Input vs. Output—What Is the Right Mix for English Learners?

Published on
February 2, 2021
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Updated on
March 3, 2021
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6
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Can you learn English entirely by reading? Or just by chatting with native speakers? Neither—you need a mix of input and output activities. Here’s why.

Input vs. Output—What Is the Right Mix for English Learners?

People have lots of opinions about the best way to learn English, and especially about the types of learning activities we should do. 

For instance, Benny the Irish Polyglot suggests that you can be fluent in a language in 3 months… all you have to do is start speaking from day one. 

He advocates that learners prioritise output activities.

Others have suggested that “adults talk too much”, instead recommending that you should only start speaking after you’re ready for things to come out naturally. 

So which is it? 

When considering input vs. output for learning English—which is better? And which should you prioritise? 

This article aims to answer those questions.

What is input?

Comprehensible input is language input that you can mostly understand. 

It’s an essential part of the input hypothesis for acquiring a second language, originally proposed by Stephen Krashen.

His hypothesis is, very briefly, that we primarily learn language through exposure to language that we can understand. The idea is that the more you expose yourself to comprehensible input through reading and listening, the more of that language you will learn.

And he seems to be right: there’s lots of evidence that comprehensive input plays an important role in language learning. 

Input in the form of listening practice can even help your speaking.

What is output?

In response to Krashen’s theory, some other language theorists, like Merill Swain, have argued that input may not explain all language acquisition

They have noted that much language learning happens when people use the language to write or speak. These theorists have proposed a complementary theory called the output hypothesis.

The output hypothesis says that when we speak to someone we use feedback from them—like whether they understood us—to help us learn and improve. 

If they don’t understand us, we change our language until they do, and that process helps us determine what language works.

But even the creator of the output hypothesis doesn’t claim that output is responsible for all—or even most—of our language acquisition. The hypothesis is just that, under some conditions, output helps you learn a language in a way that’s different from input. 

It turns out there is some evidence for this output hypothesis, too. 

Studies have found that including output in an input activity results in better language learning than input alone. Output helps us notice particular forms of language. It focuses our attention, in particular, on areas that we struggle with and to listen more carefully to input. 

Input as the first step to output

So if both input and output work is one better? Should you, as an English learner, just focus on one and discard the other?

In short, no. 

They both serve a purpose, and there is a clear link between the two.

Theorists have suggested that rather than see these as two disconnected–and even competing–ideas, it’s more accurate to think of input as a first step along the path to output.

One researcher, Susan Gass, proposed a model for how that happens.

  1. First, the learner is exposed to some language.
  2. Next, the learner notices some particular language features.
  3. Then, the learner understands the meaning of those language features.
  4. Then, the language features “go in”—they’re assimilated into the learner’s linguistic library of grammatical structures and vocabulary. 
  5. Finally, the language is available to the learner to use as output. 
  6. If we have difficulty producing language, that then helps us focus and notice the next set of input input.

This model is useful because it suggests that both input and output can help you achieve similar things: they’re just focusing on different parts of the same path. 

What does that mean for you, the independent English learner?

For English learners, the take-away of all this research is that both input and output are important. 

That means you should be doing activities that focus on input, like reading and listening to English at your level. 

But you should also be making sure you do activities that are more output-oriented, like speaking and maybe even writing.

Getting input is easy 

It’s easy to find really high-quality reading and listening materials these days. 

Our favourite way to get input in English is, of course, listening to English podcasts like the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast.

But there are tonnes of other ways, too. 

If you want some tips, check out our guide to reading in English and our ultimate guide to English listening activities.

Output is a little more difficult

Getting good output practice is a little more challenging.

When it comes to speaking, people often say that they have no opportunity to practice with native speakers. Although they have no problem listening to a podcast or watching a film in English, they struggle when it comes to speaking.

I know firsthand that getting ‘output’ as an independent learner is tough.

Luckily, there are several activities you can do to practise speaking—even when you don’t have a partner

One really powerful one is shadowing. You can even record yourself speaking, or go one step further and make your own English podcast.

These types of activities are great because they help you work on many aspects of spoken fluency.

But the core of the “output” hypothesis is that you are learning from the feedback of someone else. 

That means that, at least some of the time, you need a speaking partner.

Don’t worry: finding an English conversation partner isn’t as hard as it used to be. There are lots of options online.

What about writing? 

There are several places you can go to get feedback on your writing. 

You could find a pen pal and have them make corrections to your writing. 

Or, you could post on a service like Lang-8 where native speakers correct the writing of language learners. Other sites where people give feedback on writing include Reddit, Writing.com, Critters, and Critique.

Even though it’s a bit more challenging, there are lots of easy ways to bring output activities into your language learning routine. 

Put both input and output in your learning programme

In English, we have a saying that “variety is the spice of life.” 

The idea is that doing a number of different things keeps life interesting, the way that spices keep your food interesting.

In this case, we might adapt that saying a bit and say, “variety is the spice of a good English learning programme.” That is, doing several different things is a good way to ensure you’ll learn effectively.

Doing several different activities will help you get practice both input and output. But it will also keep your learning interesting so you’ll be motivated to keep going. 

Input vs. output: what is the right mix?

The best way to build a balanced input vs. output “diet” depends on you—there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

When it comes to deciding what the right mix is for your own English course, I’d recommend thinking about:

  • What are your goals? For example, if speaking is particularly important to you, increase the ratio of speaking exercises in your programme (but, remember that listening is an essential part of having a conversation, too). If you’re trying to prepare to do a university course in English, it will probably be more important to read, write and listen.
  • Where are your weaknesses? If you’re at a lower intermediate level, input activities are probably more important for you. Understanding English is essential for using it later. If you’re already at a fairly high level but don’t feel confident speaking, do more input activities.

In addition to those considerations, here are a few observations that you can use to get the right output vs. input balance.

We learn a tonne from listening and reading

These really are effective ways to upgrade your language level—they improve everything from grammar to vocabulary to speaking fluency

For that reason, reading and listening should make up a good chunk of your learning activities.

Input exercises are usually easier to organise logistically

You don’t need to coordinate with others or hire an English tutor to do them. And you can squeeze them in while you’re doing other things like running or making dinner. That often makes them much more convenient than speaking activities.

We listen more than we talk

There’s a quote that has been attributed to Epictetus, that I really like: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” 

He might not have been talking about language learning, but the idea can also apply to balancing input and output learning activities: listening roughly twice as much—or more—as we talk is a solid place to begin thinking about how we build a language learning programme.

The right mix: principles of a good language learning programme

With all those things in mind, here’s what I would recommend of your home English-learning programme:

  • Include both input and output at every level of your journey. Ensure that you are doing activities for each of the main language skills: listening, reading, speaking and writing.
  • Input should probably make up the majority of your programme. My suggestion is that it makes up more than half of your learning time.
  • For those closer to beginner levels, favour input. For those closer to advanced levels, increase the output.
  • If you’re at an intermediate or above level, mix input and output in the same activity. For example, listen to a podcast and then transcribe it. Or read a newspaper article and then record yourself talking about your reaction to it.
  • Choose a mix that suits your own language goals. 
  • Most importantly, do activities that you like and that you find interesting so you stick with it in the long term.

Final thoughts on input vs. output for learning English

When you’re learning on your own, it can be easy to default to input activities because they’re easy to find and do independently. And we know that they’re effective.

But try not to only do input activities. Doing so might put you behind in speaking fluency

At the same time, there are problems with an output-only learning process. 

You could end up with a limited set of vocabulary and grammar, and maintain some mispronunciation habits. Worse, you might feel like it’s really, really hard to learn English and give up.

So stick with a blend of both output and input. See how it goes, and don’t be afraid to readjust as necessary. 

Good luck!

References

Gass, S. M. (1988). Integrating research areas: A framework for second language studies. Applied linguistics, 9(2), 198-217.

Greaney, V. (1980). Factors related to amount and type of leisure time reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 15(3), 337-357.

Izumi, S., Bigelow, M., Fujiwara, M., & Fearnow, S. (1999). Testing the output hypothesis: Effects of output on noticing and second language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 21(3), 421-452.

Krashen, S. (1989). We acquire vocabulary and spelling by reading: Additional evidence for the input hypothesis. The Modern Language Journal, 73(4), 440-464.

Saragi, T., Nation, I. S. P., & Meister, G. F. (1978). Vocabulary learning and reading. System, 6(2), 72-78.

Swain, M. (1985). Communicative competence: Some roles of comprehensible input and comprehensive output in its development. In S, Gass and C, Madden (Eds), Input in second language acquisition (pp. 235-253). Roeley, MA: Newbury House

Swain, M., & Lapkin, S. (1995). Problems in output and the cognitive processes they generate: A step towards second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 16(3), 371-391.