EFL 4 Digital Natives Part I: Insanely Important Input

Imagine joining a secret society ruled by strange rituals, coded phrases and cryptic symbols. The society members, who  employ a wide range of complex  handshakes and hand signals to use on different occasions, demand that you, as a new member, quickly master these gestures and integrate yourself smoothly into the group. You are expected to be communicative, gregarious even; and to know not only the group’s ways but also something of its history and culture. Furthermore, you must not only prove that you understand the society’s basic rules and practices, but that you are able to pick up new ones, and show proficiency in using variations of traditional ones, as and when they occur in the group’s day-to-day activities.

A challenge, without a doubt. “But,” you would say to yourself, “Not impossible. I shall watch and learn. I will start with just the one or two basic handshakes, then I’ll start to pay close attention to what they say and how they move; I will observe the rituals and build up my proficiency over the course of the coming weeks and months until I have cracked their codes and can pass as one of them.”

Except…. if you are learning English outside of English-speaking countries.

For that is exactly what we all too often expect of English language learners trying to learn in their L1 country : to crack the code of a new language without regular immersion in it, without repeated observation and absorption of it, without – in brain learning terms – a chance to develop and reinforce the neural pathways, through exposure and repetition, that lead to learning and retention. Instead, we expect — or rather hope —  that a single weekly lesson or two, consisting of a group reading of another chapter of the soft-cover Secret Society Guide to Hand Signals and Handshakes, can result in learners’ ability to use the rules seamlessly, on-the-fly, to decode (from English) and re-code (from the learner’s L1 to English) a range of complex communication tasks in a succession of entirely different contexts. Achieving proficiency in the finer points of Bridge starts to look easy by comparison.

The biggest problem with most language learning that occurs in the learner’s L1 country is that the learners in question are simply not exposed to enough input, over the course of the days, weeks and months, to develop recognition of the lexis, patterns and uses of the language being studied. Even if the classroom work is of the highest standard, powered by the best efforts of a truly heroic teacher, learners have little guidance; few practical resources; and often insufficient motivation required to voluntarily expose themselves to English in the long stretches of time in between classes.

This means, for learners in the “worst case” scenario of a weekly hour-long English language class, that for the six days and 23 hours in-between each of the lessons, there is no reinforcing brain work taking place. In theory, there is the notion that homework can be assigned to tide the learners over until the next class, but in practice – in particular for adolescent and teen learners – textbook-based homework assignments are politely ignored, leaving teachers able to do little more than give the vaguest recommendations that learners try to “read something in English”  or “see a movie in English.”

This encouragement for learners to expose themselves to more English in between classes – without being very specific about it — is laudable, but can be unrealistic. A lot of focus has been put, as of late, on a widened use of “authentic materials,” and of course this is a good thing. For a learner living in an English-speaking country, there is indeed an osmosis effect whereby dribs and drabs of English picked up in this way begin to make sense and create a language reflex. But for English language learners trying to learn in their own countries, it is far better if this exposure to English can be packaged with the learning challenge in mind. It is, after all, as unrealistic to expect a beginner or even intermediate English-language learner to sit through a 90-minute English language movie, trying to follow what can often be a complex and cryptic plot line (not to mention often impenetrable accents), as it would be for us English mother-tongue speakers to do the same with a movie in Armenian or Malaysian. We would inevitably end up just reading the subtitles, which would marginally improve our English-language speed reading skills,  but do nothing for our comprehension skills in the target language.

What ELL’s living in their L1 country need, in terms of “training wheels” exposure to authentic English language input, is something in short format (no more than one to five minutes per unit); accessible for free or for a very low fee;  and which incorporates tools and resources to help the learners construct and retain meaning from the input. When we have this type of packaging, we start to develop what Krashen labels “comprehensible input,” which typically is constituted of messages slightly above learners’ current English language level but not so taxing as to produce discouragement.

Kate Wolfe-Quintero of the University of Hawaii reinforces this pedagogical track with her notion of “input noticing,” (2006) which stresses the importance of manageable chunks (or short formats) and recommends other ways of massaging the input so that it becomes intake and then knowledge, resulting ultimately (if the knowledge is indeed acquired) in output. She contrasts this with traditional grammar-oriented teaching, which places the emphasis on production, thus standing the natural sequence of language acquisition on its head. Far better, says Wolfe-Quintero, to require learners to pay explicit attention to input in context, and allow for them to inductively figure out how the grammar works.

Let’s keep in mind that the Digital Native generation — pretty much anyone under the age of 20 today, plus all of those that will follow — thinks and learns differently from past generations, even ours. Where we studied step-by-step manuals, they learn by observation and experimentation. They know what they like, they find it online, they play around with it, they see what works through trial and error, and after a bit of tinkering, coming back to it a few times, they’ve mastered it – inductively, via short-format exposure.

Wolfe-Quintero also provides a neat segue from input to the all-important area of motivation: a subject providing a particular challenge for teachers of teens and young adult learners.

A fundamental element in promoting input noticing is motivation. The more students are motivated to spend time with a source of language input, the more they will notice about how the language works. This is where the content of the input matters. The more meaningful the content of the input, the more motivated students will be to respond to the input, pay attention to the grammatical features of the input, and use the input as a model for their own production, particularly if the topic is one that triggers ideas that they want to communicate.

Well said, Kate. The issue of motivation for teen and young adult ELLs will definitely be the subject of another post, but that quote is a great place to start.

So teachers, if you want to start seeing those glazed-over eyes and blank stares replaced by nods of recognition and the sparkle of  understanding, forget about step-by-step manuals and softcover guides to secret handshakes. Go back to learner basics and give a lot more importance to the input side of the equation. With all the fantastic, free resources available today thanks to the web, it would be rude not to!

2 Responses to EFL 4 Digital Natives Part I: Insanely Important Input

  1. Pingback: EFL 4 Digital Natives Part II: Context Is Crucial | English Attack! Entertainment English Blog

  2. Pingback: 2012 Will Be The Year Of English 2.0 | English Attack! Entertainment English Blog

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