P is for Practised Control

29 05 2011

Practising control

A Swiss student who I was teaching on-line produced the following short text, in response to an invitation to introduce himself:

“I like to play piano very much. I enjoy to watch TV. I love really to eat pizza. I don’t like to drink tea at all. I like to read newpapers and magazins a lot”.

This is how I responded:

Thanks H***. – nice to hear from you, and to get an idea of your interests. What kind of music do you like playing, by the way – classical or modern?

Just note that verbs like like, love usually are followed by the -ing verb. Enjoy is always followed by the -ing verb. So: I like playing the piano (note the use of the here, too); and I enjoy watching TV etc. Speak to you soon. Scott

The next day I received the following (Task 2: Describe your computer and what you use it for):

My computer is 2 years old. He has a Pentium Processor. The harddisk is unfortunately to small. My children filled the disk always with computer games. So I have not anough free disk space for important software.I really like to work with computer. My wife enjoyes to send E-mail to her friends. Our computer is in our lumber-room,so I can work also early in the morning.

It appears that the student only then received my feedback on his first task, because he immediately re-sent the above work, self-corrected, thus:

Thanks for your e-mail!

Dear Scott

My computer is 2 years old.  It has a Pentium Processor. The harddisk is unfortunately to small. My children filled the disk always with computer games. So I have not enough free disk space for important software. I really like working  with  the computer. My wife enjoyes sending  E-mails  to her friends. Our computer is in our lumber-room, so I can work also early in the morning.

Notice how the student has picked up on the -ing errors, and self-corrected them. This would seem to be an example of what, in socio-cultural learning theory (e.g. Lantolf 2000), is called self-regulation. According to this view, learning is initially other-regulated (as in the first feedback I gave the student) and then it becomes increasingly self-regulated. (Note that in the process of regulating the -ing forms the student has noticed other minor errors in the text and corrected these, too).

Central to the notion of this transfer of control is the idea that aspects of the skill are appropriated. Appropriation has connotations of taking over the ownership of something, of ‘making something one’s own’.

This is a very different process to what is often called controlled practice. In fact, rather than talk of controlled practice, it may be more helpful to talk about practised control.

Controlled practice is repetitive practice of language items in conditions where the possibility of making mistakes is minimised. Typically this takes the form of drilling.

Practised control, on the other hand, involves demonstrating progressive control of a skill where the possibility of making mistakes is ever present, but where support is always at hand.

To use the analogy of learning to ride a bicycle, it is like being allowed to pedal freely, but with someone running along right behind, just in case. In practised control, control (or self-regulation) is the objective of the practice, whereas in controlled practice, control is simply the condition under which practice takes place.

So, through drafting and re-drafting a text in the context of a supportive feedback loop, my Swiss student is practising control of –ing forms – and a lot else besides. What other kinds of activities are consistent with the notion of practised control, I wonder?

References:

Lantolf, J. (ed.) (2000). Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Some of this post originally appeared in Thornbury, S. (2005) How to Teach Speaking. London: Pearson.

Illustrations by Quentin Blake for Success with English, by Geoffrey Broughton, Penguin Education, 1968.