Input, intake and aims

by Roger Hunt

Teacher after her class: ‘I did the present perfect again. But they still don’t know it.’

Michael Swan once told a story in which a man claimed that he had taught his parrot three languages. Lots of people came to see this parrot and waited expectantly for it to speak. But it didn’t. It didn’t say a word in any language at all and certainly not in three different ones. The crowd were not happy and started berating the man for lying to them. He responded: ‘I told you I had taught the parrot three languages, I didn’t say he had learned them.’

In other words his input had not become the parrot’s intake. Perhaps he wasn’t a very good teacher.


Of course there are a lot of converses where you can’t have one without the other. For example a library lends and is a place where we can borrow books; you can’t have a childwithout there being parents and you can’t be a parent if you don’t have a child. But if  ‘Teachers teach and learners learn’ were a true converse, all learners in a class would learn exactly the same amount at the same time and what they learned would exactly correspond to what the teacher taught. We all know this is not the case though.

Learning outcomes

Teachers in training (on pre-service and in-service courses) are instructed/required/encouraged to express the objectives of their lessons in terms of aims. These aims usually refer to pre-selected language items (often verb phrases).

Would it be more fruitful to help teachers in training evaluate the lesson in terms of learning outcomes as a result of the lesson? That is, help them attempt to identify the intake. In this way they would have to reflect on the lesson from the student’s perspective and to identify evidence in the lesson which supports their assessment of any learning outcomes. So called ‘skills’ lessons would be particularly good lesson formats for this approach as the trainee teacher’s mind would not be obsessed by his/her lack of confidence in ‘explaining’ a dreaded grammar point.

In other words learning outcomes can be revealed post facto and may usefully be compared and contrasted with an a priori definition of aims.

Receptive Skills aims

These are often expressed as “To develop the skill of listening/reading”. This mode of expression is invariably provided by a course tutor as a cover-all, blanket term for what would otherwise be an aimless (therefore pointless?) activity.  Reading and listening texts tend to follow a very set procedural formula which includes setting comprehension tasks such as comprehension questions. Comprehension questions are also used in examinations which the student may pass or fail depending on how many s/he gets right. If these questions are for assessment in an examination, in what way are they any different in a receptive skills lesson? I would argue they are not any different at all. The tutors perhaps should come clean and tell the teacher in training that their aim is to test comprehension.

Tests are useful to discover what the student can’t yet do very well, then help him or her do it i.e. they may have a useful diagnostic function. However, I have never worked with or heard of a tutor who points this out. Testing a language point is simple enough and can give some face validity at least to the teacher who says: “Oh look! They’re not very good at using prepositions of place; I’ll teach them these next lesson”. But how does this fit with the receptive skills lesson? “Oh look! They all got number four wrong I’ll ….Hmmm, what will I do next lesson as a result of this?”

I wonder how long it would take to ‘develop’ the average student’s reading or listening ability by continually testing their comprehension. Rather more than one little lesson I think, so to state this as a lesson aim seems rather presumptuous.

Of course there are ways in which we can help develop skills such as inference (though tragically this is rarely encountered as a syllabus feature on pre-service teacher-training courses in my experience).

The following is from an EasyJet in-flight magazine about a journalist with no sense of rhythm going off to a class in drumming:

“I felt so nervous I even briefly entertained the idea of diving into the nearest bar for a quick shot”

Focus students’ attention on the words ‘nervous’ and ‘bar’ and they start working out the meaning of this text. Discuss what ‘dive’ and ‘shot’ mean in this text and they get a lot further. Ask them one comprehension question: “Did the speaker have a drink?” and you know whether or not they understand the meaning of “I even briefly entertained…”

Get them to reformulate the whole text in their own words and Bob’s your uncle. What they’ve done is to put 1, 2 and 3 together to make six. I think this sort of inferential approach could qualify as ‘developing the reading skill’ as it’s one of those reading skills that often do not get transferred from reading in L1 to reading in L2. It also highlights the danger of fixing on, and mistranslating individual words as opposed to working out textual meaning (notice what tiny amounts of text you need to do this sort of thing, by the way).


My point here is that whether or not anyone feels pre-selected aims are good or bad, an awful lot of what is expressed as an aim is dubious to say the least, particularly in the case of receptive skills. By way of a footnote I think it’s pretty fair to say that many inexperienced teachers’ ideas of lesson aims are to fill up lots of class time with fun activities, with ‘games’ being particularly popular (but that’s another issue – chess is a game but I wouldn’t get my students playing it in class).

So, perhaps it’s time for a bit of a paradigm shift, or at least to add something to the current paradigm: rather than fussing too much about pre-selected aims, get the teachers to assess the learning outcomes at the end of the lesson. And they can’t just say “they developed their reading skills”; they have to give evidence from the lesson to back up all and any statements they make about what was learned, irrespective of what was taught.

Author’s Bio: Roger Hunt is Director of Education at International House Barcelona. He has been a Teacher, Teacher Trainer and Educational Manager for over thirty years, and has worked in many parts of the world. He is particularly interested in Ancient and Medieval History (yes, there is a life outside ELT!).