The role of practice in foreign
and second language learning
by Ron Sheen
Let us continue with the example of the teaching of third person interrogatives. Let us assume that most of the students have learned how, given ample time, to produce forms such as “What did your friend do last night?” and “Does your sister play tennis?”. A teacher might then proceed to organise pair work of the type which asks students to pose third-person questions of their partners. The obvious problem is then one of accuracy. Who is to monitor the production of accurate forms and provide corrective feedback? The teacher cannot do so, given the number of pairs in a normal classroom; nor can the learners be depended on to do so for obvious reasons. The answer lies in organising pair work in which one partner specifies the question to be asked and is provided with the correct required form thus enabling him/her to monitor the partner’s production and provide corrective feedback where necessary. Full details of this technique are available in Sheen (2003). Before giving an example, one point needs to be clarified. In classes in which the students share the same L1, the questioning can be provided in that L1 and will be more demanding. On the other hand, with heterogenous groups the language being learned must be used. Here is an example of how it works. Each partner is provided with a list of, say, ten items. One item would be as follows:
Ask me where my friend lives. Where does your friend live?
In other words, the student says “Ask me where my friend lives.” and is provided with the correct response so that he/she can monitor his/her partner’s efforts and, in the event of difficulty, offer helpful prompts. In my experience, students enjoy this experience of being “teacher”.
If the L1 is being used is French, the item would be as follows:
Demandez-moi ou habite mon ami. Where does your friend live?
As each student has a similar list, the two partners can alternate in being “teacher” and, when finished, they can then switch papers and repeat the exercise.
This activity allows any number of students in a class to practise producing twenty interrogative forms in between five and ten minutes and ensure that in each case they finish in producing the correct forms. One might argue here that such exercises are mechanical in nature and, therefore, not communicative. There is some truth in this. However, they are not mechanical in the sense of repetition exercises as in the audio-lingual approach. Each student response requires a thought process which entails an understanding of how to form third-person interrogatives. How else can one account for students being able to produce a wide range of variations on questions such as “How long has your friend lived here?”, “What did your brother do yesterday?”, “Where is your father going tomorrow?” which was the case in Sheen (2003).
However, such responses are not the classroom end-product. That, of course, is to get students to produce them in communicative activity-work and in the warm-up exercises when students ask questions of each other and of the teacher.
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