The Role of Output: VanPatten

On Episode 8 of Tea with BvP (here, edited down to 13 minutes), Bill made the claim that if Input drives the car of acquisition, Output is in the backseat. He went on to say that you could make Swain happy by saying that Output is riding shotgun, but still not in control.

Bill also said the following:

“One role of Output is to help people get more Input…when you make some kind of Output people can judge…people actually speak to you at the level they perceive you to be at, which gives you better Input for yourself.”

When it comes to this particular role of Output, Bill’s quote can only be true for individuals who have control over the target language, which excludes most of our students all the way through high school. While it does seem like Bill is giving the OK to introduce more paired speaking activities, think again on that one. As it is, Novice language learners have a difficult time negotiating meaning with a trained teacher “sympathetic to the language learner,” an ACTFL description, so just imagine what kind of result you get when one partner is trying to make sense of what a similarly proficient student attempts to express.

Terry Waltz has made the analogy that peer to peer communication is the McDonald’s of language acquisition. Sometimes teachers feel pressured to “take the kids out for fast food” due to a number of influences (e.g. administration, department, standards, etc.), but there’s no reason to put the cart before the horse. Spontaneous speaking is the result of listening and reading. If it’s not spontaneous, why do it? Students feel the insincerity of a canned activity.

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3 thoughts on “The Role of Output: VanPatten

  1. Lance, I think your recommendations are right on target here, and I appreciate what BVP is saying. David Morgan, of blessed memory to those who attended various Conventicula and Rusticationes, had that kind of control of the language and the human sensitivity to listen and speak with the other at a level that worked for them both.

    I will also offer this surprising little exception (maybe) to what you have offered. This past semester, we asked our Latin 1 students (to whom we never give homework) to be on the look out for signs of Latin, or mythology or almost any other aspect of classical/Roman culture in their world outside of the classroom. They were to bring in photos or other evidence of what they had seen to fulfill this little standard of culture connections outside the school. I got a lot of photos of Little Caesars pizza. Okay. But, the surprise was the number of Latin 1 students who chose to have fairly lengthy texting conversations with each other or a Latin 2 student in Latin. They brought in their phones and showed me the whole thing. Output. Chosen output because it certainly was not required. And, it was an unexpected twist on the assignment: hey we used Latin to talk to each other outside of school.

    It was simple, easy phrasing of many things we had practiced in class, and they made it work for them. I would still never assign this, but I am pleased that they felt comfortable enough and had had enough input to pull this off.

    • I don’t think that’s an exception. CI teachers are accused of shunning Output when in fact we simply don’t force it. You’re right, those kids acted on their own will. Had you created an in-class activity to text back and forth using a given set of phrases, THAT would’ve been considered some deep-fried, high-salt CI fast food.

  2. I find Bob’s example very interesting, and not exactly an exception in my own situation. I have many students who are studying, trying to acquire, English not because they want to speak to native English speakers, but so that they can communicate with people from China, Brazil, Germany, Angola, India, whatever and wherever. When my students find themselves in an authentic situation which requires some English, their “partner” is most likely to be another learner, not necessarily at the same level.

    Which reminds me of a story; One of my students used to work for a large oil company and he told me about a meeting he once chaired with employees from all over the far East, with a dozen different nationalities present. An Englishman from the head office had come out to explain some new requirements. My student Mark ran the meeting and they discussed the new requirements and what would need to be done to adapt to them. When the meeting was over, the Englishman, who had said very little during the meeting, asked Mark, “Well, what did they say?”

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