On my MA Methods course I’ve been pushing the notion of ‘push’. ‘Being pushed’ (I argue) is a precondition for effective learning. In order to progress, learners need to be challenged to go beyond their immediate comfort zone; they need to be coerced into extending their present level of competence. Otherwise, there is a danger that they will simply mark time as language learners, or even – to use a now fairly discredited term – fossilize.
The term ‘push’ is borrowed from a comment that Merrill Swain made as long ago as 1985, in proposing what became known (in contradistinction to Krashen’s Input Hypothesis) as the Output Hypothesis. If you remember, Krashen had argued that comprehensible input alone is a sufficient condition for second language acquisition to occur, with the proviso that the input should be pitched a little above the learner’s present state of competence – what Krashen dubbed “input + 1”.
Swain, on the other hand, argued that, while input is necessary, it is insufficient. Instead (or as well), the learner needs to produce language, and not only produce, but be “pushed towards the delivery of a message that is not only conveyed, but that is conveyed precisely, coherently and appropriately”. She adds that “being ‘pushed’ in output … is a concept that is parallel to that of the i + 1 of comprehensible input”.
One reason for this is – as I point out in An A-Z - “being pushed to produce language puts learners in a better position to notice the ‘gaps’ in their language knowledge”, encouraging them to ‘upgrade’ their existing interlanguage system. And, as they are pushed to produce language in real time and thereby forced to automate low-level operations by incorporating them into higher-level routines, it may also contribute to the development of fluency.
So, what can teachers do to provide this extra ‘push’? Here are a few ideas:
1. Rather than accepting one- or two-word replies to questions, insist on more elaborated utterances, in the spirit of: “Ok, that was good. Now give me a full sentence.” Or, “Ok, say that again, but include two facts, not just one”.
2. Repeat tasks: research suggests that performance generally improves when learners repeat a speaking task. The second or third time round, ‘raise the bar’, e.g. ‘This time, do it from memory, without your notes’. Or, ‘This time do it in half the time’. If doing the same task seems like a chore, add variety by changing the partner for each ‘take’.
3. Public performance: Whereas pair and group work is great for task rehearsal, it’s also easy for learners to under-perform in this setting, especially when out of ear-shot of the teacher. Performing the task to the whole class, or publicly reporting on the outcome of the task, adds an element of formality that often encourages greater attention to accuracy. And knowing that they may be called upon to report or perform has a useful washback effect on the level of engagement during the groupwork itself.
4. Encourage learners to go beyond their present competence by incorporating novel language items into their performance. For example, if a role play involves making requests, establish the request forms that the learners are already comfortable with, then top up by teaching some new ones. Ask individuals to choose at least one new form, and to write it on a piece of paper, which they hold during the role play, and which they relinquish once it’s been used. Alternatively, a cuisenaire rod can represent the targeted form – it helps if it is something physical that serves to jog their memory when the time is right.
5. Increase memory load. For example, write targeted words, expressions or structures on the board, in preparation for a speaking task, such as a class survey. As the learners perform the task, selectively erase the material from the board, placing greater demands on their memory in an incremental fashion.
6. Change the mode: for example, learners summarise a groupwork discussion in written form. Or they perform a dialogue that they have first scripted. Or a rehearsed dialogue is then filmed. Or a Powerpoint presentation is then performed. And so on.
Swain, M. (1985) ‘Communicative competence:some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensible output in its development’. In Gass, S.and Madden, C. (Eds.) Input in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House