Finally: a deliberate practice routine in detail

People have asked me to get down to brass tacks, so here it is. I have several practice routines, but the routine I describe below uses HSK mock test material as grist for the deliberate practice mill. Some people seem a little surprised that I’m using test materials as part of my study, rather than just for test preparation.  But I think the material offers a useful basis for deliberate practice, and I’ve tried to structure it as such.  I’ll be very interested in any feedback with suggestions for improvements or changes.  For more about the practice models, see my previous post or read Talent is Overrated

The following routine uses the reading comprehension (阅读理解) section of the HSK Level V exam.  Like most reading comprehension exams, it is organized in short passages with questions about each passage.  All the questions in this section are multiple choice. Some are “fill in the blank” type questions with choices given, some are short passages with a single question about content or meaning, and some are longer passages with several questions.

All of my practice session records are kept and organized in Evernote.  Evernote is particularly useful for steps 5-7, because I can record the short audio clips directly and keep them in notes alongside the typed and handwritten text.

Step 1. Read the material and attempt to answer every question associated with it, without reference to a dictionary.

This is a more or less standard test preparation drill, except that I’m not timing myself, and I do a lot more with each question before moving on to the next.  But because I want to improve performance, not prepare for the test at this stage, I don’t time it. The work of this step falls into the “sports/capability” model, targeting my reading comprehension skill.

Step 2.  Check answer for correctness. Identify any issues with answer, and any difficulty with usage or grammar.

At this stage, I still haven’t looked up any unknown words, but I want to see if I can work out the basis for the correct answer if I got it wrong.  Maybe there are some grammar or usage points I’ve misunderstood?  I spend some time on this, breaking down the passage into parts and making notes of anything I don’t understand.  This follows the music practice model.

Step 3.  Look up any new vocabulary and add them to the Anki SRS deck.

First off, Anki SRS is a fantastic piece of software for learning. I can’t say enough good things about it. The learning curve can be steep, and I am a bit unsure about some of the changes the author has in mind for the next major update, but it is a very, very powerful tool. I have a flash card deck for all standard HSK vocabulary through level V, and I simply add to it any new vocabulary that appears during the mock exams or elsewhere. Probably I’ll write a separate post about how Anki fits into my routine. I see this step, and my usage of Anki to build vocabulary, as following the sports/conditioning model.

Step 4.  Practice the passage until able to read unbroken at least three times in a row

This is obviously following the music model, but there’s a lot that can be done to embellish it.  Bluegrass music solos are built up from shorter “licks” and patterns, and there’s a lot of experimentation and practice to understand what options one has in an improvised solo.  At this step in the Chinese practice, I sometimes I try to rewrite a sentence from the passage to convey the same meaning, using a different sentence structure or some synonyms.  I could, though I haven’t, cut up the passage into pieces and try to reassemble it in correct order a month later, following the model of Ben Franklin.

Step 5. Record myself reading the text.

Now it starts to get interesting. I make a recording of myself reading the passage, and critique it.  Where am I stopping?  Why?  Are there words I don’t really know, or usage patterns I’m having trouble with?  This is again the sports model, honing both skills and capability, but also the music model, looking for the break points and resolving them.

Transcription and recording

Step 6.  Transcribe the text onto the computer

Chinese computer input uses romanization (typically Hanyu Pinyin) to map to characters to the keyboard, but there are a lot of characters that map to the limited phonemes in Mandarin, so there is more stuff you need to know in order to type at a decent speed. Using either the recording I’ve just made or the exam book text, I transcribe the entire passage in Chinese characters.  Making myself practice transcription this way ensures that I’ve correctly understood the pronunciation, and (if I’m transcribing from my own recording) that I’ve pronounced it well enough to recognize.  An example from a short passage from a practice session is shown at right.

Step 7. Using either the computer text I’ve just transcribed or the voice recording I’ve just made, transcribe the audio by hand.

Transcription by hand of the same text shown in steps 5 and 6

It is very easy to neglect handwritten Chinese language, despite its beauty.  Young Chinese seem to spend so much time texting on their cell phones its amazing they remember how to write at all.  To force myself on this score, I also include handwritten transcription of each passage.  This is always from audio, either my own recording or speech generation from the transcription I made above. MacOSX provides some pleasant voices with standard pronunciation for speech generation.  I prefer the computer generated speech over my own recording because I can slow it down. For the same reason, I sometimes switch the order of steps 5 and 6 above.  An example is shown at right, where you can see my childlike Chinese handwriting.  In my defense, my English handwriting is little better.

Rinse and repeat

So that’s it. Each step is designed to target different areas for improved performance, including speaking, listening, and writing, even though the source material is for reading comprehension. It can be repeated with a limitless supply of mock tests. Each step has some feedback on its own, and the steps are connected together so that improvements in one area (spoken pronunciation) can have an impact on the next step (written transcription). I can testify that it is mentally taxing and not much fun, although when I do this the impact on my conversation and reading is quite significant.

I haven’t mentioned the value of spaced repetition, recall, or interleaving, three evidence-based learning techniques that can be used to improve deliberate practice. But if you are familiar with them, you might see them in the design as well.

2 thoughts on “Finally: a deliberate practice routine in detail

  1. Quite interesting, thanks Greg.

    Do you track any metric/chart? Eg: transcription errors over time or pronunciation mistakes. I guess the problem with it is that if you keep pushing yourself out of your comfort zone all the time the graph will look flat, not get down. On the other hand at least you know that if the chart doesn’t look flat it might mean that you are slacking off in your comfort zone.

  2. I don’t currently, but I could. I could track errors per 1000 characters transcribed, for example. It should go down as I go further through the mock exams, since all the exams are at the same expected level. Using my own recording for transcription is a good test of my pronunciation quality, but my preference is to get feedback from my teacher.

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