Skip to main content

Fine tuning the input

I sometimes come across listening material online, for example extracts of French language films or TV which look initially appealing for their content or humour, but which for me, fail the classroom test because they are just to fast or hard to understand.

I am happy to go along, for the sake of this argument, with Stephen Krashen's notion that acquisition will occur if students are presented with language they understand. In practice, what we get students to listen to and read has to include some unknown language for them to make progress, so the skill lies in selecting authentic material, or in designing new material, which follows the knowledge + 1 principle.

This means we present language containing a suitable balance of known and new language, at a pace students can reasonably follow (usually with repetitions as far as listening is concerned). This is what you might call fine-tuning of comprehensible input. (In passing, it is sometimes argued that traditional "lock-step" graded teaching is too fine-tuned so makes the source material too artificial - just think of some of those old textbooks.)

So this poses a real problem with authentic resources which are often too fast and too rich in unknown language. They may seem like fun, they may even have a motivational spin-off, but they are not necessarily a good source of teaching input. At the very least they might be made acceptable with the use of sub-titles, an equivalent to the principle of parallel reading.

One argument put forward for these more challenging and authentic resources is that they present students with the type of target language they will actually get to hear and read in the target language country. We should not be shielding learners from the reality of naturally paced language, rich in tricky vocabulary and syntax, the argument goes.

I would argue in response that the classroom is an artificial learning environment. We will endeavour to use displays and realia to disguise the fact. We will make much use of target language, use native speakers, do role plays and the like, but the fact remains that the classroom is a place where we need to provide the input and practice to produce, in the long run, skilled linguists. This requires fine-tuning of input for acquisition to take place. If our input is badly tuned students will have an even harder time in the end when they have to cope in real situations.

Now, if you show a film or clip with language way beyond the skill levels of students this may have some limited value. It will present cultural content and it will reveal to students just how hard and fast authentic language is. It may even play some role in tuning students' ears to pronunciation and intonation. However, it is far from perfect as input for learning.

Just to mention that it is obviously the case that the younger the students are, the more finely tuned input needs to be. With skilled advanced learners, the degree of tuning/adaptation may be relatively small.

I liked the way that a former MA tutor of mine, Alan Hornsey, from the Institution of Education put it. He said that the source material need not be authentic, but it should be "plausible". Alas, we see so little of such professionally produced material.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


English 

_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for frenchteacher.net three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from pixabay.com to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:





Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Two ways to build in recycling: Intensive input-output work and narrow reading

We know repetition is vital for acquisition so we need to work it into lesson planning. There are various ways to do this when reading and listening. “Narrow reading” and “narrow listening” are useful, for example. Stephen Krashen first coined these terms and suggested that exposing students to a series of similar spoken or written sources of input was an effective way to promote acquisition. (His version was much less structured than what will be described below.) Text books often include a series of paragraphs featuring some vocabulary or structures in common to ensure repetition. Gianfranco Conti has turned this into a fine art with highly patterned sets of paragraphs including large amounts of repetition. We adopted this technique for our TES GCSE French units of work. Here are four French paragraphs where you see the technique in use. Repeated chunks are shown in bold.