Does practice make perfect?
Luiz Otávio Barros (MA Hons in Applied Linguistics, Lancaster University) has been teaching, training teachers, designing language courses and writing ELT materials since 1992. Formerly academic coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo (where he was responsible for the advanced levels, as well as COTE, DOTE and DELTA tuition), head of research and development at Associação Alumni São Paulo (where he was in charge of the adult segment) and BRAZ-TESOL’s second vice president, Luiz Otávio is co-author of Richmond’s English ID / Identities, Personal Best and series editor of Access. In 2016, he self-published The Only Academic Phrasebook You’ll Ever Need, available on Amazon.
In general, it does, I know.
But as far as language learning is concerned, this is not as straightforward as it seems.
First, we need to define practice and narrow it down. Does watching a video in English qualify as language practice? Yes, it does. And so does having a group discussion. Or doing a reading activity. But that’s not what I had in mind as I wrote this post. Here, I am using the term practice to describe controlled oral activities that isolate a specific language form for students to manipulate – a sort of rehearsal for real life, if you will.
The term rehearsal creates another conceptual problem, of course. People rehearse in order to hone their skills as, say, athletes, dancers or musicians. So, if we talk about language rehearsal, we’re implying that (1) learning a second language is essentially a form of skill learning, and that (2) “knowing that” (declarative knowledge) can become “knowing how” (procedural knowledge) through practice. Both assumptions came under close scrutiny in the 1980s and 90s.
Stephen Krashen, for example, would have translated practice makes perfect as stress-free exposure makes perfect. Richard Schmidt might have gone a step further and claimed that noticing salient language forms makes perfect. And, finally, people like Merrill Swain and Michael Long, on a different tack, might have argued that negotiation of meaning during real communication makes perfect.
So, for a long time, controlled practice was thrown to the wayside of ELT. This might have happened, I suspect, partly as a backlash to the endless and mindless drilling that our students were subjected to in the 1970s. Counterintuitive as it was, the notion that declarative knowledge could not be automatized through practice (i.e. the so-called non-interface position) gained a lot of traction in the 1980s and 1990s, which might have left many teachers wondering if they should ditch controlled practice altogether.
But it seems that the ever-swinging ELT pendulum has finally swung back to a position where we can compare language learning and other forms of skill learning without fearing for our lives.
Jeremy Harmer, for example, has on more than one occasion attempted to explore the connection between music practice and language practice. Jim Scrivener, in turn, has coined the term “3 times practice” to highlight the importance of tweaking classroom activities so that students can go beyond the ubiquitous gap-fill in its all glory. And last but not least, Scott Thornbury has also given controlled practice activities a nod of approval, arguing, however, that they should be treated as fluency, rather than accuracy work.
So, when it comes to language learning, does practice make perfect?
I’m not sure about perfect, but probably better, regardless of where the ELT pendulum stops next.