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Output-oriented activities: possible benefits and classroom applications

Jhony Balisa
CNA Administração Nacional

In the world of language learning, the importance of activities that encourage language production takes center stage as a crucial factor for learners’ language development. Merrill Swain, an esteemed professor emerita at the University of Toronto, brings to light an insightful perspective in her work The Output Hypothesis. She asserts that “the act of producing language (speaking or writing), under certain circumstances, constitutes part of the process of second language learning.” (Swain 2005, p. 471). Besides that, she also strongly emphasizes the value of generating language output for learners’ deeper cognitive engagement by stating that “output pushes learners to process language more deeply, with more mental effort” (Swain 2000, p. 99). Exploring this realm of output-oriented activities takes on added importance when we look at the Brazilian scenario of language schools, in which learners of English expect or are expected to engage actively in language production, be it written or spoken.

Swain claims that tasks focused on language output can propel learners across various levels of language proficiency to embark on a journey of self-discovery, encouraging them to play a role of more agency in their learning experience. She observes that “To produce, learners need to do something. They need to create linguistic form and meaning, and in so doing, discover what they can and cannot do.” (Swain 2000, p. 99). This active engagement with language has the potential to act as a springboard to guiding learners to get a clearer grasp of what they are able to produce, what they think they are able to produce and what they wish to produce. She further highlights the significance of language output by emphasizing the possibility of learners’ “stretching” their interlanguage, their developing language abilities which are influenced by both their mother tongue and the target language, when they are engaged in language production activities.

The output hypothesis suggests three functions, namely noticing, hypothesis testing and metalinguistic reflection. This article aims to shed some light on the two first functions and attempts to tie them in with some classroom practices.

The noticing function

The noticing function plays a central role in the language learning process. Within this function, different levels of noticing can be observed. One level suggests learners can identify the discrepancy between the target language form and their own interlanguage. Another level introduces the notion that learners might become aware of gaps in their interlanguage at the very moment of attempting to convey specific meanings, which are described as “holes”, so to speak, in their linguistic abilities.

Furthermore, her empirical studies of French immersion students who did collaborative task interactions support the noticing function. Many of the learners’ recorded interactions revealed that, while working together on tasks, students actively identified gaps in their language knowledge and proactively addressed them by consulting dictionaries and asking their peers and teachers for help. Her findings highlight how learners’ awareness of their ‘language gaps’ can lead to meaningful actions, either consolidating existing knowledge or fostering new linguistic insights.

Moving from this theoretical spectrum into the Brazilian context of language schools, in which activities aimed at students’ output can be commonly found in lessons, especially in more communicative activities, we can attempt to start contextualizing the noticing function. Here are some personal suggestions:

  • Note-taking: note-taking during communicative tasks offers a valuable avenue for learners to actively engage with the desired language output.
    Step 1: Teachers can encourage students to jot down 1 to 3 questions – it may vary due to time constraints – that can arise during tasks.
    Step 2: Subsequently, teachers can ask students to investigate these questions in groups. As the investigation process has the potential to raise students’ awareness to their language gaps, teachers can take the opportunity to provide students with a more individual/personalized assistance, as well as encourage peer collaboration.
    Step 3: Complementarily, the investigation phase can be followed by an extra round of the communicative task, with students being reorganized into new groups and asked to redo the activity, but now taking their findings into account.
  • Reformulation: Reformulation cycles can provide students with opportunities to reflect upon their production, use the target language appropriately and contribute to a stronger sense of learning.
    Step 1: Right after a communicative task is done, teachers can provide students with delayed feedback, which can be done anonymously to mitigate feelings of exposure. This can be an effective strategy to trigger students’ reflection upon their language production, leading them to notice the differences between what they produced and the desired language output, therefore embracing the noticing function.
    Step 2: To help students consolidate what was brought to their attention in this first feedback slot, teachers can allow students to do the same communicative task again. To keep the relevance of the activity, students can be reorganized in different groups, just like in the previous suggested activity ‘note-taking’.
    Step 3: Finally, to wrap up the task-feedback-task-feedback cycle, teachers can monitor students while they are doing the communicative task for the second time, take notes of positive aspects of their production and highlight them at a second feedback moment, potentially contributing, therefore, to a stronger sense of learning.
The hypothesis-testing function

Another significant function of output is the hypothesis testing. Swain argues that “output may sometimes be, from the learner’s perspective, a ‘trial run’ affecting their hypotheses of how to say (or write) their utterances” (Swain 2005, p. 476). The opportunity to test a hypothesis establishes the potential for confirming that the message has been appropriately linguistically conveyed and, perhaps more importantly, the opportunity to be exposed to corrective feedback. Corrective feedback can take various forms, such as clarification requests, recasts, implicit feedback, and others. The main characteristic of corrective feedback is that the message, produced by the learner, can be challenged by an interlocutor who has a more proficient command of the language. Once a learner testing a hypothesis recognizes that their hypothesis is incorrect, then they have the further opportunity to make the necessary adjustments and engage in another trial.

In Brazilian language schools, it is particularly common to have students of similar proficiency levels placed together in the same groups. This mode can pose a slight challenge when it comes to applying the hypothesis-testing function, as the teacher often remains as the only person in the room with a more proficient command of the language. Although there are no issues whatsoever with students’ testing their hypotheses with their teachers, there are a couple of strategies that educational institutions can implement to diversify this scenario:

  • Get-together activities: essentially, these activities bring together students from different groups at strategic points of the course. Students are provided with a specific topic to guide their conversations. The role of the teacher shifts primarily to classroom management – focusing on interaction patterns and time management – while students engage in discussions, both testing their language hypotheses and, why not, making new friends. Through these interactions, students may gain insight into how much they can produce at their current level and, by observing their peers, how much they are likely to be able to produce in the future. Consequently, this may not only foster a stronger sense of belonging but also significantly contribute to the overall learning process. My personal touch to this kind of activity is: do not forget to bring food and drinks, and create a vibrant atmosphere with some good music.
  • News Board: this is an engaging activity that prompts students to connect with each other through written communication. Participants can write or share pictures about their engaging weekend/vacation experiences. These posts are made accessible to students across the entire school, and even school staff and teachers can join in to initiate the exchanges. Through this practice, students can readily interact with each other by leaving comments on other students’ posts. This activity can be conducted virtually, allowing the easy inclusion of pictures, or physically, utilizing a designated board within the school premises where students can pin their news for everyone to see. My personal touch to this one is to use colorful pieces of paper for students to handwrite their news, and colorful sticky notes for comments or replies.

In conclusion, the output hypotheses may bring positive insights into our teaching practice. Perhaps, it could be seen as an invitation to reshape our classrooms into safe spaces of exploration, interaction, collaborative knowledge building, and growth. It is important that we delve into our teaching practices by reflecting on both how they create opportunities for learners to collaboratively recognize and address their language gaps and how they foster an environment where students can safely experiment with language and openly receive feedback from teachers and peers. Thinking about how these functions can shape our lesson plans might favor the design and adaptation of future activities and positively contribute to the learning experience of our learners.

Bibliography

Sales, A.D. (2020) ‘The output hypothesis and its influence in the Second language learning/teaching: An interview with Merrill Swain’, Interfaces Brasil/Canadá, 20, pp. 1–12.

Paulsen, J., Partsch, F., & Fuller, N. (2017). The Output Hypothesis: From Theory to Practice. TESOL Working Paper Series, 15, 126-159

Swain, M. (2005). The Output Hypothesis: Theory and Research. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning (pp. 471-483).

Swain, M. (2000). The Output Hypothesis and beyond: Mediating Acquisition through Collaborative Dialogue.

Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language learning. In G. Cook, & B. Seidlhofer (Eds.), Principle and practice in applied linguistics: Studies in honour of H. G. Widdowson (pp. 125-144). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About author

Jhony Balisa is a seasoned professional in English language teaching with a diverse range of experiences over the last 12 years. He has served as an English teacher at some of the main language schools in Brazil, taken on roles as an education consultant at Troika and Oxford University Press, and he currently works as an education specialist for CNA Headquarters. His credentials include a licentiate degree in Letras, the CELTA and C2 – Proficiency certificates from Cambridge Assessment English.
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