Far from being tedious, repetition can help students develop fluency, grow in confidence and enjoy learning.

Photo by John T on Unsplash

Last year I had a challenging ‘borderline’ Year 11 class. They were amazing (fun, energetic, often hilarious), but still challenging. It was a large class, and they had a huge range of abilities and confidence levels in English. Their behaviour was patchy: not terrible, but often far from focused. At times, they had me pulling my hair out and feeling as if I was the worst teacher imaginable. But the great thing was that I had a decent amount of time with them each week — 8 hours of meaningful, structured practice of English. And around about this time last year, I finally worked out what this class needed to do incredibly well in their GCSEs.

Repetition, repetition, repetition.

The more we doubled back to challenging concepts, and made links between these concepts, the better they got. And the better they got, the more confident they felt. And the more confident they felt, the better behaved they were. And the better behaved they were, the more I could stretch and challenge them.

And where I had been concerned this strategy would make their study of English lifeless and boring, it actually did the opposite. It made them enjoy it. They finally felt what they should have felt all along: that they were good at it.

Repetition enabled these students to:

  • fully embed the knowledge I decided I wanted them to know;
  • develop fluency when discussing this knowledge;
  • make connections between texts and ideas;
  • build their confidence and self-belief.

Here are five ways I built repetition into my lesson planning.

Our subjects are enormous. No-one can know everything. No-one can teach everything. But with some careful thought, we can work out the non-negotiables of what they need to know and make sure they know it through repeating it regularly. They might not know everything about Lady Macbeth, but they will know five amazing things incredibly well.

Think of as many different ‘ways in’ to the same knowledge. Ask different questions, set different tasks, but make them require the same target answers. Find different ways to elicit the same ideas, concepts and vocabulary.

As an example, we must have looked at the ambiguity of the imagery of Armitage’s ‘Mother, Any Distance’ dozens of times across the year. Each time, the students were using the same vocabulary and ideas, repeating what they knew, but reaching greater levels of sophistication and confidence each time. I would target the same ideas in different ways, including:

  • exploration of photos representing Armitage’s ambiguous imagery
  • story-telling from the speaker’s perspective, focusing on his ambivalent attitudes
  • gap-fill about ambiguity
  • close analysis of quotations exploring multiple interpretations
  • applying Armitage’s message to our own lives and relationships
  • application of key vocabulary
  • paragraph-level structures (using ‘however’)
  • sentence-level structures (using ‘although’)
  • reading model paragraphs about Armitage’s ambiguity
  • reading critical material about Armitage’s ambiguity
  • live modelling of paragraphs exploring Armitage’s ambiguity

At each iteration, the students’ understanding and writing improved and they enjoyed the poem more as we returned to it. By the end of the year, not only did I know they could write well about Armitage’s ambiguity, I could also predict exactly what each student would say about it.

Make the start of lessons identical. From Monday to Thursday, students answered a 10-question short answer quiz, usually based on quotations from literature, displayed on the board. The questions were repeated from everything studied that week, month or term, and would often cycle through past questions. I made a note of questions they struggle with, and returned to these more frequently until they were secure. Here’s what these quizzes looked like:

An example starter quiz using questions returned to cyclically

On Fridays, I’d give students a longer, verbal quiz. Switching to a verbal quiz once a week did several things: first, it made the class think at my pace — they were required to spend a certain amount of time on each question, decided by me, so that I could encourage them to think deeply, reach multiple interpretations and embrace complexity. Secondly, it allowed me to adapt quiz questions flexibly in the moment to respond to the atmosphere of the class. Sometimes, they would need simpler questions to build confidence and focus; other times, I would double back to misconceptions or forgotten material.

Rosenshine sets the optimal success rate of quizzes at 80% (Rosenshine, B, cited in Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson’s indispensable book What Does This Look Like in the Classroom). I used this as my guide throughout the year and designed my quiz questions accordingly. If they were scoring much lower than this, they won’t feel successful. Much higher, they’re not being stretched. 80% is just right. In a quiz of ten questions, this gives them two answers to learn right at the start of the lesson, which feels both achievable and worthwhile. Students feel successful, but they also recognise they are learning.

As we grew in confidence, I could increase challenge as we repeated concepts. For example, we first looked at the concept of cycles and cyclical structures in poetry. We teased out the effect of Byron’s cyclical structure in ‘When We Two Parted’: his feelings of inescapable pain. We returned to this word with ‘Neutral Tones’, when Hardy also shows his in inescapable pain, but we also considered that it shows he is trapped in the memory of this break up, despite it being “years ago”. The idea of entrapment was echoed in Blood Brothers, in the foreshadowing of the tragic ending at the start, and students were able to add that this is used to show that for Russell, so long as society is unfair, tragedy is inevitable. Finally, in repeating these ideas frequently, students were able to consider the different effect of the cyclical structure in Macbeth, and how it hints at a new beginning for Scotland, but also that the same mistakes are likely to be made, as hunger for power may also be inevitable and inescapable. Thus, repetition of similar concepts, with added challenge each time, scaffolded students into advanced and abstract thinking. (For more high-leverage concepts, have a look at a previous post here.)

I am far from an expert, but I found these five strategies worked well in transforming a challenging group into engaged, successful and confident learners of English. Far from being tedious, repetition allowed them to excel.

I’m Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English at a wonderful school @InspirationTrust. I tweet at @elucymay.

Considering education, schools and books. Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English. I tweet at @elucymay.

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