Comments on EFL notes interview with Christian Jones on defining ‘practice’ in second language learning

Image: Johannes Vermeer. The Art of Painting [Detail]. Oil on canvas. c. 1662-1668.

A post from EFL Notes (from 22nd June) featured an interview with Christian Jones, editor of Practice in Second Language Learning (published by Cambridge University Press, 2018).

9781107131224
Jones, C. (ed.). (2018). Practice in Second Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The interview (and no doubt the book itself) is worth reading, but something that struck me as odd was the way practice – the key subject matter of the collection – was defined.

According to EFL Notes, Jones’s book defines practice as:

specific activities in the second language, engaged in systematically, deliberately, with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in the second language.

I don’t have the context of the original quote for this as I haven’t either read or had access to the original, but it does seem a little on the vague side.

A first issue appears to be one of scale: as going to a class to learn English (French, Spanish, etc.) would be something done deliberately then we must be talking about something far below the institutional level or else outside the institution altogether. For example, I once knew someone who deliberately went to practice his Russian by standing on a street corner and asking for directions to the nearest Metro. Each time he was given instructions, he would return to the same spot and then ask someone again for directions to the very same station.

He managed this several times, apparently, until one almost too-helpful Muscovite insisted on not just taking him to the station, but getting him onto the train – at which point his experiment came to an end.

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But what that anecdote does appear to illustrate is that “specific activities in the second language, engaged in systematically, deliberately, with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in the second language” may be – and in fact are – engaged in by learners independently and outside of classrooms on a regular basis.

Any would-be learner of English who has ever sat down to listen to the BBC World Service or a TED talk on YouTube or who has tried to read the news in English online could potentially be engaged in practice defined in this way.

So a second issue – or rather a potential issue – with the definition as cited by EFL Notes appears to be that practice (so defined) can apply to learning which occurs independently of any instruction or teaching. If, as according to one of Jones’s replies in the interview, it is the case that: “Teachers and researchers need evidence about what seems to work and what doesn’t in various contexts and with different language areas/skills” then this suggests that independent learning activities may have been excluded (even though they should be included according to the definition – however perhaps autonomous learning is in fact dealt with.)

EFL Notes had apparently also pondered the looseness of the definition as his third question to Jones shows:

[EFL notes] The definition given in the book for practice is described as “broadly defined”. What would a more narrowly defined version say?

[Christian Jones:] A narrowly defined version of practice might view it something tied to a particular framework such as PPP. In fact, practice forms a part of many types of methodology. For example, in the TBLT literature, task repetition is undoubtedly a form of practice. A narrowly defined version might view it as something connected to learner output. In fact, we can and do talk of receptive and productive practice. A narrow version of practice might view it as connected only to skill building theories of second language acquisition but we can link it to several others, including the noticing hypothesis and input processing.

Jones’s answer here seems a little on the surprising side as it seems to be made on the fly, and evolve throughout the response. The result – for me at least – is somewhat perplexing. However, as perplexity is not without its uses, let’s take a closer look at the reply:

A narrowly defined version of practice might view it something tied to a particular framework such as PPP.

I hope I am not being uncharitable, but this appears to be saying that we can know when a stage or activity in a lesson is practice when the practitioner explicitly states it to be so or else believes it to be the case. So if a teacher is using the Presentation-Practice-Production model, then the second stage must involve Practice because that’s what the model dictates.

Anyone, of course, who has been involved in any kind of pre- or in-service teacher training in ELT, especially with CELTA or Trinity TESOL, will know that just because something is intended to be a practice stage does not necessarily mean that this is what will happen (The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley and all that.).

Then again, that is to assume that there is an unambiguous understanding of what Practice is or involves, but that is obviously still not explained in this part of the reply, narrowly or otherwise, except perhaps in the negative sense as being whatever isn’t involved in either the Presentation or Production stages is the Practice stage.

In this regard, it’s perhaps worth noting the following point raised by Scott Thornbury (video link above under Presentation-Practice-Production):

“… I think the PPP model does have a certain priming function. In other words, it raises learners’ awareness about certain features of the language and therefore they’re more likely – theoretically – to notice these in real language use when they engage with language either outside the classroom or in, uh, authentic use activities within the classroom.”

This is interesting for a number of reasons, but the one most relevant here is that Thornbury appears to be saying the value of PPP model is not that it involves practice as such, but that it potentially prepares students for practice at some later point.

Does a repetition of a task retrospectively transform the first attempt into practice?  Does it still count as practice if it’s only performed once or is repetition necessary before an activity can be considered practice?

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Eadward Muybridge. Plate 718: Cat trotting and galloping. Photograph. 1887.

Jones continues:

In fact, practice forms a part of many types of methodology. For example, in the TBLT literature, task repetition is undoubtedly a form of practice.

I have no objection to this part of the reply, but it does raise the obvious though important question as to exactly where and when the practice element is actually located.

Does a repetition of a task retrospectively transform the first attempt into practice? Does it still count as practice if it’s only performed once or is repetition necessary before an activity can be considered practice?

Or is it the case that any and all repetitions of the same task are to be understood as practice (e.g. Practice Task 1, 2, 3 … n) for what Thornbury just described as “language … outside the classroom” (i.e. ‘real’ use in the world as opposed to classroom use)?

And does this principle of  “task repetition” as “undoubtedly a form of practice” assume that there is linear progress in that subsequent iterations of the same (or ‘the same’) task are believed to produce improvements on earlier ones?

This is presumably unanswerable unless you know what the criteria for success are – which is no easy feat in itself. For instance, if the success criteria are purely language related, wouldn’t that risk disincentivizing students from completing the task? Assuming this is a situation to be avoided in a task-based approach, it then becomes something of a challenge to distinguish between linguistic and non-linguistic success criteria.

The result in that case could be that it would be possible for one learner to improve their ability to complete the task, but not necessarily in their ability to use language more appropriately while doing so, while on the other hand another learner might improve in their use of the language yet still be unsuccessful in completing the task. This would be the case even if the task involved learners in: “specific activities in the second language, engaged in systematically, deliberately, with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in the second language”.

I’m not saying that these problems are insurmountable or that they cannot be resolved through careful task design and administration – but what it does mean is that leaves the questions of what exactly practice is and when and where it happens unanswered.

It seems to be the case that what would make one task count as practice but another not is not the degree of success as such, but the quality of the reflection on the task performance.

Whether that reflection is guided by the teacher or conducted independently by the learner (or a combination of these), it suggests that ‘practice’ might be something quite different from what many (most importantly the learners) believe it to be. Especially important is that what makes something ‘practice’ here is a matter of perspective, not a matter of action.

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Jackson Pollock. Autumn Rhythm (No. 30). Enamel on canvas. 1950.

Next:

A narrowly defined version might view it as something connected to learner output. In fact, we can and do talk of receptive and productive practice.

Again, this seems fairly uncontroversial – but only up to a point. For by including receptive practice alongside productive practice as something which involves outputs it becomes hard to see which classroom activities could then be excluded from being described as practice.

For instance, is explicit grammar instruction using the second language a form of practice or not?

Traditionally, the answer to this would be ‘No’.

But nevertheless, watching the teacher draw a timeline or other graphic on the board while listening to examples and explanations of the rule and taking notes must certainly count as a specific activity, an activity in the second language, potentially an activity which is systematic, of course deliberate, and undoubtedly an activity “with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in the second language”.

And if learners are invited to apply what they have learnt after such explicit instruction then it will also involve output.

So again, if receptive as well as productive practice are seen to include outputs, which aspects of the class are to be excluded? (Not counting such ‘idle’ moments as when, say, learners are chatting in L1 or checking their mobile phones while the teacher is writing up the aims of that day’s lesson at the very beginning of class as students are still filing in.)

It would be possible, I suppose, for a teacher to answer that question by limiting the sense of “learner output” to very specific sets of criteria within the framework of a particular task type. For example, by having students identify the difference between sentences using the past perfect and past simple causatives (i.e. We had painted the house. Vs We had the house painted.) – receptive practice – or having them produce the appropriate forms based on photo and word prompts – productive practice. Something along these lines perhaps:

Use the words below the photo to complete a sentence about what you can see.

tony_davies_painting_work.jpg

we – have – paint 

And of course, the problem immediately apparent here is the question of whether such tasks are properly speaking a form of language testing rather than a form of language practice (or even a form of language practice testing?).

(Incidentally and as an aside:

The problems with both the tasks given as examples just now are legion and not something I would either use or advocate using. While there is something of value in the receptive example – having learners consider the impact that word order has on the meaning between had painted the house and had the house painted – whatever that value is would likely seem compromised by the radical decontextualisation. For instance, in terms of actual usage, proficient speakers of English would surely be far more likely to use the contracted form of had in the past perfect version of the sentence – something impossible to do with had in the past simple (causative), i.e.

We’d painted the house.

but

*We’d the house painted.

In both cases, a far more useful demonstration might be to fit the sentences into a context. Even a relatively artificial one would do, e.g.

Match the correct response for each dialogue. 

Was it expensive?

Really? How long did it take to do all that?

 

A: We had painted the house.

B: …………………………………………………………………………..

 

A: We had the house painted.

B: …………………………………………………………………………..

(Even in this version, We had painted the house still feels like it’s missing a phrase beginning by the time … or when … etc. Also, any ELT editor worth their salt would likely point out that both Was it expensive? and Really? How long did it take to do all that? are completely usable in both dialogues).

In the productive version, there are even more issues the most noticeable of which are:

1) learners would have to have already been carefully instructed about what to do with the task type to avoid them producing e.g. We have some paint. or We’ve been painting. which would both be perfectly acceptable descriptions of that photo. Therefore learners would have to be told to use either past perfect simple or past simple causative in advance (this would appear to make questionable the intended aim of the activity);

2) In this particular case, how are learners supposed to identify that the man in the photo is representative of the homeowner (in which case We had painted the housemust be the correct option) or representative of the painter and decorator employed by the homeowner (in which case We had the house paintedmust be the answer)? After all, whether you are the homeowner or a contractor, in both cases you are likely to wear some kind of overalls – but then again the lack of overalls (as in the photo) is hardly proof that you are not a contractor, but a homeowner. In fact, the more you think about it, the more it becomes apparent that it would almost impossible to supply a photo or drawing which would unambiguously indicate a homeowner as opposed to a contractor (or vice versa). It hardly seems possible to imagine how this could be done in the absence of supplying far too many clues rather than too few – and if that is the case, what you thought you were practising (i.e. the correct application of one form over the other to a suitable context) might not be what you are actually practising (i.e. the correct formulation of a particular form).

Incidentally, the meaning of We had painted the house. and We had the house painted. could refer to either painting in the sense of painting and decoration or painting as in the sense of using oils or watercolours.)

Moving on (my emphasis):

A narrow version of practice might view it as connected only to skill building theories of second language acquisition but we can link it to several others, including the noticing hypothesis and input processing.

I’m slightly baffled as to what exactly Jones is defining as practice as opposed to acquisition here.

Perhaps what he really means to say is that practice in second language learning is more or less indistinguishable from (and therefore interchangeable as a term with) second language acquisition.

But then again that seems not to be the case when in the same interview with EFL Notes he clearly states that (my emphasis):

Practice is a central part of second language teaching and learning in many contexts and yet remains somewhat under-researched. This seems something of a gap in the literature. Teachers and researchers need evidence about what seems to work and what doesn’t in various contexts and with different language areas/skills. 

The description Jones gives of practice here seems completely indistinguishable from similar descriptions of SLA made in other contexts an example of which would be Lourdes Ortega‘s opening plenary in Brighton IATEFL 2018, What is SLA research good for anyway? The thrust of Ortega’s plenary was to present a case for why teachers ought to take more notice of what SLA research has to say as indicated in her abstract:

In my nearly 20 years of being a second language acquisition (SLA) researcher, I have met many language teachers who told me learning about SLA really shifted their thinking about their teaching practice and their approach to teaching           […] My goal is to provide tools for thinking about research and teaching as imperfectly and not always obviously compatible perspectives that can enrich the professional lives of language teachers and researchers alike – but only when a delicate balance between idealism and pragmatism is struck.

It might be worth also noting that Ortega authored one of the chapters in the 2007 Practice in a second language: perspectives from applied linguistics and cognitive psychology edited by Robert DeKeyser, which Jones explicitly references in the interview (“There has not been a volume focused on this area since Robert DeKeyser’s book” he tells EFL notes). Her chapter in that work, ‘Meaningful L2 practice in foreign language classrooms: A cognitive-interactionist SLA perspective’ begins:

For many years now classroom-based SLA researchers have concerned themselves with how L2 practice contributes to L2 learning. In doing so they have produced a rich body of empirical evidence suggestive of certain qualities in practice that inherently call for the engagement of L2 competence-expanding processes within instructed contexts. The approach to L2 practice that this chapter presents rests on a number of cognitive-interactionist SLA theories that view language learning as arising from the interaction of multiple influences which are both learner internal (e.g., attention to form) and learner-external (e.g., a task design that offers essential L2 input and feedback).

(Ortega, 2007: 180)

At further risk of sounding like even more or an ignoramus than I may well already appear to some readers, if Jones’s use of practice is more or less interchangeable with acquisition then in what sense can it be claimed that the area “remains somewhat under-researched” or that there appears to be “something of a gap in the literature”?

Maybe what is meant is that while there is plenty of literature on SLA there is not enough on how the findings from this literature can be practically applied to the classroom.

But then this in turn also seems a little odd because isn’t SLA already the branch of Applied Linguistics largely (even almost exclusively?) focussed on finding empirical evidence for the efficacy of language learning and teaching Approach X over Approaches Y and Z?

In other words, if SLA isn’t already about providing “evidence about what seems to work and what doesn’t in various contexts and with different language areas/skills”, what is it about?

This isn’t the X-Files and the answers in this case no doubt really are out there – and yes, naturally, it would help a great deal if I was much more widely read in this area than I evidently am.

Even so, it does seem at least a little odd that practice should not only be defined rather vaguely in its own terms, but that it should also not be made evident how it differs from acquisition.

EFL Notes original post is here: Practice in second language learning – interview with the editor

Jan_Vermeer_-_The_Art_of_Painting_-_Google_Art_Project
Johannes Vermeer. The Art of Painting. Oil on canvas. c. 1662-1668.

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4 thoughts on “Comments on EFL notes interview with Christian Jones on defining ‘practice’ in second language learning

  1. I splashed out on this book – £51 after a 40% reduction (for being a CUP author) – and wish I hadn’t. I’m about half way through, but I’m still none the wiser about what ‘practice’ actually is. The introduction by Christian Jones says that practice activities are ‘mainly receptive (helping learners to process form-meaning links from input) or mainly productive (helping learners to make form-meaning links from output)’. So … what’s left? Doesn’t that cover practically everything that teachers set up in language classrooms?
    There are some interesting chapters in the book (e.g. the first chapter by McCarthy and McCarten, which is about the approach they took to teaching conversational language when they were writing ‘Touchstone’ or Timmis’s account of text-based approaches to teaching grammar), but, for the life of me, I can’t see how the chapters hang together in any way.
    I wish I’d read your blog post sooner and saved myself fifty quid.

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  2. “Doesn’t that cover practically everything that teachers set up in language classrooms?”

    Well, quite.

    As I mentioned, I haven’t had access to the book itself, only the interview with EFL Notes, but that does seem to be quite an important question left unanswered.

    I feel your pain over the bullseye.

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  3. yes i think in trying to use a broad approach to practice the book may come up short – the book ties practice to skill acquisition theory, task based language teaching, Processing Instruction, Noticing Hypothesis;

    regarding point about out of class practice book does acknowledge this

    for me the characteristics of practice includes “specific activity” as in the broad definition & in addition some sense of “repetition” and some sort of “feedback” all with the purpose of moving the interlanguage of learner to a desired state

    ta
    mura

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