How to Design Language Practice Activities

Language practice activities come in many forms, and their design should take into account learning aims, the most important being language production.

Will Pearson
Design Language Practice Activities

Somewhere between scholarly studies of how people learn and the frontline experience of teaching, the issue of how TEFL/ESL learners actually acquire and keep language is confronted in activity design. Language practice activities come in many forms, and their design should take into account learning aims, the most important being language production.

What is language production practice?

Any student learning any language requires time and concentration to practise language after it has been acquired through a teacher’s presentation or through the discovery approach.

Yet, considering many course book and handout activities formats, not all employ language production. A considerable amount feature gapfills that require students to modify a stem verb or guess a missing verb. This cannot be considered as language production as such TEFL/ESL practice requires fuller expressions, even sentences to be constructed around context.

There are two types of productive practice of English in terms of skills; written practice and speaking practice. Common sense in TEFL/ESL learning methodology dictates that written practice should come first. Learners need time and separation from others to digest new language, without the pressures of interaction. Logically, when some sense of grammatical rules is made individually, learners should progress to communication.

The productive element of practice is what is crucial to English learning. Learners have to, through intuitive activity design by teachers or course book writers, hardwire the use of grammatical structures and fixed vocabulary expressions. Context is everything in this process. Grammatical structures, arguably, should be practised in context according to three principles. Students need to be able to use structures comfortably (understanding), fit within existing structures (relation), and relate to other context beyond the confines of the existing activity (extrapolation). Each of these three factors is equally significant.

The first principle of understanding is mostly concerned with levels and grading in a TEFL/ESL context. For example, students with only limited experience in English (say for example two months), are likely to be able to understand the past simple, though will most likely struggle grasping the differences with the present perfect simple. Understanding, though, is a slippery concept, and there is nothing worse than a teacher asking ‘do you understand’?

So how can students improve their understanding through language production activities? Arguably, ESL worksheets that involve repetitive, contextual sentence writing through some guidance are of greater benefit than gapfill activities where students must insert a missing verb form. This is for two reasons; first, gapfill activities focus more on grammatical form rather than meaning (as verbs are often given in such activities). Second, such practices are mostly receptive. All information is given, requiring only students to change words, rather than come up with phrases and sentences themselves.

Our next point relates to the second aspect of language production activities; they must allow students to relate them to other structures they know. Grammar cannot be seen in isolation, and language production activities must use context for students to make the link between new structures and familiar ones. Take for example, the present perfect simple at elementary level. This structure fits commonly in with superlative adjective forms (e.g. what’s the best restaurant you have been to?) and the past simple (e.g. follow-up questions to “have you ever been to…”) TEFL/ESL activities should integrate such forms and ensure students are made to use them when practising new forms.

The final point, extrapolation, relates to the continuation of understanding and use of freshly-learnt grammatical forms through language production activities. Language forms such as the present perfect simple re-occur at several levels (all between elementary and upper-intermediate in fact). Thus, it is crucial for teachers to integrate activities that promote learner revision of prominent forms. How can this be achieved through language production activities? In short, students need to make language, helped along with the context of heavy grammar recycling and re-use of fixed expressions. TEFL/ESL tasks involving pictures or dominoes with minimal context do not achieve this. On the other hand, speaking tasks that involve students rephrasing expressions with other fixed expressions (for example ‘have a friendly relationship’ rephrased to ‘get on with)’ are exceedingly useful.

In conclusion, students learning English need to ‘make’ language through contextual guides such as pre-known grammar, familiar vocabulary that students can relate to, and exemplification. This can be done through language production activities in the form of writing and speaking. Writing activities where students model grammatical structures with their own personalised information, and speaking activities where students practise the essentials of new grammar in pairs and groups are particularly helpful. The way forward in TEFL/ESL is for course books and teachers to acknowledge this and continue to aid students in their quest for improvement through productive practice.

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Will Pearson

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  • Gary

    I see “gap-fill’ or ‘closure’ activities as receptive tasks NOT productive writing tasks. Similar to multiple choice questions, it’s all about reading and selecting ‘one’ answer to complete the collocation. Productive tasks, as mentioned in the article require ‘making’ words fit or collocate through recycling grammar/language structures, vocabulary and tense. It’s not about whether ‘gap-fill’ is good or not but when in the instructional process, in this case productive writing, it should or shouldn’t be used.

  • Heather

    I disagree with the responses here. This article does not discuss gap fills as a production activity. Clearly it is not. It is, however, one way for students to come to an understanding of a certain grammatical point. There is nothing wrong with reinforcement through repetition…this allows a learner to internalize the concept in order for it to be used in production activities. It seems to me that this is not so much a problem with gap fills, as it is with considering gap fills to be a type of production activity.

  • Ziya

    Well, you have a good point and I mostly agree with your approach. However, it doesn’t seem so proper to leave out ‘gap fills’. It may be useful at the early stage of learning if combined with other related activities.

    Most of us know that there are different approaches, methods, factors and expectations in language teaching and learning. Though they may differ from each other to an extent, basically they all have the same goal; that is to have learners communicate in the target language. Therefore, while teaching we need all of them more or less. As long as we adjust the doses according to learners’ needs and expectations, we can make use of all different tools to help learners.

    I personally believe that writing and speaking activities are crucial in production of the language if done under the guidance of the teacher. Having learners write something or discuss something is not enough, teachers need to observe them carefully and correct them properly and make them understand from their mistakes.

    As for grammar, though grammar and I are not good friends, we still need each other’. Maybe this expression may seem a bit ‘too strong’ but I tend to say ”grammar is the skeleton of a language and without it, a language can not move.’ The point is how we teach grammar, whether we make it more boring or exciting. I do believe ‘grammar in context’ and activities must combine different grammar points in a single piece of writing so that learners can see and comprehend the differences and similarities.

    We need to consider various factors that greatly influence the learners’ language learning and acquisition such as their sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic background, what kind of learners they are, their needs, their personal differences in SLA like age, gender, motivation, working memory, context etc. so that we’ll be able to choose and use suitable ways and materials.

  • Anonymous

    I think lessons need to be progressive. That is, that they need to start off with controlled practice and lead onto fluency practice. Gap fills are great as controlled, but then the students need to move onto more productive activities. Then, at the end, write up some of the mistakes and have the students correct them, to reinforce what they learned during the controlled practice. I think it’s ok to teach elementary students the present perfect; it’s a very useful tense to know. But of course the past simple should come first, then teach the present perfect as a contrast. If it’s taught well enough, students will gain a lot.

  • Jan-Joscha Finger

    So good to hear someone else say it! Here in Spain, we live under the tyranny of cloze -with predictable results. Mind if I put the article (with source, no worries) on my own, rather less than well-known site, ?

  • Phil

    Gap fills, how boring, in class I want to see the students faces not the tops of their heads as they do tasks that would put anyone to sleep. Gap fills are useful for homework, or board work. Gap fills with cut out pieces of paper and pair / group work is good to promote debate. On another subject. Elementary level students should not learn the present perfect!!! Your example of ‘What is the best restaurant you have ever been to?’ is too complex at this level. My EFL teaching career started in 1993 and continues to today. I have taught many upper intermediate students who confuse the past simple and present perfect using it with past time markers, ‘last year I have visited London’ would be typical. Why ? Because throughout their English learning experience the importance of the present perfect has been emphasised over and over again to the detriment of the past simple. The past simple is more useful to the lower level student. They must learn to sit up before they can run. I see my role is to give the students the confidence and opportunity to use the English they have been taught.

  • Anonymous

    Hi, I agree with this article completely but what really interests me is the way we can relate content. You say the present perfect commonly fits with other structures such as superlative and past simple. Can you offer an article on this? I mean giving examples of the most common associated structures to provide meaningful learning? Thank you very much

  • Cleedec

    I agree. I work for a language school in Prague, Czech Republic and the school has already accepted the idea that the communicative teaching method should be used more, and it really is nowadays, than the old one based on grammatical filling gaps and translation, nevertheless, I think that you cannot teach without this as well. Both are needed and both serve their own purpose.

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