Active Learner Contribution to English Language Learning

Mario Papa & Janet Shelly

Activities which promote the active contribution of the learner in the oral production of the language have been taken into account only recently. In fact, in the last few years the research has stressed the relevance both of "input" and of  "output"  in  language  learning.  However, while activities based on input are quite common , activities which take into account learner output are not.

Research has, for the most part, investigated natural second language acquisition  (SLA), and hardly any attention has been directed to the study of foreign language learning in a classroom  situation .

Language learning is not a uniform and predictable phenomenon, and we all know that it is the product of  many factors concerning  the learner, on the one hand, and the learning situation, on the other. But a couple of requirements are fondamental. The first is that the learner must have access to language input which may be in the form of exposure in natural settings or formal instruction. It may be spoken or written. Nevertheless , the research is beginning to show that mere exposu re to the target language is not enough. Learners appear to need target language data that are specially suited to whatever stage of development they are at. Traditionally, the teaching of English as a foreign language (EFL) has been based upon a kind of "input" which is provided only by textbooks and, sometimes, by the teacher. Often the input that EFL students receive is formed only by a series of sentences while, to be of some learning interest, it must be in comprehensible stretches of discourse .

The second requirement for effective language learning is that students have the possibility of producing language, that is to produce their own "output". To do this, students use their communication strategies. Moreover, the research in the field has shown that students should produce language without the constraints of the teacher and school marks. Of course, the language produced in such a situation contains errors. However, errors are important because they show that learners do  not simply memorise  target  language  rules  and  then  reproduce them in their own utterances. They show that learners construct their own rules. It has been argued that Krashen's "input hypothesis" fails to recognise the importance of comprehensible output. Therefore, Krashen's theory is limiting. In EFL, opportu nities for  uninhibited "practice", where new forms can be experimented with as they are in English as a second language (ESL) situations, are fundamental but, unfortunately, they are not common.

According to a mentalist view of language acquisition , learners do not progress from zero knowledge of a target language rule to perfect knowledge of that rule. They progress through a series of developmental stages on their way  to target language competence. The result  is that the learner appears to build up confidence by "successive approximations",  passing through severa! steps that  are not  yet  "English". These  successive steps form what is called an "interlanguage continuum". However, learners will still vary the order of development of specific grammatica! features in their individual interlanguage. They do not acquire every item in exactly the same order. There are differences attributed to many factors. To put it another way, learners take the same road but they do not necessarily drive along it the same way.

They  follow  a  standard  sequence, but vary in the order in which specific features are acquired.

lt is clear that this important process of language acquisition takes place naturally in ESL, but it is completely absent in EFL. In ESL, the production of language outside the classroom, that is "unplanned" and often "ungrammatical" output, occurs automatically; interaction with native speakers is natural: students use English for both communicative and integrative functions. In EFL, however, unplanned output is, in the best cases, limited to just a few minutes in the classroom. lt is practically inexistant outside the classroom. So in EFL two fundamental elements of language learning - the free production of language, and interaction with other speakers - are misssing.

Learner output is also connected to motivation. But how motivation affects learning is not, however, clear. One problem is that it is only possible to show a relationship between motivation and successful learning, not the direction of this relationship. That is, we do not know whether it is motivation that produces succesful learning, or successful learning that enhances motivation. MacNamara, for example, argues that "the really important part of motivation lies in the act of communication itself".

Nowadays, activities which tend to favour learner output are sometimes carried  out  in English classes, but they are often interrupted and corrected by the teacher. Since these interaction activities tend to push students to produce "unplanned" discourse, they should be carried out without continuous interruptions by the teacher. They should be done by students working in pairs or groups, where they  should take turns in expressing their own opinions, and where students could use the language according to their own abilities. Teachers should bear in mind that the main aim of these activities is to develop student oral production skills. To achieve this, students need not only a knowledge  of the vocabulary and the grammatica! system buty, above all, confidence in themselves, in order to fulfill the simplest objectives in the oral language. To build up this confidence students need not only to practise vocabulary and grammatica! structures, but they should also be encouraged to develop their "interaction" skills. Therefore, the activities should be  carried out in a relaxed atmosphere. The teacher should not be too worried about the inevitable mistakes that students make when they speak to each other at this stage. The good language learner is prepared to experiment by taking risks, even if this makes the learner appear foolish. now, in EFL the problem is not only that of appearing foolish in other students' eyes, but, more importantly, that of getting bad marks from the teacher if what is produced is not correct. Therefore, it is important  to  create activities where students can produce language without any form of inhibition. Only if they bave the chance to speak freely without the worry of continuously  being  judged  by  the teacher will they take part in the conversation.

The role of the teacher during these activities is to monitor what the students are doing. Teachers can walk around the classroom, listen to the pairs of students and  note  down  any mistakes they might hear. After the activity has been completed, the teacher may go over the mistakes noted down beforehand with the whole class.

Still, these classroom activities are not enough. Students should also do some kind of autonomous oral production activity on their own. A systematic activity can be carried out at home which  has proved  to be extremely  satisfactory  and motivating both for students and teachers. lt is an activity with self-recording which any student can carry out at home with a small cassette recorder. Here is a list of what students can record on their own:

-  describe the clothes of any person you want

-  record what you have written in the passage about yourself

-  record as much as you remember about someone's family

-  draw your own family tree and record a description of your family

-  describe yourself

-  record a brief description of your school

-  talk about what you had for breakfast/lunch/dinner

-  record what you did yesterday

-  record your plans for the future.

The aim of this activity is to allow the students to produce oral language at their own pace, making mistakes, correcting the mistakes whenever they like, and to build up the sense of self-confidence and achievement which are essential for the students' success. Moreover, this activity should be of great value both to the students and the teacher; after a period of time, each student will have enough of their own materia! to compare and check the progress they have made. The teacher, from time to time, can collect the cassettes to evaluate the progress of each individua! student; of course, this activity should be systematic and should be done with the linguistic materia! that students meet and practise in each teaching unit in their textbook.



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Thorogood J., Recording Progress in "Pathfinderl", CILT, 1990

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Pubblicato in "The British Council Italy, 1995, Papers on language teaching from the 1994 Bologna Conference organized by The British Coubcil - Edited by David A. Hill