Forced Output

If anyone is feeling frustrated that their kids aren’t producing much in their classrooms right about now, consider:

It has been said that a flood of input must precede a trickle of output, meaning that we delay assessing writing or speaking output until it happens naturally with our students. The rule of thumb in comprehension based instruction, if it is to align with what the research shows, is “no forced output.”

Robert Harrell, a German teacher in California, has pointed out that Hart Crane has said, “One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right time.” I love that sentence.

Grant Boulanger, 2016 Central States ACTFL Teacher of the Year, has written, “When acquiring another language, first we learn to listen, then we learn to read what we have heard.  Then we learn to write what we have heard and read.  Finally, we speak because we’ve heard, read, and written it.”

Grant also writes, “My focus has shifted away from spending time thinking up clever activities to make kids use the past preterit…I’m laser-focused on speaking with them and providing them things to read that they understand and find interesting. I hardly ask them to speak or write at all. I require them to talk, but only to respond to my questions. Their job is to show me when they understand and show me when they don’t. We call it negotiating meaning.”

Grant continues, “First they are allowed to answer nonverbally. Soon after they reply with one word. I hardly have to even coach them into stretching their answers into phrases or sentences. Phrases emerge naturally and at different times for different students. And, by January, the vast majority are chattering uncontrollably at home, on the way to the dance, in the cafeteria and their other classes.”

“I believe that they want to speak. I believe that’s why they register for my classes. I don’t believe that making them speak before they’re ready will lead to what we want for anywhere close to the majority of our students. On the other hand, if we put the focus of their job in class squarely on comprehension, if we encourage and applaud any efforts at output, if we avoid over-correction [Tina has famously said that “any correction is overcorrection….”] that spotlights what they’ve done wrong instead of celebrating that they’ve produced meaningful language, they will want to speak with each other more.

“They do this at first in their own safe-zones – home, car, with friends or in their own heads – and later in sheltered subject matter classes. If we do it in that way, a trickle of output will in fact become a strong flowing stream. And, paraphrasing John DeMado, if our students think that they are  owners of their language, then they will be more willing and likely to want to renovate or improve their own accuracy over time.”



4 thoughts on “Forced Output”

  1. Yes, yes and yes again!!! It’s great to find people who can express one’s own thoughts so eloquently. And for me it’s one of the most beautiful things in the world to be able to speak another language . My only regret is, I speak only one but then again I learnt that one mostly the hard way: cramming grammar and vocabulary.
    All these so called communicative exercises where they are forced to speak before they are ready and which are not really communicative at all.

  2. This is perfect. This encapsulates exactly the most caring (and meaningful-results-oriented) approach. Thank you for that language.

  3. Here’s a thought.

    Whenever we negotiate meaning we are also doing the right kind of error correction because it is totally meaning based.

    If I am not comprehensible, my students have to correct my error (of speed, pronunciation, vocabulary, etc.) so that they can understand the meaning I am trying to express.

    When my students speak but are not comprehensible, I have to negotiate meaning so that I can understand them. This may result in my re-stating what they were trying to say. The purpose is neither error correction nor modeling of the language but clarification and negotiation of meaning – something that we do all the time in normal conversations.

    Incidentally, I have had the following three unforced output scenarios arise in my class over the last 3 weeks:
    1. In a second-year class, one girl challenged a guy to a poetry slam in German. Then other students wanted to perform. This lasted about 20 minutes.
    2. In my other second-year class, the entire class argued with me in German about whether the Christmas season starts right after Halloween or after Thanksgiving. We went back and forth for about 15 minutes, and I may have convinced one or two of my position (after Thanksgiving).
    3. In one of my 3-4-AP classes, one of my students announced that it was National Sandwich Day. A lengthy discussion in German ensued about what a sandwich actually is. (Is an Oreo a sandwich? What about an “ice cream sandwich”? Does a sandwich have to have bread? Does a sandwich have to have two pieces? Does a sandwich have to have meat? Etc. As part of the discussion, I introduced them to the German “product and perspective” that a sandwich has two pieces of bread but a “belegtes Brot” has only one slice with meat, cheese, etc. placed on top of it.)

    These were wonderful moments of genuine communication and engagement by the class: the expression,. interpretation, and negotiation of meaning for a purpose [fun, social interaction, persuasion, information] in a given context [the classroom]. (Thank you BVP for the definition – I recommend his new book While We’re on the Topic.) The output was totally unforced, and the conversation had absolutely nothing to do with anything that I had planned. It was a clear winner for everyone.

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