Three Questions About Forced Speech Ouput in Schools

We are all well aware of the supreme importance of the natural process that we call the Silent Period in language acquisition. But we teach in schools. There is always an expectation that speech output occur before the rose is not yet fully formed within l’abri de sa chambre verte*.

We are told by people who know little of language acquisition to get kids speaking after a few hundred hours of auditory and reading input when a few thousand hours don’t suffice to even begin to form the aperture/neurological pathways in the mouth that alone lead to speech mastery.

So we know what Krashen says, and we know what our bosses and often our customers and their parents expect, and those two things are light years apart, so what do we do?

As I see it, we need to answer three questions, not about how fluency is attained, which Krashen and others have already shown, but how students get to fluency in schools, with all the ignorance and time limitations that come within that setting.

I personally have three questions on this topic, expressed below. Please comment on any one of them. If enough people comment, we might be able to draw some kind of conclusions, anything, about what we should actually do in response to this perplexing Catch-22 we’re in, trying to teach for fluency within the formidable constraints, I should say strait jackets, that schools require that we teach within.

Question 1: What do we do about administrators who ask for speech output too early? How, exactly, do we respond when someone without knowledge or credentials (administrators, parents, students) challenges us to get our students speaking far sooner than they possibly can? I think Diane’s direct comments to the kid’s parents in that meeting last week about the Silent Period, and her refusal to go against the research in that meeting, is the way to go on that one, but I want to hear from others on this. We can get into some nasty fights just by quoting the research on this one.

Question 2: We have all had some kid tell us that they want to “repeat it after the teacher” so they can “learn to speak” when they are still thousands of hours from being ready to do even begin to do so. What to do about that?  Do we reject the request and just tell them that they will be doing only listening for at least two years before being allowed to speak? Or do we let them babble a bit? After all, babies babble, don’t they? Should we be allowing, even inviting, our students to babble a little and get it out of their system?

There is big criticism of Krashen on this point throughout our field. Some, I would say most, teachers in our field think that by not forcing output in early level classes we are suppressing output, which is false. And it feels like a put down to the kid. And it increases their sense of being trapped in a one way conversation, which I can agree is no fun for them, and it probably increases the blurting of English in our classrooms as well. What do we do about this?

Question 3. What about the self imposed forced output kids do in order to go for the higher grade on the jGR or the dGR? That discussion took place here last week. Did we come to any conclusions to it? What were they?

Please weigh in on this topic. Just say which question you are addressing and write a few sentences out. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. We can’t rely on research on this topic because I don’t think there is any. There are places in this work where we cannot rely on research any more. In response to many of my questions to Krashen, he told me that he only does the research and that we are the ones who need to answer the questions generated by it in the field. So what do we say about forced speech in schools?

*…la fleur n’en finissait pas de se préparer à être belle, à l’abri de sa chambre verte. Elle choisissait avec soin ses couleurs. Elle s’habillait lentement, elle ajustait un à un ses pétales. Elle ne voulait pas sortir toute fripée comme les coquelicots. Elle ne voulait apparaître que dans le plein rayonnement de sa beauté. Eh! oui. Elle était très coquette ! Sa toilette mystérieuse avait donc duré des jours et des jours….

…the flower was not satisfied to complete the preparations for her beauty in the shelter of her green chamber. She chose her colours with the greatest care. She adjusted her petals one by one. She did not wish to go out into the world all rumpled, like field poppies. It was only in the full radiance of her beauty that she wished to appear. Oh, yes! She was a coquettish creature! And her mysterious adornment lasted for days and days….

Le Petit Prince – Ch. 8. This is how speech emerges, how anything of value emerges. Very slowly and naturally.




27 thoughts on “Three Questions About Forced Speech Ouput in Schools”

  1. My initial thought centers around the second question. There are two ways, I think, that we can interpret the blurting of English in our classes. It’s perhaps easier to take the first way, the harsher way, which holds that blurting in English is the result of bad manners or poor classroom discipline. The other way, which I did not realize until now, is to recognize that blurting in English, as you say, Ben, is at times a natural reaction to that feeling of being caught between a) wanting to participate and b) the expectation of staying in L2. I think you called this “water over the dam.” I am wondering now just how NECESSARY a little flood water is, so as to let the students enter into the communal process of meaning-creation.

    I’ll go out on a limb here. Take my three year old son, who has been “slow” (hogwash) to exit the silent stage. Take his babble, his words which are not intelligible to us but are to him, and consider that L1 in our classes. When my son used to point at our car and say “duh,” his universal word for everything, I didn’t stop playing with him or punish him. I just said, “Yes, that’s a car!” He would point at the car and the tires and say “duh… duh.” To which I respond, “Yes! The car has tires!” And so on. So back to our classes. My point is that L1 in the classroom might be in some cases like those “duh”s. The child just doesn’t know the word in L2 but feels so compelled to say something, to participate. Who are we to stop them? But of course that’s a very very slippery slope.

    1. That’s the dilemma right there huh James, good point. We want to keep them involved, at a certain cost (nothing works perfectly), but when does the cost of a few who want to babble a bit too much (in L1) outweigh the benefit of keeping an L2 rich environment? We don’t even really get the ability to use our judgement on this point though, because the second we become subjective in our acceptance of any L1, we become “unfair” and perhaps understandably so.

    2. Maybe sometimes students aren’t even aware that they just blurted L1, just like they aren’t aware they’re using the target language for language they’ve acquired (not merely learned).

      Just hitchiking on Jame’s comment here from over a year ago on the question of how to frame L1 use (Does it signify a lack in classroom discipline or does it signify an overwhelming urges to participate, which come out in L1 since the blurting kids don’t have the necessary L2 yet?).

      I wanted to comment on this because I, like James in his comment above, have just within the past few weeks began to have a different gut-level reaction to L1 blurting. Up until a few weeks ago, my internal dialogue upon a student’s L1 blurt has been “Uh-oh, I’m losing control.” But, for minor L1 blurts, any blurt which is RELATED TO THE DISCUSSION but not in L2, I have began sometimes responding to these blurts as if they were in the target language. That is, I sometimes don’t even bat an eye that the kid just spoke in L1, I just comment back to the kid or the class in the target language about what the kid just said. I think this honors their contribution fully by not sprinkling their contribution with a little dash of shame for not having made the contribution in L2. And I’ve noticed with a few of my top offenders that they don’t always use L1. Just once in a while when their excitement gets the better of them.

      In fact, I’m wondering now if a kid in this excited state, completely following along with the conversation, story, etc. at hand, even realized that they just said 3 or 5 words in L1. Probably not, right? Otherwise, they might have started in L1, then quickly stopped themselves and switched to L2.

      Of course this only applies to very short blurting (3 to 5 words max for me) that is completely relevant to the conversation at hand. Any non-relevant contribution in L1 gets immediately interrupted and gets my reminder, with a smile and in the target language to only speak in L2 please.

      This unconscious mixing of L1 and L2 happens for a lot of people who speak 2 languages. It happened to me while living in France this year with other teaching assistants. We made a pact with each other to speak English and French on alternating days (i.e. Friday was always French). But sometimes when I was completely focused on WHAT we were talking about, I would respond or start conversation in the “wrong” language for that day.

      So, it’s useful to think of this before we villainize a kid for L1 blurting. Maybe it’s best sometimes to just act like we heard it in L2 in cases where the kid might very well not even realize his/her contribution was in L1.

      1. Thanks for bringing this up Greg. Reading your post I realize that is what I also did, not consciously, but in the same spirit…when we were on a roll, in a flow and something relevant and ver ybrief came out spontaneously I am pretty sure I also just wove it in without making a big deal. It sure is a fine line, but like you experienced in France, we do tend to mix it up when we are not in thinking mode, which is a good thing, right? I suspect that over time, staying with the flow and topic of conversation in L2, when some minor L1 sneaks in we can restate, etc. without turning the atmosphere of the class into a police state. I wonder what the trade off is in the brain? When we stop the conversation for every single offense are we raising the affective filter? Or do we hammer on this at the beginning to eliminate it altogether? Do a few L1 words truly break the flow if the other 98% of the conversation is truly in L2? I just wonder about all this because I have so far not been able to achieve 100% L2, and I have been ok with that, feeling that the intention and spirit is to stay in L2 and unless there is a stream of L1 interrupting, or a deliberate refusal of intention to stay in L2, I let the small amount go uninterrupted / restated. I probably roam between 90-95% on average. Just a guess. Again, thanks for bringing this up.

      2. In primary classes this happens particularly when I try to encourage higher-order thinking.
        With most open-ended questions my young students respond in L1. I’ve learned to accept it, I’m just thrilled that the kids understand what I say.

  2. My response is also to Quest 2: I think we should allow “babble” from our students. Looking back, I remember wanting to say words that I didn’t “have” when I was a student. Being able to babble helped me to play with the language until one day, the babbling was grammatically correct. I am pro-babble.

    If I have more time, I’ll try to respond to the other questions.

    1. I have to say that if I can’t babble in Mvskoke I would be completely lost. That is where my Elders giggle and gently correct me often leading or expanding on the vocabulary I am attempting. Here is where they hold up their time out hand and explain the root of something that comes from the cultural embediment that I have no way of knowing and they had forgot to tell me (or didn’t realize I didn’t know).

      Babbling is a natural part of learning. It is as we say in the pre-school education world part of “Exploriment”–the natural way a young child learns–Examine, explore, experiment.

      That said when I work with my students, I have found that singing provides us an excellent way for them to use the language in an appropriate way. It gives us time to slow down the syllables as we reach for the note, and as they speed up it becomes such a natural rhythmic flow of language. Beautiful sounding.

      Yesterday’s success was that when we broke into Wagina/English at the end of class, one student remarked, “English sounds like a foreign language now.”

      Sorry I’ve been absent so long, but the rest of the world called to me to exploriment.

  3. Ben,

    Can you share any of the research that supports the idea of a silent period in L2 speakers? I haven’t seen that, and it might be helpful if I can refer to it.

    1. David…..just a quick response to you cuz i dont have time right now to look it up and im not on my computer..but i think isaw something on the Center for Applied Linguistics website. If and when i find it i willnput it out here

  4. I showed Textivate for the first time to French 1. When I gave them the words with missing vowels, they blew me away and read the paragraph back to me in French. I was pleasantly shocked. It was output for sure, but they loved it and were very proud of themselves.

    1. Do you think textivate provides input blended with output? If students are encountering and understanding the structures in the reading, even if in conjunction with reading the passage out loud, doesn’t that still count as reps? I’d really like to be able to get 100% behind textivate. Something about it strikes me as absolutely killer.

  5. 1. What about using the class stories as our collective “output”? I have a tendency to show of fun stories to my administrator (who is supportive to begin with, but who may have to back me up one day) The fact that first year students can read these paragraphs is impressive; that they co-created them is even more so!

    2. I like the way Jennifer put it; I think pretty much the same way. L2 babble feels to me much like baby “learning” babble. L1 babble is something I have to work to avoid–there are some who just try for confirmation in L1.

  6. I too am in favor of babble when it is natural and spontaneous. I think it often depends upon the personality. Some people don’t want to “practice” out loud, and some do. I think letting a student wrap their tongues around the sounds does no harm and may help some to gain confidence. It’s the forced output that does all the damage. When I was teaching primary students, the desire to imitate me seemed very strong and completely spontaneous. Older students rarely seem to have the same urge, but perhaps they’ve learned the hard way not to give in to any spontaneous impulses.

    Actually, I had fun with the primary students, playing with them and their love of echoing everything I said. I would say a sentence, and then repeat it, changing the accent. The BOY wanted a blue bicycle. The boy WANTED a blue bicycle. The boy wanted a blue BICYCLE. The boy wanted a BLUE bicycle. This gave them a feeling for the importance of tonic accents in English, helping them hear the rhythm which is so different from French. But the whole class was echoing me loudly, so no student felt embarrassed or forced to perform. I don’t know why, but they thought the game was hilarious, and I could always redirect their energy with it when things started to get a little out of hand.

    1. I’m with Judy on this. If it’s voluntary speech, not being graded for accuracy, and not being corrected (certainly not by critical peers but not me, either, except to say “yes, *repeat what they really meant*”) then I think it’s fine. Also, answering questions in the target language is really great stuff. One word answers usually start happening pretty fast.

      I also do some chants every so often and encourage them to join in. I let kids volunteer to do read aloud or say dialogue and I step in with the “lip sync” technique I learned first from Katya Paukova when I see any hesitation about saying something. It’s a great thing to use. I ask, “Do you want to lip sync this part?” “Ok, I’ll tap your shoulder and you should start.” Makes everyone laugh, including the child, and shows that not speaking yet is totally fine.

      I now start my first year classes with discussion that the sounds of Chinese are new to their brains & very different from anything they’ve heard before. That means each person needs to hear it for a while before that person is ready to speak. Essentially, I’m telling them to relax and join in talking when they feel ready. I think we Chinese teachers have a nice advantage in this area. No one seems to doubt this!

      1. I think you are on to it Diane and Judy. The key is the individual student. Their confidence to begin answering versus my forcing something from them. I know how afraid I was in high school German class that folks would laugh and ridicule me once more. It has taken a lot of internal pushing to jsut let go of it and have fun in Mvskoke.

  7. On Question 3 above: I simply took off the line in the rubric about the A+ and stuck A+ in there with the other A’s. I think there should be no risk of forcing output now.

    I gave my 7th graders that modified slip of paper to fill out today, and not one of them mentioned any difference.

  8. On Question 1: actually the Silent Period thing was in someone else’s post or comment, not mine. I totally believe in it, but I hesitate to tell parents directly about it because of the prevailing ideas about speech output. They think they need to do speaking output to learn, which is wrong, but I am willing to spend a couple minutes to win goodwill for doing CI, if you see what I mean below.

    It’s something I took from Susie Gross’ seminar last August (after she retired she taught a few of us Chinese teachers a seminar). Also Laurie’s whenever I went to that… Each of them, as I recall, talked about having students talk through something they were reading, or retell to a partner, or recite with a partner, etc. I find it wins some students: they feel they have spoken, which they mistake to be language ability, yet it’s in a controlled, short burst that minimizes time away from CI and increases their sense of success. I ask for volunteers to share from their partner conversations for the whole group, too. This way kids who are truly out of the silent period earlier than their peers (or those who want to hear themselves talk anyway) have a legitimized outlet and kudos for speaking in Chinese, not English.

    Every time I write a comment these days, I’m pretty much thinking about my ultra-challenging 7th grade class!

  9. Question 2: When I am learning a language, I usually want to output. I want to say stuff. But I don’t want to be called on to do so. I want to do it when I’m goofing around with a fellow student or when I’m riding my bike. That’s one thought. Another thought is leads me to Linda Li, and how she usually tells people to not repeat after her. I thought that was a great idea, and I do that now. I thought it would (forcibly) take the stress off students that they need to output, and so things would be better. But then I started teaching little ones like Judy above and they WANT to repeat. So I have another question. Do they WANT to repeat, or do they just think that they will gain approval for doing so. Little kids are constantly seeking approval, so maybe the best way for them to acquire the language is by being quieter during the class and then doing their L2 babbling during breaks and outside of class.

    It’s late. Sorry if this is a bit jumbled.

  10. Well, working with both elem. and middle, I think it is both. Younger students are much less resistant to mistakes generally. They are just trying to express themselves in the language of the moment be it doggy talk, English, or whatever. The language of the moment is where they get approval–you understand them, they see your smile and eyes light up.

    Older students and adults want to be correct. They are much more likely to have a silent period.

  11. sometimes when I have an administrator in the room, I will do a “dialogue” question. I’ll write on the board in L2 something like this:

    What do you want to drive? (usually one of the structures of the week.)
    I want to drive ____________. (better if the answer can be a proper noun, ex. corvette, Lamborghini, hotwheel, etc. )

    Then I’ll just go around the room and ask everybody. It’s forced output, it can sometimes be dull, but i get at least 60 reps, kids feel like they are speaking spanish, and administrators are impressed. If kids throw me a homerun pitch, I’ll spin it and have some fun. I try to laugh at anything they say outside the box. Also it gives the superstars a chance to show off.


    1. We call this TFO. Teaching for Observations. :o) A few things to keep in mind for administrative “drive-bys”

      with love,

  12. I will read through all of the comments tomorrow as im on my phone right now and don’t have the time but James’s first comment made me think of this. I was at a colleague’s house earlier working on another conference presentation (I have two!) and she has an almost two and a half year old. She is from Costa Rica and speaks only Spanish to him and her husband speaks English. This little guy understands everything said to him in Spanish yet he responds in English. She doesn’t try to force him to speak Spanish either, she’s happy that he understands and at least responds in one language, even though it’s English. It was pretty awesome watching the interaction between them and James’s comment about students listening to L2 but repeating or responding in English reminded me of it. Food for thought

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