Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Increasing Student Production

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

The title of this post sums up our raison d’être, right? I mean, pretty much the whole point of everything that we do in class is tied in to helping our students communicate (produce) more. This might mean that we want them to speak more or write more. But it doesn’t just mean more words coming out of their mouths or flowing from their pens. Production isn’t exactly the same as participation, is it? Students can participate in a group discussion, for instance, but if they are incomprehensible, they are not producing language. In other words, increasing production really means increasing students’ successful use of English.

The Importance of Pushed Production

A while ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a professional development workshop offered by Brad Knieriem on this very topic. The speaker, one of the full time instructors with our program, kicked off the session by having us think about why increasing production might be important. Of course, as I said before, helping students communicate more successfully is pretty much the main goal in many of my classes. But, increasing production also requires students to stretch beyond their English comfort zones.

You may already be familiar with this concept, better known as “pushed output.” (Nation & Newton, 2009) It makes sense that when students speak or write more, they become more aware of English norms. They can experiment more with new forms and they notice gaps in their linguistic abilities.

Why Students Might Push Back

But students might not necessarily feel comfortable with this kind of pushed production. After all, the point is to get them, literally, out of their comfort zones. Students might find speaking in front of the class stressful, they might not feel prepared when they are randomly called upon, which may lead to feelings of embarrassment. Sometimes they don’t understand exactly what the task is or they may be afraid to ask a “stupid” question and lose face in front of their peers. Students might be intimidated about writing because they are afraid of negative teacher comments. To quote Knieriem, “[w]hen students feel their grade is at stake, they become reluctant to stretch their language production abilities.” (Knieriem, 2016) Finally, students might be stymied by lack of practice which leads to lower confidence, lack of interest in a topic, and lack of vocabulary. Clearly, when students have to produce language, there are a lot of barriers that might hamper them.

What Teachers Can Do

In order to encourage more production, teachers have some strategies at their disposal. Here are some of Knieriem’s suggestions:

Create a positive classroom environment. Sometimes students are afraid of producing more language because they are afraid of making mistakes. In these cases, it’s necessary for teachers to assess the methods and frequency of error correction and remember to make sure to balance constructive feedback with positive feedback.
Include shared tasks in classroom activities. As Nation (2009) points out, difficult tasks can be made much less intimidating when done by a pair or small group. Learners can rely on each other for grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and content help and they avoid the potentially embarrassing spotlight of an individual response.
Include guided tasks in classroom activities. Just as with assigning group work, breaking tasks into manageable chunks eases the pressure on students and successful completion of discrete tasks raises learners’ confidence.
• Give students planning time before production. I’ve banged on about this in previous posts (Lights! Camera! Action! and The Flat Bits in the Middle – Part 2: The Difference between Fluency and Complexity), but it bears repeating (mostly because this is a hard one for me to remember). Simply put, students produce better quality output when they’ve had planning time.

Knieriem also encourages teachers to consider the purpose for each activity we use in class. When we want to increase student production, we need to remember to include some two-way activities in which each student has some information that needs to be exchanged in order for the activity to be completed (like information gap activities) rather than planning a lesson full of only one-way activities in which one student has information to share (like presentations). According to Folse (2006), two-way activities facilitate negotiation of meaning which leads to increased production. Citing the same (wonderful) Folse resource, Knieriem also reminded instructors to include closed activities (ones with finite solutions) in lesson plans and not just open activities (like “tell your partner about” activities.) Closed activities offer more opportunities for negotiation and provide a goal for students to work toward than open activities.

Clearly, production is important for our students. I mean, who doesn’t want to communicate more successfully? So, it’s up to us ESL and EFL instructors to make sure that we provide opportunities for pushed output in our lessons to help students achieve this goal!

Folse, K. S. (2006). The Art of Teaching Speaking: Research and Pedagogy for the ESL/EFL Classroom. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
Knieriem, B. (2016) Increasing Student Production in Speaking and Writing, PowerPoint Slides.
Nation, I.S.P. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL Reading and Writing. New York, NY: Routledge.
Nation, I.S.P., & Newton, J. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking. New York, NY: Ro

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