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Does practice really make 'perfect'?

“If challenge, explaining, modelling & questioning are the ingredients for learning, practice is the oven in which it is baked.” Allison/Tharby: Making every lesson count                                               

We often hear the saying: ‘Practice makes perfect!’ However, what is perfection? Does it even exist? If we are to consider it, I would argue that only ‘perfect’ practice makes ‘perfect ‘! 

I am more inclined to agree with: ‘Practice makes better and permanent.’

Practice is the learning journey from the first encounter with new language to its mastery for independent use. Without it, sounds and letters can be seen or heard, yet quickly forgotten, so practice is the route to retention. Practice is about meaningful processing of knowledge; it develops automatization and confidence. In other words, practice is a wide array of activities that are “engaged systematically, deliberately, with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in second language” (DeKeyser, 2007).

Meaningful practice is not mechanical, its aim is to bring together language that has been learnt over time for the purpose of meaningful communication. This can be achieved after a lot of meaningful and structured practice.

If we consider that in their home language, children are exposed to more than 17,000 hours of exposure by the age of four (Roffwarg et al., 1066, cited in Collins & Muñoz, 2016), this is nowhere near possible to achieve in secondary foreign language classroom in England, where learners typically have around 450 hours over five years of language learning (NCELP, 2021). Understandably, due to the constrains of timetabled curriculum, when we see our students on average two or three times a week for 50-60 minutes, it is vital to make the most of the practice, firstly by identifying what our students need to practise and secondly, the best way they should do it.

In the first instance, students profit from practising ‘comprehensible input’ (listening and reading) via structured tasks such as making phoneme-grapheme correspondences or connecting word or structure to its meaning / function, thus establishing knowledge receptively before they are expected to produce it productively through speaking and writing. 

Students need multiple encounters with new language in a variety of contexts to embed it in LTM – research suggests between 8-20 encounters for learning vocabulary (Schmitt, 2008). As far as I know, there is no conclusive consensus as to the optimum intervals between practice. However, it is clear that practice should be frequent enough to prevent forgetting, but spaced enough to create a certain degree of ‘struggle’ in recall – a ‘desirable difficulty’ (Bjork, 2016).

This type of practice is often not sufficiently represented in the textbooks where more emphasis is put on comprehension tasks with the focus on understanding of the key words or ‘deducing’ the overall message from several cues. The other issue with many textbooks is that they often rush to produce the new language and don’t provide ample opportunities to practise decoding or parsing skills.

The whole purpose of practice is to ensure that linguistic knowledge, structures, and forms are well embedded in LTM and can be recalled quickly and effortlessly, thus becoming automatic, to develop and deepen students’ receptive and productive skills as well as provide students with plethora of opportunities to interact in TL and reduce the rate of error. 

So, what types of practice can we use…

In her book ‘Making good progress’ Daisy Christodoulou discusses the “knowing-doing gap” – the concept that our students know what they are supposed to do, yet don’t do it reliably.

For example, in German, my students may know that after ‘weil’, the verb moves to the end of the sentence, yet only some of my students will do so consistently.

The answer to this knowing-doing gap for Christodoulou lies in deliberate practice, specifically, the isolation and practice of the particular micro-skill. The small components of deliberate practice may look very different to the final skill. 

If the final skill was to write a high-level paragraph on a certain topic, we need to ensure that after the material has been broken down into small steps (Rosenshine), students have ample opportunities for deliberate practice of these components within lessons. 

This doesn’t mean that deliberate practice should be easy, on contrary it should be challenging. In the case of the above scenario, it could be its application within a variety of contexts not just a specific topic or even looking at other conjunctions with the same rule.

Guiding student practice and monitoring their understanding is crucial. If we agree with the theory of ‘practice makes permanent’ rather than perfect (Lemov, Woolway & Yezzi, 2018) then the use of CFU, worked examples, guided practice are detrimental to our students’ learning. 

In some lessons, our students will be dependent on direct instruction, explanation and working with models, in some they will rely on heavy or light guidance using writing frames and worked examples and in other lessons they will work at the autonomy stage – hopefully, at this stage they will be manipulating the language for their own purposes in both written and spoken form. 

Strategies to support practice:

  1. Sentence Builders / KO – these allow us to place the core knowledge in one place, have potential to reduce CL and support RP and self-quizzing.

  2. Retrieval Practice (RP) – see a separate blog post on RP here.

  3. Micro skills – as mentioned above

  4. Overlearning – as per D. Willingham’s findings from cognitive science – ‘practice doesn’t make perfect’ (Practice makes perfect – But only if you practice beyond the point of perfection, 2004). In other words, for a new skill to become automatic or new knowledge to become long-lasting, sustained practice beyond the point of mastery is necessary (Maxwell, 2019). When designing and sequencing the curriculum, it is important to build in opportunities for students to overlearn. For example, if past tense has been explicitly taught and via deliberate practice mastered in the context of ‘travel and tourism’, return to it within a different context later on in the sequence to provide (‘real life’) opportunities to ‘overlearn’ the structures within this context.

  5. Skills-based practiceListening / Speaking / Reading / Writing – I wrote separate blog posts on each skill, click on the links for more.

The journey from dependency to autonomy will vary depending on the class and difficulty of the material. We are the judges as to making the decision whether our students had enough practice and are ready to move on. 

A caveat, as per the MFL Ofsted Review (2016), in the U.K. schools, at GCSE most students will be at the novice level with only the most proficient linguists being at the expert level!

This might be even more challenging to achieve due to the upcoming changes within the new GCSE and creating even bigger gap transitioning to A-Level!


James A Maxwell: Making every MFL lesson count (2019)

Shaun Allison & Andy Tharby: Making every lesson count (2017)

MFL Ofsted Review (2016)


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