To speak fluently, you need to speak more?

To speak fluently, you need to speak more?

To speak fluently, you need to speak more?

Willy A Renandya, 3 June 2022

I often hear teachers telling their struggling low proficiency students to speak more if they want to be more fluent.

This advice seems logical and also intuitively appealing. Isn’t that how people learn a language? You just need to practice using the language for communication as often as you can until you become good at it.

Not surprisingly, lots of teachers embrace the Communicative Language Teaching methodology (CLT), which came about as a reaction to an earlier language-focused teaching methodology.

Many teachers feel liberated because unlike the older methods, CLT promotes a more active learning approach by providing students with a lot of opportunities to make use of what little linguistic knowledge they have to express their wants, thoughts, needs in the target language.

CLT classrooms are abuzz with students sharing their ideas orally in pairs or small groups. The teacher would walk around the class checking and encouraging students to speak more during the group discussions.

Swain’s output hypothesis

The theoretical justification comes from the work of Merrill Swain who came up with a language acquisition theory known as the comprehensible output hypothesis.

Swain says that input alone is not enough. Input-based learning is good, but it engages students primarily in semantic processing (i.e., comprehending messages). This is not enough, she writes.

In order to move beyond their current level of competence, students need to engage in syntactic processing, an active process of turning ideas into standard language forms.

One excellent way of doing this is to give students practice in producing extended discourse, both spoken and written. Output-based tasks will need to be designed in such a way that students become more conscious of what they already know and what they still need to know.

This awareness is made possible when their speech is not easily understood by others, thus requiring them to paraphrase or restate the message using different words and language structures. Swain believes that frequent practice of this kind greatly facilitates language acquisition.

So far, so good? Not really.

Those of us who have implemented CLT know that despite frequent practice in speaking, our students continue to struggle expressing themselves in good English. Should we give them more speaking practice? I don’t think so.

Swain is not wrong about her comprehensible output hypothesis. Frequent practice in producing language for authentic purposes can help stretch and extend students’ linguistic competence.

But Swain was addressing the need of immersion students in Canada. These students were immersed in the target language (French) every day and they were already proficient in the language. Their language production however was not always accurate. So her output hypothesis makes sense as it targets the development of these students’ grammatical accuracy via stretched output.

Most of our students learning English as foreign language have not had the luxury of being immersed in rich and comprehensible language. They are neither fluent nor accurate in their language production.

Giving them more practice in speaking when they have not developed a working proficiency level is not going to help them. In fact, it may hinder their language acquisition process.

Krashen’s Input hypothesis

What should we do then? We need a more balanced approach to language learning. In other words, we need to leverage on both input-based and output based learning.

Input-based learning stems from Krashen’s input theory, which states that input is a pre-requisite of language acquisition. Given a steady diet of meaningful and comprehensible language, students will gradually acquire the vocabulary and grammar of the language.

How do we apply Krashen’s theory?

At the early stage of learning, students should be given lots of interesting, meaningful and comprehensible input via daily reading and listening.

Students can speak and write at this stage if they want to, but they should not be forced to do it. The focus here is on building a strong linguistic foundation via exposure to interesting and meaningful language input.

After one year or so of input-based practice, we can gradually transition into output-based learning activities, giving students more opportunities to restructure and extend their linguistic knowledge. This however doesn’t mean that we stop the input-based learning practice. Students should continue to do their independent reading and listening both in and out of the classroom.

If we do this well, our students may just be able to enjoy the full language learning benefits from Krashen’s input theory and Swain’s output theory. We will then see a much greater number of students with a higher level of proficiency in English.

Notes: A number of SLA scholars have severely criticized Krashen’s input theory. But a recent article by two renowned SLA scholars shows that his theory has survived the test of time.

Further reading

Is Krashen right or wrong?

Learning to unlearn faulty beliefs and practices in ELT

The Power of Series Books

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