Thursday 25 October 2012

Language Show Live 2012: Short - Sharp - Repetition

The last seminar that I attended at Language Show Live 2012 was Short - Sharp - Repetition.  What makes an activity good? by Heather Rendall.  I was particularly interested in it following my recent blogpost about choral repetition - I was hoping I was going to find out some new ideas.

I found the seminar fascinating, and not just because there were plenty of  new ideas.  Heather is an expert on MFL, ICT, the brain and memory, and this seminar put a different slant on second language acquisition.

Learning is the "biological organisation of new input", and the organisation of information for successful retrieval later on means that learning has taken place.   We need to make sure that the learning that takes place in the classroom is brain-centred and not child-centred.

This graphic shows how many connections the
brain makes in our early years.
Each neuron in our brain makes a myriad of connections with other neurons.  Many new connections are made from birth onwards, particularly up to the age of two.  During the teenage years "the Great Rewiring" takes place - many links are broken and new links made.

New information goes into the brain and tries to find a connection.  Assuming that it succeeds, if that link is not reactivated within three days then it will dissolve away and the memory will be lost.  "Cells that fire together wire together".  In other words, repetition makes then constantly reinforces these connections.

The brain has a natural tendency to learn what to do and what not to do. Avoidance of error is a driving force.  Babies learn by avoiding what hasn't been successful in the past.

"The driving force behind any learning is satisfaction".  Also our competitive nature and remembering past losses and failure spurs us on to win and achieve.

What makes the average student feel a failure?
  • Not being able to understand or follow during a lesson
  • Making no visible progress
  • Continuing to make errors
  • Comparing results and efforts with those of others
Inherited values that make learning successful
Ability to do and understand and make progress

Recipe for success with new input:
  • minimise random or inapt connections
  • repetition of the input
  • receptive recall
  • more repetition leading to productive recall
The brain likes repetition, although chanting switches the brain off. 

The brain is good at recognising things that it has seen before, so exploit this at the beginning of a lesson - make connections with prior learning. 

Long-term, permanent change in neurons occurs only after neurons are stimulated four times over the course of an hour (or however long a lesson is).  Therefore we need to deliver the new input in small enough, well-connected chunks that they can be repeated four times over the lesson.  The same vocabulary needs to be presented in a different guise, with a different exercise or activity.  Ideally it should be repeated with all four skills, and other vocabulary should be limited so that the core vocabulary can be absorbed.

To minimise misconceptions or false connections, Heather advises introducing new vocabulary with the spelling, the sound and the meaning, as well as transliterating the new content.  For example, showing je m'appelle early on so as to avoid je mapple or je'mappelle, and explaining that it means "I myself call".  She also recommends emphasising sound-spelling differences by regularly looking at close cognates such as station and table.  Håkan Ringbom wrote about the role of the mother tongue in second language learning. Children will seek the nearest English word to help them to "spell" the target language word unless you tell them otherwise.

For receptive recall students need to have as much sight and sound of the words as possible.  Some ideas are:

  • Yes/no cards  Either separate cards or one "flippable" one.  Students have to show the correct one.  Everyone has to take part, and each student as well as the teacher gets instant feedback.
  • linear wordsearch or wordsnake  Students need to know the vocabulary to be able to find all the different words. An example is  chevalmoutonlapinchien.  You can add extra letters between each word to increase the challenge. 
  • Odd one out 
  • Use PowerPoint animation to display the words being studied interspersed with words they don't know. Students call out the words they know but keep quiet for the words they don't know. 
  • Again using PowerPoint animation, words appear letter by letter. Students call out the word when they know what it is
  • Display each word with gaps or with the vowels missing, and students have to call the word out. 
  • Using PowerPoint animation, the words appear and disappear very quickly and students have to call them out. 
  • Students pick out the correct spelling from a selection.
  • Flashcards with the target language on one side and English on the other. Students hold up the correct one but can check if necessary that they have chosen the right one, thus giving themselves instant feedback. 
  • Follow me cards.  Tarsia can be used to make this activity quickly and easily.  You can read more about Follow me activities here.
  • Children are growing up surrounded by computer games and so respond well to trying to beat scores and best times. They can see themselves continuing to improve and again this gives them instant feedback. Even a simple card matching activity timed with a stopwatch ticks this box.  Use the Online Stopwatch.
  • Match the word to a choice of graphics.
  • A short quiz after the initial input is better than a repetition of the input.
  • Infinite Scrabble would be a good way of repeating the vocabulary.
When we observe something then do it ourselves afterwards, we use the same neural pathways. It's how babies learn - "monkey see monkey do"!  Live performance therefore has more impact than a recording - another reason why FLAs are so important. Puppets are also useful for this. 

This week I have been putting some of these ideas into practice to gauge their effectiveness.  

With Year 5 I have been working on Big Numbers (thousands, hundreds, tens and units) in Spanish.  I had noticed that they were not as confident with the new numbers as I hoped, particularly the 100s.  Before we tackled the Kilometraje activity  I wanted to do some intensive work on the numbers.  

Here's what we did:
  • Choral repetition of the 10s from 20 to 100, with me pointing to the digits and the words.
  • Numbers appearing letter by letter on the screen, children called out the number as soon as they recognised it.
  • Numbers appeared on the screen interspersed with words they didn't know.  They had to call out the numbers and stay quiet for the rest.
  • Choral repetition of the 100s from 100 to 1000, again with me pointing to the digits and the words.
  • Card game - the children cut along the lines to make the ten number cards, then wrote the digits on the back.  Then I said the numbers in English and they had to hold up the right number card, checking on the back if they needed to.
  • Numbers appeared on the board with the vowels missing, and the children called out the numbers.  All the PowerPoint activities can be found here.  The animations are all there so it would be easy to adapt to other vocabulary.
  • The class completed the numbers spiral, finding the tens and the hundreds.  I made the spiral using this generator.
I think that made 4 repetitions of each within the hour!  I asked the class what they had thought of these new activities.  Their favourite was the "only call out the words we know" and their second favourite was the words with the vowels missing.

I also did very similar activities today with Year 4 (I was being observed!) who are learning days, numbers and months leading to dates.  We finished each section with a spiral, one for days and one for months.  When I made these ones I put in lots of extra letters, and the children loved them.

The activities were certainly engaging, and appeared to increase pupil confidence.  I will be interested to use them for a new topic to see if they learn new vocabulary more quickly and retain it better.

You might find these links interesting with regard to brain-centred language learning:
and I'm thinking that CILT's Classic Pathfinder 6, Patterns and Procedures, by Heather Rendall, will definitely be worth a read.


  1. Thanks for such detailed posts about teh seminars you attended. I don't feel as though I missed out quite so much now by not being able to go to them all.

  2. It was every bit as inspiring as Clare says - fascinating seminar.