20 comments on “Good practice? But how do you know?

  1. Dear Mr. Harmer,

    I will be one of the lucky ones sharing with you in Montevideo and I must confess I am pretty excited about that.

    These days (due to winter holidays in Uruguay) I had some time to research and reflect on this matter. The paralelism you set between learning how to play a musical instrument and learning a language has opened my mind about “drilling”.

    I learnt how to play the piano at the age of 6 and I remember myself playing till night “again and again” (as your niece) to get the right melodies. It definitely worth it but I found it quite tedious sometimes.

    That leads me to a new question…. Could be “Practice and drilling” fun in some way?

    I used to be one of those who thought that drilling was quite boring and nowadays students tend to need more “action” in class. However, your views made a twist on my philosophy…

    My baby daughter is learning to speak and drilling seems to be the key for her too so ….that makes me think that drilling in class may provide more than just “repetition to fix knowledge”.

    For me the challenge should be now to find the way to make it more attractive and appealing for my students who are digital natives and their need to rush make “practice” a bit harder than it used to be some years ago when I tried again and again aiming to perfection.

    I do know that I am not providing anything new to your exposition but since I am getting ready myself to enjoy the course I am thinking about that and I just wanted to share it. Was it too much maybe?…

    Warm regards from Uruguay

    • Hello Selena,

      it has taken me an unpardonably long time to reply to your comments.

      I am interested by your mention of digital natives and what they may bring to the process of drilling/practice. Is the procedural memory that using digital media provokes something that should come into language practice? In other words, if wee do the same thing often enough, do we just get used to it so that it becomes lodged into our memory?

      Sorry again about the delay in answering. I am looking forward to meeting you in two weeks!


  2. Hi Jeremy,
    The TESOL world (or at least our familiar little corner of it) is headed towards this notion of massive practice, and from a variety of angles, whether it be from fruitful analogies with sports and music practice, Gamification theories that suggest we learn through repeated failure with a high level of challenge, or from a re-examination of drilling, etc as part of what you described as ‘a look-back reflective stage’ in your drilling post. I’d like to raise a point about the first angle.

    If learning a language is a lot like learning an instrument or a sport, then it requires intensive practise in controlled environments as well as extensive practise in ‘real-life situations’. I believe we involved in communicative language teaching have been too hung up on the latter and have neglected our students’ needs for intensive practice. To use the analogy with sports practice, how much time does Andy (Come on Andy!) spend repeating his serve over and over, doing sprint training and building his muscles (what I wouldn’t give for a body like his!): This is intensive practice. Compare that to time playing matches (extensive practise) and you probably find a much more even ratio between the two than you find in your average language classroom.

    A couple of points:
    1) Look at other learning methods and you will find a great deal more repetition and a lot less communicative practice. My beginners Greek CD is woefully short on simulated practice of what I’m learning, but I am getting to say the words and phrases lots. Audio Lingualism may be ‘retro’ (perhaps not cool) in our little world but it is still Big Business with all self-study packages. I appreciate it as a learner – drilling is probably what most teachers who choose to learn another language in order to develop professionally notice as useful. It was a surprise to me how much I need it. It is our job as the so-called experts in language learning to address this issue and redress the balance.

    2) Athletes and musicians spend little time with their coaches / teachers and a lot of time on their own. Coaches expect their students to go away and keep plugging at it, repeat that circuit until they get quicker and more confident. They are disappointed when the following training session the student hasn’t imporved. Demand high? Absolutely! As implied in point 1), self-study is an area where massive practice could take place, and we need to develop techniques and seek resources that allow our learners to do it alone, without a teacher. ‘Drilling’ has always been a dirty word because of the lack of agency it implies -you do what you are told, unthinkingly. Coaching techniques -see our blog – http://learnercoachingelt.wordpress.com/ ;o) – include ways of encouraging students to ‘drill themselves’ (see, it doesn’t work does it? – a better name anyone?

    If you’re not sure what self-drilling could look like, a simple way I used to practice my numbers and letters is to quickly say the car number plates I see as I walk down the street. I make it a little game by trying to say the whole plate before the next car comes along. This is drilling in disguise, or ‘stealth drilling’. Notice the use of a game element to encourage repetition.

    P.S. COME ON ANDY!!!

    • Hello Dan,

      years and years ago your posted this comment and I never replied because, well, life took me away from the blog. I feel really bead about that especially when you took the trouble and time to reply…

      And/but in the meantime your encouragement to Andy Murray paid off. Without you he’d never have made it!!

      I think your use of the sport analogy – the endless repetition of little routines, trying to perfect a ‘thing’ like a serve, really has some resonance with language learning. The question is whether tat translates into language performance. You practise serving and then, well, you serve. You practise a piece of language but then in spontaneous interaction you may not get to use it. Hmm.

      But I especially like (very much like) the whole concept of getting students to practise on their own. I’m going to talk about that in my ‘course’ in Montevideo (I’ll make sure people know about your site). It’s a different kind of homework, and a valuable one. Question: how do you ensure that students do it?

      Thanks again (and apologies).


      • Good news that you haven’t given up on your blog! And thank you for your reply.

        You asked: “How do you ensure that students do [massive practice outside of class]? Answer: You don’t. It isn’t our job to ensure that students learn, it is our job to encourage them to do so, but we cannot make them do it. Encouragement is partly what we’ve always strived to do: motivate, but it’s also my belief that teachers should be spending a lot less time worried about their lessons and a lot more time looking at activities that their students could be doing away from class; the kind of activities that make practice fun, whether they be screen-based or not. And what do successful learners do alone to advance their English? What are these activities? The answer to that one can be found by asking them, and inviting them to share what they do with their classmates.

      • Hello Dan,

        I can’t reply to that last comment of yours (below) for some reason (something to do with WordPress?) so I’ll do it here.

        I completely agree that it is, to some extent, up to the students to do the learning. Also that they should do what works for them. The problem, of course, is that students are different, and in the meantime we do have to ask them/suggest to them that they do something!

        But if the issue is trying to separate out what teachers think good practice is and what students think good practice is? Well yes, I think that’s really important.


  3. Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks for the post. Well, I like ‘riding a bike’ metaphor to represent practice. The child riding a bike with the support wheels and falling off several times… but at the end they can ride a bike easily and enjoyable.

    I think the best language practice is the one that leads to ‘internalisation’;i.e, making it your own. Decay theory suggests that stored information will disappear if it is not used regularly. Or in another theory unused information will be still in memory, but it will be hard to retrieve or reach. Research about remembering vocabulary suggests that there should be several meetings with words to remember it, probably 6 or more meetings.

    I think this implies a lot for teachers; practice practice practice. Scaffolding tasks as well visual display and recycling will help a lot. Is there enough time for all this? I think so. In addition these decisions should be shared with students so they can use them in their independent study.


    • Hello Bahia,

      as I will have to say again and again on this blog…sorry, sorry, sorry for not having replied to your comments earlier. Lots of reasons for not getting back to you sooner.

      Yes, I am sure you are right that repetition of encounter is a key to memorisation – that repeating routines, repeating stories has something to do with it.

      But then (if we use the bicycle riding metaphor), how come we remember how to ride a bicycle for ever once we have learned, even though we may not ride for years? That’s of course the problem that Decay theory never answered. The whole clue, perhaps may be something to do with what kind of encounter we have with something when we first meet it?


      Thanks for coming along.


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  5. Dear Mr. Harmer:

    Glad to read your new post.

    It cannot be gainsaid that “Practice makes perfect.” It indeed does although the reason is mysterious─ at least to me ─ but whatever happens it is all about our complex brain.
    I know this is true but I would like to look at it from other perspective.
    You mentioned TIME. They say “Time is gold.” So are we allowed to waste it by practicing again and again just to be an adroit? Perhaps there will be a better way than can be superseded!?
    What has baffled me so far is that how do we sometimes learn something deeply by doing it only ONCE while we cannot learn a thing after so many practices, or maybe it is another topic!

    Yet another point is the relation between the practice of music and language. In my humble opinion what lacks is “Music” in language practicing. While you practice music because of the effect of sound on your mind (seems positively) you enjoy doing it for many times as it soothes your mind. I mean the role of music is important in learning. It is what our brain deals with, so maybe we can learn better while playing music for example!

    And I believe that a little change in practicing is necessary… Isn’t it that after you do something repeatedly it becomes boring and then you do it automatically rather than using your brain?


    • Hello Sara,

      i know I should have replied to your comments earlier 😦 Please forgive me. I got ‘taken away from’ the blog for some time.

      Your questions are exactly the ones that perplex me – and which I hope to explore in two weeks in Uruguay.

      The big question in your last comment is whether repetition without engaging your cognitive faculties is worth doing! Or rather whether just a little challenge (like, say, a substitution drill) is enough.

      As for music. Well I think that helps (because I’m a music obsessive). But does it?

      So many questions!


  6. Love the new look on the blog, it’s very restful and glad you’re still blogging!

    To the question of how do you know, it’s the same as how any musician knows whether or not his/her practice was a good, fruitful endeavour that provides value.

    The audience, who in our case are our learners, let us know. Even if this is not verbally (which it often can be), it’s in their eyes, in their body language as they pay attention, it’s reflected in their homework and even in their grades on tests. It’s not really just up to us to know whether or not our practice is good, it’s a two-way relationship of mutual feedback. And when that practice isn’t “good” it’s up to us, like tinkering musicians, to get back on that stage/in that classroom trying out something else until we’ve got our masterpiece. 🙂

    • Hello Karenne.

      look at me…waiting for 3 weeks before replying to everyone’s comments. Isn’t that awful!

      Many many apologies.

      Thanks for your comments about the new blog ‘look’. It’s partly to make it look more like my music/performance site as well. But also just so it looks nicer! And yes, I keep blogging (very intermittently, when there’s something that worries or perplexes me!

      But especially, thank you for bringing the students into this. They are, in the end, the ‘practisers’, and it’s what makes THEIR practice effective that counts for us. And that may not be the same for everyone.

      It’s damned complicated this teaching and learning business!


  7. Dear Jeremy,

    Very interesting concept as I’ve been recently to a few Sonology concerts at the Den Haag conservatorium, which is basically sound design. An experience I would thoroughly recommend evoking amazing emotions. Of course special equipment and speakers are necessary to appreciate the sound waves, but this technology is being used for depression therapy among other types of therapy. It allows powers of communication to develop, exercises the mind, enabling people to learn faster and feel deeper emotions. You actually come away from a concert (if you can call it that), energised.

    After listening to a Sonology piece I would like to give an English lesson to see if the reaction of the student is sharper. Barbara Ellison is an interesting musician with sound design, http://www.haagsekunstenaars.nl

    Karen Phillips

  8. When a person in competent in something, it means he/she has
    • Knowledge – at least, the necessary knowledge
    • Skills – the necessary skills and strategies that allow him/her apply that knowledge
    • The correct attitudes
    People are competent in a certain field when they can deal with an unexpected situation without becoming paralyzed and have strategies to seek a path to resolution. That is why we talk about “know” and “know-how” associated in such a way that they materialize into a performance.
    To develop skills (know-how) , practice is required. That doesn’t mean, repeating like a parrot. It means “practice” using the language to solve different situations.
    Like in Math, you know the theory, and then, you have to use it to solve different “problems” that then become situations in your life. The more you practice, the easier it becomes.
    So, I think we need to practice, or use the language, to solve different situations to become a competent user.

  9. Pingback: “This is a living profession, a constant evolving profession” | MercedesViola's Blog

  10. Hello Jeremy,

    I believe that practice is absolutely necessary, as for any skill, like learning to ride a bike or drive a car. The more you practice the more confident and skillful you get, just that simple. The HOW is the key point. And… I¨m one of the lucky ones taking part in your course at The Anglo!! I´m really looking forward to it.

    Thank you for coming and sharing with us!



  11. Hello!!
    It was great to have you in Montevideo!! It was an incredible opportunity! It is good to know we are on the right track and there’s obviously room for improvement all the time. New ideas and lots of food for thought. It is after having these type of opportunities, which give you more ideas for our lessons, that I realise this is the best profession ever!
    We should for sure motivate our students.. but if there’s something I have to say is that attending your course really motivated me to go on and on with my every day learning.
    Thanks a lot!
    Hope you come back soon.

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