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Using texts constructively 2: intensive input-output work

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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