Having taken part in the ELTChat discussion last week on Demand High Teaching (see Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill’s slides from their IATEFL talk here), I was reminded of a session I taught for in-service teachers on the Output Hypothesis. Back in 1985, Merrill Swain studied children learning French in an immersion context in Canada and discovered that while their comprehension was good, their productive skills were not very strong. They had been given lots of what Krashen calls ‘comprehensible input’, but, she concluded, they had not been given enough opportunity to use the language themselves. Output is important because:
- While attempting to produce the target language, learners may notice their linguistic short-comings, ‘notice the gap’
- Output is a way of trying out language and testing hypotheses that are forming.
- Speech (and writing) can offer a way of reflecting on language itself in interaction with other students, helping to clarify ideas and iron out problems.
Swain also came up with the idea of ‘push’ (see here for Thornbury’s excellent blog post on the idea of ‘push’), saying:
‘Comprehensible output refers to the need for a learner to be pushed toward the delivery of a message that is not only conveyed but that is conveyed precisely, coherently and appropriately.’
Just how helpful this ‘push’ can be is illustrated in the following example from a piece of research by Alison Mackey (2002). She recorded ESL learners interacting with other learners, teachers and native speakers and then asked them to watch the videos and reflect on what had been happening for them at the time.
This is a transcript of one of these interactions:
NNS: And hand- in hand have a bigger glass to see.
NS: It’s errr. You mean something in his hand?
NNS: Like spectacle. For older person.
NS: Mmm. Sorry, I don’t follow. It’s what?
NNS: In hand have- he have- has- a glass for looking through for make the print bigger to see, to see the print, for magnify.
NS: He has some glasses?
NNS: Magnify glasses. He has magnifying glass.
NS: Oh, aha, I see, a magnifying glass. Right, that’s a good one. Ok.
And this is what the student said about the interaction:
In this example I see I have to manage my err err expression because he does not understand me and I cannot think of exact word right then. I am thinking, thinking, it is nearly in my mind, thinking bigger and magnificate and eventually magnify. I know I see this word before but he is forcing me to think harder, think harder for the correct word to give him so he can understand and so I was trying. I carry on talking until finally I get it and when I say it then he understand it, me.
So, we can see that being ‘unhelpful’ to a learner can actually lead to much more learning than jumping in and giving them the word they’re looking for straightaway.