InterCom is a weekly customizable newsletter provided free to Language Educators through CASLS. LTS students, alumni, and faculty often contribute to it. This week LTS Director Keli Yerian has contributed to InterCom, and it is reposted here. Subscribe to InterCom here! http://caslsintercom.uoregon.edu/
Keli Yerian directs the Language Teaching Specialization program at the University of Oregon. Her research interests are in language and interaction, most specifically in the use of gesture in both L1 and L2 speakers, as well as language teacher education, including the goals and experiences of L2 speakers in language teacher education programs.
Peek inside one language classroom. Here we see students using actions and brief responses to show they are following the teacher’s story. Peek inside another. Here we see students repeating after the teacher to show they can accurately (re)produce the target sounds and structures.
In the first classroom, the teacher is using comprehension-based instruction, with a focus on helping students acquire language through carefully structured input. In the second classroom, the teacher is using production-based instruction, with a focus on helping students acquire language through repeated spoken practice.
What do these classrooms have in common?
If these two classrooms always look like this, every day, all year, we might say the common point is that they both tip dangerously to only one side of the spectrum of teacher beliefs and practices regarding instructed language learning. On one end of the spectrum is the belief that language acquisition requires the exclusive ingredient of comprehensible input. Indeed, comprehension-based instruction is strongly supported by some research (e.g. following Van Patten, 2007) that shows that structured input (input that compels learners to focus on form in order to access meaning) can lead to improved proficiency not only in comprehension but in production as well.
On the other end of the spectrum is the claim that a skill will only be acquired if it is directly practiced multiple times (see DeKeyser, 2007). While the direct practice claim has been less supported by research, studies do show that language acquisition may remain incomplete without the opportunity to ‘notice the gap’ between one’s own production and the target forms. Importantly, this benefit appears only when production involves meaningful exchanges that allow for the noticing and mediation of forms (e.g. see Swain, 2000).
From this perspective, what both classrooms may be missing is the key element of meaningful interaction. Many current scholars argue that interaction connects the dots between the essential benefits of comprehensible input and the visible advantages of “pushed output.”
However, it is never a good idea to judge a language classroom from just a moment of peeking in. A good language classroom will reveal, over time, a rich range of coherent practices, and include varied opportunities for learners to process authentic and structured input, meet the challenge of crafting output, and negotiate meaning with peers, texts, the teacher, and the wider community.
Maybe, if we peeked into these same classrooms some minutes later, or on another day, we would see something else entirely. A peek into the first may reveal students producing posters to present to their peers, and a peek into the second may show students immersed in extensive reading groups. In this case, our answer to the question above is turned on its head: what both classrooms have in common is the commitment to providing students with a full range of input, interaction, and output – all key ingredients for a ‘balanced meal’ in instructed language learning.