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The Language Teacher

Presentation, Practice, and Production in the EFL Class

Jay K. Maurer

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Imagine this scene. You want to teach the present perfect continuous in your EFL class. You have already taught the simple present and present perfect with "for" and "since", and you have decided that the way to present the new structure is simply to ask students real questions such as How long have you been living in your apartment? and How long have you been learning karate? Surely, you think, the students will be able to extend their knowledge of the simple form to the continuous. When you go into class, however, your activity falls flat. The students do not really understand very well. Mystified, you ask yourself what went wrong.

What went wrong was that you were testing before teaching. You expected your students to be able to use the language before you really presented it and practiced it. They were not able to. Does this sound familiar? In my years of teaching, unfortunately, I have fallen into this trap many times. Somewhere along the way, though, I became aware of the need to arrive at an appropriate balance among the three major elements of an EFL class: presentation, practice, and production. Our goal in teaching English is, or should be, to get students to the point where they feel ownership of the language and can use it to improvise in real-world situations. In this article I would like to discuss the notion of an appropriate balance and offer some suggestions on how it might be achieved.

Before we jump in, let's clarify what is meant by presentation, practice, and production. Presentation means that, before we expect students to use language or structure, we present it to them. This is true in an ESL class in an English-speaking society, where students are surrounded by the language. It is all the more true in an EFL class where English language input for students is probably much less. Thus we need to provide students with a variety of models and contexts that will give them the input they need to be able to use the language productively. Practice means that, after we present the material that we want our students to learn but before we expect them to use it productively, we give them ample opportunities to practice it. That is, practice comes before the testing situation. Production means that, having presented the language that we want our students to learn and given them opportunities to practice it, we may now justifiably expect them to produce it -- to use it more or less freely in real, largely uncontrolled situations.


There are essentially two kinds of presentation models: receptive and productive. In receptive models, we present language for students to receive, to process, and to understand, but we do not at this point expect them to produce it. In productive models, our approach is the opposite: We expect the students to take the model we present and manipulate it -- to produce the language within it in some fashion. The most common kinds of productive models are grammatical rules or charts, conversation models, pronunciation models, and writing models.

Let's consider how we might present a receptive model to our class, the same class to which we want to teach the present perfect continuous tense. Here is an example of a conversation that could be used in this way, in which the context is a date at a movie theater and one person has arrived late. We could ask the students to read or listen, or both.

Scott: Sorry I'm late. Have you been waiting long?

Rachel: Not really. I was a little late myself.

Rachel: I've really been looking forward to this movie. It's supposed to be hilarious. Gee, its crowded here.

Scott: Yeah. Well, at least the movie hasn't started. I think there are two seats over there.

Scott: Excuse me. Would you mind taking off your hat?

Woman with hat: What was that?

Scott: Could you please take off your hat?

Woman with hat: Oh, of course. Sorry.

Rachel (whispering): Can you believe that hair? (The woman has a big hairdo.) Let's move.

Scott: Where?

Rachel: Aren't there two seats over there in the third row?

Rachel: Excuse me.

Scott: Pardon me.

Rachel: Oh no. (A tall man is moving to the empty seat in front of her.)

Scott: I guess this is my fault. Sorry I was late.

Rachel: That's OK. It's no big deal.

After our students have read and/or listened to this conversation, we ask them some comprehension questions, but we do not say anything about the present perfect continuous tense at this point. It is passively retained -- students probably understand it but are not yet able to use it. Then we might give them an exercise like the following, designed to help them understand vocabulary from context:

Find a sentence in the conversation similiar in meaning to each sentence below:

Excuse me. (Pardon me.)
They say the movie is funny.
Could you please take off your hat?
That's a strange hairdo.
It's not that important.


Practice is the middle step in the process. We cannot expect students to be able to use the language freely unless we have given them sufficient practice in how to do so. Practice should do at least three things: (a) It should give studentst the chance to use the target structure or vocabulary without feeling as if they are in a specific testing situation. (b) It should spiral and reintegrate previously taught material; and (c) It should be safe. That is, students should feel that they are investigating, discovering, fiddling around with the language in question without having too much riding on the outcome. If they make some mistakes in a grammar exercise, for example, there will be no harm done; they will learn from their mistakes but will not fail the class. Four common types of safe practice are Pair Practice, Grammar in Context, Grammar with a Partner, and Interactive activities such as Infogaps and games.

Let's consider examples of two kinds of activities which will help our students practice the present perfect continuous structure that we have been teaching them.

Grammar in Context

Once we have presented the present perfect continuous in a context in which it naturally occurs and have given other models such as grammar rules and charts, the next step might involve having the students complete a grammar-in-a-context activity similar to the following. By this point students know at least passively the form of the present perfect continuous. They also know that, while the simple present perfect can be used to express completed action, the present perfect continuous form cannot. In this exercise, the context is a line outside a movie theater, with four people waiting for the line to move.

Complete the conversation with the correct verb for each numbered item.

Greg: (comes up) Hi, everybody. Sorry I'm late. ___________ (Are you waiting/Have you been waiting) long?

Jeanette: About 20 minutes. What _______, Greg? (happens/happened)?

Greg: Well, I _______(m/was) stuck in traffic for half an hour on the freeway. __________ (Are you getting/Did you get) the tickets?

Andy: Yeah. Here they are. Man, I sure hope this movie _________ (was/is) as good as the reviews ___________ (say/will say) it is.

Greg: It is. _____________ (I've seen/I've been seeing) it twice already.

Laura: You have? And you ___________ (ll want/want) to see it again?

Greg: Sure. I bet I _________ (ll like/liked) it even better this time.

Jeanette: Guys, you __________ (have to/had to) remember that Greg __________ (was/is) a movie addict. He ________ (sees/saw) every movie that _________ (came/comes) out.

Laura: Well, I just hope this line _____________ (starts/started) moving soon.

Pair Practice

After we have done an exercise of this type, we might want to have the students do pair practice with the same structure, so we could present a short conversation like this one:

(In a video store)

A: What are you looking for?

B: I've been trying to find a really good video. Any suggestions?

A: Have you seen My Left Foot? It's supposed to be very good.

B: OK. Thanks for the suggestion. I'll try it.

When students have worked with this a bit, we can delete some of the items and have students replace them with their own examples:

A: What are you looking for?

B: I've been trying to find a really good _______. Any suggestions?
(Students could say comedy/drama/musical, etc.)

A: Have you seen _______? It's supposed to be very ______.
(Students could say exciting/interesting/moving, etc.)

B: OK. Thanks for the suggestion. I'll try it.


Production, the third stage in the process, is the testing stage. Once students have been given sufficient presentation and practice, we may justifiably expect them to be able to use the language in a relatively unstructured situation. There are many kinds of production activities. Three common ones are improvisation, discussion, and writing. Let's consider examples of improvisation and discussion.


Improvisation can be considered the fifth skill -- the skill which follows reading, listening, speaking, and writing. In many ways, it is the most important because it is the real test of whether students can use what they have learned without being told exactly what to do or say. Suppose, for example, that we have finished the presentation and practice portions of our lesson on the present perfect continuous tense. We are now ready to ask our students to put their knowledge to use, so we ask them to do an activity of this type:

Work with a partner. Partner A, you have been trying to find something -- for example, a good novel, a funny play, a serious movie, a good bakery, a reasonable coffee shop, a good Chinese restaurant, or a cheap hotel. Have a conversation. Ask Partner B for a suggestion. Partner B, give a suggestion. Give plenty of details.


Discussions of various types are excellent vehicles for students to use language. One effective type is the controversial discussion in which we provoke the students' interest in a serious topic and let them take the discussion wherever it leads. Another type of discussion that works well is a picture discussion. We might conclude our lesson on the present perfect continuous by bringing in several copies of a picture which will elicit the structure. Care must be taken in choosing the picture, of course, but we can probably find an effective one. Suppose, for example, that we locate a magazine picture which shows several people standing in line outside a stadium waiting to get into a baseball game. We ask the students to tell what is happening, tell a story, and/or create conversations for the characters. The only stipulation is that everything be in the students own words. This type of activity will provide an effective and comprehensive test of the students' ability to produce the language we have taught them.


When I was in high school, I took Spanish. When I was in college, I took German. Which language can I speak now? Spanish. I like and respected both of my teachers a great deal. They were both hard-working and congenial. However, the German teacher essentially used an approach in which there was a tiny bit of presentation, very little practice, and a lot of testing. The Spanish teacher, in contrast, followed an approach similar to the presentation-practice-production system I have been advocating here. She gave us all kinds of models -- reading, listening, rules, etc. She gave us all kinds of practice: grammar exercises, compositions, conversations, games, and songs. She is not the only reason I can speak Spanish today, but she certainly provided me with a foundation. In my view, this principle holds true in all language classes. If we balance our teaching among presentation, practice, and production, our students will learn.

Jay Maurer's workshop is sponsored by Longman Addison Wesley.

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Last modified: September 15, 1997
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