Lately I’m a little troubled by the word ‘production’. The longer I teach and the more I read, the less sure I become about even the simplest terms in ELT. When exactly does production start? What is the difference between practice and production? Can true beginners ever truly engage in production? When I began working in ELT 13 years ago, I was a pretty big fan of Krashen. I bought into the idea that mere repetition, or parroting, wasn’t production. Now I’m not so sure. And I get less sure the more I work with the lowest level students at my school.
Regardless of methodology, production often seems to be linked with autonomy. But for Penny Ur (1991, p. 19), practice is, “the rehearsal of certain behaviors with the objective of consolidating learning and improving performance,” even when carried out completely autonomously. So the line between practice and production might have less to do with what the students are doing, and more to do with the goals of the activity.
Or maybe I’m just getting lost in a maze of semantics here. Still, I think there is something crucial about understanding what and what does not constitute production. I believe that my students need a chance to engage in production activities and that these activities can help them to notice and reorder their interlanguage at the phonological, semantic, and pragmatic levels. But recently, when I reflect on what my students said and wrote in class, especially in my beginner classes, I’m like a boarder guard who has suddenly forgotten how to read the visa stamps from neighboring countries.
In my first year classes, I have a set text with readings that usually consist of 50 words or so. I try and get students to interact with the text as often as possible. I’ve written about some of the exercises I use in class, including simple listening activities, reading with a thin strip of paper set down the middle of the text to create a cloze activity, and shadowing of key words while listening to a partner read. I’ve also had students start reading out the text for a set amount of time and marking where in the text they could reach after 1 minute, again after 45 seconds and again after 30 seconds (thanks to Rachel Roberts for the basis of this activity). I am also pretty hep on having students convert declarative sentences from the text into interrogatory statements and then ask the question form of the sentence to a partner who has to find the correct response from the text and reply appropriately.
So does the declarative/interrogative exercise count as a production activity? Is it really any different from the gap grammar exercises which have been so routinely bashed as artificial and disconnected from real language use? Does simply placing the exercise within an interactional framework somehow change the essential nature of what the students are doing and drag it onto the land of production?
And how about those reading aloud activities? Is that really production? When I wander around the classroom and help students with their pronunciation, I think it does qualify as production. And when students are aware enough of their own reading to reread sentences which give them trouble the first time around, I feel like that also would qualify as production as well. But what about the student who reads aloud to themselves, but is merely going through the motions, just mechanically reproducing what’s in the text?
I was twittering back and forth with Ceri Jones (@cerirhiannon) the other day and she mentioned that perhaps the threshold of production depends on the type of guidance provided by the teacher, the number of choices open to a student, and a sense of “need to produce.”
Which got me thinking about my Drama classes. In one sense, students’ choices are extremely limited when they are rehearsing lines for a play. The language used is set down for them. On the other hand, they have choice in the gestures they use, the tone of voice, the pacing of their lines and a whole host of other areas. If they are actually paying attention to any one of these things as the work to deliver their lines, then I would have no problem seeing their scene practice as a form of production. In fact, most of the activities I use in my class, including controlled dialogues, dictogloss, simple surveys, and any activity during which the students are actively focused on pronunciation are considered production by Paul Nation (2009). But, regardless of the activity type, if the students are merely saying the words, it certainly doesn’t feel like production to me.
And perhaps the word, ‘feel’ is what trips me up. Like so many other things in language teaching, production seems to depend on the consciousness of the student, the black box of the students’ thoughts, intent, and level of awareness. Perhaps that’s one of our more important roles as a teacher, to feel out if a student is truly producing language, and if not, to find a way to nudge them in such a way that what they say becomes something more than just the sum of their words.
Nation, I.S.P. and Newton, J. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking. New York: Rutledge.
Ur, P. (1991). A Course in Language Teaching: practice and theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.