Output in my classroom

In my last post, I got off on a tangent about student output. It turns out that I have a lot of thoughts on student output in the classroom…

I have been thinking about this post for a while. I haven’t been able to come up with a good angle to talk about output and its place in the novice/elementary classroom…

…And then 2 things happened: first, I saw our Social Studies teacher’s bulletin board display of student work. It is for her 7th Grade Civics class and it is all about the Bill of Rights. Each of the Amendments has its own poster created by the students. They look beautiful and informative. And when I looked closer, I saw something that put all my thoughts on output into perspective:

There were grammar and spelling errors in almost all of them.

If there can be space for errors in spelling and grammar in the students’ first language, why can’t there be space for errors in the students’ second language?

The second thing that helped me to focus this post was going back and reading my previous posts on Non-Targeted Comprehensible Input. While that post focused on what I am doing to provide input to my students, this one will focus on what I expect them to give back to me in the TL.

First, some backstory:

Thinking of error correction and the expectation of linguistic perfection takes me back to my own time as a student in a Spanish class…

I know what you’re thinking: Great, a “Back in my day” story…” But don’t worry, it has a point that is prescient to the topic of this post and is in no way a “Things were so much better back in the day” story, I promise.

When I went through school, whether it was elementary, middle, high school, or beyond, the prevailing expectation in all of my Spanish classes was that I, as a student, needed to make my Spanish as perfect as possible regardless of my proficiency level or ability. There was no room for errors. One time, in elementary school (maybe 3rd or 4th grade), our teacher was talking about colors and said, “what color are teeth? (¿De qué color son los dientes?”) One kid said “blanco,” which most of us thought was the correct answer. But her response was, “no.” This led to lots of guesses, including my own of “ivorio” (to mean ivory, which is not how you say ivory in Spanish–it is marfil), which were all met with increasingly frustrated answers of “No.” Eventually, she told us the correct answer was “blancos,” plural because dientes is plural.

But was all of that really necessary from a bunch of English-speaking kids? Did she really have to go to all the trouble of putting kids on the spot to say an answer that had been 99% given already? I know that it was discouraging for us as students and, knowing what I know now about being a Spanish teacher, I am certain it must have been frustrating for her. This was not the only instance of teachers expecting perfection from novice students in the L2, but it’s the one that sticks with me the most. Throughout my time learning Spanish in the classroom setting, all errors were met with red ink and points taken off.

My teachers’ hearts were in the right place, of course, and I always had a good relationship with them – I still keep in touch with a few of them. But while their intentions were good, their execution was not. I didn’t really learn to communicate in language until I had the (very privileged) opportunities to study abroad in Spain in my 3rd year of college and teach in a university Spanish department as a TA during graduate school (I was one of a staff of 20 TAs and one of 2 whose first language was not Spanish). It was the immersion that jump-started my fluency, not constant drilling of rules.

My lived experience has reflected the research in SLA. I acquired a bit as I went through each level, but the focus on grammar was not what allowed me to grow in my proficiency. It was the input I got in those classes that drove my acquisition of the language.

SLA Research is clear and has been for years: If our focus is on acquisition of language, then we should focus on INPUT, INPUT, INPUT! Forcing output doesn’t help a person acquire a language. But there are still many teachers who correct (and take points off) for minor spelling or grammar errors. In the L2! My takeaway is that errors are a part of language, whether it is first, second, or tenth. No matter what, we will all make errors in our language and that is not bad. I probably have made several in this very post!

Non-Targeted input and “Naturally Occurring” Output

I have been using Non-Targeted Comprehensible Input in my classroom since April, 2019 (with a bit of a pause in instruction between March and August, 2020). Applying this in the classroom has been an interesting journey. I provide as much input as I can throughout our classes and students are (for the most part) eager to participate. Input comes from novels, stories, OWI character creation activities, maravillas, and news articles. But not all of the class time is focused on input. If that were the case, the students would be silent the whole period and, as anyone who teaches elementary and middle school, a completely silent class period is physically impossible. As I have provided more and more input that is compelling to the students, they have been trying to provide more output. If they want to try and talk in Spanish, I am all for it. I am incredibly proud of them and amazed at their motivation to speak up in their L2!

But sometimes, being excited and motivated is not enough for a student to be successful. Because of this, I give students lots of support for output, especially in the early grades that I teach. All around my classroom are words that the students can use – high frequency verbs, question words, circumlocution phrases, and general vocabulary from my student-created word wall. Each day, we begin with a conversation activity: La Charla (the chat). To start, I always project some helpful vocabulary or sentence starters on the board for the students to refer to, just as I would post the high frequency verbs on the board during a TPRS story. La Charla gives students an opportunity to share what they can in a safe and structured environment. We talk about ourselves and our lives, we talk about our weekends or what we will do next weekend, we talk about how we are feeling, and/or we do a PQA or CardTalk about the topic we will talk about that day (for example, in 5th grade, we did a maravilla activity about homes around the Spanish speaking world and before we started, La Charla was a conversation about the students’ houses).

La Charla allows student output to come out naturally. I don’t force them to speak in Spanish beyond what they are comfortable saying. La Charla can be a great community-building activity, but it is of the utmost importance that the output provided by the students is not evaluated for perfection. I don’t want any student to feel the way I did when I said the wrong answer in my elementary Spanish class. My students are, for the most part, at the novice level and novice language is characterized by being messy with lots of memorized phrases and errors galore. There should be no expectation that their output will be even close to perfect. Perfection in a novice classroom (or any other classroom, or in real life!) is silly and unrealistic. The goal of the students’ output should be to make themselves understood. The fact that they are trying to negotiate meaning is the beautiful thing, not how correct their grammar is.

To be clear, while I don’t force output, I encourage it as much as possible and provide lots of opportunities for the students to speak and share what is on their minds as best they can. The difference between what I am doing when I expect student output and what my teachers did in the past is that I am not forcing them to use language beyond the novice high level, especially in the interpersonal speaking mode.

A shift in focus for grading

The first thing to remember when figuring out how to give grades for student work that is riddled with errors is that Novice level student “errors” are not errors at all. They are building a mental representation of language in their minds and it will not be complete until they have had years of input and opportunities for communication. Students will make errors in the same sorts of patterns because that is how our brains work. If there is anything that Krashen, BVP, and other SLA researchers have taught us, it’s that students can’t just study and drill their way to perfect language. Their language will become more “correct” after they have enough input. Their brains are working on it constantly while they are comprehending input. Acquisition is an unconscious process, so why try and force the brain to do something that it isn’t designed to do through conscious practice?

Drilling and testing grammar makes our jobs as teachers easier because it is very cut and dried: there are clear right and wrong answer. But does this approach help our students actually acquire a mental representation of language in their minds that they can then use when communicating in that language? The answer is becoming clearer and clearer as the research into SLA grows:

It doesn’t.

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