Redundancy and the Spectrum of Learning

In most of the courses I’ve taught at language schools, I’ve felt that there is never enough time for students to adequately engage with the material. In particular, it is far too often the case that we teach one point, practice it a bit, assess understanding, and move on. However, this is not the way we learn. Mastery requires us to repeatedly tap into our resources and regularly apply it. Take dating as an example. One could argue that individuals who experience the most fulfillment in their love lives are those who reflect on what they have learned and apply it to new relationships. In this sense, they are constantly returning to what they have learned in prior relationships, building on that knowledge, and reshaping their strategies.  

As in life, learning in a formal educational setting is not linear. It is more of a zigzag pattern because it involves the ability to regularly draw on knowledge resources. In language education, recycling known or previously taught material is achieved through what is called curricular redundancy. We can think of redundancy as points within a syllabus in which learners are required to re-engage with previously taught target language. It is generally accepted that this repetition is beneficial because it compels learners to recycle vocabulary and patterns throughout and across curricula. This is key because, for new language to be acquired, learners must be exposed to it roughly a dozen separate times. As with any skill, it is this regular exposure and reapplication which leads to mastery.

Redundancy throughout the duration of the course

Let’s return to love. You probably don’t approach new relationships the same way you did when you were an adolescent because you have learned at different stages of your life to approach romance in a more effective way. Learning a language is similar. In order to master a language, or any subject, you have to continuously return to what you have learned in the past and re-apply it to a new situation. This is what we call vertical redundancy. Vertical redundancy refers to the repetition of content throughout the duration of a course. In other words, learned information reappears at different intervals. In a well thought-out course, vocabulary and patterns taught in Chapter 3 reappear in later chapters so that the learner has more exposure and time to work with the language. Considering the sequencing of target language and recycled material is a key requisite for development. Think of this as the “back to basics approach.” What would your love life be like if 16-year-old you was still planning the dates?  Your repertoire expands as you begin to refine and expand your knowledge. If you don’t continue to review the fundamentals, you cannot progress.

Redundancy across experiences

When we learn, we often acquire the skills and information which are transferable. For example, when we date, we learn how to regulate our body language and how to become better listeners. These skills also help us in other areas of our lives: personal, professional, and otherwise. Being able to apply information learned in one context to another context is an important aspect of lateral thinking and learning. In curriculum design, this process is called horizontal redundancy. In language learning, having the linguistic flexibility to apply language learned in one context to another is a key request of second language acquisition. In terms of curriculum design, this might involve taking the word “sustainable,” which was introduced in a lesson on the environment (i.e. sustainable resources), and reintroducing it to talk about relationships (i.e. sustainable relationships). Presenting learners with opportunities to tap into knowledge resources and reproduce it across subject matter is a key driver of learning and development regardless of the subject being taught.

Implications for lifelong learning

When people hear the word redundancy they naturally have negative thoughts. However, as teachers and learners, it is something we should view as essential. Throughout various stages of our development, we must review and re-apply what we have learned. Similarly, we must look for ways to take what we have learned in one area of our lives and apply it to another. At Learn YOUR English, we believe this capacity is as an integral facet of both language acquisition and lifelong learning.

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