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