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

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

Sentence Stealers with a twist

Sentence Stealers is a reading aloud game invented by Gianfranco Conti. I'll describe the game to you, then suggest an extension of it which goes a bit further than reading aloud. By the way, I shouldn't need to justify the usefulness of reading aloud, but just in case, we are talking here about matching sounds to spellings, practising listening, pronunciation and intonation and repeating/recycling high frequency language patterns.

This is how it works:

Display around 15 sentences on the board, preferably ones which show language patterns you have been working on recently or some time ago.Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentenc…

Using sentence builder frames for GCSE speaking and writing preparation

Some teachers have cottoned on to the fact that sentence builders (aka substitution tables) are a very useful tool for helping students prepare for their GCSE speaking and writing tests. My own hunch is that would help for students of all levels of proficiency, but may be particularly helpful for those likely to get lower grades, say between 3-6. Much depends, of course, on how complex you make the table.

To remind you, here is a typical sentence builder, as found on the frenchteacher site. The topic is talking about where you live. A word of warning - formatting blogs in Blogger is a nightmare when you start with Word documents, so apologies for any issues. It might have taken me another 30 minutes just to sort out the html code underlying the original document.


Setting work for home study

A major challenge for language teachers just now is selecting and sharing work with students to do at home. Here a few suggestions on the issue to add to your own. The sites I mention are the tip of the iceberg and focus mainly on French. I have stuck to free resources, not subscription sites.

By the way, I'm not getting into the use of tech here, as I have no great expertise on that. In any case, I imagine for younger learners especially it may be a question of setting other types of work.

ADVANCED

For advanced learners the job is not so tough. There is a plethora of listening, reading and grammar material they can use, whether it be from their textbooks, other resources shared electronically or online resources. You may have your favourites, but for a selection for French you can check out my links here and here. You may want to stick with topics on the syllabus, or free up students to read and listen more generally to what interests them.

One idea I used was to ask students to c…

"Ask and move" task

This is a lesson plan using an idea from our book Breaking the Sound Barrier (Conti and Smith, 2019). It's a task-based lesson adapted from an idea from Paul Nation and Jonathan Newton. It is aimed at Y10-11 pupils aiming at Higher Tier GCSE, but is easily adaptable to other levels and languages, including A-level. This has been posted as a resource on frenchteacher.net.

This type of lesson plan excites me more than many, because if it runs well, you get a classroom of busy communication when you can step back, monitor and occasionally intervene as students get on with listening, speaking and writing.