Bryce Hedstrom -Digesting Input And Output

This is a hodgepodge of recent thoughts on the blog that I have tried to organize to help me think more clearly about input and output:
Susan Gross: “My really BIG ERROR (How did I forget to put it down as number one or two???): Output. I thought that practicing output would make my kids better at output. I did speaking activities (darling, adorable, cute, creative ones) all year long. That was my biggest error. It was the hardest thing to fix!”
According to Krashen’s Input Hypothesis, output exercises don’t lead to output.  Only input leads to output.  Output is the result of input, not the cause of it.  Writing a lot doesn’t make students better writers.  Reading and listening make them better writers and speakers.  Either we do input most of the time (in the form of listening and reading) or we do something else that is not helping the students.
What is input?  It is target language, in speaking or print, which the student can understand.  If the student does not understand it, it is not input.
 Input based instruction focuses on listening and reading.  Output based instruction tends toward writing, speaking and grammar study.  Traditional language instruction is output based and includes lots of faux output and worksheets.  Output based instruction is difficult and academic so students think they are really learning something.
Forced output beyond the level of acquisition is making students “practice” what they don’t really know yet. But language doesn’t work that way.  Language is acquired.
Forced output means making students to use what they are still subconsciously trying to figure out how to use; forced output is the nurse demanding that you pee in a cup.
In the lower levels I am more determined than ever to become an input monger.  “No output for you!” shall be my internal reply to demands for output. 
But if a student cannot help it, if the words pour out almost against the will, then it is OK.  If output emerges spontaneously, it is permissible.  Output is a natural process that occurs as a result of digesting input.  Like other bodily functions, output happens.  Similar to digestion, when students get enough good input to chew on and digest, there will eventually be output.  Output will be almost involuntary.  It will just emerge.
When famed biology writer Lewis Thomas was counseling students he would say:  “Do not become an ornithologist if you can help it.  But if you can’t help it, go ahead, it’s OK.”  In our language classes maybe we should adopt a similar refrain:  Don’t speak Spanish if you can help it.  But if you can’t help speaking in Spanish, go ahead, it’s OK.
TPRS also has output.  In the lower levels it often appears as 1-2 word answers.  Output also shows up in retells and free writes.  But the output in TPRS is not expected to increase proficiency; it helps the teacher to monitor the acquisition process.  Output makes no contribution to proficiency.  Dictations, illustrations and acting out the stories are not precisely output, but are used as checks for understanding. The purpose of output in TPRS is to allow the teacher to monitor the student’s progress and adjust the input.



18 thoughts on “Bryce Hedstrom -Digesting Input And Output”

  1. I agree. Output is all about assessment. As we approach the end of the semester, I have to have some output-based grades, so we wrote in level 1 today comparing Arme Anna the book and Arme Anna the movie – with lots of scaffolding in place. Most of my students set to work, but a couple were obviously having difficulty. One started to ask me questions of a very sophisticated nature, so I said, “The problem here is that you can think in English at a very high level, but your German isn’t able to express that yet. Try to think simply in German.” He asked, “So I should write like a second grader?” “Yes,” I replied. He then happily started writing away. Another student in my sixth period class had a similar issue but after a slight nudge started cranking out the sentences. Next week we will get back to stories – this week was a tough week in a lot of ways (including being kicked out of my room so they could paint it).
    Bryce wrote: In our language classes maybe we should adopt a similar refrain: Don’t speak Spanish if you can help it. But if you can’t help speaking in Spanish, go ahead, it’s OK. Just be certain students don’t take this as carte blanche to speak English! In our increasingly noisy world, we need to re-learn the power of silence.

  2. Thanks Bryce for putting it so well. And Robert, I am glad to hear I’m not the only one who has to have output grades. We are a project based school (or at least moving that way). My students are expected to do projects. I take this “output” activity and use it for assessment–information gathering. It works. I don’t let students use dictionaries, translators, etc. They have to create a “storyboard” or lost chapter or finish a cliff-hanger story, or whatever using language they already know. Like you Robert–I tell them to think in Spanish. In otherwords, I tell them to let themselves tell it like 5 year olds (I talk to them about not writing in English and trying to translate–it is always a disaster–I tell them I prefer a very simple story, to a complex mess). There is no rewriting (my colleagues, who have to have students do process writing don’t understand this). I tell the students I will look at their projects with them and point out areas where their writing becomes unclear, but this is optional, and focused always on meaning–I don’t edit. The bottom line is: I want to limit monitoring behavior and foment fluency (Here I use “fluency” as the comfortableness with communicating, but not necessarily accurately–to get a message across without errors interfering in communication. I don’t think this definition is used much here). In the end, I get tons of information about what I need to focus on with my students. And as an added bonus, I get to see a lot of creativity I wouldn’t generally get to see (drawings, more involved storylines–like a knife whose dream in life is to make gumbo–and videos and skits). In speaking, I don’t care if students use Spanish–they use it when they are ready and if they want to, I take it they are ready to. Krashen talks alot about this–I can’t remember his exact words–silent period?–and recommends students begin talking when they are ready.

  3. Is the only purpose for output really just for the teacher to monitor students’ progress? Many TPRSers say, “Nothing motivates like success.” I think the teacher is in the perfect position to create a safe environment for students to try and feel successful.

  4. During a story on Friday, I noticed that I was getting some timid reponses that were in the form of complete sentences – 4-5 words, but it was interesting to see small amounts of language begin to emerge from several students.

  5. Carol had you pushed output during the year with various output activites sprinkled through your classes, you wouldn’t be getting squat back from them right now. That is because it is in the quiet receptivity of the unconscious mind over hundreds and thousands of hours that authentic ouput incubates.
    You may have gotten some memorized parroty kind of responses, and been quick to congratulate yourself on your prowess as a teacher, but you would have been fooling yourself. It’s time for us to just look at this output thing in real, not magical thinking, terms.
    We can’t teach them to speak. We can only provide enough input that they end up doing it naturally themselves, as a result of that deeper unconscious churning of CI, the making of butter from milk that the gods, not us, can do.
    I am willing to be talked out of that rather hippy position,but only unless somebody can show me that it is wrong with some nice research that shows that pushing output early results in measurable gains like those that Carol describes above. Prove me wrong. On vous invite!

  6. Bryce: “The purpose of output in TPRS is to allow the teacher to monitor the student’s progress and adjust the input.”
    I have a question that can probably be cleared up quickly. If the above is true, then are we assuming that students will more or less feel confortable and able enough to produce the output desired on a similar timeframe?

  7. What does “similar time frame” mean? I am missing something.
    Each student “acquires” in a distinct (and often widely different) time frame from any other student even though input and instructional time are the same for both. (Anne Matava’s post and Spada and Lightbrown (Canada): “Factors Affecting Language Learning”–just reading them on this very thing earlier today).

  8. Yeah Jody – of her entire post that line jumped up and grabbed me:
    “…each student “acquires” in a distinct (and often widely different) time frame from any other student even though input and instructional time are the same for both…”.
    So I don’t agree with Bryce on that. In my view, output happens and can’t be monitored or used by the teacher for anything except celebration when it happens, just as we can’t force a flower to show its greatest period of beauty at a certain time, but rather let nature time the blooming of each one.

  9. Bryce Hedstrom

    Jim posed the question:
    “…are we assuming that students will more or less feel comfortable and able enough to produce the output desired on a similar time frame?”
    We all tend to slip into this trap, but students won’t all produce output at the same time. If our syllabus, our system, our administrators or parents are expecting kids to reach the same point in output at the same time it becomes a problem. This is why differentiation and multi-level classes make so much sense.

  10. Robert, I love this portion of your post: ” “The problem here is that you can think in English at a very high level, but your German isn’t able to express that yet. Try to think simply in German.” He asked, “So I should write like a second grader?” “Yes,” I replied. He then happily started writing away.” Thank you for this beautiful example of what to tell my students who want to say/write more than they’re able. :o)

  11. Echoing Aimee on feeling successful–one of my Spanish 1’s complained last year that she could only speak in 1-2 word responses. I think part of the reason that output is important is to help students feel like they are really learning to speak the language.
    And… I confess I’m still not convinced that output doesn’t help. I’m learning other languages and I think output helps me. I don’t feel like I “own” a word or structure until I can produce it.

  12. Bryce Hedstrom

    Rita, speaking in 1-2 word responses is the definition of output at the lower levels according to ACTFL, so your student’s observation is not far off, and it is good that she was aware that she wanted to be able to do more.
    Also, it seems I recall that Krashen has said (I will have to look for the exact quote) that output helps a learner to feel like a member of the club. Output does not help students to learn, but it can get a learner into a situation where she can get more comprehensible input as the other speaker monitors her responses and adjusts the input to a level that becomes comprehensible for her.

  13. Bryce Hedstrom

    Ben, you said “we can’t force a flower…”. That is pretty darn close to what I said in my original post. Output happens; like natural bodily functions. It seems to me that we can listen for it, use it to tell where students are at, and then adjust what we are saying so that it becomes comprehensible input. That seems logic and natural to me. Am I missing something here?

  14. Personally I find the whole acquisition issue problematic. I don’t think any methodology or research can lay claim to acquisition. The question that comes up here in my mind is, How do we measure acquisition—when has it occurred and to what extent? In the end, the process is so complicated it is almost a moot point. The only good indication I have heard for acquisition is described as “an unconscious feel for correctness and unconsciously produced utterances which show native like correctness and variation.” This is not something we as teachers are easily privy to. We have no way of knowing what sort of internal strategies students have used which might mimic acquisition (or what sort of strategies they have employed when we are introducing input).
    As a second language learner, reflecting on my own process—I find it just as complicated. I can engage in unconscious second language production, I definitely have a feel for correctness in many areas, but there are some weak areas. What complicates things is that when I run up against a weak area—I catch myself monitoring, but the monitoring is not a translation—I run whatever I want to say (or write) by my own second language store—I compare it to Spanish that I have acquired from reading and listening, but which is not accessible to me in output. What this says to me is that Input and Output are different, and not necessarily linked. What seems to link them for me is a process which involves awareness—and ends in losing that awareness (the language point becomes unconscious). How I developed the ability to create native-like utterances escapes me though. Is it a skill, or did arise naturally? In the end I think output, depending wholly on how it is handled, is important—a skill to be developed, but handled with a lot of care.

  15. Output is not beneficial “cognitively” speaking, but rather “affectively” speaking… when the time (and place) is right. Is this a fair synopsis?

  16. Bryce I have no idea what I meant – I went back and tried to find what made me say that but I can’t find it. Maybe the 2, 200 Angels walking around in the hallway distracted me with their angelic hallway sounds and I got confused.

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