Practice – What’s the point?

Hello and welcome to the first of two posts about practice. In this post, we’ll look at communicative purpose and provide some practical ideas for language practice activities.

It could be argued that with language, practice is the most important part of the lesson. It’s what our learners probably come for. Although they can get grammatical information from reference books, the internet, coursebooks etc. – what they can’t get is practice, especially if they’re learning in a country where English isn’t widely spoken. Practice – particularly spoken practice, is for some students, the only time they get to use English to communicate. And let’s face it – communication is the reason we learn a language. And yet it’s all too easy to end up giving students practice which is mechanical and rather devoid of context and meaning.

What do we mean by communicative purpose and why is it important?

When we interact in any language we do so with a purpose. Even if that purpose is simply to pass the time, to be polite or to amuse ourselves – we have a reason to speak or write: we have motivation. If a student goes into a station to buy a ticket, they are not motivated to use phrases such as ‘I’d like a return ticket to…’ or ‘What times does it arrive?’ because they want to practise their functional language! It is of course because they have a goal or a purpose in mind – the buying of a ticket.  So – if we can try to replicate that motivation and purpose when designing practice tasks for the classroom, the chances are, the tasks themselves will generate more speech, be more realistic, be more useful and more motivating to students.

Giving activities communicative purpose

Imagine we’re trying to give the students practice of the present continuous to describe activities in progress at the time of speaking. This is our linguistic purpose. Students are working in pairs, both looking at a picture and making sentences about it. Does this practice activity have communicative purpose? No. The only reason students really have to describe the picture, is either: 1) to practise the present continuous, or 2) because that’s what the teacher told them to do. The first has value, but it’s not enough. Ideally, we want to try and create both linguistic and communicative purpose. We need to give students more of a reason to use the language in order to achieve something.

Sometimes all it takes is a small tweak to make an activity more purposeful. We can strive to create some kind of information gap in the activity. Here are some more activities that automatically build in some communicative purpose.

1. Guessing about a partner

Instead of simply getting students to ask their partner a series of questions, increase the motivation by first getting them to note down what they think their partner will say. They write down their guesses and then interview their partner to see if they were right. The communicative purpose then becomes to see how well they know their partner. It also allows for a little healthy competition; ‘Who guessed the most answers correctly?’, during feedback. 

2. Finding the person who has the most in common

We often encourage students to mingle and ask questions. Sometimes though, there isn’t really a clear communicative purpose for this. Students wander around and ask questions just…because. In this case, a quick and easy way to add this purpose might be to try and find the person who they have the most in common with. For example, if we want students to practice the present simple with adverbs of frequency, we could tell them that they have a set amount of time to speak to as many people in the group as they can, and at the end of that time, they need to decide who would make a good housemate for them. They then have a vested interest in asking the questions, because they cannot make the decision without gathering the information. This activity can be used to practice lots of tenses and vocabulary sets.

3. Persuading or convincing

Trying to make someone agree with you gives an activity a clear goal. It usually helps to generate more language use too. Without this purpose, students may say one or two things and then claim to have finished the activity, but where a clear goal is set, they are more likely to want to continue until it’s been achieved. Let’s say we want students to practice using comparative adjectives. A mechanical way to do this might be for students to be given two objects and asked to write or say sentences comparing them. Why? Who knows! But purpose can easily be brought in by adding in the element of persuasion. This time we still have students comparing two things, but their job is to convince their partner that their thing is better than their partner’s. They can have a list of pairs to compare, for example, one student gets tea and the other gets coffee, one gets dogs and the other gets cats.

4. Telling lies

This is a classic EFL activity! Again, simply asking students to write sentences is mechanical and devoid of communicative purpose, but this activity turns this into something much more motivating and fun. Each student is asked to write a certain number of statements about themselves using the target language (often the present perfect simple). A set number of these statements must be true and a set number false – often it’s three truths and a lie. Students are given time to think and construct their sentences, after which they read them to their partner. Their partner can ask questions to try and determine if the student is telling the truth or not. The student’s partner waits until all the statements have been read and discussed before telling the students which one or two are the suspected lies. They then find out if they were correct. Students then swap roles and repeat the procedure. This works particularly well if the teacher models the activity with the class first.

5. Finding differences

Let’s go back to the first situation we considered in this post, where students were describing pictures to each other. As mentioned, this activity has no real communicative purpose as both students can see the picture – they have no reason to listen to it being described. However, if the pictures contain some differences and students have to hide their picture from their partner and describe them in order to find the differences – voila! Clear communicative purpose. In a similar activity, students can both see a sheet of paper with several similar pictures. This time their job is to choose one of the pictures and describe it so their partner can guess which, of the many, is being described. This might work very well, for example, to practice describing appearance. 

6. Drawing dictation

This is a great way to personalise and motivate students in language practice. This is another activity that works best if the teacher does the activity first as a model with the students. Before class the teacher draws a simple picture. This could be for example, a plan of their house or living room. The teacher describes, the students listen (‘There’s a table in the centre of the room and there are some books on the table.’ etc.) and try to draw what they hear. When finished they see the teacher’s original and compare their version. They then take time to create their own similar drawing before taking turns with their partner to draw and then to dictate. Of course, it’s vital that they don’t show their partners their drawing- otherwise the information gap and the communicative purpose is lost.

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