One common question that I was asked in my sessions at iFLT ’14 was, “I thought that our goal is to provide students with comprehensible input…so why do so many of these activities contain output?” Great question!
No CI teacher thinks that output is bad. Output is a good thing and one of the end goals for our courses, but it is not the means by which we acquire language. CI teachers focus on input because research shows that students acquire language when they listen to or read language at L+1 (one step above their current level of proficiency). The main focus of our instruction, therefore, is to find ways to provide our students with comprehensible input using strategies like PQA, MovieTalk, Embedded Reading, Storyasking, and more.
That being said, we do not eliminate output from our classes. CI classes are filled with output! As Carol Gaab so brilliantly pointed out in one of her sessions at iFLT 2014, PQA itself–perhaps the most basic and essential tool to the CI teacher–depends on output. Teachers ask questions to students (input), then students answer the questions orally (output) before the teacher takes their answer and discusses it with the class. It is a constant back-and-forth of input and output!
It is important for us to give students opportunities to practice output because, ultimately, we want them to be able to communicate in the target language. If we never give them those opportunities to build their confidence and competency, all of the language that they acquired so effortlessly in our classes will be utterly useless. The key is to limit, structure, and scaffold the output, especially in novice levels:
- Karen Rowan suggests setting time limits for your output activities. Even though students may be able to spend 25 minutes on a communicative activity, it would be better to limit it to just 5 minutes in a novice class. As students move on into upper levels, they can spend more time with output because they will have built up their fluency.
- Many of the output activities that I use in novice classes are extremely structured. In many of the examples from my PQA Hooks presentation at iFLT14, students are using plug-and-play phrases to share their ideas (like “I’m going on a trip, and I’m going to bring ___”, in which the only original component of the sentence is a noun). This way, students have an opportunity to speak and form an original idea, but the risk for inaccurate language is minimized. Then, I….
- Smother the output in input. Anytime a student shares an idea with the class (produces output), take that idea and smother it in input by asking circling questions, comprehension questions, and fishing for details.
- Output generates input. It is worth it to allow even novice learners the opportunity to produce output before they are really comfortable with a structure in order to generate compelling input. Students have great ideas. Often, they are much more interesting than we are! The ideas that they express via output are often our best inspiration for input. One sentence of output could generate an entire class period of input!
- Front-load the input. When you introduce a new set of structures, spend time doing PQA, Storyasking, and input-based story activities, and then assign an output-based activity. Consider basing the activity on questions that have already been discussed in class so that students know the answers to explicit recall questions and have already had an opportunity to formulate personal responses to opinion or analytical questions. (This is what I usually do for the Fan N Pick activity.)
- Output activities keep the class engaging. If all they ever did was listen and read, they would not stay in our classes. Limited output allows us to use many different activities that will help maintain engagement.
I also received a lot of questions about how I manage and assess the output. As far as management goes, please read this post about the hole puncher police. With regard to assessment, it depends on the level and on the activity. I do not begin to formally assess speaking until late in Spanish 1, and even then it is a very small percentage of students’ overall grade. (I use Standards Based Assessment, and my grading categories are based on skill–speaking, reading, writing, listening.) I do, however, strive to complete a minimum of three formative speaking assessments per marking period, even in my novice classes. As students advance into upper levels, I strive for an additional three summative speaking assessments–key word being strive, since it doesn’t always happen. To do this, I simply make marks on rubric cards during output activities. I might not get around to every student during every output activity, but by spending a small amount of class time each day doing structured (oral) output, I am able to get to each student 3x throughout the course of the marking period. To download the rubrics that I use and an explanation of how I use them, click here (they’re free). The file contains five levels of ACTFL Proficiency-Level based rubrics and one Six Traits of Writing (yes, writing) based rubric.