Home ESL/ELL For the ELL Student, Does Practice Make Perfect?

For the ELL Student, Does Practice Make Perfect?

by Miguel Guhlin
woman sitting at a laptop

Do educators believe that practice makes perfect? Do you believe that English language learners’ brains work like muscles that, if properly exercised, will become more adept at the tasks they are set? These questions popped into my mind as I reflected on the following Tweet.

#ELLs speak, on average, fewer than 10 minutes a day in school. How can you learn a language when you aren’t allowed to speak? #WIDA2016

This tweet raises a few questions and responses. You are invited to inventory your biases, as I did when I resisted the inclination to agree. Let’s explore the questions.

Does Practice Make Perfect in Language Learning?

Stephen Krashen (@skrashen) points out that we learn language when it is comprehensible to us, when it means something. The Comprehension Hypothesis points out that we understand language (input) by achieving three criteria:

  • We have some language background to refer to.
  • We have some knowledge of the world around us.
  • We have context.

According to Krashen, this means that we acquire language by input, not by output. “Talking” he points out, “is not practicing.” He goes on to say, “More output, more speaking (or writing) will not result in more language acquisition. . .the ability to speak is the result of language acquisition, not the cause.” Speaking, however, does provide a way for students to obtain comprehensible input.

If Krashen’s second language acquisition hypothesis is accurate, then it does not matter that English language learners speak fewer than ten minutes a day in school. There is little correlation between learning and quantity of output. Practice, or activities that promote output, are important because of the opportunities they provide language learners in effective processing of input. Throughout this, students build a theory of the world around them, a “shield against bewilderment” (Smith, 2012).

If Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect, How Do ELL Students Learn?

Providing a safe, language-rich environment can enable students to learn a new language and be motivated to use it meaningfully. Students have the choice whether to participate or not in a language learning classroom. Games, discussing topics of interest, storytelling, and projects present opportunities for students to acquire language that is at their level and that they can grow on (what Krashen calls “i+1” with the “i” being for “comprehensible input”). Grammatical accuracy comes as a result of successful second language acquisition, rather than through rigorous practice. Regrettably, the latter is standard in high school foreign language learning classes.

How Does Technology Play a Part in Language Learning?

Creating safe learning environments that promote language learning are possible with online learning management systems. Listening to others can result in comprehensible input. Some approaches for ELL teachers include the following:

  • Engage students in the authentic purpose of solving a problem (problem-based learning/inquiry-based learning).
  • Encourage student collaboration on projects focused on the creation of tangible product(s) (webquests, project-based learning).
  • Amplify human voices as they gather stories and share them (blogging, podcasts, digital storytelling).

Findings (Jarvis, 2014) suggest that 1) Language learners find that non-pedagogical uses of technology are helpful (as opposed to direct instruction via language exercises), 2) The Internet provides many opportunities for comprehensible input. 3) Finally, technology enhances language learning when used for authentic purposes.

For more suggestions on blending technology into second language learning, you are encouraged to read Stephen Krashen’s blog on The Potential of Technology. Also read and listen to these TCEA TechNotes blog entries and podcasts.


  1. Jarvis, H., & Krashen, S. (February, 2014). Is Computer-Assisted Language Learning Learning Obsolete? Language Acquisition and Language Learning Revisited in a Digital Age. Available online at http://ly.tcea.org/teslcallobsolete
  2. Krashen, S. (2013). Second Language Acquisition. Available online at http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/articles/krashen_sla.pdf
  3. Smith, F. (2012). Understanding Reading: A psycholinguistic analysis of reading and learning to read. Available online at http://ly.tcea.org/franksmith2012


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