Practice in second language learning – interview with the editor

I was working with an individual student at about A2 level a few weeks back. Her speaking skills are relatively weak compared to her listening skills. I decided some job related drilling would be appropriate. As she was going through the drill I was hesitating about how much would be of use. Before the advent of the modern communicative approach, practice in language teaching was often associated with such mechanical type activities. And such exercises have been criticized as using decontextualized and inauthentic language. So on this point (decontextualised/inauthentic language) I was more confident (as the student was using example language related to her work) than on the value of the drilling i.e. repetitive production of language.

In a new book edited by Christian Jones – Practice in second language learning, practice is defined broadly as “specific activities in the second language, engaged in systematically, deliberately, with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in the second language”. Although there is no explicit discussion on drilling the chapters within do cover many interesting issues related to practice.

Christian Jones kindly answered some questions about the book:

1. What made you decide there was a need for this book at this time?
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. There has not been a volume focused on this area since Robert DeKeyser’s book in 2007 and we wanted to add research to the field.

2. What would readers get from this book that they wouldn’t from DeKeyser 2007?
The DeKeyser book is, in my view, a very important contribution to our field. Robert DeKeyser was kind enough to add a foreword to this volume as we wanted to acknowledge his important work in this area. In our book, we have tried to explore practice as we might find it in classrooms, online and in periods of study abroad. We wanted to research practice in different second languages, contexts and using different reseach designs and we hope this will be of interest to a variety of teachers and researchers.

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

4. What in your view is the most outstanding question on the topic of practice (both for teaching and research)?
There are several! But here is one. Chapter one by Mike McCarthy and Jeanne McCarten makes the point that practising conversation and speaking practice are not the same. CLT often features activities we can term ‘speaking practice’ but it is something of a stretch to think that typical activities such as information gaps etc (as helpful as they are in some ways) allow learners to practise conversations. In order to develop conversational skills, learners will need to practise aspects of conversation such as good listenership and linking their turn to another speaker. We need to investigate ways to practise these things. One way is to research the effectiveness of an Illustration-Interaction-Induction (III) framework which McCarthy and McCarten suggest can be useful for practising aspects of conversation. Such research might be undertaken by comparing III to other methodologies.

I have yet to form a definite opinion on drilling but having read only the first two chapters of the book I hope any future opinion on drills and practice in general to be better informed.

Thanks for reading and do note I was kindly sent a review copy of the book. But don’t hold your breath for a proper review : )

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