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?