I is for Input

8 01 2012

Question: where does the input come from in an approach like task-based learning, or Dogme, where there is no syllabus of forms as such, and in which any focus on form is incidental?

This is the gist of the question sent to me a short while back by Anthony Elloway:

My concern about Dogme … is this – is the input rich enough?… My intuition is that, though there are advantages to working with student output, bringing more language into the class seems to be very valuable. And a coursebook – if given life by a teacher – might just do this job… Having an external syllabus/ coursebook does seem to provide a great deal of (organised) input for learners, perhaps more than the learners could produce themselves.

Good question. One possible answer is that the input comes – not just from the learners’ output – but from the texts that they (or the teacher) bring to class. Texts would certainly enrich the input quotient.

But the problem still remains that the form focus is incidental, in the sense that it is not necessarily pre-determined by a structural (or lexical or functional etc) syllabus.  And not just incidental, but – with teachers whose language analysis skills are still rudimentary – it’s more likely to be accidental.

Roy Lyster, in putting the case for ‘a counterbalanced approach’ (in a book referred to in a previous post), sees a similar danger in content-based teaching (i.e. of the CLIL type), and cites  research that suggests that, in content-based teaching, ‘attention to language is too brief and likely too perfunctory to convey sufficient information about certain grammatical subsystems and thus … can be considered neither systematic nor apt to make the most of content-based instruction as a means of teaching language’ (2007, p. 27).

It’s true: as teachers we know that, when a really good conversation is up and running, the last thing we want to do is wade in and correct errors or suggest better ways of saying the same thing. Yet it is precisely at these moments that, allegedly, corrective feedback is at its most effective.

Michael Swan (2005), in a withering critique of task-based learning, makes a similar argument to Lyster’s, but even more forcefully:

I suggest that naturalistically-biased approaches are, in important respects, pedagogically impoverished, favouring the development of what is already known at the expense of the efficient teaching of new language.

That is to say, where there is no pre-selected input, the existing ‘pool’ of language just goes round and round. He adds:

It is difficult to see how, in many classrooms, interaction can reliably promote the acquisition of new material during task performance. Unless the teacher is the interlocutor, task-based interaction may more easily uncover gaps than bridge them.

Of course, there is no reason why the teacher can’t be the interlocutor, and a Dogme approach has always argued for the teacher being a co-participant in the conversation. But, clearly, the teacher’s ability to provide optimal input is a function of class size, not to mention their classroom management and language management skills.

But can’t learners provide each other with input?  Swan accepts that there is some evidence that  learners can pick up new language items from one another, but rejects this as being a sound basis for a methodology: ‘If one was seeking an efficient way of improving one’s elementary command of a foreign language, sustained conversation and linguistic speculation with other elementary learners would scarcely be one’s first choice’.

Nor, for that matter, would being subjected solely to teacher-fronted grammar explanations be one’s first choice either, especially where the grammar being explained has been selected arbitrarily from a pre-established syllabus, and bears little or no relation to one’s communicative needs.

Hence Lyster’s argument for a counterbalance: ‘Both proactive and reactive approaches need to be counterbalanced in complementary ways’ (p. 137).

How? Lyster argues for the inclusion, within a meaning-driven approach, of more form-focused options. These would include explicit attention to form, through noticing and awareness tasks, plus practice activities for production, and explicit feedback on error.

Would the inclusion of form-focused interventions such as these circumvent the need for a coursebook and, by extension, a pre-determined syllabus of grammar McNuggets?  I hope so.  But, for those teachers who opt for a more experiential methodology, such as Dogme, a counterbalanced approach may require more rigour, and more finely-honed teaching skills, than are normally required either teaching from a coursebook or simply chatting with the students.

Or is the term ‘input’ itself a non-starter? Isn’t it a relic of a mechanistic, computational metaphor of the mind that is giving way to a more ecological one?  Shouldn’t we be thinking less of input as such, and more about the learning opportunities that become available in authentic language use – in other words, the affordances (for which see the previous post)?


Lyster, R. (2007) Learning and Teaching Languages through Content: A Counterbalanced Approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Swan, M. (2005). Legislation by Hypothesis: The Case of Task-Based Instruction. Applied Linguistics, 26 (3): 376-401.

Illustrations from Oxenden, C., and Seligson, P. (1996). English File 1: Students’s Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



30 responses

8 01 2012
Adam Simpson

I like this notion of counterbalance. I feel a danger with a longitudinal dogme approach has always been that the teacher would need to be particularly diligent in reflecting on what has happened in class so as to enable development to occur, rather than allowing the emergent language to merely become periodically *re-emergent*. Any thoughts?

Additionally, as someone who works in a CLIL environment and who often struggles to get the balance between content and grammar right, I’m interested to see what others say about this.

8 01 2012

Hi Adam,

It’s interesting to me that the word de-velop means something like uncover, isn’t it? With that in mind, could we say language learner development means language learners uncover the patterns of grammar and lexis they need to effectively communicate. And could we propose they do this through noticing and awareness tasks, practice activities for production and explicit feedback on error (as mentioned in Scott’s post)?

As for a balance between content and grammar, I don’t think there will ever be one; one will always weigh in more than the other, which, I believe, is natural and healthy for learning. Getting the right mix is, for me, more important, ie adding ingredients to suit the tastes and needs of the learners.

Hope that makes sense. Thanks for asking these important questions.


8 01 2012

Where does the student come into this? The students bring their own expectations into the classroom and, in my opinion, a good teacher has to take these expectations into account.

When I was Director of a language school, 90% of the complaints I got from students were that there was “not enough grammar”. We solved that by giving every student a copy of the Lewis and Hill grammar book for personal study.

It could be argued that that was a peculiarly French situation.

However, now I work as an online author I have a variety of sites. But the ones that provide me with an income are the grammar sites. I have lots of students from 150 countries all choosing to spending their personal time to find out more about grammar.

You also have to take into account the phenomenal success of Murphy, a book that is mainly bought by students, not schools.

My view is that a lot of the work on form can be done outside the classroom and that the classroom should be used for probably more beneficial activities.

However, please don’t leave the students out of this discussion. Their needs and expectations have to be taken into account.


8 01 2012

I would agree with you about the grammar. We can have great discussions etc. but my students all say we want more grammar. I have an English assistant in one of my classes and he says they don’t need grammar. If ever we have ten minutes left the students all call out for grammar!!

9 01 2012
James Thomas

This “grammar excursion” is not exactly the Input of this discussion, however, these points raise two questions in my mind, the second may be rhetorical:
1. what do students think Grammar actually is?
2. where does their desire for more of it come from?

9 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Good questions, James – and makes me wonder if Man Friday pleaded for more grammar from Robinson Crusoe (see the last post on affordances). Something tells me not. Is grammar, then, part of the baggage from previous educational experience? I suspect so.

9 01 2012

Or the desire for ‘grammar’ might be more an understanding of the system of the target language – how it works, why, and how they can make it work for them! Puzzle lovers and gamers, in particular, are interested in this!

9 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Pearson, for the comment. I don’t think what you describe is a peculiarly French situation, no. Learners everywhere expect a didactic component in their classes. The trick then, in a more experiential approach, is to flag the grammar when it occurs, so that the learners know that it HAS occurred. This could involve everything from saying ‘Now write that down in your grammar notebook’ to ‘Let’s tick that one on the grammar checklist’ (referring to a large chart on the wall) to ‘Let’s look that one up in Murphy and choose some homework exercises for later’.

8 01 2012
Arthur Elfin Chiang

Our students are often the greatest resources we can tap into. While we can spend time to prepare using whatever resources we can get, let’s remember to teach the students and not the lesson plan.

8 01 2012

What grammar books would you recommend for a teacher who is looking to successfully segue her Dogme – based lessons? (provided that there is an ideal order in which grammar could be presented within the larger structure of the lessons). I think this could prove useful for other teachers who have trouble with ‘counterbalancing’, which by the way is an apt term and a great idea.

9 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Margo, I’m assuming you’re asking for a grammar reference book (that the teacher can consult in order to check his/her grammar knowledge) – or are you looking for a book you could actually use in class, at those moments when you feel an explicit focus on (grammatical) form is appropriate? In terms of the former, Michael Swan’s Practical English Usage (OUP) is probably as good as any. In terms of the latter, it will depend on the level, and on the variety of English (General American or BrE, for example), but there is no shortage of student grammars on the market, and I don’t have any personal favourites.

Not sure that I understand the point about there being an ideal order in which grammar could be presented in a Dogme lesson. Technically, it wouldn’t be presented at all, not in any pre-meditated way. Rather it would be dealt with reactively, as problems come up or as the need for it arises. But this ‘incidental’ focus is exactly what Lyster is nervous about, and Swan is outright dismissive about.

8 01 2012

I have to agree with Swan, even though, being true to himself, he comes from a purely grammatical perspective and means grammar when he says “new material”. But I guess his critique can apply to lexis too. Little learning would take place without some pre-selected input, whether is it K1 words for beginners to get to some threshold level where they can read or sentence adverbs for advanced levels to help them express their attitude or opinion.
So I am definitely for a counter-balance especially if the pro-active approach is taken to teaching lexis and the reactive approach to dealing with grammar.

9 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Hi Leo, thanks for the comment. I tend to agree with you about lexis, especially where this stretches to include lexical phrases. A healthy diet of these from the outset will equip the learner with a bridgehead into the grammar, as well as into fluency. The question that intigues me is: is there a critical mass of lexis (words and phrases) that you need before grammar starts to emerge, and/or before grammar can be successfully ‘extracted’ (e.g. with a more interventionist approach)? In L1 acquisition this seems to be the case. But of course it’s always dangerous to extrapolate from L1 to L2.

8 01 2012

“Or is the term ‘input’ itself a non-starter? Isn’t it a relic of a mechanistic, computational metaphor of the mind that is giving way to a more ecological one?” I think it is a relic of that metaphor though still a popular metaphor in this ‘digital age’.

Reading this interesting article, Scott, makes me keenly aware of how much language the learners I work with bring in and discover through their immersion in an English-speaking environment. As an ESL teacher, I might enjoy an advantage that my EFL colleagues do not since there are potentially more affordances offered here. That said, I often must remind these learners to fully exploit this language (L2) rich environment and share with them how to go about it (eg, conversation skills, cultural traits, exploring relationships outside their circle of L1-speaking friends).


9 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Rob. Yes, there is – or was – a big difference in terms of input affordances in an ESL context than an EFL one, although I think that the internet and mass media have gone some way towards narrowing this gap. But in both contexts – as you say – the learners might need to be ‘reminded’ (or ‘coerced’?) to take advantage of these affordances.

9 01 2012
James Thomas

I often find it useful to think about these issues from the point of view of a language learner, which most of us are.

No matter the input, it’s what we do with it, I find. There’s a lot more to focussing on form than deriving grammar rules and topic based vocab extension. Learners (us and them) can observe affixes, chunks as lexical strings as well as their role in phonology, pragmatic devices (e.g. politeness), cultural references and a wide range of other linguistic resources that add up to and lead to improved foreign language use.

So even if the input in a Dogme or TBL segment or lesson or course might not be as “rich” as reading a text that Krashen might label I +1, a great deal can be gained from it. Nunan’s “Adapt the task not the language” is helpful here.

So when I have to write an email in a foreign language, the process of output raises countless questions, not just Gr and Vocab, but such things as politeness and chunks that correspond to the English one in my mind.

9 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks James: I find your comment somewhat reassuring, and it reminds me that it is output that drives input (if we’re going to use these contentious terms). That is to say, it is the need to communicate a particular meaning that sends us scurrying to the dictionary, or to the grammar reference book, or to Google Translate. And, if you’re in the classroom, to the teacher or to other students. It is also the experience of communicating that creates a feedback loop, and feedback is another form of input. Having one’s messages (i.e. one’s output) understood, misunderstood, or corrected consitutes input. And so it goes on.

So perhaps the best engine to drive classroom learning (to stick with the mechanistic metaphor) is the need to communicate something. Viva Dogme!

9 01 2012

Nunan’s “Adapt the task not the language” is helpful here.

+1 !!!!!!

9 01 2012

It might be worth looking at some of the “less commonly taught” languages when considering a “dogme approach” or looking at alternative forms of curriculum. I teach Indonesian, and we’ve got slim pickings when it comes to course books! So it’s just a given that we design our own learning programmes and not rely on any set text.

Further, we use an outcomes-based curriculum here in Western Australia and although in recent years they (the Education Department) has given a “scope and sequence” it’s largely ignored by Indonesian language teachers because it just doesn’t suit our learners (e.g. why would you spend a term on “the weather” when it’s either wet or it’s dry?? No-one talks about the weather in Indonesia!).

In our Curriculum Framework, we have 6 outcomes for Languages: 1) Writing; 2) Viewing, Reading and Responding; 3) Listening and Responding, and Speaking (these 3 outcomes are assessed and sequenced); 4) Cultural Understandings; 5) System of the Target Language; and 6) Language Learning Strategies (these 3 outcomes are unassessed and unsequenced and included in all learning activities). It works well for multi-leveled (differentiated) classes! There is no set content, rather teachers (and learners) are responsible for designing language learning activities. I just did a whole semester around the theme of “MasterChef Indonesia”, for instance, using episodes of the show (from Indonesia) and the format itself for my own classes (invention tests, mystery boxes, pressure tests, masterclasses, etc.) 🙂 Lots of fun and lots and lots of immersive language learning, without a course book.

I couldn’t imagine teaching to a set syllabus because my classes are just so multi-leveled – everyone from raw beginners, those who have done a bit in primary school, right up to background speakers! It totally depends on context… but I encourage people to check out what’s going on here in Australia for some examples of dogme and task based approaches 🙂

9 01 2012

I found your reply very interesting. Thank you.

9 01 2012

Anne says:

“If ever we have ten minutes left the students all call out for grammar!!”

Do they really mean grammar, or lexical chunks I wonder? My observation is that students really desire the latter (thinking it is called “grammar”). Where is the divide between lexis and grammar anyway? Arguably there isn’t one (see Michael Lewis and the Lexical Approach). In my lesson this morning for instance, we were picking out and focusing on language from a recording on the topic of new year’s resolutions, which included “hold someone to account”, “to commit (yourself) to doing sth”, “to have the best will in the world”, and so on. Is this grammar or lexis? I think it depends on how you teach them.

As regards the issue of input, I actually really disagree with Swan when he suggests that a student-based model of input “favours the development of what is already known at the expense of the efficient teaching of new language”. Firstly, my experience is that students (beyond a complete beginner level) are untapped goldmines when it comes to input. The question, of course, is about how to successfully untap this. Secondly, when students bring input to the classroom, there is always room to explore it and take it further; in other words, to refine and upgrade their existing – but imperfect – knowledge rather than flooding them with totally new input. For instance, let’s say a student uses the verb form “to commit (oneself) to doing sth”, and the student uses this appropriately, this does not at all mean that there is no point in explicitly focusing on this after – or during – the discussion. Some students in the group might know it already, some might have heard it but have an unclear understanding of it, others won’t have come across it at all; yet even the student who used it accurately may not know how to use it in a wide variety of contexts, or know when it’s not appropriate to use it, and so on. In this case, part the teacher’s role will be to get the other students to really notice the language, tease out its range of meanings (what it collocates with, what contexts we would tend to use it in etc.), focus on related linguistic variations (“make a commitment”, “to be a committed person” etc.) and draw students to its formal possibilities and limitations. It seems to me that there’s more than enough for an interesting lesson in that one lexical chunk alone.

9 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Wes, for that insightful, well argued comment. I just want to reinforce the point you make, that “when students bring input to the classroom, there is always room to explore it and take it further;” This is such an important skill, and I wonder if it gets sufficient attention on training courses (pre- or inservice) or whether it’s simply a question of experience. I also think that online reference tools, such as corpora, dictionaries etc, are becoming more user-friendly by the day, and – in a smart classroom, or where students have their own access to the internet, the possibilities for ‘exploration’ are increased enormously. To take your example – try typing ‘commit’ into the search window on this site, and see what you get! http://nav.stringnet.org/

10 01 2012

I agree with Wes (and disagree with Swan) that other learners are a huge source of interesting, relevant and valuable input. As you highlight, Scott, it’s a matter of knowing how to bring it out and expand on it.

Other thoughts: a) One way to tap the goldmine is to have a room full of people who use each others’ names, know a little bit about each others’ lives, and want to hear what their fellow students have to say. This won’t happen in a classroom where the prevailing attitude is “talking to my classmates is scarcely my first choice”. b) Unless learners are planning to communicate exclusively with English teachers, they need to practice getting comprehensible input from a variety of “imperfect” sources. And to make themselves clear in less-than-optimal situations. These skills and strategies can be developed through talking to other learners. c) We learn from hearing and making unsuccessful attempts at communicating, too. Don’t we?

9 01 2012

So many interesting points raised here…I feel like I could feast on them for days! I would like to pick up on one point in Anthony’s initial query:

‘Having an external syllabus/ coursebook does seem to provide a great deal of (organised) input for learners, perhaps more than the learners could produce themselves.’

I am a seriously disorganised person and anything but systematic so not an expert on this at all and as a teacher (and responsible adult 😉 ) I have to be aware of and check these tendencies or there will be a long queue outside the DOS office. When I started teaching the coursebook provided the structure and systematicity for me, but i began to realise not necessarily for my students. I wanted to tailor my classes to the linguistic and affective needs of the students sat in front of me and the structures/lexis in the book(s) and the approach(es) it took just didn’t do this. I tried conducting a needs analysis, adapting/cherry picking the book, task-based learning, a lexical approach, but the driving force and direction my courses took was still heavily influenced by the syllabus, structures (if not always the materials) in the coursebook. I wasn’t teaching to my students agenda, but i was providing a sort of meaning driven approach with more form focused options. I just wasn’t satisfied and someone pointed me in the direction of Dogme.

So to cut a long story short… here are the things a disorganised and anything but systematic teacher needed in order to attempt to provide organised input whilst working with student output; a needs analysis, a retrospective timetable, a tracking mechanism for course content and student progress, frequent recall/revision slots etc. Mostly organisational strategies that may come naturally to some people. But the thing that quite a number of my students wanted/needed and that I found incredibly difficult to provide was the kind of catalogue view of the student output (the course content) so I could hone in and help them categorise and collate the language they were learning. The answer for me came from reading ‘Rules, patterns and words’ (Willis). My interpretation was that my students needed more system building tasks – the kind of tasks that sometimes occur in coursebooks (more often in exam books) that explicitly focus on a structure(s)/patterns/class and help students organise, question, confirm, and add to what they know. To do this you need tools to capture student output (e.g dictaphones/classroom corpus/good student notebooks) so that you can revisit it and build tasks around it. Is this the kind of intervention Lyster refers to or is it still within the spirit of dogme?

9 01 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mel, for that fascinating account of your developmental trajectory – it’s always interesting to hear how different teachers in different contexts adapt to their learners’ needs and style, especially when they realise that the coursebook is not going to do the adapting for them!

What you describe – in terms of your ‘form-focused’ course content – sounds to me exactly the kind of interventions that Lyster is recommending, and also very much in the spirit of Dogme – or, at least, of the heavy-duty Dogme that I seem to be calling for.

I’m glad that you’ve been influenced by Dave Willis’s book, which is a favourite of mine, too. Maybe you could briefly explain (for the benefit of those who don’t have the book) what you mean by ‘system building tasks’. This would help flesh out your excellent taxonomy of ‘interventions’, and perhaps encourage other teachers to take the steps you have taken, without any loss of ‘sytematicity’.

9 01 2012

Thank you Wes for your inspiring answer.

12 01 2012

Reblogged this on IheartELT and commented:
Great post by Scott Thornbury. In my experience, the key is to find the right balance (based on the learning style and needs of the each group or learner) between ‘proactive’ and ‘reactive’ language focus. Now check out Scott’s post!

14 01 2012
Kevin Stein

Thoughtful post. Wrote a short post on my blog as well touching on some of these issues. One point Michael makes in his article is how the level of the student impact the style and content of the class. His point that a lower level student needs to be explicitly taught some of the grammar needed to take the first communicative steps is, I think, right on and the fact that student level is rarely touched upon in most of the theoretical musings also, in my readings, seems to be true.

Actually I’ve been pretty heartned by the practical nature of a lot of articles I’ve been reading lately. A lot of the work by Paul Nation (especially his 4-Strands) seems to me to be a recalibration of how to structure a program to find the right balance to help students integrate the what and the how of English.

18 01 2012

Sorry I didn’t get back sooner… What is system building? Well a while back I worked on this with a few of my colleagues. We were trying to understand Willis’s terms (inc: recognition, system building & exploration) and see if we could make tasks for the classroom. (These were using materials though) This ended up as a couple of td sessions. See the link below and click on the sessions mats for ‘Going deeper into text’ and ‘Using TextStat’ :

Essentially our interpretation of system building is:

One that encourages learners to hypothsise about how the grammatical, lexical or phonological systems work.

So they use what they know and examples to try to work out the system. One simple example of this might be a categorising task. This works quite well for establishing patterns. For example:

ss discuss presents they have given/received. Good ones, bad ones etc.

teacher boards ss language with give /buy

f/b on content followed by ss categorising the sentences and identifying the pattern (give to/ buy for)

The same can be done using examples that you or the students collect over the week (using text stat as a classroom corpus) and/or texts students bring in.

Hope that helps

14 10 2013
Philip Quick Republic of Moldova

This post also should mention the dilemma that teachers using course work books often have text in them with vocab that’s gonna be totally USELESS for their students!!!!
Hence in many cases students can often bring in text WAY better and closer to their world.
Don’t also forget that many course work books are a minimum of 3-5 years in publication, in our fast changing society their topics often date quickly,don’t they?

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