Narrowing In on Narrow Input

In this quick post, I want to introduce the concept of narrow input. We’ll go from what to why to how: what it is, why it’s a good idea, and how you can implement it in your classroom.

Defining Narrow Input

So, we know input: the language that our learners take in, via either reading or listening, the two receptive language skills. Accordingly, the two forms of narrow input are narrow reading and narrow listening, the former being much more heavily discussed than the latter. But what exactly makes them narrow?

What it means is limiting the texts students read, generally by subject matter, but also possibly by author or genre.

Why Narrow Input?

Let’s start from comprehensible input, that is, input just a bit above a student’s level, such that they can comprehend it. In comprehensible input, new words and structures are largely understandable from context, leading to acquisition. That comprehensible input is a necessary condition for language acquisition, is widely accepted and uncontroversial.

Comprehensible input is valuable because it provides learners with repeated, contextualized, meaningful encounters with new language, leading to acquisition. Presumably, a greater number of encounters with new vocabulary and grammatical forms will hasten and strengthen that acquisition. This is where narrow input comes in. If students are reading multiple texts on a particular subject matter, they are going to encounter more of the language relevant thereto. If they are reading one particular author’s works, they will encounter her favorite words and turns of phrase, and the structures that mark their style. Thus, the theory goes, narrow input is a more efficient form of comprehensible input.

Some other reasons for narrow input are heightened motivation and increased comprehension as students become familiar with the subject matter and schema building occurs.

How to Implement Narrow Input

I hope it’s mostly self-explanatory, but I’ll share some quick tips. The biggest role you can play in facilitating narrow reading is by providing students an ample supply of level-appropriate material, organized by subject matter. In most cases, this is going to have to be in the form of adapted texts and leveled readers, as I discussed in a previous post.

News is a great source. You can follow ongoing stories over the course of a week or two, especially in news sources geared toward learners like The Times in Plain English.

If you are able to make or influence purchasing decisions at your program, try to assemble series of books by the same author or with recurring characters, like Richard McAndrews’ Inspector Logan series.

Remember, too, that you don’t have to choose between narrow reading and narrow listening. In fact, some combination of the two is certainly preferable. So if you read an article about the price of tea in China, follow it up with a related podcast or public radio broadcast. If you can find a source of video input, all the better!



Krashen, S. (2004). The case for narrow reading. Language Magazine, 3(5), 17-19.

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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