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Limited Time for Students to Practise

Teaching Sin #2

I see this too often when I am observing a class. There is no, or extremely limited, practice of what was learnt in previous lessons. When you use a textbook, the authors usually try to squeeze each new word in three to five times, so it gets repeated. If you want your students to retain new words, you have no choice – they have to review, or they forget nearly everything. Try googling ‘Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve’ or take a look at the picture below:

Percent Remembered

Ebbinghaus proposed his curve in 1855. However, more than 150 years later, there is only a limited number of teachers who use this knowledge when lesson planning. The curve is horrific. With no review, we tend to remember only as little as 25% of the information after the first 24 hours! And down it goes. I therefore believe the core of a good TEFL lesson is not the new things the students learn that day, but rather practising what they already (should) know, spiced up with just a bit of something new.

Including a lot of practice and review is a sign of an excellent teacher. For only an excellent teacher knows you have to review each item between seven and twelve times before it moves to your long-term memory and becomes truly active – meaning you have it at your disposal any time.

The same goes for the new language items introduced in a lesson. Human beings can only handle three to seven new words or phrases in a language class.

Forget long lists of new vocab.

Forget introducing new grammar when they are still struggling with the old concepts.

Sometimes less is more, and this is very true in language learning. Five new terms/words/phrases learnt every lesson might sound unambitious, but if you get to see your class only once a week, and if they do not learn a single word in between classes (which is quite improbable in this globalized anglicized world), their active vocabulary will grow by 200 new words/phrases every year.

Still think that’s not enough? Well, the Oxford English Corpus contains over a billion words taken from all sources imaginable – e-mails, novels, essays, movie subtitles, reports, newspapers, blogs, specialist journals, etc. In this vast collection, the 25 most common words make up about ONE THIRD of our language. And the 100 most common words represent half of everything written in English. I’m not saying 200 words is all there is to know about English. If I were, well, we would be jobless soon :-)

So every word counts. Plan which three to seven pieces of new vocab you want your students to master in each lesson. Drill, practice, review. Every lesson, every day, every time. The students need to be able to use these words and phrases when woken up by a stranger in Osaka night train.

Do not ask, “What new things have you learnt today?” Instead ask, “Which new things have you learnt and which old ones have you practised?”

by Martin Hejhal, 1 September 2014


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