Task repetition: helping students to improve accuracy,repertoire and fluency

I am very far from being a fluent Polish speaker. In fact, after four years of hard study and living in the country, I was still probably only about B2 level. However, if you happened to hear me chatting to a taxi driver in Polish, you’d probably conclude I was pretty fluent.

I was very good indeed at the basic chitchat of where are you from, how long have you been in Poland, what do you think about Poland and so on. And the reason I became so fluent (in this context)? ….I caught a lot of taxis.

In other words, I had plenty of opportunity for task repetition. In language learning terms, task repetition is a term most often related to task-based learning. Perhaps one of the key articles about this is Martin Bygate’s Effects of task repetition: appraising the developing language of learners. In this article, Bygate suggests several benefits to getting learners to repeat a task:

  •  More fluency in terms of pausing and speed (less need to plan as we speak)
  • Fewer false starts and self corrections
  • Fewer errors

These reasons seem fairly self-evident, and you could say exactly the same things about drilling a dialogue. However, while I also think there are benefits in simply repeating or drilling, task repetition is about more than this. Bygate suggests that once the speaker is more familiar with the content, this frees them up to not simply make fewer errors or speak more quickly, but to actually pay more attention to how they formulate their meaning.

In this article, Bygate demonstrated (admittedly with a small sample), that repeating a simple speaking task (in this case describing a film), without any input or feedback, still led to the learner producing more appropriate and more complex language. They improved in terms of accuracy, repertoire and fluency.

Since then, further research has confirmed that task repetition does indeed have a positive effect on complexity and fluency, though some feel that learners may also need feedback on the first task (instinctively, I would tend to agree with this).

So, how can we start to build in more task repetition without boring students? The first thing to say, perhaps, is that I think the idea that repeating a task is boring, may well be a projection from the teacher. If a student is really engaged in a task, and struggling (in a good way) with getting meaning across, it won’t be boring, but satisfying. See this article  for a piece of research which set out to prove this.

In repeating speaking activities, I would suggest:

–      Play about with giving feedback in between repetitions. Sometimes you could give immediate feedback, with examples you have noted while monitoring. Sometimes you could make notes then use these notes to plan a short teaching session in another lesson, before a task is repeated. Sometimes the feedback could be self-evaluation (especially if students are able to record themselves) or peer feedback.

–      Try repeating the task at different time intervals (immediately, next lesson, next week, next month) and see what difference it makes. Again, recording both versions can be very helpful so that students themselves can be helped to notice improvements.

–      Change the audience for the task. This could just be telling the story again to a new partner (which makes it more genuinely communicative), or it could be moving from 1-2-1 to speaking to a larger group, or from speaking to a live group to recording the talk (using Vocaroo or just a mobile phone).

–      Change the task slightly. Choose a new task which has enough parallels in terms of structure and likely language for students to benefit from repetition, but enough difference to keep up the interest. For example, asking students to retell a narrative from the point of view of a different person involved in the story (same events, different perspective)

And, of course, task repetition does not always have to be about speaking. All the above points could equally well apply to writing. We have more time available to process when writing, so combining writing and speaking can work very well too. First students tell and then they write- or vice versa.

And it can even apply to receptive skills work. See this post, for example, on repeated reading.

Please feel free to add other task repetition ideas- I’m sure the possibilities are endless.


Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Speaking, Teaching methodology, Vocabulary

20 Responses to Task repetition: helping students to improve accuracy,repertoire and fluency

  1. Really nice and very timely post, Rachael, many thanks – my trainees getting ready for speaking assignments/lessons so we have just been talking about task repetition!


  2. Hi Rachel,

    It seems to me that no matter what techniques or methods a teacher uses in a classroom, students need a chance to develop their fluency skills and that is going to require working with the same language over and over again. If a teacher is using a task based approach, having students repeat a task certainly seems like one way to get the students using the same (or similar) language again. As you said, mixing up the audience is often enough to make the task feel fresh. Putting a time limit on completing the task can up the challenge and also help students stay engaged. If a task requires drawing or sketching, you could ask students to draw with their right hand if they are naturally left handed (or vice versa). If it is a storytelling task or summarizing task, students could have to tell the story as reported speech or a similar shift in point of view. It’s really just a question of finding the sweet spot where students are challenged enough, in a slightly novel way to want to work with the same material again.

    But I also think Gatbonton & Segalowitz make a good point in “Rethinking
    Communicative Language Teaching: A Focus on Access to Fluency.” A well planned task based lesson or task cycle over a series of lessons should have a fluency component built right in, with at least one specific task devoted to developing fluency around the language used. That way teachers wouldn’t feel the anxiety that students didn’t get enough of a chance to work with the language that sometimes comes with a task based approach.

    Thanks for a great read. And some very useful links. I’ll be keeping this post in mind and if there’s a chance to full on run a task again sometime in the near future, I’m going to give it a try. I’ll let you know if my students found it boring, and if they did, what kind of tweaks I tried out.


    • Hi Kevin,

      Thanks very much for such a long and thoughtful comment. I don’t know the article you refer to, but I’m going to look it up. I definitely agree that sometimes with TBL it can feel that the language didn’t get enough of a look in (this is also an issue for me with Dogme as I think it can be hard to come up with good and interesting practice activities off the top of your head- or is that just me?)
      But I don’t think the concept of task repetition only needs to be used with a full on task- I think it can apply to almost any speaking activity, can’t it?

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  5. Hi Rachel,
    Thank you for another interesting and thought-provoking post. I have been thinking a lot about the importance of repeating tasks in my ESOL classes having recently read some articles on the topic for an assignment.
    I often review tasks which is an opportunity to reuse the language. For example if they read about somebody and answer questions the next lesson they might tell their partner or write down what they can remember. If the focus was on speaking, for example describing a story from pictures, or a listening task, they retell the story. The second time the difference is noticeable. The level of accuracy is generally better.
    At the Language Show one year, Nick Bilborough did a fab workshop using a series of pictures on Powerpoint. With a partner we took it in turns describing the pictures as if we were there. The second time, he reduced the time between each slide. This worked really well with my Entry 3 classes for describing a series of pictures ( eg people stuck in a car with cows crossing in front, jumping off a rock into the sea), using past tenses. They absolutely loved it. The only instruction was ‘you were there..tell your partner what you were doing and why’. Their ideas were really good.
    @desigernlessons posted the Venice photos link at the right time, fitting in with the topic of transport and journeys that we are doing in my adult and teenage Entry 2 classes. The grammar focus was on using present continuous. Having already done some writing in the form of an email and postcard, I wanted to work on spoken accuracy.
    I put 10 pictures into slides. We looked at the pictures first, which really got them engaged in discussion and imagining what people were thinking. As a class we put sentences together and wrote them up. They then repeated them to their partner and I checked pronunciation. These sentences were about what people or things were doing, such as shoes are floating in the shop, a man is carrying his luggage, a girl is giving her sister a piggyback (an expression we’d come across recently). I then covered the sentences with the pictures, and they took turns saying them with their partner.Next I set the slides to move more quickly. By the third time they were much more accurate and really enjoyed the challenge. It can be hard to find a set of connected pictures to practise present continuous and the fact that it was in the news meant the students were really interested.

  6. That sounds like a really useful and enjoyable lesson- thanks so much for sharing it. I couldn’t find the Venice pictures on @designerlesson’s site- do you have a link?- but they sound great, and I love the staging of your lesson.
    Incidentally, have you thought about using 24 hours in pictures from the Guardian? (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/series/24hoursinpictures) Some of them are quite hard-hitting, but there’s a lot of choice.
    Your lesson idea also chimes for me with a session I did at the weekend on the Joy of Drilling- one of the activities used a series of pictures to elicit a (rather complicated and somewhat unlikely) excuse for being late.
    It’s a kind of narrative build. The teacher uses each picture to elicit a sentence (e.g. My alarm didn’t go off) and keeps flicking the pictures back to the beginning, drilling the whole narrative each time. It could focus on past simple, conjunctions, (so, then, because etc), connected speech and so on. Once finished, the teacher could then elicit the narrative onto the board (rather than having the written form up from the beginning). Both ways can work well, but the advantage of delaying writing is the fun of memorisation and, especially for students with spiky profiles, being able to concentrate on the pronunciation before seeing the potentially confusing written form.
    And then of course, students can make up their own longwinded excuses..of course some students don’t need any encouragement 😉

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  9. I came across this whilst scanning the internet for speaking related fluency tasks (Delta mod 2 candidate 😀 ) and found a lot of things useful, even if just to confirm that we were on the same page with some things, I will come back and read more when I have the chance (anytime after June 5th I’m guessing :D)
    Thanks again for great insight

  10. Reblogged this on broadyesl and commented:
    Drilling still works

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  12. Rachel,
    that was a very good post!
    I’ve already shared with my coleagues and I’m looking forward to hearing from them on the matter?
    I’ll put some of your ideas into practice this week!

    Thank YOU!
    Hope you are doing fine 🙂
    Bruno Andrade

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