Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Could You Repeat That?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

I just finished a 3 week scuba certification. In addition to learning all sorts of things that will (hopefully) keep me alive in the water, I also, unexpectedly, learned a lot about teaching.

You might know from reading some of my previous blogs, that I am studying French, as well as teaching English in Belgium. My experience as a French student has already provoked a great deal of reflection about my own teaching and caused me to revisit and, in many cases, change the way I do things in the classroom. However, I was not prepared for the same consequence of taking a scuba certification class.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

First, I learned that repetition is the most exciting thing you can do in class. This might be overstating it, but not by much. In my scuba class, we read from a text, we watch a video that tells us pretty much what was in the text, and we attend lectures that repeat what was in the text and video. And you know what? I STILL go blank on important information from time to time. There is just SO much to remember, I need all the exposure I can get. Sure, by the third go-around, I am not exactly on the edge of my seat, but I know it is important to learn, so I pay attention.

One More Time

My teacher, Angelo, understands this.  So in his lectures, he repeats key information several times. For instance, he might say, “You ascend at a rate of no faster than 9 meters per minute.” Then, immediately after, he will repeat or rephrase that information. “So, you should not ascend any faster than 9 meters per minute.” And then, a few minutes later, he will ask us how fast we should ascend.

This is something I started doing in my Pre-Intermediate English classes with great results. I know that as a French student, I don’t always catch something the first time I hear it. We play recordings in listening activities multiple times for our students; why not do the same when giving important information or instructions?

It’s Still Not Getting Old

Still, only reading and hearing about something is not the same thing as actually doing it, as anyone who has watched students struggle to accurately use the grammar they have learned knows. After reading and watching and hearing, I was excited to do the things I had learned about in the pool. However, one practice mask-clearing was not nearly enough. I wanted to go through the motions again and again until it felt natural and automatic to clear my mask underwater. I didn’t get bored; I was so focused on what I was doing, I could have repeated the same movements until my fingers got too wrinkly to lift my mask.

The light went on! I realized that my students need the same repetition to master English skills. It is not enough to have students repeat a new word once and then move on. They need to repeat again and again until it is natural and automatic for them. Of course in the limited time I have with them, I can’t make them repeat something chorally all throughout class, but I have become much more conscious about giving them a lot more repetition. For example, in an activity I learned about from a former colleague at Howard Community College in Columbia, MD, students have 3 minutes to tell a story to their partner —  maybe about a scary experience they had as a child or a wonderful party they attended. Then, after the student has told his/her story, he/she meets with a new partner and tells the same story to his/her new partner, this time for only 2.5 minutes. Then, the student meets with a third new partner and (you guessed it) tells the same story again, this time for 2 minutes. When I first heard about this activity, I thought the students would find that much repetition too boring. However, after my scuba experience, I know that repetition is a key step toward automaticity.


Comment from Nick Jaworski
September 12, 2010 at 10:48 am

I definitely agree repetition is key. The trick is making that repetition interesting and every student has different tolerance levels.

I remember when I learned to scuba dive it was in Jordan. I didn’t read the book or watch the video. We simply put on our gear, dove a couple meters under, did one mask grab and clear check that he’d previously explained and we were on our way. I was quite happy to do so and would have been insanely bored by all the repetition. I’m more of the jump in and learn to swim kind of person.

The repetition has to be meaningful and the students have to feel the need for it. A big problem you see with repetition in classes is that it’s meaningless. Drills are just done to drill and it serves little purpose, but if you can incorporate repetition into activities that are different and meaningful, you’ll see a lot of progress I think.

Comment from Tamara
September 13, 2010 at 5:46 am

I completely agree that meaningful repetition is key! The students need to buy into it. And you raise a good point that different students will be more or less interested in repeptition, depending on their personalities.

Comment from Juhan Leemet
September 13, 2010 at 6:05 am

to Nick: “jump in and learn to swim” can be dangerous with SCUBA diving. If you do the wrong thing, you could DIE! For example, if you panic, hold your breath, and pop to the surface from 30 to 60 feet, you could burst your lungs AND get “the bends”. Repetition makes something a habit. You don’t think clearly when you panic. Not all classroom info applies to “potentially life threatening situations”. I agree that meaningless repetition is boring. Teachers have to get students to realize what’s important, and get them to focus on that.

Comment from Tamara
September 13, 2010 at 6:18 am

“Selling it” is vital. Students need to see why they are doing it. And, they do need to do it more than many “communicative” teachers may realize. Dr. Olle Kjellin describes a technique for learning L2 pronunciation called “Quality Repetition.” Students repeat a phrase many times (50 – 100 times) at native speaker pace in order to imprint the music of the L2 into their brains. I haven’t tried this yet. (I am a little afraid to suggest it to my students, frankly.) But he makes a very compelling argument in his paper at http://olle-kjellin.com/SpeechDoctor/ProcLP98.html.

Comment from Queer English
September 24, 2010 at 12:50 am

The idea of repetition or drilling stems from the ALM’s core principle, habit formation. My teacher trainees always ask me if repetition or parroting as a technique in second language acquisition is valid. Yes, it definitely is. It is one way of exposing learners especially beginners or zero-English students to the English language.

Comment from Tamara Jones
September 24, 2010 at 1:41 am

I agree! However, I think that repetition even has a place with higher level students. With my TOEFL Prep students, when they learned new Vocabulary words, I would have them repeat after me and then say them chorally without me so I could listen for errors.

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