Teaching Production Skills How do language students
learn productive skills and how do we as foreign language instructors teach them? To my mind, the major task in being able to fluently and accurately produce foreign language is the acquisition of vocabulary through a great deal of input. If vocabulary acquisition is done through massive amounts of reading and listening, it will bring with it a greater familiarity with the patterns of the new language. Grammar explanations will become more comprehensible and therefore meaningful and useful to the learner that already has some exposure to the language. Eventually this will lead to a greater ability to express oneself through speaking and writing.
Stephen Krashen, in this 1982 presentation, suggested that we all acquire language in exactly the same way, by understanding it. He said; ?When people speak to us in another language and we understand what they say, or we read something in another language and we understand the message, language acquisition will take place?.
Krashen is the foremost exponent of learning through massive input of meaningful content, what he calls ?comprehensible input?. Meaningful means that the content is both relative and interesting, and just a little bit challenging to the student
. He recommends reading content which contains only 5% unknown words, so that the reader can infer the meaning of these new words and still enjoy reading. As early as they are able, I believe students
should study interesting, meaningful content like this that they will enjoy spending time with.
Again, it is my belief as well as my experience in foreign language learning that it is an expansive vocabulary that will allow learners to reach fluency and accuracy in their new language. In my self-study of chinese
I noticed grammar was naturally acquired and more easily reproduced the more words I knew. The more content I could understand, and the more time I spent with it, the better I could then produce natural language. Not the more rules I remembered or the more I spoke.
One of the early proponents of the primacy of vocabulary was Michael Lewis, with his ?Lexical Theory?. The Lexical approach places emphasis on learning words and phrases and picking up grammar naturally through recognizing patterns as one?s vocabulary grows. If the form of language is perceived, as in natural chains of words a native speaker
throws together rather than individual parts and rules, a method such as this may very well facilitate the acquisition and production of natural spoken language.
Having now discussed how students
might best acquire language and show productive skills, what then is the role of the teacher? Steven Sternfeld, of the University of Utah, argued in his dissertation that our goal is not only to teach language, but to teach students
how to acquire language, so that they can become autonomous and improve on their own. This is a position with which I heartily agree.
During the first few months I suggest the teacher take the traditional role where they get students
to develop a strong vocabulary foundation through traditional teaching methods. After this beginner phase, a teacher should take on the role of a tutor and a resource. Encourage students
to spend time with the language by giving them what they like, and avoid causing anxiety in students
by requiring them to produce the language before they are comfortable. To quote Stephen Krashen once again; ?Speaking, talking is not practicing. The ability to speak another language is the result of acquiring it, not its cause.? This is not to say I believe speaking is not of vital importance in language learning, but that a student
with 100 or so known words does not yet have the weapons to defend themselves in proper conversation. At such an early stage, students
need to focus on input and build vocabulary before switching focus to output.
Therefore, I suggest language instructors allow individual students
to study authentic material of interest to them, yet track their progress, giving them certain tasks and tests along the way and be there as an aid. In time, and as I submit, a much shorter time, students
will be displaying accurate and effective productive skills.