Repeat After Me…Here Comes The Choo-Choo Train!

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I’ve written elsewhere about drilling vocab using flashcards and prompts. In this article, I’d like to look at the psychology, if you will, of drilling vocab, PARTICULARLY if you teach senior high school or adult students. The title of this article will become quite apparent as we move along (if it’s not already!).

Firstly, students don’t mind repeating vocab items aloud. I’ve met teachers who have been hesitant to drill vocab items (with adult learners) because they (i.e. the teachers) thought it might be considered “baby-ish” by their students–who were doctors and lawyers and engineers, for example.

But students are well aware that they need practice in order to “get their mouth around it”, to “test out” the sounds (particularly if those sounds don’t exist in their native language!), and to get feedback… from who else but the teacher!

Sidenote: I should point out here that most of them do, that is. Every now and again you get a student who won’t repeat after the teacher. These are usually either one of four cases:

(i) they’re the super-shy wouldn’t say boo to a goose types who barely utter a word and when they do speak it sounds more like a mouse with a gimp ball in its mouth. Their repeating after the teacher resembles vaguely moving their lips like a crazy bag-lady mumbling to herself in the park, only with no sound actually coming out

(ii) they’re simply not interested in learning the foreign language. They’re just clock-watching. These students are in your class because it’s a compulsory component of the course they’re taking, their parents made them go, they have to turn up a certain minimum number of hours per week to fulfill their student visa requirements, and so on…

(iii) they’re idiotic and really do think they don’t need to do it


(iv) they object to the patronising tone of the teacher and refuse to be treated like a baby

And that’s what I’d like to turn my attention to in this article.

Let’s start with tone of voice and then we’ll move on to gestures.

1. Tone of Voice

I couldn’t count the number of times I have walked past a classroom and cringed! The teacher is talking to his/her students in that really patronising tone of voice that, frankly, isn’t even appropriate for children!

It always reminds me of the (Australian) film “The Sum of Us” starring Russel Crowe, John Polson, and Jack Thompson. It was originally a stage-play and there is one point I distinctly remember in the film which employs the theatrical technique of “breaking the frame”, that is speaking directly to the audience. In cinema this is known a “looking down the barrel of the camera”.

The father has had a stroke and is paralysed. He has lost his ability to speak and is sitting in the bed. His son comes in and talks to him in exactly the tone I’m talking about and fusses around and then leaves. The camera moves in and the father “breaks the frame” and addresses us directly “Jesus! I may have lost the ability to speak, but I haven’t turned into a fuckwit!”

And that’s the way I feel about that tone of voice (in fact, whether it’s drilling vocab or just generally talking to the class): these students are not necessarily fuckwits (yes, some actually ARE, but the tone of voice I’m objecting to is STILL not warranted!), the fact is they are just not (yet) proficient speakers of the foreign language under instruction.

End of story. I’ve had high court judges, university professors, CEOs, you name it in my class! And if you teach adult EFL, you probably have too.

So if you’re guilty of this (and if you have to pause and think about it, I would suggest taping your own lessons now and again and then listening back to them to see if you cringe)..

…stop it!

Right, now onto the next one:

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2. Gestures

Personally, I am a fairly animated person and I have no problem with looking a bit foolish. I think most language teachers are probably the same. This is NOT to say, however, that you have to be swinging off the light fixtures to try and elicit “orang-utan”, for example!

What I would really like to comment on here is the gesture to repeat after the teacher. It’s only a small thing, but it lets students know what you expect them to do. They don’t mind repeating, as I’ve already mentioned and as I’m sure you know.

But they don’t always know whether they should repeat or not. And who wants to be that dude who chants out “orang-utan” when no one else does?

So you have to give a CONSISTENT cue to your students to let them know you want them to repeat the vocab.

A simple, slightly sweeping gesture than includes the whole class works beautifully. It needn’t be as wooden as the models on game shows showcasing the wonderous prizes on offer tonight, but just a little gesture like that–used whenever you want them to repeat–will elicit greater compliance with your (and probably their) wish to orally drill the vocab.

I once observed a lesson (not from a newbie teacher) who did this outrageously dramatic lunge forward with his body and a huge sweep of his hand as he cried out whatever the word or phrase was! It was all I could do to keep a straight face given that I was, essentially, a guest in his classroom!

Now, dramatics are fine… up to a point. How could he POSSIBLY have been listening to the students with all that lunging and roaring?

And that is, of course, the other half of having your students repeat after you: To listen to them so you can offer them feedback!

For choral drilling, this is my usual method:

1. I get them to listen to my model TWICE

They will almost always repeat along with me the first time so I just hold up my hand, smile, and say “Just listen twice, okay?”

Then I model it twice and point out any features of the sounds or stress or intonation or whatever.

Then I model it again.

2. I then say something like “Your turn!” and gesture for them to repeat.
The first time I model along with them.

Then I repeat my gesture once or twice and just listen. Then I offer feedback and more modelling and tips for tongue placement, etc. as necessary. It’s not always necessary.

3. One more time together

4. Then I select individual students at random by gesturing to them with my open hand. Not pointing. Not saying their name. Not nodding at them. Clearly indicating who I would like to repeat the target language (TL) in a non-threatening way.

Any individual repetition and practice at this stage is fine as long as it’s not extended. Don’t expect students to “get it” right away with difficult phonological aspects. Just give them some feedback and another shot at it and move on.

5. Without breaking the pace, after three or four individual drills, return to the first gesture (i.e. Okay, class, everyone repeat after me!)

6. Move onto the next item.
This takes a bit of practice believe it or not! I didn’t naturally reel off this technique when I first started teaching. The basic framework was taught to me and I’ve refined it a little bit over the years.

It won’t take you long to internalise it, but you will need to clearly visualise the steps before you head off to class to drill a bunch of new vocab. Then when you come back think about whether you nailed it or whether you missed a step. Not the end of the world if you did. Just keep going through the steps and this–very effective and non-patronising–method of choral drilling will become second nature to you!

Good luck with it!

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4 Responses to “Repeat After Me…Here Comes The Choo-Choo Train!”

  1. Luke Walsh Luke Walsh says:

    Thank you, Leslie, for the model and drill reminder. I hope I wasn’t the teacher mentioned (I do have an OTT full-contact classroom gesture at times and I hope I never sound condescending in the classroom)! If I was, please let me know. I remember that half-good lesson you observed at EF and I still use the whiteboard marker and connected speech comments afterwards (thank you very much, by the way.).

    There is a bit of debate at Kaplan Aspect Sydney as to whether you should pre-teach vocab or let the learners discover new words in context either through listening or reading. I mostly, but not exclusively, prefer the in-context approach (the old you-know-more-English-than-you-think approach). Although it sometimes depends on the importance of certain words in a text and the comprehension questions that follow. It’s the usual if your not sure, guess. Then we’ll do an analysis after comparing answers with a partner.

    I find that students are very keen to repeat after modelling (I tend to do it three times atthe start) no matter their status in their home countries, particularly at lower levels. Advanced learners tend to think they’re too cool for schools on occassion, but I still use the method.

    Thank you again for the smokin’ website. It’s always worth a read, even if you have been teaching for some years like me.

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    •  Leslie says:

      Heya, Luke!

      Nice to hear from you, as always, mate.

      In answer to your question, no, it wasn’t you who has the OTT gestures! LOL! That’s only when you’ve had a few too many. But by that time I’m doin’ the same! :razz:

      Thank you for your kind comments about the site and the whiteboard phonology follow-up.

      Re: The old pre-teach or not, here’s what I reckon:

      EDIT - October 2009: This response was ridiculously long so in the current overhaul of the site, I’ve rewritten it and published it as a stand-alone article.

      If you’ve joined the Mailing List, a link to my article about pre-teaching will be sent out to you. Thanks for stopping by!


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  2. Roni Roni says:

    i always write the word we’re repeating so students can see it… i’m a clown in my classroom and have no problems with explaining what the words mean using drawings, gestures, words etc. and then getting students to repeat the words.

    i see no point in repeating words you don’t understand, so my first task is comprehension. working in a community school (from pre-school through to secondary) english is one of those compulsory subjects everyone has to learn. some love it, others hate it; and they are not my problem… i teach what the curriculum tells me i have to teach and try to add spice… this year, i have 120 Spanish-speaking students performing Thriller in Ecuador. This means i have to teach them the words; meanings, pronunciation, the whole enchilda… wish me luck!

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    •  Leslie says:

      Sounds like they’re keeping you busy there, mate! Thriller, huh? That’s gonna rock!

      You hit the nail on the head with your comment “i see no point in repeating words you don’t understand, so my first task is comprehension.” Abso-freakin-lutely! I do a little demo with my trainees (that is, folks training to be EFL Teachers) which demonstrates this point in a very memorable way, I think. They tend not to drill vocab they haven’t concept-checked after that. I’ll go over it some other time.

      Back to your point: You’re absolutely right and drilling a word that students don’t understand is a classic example of what I call “Heroin Teaching”. That is, stoopid shit that teachers are addicted to doing - usually because that was the model they received and they’re simply copying it without any thought as to why we should or shouldn’t do things in a particular way in the classroom to maximise efficacy.

      EDIT - October 2009: Again, my response to Roni’s comment ended up being far, far longer than I’d expected when I started typing so I re-wrote that one as a separate article, too.

      Make sure you join my Mailing List and you’ll get that article delivered right to your Inbox as well all sorts of other goodies! :grin:

      Thanks for commenting, Roni. I hope the performance goes well. If you’re going to video it, make sure you get permission from the Principal and the Parents & Citizens Association (and whoever else you need to run it by) before you, for example, upload it to YouTube - which could land in a lot of hot water.

      And if you do get the go-ahead, feel free to send me the embed code and I’ll link to it or display it here! :smile:


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