A note on meaning

The post on practice took a long time to write for two reasons. Firstly I couldn’t work out whether or not the literature on SLA was saying grammar could be improved through practice or not. To be honest, (despite Geoff’s best efforts) I’m still not entirely sure (hence the dodge in that particular post). 

The second reason was the concept of ‘meaning’.  Most of the experts I read insisted that practice should be ‘meaningful’ and that mechanical practice was to be avoided. Only Swan and DeKeyser seemed to hint that this might not entirely be true. Swan noted that:

Students of the Violin typically mater double-stopping or positional playing by working in the context of a progressive syllabus, often in ways that are far removed from ‘natural’ performance. Trainee airline pilots and surgeons similarly follow progressive courses of instruction involving relatively ‘artificial’ activities. (one would perhaps not wish to travel on a plane whose pilot had been left to acquire the skills landing naturalistically…) (2012:97)

And Dekeyser, after noting how practice is somewhat shunned in ELT, writes:

Practice is by no means a dirty word in other domains of human endeavour, however. Parents dutifully take their kids to soccer practice, and professional athletes dutifully show up for team practice, sometimes even with recent injuries. Parents make their kids practise their piano skills at home, and the world’s most famous performers of classical music often practise for many hours a day, even if it makes their fingers hurt. If even idolized, spoiled, and highly paid celebrities are willing to put up with practice, why not language learners, teachers, or researchers (2008:1)

Despite these comments, I decided to bite the bullet and go with the majority view, after all, practice that is ‘meaningful’ certainly couldn’t hurt.

The weekend after post was published I saw Jim Scrivener talking about Demand High. He argued that practice needn’t be meaningful and could be entirely mechanical, and still effective. He didn’t cite any sources to back this up but it did give me the uneasy feeling of cognitive dissonance. You see my own language learning experience makes me think practice can be entirely mechanical and yet effective. The second thing niggling away in my head was the question of what ‘meaningful’ means. 

On the face of it it seems pretty straightforward. A meaningful activity is presumably one that has some actual relevance for the student. So practising writing resumes in English would be meaningful for someone studying business English, whereas just writing out sentences about cats sitting on mats would not. But does this only work with activities students ‘may’ need in the future? What if they never write a CV? Do they only need to believe that the activity might be useful for them at some unspecified point in the future? 

But dig a little deeper and this becomes less clear. ‘Meaningful’ is not a well- defined term. If a student is keen to improve their spelling, for instance, and you have them write out certain words x times is this meaningful practice? This is the very definition of mechanical practice yet the student actually has problems with these specific words. A student who can’t pronounce the /v/ sound may benefit from practising minimal pairs such as ‘bat/vat, bent/vent’ but should we put these words into a sentence or only choose words which are relevant for that particular students? It’s not clear. At least not to me. 

According to a speech therapist friend of mine, the above exercise is actually fairly common procedure for kids with pronunciation issues. Another point is that  the information in that post came from not only TEFL sources but those in general education too, the word ‘meaningful’ only appeared in TEFL literature. So could it be that mechanical practice can work for athletes and musicians, but not for language learners? Is this a likely scenario? 

I talked to a prominent EAP academic about this and her reply surprised me a little. I expected her to list all the research data that supported the idea of ‘meaningful’ practice but instead she told me she thought it was ‘basically just a metaphor’, – something to signal a marked contrast between audio-lingual ideas of stimulus response and newer more fashionable notions of best practice. If true, this is a great example of ideology trumping evidence – something that I think is quite common in education in general. 

So what do you think? Does practice need to be meaningful? Does that word even mean anything? 

5 thoughts on “A note on meaning

  1. Thanks for this article. Meaningful is one of those words I've always struggled with and tend to avoid like the plague. Whenever I use it, though, I tend to equate it with \”full of meaning\” – not full of purpose, of usefulness or relevance. So, to me, meaningful practice = practice in which students know what they're saying (sth we can't take for granted…). If I were to describe a practice activity as anything else, I think I'd use the words relevant, purposeful or useful. My personal take, of course.


  2. \”Meaningful,\” as used by our Education Establishment, means \”Approved by your Education Establishment. You may now proceed to mediocrity.\”The same thing is happening in math. They want to teach children the \”meaning of math.\” Apparently this means you will spend a lot of time swimming in murky depths and never learn how to add 38 and 79. For conservatives, the \”meaning of math\” is that you learn how to do it. For progressives, the emphasis is on newfangled literacies that may not be useful or real. Basically, for the last 75 years the charge of \”not meaningful\” was a way of delegitimatizing anything that worked. Cursive handwriting, phonics, diagramming sentences, grammar, spelling, punctuation, practice– all of these have at various times been dismissed as not relevant or not meaningful. First consider who is doing the dismissing. That would be (in US) our feckless Education Establishment. Their disapproval merely means that we need to do more of something.Bruce Deitrick Price


  3. As usual, you have raised a very interesting issue.Most ESOL teachers and writers I know interpret “meaningful” as referring to activities which directly relate to the students’ past, present or future experience. So they apply it to communicative activities such as a discussion about the students’ habits or an information gap about buying some items in a store.I myself feel that some mechanical activities can also be considered meaningful. For example, I would argue that a repetition drill is meaningful to a student who is determined to master the pronunciation of a sound (or some words) contained in the drill. There is a problem with these interpretations of the term, though. They both focus on the extent to which the students are engaged in an activity and not on what the latter achieves. In other words, they focus on what the students are doing rather than on what they are learning. So when I discuss classroom activities with e.g., trainee teachers, I try to suggest that they look for activities that are “meaningful and useful”. Of course, given how little we still know about the way language and language learning operate, deciding whether any classroom activity is truly useful is normally a matter of faith rather than of science. Jeff Mohamed


  4. Thanks Jeff, I agree. This is perhaps an example of what scientists call 'a poorly form question'. For example 'is this activity meaningful' can't really even be asked if we don't know what meaningful means.


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