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’s 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.