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!