P is for Push

11 07 2010

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.

Merrill Swain (left) along with other plenary speakers at last year's JALT Conference

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



33 responses

11 07 2010


I agree AND disagree. It is all in how it is done ( oh god, I’m sounding too much like someone else!).

Your points are well taken but above all – there must be a respect for the learner and their own volition and intention towards language. I’ve come full circle in my beliefs about this, as a language teacher.

I used to “push” my students to produce – I used to be Swain’s” enforcer”. If she’d of sent me a brown shirt to my E. European outposts, I’d of worn it proudly. Now, I’m unsure.

I really espouse the “let them speak when they are ready” approach. Create the atmosphere where they feel free to respond and “push” but never more than that. Make the focus “meaning” and don’t throw so much import on the form. It is the desire to communicate that is paramount and which must be nurtured and supported like a Faberge egg….

I show this video of a French teacher doing this perfectly – he should get a medal of ELT honor for his ability Language teacher of the century, IMHO. http://vimeo.com/8546454


12 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks David, for your comment. I love the image of the Faberge egg being nurtured! And that’s a great video.

But even here, the teacher is providing more ‘push’ than the hands-off approach advocated by Krashen. For example, there’s a sequence where he’s eliciting the words that relate to a drawing he’s doing and which he describes thus:

When I was asking what colours were we supposed to be coloring one little girl suggested ‘red’, I just waited and she knew that my preference is that she should say the French and that’s why she gave that [‘rouge’] back to me, and that’s how they end up doing it naturally…and for her to say ‘red’ during the first couple of weeks of school was fine, that was great, but now that at this point I know that she knows it I have this higher expectation and she has that higher expectation of herself…

I’ll concede that the teacher’s one-second wait for the the French word is hardly ‘push’ in any coercive sense, but the intention is no different (and no differently read) than a teacher of adults saying to a student, “OK, that’s great but give me a full sentence”. In other words, it’s recognising that the learner has the capability, and the expectation even, but momentarily lacks the attentional means or the motivation to realise that potential. The teacher’s considered pause is a clear instance of ‘push’.

Earlier the same teacher commented “One of the challenges … is getting the kids not just to understand and respond to the French but to speak it, because that is one of the expectations”. It seems to me that the teacher recognises that his role is not only to provide comprehensible input (which he does brilliantly) but to motivate (read ‘push’) the kids to achieve one of the “expectations” of second language learning – production.

14 07 2010


I truly agree. I guess it is a question of differentiation and knowing your students enough so that you know which strings to strum and which to leave alone. So much of effective teaching happens on this level. That’s why I really think that if students are going to learn English in a classroom situation – they should stick with the same group and teacher over a longer term. And it is incumbent upon the teacher to really spend a lot of time doing needs assessment – pre and ongoing.

But yes, there is “push” by the teacher. I guess in a perfect world I’d want it to have another name, “compelling” or even “energizing”. But that’s really splitting hairs. Just me.

One of these days I got to get me to Ohio and meet this teacher. I want my kid in his class!


11 07 2010
David Venezia

These are all very solid ideas for how to challenge people. Reading them in list form has helped me to codify my mental landscape of tools to employ in output situations. Reading them has also caused me to think about how ‘depth of relation’ interacts with output and ‘output push.’ I’m thinking about this because last week my mother-in-law visited from Brazil, and, during the visit, I noticed that the family relationship I have with my wife and her mother causes me to latch onto feedback I get from them when speaking my L2 (Brazilian Portuguese). When they correct a prepositional usage, or give me a more ‘natural’ way of saying something, it usually sticks. This is because I know that when I’m in Brazil in a few months, my Portuguese is kind of like a family curiosity: people want to talk to me, just to see how much my usage has changed or improved.

Bringing this back to classroom practice, I would hazard a guess that stronger interpersonal ties in the classroom dynamic might help to anchor these output-challenge strategies in emotions and interactional dynamics that make, for instance, performance of a script or presentation mean more to people.

Any thoughts?


12 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, David, for this personal reflection. I like the idea that your Portuguese-speaking kin are “drawing you out” deliberatey, because, in the absence of curious kin in the classroom, this is what I think good teachers also do. They are – as it were – surrogate siblings, teaching and testing simultaneously. And I agree that – in a classroom where the interpersonal dynamic is good and where mutual interest and curiosity is high – other learners can take on this role too.

11 07 2010
Stephen Krashen

Please see: http://sdkrashen.com/articles/comprehensible_output/all.html (short article: longer discussion in Krashen, S. 2003, Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei Lectures. Heinemann.)

12 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the link, Stephen. I’m wondering, though, when you gloss the Output Hypothesis (OH) as “we acquire language when we attempt to transmit a message but fail and have to try again” , if you’re not conflating Swain’s OH with Long’s Interaction Hypothesis – it is only the latter that claims that communication breakdown is a platform for acqusition because of the ‘negotiation for meaning’ opportunities that it affords.

Swain, on the other hand, posits three functions of output (none of which is ‘negotiation for meaning’). These are:

1. the noticing (or triggering) function
2. the hypothesis testing function
3. the metalinguistic (or reflective) function

The noticing function assumes that the activity of producing the target language may prompt second language learners to recognize consciously some of their linguistic problems: “noticing the gap” as it were. For example, it’s only when I attempt to speak Spanish that I come up against tense choice issues that I ignore when I read or hear Spanish.

The hypothesis testing function claims that learners may use output as a “trial run”, testing a hypothesis of how to say (or write) their intended message. So, I know there is such a thing as the subjunctive in Spanish, I know that it often occurs after certain negated verbs, so I try out the sentence “No quiero que el lo haga” and see how it is received. If I were to wait for an occurence of this form in the input, I might be waiting a good while.

Finally, the metalinguistic/reflective function of output posits that SL learning is mediated when learners reflect on language produced by themselves or by others. Evidence of the way that learners ‘appropriate’ language from one another in interactive pair or groupwork seems to support this claim. The way that learners exploit language related episodes when, for example, they are reconstructing a dictogloss suggests that learners do in fact “teach one another”. Again, this function could not be achieved by input alone.

14 07 2010
Stephen Krashen

I think that the three Swain functions all relate to conscious learning, not to acquisition (Ponniah and Krashen, 2008, “The expanded output hypothesis” IJFLT 4,2. Available for free at ijflt.org). As I’ve tried to say many times, conscious learning is not evil, it is very limited.

The Interaction Hypothesis, according to my interpretation, is consistent with the Comprehension Hypothesis – interaction is a good way to get comprehensible input.

12 07 2010

Does Mr Krashen have a Google Alert on his own name, by any chance?

12 07 2010
English Raven

“Push” (in a nice and hopefully skilful fashion) used to be part of my general approach to language teaching earlier on, but it eked away over time as I began to re-evaluate and experiment with my teaching – especially in terms of where the forces of motion in a classroom were coming from (and from who) as well as where they ended up going.
“MOVE” is a better word to describe what I subscribe to now, with both transitive and intransitive applications, but almost certainly much more of the intransitive (as in, the motion coming from the learners themselves). “Move” also encompasses movement sideways or in circuitous looping motions rather than linear A->B progress.
CO is (to me) as much about “noticing” as anything else when it comes to language acquisition, and I have to admit that straightforward pushing from the teacher or teaching approach tends to (a) yield short-term results that can be misleading over the longer-term, and (b) create a dependency on the “push” which, when taken away, still results in learners with a somewhat minimalist approach to using the language productively on their own.

– Jason

12 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your comment, Jason. I agree that the learning trajectory is essentially learner ‘designed’, learner motivated, and idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, good teachers (I argue) have the ability to intuit where the learner is going, what his/her present capacities are (their ZPD I guess), and to what extent these capacities can be realised (or, to use your term, ‘moved’) by well-judged interventions. If not, what is the teacher’s role? Solely to provide learning opportunities? Or both to provide learning opportunities AND to manage/facilitate the opportunities when they occur?

13 07 2010
English Raven

Yes, I agree with your perspective Scott, while continuing to maintain the caveat that the more teachers push (or pull for that matter), the more risk there is of inertia from students when (essentially) left to their own devices.

I might also use the word “invite” – with the idea that the environment the teacher creates or helps create could be the most important key as to whether students will choose to enter, and then whether they will go exploring.

One of the best mottoes I’ve seen for teaching was from Dr. Andrew Finch, who signs off his emails with “Teachers open the door. Students enter by themselves.”

The extra nudging and pushing and cajoling… as a language learner myself, I have to admit it used to really annoy me. If I can answer your question (teacher) with a “yes” or “on the weekend” and you understand that within our Q&A conversation (and my Output is Comprehensible), why the bloody hell are you going to stop me in front of the class and force me to say “yes, it is an apple” or “I went there on the weekend”? Sure, this is “stretching” my language – but it is also stretching my patience and enthusiasm for talking to you!

In any case, I agree with you when you say “good teachers (I argue) have the ability to intuit where the learner is going, what his/her present capacities are (their ZPD I guess), and to what extent these capacities can be realised (or, to use your term, ‘moved’) by well-judged interventions.”

WELL-JUDGED is a really, really important condition there, Scott, and not all teachers are all that good at judging well!

12 07 2010
David Venezia

I don’t think the ‘Push’ idea can be ‘pushed’ on people without giving equal consideration to the comfortability factor in the language classroom, nor do I think Scott is saying that people should ‘push’ people into unfamiliar territory in a way that brings fear and overwhelming negative feelings in learners.

Sure, learners may need to decide when they feel comfortable speaking and when they do not, but I also think learners can get so clammed up that they feel like the English classes they are in are not facilitating growth for them. Unless a language is to be used strictly for research or scientific purposes, spoken output is something everyone wants to do–at some time in the future. If they are not doing it presently, it could mean that they don’t have the skill to do so, or because something is blocking them (something physical, psychological, emotional, etc) from speaking.

Theories such as Mr. Krashen’s have been seminal in the development of ideas and practices related to language education, but when it comes down to it, I feel like we all have to do our own research–in the spaces we share with other people who happen to want to learn a language in that space with us. But we can’t just say ‘in my experience…blah, blah, blah. We should document our experiences through journaling, video-taping etc.

If we wait to have definitive proof for things in peer reviewed journals before trying them in class, we run the risk of turning the language classroom into an ivory tower.

12 07 2010

I think ‘pull’ is perhaps more important than ‘push’. We need to find ways to pull our students in, to motivate and engage them in the learning process, so that they take responsibility for their own learning. Have just blogged about it too.

12 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment. Yes, it did occur to me that ‘pull’ might better describe what good teachers do – although both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ have connotations of force and coersion that many of the commentators on this thread are unhappy with. But if we buy into the Vygotskian view that all learning is socially mediated, and that self-regulation is achieved only through other-regulation first, it seems to me that there is a role for extrinsic as well as intrinsic motivation, even if the extrinsic motivation is simply encouragement. Or a progressive withdrawl of support. Scaffolding, after all, is not just the construction of safe learning frameworks, but the incremental dismantling of these too – in order to push the learner to take more ownership of the skills being acquired.

12 07 2010

Hi Scott,

You said

“Being pushed is a precondition for effective learning. Learners need to be challenged to go beyond their immediate comfort zone. Coerced into extending their present level of competence”

When I first read it, I thought it sounded a bit brutal! But I can relate your examples of ways to do this in class. I call it ‘gentle nudging’ which sounds less threatening but I guess ‘push’ it is.

Isn’t this what parents do naturally? When babies are learning to walk we take another step back and encourage them to go a bit further or when we’re teaching children to ride their bikes.

David’s point about “it is all how it is done” rings true for me. There’s a fine line with some students who really don’t want to leave their comfort zone and as teachers we have to be able to recognise and respect students who are not ready.

Students ‘move’ backwards, forwards, sidewards,upwards and downwards in the learning process but I still think a ‘gentle nudge’ doesn’t hurt them! Does it?

12 07 2010
Greg Quinlivan

For me, student motivation comes from within and not from the teacher. We can only create an environment which nourishes learning, and with patience, support and encouragement, slowly draw them out into communicating and learning. Additionally, as Jason points out, the idea of ‘push’ is teacher-centred and takes no account of the interests or needs of the students.

The term ‘push’ reminded me too much of what mother birds do to baby birds. If the push out of the nest is successful, they fly. If not, they die. I can’t afford any dead students.

As a teacher of young learners I particularly appreciate the work of James Asher on TPR. He reminds us that when learning a first language we are not forced to speak, and in fact, don’t for a long time. However, when our understanding builds, or our confidence, or our needs, then we start blurting out something vaguely understandable which becomes the basis for further refinement, etc. Often, either because of our own impatience or the dictates of our employers, we “push” our learners too soon into productive language use, only to be surprised when they don’t meet our exacting standards.

I am also a reluctant language learner and I can confirm that if a teacher tries to ‘push’ me beyond a certain point, I push myself out the door.

I think learning can occur outside of pushing, particularly in the context of curiosity. If we have something of interest to offer, students will naturally be drawn to see what it is. Finally, nudging them (thanks Leahn) on through challenges, games, friendly team work using some of the approaches you mentioned will be received more favourably, particularly by the young.

14 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your comment, Greg.

I agree that – in an ideal world – learners will be motivated to set their own goals, and devise strategies for achieving them. But that sort of student is probably going to learn anyway, and won’t need the support of the teacher and co-learners to provide the necessary incentives. They probbaly don’t even need a classroom. But for the majority of learners, just as a physical trainer is useful in helping gym novices calibrate their objectives, a teacher is well-placed in “adding weights” or “raising the bar” at timely intervals. It’s not a question of all-or-nothing, as in your “push the bird out of the nest” analogy; it’s more a question of fine-tuning. In his marvellous TESOL Quarterly article (‘From teaching points to learning opportunities and beyond’ TQ 39/1, 2005) Dick Allwright talks about the teacher’s role in “providing learning opportunities”, but adds that “there is [also] fine-tuning of such opportunities to meet the particular needs of particular learners. ”
To me, part of this fine-tuning is the way teachers customise certain tasks so as to encourage learners to exceed their present competence – i.e. ‘push’.

13 07 2010
Karenne Sylvester

Nice one, push vs pull.

Was expecting something else, on my arrival here i.e. pulling information out of the students. But rather than begin a lengthy response – perhaps after the weekend when my life has calmed down again, I’ll come back but for now, I’ll just add a tech tip to your list of ideas:

** instantaneous chat

Really’s quite an incredible ‘tool’ for knocking students out of their comfort writing-in-English zones, pulling the language out of them but pushing them to practice the their ability to conduct spontaneous oral “conversation” but written -so in general an excellent opportunity for reading and writing at speed. (Very useful life skill for those who need to collaborate globally too).

And as a teacher, what a wonderful mass (or do I mean mess) – at the end – of real errors and real language to work with…


13 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Karenne, for reminding me of the ‘push’ value of instantaneous (online) chat. Somebody once described this as “conversation in slow motion” – but it’s not so slow that there isn’t a certain urgency, while at the same time it’s slow enough to allow for a quick review before hitting the ‘send’ button. Hence it works to promote both real-time processing (conducive to fluency) plus a degree of attention to form – what Krashen would call ‘monitoring’ – which in turn is conducive to accuracy.

14 07 2010

I agree that we really need to push the students. Good teachers know when and how often to do this. As Jason said, sometimes “yes” is enough, but many other times it is highly unsatisfactory, even if you are understood. It’s the same for the student that says “pencil?” rather than “Could I borrow your pencil?”

I disagree with Greg. I’d say 90% of students I’ve taught have always asked me to encourage them to use more complex language, check their mistakes, and minimize use of L1. Students often come to class with the expectation that teachers will do these thing. It’s why they are coming rather than studying at home. They know themselves and what they need to learn.

Things like self-correction and self-monitoring are skills that beginning language learners are unaware that they need. This is why these teaching practices help. It builds this skill set and then can be left for the learner to nurture on their own. If we don’t help them build it, it’s very likely they will never pick it up.

As much as I complain about a few of the crap places I’ve worked, they very much gave me the advantage of seeing the value in certain approaches. At one school is was quite common to have intermediate level students that still responded in one-word bites. You could see the difference in ability between mine and a few other teachers’ elementary students and some others’ intermediates. The elementaries were worlds above because they used sentences and complete ideas. If not encouraged, students often won’t go this route. It also helps them actually make and think about grammar and word choices, like you pointed out.

Pushing is scaffolded just like anything else. At first usually more is required, but then less and less and eventually the class pushes each other and individual learners push themselves.

Most learners want to be challenged. Otherwise they get bored. This is also where pushing comes in. I might be able to tell you what the man in the picture is doing, but can I actually make those correct grammar and vocab. choices in a conversation? I’ll get bored with a ‘make sentences for the picture’ activity, but holding a conversation is challenging and motivating.

14 07 2010
Matthew Spira

I like Jason’s “forces of motion” comment.

A class is a dynamic. It’s like the ebb and flow of a body of water, focus on a particular moment and it may not be clear which way the water is actually flowing.

I just realized the other day that I spend much of my time as a teacher laughing along with the kids I teach. You build up relationships. You can’t say you have a terrible job when you spend most of the time being silly, albeit while focused on the objectives.

It’s not by accident. It’s a process of engagement, and the give and take is predicated on the understanding of where you need to draw the lines. You always want to give a student the opportunity to take a step forward.


14 07 2010
Klaus Beutelspacher

Initially, I felt kind of ambivalent about this. First of all, with the mindset of PDL, I create a space where people can just BE in a foreign language, rather than feeling obliged to DO anything. Hence I wouldn’t want to push anyone, neither around, nor ahead. It’s just not on.

But then: I do all the things (save number 1, but that’s a different story) Scott suggested, maybe not in the same way, but often to a considerable extend. Maybe I do even more than that. This space I create is certainly very demanding, people work very hard, and at the end of the day they are usually knackered, their heads buzzing with English. Am I not pushing them then?

True, its a kind of balancing act, but imho, if you think of it in terms of “push”, you are about to trip and fall. I must maintain that the only entity that is allowed to push a person – children as well as adults – is that person himself or herself. I’d much rather believe that I prepare conditions under which they can try things, and they trust that they can do this safely and with a fair chance of success. Then I invite them, perhaps incite them, but the choice is always theirs. Experience shows that if that’s done right, people will reliably test their limits, wherever they happen to be. Then they will do this again and again, with growing pleasure. That’s experience with adults.

The downside, in a way: People quickly get used to these conditions, and they get very sensitive about them. Perhaps they have conquered some of their learner autonomy, which would be great. But if they feel pushed, they express it, and more often than not I must concede that I have gone too far.

What I fail to see is how this connects with “comprehensible output”.

16 07 2010
English Raven

One of the annoyingly good things about your posts, Scott, is that they stick in my head for days after reading and contributing to them, and somewhere in the fluids at the back of my teaching brain, things change or take on clarity. 🙂

I mentioned a preference for the term “move” over “push” earlier on, but I then grappled (as per your prompt to me about what teachers actually do (then), if learners are responsible for all the momentum) for days for the right term to describe what I feel it is that good teachers do as “agents” within the classroom and learning dynamic.

I’ve finally found the word:

A couple of dictionary definitions that help me along with this label:

– To make a controlled series of changes in movement or direction toward an objective
– To shift ground; change tactics
– To use stratagems in gaining an end

– To direct through a series of movements or changes in course
– To manipulate into a desired position or toward a predetermined goal

From a teaching perspective, the intransitive definitions there work for me in terms of what teachers (can) do in their overall approach to subtly affect learning outcomes. The transitive definitions are a fair account of what I think good teachers think about when it comes to actually influencing the learners directly.

Thanks for encouraging me to think about this more deeply. I feel like I have identified something reasonably solid within my teaching/learning belief system!

– Jason

16 07 2010
Angela Buckingham

Yes, I really agree with Jason’s first comment- this discussion has been rolling around in my head these last few days and I’m enjoying grappling with all the comments made here. Right now I’m involved with giving feedback to trainee teachers in Week 2 of their CELTA course- and what I like here is the way Scott has explicitly described visible teaching behaviours which is something that newbie teachers can actually see/ comprehend.
And ‘manouevre’ is a great way to describe this phenomenon! (I can see all sorts of driving test analogies coming in here- mirror, signal etc..). It seems to me that this is a valuable teaching skill that can be, up to a point, taught. It’s something specific that helps new teachers move away from anxieties over their own performance and shifts emphasis onto what your learners are actually producing and reacting to that.

I’m really enjoying this discussion 🙂

16 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jason, for your reflections and for ‘manouevering’ the discussion on to your preferred verb (although ‘manouevre’ will never catch on because it’s so hard to spell!) As Angela points out below, ‘manouevre’ has interesting connotations (driving, military…) but I’m not entirely convinced it captures the spirit of ‘challenge’ that I am looking for.

I remember that one of my most persistent complaints, as a DELTA examiner, was the lack of any category in the observation checklist that required the examiner to judge the extent to which the observed lesson challenged the students. So many of the lessons I saw played safe, and were pitched well within the students’ present level of competence. This ensured that the lessons went very smoothly, so that you came out having ticked all the right boxes, but at the same time you were left with the residual suspicion that the learners were not really any better off at the end of the lesson than they were at the beginning. Has anyone else experienced that?

17 07 2010
English Raven

Obviously, my sense of maneuver/manoeuvre is a broad overall approach to a whole range of issues, of which “challenge” is only one…

But I am glad you returned to that word “challenge” because, while some would see “push” as just another form of challenge, I think there are different (broader, more positive) connotations if we identify our central role as being about “challenging” the students.

This brought to mind a very common sequence of events that used to occur in early classes with very young learners. I always got the children colouring and drawing in the earliest lessons, and set myself up as the Colour Pencil Emperor.

A child would approach and say “pencil”. Once this important piece of vocabulary was verified and in use, in follow up classes, instead of giving the child the whole pack, I would choose one pencil at random and hand it to him/her. A look of slight frustration would follow, to which I would respond with “oh, you wanted a pencil? Red’s not good? Did you want A blue pencil? Something else?” Another slightly frustrated look. “Perhaps you wanted colour pencilS?” (gesture with hand to indicate a sweep of the whole pack). Yes, yes: delighted nod.

In following lessons, I would repeat this process and most children quickly learned to ask for “colour pencilS” when they wanted a whole pack to take back to their table. The incentive was there for those who wanted to get on with things and just get colouring – pencils arrive in the plural sense a whole lot quicker when you ask for them in the plural. Even for those who took longer to get this, they were getting a lot of valuable additional language input with the extra questions and comments surrounding the routine – peripheral aspects which fit in with and support the notion of plural forms.

I would also manipulate this situation to teach “please”. The child who came up and said (brusquely) “I want pencils” would get a slightly offended look from me, while the one who came up and said “I want pencils, please” would get a happy and cheerful expression as the pencils were handed over. The follow up (in later classes) to that was that without “please” a child would be asked cheerfully to go to the back of the line up of students waiting for pencils “because it’s important to ask for things nicely, okay?”

Amazing how quickly they learned to use plurals and manners… Also amazing how much useful and functional language is avoided or missed when teachers just go around and hand out the colour pencils, no matter what the students attempt to say or do with the language!

Now, some would say I am “pushing” the students here, and perhaps they’re right. I think it would be more accurate to say I am challenging them in a reasonably natural way, and maneuvering/manoeuvring the situation and my role and reactions to maximise the opportunities to stretch language but also master it for more appropriate application.

– Jason

3 08 2010

Fascinating discussion. I’m so glad I’ve found this blog.

In my teaching / training context (EFL in Brazil), push, or pull, or move or whatever are givens. So not “pushing” students to produce spoken English is not really an option, largely irrespective of the relative merits of Krashen’s ideas vs. Swain’s. Perhaps in an EFL context, where opportunities to speak English might be confined to the classroom, the “push or not push” dilemma becomes perhaps even less relevant.

Reading all the posts, I got the sense that part of the discomfort with the term “push” might stem from the fact that we’re all worried we might (1) come across as pushy in class and (2) force students to produce language which they’re not developmentally ready to produce – the output equivalent of, say,
i + 2 rather than i + 1. The former category, I think, is related to HOW we push students, whereas the latter is concerned with WHAT we might want them to produce – and this is what worries me.

All the output activities Scott brilliantly described in the initial post, if I understood correctly, are tasks. So all the teaching suggestions (task repetition, public performance etc) Scott sumarizes are ways to address the big pink elephant in the room: given the inherent tension between meaning conveyance under real operating conditions and language “conformity”, what’s the best way to “trap” the target structures through task design and classroom implementation?

This is only part of the story, I think. In mainstream ELT in Brazil (at least in the contexts where I operate) output will probably continue to be “pushed” through controlled practice activities (rather than tasks only) for many years to come. The second P in the PPP -for better AND for worse- is still very much alive.

So maybe any discussion on the relative merits of “push” ought to address this particular issue, I think.


22 06 2011
Maria Teresa Otarola

Scott do you think

“Is it possible to reconcile Krashen and Swain seemingly opposite views as to what constitutes second language acquisition or ‘learning’, as Swain puts it? Or do the two views represent two extremes of both theory and practice?”

22 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Marite, I think it would be difficult to reach a complete reconciliaiton of these two views of language acquisiiton, not least because Krashen sees only a reduced role for production (i.e. output) whereas Swain argues that output serves a number of key functions, and is therefore a necessary condition, for L2 learning. This is not to say that the two theories don’t share a number of core assumptions, e.g. that language acquisition is an emergent and idiosyncratic process that (often) resists direct pedagogical intervention.

23 06 2011
Maria Teresa Otarola

Is there a common thread that link the main models or theories of SLA Sociolinguistic model (Acculturation theory, Nativisation and Accomodation), Linguistic Model, (The variable Competence and Model Discourse theory), Cognitive Models, The monitor model ( Krashen), Mclaughlin’s Information Processing model, The Multidimensional model and processing operations (Clashen, Merisel and Pienenmann), A Neurofunctional theory (Manendella,1979). Could be the ROLE OF INPUT? It has been hard for me to establish any other connections between then. Could you give a hand?

23 06 2011
Scott Thornbury

Marite, I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer as I’m not familiar with some of the models you mention, but they all sound like they are anchored in a cognitivist, “brain-as-limited-capacity-information-processor”, paradigm, in which case they probably share (although differently prioritise) such concepts as input, attention, output, and feedback. A good overview is provided in VanPatten and Williams (eds.) Theories in Second Language Acquisition: An Introduction (Lawrence Erlbaum).

19 01 2013
Chris Bowie

It seems obvious to me. They say that the best way to learn a language is to go and live in that country – because you’re ‘pushed’ to communicate in the target language all the time to fulfil your basic needs. That’s all well and good for the lower levels. Our job as ‘pushers’ becomes more vital when people come to us to help them get beyond the ‘I can basically get by’ stage to the ‘I can communicate effectively and with ease’ stage.

‘Pushing’ people we come across in the street or meet socially would be inappropriate, not pushing people who’ve paid us (directly or indirectly) to help them improve is a dereliction of duty.

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