Help your students master a foreign language through meaningful output

March 14, 2023

You can think of language learning as a puzzle. For acquisition to occur, the right pieces need to be in the right place. We know enough about how second-language learning works to know it’s not as simple as learning some grammar. Or watching YouTube videos. Or spending 3 minutes per day on a gamified language-learning app. To really learn a foreign language, your students need to engage with the right types of activities. And one of those activities is producing meaningful output.

In this article you’ll find out what meaningful output is and how to increase opportunities for it in your classroom. This is the second article in our four-part series about Nation’s Four Strands of effective language teaching. If you haven’t already, check out our blog about how comprehensible input can boost language learning.

What is meaningful output and why is it important?

Meaningful output in language learning is language students produce — when they speak or write — to communicate. It’s not the same as listen-and-repeat activities. For output to be meaningful it must include a message intended to be understood by another person. Some academics think output is unnecessary because input alone is sufficient (see Stephen Krashen’s input hypothesis). But others subscribe to a more common sense view that output is also essential (see Swain and Nation). Which makes sense, of course. To get good at most skills, you need to do them a lot. Common sense says that to become a good speaker of the target language, you need to speak the target language a lot! 

So to help your students produce the target language well, you need to give them opportunities to practice producing the target language. And lots of them. Here’s how meaningful output can help students learn a language:

Let’s take a look at an example. Jun has been studying English for around a year and is now travelling around Australia. He goes to the pharmacy to buy some headache medicine. When he’s there he speaks to the cashier. But the cashier doesn’t understand him. Jun notices that there’s a gap in his English ability — he can’t say what he wants to say. So he tries again but this time rephrases his request.

You can think of Jun like a scientist. His first attempt didn’t work and he made an educated guess why and tried again. He’s testing his hypothesis. He’s trying to bridge the gap. The response from the cashier is the feedback and data in his little experiment. Now he’s ready to try again (if the cashier still can’t understand him) or reflect upon and internalize what went wrong and how he fixed it.

This process of testing, receiving feedback, reflecting, and internalizing is why output is so important for foreign-language learners. Meaningful interactions — like Jun in the pharmacy — can lead to language acquisition.

It’s not all or nothing when it comes to input and output

But, what does this mean for you? When you’re planning your lessons should you focus more on input or output? Well, language teachers have been arguing about this for years. Krashen argues that all acquisition comes from input. Proponents of the output hypothesis don’t make such bold claims. They say output is responsible for some acquisition.

As language teachers, you don’t need to be so black and white about it. You can mix things up. If every lesson was 100% input, your students would get bored. If it was only output, they’d get tired. So it makes sense to vary your lessons while trying to give students a good balance of comprehensible input and meaningful output. This way you’re giving them plenty of opportunities for language acquisition. 

Meaningful output in your classroom

Increasing meaningful output can be tough depending on your class context. If you’re teaching in a country where the target language is commonly used, it’s much easier. Students will have chances for meaningful output everyday living their daily lives. But if you’re teaching in a foreign language context, it gets much harder. Often classes in foreign language contexts are mono-lingual. Which can lead to awkward activities with students being forced to communicate in the foreign language. But don’t despair, it’s not impossible. Here are some things you can do:

• Debates

• Interviews

• Group work

• Presentations

• Creative writing

• Information gap activities

When you’re ready to give your students the meaningful output they need, ZenGengo can help. ZenGengo is one of the only platforms that focuses on all four language skills. So your students will get a lot of comprehensible input, in addition to vocabulary and grammar tasks, and plenty of opportunities to produce meaningful messages in the target language. With a 30-day speaking challenge, audio recording activities and video recording assignments that are perfect for speeches and presentations, your students can enjoy a variety of speaking tasks. Combine this with report writing assignments, and you have everything you need to encourage meaningful output in your foreign language classes.

Sign up for a free trial of ZenGengo to get started creating meaningful output practice activities.


Is output more important than input for learning a language?

Arguments about this can get pretty heated in second-language acquisition academia. But here at ZenGengo we prefer a more common sense approach to language learning. We think both input and output are hugely important. And to give your students the best chance to succeed, you need to include an even balance of both in your lessons. 

What are some examples of meaningful output activities?

There are so many things you could do in your classroom. But here are some highlights. Speaking challenges, audio recording, video recording, and written reports are ways to get your students producing meaningful output. And to help you plan and create meaningful output activities, you can use the ZenGengo Lesson Wizard — saving you a lot of time.

Does ZenGengo only help with meaningful output?

Of course ZenGengo does much more than this! You can access lessons and assignments for all four language skills on our platform. We believe in a well-rounded approach to language learning. So you get a huge Lesson Library full of pre-made lessons for your students featuring a range of input, output, vocabulary, and grammar activities.