PPP Approach to Learning Second Language:

Introduction

The presentation, practice, production (PPP) approach is one of the oldest and most convenient approaches for teaching a second language. As an English language teacher at a secondary school, I have been applying the PPP method for a few years now, but have not been able to achieve the results that I desire. Although the method gives teachers full autonomy in terms of material selection and lecture delivery, yet, in my opinion, it does not take into account the different characteristics and learning capabilities of the students present in the class. The results of my English as a second language course are quite satisfactory in terms of the grades obtained by students and their performance in final exams; however, I believe that most of them do not fully understand the underlying concepts related to sentence formation and grammar.

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The average age of the students in my class is 18 years, and most of them are taught English language since their primary years. Most student in my class have been enrolled in an English medium school for an average of 8 years, while the others have studied English in schools that were not English medium, but where English was still offered as a subject. It is the policy of English medium schools to make students comfortable with English by encouraging teachers to communicate with them in English as much as possible. Considering this policy, it is assumed that that students enrolled in such schools for 8 years or more would have been given prior knowledge about sentence formation and grammar in their previous class and should out-perform students from other schools that were not English medium. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Moreover, ideally those students in my class who have studied English before are expected to show familiarity with the basic principles of English language which they were previously taught – mostly according to the PPP approach – however, I have observed that most students cannot identify or correct grammatical or punctuation errors and wrong sentence formations.

This paper will first explain the PPP approach in detail as described by other researchers. Next, different criticisms of this approach will be discussed along with their effects on the learning outcomes of students. The main aim of this discussion is to explore a solution for the problems mentioned above. Additionally, this paper seeks to find ways to make PPP a more efficient and productive teaching method.

Literature Review

PPP approach of teaching a second language believes in the principle that ‘practice makes perfect’. Maftoon & Sarem (2015) explain that the core proposition of the PPP approach is that language cannot be learned in one go, rather it is learned in small chunks that gradually lead to a whole through successive practice. In other words PPP views language as something that can only be acquired sequentially. The PPP approach originated in the United Kingdom in the 1950s as a structural method, which combined different features of other methods like the North-American Audiolingual Method, the British situational Language Teaching Method, and the French Audiovisual Method (Criado, 2013).

The PPP method is based on the behaviorist teaching practices which imply that learning a language is just like learning any other skill (Maftoon & Sarem, 2015). Anderson et al. (2004) correlated this approach to Active Control of Thought Rational (ACT-R) which highlights the distinction in contemporary cognitive psychology between declarative and procedural knowledge. While both of these are modes of characterizing and storing knowledge in memory, declarative knowledge refers to knowledge about a certain system, whereas, procedural knowledge is the ability to comprehend the system and use it (Anderson et al., 2004). Jong (2005) tested Anderson’s et al. (2004) theory in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and found the correlation existed between the PPP model and ACT-R. The method soon become very popular as it was being employed by professional schools globally. From the 1960s onwards, this approach was considered to be a very useful teaching procedure and was increasingly recommended to trainee teachers of second languages (Harmer, 2007, p.86).

All three stages of the PPP approach have distinct characteristics, however, they all aim to isolate a particular grammatical feature towards which students can focus their attention, followed by opportunities for repetition for the targeted feature. Moreover, the students receive feedback – which can be delayed or given immediately – regarding the accuracy of their grammatical structure (Richards, 2002, p.168). The first and second stage elicit a higher degree of teacher control, which eventually decreases in the third stage to allow students to move away from the teachers’ control and onto a more automatic production and understanding of the language that they are studying (Ur, 1996, p.19). The ability of teachers to control the content and pace of the lesson is one of the major reasons that they are attracted to this method and opt for it. Moreover, PPP takes into account the power dynamics found in class rooms and provides the teacher with a clear role according to teacher-student relationship (Skehan, 2003).

Continuing with the work of previous researchers, Richards and Rogers (2014) explain the features of each stage in the PPP model. In the presentation stage, the teacher makes use of model sentences and short dialogues explaining the targeted areas or refers to the textbook. In the practice stage, the student learns the new language in a highly controlled manner. Students may have to repeat words after the teacher to get used to the new words or they might be given different tasks like asking or answering questions in the target language, matching parts of sentences and completing dialogues. In the last stage i.e. the production stage, the students are encouraged to indulge in a freer way to use the language, for instance, by participating in a role play or a communication task (Richards & Rodgers, 2014). It is not, however, compulsory for teachers to follow this sequence rigidly because it can be changed depending on the students’ needs and the teaching material being used (Maftoon & Sarem, 2015); for instance, in some cases, the instructor may choose to move from production to presentation to practice.

From 1990s onwards, different new techniques of teaching a second language were discovered as a result of more extensive research in this area, and PPP faced various criticisms. In an attempt to tackle the criticisms and maintain its relevance to the teaching community as being a useful routine for presenting and practicing the structural features of a language, the PPP approach adopted the characteristics of other approaches into its basic format; some of these approaches include ‘concept based instruction’ and ‘consciousness raising instruction’ (Swan, 2005). The original model of the approach no longer exists as it did when it was first introduced, rather is has been modified and re-modified over the years (Lindsay & Knight, 2006, p.21). The criticisms of this approach will be discussed more in detail in the next section of this paper.

Application

Much research in the field of SLA has opposed the view that language can be acquired sequentially, rather learners of a new language form interlanguages – a series of systems – which is slowly grammaticized and restructured as they learn new features of the language and incorporate those in their made-up systems (Maftoon & Sarem, 2015). This implies that it may take learners months or years to arrive at the targeted rule, whereas, a typical semester in the school that I teach in lasts for about six months. The main question that arises then is how to squeeze so much practice and expect accurate production in a shorter time frame? The answer to this lies with the lesson plans. The characteristics of each stage in the PPP is explained above, however, it can be very time consuming for teachers to design appropriate tasks for different kinds of students present in the class.

Understanding of problem caused by PPP approach can be attained through the discussion of its four broad categories of criticisms: linguistic, psychological, psycholinguistic, and pedagogic. Firstly, PPP method suggests that students learn in straight lines, meaning that they start off with having no knowledge about the language, and then move on to restricted forms of practice, followed by immediate production. Harmer (2007) argues that learning second language is much more complicated, random, and full of interlocking variables and systems. Criado (2013) states that a linguistic component is not the core of communicative use, rather it is the lexicon, which is defined as a variety of elements, such as, collocations, idioms, multiword items, etc.

Many students in my class face the problem of not being able to comprehend irony, sarcasm, or even some common metaphors of the English language. I try to arrange a role play activity at the end of the year for students where they can choose to act out a few scenes from any play they prefer. I have observed that although, the pronunciation and enunciation, not necessarily combined with articulation, of English words is close to perfect for majority of the students, however, the tone in which dialogues are delivered suggest that they do not fully understand what their character is trying to convey. Sarcastic comments of a character will not be accompanied with a sarcastic tone by the student playing that character in most cases. These subtle factors support Criado’s (2013) argument that the process of learning a language goes beyond its linguistic component.

Criticism of the PPP approach at a psychological level suggests that following a routine does not always guarantee the required results. Research has shown that learners can acquire new knowledge without previous practice, and even in the absence of explicit explanations (Johnson, 1996). As mentioned before, my class consists of those students who were exposed to and taught English language at school since their primary years and also those who did not attend English medium schools and were recently enrolled in proper English classes. It seems logical to think, according to the PPP model, that since the latter type of students have not had enough practice with English language, the former will outperform the letter in terms of getting higher grades in the subject. This is rarely the case as both types of students get mixed results. The applicability and effectiveness of the PPP approach comes to question here because the principle of ‘practice makes perfect’ is not evident in this scenario.

Further understanding of the problems posed by the PPP model can be achieved by taking a look at its psycholinguistic criticism which states that there exists a ‘delayed effect of instruction’, which means that since naturalistic and formal acquisition of a language is a gradual process, it is unrealistic to expect students to acquaint with the rules of a new language and incorporate them into their communication after only a couple of lessons (Tomlinson, 2011, p.29). While organizing the course material and preparing the lesson plan, I have faced the problem of shortage of time. It is difficult to pre-plan the period of time each target feature of English language would take to register with students. Since every student learns at his or her own pace, it is unrealistic to expect that the whole class will be able to understand a specific feature, for instance, rules of grammar, at the same time. In my experience, individual differences cannot be accounted for in the PPP approach because the teacher considers the level of understanding for all students to be the same.

The final category of criticism for the PPP approach is at a pedagogical level. Although well-defined goals that constitute this approach are the major reason behind the widespread use of the PPP model (Tomlinson, 2011), it is argued that these goals confine teachers, rather than helping them, because they leave no room for the teacher to explore by putting only a limited number of pre-planned options at the teachers’ disposal (Criado, 2013). It is common to provide students with decontextualized and meaningless activities, where language chunks in the form of structural patterns are presented to learners who are then asked to produce them through practice and repetition (Maftoon & Sarem, 2015). In my experience, the teacher decides how much time each concept is to be allocated without fully considering how much time students require to understand that concept. The learners cannot identify and evaluate their own fluency and consolidation of linguistic items, therefore, the teacher has to judge them on these fronts (Hedge, 2000). The quality and quantity of the students’ perception, however, cannot be predicted or judged by the teacher by evaluating the performance of the whole class because individual characteristics of students involve heterogeneity to a great extent (Criado, 2013).

To tackle these issues posed by the PPP model, a humanistic approach needs to be incorporated by the teachers. Teaching from the vantage point of a teacher who unilaterally decides what is to be taught is against the principles of humanistic education, where the primary goal is to facilitate change and learning (Zhang & Atkin, 2010). The humanistic approach believes that teachers should be learners and facilitators for students and should provide them with a nurturing context to build their understanding and interaction with others (Brown, 2006).

Richards (2002) suggested that conscious-raising learning techniques are best suited for teaching a second language and should be used with the PPP approach for best results. Conscious-raising activities are aimed at developing declarative, rather than procedural knowledge by making the learner understand one specific grammatical feature at a time. Main characteristics of conscious-raising activities include isolation of a specific linguistic feature for focused attention, clarification of misunderstandings in form of further data and descriptions, and an intellectual effort on the students’ part to understand the targeted feature (Richards, 2002). It can be observed that the main difference between both approaches is that the conscious-raising approach does not involve repeated production as was the case in the PPP model because the aim of the former type of teaching is only to familiarize the students with targeted features.

One way through which the PPP model can be improved in my case, and also in the case of similar teachers teaching English as a second language, is to merge both approaches together. Some methodologists suggest that the practice stage in the PPP model should be preceded by another stage which encompasses the values of the conscious-raising approach (Richards, 2002). The students can be given rules of memorization when it comes to grammar and sentence structure to make them understand different phenomenon related to the language without having to practice excessively.

Conclusion

The PPP approach is the most popular method for teaching a second language since the 1960s. PPP method is based on the behaviorist teaching practices which suggests that learning a new language is like learning any new skill and so, it has to be learned in small chunks combined with a lot of practice. Over the years, this approach has attracted criticism which can be categorized as linguistic, psychological, psycholinguistic, and pedagogical. In my experience, all the criticisms hold true as I have faced similar problems while teaching English as a second language, for example, in role play activities I observed that the students were unable to comprehend irony, sarcasm, or even some common metaphors of the English language. Moreover, shortage of time and individual differences among students make it difficult to pre-plan suitable activities and lesson plans for the class. A more efficient manner of employing the PPP method is to merge it with conscious-raising approach and focusing on just familiarizing students with target concepts first instead of making them practice repeatedly.

Incidental vs. Intentional Second Language Acquisition

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