I have been thinking about the role that practice plays in second language learning recently. This is an area of language teaching which is important to a lot of learners and teachers and yet, it remains fairly under-researched, aside from one or two examples dedicated to this area (see DeKeyser 2007 for a good example). One reason for this, within ELT at least, is I think that practice is often seen as part of Present Practice Produce (PPP) and this way of teaching is itself poorly explained in a lot of the literature. At times this may be deliberate in order to build a case against the use of PPP. The misunderstanding/ misrepresentation of PPP can be summarised as follows:
1. PPP is a ‘traditional’ way of teaching. I do not have evidence from all possible countries where EFL is taught but at least from my experience and that of colleagues in countries such as Japan, Thailand, Turkey and Hungary this is certainly not the case. In these contexts, grammar translation was used commonly in mainstream schools (where most EFL teaching takes place) and Cook (2010) suggests that grammar translation has ‘survived’ the onset of newer methodologies in many contexts. Similar to this claim is that PPP is the most common type of methodology used. Here is a recent quote: ‘Since the mid-1960s, PPP has been the most widely implemented methodology’ (Jarvis 2015). Perhaps this is true in language schools, but again, I suspect that this is not the case where most EFL teaching actually takes place. I am not aware of a global survey of ELT methodology but am happy to be proved wrong if there is evidence that PPP is as widespread as is often suggested.
2. PPP is less effective than other methods or frameworks. This is currently unclear. There is certainly evidence that other types of teaching can be superior to PPP. Beretta and Davies (1985), for example, investigated the effect of Prabhu’s Bangalore project (Prabhu 1982) and found that on some measures, the Task-Based Learning group outperformed a control group who seem to have been taught using a similar form of teaching to PPP. However, we can also find results which contradict these in other contexts. For example, Jones, Smith, Lees and Donahue (2015) compared PPP with TPR for lower level students in Japan and found that there were no significant differences between the groups on receptive and productive tests. Both types of teaching helped learners to demonstrate significantly improved awareness and production of a set of target collocations taught as part of students’ oral English classes. Norris and Ortega (2000) also compared a number of experimental studies of these and found that explicit teaching (whether it was a reactive focus on form or pre-determined focus on forms as favoured by PPP), had a larger effect than implicit teaching. Methods comparisons on a large scale have tended to produce inconclusive results an early investigation of this sort was conducted by Scherer and Wertheimer (1964), who compared the effects of audiolingualism to grammar translation, in a longitudinal study. The subjects were approximately three hundred college students learning German and each method was measured over two years through pre- and post-tests, interviews and questionnaires. Despite the amount of data the study produced, it did not demonstrate that one method was superior to the other but that the emphasis of each method was reflected in the ability of each group of learners. This meant that learners taught using grammar translation were superior at reading, writing and translation, while the learners taught using audiolingualism were superior at listening and speaking. Similarly, Swaffar, Arens and Morgan (1982) compared audiolingualism with cognitive code learning and also found inconclusive results. This suggests that a large scale study comparing PPP with (for example) TBLT may not produce conclusive results and that what is needed is a meta-analysis of the type produced by Norris and Ortega (2000). Their meta-analysis found that explicit teaching was more effective than implicit teaching across a number of studies and the results have been replicated more recently in a similar study by Spada and Tomita (2010). A similar type of research, which brings together the results of a number of smaller studies investigating the effectiveness of PPP in comparison with other teaching types would be helpful.
3. PPP is only used to teach discrete items of grammar. Commonly, the flawed use of an atomistic structural syllabus is conflated with the use of PPP. I am not in favour of a structural syllabus whereby week 1 = Past Simple, Week 2 = Present Simple etc but this characterisation ignores the fact that PPP can be used to teach other aspects of language. ‘Functions in English’ by Leo Jones (1982), for example, was a popular precursor to many of the current course book series and used PPP to teach functional exponents.
4. PPP is behaviourist. I think this is something of misrepresentation. There are elements of PPP (such as drilling), which we could say are behaviourist. But looked at as whole, we could also easily suggest that it is related to the notion that learning a language is akin to developing a skill, whereby a learner moves from understandings aspects of language and being able to use them under controlled conditions to eventually using them automatically (as described by McLaughlin, Rossman and McLeod 1983). It is perfectly possible to relate the three common phases of PPP to Anderson’s (1982) skill building model in the following way: a) a cognitive phase, when a learner makes a conscious effort to learn the meaning and form of language (Present), b) an associative phase, when a learner will try to transfer declarative knowledge into procedural knowledge (Practice) and c) an autonomous phase, when a learner will be able to use the language spontaneously (Produce). Naturally, it is very difficult to argue that this process can take place in one lesson, as developing a skill takes time and few teachers would claim that a learner is able to automatically produce a form which they have encountered only once. Similarly, any attempt to isolate particular areas of language to teach in class does not guarantee a learner will acquire them. SLA research shows that interlanguage (Selinker 1972) develops within learners at its own pace and McLaughlin, Rossman and McLeod (1983) suggest that knowledge is constantly restructured and automisation does not follow a linear path. We can say then that any attempt to help acquisition (via teaching) is purely that: an attempt to speed up acquisition. Nobody can guarantee that it will work.
5. Presenting language involves teacher-fronted explanation of rules. This particular myth is fairly common and suggests that all explicit teaching must be deductive, involving a teacher giving learners information about language with little room for student-centred, guided discovery work. However, if we take implicit learning to be ‘learning without awareness of what has been learned’ whilst explicit learning means ‘the learner is aware of what has been learned’ (Richards and Schmidt 2002:250) it is perfectly possible for a PPP lesson to be inductive and yet explicit because it simply means the learner is aware of what is being taught. Hopefully, this is something that teachers would always try to make learners clear about!
By identifying these issues, I am not arguing that PPP is somehow better than other ways of teaching or ‘the answer’ or that I cannot see it has flaws! My feeling is just that practice itself often has a negative association because of the tendency to describe PPP in the ways I have shown. This is unfortunate because most types of teaching involve some kind of practice, however we may wish to characterise this. Tasks can be seen as practice for the real world, for example, and listening work is a form of receptive practice. So, it seems obvious that a lot more research is needed into practice within ELT and it would help if PPP wasn’t misrepresented so much of the time. There are lots of directions in which research in this area could move, three of which I think are as follows:
1. Research could do more to investigate the impact on repetitive practice of lexical chunks via drilling. As chunks generally have to be largely learnt as intact units, it would be helpful to know the extent to which drilling key chunks actually aids memorisation. Taguchi (2007, 2008) found a positive effect for drilling and memorisation of chunks in regard to elementary learners of Japanese but there is a need for further studies of this type. In each case, the use of drilling and repetitive practice needs to be compared with a comparable control group who attempt to learn the same chunks without the use of drills and/or with other types of practice.
2. It would be helpful to know more about the type of practice which best aids learning aspects of language which have a pragmatic rather than a propositional meaning and hence are optional. For example, stance markers such as ‘To be honest’ are important in aiding a speaker’s intended message but are often avoided or go unnoticed by learners. We often assume that practice can help with all aspects of language but perhaps a different type of practice is needed with language of this type?
3. The views of learners are quite often omitted from classroom research and it would be interesting to how learners themselves view different types of practice. Mohammed (2004) undertook an interesting study which investigated how learners perceived deductive vs inductive consciousness raising tasks and found that learners viewed both types of task as useful. This type of qualitative research can be useful and revealing and also act as a useful addition to quantitative data.
Anderson, J. (1982). Acquisition of Cognitive Skill. Psychological Review, 89(4), 369–406.
Beretta, A ., & Davies, A. (1985). Evaluation of the Bangalore Project. ELT Journal, 39(2), 121–127.
Cook, G. (2010). Translation in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
DeKeyser, R. M. (Ed.). (2007). Practice in a Second Language. Perspectives from Applied Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jarvis, H. (2015).From PPP and CALL/MALL to a Praxis of Task-Based Teaching and Mobile Assisted Language Use, TESL-EJ, 19(1), 1–9.
Prabhu, N. S. (1982). The Communicational Teaching Project, South India. Mimeo, Madras: The British Council.
Jones, L. (1982). Functions in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jones, C., Lees, M, Donohue, N., & Smith. K (2015). Teaching Spoken English at Junior High School: A Comparison of TPR and PPP. The Language Teacher, 39 (1), 3–9.
McLaughlin, B., Rossman,T ., & McLeod, B. (1983). Second Language Learning: An information-Processing Perspective. Language Learning, 33 (2), 135–158.
Mohammed, N. (2004). Consciousness-Raising Tasks: A Learner Perspective. ELT Journal, 58(4), 228–237.
Norris, J. M., & Ortega, L. (2000). Effectiveness of L2 Instruction: A Research Synthesis and Quantitative Meta-Analysis. Language Learning, 50(3), 417–528.
Richards, J. C., & Schmidt, R. W. (2002). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (Third Edition). Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Scherer, A., & Wertheimer, M. (1964). A Psycholinguistic Experiment in Foreign Language Teaching. New York: McGraw Hill.
Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 10, 209–241
Spada, N., & Tomita,Y. (2010). Interactions between Type of Instruction and Type of Language Feature: A Meta-Analysis. Language Learning, 60 (2), 263–308.
Swaffar, J. K., Arens, K., & Morgan, M. (1982). Teacher Classroom Practices: Redefining Method as Task Hierarchy. Modern Language Journal, 66(1), 24–33.
Taguchi, N. (2007). Chunk learning and the development of spoken discourse in Japanese as a second language. Language Teaching Research, 11, 433–457.
Taguchi, N. (2008). Building Language blocks in L2 Japanese: Chunk learning and the development of complexity and fluency in spoken production. Foreign Language Annals, 41, 130–