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The importance of recycling language




This post was written in conjunction with Gianfranco Conti  of language-gym.com and is a short extract of our book The Language Teacher Toolkit, which is about to be published. One area we were keen to emphasise was the importance of recycling language, both with a lesson or sequence of lessons and across a whole course.

With the recognised importance of "spaced" or "distributed" learning, there is barely any need to justify recycling vocabulary, grammar, phonology and learning strategies, but there is a danger that it gets neglected, especially in view of the poor timetabling arrangements which exist in many schools which mean you may only see your classes as little as once or twice a week. This is what we wrote in our book (slightly adapted):


Recycling in one lesson or sequences of lessons

In our opinion the best way of  building in recycling opportunities within lessons is by using the same language in different, varied activities. Within the PPP model (Presentation – Practice - Production) this is easy, as you provide examples of new language through listening or reading, practise them though controlled oral and written exercises, then further recycle them in free writing, for example as a homework task.

You can return to the same language, and maybe a bit more, in a subsequent lesson, either re-using similar activities (because familiarity is important to students) or with new ones (because students also enjoy variety). Below are a range of tasks which could be used within a single lesson or lesson sequence when presenting and practising the past (preterite) tense. Each task might take only a few minutes. You will note how the same language is recycled multiple times, even though the precise activity changes. Every repetition gives the students' brains more chance to form long term memories of sounds, vocabulary and structures which can form the basis of independent use at a later time.

Listening to teacher while watching a sequence of pictures (or flashcards) depicting activities (e.g. I played tennis, I watched a movie, I listened to music, I sang a song).

Repeating the same language while watching the pictures.

Hiding the picture while students guess what it was, re-using the language already heard.

Revealing the written version of the language used.

Having the whole class read it aloud together.

Putting the whole sequence together and reading it aloud.

Hiding the language, then the teacher reads aloud the sequence with gaps for the students to complete orally or in writing.

Revealing the written version once more and giving false statements about it for students to correct.

Asking questions about the sequence in L2.

Hiding the language and dictating phrases for students to write on paper or mini-whiteboards. 

Revealing the text and asking students to try to explain in L1. Then give students some new verbs which follow the same pattern and ask them to make up new phrases or whole sentences.

Present a longer narrative with further meaningful examples of the verb.

It is worth noting how tightly controlled the release of language is, how carefully the language is selected for difficulty. By limiting the focus in this way, the cognitive demand for students is reduced and they can focus on the key elements being taught.

Recycling over a whole course

A well-planned course will have built in numerous opportunities to recycle language, especially high frequency language. In the so-called spiral curriculum model used by many textbooks, an area of vocabulary or grammar will be revisited at least once a year, perhaps more often. One criticism levelled at this model is that the gap between each ‘revisit’ is so long that many students have forgotten what they previously learned, so, in effect, you need to start teaching the whole thing again. This is a common complaint of language teachers.

The solution is to ensure that from week to week you attempt to incorporate key language as often as possible in new contexts and also to recycle it in classroom talk by, for instance, asking students in L2 what they did at the weekend in order to revise the preterite/perfect tense. If you do not do so and just move on to a new topic, leaving the previous one behind completely, students are more likely to forget what they have done.  If you have your own classroom, retaining key elements of each point taught throughout the year on a ‘teaching wall’ could enable you to ensure that knowledge is retained.

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