Monday, 27 October 2014

Try this it works! No.1: Practice makes perfect.

when I was a kid and trying to learn the guitar my dad used to tell me that if I practised something for half and hour, I'd be half an hour better at it than someone who didn't.

When I first started learning Japanese there were a bunch of other teachers who arrived at the same time. We all went off to different schools and met six months later for training. By that point my Japanese had improved the most. In that six months I had practised for one hour every morning before work. I practised in my lunch break and after work and I studied during my weekends and holidays and I spent most of my time with Japanese people. 

Being 'half an hour better' may not seem like much but over a week that's 3.5 more hours studied. After 6 months you're 84 hours better. 

Practice is very effective for language students. Although that might seem like 'lessons in the bleeding obvious' or what Gillum 2004 calls '"duh" observations' in EFL it's actually not that simple. 'practice', can be a dirty word in EFL. 'practice gets a raw deal in the field of applied linguistics' DeKeyser (2007:1) suggests citing its associations with the 'discredited' field of behaviourism. In a 2010 paper he notes:

[practice has] taken a beating in recent decades. Krashen claimed that "learning does not become acquisition" (1982 p.83), R, Ellis that "the results [of empirical research] are not very encouraging for practice" (1994)
The paper, titled 'don't throw out the baby with the bathwater' attempts to redress the balance and points out how much research evidence there is in EFL supporting practice. In fact, research into the benefits of practice for learning is some of the most compelling not only in EFL but also in mainstream education. Authors like Hattie, Willingham and Pashler all strongly recommend practice as a top intervention for improving learning outcomes. But what kind of practice should we be doing?

In order to be effective practice should meet certain criteria. Firstly it should ideally be meaningful. Lightbown who argued in 1985 that 'practice does not make perfect' noted that she was referring to mechanical drills and suggested that meaningful practice is 'clearly beneficial and even essential '(2000:243). Pashler et al (2013) agrees, noting in a study looking at foreign vocabulary retrieval 'repeat after me' activities are less effective than students trying to recall the vocabulary themselves.

Secondly repeated practice must occur over time (spaced) not crammed into one lesson (massed). In Hatties Visible Learning ‘spaced practice’ (2009:185) has an effect size of 0.7 which is the 12th most effective intervention he lists. Hattie also reiterates the idea that 'drill and kill' simply won't work. The exposure needs to be varied, with feedback and be related to various contexts. This, he argues, will 'enhance mastery [and] also fluency'. 

In a paper called 'inexpensive techniques to improve education' the authors list three strategies which are proven to be effective in the classroom and one of them is, you guessed it, 'spaced practice' while another is 'retrieval practice'. Similarly Dunlosky et al (2013) in a paper on the best evidence-based practice, note that spaced practice with around 24 hours between exposure was more effective than both going over the same material on the same day or leaving a much longer gap. And as with Pashler, they suggest that having students try to recall, rather than just being exposed again was the most effective. Willingham (2009:120) reiterates this point adding 'you can get away with less practice if you space it out than if you bunch it together.' 

In relation to the amount of time between exposures Nation notes, that if enough time passes between learning a word and seeing it again it then the ‘encounter is effectively not a repetition but is like a first encounter’ (2008:67). Whereas if the chance to retrieve the word is close enough to the original encounter, the knowledge of the word will be strengthened. 

What does this mean for your class? 

Practice can be useful for fluency in speech and reading, learning vocabulary, improving pronunciation, writing and spelling DeKeyser (2007, 2010). It can also help with receptive skills (Thornbury 2006:196). Whether or not it can help with grammar is a complex and controversial question and one which I neither have the confidence nor space to discuss here (I would point you here, if you're interested).

It's my feeling that practice is skimped on in a lot of classes. It certainly has been in many of mine. How often have I explained words and seen students write them into their notebooks (or as Swan calls them 'word cemeteries') only to noticed they've forgotten them by the end of the week,  or have students repeat a word a couple a times in class but never go back to it on another occasion. How many times have I spent five or ten minutes on something but then not reviewed it, except perhaps as homework? Even when I have reviewed it it was only once or twice, a number nowhere near enough for automaticity to occur. 

I remember an experience recently where I taught a certain phrase that was very important to a group of students. The next day I asked them to write down the phrase we'd practise and only one out of 15 students was able to do it. I asked them again three days later and this time around half the class could do it. I waited till the following week and it was still only about half of the class. It wasn't until the end of the second week that all but one student could write down this one single phrase.  

When I was learning Japanese and heard a new word I would walk around trying it out on everyone I met. 'Hey, I learnt a new word today'. 'Oh yeah? what's that?' 'danson johin!' or whatever. Invariably I'd mess it up and they'd correct me, but I was getting good quality practice; it was meaningful, it was spaced and it was me trying to recall (with feedback) not someone saying 'repeat after me'.

I've been teaching for over 10 years now and just this year I've realized how much repetition and practice I'll need to incorporate if what I'm doing isn't going to be completely futile. Worries about covering that day's material or doing 'boring' repetition/review perhaps blinded me to what the research and ironically my own experience as a language learner spelt out. Try practice, it works!


  1. You mentioned on Twitter you wanted to come back about the meaning of "meaningful." Which reminds me of a recent discussion with my masters students as we were trying to code the level of interaction of a set of videos of classroom practice. We're working with a 4-points scale from drill (decontextualised language) to communication (meaningful use) which seems perfectly clear until you try to apply it. And we discovered that in addition to taking the teacher's intention into account, you also have to look at it from the learners' point(s) of view.

    One can repeat an expression without focusing on its meaning, or one can complete a drill while concentrating on its meaning. We might expect the learning effect to differ in the two cases. Something like sitting in the passenger seat of a car and really watching the road, or simply letting the landscape slide by. You're not getting the driver's experience (= meaningful interaction) but the practice effect ought to be different in each case.

    1. thanks for the reply. Yes this topic really interested me. I had a chat with another EFL professional who suggested that 'meaningful' used in EFL books perhaps is just meant to be a metaphor of sorts, i.e. to indicate a marked difference from audio lingual 'mechanical' drills. THat would be intersteing because it's certainly not explicit in the literature that this is just a 'metaphor.'

  2. I think this raises some important questions in the classroom, and, as you say, deserves far deeper discussion than the "duh, yeah" response.

    I recently did a focus group study with a series of teachers and one of the interesting points that came out revolved around the way language teachers define and conceive of 'practice'. The teachers I spoke to see practice as a short-term goal in its own right, not as a means to an end, and consequently appear to deny it any role in the learning process itself. In other words it is approached unproblematically and, more scarily perhaps, without direction.

    I think concepts like 'practice', 'meaningful' (as Shona mentions), and my own bugbears 'fluency' and accuracy' represent a really interesting potential area of research into teacher cognition. We assume that the meaning is obvious, but they are actually highly opaque. The potentially broad spectrum of conceiving such terms could, in my opinion, have very significant effects on teacher development.

    1. Hi anon ;)

      I'd like to hear more about focus group you did.

  3. This is one of your best posts, if I may say so. (Of course, I say this because the points you make reflect my own views and experience.)
    I have always found it interesting to observe ESOL teachers in their classrooms and then to observe the same teachers when they are placed in a language-learning situation. In most cases I find that teachers who generally see little value in accuracy and recall practice in their own classroom suddenly see enormous value in such practice when they themselves become language students. So I have long thought that all ESOL teachers should have to study at least a few hours of a (new-to-them) foreign language every couple of years.

    1. "Of course, I say this because the points you make reflect my own views and experience." hahahaha I know that feeling! :)

      I think part of the CELTA, the foreign language class part, should BE the whole CELTA. EFL teachers should be forced to take language classes every year. Did you see Swan's take on this? It's here;

  4. I summarized and blogged about one of DeKeyser's articles on this subject here (Beyond focus on form: Cognitive perspectives on learning and practicing second language grammar -

    I think practice is underrated and we do not do enough quality practice in ELT.

  5. Learning to play the guitar does not just involve touching the chords over and over again, but knowing what to touch to get a certain sound or combinations of sounds, right? I know nothing about music but my common sense tells me that my lack of ability to distinguish those sounds will make things pretty much hard for me to become a good guitar player. I can on the other hand learn from an instructor to play specific songs, but never able to create or play around with sounds to create my own. In art knowing a number of things create the artist. It's not just about the ideas we have and translate it into a painting or drawing, and knowledge alone is not sufficient either. Take mixing colors for example. Practicing mixing colors to learn the subtles shades that emerge out of it while keeping an eye on how you did it (so you can do it again - knowledge: mixing A to B to a certain proportion, you get C) but in art, you need visual data to inform you of what C will look like so that's why artists love color wheels :) I did at least when I used to paint. With time it gets natural to you and eyes can pick up shades easily and no more need for colors charts. We will get subtle variations and that is ok. If someone is skilled enough, they will make those same mixes so quick and well, over and over again without any problem. For the beginner painter, getting it right takes a lot of mixing (practicing?). I suspect that like arts, learning to play an instrument means that a lot is involved.

    Aren't there many things that we have to master or take into consideration when learning a language? And for each of them, time and knowing what to practice is needed? Is there enough time to cover it all in 2/3 hours class in an EFL context? Don't know how many hours ESL might get. And what about the amount of language present in a semester of coursebook? Don't we select what we think it is important to us to remember later? But just selecting a bunch of words/phrases would be enough?

    I read your post as questioning the amount of time spent on talking about language rather than using language or giving learners opportunities to use it. I also noticed that the experience you shared is more about recalling information ( a phrase you taught) than practised, but you did not inform us of what kind of practise they did. Why they didn't remember it in the following day is hard to say. We can only say that X number of students that didn't.

    1. thanks for this detailed reply. I wanted students to be able to write a topic sentence. Something to the effect of 'There are a number of advantages to learning English'. I wanted them to be able to apply this to other topics so I might say "Ok, imagine the essay is about the advantages of sports" -and I would hope they could produce something like 'There are numerous advantages to playing sport" or something like that. Bear in mind these students were quite low level and I wanted them to have a 'frame' they could hang language off as a starting point.

      "Learning to play the guitar does not just involve touching the chords over and over again, but knowing what to touch to get a certain sound or combinations of sounds, right?"

      hmmm not sure I really understand the question.

    2. Sorry, I meant to say STRINGS, not chords.

  6. Another point you made was that in order to achieve automaticity loads of exposure or practise would be needed.
    Hence, constant review would be necessary until the language being studied sink in. And I totally agree with that.
    But let's take into consideration that time is a problem. We don't have all the time to teach all that there is to teach. And by teaching, I do not mean explaning learners the use of a word, dictionaries can do that for them. But if learners are lower levels and they have been exposed to authentic language (maybe through a game, a song or a TV show they like) they won't be able to understand it with a bilingual dictionary, then a more competent user of the language would be of a great help. IN this case, I'd take advantage of learners ample access to the target language outside the classroom, not be afraid to answer their questions when they bring to class and encourage them to use what they know rather than what I expect them to use in class. With time each student will be using language they think it is important to accomplish a task. How well they do it, then it's our job to say and guide them so they can improve it.

    Now by practising, do you mean the chance to see the language over and over again or to use it on their own? Can both be considered practice? Not even going to discuss what is meaningful practice ;) When learners are reading or listening aren't they activating previous knowledge and trying to build new ones as well as focusing on the content of what they hear and read? When they are trying to use language in novelty contexts, aren't they activating it again?

    1. Great question. I think practice could be both. If you are reading a word in a book and seeing it again and again then you are practicing reading it. you're also presumably refreshing (making stronger) your mental picture of that word. i think the research suggests that getting students to try to recall stuff by themselves is a very powerful form of practice. So I assume hat means seeing the word repeatedly is somewhat less powerful.

    2. I agree that just seeing is less powerful than making the effort to recall it. As a language learner, I've been playing with the extensive reading theory and vocabulary learning for myself. I've been using audiobooks for about 3 years now on a regular basis. The focus is still on the message (the story itself), from time to time I encounter something new and in the first two years I made no effort to note them down. Unless it was something that I found really interesting. This year, I decided to do differently. I decided to note them down wherever I see or hear them and use to work on recalling. The reading + vocabulary practice website really enriched my reading experience and I started noticing those words I had been practicing. However, it takes a lot of rounds recalling the same word over and over again (the number from the program is insuficient for me at least) to be able to use it myself.

    3. have you found this to be more useful?

    4. To some extent, yes. shows vocabulary in context as well as providing the definition or testing them as well as spelling. Considering that less frequent vocabulary is hard to learn because we don't see them as often as we would need to, the number of words that we are able to recall (obviously not all of them) when we need to is fairly reasonable. However, without the chance to use them in meaningful situations, some of it might get lost eventually. I think this would mean that a non-native speaker would need to be a vocabulary learner forever as you are always rehearsing in case one day you need it. Something like that and not because you are in an environment that uses certain vocabulary and you learn them by the repetitve use of them around you. Naturally, you become a user too if you see that as an asset to your social needs no matter what frequency group they belong to. ;)

  7. In your example, you do not mention what kind of practice the students had in the first day. So let's assume that the practice they had was suppose to be enough for them to be able to recall the phrase the next day. Aren't you in this case talking about their ability to remember and recall a phrase only as there was no context attached to it in the next day? What kind of practice is that when you just ask them to write it down? What is involved here? Then three days later you asked again. I understand here that you did not warn them beforehand that they would be tested again. Could we say that by asking them to recall a day later, you raised their awareness of it and somehow that was enough for half of the group to remember few days later? But does that mean that they really mastered the phrase and would be able to use it accurately in a proper context in the future? Or would they need more and more chances to use it?

    I certainly agree that spending time explaining language be it meaning or rules, does'nt do much for the language learners. By conscious use of language and using it many times in various situations will IMHO boost learning which is by the way not linear.

    One problem we have is learners attitude towards learning. Some think that sitting in a class and doing homework is all that takes. It might but in a very slow mode, I'm afraid. What should teachers be doing to change learners' attitude towards this?

    Another problem, there is so much language they are exposed to in a language class, but no much time to absorb it. Like quantity equals quality which is not true. Squeezing in 6 year-coursebook more than, I don't know, 10,000 words to be learned in few hours in a week is not very pedagogical is it? Plus, they are expected to be able to use it accurately at the end of the term to be able to go to the next level. Is that what learning is all about? A fixed number of vocabulary and grammar presented and practised? Do coursebooks recycle in the way we need in order to learn? Expect learners to be able to know everything from a class or coursebook is really not reasonable, yet many of us do. So is the problem the amount of practice they get? Or the fact that in class students seem to get language rehearsal and never a real need to use language is created?

    I'm sorry for the long comment. More to come in the other post that talks about meaning and meaningful. I look forward to reading your response to this.

    :) Rose

    1. "In your example, you do not mention what kind of practice the students had in the first day. So let's assume that the practice they had was suppose to be enough for them to be able to recall the phrase the next day. Aren't you in this case talking about their ability to remember and recall a phrase only as there was no context attached to it in the next day?"

      see above :) but basically yes, though the phrase did have an element of creativity.

      "What kind of practice is that when you just ask them to write it down?"
      recall practice

      "What is involved here?"

      To see whether they can do the thing we learnt. What worries me is that teachers will spend X amount of time on vocab or pron or whatever in class but then never revisit it. I wonder if I got those students and asked them to use said Vocab or perform said pron whether they would be able to. I feel that most of them would not.

      "Then three days later you asked again. I understand here that you did not warn them beforehand that they would be tested again. Could we say that by asking them to recall a day later, you raised their awareness of it and somehow that was enough for half of the group to remember few days later?"
      I think asking them to recall it probably firmed it up in their minds. After finding so many of them not being able to do it I did go over it again in class.

      "But does that mean that they really mastered the phrase and would be able to use it accurately in a proper context in the future? Or would they need more and more chances to use it?"

      In this particular context (academic writing) it is supposedly quite easy for them to use it in context. The particular example was very formulaic. I went through and checked their actual exam papers and much to my delight a large number of them (not all) had used or tried to use a phrase similar to the one we practised.

    2. I really enjoyed reading your post and the links you made with your own experiences in and out of class, as well as teacher and learner yourself. Thanks for the dialogue.

  8. Sorry for three comments in a row. The system wouldn't let me post it as it was too long. Needless to say that you do not need to publish this apology. ;)

    Thank you so much for writing up the last few posts. These is something I'm very interested in so, I appreciate the discussion and links. :)

    1. no need to apologise :) I appreciate your engagement with the topic. I'd rather people ask these things than think "he's got this wrong but I can't be bothered to tell him".

    2. I'm in for the learning experience. That is why I love the blogging world so much. We can exchange ideas, practice and experiences as well as share research findings, etc.