The Balance of Language Input and Output in CALL
Abstract: An effective combination of English language input and output on the basis of computer-assisted teaching, as I argue in the paper, can create a setting that draws students’
attention to content and communicative use of language rather than only the discrete grammatical points and vocabulary items that have been the focus of the traditional college English education. The paper starts with the analysis of the main problems in the college English instruction for non-English majors in China, which include the lack of authentic settings and needs to use English, the excessive concentration on passing English examinations rather than using English and the absence of students’ intrinsic motivation for English learning. Then the paper refers to Jeremy Harmer’s theory on language input and output and conveys that achieving their mutual balance in the context of computer assisted teaching is a promising way to solve the exiting problems. On the one hand it is vital to stress the roughly tuned input of materials concerning some interrelated and continued subjects. To achieve this purpose, an English online database should be set up to collect reading and listening materials from such sources as contemporary news broadcasts, newspapers, and magazines. The database will provide students with an access to a variety of sources of authentic English language materials that are tailored according to their proficiency levels, interests and needs. On the other hand, students’ language output should be enhanced by means of classroom activities. The paper introduces some activities of writing and speaking that are based on what students have learned from the database. This balance of theme-based input and output with the support of computer technology will be a potentially powerful way to improve our college English education.
Key words: Language Input; Language Output; Balance;
Computer-assisted teaching has breathed new life into College English education for non-English majors in Mainland China. This fundamental change to traditional College English teaching necessitates exploration of how to achieve a balance between language input and output in such a new situation. A new balance between English language input and output on the basis of computer-assisted teaching, as I argue in the paper, can create a setting that draws students’ attention to content and communicative use of language rather than only the discrete grammatical
points and vocabulary items that have been the focus of traditional college English education. With an effective combination of computer technology and appropriate English language materials, input of authentic English by students can be greatly promoted. Meanwhile, corresponding classroom activities should be carried out to enhance their language output. This new balance of input and output provides a feasible way to address the major problems in college English instruction for non-English majors in Mainland China.
Major problems of English instruction for most students in Mainland China
Three major problems have existed in college English instruction for non-English majors in Mainland China. First, students almost have no access to the authentic English settings; thus they lack the need to use English. For most Chinese students, the opportunity to use English is still mostly confined to the campus, where they attend English classes, read English textbooks and speak English with their classmates or teachers in class. All these are far from a setting that is similar to the target language community. With the limited exposure to an English setting, it is doubtful students can feel the incentive to study.
Partially as a result of the unfavorable settings for studying English, many students concentrate more on passing English examinations than using English itself. In their eyes, passing standardized English examinations in Chinese Education seems to have become the only criteria with which they can evaluate their proficiency in English. The essential reason for them to study English is to pass the national College English Test (CET) before graduation because they want to earn the certificate to help them land a good job in the future. Worst of all, some students regard passing English examinations as the ultimate goal of studying English. They feel at a loss about what they can do after passing the examinations and even stop studying English permanently. In order to pass examinations, they devote much of their energy and time preparing by doing a lot of exercises in advance. As a result, it is not unusual to see a person with a CET Band 4/6 certificate, who is incapable of uttering a single complete sentence in English. This problem has drawn the attention of those people designing the examinations, and they have begun to reform the examinations by shifting the focus from testing specific grammatical or lexical points to a student’s real ability to use English. Despite this effort, students still fail to be concerned with
more than examinations since getting the certificate is a kind of guarantee for their career prospects. Therefore, studying English puts pressure on them rather than being a source of an enjoyment.
Due to the lack of enjoyment, many students do not have an intrinsic motivation for English learning. Intrinsic motivation is indispensable for students to make great progress in learning
English. As Jeremy Harmer points out, most researchers and methodologists have come to realize
1that intrinsic motivation is “especially important for encouraging success” (Harmer, 51).
However, intrinsic motivation is just what many college students fail to have in the process of learning English. Without regarding learning as a self-rewarding process, they feel learning is more like a torture than pleasure. In a recent survey carried out among sophomores at our university, 80 percent of students admitted that they do not learn English diligently out of their own interest, but out of external pressures such as the need to pass the national CET to get the certificate. They frequently complain about being forced to study English. Though investing much time and energy, they still find it hard to make remarkable progress.
All these problems apparently have become barriers to improvement of college English education for non-English majors in Mainland China. Can we provide an authentic setting for English use to arouse students’ interest, promote their intrinsic motivations and thus set them free from the excessive concern about English examinations? Such an approach does exist. The answer lies in balancing English input and output by making good use of computer technology.
Harmer’s theory about input and output
In the process of English instruction, we need to give students sufficient language input on the one hand and encourage them to produce output on the other hand. According to Harmer, language input can be divided into two sub-categories: roughly-tuned input and finely-tuned input. Roughly-tuned input should be at a level that is “slightly above the students’ ability” while they
2are capable of understanding. It involves subconsciously absorbing a large quantity of language materials through reading and listening extensively. Finely-tuned input, on the contrary, is “language selected very precisely to be at exactly the students’ level” and is what we select for
3“conscious learning and teaching”. The teacher selects a certain amount of language materials
for which students should do repetition practice to grasp the language rules precisely. The traditional classroom teaching basically falls into the category of finely-tuned input.
As to output, Harmer makes the distinction between two sub-categories: practice and
4communication output. Practice asks students to “use new language in different contexts”. The
teacher organizes various activities to make sure that the new specific language is used and practiced. In communication output, on the other hand, language serves as an instrument of communication. The purpose is to communicate rather than learn and practice certain language items. According to Harmer, using language for communication is of great importance in that
1 Jeremy Harmer. The Practice of English Language Teaching, London and New York: Longman, 1983. 2 Harmer, 34. 3 Harmer, 34. 4 Harmer, 34.
students’ engagement in using language is the very way that renders them aware of their sense of responsibility for their learning. “The very practice of communication,” as Harmer puts it,
5“encourages the ability to communicate”.
Besides illustrating the theories about language input and output, Harmer put forward “a balanced activities approach”. He argues that it is not applicable to only stress either input or
output. Rather, it is indispensable to retain a balance between language input and output when teachers are designing activities to promote students’ learning and acquisition. He points out that this approach “sees the students’ continuing interest and involvement in the learning process as
6being the dominating factor in language teaching” (Harmer, 39). Though Harmer proposed his
theory around twenty years ago, the introduction of information technology into English instruction has made it unavoidable for us to continue to pursue it. It is of great significance to explore how to achieve a mutual balance between language input and output in the new context of computer-assisted teaching and how to effectively apply the theory to fostering language learning under this new circumstance. Adapting Harmer’s theory to computer-assisted language learning
will be a promising way to solve the three problems of English instruction mentioned above.
Application of Harmer’s theory to CALL.
First of all, in computer-assisted teaching, input is still an important component of language learning. The focus should be on the roughly-tuned input rather than the finely-tuned input. In traditional instruction, college students’ acquisition of English has centered on studying textbooks
under a teacher’s instruction. Though they may sometimes have a reading assignment after class, it can hardly lead to any noticeable improvement in their English proficiency due to the limited reading materials available and the lack of coherence in content. As to listening classes, students at different levels have to come to terms with the same listening materials in the classroom. The excellent students soon get bored with repeatedly listening to the materials that are easy for them while the students who are poor at listening comprehension still cannot follow the materials well after listening to them again and again. This has a negative impact on learning efficiency. Without doubt, roughly-tuned input can hardly be put into practice in traditional instruction, though finely-tuned input has been steadily enhanced by restricted classroom teaching.
In fact, an efficient system of roughly-tuned input can be set up with the help of information technology. In my point of view, it is vital to stress the roughly-tuned input of materials concerning some interrelated and continued subjects. To achieve this purpose, an English online database should be established to collect reading, aural and visual materials from sources like
5 Harmer, 37. 6 Harmer, 39
contemporary news broadcasts, newspapers, magazines and literary works. The selection of the materials should meet the following two requirements. First, it should cover various themes including literary works, news reports, magazine articles, and even English movies and English songs. The sufficient variety can cater to the different interests of students so that they have the incentive to follow the subjects. Second, the materials should be slightly above the student’s level, namely they should be difficult but achievable. Study materials that are either too difficult or too easy are not preferable in that the former can undermine student confidence and interest while the latter cannot provide the challenge necessary for students to make progress.
With constant exposure to a variety of authentic English language materials, the setting for English learning is greatly improved. Moreover, by pursuing some interrelated and continued subjects, students can shift their attention from specific grammatical points and vocabulary items to the content that language conveys. With concentration on the content instead of the form, students will stop regarding English as something abstract far from their real life and thus can easily find pleasure in reading and listening. They can relate the content to their previous knowledge about the world, which can stimulate them to get actively involved into the process of learning and become autonomous learners.
When the students’ language input is steadily enhanced, it is necessary to reinforce the other
end of the same spectrum, language output. Only after students put what they obtain from the database into communicative use can they master the input materials proficiently. To achieve this purpose, it is advisable for teachers to organize some effective classroom activities based on the database. The activities are aimed a providing practice and eventually promoting communication output. Activities for speaking and writing can be organized revolving around the various subjects. The following are some examples of such activities.
(a) News report
Students decide on which news item is the best one.
Step 1 The class is divided into small groups with five or six members in each.
Step 2 Each member takes a turn reporting a news item to the group.
Step 3 A discussion is carried out among each group about the news stories that have
just been reported. And each group should decide on which story is the most impressive one
and find enough reasons to justify their choices.
Step 4 Each group chooses a representative to give a presentation to the whole class
about the results of their discussion
(b) Literary works
Students debate the open ending of an American novel the Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. This novel has an open ending for which critics have had two opposing opinions concerning whether the main character Isabel will go back to her husband.
Step 1 Divide the class into two teams, with one holding the view that Isabel will go back to his husband Osmond while the other contends that she will not .
Step 2 Each team presents its argument and uses evidence from the novel to justify its ideas and refute the other team’s assertion.
Step 3 The teacher summarizes the debate and comments on both teams’ performance.
This activity is aimed at promoting students’ interpretation of characters in movies.
Step 1 The class is divided into two teams.
Step 2 All students are required to write a short composition to describe a character in several movies they have watched in the database recently. They can write anything about the character but his/her name.
Step 3 Each member read his/her composition. If someone from the other team identifies the character correctly, the team scores one point. If not, the teacher can take away one point. If the composition is written poorly beyond understanding or the information is misleading, one point will be taken away from the team.
Step 4 The team that scores the highest wins a prize.
(a) Movie reviews
The purpose of this activity is to enhance students’ understanding of a movie that
they have watched and the corresponding movie review that students have read or listened
Step 1 Students are divided into groups with three or four member in each
Step 2 Each member writes his opinion about the review that he thinks most
reasonable. He should use what he has watched, listened to and read to support his
Step 3 The members correct the composition written by one of the other
members while the teacher supervises the correction. Students are usually
interested in reading their classmates’ writing. Correcting others’ mistakes is a
useful way for them to improve language skills.
(b) Literary works
In this activity, students are requested to retell the story or analyze the message and
implication conveyed by the author.
The teacher can give students the assignment of describing an impressive scene from
Intensive reading activities
Besides organizing the activities like the above examples, the teacher can facilitate students’
finely-tuned input by drawing their attention to specific parts that they have read, listened to or watched. For instance, in the Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, critics interpret the main character Isabel as an independent woman seeking individual freedom. The teacher can pick out some descriptions about Isabel’s suitors to help students gain an insight into why Isabel rejects them to retain her freedom. The following is the depiction about Caspar Goodwood, one of the suitors she rejects.
He was tall, strong, and somewhat stiff; he was also lean and brown. He was not
romantically, he was much rather obscurely handsome; but his physiognomy had an air of
requesting your attention, which it rewarded according to the charm you found in blue eyes
of remarkable fixedness, the eyes of a complexion other than his own, and a jaw of the
somewhat angular mould which is supposed to bespeak resolution. Isabel said to herself that
it bespoke resolution tonight; in spite of which, in half an hour, Caspar Goodwood, who had
arrived hopeful as well as resolute, took his way back to his lodging with the feeling of a
7man defeated. He was not, it may be added, a man weakly to accept defeat.
Caspar’s personality is subtly revealed by words like “stiff”, “an air of requesting your
attention”, “remarkable fixedness”, and “a jaw of the somewhat angular mould”. Isabel would have to surrender to his strong will if she married him, which means she would lose her autonomy and liberty. With such guidance about how to appreciate the subtle usage of words, students can not only increase their language skills, but also promote their own creativity.
By organizing such activities of speaking, writing and some close reading, as mentioned above, students’ capacity for language will be fully utilized.
7 Henry James. The Portrait of A Lady, New York: Bantam Books, 1983.
Since 2003 our university has set about reforming college English instruction for non-English majors. Besides establishing a system of continuous online assessment, speaking classes and zero hour listening courses for freshmen and sophomores, who should take College English as a mandatory course, the university has arranged other English elective courses for juniors and seniors that cover a variety of themes such as Western Culture, English and American literature, News Listening, Public Speech, English Songs and Oral English and A Survey of US and the UK. These theme-oriented courses are popular among students. Being allowed to choose English courses according to their favorite themes, students have been greatly motivated and thus display a positive attitude toward English study and get voluntarily involved in the learning process. This setup of the English teaching program for juniors and seniors has been successful because it is oriented to input language materials by focusing on the content instead of the form. But so far an online database for each course is still not available. Once such a database comes into existence and is combined with appropriate classroom teaching, a new balance will be attained between language input and output in Call. That will effectively tackle the problems associated with English instruction for non-English majors in a fundamental way.
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