Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Practice: the missing link?

Many changes have taken place since I first got involved in using ICT for language learning and teaching. In the early days of the microcomputer boom in the 1980s there was not great deal of choice in the range of software available. The first programs that appeared were rather dry text-only multiple-choice and gap-filling exercises, which were nevertheless very popular. Audio and video were not available and many schools could afford to buy only one single computer, which was moved around different classrooms, connected to a large TV screen and used for whole-class teaching. And the Web was just a twinkle in the eye of its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, finally reaching the public at large in 1993.

Now we have some excellent Presentation tools - interactive whiteboards and associated software - and a range of so-called Web 2.0 tools have appeared that are useful for the Production of language by our students, e.g. blogs, wikis, podcasts, animations, etc: see ICT4LT Module 1.5, Section 2.2, headed What is Web 2.0?

This may be misconception on my part, but am I right in thinking that there is a missing link, namely Practice? What has happened to the programs and authoring tools that teachers used to generate practice activities for their students? During the late 1980s and 1990s the range of published programs and authoring tools for generating practice activities - vocab, grammar, all the mundane but essential stuff - got better and better, incorporating audio and video, discrete error analysis and intrinsic feedback: see ICT4LT Module 1.1 Section 7.1 on Interactivity and Section 7.2 on Feedback.

I may be wrong but, judging from most of the blogs, wikis and forums aimed at language teachers, it now seems to be a case of either “Where can I find a PowerPoint presentation on XYZ?” or “Where can I find a Web 2.0 tool that enables my students to write a blog / record a podcast / create a cartoon strip?” Is Practice the missing link?



Anonymous said...

That's certainly the perception I have based on so many forum posts on here and elsewhere.

I remember training first as a TEFL teacher and then as a MFL teacher, and we were encouraged to see teaching language in terms of PPP - presentation, practice and production. This could apply to a whole lesson or to groups of activities within a lesson (ie. there can be several PPP sequences in the same lesson).

The practice stage, in my opinion, is the most important, as it's where the information is reinforced, understanding is checked and internalisation of the new language takes place.

Of course, it is possible to go straight on to production activities with little practice, but how much of what is produced has actually been learnt? Isn't the most important end-product of the language learning process the understanding and internalisation of new vocabulary or structures?

Sam said...

Hi Graham

I can see what you are saying about practice being essential, but I do not think it is missing.

When I trained, we were taught to introduce a few bits of vocabulary(say, three), and then drill these words (within a contextualising questions) before introducing another few and then drilling them ALL again, this cycle continues again, and I would normally limit my introduction to about 9 or 12 bits of language, depending upon the group.

I use a variety of practise activities, some of which use interactive technology such as animation in powerpoint (quick flash, slow reveal, kims game), or I don't use any tech at all, and I get them to draw the language in the air, or mime it, or mumble it etc etc.

I suppose, what I am trying to say is that the practice, for me anyway, comes in the classroom, and is hard to replicate solely in technology. I will also supplement our class pairworks activities with interactive games (such as the ones on my website, Linguascope, Antantot etc), and then these are available for pupils outside of the classroom for revision and consolidation activities.
After having written the language down, we will move on to accumulating enough language to be able to use it all effectively in longer sentences/paragraphs, and normally the end point of a chunk of language (a part of the sow) will be to produce their own extended text (in any shape or form, including creating a cartoon strip, recording their own song or writing an article for a blog), having built up to it through practising the language regularly from the introductory stage to the sentence and then paragraph stage.

For me, this is practice.

Graham Davies said...

Actually, Sam, the practice element is quite easy to replicate using technology - but I agree that solely using technology is not a good idea.

Practice materials have been available from the very beginnings of computer assisted language learning (CALL), starting with simple multiple-choice exercises, gap-filling exercises and, later on, more sophisticated open-input exercises with discrete error analysis and feedback. The advent of the computer also made it possible to create new types of exercises, such as “Total Cloze”, as embodied in Storyboard and Fun with Texts, which cannot be replicated on paper.

There have also been a number of attempts to implement so-called Intelligent CALL (ICALL), or semi-intelligent CALL dating right back to the late 1970s, e.g. the CLEF series of programs produced by the University of Western Ontario and the University of Guelph in Canada. Have a look at Module 1.4 at the ICT4LT site, which traces the history of CALL and CALL typology.

I have always felt, both as a teacher and as a learner, that using ICT to assist in the practice element has been the greatest time-saver - and there is also evidence too that it improves exam results: see the case study in ICT4LT Module 3.1, detailing Richard Hamilton's experience at Cox Green School, where he claims, “Our A*-C GCSE results went up by 15% in three years as a result of pupils working regularly in the Language Centre's computer lab.”

See also Section 5 of ICT4LT Module 1.4, where Heather Rendall describes the positive effects of using simple exercise programs. Her 1988 article "Life without the computer" is also an interesting read. In this article she claims that withdrawing students from the computer lab lessons actually caused a deterioration in her pupils' written accuracy:


Graham Davies

Neil Barker said...

Graham Davies,

Interesting point. I think so many times, teachers and language learners get so focused on how to do something. I'm guilty of this myself sometimes, especially when I'm teaching myself a language.

As a language teacher, I do try to focus on practicing as much as the syllabus allows. As a language learner, I do get caught up in the latest methods, websites, gadgets, and software.

Graham Davies said...

I started threads on the same topic in three other discussion lists, namely:

TES Modern Foreign Languages: http://www.tes.co.uk

MFL Resources Forum: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mflresources/

Linguanet: http://www.mailtalk.ac.uk/lists/linguanet-forum.html

Linguanet is generating the most informative and interesting responses. Have a look!