R is for Repetition (again)

19 05 2013

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird’.

It’s spring and the male blackbirds are in full throat. I was listening to one for a good while the other morning, trying to track the way his little tune (what Wikipedia calls a ‘varied and melodious low-pitched fluted warble’) subtly changes with each iteration. Are these variations accidental? Is he perhaps not very good at holding a tune? Or are they intentional – improvisations on a theme, so to speak? Could these different inflections be the bird’s accent, as it were – the distinguishing characteristics that identify him to other (territorial) blackbirds?

Improvisation on a theme is, of course, a musical reference, and musicians have often been drawn to birdsong.  Preeminent among these is Olivier Messiaen.  ‘Birds are my first and greatest masters’, he is alleged to have said. According to the sleeve notes of an album of works inspired by birdsong (Samuel, n.d.), ‘as an ornithologist, Olivier Messiaen has always loved and studied birds’ lives and songs. Not only in a poetical way but very scientifically too: “They are the best musicians living on our planet”. With a pencil and a score and the musical tools of the western composer, he directly transcribes their songs or the spontaneous combinations of the songs and rhythms.’

Here is the man himself describing some of his musical renditions of birdsong:

And here is his blackbird:

But it’s less the spontaneity of birdsong that I am curious about than the repetition.  Hence, the musical connection, because, as Philip Ball (2010: 124) reminds us: ‘Music is extraordinarily repetitive. ….Around ninety-four per cent of any material lasting longer than a few seconds that appears in musical pieces of cultures ranging from Inuit throat-singing to Norwegian polkas to Navajo war dances recurs more than once – and that is only taking account of verbatim repeats.’ (Those of a musical bent might like to do the math on the Messiaen piece!)

But, of course – and this is the point – no repetition is ever the same: Ball goes on to quote the musicologist Leonard Meyer, to the effect that ‘repetition in music “never exists psychologically” – that we never quite hear the same thing twice. It’s clearly a different experience, for example, to hear a theme for the first time and then to find it returning sometime later.’

OK. So what’s the connection with language?  Repetitive practice is good for musicians and language learners alike? That would seem to be self-evident. But I’ve already blogged about task repetition here, and about drilling here, and about controlled practice here.

No, my current interest is in how ‘we never quite hear the same thing twice’, and, indeed, we never quite say the same thing twice. As Pennycook (2010: 43) puts it: ‘Repetition, even of the “same thing”, always produces something new, so that when we repeat an idea, a word, a phrase or an event, it is always renewed’. And rather grandly, he adds, ‘these ideas can be traced back to Heraclitus (540-475 BC), who insisted that change was real and stability only illusory, famously proclaiming that … “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not”‘ (ibid: 42).

Diane Larsen-Freeman in action at TESOL

Diane Larsen-Freeman in action at TESOL

This was in fact the very point that Diane Larsen-Freeman, along with Sandra Silberstein, forcibly made in a spell-binding talk at the recent TESOL Convention in Dallas. After reviewing the history of repetition in language learning (pattern practice drills, rote learning, automaticity, and so on) she argued that the problem with this kind of repetition is its dogged obsession with form. As she points out in her contribution to Meaningful Action (Larsen-Freeman 2013: 194), ‘The major problem with repetition in audiolingualism … was that it didn’t necessarily require students to use language meaningfully. Repeating the form as precisely as possible was seen to be sufficient.’ Coming from the perspective of complex systems theory, she goes on to argue:

By way of contrast, there is another term, iteration, which I think merits closer attention. Iteration makes explicit the claim that the act of repeating results in a change to a procedure or system. In other words, what results from iteration is “a mutable state”‘ (2013:195).

Elsewhere (2012: 202) she explains: ‘In a complex system, what results from one iteration is used as the starting point for the next iteration. Thus, the starting point or initial condition is always different’.

If this sounds abstruse, think of the blackbird. Every iteration of its song embeds the echo, or trace, of the previous iteration, and of the one before that, and the one before that, and so on. And each iteration changes in subtle, sometimes barely perceptible, ways. But the net effect of these changes may be profound. This is what Larsen-Freeman describes as repetition’s capacity to generate innovation. ‘When we entertain a view of language as a complex adaptive system, we recognise that every meaningful use of language changes the language resources of the learner/user, and the changed resources are then potentially available to the user and members of the speech community (2013: 195). Or, as Pennycook (2010: 47) puts it, repetition is ‘a form of renewal that creates the illusion of systematicity.’ (1)

By means of this illusion of systematicity, iteration equips us with the wherewithal to cope with, and exploit, the inherent variability of real language use.  ‘What is learned through iteration are not simply meaningful patterns, but the process of shaping them appropriately to fit the present context’ (Larsen-Freeman 2012: 204).  Thus, ‘learning takes place not by repeating forms of a closed, static system, but by meaningfully playing the game while revisiting the same territory again and again’ (ibid: 206).

Like the blackbird: revisiting the same territory again and again.  But how can we do this in class?

Stevick coverReferences:

Ball, P. (2010) The Music Instinct: How music works and why we can’t do without it, London: The Bodley Head.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2012) ‘On the roles of repetition in language teaching and learning’, Applied Linguistics Review, 3/2, 195–210.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2013) ‘Complex systems and technemes: learning as iterative adaptations’, in Arnold, J., & Murphey, T. (eds.) Meaningful Action: Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pennycook, A. (2010) Language as  a Local Practice, London: Routledge.

Samuel, C. (n.d.) ‘The message of  Olivier Messiaen’ (translated by Julie de La Bardonnie), sleeve notes to  ‘Homage to Olivier Messiaen: the 80th birthday concert’. Disques Montaigne.

(Thanks to Ben Goldstein for getting me hooked on Messiaen!)


(1) The same idea is beautifully captured in these lines from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop (also about birdsong!):

The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.



40 responses

19 05 2013

I must say I enjoyed listening more to Messiaen on his interpretation of birdsong (and the blackbirds calling outside at this moment!) than his actual work, but perhaps the fault is mine.

Your question – how can we do this in class – set me thinking a good half hour. I don’t think I have any answers which haven’t already been mentioned in your other blogposts and comments on task repetition, drilling, practiced control, except perhaps one: the game that’s similar to the boardgame articulate – getting students to guess what the activity/theme a student is trying to describe where he can’t actually use several keywords – the effort of trying to get it right would involve repetition both on the part of his audience and himself.

20 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mei- I don’t know ‘Articulate’ – what determines what the ‘key words’ are?

But your idea reminded me of an activity I once watched that involved increasing degrees of challenge but also could involve repetition.

The teacher started by saying: I’m from Mars. How do you boil an egg?

One student started ‘You put the egg in some …’ and before she could finish, the teacher interrupted. ‘I’m from Mars. What’s an egg?

‘An egg comes from a chicken…’

Same procedure.

At some point the repetition could be built in by having students recall the procedure thus far.

Also, there’s the chain story idea, where one student provides the first sentence of a story (orally), and students take turns to continue it, a sentence at a time, but always going back to the beginning.

23 05 2013

Your chain story activity reminds me of some of the activities I used where the students sit in a circle and it starts There’s a chair in my room, the next student goes There’s a chair and a table in my room, depending on the number of students in the class the loop could go round a second time!

Articulate is just a description game. My kids love to play it because there’s a time limit and they have to describe the word for their team to guess – it may be an action, person, thing, something from nature, etc…

I’ve adapted it for some of my students, for example where they can’t use mow and grass or lawn or cut and their team has to guess “you’ve just finished mowing the lawn/cutting the grass”. What they can do is describe how they feel – exhausted, thirsty, etc.. That what they had to do was walk up and down pushing a heavy piece of equipment. It made the thing on the ground shorter and shorter, etc…

There’s another circle activity where the students practise fortunately/unfortunately. I might start them off with – I forgot to bring my purse today. The next student has to continue – Fortunately, I’ve got a friend who can lend me some money. The next then might say something like Unfortunately, my friend is not here today. And so on.

Talking of stories, I came across this children’s rhyme this week which reminded me to come back to your blog

He sings when he’s happy,
He sings when he’s sad,
He sings when he’s middling,
But not when he’s mad.

He’s not singing now
‘Cause Mum’s covered his cage
With a blanket for bedtime
And he’s in a rage.

23 05 2013

Just wanted to add that all the stuff I’ve mentioned here aren’t original – they’ve been around for such a long time I’m afraid I can’t remember who to attribute them to.

19 05 2013
Avi Darkbloom

Thanks, Scott.

“Something for everybody”

I remember you using this remarkably simple – though when unpacked – quite profound expression, as a heuristic for teaching approaches.

In light of the uncertainty of how learners actually learn, perhaps we should think of encouraging repetition – or iteration – by promoting a wide range of activities, some of which may focus on the more ‘static’ and some which are more open and flexible.

There are so many activities already available that all a teacher need do is mine to vault and do their best to create an intelligent pick and mix.

Oh, and let’s not forget the warm-up chat at the start of a lesson can be a – daily valuable source of iteration. ‘What did you do at the weekend/last night/yesterday?’ etc, can provide a great springboard for students to reiterate common expressions, while exploring new expressions with the teacher’s guidance.

20 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

Alternating the ‘static’ and ‘dynamic’ elements of a lesson is a very suggestive idea, Avi. I can envisage the warm-up chat, taking the form of a student describing their weekend, and then the teacher periodically putting that student on hold (using an imaginary pause button!), and getting another student to repeat what the first student had said thus far. The washback effect of students’ knowing this would happen might also raise the attention level – often a problem if someone’s weekend was particularly uneventful!

19 05 2013
J.J. Almagro

Let’s play here. Try substituting ‘thermodynamics’ by ‘speechdynamics’, and ‘energy’ by’ language’. Do both illusions of systematicity check out?

“The First Law of Thermodynamics tells us energy is conserved. The total amount never changes. But something does change. I will call it “re-usability”, for now. It’s not an official text book word, but pretty good for communicating the basic idea. Remember that there has to be an energy transfer for something to happen; energy changes form or moves from place to place (heat flow, for example). As energy moves and changes, the total amount of energy stays the same, constant forever as far as we know.

That sounds good doesn’t it?
Energy is forever.

But wait! If it’s forever, why are all these do-gooders telling us we need to conserve energy by using less? Can’t we just keep using it over and over? Why shouldn’t everyone drive to work alone in a 300 horsepower car?

The Rest of the Story…
Alas, my friends, there is always a rub, and when it comes to energy, the rub is described by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The first law would be quite happy to let us re-use energy over and over. The first law is happy as long as energy is conserved. It’s the happy law.

The second law may seem a little less happy to some. It describes the aftermath of every energy change that makes something happen. The second law says that each time energy gets transferred or transformed, some of it, and eventually all of it, gets less useful. That’s the truth. It gets less useful, until finally, it becomes mostly useless (at least as far as its ability to make things happen is concerned)”.

20 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

OK, J.J. – I see an analogy emerging here, but you might have to help me with it! Does repetition ultimately degrade the force of what is being repeated? How can we counteract this?

26 05 2013
J.J. Almagro

Hi, Scott.
I’m afraid your question calls for a Ph.d thesis. Would this have something to do with lexical priming acquisition or atrophy?

19 05 2013
Petra Holtkamp

Wonderful to find out that my previous study of musicology pops up as a meaningful way of approaching language. Of course, I always knew that music is a language, but now as a teacher of English it brings it back to life again. Thanks! Petra

20 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

I am NOT a musicologist, nor even a musician, Petra! So any analogies that I draw between language and music, or language learning and musical performance, have to be taken as simply that – analogies! But if they strike a chord ( 😉 ) so much the better!

19 05 2013
Mark Lloyd

‘In a complex system, what results from one iteration is used as the starting point for the next iteration. Thus, the starting point or initial condition is always different’.

In the context of a language lesson, presumably part of the reason why Larsen-Freeman’s observation rings true is that in producing a particular chunk of language the first time round (and garnering the approval of the teacher in the process) the learner was priming herself to recall and apply that same chunk again in the future when afforded the opportunity to do so in the same or a similar context. This second starting point and subsequent ones are therefore starting from different positions because the learner is progressively and more deeply primed to use the same chunk. It is quite easy to see how fossilised errors come about in this way, but that’s perhaps something for a different thread…

19 05 2013
Luiz Otávio

Mark, yes! That was basically what I was about to say (though far less eloquently). Plus, mastery of formulaic language might also, in the long run, prime students to “unpack” each chunk, take in the underlying grammar and then use it more flexibly. The notion that interlanguage restructuring may also take place through an initially “chunky” deployment of the new forms makes a lot of sense to me.

20 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Mark, I think that captures it well. I might add that the biggest single challenge (well, one of them) that we face as teachers is helping learners to transfer knowledge and skills that they have acquired and practised in the classroom to different (out-of-classroom) contexts. Being able to repeat sentences in the classroom (as in an imitation drill) is no guarantee, of course, that they will be able to do this. But maybe drills that involve some degree of variation (as in substitution drills) invest the language with a little more ‘transferrability’? Just a thought.

19 05 2013
Peter Campbell

I have found that 4-3-2 activities you mentioned in the task repetition blog and described in Nation’s Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking to be highly motivating for students in terms of fluency practice but there is a danger that the current flavour of the month ‘communicative approach’ with it’s focus on fluency over accuracy risks fossilisation of error.

I recently read Lynch, T. 2001. Seeing what they meant: Transcribing as a route to noticing, in which students:

complete a speaking task which is recorded
transcribe their efforts
correct their errors in the transcription
then give the transcription to a teacher for feedback and discussion

Apparently students thoroughly enjoyed the tasks and the technique very effectively promoted self-correction and noticing before the teacher’s feedback.

I would be interested in seeing the task repeated after the transcriptions were analysed.

Error on the side of caution…….

19 05 2013

I’ve had good experiences with that kind of recording/transcription repetition as well, but in addition to any error correction, teach students to look for the disjunctions in the conversation or avoidance “Um, you know, (unrecorded gesture and/or L1)”, “Umm, never mind, let’s talk about (abrupt shift of topic), or responses that don’t answer a classmate’s question or prompt. Then, they prepare language to speak to that the next iteration the following class.

Also, err on the side of not doing this too much. It’s a lot of work for the students.

19 05 2013
Peter Campbell

Patiently waiting for some transcribing software……

20 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Peter (and Ted)… yes, transcribing, as painful as it sounds (and, as you say, the students quite liked it) is an excellent way of ‘revisiting the same territory’. The extract they transcribe needn’t be that long either. (Transcribing a jointly constructed and recorded conversation is a key process in Community Language Learning – traditionally it was the teacher who transcribed the finished conversation on the the board, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be the students working together).

19 05 2013

Scott, the short answer to your (rhetorical?) question is ‘Dogme’, as far as I’m concerned. Unfortunately, many attitudes towards language learning, from both learners and teachers alike, seem fixated on repetition as such, without any appreciation of iteration as you’ve so well described it here.

I think Avi’s suggested warm-up chat can become the heart of the lesson when the teacher keeps the rhythm and lets students improvise according to their individual talents and interests.

Your variation on a theme complements my environs well: amidst the blackbird songs of Crete, as Jazz wafts (and warbles?) through the open air lobby and out onto the veranda overlooking Souda Bay. After a few days here, the Greek I can understand and use consists of the language (bits and bobs) that I need to let people know who I am and what I want and to discover the same about them.

Wouldn’t a good teacher be the person who helps me find the flow each time I cross the river; someone who reminds me that no two Kali mera’s (Good morning’s) are the same?


20 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

I have quoted this often, but it seems to be relevant to this thread, and to Rob’s immediate Greek-using experience. The Chilean broadcaster, Mario Kreutzberger, describes how he learned English in New York in the 1950s:

My system was simple. On my way down to the subway, I would look for older people who didn’t seem in a hurry and I would ask them how to get to an address. They tried to explain, and almost always they would ask me who I was, where was I from, and what was I doing in new York. Each time I understood a little more and I could answer a little better.

At the end of each day, I’d incorporated new words into my dictionary and prepare the sentences that would start a new conversation the next day, again supposedly asking for directions. …

Every night I chose ten new words that I had incorporated in my dictionary, and I’d try to use them in my increasingly lengthy subway dialogue. …

This really is ‘revisiting the same territory’, and also, in Diane L-F’s terms, a good example of repetition ‘generating innovation’.

19 05 2013

Phrasal verbs! Each one has many context-sensitive meanings and new ones pop up like mushrooms on a rich woodland floor — and sometimes disappear as quickly. We’re told they’re so hard to “learn” … they can be idiomatic and slangy. So, excepting a few that are unavoidable, we collect them in a big basket and save them for high intermediate and advanced learners to study. But mushrooms (and all the other stuff that makes up a forest) arise from the iterative processes around them. The weather, the seasons, the living and dying of other beings. Mushrooms … um, or was that phrasal verbs? … are just especially ephemeral. Beating a sloppy metaphor to death here, maybe learners shouldn’t spend too much time with baskets of stale mushrooms but spend as much time as possible out in the forest participating in the process and noticing what pops up?

In the classroom, the “forest” might be a certain broad subject. Staying in the same general environment allows for more repetition to be tried, experienced and observed. Even after we move on to the “meadow”, there can be comparing and contrasting with the “forest”.

PS: love waking up to the blackbird songs, both sung and played. Similar to our American robin!

20 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Kathy … nice metaphors! I’m wondering if ‘the forest’ might also be a corpus (linking back to my previous post). Concordance lines, when you think about them, embody the principle of repetition plus difference. Have the learners search for phrasal verbs that ought theoretically to exist (give them the top 20 verb stems plus the top 8 particles to select from), and then comb the examples to see how many meanings they can find. Well, it’s an idea! 🙂

20 05 2013

I love it! We could maybe also consider genres (spoken, academic, etc.) as varying initial conditions. What meanings pop up in different situations?

19 05 2013

Taking music as the starting point, we have repetition, improvisation, and elaboration. So, how to maintain interest and lead students to explore language at each iteration? That other creative musical, poetic, prose tool: constriction. Each repetition is based on the previous, but add a limitation to to the “initial condition.”

How? You’ve already mentioned some techniques such as 4-3-2 time constraint over at https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/r-is-for-repetition/ Here is one other type: lexical constriction.

Meeting new students for the first time, many teachers use some “getting to know you questions or activities.” Or, these may come from a course book. If Japanese students, even very proficient students, generate questions, they inevitably begin with “What is your favorite food?” and have a banal, but comfortable conversation. Nothing wrong with a bit of comfort food now and then.

Put that on the board. Set an–admittedly artificial–task of trying to get similar answers but without using the words “is”, “your”, or “favorite.” Initial responses are along the lines of “What?” “Impossible!” Followed soon by the next iteration with new partners filled with “What food do you like?” “What do you like to eat everyday?”

Next iteration: disallow “food” and “like”. After some board work, you eventually wind up with student generated questions such as: “What do you want to eat on your birthday?” “What dish do you always order at a restaurant?” “What delicious dish does your Mom cook?” Or, even, oddly one time, “What do you want to eat when you are sick?”

These lead to much more interesting and revealing conversations, move receptive grammatical and lexical knowledge into some classroom practice, and are more creative at each iteration.

Students note down the elaborated questions and these more become stems/chunks/patterns for more interesting questions on the other typical chit-chat surface life topics of music, books, clothes, etc. for short conversations in future classes. You can still have the very comfortable topics, but prompt more sophisticated expression at each iteration. The next class, rather than “What kind of music do you like?” students soon come up with “What do you listen to when you feel tired/happy/stressed?” Then, the discussion can extend naturally from music to feelings, experiences, and stories. And the board fills up with the required language extending from music to emotions. But, we’re still repeating in the same area of discussion and building on the very pat early answers.

Anyone else do this? Can anyone think of other restrictions on repetition besides duration or lexical?

19 05 2013
Luiz Otávio

Gotanda, these are great suggestions, thank you. I wonder, though, whether creating novel utterances like this would qualify as repetition.

20 05 2013

Yes, as Scott wrote, it depends upon how much novelty comes in. And, that mostly resides with the students. Often with mixed level groups we can revisit a given topic several times with different partners/groups each time (25 students in my classes, so plenty of new opportunities). Some students are ready to work around the restriction (yes, Scott, not constriction) and elaborate a bit more at an early iteration, but others are not. The restriction is only in the question formation, so for the ones who need simple, direct repetition, OK, they can still participate because they know we are talking at least centrally about good food/music/comics/places to go, and repeat as often as needed until they are ready to improvise on the next iteration. Ideally, they are getting something from a near peer who is taking a chance.

20 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

I also think this is a great idea, Ted (although I would call it lexical restriction rather than constriction, which sounds more like a medical condition!). In answer to Luiz’s question (is this really repetition, strictly speaking?) I guess it comes down to the balance between what is the same (repeated) and what is new (creative). You could keep the balance more firmly on the side of repetition by requiring fewer changes. This might – at quite low levels – go something like this:

T. What do you typically have for breakfast?
S1. Cornflakes.
T: With?
S1: Milk and fruit.
T: So, what do you have for breakfast?
S1. Cornflakes with milk and fruit.
T. What does [S1] typically have for breakfast?
S2. Cornflakes with milk and fruit.
T. Full sentence.
S2: S1 has cornflakes with milk and fruit.
T: And you, what do you have?

and so on.

Nothing very innovative there, but handled with a fairly cracking pace, and with other adaptations, e.g. more natural intonation, and increasing length of turns, this could go some way to providing freedom within constraint, or innovation emerging from repetition.

19 05 2013

“Anyone else do this? Can anyone think of other restrictions on repetition besides duration or lexical?”

Any constraints (restrictions) on repetition that mimic the limits imposed by time and space among language users (eg, in a hurry, shouting across a canyon, only so much room on the front page of the Times) would do the trick, wouldn’t they?

The suggestions above are quite intelligent restrictions in that they follow a less is more philosophy that liberates rather than constrains learners and learning because, unlike simple drilling, the restrictions make room for singular rather than single form(s).

19 05 2013

Sorry, need to mention that restrictions on using certain lexis mimic differences in social distance and therefore require ‘grammaring’.

19 05 2013

When Billie Holiday used to sing in speakeasies they didn’t use microphones so as not to attract unwanted attention. To make sure everyone heard the song she would wander among the tables, singing it several times and always, so as not to get bored with the song herself, with subtle variations – or iterations. A different kind of blackbird.

20 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

I think this is a wonderful analogy, and suggests to me the kind of classroom activity where groups are constantly re-shuffled but the task is held constant, so there are lots of iterations, each for a different ‘audience’.

19 05 2013

Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.

Going back to Scott’s blog post on drilling, I have been thinking about the lost techniques of audiolingualism. Can anyone recommend an old book on the various types of drills that were used in those days. I would like to learn more about them.


20 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

I’m pretty sure that there is a list in Richards and Rodgers ‘Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching’, but I don’t have a copy to hand at the moment. Anyone?

20 05 2013

Thanks for this, Scott.

I’d like to stretch the music metaphor a bit. Any musician knows that there’s a difference between repetition and rehearsal. Repetition is what you do on your own, most of the time, it’s a rather solitary experience, whereas rehearsal is a social, collective business. The one thing both have in common is focusing on a (testing) passage trying to nail down the various, problematic bits, often in preparation for a performance. When practising alone, the musician will go over the same passage again and again, so that the passage becomes ingrained routine. When rehearsing with others, you’re still playing what you’ve been practising, but the interaction with others will inevitable make it sound different, and you’re focusing on the whole score/tune. In other words, you’re not focused on the mechanics of the music anymore, but you’re striving to convey emotion.

If you think about it, the same happens, mutatis mutandis, in a second language learning context. If the student has spent time practising language on their own, in preparation for a task, say, it goes without saying that s/he won’t sound the same when prompted to use the language in pairs/groups, not least because she’ll have brought to the task linguistic habits into shared consciousness.

The trick as I see it, is making the students use these ingrained habits (formulaic language, say) in a meaningful context in which they can cooperate, interact, and exchange for mutual benefit. Here’s a couple of ideas: Task repetition in pairs with lipograms: asking the A’s to leave out the letter ‘e’ and the B’s leave out the letter ‘i’. Or the A’s replace the pronoun ‘I’ with 2+2 and the B’s replace the pronoun ‘you’ with 3 minus 1, etc.


20 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Chaz … I very much like this distinction between repetition and rehearsal. I can see the latter being the stage whereby learned language becomes ‘portable’ language (referencing back to my response to Mark earlier).

21 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

An interesting follow-up on the subject of repetition is a study done of some Finnish adolescents playing English language videogames. The researchers were interested in the kinds of repetition that occurred. There were at least four:

1. Immediate repetition of an utterance produced by one of the characters in the game;
2. Subsequent repetition of an utterance, a little later in the game, and preserving the prosodic features of the original;
3. ‘Cases in which players recontextualize utterances familiar from prior occasions of use and use them to participate in new environments’;
4. ‘Players may creatively expand on utterances produced and repeated by one of the players’ (p. 159).

The researchers conclude: ‘Our findings show that repetition emerges as a recurrent and frequent practice through which the players respond to salient and meaningful events in the game and display their own understanding and experiences of them. Even the simplest forms of repetition seem to offer opportunities for learning through enabling the participants to draw attention to details of language use. For instance, through repeating fixed phrases and constructions produced by game characters, the players collaboratively notice and pay attention to these and treat them as resources for play. Repeating and imitating meaningful chunks of language also enables the players to adopt them into their own repertoire so that the patterns may become available for recycling in other contexts’ (p.165).

And finally, ‘through employing repetition as a resource for displaying and creatively adapting their competences to the unfolding circumstances of the gaming activity, we also suggest that players treat collaborative play as an occasion for a socially shared learning experience’ (p.166).

Piirainen-Marsh, A. & Tainio, L. (2009) ‘Other-repetition as a resource for participation in the activity of playing a video game,’ Modern Language Journal, 93/2:153-169.

There are so many things about this study that leap out: not just the collaborative element and the ludic element, and the fact that the units of language learning are chunks; but the way repetition becomes iteration (utterances reappear like a theme in music – never the same twice); recontextualization of utterances (what Pennycook calls relocalization, as in the way hiphop migrates and adapts to new circumstances);and, finally, the way that the players appropriate utterances and re-fashion them for their own purposes. This all suggests a kind of pedagogic process of imitating, iterating, relocalizing and customizing – but all as part of the socializing process by which ‘participants display their membership in the local community of players and may also gain access to broader gaming communities’. Repetition generates innovation; innovation generates identity.

The inflections of the blackbird define its territory.

23 05 2013

Hi Scott,

This is one of my favorite subjects. Are you by any chance familiar with Penny Ur’s introduction to (I think either but especially) the first edition of Grammar Practice Activities? As a novice teacher back at the advent of CLT, that book was one of very few that addressed the need for communicative form-focused practice, and the guidelines she listed there are still worth digesting today: quality, quantity, success-orientation, & heterogeneity. They add up to a design strategy for meaningful repetition, and when I try to rationalize why so few textbooks have picked up on this formal, or adapted/included activities from GPU, I usually conclude it’s because meaningful repetition is locally situated and as you write, unrepeatable.

Using her guidelines, would you consider taking your ‘breakfast’ example above and turning it entirely over to the students as a time-limited survey-like activity, after modeling the q&a as you have shown? Doing this would allow all the students to embody the target structures. I’m using ’embody’ because I’m bringing some old and new thoughts together in my head that fit right in here with your blackbirds: Pierre Bourdieu’s *habitus* and Paul Driver’s reccent VRT Keynote “Embodiment, Technology, and Locative Play”.

23 05 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Tom, thank you for mentioning (resuscitating?) Penny Ur’s criteria for successful grammar practice activities. In fact, I used to use these on the Diploma courses I taught years ago, as a rubric for gauging task design, before there really were such things (as rubrics for gauging task design). I saw Penny demonstrate the application of her criteria at a conference in Barcelona maybe 25 years ago! I was especially taken by the notion of heterogeneity – i.e. that a good practice activity should allow learners to participate irrespective of their different levels, abilities, etc.

For those who don’t know Ur’s (1988) criteria, I’ve fished them out of my hard drive (in the context of this thread, note #2 in particular):

Factors contributing to successful practice:

1. pre-learning

– the function of a practice procedure is to familiarise learners with the material, not to introduce it.

2. volume and repetition

– the more language the learners are exposed to or produce, the more they are likely to learn … We want to design procedures that will induce the learners to engage with the items to be learnt as many times as possible.

3. success-orientation

– practice in general is most effective if it is based on more or less successful performance, and practice activities should be designed in such a way as to make it likely that learner responses will be acceptable.

4. heterogeneity

– it is … possible – and desirable – to design practice tasks that can be interpreted and performed at whatever level the individual student feels appropriate, so that some will be able to do more than others – in terms of both quality and quantity.

5. teacher assistance

– teacher activity in the course of the practice should … be largely directed towards supporting and assisting the students in their production of acceptable responses rather than towards assessing and correcting.

6. interest

– what kinds of features within the activity itself arouse learners’ interest and attention and make them want to take part in it? E.g. topic, visual focus, open-endedness, information gap, personalization, pleasurable tension … etc.

Ur, P. 1988. Grammar Practice Activities, Cambridge University Press.

So, yes, I think your re-framing of the pre-lesson chat as survey activity – once the initial topic has been broached, and some sample questions tossed around – is an excellent idea. And, as for embodiment, Bourdieu brings a new term to the table: hexis. I think it comes up in the comments in response to my post B is for Body.

26 05 2013

Thank you for the “hexis” lead Scott. In the meantime I read your “practiced control” post – what a valuable distinction (with controlled practise”! Ur’s guidelines (and the activities in the book) generally tend to promote practiced control, rather than controlled practise — due mostly to the “success-orientation” requirement. It would seem the next task would need to be something that gives students the chance to come back to the target language items while using lots of other L2 in a meaningful way, thereby giving them the chance to (perhaps err and then) get it right on their own…

25 05 2013

Hi Scott,

I think you and I were both at a workshop organised years ago in Barcelona at ESADE where Carolyn Graham introduced us to her jazz chants. I think she’s worth a mention here, don’t you? http://jazzchants.net/who-is-carolyn-graham

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 )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: