Using Repetition Drills

Immediately after the presentation of a new structure or vocabulary field, the students need a controlled practice stage in which they have the chance to focus exclusively on the new language and start to familiarise themselves with it. What the student says and how it is said is controlled by the activity and restricts the student to the target item. The lower the level, the more important this stage is. The students do not have to speak spontaneously, and therefore do not have to focus on what they want to say at the same time as considering how to say it. Their output is 100% predictable.

The simplest and most controlled of these types of activity is a repetition drill - the teacher simply says a sentence containing the target structure (or even just the lexical item being taught) and the students repeat it. This can be done :
  • Silently : the students repeat the sentence or word to themselves in their minds to try and get a mental image of the item. This stage is often skipped, but I find it invaluable.
  • Chorally : the whole class, or in a larger class, groups of students repeat the sentence/word together.
  • Individually : the teacher calls on one student at a time to repeat the target item.

The staging Silent - Choral - Individual repetition is in increasing order of challenge for the student and should generally be done in that order. If students are having problems, however, it may sometimes be useful to backtrack to an earlier stage.

Here are some dos and don'ts for using repetition drills effectively :

Do...
  • Think about whether you want the students to see the written form before the repetition or not. In general it will be helpful, but in some cases you may want to establish the pronunciation first - for example with the word cupboard. In this case, when you finally write up the word, check the pronunciation again and point out the silent p and the schwa sound (1). Otherwise students are liable to think they were wrong when they were repeating and start to pronounce the word in the way you were hoping to avoid.

  • Give clear instructions as to whether the students should be listening or repeating, and give them several chances to listen before asking for repetition. It will generally also be useful to indicate stress and intonation features using gesture, board symbols etc.

  • Speak naturally, so as to give a realistic model of pronunciation. Notice how the pronunciation of the words is different in connected speech than if they're pronounced individually - for example in the phrase go and see there will be a linking consonant /w/ between go and and; and the word and itself will be pronounced in its "weak" version : the /d/ will probably disappear (elision) and the vowel sound will again be a schwa. You need to decide how much you wish to focus on these elements in pronunciation work. If the students need to speak to native speakers of English it's essential that they recognise them. However, at lower levels asking students to produce the weak forms may be beyond them. Apart from anything else, they are features of fairly rapid, linked speech, and beginners are usually unable to speak that fast. Weak forms pronounced in isolation usually sound ridiculous.

  • Give a further model before every repetition. Don't expect students to work from memory or they're more likely to repeat what they heard from the last student than what you originally said.

  • During choral repetition, "conduct" the group to keep them together. Otherwise it's very difficult for them to produce the same rhythm and intonation, or for you to hear mistakes. If the group is together and one student is pronouncing something wrong, you'll hear it. If they're all at different points in the sentence, you won't.

  • Use fairly short phrases - not more than about seven syllables at a time, and considerably shorter for beginners. This will probably mean breaking the sentence into parts. If you do this always backchain - start with the last part first and build towards the front. Otherwise you'll find it impossible to maintain the correct intonation. For example, if you're working on the sentence Mr Johnson's attending a conference in Paris this week, the sequence might be : this week - in Paris this week - a conference in Paris this week - attending a conference in Paris this week - Mr Johnson's attending a conference in Paris this week.
Don't ...
  • Don't be tempted to skip this stage. At elementary level it's essential to give the students the chance to familiarise themselves with the language before they start really using it, and even at intermediate level it's useful for new structures, though you may start dropping it for remedial work.

  • Don't let it go on for ages or let the pace drop. Repetition work should be short and snappy or it gets boring. Do silent and choral repetition and try to hear a couple of students repeating individually. If you had four model sentences, you might want to do, for each : 1 or 2 silent repetitions; 2 choral repetitions; and 3 individual repetitions, using different students each time. Five minutes repetition work would be ample even at the lowest level, and would probably get considerably shorter as you moved towards intermediate level. You can brighten the repetition work up by asking the students to repeat using different emotions - as if they're tired, angry, very happy, or surprised. Try it with the sentence above!

Notes

(1) Unfortunately this site doesn't support phonemic script so I can't use it. The schwa sound is the most common sound in the English language. It's the "er" sound as in teacher, choral, repetition. It only occurs in unstressed syllables of lexical words, and often in weak forms of grammatical words. Think for instance of the difference in the pronunciation of was and for in isolation (the strong form), and in the sentence I was there for two weeks.



Further Reading ...

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