Nathaniel on Output

The current thread here about using interview type activities to get more output from students vs. the traditional less output centered classes that we have when we use stories has been addressed by Nathaniel in a tour de force comment this morning that pretty much solves the problem for me, enabling me to focus less now on the interview activities and return to stories. My students will much appreciate what Nathaniel said on Monday, as they have been clamoring for more stories lately since I stopped doing them in November in search of more output that, as Nathaniel explains, may not have entirely been the best idea (or at least that is how I personally read his comment which I will add to the Primers):

The issues with student to student interaction are the limited level of output they are able to create and the quality of input they are able to provide for each other. These are two sides of the coin: Tom’s input is Sally’s output and vice versa.

One concern is: at what point does the student-provided input become non-L2, in the sense that it is no longer of any use in creating the mental representation in the other student’s mind? Another concern is: at what point does the student’s lack of capacity force him out of L2 use and into either silence or L1?

The solution may be to focus such S-S interaction on what is already under control in the students’ “repertoire” of output. My thought is that it is like easy reading. We look for easy reading because students can do a lot of it and the more compelling CI they get the more mental representation building occurs.

My premise is that the students WILL say whatever they CAN say quickly and easily in the language. The only reason they resort to English is that they do not have the capacity to express what they want to express in L2. As Laurie would say, “If they could say it (in L2), they would say it. They don’t say it because they can’t say it.

(I admit that those students who are untrained in L2 one-word answer responses, and those whose teachers have had low expectations, and those who have what seems to be an anti L2 pride will say even say “yes” and “no” and “thanks” in L1.)

So your admin wants to see kids talking. But s/he will not be impressed to see them breaking down in L2 communication. So the logical solution would be to foster S-S interaction in easy language. But what do we do that we are not already doing? What are the compelling communicative moments that students will have? If the premise is true that they will naturally input and output with each other when they have something meaningful to express/ interpret, then what can we add to what we are doing? Will putting them in twos add something? Or is it something that will happen given sufficient time, input and interaction?

Will the admin be satisfied with the quantity and quality of the speed writes, the interaction with the class, while patiently awaiting the time for the flower to unfold?

But if there must be a showing of the pony, it might best be served by directing the attention to what the kids can do, what they can readily use and understand, rather than on what they can’t do well.

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10 thoughts on “Nathaniel on Output”

  1. In a student feedback questionnaire that I gave earlier in the year, one 8th grader put it this way: “A goal I have in this class is to speak good French with what we have learned.” In other words, be able to comfortably use what they already know.
    If they didn’t learn anything else new, but were able to use what they have already learned, they would be flying! I feel like that with my own French.

  2. And thanks to the research we know that the distance between hearing it and being able to comfortably use it in speech is at least 5000 miles except for the occasional twice gifted superstar. Thank you for making this point Ruth because it enables me to realize again that what Nathaniel said here earlier today is for me in my own CI world the trump card on the entire discussion:

    … if there must be a showing of the pony, it might best be served by directing the attention to what the kids can do, what they can readily use and understand, rather than on what they can’t do well…..

    And I know why! Because any forced speech, no matter how little, automatically engages the conscious mind, and we know that if the conscious mind is engaged in THINKING ABOUT the language, no matter to how small a degree, we get into parroting and self-consciousness (note the term). When the conscious mind gets into play, we are not going to get what we want, which is a rich and flowing process not involving thinking at all. As I like to say:

    …A student learns a language because she wants to. It has nothing to do with thinking….

    1. I think that is ideally true, but I wonder if it is a goal that is realistic. I only teach Level 1 (grades 6-8) so maybe that shapes my thinking.
      Can we really expect all our students to just start naturally speaking without thinking? I think back to some experiences with people who did not speak English fluently but were learning.
      The first was when I was in first grade many years ago. Two German twins joined our class, Katja and Christoff (spelled like that?). I remember the look in their eyes during Show and Tell as they were thinking and then putting their thoughts into English. It fascinated me. They weren’t forced to do this, they wanted to, but they also thought a lot about how to say what they wanted to say, and they were surrounded by their new language.
      And later on I have seen that hesitation as a person takes in what I have said in English, and then that same look as the twins, as they think and find the words to respond.

      Just thinking and wondering…There is so much space in the in-betweens, the infinite gray scale, if you know what I mean.

      I am trying to do more speaking activities in class with things the kids are really familiar with but that they might need to think about a bit before speaking, at least some of them do. It’s not scripted. They need to use what they know, but it isn’t “authentic communication” because it’s just practice. They WANT more opportunities to speak. They don’t think they are learning otherwise. Acquisition theory means nothing to them.

      Some examples – NOT scripted, no pressure, practice speaking:
      Talk to Your Neighbor – “How would you say…”
      2 lines facing each other, one line moves to make new partners -greetings, everyday stuff
      Turning yes/no questions into full sentences
      Asking follow-up questions

      1. Just my opinions of course, Ruth, and I come down at the extreme end of the scale in that I believe that our students, most of them anyway, unlike those German girls, don’t really want to speak and certainly not in a classroom where they are so exposed. So why are we pushing it?

        Also, you asked:

        …can we really expect all our students to just start naturally speaking without thinking?….

        No, of course. So what I said above was to indicate that I personally don’t put any kind of premium on output – because of the FORCED part that I touched on above. Why can’t we just look for output when it happens and in my view that is after level 2, maybe after level 3 and in some cases not for five or even ten years. Why must we need them to speak? So that people think we are good teachers? We don’t do that with babies and they get a LOT more input than our students. Although I know there are differences there, I think that my point still holds.

        1. I know, Ben. I understand what you are saying.
          I guess I don’t think I am pushing it. I don’t need them to speak. I don’t put a premium on output either. I never make anyone speak who doesn’t want to. I always give them an easy out. I just want to keep them happy and keep some momentum going. A lot of them WANT to speak and are happy when they have the chance, whatever that chance looks like, however simple. They don’t want to hear that they will be speaking in a few years. They get grumpy if they think they aren’t learning enough, and learning=speaking in many of their minds. Grumpy 7th graders are a drag.
          I’m just keeping it simple and keeping my eye on what that student wrote:
          ““A goal I have in this class is to speak good French with what we have learned.”

  3. How many of us gained mastery over the languages we teach by thinking? Wasn’t it really that the more we were around it, the more we could speak it? I doubt if any one us thought our way via drills in class to mastery of the language. We heard it, our deeper mind ran all the words and word chunks that we heard that day through the roladex of the unconscious mind while we slept, some got in, some needed more reps, we had no control of what got in and what didn’t that night, and imperceptibly (i.e. out of range of thinking) we gained command. Any forced speech cannot work and Four Truths as cool as it is is forced. I still may do it after a break.

  4. Been following all of this. Estrella del did and 4 truths, etc. still have a place for me because they are extremely compelling for the students. I am totally focused on fun and compelling, for my own mental health. This week was great to try out new things and some old things with a new twist. New classroom mantra when stuff starts hitting the fan: I point to the GIANT sign that says “There is an enormous secret.” Then I whisper “It’s supposed to be fun…shhhh! Don’t tell anyone.” OR “It doesn’t matter if you say the wrong answer (in the choral responses)…shhh! Don’t tell anyone…just answer!” Etc.

    These activities can still be used in a variety of ways depending on the need in the moment. Like the “throw them a bone” / pony show I did when I was observed. Was super impressive to adminZ to “see the students communicating in Spanish.” Yeah, they were reading questions from a “star of the day” sheet. Whatev. Nobody knows what we are saying. Would be tempting and fun to talk about the ppl observing. Like pretend we are talking about something else and have fun making up wild stories about the observers. But that would be rude.

    I tried your version the other day Ben. Kids REALLY want to do this. They kept saying “una más.” Even in the last 5 mins of class. I had to cut them off. I was not sticking so strictly to the student output in sentences. Big for me and my group was the strict adherence to the “one person speaks” rule. The “output” really was not output as much as one word utterances. I had the sentence up and the question prompt, but most just asked: “Kyle?” And then Kyle responded “No” or “qué ridículo” Etc. The fast processors were eager to use the full sentence questions and responses and that was cool too. It was super interesting to me to notice how 98% of the students ignored the question prompt (***comfortably***, because they know “forced speech” is not expected of them). It was super cool to see them “interacting” with each other in one word questions and responses. Not really using a lot of language, just enough to find out what they wanted to know. It seemed that there was an automatic “self selection” in this. Because everyone wanted to find out, they wanted to ask as many people as possible, very quickly, so they did not need to ask the complete sentence. I don’t think this was conscious. It was automatic..”Joe?” “no” “Emily?” “No.” Etc. And of course this is more natural because of the context. If we were playing in English nobody would use complete sentences either. Focus was on the info.

    For me this was a major breakthrough in the process / classroom protocol. It worked so well because it was a real communicative task. We all wanted to know who said what. I had to stop a few times to reel them back because they got too excited. It was all very lighthearted, and they immediately responded when they realized that 3 ppl asked the same kid because they could not hear / weren’t listening to each other.

    Just test driving a buncha stuff in prep for semester 2 starting 25th. New seating too. Like you I also had to “pin down ” the students or as I say “put the children in restraining devices (aka desks).” It felt horrible for me as I loved the space more with just chairs. One step at a time.

  5. Yeah I don’t think the deskless rooms really work. What is the seating arrangement now and why is it better?

    I’m glad 4TR is working for you. It IS a winning strategy and you describe the way it SHOULD be done.

  6. Another point that Nathaniel brings up above:

    …one concern is: at what point does the student-provided input become non-L2, in the sense that it is no longer of any use in creating the mental representation in the other student’s mind?….

    This happens in the student to student interaction part of 4TR where I have them ask each other questions. Those who have done this part of this activity know, if you really watch your students as they ask each other if they went skiing in Switzerland or whatever, that the students’ focus as they ask each other those questions is on the language. Their minds are to a large if not complete extent constructing/parroting/imitating the sound of the question that they heard the previous interlocuter ask. I have heard students actually genuinely speaking to each other in a few (really fine) moments, but for the most part, they are not not creating in their minds a mental representation of what it is that they want to say, and so fail to meet the criterion that Nathaniel mentions above. If it’s not real speech, then the activity is too early in their training, and the activity thus fails to meet the requirements (of real speech creation) that we find in just about every point that Nathaniel mentions above. I am sure Krashen would make the exact same points. I want to eventually share here what Krashen told me a few months ago about ROA and its effectiveness, which I have over-rated as well. (Although he does get that my focus with CI is not so much on it as it is on me and my sense of relaxation in the classroom.)

    1. To what extent is any student input going to be input to the developing system?

      That fear that poor student input is going to cause students to acquire errors, e.g. poor pronunciation, is not what happens in studies, so long as there is plenty of quality input. In fact, this fear is often grounded in behaviorist, habit-forming beliefs. The student-to-student input in the “traditional” groups in processing studies also does NOT build a mental representation. The teacher provides the “model” that students acquire.

      I encourage output at every moment in my activities. Interaction! Input + output will beat only input, because of the indirect effects output has on acquisition (e.g. allows for more compelling and comprehensible input).

      I rarely do strictly output-based activities, e.g. timed partner retells, in which the purpose is not to acquire, but rather to increase fluency and build confidence. The output necessary for the activity would be language already very familiar. I do think that this practice with acquired language could build more skill (this is the old distinction between “competence/mental representation” and “performance/skill”).

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