GestureWay - considerations on input and output in the English classroom.


Two years of GestureWay (recording made in 2003).
My student, just nine-year old, re-tells a story with the aid of pictures only (and some teacher encouragement).
"The Frogs at Home" based on a Gary Larson cartoon.
Notice she couldn't remember the word "comfortable" but as she gestured it, I was able to remind her.
Not all students use gesture as much as this girl during output - I tell them they can if they want to. I get the impression, however, that gestures help her accuracy if not speed of delivery.

What is output?

Student production of the language through fluency practice is what is termed as output. Output is untainted student inter-language with no controlled help provided by the teacher. Output could be oral or written but with regards to GestureWay we are interested in the student's spoken language. The importance of getting students to produce output to improve language skills was once hotly debated among researchers in the past. Nowadays, rightly or wrongly, most English language teachers believe in the adage "practice makes perfect" especially for the speaking and listening skills. It is this tendency that led to the adoption of the English teaching practice we call today the "Communicative Approach", where students are called upon to express themselves freely rather than controlled by drills or repeating set phrases ("Audio-lingual Approach" and "Direct Method").

Aspects and strategies of output within Silent Sign.

With regards to the use of the GestureWay tool in the English classroom, I feel that the input stage (Silent Sign) plays a more powerful role than the presentation activities and controlled practice tasks in the first two P's of the popular "Presentation, Practice and Production" (3 P's) procedure laid out by many published English classroom textbooks. Silent Sign is within the realm of controlled practice but the student is called upon to make multiple decisions about the language, which is delivered to the class in full sentences. For example, a sentence such as:

HE DOESN'T LIKE GOING HOME

reads in gestures...

(singular masculine pronoun HE or HIM) + auxiliary DO/DOES or DID + NOT + LIKE + GO + HOUSE

....and the student must read and interpret the gestures rendering the correct oral version. One reason output (fluency practice) has been claimed to be important is due to the many decisions students must make when they are controlling the language they produce. False starts, rethinks, internalised self-correction, constant drawing from inter-language knowledge and re-shaping it are aspects of output often believed essential for acquisition. On the other hand, similar strategies present in output are also included in the Silent Sign technique (input). Furthermore, during Silent Sign input, the student is usually dealing with a complete text which is free from salience strategies (eg. emphasising verb tenses, etc.). Meaning is present at a sentence level and there is oral production throughout - very similar to the qualities of spoken output.


30 hours of GestureWay classes (recording made in 2015).
Notice the students' (ten-year olds) self-corrections during this Silent Sign rendering of "Bill Mutley is going to die". (Not that "gallows" is not such an important word!)

Story visual of Bill Mutley story for Silent Sign English practice
Visual for Story.

Output - meaning and plot control.

As I have said, Silent Sign allows students to make multiple decisions about holistic language therefor Silent Sign shares some of the qualities of fluency output practice. Despite this, Silent Sign necessarily falls within the controlled practice bracket because of the absence of syntax and plot control (manipulating meaning and events). The student depends on the teacher to present the plot together with the correct word order (the teacher gestures a story). Students are spared from taking decisions on how to unravel the plot linguistically and order the words of each sentence. For this reason, my most recent approach has been to offer the students more opportunities to re-tell stories themselves so they can develop these skills. I usually try for 70% input (Silent Sign) and 30% output (fluency practice through story-telling) in any one class.

Conclusions.

I feel that English taught in the classroom through the 3 P's approach (usual English textbook practice), would require a far greater proportion of time spent on the output (fluency practice) stage than with the GestureWay tool to help acquisition to take place. Perhaps as much as a proportion of the class being 20% input (explanations, controlled practice, etc.) and 80% output. But then, the problem would be that so little input would mean students are not exposed to sufficient vocabulary and expressions to develop during output. A sort of vicious circle.

GestureWay's input tool Silent Sign gets students to make continuous decisions about holistic language. Therefore, this input phase is quasi-output; it shares similar aspects of output while providing exposure to new language at the same time. Silent Sign ensures a flood stream of the target language into the class both of new vocabulary and structures and recycled while allowing students to carry out some of the decision-making found during the fluency output stage.

Teacher feedback.

As a teacher, how much time do you spend on output in your classes? Is it enough? Are there difficulties spending long periods of class time on fluency practice? Do you find you lose control over the language you want them to practise during this activity? Contact my Facebook or Twitter page and let me know your ideas.

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See next article on grammar and form with GestureWay...