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★The praxis of practice


Routinely speaking, practice refers to “specific activities in the second language, used systematically, (…) with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in the second language” (DeKeyser, 2013:1). Practice is assumed to be an essential part of language learning by many, and it is given prominence in an array of methods, approaches and teaching frameworks. However, the concept of practice remains extensively unexplored in the ELT literature, and it is an aspect of the teaching praxis that often leaves teachers at sixes and sevens.

The aim of this article is to (1) understand what practice is and what it is not; (2) understand what the concept of practice entails; (3) analyse what the different kinds of practice and their denominations are; (4) establish the difference(s) between practice and task.

What is practice and what is not?

Ellis (1993:109) explains that “practice… involves an attempt to supply the learner with plentiful opportunities for producing targeted structures”, which means to say that practice equals using the language in a given context. Using the language is inherently contrary to recognizing the language being used. One example of the difference between recognition and practice is an activity that requires students to read the definitions of words and match the corresponding words to their definitions. What students are doing in this case is recognizing the meaning of the words, or perhaps checking understanding of those, but there is no practice of this language whatsoever. In other words, they are not manipulating or creating (using) language.

Another criterion that helps define what practice is and what it is not is how well students can perform it. For Newell and Rosenbloom (1981:229) “practice is the sub-class of learning that deals only with improving performance on a task that can already be successfully performed”. This contrasts with activities in which, for instance, the teacher tests or diagnoses how much students know, in which students discover features of language, notice patterns, etc. Practice is only practice once the students are already familiar with the target language because it has been clarified, and if can be dealt with successfully.

There is a third criterion which is important to take into account when establishing the concept of practice, which is proceduralization. Proceduralization refers to the amount of times students apply a certain rule in a (practice) activity. Carlson (1997:56) explains that practice implies “repeated performance of the same (or closely similar) routines”, and DeKeyser (1997) says that various studies show that in order for learners to assimilate a structure and use it autonomously, a dozen or so relevant items in an activity are necessary. It means that for practice to be considered real and effective, the activity needs to contain a minimum number of items so students have enough opportunities to be in contact with a certain structure.

In a nutshell, the conditions for a practice activity to be considered bona fine practice are:

1) providing students with opportunities to use (manipulate and create) the language, and not just to recognize it;
2) focusing on an aspect students have already been presented with;
3) containing enough items for students to apply what is being practiced (around 12 items).

What does the study of practice involve?

The notion of practice in ELT can be situated in three different realms: cognitive psychology, educational psychology, and applied linguistics.

Cognitive psychology studies how our brain processes practice activities and how they impact on our language learning process. In other words, it tries to explain how practice can help us transform our declarative knowledge of the language into procedural knowledge, i.e. knowing about language versus using the language successfully. It investigates how practice helps the automatization of the language, which refers to going “from initial presentation of rule in declarative format to the final stage of fully spontaneous, effortless, fast and errorless use of that rule, often without being aware of it anymore.” (DeKeyser, 2013:3).

Education psychology seeks to understand how practice helps reduce or promote transfer. Transfer is “the interaction of previously acquired linguistic and/or conceptual knowledge with the present learning event to facilitate a new language learning task” (Brown, 1993:117). This means that practice can act as a language facilitator for students, as long as they have an adequate declarative knowledge before they start practicing the target language.

Applied linguistics, conversely, focusses on how practice interferes with the interlanguage of the learner, and does not see it as a way to transform declarative knowledge into productive knowledge, but as a means to acquire and develop both kinds of knowledge at the same time. As Diane Larsen-Freeman (2003:114) explains, “doing and learning are synchronous”.

To sum up, the different approaches to practice aim to investigate if/how:

1) practice activities help students to transform declarative knowledge into procedural knowledge, through automatization;
2) practice facilitates the process of language learning;
3) practice allows students to learn and use the language at the same time.

Different kinds of practice and their denominations

Traditionally, practice activities can be more or less controlled, and denominations to refer to these abound. Some authors refer to controlled, less controlled and freer practice, whereas others prefer the terms restricted, semi-restricted and communicative practice. However, the great challenge lies in pinpointing what exactly is more or less controlled in practice activities, and many teachers sometimes use the terms interchangeably. Therefore, the question that remains unanswered is what controlled, less controlled and freer practice are.

The first item to consider when trying to answer the question is the number of instructions or commands that students need to follow at once when performing a practice activity. Mitchell, Myles and Marsden (2013) explain that students can only transform declarative knowledge into procedural knowledge if the effort employed is controlled, and if the task can be monitored. The more actions students perform at the same time, the less controlled by the teacher they are, and fewer are the details which can be monitored. This means that if students need to follow different commands at the same time, the teacher will not be able to control the activity as if they would if students were following a single command.

The second aspect to consider is the amount of possible answers to a single practice activity. The more possible answers there are, the less the teacher can control what students will generate. To that effect, we can consider how much of an information gap the practice activity provides, the level of personalization and spontaneity that the answers can contain, and where in the pendulum manipulating language versus creating language the activity is placed, and we will know if the activity is more or less controlled. Hubbard et al. (1983:194) say that controlled practice means that “there is only one choice: the ‘correct’ response. Freer work offers the student more than one choice, or a variety of responses”, which are often personalized.

The last aspect I consider important when determining what kind of practice a certain activity provides is how much language students have to deal with at once. The longer the stretch of language they have to handle in a practice activity, the less control there is. When moving from controlled to freer practice, students move from simple, artificial, and oftentimes memorized sentences to longer personalized and genuine stretches of language that resemble real-life communication.

In other words, what will determine the level of control in a practice activity is:

1) the number of instructions / commands students have to follow at once;
2) the predictability and level of personalization of answers;
4) the amount of language students handle at once;
5) if the language in the activity is just manipulated or created by students.

Controlled or Restricted PracticeLess controlled or Semi Restricted Practice Freer Practice
How many
instructions or
commands do
students follow
at once?
One ≥ One
≥ One
How many
possible answers
are there for
each item?
One A limited number An unlimited
How predictable
are the answers
for each item?
Predictable within
a context
How much
do students
handle at once?
Words / Phrases / Sentences Words / Phrases / Sentences ≥ Sentences
Do students
or create

What is the difference between a practice activity and a task?

According to the definition of practice proposed by Newell and Rosenbloom (1981), practice activities is what helps students perform tasks better. However, one of the most disputed definitions in ELT is that of task. Lee (2000:32) defines a task as “a classroom activity or exercise that has (a) an objective attainable only by the interaction among participants, (b) a mechanism for structuring and sequencing interaction, and (c) a focus on meaning exchange; (2) a language learning endeavor that requires learners to comprehend, manipulate, and/or produce the target language as they perform…” Considering this definition, one possible distinction to draw between practice activity and task is that in the latter, there needs to be interaction, and the focus is on primarily on meaning. This means that whereas the emphasis in practice activities is predominantly laid on form/structure, in tasks it is focused on meaning. All things considered, practice activities are the building blocks which lead up to the transformation of descriptive knowledge into procedural knowledge, and the procedural knowledge can be verified and assessed through and in tasks.


Practice is omnipresent in ELT. Nonetheless, it does get an unfair treatment in the dedicated literature. This leads to many teachers confusing recognition activities with practice ones, which sometimes does not help students to become better speakers of the language. Practice activities lubricate the language acquisition mechanisms and facilitate the process of translating the knowledge about language into the knowledge of using language in real life. What teachers need to be aware of is that different practice activities have different characteristics, and that the challenge they pose needs to be measured and gradually increased so students depart from a position in which the teacher tightly controls the language they use, to a position where they can freely experiment with it.

• Brown, H. D. (1993). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. Prentice Hall Regents.
• Carlson, R. A. (1997). Experienced cognition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
• DeKeyser, R. (1997). Beyond explicit rule learning: Automatizing second language morphosynthax. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 19(2), 195-221.
• DeKeyser, R. (2013). Practice in a second language. New York: Cambridge University Press.
• Ellis, R. (1993). The structural syllabus and second language acquisition. TESOL Quarterly, 27 (1), 91-113.
• Hubbard, P., Jones, H., Thornton, B., & Wheeler, R. (1983). A training course for TEFL. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
• Mitchell, R., Myles, F., & Marsden, E. (2013). Second language learning theories. Oxon: Routledge.
• Newell, A., & Rosenbloom, P.S. (1981). Mechanisms of skill acquisition and the law of practice. In J. R. Anderson (Ed.), Cognitive Skills and their acquisition (pp. 1-55). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
• Larsen-Freeman, D. (2003). Teaching language: From grammar to grammaring. Boston, MA: Heinle.
• Lee. J. (2000). Tasks and Communicating in Language Classrooms. Boston, USA: McGraw-Hill.
The author
Henrique Moura is a CELTA, ICELT and Delta tutor, and a CELTA and Delta external assessor. He has worked with ELT since 2002, teaching
English to all levels of proficiency, and special courses of phonetics and phonology, translation and subtitling, and post-proficiency maintenance
for teachers. Henrique has also worked as a course designer, and is currently the coordinator for the teacher development courses at SEVEN
Idiomas. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Teacher Development at the University of Chichester.
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