Friday, June 03, 2011

Repeated discussions

Another activity post:

Many years ago, Paul Nation, one of the nicest people in language teaching, though now retired, introduced me to the idea of the repeated discussion, or what he calls the 4-3-2 speaking activity. You can see him describe it beginning at about 7:30 in this video:

Briefly, each student has something to talk about (graded readers are good topics for mid-level students and TED talks are interesting for higher-level students). They partner up and then have four minutes to do their talk. Then they get a new partner and do it in three minutes, and finally they repeat it a third time with yet another partner in two minutes.

I've used this many times, and though there are often a few students grumbling about the repetition, it's usually hard to shut them up at the end of each turn. It's obvious to anyone listening that fluency increases from one turn to the next, and Nation mentions research showing increased accuracy and complexity to boot. One thing I've always wondered, though, is whether this transfers to other topics.

My own reading suggests that achieving transfer is really hard, not just in language learning, but in almost any endeavour. So I was intrigued when I saw that Nel de Jong and Charles Perfetti had looked at Nation's activity and specifically at the question of transfer. Their study, Fluency Training in the ESL Classroom: An Experimental Study of Fluency Development and Proceduralization, is now available online from Language Learning. Here's the abstract:
"The present study investigates the role of speech repetition in oral fluency development. Twenty-four students enrolled in English-as-a-second-language classes performed three training sessions in which they recorded three speeches, of 4, 3, and 2 min, respectively. Some students spoke about the same topic three times, whereas others spoke about three different topics. It was found that fluency improved for both groups during training but was maintained on posttests only by the students who repeated their speeches. These students had used more words repeatedly across speeches, most of which were not specifically related to the topic. It is argued that proceduralization of linguistic knowledge represented a change in underlying cognitive mechanisms, resulting in improvements in observable fluency."
More importantly, I thought, "Hypothesis 2 was supported, in that fluency improvements were maintained over 4 weeks and transferred to new topics, but only in the two Repetition conditions" (p. 559). This is wonderful news, and certainly something I plan to share with my students in the future.

The only problem is, I can't say I fully understand the study design. I've read the procedure section a number of times, but I haven't carefully read the paper from start to finish. I'll try to get back to this when I do.

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