Input, not Output

This past week has been crazy here in Southern New England, where we are recovering from a brutal storm that left many roads unpassable due to fallen trees and many homes, mine included, without power. School was canceled for two days, which gave me some time to respond to some emails.

Two emails I received were from former colleagues writing to tell me about their journey as they go about transitioning from teaching traditionally to teaching with comprehensible input (CI) approaches. Both of these individuals have been teaching for quite some time, and as excited as they are to start using more CI methods in their classrooms, they can’t wrap their heads around the idea that students don’t have to produce language in class in order to acquire it.

I know that these two lovely ladies are not alone. This is a common idea that many traditional teachers have. It’s the whole idea of “practice makes perfect.” But in this case guys, it just doesn’t. If that were true, we would have a lot more people fluent in a second language in the US thanks to their language study in school. But instead, I end up talking to person after person who wants to tell me how long they studied their second language (usually in a class where the teacher tried to get the kids to produce output) and how little they can actually say today in spite of all those years of language study.

So take a deep breath my friends and repeat after me: Acquisition primarily comes from input, not output. Acquisition comes from understanding the spoken and/or written language that we receive, which helps us form our own internal language systems. Once our internal language system starts to take shape, we can then begin to produce output when ready to do so.

It has taken me a LONG time to come to the realization that it is input that my students need in my classroom to acquire language. When I was a language student, every one of my teachers believed that students had to practice language in order to acquire it. So my classmates and I did substitution drills, repeated after the teacher, and were put on the spot and forced to answer questions that we didn’t always have the language skills to answer. I was also told during my student teaching year by my cooperating teacher that I needed to get students to talk. So I marched into my practice classroom with lessons full of speaking activities. And I put the students on the spot by forcing them to answer questions. Some students were able to answer me, but many students froze and mumbled “I don’t know” in the target language (TL). Even worse, I required students to do paired speaking activities, where 99.9% of the time students would end up speaking in English instead of in the TL after about a minute or two. After doing many activities of this nature, none of my students had furthered their acquisition of the concepts being targeted by the speaking activities I was giving them to do. It was so frustrating, but was absolutely not the students’ fault. It was the fault of bad methodology!

If you have similar occurrences in your classroom, here is my challenge – lay off the output (a bit of output here and there is okay, because according to Bill Van Patten, output can be beneficial if it leads to more input), especially the forced output. At the very least, take one output activity that you might do in your class and turn it into an input activity. Then adapt another and another until you have practically no forced output in your class. You might be surprised how much progress your students make!

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