Monday, June 22, 2015

Repeat After Me

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland
jonestamara@hotmail.com

How much choral repetition do your students do in your lessons? What percent of the class time is devoted to having your students repeat words and phrases in unison? If your pedagogical approach tends to be more or less along the lines of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), your answer is probably, “Not too much.” In fact, you might even be reading this with a little grin as you think, “Well, none, of course. Choral repetition is boring and not very communicative at all. Why bother?”

That certainly was my response for many years. I felt like every moment I spent on choral repetition was time the students did not have to learn new things or communicate with each other. Besides, choral repetition is an inherently teacher-fronted activity. It’s boring, demands nothing from the students but mindlessly repeating after the teacher and brings a creepy, robotic quality to the classroom. Right?

As it turns out, no.

Repetition for Support

For a few years now, people whose approach to teaching I greatly respect have been coming down staunchly in favor of more choral repetition in ESL classrooms. In a recent presentation at TESOL, Judy Gilbert encouraged teachers to give learners multiple opportunities for choral repetition because when students are exposed to new words, they need to practice saying them with the support of the group until they develop enough confidence to say them alone. She did a lovely demonstration in which she said the sentence “How do you spell easy?” several times while the audience repeated it. Then, she pointed out that when we were repeating the question in unison, “[w]e were all listening to each other and supporting each other; that’s why choral repetition works.” (Gilbert, 2015)

This opportunity to practice a word or phrase several times is especially valuable when the teacher first models the correct pronunciation and then also says it with the students as they chorally repeat, so the teacher’s voice carries the repetition (Miller and Jones, 2013).

Repetition for Memorization

In fact, a Swedish neurophysiologist and advocate for quality choral repetition, Dr. Olle Kjellin, encourages teachers to have students repeat words and phrases one hundred times or even more. I haven’t been brave enough to try that in any of my classes, but he does have a point when he states that the phrase “[p]ractice makes perfect” is neurophysiologically true. To illustrate his point he describes a path that forms when a lawn is walked upon repeatedly. The first time someone walks over the grass, there is barely any effect at all. However after one hundred or more times, a path in the grass begins to form.

However, choral repetition isn’t just a handy trick to help students remember new structures; it is actually essential for memorization. According to researchers, such as Baddeley, Gathercole, and Papagno (1998), when a student learns a new word, it needs to be repeated aloud in order for sounds to be assigned to the word, which facilitates the transfer of the word to the student’s long term memory. In other words, if students aren’t given the chance to repeat a new word or structure several times, he or she may assign the wrong sounds to a word before it is transferred to his or her long term memory, or it might not even be transferred at all (Woo and Price, 2015).

Repetition for Fun

If I had a dime for every time I raced through the presentation of a vocabulary lesson or neglected to have the students chorally repeat the new words out loud, well, I would be writing this from a sunny beach somewhere. I had thought choral repetition was a waste of time. Even worse, I thought it smacked of the kiss of death to any lesson: it was boring. In fact, I just plain was wrong.

Recently I observed a great teacher deliver a lesson. She was reviewing previously taught vocabulary with a fun activity in which the students wrote the vocabulary in various categories on the board. When it came time to check the answers, the teacher read all of the words aloud but missed the opportunity to have her students repeat them after her. However, from my vantage point at the back of the room, I could see several students repeating them silently to themselves. It reminded me that for our learners, repetition is not necessarily boring. It’s a chance to practice the words again and commit them to memory.

If teachers are worried about student tuning out, it can be fun to vary the choral repetition. Have students repeat quietly, loudly, like they are in love, like they are scared, like they are shy. Have the students from Asia repeat, then the students from Africa repeat, then the students from Europe repeat. Have the students wearing jeans repeat, then they students wearing sweaters repeat, then the students wearing sneakers repeat. Have the students who like chocolate ice cream repeat, then the students who like vanilla ice cream repeat, then the students who like green tea ice cream to repeat. Well, you get the idea.

The point is that choral repetition, though out of vogue in today’s communicative classrooms, is an important part of language learning.

So, how do you integrate choral repetition?

 

Baddeley, A., Gathercole, S. and Papagno, C. (1998). “The phonological loop as a language learning device.” Psychological Review, (105/1).

Gilbert, J. (2015) Pedagogical Priorities for Improving Pronunciation, Listening and Speaking Skills. Paper presented at the TESOL International Convention and English Language Expo, Toronto, Canada.

Kjellin, O. Choral Practice- the Neurophysiological Opportunist’s Way. Retrieved May 5, 2015 from http://www.academia.edu/2184625/Choral_Practice-the_Neurophysiological_Opportunists_Way.

Miller, S. and Jones, T. (2013) Taking the fear factor out of teaching pronunciation. AEIS Newsletter, February 2013.

Woo, M. and Price, R. (2015). The pronunciation-reading connection. In T. Jones (ed.) Integrating Pronunciation with other Skills Areas. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.

Comments

Comment from Violeta Calderon
June 24, 2015 at 6:58 am

Very useful, now I have a better idea to integrate choral repetition in my class, so it can not be boring. Thank you!!!

Comment from Tamara Jones
June 24, 2015 at 1:12 pm

I am delighted that you found this post useful! Let us know how it goes.

Comment from Maricarmen
October 12, 2017 at 6:47 pm

I agree with you and the benefits of choral repetition .

Comment from Maggie
November 17, 2017 at 8:25 am

How many times do you think students should repeat new vocabulary? 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.? Thanks

Comment from Tamara Jones
November 17, 2017 at 12:13 pm

I usually have them repeat new vocabulary words 10-15 times. Since Dr. Kjellin says that students should repeat words 50 to 100 times, I should probably do more.

Comment from Tamara Jones
November 17, 2017 at 12:13 pm

I usually have them repeat new vocabulary words 10-15 times. Since Dr. Kjellin says that students should repeat words 50 to 100 times, I should probably do more.

Comment from Willie
June 28, 2018 at 12:34 pm

I love this approach, as a language lover, i recently stop attending community type language classes, “even though some are free” I gained nothing hahah. 1 hour a day, doing this works better for me in 1 month, than 9 weeks of 2 hour classes, in my opinion.

Comment from Tamara Jones
June 29, 2018 at 8:24 am

I’m impressed with your diligence! An hour a day is a pretty serious commitment, but it speaks to the importance of repetition for sure!

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