Output Again

One colleague recently asked why we only have one word responses in circling. She couldn’t figure out why, when the kids obviously knew the answer, they didn’t output it right then in a complete sentence.
Here is one answer – it seems to me that when we are doing circling, and comprehensible input in general, we are plowing the field that leads to acquisition. We are plowing and planting, and the season, those first few years of CI, is springtime.
Now, how can flowers just grow from those seeds without the warmth and watering and time of the summer season? How can we have the kids experience input and output at virtually the same time? It would be like expecting a three year old to speak in crisp sentences right away.
CI, circling, all of that stuff that we do in the first few years of this kind of teaching, is input. Then, output is essentially an unconscious process requiring thousands of hours of input first, and it is just not natural to expect output too early.
This is especially true in school classrooms with peers surrounding kids who are at a hypersenstive age and have been told that they can be wrong in other classes. So I have to strenuously object to the output too early.
In my opinion, asking for output too early is like pulling a plant out of the ground in an effort to make it grow faster. Why not just let it grow at its own speed?

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9 thoughts on “Output Again”

  1. Ben here in Mexico output problem is critical. I’m not saying you in TPRS should want or do anything. I am saying it’s a problem worth dealing with directly here. So I’m trying stuff. It ain’t TPRS. It’s delryic twext. With a lab testing earlier output.
    People here study years, understand input but fear output. They read English fine. No ouput. I can’t promise them that listening to me struggling to learn the fine art of TPRS over years time is gonna help them get over their fear of making sounds in English.
    Let flowers bloom naturally in TPRS classrooms. That’s your job. My job is to test twexts of songs and learn if and how twexts serve language learners here in Mexico. People here wanna tune their ears and throats to English. I’m a native speaker. We’re mimicking. They want output here. So I’m asking for it.
    We’re testing in a sound lab language lab. Songs are played at almost rock concert volume. I make people scream way outloud if they’re acting too uptight. We mimic. We laugh. We’re just messing around. Having fun with English.
    I got nothing but respect for TPRS and I use all the pointing pausing circling stuff like crazy and we all love it. Works great. Thanks to all of you. The processes you’ve all defined are really useful to help my bosses (learners) understand the stories in songs they want. And how to apply and use these little stories in their bilingual lives here.
    I don’t know why I even talk on your blog about output. I know you don’t like it. Maybe that’s why I do it. So I’ll now hereby stop bothering your blog with talk about output. Except one last note:
    A new guy, Federico, visited the lab yesterday and blew the mind. He can output many many pop songs in English, memorized from beginning to end, sounding almost perfect as he sings along. He has little idea what he’s saying, but he’s a fearless mimic. I bet he learns fast as he comprehends these sounds, especially if he can use them to process his feelings and thoughts and transact with people he likes. Or maybe he’ll just have more fun singing. Who knows? We’ll see =)

  2. Elementary TPRSer

    I had an interesting output experience this week in my 5th grade class. (I teach elementary Spanish and get the kids 2 days a week for 45 minutes. This is the 3rd year of Spanish for 5th graders. We do a lot of circling, mixed with age-appropriate rhymes and songs and games.) I haven’t required any student-created, spoken output, just singing along, etc.
    Our spring break is next week, and we’re all trying to make it… it’s a long haul. This 5th grade class was especially talkative. We had just finished an embedded reading and they were into talking, not focusing, as I was trying to circle and get more reps. So, I decided to go with their talking and we put on a ‘talk show’. I had 3 students portray characters from the embedded reading–they sat in the front–they could only answer questions according to details in the reading. I played ‘Oprah’. I started circling the reading with the ‘guests’, with our fake microphones. Then, I opened it up to audience questions, with the only rule being the questions had to be in Spanish. They blew me away. I didn’t realize my students could ask questions! They stumbled through, but they were able to communicate their questions. The ‘character’ answered the question. Then, I was able to take the audience question, circle, compare with other characters from the story and with student lives. The talkative problem went out the window as students in the audience were focused on creating questions and listening so they wouldn’t repeat questions.
    I know that in so many ways these students still need that summer ‘marinating’ time before they’re really ready to produce more language–I just don’t see them frequently enough to expect it from them. This mini-experience with output is just a testimony to what “years” of input can do!

  3. I would love to be able to do this – the kids are great at those one-word answers and I know they understand the CI that I’ve given them when I get those answers.
    But…I’m in a dilemma in that my district has a CRT that requires them to output at the end of each semester, even the first semester. And it’s not one-word answers. They need to be able to describe a picture for up to a minute -the more they say, the better. They also have to answer short questions like “Qu’est-ce que tu aimes faire le weekend?” and “Qu’est-ce que tu fais après l’école?”
    So I’m stuck with having to force them to practice those sorts of things, while knowing that one-word answers may be all that they are capable of doing at that particular point.
    I know that TPRS can work and that eventually kids WILL start speaking. I have some kids who didn’t say a word during level 1 or level 2, not unless I forced them to. And somehow they come into level 3 and can magically speak. When did that happen?

  4. One of the things that has long bothered me about both textbooks and the kinds of tests Heather describes is that they bear little relationship to reality. Have someone ask those same kinds of questions in English to native speakers – children, teens or adults – and they’ll get short answers for the most part. “What did you do over the weekend?” “Slept” “Played tennis” “Saw a film” Only if there is something that really piqued their interest (or they think you truly care) do they elaborate. Yet, both textbooks and tests expect them to reply in ways that are totally unnatural. Dumb.
    I have a student in level 4 who understands perfectly what I am saying in German but has horrendous issues with producing German. He is extremely analytical and perfectionist, so he expects everything to be perfect before he opens his mouth. Consequently fluency goes out the window as does progress in self-expression. Outside of class we have interesting conversations in which I speak German and he speaks English.

  5. Heather the magical emergence you describe in those level three kids is, as you know, no magic. It is the result of constant CI and it is the way the brain learns languages. Look, the kids who don’t hear the language in class – those traditional kids – can’t output after only one semester anyway. The difference is that ours will one day be able to – in each kids’ time for natural L2 emergence – and theirs won’t.
    I personally am trying to just accept the dilemna you describe that has been presented to us by our colleagues. They believe that L2 emergence happens early -bless their hearts – and I personally don’t. This is all part of the deal, the change, we are in, and I will just go about my business without getting too upset about it, which is a day to day thing.

  6. We’ve been working and working on these CRTs for three years now and I’m about to go nuts. Actually, it’s been longer than three – about 7 for the oral tests and 3 for the written.
    Now we’ve got our oral, written and multiple-choice test done for levels 1 and 2. We’re working on 3 and 4. Some of the teachers wanted to have level 3 and 4 be required to do an academic discussion of a work they have read in class. For several minutes, with 1 minute to think about it and then they have to talk.
    We’re divided as a district. Half of us are saying WHY would you want them to do that? Isn’t it enough that we’re asking them to do an academic-style writing final? Can’t we just test functional stuff on the speaking part? How often do people really do this IRL? I can’t think of the last time I had to discuss a story I had written and how I would change it if I were the author?
    Every time we bring this up, we are told that the functional stuff is “too easy” and that by levels 3 and 4, they should be doing more than asking where the toilets are. Sure, but even native speakers who are fluent sometimes DO have easy tasks.
    I think it comes down to this:
    1. one group feels that language shouldn’t be difficult, it should be USEFUL. If you aren’t using it to communicate things that you need to communicate, what’s the point?
    2. one group feels that language is a skill of higher learning, and that only the academically inclined deserve to study the advanced levels, and that the only way we know that they are deserving is to test them on difficult tasks that bear no resemblance to the way the language is used by the majority of native speakers. Language classes should be hard, so that only the students who have earned it will do well.
    I’m definitely in group 1. One of the the things I tell students from time to time is that “even the stupid people in France speak French.” Language isn’t intrinsically difficult, nor should it be. Some things are easier than others – but there’s no reason why we should expect our students to use it in ways that native speakers wouldn’t use it.

  7. Thanks for the thoughts about output, Ben. I keep wanting to push it, because it seems to be a proof that acquisition has taken place. But whenever I force it, they clam up. Most of the kids in my levels 1 and 2 are speaking only when prompted.
    On the other hand, my French 3-4 class won’t shut up in the target language. Speaking is not a problem for them at all. This supports your theory on the slow blooming of output skills. I guess I should relax about it.

  8. One thing that was pointed out to me is that answering in complete sentences is not NORMAL. We speak naturally in phrases. We write in sentences.
    – Where are you going after school?
    – Home.
    – What are you eating tonight?
    – Steak.
    So, in that sense, one word answers are the expected response to short predictable questions like in circling.
    – What color is his hat?
    – Red.
    If we want more complex language, we have to ask more complex questions. And that isn’t done in the circling.
    I also think that the one word answers help lower that affective filter. Students don’t have to worry about what they sound like. They only have to focus on simple phrases. They are surrounded by others, so they won’t stand out as sounding silly or wrong if they make a mistake. But they also get immediate feedback if they are off.
    And, from my own experiences as a motivated language student in Linda Li’s Chinese class this summer, as I became more comfortable with basic meaning, I began adding on to the words and building longer and longer phrases. But it was only because I had that foundation of single words focusing only on meaning.
    (Sorry to butt into this conversation so late – I’ve been out of town and off-line)

  9. Output that is not natural is forced and therefore, in my opinion, wrong. All of that forced practice crap at early levels leads to nothing. The dormancy, the receptivity, the one word answers which literally define circling, all of that is fodder for future speech. Output occurs naturally.

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