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Design and empirical evaluation of controlled L2 practice through mini-games—moving beyond drill-and-kill?

In current-day L2 pedagogy, the power of some kind of focus on form is undisputed, preferably incidental upon meaning-oriented L2 use, and only there where it is psycholinguistically relevant, undisruptive of communicative flow, and needed for communication to succeed. Yet, there is little scope in language teaching programmes for continued and controlled practice of specific linguistic constructions, accompanied by consistent feedback. Controlled practice may help to automatize knowledge in implicit memory, which could in turn free up attentional resources for higher-order skills during complex learning tasks. The state-of-the-art in SLA theory assumes a dynamic interface between explicit and implicit knowledge, and hence provides support for various attention-raising techniques, including controlled practice (Ellis, 2005). Further, proponents of strong-interface theories have argued on several occasions that (tutorial) CALL is *the* field that holds promise for the future of practice (DeKeyser, 2007), as it allows for massive and fine-grained data collection in longitudinal experimental designs, potentially in ecologically valid settings.

However, the implementation of controlled practice activities in technology presents at least three serious design challenges. First, explicit focus-on-forms practice needs to engage learners in meaningful L2 processing (DeKeyser, 1998; Wong & VanPatten, 2003), which is presumed necessary for realizing transfer to complex skills. Secondly, given the little time there usually is for communicative L2 learning, teachers are likely to relegate practice to contexts outside of class. So, the key will be “to design interesting drills that are not demotivating” (Dörnyei, 2009, p. 289) and that—ideally—catalyse intrinsically motivated behaviour. A third and related challenge is that consistent feedback inherent in practice may harm learners’ competence needs (e.g. Schulze, 2003).

This presentation will first cover how we tried to overcome these challenges by (iteratively) applying principles from skill acquisition theory, task-based language teaching, and game design to the design of CALL practice activities in mini-games. Then, we will report on the empirical validation of the design hypothesis in an eight-week intervention study in secondary schools and learners’ home settings. The data include fine-grained log files of practice, test scores for near- and far-transfer tasks, and follow-up questionnaire data. We will conclude with implications for re-design of the practice activities.

DeKeyser, R. M. (1998). Beyond focus on form. Cognitive perspectives on learning and practicing second language grammar. In C. Doughty & J. Williams (Eds.), Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition (pp. 42–63). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
DeKeyser, R. M. (2007). Conclusion: The future of practice. In R. M. DeKeyser (Ed.), Practice in a Second Language: Perspectives from Applied Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology (pp. 287–304). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Dörnyei, Z. (2009). The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ellis, N. C. (2005). At the Interface: Dynamic Interactions of Explicit and Implicit Language Knowledge. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 27(20), 305–352.
Schulze, M. (2003). Grammatical Errors and Feedback: Some Theoretical Insights. CALICO Journal, 20(3), 437–450.
Wong, W., & VanPatten, B. (2003). The Evidence is IN: Drills are OUT. Foreign Language Annals, 36(3), 403–423.


Frederik Cornillie    
KU Leuven & iMinds

Frederik CORNILLIE is a Ph.D. candidate and applied linguist in the interdisciplinary research group ITEC at KU Leuven University, Belgium ( He received an M.A. in English & German Languages and Literature at KU Leuven (2004), followed by a post-initial master in Literary Theory combined with a research stay at the University of Toronto (2005), and a teacher certificate degree, also from KU Leuven (2006). He taught foreign languages in secondary education, and worked at the University of Antwerp as a project and research collaborator in the field of Computer-Assisted Language Learning (2005-2009), before joining ITEC in 2009. His main expertise concerns the design and effectiveness of e-learning environments for language learning. His research focuses on the use, perception and effectiveness of feedback in game-like language learning environments.

Piet Desmet    
KU Leuven & iMinds

Piet DESMET is full professor of French and Applied linguistics and Foreign Language Methodology at K.U.Leuven & K.U.Leuven Campus Kortrijk. He coordinates the Research Centre ITEC, Interdisciplinary research on Technology, Education & Communication ( at K.U.Leuven Campus Kortrijk, where he is also Dean of the Faculty of Arts. His research focuses mainly on French and Applied Linguistics, with a particular interest in Computer Assisted Language Learning. With his externally grant-funded team, he works on such topics as adaptive learning environments, mobile language learning, serious gaming, parallel corpora for CALL and writing aids.


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