Tag Archives: input

Twenty things in twenty years part seven: input is more important than output

To say that the CTEFLA that was my gateway into the world of English Language Teaching encouraged me to be output-focused would be an understatement. Like many teachers who’ve come through the British ELT system, with its roots firmly in that bare minimum of twenty days of training, and teaching practice from day two of your course, I had bred into me a deep fear of Teacher Talking Time (I can’t be the only one, for example, that was intimidated with lunatic Mathematics along the lines of ‘70% of the talk time should be theirs, leaving you with only 30%!’). This quite naturally engendered a desire to ensure that my students were kept talking at any cost. Indeed, so desperate was I to ensure that I managed to keep my students talking that for at least a year early on, this particular tome was my Bible:

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It’s basically a recipe book full of activities designed to do what it says on the tin – keep student talking – and until tonight, I’d not looked at if for at least fifteen years. However, dusting my dog-eared copy down from the shelves, I see that I’ve highlighted several old favourites. There’s the aptly named MAD DISCUSSION for starters, which I believe I used to know as pizza or Paris, and which involves splitting the class into two teams, asking one member from each team to come forward and then have them talk about why their topic – picked at random from a bag – is better than that of their opponent. Pizzas or Paris, plastic spoons or zips, the wheel or detective novels, and so on. Then there was MAGIC SHOP, which involved each student getting three slips of paper, every one containing a different positive human quality (honesty, health, humility, adaptability, and so on). Students decide which qualities to keep and which to barter with others. They then get ten minutes’ bartering time before reporting back on which qualities they’ve ended up with and how happy this has made them! I could go on, but the urge to invent a time machine and go back and inflict serious damage on my younger self would start to become overwhelming.

Now, given the fact that a four-week course is never going to teach even the most remarkable trainee to really be able to do anything other than fake it, I suspect that much of the reason behind the relentless emphasis on STUDENT talking time is simply a fear that the novice teacher will start spouting rubbish given half a chance. I know for sure that I did, repeatedly, and I’ve seen plenty of other young teachers do the same, if not worse!

Instead, far better, the logic runs, to train the teacher to be some kind of all-singing, all-dancing entertainer who can magic fun out of anything available and who may not know much about language, but who sure knows how to get the party started. And once it starts ebbing, how to rekindle it and keep it burning all lesson long!

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However, in reality, the fact that novices may well spout nonsense is actually an argument for introducing longer, more comprehensive and more language-focused teacher training courses for those entering the profession, or – at the very minimum – an argument for more serious discussion of what KINDS of teacher talk may be valid and what be more problematic, and why – rather than an argument in favour of endless activities and talking for its own sake.

Another argument put forward in support of an output-dominated pedagogy is the notion that if not here, then where? In other words, if students don’t practise in class, then where will they ever get the chance to do so? Interestingly, even more recent critiques of the state of affairs we’ve gotten ourselves into such as the Demand High idea propagated by Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill still seems more focused on methodology and on what we as teachers can do in terms of classroom techniques to encourage our students to produce more and to stretch and expand their output.

The result has long been, continues to be and sadly will probably continue to be, for as long as CELTAs are still regarded as serious gateways into the profession, classrooms full of clowns with their bags of tricks, recipes, fun in large neon lights, and loads of hot air. Signifying very little indeed.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way at all, you know! It took me a while to work this out, but once I did, the blinding obviousness of the revelation almost . . . um . . . well, blinded me, I suppose. Anyway, here’s the secret. It’s this: students don’t actually learn language by chatting away using the language they already have, now matter how much fun they may have in the process. They actually learn language from language. Not images. Not blank spaces in coursebooks left in to lighten the visual load on a page. Not from running round the classroom in a  frenzy. But from language.

Whilst it’s possible that some of the interaction students engage in with other students during a lesson may expose them to new input or encourage them to produce for themselves things that had hitherto remained stuck in the receptive parts of the brain, we need to accept that it also may NOT. This isn’t to say that there are no good reasons for still doing pair work: there are obviously plenty. It’s simply to state that linguistic development and enrichment are NOT among the activity’s prime functions!

To really get over the Intermediate hump and to progress anywhere near to Advanced level, students not only to practise again saying what they’ve already learned to say. They need to take on board large amounts – huge amounts even – of new language. They need to tighten up on their ability to use grammar, sure, but basically they need a ton of lexis: collocations, chunks, fixed and semi-fixed expressions, and so on. They need to meet these things repeatedly, they need to have certain salient features of them brought to their attention somehow and they need to do something – possibly, actually, they need to do almost anything – with them. Given that the teacher alone cannot be expected – or, of course, in most cases (my own included, I hasten to add!) be trusted – to provide sufficient relevant input themselves, via correction and teacher talk, then the issue of INPUT becomes perhaps the most pressing one that teachers have to think about.

Given that we seem to be living through the days of increasingly shrill rhetoric about flipped classrooms and that we’re constantly being told that technology now facilities exposure to English 24-7-365, many might argue that now more than ever the classroom should be output focused, but I would turn this on its head – or flip it, if you prefer (see what I did there!) – and ask if not in class, then where – and, more crucially, when?! The fact remains that for the vast majority of students, class is the one place where they have a hope of getting input pitched roughly at their level, which can then be mediated, explained, expanded upon, explored and revised by a professional – that’s us, kids – and that’s because most students who wind up in EFL classes, especially those who come as adults, are essentially failures in varying degrees. The lucky few, those who can learn a foreign language via interaction, are skipping class in favour of going out there and learning language through interaction! The rest of us miserable wretches all know what we ought to do if we really want to learn a foreign language well, but Lord knows that doing right is the hardest work there is on God’s own earth – and that it ain’t nowhere near as much fun as doing wrong.

If you’re honest, you know that most students don’t do much outside of class to push on from where they’re at. They do what we all do – take easy options and short cuts. They may well do some interactive stuff online, which is fine, but it’s not tackling new input; they may well try and tackle some insanely optimistically graded text of some kind – The Guardian, perhaps, or a two-hour movie that contains accents and language even native-speakers may well struggle with in places; but what all but the most motivated and focused few won’t do is read graded readers, do an hour (or even half an hour) a day from decent self-study vocabulary books, and so on. It’s too much like hard work.

And the fact that we not only have such an expression in English, but that it’s such common currency says much about the age in which we live, I fear!

Anyway, to wrap up for tonight, this is where the choice of material becomes crucial. Material we select for classroom use needs to take the weight of all these issues on its shoulders. It needs to amuse and entertain, for sure, but also it needs to push and stretch as well. On top of that, it needs to guide and shape awareness both of how language works and also of what needs to be done to get to the next rung on the ladder of linguistic competence. It needs, in short, to demand more of its users. And if we as teachers are serious about demanding high, then making sure our classes are focused first and foremost on input rather than output is not simply an option, but a must.

Dissing Dogme Part Two: Carrying TBL to its demented logical extreme

So, ding ding, gloves on! Here we again with Round Two of cheap pops at Dogme. I bet you can’t wait.

Today what I’d like to focus is an issue right at the heart of Dogme: when and how students are given language, the medium through which new language is delivered and the issues arising from this. The title of this post refers to TBL, and the reason for this is that in many ways I think Dogme has ended up painting itself into a bit of a corner by adopting much of the orthodoxy of Task-Based Learning. Interestingly, though, it has done so without really acknowledging as much, and even without (often) doing it in as focused  a way as the best TBL manages. Now, I’m certainly no advocate for TBL, and tend to agree with much of what Anthony Bruton has said against it, but at least it had a clear aim – usually (in its early forms, anyway) geared around asking students to do meaningful tasks often related to real-world necessity or utility. These tasks might be something like visiting a doctor, having a job interview or booking tickets.

In TBL, language may be fed in during some kind of pre-task stage, where structures and lexis are either explicitly focused on or are merely hinted at, but the bulk of the language comes in response to the students’ own ability to perform the given task. Inevitably, when the whole thrust of a task is to communicate (and perhaps negotiate) a particular message successfully, students are basically free to use whatever grammar and lexis they wish. Some tasks may suggest or prompt the use of certain items more strongly that others, but at the end of the day, its the completion of the task that matters. All too often this means that students – scared of drawing attention to themselves by making what they may still perceive as mistakes – stay within the confines of words and structures they already know; in short, they get by, but do so without always bothering to make the extra effort and take the risks needed to utilise new language.

The feedback then depends both on what students themselves feel they needed, if they are willing – or able – to ask about this, and then on whatever the teacher was able to notice students having problems with. In reality, often what this means (and this is especially true if the teacher is setting up and running tasks they’ve done before and thus have some sense of the linguistic requirements of) is that teachers have an already prepared set of language ready to be wheeled out and looked at; at best, they may well focus on a mixture of previously anticipated areas (which may or not have actually been problematic, but which nevertheless will make students feel they’re getting some input and upgrading of their output) AND actual responses to things students really tried to say.

Much of the feedback will be done on a board, possibly (and ideally, I suppose) using examples written up whilst students are busy communicating and doing the task. There may well be gaps in the examples / boardwork, which the teacher then elicits, and probably some time for commentary and also questions on the linguistic input.

In many ways, this basic template, developed and honed by Prabhu during the Bangalore Project in the early 80s, fed into both the TTT (Test-Teach-Test) paradigm and, more pertinently for the purposes of this post, Dogme. However, whilst TBL at least focuses on tasks which may have some real-world utility, in Dogme, there may not necessarily even be a task, or if there is, it may just be ’emergent’, just as the students’ language is supposed to be. In reality, this may well mean one of two things: (1) a teacher walks into  a room and starts chatting to students – or, in an even more Dogme twist, students start chatting to the teacher – and sooner or later either a task suggests itself or some language that needs to be fed in order to help the communication along gets given to the class (orally, or via the board) or – and I suspect this is by far the more common approach adopted by many self-proclaimed Dogmeticians – (2) a teacher walks into a classroom with a task of some kind that they want students to do. Maybe the students are to brainstorm ideas or debate a series of moral questions or listen to and discuss the meaning of a pop song or whatever. There’ll be some kind of ‘task’ which results in some kind of talking, which in turn results in some kind of input (which may well be, as stated earlier, not based exclusively on what was really actually heard, but also on past experience and prediction).

There may possibly also be some kind of learning that occurs as a result of students interacting with each other. In Dogme presentations, I’ve seen this kind of thing dressed up as the true fruits of a Vygotsky-ian social constructivist approach, but to most people it’s called accidental learning – and certainly nothing the teacher set out to actually teach!

Now, my beef here is this: why on earth do the Dogme folk think that language can only be given to students AFTER they actually need it? What  grounding is there for this in any theoretical approach to learning? And what kind of load does it place on both the teacher – as sole provider of linguistic input – and on the students, who have to sit through a kind of presentation stage post hoc after every single chat / task / debate / bit of speaking? The teacher inevitably ends up being the source of input, thus increasing the risk of their own ideolect colouring the language they pick up on, whilst the medium of delivery for feedback will invariably be the board, meaning students then have to copy down what they’ve seen written up. If you then want to check the degree to which students have learned from the feedback, there needs to be a repeat stage built in later on, or some kind of parallel task, though of course 9as stated above, again) if the goal is purely driven by an interest in communication, it ultimately doesn’t matter if learners try to take new language on board or not, so long as they get their point across again!

Now, I’m all for teachers being able to do the above, but to elevate this to the be-all-and-end-all of language teaching is idiocy. What most annoys is the denial of the notion that we are actually able to predict language students may well need to do tasks. Surely one of the things students pay us for is to make informed decisions about what tools might best help them perform tasks. Oops. Wait a minute! This is actually what COURSEBOOKS do – or good ones do, anyway! Silly me. Nearly forgot.

Once coursebooks are focusing on helping students to perform certain kinds of tasks better – and with the increased influence of the Common European Framework more are, or are at least paying lip service to the idea of doing so – then the next step is to predict what lexis and what grammar might best aid students in their attempts; what kind of listening (or reading) models it might be useful for students to meet before attempting tasks – and how the task itself might best be framed in order to ensure that students are best positioned to attempt to take some of this new input on board as they attempt it. This means students have written records already provided, teachers can see how much they already know and teach the gaps by using exercises designed to get new language to students ahead of tasks and tasks can be more fruitfully and richly attempted (and, of course, as students do this, the teacher is STILL free to monitor and get new language up on the board to round up with).

Are Dogmeticians seriously suggesting that feeding in language – or testing students’ knowledge of language – before getting them to try some kind of communication is a no-no? If yes, then why? And if not, then why the coursebook hate?