Massed v Distributed Practice in ELT

In cognitive psychology, studies in various fields have shown that when studying factual information or practicing a particular skill like a golf swing or reversing a car, spaced practice gets better results than massed practice. It’s a big step from these results to the claim that spaced practice can have a transformative effect on learning a second or foreign language. Here are a few quotes from journals dealing with SLA and ELT.

1. Bird, S. (2010). Effects of distributed practice on the acquisition of L2 English syntax. Applied Psycholinguistics, 31, 635-650

The results showed that distributed practice led to superior test scores on the long-term tests, indicating that the learning of second language syntax can benefit from distributed practice …..

These improvements admittedly only pertain to subsets of the knowledge and cognitive skills required for tests measuring overall proficiency (e.g., overall communicative ability; Lapkin et al., 1998). As suggested by results of some language-learning studies, there remains the possibility that at the global proficiency level, language learning involves a degree of complexity that eliminates the benefit of distributed learning .

One related limitation of the present study that should be pointed out is that the tests measured the ability to detect and correct verb morphology in a context that enforced conscious attention to the verb forms. Full language proficiency, of course, depends on the ability to produce grammatically well-formed sentences at a discourse level spontaneously and correctly during real communication with little or no conscious attention to verb morphology. The present results do not warrant a conclusion that the grammatical distinctions have been “learned” in this more global sense of language learning.

2, Miles, S.W. (2014). Spaced vs. massed distribution instruction for L2 grammar learning. System, 42, 412-428.

Most research that has investigated the issue of time distribution in this manner has failed to find an advantage for spaced distribution learning. (see Serrano & Munoz, 2007; for an overview of these studies)……….

…… Donovan and Radosevich’s (1999) meta-analysis of 63 studies on the spacing effect, found that the effect sizes of studies were much smaller when the learning tasks involved a high degree of task complexity. Thus, while spaced distribution practice may have a strong effect on the learning of a relatively simple task such as memorizing a list of words, the effect is less dramatic on more cognitively demanding tasks such as puzzle solving or learning a skill involving the synthesis of a number of behaviors and choices. ……….

….. no conclusions can be drawn about massed vs. spaced distribution methodology employing other forms of grammatical practice such as communicative approaches to grammar instruction (e.g., focus on form) or implicit learning. Finally, while the results of the study suggest that the learning of specific grammatical structures may be benefited by spaced distribution practice, they do not give any reliable data on how spaced distribution may affect general skill development. It is possible that grammar learned through spaced distribution would fail to transfer to general speaking and writing skills.

3. Schuetze, U. (2015). Spacing techniques in second language vocabulary acquisition: Short-term gains vs. long-term memory. Language Teaching Research, 19, 28-42.

…. none of the differences regarding the retention rates comparing both groups directly were statistically significant.

The results give support to Schmitt’s (2010) observation that second language learners report having difficulties learning function words. For teaching and learning, it might be helpful to not just follow suggestions made in textbooks or language programs that group words by theme or grammatical category, but to pay attention to the underlying factors of processing a word, such as the division between content and function words.

4. Serrano, R.; Muñoz, C. (2007). Same hours, different time distribution: Any difference in EFL? System 35, 305-321.

Although our findings are still preliminary, they seem to suggest that concentrating second language instruction has a positive impact on the students’ acquisition of certain aspects of a particular language, as other studies have previously shown (Collins et al., 1999; Lightbown and Spada, 1994; Peters, 2000; Spada and Lightbown, 1989; White and Turner, 2005). The claim that intensive programs are more effective than extensive programs may indicate that, contrarily to what some cognitive psychology research studies have shown in the laboratory (Dempster, 1987; Glanzer and Duarte, 1971; Hintzman et al., 1973; Melton, 1970), massed practice can be more effective than distributed practice in classroom learning (Carroll, 1994; Rettig and Canady, 2001; Seamon, 2004), especially in the case of second/foreign languages.

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Spaced Practice: Dellar’s view

In this post I examine Dellar’s 2018 IATEFL presentation and suggest that it:

  • mounts a straw man argument against grammar-based coursebooks using a series of false assertions
  • misrepresents research findings and draws unwarranted conclusions from them
  • fails to appreciate the implications of SLA research findings for ELT practice.

Dellar accuses the ELT profession of being in thrall to mass practice, which results in “hampering learners”,  “limiting potential”, “slowing learning”, and “robbing students of their time.” To remedy this situation Dellar insists that teachers stop using coursebooks which impose the “invalid construct” of massed practice on them, and adopt instead the proven pedagogical procedure of spaced practice.  A model of a viable alternative – a coursebook series which exemplifies not just spaced practice, but also interleaving and the complete grammaticalisation of lexis – is the Outcomes series, written by H. Dellar and A. Walkley, which is advertised on a large billboard on the left of the stage.

First I’ll go through the talk commenting on specific points. Then I’ll look at the general argument.

Massed Practice

Focused repetitive practice or massed practice is “practicing something over and over again until we’ve perfected it or nailed it.” Dellar asserts that

massed practice is so deeply rooted  in our mental construct of how competence develops that we rarely stop to consider how effective it is, or if there might be more effective ways of developing competence.

Comments:

  1. By definition of the terms, nobody has a mental construct of how competence develops.
  2. Massed practice is not a construct.
  3. As we’ll see, Dellar offers no empirical evidence to support his assertion that using massed practice as a teaching procedure in ELT is deeply rooted in the way teachers approach their work. If teachers rarely stop to consider more effective ways of developing competence than massed practice, it’s probably because they’ve never heard of it, and because it plays a minor, if any, role in their teaching.

Spaced practice 

Next, Dellar says that in baseball mass practice of a free throw is less effective than spaced practice, and that when learning how to park a car, massed practice of the parking manoeuvre is less effective than spaced practice. He then says:

As it is with basketball and as it with parking, so it also is for teaching and learning foreign languages.

Dellar says that even though the spacing effect has been verified in vocabulary learning, “there’s not been (sic) as many studies into how we learn grammar and whether this also applies to grammar”. Nevertheless, Dellar goes on to say:

time and time again what’s been shown is that spaced distribution instruction on the development of particular grammatical structures versus massed practice or massed exposure is very conclusive. The immediate post test show very very little difference in terms of the way that learners perform but the delayed post tests show time and time again that spaced distribution and spaced exposure to the new items always helps you outperform people who study under mass practice conditions.

Comments:

  1. The spacing effect has not been verified in vocabulary learning. Pedagogical procedures don’t get verfied; hypotheses and theories about certain procedures are supported or challenged by empirical evidence from well-conducted studies.
  2. Dellar cites no studies to support his assertions about the comparative merits of massed practice versus distributed practice, and his assertions are, in fact, false: no study has shown the results that Dellar claims. As I said in my previous post, when Dellar was asked on Twitter to provide the sources for his assertions, he came up with an article from a web site called “Ask a Cognitive Scientist”. The article is “Allocating Student Study Time: “Massed” versus “Distributed” Practice”. It was written in 2002 and is not specifically about SLA. A more reliable source is John Rogers’s bibliography of articles on massed versus distributed practice published in applied linguistics academic journals.  I’ve read eight of the articles on the list, enough to confirm that, in fact, very few empirical studies have been done. One of the most recent articles is by Rogers himself (Rogers, 2015) which begins by saying that very little data have so far been collected. It gives a brief report of a not very well-designed study, and while Rogers concludes that the results are promising, he recognises the need for far more evidence before any firm conclusions can be drawn. There is evidence that spaced learning gets better results in some specific types of studying, but first, the evidence is not conclusive, and second, the studies of the comparative effects of 2 different ways of studying factual information can’t be used to make general statements about developing communicative competence in an L2. Dellar treats the tentative conclusions reached by fledgling studies as convincing proof that massed practice is having a crippling effect on learners and that spaced practice is the best way to teach both vocabulary and grammar. Such claims are unwarranted.

Coursebooks in thrall to mass practice

Having demonstrated to his own satisfaction that spaced practice leads to “better uptake in both vocabulary and grammar”, Dellar asks why these convincing findings  are not guiding practice. His answer is that ELT is “in thrall to mass practice”.  Here’s what Dellar says happens when teachers use coursebooks.

  1. In “coursebook after coursebook after coursebook” you get “the presentation of a discrete piece of grammar usually scripted and crafted in such a way so as to not include any other kind of particular grammar structure in the initial presentation because of the fear that it might somehow obscure the view of the structure you’re currently looking at.”
  2. Then you get laughable dialogues designed to maximise exposure to every possible variation on that particular grammar structure.
  3. Then you get exercises which massify the practice of every possible variant: negatives, questions positives, “irrespective of whether they come to be useful in the kind of communicative tasks that you come to ask your students to perform.”
  4. Then you get freer practice which resembles not a real conversation, but rather “a cunning trap designed by coursebook writers to elicit common errors of the new structure all of which can then be corrected en masse.”
  5. That structure then immediately vanishes from sight for the rest of the book and thus from the rest of the course, unless the teacher realises that despite the massed practice students aren’t able to utilise the structure, in which case they try more massed practice , maybe written practice, maybe a communication game that forces students into massed practice.

Comments

  1. To say that coursebook writers present discrete pieces of grammar “in such a way so as to not include” (sic) “any other kind of particular grammar structure” (sic), “for fear that it might somehow obscure the view of the structure you’re currently looking at” is pure assertion and almost certainly false.
  2. The presentation of a grammar point is not always, or even usually, followed by a dialogue and Dellar’s example of a dialogue using “should” is not “perhaps a slight exaggeration”, it is ridiculous.
  3. Whatever oral or written text follows the presentation of a grammar item, the assertion that the text is designed to maximise exposure to every possible variation on that particular grammar structure is evidently false: no coursebook attempts to present and practice any of the dozens of complicated grammatical structures of English by dealing with every possible variation of them in one unit.
  4. It’s likewise false to say that the exercises that follow massify the practice of every possible variant.
  5. To characterise the freer practice offered in coursebooks as “a cunning trap designed by coursebook writers to elicit common errors of the new structure all of which can then be corrected en masse” is an interpretation that has nothing to do with the facts and has very little to recommend it.
  6. The structural items that are presented in coursebooks don’t immediately vanish from sight for the rest of the book. How could they? How could the present or the past tense, or the simple, progressive and perfect aspects of verbs, or mass and count nouns, or the articles, or pronouns, or modals, for example, be excluded from the coursebook once they’ve been presented and practiced?
  7. The suggestion that when teachers see that their students “aren’t able to utilise the structure” they “try more massed practice, maybe a communication game that forces them into massed practice” is false, and also rather insulting.
  8. In general, coursebooks don’t present grammar the way Dellar describes. Below are the grammar points dealt with in some of the units of Headway Intermediate. Note that more than one discrete grammar point is dealt with in the same unit and that modal verbs are dealt with in Unit 4 and then again in Unit 11. A 30 minute examination of this coursebook shows that it bears little resemblance to Dellar’s description of coursebooks in general.

Unit 1: Auxiliary verbs; Questions; Short answers

Unit 3: Past Simple or Continuous; Past Simple or Past Perfect; Past tenses

Unit 4: have to / be allowed to; Modal verbs

Unit 8: Reduced infinitive; Verb patterns

Unit 11: Modal verbs of probability: Past; Modal verbs of probability: Present

Before we leave coursebooks, I should mention a tweet from Dellar. He says:

The grand irony of course is that Geoff has spent his time railing about coursebooks but now somehow feels compelled to insist they’re alright at heart to avoid the cognitive dissonance of agreeing with me. Ha ha.

This is an obvious non sequitur. Pointing out the mistakes in Dellar’s description of coursebooks doesn’t compel me to insist that coursebooks are “alright”.

So, Dellar asks, What is to be done?

First, stop using coursebooks which implement a massed practice approach. As an alternative, use spaced practice and interleaving. And here’s some more advice:

Comments 

Dellar loses track of the argument here. Rather than show precisely how spaced practice of a new grammar structure should be implemented, he gives a series of general pieces of advice that mix the uncontroversial (ensure vocabulary is recycled ; ensure that students have plenty of opportunities to talk; don’t always expect students to use language correctly; etc.) with the highly questionable (present new structures alongside old; ensure that vocabulary is fully grammaticalised) and turns the presentation into a demonstration of the virtues of using Outcomes. 

General Criticism of the argument  

Dellar’s main argument is stated at the bottom of Slide 1

It’s not massed practice that makes learning stick, it’s spaced practice.

To support this argument Dellar mounts a straw man argument against grammar-based coursebooks and makes sweeping, unwarranted  assertions about the damage done by massed practice. He provides no evidence from research findings in SLA to support his exaggerated claims for the effects of spaced practice, and in fact, while there are certainly signs that spaced practice can help learners with specific types of studying, there is no evidence to support the claim that spaced learning provides the best pedagogical procedure for helping learners to achieve communicative competence in an L2.

At one point in his talk, Dellar says

If we’re really going to act like professionals and we’re going to acknowledge the impact of research on our practice, sooner or later we have to acknowledge that coursebooks that are based on massed practice are not theoretically valid.

The first part of the sentence chides teachers who do not take account of SLA research and suggests that Dellar himself is familiar with it. But the second half of the sentence suggests otherwise, since no SLA research has ever stated or implied that coursebooks are based on mass practice, or that mass practice has no theoretical validity.  Indeed, Dellar’s use of the terms ‘construct’ and ‘theoretical validity’ suggest that he has yet to fully grasp what they mean.

In more general terms, to suggest that substituting spaced practice for massed practice will lead to a transformation in ELT is, by Dellar’s light, to act unprofessionally and to refuse to apply research findings to our teaching practice. Dellar wants to substitute one type of coursebook for another, thus flying in the face of robust SLA findings which show that any coursebook which implements a synthetic syllabus (and that includes Outcomes), imposes an impossible task on learners, whose own interlanguage development makes it impossible for them to synthesise the information they’re presented with in the way they’re expected to.

Furthermore, it should be noted that Dellar’s preoccupation with explicit instruction, his narrow  focus on the presentation and practice of bits of language, be they large or small, runs counter to the view held by most SLA researchers.  As I said in a reply to Andrew Walkley some tme ago, probably the most important issue in the various accounts of language learning concerns the roles of implicit and explicit learning. With regard to this fundamental question, there’s widespread agreement among SLA scholars that, as Long (2017) puts it “the relevant goal for instruction is implicit learning, resulting in implicit L2 knowledge”. Implicit learning is regarded by SLA scholars as more basic, more important than explicit learning, and superior. Access to implicit knowledge is automatic and fast, and is what underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous speech, and fluency. It is the result of deeper processing and is thus more durable, and it obviates the need for explicit knowledge, freeing up attentional resources for a speaker to focus on message content.

All the research indicates that learning an L2 is not best facilitated by presenting and practicing bits of grammar and “fully grammaticalised lexis”, no matter how big or small the bits are. Rather, ELT should aim to develop learners’ ability to make meaning in the L2, through engagement in relevant tasks involving exposure to comprehensible input, participation in discourse, and implicit or explicit feedback.

References

Long, M. (2017) Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 1,1.

Rogers, J. (2015). Learning L2 syntax under massed and distributed conditions. TESOL Quarterly, 49, 857-866