Input, output and focus on form

I have been using it like a mantra this last month or so, but am I  overextending it ?  I first saw input, output and a focus on form set out in Skehan as I trained up to be a Delta tutor. I loved that book. I had ploughed doggedly through a lot of SLA theory (Ellis, McLaughlin, Rutherford) and read rather more easily a lot of more practical ELT authors (Lewis, Nunan, Richards) and there seemed to be a gulf between the theoretical and the practical that I was failing to build any bridges across. Skehan provided the bridges for me, showed me how theory (at  least sometimes) underpinned practical approaches that felt instinctively right.

Then later I built some of the staging that Skehan had led me through into sessions about SLA and I still use it in Module One slots that connect underlying beliefs, practical approaches and lesson shapes and feed into Paper Two tasks two and three. The first session takes teachers along the path of what you need to learn a language (input, output and noticing) and the second session picks this up again with Jane Willis’s exposure, use and instruction as they work through activities about why her version of task-based learning has the shape that it does. So because the input. output and a focus on form thing has been come back to through an afternoon again and again, it is easy to elicit and exploit later on and even in the next Module.

I was trying to bring it back in during the Module Two sessions on presenting new language (in this case, the sessions that set up and support grammar LSAs, but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that it should be the idea behind any lesson). It also fits with the perennial Module Two observation question of ‘what changed ?’ At the end of the 50 minutes what do they know or can they do (or do better) that they didn’t know or couldn’t do at the beginning ? Something new should have come in (as input), they should be aware of what it was (as students and teachers alike may well do activities and go home entertained, but none the wiser if you don’t draw attention to what has been done and why) and they should have had a chance to play with it / practice it / try it out for themselves. I think I’d stand by that pattern as a basic requirement for any lesson.

So why is it so hard to do ? I ask that question not just fresh from watching early unassessed lessons, but from realising that I failed to do it myself quite spectacularly and quite recently.

And can you extend it to teaching anything ? Should it be true for all training ? Could it be true for other areas ? Subjects ? If you don’t do it, does it stop being teaching and become lecturing ? Am I about to disappear down a rabbit hole as I realise I might need to define teaching at this point …

Is it hard to do and why ? In a 50 minute language lesson or in one (or even two) Delta input sessions, sometimes, yes. Watching early unassessed lessons and listening to tutors and teachers talk about what happened in their lessons, one very common theme is ‘it was too teacher centred and the timing went wrong and they never got to (or got very little of)  the practice / output’..

Maybe though, it isn’t so much a result of teachers generally being teacher centred and not taking enough account of a need for output or focus on form, but just a result of timing and trying to do something new. While they have usually ‘done’ the focuses they teach for LSAs at some point before, they have rarely looked at them in this way, in this depth, or tried to present them under quite these circumstances and with quite so many factors to bear in mind as they do for assessed observations.

I did the comprehension and reading and listening sessions on Module One in the autumn. I haven’t delivered them since 2008 when we went modular, but there were last minute schedule changes and I figured it would be good to do something I don’t usually do (fresh eyes on the material and good for me).

It was interesting to try and work out what I thought should be in there (and if it still was) and how to add to things so they could be run without the power points, and it made me read. I read Hudson on reading (which had been sitting on my pile to be read for ages) and went back into quite a few books and articles that I hadn’t looked at for some years. And it had to be done under the same kind of time constraints that teachers operate under with LSAs, which reminds a person of what that feels like. Reading, shaping and writing nearly three hours of input on top of all the usual day jobs ends up slightly adrenaline fuelled as time ticks by, and it ticked by quite fast and I had a general idea of what I wanted to cover (see content at the bottom of the first page here) and on the day had the plan in that document and the handouts. So a session existed and when I went into it I was feeling quite pleased with myself about having figured out what to include, found ideas and examples to illustrate things and having read so much.

I came out frustrated that it hadn’t matched up with my general intent, that there had been too much information, not enough clear and simple steps to take teachers through to my ends, not enough ‘output’ and a distinct lack of well-prepared, clearly staged questions to get pennies to drop with regard to exactly what they had done. They only had limited opportunities to apply things and those  they did have were not structured enough to make it easy for them to do it with confidence … a classic first unassessed lesson.

Looking at the session notes now, I can see all of that.

Looking at them even the next day I could see all of that.

But then doing feedback with teachers after lessons, they can often see the same things.

So why couldn’t I see it before I did the session ? Time didn’t help, but it wasn’t the only culprit. It is hard to keep new(ish)  focuses small enough to be really practical and to enable a person to fit input, output and a focus on form into one (or in this case two) lessons. It is also easy to become entranced by the new and interesting. I had lots in there that I hadn’t thought about for ages and coming back to it gave it a more coherent shape, but many of the teachers hadn’t been introduced to the concepts for the first time around and I needed to do that much more clearly, not build from where I was but from where they were.

I will put myself down for it again this spring (one reason why many of the sessions work well is that when you do them over again you can tweak and refine till they are right – not a luxury the teachers get with their LSAs).

I should include fewer of the things I found interesting, work out the bones of the concept of comprehension and offer them up in a format that delivers all the information (matching / jigsaws) and requires a bit less pattern spotting / generation of concepts by the teachers in groups. This would leave more time for the stages where they were supposed to apply what we had just covered (and those stages need to be more structured). The embarrassing part of which being how often I have said things on these lines in the last three weeks to people who had been trying to find their way to delivering a Delta style lesson on something : ‘your overall concept was fine, but you need clearer and simpler steps to get the learners to it and it would be nice if all were taking away some kind of concrete version of what they have done so those who needed to could go back over things that were hard to grasp in the lesson.’

I’m glad I did it though. It highlighted lots of things for me.

It made me get on and change round the schedule for this current Module Two. Sessions will get written (however busy we are) and having been reminded of what was important made it more pressing than ever to rearrange sessions so there was more scope to focus on smaller and more practical things (yes, they need to know about areas that are developing and approaches and techniques they may not be using, but if basic classroom management and staging like the input, output and focus on form elements are not there, then no amount of newly coined technique will make a lesson productive).

I have managed to remember lessons learnt from that session in rewrites of the presentation of language session (above) and the Module Two reading and listening sessions, both of which have had much larger practical application stages in them.

It has spurred me to keep trying to put together the overview of how all the Modules fit together and how they match up with the syllabus – that’s going to be a long time in the finishing though.

It leaves me feeling a great deal of empathy with teachers going through this process of seeing how much there is to be worked out in any given focus.

It makes me think I should not be resting on sessions that do work, but should keep trying to put myself into ones I have not done before. I learn so much more.

(I did rewrite comprehension in the spring – new version hereApril2014

Skehan, P. 1998 A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning OUP

Willis, J. 1996 A Framework for Task Based Learning Longman

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