Steve Schertzer

The 3-4-3 principle and the importance of repetition

Putting students through their paces

"Each lesson has four sides. I lift one side. If by the end of the lesson the students know what is under the remaining three sides, I do not repeat the lesson."
---- Confucius.

I admit it. I have been badgering some of my students lately. I'm being tough on them. And for good reason, I believe. Many of them are not applying themselves, not working hard enough. I have been testing them. I give them a lesson. Model it. Demonstrate it. Practise it with them. Repeat it. Then I test the students by having them give the lesson back to me. I put two of them in front of the class and they give the lesson back to me in the same way that I gave it to them. It's now their turn. I shine the spotlight on them. It's either sink or swim. Some swim. Some drown. Others waddle in the shallow end of the pool for a while before I sit them down for more practise.

This is a test I tell them, not a game. My voice, a bit too loud, scares even my Korean co-teacher. Poor Miss Kim. She probably has never met a foreigner who is also a serious teacher. I tell her that I left my clown outfit back in Canada. Big shoes, make up, rubber nose, balls. Everything. Well, not my balls. Unlike some other teachers here in Korea, I brought those with me.

Now I know what some of you will say. Go easy on these kids, huh. After all, they're only 13 or 14. Play games. Give them candy. They study so hard. Korean teenagers with their regular public school, their after school school, their private lessons, English tutors, Math tutors, piano lessons, violin recitals. Yes, Korean students are busy. But not busy enough to apply themselves and work hard in my class. After all, education is about the future.

So I repeat a lot of my stuff. (I think I already said that.) I like to review, although I admit I don't always do so. Here's a question: Say you have 16 classes with your students. You can,

(a) Teach 16 different and non-connected lessons, or
(b) Teach four of the same lessons four times.

Which scenario will have your students learning more? Repeat, repeat, repeat. Then go back and review. A little boring? Maybe. But you are there to teach, and your students are there to learn.

Many seasoned teachers, supervisors, and administrators tend to advice new teachers to vary their activities in EFL classes. Keep the class rolling and fast-paced. Never let the students think. Silence is the enemy. Some well intentioned advice, perhaps, but in my opinion, many of these seasoned teachers, supervisors, and administrators are ill-informed about how to improve the retention rates of the students. Again, through constant review and repetition.

I can understand why many teachers feel the need to vary their activities, especially when it comes to teenaged EFL students. It's not that the students alone are afraid of failing and looking bad in the presence of their peers. It's also the teachers who fear their own failure much more acutely. They are deathly afraid of looking inadequate in front of the students.
It's a real and legitimate fear, but it is neither an excuse nor a reason for a teacher not to do his or her job properly.

That some students cheat is bad enough. That many teachers cheat, either by fudging test scores to make themselves look like better teachers, or by not reviewing and repeating out of necessity, is even worse. Let this truth be known. Let this dirty little secret out of the bag. It's the teachers who are terrified of looking bad much more than the students. That's why the quick change of activities. That's why the fast-paced atmosphere. That's why the lack of necessary drilling and repetition. Teachers also don't want their students to know how little they are actually learning from them. So more activities. More candy. More games.

Then there's the 3-4-3 Principle. I read about this principle in a book written by Rafe Esquith, one of the great public school teachers in Los Angeles. Teachers learn this relatively quickly. Good teachers learn this more quickly. The principle is simply this: You can have 10 students in your class or 40. It doesn't matter. About 30 percent of them are with you. They like you. You have won them over even before stepping into the classroom. Another 30 percent are not with you. They don't like you. And you will probably never win them over. Then there's the 40 percent in the middle. They are teetering on the brink. They can go either way. They are waiting to see how you teach before making their decision.

Here's the question: Which group, as a teacher, do you focus most of your attention upon?

1) The three of ten who are with you?
2) The three of ten who are not with you?
3) The four of ten who may or may not be with you?

There is no right or wrong answer here. Each teacher has his or her own preference. Personally, I go with the four of ten. My goal is this: To get at least 70 percent of my students to understand at least 70 percent of what I give them so that they can give it back to me at least 70 percent correctly. Anything over that is gravy. Sometimes I get gravy, sometimes I don't. If this 70 percent is not reached with a particular class using the 3-4-3 Principle, I repeat the lesson until it is reached. This is what I have done, with few exceptions, in my three years in the Korean public schools.

To be a good teacher is to sometimes do things you don't like to do. To be a good student is to sometimes do things you don't like to do. For instance, repeat. Here's another question I was once asked during a job interview in a Bangkok language school which teaches EFL using the Callan method.

How do you think your students will learn more and retain more of what they read?

1) By having them read something they like once?
2) By having them read something they don't like four times?

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Review, review, review. Sometimes one step forward, two steps back. Sometimes two steps forward, one step back. Patience is a virtue here. Both your own as a teacher and the patience of your students. Set a realistic goal and eventually you and your students will get there. Don't fear failure. We learn from it. Most of all, don't be afraid to teach. Both you and your students will be rewarded for it.


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