Reasons why 3 is the magic number in ELT

Throughout human history, the number three has been seen as something magical.

  • Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end
  • Presentations and essays have an introduction, the main body, and a conclusion.
  • Even humour uses the rule of three structure: I’ve met a woman. She’s beautiful, she’s intelligent and her name is James. (Sorry for the terrible joke).

After thinking some more about the rule of three, I realised that it also applies to many elements of teaching and learning languages.

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Preparing classes

Most of the lesson planning models have 3 stages:

PPP – Presentation, Practice, Production

TTT – Test, Teach, Test

ESA – Engage, Study, Activate

TBL – Task-based learning. Pre-task, Task, Post-task reflection.

ARC – Authentic use, Restricted use, Clarification and Focus

It would seem that most lessons follow a similar three-stage-process:

STAGE 1: The context is created

STAGE 2: The context is used as a platform for using, experimenting and practising language

STAGE 3: Feedback occurs in which teachers and learners discuss what they have learned.

Summary: In essence, most lessons can be imagined as having a beginning, a middle and an end. My ‘rule of three’ theory is working so far.

Presenting new language (grammar and vocabulary)

Many of the major grammar structures in English can be presented with a positive form, a negative form, and a question form.

Present Perfect Simple

I have visited New York          POSITIVE FORM

I haven’t visited New York.   NEGATIVE FORM

Have I visited New York?      QUESTION FORM

Now, I know it is common to think of the form and function of grammar. However, when I train teachers, they often focus exclusively on the written form. If we agree that knowing the spoken form of a grammatical structure is essential, I think the rule of three works here too:

Meaning/ Function: We can use the Present Perfect to talk about life experiences 

Form: The Present Perfect is formed with the subject + have + Past Participle (written form)

Pronunciation: The Present Perfect is pronounced in the following way (spoken form)

You may be familiar with the term MFP (Meaning, Form and Pronunciation) and this seems to be an effective way to present new language and you can use it as a model for presenting new vocabulary too.

The English language seems naturally suited to the rule of three. Examples include:

  • Present / Past / Future
  • Three aspects of verbs: simple, continuous and perfect
  • Verbs (1 part), phrasal verbs with two parts, phrasal verbs with three parts. Are there any four-part phrasal verbs?
  • First / Second / Third Conditional: Why isn’t there a fourth conditional?

Working on Pronunciation

When we want our students to pronounce new language correctly, I’m sure many of you use three steps to do so:

1) Model the pronunciation

2) Choral drills (get all of the learners practising together)

3) Individual drills (ask learners to practise by themselves)

Correction and Feedback

I don’t know about you but I often use a ‘rule of three’ technique for correcting oral and written errors as well.

1) See if the learner can self-correct (Self-correction)

2) See if another learner can correct the error (Peer-correction)

3) I correct the error and provide the correct form (Teacher-correction)

Reviewing / recycling language

1) I give an example of the language item in context

2) Students explain what it means in this context

3) They create their own sentence using the language item

Role-plays / Discussions

1) Set the scene

2) Play the roles

3) Feedback on the performance

Testing

1) Prepare for the test

2) Take the test

3) Give feedback on the performance

Needs Analysis

1) Assess the learner (What can they do now)

2) Identify their needs (What do they need to do)

3) Plan a strategy for meeting their needs (How can we help them)

Learning Styles

1) Visual learners

2) Audio learners

3) Kinaesthetic learners

The rule of three approach may seem simplistic to some of you. Learning and teaching are complex processes with an infinite number of variables and reducing everything to a three-part formula won’t suit all tastes.

However, I’d like to remind you of these words from Albert Einstein:

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As educators, we plan, deliver and reflect upon our lessons (the experiential cycle) and this rule of three helps us become more effective educators.

What do you think? Does the ‘rule of three’ apply to any other aspects of teaching and learning?