Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Stop using excessive repetition in pronunciation teaching! (Especially if your student almost gets it right the first time!)

 "Words, words, words." (Hamlet)

There is probably no topic more controversial in pronunciation teaching than the role of repetition in learning and change. Key in "repetition in pronunciation teaching" into Google and you get about 1,000,000 hits. Educated opinion ranges from "use only sparingly and strategically, if at all" to highly sophisticated routines with multiple repetitions.

Applicability of repetition of language forms varies greatly, in differing forms and with learner populations. The operating principle may, in fact, be--to paraphrase an old pop song--neither "too much repetition-- or not quite enough."

The former injunction, to use repetition sparingly in at least some contexts, is seemingly supported by a 2014 study by Reagh and Yassa of the University of California-Irvine (summarized by Science Daily) in which repeated viewing of pictures seemed to " . . . increase factual recall but actually hindered subjects' ability to reject similar "imposter" pictures. This suggests that the details of those memories may have been shaken loose by repetition." Their model, Competitive Trace Theory, also is said to postulate that " . . . details of a memory become more subjective the more they're recalled and can compete with bits of other similar memories."

Now granted, that study focused only on repeated viewing of pictures, rather than oral (or haptic) repetition. What that does at least in part explain, however, is why repetition may not only be ineffective at times but possibly counterproductive, downgrading even further the memory of the target sound, word or phrase. In cases where there is a competing or "dangerously similar" L1 or L2 sound, word or phrase in the neighbourhood, either phonologically or semantically, the effect may be significant.

Recall that Asher's 1970's pre-Total Physical Response research was, in part, based on the concept that the fewer the number of repetitions when a word is learned for the first time, the better the chances of it being remembered.)

There are any number of approaches to effective repetition in pronunciation teaching, depending on what is being learned and when. If just articulation of a specific sound is the purpose, multiple, rapid repetition may be in order. If, on the other hand, the pronunciation of new or "repaired" vocabulary is the goal, then the effect alluded to by Reagh and Yassa may be in operation: the "uniqueness" of the target being hammered off or dulled.

In EHIEP work we generally try to limit the number of repetitions of words or short phrases to 3x, and even then requiring as much intense "full body" engagement as possible, accompanied by haptic anchoring--movement and touch on a stressed syllable.

Coming soon!
AHEPS v3.0 Bee & Butterfly
(Artist: Anna Shaw)
Repetition, like all aspects of instructional design must be intentional, meaningful and developmentally appropriate. Working 1x1, as in tutoring, that is more manageable. At the class level or during independent study, however, it is another question entirely.

Just ask Zig Zigler“Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, which makes it the architect of accomplishment.” 

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