This is my reaction to Input – What it is and why you need it by Tomasz P. Szynalski and to Fredricka Stoller’s piece on Content-Based-Instruction
I agree that providing lots of input is essential in second language acquisition. However, I do not think that output is less important or that we can completely rule out grammar.
It is true that we become fluent in L1 without knowing the grammar rules. However, learning a second language seldom replicates the conditions in which we learn our mother tongue. Even in total immersion situations, there’s always the factor of L1 interference, which becomes more prevalent the older the learner.
Anyway, let’s suppose we can learn a second language in the same conditions we acquire our mother tongue. According to the Inputs and Outputs piece, a child would begin to speak only when it can produce accurate output, when, in fact, we know that we all start by uttering barely recognisable sounds that evolve into fluent speech by the feedback from the listeners, who constantly model, reinforce and correct. I believe that the process of acquiring a language always presupposes the presence of an interlanguage, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the internalisation of mistakes but, rather, the attempts at reaching competence in the target language.
What can we do to make our students’ outputs effective instead of damaging (as the author indicates is possible)?
- Providing scaffolding appropriate to the level so that learners can develop learning strategies that will eventually enable them to become autonomous learners.
- Encouraging students to take risks. You can’t learn anything without leaving your comfort zone and risking making mistakes.
- Working on weak areas by modelling, giving feedback (teacher and peer), providing plenty of opportunities to revisit problem areas and tackling them from different angles.
- Exposing students to lots of relevant, meaningful, appropriate input, the sort that is neither too easy as to lead to boredom nor too difficult as to result in frustration.
And I think that this is where Fredricka Stoller’s piece on Content-Based-Instruction comes into play. I totally agree that content should be the meat and not just simply the shell.
In the last few years, we have been carrying out cross cultural projects with our students. They connect with peers in other countries who are learning Spanish as a second language. Working together, they choose a topic of interest to them (F.S.’s meaningful content). For example, last year, the topic of one of these exchanges was bullying. Prior to their live communication via Skype, the students in both countries researched the topic in relevant web pages and through feedback from peers in different schools (information gathering) Then they processed the information collected to share it with their partners (information processing and reporting) The grammar they needed emerged naturally through the completion of the task at hand (grammar in context). Meaningful output took the form of written texts and visual artifacts (for example, using Glogster) which were posted in their wiki. Oral output occurred during the video conference. Skype conferences can be recorded, so after the live meeting, students had the opportunity to watch the recordings and listen to how native speakers were using the target language.
I am convinced that the fact that students were learning the vocabulary and grammar they needed for a clear, meaningful purpose made it the more memorable. And, of course, much of this wouldn't have been possible without the presence of technology, which gives us access to lots of authentic native content and the chance of connecting with native speakers of the target language.