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An ELT Glossary: Task Repetition

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    An ELT Glossary: Task Repetition

    Since the 1990s, the benefits of task repetition have been fairly widely discussed. However, they are generally limited to the discussion of the repetition of "tasks"in the technical sense of the term - a communicative activity which involves learners in exchanging information in order to achieve a specific objective. Willis, (1996:36), for example,  defines a task as “a goal-oriented communicative activity with a specific outcome, where the emphasis is on exchanging meaning not producing specific language forms." 

    Several of the articles in the Notebook, though not necessarily following the other principles of task-based learning that Willis advocates, discuss the value of communicative task repetition in improving fluency. See for example herehere and here. All of these articles describe an approach using the following steps : Silent planning - Language Input - Task Enactment - Follow up (feedback and further language input) - Task Repetition - Feedback  - and possibly further repetition. 

    This differs from some other writers' use of task repetition in that the task is repeated, sometimes more than once, in rapid succession within the same lesson rather than in later lessons. The communicative orientation of the task means that it can be enacted each time with different partners, which helps to prevent boredom - a new partner means new input. In the anecdote telling sequence described in the articles cited above, for instance, although learners are repeating their own anecdote, the new partner means they are listening to a different one. 

    The challenge of incorporating the language they received in the Feedback/Language Input stages also means that they are aware of improving their own anecdote on each telling, while very strong learners, who might not need as much chance to "polish" their performance as others, can be kept involved by being given the extra challenge of telling one of the anecdotes they have heard (and thus needing to retrieve and use different language), rather than their own.

    What most writers don't discuss is whether there is any value in repeating other activities - not necessarily tasks, but including "ordinary" exercises such as gap-fills, matching activities, word ordering activities, dialogue practice etc - and if so, when this should be done and again how boredom can be avoided. The only writer I know who touches on this is Thornbury (2010), who uses "task" in a much wider sense than the Willis definition above, to include any activity that occurs in the classroom.

    Like Thornbury, I would support the repetition of all types of activity.  Rather than repeating these activities in the same lesson, however, I would argue that they can most usefully be recycled in the next, or even later lessons.

    Why? The first reason is the importance of review. Many studies, eg Keely (1997) have shown the importance of review in ensuring retention of material. And yet, in my experience, few EFL teachers start the lesson with any sort of review of what was covered last time.  The repetition of an activity from the previous lesson or an earlier one can provide that opportunity. The possibility of boredom is lessened by the gap in time between the lessons, and there's the chance of motivation being increased if they see that they did the activity better the second time around. 

    Another advantage is that it solves the problem of late arrivals. If you have a class where learners frequently "dribble in" over the first fifteen minutes or so, review activities mean that a) the activity is already familiar, so they can get started on them as soon as they arrive without needing any orientation , and b) by the time you start the "new" part of the lesson, where you don't want latecomers coming in and not knowing what's going on, everyone has arrived and has settled in.

    Consistently starting the lesson with this sort of review could also have the advantage that it motivates some learners to review the previous lesson before they come to the new one - so that they are ready for whatever is repeated. But, particularly for stronger learners, doing it regularly could also result in boredom.  

    Thornbury (op.cit) suggests that the level of challenge can be increased the second time around. You can read his ideas on this for yourself (see the link below), but here are a few of mine.

    1. A change in partners to create an increase in challenge can be achieved by manipulating who works together. 

    Let's say that the earlier lesson was on connective expressions and the activity is a gapfill - learners have a text and  insert connective expressions given in jumbled order in a box above into gaps in the text. The activity develops their ability to recognise the logical connection between ideas in the text, and to choose an appropriate connective to indicate this. 

    In the first lesson you may have partnered the learners weak with strong, so that the stronger learners could help the weaker learners. For the repeat, partner them weak/weak, strong/strong so that they are all working at their own level and the weaker ones now have to "do it for themselves".

    2. For the stronger learners (or the whole class if they are homogeneous in level), make the activity more difficult. For example :

    a) If you're using the connectives activity above, take the box away. The learners  now have to work entirely from their retention of the connective expressions learnt previously.  

    b) If they were working on a text, give them the text again (or an extract if it was particularly long, with a mistake in each sentence. So if the text was a dialogue focusing on making suggestions, and the original sentence was Why don't we go out for a walk? the new version might read Why we don't go out for a walk? 

    3. Change the format of the activity. Some examples : 

    a) the original activity may have been an activity where they had a list of suggestions (or any other utterance type) and a jumbled list of the replies to those suggestions, and had to match them. In the follow up lesson, give each learner one of the suggestions or replies on a slip of paper, and do the activity as a "find your partner" mingle activity. 

    b) if they were previously doing reading comprehension work on a written text, stick a paragraph on the wall and do it as a "running dictation". 

    By varying the activities in these ways, material can constantly be recycled without the risk of the lessons becoming boring.

    References and Other Related Reading

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