Deliberate Practice for Language Learning: Part 4 – Setting Goals & Building Skills

In this article series, we’ve been examining a concept known as deliberate practice; a research-backed method for improving performance in any skill up to the highest levels possible.

In our first article, we took a bird’s-eye view of the concept, looking at its various necessary components.

In our second and third article, we began a deep-dive into these component concepts, starting with finding an expert teacher or tutor, and following that up with tips and techniques for stepping out of your comfort zone.

In this, the fourth article of the series, we will examine how to set goals for deliberate practice, and how those goals must be invariably based on the specific skills you wish to practice and acquire.

Before we look at your goals, however, we must first examine another: the ultimate goal of deliberate practice.

The Goal of Deliberate Practice

All knowledge can be separated into two principal categories: declarative knowledge (i. e.what you know) and procedural knowledge (i.e. what you know how to do)

The goal of deliberate practice is an improvement in procedural knowledge. When you practice deliberately, you aim to do something better than you did it before. You may need some declarative knowledge — or facts — to help you acquire procedural knowledge — skills — but the overall emphasis is almost exclusively on the latter.

Since the ultimate goal of deliberate practice is an improvement in skill, this means that any goals you set for your own deliberate practice must be based on skills.

Deliberate Practice and Performance-based Goals

The interplay between goals and skills is evident in nearly all discussions and descriptions of deliberate practice:

K. Anders Ericsson, in his book Peak, describes this interplay in the following words:

Deliberate practice involves 1) well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement. Once an overall goal has been set, a teacher or coach will develop a plan for making a 2) series of small changes that will add up to the desired larger change. (Peak, 99, numbering and emphasis added)

Let’s look closer at each of these key points in turn:

  1. Goals must be well-defined, specific, and performance-based. This means that your end goal should always be tied to a specific level of performance in a specific skill. Tying your goals to performance in this way helps you define an ultimate “win-condition” for success. If you meet your performance goals, you have succeeded. If not, you still have work to do.
  2. Overall goals must be broken down into small steps. Skills are rarely pure, if ever. Any skill, from riding a bike, to playing chess, to speaking a language, is actually a combination of dozens (or hundreds!) of smaller skills, which interact to create an overall sense of performance of the top-level skill. If you can deliberately practice the most basic skills, and then chain them together in order to master the higher-level procedures that the top-level skill requires, your overall performance will improve immensely.

How to Set Goals for Deliberate Practice

So, how do K. Anders Ericsson’s rules for deliberate practice goals translate to your own language learning goals?

If you’ve been following along with our article series on deliberate practice, you know that you should be working with an expert teacher or tutor and stepping beyond your comfort zone.

To set your goals properly, you must look at the intersection of these two points. You must find:

  • The skills you do not have (or have not yet mastered)
  • The skills that your teacher or tutor can help you master.

Once you have those two things, you can set an overall goal.

With an overall goal, you now have your “desired larger change” — you know what you are working towards. However, most skills are too complex to deliberately practice all in one go. This is where we need to divide that larger change into a “series of small changes,” as Ericsson recommends.

How do we do that?

Let’s take a look.

How to Break Down Skills for Deliberate Practice

When Ericsson mandates breaking down larger performance changes into smaller ones, how small is small enough?

Think as small as possible.

Ideally, you want your deliberate practice sessions to focus on skills so small that they meet two specific requirements:

  • Skill can be mastered (or nearly mastered) within one to three 30-minute-long deliberate practice sessions.
  • Skill is basic enough that any improvements in that skill are visible from session to session.

Masterable in 1-3 Sessions

This recommendation actually does not come directly from K. Anders Ericsson, but from American programming instructor Kathy Sierra. In a presentation at the 2012 Business of Software conference in Boston, Massachusetts, Sierra explains the ideal heuristic for breaking down a skill for deliberate practice:

“Deliberate practice exercise […] is something designed to build a skill within one to three sessions […]If you can help people go from totally unreliable at this thing to 85-90% reliable at this thing within 45 minutes thatʼs [a] great metric. If within three days, or three practice sessions, they canʼt really become more reliable, the skill was not at the right chunk—it wasnʼt at their level. This is the way people become really good at anything; they are doing that.” (44:42, emphasis added)

Breaking skills down to the micro level (improvable in 1-3 “sessions) helps you:

  • Reduce or eliminate distractions. Instead of flitting between several things that need improvement, and never giving any of them the proper attention, you focus on the quantum building blocks of each skill, one at a time. This allows you to see the cause-effect relationship between the action you take, and the results you get.
  • Build skills sequentially – If you can break a skill down into its component sub-skills, and master each of those in the logical order, then once it is time to put them together into the larger skill, there is a lower likelihood of performance errors or gaps. Furthermore, mastery of the overall skill will come much more quickly.
  • Measure your performance – While you can’t measure fluency, pronunciation, intonation, you can measure smaller subsets of those skills (ability to pronounce a single sound, ability to correctly intone yes-no sentences, etc.).

High Visibility of Improvements

If a skill is measurable, then measuring your performance on that skill will tell you whether or not your abilities are improving. Having easily-accessible, concrete records of your performance does wonders for your motivation, as any gains in skill-level will be immediately apparent to you.

Improving Pronunciation: An Example

With the above knowledge at our disposal, let’s look at a hypothetical example.

Let’s say you are working with your tutor on improving your French. During one of your initial sessions, he or she notices that you have issues with your pronunciation. Essentially, there are parts of French pronunciation that remain outside your comfort zone.

With that in mind, together you set an overall goal of mastering French pronunciation. To make things a little more concrete, your tutor gives you a short paragraph of text that you will practice reading aloud. This text contains all the major sounds of French.

Now, you may think it sufficient to simply practice reading the text over and over until your pronunciation errors gradually work themselves out. But this would be incredibly inefficient. The skill of pronunciation is a combination of various sub-skills that need to be deliberately practiced in order to be improved.

So you break your overall goal down, step by step. To do this, you break pronunciation down into its smallest possible components: the consonants and vowel sounds of French.

With the aid of your tutor, you determine that you have already mastered many of the sounds of French (at least the ones that are shared by your native language), but there are several sounds you cannot yet produce reliably. You have specific trouble with the vowels [y] (as in salut) and the nasal vowels [ɔ̃] (as in brun) and [ɑ̃] (as in sans)

These three vowels become the individual skills you need to deliberately practice. So next, you devise a step-by-step plan leading to your overall goal, and then devote each “step” to a particular 30-45 minute practice session.

Here’s an example step-by-step sequence that takes us from the lowest level skill (pronouncing unknown sounds) to the highest level skill (perfectly pronouncing your example text). Notice how each new step builds on to the mastery of the previous one.

  • Step 1: Practice pronunciation of each “problem sound” in isolation.
  • Step 2: Practice pronunciation of “goal text” words that contain each problem sound.
  • Step 3: Practice pronunciation of “goal text” sentences that contain words with problem sounds.
  • Step 4: Practice pronunciation of entire goal text.

As you progress through the steps, your teacher or tutor should be monitoring and recording the number of successful pronunciations. Depending on your performance at each individual step, he or she can decide to raise or lower the number of deliberate practice sessions you will devote to each step.

Conclusion

Deliberate practice is all about using the right tools and procedures to improve your performance in a specific skill. With the aid of a teacher or tutor who helps you set performance-based goals for skills that are outside your comfort zone, you can build pathways to success that constantly and sequentially build upon themselves.

With these types of tools at your disposal, you can take any large goal and break it down into its smaller component skills. Then, you can practice those skill components consciously and deliberately until you master each part. With each piece of the puzzle mastered, you can then put them back together into larger and larger pieces until you’re left with the overall goal you started with.

Lastly, by closely monitoring the breaking-down and reassembly of skill-based goals, you create a precise feedback loop that inspires you and motivates you to improve during each and every practice session. In this way, you can avoid the motivational plateaus and pitfalls that language learners typically face when tackling larger and less-precise goals.