L is for ‘Loop input’

The other day in a conversation with two trainers, I heard two questions. From the first: “Do we still use loop input these days?” and from the second trainer(2) “What is loop input?”

I first learned about ‘Loop Input’ in an excellent training session with Tessa Woodward and she wrote a book called Loop Input (Pilgrims 1988). It’s now out of print though I bought a copy from the woman herself so I guess she has a few left for sale in her garage if you want one. You can also read an article by her here.

Anyway, in answer to the two questions: Yes, most trainers use it a lot though may not know it’s called loop input. And in answer to the second question (What is it?) here’s a brief summary with an activity to illustrate how it works.

When presenting a new teaching technique, it is common for trainers to follow this two-step procedure:

Step 1: The trainer asks the trainees to pretend to be students and then models or demonstrates the technique.

Step 2: The group discusses what was done before trying out the new skill themselves in their teaching practice.

So, in effect, you are doing two things in parallel: (1) Pretending to be language learners and then (2) Learning about teaching.

Loop input on the other hand offers an alternative by combining the two steps so they are less in parallel but work more in combination: as a loop.

Here’s an example of a loop input activity to train teachers to use dictations which Tessa originally outlined in her workshop though this version is in my words (so don’t blame her if it doesn’t work). In it, the trainer dictates a text describing how dictation works. In this way, the trainees experience the process and consider the content at the same time.

A training session on dictation1 Explain that you will read a text aloud and each participant needs a pen and paper to write down as much of it as possible. Read the following text to them: ‘A dictation is simply the teacher (or someone) reading out a piece of written text and asking the students to write down what they hear. The text could be the first few lines of a newspaper article, a verse of a song, even the instructions to another activity. It’s useful since it practises writing and speaking as well as listening. If you include language that you’ve recently taught in a dictation, it is also a good way to evaluate whether students have learnt it.’2 Afterwards, pairs or groups compare their texts afterwards. Read the text again so that everyone has the entire text (more or less). Briefly discuss as a class what the listeners found difficult and what they would imagine students would find difficult about doing a dictation.3 Now read the second part of the text on dictation below, which is about how to read dictations. You can either read this as you would any other dictation or, in order to illustrate the process of reading a dictation, read it differently from the way suggested by the guidelines in the text (i.e. incorrectly). So, for example, read the dictation slowly the first time, very quickly the second time (faster than normal) and finally, very slowly again.

‘As a general rule, the first time you read the text, read it at natural speed. The second time, extend pauses in natural places, such as at full stops and commas. The third time, read it again at natural speed. At the end, hand out a printed version or ask the students to read back what they have to you so that you can write it on the board.’

Afterwards, ask the group what you did wrong each of the three times you read the dictation.

Loop input appears to have the benefit of presenting information quickly and more efficiently than presenting the technique as it would be done with students and then discussing it. However, a loop input activity will also require discussion afterwards and some ‘unpacking’ of the process and content.

I have also observed – on pre-work training courses – situations where trainees have not seen the connection between the loop activity and the type of activity they might use in class. But without doubt, used in conjunction with other techniques, it can be effective.

Once you start using loop input in your training sessions it’s hard to give it up for a while! For example, you can do a session on reading skills but instead of using a reading you’d normally use with students, you use a reading text about how to teach reading and ask trainees to complete the types of tasks (gist questions, comprehension question, orally summarising) that we ask students to do with a reading text. See also the session on teaching listening skills which uses loop input. It’s very addictive!

So I’ve answered ‘What is loop input?” As to the question, “Do we still use it?” Well, I do. Do you?

Categories: Teacher Training

Tags: , , , , ,

26 replies

  1. Hi and I had almost the exact same conversation with a colleague – many colleagues may be doing versions of it but not be aware of the term Tessa Woodward created or her book on this topic.

    We do several sessions using this type of approach although not every single time as it can get a wee bit too twee to be doing this every single time – but maybe this is just how I feel about this.

    I have had the most fun with my colleague, George Vassilakis, designing and teaching a series of sessions and demo lessons on the different approaches and methods to teaching foreign languages by using the method/approach itself….

    On occasion, the trainees may miss the point or not laugh as hard as we do so I think it’s quite important to forwarn them that their input intends to demonstrate whatever it is you wish to introduce in action.

    On the subject of dictations to teach all about dictation, do try running dictation using loop input.


    • Hi Marisa and thanks for your comment. I know what you mean about ‘twee’. When you first learn about it, you go a bit mad and every session become loop to the point where you can forget to give teachers any actual ideas to use in class. It’s a bit like learning to use cuisenaire rods for the first time. Every lesson happens with rods until you realise students don’t share your boundless enthusiasm for the technique! But likewise, it’s good as part of your armoury of techniques.

      Good point you make about forewarning the trainees! Again, there’s a temptation to introduce things by ‘stealth’ as if running a magic show when in fact the whole process needs to be very transparent for it to work successfully.

  2. Hi John, nice post and blog–very happy I stumbled across it.

    I remember experiencing loop input as a teacher trainee and, much like the scenario Marisa warned about, I (and my fellow trainees) missed the point completely. It wasn’t something like a month later that I realized that we had been taught in the way that we were expected to teach.

    When I realized this, I wondered about the ‘secrecy’ of it all–why couldn’t they just tell us?

    Now, as someone who’s just getting into running workshops and teacher training in general, I do use loop input in my sessions (and agree with Marisa that it’s particularly suited to demonstrating various types of dictations), but, on reading your post, I think I’m in the category of people that find loop-input hard to give up–

    in fact, one of my first thoughts when preparing a session is “how can I loop this?”

    but I wonder now if this is the best way to go about it. Any advice as to this from you, or Marisa, or any other experienced trainers out there?


    • Dear John+John,
      (JH: Of course, I hadnt realised you’d discover my blog if I left a note on yours – that wasnt my intention, as mine is a matter of days old, and simply an experiment to see how it works!)
      I was about to comment on yours, but being term-end etc here, have been busybusy, and wanted to read sth first, and then comment. Anyhow – I chose this post to respond to as I’m just setting off to work on a CELTA at IH Barcelona, and I will be doing plenty of loop input – I think I love it for the wow-factor – if the trainees are still with you, that is! Perhaps my blog about blogging is a bit loopy.
      Anyhow.. good to have found you, albeit virtually. I’ll be reading your postings very soon, and likely commenting too – sorry not to be more constructive right now! Hope this finds you well.

      • Hi Rachel
        Yes, it’s all a bit spooky the way you can check out who’s lurking around :-)!! But great to hear from you. Look forward to seeing how your blog develops. Hope to hear more from you at this blog too. Have fun in BCN. I’ll be there in July but for a wedding. Anyway, I think we’re both at BESIG in November for OUP so see you there.

  3. Thanks for your comments John. Glad the blog has been of interest and use!
    One issue you raise is that of ‘secrecy’ – it tends to feel like training by stealth. In her writing on this Tessa Woodward talks about the importance of ‘decompression’. The need to set aside time afterwards for discussion and ‘unpack’ everything that’s just happened. Perhaps by doing this, you avoid the problem of trainees not recognising the point of it. However, it does make you wonder if its a technique which appeals to the trainer more than it does to the trainee. From a trainer’s point of view there’s something very appealing about it. But maybe it’s akin to the teacher coming up with something highly innovative to teach a language point when in fact the students would rather simply be told or shown. Let’s see if anyone else can add to the discussion John.

  4. Hi all

    Very interesting discussion. I would just like to contribute with an example I use when training freelance business English teachers. I ask them to do a role-play where they are trainers negotiating fees and course content with an HR department. The activity requires them to experience how role-plays work, but also requires them to use the negotiating skills they will need to master in order to negotiate future fees effectively. In Tessa Woodward’s loop input terms the particpants have “lived the congruence” between the content (the negotiation), and the process (the role-play). Afterwards (the decompression stage) we analyse the activity both in terms of how well role-plays work as an activity (eg their experience as participants, how well role-cards work, advantages and disadvantages of the technique etc), as well as how well they did in terms of the negotiation (eg rapport building skills, negotiating tactics, getting the result they wanted etc). We then unpack it another level by comparing the whole experience to task based methodology, where the feedback phase includes feedback on the language as well as on the task itself.

  5. PS – sorry, I should have pointed out that part of the role-play involves them explaining the advantages and disadvantages of different training techniques such as role-plays 🙂

    • Thanks Evan. I think I use something similar to look at what makes a good role play and negotiating. One teacher has to get up early to teach a one to one. But s/he’s been out partying so calls the other teacher and tries to convince him/her to cover the lesson. They negotiate a solution and afterwards we look at how you set up a successful negotiation. Personal stake in the situation always comes high on the list!!

  6. I guess it’s a question of choosing your moments and not overdoing it – as with any training technique. We need to make sure we’re using a variety of approaches in order to appeal to as wide a range of learning and processing styles as possible, just as we would with our language learners in class, and also that we’re matching the activity type to our aims and materials.

    We need to ask whether the text we’re going to be using is going to enhance the experience of the activity. Is it intrinsically interesting, will it be motivating and stimulating? if not, it might actually turn Ts off the approach/activity being showcased. We need to apply the E-factor tests of economy and efficiency that Scott Thornbury applies to grammar in How to Teach Grammar ie is this the most efficient and effective way of getting my message across?

    And how about using a loop input technique to introduce the concept of loop input 😉 seeing as it’s a great technique to use with students too (e.g. using exam type rubrics with texts about how to approach certain exam task types) let the trainees in on the secret and they can make it one of their favourite techniques too.

  7. Using loop input to introduce loop input. Love it 🙂

  8. Am interested in the notion of the E-factor test. At first sight, loop input doesn’t necessarily seem to fit the bill as far as efficiency and economy goes since it can take longer to execute than, for example, trainees pretending to be students and then telling them to ‘do it this way’. However, I think students often take more away from a loop input session in terms of long-term memory.

  9. I think there are times when it can be more efficient (and effective) than modelling and explaining in terms of time as well as long term memory. By its nature, loop input is a kind of two-for-one deal. The trainees process the underlying theory and principles of the approach while also experiencing it and learning from the learner’s perspective about the pitfalls and complications of task structure and classroom management.

    I think it works particularly well when the approach/technique being presented needs more explaining and processing than usual, more unpacking than a simple “show and tell” model allows.

  10. Glad to have found your blog, John, and what an interesting discussion you have going here 🙂

    I have always been a big fan of loop input since reading Tessa’s book, which I still have on my shelves. Now that I’m involved in (in-service) teacher training courses which are often run 100% online, I’ve seen how loop input can work well for certain online teacher training topics, online. For example, one of our courses looks at how to set up an online course in Moodle by — well, setting up an online course in Moodle! Although to what extent this is experiential learning versus loop input, I’m not sure. Perhaps they are two sides to the same coin?

    I think what is especially effective about loop input is that it is working on several different levels at the same time — although as mentioned above, trainees don’t always pick up on the same things in the various levels at the same time. In many ways, loop input allows participants to see what they are ready to see depending on their own stage of development. In this sense it mirrors language learning, where students will pick up all sorts of extraneous language in the classroom, not necessarily the grammar point that the teacher is trying to get across.

    So yes, I still use loop input, and although the principles remain unchanged, the media for me has changed from face-to-face to online. And I think it still works fine – I still recall post- course feedback from a participant who was a CELTA teacher trainer, saying he had loved the whole loop input aspect of the course! Nice to know someone was paying attention!

  11. Hi Nicky
    Thanks for adding to the discussion and giving it an online angle. Having been someone who’s taken your moodle course using moodle I’d say it’s very loop input and interestingly using loop input online may have distinct advantages. Since there always seems so much more time to ruminate and digest on online courses before posting another message you have more time to decompress and reflect on the processes at work. With an intensive face-to-face course (such as a CELTA) you finish one thing and then before there’s any time for reflection you are off to the next. Maybe the issue here is intensive courses vs online courses spread over time rather than the online medium itself…

  12. Now that I’ve read the exchange… Lots of food for thought, but I’ve not much to add, but the key issues which strike me here are ‘memory’, the ‘E’ factor, ‘unpacking’, etc – all good reminders for CELTA stuff.
    But I still worry about the mixed levels in any group of trainees – those who take it on board, and find it exciting, and those who get the idea, but can’t see the wood for the trees, and don’t see how to transfer the idea to the classroom. Hence the need for an exclectic approach. Loop input can spaghetti up a bit at times, and I think application of what was being looped is also key, not simply unpacking. And there’s also a case in my view – particularly on CELTA courses – for showing sts how to exploit CB materials well; too much loop input can push that aside … but that’s another issue.
    The intensive/online issue is another good one to start chewing on (a voicethread about voicethreads? – see Nik Peachey’s site).
    Would also love to hear more on ‘a loop input session about loop input’, but I think I’m going cross-eyed at the thought of it!

  13. Hi Rachel, I think I may have gone a step too far with the suggestion of “a loop input session about loop input” – written in jest, sounded good at the time ( I flippantly thought!) but then I got to thinking about how you could implement it – and I really don’t think it can work! definitely too much spaghetti 🙂

    • Agree – maybe – but it’ll still be food for thought over a coffee/beer on the IH terrace .. I’ll air it and get back to you!

  14. As a former ELT teacher and trainer, I used loop input in class and for teacher training. Like Nicky, I have revisited this approach and have applied it to e-learning now as an Instructional Designer in higher ed. I’m working with select faculty to help them develop digital courses (MOOCs and LOOCs) for a new open learning platform: https://janux.ou.edu

    After our first cohort released their courses, I decided to create a digital course about how to design and develop digital courses for the next cohort. This can work on a global and granular level. By placing faculty as ‘learners’ on the platform they will eventually use to administer their own course, they will begin to gain a deeper and more situated understanding of the unique affordances of the platform. Within the course, the faculty can use a rubric to evaluate a rubric, watch a screencast about how to make screencasts, take a multiple choice test about writing effective multiple choice test items, use the social features to discuss how to engage students online, etc. Then the process and content of each area is unpacked afterward.

    So, yes, I still use loop input. In fact, my previous life in ELT has provided a unique lens through which I approach course design, from using a spiral syllabus for “Introduction to Java Programming” to adapting Community Language Learning to inspire the design and cognitive tools used to facilitate knowledge building between tribal elders and nursery school teachers as part of a Kiowa language and culture revitalization program.

  15. Interesting discussion going on!
    I’ve been trying to find more examples of loop input and seem to be coming across many that are very similar to the one given in Woodward’s (2003) article. Is anyone willing to share anything else, so that I can get my brain around this, please?
    I’ve been reading Wright & Bolitho’s learning cycle, based on Kolb’s and am wondering if Woodward’s ‘decompression’ isn’t Wright & Bolitho’s ‘making sense’ or ‘linking’.

    • Hi Raquel. As you can see this discussion is quite old. I’m not familiar with what Wright & Bolitho say on this but ‘decompression’ – for me – is very much tied in with reflecting which is part of Kolb’s cycle.

      • Hi John and thank you for getting back to me.
        Your thought does make sense though, as people look back and review/reflect.
        Wright & Bolitho use Kolb’s learning cycle and further develop each step really.


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  4. Thoughts on “Beyond loop input” at #IATEFL | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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