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2.3 Practice Activities
Practice can be roughly defined as the rehearsal of certain behaviours with the objective of consolidating learning and improving performance. Language learners can benefit from being told, and understanding, facts about the language only up to a point: ultimately, they have to acquire an intuitive, automatized knowledge which will enable ready and fluent comprehension and self-expression. And such knowledge is normally brought about through consolidation of learning through practice. This is true of first language acquisition as well as of second language learning in either 'immersion' or formal classroom situations. Language learning has much in common with the learning of other skills, and it may be helpful at this point to think about what learning a skill entails.
Learning a skill
The process of learning a skill by means of a course of instruction has been defined as a three-stage process: verbalization, automatization and autonomy.
At the first stage the bit of the skill to be learned may be focused on and defined in words - 'verbalized' - as well as demonstrated. Thus in swimming the instructor will probably both describe and show correct arm and leg movements; in language, the teacher may explain the meaning of a word or the rules about a grammatical structure as well as using them in context. Note that the verbalization may be elicited from learners rather than done by the teacher, and it may follow trial attempts at performance which serve to pinpoint aspect of the skill that need learning. It roughly corresponds to ‘presentation’, as discussed above.
The teacher then gets the learners to demonstrate the target behaviour, while monitoring their performance. At first they may do things wrong and need correcting in the form of further telling and/or demonstration; later they may do it right as long as they are thinking about it. At this point they start practising: performing the skilful behaviour again and again, usually in exercises suggests by the teacher, until they can get it right without thinking. At this point they may be said to have 'automatized' the behaviour, and are likely to forget how it was described verbally in the first place.
Finally they take the set of behaviours they have mastered and begin to improve on their own, through further practice activity. They start to speed up performance, to perceive or create new combinations, to ‘do their own thing’: they are ‘autonomous’. Some people have called this stage 'production', but this I think is a misnomer for it involves reception as much as production, and is in fact simply a more advanced form of practice, as defined at the beginning of the unit. Learners now have little need of a teacher except perhaps as a supportive or challenging colleague and are ready, or nearly ready, to perform as masters the skill - or as teachers themselves.
Much language practice falls within the skill-development model described above. But some of it does not: even where information has not been » consciously verbalized or presented, learners may absorb and acquire language skills and content through direct interaction with texts or communicative task. In other words, their learning starts at the automatization and autonomy stage in unstructured fluency practice. But this is still practice, and essential for successful learning.
Practice, then, is the activity through which language skills and knowledge and consolidated and thoroughly mastered. As such, it is arguably the most important of all the stages of learning; hence the most important classroom activity of the teacher is to initiate and manage activities that provide students with opportunities for effective practice.
Characteristics of a good practice activity
Whether or not you think that organizing language practice is the most important thing the teacher does in the classroom, you will, I hope, agree that it does contribute significantly to successful language learning, and therefore it is worth devoting some thought to what factors contribute to the effectiveness of classroom practice.
Practice is usually carried out through procedures called 'exercises' or 'activities'. The latter term usually implies rather more learner activity and initiative than the former, but there is a large area of overlap: many procedures could be defined by either. Exercises and activities may, of course, relate to any aspect of language: their goal may be the consolidation of the learning of a grammatical structure, for example, or the improvement of listening, speak reading or writing fluency, or the memorization of vocabulary.
Characteristics of effective language practice
The activity should activate learners primarily in the skill or material it purports to practise. This is an obvious principle that is surprisingly often violated. Many ‘speaking’ activities, for example, have learners listening to the teacher more than talking themselves.
Note that 'validity' does not necessarily imply that the language should be used for some kind of replication of real-life communication. Pronunciation drills and vocabulary practice, for example, may also be valid if they in fact serve primarily to rehearse and improve the items to be practised.
The learners should have a good preliminary grasp of the language they are required to practise, though they may only be able to produce or understand it slowly and after thought. If they are required to do a practice activity based on something they have not yet begun to learn, they will either not be able to do it at all, or will produce unsuccessful responses. In either case the activity will have been fairly useless in providing practice: its main function, in fact, will have been as a diagnostic test, enabling the teacher to identify and (re-)teach language the learners do not know. If, however, they can - however hesitantly -produce successful responses, they have a firm basis for further effective practice of the target language material.
Roughly speaking, the more language the learners actually engage with during the activity, the more practice in it they will get. If the lesson time available for the activity is seen as a container, then this should be filled with as much 'volume' of language as possible. Time during which learners are not engaging with the language being practised for whatever reason (because nothing is being demanded of them at that moment, or because they are using their mother tongue, or because they are occupied with classroom management or organizational processes, or because of some distraction or digression) is time wasted as far as the practice activity is concerned.
On the whole, we consolidate learning by doing things right. Continued inaccurate or unacceptable performance results only in ‘fossilization’ of mistakes and general discouragement. It is therefore important to select, design and administer practice activities in such a way that learners are likely to succeed in doing the task. Repeated successful performance is likely to result in effective automatization of whatever is being performed, as well as reinforcing the learners' self-image as successful language learners and encouraging them to take up further challenges.
Success, incidentally, does not necessarily mean perfection! A class may engage successfully with language practice in groups, where mistakes do occasionally occur, but most of the utterances are acceptable and a large 'volume' of practice is achieved. This is often preferable to teacher-monitored full-class practice, which may produce fully accurate responses - but at the expense of 'volume' and opportunities for active participation by most of the class.
A good practice activity provides opportunities for useful practice to all, or most, of the different levels within a class. If you give an activity whose items invite response at only one level of knowledge, then a large proportion of your class will not benefit.
Consider the following item in an activity on can/can’t:
Jenny is a baby. Jenny (can/can't) ride a bicycle.
Learners who are not confident that they understand how to use can may not do the item at all. Those who are more advanced, and could make far more complex and interesting statements with the same item have no opportunity tc do so, and get no useful practice at a level appropriate to them. However, suppose you redesign the text and task as follows:
Jenny is a baby. Jenny can hold a toy and can smile, but she can't ride a bicycle. What else can, or can't. Jenny do?
then the activity becomes heterogeneous. You have provided weaker learners with support in the form of sample responses, and you have given everyone the opportunity to answer at a level appropriate to him or her, from the simple ('Jenny can drink milk', for example) to the relatively complex and original ('Jenny can't open a bank account'). Thus a much larger proportion of the class is able to participate and benefit.
The main function of the teacher, having proposed the activity and given clear instructions, is to help the learners do it successfully. If you give an activity, an then sit back while the learners ‘flounder’ - make random uninformed guesses or are uncomfortably hesitant - you are not helping; even assessments and corrections made later, which give useful feedback to learners on their mistake do not in themselves give practice, in the sense of contributing to automatization. If, however, you assist them, you thereby increase their chances of success and the effectiveness of the practice activity as a whole. Such assistance may take the form of allowing plenty of time to think, of making the answers easier through giving hints and guiding questions, of confirming beginnings of responses in order to encourage continuations, or, in group work, of moving around the classroom making yourself available to answer questions. Through such activity you also, incidentally, convey a clear message about the function and attitude of the teacher: I want you to succeed in learning and am doing my best to see you do so.
If there is little challenge in the language work itself because of its 'success-orientation' and if there is a lot of repetition of target forms (‘volume’), then there is certainly a danger that the practice might be boring. And boredom is not only an unpleasant feeling in itself; it also leads to learner inattention, low motivation and ultimately less learning.
However, if interest is not derived from the challenge of getting-the-answers right, it has to be rooted in other aspects of the activity: an interesting topic, the need to convey meaningful information, a game-like 'fun' task, attention-catching materials, appeal to learners' feelings or a challenge to their intellect. simple example: an activity whose aim is to get learners to practise asking 'yes no' questions may simply demand that learners build such questions from short cues (by transforming statements into questions, for example); but such an activity will get far more attentive and interested participation if participants produce their questions as contributions to some kind of purposeful transfer of information (such as guessing what the teacher has in a bag or what someone’s profession is).
2.4 Class Organization
There are different ways of class organization such as, whole-class teaching individualized learning, pair work and group work. The choice depends on the lesson objectives and the desired pattern of interaction between the teacher and the students.
The teacher will continually have to decide whether he will teach the whole class together or he will divide the students into pairs or groups.
Firstly, you must decide whether you want – or need – to control that the learners are doing. If you teach the whole class together, it is easily to control everything. But if you divide the students into pairs or groups, you can’t expect to control the students to the same extent.
Secondly, what is your main goal? If you want to make sure that the students get enough practice in a particular point of grammar or vocabulary or pronunciation, you choose the kind of work that is called accuracy activities because their purpose is to make sure the students get something right. These activities usually form the training stage of the lesson. If this is your aim you will often want to work with the whole class, but you can use pair work for this purpose (even group work).
On the other hand, you may want to give your students opportunities to use the language they have learnt: to use it freely, even if they make mistakes. This kind of work is called fluency activities. They form what is often called the production stage of the lesson. If this is your goal, you will usually want the students to work in groups. But because of the contribution you as the teacher can make you may also want to do some fluency activities with the whole class.
1. Closed-ended teacher questioning (‘IRF’)
Only one 'right' response gets approved. Sometimes cynically called the 'Guess what the teacher wants you to say' game.
2. Open-ended teacher questioning
There are a number of possible 'right' answers, so that more students answer each cue.
3. Full-class interaction
The students debate a topic or do a language task as a class; the teacher may intervene occasionally, to stimulate participation or to monitor.
4. Choral responses
The teacher gives a model which is repeated by all the class in the chorus, or gives a cue which is responded to in chorus.
5. Student initiates, teacher answers
For example, in a guessing game: the students think of questions and the teacher responds; but the teacher decides who asks.
6. Group work
Students work in small groups on tasks that entail interaction: conveying information, for example, or group decision-making. The teacher walks around listening, intervenes little if at all.
7. Individual work
The teacher gives a task or set of tasks, and students work on them independently; the teacher walks around monitoring and assisting where necessary.
Students do the same sort of tasks as in 'Individual work', but work together, usually in pairs, to try to achieve the best results they can The teacher may or may not intervene (Note that this is different from 'Group work', where the task itself necessitates interaction)
9. Teacher talk
This may involve some kind of silent student response, such as writing from dictation, but there is no initiative on the part of the student.
Questioning is a universally used activation technique in teaching, mainly within the Initiation-Response-Feedback pattern. Note that teacher questions are not always realized by interrogatives.
As language teachers, our motive in questioning is usually to get our students to engage with the language material actively through speech; so an effective questioning technique is one that elicits fairly prompt, motivated, relevant and full responses. If, on the other hand, our questions result in long silences, or are answered by only the strongest students, or obviously bore the class, or consistently elicit only very brief or unsuccessful answers, then there is probably something wrong.
Some useful criteria for effective questioning for language teachers are suggested below.
Criteria for effective questioning
1. Clarity: do the learners immediately grasp not only what the question means, but also what kind of an answer is required?
2. Learning value: does the question stimulate thinking and responses that will contribute to further learning of the target material? Or is it irrelevant, unhelpful or merely time-filling?
3. Interest: do learners find the question interesting, challenging, stimulating?
4. Availability: can most of the members of the class try to answer it? Or only the more advanced, confident, knowledgeable? (Note that the mere addition of a few seconds' wait-time before accepting a response can make the question available to a significantly larger number of learners.)
5. Extension: does the question invite and encourage extended and/or varied answers?
6. Teacher reaction: are the learners sure that their responses will be related to with respect, that they will not be put down or ridiculed if they say something inappropriate?
In group work, learners perform a learning task through small-group interaction. It is a form of learner activation that is of particular value in the practice of oral fluency: learners in a class that is divided into five groups get five times as many opportunities to talk as in full-class organization. It also has other advantages: it fosters learner responsibility and independence, can improve motivation and contribute to a feeling of cooperation and warmth in the class. There is some research that indicates that the use of group work improves learning outcomes.
These potential advantages are not, however, always realized. Teachers fear they may lose control, that there may be too much noise, that their students may over-use their mother tongue, do the task badly or not at all: and their fears are often well founded. Some people - both learners and teachers - dislike a situation where the teacher cannot constantly monitor learner language.
The success of group work depends to some extent on the surrounding social climate, and on how habituated the class is to using it; and also, or course, on the selection of an interesting and stimulating task whose performance is we within the ability of the group. But it also depends, more immediately, on effective and careful organization. Some guidelines on organizing group work are given below, divided into four sections: presentation, process, ending, feedback.
Note also that a class may not readily take to group work if it is used to b constantly teacher-directed. But this is something that can be learned through practice; do not give up if your first attempts at group work with a class are unsatisfactory.
The instructions that are given at the beginning are crucial if the students do not understand exactly what they have to do there will be time-wasting, confusion, lack of effective practice possible loss of control. Select tasks that are simple enough to describe easily; and in monolingual classes you may find it cost-effective to explain some or all in the students’ mother tongue. It is advisable to give the instructions before giving out materials or dividing the class into groups, and a preliminary rehearsal or 'dry run' of a sample of the activity with the full class can help to clarify things. Note, however that if your students have already done similar activities you will be able to shorten the process, giving only brief guidelines, it is mainly the first time of doing something with a class that such care needs to be invested in instructing.
Try to foresee what language will be needed, and have a preliminary quick review of appropriate grammar or vocabulary. Finally before giving the sign to start tell the class what the arrangements are for stopping: if there is a time limit, or a set signal for stopping, say what it is; if the groups simply stop when they have finished, then tell them what they will have to do next. It is wise to have a 'reserve' task planned to occupy members of groups who finish earlier than expected.
Your job during the activity is to go from group to group, monitor, and either contribute or keep out of the way - whichever is likely to be more helpful. If you do decide to intervene, your contribution may take the form of:
- providing general approval and support;
- helping students who are having difficulty;
- keeping the students using the target language (in many cases your mere presence will ensure this!);
- tactfully regulating participation in a discussion where you find some students are over-dominant and others silent.
If you have set a time limit, then this will help you draw the activity to a close at a certain point. In principle, try to finish the activity while the students are still enjoying it and interested, or only just beginning to flag.
A feedback session usually takes place in the context of full-class interaction after the end of the group work. Feedback on the task may take many forms: giving the right solution, if there is one; listening to and evaluating suggestions; pooling ideas on the board; displaying materials the groups have produced; and so on. Your main objective here is to express appreciation of the effort that has been invested and its results. Feedback on language may be integrated into this discussion of the task, or provide the focus of a separate class session later.
The concept of ‘individualization’ in education is sometimes identified with provision of a self-access centre, or even a full self-access learning programme Materials of various kinds are made available, and the learners choose which to work on: the organization of these choices may be in the hands of either teacher or learner, and learners may be working on their own or in groups or pairs.
I would, however, define the term more modestly, as a situation where learners are given a measure of freedom to choose how and what they learn any particular time (implying less direct teacher supervision and more learn' autonomy and responsibility for learning), and there is some attempt to adapt or select tasks and materials to suit the individual. The opposite is ‘lockstep’ learning, where everyone in the class, in principle, is expected to do the same thing at the same time in the same way.
Individualized learning thus defined does not necessarily imply a programme based entirely on self-instruction, nor the existence of self-access centres (which are expensive to equip and maintain and therefore not available to most foreign-language learners). It does imply a serious attempt to provide for differing learner needs within a class and to place a higher proportion of responsibility for learning on the shoulders of the learners themselves. For some of us, it is perhaps more useful to devote thought to how we can achieve at some degree of this kind of individualization within a conventional classroom than it is to give up on the attempt because we do not have the time or resources to organize full self-access facilities.
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