Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Dangers of Forced Output

A lot of teachers who say they are "eclectic" or "communicative" have a quick glance at TPRS and say, oh, that's a lot like what I do.  And they pick up circling or embedded reading and add it as one more tool in their teaching kit.

And there's nothing wrong with that.  That's how I first got into TPRS.  But as I read more about it, followed the discussions on moretprs and went to workshops and listened to speakers at conferences, I realized that TPRS is not just a technique we can pull out of our hats from time to time.  It's a unique approach to language learning, a philosophy, a way of looking at the world that requires honesty.  You either believe that people learn to speak a language through comprehensibile input or you don't.  And once you have become a true believer, there's no turning back.

I read a few articles by Stephen Krashen, but mostly I followed his comments and arguments on the moretprs forum.  He convinced me because everything he said fitted in with my own experience, both as a learner and as a teacher.  I was taught German for nine months by a teacher using something like the Natural Approach.  (I don't remember her ever giving a name to her method.)  I must have acquired something because today, fifty years later, I can still catch the gist of a conversation in German.  I studied French, Spanish, Latin and New Testament Greek with more traditional methods and only became fluent in French through immersion.  My Spanish, Latin and Greek are long gone.

If we accept that comprehensible input is the key to acquiring language, then it follows that we need to give our students as much input as possible, to use the limited time we have with students as efficiently as possible. Asking students to produce language is what Krashen calls weighing the pig, measuring what has been acquired.  And he states quite emphatically that weighing the pig doesn't make it heavier.  In the real world we live in, it is necessary to test students and give them grades, but with as little stress as possible.  Since TPRS is concerned with what has been acquired in the long term memory and not with what the students have memorized the night before a test, it is suggested that tests be unannounced. Or regular little exit quizzes on what has been acquired during the class.

In a perfect world, students receive maximum input in a relaxed setting, listening to stories that amuse them and touch them, and one day the language just "falls out of their mouths".  In an imperfect world an inspector sits in on your class and tells you that you're being too frontal.  That you need to organize debates among your students and have them work on projects.  Teachers who feel the pressure push their students to produce language, to give presentations, to make reports.  Student output looks great in a lesson plan.  I've done this.  And sat there and cringed at the language I heard.  And felt sorry for the shy, tongue-tied student clenching his notes in sweaty hands, never once looking up.

Ben Slavic says, "Output activities should not be done until many hundreds of hours of input have occurred.  That's what the best research we have says."

I would like to make the point that forced student output is almost always incorrect, poor quality language when it is not totally incomprehensible.  Whether or not it is helping the speaker in any way, it is definitely harmful to the other students to listen to it.  When we force output, we oblige the student to try to say things that he has not yet acquired, so he mobilizes his notions of grammar, however vague, and cobbles together sentences that are neither fish nor fowl.  The damage comes when he does this often enough that it begins to sound right.  And he hears his fellow students saying more or less the same thing, so he's convinced that it is right.  Eventually the error is repeated often enough to be acquired. He writes it and his teacher underlines it in red.  His brain remembers it, because it was underlined in red.  The error becomes fossilized, and it will take a major excavation to get rid of it.

The other day I had a discussion with my riding instructor about mistakes that I make when riding.  I know perfectly well what I should be doing, my conscious mind is quite clear about what the correct position should be.  I've been taking lessons for almost ten years and I've read dozens of books. But as soon as I become apprehensive, my subconscious takes over and does what it learned to do when I first started riding.  I was sixteen when a friend of my father's put me on a horse and told me to kick to make her go forward and to pull on the reins to stop her. Until ten years ago that was my one and only riding lesson.  My riding mistakes are fossilized because I wasn't taught correctly at the beginning.  The instructor and I agreed that it's much more difficult to unlearn something than it is to learn it correctly from the start. It takes endless hours of conscious practice to erase the wrong muscle memory.

When we give our students high quality comprehensible input without forcing them to produce, we are giving them a chance to learn the correct forms from the start.  When we force them to produce before they are ready, we are pushing them to make errors that will become fossilized and be extremely difficult to unlearn.

Michael Jordan once said, "You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong all you will become is very good at shooting wrong." I paraphrased this.  "You can practice speaking eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong all you will become is very good at speaking poorly."


James Hosler said...

Judy, I just came upon your blog via a link from Ben's new list of member blogs. I loved this post!

Stephen Krashen is so right when he compares output to weighing the pig. Weigh it all you want, it won't get any heavier until something of quality goes in.

And: "His brain remembers it, because it was underlined in red." How crushingly true.

Mrs. Dubois said...

I used to be proud of the number of red pens I used up. Now I shudder to think of how I slashed up their efforts to express themselves in English. My new policy is to underline in green everything that's acceptable and ignore the rest.