In the language classroom, we hear a lot about the role of 'practice' - students need to show their progress by using the language they are learning class by class. But what do we mean by focused language practice? Does it mean simply asking students to speak in English with the forms they are learning, or is there more to it than that?
The general definition of 'practice' is close to this - when we visit another country, we might talk about practising the language, and when we hear a lot of talk in the classroom, we might say that the students are getting a lot of practice. However, a more specific definition is clear when we contrast language practice and language production.
This contrast is useful, as it breaks down the process of trying out, then freely using new language. These two steps are equally important - students need to test out their understanding of new language in a more restricted environment (a true practice task), before getting feedback on this and flying freer with the language along with their own ideas in a less restricted production task.
A more specific definition of language practice
True language practice involves one very important factor: choice. The key aspect of a restricted practice task is that it provides the student with a choice of language to use. By making the decision of whether to use this form or that, the student is making the first steps into applying the language according to other contextual factors.
A common way of doing this is through a gap-fill task involving a set of sentences with gaps for words, and two or more choices of words to use. This may seem like a simple activity, but if the given options are similar enough, a gap-fill task can involve some quite subtle decision-making processes, for example:
1) The man ________ (walked/walking) down the street, _________(whistled/whistling)
2) The man, _________ (walked/walking) down the street, _________ (whistled/whistling)
The importance of feedback
Following a restricted task such as this, it is essential that students receive feedback on the accuracy of their ideas, as well as some comment on why the different options are correct or not. Without feedback, students may not be able to produce the language independently in later production stages.
Feedback does not always have to come from the teacher. In pronunciation-focused lessons, restricted tasks can be performed by one speaker and one listener, who has to report what they hear as accurate or not. For example, by dictating the option they choose to a partner (without saying the whole sentence), the second student can judge the accuracy of the choice based on how it is pronounced:
1) The dog _______ (bit/beat) the man on the leg
Student 1: ‘beat’
(Student 2 writes down the word they hear)
2) James _______ (works/walks) in an office in the city centre
Student 1: ‘works’
(Student 2 writes down the word they hear)
Both students compare the sentences and the heard words, to negotiate whether student 1’s pronunciation was accurate for the word they chose.
In this way, the number of language choices made by both students is high, and a lot of valuable discussion can come out of the feedback exchange, leading to a more self-monitoring classroom overall.
What happens if students don’t get to practice what they learn?
The process of making good language choices in restricted tasks is important to help students to make better choices independently when they come to speak more freely using the language they are learning. Without this opportunity, learners are basically being asked to make free and confident choices with language that may only have been presented to them a short while before. This is like showing a child how to ride a bicycle by pointing and demonstrating, and then asking them to get on the bike and ride off down the road freely without support (this is not a good idea, by the way).
A lack of true language practice can set learners up for error, uncertainty and lack of confidence, all of which affect the quality and quantity of speech in the end. The next time you present a new piece of language to learners, think whether you are giving them enough opportunity to try it out and make mistakes in a restricted setting, with feedback, rather than asking too much of them too soon.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.