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Does output practice make you a more proficient linguist?

In my previous blog I talked about the issue of the interface between conscious and unconscious learning. I stress that I am no academic scholar and look at this from the point of view of a teacher with an interest in and some knowledge of the field of second language acquisition research.

In the fascinating Nick Ellis chapter I referred to yesterday, he develops his views about explicit and implicit learning by referring to output practice. If you go along with the Krashen input hypothesis (we acquire language by no more than understanding messages), then listening and reading are far more important than speaking, the latter skill only being useful in as far as it provides the opportunity to get more input. Ellis challenges this as follows: firstly, output practice (structured speaking tasks such as pattern drills and rules) can be used to construct utterances in working memory. The principle of "practice makes perfect" applies. Next, he then refers to a model of learning (Anderson) which describes the move from declarative to procedural knowledge as "three broad stages: a cognitive stage, where a declarative description of the procedure is learnt; an associative stage, where the learner works on productions for performing the process; and an autonomous stage, where execution of the skill becomes rapid and automatic".

Ellis then mentions how McLaughlin (1987) described processes of L2 automatization, from slow, halting production through attentive control of construction in working memory to more fluent automatic processing with the relevant programs and routines being executed swiftly, without reflection.
He then goes on to quote studies by researchers such as Norris and Ortega, de Keyser and others, who found that explicit teaching seemed to produce more accurate language production, even in tests which did not test specific grammar items. His conclusion is:

The balance of experimental findings supports the effectiveness for SLA of encouraging learners to produce output.

Krashen would argue that if learners become more proficient doing structured drill practice, it is not because of the explicit attention to form, it is because in the process of doing drills learners are still getting comprehensible input, even though it is in an impoverished form.

My view on these matters, from a teacher's point of view, is that we can never be certain what works best, but that there seems to be evidence from experience and research that output practice is useful and makes you more proficient. It may seem odd to you that this is even in question! The trouble is, it is quite hard to demonstrate these things clearly from research. The fact is that we cannot be certain that "practice makes perfect" in language learning, but it seems a jolly good hunch.


  1. "The fact is that we cannot be certain that "practice makes perfect" in language learning". How about doing no practice at all, and seeing how that works! I think learning to speak a foreign language can be compared to learning to sing or play a musical instrument. Careful detailed focussed practice certainly improves performance, but not necessarily on a predictable curve.

  2. Well, in actual fact, doing little or no speaking can lead to having very good comprehension skill. Methods which rely on listening and reading alone cann produce good long term results. You wpuld need to read the research studies on that. The musical instrument analogy is useful, but imperfect. Language learning only shares some things in common with the mastery of a skill.

  3. Love this blog post. It certainly aligns with my AIM teaching and learning philosophy and practice! Thanks Steve!

    1. Thanks, Pauline. By the way, we have a little section about AIM in the current draft of our handbook.


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