Is it really useful?

The title of this post comes from the Twitter hashtag #IsItReallyUseful? 

First of all, I think this is a very useful question to ask yourself: ‘Is it [what I am doing, or am used to doing] really useful?’ In class and outside. Another version of this question (to me, at least) would be: ‘Why am I doing it?’ This question can relate to various aspects of our job as teachers: language we choose to teach, choice of tasks, classroom routines techniques, habits, activities, etc.

One of the ideas mentioned on Twitter that made me think was repeating after teacher: ‘Does it help students learn? Does it feel ‘natural’? Can it be helpful outside the classroom? Is it important at all?’ The newly qualified teachers I used to work with at school, or on a training course often refer to such a task as ‘boring’, ‘unnecessary’ or even ‘childish’ and ‘patronizing’. Through our conversations, they admitted that these answers came from the teacher’s point of view.

I started to reflect on my (non-English) language learning experience, and the first thing that came to mind was learning how to say ‘thank you’ in Korean. Note: it was not a formal classroom experience, and my Korean is limited to several words/expressions that can’t be even called ‘tourist language level’. I remember how many times I had to repeat the word 감사합니다 (kamsahamnida) to be able to produce it in real life (to a taxi driver, at a restaurant, at the market, etc.) Yes, it took repeating it to myself tens of times (and also asking for (non-) native speakers’ help, and repeating more, and more) It is also true, by the way, about my learning how to say thank you in Burmese, Thai, Turkish, Polish and Arabic. Now, a conclusion I can make is that repetition helps a lot me as a language learner. Yes, that was my personal language learner perspective. It has been a while since I attended a formal language course as a student, but my assumption is that tasks where I am asked to repeat (after teacher, other students, a recording, etc.) might be very helpful for my confidence in using the language outside the class.


I also came across this post by Rachael Roberts on her blog about task repetition: as the title suggests, repeating a (speaking) task might have impact on students’ accuracy, repertoire of language used, and fluency.

The most recent (related) example comes from a teacher training course I ran this summer: for the very last lesson with the Practice Teaching students the participants worked in ‘stations’ where the groups of 3-4 teachers did one and the same 20-minute review activity with a group of 3-4 students. After the timer went off, the new students joined a ‘station’ and the activity was repeated.

During the feedback session following that lesson, several teachers pointed out that repeating the same task with the students was getting easier (for them as teachers) every next time: it was clearer how to give directions to the task, what examples to give, where to stop a recording/clip, etc. One teacher also mentioned that perhaps the same is true for beginner adult learners: the more chances they have to repeat/rehearse a task with peers (in small groups or pairs especially) the more confidence, fluency, etc. they will gain from the lesson.

So my personal theory for now is this: even if something seems to be not very useful or helpful, and especially if something seems to be very useful or helpful, this idea deserves to be reflected on/discussed/experimented on, etc. Well, this sounds almost obvious — isn’t it what we call CPD in our job?

Further reading:

A post by Kevin Stein, who actually started tweeting about it. One quote I would especially like to remember offers a great question at the end.

With a little bit of thought, I could probably turn a lot of the directions I give to students into something more useful, and by useful I mean the directions themselves could be a source of language input. I’ve spent a fair number of hours (smashing my head against a wall) wondering why students sometimes don’t bother to listen to activity directions. Perhaps some of that time could have been better spent asking myself, ‘is what you’re saying really worth listening to?’

A post by Marc Jones on his blog focuses on the language we teachers use when communicating with students in class.

My post on ptec blog addresses activities where students need to make a sentence.

Hana Ticha’s post on her blog is about… asking to open a book on a specific page (creatively)

Finally, the beginning of Roger Hunt’s article** The Iron, The Which and The Wardrobe I really like starts like this:

When was the last time you went up to a friend, an acquaintance, or someone you hardly knew and said: ‘Excuse me, what time do you get up? What time do you brush your teeth? Have you got a wardrobe? Where is your wardrobe? My wardrobe is next to the window!’

I am wondering if it is only a course book to be ‘blamed’ for setting such tasks in class… I think I will keep asking myself this question when preparing for lessons or training sessions: ‘Is it really useful?’

Thank you for reading! 🙂

** the article can be found in this issue of IH Journal, on pages 26-27

About Zhenya

ELT: teacher educator, trainer coach, reflective practice addict
This entry was posted in Teacher Reflections and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Is it really useful?

  1. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Zhenya,

    I really liked this bit: “… and especially if something seems to be very useful or helpful, this idea deserves to be reflected on/discussed/experimented on…” You say that it seems pretty obvious, but I don’t think so. If something works, people tend to stick to it until it becomes a boring routine. From time to time, I like to question the things that seem to work too well. Sometimes I think I’ve invented a fabulous method/approach but then I ask my students who, to my surprise, don’t find it so fabulous.

    Anyway, I truly believe that repetition is useful. I’m not surprised, though, that some of your trainees considered it boring, patronising, childish and unnecessary. Little kids repeat a lot but the older we get, the less repetition we think we need and thus the less natural it may appear to us in the classroom setting. But if you sit and think for a while, you’ll come up with a million things you repeat every day – not just automatically but because you want to get better. For example, I like driving. I’m not an excellent driver; I panic in stressful situations and my orientation skills suck. But with each new try I feel more confident and less stressed out and I like the progress I’m making. 🙂


    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Hana

      Thank you very much for the comment! I understand you so much about the ‘inventing’ part – and about ‘overdoing’ it (I think my worst lessons happened right after attending a conference and coming back with lots of ideas 🙂 )

      Yes, so much true about this ‘conscious repetition’ and those small goals we can set for ourselves (and seeing a progress makes such a difference!)

      Finally, a question: in the link you added to your comment above – is this ‘thank you’ in Czech or Ukrainian? Reading the spelling and re-playing it I can’t tell the difference (but so cool to be reminded how close the languages are) Especially great to suddenly hear it here in Beirut, in Lebanon 🙂



      • Hana Tichá says:

        It’s ‘thank you’ in Czech. I sent an audio version so that you had something new to learn (by repetition). 🙂 Wow, I didn’t realize that our languages are so similar. Good to know!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ron Bradley says:

    I love the topics in this post. The first thought that comes to me is,” If you keep doing what we are doing, you will keep getting what you’re getting.” I have also seen it this way:”If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten.” For me this relates to reflective practice. It is not about going around in circles digging ever deeper holes, but spiraling upwards with ever increasing knowledge and skills. This goes right along with the four knowings–knowing what, why, how, and oneself, not applied to culture, where this framework originated, but with ownership of an idea, a process, an activity. I speak from experience when I jammed an activity down a particIpant’s throat, which of course failed miserably in the classroom. No ownership THERE!

    As for for repetition, it doesn’t have to be the same thing over and over again, but if we use the principles that lie behind VAKT we will build variety into the repetition and meet the needs of more students. I am reminded of an economic principle I learned in college awhile back now, that is the “Law of Diminishing Returns.” That first bite of a candy bar is wonderful–the second bite is great–the third is okay–the fourth, well–and the fifth, i have had enough–after that, “I don’t feel so well”.. I think it all depends on who is demanding the repetition, the teacher or the student? I certain agree with the idea that it is the teacher who gets bored and not the student.


    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Ron

      Love those quotes – and the reminder that a reflective/learning cycle is not a ‘circle’ as you said 🙂 So true about the ownership – and to me, about the responsibility when making a choice for an activity, a task, a structure/word to teach, etc. I would like to read about the example you are talking about (jamming an activity on a course)

      So true about initiating repetition! If it is a student, then there is a lot of meaning and purpose. I once had a student of elementary/pre-intermediate level of proficiency who demanded to start a course book again when we were in the middle or so. I was horrified at the idea – and suggested choosing another book of the same level. He refused – he said that he needed a sense of comfort and confidence during the lessons. It was a one-on-one course, and we could afford to do it. I never felt comfortable repeating the lessons – but he did! (which is of course more important!)

      Thank you for stopping by and reading – hope everything is well on your end.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Is it really useful? | How I see it now

  4. Mark says:

    Great post. I think (I hope) that all teachers that stick with ELT for more than a couple of years (once they’ve got basic classroom management down, once they’re comfortable with their own ‘approach’ to ELT, once they’ve they’re comfortable with their level of language awareness etc.) all have this eurika moment when they start asking themselves this kind of question. On in-service TT courses with teachers here in Mexico, during lesson planning for observations, I push teachers to rationalise every step in the lesson. If they can’t, I suggest that they leave it out.


    • Zhenya says:

      Thank you for the comment! I agree that knowing the ‘why’, the reason behind something is on the plan is needed (when the answer is not ‘because it was in the book’ or ‘because trainers told me that…’ etc.) On a course for teachers, I like to extend this questions into ‘Is it really useful for your students today?’ or ‘for the lesson objective’, for example. I am wondering if this can become a part of their teaching style/approach as early as they take their initial training?

      Hope the training in Mexico goes well!


  5. jyesmallwood says:

    Hi Zhenya,

    Nice article. It reminded me of a talk given by Judy Gilbert at the New School (where Scott Thornbury is based). She focuses on Pron but she also talks about drilling. After I saw her, I think I went through the same questioning as you. I know a lot of teachers shy away from it but I think meaningful repetition of key chunks, especially at early stages are very effective. Mindless repetition of the TL is indeed a waste of time. But I think it takes experience to tell what’s meaningful and what’s not. Also there are other ways of doing repetitions besides choral and individual drilling– back chaining and sub-vocalised repetition are a few.

    Check out her talk here:

    Liked by 1 person

    • Zhenya says:

      Thank you very much for reading, stopping by to comment and following my blog! My favorite quote is ‘it takes experience to tell what’s meaningful and what’s not’ – so very true. Definitely agree that there are various ‘how’-s of drilling/repeating (as soon as the rationale is clear we can choose activities, etc.) Looking forward to listening to Judy Gilbert after this intensive training is over (this weekend!)

      Liked by 1 person

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