As any good language teacher knows, learners cannot improve their speaking without abundant opportunities to practice. One-on-one, unrehearsed conversation is the best method for improving speaking across all levels of proficiency. However, most learners have limited opportunities for this. One-on-one instruction may take place once or twice a week (if at all), and so other methods are needed if learners are to improve fluency and accuracy in the new language.
Structured output activities are designed to encourage learners to use newly acquired vocabulary and sentence patterns productively (i.e., through speaking or writing). For the purposes of this article, we will focus on speaking. Structured output activities have two distinguishing characteristics:
- they involve the exchange of previously unknown information
- they require learners to use a particular form or structure to express themselves
Structured output activities tend to be most valuable for lower level learners. As such, there are a number of guidelines to bear in mind when creating these types of tasks. Firstly, it is best to present just one new structure at a time. Secondly, although these are generally form-focused tasks, the emphasis should remain on meaning. No matter how well-rehearsed, a learner will not be able to use a structure productively if she or he doesn’t understand what it means. Lastly, build up the activity from single sentences to connected discourse. Remember, the end goal is communication, so combine new structures with those learned previously to create longer, more complex utterances.
Structured output is always preceded by structured input, usually from the teacher or the textbook. New language is presented to the learner in a familiar context or with the support of pictures, videos, etc. Once the learner has grasped the meaning of the structure, she or he is ready to begin trying to use it. Unless a structure is routinely practiced or encountered during the course of conversation, it is easily forgotten.
Here is where recording can prove useful. After practicing a structure with a learner, it is a good idea to provide her or him with a recording to use for self-study between lessons. Once made, these recordings can be used again and again with different learners. It is also valuable for learners to create their own recordings both for self-reflection and for evaluation by the teacher. This is a time for learners to experiment: adapting the structures, testing new vocabulary, responding to their own output, and combining new structures with those studied previously.
When doing structured output activities in real-time, the teacher should always respond to meaning instead of form. In the case of recordings, however, it’s okay to address issues with grammar, choice of vocabulary or pronunciation.
It’s natural for learners to want to write their output before they speak it. Most will feel more comfortable with the pace of writing, but it’s important to encourage them to speak their output as well. The repetition will increase fluency, which will help them to respond to input in a timely manner.
It’s important that the teacher (or a fellow learner) provide a response to the output generated during the task. This affirms to the learner that the output has a purpose and communicates a message. There are a wide variety of options when it comes to responding. Here is a short list of possibilities:
- repeating what was said
- asking a follow-up question
- answering a question that was asked
- expressing interest or surprise
- comparing with someone else
- indicating agreement or disagreement
- determining if what was said is true
Be sure to employ structured output tasks as a way for your learners to practice between face-to-face sessions. In addition to building fluency and accuracy, they provide excellent opportunities for review and activation of newly-learned vocabulary and structures.
Click on the image to see an example of a structured output activity for low level learners.