Cart before the horse?

horse-cart-759743A lot of teachers have been reading a previous post entitled “Faking it”.¬† There I outlined my belief that a lot of students and teachers were, “playing school” and that not as much learning as possible was occuring.

I have another thought to add.

I recently took a poll on EFL Classroom 2.0 about the relative importance of productive vs receptive activities in the classroom. Here are the results.

input output

Most teachers believe that more learning occurs through production rather than reception. Not a surprise to me but I think it unfortunate. Also, a major reason why so much English language teaching is ineffective. I believe that our teaching should weigh on the side of reception (especially in the beginner – intermediate levels) and not production. I think we have the horse before the cart.

I’m reminded of Krashen and a statement he made that has stuck with me over the years. Probably the one statement that really puzzled but then informed me and my own teaching. He said (and I paraphrase);

“speaking is a result of language acquisition not the cause”

Now this IS a contentious issue (and see my Canadian compatriot Merrill Swain’s research on CO – or comprehensible output) but I do agree that most teachers have it wrong, do it wrong. Reception and input (comprehensible input) does lead to quicker and stronger acquisition of language.

I think teachers wrongly have the mindset¬† that speaking and writing are “better” due to several things;

1. the are more “active” and so there is the appearance that acquisition is taking place.

2. a misunderstanding about the difference between learning and acquisition.

3. they want to be “a teacher” and there is a belief that a teacher just doesn’t let the students read books or listen. There is a belief that a teacher must be in control, command, order, engage etc…..

To gain fluency, of course you need to speak and write – but this is the icing on the cake – not the cake itself! It comes later in the process of learning a language.

If you want to be a fluent writer – read a lot.

If you want to be a fluent speaker – listen a lot.

It is that simple and I think a lot of our schools, our teacher training programs etc… have it dead wrong. Also, this is why I believe self directed learning and the use of technology is very effective for learning languages (but like everything, only if done well – and that is where the teacher comes in). Why I’m promoting a lot of online tools and especially working hard to build EnglishCentral.

Now maybe I got it all wrong??? Let me know your thoughts please.

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

3 Responses

  1. Kirsten says:

    Sounds reasonable! I definitely think that some practice of speaking is essential in order to gain confidence in using language we’ve already learnt, but as we learn L1 by generally receiving first, it makes sense to have to listen and read before spending huge chunks of lesson time on it. I’ve felt bad for not doing more communicative things in class with my adult pre-ints, but it is like drawing blood from a stone when I do because they simply do not have the language resources to make a lot of meaningful output. I’m pleased that they manage to express themselves as they do, but they definitely need more input. My young pre-ints (11-14) are very good at speaking and making themselves understood (though they make significant grammatical errors), much more so than adults of the same level, and they kid me into thinking they are more competent than they are. But when I give them a simple enough reading comprehension, they simply can’t detect the message contained in the text. Then they make mistakes in tests that show it’s not all gone in yet.

    I wouldn’t go as far as to take away productive stages in my lessons as I think that “doing” is quite important from an early stage, but reading is essential. And obviously listening, but I hate listening from bad experiences as a learner, so I feel like a hypocrite when I talk about listening.

  2. TEFL101 says:

    If we take as a given that input itself is not sufficient for language acquisition then I think it’s important to remember that input activities can be done in solitary, while classroom time is valuable and needs to be heavily weighted in favour of setting up interactions and organising active student language use.

    You can’t master your golf swing if your only method is watching Tiger Woods doing it. Through a process of selective consolidation the brain subconsciously forgets your bad efforts and implicitly remembers the good ones so that over time you slowly and naturally move to wards a good model.

    Yes, the teacher’s input is vital in facilitating this progression but I think explicit instruction can only go so far and can often get in the way, and that ultimately students need time, practice and repetition to get it right on their own account. There are no shortcuts to becoming a good speaker or writer.

  3. ddeubel says:


    I’ve been there – listening isn’t easy to teach nor focus on! The most undervalued and under practiced part of language teaching. I know from my own experience, it was kind of because I, the teacher, seemed out of place and rather useless. There is a lot of “dead space” and teachers, especially beginning teachers are so so fearful of that. And I think that is what brings so many teachers to NOT focus on input so much – a kind of fear. I’m sure other teachers have felt it – during test taking, while students “DEAR” (drop everything and read)etc… You just feel out of place and like you aren’t teaching. It is hard for us to keep being the traditional command and control teacher.

    Point taken about children , yls needing to be active. I agree. But I think input can come with activity. For example – the infamous TPR method is really “input” reinforced by making hand/body actions. I think we do need both input/output but crucial is input – and that’s why ESL students don’t need so much attention to input. They can get it in the community, from peers. But they do need more academic input.


    Point taken also. I think all students and teachers should take that to heart (and as a teacher, communicate that to parents, students) – there are no shortcuts. And too – the point about valuable classtime, so the need to focus on production where we have people to practice with! That is an important reason there is a focus on output. However, I really think that IF the objective is fluency, we need that input prior to attempting lots of role plays, discussions etc…. I think even valuable class time should focus on input. The major successes in programs I’ve seen in Canada and Korea (and in Korea there is a group called ssukssuk moms – where their children only read, read, read with vocab. support) all focused on intensive input.

    However, I think you example of Tiger Woods is a little misleading. Speaking is physical and a skill but of a different order I believe. And there are linguists that do believe you can learn language with only input. It is during output that you polish it. I know it is an extreme example but some savants have learned languages fluently from only reading newspapers and watching TV. Google Daniel Tammet, he’s one of the famous ones. It’s true. And also think how a baby learns language, to borrow from L1 acquisition. And Swain’s own research doesn’t dispute the primacy of input. I do agree though, students do benefit from a variety of experiences and going through that trial and error you described.

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