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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

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