“Special” tricks Part 2 — repetition (by David Deubelbeiss)

If you missed the first part of this article, start here

Previously, I outlined how much I’d been changed as a teacher by the realization that language students would benefit from a lot of the instructional practices of “special” needs teachers. Accommodations and modifications of content, behavior, use of models, explicit teaching of learning strategies, small class size, differentiation and what I’d like to talk about today – “repetition”.

To begin, see an example HERE. I’ve been cheerleading Gary Bishop’s amazing Tarheel Reader for a long time. Developed for students with learning disabilities, it is outstanding for ELLs. Why? Because of the intense use of repetition.

Repetition is needed to learn a language and it is a basic remedial technique. Language is NOT a knowledge laden subject but is performance based. We have to do things over and over, listen over and over to achieve mastery. Just like driving a car or learning to pack a parachute. As a child, that’s how we learn too. Here’s a photo of the math notebook of the amazing mathematician, Kurt Godel. Look familiar? Even Godel had to master the basics and we should be doing this with our students. [as an aside, I really do hope one day to write about the implications of his incompleteness theorem to language – it is fascinating ] I’m sure you remember lots of this in your younger days, lots of copying and “mastering”. Godel

But I’m not advocating that teachers set up classrooms like this infamous Chinese way…. full of parroting and useless repetition. No. There are better ways to do this and here are a few of my ideas on how you can best make “repetition” part of your instructional toolkit.

On the Lesson Level

1. Chants and Drills. Yes, don’t do them a lot but do them! The key is to make them so the students have some freedom and personal input. Always allow for students to change the words or omit words (substitution).

2. Controlled Practice. This is a standard lesson component and should allow students to repeat basic grammatical structures yet “push in” new content. Make sure the structure is always on the board for reference and get students used to repeating it (by rewarding them, ringing a bell etc..). Example. “Yesterday, I went to the ………. and ……….. ” – that’s the target language for use with a set of flashcards of places and things.

3. Repeat student’s phrases often in class. We call this echoing. It allows other students to hear the language again but also gives students a chance to process the language and repeat inside their own heads.

Teacher: “What did you do yesterday Mirka?”
Students: “I went to the mall”.
Teacher: “Oh, you went to the mall!”

Even better if the teacher doesn’t repeat but another student does. Recycle the language during the lesson. For example, in the above exchange, the teacher could ask other students – “What did Mirka do?”
Disappearing dialogs are also a great way to repeat language!

4. Review! Every lesson should at least end with the question – “What did we learn today?” Then, list the vocabulary, structures, ideas covered. Even better if you have time to end in a game, quiz. Even better if the students make the review questions! You could also make it standard to review the previous lesson at the beginning of the next.

5. Lesson Sequencing. Students really, really need to know what will happen each class. Make an agenda and stick to it! Meaning, every class, the students know what will happen the first 5 min. / the next 10 min. etc…. You do the same things EVERY class but with different content. I really, truly think there is too much variety and too much “different” coming at students in our English language classrooms. A predictable lesson sequence is vital and students need this kind of “repetition”. An example lesson sequencing might go like this.

0-5 min: Chit – chat, check student attendance, problems…
5-15 min. Review of the previous lesson.
15-25 min. Elicit background knowledge: Song and brainstorm
25-40 min. Controlled practice activity: Flashcards
40-60 min. Performance, presentation using target language.

On the Curriculum Level.

1. Recycling. Recycling of content or “spiraling”  is done by textbook writers but it isn’t always done well. Teachers need to be aware of the need to recycle into new units, the grammar, vocabulary and functions previously covered. Students need to encounter them in new situations, in order to master them.  Jerome Bruner first outlined these curriculum and constructivist principles and his thoughts are very pertinent to ELT.

So for example if the previous unit was about “Telling the time”. In the next unit, “Shopping”, the teacher should make sure to use a lot of “time” references and prepare lessons which insert this. Thus, the dialogue from the textbook could be changed to include times about meeting/opening/closing of shops.

I know I’ve just touched on a few of the ways you can “repeat” and get your students learning more effectively. I think it an important thing for every teacher to think about and this summer might just be the time for such reflection.

Note: This article by David Deubelbeiss originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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8 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    What a great ending to your article, David! So many practical suggestions.

    Hopefully, your suggestions will help new teachers feel more comfortable with including more repetition in lessons!

    Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned through experience!

  2. charterbug says:

    I really appreciated all of your suggestions!! I’ll be teaching at a school this year where I expect to be with a lot of English Language learners and your thoughts helped inspire a lot of new ideas for my upcoming year! Thanks!

    • David says:

      charterbug – I wish all teachers were of the same mould as you! More and more, regular classroom teachers need to be armed with ideas for teaching ELLs pushed into their classrooms. Glad I could help with some suggestions! Have you seen Goldenberg’s report from last year – “Teaching Ells – what the research does and does not say”? if not, lots of value there too. https://www.edweek.org/media/ell_final.pdf


  3. Marisa Pavan says:

    Thanks for your suggestions, David! I’ve used them to reflect on my teaching practice. I’ve found out I’m repetitive in my appraoch but it’s worthwhile for our students. I use mind-maps for the sake of organisation. Organising our
    students´minds is helpful for their learning.

    • David says:

      Yes, very much so! Especially if you make it a routine. Also, it is a great way for schema building and preparing them for the lesson content…

      I have learned to fold an A4 into all sorts of neat ways – to make great organizers and mind maps….kids love the folding and it makes the mind map start out as “theirs”.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Hi David,

    I go back and forth on how much repetition and how much new content is ‘the ideal balance’ for students. I do agree, however, that most students benefit from having a daily framework that is more or less the same for every lesson. Once you find something that works for your group, I think students like knowing what will be expected of them at certain times, so they can mentally prepare. I used to teach a pragmatics class, and I think it helped my group to know that we would usually start class with a whole-group discussion on the topic from yesterday, so they could think of something to say on their walk over, etc.

  1. July 15, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Barbara Sakamoto. Barbara Sakamoto said: Part 2 of "Special" tricks, guest post by @ddeubel (Stuff all EFL Teachers Should Know) https://bit.ly/bPzsv5 #efl, #esl #edchat […]

  2. July 26, 2010

    […] old dog and new tricks: Part 1 – about the need to develop professionally. Part 2 on the use of repetition in lesson planning and […]