R is for Repetition

5 12 2010

In her latest book, Claire Kramsch (2009) argues – among other things – for the value of repetition:

“In an effort to make language use more authentic and spontaneous, communicative language teaching has moved away from memorisation, recitation, and choral responses.  It has put a premium on the unique, individual, and repeatable utterance in unpredictable conversational situations.  And yet, there is value in repetition as an educational device: utterances repeated are also resignified” (p. 209).

That is to say, simply repeating something gives it an added or even different signifiance. Walt Whitman captured this principle in this brilliant little poem:

What am I, after all, but a child, pleas’d with the sound of my own name? repeating it over and over;
I stand apart to hear—it never tires me.

To you, your name also;
Did you think there was nothing but two or three pronunciations in the sound of your name?

Whitman Whitman Whitman...

Kramsch goes on to argue that “we may want to put the principle of iterability to work…: the same text, reread silently or aloud, can yield new meanings.  The same utterance, repeated in various contexts, with different inflections, can index different emotions, evoke different associations.  The same poem, memorised and performed two or three times in front of the same class, yields each time new pleasures of recognition and anticipation.  The same story, told to three different interlocutors, can enable the storyteller to put different emphases on the same general theme depending on the listener…” (ibid.)

The value of repetition as a means of achieving fluency has also been acknowledged in the recent literature on task-based learning. When learners repeat a task, even a relatively long time after its first performance, gains have been shown in both fluency and linguistic complexity. Bygate (2009) suggests that this is because “previous experience of a task is available for speakers to build on in subsequent performance” (p. 269).  He makes a similar point to Kramsch’s: that the communicative approach tends to value spontaneity and creativity. “And yet to provide speaking practice only under these conditions runs the risk that learners will constantly be improvising, constantly experimenting with new forms, but also constantly doing so while having to pay some considerable attention to the content of what they want to say” (ibid.). In other words, ‘free expression’ may come at considerable cost to fluency.

Corpus linguistics has shown, too, that a large proportion of what we say and write is ‘second-hand’: we recycle our own utterances repeatedly, as well as those of the discourse community we are affiliated to (or wish to be affiliated to). As Hopper (1998) puts it, echoing the Russian scholar M. Bakhtin, “We say things that have been said before. Our speech is a vast collection of hand-me-downs that reaches back in time to the beginnings of language” (p. 159).  He adds that, from this perspective, “language is … to be viewed as a kind of pastiche, pasted together in an improvised way out of ready-made elements” (op. cit. p. 166).  A good writer of academic text, for example, knows how to select formulations that are already part of what T.S. Eliot called ‘the dialect of the tribe’ in order to create “an easy commerce of the old and the new” (The Four Quartets).

The problem with repetition, from a pedagogical point of view, is that there is a tension between the need to repeat, on the one hand, and the boredom factor, on the other. It requires skilful management to balance repetitive language practice with the need for variety and a change of focus. One way is to change some element in the task for each iteration. Here are some ideas:

1. Change the amount of support: e.g. ‘Disappearing Dialogues’: learners practice a dialogue that is written on the board or projected, chunks of which are progressively hidden or erased, until they are perfroming the entire dialogue from memory.

2. Change the mode: e.g. ‘Paper conversations’: students interact passing paper and pen back and forth (like on-line chat), then repeat the exchange speaking.

3. Change the time: e.g. the 4-2-1 technique: students take turns to talk to their partner about a topic, for – at first – 4 minutes, then again for 2, and finally for 1, trying to keep the content constant.

4. Change the speakers: e.g. the ‘onion’ technique, whereby students are seated in two concentric circles, the inner circle facing the outer. Students perform a speaking task in pairs (e.g. a role play) and then the outer circle students move one seat clockwise, and the task is repeated with new partners.

References:

Bygate, M. 2009. Effects of task repetition on the structure and control of oral language. In Van den Branden, K., Bygate, M., Norris, J.  (eds.) Task-based Language Teaching: A Reader.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hopper, P.J. 1998. Emergent language. In Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kramsch, C. 2009. The Multilingual Subject. Oxford:  Oxford University Press.


Actions

Information

35 responses

5 12 2010
Mike Harrison

I’m glad you posted this, Scott, as I believe I agree that there is relevance to using repetition in the teaching/learning process. I think perhaps especially with learners who have not had much in the way of formal education it could be crucial, but as you can easily get bored.

I really like the ways you suggest to mix it up a little, so simple yet very effective. I always try to get my learners interacting with at least 2 people when doing collaborative tasks, including repeating similar questions when doing interview-type activities. Without wishing to massage your (and Luke’s) ego too much, I have had success recently doing the Paper interviews activity (Teaching Unplugged 2009) with some lower level ESOL learners. It’s an interesting way to get learners engaging with the content, rather than solely via spoken language.

I have to say, I also really like Adrian Underhill’s techniques (again, so simple!) for practising pronunciation with learners, which can often become a tennis match back and forth between teacher and learner! Modelling the shape instead of giving the sound is something else I’ve done with my lower level learners, with a certain amount of success.

6 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mike, for the comment. Your mention of Adrian’s pronunciation techniques reminds me of a technique, involving repetition, which I think works quite well, and is very consistent with Adrian’s approach. It’s the so-called Human Computer technique, as used in Suggestopedai (I think). The teacher takes the role of a computer that has been programmed for voice recognition. Minimal pair pictures (e.g. mouse and mouth) are displayed on the board (the computer’s “screen”) and students are invited to say any word they like. The teacher soundlessly points to the word (like a cursor) that he/she hears them to have said. The student can then say, yes, that one, or no, I mean… attempting to self-correct their pronunciation in order to “move the cursor”. I must admit I’ve never done this, but it makes perfect sense. It could also be applied — not just to pronunciation — but to any contrast they can be portrayed visually, e.g. a grammar distinction.

5 12 2010
Mr Darkbloom

Scott, ever since I caught a video of yours on YT about repetition, I’ve been far more conscious of working it into lessons. If there is one technique I highly recommend to other teachers, it is the Disappearing Dialogue.
In small groups, speaking in a chain or circle (all eyes on board), I’ve also found to be great for keeping learner focus on an activity and creating a balance of safety and risk for introvertive learners to speak a little in open class.
Cheers🙂

6 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment — in case anyone doesn’t know it, the video clip referred to can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzGhw8NOcrI
and deals, principally, with the benefits of re-visiting texts — a form of repetition.

5 12 2010
Dennis Newson

Scott has provided an appropriate quotation for me in the piece above : “…we recycle our own utterances repeatedly.” Here goes. I take the point about the wrong kind of repetition leading to boredom but not least because using language, especially speaking, is importantly a physical matter involving correct breathing, articulation, height and position of tongue, lips, toggling of voice on and off it would seem to stand to reason that repetition, practice is absolutely essential, as essential as practice is for mastering the playing of a musical instrument. As far as practice is concerned I always found working with group performance of suitable poems – choral speaking – great fun and, by repeating/practising someone else’s words for speed, rhythm, accuracy learners got great pleasure and a sense of achievement from quickly improving their performance.

6 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Dennis — the subject of choral speaking came up on a previous thread (P Is for Poetry, I think), and, especially for younger learners, seems an excellent way of building repetition into classwork. As Claire Kramsch says, the value of recitation has been sidelined by the emphasis — in the communicative approach — on spontaneity and originality.

5 12 2010
Glennie

As well as the disappearing dialogue, there is the disappearing sentence or text, in which sts in turn have to read out the text on the board with the teacher removing more and more of it each time.

This works very well when students listen to other students. In most cases, the fact that it might be their turn next tends to mean that students do pay attention very keenly as other members of the class read. I say ‘in most cases’ as it’s a rare Spanish adolescent who won’t take the of the opportunity for a chat with their neighbour which is afforded by an individual class member interacting with the teacher. (This, incidentally, is why I always leave out the last stage of so many activities: the whole-class discussion, a marvelous ideas for cultures in which people listen to each other. The same problem also has dire consequences for pronunciation practice in which you want students to listen to good models provided [and repeated!] by other students: not enough students listen attentively.)

I’ve to thank Mario Rinvolucri for the disappearing sentence idea.

Of course, after repetition there comes what I think is the most crucial element in the teaching process: the re-visiting one or two days later (and, if possible, re-re-visiting). But that’s another subject.

6 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Glennie — yes, in the rush to get through the coursebook or the syllabus, and the need for constant variety, re-visiting, as a form of repetition, tends to be neglected. Also, there is value, not only in recycling texts, but in recycling topics using different texts, in order to increase the number of encounters with the topic-related vocabulary. This is what is called “narrow reading”, referred to in the video clip I mention above.

Thanks also for the mention of “disappearing sentences” — that, and the disappearing dialogue, we owe, as you rightly point out, to Mario Rinvolucri.

19 12 2010
Adrian Underhill

I think we owe it to Caleb Gattegno. That is where both myself and Mario got it.

5 12 2010
Glennie

Incidentally, doing my best to remove the tone of irritation from my voice, I often ask classes why they always assume that the answer the teacher gives to an individual student’s question is of no use or interest to them (they often start conversations with their neighbours as soon as an individual student begins an interaction with the teacher). They normally look at me with a slightly bemused expression as if it were the first time anyone had asked them to consider this question.

Of course, students questions often involve taking the teacher taking the class back to something they’ve previously heard or read. So it’s a kind of repetition too, from which many sadly do not benefit for the reasons I’ve given.

5 12 2010
David

Important topic Scott. I always tell teachers to teach the three Rs. Repeat, Redo, Review. But as you note, it is all how it is done. Repeating for the sake of repeating, imho, does nothing to help students acquire a second language. But it will depend on your beliefs about how students learn (and teachers teach). I still espouse that there must be “impulse” and a communicative element to the practice or it is just filler (unless addressing a specific pronunciation problem for example).

I really think that most of our language courses go “too fast”. And if I had a magic wand to correct anything it would be this – slow down and repeat more often (in different contexts).

One activity that works with intermediate/high level students is to give each a short story/joke. They read it and then tell a small group and then repeat, repeat, with new groups snowballing. Retelling is a way to make repetition communicative and authentic.

I would also think we should note here, the universality of recursion in language. How we loop and repeat in all our efforts to communicate. Using recursion, we “repeat” but in a creative way.

David

6 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, David, for reminding me of the value of joke-telling — a kind of repetition that’s both authentic (I’m always telling my sad repertoire of three jokes again and again!) and fun. Getting students to memorise a joke and then tell it to as many people as they can in a mingling activity is great fun — especially if they also have to explain it, e.g. if it involves a play on words. Joke books for children are a great source. I told this one two days ago at a conference in Slovenia, and no one laughed: A penguin walks into a bar and asks the bartender, “Have you seen my brother?” and the bartender says “What does he look like?” (It must have been the way I told it!)

5 12 2010
Glennie

I couldn’t agree more, David, about the need to slow down.

This is often very difficult either because of the insistence on the part of institutions that coursebooks be ‘got through’ (the choice of language here gives the game away) in a given period of time or because of the view held by some that if students do not finish a book in a year, and thus have a feeling that they are moving forward, they will somehow become demotivated.

6 12 2010
Candy van Olst

Repetition/practice is the only way to master any physical skill and speaking is a skill. An integral part of the so-called “method” that I was trained to employ as a correction and introduction techinique, is the question. Answering a question provides the “impulse” and communicative element mentioned by David. We/I frame the first question in such a way that every element needed for the answer is present in the question and then through a process of reframing the question step by step, eventually the question asked can consist of one word, but the answer remains the same. Using this “technique”, the teacher can ask as many questions as necessary to allow as many repetitions of the answer as required for the student/s to get control of the structure or lexis. Bang it up on the board, student/s write it down. So from hearing to saying to seeing to writing, followed by review and recylce later, tomorrow, soon after repetition gets it done……

I would also like to add my voice to the “slow down” cry. We do try to do too much, the pressure to tick off the chapters and tenses, the structures and the skills just leaves most students baffled and feeling even more out of control of this thing they are trying to master. Repeat, recycle, redo, review and again until the deliberate steps become the dance.

Candy

6 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

I’m intrigued by this questioning technique, Candy — but I’m not sure I can get my head around it. Can you give an example of a possible sequence?

7 12 2010
David

Candy,

That’s a great skill! But it entails that most teachers teach their students question making much earlier than our regular curriculum usually does. I think this and introducing the past tense earlier are two big changes we should have in our curriculum.

Your technique is very effective and repetitive but I also think we might both bore students or lose any sense of authenticity. We might also teach students to be “responders” to questions (students) rather than communicators (people). I once, I swear, had a student who couldn’t have a conversation despite being fairly fluent. He could only answer your questions!

A sequence/example would be great but I think I understand how you do it…

David

6 12 2010
Paul Maglione

Couldn’t agree more; Repetition is the “Olde Methode” baby that risks being thrown out with the bathwater in the (overall positive) evolution to a more Communicative approach. Drills seem to be the antithesis to what modern teaching is all about. But if we shift our thinking to Video Games and (a) why they seem so addictive to young learners, and (b) why they are the Flavor of the Month with pedagogical experts, we see that they are, in fact, all about repetition. You start up your Wii Mario Kart or whatever for the first time; you race (badly) around the track and score terribly – without any stigma of failure however, and… – you do it again! And again, and again, with slight variations each time (opponents do different things, power-ups and traps appear in different places, etc) until you master that level and move up to the next. Repetition with variation is perhaps one of the least-valued, but potentially most powerful, strategies in fostering learner confidence and competence, including in EFL.

6 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Paul — and thanks for drawing the connection with video games. The way that repetition is built-in to these, but with constant tweaking of the task, and raising of the bar, seems to have powerful learning applications.

6 12 2010
Dennis Newson

I very much doubt if it was the way that Scott told the joke in Slovenia that produced no laughter. English jokes go down so badly in Germany that I made a flash card for my university students that read: “That was an English joke. Please laugh.” “Sense of humour” appears to be a very heavily marked cultural matter. And, getting my own back on my students, I used to quote Mark Twain: “German humour is no laughing matter.”

7 12 2010
English Raven

Hi Scott,

That “disappearing dialogues” technique really is so effective…

I applied it in class today, with a short reading passage instead of a dialogue, and the results were genuinely amazing!

http://jasonrenshaw.typepad.com/jason_renshaws_web_log/2010/12/going-going-gone-in.html

Who said everything on this blog is basically about theory and concepts? You’ve just helped me have a sterling day in the classroom!

Cheers,

– Jason

7 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Jason – that makes a nice read. (And who DID say everything on this blog is basically about theory and concepts?!!)

7 12 2010
English Raven

Nobody, as far as I am aware (and I have only seen glowing reviews of this blog, to be totally honest). But just in case someone were to… based on a snap glance at one of the only ELT blogs to feature genuinely well-researched posts with thorough referencing and bibliographical details included.🙂

9 12 2010
crazykites

Hi Scott, I thanked you for your ideas the other day on this blog but the comment obviously hasn’t published (my guess is my poor connection). So I thank you once again for your helpful ideas on repeated practice. I’ll try to use them.

Kirsten

9 12 2010
Jessica Mackay

Hi Scott and everybody,

I was able to attend a week-long seminar on Fluency and Automaticity by Norman Segalowitz at the University of Barcelona in September this year, where he presented the ACCESS approach for the promotion of fluency (Gatbonton & Segalowitz, 1998, 2005)

ACCESS (Automatization in Communicative Contexts of Essential Speech Segments) was developed in response to the perceived lack of repetitive practice to promote automatization in CLT.

Essentially, the approach consists of a sequence of tasks that promote the communicative drilling of formulaic sequences or chunks. These are presented through a ‘Creative Automatization Phase’ which, according to Segalowitz, must satisfy the following criteria; the tasks must be genuinely communicative, inherently repetitive and functionally formulaic. The topic is essentially narrow in order to ensure the repetitive focus, but this is widened in subsequent ‘language consolidation’ and ‘free practice’ stages.

The example he gave of the ‘Creative Automatization Phase’ was an interview grid to be completed by the individual students in a milling activity which was not a million miles from a ‘Find someone who…’.

A nice touch was the addition of pre-task, open-class predictions by the learners as to the results; e.g. “I think only half the class will have been to the US”. He suggested that this encourages a personal investment on the part of the learner in obtaining the information and also forces the speaker to commit to an opinion which may or may not be verified by their interactions, thereby generating an element of ‘exposure’ and even risk of failure that exists in real-world communication but has effectively been eliminated in the safe context of the language classroom.

While it seems a very sensible approach for the promotion of fluency in a notional/functional syllabus, the challenge might be to design tasks that automatize other language aspects as well as creating some variation and novelty in the lesson structure itself.

9 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

That’s fascinating, Jessica, not least because it seems to echo the principles laid out in a talk by Stephen Gaies (also given in Barcelona) way back in 1989, in which he suggested that effective fluency activities (directed at ‘creative automisation’) should have the following features:

They should be:

1. genuinely communicative i.e. require students to make use of utterances as a result of a task-related need, rather than simply for the purpose of saying something.

2. psychologically authentic i.e. require students to allocate attentional resources to both the encoding and decoding of language, and to the effect of that language on events.

3. focused i.e. organised around one or a few functions and notions so as to establish particular utterances as characteristic exponents of particular functions/ notions.

4. formulaic i.e. utterances must be short, memorizable, and multi-situational.

5. inherently repetitive

Again, the ‘find someone who’ format seems to meet just about all these criteria.

10 12 2010
Jessica Mackay

Exactly Scott!

When Segalowitz presented the ACCESS approach I was struck by how familiar it sounded (a variation on PPP?) but then maybe it’s not such a bad thing that current research is revisiting old territory.

Also, to be fair, he was presenting research findings rather than giving a teaching workshop, and his extensive data (from an ESL context in Canada and Study Abroad context: US students in Spain) certainly seem to agree with some of the observations you quote in your post.

10 12 2010
Dennis Newson

Scott writes: Stephen Gaies …. suggested that effective fluency activities (directed at ‘creative automisation’) should have the following features:

They should be:

2. psychologically authentic i.e. require students to allocate attentional resources to both the encoding and decoding of language, and to the effect of that language on events.

3. focused i.e. organised around one or a few functions and notions so as to establish particular utterances as characteristic exponents of particular functions/ notions. ”

It struck me that this comment is both a good example of the seriousness and level of discussion on this blog, but also an example of a statement that would need to be re-stated to be accessible to many classroom teachers.

10 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Good point, Dennis, and, to be fair to Stephen Gaies, this was a summation of an extremely lively and lucid workshop, and which he demonstrated each of these principles, either by reference to classroom materials or to his own experience as a second language user. The point about ‘psychological authenticity’ is that a lot of classroom activity never occurs with the real-time urgency, and often related stress, of real-life interactions. Building in this sense of urgency — of being on-the-spot and pushed to the limits of one’s competence — can be engineered through the use of tasks involving performance, including the need to respond to the unpredictable, as in many clasasroom games, of the “Guess who…” variety, e.g. “What’s my line?” or ‘Alibis’, or in mingling tasks, of the type ‘Find Someone Who’. The requirement, at the same time, that such tasks should be ‘focused’, means that the activity should have a clear communicative purpose (rather than simply being designed to display and practise grammatical structures) and that learners should have available some key formulaic language that maps on to this purpose and will enable the successful achievement of the task. This won’t necessarily be some grammatical structure, although the formula ‘Have you ever…?’ would serve nicely for the traditional ‘Find Someone Who…’ activity.

19 12 2010
Adrian Underhill

Good topic for an entry this one. Especially since our ‘method’ does a lot of it! One problem with this word is its behaviourist connotation, the idea of repetition in itself, somewhat regardless of the quality of attention being paid, having a beneficial learning effect. And within the behaviourist framework (which had problems with things like “quality of attention”) this notion of repetition served the required habit formation and the whole thing worked.

Although we now happily eschew behaviourism, I have the impression it is alive and well and living under another name, and repetition without quality is one of the giveaway signs. So I say yes, let’s have repetition, but since we agree we need to make each iteration fresh and different we had better not call it repetition. In fact iteration is a better word.

And how to keep it fresh and iterative? And what is creative repetition and high grade repetition and attentive repetition? I think the four examples you give Scott of changing some element do this well. And here are a couple of others:

1.. When ‘repeating’ the pron of a new vocab item round the class, work from the instruction “Now, listen carefully to the differences” ……and “Can you hear the differences?…..” etc. This rivets attention, partly because it replaces the standard ‘good/bad’ paradigm with an ‘everything is interesting’ paradigm. And partly because the instruction has actually made simple repetition impossible.

2.. When everyone is working out the answer to Exercise 2 Question 2 (put the verb into the correct tense etc etc) Take the sts briskly thorough this routine: “OK Make the answer in your mind. …..Now say it in you inner voice. And listen to it (with your inner ear). Does it sound good? If not then change it. Does it sound good now? Listen to the separate words in your inner voice. …..Now join the words together… Listen to the stress. …Now whisper it…… Now say it aloud but to yourself….. Now let’s listen to some differences. ….” And because of the investment, and the initial crap detection of the inner listening, and the heightened expectation, there is a real attention which makes dull repetition impossible.

I wonder who else uses these or variants?

20 12 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that, Adrian, and especially for the practical suggestions- which would fit equally well into the threads for Body and for Feel, as it happens. I also like your wording: ‘repetition without quality’ – which characterises so much of the stale parrotting that behaviourism bequeathed us.

30 05 2011
MissLadyCaz

Hello Scott,

Just wanted to mention that I used the ‘onion technique’ today after reading it in this post last night. It worked brilliantly. I came up with 3 questions about the chapter in our serial reader we began today. The discussions were so rich and it was great to hear the way they refined what they discussed as they spoke to a new person. When it came time to share with the whole class some of the key points they’d discussed it was wonderful to hear how they were using evidence from the text to back up what they were saying – something many of these Grade 3s had struggled to do with any depth during other discussions.

So a big thank you from me🙂

30 05 2011
Scott Thornbury

I’m delighted to hear it! Coincidentally, the Onion technique got another mention in my latest blog post this morning, So, If you don’t mind I’m going to cut and paste this comment into the P is for Practised Control thread. Thanks once again.

31 05 2011
MissLadyCaz

I don’t mind at all.

Additionally I tried the ‘Paper Conversations’ strategy today. Worked amazingly! In what seemed to be just a bit of fun for the kids (at least initially), we not only noticed a better use of evidence from the text to support arguments, but there was significantly more persuasive language used by all students during their discussions! It was so much more powerful and authentic than any of the NAPLAN (National Testing) persuasive writing prep we did for these poor Grade 3s just a few weeks ago. So thank you again.

24 06 2012
shahram

Hi Scott,
Though I do not mean to rule out the usefulness of repetition in language learning, I would like to note that repetition is not simply having students repeat words, sentences. It also means the number of times one is exposed to something in different situations. It would lead to a sort of habit formation.I remember i had a training session where the the teacher trainer, a strong proponent of audio lingualism, lectured on how to teach English using a set of adopted techniques. He was able to handle the lectures beautifully because , through repetition , he had mastered teaching the material. However, someone raised a different problem( a general one which did not need any specialization) other than the one under discussion, he had problems talking about it because it was an issue for which he had not ( If I can say) formed the habit.

4 12 2014
Tesfaye

Dear Scott,

I’m doing the online course at Nile on Methods and Materials in ELT. There’s a lot of input from you, I’ve to say – which I’ve to say is GREAT! And I enjoyed reading some pages of your books and watching your presentation on A-Z in ELT… Your face somehow looked familiar to me and I was asking myself ‘where do I know him from…?’ And as I looked up… I saw your picture on the wall of my office…. My colleague had hanged your A-Z in ELT poster 6years ago… and your picture and name is in it… :)))) How amazing… Your picture was in my office (in Ethiopia) for the past 6+ years… small world ha? :)))

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s