“There must be output…”

A comment recently appeared — generally in support of TPRS, too — on a language teachers’ discussion list:

To make TPRS effective, the instructor needs to go beyond just telling stories in the classroom. There needs to be instances where students are engaged into negotiation of meaning, purposeful uses of the target language, and opportunities to manipulate the new material, via writing, reading, matching, drawing, organizing, etc. As stated by Swain, students need to have opportunities for output to occur in order to start producing language.

Well, of course it has to go beyond the instructor telling stories. Anyone who thinks that TPRS is the instructor telling stories in class and nothing more hasn’t been in touch with anyone in the TPRS community of late, and definitely hasn’t been to any training or coaching with a top presenter or National-level coach.  The idea of the teacher telling a story went out years ago, precisely because it didn’t yield the level of engagement that was desired.

But then we get into the buzzword minefield: “negotiation of meaning“, “purposeful use of the target language“, “opportunities to manipulate the new material“. The poster claims that those things are missing from TPRS classrooms, and speculates that this is because many TPRS teachers have not been trained enough to be able to implement them. There is probably much truth in the idea that many teachers who say or believe they are using TPRS have not had enough training to do so effectively.

TPRS is like the Japanese game of go, the one with the black and white stones on a square board. The rules are very, very simple: give students enough CI and they will acquire.  That take about five seconds to absorb, yet people spend years mastering the best way to implement strategies for a winning game. The strategies are things like personalization, circling [repetitive patterned questioning], repetitions, differentiation by detail [aka “birdwalking” in TPRS circles], and so on.

For that matter, Rules-and-Output Teaching is like that too, yet no one would dream of blaming a first-year Rules-and-Output teacher for not having kids who achieve (at least in Rules and Output terms) as well as kids taught by a teacher with a decade of experience.

But let’s assume we do have a teacher who has had enough training. He or she can circle until the cows come home, always personalizes the content, never misses a comprehension check, has a mind like a finely honed computer and is always incorporating previous items while introducing new ones. His reading library is full of level-appropriate material, and his administration is openly supportive of his methodology. Let’s even assume that all the kids in that class come from Beaver Cleaver’s high school and always show up for class well-fed, clean and eager to learn.  So what’s missing then?

Negotiation of Meaning

There’s lots to talk about about this buzzword and the role it plays (or doesn’t play) in language acquisition. Perhaps tomorrow, on that one. For now, let’s assume that “negotiation of meaning” means what the British Council suggests: “a process that speakers go through to reach a clear understanding of each other.”

Is this process necessary for language acquisition? If you believe that acquisition comes from the brain comprehending a message (comprehending the same items in different contexts numerous times, as a practical matter), there is clearly negotiation of meaning going on. There is no other way that the brain can hear an unknown language and just know what it means. TPRS uses a variety of means to negotiate meaning: definitions of new items in the native language, comprehension questions, requests for translation (“What did I just say?”) and so on. Most importantly, a process in which a group of people is constructing a narrative that is shared — that contains elements contributed by many if not all of them — certainly involves plenty of negotiated meaning.

Writing, reading, matching, drawing, organizing

This is a fine mishmash of activities! Reading is clearly strongly represented in a good TPRS classroom; in fact, I think most TPRS teachers give a more prominent position to extensive, level-appropriate and engaging reading in the classroom than do Rules-and-Output Teachers. When RO teachers do use longer texts at the lower levels, they are often novelettes that originated in the TPRS world! Likewise, writing is hardly underrepresented, with the idea of freewrites and timed writings widely used and coached. We may use the data we obtain through looking at student writing differently than an RO teacher would, but TPRS kids probably get more practice writing on average than RO kids, and usually TPRS kids view a writing task as “easy”. Certainly the writing tasks on the New York State Regents seem short and simple to kids who are accustomed to writing 100 words in 5 minutes.

Drawing, organizing, matching…? These can all be fine input-oriented activities that show comprehension. Or they can be low-efficiency, time-consuming exercises that have little to do with acquisition and all to do with “promoting teamwork” or providing a product that “looks” the way it “should” to reflect “engagement”. Regardless, there is certainly plenty of this possible in a good TPRS classroom.

The question is, are these activities necessary for acquisition? The truth is, we don’t know.

You can say “So-and-So says” all day long. I can then counter with, “Yes, but Fulano de Tal says…” and we’re off to the races with the dueling experts. I am perhaps disliked by some since I am a teacher, not a university professor, but I have that pesky doctorate that tells me, “You can think about this issue just as deeply as someone who decided to go the university route, and bring actual recent CI teaching experience to the mix.”

A Greek friend once told of a client of his uncle’s, who was a lawyer. The client, who spoke poor English, was a restauranteur, and had been threatened by a diner who thought the food was bad, declaring that he would get salmonella if he ate it. “Sal Monella? You get Sal Monella, I get my lawyer Chris Boukis!” We can play anything out this way: “Output? You need output? You get Fulano to claim output is necessary, I get Krashen to claim it’s not.”

Anyway, the quote above doesn’t say output is necessary for acquisition: it merely says “students must have opportunities for output before they’ll speak.” Well, (with apologies to the original researcher): “Duh!” If I don’t give you a chance to speak, obviously you probably won’t! But a student in a TPRS classroom today has plenty of chance to speak. They are constantly answering questions and providing suggestions as to where the narrative will go, or providing their own experiences to contrast with the content of a book, and so on. Just because that output doesn’t consist of a pair of students struggling to exchange “information” about the birthdays of a list of celebrities doesn’t mean it’s not output, and in fact this sort of output — with immediate reinforcement of correct forms by the instructor — is more valuable as good input than output by exercise, just for the sake of output.

No one really knows what’s going on in the brain with language acquisition. We can, however, observe the results. We cannot compare CI-based instruction with Rules-and-Output directly — there is no valid research design of a feasible scale that can do that and still control the needed variables. We can, however, demonstrate that CI-taught kids (if we ever have the luxury to have kids that are taught entirely using CI, instead of being ping-ponged back into Rules-and-Output classes and told they don’t know anything because they’re not good at filling in worksheets) acquire. We can show how long that takes. We can demonstrate that CI-taught kids score well on proficiency exams.

Virtually all the research on language teaching best practices to date has been undertaken  with the assumption that Rules-and-Output is the way to learning. While there is action research going on within the TPRS community, most TPRS folks are either teaching or presenting. The teachers don’t have the time, and the presenters often don’t have the students, and frequently both groups lack the expertise or the confidence to do research that is publishable. Even when they do, mainstream journals with editorial boards made up of Rules-and-Output folks tend to pass their submissions over, and conference committees tend to send out rejection e-mails in response to proposed sessions.

Until we have a body of research focused on Comprehensible Input philosophy that examines issues we are always thinking about and discussing (things like “what is the ideal proportion of pop-ups for grammar?” “How much output is helpful, if any?” “What is the best way to provide input without losing engagement?” “What are the methods within Comprehensible Input?” and so on), we will go on being silenced by those who can fall back on decades of research citations, all of which neatly avoid the basic premise we are interested in.

So, does there have to be output? I say no. Not for acquisition. There are other reasons to do output activities (confidence, administrator request, to show a product). But furthering language acquisition is not one of them.

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