Repetition: Sometimes We Need to Hear Things More Than Once

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This Teaching Essentials Blog Series looks at some tools-of-the-trade for online ESL instruction. In it, we explore a few key concepts and dive into what makes them indispensable to our teachers.

Repetition is likely one of the most underrated tools in foreign language instruction, or really, any instruction. But if the parrot at the local pet store can sound more fluent in English than you do at 8am in the morning, there’s got to be something more to repetition.

Repetition gets a bad reputation. Modern education scorns the need for repetition. Beyond that, the challenge many teachers face when it comes to repetition, is that sometimes a student doesn’t seem to need it. What do we mean by that? When teaching a new word or phrase to a student, and they are able to say it perfectly the first time, sometimes it can feel like you are belittling the student by asking them to repeat it. But this is not the case. Repetition is essential in committing things to long-term memory, even if your short-term memory can handle it just fine.

How many times have you forgotten someone’s name right after meeting them? It probably wasn’t because they were called “Hubert Blaine Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorff” (an actual person), but more likely it was because you were unable to commit something as simple as “Anna” to memory. After enough of those embarrassing slip ups you’ll find yourself diligently repeating new peoples’ names to yourself every time.

The same goes for learning, and in particular, language learning. Repetition is vital in order to secure the word or phrase in the mind of the learner for good.

We usually advocate for three key principles when employing repetition in a VIPKid classroom where English language learning is our forte:

1. Isolation

 This means ensuring the student is committing the correct word to memory. If you are teaching the verb “run”, then repetition should occur using the word “run” alone, and not “to run” or “I run”. At least in the very beginning, isolating the key word helps the student memorize the right thing.

Once they’ve got it down, you can start working on adding pronouns and adverbs as you “scaffold” the lesson into more complicated sentence structures. This is the stage where mindful repetition will start to take place, as the student works with the context around the known word. But in the beginning, remember to isolate!

2. Ping Pong

For seasoned players, we know a game of ping pong is only fun with a little back and forth. For repetition to work well the same back and forth is needed. After saying the word or phrase once, the teacher then prompts the student to repeat it back. This is a great way for the teacher to employ other methods such as TPR (see the blog on TPR) and for the student to get a chance to practice the pronunciation of the word. The Ping Pong principle works best when done in conjunction with isolation too: focus on the learning objective and say and repeat only the sound, word, phrase or sentence that’s in focus. Instead of saying: “Let’s fly a kite. Kite.” Focus on the target word when you serve the ping pong: “Kite,” so that the student may say, “Kite.”

3. Double Down

Within the umbrella of the “Ping Pong” principle, with similar motivation to rules of Ping Pong, what would repetition be without, well, repetition. Once the student has repeated the word after you, even with perfect pronunciation and comprehension, do it once more. The double repetition helps reinforce the student’s memory, and also ensures that the student is paying attention in case they just repeated the word without thinking the first time. So make sure you hit the ping pong back and forth a few times – at least twice. 

These three steps will help your students recall vocabulary faster, and ensure more information is committed to long-term memory which will accelerate their language acquisition.

These three steps will help your students recall vocabulary faster, and ensure more information is committed to long-term memory which will accelerate their language acquisition.

(See what we did there?)