Archive for Tag: drills

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Could You Repeat That?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

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.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Don’t Dread Drills

By Ela Newman

Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL

University of Texas at Brownsville


newjgea@aol.com

Repetition drills, substitution drills, transformation drills. Are they mechanical and unexciting or practical and indispensable in language learning?

The notion of drilling often sparks animated discussion, but surely some students, some of the time, can benefit from having to repeat new structures. The frequency of use itself can help turn that newly-learned phrase into a more reflexive phrase. Drills also allow students to practice controlled and “graspable” pieces of language. Still, we may reasonably wonder if they are stimulating enough, and if they have anything to do with real communication.



Can we use drills in real and meaningful contexts? Is there a way to avoid rote repetition?


I recently took an online course designed by Diane Larson-Freeman, in which it was suggested that role plays involving creative automatization can be very effective. In these, students repeat the same sentence a few times, but they do so in contexts which would require that repetition in real life. In other words, the repetition is “psychologically authentic — the situations call for “natural repetition.”



At one point, students are practicing the structure
something needs V-ing, and they have to repeat the sentence My washing machine needs fixing a few times during a call to an appliance store because the call keeps getting transferred to different departments of the store. I guess that’s something like an instance of “the run around.”


I found the idea quite interesting and have created a few role-play situations that generate a need for “natural” repetition. Here are a couple of scenarios I came up with which can be transformed into role-plays incorporating psychologically authentic repetition. Both focus on the causative have.

Activity 1: This Room Looks Different



The student has had his or her apartment redecorated and is having a party. Guests are pouring in and they notice the changes. One guest says, “This room looks different,” and the student may respond, “Yes, I’ve had the walls painted.” Another guest arrives and says, “Wow, this room looks great!” to which the student may again say, “Yes, I’ve had the walls painted.” Knock… knock… Who’s there? Another guest? Great! (The more guests the better for the student learning the new structure!)



Activity 2: You Look Different



The student has changed something about his or her appearance and goes to work the next day. One co-worker comments, “You look different today,” and the student may respond, “I had my hair cut yesterday.” Another employee notices a change in the student’s hair color and says, “Your hair seems darker,” to which the student may reply, “Yes, I had my hair dyed chocolate brown yesterday.” Of course, if the student has had a complete make-over, this could go on for some time!

In these activities, the new structure is repeated out of necessity in a “psychologically authentic” context. It feels natural. There is a “legitimate” reason for a student to repeat the same sentence a few times. It appears to be a good way to practice structures which are genuinely new to students, and could precede activities which allow for greater variation in responses.


I’d love to hear from those of you who have used this method and those who’d be interested in sharing role-plays aimed at giving students chances to repeat new structures in contexts which require repetition naturally. Anyone ever practiced past tense forms using role-plays that involve meaningful repetition?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Drilling for Language

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

The first time I studied a foreign language was in 5th grade, when my family lived in Geneva, Switzerland. My brother and I attended a private school where we essentially learned French all day, except when we were pulled out for sewing and needlework (girls) or shop (boys) or sports (everyone).

Fresh off the plane, my brother and I began at the beginning: the alphabet, simple greetings, numbers, colors, then verb conjugations.

We completed one lesson in the textbook each day, and the next day were called individually to the blackboard to take a quiz, either oral or written on the board. We were graded instantly, in front of the class.

Classwork consisted mainly of copying out verb conjugations a number of times, completing written exercises, memorizing vocabulary lists, and answering surprise drill questions fired out by the teacher when we least expected it.

Life in the ‘Language Lab’

Every now and then we went off to a dark little room—I guess some precursor to the “language lab”—where we’d watch filmstrips that advanced one frame at a time. A slide would come up, we’d listen to the French, repeat it in chorus, and *beep*! The next slide would come.

Years later, when I was in graduate school, it seemed fashionable to mock the audio-lingual method, rote memorization, drills, choral repetitions, and the teacher-centered classroom. Certainly a lot of what people were saying about a student-centered, communicative classroom did sound more appealing. A gentler, more human approach. Empowering. And yet… and yet… I did learn French, fluently. You could argue that some of that could have been due to my being 11 and living in a French-speaking environment for five months. But to this day I remember those film strips down to the word—and that was 34 years ago (oh, go ahead, do the math, I don’t mind).

  • Où est-ce que vous habitez, Jacques? (*beep*!)
  • J’habite rue de la Poste (*beep*!)
  • En face du cinéma. (*beep*!)

And yes, I have the accent and intonation down too. A frequent criticism of the audio-lingual method is that students can’t substitute freely and correctly with the patterns to make original sentences; yet that certainly wasn’t true for me or my brother.

More Fun, Less Learning

Japanese was my second foreign language. I studied for one semester at a college in Oregon. Our teacher had us memorize a dialogue every day, practice repeatedly with a partner, and recite it in class the next day for a grade. Later, in Japan, I took classes that were much more communicative. And while they were more fun, I never seemed to make any actual progress with learning the language. Even after living there for five years, the vocabulary and patterns I know best are those I learned in the US from constant drilling and memorization.

I later watched my husband struggle with his Japanese class. “What do you want to learn?” asked the teacher. My husband asked for a lesson on food because he was in charge of the grocery shopping. The teacher obligingly handed out a list of what must have been every vegetable ever eaten in Japan, as well as many that have never crossed its shores, and then asked the class (in Japanese), “What are your favorite dishes?” Of course no one could answer, since no one knew the words “favorite” or “dishes, ” let alone how to describe them using only a list of ingredients. The class continued with more “discussion questions” about food, and my husband came home very frustrated.

The Payoff Is Worth the Price

I asked him what he would have preferred. He said (yes, my husband Mr. Visual Learner and General Touchy-Feely Guy) that he would have liked a few short dialogues to memorize and then to have recited them for the entire lesson, doing just simple substitutions, until he had the material memorized cold. He conceded that it would have been dull—but said the payoff of learning the material would have been more than worth it.

Now, I’m not advocating a boring classroom, or saying there’s no place for open-ended discussion or even “free conversation.” But I do think that when communicative language teaching came into fashion, the baby might have been thrown out with the bathwater. If our students want to learn English, then really, what is going to please them most is actually learning English—even if that means some drills, repetitions, and memorization, or even the teacher leading the class sometimes (imagine!). I don’t underestimate the part a relaxed and enjoyable classroom atmosphere can play in a student’s mood and motivation. However, it’s OK to trade some momentary fun in class today for students really knowing some language at the end of the course.