The 20/80 Experience: A look at English Input/Output at one Korean Middle School


I’ve heard many times (though, interestingly, never in my university theoretical classes) that the ideal amount of teacher input to student output is 20% to 80%.  This magic number actually does not come out of SLA theory, nor educational theory (but has since been adopted).

But, what I have learned about SLA theory over the years doesn’t always seem to jive with the 20/80 rule (as we will explore below).  On the other hand, the 20/80 rule speaks in some ways to me as an educator. (I’m not one for lecturing).  Therefore, I have decided to explore the idea further.  What will follow is a series of posts, over the course of this semester (at least) documenting my class’s input and output; along with any discussion and analysis we would like to have.

This post will serve as an introduction to the actual data and analysis that will follow (with the first set coming tomorrow).  Here, I just want to set the stage.  We will give just a basic overview of what it is I am actually looking at when we say, “input/output”.  and over the course of the study, it should be made more clear and we may even delve into more specific topics.

But first, on the basic level, what we are talking about when we say “input” and “output” is defined by Krashen’s (1982) “input hypothesis” and Swain’s (1985) “output hypothesis”.  For a real introduction, check here and here.

Krashen’s hypothesis is part of a larger theory called the “monitor model” and was itself a response to the behaviorist methodology that dominated most educational theories at the time.  Krashen built his monitor model upon the foundation that Noam Chomsky built with his theory of First Language Acquisition.  Chomsky’s claim is that Language (with a capital ‘L’) is innate to all humans.  That babies do not come into the world as a “blank slate”, but with an evolutionarily-developed capacity for acquiring language.  Similar to how bats have evolved eco-location.

It is this new conceptualization of language-learning, the acquisition of language that led to Krashen’s model.  From Lightbown’s How Languages are Learned: 

“First, in the acquisition-learning hypothesis, Krashen contrasts these two terms.  We ‘acquire’ as we are exposed to samples of the second language we understand in much the same way that children pick up their first language– with no conscious attention to language form.  we ‘learn’ on the other hand through conscious attention to form and rule learning.”

“The input hypothesis is that acquisition occurs when one is exposed to language that is comprehensible and that contains i + 1.  The ‘i’ represents the level of language already acquired, and the ‘+1″ is a metaphor for language (words, grammatical forms, aspects of pronunciation) that is just a step beyond that level” (pg 6-7).

Language input in the ESL classroom is the language directed towards students in the target language.  More specifically, ESL researchers talk about “meaning-focused input”, which is the type of input that students need in order to learn.  Meaning-focused input exists under 5 conditions:

“1. Most of what the learners are listening to or reading is already familiar to them.
2. The learners are interested in the input and want to understand it.
3. Only a small proportion of the language features are unknown to the learners.  In terms of vocabularly, 95 percent to 98 percent of the running words should be within the learners’ previous knowledge, and so nly five or preferably only one or two words per hundred should be unknown to them (Hu and Nation, 2000).
4. The learners can gain some knowledge of the unknown language items through context clues and background knowledge.
5. There are large quantities of input.” (Nation, 2009:3).

Swain’s output-hypothesis was presented as a response to Krashen due to her observation in French-immersion students high listening/comprehension skills, but low speaking/writing skills.  The output hypothesis is sometimes called, “pushed” or “forced” output because part of the learning process is said to happen when a student “notices” (Lightbown, 44) their linguistic limits.

However, the 5 main points are largely the same for the output hypothesis.  What students talk about should be familiar to them, their goal should be to convey a message to another person, only a small portion of the language they use should be unfamiliar, students use other communications strategies (like miming, gesture, body language, intonation, dictionaries, input etc..) to fill in for things they are unfamiliar with and finally, they need plenty of opportunities to produce (Nation 2009:5).

In addition, Swain’s output hypothesis proposes three functions of output that cannot be provided by input.  (1) As students attempt to speak, they notice where their knowledge lacks (not just the teacher). (2) As students attempt to formulate grammatically accurate sentences, they have to formulate hypothesizes about the language they are going to use.  And (3) As students formulate and test hypothesizes about the target language, they provide opportunities for meta-linguistic observation and discussion.  Meaning, when your student is learning the simple past-tense, and they apply ‘-ed’ to ‘fly’ and get ‘flied’, this gives you and your students a chance to talk about language and not just through language (Nation,2009:5-7).

It can seem like they really are just two-sides of the same coin, but there are advocates who would push against the other.  Krashen, for example, would see “the 20/80” experience as a very flawed methodology indeed.  But that’s what this is all about, learning (and making myself feel like I am doing something, or contributing something to this little school).

Next post, the Exploratory data.


Krashen, Stephen D (1991).  “The Input Hypothesis: An Update”.  Linguistics and Language Pedagogy:  The State of the Art.  ed. James E. Alatis. Georgetown University Press.

Lightbown, Patsy M. and Nina Spada (2006).  How Languages are Learned.  Oxford University Press.

Nation, I.S.P. and Jonathan Newton (2009).  Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking.  Routledge, New York.

Pinker, Steven and Paul Bloom (1995).  “Natural language and Natural Selection”.  The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture.  ed.  Jerome H. Barkow et al.  Oxford University Press.

Swain, Merrill (2000).  “The output hypothesis and beyond: Mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue”.  Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning.  ed. James E. Lantolf.  Oxford University Press.

One thought on “The 20/80 Experience: A look at English Input/Output at one Korean Middle School

  1. Excellent for you to bring up Krashen’s input, and Swain’s output hypothesis side by side. I recently wrote a language teachers philosophy that uses their theories as my SLA foundation. I see no need for their theories to compete, but I also see no need to depend completely on one or the other. They both seem to correlate well to Chompsky’s Langauge Acquisition Devise. Since learning of their conceptions of language acquisition, I have changed my approach to learning Korean, and feel enormously more effective in my SLA, and well as teaching with these theories in mind.


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