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

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