Monday, May 11, 2009

Deliberate practice & teaching TESL

I've recently been reading Practice in a Second Language. When Amazon recommended it to me, I was very interested, especially given some of the work that Robert DeKeyser has done around the issue of practice. But when I started reading it, I realised that the definition of practice around which the book is based is so milquetoast as to turn it into another bland review of general second language acquisition research.

That's why I was so excited when I came upon the concept of deliberate practice where I wasn't expecting it at all: in The Cambridge Guide to Second Language Teacher Education. Having just completed my first year teaching in our TESL program, I was looking for some ideas to help me understand and rethink how my experience there had been different from experiences teaching English.

The guide started out rather tediously with a lot of talk of politics, colonialism, and professionalism. "Our increased attention to the complexities of teacher learning," concludes the introduction, "is grounded in an epistemology of practice." For some reason, I have a personal aversion to the word epistemology, and find it difficult to take seriously texts that use it.

Anyhow, I had almost given up on it when I came across Nat Bartels's chapter, "Knowledge about language", which isn't really about knowledge about language at all, but rather about deliberate practice. (To be fair, Practice in a Second Language also starts out talking about deliberate practice, but then quickly backs away from it.)

So what is deliberate practice? It is repeated attempts at the same or similar tasks under the following conditions:
  1. high motivation to attend to the task and exert effort
  2. clear goals and purposes
  3. challenging but not overly difficult tasks
  4. authentic but controlled tasks
  5. immediate feedback
This sounds somewhat banal. It's a lot like drill on the surface. But extensive research by Anders Ericsson and others suggests that the difference between experts and merely experienced amateurs is that experts constantly engage in deliberate practice. It is rarely because of some inherent talent. Experts problematize aspects of what they do, in other words they take the acceptable and examine it for points of weakness. They form hypotheses or get instruction about better ways to perform, and then they try them out repeatedly, attending closely to success and failure.

For teacher learners, Bartels says, practicum is not a good place to engage in deliberate practice for a number of reasons:
  1. it's too complex, not allowing them to attend sufficiently to the target aspect
  2. it's too difuse, not allowing numerous repetitions of the target task
  3. feedback is often be delayed
On the other hand, simply talking or reading about how to do a task also fails to meet the conditions that will help learners become experts.

The TESL course that I taught was designed to move from talking about grammar to teaching grammar in peer teaching activities, and then to the practicum. Nowhere was there any opportunity for deliberate practice, but at least now I'm thinking about it.

(By the way, The Cambridge Guide to Second Language Teacher Education actually ended up being much more enlightening on the whole than I had expected. Along with the Bartels chapter, Chapter 18: The Novice Teacher Experience and Chapter 19: Teaching Expertise: Approaches, Perspectives, and Characterizations in particular were also very interesting, both for a novice teacher educator like me, and, I would expect, even to novice ESL teachers.)


John said...

I am not sure how deliberate practice would fit into teacher education as you describe it here unless I am missing something. Do you want teachers to incorporate it into their activities or to use it as a way to build their practice?

What I get from your description of deliberate practice is that the learner must be highly motivated, analytic, and able to engage the practice metacognitively, which probably is the same as being analytic. How do you apply this to a larger learning task such as teaching a lesson where the novice teacher's attention is likely to focused narrowly?

I hope that all makes some sense.

Brett said...

It would be something that takes place in the certificate course and beyond, but exactly how it would be implemented, I'm still not quite sure.

As you say, it would be hard to do in a full lesson.

A simple example could be practicing noticing when somebody's not understanding in a 5-minute explanation. It could be done with video, other TESL students, or real ESL learners with varying degrees of realism and success. But I admit, this sounds like a bit of a lame example.

I've downloaded Bartels' dissertation, which is also quite interesting, and am hoping it will provide more ideas.

Unknown said...

Good post! IMO, Ericsson's insights into the value of deliberate practice are beginning to change every aspect of language teaching and learning, including the connection between native English-speaking students learning English grammar and improving their writing as a result.

No space here to elaborate, but "deliberate practice" is the key! Email me [] and we can discuss this in more depth.

John said...

I think noticing would be a good skill to work on. I think it is a skill that comes with experience, so if you found a way to speed up some of that experience with deliberate practice, the new teachers should benefit.

Do you have a strategy for teachers for noticing when someone is not understanding? Are there cues to look for? How do this person differ from the student who already knows the point your teaching and is not paying attention?

You definitely raised an interesting point for me.