Written for an Applied Linguistics Master’s Course: Methods and Materials in Foreign Language Education
In ALM, there was a focus on mechanical output production. In recent decades, SLA researchers and educators have recognized the role of input and interaction in the language acquisition process. We also think of “output” differently than it was thought of in ALM. What makes input and interaction so vital to language learning and/or acquisition? What are characteristics of good input? What is the role of output? Provide examples of optimal situations for instructed language learning in terms of input, output and interaction. Be sure to cite relevant literature in your answer.
What makes input and interaction so vital to language learning and/or acquisition?
Input and interaction are so vital to language learning and acquisition because both work together to facilitate the learning process in the most effective way. Input on its own, regardless of whether or not the input is comprehensible as Krashen (1981/1982) would suggest, cannot guarantee that the linguistic, semantic, etc. features of the L2 will be noticed, attended to and/or solidified into a learner’s internal language storage systems (long term memory, existing schemata (Carrell and Eisterhold, 1987), etc.) for later access and use. Similarly, interaction on its own and without comprehensible, meaning-based input will not benefit the learner, even if the interaction takes place as ideally as possible. If the input is too easy, there is no real growth in language acquisition during the interaction; if the input is too hard, no amount of interaction can aid an L2 learner in comprehending what s/he is hearing or reading. Therefore, as Gass and Mackey (2006) would suggest, a combination of input and interaction is integral to creating the most ideal learning/acquisition process for the L2 learner.
What are characteristics of good input?
Good input needs to be comprehensible (Krashen, 1981/1982). This means that the input, according to Krashen’s (1981/1982) “i + 1” model, needs to be at a level that is just beyond a learner’s comprehension level for him/her to be able to develop further in the target language. As aforementioned, the input cannot be too easy or too difficult to ensure that the learner will develop effectively in the target language. Input also needs to be meaning-based (Lee and VanPatten, 2003). This means that whatever input is being used in the classroom needs to reflect the prior knowledge/experiences, interests and needs of the learners using the target language (Ciccone, 1995; Mendelsohn, 1995). Additionally, input has to reflect the types of communicative contexts the learners have or will come across in their everyday lives. Without proper contextualization of input, it is possible that learners will lack the proper motivation and authentic connection to language instruction content needed to effectively learn and use the L2 (Gardner & Lambert, 1972; Dornyei, 2006).
Good input will also be properly scaffolded to ensure effective comprehension practice in the L2 classroom (Swaffer & Vlatten, 1997). Authentic input, regardless of level of fluency on the part of an L2 learner/user, will always pose difficulties in comprehension for non-native speakers of the given language. Therefore, scaffolding through various pre-, during and post-listening/viewing/reading activities with the input will help guide the L2 learners/users through the input-interaction-output process in a more targeted manner. Though engaging in these types of classroom activities with the language may not always reflect what learners will encounter in real-life contexts with the target language, scaffolded practice will help prepare learners with the various comprehension strategies available to help them better attend to L2 input in their everyday lives.
What is the role of output?
The role of output serves to show us where a learner is in terms of their overall comprehension and use of various forms, structures, features, etc. of the L2. The presence of errors should not immediately signal that s/he has not understood or comprehended the given feature attended to in a given lesson in an L2 classroom. Rather, the presence of errors serve as a signal to both the teacher and the student that comprehension may not have been reached fully. There may be issues that the learner has not noticed because of the input provided by the teacher or because of the developmental stage s/he is working within. For example, if the lesson is on attending to the past tense marker –ed, and the learner is not yet able to produce past tense verbs with –ed, this may be due to the fact that the input was not structured in a targeted enough manner to have students focus on the past tense marker (as with Lee and VanPatten’s (2003) structured input models), or it may be due to the fact that the learner is not developmentally ready to produce those types of grammatical features as we can see from various research how language acquisition of grammatical morphemes, among other language features, follows a predictable pattern of acquisition (Krashen, 1972; Lightbrown & Spada, 2006; Lee and VanPatten, 2003). Therefore, the role of output should not be taken as an indication that the student is not learning or has not learned. Rather, the role of output should be focused more on targeting errors made to better understand why they are happening and how they can or cannot yet be attended to with further instruction.
Provide examples of optimal situations for instructed language learning in terms of input, output and interaction.
As aforementioned, the optimal situation for input in language learning will be one that provides comprehensible, meaning-based input that meets learner needs/interests and that taps into a learner’s prior knowledge/experience. This is done by organizing lessons that have pre-, during and post-reading/listening/viewing activities with the authentic input (Swaffer & Vlatten, 1997). For example, a teacher could use a K-W-L chart (K- “What do I know about x?”; W- “What do I want to know about x?” and L- “What have I learned about x?”) to help tap into their students’ prior knowledge, focus their attention on the topic at hand and reflect on what they have gained from the authentic input. Continuing with this example, students who will watch a video about the life cycle of a butterfly, may start by filing in what they know about the topic and what they hope to learn about it while watching the video (“K” and “W”); after viewing the video, the students may then fill out any new information they have learned about the life cycle before doing something more with the information they’ve gathered from the input (“L”).
The optimal situation for output in language learning will be one that does more than have learners produce accurate sentences. Good output, like good input, is about more than production or accuracy. Good output will aim to have students use the input they have received in a meaningful, contextualized manner. For example, again using the K-W-L chart example for good input, the learners would not simply repeat information that they gathered from the butterfly life cycle video. They would need to take that information and use it to produce some type of work in the target language to exhibit their understanding of the video. In this example, we can pretend that the students are working with using sequence words in addition to learning about life cycles. Students can first take their K-W-L charts and compare/contrast the information they got with each other as well as reflect on whether or not the video contained information that they already knew (“K” section) and wanted to know more about (“W” section). From there they could write a summary of the life cycle and compare it to the life cycle of another plant, animal, insect, etc.
The optimal situation for interaction in language instruction is one that strikes a good balance between explicit/implicit feedback while it is taking place (Gass and Mackey, 2006). This balance needs to be determined by the students in the classroom as opposed to what the teacher feels are the best strategies to use, as student needs vary. What may work with one set of learners may not always work with another set. For example, during teacher-student or student-student interaction, teachers can use feedback strategies such as recasts, clarification requests or confirmation/comprehension checks (Long, 1987, as cited in Gass and Mackey, 2006) to correct errors or give feedback during or after communicative interactions. Recasts and clarification requests are ways to implicitly give feedback and usually immediately follow an error that a student has made while confirmation/comprehension checks can happen immediately after an error or at a later time during classroom instruction. For example, teachers who are listening in on student-student interactions may make notes on what s/he hears students saying, and may reflect on those errors via comprehension/confirmation check strategies with the class as a whole, making the error correction explicit but not focused on any particular student. The general idea we get from Gass and Mackey (2006) in this respect is that error correction and feedback during interaction, whether implicit or explicit, is useful but should be catered to student needs and how well students react to and benefit from such corrections.