PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT?
Practice is a big word in language learning. This is not surprising because, language learning, like other types of skill learning, requires extensive practice. You need a lot of practice before you can use English fluently for listening, speaking, reading or writing. Similarly, if you want to play the piano well, you need to do daily practice on the keyboard.
In language teaching, practice often takes up a larger share of our daily lesson. Following a brief explanation of a target language feature (e.g., collocations), we give students practice in recognizing frequently used lexical chunks e.g., fast food (not quick food), bread and butter (not butter and bread), make the bed (not do the bed), do the homework (not make the homework).
Practice exercises like those suggested by Vicky Zurakowski, for example, can help students develop fluency in using these useful word combinations.
When students continue to struggle with the language when they try to express themselves in speaking or writing, most of the time we would tell them to spend more time practicing the language skills: Speak every day and your speaking skills will improve; write every day and your writing skills will improve.
Does practice lead to improvement?
Some students do make improvement following a daily diet of practice. Others however don’t seem to make marked improvements. They continue to struggle with the language and seem unable to move beyond their current level of competence.
The intermediate plateau seems to be quite widespread. This refers to students who have reached a plateau in their language development. They can use the language for simple interactions and are quite fluent in using high frequency words, but their ability to use language at a higher and more complex level seem to be stagnant. They are stuck in the B1 level and unable to move to the next levels in the CERF scale.
Is it possible that these students have been doing the ‘wrong’ kinds of practice that often lead to wasted efforts?
What does research tell us about the kind of practice that can powers up and extend one’s ability to improve on their skills?
Two strands of research
There are two strands of research that can help us improve our understanding of the role of practice in language learning: (1) second language learning and (2) skill learning
Evidence from second language learning research suggests that practice that promotes the development of implicit language knowledge can result in direct and stronger effects on language development.
There is compelling evidence showing that extensive reading and listening/viewing is a great source of implicit knowledge. Students who continue to read and listen extensively in the language have been shown to acquire more language, and to further extend their language proficiency beyond their current levels.
From a skill learning theory, we learn that the development of expertise does require extensive practice. But extensive practice alone is not enough. Significant improvement happens when we engage in deliberate practice, i.e., practice that is highly structured and thoughtful. Often a coach is needed to supervise this kind of practice.
Research shows that this kind of extensive and deliberate practice applies to any kind of skill learning, be it learning how to play the piano, learning how to play golf or learning how to speak a new language. It is a process of continuous practice that can lead to a high degree of mastery of the target skill, allowing us to use the skill with effortlessly and automatically.