - realisation of language as a means of communication and interaction
  • - management of affective demands
  • - monitoring
They concluded that 'self-monitoring and critical sensitivity to language' was particularly important.
  • - Good learners compare L1 and L2 as systems,
  • - analyse the system and
  • -use reference books.
  • They monitor their own production
  • - and ask for corrections when they think them necessary.

Reiss, comparing 18 A grade students of French/German with 18 C & D grade students, through a questionnaire, found that monitoring and attention to form were the two most common strategies. Attending to meaning was less important. He also found that many successful learners were 'silent speakers' - they practised silently while listening to others. The main finding from such studies is that good learners tend to pay attention to both meaning (as Krashen suggests they should) and to form (which Krashen does not recommend). Indeed, Abraham and Vann, (1987) found that :

  • -the least successful learner in their study paid only attention to meaning,
  • - whereas their most successful learner paid attention to both.

Good learners also tend to be more aware of the learning process itself, and to be able to give specific accounts of how they learn, whereas bad learners are much less clear about what it is that they do (Reiss 1983).

These learner studies are interesting and suggestive. However, we need to take great care with the results. Do we really know what we are measuring?

  • 1. 'Good learners' are those who have been identified as successful in an academic context. As we shall see, teachers tend to reward learners of a certain kind - and in particular those who go about their learning in a clear and controlled way. Language teachers are also likely to regard students who are 'good at grammar' as good students, so it is not surprising that those who concentrate on form score well. It may be that the strategies found in these studies are those that contribute to school success in language classes, rather than to success in learning a language.

Indeed, Huang & Van Naersson (1985) asked learners to report on the strategies that they used outside the classroom, and - found no difference between good learners and poor learners in their use of strategies based on attention to form (formal practice and monitoring).Their good learners were those who went out of their way to speak English with other people, who thought in English, and who participated in oral group activities.

  • 2. Most of the studies have relied on student self-report, questionnaires and interviews. Indeed, two of the studies which did try to use classroom observation found that the observations were not useable.
    • a) Students may report using strategies that they feel they ought to use, or that the teachers feels they ought to use, rather than the strategies that they actually do use.
    • b) the fact that a good student reports using a particular strategy does not mean that this is what helped her in her language learning. Most of us believe that asking people to correct us is a good strategy, and good learners probably use it, but studies of correction do not support this belief.
    • c) it could be that many of the behaviours reported as strategies are the result of learning rather than an aid to learning - this would be Krashen's position. Good learners monitor because they are able to do so, they are not good learners because they monitor.
    • d) the fact that one student reports using a particular strategy and another does not may simply mean that the first is conscious of using the strategy, while the second is not - but the second may in fact use it without fully conceptualising it - or may simply not report it because she does not feel that it is important.

D : Conclusion

Krashen's claim that monitor use is directly linked to learned language, and that the monitor can only be used in very reduced circumstances is questionable. We have already seen in an earlier lecture that the learning/acquisition distinction is problematic. However, even if we do accept that material that is formally learned is different from material that is informally acquired, and if we do accept that the former is only used for monitoring, it does appear possible that the role of formal learning is greater than Krashen says it is, and that monitoring may be an important learning strategy, which is used consciously by good language learners. However, it should be noted that the observations reported here all refer to classroom learning, and good learners are defined by their teachers or by formal scholastic tests. It may be that these are partial criteria. It should also be noted that the fact that good learners find certain strategies, such as monitoring, useful, does not mean that poor learners necessarily will do.

One of the problems of the teaching profession is that most teachers were themselves good learners. They therefore expect their pupils to use and benefit from the same strategies that they used themselves. However, poor learners in the school may be poor learners exactly because the strategies used by good learners, and reinforced by teachers, are not the strategies that are most appropriate for them. The weight of school practice and of learning traditions favours certain kinds of learners at the expense of others. In the French school system, the rational, methodical learner is favoured as compared to the experimental, playful learner. Any teacher should be aware of this. 

(If you wish to comment or ask questions, please write to ctmason@timothyjpmason.com)

Home EFL Teaching Licence Lectures Top of Page


Author's CV | Site Map | Contact Author |