Repetition has got itself a rather bad name over the years and it is often avoided in many course materials. Why is this the case?
Well, one reason may be purely economic. Drills mean a lot of recording and/or space on the page which makes for an expensive book. Similarly, repetition of words may mean producing some form of flashcard, which may be impossible for the hundreds of words students need to learn.
A second cause for rejecting repetition is more theoretical. Drills are often grammar substitutions that result in sentences that are unlikely to be heard or used. In a self-teach Russian course I bought, I had to repeat “This is not a bank it is the theatre!”.
Language in use is, in fact, more complex than is suggested by most drills: we rarely repeat exactly what is in the question; we often reply in different tenses and/or in incomplete sentences. In the case of wordlists and flashcards, the problem is that we don’t speak in single words, but use common combinations (often referred to as collocations, chunks, phrases, frames etc.) which are not entirely predictable from a simple match between word and meaning/translation. In short, repetition doesn’t lead to either accuracy or fluency.
Finally, repeat readings or listenings of texts, repeating tasks or conversations may be avoided because of teacher beliefs. Sometimes we can misinterpret students looks and silence for boredom rather than struggle and concentration and sometimes we simply don’t give it a chance because we (wrongly) anticipate that students want constant change and always something new.
However, in avoiding what’s “repetitive,” we maybe misunderstand the problem and as a result, lose some important benefits. There is a huge amount of repetition in natural language use and a huge amount required for learning. We have the same kinds of conversations over and over again in different contexts, and not just functional conversations in shops or small talk about the weekend or the weather. We will also repeatedly tell the same story that happened to us to different people – often improving it as a story. We recycle our opinions on different news stories in different conversations. Many games are incredibly repetitive yet we find them fun and become addicted to them.
In terms of learning, we also know that students will have to encounter and understand words multiple times (some say six to 12, some say even more) before these words become part of their productive lexicon. How many more encounters will we need for grammar forms to be learned?
For us the issue then should be less about the act of repetition in itself but more about how we can bring that repetition closer to real language use and real life. How can we build repetition into our lessons and courses while ensuring freshness and engagement? In this series of posts, we will be looking at these ideas in more detail and show you some tasks and procedures to employ.
Here are just some ideas from our upcoming posts:
Word lists and usage: Rewrite your word list as collocations – pairs of words or three-word chunks.
Word lists and pronunciation: Ask students to look through their word list and find all the ‘long’ vowel sounds
Repetition and reading: Take a reading from a previous lesson and read it out to the class. At different points (where there may be a collocation) stop and ask students to say the next word. It may be done as a team game.
Repetition and speaking tasks: I know it’s obvious. but you can just ask students to repeat a task with a new partner! We’ll tell you some more ideas how to also add further challenge in the post.
Repetition across units and levels: Take a task from a unit on the same topic at a lower level and ask them to do this as a warmer for the new unit.
Author: Andrew Walkley
Andrew Walkley has 25 years’ experience as a teacher, trainer and materials writer. He is currently the co-director of Lexical Lab (lexicallab.com) an educational services provider specialising in course design and consultancy, material writing and teacher training. With Lexical Lab, he runs a variety of training courses for people in English Language education as part of a Summer school. He is the co-author of several coursebook series – Outcomes, Innovations and Perspectives (National Geographic Learning) and the methodology book Teaching Lexically (Delta Publishing).