Ill-structured practices

When language learners want to make use of the available information on the Internet, what should they do? In other words, how do people train or practice their foreign/second language skills?

This section shows that structuring a practice/training time can be challenging to most people. Also, the quality of this training can impact the results that language learners will obtain.

The challenge of performance

Two examples (among many others) make it simple to understand the challenge of language learning practice: music and sports.


Imagine an individual who is willing to learn to play a given musical instrument, for example, the acoustic guitar. This person can surely find a lot of information about that instrument on the Internet, such as:

  • how to play all notes and chords using the acoustic guitar,
  • the history of the acoustic guitar,
  • song tabs and chords for acoustic guitars, etc.

However, merely accessing, reading, and understanding all that material will not make this person a good guitar player.


Similarly, picture a person who wants to become good at a certain sport or type of exercise. Let’s say the target sport is weight-lifting. Uncountable sources of information will provide this person with:

  • good techniques and best practices on weight-lifting,
  • an array of different exercises to strength each body muscle,
  • slow-motion videos of athletes lifting weights, etc.

Still, this person will need to actually go to the gym and lift weights to become stronger or better at weight-lifting.

Deliberate Practice

Scott and Ghinea (2014) argue that engaging in deliberate practice is an important way to foster language expertise. They primarily discuss computer programming, but also refer to many other areas.

According to them, it is crucial that learners be in control of their own practice. The acquisition of expertise happens best when maintaining “an ongoing, reflexive, and self-regulated learning process” (p. 169).


Let’s imagine a language learner whose goal is to improve his/her language skills. This person has decided to devote some time to doing that right now. Where should he/she begin?

Selecting the activity

Of course, in the field of language learning there is never only one answer to any question. In fact, there are many activities in which this language learner may opt to engage.

He/she may decide to watch a movie in the target language, for example, knowing that this would be a good way to improve his/her listening skill.

Activities Skills
Watch a movie Listening
Sing-along to a song Speaking
Read a news article Reading
Write a text/post Writing
Translate a text Reading, Writing
Read a book Reading
Contact another speaker Speaking
Read a text aloud Reading, Speaking
Listen to a song Listening
... ...

Table 2 - Deliberate Practice: activities and their target skills

In Table 2, we can see many other examples of typical, self-regulated language learning activities. This list is, of course, non-exhaustive, as many other options certainly exist.

Structuring the activity

Each option in Table 2 brings up new questions to the language learner. If, for example, he/she decides to sing-along to a song, the immediate question that arises is: “which song?”.

To make this decision, the learner will have to think about songs in that target language. Even if we assume this is an easy task for this particular learner, other questions may keep coming up.

Singing Along
How to choose a song that will make me learn the most?
Am I motivated to sing the songs I know in my target language?
Will I be learning relevant vocabulary from the song I choose?
Is the vocabulary in this song overly easy/complicated for my level?
What should I focus on: pronunciation, accent, vocabulary, or meaning?
Is it better to try to sing the whole song, or go sentence by sentence?
Singing how many times would be enough to learn from the song?
Is this song adequate for my proficiency level? Or is it too fast/slow?

Table 3 - Questions when structuring a sing-along to a song practice time

Of course, not all language learners will go through each of these questions. Table 3 only serves to illustrate that there are many decisions that this learner will face, even if unconsciously, within a single activity.


It may be challenging for this learner to deal with so many questions and decisions. Such uninformed autonomy may lead him/her to bad decisions, and ultimately, to an ineffective practice time.

Also, rather than focusing exclusively on the language training, this language learner would probably have multiple concerns. After all, his/her tasks during this practice activity include:

  1. answer the above questions to structure the practice activity
  2. evaluate these answers in a reflective way
  3. play/pause the chosen song, possibly many times
  4. follow the lyrics and sing along

Focused Practice

From the perspective of the Cognitive Load Theory, human working memory resources are limited. Therefore, instructional designs should attempt to make learners concentrate on the specific learning processes.

Extraneous Cognitive Load

In the present scenario, tasks 1, 2, and 3 are not directly linked to language learning. They are called extraneous cognitive load.

This extraneous cognitive load uses too much of the learner’s working memory resources, instead of productive learning (Sweller, 2010, p. 43).

As a result, not only could those simple tasks become very hard to execute, they would also become much less efficient and less pleasant.

Intrinsic Cognitive Load

On the other hand, task 4 is where the intrinsic cognitive load occurs. In other words, it is the only task that is relevant to the goal of “schema acquisition and automation” (Sweller, 2010, p. 43).

Devoting most of the learner’s attention to task 4 is, therefore, crucial to making this whole practice time an efficient learning experience. As Sweller puts it,

“working memory resources should be devoted to dealing with intrinsic cognitive load rather than extraneous cognitive load because schema acquisition is directed to the interacting elements associated with intrinsic cognitive load.” (Sweller, 2010, p. 43)


This section highlights that language learners may need to reduce the extraneous cognitive load in their language learning practices, while also increasing the intrinsic cognitive load.

Practice environments can be designed explicitly to address these needs. By doing so, when a language learner engages in a practice activity, his/her complete focus will be devoted to language learning, rather than any decision-making or operating other tools.