Practice makes perfect only if you do it right
Does practice make perfect in language teaching? We often hear the words controlled and freer practice in lesson planning. The second P in PPP is practice. Gerhard Erasmus asks what should we be practicing to make sure we get the most out of practice in lessons, and how should we be implementing this in our teaching?
Recently, my 8-year-old daughter had an audition for a TV ad where she had to learn a dance. The dance was only about 40 seconds long, but we only had two days. I used to do competitive Latin American and Ballroom dancing, so the task of teaching her the dance fell on me. She wanted to just watch the video, play the song and dance. I, after much discussion and disagreement, told her I would show her what to do, and then we would count it out. So, she learned the whole dance with me counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 1, etc. Naturally, there were parts which were slightly more difficult for her than others. Instead of just dancing through the whole thing, we isolated those parts, and she practiced them often with me counting 1, 2, 3, 4 – Good! Now, let’s do it again. Then we added four beats before and after the part until she had the transitions smooth, and then she could dance the whole thing. On the day of the audition, they played the song without the vocals, and my daughter commented that she was lucky I had taught her by counting and by making sure she could do all the ‘difficult’ parts, rather than her just ‘dancing to the words.’ This whole process reminded me of a Jeremy Harmer pre-conference talk at the English Australia conference in 2015, where he compared practicing language to practicing music. He highlighted evidence that better pianists isolate the parts of the music that they struggle with, and practice only that part rather than playing through the song a few times. So, the question is, how can we use this to determine how we practice language?
Pronunciation and individual words
There could be a variety of reasons that students might struggle with an individual word. Consonant clusters, or multiple syllables are two of these reasons. The problem with choral drills or listen and repeat is that we are not giving students isolated practice with the words they are struggling with. I recently had a Cambridge Preliminary class struggling with the word unsympathetic. We broke it down into pathetic, then sympathetic, then unsympathetic, and finally be so unsympathetic or being unsympathetic. This allowed us to practice the syllables they were having trouble with, and then extend it into a phrase that they could then later use in a task we were doing where they produced sentences like ‘You don’t have to be so unsympathetic’ and ‘You are being unsympathetic.’ When students are consistently struggling with a word, or avoiding using it, consider how you could break it into smaller parts and practice the smaller parts until they are more comfortable using the word in a controlled chunk. This also then allows them to access the word in a chunk if they wanted to use it later.
Writing and individual words
A fairly common complaint I get from teachers that teach IELTS or higher-level writing is the misuse or overuse or ‘connecting words’ or ‘discourse markers.’ Whenever the writing gets marked, a correction code indicates that it is the wrong word, or it is overused, but this doesn’t actually allow for any focused practice. It should be an ideal opportunity for students to practice using words that could commonly appear in their writing. As an example, you could do an activity where students look at the punctuation around the word ‘however.’ This allows you to have the students produce it at different places within a sentence.
The beginning of a sentence:
However, there are also many reasons why museums should be funded by local governments.
Governments should, however, always consider the most pressing issues before deciding what should be funded.
Combining two independent clauses:
Museums are important parts of a city’s history; however, they can also be financial burdens if they are not well-managed.
This focused practice allows them greater control over when to use however and when to not, but also allows for specific practice that ensures accuracy of punctuation. Students can be given a specific topic and produce different sentences on that topic using ‘however.’ Error correction and feedback can be very specific, as the practice is very specific. This also allows you to notice when it is forced into a sentence where it does not belong.
And a final note here, once students are used to this type of practice, you can also repeat the activity with other words like ‘therefore’ and ‘moreover’ as they follow the same punctuation rules.
Sentence and phrase level
Before describing an activity for working with something at sentence or phrase level, I need to stress that sometimes course books have very similar activities. I am specifically referring to supplementing lessons based on observing student production, rather than just using a course book.
For this example, let’s look at noun phrases/clauses and subject verb agreement. Once I notice that students are using noun phrases, but they contain consistent errors, I plan a focused practice lesson where we specifically look at noun phrases issues they are having. In my experience, the two most common errors are:
- Using a noun phrase as a complete sentence
- Incorrect subject verb agreement often because the noun at the end of the phrase is selected to create agreement rather than the head noun in the clause
The activity I use is the very well-known error auction, where students are given sentences and they can bet on which ones are accurate. They can then correct the inaccurate sentences and bet on their corrections. By limiting the sentences to only noun phrases, the practice is sufficiently focused, and you can be fairly certain towards the end of the activity that students will be able to notice errors and correct them.
Identifying what to practice
While this is by no means a complete list, here are some common errors that can be focused on by isolating the error and producing an activity to focus on a specific point:
- Spelling of verbs where -ing or -s is added
- Spelling of plural nouns
- Pronunciation of verbs ending in -ed
- Pronunciation of words ending in -tion including the word stress
- Prepositional clauses
- Where adverbs are placed in a sentence
- Syntax in indirect questions
While course books and individual lessons that introduce grammar or lexis often do have practice stages, it is also important to allow learners to practice language items they are having specific problems with. Looking forward, can you think of one or two areas of language where you can isolate the issue and allow learners to practice just that part, and then extend it into chunks and sentences? How could you gamify the activity to ensure learner engagement? Is it always necessary to gamify activities?
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