This article was published on the ELT NEWS website, Japan as part of the ‘Think Tank’ regular feature in 2004.
How can we increase language output both inside and outside the classroom?
You could call this ‘How do you teach English?’ because using a language actively is the only way to learn it. I always focus on speaking as the first and most important skill in the classroom. So, the whole range of classroom techniques and strategies is involved with maximising and increasing language output within the class. The ways of maximising language output are basic and often repeated – plenty of pair work and group work. Reduce TTT (teacher talking time), increase STT (student talking time). This can be done even in controlled phases, and in lesson observation it’s always great to see a teacher use interactive questioning fluently and easily (see the intro to any of my teachers’ books). Silence, as Marc Helgesen says, is vital, and this can be as simple as allowing thinking time before selecting someone to respond in question work or drills or pronunciation work.
Outside the classroom is the hard part, especially in Japan. While it’s easy to list ways of practising receptive skills (as we did last month), it’s harder to see how to practise productive skills. Foreign visitors quickly get used to schoolkids calling out ‘Hello-How-Are-You’ which shows that the will to practise is there, even at a formulaic level that precedes dissolving into giggles. This doesn’t happen much elsewhere. I thought it was because we foreigners stood out so sharply in Japan, but I guess that we must stand out just as sharply in Thailand or Mexico, where it happens far less often.
You can develop your receptive skills by keeping your eyes and ears open for each and every manifestation of the target language, but few people have the personality to practise speaking skills when they just happen to meet a foreigner – which might not be very often at all outside the major city centres. Some do, as I can attest from several plane and train journeys, but conversation dies when they say ‘What do you do?’ and I mention teaching, or writing English language text books! And anyway, a three hour plane journey back from Italy was not improved by having to answer detailed vocabulary questions about ‘King Lear’ from the earnest Italian student in the next seat. Especially as I didn’t know so many of the answers.
The use of internet chat rooms practises productive skills (just as pen-friends were meant to do twenty years ago). This only helps students at the higher levels. A few years ago a lot of work was done on websites that would enable students to pair up to work on material, so that a Japanese could be paired with a Brazilian for example. The idea failed due to the inequality of internet use in different countries, as well as the vastly different experience of language learning. There are specialist sites however. Some cities may have clubs and forums for practising English, but as far as I know it’s rare to see them except as part of a private language school.
There seems to be a demand for basic simple repetition and drill work which courses are starting to provide on audio. Not exciting nor novel, but still useful. The mail order language courses all work on the Encylopedia / Part Work optimism principle. People buy a 24 cassette course in the fond belief that they will perservere to the end. In Britain if you look at the courses donated to charity shops you can see that cassettes 3 to 24 in the series have never been taken out of their cases. ‘One at a time’ is a good principle to adopt for these audio back-up materials, and they really only work as support to a course rather than a replacement for a course. For years there have been separate self-study courses and proper language courses. Self-study materials are important, but really come into their own as an integrated add-on to a course with a teacher.