This is the second of Michael Swan's articles for TeachingEnglish, in which he looks at the role of texts in the learning process.

The need for intensive input-output work
I argued in the previous article that intensive input/output work is crucial for cost-effective language teaching and learning. This is particularly the case in learning situations where extensive input, and opportunities for extensive output, are limited. In these situations, intensive language activity has to carry more of the instructional burden. (If learners encounter fewer examples of high-priority words and structures, each example needs to make more of an impact.) Well-planned text-use can contribute importantly to this aspect of language learning. Ideally:

  1. Students engage in depth with a short sample of spoken or written language. They work hard enough on this text to make some of the language their own: words, expressions and structures stick in their minds; perhaps whole stretches of the text are even memorised (as when a dialogue is learnt by heart).
  2. Then their acquisition of the new input is consolidated by controlled but creative output work related to the text – by using what they have learnt to express their own ideas, they fix it in their memories and make it available for future use.

Possible approaches
The key here is to create effective links between input and output, so that new language is recycled and consolidated. It is not really very difficult to bring this about: there are all sorts of possible approaches. Here is one way of using a text intensively with a lower-level class.

  • Take a story or other text of perhaps 200 words, not too difficult, which contains some useful language.
  • Tell it or read it to the class, explaining anything that seriously hinders comprehension.
  • Get the class to tell you anything that they can remember of the text.
  • Repeat it and see how much more they can recall.
  • Hand out the text/get them to open their books.
  • Go through the text explaining and answering questions where necessary, but concentrating mainly on a relatively small number (perhaps 8–12) of useful words, formulaic expressions, collocations or structural points which the students don't yet have an active command of.
  • Tell them to note and learn these points.
  • Ask them to choose for themselves a few other words or expressions to learn.
  • Get them to close their books or put away the text, and ask recall questions (NOT 'comprehension questions'), designed specifically to get them to say or write the words and expressions picked out for learning.
  • Finally, set a written exercise in which they are expected to use most of the new material, but in their own way (this is crucial). For instance, ask them to tell the story they have studied in the form of a letter written by one of the characters in it; or to write about a similar incident from their own experience.


There are enormous numbers of other ways of achieving this level of close engagement with input material, followed by creative output using what has been learnt. Texts can be 'fed in' through dictation, storyboard-type activities, or by various other routes. Students can work on a dialogue, and then script and perform (or improvise) new dialogues on a similar theme. One class I heard about hijacked the whole of their boring textbook, rewriting the stories and dialogues with added elements (a pregnancy, an explosion, an arrest, a lottery win, alien invaders…) so as to make them more interesting, and thus using what they had learnt in highly original and motivating ways. What is essential is that close engagement with texts should allow students, little by little, to build up a repertoire of key lexis and structures that they have made their own by working on them intensively and reusing them in this way. Compared with the typical 'superficial text study - comprehension questions - free writing' cycle, the crucial difference is that learners do more with less, so that they really do learn, remember and are able to use what they take in, instead of forgetting most of it before the lesson is over.

Overcoming problems
In operating an effective input-output cycle, some obstacles may need to be overcome. One may be cultural. In countries where the educational tradition favours authoritarian teacher-fronted presentation and a traditional transmission model of education, there is likely to be a strong emphasis on input and a correspondingly reduced emphasis on learner output. And if public self-expression is discouraged, as it is in some cultures, students may need encouragement (and an explanation of the rationale of the approach), before they are ready to recycle input material creatively in personalised communicative activities, particularly in oral work. 

A second obstacle is theoretical fashion. A good deal of contemporary applied linguistic theory is fairly hostile to the kind of intensive input-output work discussed above. There is a widespread preference for learner-centred work, with extensive spontaneous communicative output being highly valued. Intensive output, deliberately reusing what has been taught, is often condemned as being unoriginal, not properly communicative, mere 'regurgitation' of other people’s language. This is all very well if one is working with students who have already learnt a great deal of language, and whose main need is to activate it through task-based fluency practice. But most language students need to learn more language, not simply to get better at using what they know. And for such students, teacher-controlled input-output work has a key role alongside other types of activity. You cannot teach by eliciting what is not there, and the best way of making sure that new language is acquired for later extensive use is, very precisely, to give learners other people’s language (as we have to – they can’t make the language up for themselves) and to enable them to make it their own as they use it for personal and creative purposes. In helping to achieve this, properly-focused text use can play an important part.

By Michael Swan

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Comments

Thank you very much Sir for initiating discussion on a topic of great significance to all the stakeholders: teachers, students, parents and all the others. We need to accept what you have said in so few words: 'You can not teach by eliciting what is not there'. That reminds me of a story I often narrate:A man once claimed that he had taught his parrot three languages. The news spread like wild fire. A number of people living in the vicinity rushed to his house,expecting to see the performance. They waited  and waited, but the parrot did not oblige them, did not utter a single sound in any of the three languages. Irritated, they took the man to task for telling them a lie. The man, however, said that he had not told them a lie. He had said that he had taught the parrot three languages. He had not said that the parrot had learned three languages.I have led two major curriculum renewal projects for Maharashtra, one of the largest states of India. The first one was completed under the able guidance of British Experts. The second one we did on our own, but we followed the same direction. Now that we are initiating the process for the third major change,we need to take into consideration what you have said about  'using texts constructively'.Harsh Kadepurkar

 For second languahe learners I tried the other way round. After fixing the theme, they are asked to work in groups and to decide the characters, events and dialogues. Of course they were familiar to classroom drama, then they presented in the form of radioplay/radiodrama. Other groups provided assessment on the radioplay and the group again brought in necessary changes and presented the performance in the class. For Lower primary students, I didnot ask them to radioplay. Unnikrishnan

 Dear Michael,Thanks a lot for your articles  and for   the grammar books .I agree with you that students have to recylce the target language  and use the vocabulary they acquire in texts  and dialogues . There should be extensive input  of controlled and less controlled exercises. I find the apporaches given by you very useful  and I use them  quite often.  1,. Each text or dialogue can be turned into something interesting  and creative thing when you have proper techniques. I often use  : a. you are this person , imagine you have been dropped into  that part ,b. sometimes I ask the students to think of variants how they would   like  present this text or dialogue . I must say they have such interesting presentations turning the dialogues into some Tv programmes or stuff like that   but the content and the target vocabulaty remains.  While one group  is presenting , others get different roles of commentators - like positive, negative or indecisive  again based on the content. Then we move on to output- personalization or over to you .2. I agree with both obstacles but would like to comment on the second one . Task- based  and  immediate fluency - oriented apporaches are effective when  you know what the aim of your students is.  It works if it is just survival English  or as you mentioned for those who have solid language bakcground. But my students all started with low elementary level and their goal is to pass  university  exams or different international exams.I am convinced that without thorough  input - output  work , it is extremely difficult to hone their skills. With best wishes,Neli  KukhaleishviliGeorgiaBatumi

Hi Michael and everyone else!
Revisiting, recycling and expanding language is one of the key guidelines I bear in mind when I plan lessons, and many times that goes beyond what has been planned as students may come up with genuine and relevant questions which make room for expansion. I really like the idea of avoiding comprehension questions and proposing some creative or inquisitive work having a text as a kick-off. Also, having students working in order to stick lexical items to mind and make them part of their permanent repertoire seems to be of vital importance. I have witnessed that students tend to remember and/or use words and phrases more effectively when they somehow manipulate that language to express their own original ideas. A key factor is not to have an overload of information and give students autonomy, respecting their choices of what to learn. I generally propose some phrases which I believe to be not only useful but somewhat appealing, and let them pick out others they would like to add to their word bank. I have had some very positive results, especially in writing tasks, regarding the use of vocabulary recently learnt, picked from reading and listening texts.
When you mention the typical superficial text study, an idea springs to mind. Students tend to like that sort of exercise, because it is a safe ground. They might say it is boring and predictable, but it is there in most coursebooks and there is not much room for diversity. It is either true or false, yes or no, and can be quickly done. We may have students who will revel in the chance of producing something authentic by playing with new vocabulary, while many of them will prefer the comfort of a less challenging activity with the argument that if the exercise is on the book, it should be done.
A final thought is that even when language sounds unoriginal it may be communicative. After all, the whole learning process has an element of imitation that will hopefully lead to independence in the long run. It is like that when we learn how to play a musical instrument or to dance the flamenco. Originality of thought and expression comes once you have built a powerful net of information which comes from various sources, that is, texts.
Cheers,
Jackson

Michael,
It is an absolute pleasure to read and learn more and more from your words of knowledge and wisdom in the above subject. I am sure these advice and suggestions will help me to enhance my skills in the future.
Thank you very much.
Simon Seagram

Many thanks, everybody for your responses – plenty to think about. Harsh, your story reminds me of the teacher who came out of her class saying 'I did the present perfect. I don't know what they did.'It's good to see that we share a lot of the same ideas about input-output work. Uniqrisnan, your way of 'turning it round' as a basis for dramatisation, with the input built up collaboratively by students and teacher, seems a very fertile strategy. It's an approach I've often followed myself, and I like it very much.RegardsMichael