ELT Elephant-In-The Room Fundamentals Part II: Repetition
September 18, 2012 2 Comments
The second in a four-part series on fundamental ESL/EFL teaching principles which are easy to forget – or tempting to ignore
Fear of repetition? Or long silences? You’re not alone.
Second in our series of simple but essential principles of the language learning process – fundamentals that have been known and understood for decades but which we as teachers have sometimes failed to implement – is the pedagogical concept of Repetition. Yes, Repetition. To summarize: Repetition.
We know that frequency of exposure to – and use of – a language, as well as what can be labeled practice or drilling, are all essential in moving the effects of language input, as well as skills involving language production, from short-term to long-term memory. For example, we all learned in our TEFL courses that a vocabulary item needs to be seen and used at least 10 to 12 times by a learner before it is effectively absorbed into the learner’s active vocabulary.
But what do we, as teachers, actually do to bring about that degree of repetition? And how many of us actually keep track of the number of lexical exposures achieved for a specific target lexical term, driving that number forward until the desired frequency has been reached?
As modern, dynamic teachers of English, we instinctively know that the mechanical drilling of vocabulary items, as was often done in the past without providing any real context, is painful for teacher and learner alike, and of limited pedagogical value. At the same time, the pedagogical principle of Repetition is the baby that we cannot afford to throw away with the bath water of abandoning teaching concepts that we feel are too boring for our learners or have become outdated.
What we need are tricks to achieve the required level of repetition without it seeming like hard work for our learners, and to space out the repetitions so that the learner is given the opportunity to re-familiarize himself or herself with the lexical item just before it disappears totally from the memory of his or her last exposure to it. These “tricks” can take the form of games, or re-exposure of the terms in new but contextually similar language situations, or alternatively, group work exercises like the collaborative building of word trees. Our only limit, as teachers, is our imagination in getting to the desired frequency of exposure. But, crucially, if we don’t achieve this repetition in some way, we must not be surprised if the lexical item fails to become acquired; or if the language usage patterns we are trying to teach never really “click” with our charges.
Of course, taking the time to come up with ingenious ways of creating opportunities for repetition is a challenge if we are racing to finish an imposed course book, or forced to focus on a test result rather than helping learning move learned items to long-term memory. Days and weeks go by, time is short, there is another unit / chapter / module to get through by the end of the term, and so on. Hands up all those who have at least once informed their class that “We have so much ground yet to cover in the remaining weeks of the semester.”
As with some of the other Fundamentals covered in this series, the concept of Repetition is not nearly as sexy an EFL/ESL conference, symposium or webcast subject as, say, “50 Ways To Integrate Podcasts Into Your Teaching.” But it is a core educational principle that, together with learner motivation, constitutes an elephant in the room of ELT teaching. No point just throwing a few peanuts at it: it will stick around for more. If you’re not already implementing a strategy to achieve Repetition in your class or curriculum, you need to.
Next in the series: What Is English?