The role of practice in foreign and second language learning
by Ron Sheen

Abstract:

Understanding the form-meaning relationships of a foreign language is necessary but not sufficient to enable learners to become both fluent and accurate speakers. This end can best be achieved by organising class exercises to provide learners with frequent practice in both understanding and producing the newly-learned forms. This article proposes a means of doing so.

A major influence in foreign and second language teaching since the 70s has been communicative language teaching (CLT). There have been a variety of exponents ranging from what is called strong CLT (SCLT) which discourages all grammar teaching to an approach which tries to combine CLT with traditional grammar instruction (Spada 1987). Nevertheless, the general perception of CLT in teachers’ minds is one of an approach which gives priority to creating activities which encourage learners to communicate rather than to activities designed to enable students to produce language accurately - in other words, various versions of SCLT.

As with all innovations, SCLT being no exception, they bring with them assumptions about the nature of language learning. In the case of SCLT, several of these have sprung from the belief that there is a strong similarity between the acquisition of one’s first language and the learning of a second language. I consider this an unsafe assumption to make. Unsafe, because it encourages teachers to adopt strategies compatible with that assumption but which have not proven to be the most effective option. In the 70s, for example, it was assumed that learners needed only to be exposed to vocabulary in context in order to acquire it – just as first language learners do. However, substantial research in the 80s and 90s demonstrated that this strategy needs to be complemented by the various traditional options such as paired word lists and the use of translation equivalents - providing that learners understand that though the L1 word and the L2 word may have equivalent meanings, they also have important differences.

Another false assumption of the 70s has continued to be accepted as valid even today. That is the assumption that teachers do not need to devote separate sessions to enable learners to practise using what grammar they have learned (Lightbown 2000). This anti-practice philosophy results largely from negative reaction to the stultifying rote repetition and memorisation of the audiolingual period of the 60s which ignored the necessity of understanding the meaning of what one is practising. However, just as this audiolingual approach was narrow and unjustifiably restrictive, the continuing rejection of the necessity for practice, ignores the fact that the learning of any skill (which is what language learning is) requires the acquisition of knowledge and practice in using it. (Ellis 2002)

 

SCLT thus involves two false assumptions. The first is that learners can acquire grammar and vocabulary simply by being exposed to understood language. The second is that learners do not need to practise what they have acquired. There is, in fact, some logic in this. Unfortunately, its application results in fossilisation of the incorrect forms the learners initially acquire. Research findings (Sheen 2003, 2005) suggest that though learners are exposed to correct forms, they will first create an incorrect form which, nevertheless, expresses the required meaning. Take, for example, Wh-third person interrogatives such as “Where does your brother live?”. What learners appear to do is to patch together the necessary vocabulary items with the required Wh- word at the beginning such as “Where your friend live? but without the auxiliary verb. As this conveys the required meaning and the learners are not corrected, they continue to use such incorrect forms. Both the research on Canadian immersion students and Sheen (2005), a cross-sectional study, shows that such learners continue to produce the same incorrect forms all through elementary and high school by which time those forms become fossilised.

The inevitable conclusion to draw from this is the following. If one wishes students to be able to produce correct language, they need to be made explicitly aware of the correct forms. The issue then becomes a question of how to do so. Two broad choices have become apparent in the last fifteen years.

On the one hand, we have what we have had since language teaching began (Howatt 1984; Germain 1993). That is, various forms of what is called infelicitously “traditional grammar teaching”. Infelicitous, because it tends to stigmatise “traditional grammar teaching” as simply a question of memorising various grammatical paradigms (Swain 1998) whereas, as will be explained below, there are more effective instructional exponents of this choice.

On the other hand, when in the 80s it became evident that SCLT was ineffective as a means of enabling learners to develop an ability to use language correctly, Long (1988) provided, somewhat unsurprisingly, evidence demonstrating that students need to become explicitly aware of grammar to improve their language learning. Unfortunately, however, he chose to stigmatise one means of doing so, a focus on formS (ie traditional grammar teaching) as Neanderthal (Long 1988:136) and advocated an approach called “a focus on form” in which the teacher presents the grammar in context in order to enable the learners to deduce it therefrom. (Long and Robinson 1998)

Although research on the effectiveness of “a focus on form” has nowhere shown it to be the most effective option (quite the reverse in fact {Sheen 2003}), applied linguists have devoted much of their efforts to this approach largely ignoring the comparative research of the last four decades demonstrating exponents of a focus on formS as being the most effective. (Smith 1970; Von Elek and Oskarsson 1973; Scott 1989; Palmer 1972; Olshtein and Kupferberg 1996; Sheen 1996, 2003; DeKeyser 1998; White 2001; Erlam 2003)

It is because of these findings that this article proposes that teachers need to adopt the most effective means (a focus on formS) of making learners aware of the underlying grammar but then, and most importantly, provide them with lots of opportunities to practise what they have learned. It is, therefore, the purpose of this article to suggest a means of providing such opportunities. However, given length restrictions, I will concentrate here on practice on oral production. I am, therefore assuming that the learners have already been taught the underlying grammar and have been given ample aural practice in recognising the grammar in context.

 

Whereas frequency of practice of these recognition exercises is not a major problem and this, because all the students may practise at the same time in listening to the same sound recordings, oral production practice is a different matter. Here one has to resort to pair work which in turn raises the issue of accurate production.

Let us continue with the example of the teaching of third person interrogatives. Let us assume, then, that most of the students have learned the underlying grammar of such forms and are able to recognise them aurally providing the delivery is not too quick. Let us also assume that, given ample time, they are able 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, for example, 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

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.

 

In summary then, my position is as follows:

a) In classroom learning, it is essential for learners to undertand the nature of form-meaning relationships. Without that understanding, learners are doomed to fossilise the incorrect forms they have acquired thanks to incidental learning ALONE. (Sheen, 2003).

b) In order for that understanding to become the foundation of productive oral-aural competence, it is essential to provide learners with frequent opportunities for controlled and monitored individual practice.

c) Though aural recognition may be achieved by means of teacher-fronted exercises, it is clearly impractical where frequent individual oral production is concerned. The answer here lies in the type of pair work described above.

d) However, such exercises need necessarily to be subsequently supported by communicative activities which require the learners to use the forms learned and practised.

References:

DeKeyser, R.M. (1998). "Beyond focus on form: Cognitive perspectives on learning and practising second language grammar"

Ellis, N. C. (2002) “Frequency effects in language processing: A review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition” Studies in Second Language Acquisition 24: 143-188.

Erlam, R. (2003) “Evaluating the relative effectiveness of structured input and output-based instruction in foreign language learning: Results from an experimental study” Studies in Second Language Acquisition. 25: 559-582.

Germain, C. (1993). Evolution de l'enseignement des langues: 5000 ans d'histoire. Paris: Hurtubise HMH, Ltée.

Howatt, A.P.R. (1984) A History of English LanguageTeaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kupferberg, I. & Olshtain, E. (1996). Explicit contrastive instruction facilitates the acquisition of L2 forms. Language Awareness, 5:149-165.

Lightbown, P. (2000). "Anniversary article: Classroom SLA research and second language teaching". Applied Lingustics, 21: 431-462.

Long, M.H. (1988) “Instructed interlanguage development” In L. Beebe (Ed.), Issues in second language acquisition: Multiple perspectives (pp. 115-141), Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Long, M. H., & Robinson, P. (1998). "Focus on form: Theory, research and practice" in C. Doughty & J. Wlliams (Eds.) Focus on Form in Classroom Language Acquisition, (pp. 15-41) Cambridge: CUP.

Palmer, A. (1992). "Issues in evaluating input-based language teaching programs." In J. C. Alderson & A. Beretta (Eds.) Evaluating Second Language Education (pp. 141-166) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sheen, R. (1996). “The advantage of exploiting contrastive analysis in teaching and learning a foreign language.” International Review of Applied Linguistics, 24,183-197.

Sheen, R. (2002). ‘Key Concepts : Focus on form – Focus on formS’ English Language Teaching Journal 56-4

Sheen, R. (2003) “Focus in form – a myth-in-the-making” English Language Teaching Journal, 57: 225-233.

Sheen, R. (2005) “Developmental sequences under the microscope”. Proceedings of The IATEFL Annual Conference 2004 in Liverpool, UK.

Smith. P.D. Jr. (1970). "A comparison of the cognitive and audio-lingual approaches to foreign language instruction" The Pennsylvania Foreign Language Project. Philadelphia: The Center for Curriculum Development.

Spada, N. (1987). "Relationships between intructional differences and learning outcomes: A process-product study of communicative language teaching." Applied Linguistics, 18: 137-161.

Von Elek, T. & Oskarsson, M. (1973). Teaching Foreign Language Grammar to Adults: A comparative study. Almquist & Wiksell: Stockholm.

White, J. (2001). “How can teaching affect progress on a grammatical feature?”. SPEAQ Annual Convention, 1-3 November, 2001, St Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada.

Biodata

Ron Sheen is an associate professor of applied linguistics  in the Department of Modern Languages, University of Quebec, Trois Rivieres, Quebec, Canada, at present on leave in Department of Language and Literature, American University of Sharjah, UAE, PO Box 26666.  His research interests centre on the search for optimal teaching options and the critical scrutiny of advocacies based on SLA theory and not on reliable supportive empirical evidence.  E-mail: rsheen@aus.ac.ae   and   rsheen@uqtr.ca

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