Eleven low-preparation/high-impact tips for enhancing reading tasks

TES3

Please note: this post was authored in collaboration with Steve Smith of The Language Teacher Toolkit and Dylan Vinales of Garden International School 

Introduction

Reading texts are often under-exploited in most current published materials and typical Modern Language lessons. Moreover, the type of activities, the way they are sequenced and the levels of the text they address often seem to be chosen and planned haphazardly. In addition, the texts chosen for pre-intermediate to intermediate learners are not usually constructed in a way which is conducive to learning as they lack the sort of repetition and linguistic patterning that facilitate the noticing and uptake of new L2 items. Finally, no pre-task and post-task activities are typically carried out, which means that students come to the text not sufficiently prepped and that much of the newly processed language is lost.

Eleven tips for enhancing the impact of reading tasks

Here are eleven tips to address the above issues with novice-to-intermediate students through low-prep/high-impact activities that I use day in day out in my lessons.

1.Create the need to read – the most potent motivator in language learning is the need to understand and to communicate a message. Hence in selecting or designing written or aural input one should ask oneself: how can I make the students WANT to read on? What title, picture(s), first line or paragraph of a text can I come up with in order to get the students to want to read on the rest of the story, article, poem or lyrics of a song? For instance, last week I used a few – very dramatic – scenes from the video-clip of Kenza Farah’s song ‘Coup de Coeur’, as a teaser for my year 10 students. I then played the song to them and used the lyrics for a set of reading tasks. I have rarely seen them so motivated – they really could not wait to understand what the song was about.

Creating the need to read is not easy and I cannot say that I have fully cracked it; but I am trying and I think every language teacher should, considering that arising cognitive and emotional arousal of this sort is highly conducive to learning.

2.Ensure the students can recognize at least 90 % of the items in the text they are reading without having to resort to the dictionary (flip the learning of the key vocabulary prior to the reading of the text) – We often advise our students to read more in the belief that this will definitely help learn more vocabulary. However, it is not simply how extensively they read which will make a difference, but also what  and how they read. Research clearly indicates that for L2 reading to be an effective catalyst of vocabulary acquisition, the to-be-read material must be 95% comprehensible without much effort. This can be attained by using, besides words that have already been learnt, cognates, predictable contexts and repetition (see point 3 below).

Enabling the students to understand the gist or the main message of the text-in-hand or training them to answer a few reading comprehension questions does not enhance vocabulary acquisition. The students need to understand as much as possible of the linguistic environment surrounding the target lexis if we want them to acquire it.

This entails often having to alter authentic materials when dealing with novice-to-intermediate students and occasionally even the reading passages found in textbooks. In order to avoid having to modify the texts, what I do is flipping the learning of the more challenging vocabulary they contain prior to reading them; so, for example, knowing that my year 8 will read text ‘X’ on Monday next week, I will set vocabulary-building homework the Friday. before

3.Ensure there is a lot of repetition and highly patterned language – Repetition of words and patterns in texts is crucial and the lack of it is possibly the greatest shortcoming of most of the published Modern Languages reading materials currently on the market. Exposure to the target vocabulary and grammar through receptive processing being essential for effective acquisition every reading text we use in class should include as much repetition as possible on at least three levels: (1) the target lexical items (be them words or phrases), (2) the target grammar structure(s) and (3) syntactic patterns (e.g. the same sentence stem or slight variations of the same sentence stems as in: I live in a city called Paris ; I live in a village called Cagnes-sur-mer).

Sadly, one of the damages done by the Communicative Language Approach to Modern Language education is the notion that L2 students ought to read only or mainly authentic texts. However, I do not believe this to be always ‘healthy’ practice with novice-to-intermediate learners.as repetitions of words and patterns even when sounding redundant and artificial do scaffold learning.

Songs and poems are often more memorable because they use frequent repetitions and come in handy in the reading sessions; narrow-reading texts , many of which I have published (free) on www.tes.co.uk , are rife in recycling of words and patterns too.

4. If you do include the L1-translations of the challenging words, place them in a box in the margin of the page (not in brackets, next to the words) – Research evidence indicates that a gloss located in the margin of the text (where the L1 translation is provided) is more likely to facilitate future recall than placing the translation in brackets next to the unfamiliar word (within the text). I usually highlight or underline any unfamiliar words in the text that I have included in the gloss in order to signal to the students that it has been translated for them.

5.Before staging the reading do some work on decoding skills– Research by Walker (2009) indicates that learner issues with L2-decoding of the text-in-hand, especially when different L2 items may be pronounced by the students erroneously as homophones (i.e. phonetically identical) may hinder reading comprehension. Think about ‘je parle’ and ‘j’ai parlé’, for instance that many pre-intermediate learners of French pronounce identically. This phenomenon is caused by the fact that even when we read silently, the instant we process a word we activate its sound by engaging the phonological loop in our Working Memory. What I do, prior to engaging my students in reading, is to focus my students on the pronunciation of specific combinations of letters which I predict might cause them issues in processing the text-at-hand; for this purpose I use a range of my MLEs (Micro-listening enhancers).

 6.Warm the students up prior to the reading through work on top-down processing skills – this is as important as the work on bottom-up processing skills recommended in the previous point. The easiest zero-preparation way to do this is to tell the students the title and the topic(s) of the text and ask them to brainstorm as many words as possible in the target language which they associate with them. Alternatively or additionally you could give them a few pictures which refer to the content of the text and ask them to do the same – the pictures could be used to create the need to read alluded to in point one. Another minimum preparation strategy which involves writing (and even speaking if done in a group through a discussion) is to ask them to jot down a few sentences predicting the content of the to-be-read text.

7.Create several short tasks rather than one or two long ones  – in a very small-scale research of mine carried out a few years back I found that my students found more enjoyable and useful to carry out several short tasks with four or five questions rather than one or two longer tasks with eight to ten questions. This was particularly true of lower ability students. Several shorter tasks provide more variety, and a sense of having completed more challenges. Moreover, one can address more levels of the same texts and recycle the same items through different questions, which will facilitate acquisition.

8.Design tasks with varying foci – It always baffles me how limited the number and range of tasks that published materials associate with each of their texts are. When I design or plan reading activities I endeavour to address points (a) to (f) below, usually one per task; the fact that the tasks are many but short pre-empts the work from being tedious and time-consuming. Moreover, sequencing the task in ascending level of difficulty allows for effective differentiation.

(a) reading for gist – tasks that require the students to pick out the text’s key message/details (e.g. list the five main points made in the text about what constitute a healthy lifestyle);

(b) simple reinforcement of key words in the text – tasks that only aim at recycling the key items (e.g. translate the following French words/phrases in the text you have just read) and are not designed to ‘quiz’ the students, but merely to get them to re-visit the text and re-process it. This means that these tasks need not be particularly challenging as they serve the purpose of modelling; this is why I usually put this tasks as first or second in my reading-tasks sequence;

(c) fostering noticing of lexical/grammar structure– these are questions which promote the noticing of a specific L2 grammar items of syntactic structure (e.g. why does line 20 read “if I had gone’ and not ‘If I went’?);

(d) promoting use of inference strategies – these require the students to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words using context;

(e) practising using dictionaries/reference materials;

(f) L1-to-L2 translation skills.

9.Stage a read-aloud session – Staging a read-aloud session after performing the above tasks provides a cognitive break and gives you an idea, whilst you are walking around the class monitoring student-pronunciation, of how the acquisition of decoding skills is proceeding. This will inform the planning of any subsequent delivery of decoding-skill instruction.

10. Follow-up with one or more listening tasks – A follow-up through listening-as-modelling and listening-comprehension activities helps reinforcing the vocabulary and, more importantly, focuses the students on pronunciation. The easiest listening-as modelling activity to prepare is obviously dictation of sentences taken from the just-read-text containing the key-items you set out to teach (with or without L1-translation). Partial dictations require very little preparation too. Jigsaws are a bit more time-consuming but students enjoy them a lot.

11. Recycle key lexis in subsequent lessons – after reading a passage, some really nice idioms, structures or other interesting and useful lexis found in that text get left behind and often lost for ever. I do attempt to make sure that that does not happen, by: (a) setting it as homework using language-gym.com – but one can use Memrise or Quizlet instead; (b) creating a new reading text (my favourite strategy) which include those items; (c) devising a nice starter with which to begin the next lesson; (d) recycling the items alongside any new lexis you are planning to teach in the next lesson

Concluding remarks

Much too often the reading passages used in the ML lessons are under-exploited and a substantial part of the valuable material they contain gets ‘lost’ in the absence of adequate and consistent recycling in subsequent lessons. At present, I am not aware of any published material which effectively addresses all of the levels of exploitation of a text I outlined in the above post, which is appalling. This is due too many factors, one of which refers to the fear that the students might get bored, a concern I sympathize with to a certain extent; this issue can, however, be partly controlled for by providing several shorter tasks with varying foci.

The most important message this post purports to convey is that reading tasks should try to squeeze out as much learning out of any text-at-hand as possible; students should be prepped both in terms of bottom-up and top-down processing skills (especially decoding skills); they should also be encouraged to notice  new items through activities which engage them in deep processing; finally, unless we are merely equipping students with survival skills, limiting the focus of receptive processing (not simply reading but listening, too) to the understanding of the main points contained in a text has very little surrender value in terms of the enhancement of reading fluency and the acquisition of vocabulary, morphology, syntax and any other aspect of L2 competence.

Creating the need to read or understand should also be an important concern of ours as way too often the texts students work on in ML lessons are rather dull. Whilst this is quite difficult to do with the texts we give novice-to-intermediate learners, when working at higher level of proficiency it should not be an impossible task.

As far as point 2 to 11 are concerned, our frustration with the current lack of resources which address all of the above has led Steve Smith and myself to creating reading material and associated tasks which we are writing as we speak and whose first instalment is published here. The aim: to create a resource which enables intermediate learners of French to learn as much as possible from L2 written texts to the point of allowing them to translate short English passages (GCSE style) into French off the top of their head by the end of each unit.

As for point 1, i.e. ‘creating the need to read’, Steve and I are both working on developing a set of strategies which we intend to share with our readers in a future post.

To find out about our ideas on reading instruction, get hold of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’, the book Steve Smith and I co-authored .

‘Quizzifying’ feedback on error – four ways to spice up the correction of your students’ writing

TES3

Please note: this post was co-authored with Steve Smith of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’

1.Introduction

As my regular readers will know, I am not a fan of traditional explicit error correction (error pointed out and correction provided), as (a) it does not involve the students actively in the correction process – they are merely passive recipients of the feedback process and (b)  students do not usually pay attention to it (Cavalcanti, 1990; Conti, 2004).

Even the common practice of underlining and coding errors and asking the student to self-correct is of limited effectiveness. Firstly, because one cannot correct errors with structures one does not know. Secondly, for errors for which the rule is ‘known’, this practice stops at the product  (the mistake) thereby failing to address the most important issue: the cognitive processes which caused the mistake in the first place – which usually refer to cognitive overload/ divided attention. In order to address self-correctable performance errors effectively teachers have to provide the learners with practice in processing the linguistic environment(s) that caused those mistakes – during production of the same sort as the one in which they were made. This is very rarely done in my experience.

Any corrective intervention, in order to impact the target students, must (1) involve the students in deep processing of negative feedback (i.e. involving substantial cognitive investment and higher order thinking skills); (2) be as distinctive and memorable as possible, so as to bring the target mistake into the student’s focal awareness; (3) give rise to a positive affective response on the part of the students whilst lowering the anxiety resulting from being told they made mistakes; (4) provide students with a clear path to future success in the handling of the structure (e.g. by enhancing the metalinguistic awareness necessary for avoiding that mistake in the future and/or providing a memory strategy); (5) provide extensive practice aimed at eradicating the target mistake(s).

Moreover, for error correction to be effective, a culture of attention to formal accuracy has to be fostered and actively supported across all levels of receptive and productive practice. In many communicative classrooms nowadays this does not happen, and accuracy has become a secondary concern, regardless of the fact that if we are indeed preparing our students to use the target language for work – and not merely survival-level communication – their output needs to be as error-free as possible.

In this post I describe four techniques I use with my students to ‘spice up’ the correction process of performance errors. They are more time-consuming than ordinary correction techniques, hence I don’t use them all the time and only with groups I believe will benefit from them.

Let me reiterate the importance of providing our students with extensive practice with a ‘faulty’ structure in writing and speaking (in that order). Only repeated spaced practice fixes mistakes; explicit correction or self-correction with codes as well as any of the techniques below are only the beginning -the awareness-raising phase – of the remediation process. The reader should bear this in mind in reading the below.

2.The techniques

Here are the techniques. The reader should note that I usually ask the students, as a follow-up, to explain the rule either in writing or to a group of peers and to produce (as homework) 10 original sentences containing that structure on a set topic (e.g. health and lifestyle). All the techniques below can be turned into a competition; my more able groups love to compete against each other ‘in Error hunts’.

It goes without saying that one should only use these techniques with self-correctable errors which refer to L2 items that the students know in abstract how to use but occasionally fail to use under real operating conditions due to processing inefficiency/cognitive overload or to a specific linguistic context.

2.1 Choose the right option – a student has made a mistake in the handling of a structure. Instead of supplying the correction or asking to self-correct, you provide two or even three possible options to choose from – only one being correct – and ask her to provide a rationale for her choice. This technique is particularly useful when dealing with students who may find the self-correction task daunting as it provides a cue that might confirm their hypotheses. Example:

Intended meaning: if I had more money I would buy a new car

Error: si j’ai plus d’argent j’acheterais une nouvelle voiture

Option 1: Si j’avais eu plus d’argent j’acheterais une nouvelle voiture

Option 2: Si j’aurais plus d’argent j’acheterais une nouvelle voiture

Option 3 (the correct one) : Si j’avais plus d’argent j’acheterais une nouvelle voiture

2.2 Error hunt – Tell students that there are an ‘X’ number of mistakes in a specific sentence or section of their essay and challenge them to find them under timed conditions. You may cue them as to the nature of the mistakes (e.g. Spelling, Word order, Verb ending, Tense, etc.). This technique has more potential for learning than simply pointing the students to the specific word or word cluster where a mistake is and ask to self-correct. Why? Because, as pointed out above very often it is the context where a mistake is found that causes the student to get the application of a given grammar rule wrong, not the knowledge of the rule itself.  In other words, the student-writer’s working memory experiences processing inefficiency due to the challenges posed by the surrounding linguistic environment  (e.g. too many grammar rules to juggle at the same time). Error hunts enable  the student to re-process the faulty item receptively in the challenging environment that caused her to err but receptively, which allows her more time to think and to bring to consciousness the source(s) of the mistake.

2.3 Code the errors – Errors in essays are underlined. The students are given a list of error categories such as ‘Spelling’, ‘Word order’, ‘Agreement’, etc. and are asked to code the errors underlined by themselves or working in a group. This can be made into a competition. Tip: do not underline too many errors and leave the categories broader with less proficient groups of learners.

2.4 Error auctions –  In marking your year 11 students’ essays you found a set of mistakes that are common to most of them. Time-wise it is more practical to deal with those in class, together, rather than individually. Hence, you may stage an error auction. You put a sample sentence for each of the errors you elect to target on a different slide of a Power Point. You assign a ‘price’ to each, depending on how difficult you think the error will be to correct (e.g. 1,000 dollars for an omission of the subjunctive, 100 dollars for a spelling mistake). You divide the students into groups of three,  and assign them a budget (e.g. 5,000 dollars). You will show each sample sentence and will give the students a set amount of time to write on mini-boards (one per group) the correct version of that sentence (with or without explanation of the rule – at your discretion). The groups that get it right are awarded the amount of money specified on the slide; the ones that get it wrong, lose it. The group with the most money at the end of the game wins.

Conclusion

Error correction must aim at involving the students actively in the feedback-handling process and to bring about high levels of cognitive and emotional arousal in order to give rise to learning. The four techniques I have just outlined help making the correction distinctive and more engaging but are no panacea. The most important part of the remedial learning process is extensive spaced practice for months and months on end under self-monitoring conditions (i.e. the students is producing output specifically monitoring the application of the problematic rules). Any correcting intervention that stops at awareness-raising is doomed to fail.

Planning the grammar lesson – heading for M.A.R.S.

Please note: this post was co-authored with Dylan Viñales during a Garden International School professional development afternoon and Steve Smith of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’.

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 1.Introduction

In this post I lay out the approach to grammar instruction I undertake in a typical lesson. I shall start by outlining what I believe the main aims and concerns of grammar instruction should be. I will then proceed to describe the three-phase framework I adopt and the typical tasks I carry out at each stage.

2. Aims and focus of grammar teaching

2.1 Knowledge vs Automization

Grammar teaching in many language classrooms is about passing the knowledge of how a grammar rule works . The presumption is that if students evidence that they have understood how the target grammar structure works  through a cloze or a written translation task, they have learnt it and the class can move on. This is however an overly simplistic  view of grammar acquisition, as it equates language learning with merely storing facts in Long-term memory – as you would do in any other content-based subject such as History, Geography or Biology.

The product of this kind of grammar instructions is students who, after four or five years of language learning instruction take forever to conjugate verbs across tenses; who often talk like ‘robots’, pausing in between words to decide which verb/adjectival ending or tense to select; who constantly back-track as they speak, self-correcting grammar mistakes that are caused more by lack of fluency than by a knowledge gap. Useless to say, many of these students often cannot cope when they attempt to use the target language in the real world.

As I reiterate ad nauseam in my blogs, language learning being about SKILL not Knowledge acquisition,  grammar instruction ought to aim primarily at enabling learners to accurately and rapidly apply L2 morphemes  across all four language skills and through a vast array of contexts at real-life-communication speed or R.O.C. (Real Operating Conditions).This implies an important mindshift as it entails  involving students in extensive skill-based grammar practice of both the receptive (listening, reading and translation) and productive sort (writing and speaking under time pressure) which ultimately aims at automization.

2.2. Process vs Product

It follows from the above that the focus of instruction should not only be the visible, i.e. the tangible outcome of a lesson, e.g. the nice little paragraph in the perfect tense which gives us the false reassurance and evidence we proudly show our colleagues that our students ‘have got it’; grammar teaching should also be about the invisible, i.e. the processes that lead to spontaneity / automaticity in language understanding and production.

This means engaging students in activities which develop each of the processes and sub-processes leading to the accurate application of a given grammar rule in real time across all four skills (e.g. as part of a spontaneous conversation).

Teachers ought to identify such processes and explicitly address them in their teaching and curriculum design. Example: producing a sentence like ‘If I had lots of money I would buy a Ferrari’ in French requires mastery of the Imperfect  Indicative (I had) as well as the Present Conditional (I would). To enable students to produce such sentences automatically with any personal pronoun (you, he, we, etc.) I will have to ensure first that those specific tenses and moods have been automatized or at least highly routinized.

Most of the time this doesn’t happen; the result: students who struggle to produce such sentences, not because they do not understand the underlying rules, but because they have not automatized the necessary sub-steps the application of that structure requires.

2.3 ‘Spontaneous’ grammar = spontaneous speech

Every prominent UK-based ML educator these days emphasizes the importance of fostering spontaneous speech in the language classroom but very few (e.g. Professor Macaro, bloggers Steve Smith and Jake Hunton) talk about the importance of ‘spontaneous’ grammar production. Yet it is difficult to fathom how, in school-based language education, one can even remotely hope to be able to develop student spontaneous speech without first achieving spontaneous (= highly routinized) grammar production.

Grammar instruction MUST be first and foremost about bringing about ‘spontaneity’ in grammar production.

3. A basic framework for grammar lessons and grammar teaching principles

Here is the basic framework I use in grammar lessons. I call it MARS. (Modelling/Awareness-raising Receptive processing, Structured production). The three phases are not necessarily listed in chronological order. The sequence I tend to use is: Listening > Reading > Writing > Listening (snappy decoding reminders using Micro-listening enhancers) > Speaking; I often alternate Listening and Reading tasks as I feel fit, so the above sequence is not set in stone. However, I do always stage writing tasks before speaking ones.

Please note: the 3 phases envisaged below do not have to occur all in one lesson. If the target structure is quite complex, it is preferable to cover the Modelling/Awareness-raising, Receptive processing and some Writing in one lesson and more Writing and Speaking in a follow-up session ( in which speaking would receive most of the emphasis).

3.1 Modelling and Awareness-raising  (PHASE 1) 

In the first phase of this approach the instructor models the target structure and raises learner awareness (e.g. through cognitive comparison) of the differences between the first and second language usage. This is the equivalent of the Presentation phase in the traditional PPP model that you will have been taught on your PGCE or CELTA course.

During this phase one should ensure that cognitive load is lessened by:

  1. using the first language if rule is complex;
  2. producing examples which contain language items the students are very familiar with;
  3. avoid engaging students in production unless you are dealing with particularly gifted students;
  4. providing the L1 translation of the examples in order to foster inter-lingual comparison;
  5. avoiding presenting exceptions to the rule you are presenting (do it later).

In this phase the teacher may decide to use a deductive or an inductive approach. In the deductive approach, the teacher explains the target grammar structure and provides examples of its usage. In the inductive approach, on the other hand, s/he presents the students with examples of the application of the target grammar structure and asks the students to work out the underlying rules  by themselves – although the teacher may intervene when the students are stuck with guiding questions. Inductive teaching involves problem solving and consequently greater cognitive investment which means, at least in theory, that it should bring about better retention.

There is no consensus as to which method is more effective; I use both, depending on the challenges posed by the target structure, the group I am working with and, of course, the time available – inductive teaching being obviously more time-consuming.

3.2 Receptive processing (Phase 2)

This is the most neglected area in explicit grammar teaching instruction. In most of the lessons I have observed in 25 years of teaching the teacher goes immediately from modelling to some form of production. This may work with some students. However, learning is greatly enhanced by getting the students to process the new grammar structure extensively, many times over, through reading and listening tasks which focus them on its formation and usage across a range of linguistic contexts. In a previous blog I gave the following rationale for this phase:

(a) receptive processing is less cognitively challenging than production, especially when effective support/scaffolding is provided; (b) if the texts in use contain language the students are familiar with, they provide old material to hook the new items to, which may facilitate retention; (c) it models the application of the target structure in context, not in a communicative vacuum (as the sentences used by teachers and course-books as examples do); (d) reading allows more time for students to process the new information – production puts much more cognitive and emotional pressure on them; (e) aural modelling through listening – when the transcript of the track is visible to the learners- can be valuable in preventing many decoding/pronunciation errors which may impede acquisition – going back to the English present perfect scenario: think of the pronunciation of ‘I have read’ as opposed to ‘I read’; of ‘I have written’ versus ‘I write’. In French, I have significantly reduced the voicing of ‘-ent’ in the third person plural of the present indicative (e.g. ils parlent) by extensive modelling through listening practice.

Important tip: this phase ought to begin with tasks which pose a relatively light cognitive load thereby allowing for more focus on the target structure.

3.2.1 Reading tasks

These may include :

  • Grammaticality judgment quizzes such as ‘Right or wrong?’ (students asked to decide, working alone or in groups, if a sentence is wrong or right and explain why); ‘Spot the correct one’ (two, three or four sentences are given which have the same intended meaning but only one is correct; students have to spot it and explain why it is correct) – this task lends itself well to a Kahoot quiz; Cloze tasks with options. It is imperative that the language used in each of the above is extremely familiar to the learner.
  • Sentence re-ordering tasks (the words in a sentence are randomly and incorrectly arranged and students are asked to place them in the right order) – obviously not all grammar structures lend themselves to this type of task;
  • Sentence builders (see example here) (teacher writes sentence in the first language; students to translate it by putting together the words/phrases in the sentence builder)
  • Text searches (student need to find as many instances as possible of target-structure use in a series of short texts and translate the sentences they are contained in orally or in writing );
  • Error identification and correction (students are given a set of sentences some of which are right and some of which contain one mistake referring to target structure use; students must identify the mistakes and explain and correct them)
  • Short-text translations. This is definitely one of my favourites. I always include translations in this phase of my grammar teaching. These are three ways I use it in my lessons: (1) write L2 sentence on screen/whiteboard and students translate on mini-board under time constraints; (2) group-work (students are given a set of sentences to translate; (3) I utter the sentence and students write on mini-boards;
  • Narrow reading texts with comprehension tasks. I always mention these in my blogs as I believe they are extremely useful (read here to know more about them)

Usually, I use at least three or four of the above tasks in each grammar lesson of mine ensuring that every task recycle the same vocabulary in order to facilitate comprehension. Morevoer, I always alternate these tasks with some of the LAM (Listening-as-modelling) activities described below. It goes without saying that easier tasks should go first and that there should be a logic to the way the above activities are sequenced.

3.2.2 Listening-as-modelling (LAM) Tasks

The following low-prep/high-impact tasks are some of my favourites LAM activities. Some of these tasks do involve some reading and writing, so they do more than addressing listening skills. Listening-as-modelling tasks are very important as an incorrect pronunciation of key grammatical features can seriously (negatively) impact communication and future learning. Think about the past of ‘to read’ in English ‘I read’, how easy it would be to presume that it is pronounced like the present ‘I read’; or, in French, the common mistake of voicing the silent ‘e’ in the ending of the first person of the present tense (e.g. ‘je parle’) which sound like the first person of the imperfect (e.g. ‘je parlais’); etc.

(1) Micro-listening enhancers (MLEs) (see examples of MLEs here) – these are of great help when working with highly inflected languages such as French, German or Spanish, as they can focus students on word endings thereby preventing many typical pronunciation mistakes L2 learners of these languages often make (e.g. my pet hate, the pronunciation of ‘-ent’ in the third person plural of the present tense in French).

(2) Partial dictations – these are a very effective follow-up to MLEs and are a great means to verify if students have acquired sound coding/decoding skills and to raise awareness of how the gapped elements fit in a sentence (e.g. word order of adjectives in French, Spanish and Italian ).

(3) Dictations – These can be used for a range of purpose, besides the obvious one of practising spelling and decoding skills. For instance, they can be employed (a) to promote cognitive comparison between the L1 and the L2. Example: in teaching word order in French one could write a sentence exemplifying the rule ‘noun before adjective’ in English; one would then dictate the French translation of that sentence to show how in French the adjective follows the noun instead and ask the students to notice the difference ; (b). To model transformational writing such as sentence-recombining strategies (see paragraph 3.2.3.1 below)

(4) Sentence builders (using a sentence builder, teacher makes sentences for students to write on mini-whiteboards in the L1 or the L2 to model syntax)

(5) Paired reading-aloud with translation and/or critical listening – (1) Translation: students read short texts to each other and translate orally what they hear their partner say. (2) Critical listening: students evaluate pronunciation of the key-words involved in the application of the target structures.

(6) Narrow listening with comprehension tasks (same principle as Narrow reading)

3.2.3 Structured production (Phase 3)

3.2.3.1 Written tasks

(1) Parallel texts with partial translation (students are given parallel texts where the L2 version is gapped; the gaps are obviously placed where the target structure is used in order to focus the students on its application in the text);

(2) Cloze tasks

(3) Translations (from L1 to L2)

(4) Sentence recombining tasks (two sentences are given and students are required to blend them in one new sentence using the target grammar structure. Example: Sentence is ‘My mother is 42. She is a lawyer. She really enjoys her job.’; Target structure is relative pronouns; Cue is:  ‘who, whom, which or where’ Recombined sentence could be: ‘My mother, who is 42, works as a lawyer and really enjoys her job’

(5) Old school drills (to practise verb conjugation and agreement in inflected languages (e.g. French, German and Spanish). Example (Spanish) : Maria ______ ( present indicative of ‘IR) = Maria va. As far as verb-conjugation drills are concerned, there are a few online verb conjugators (e.g. my own www.language-gym.com) which really help.

(5) Picture tasks. These are another one of my favourites. Students must describe a picture making up sentences which include the target structures. Depending on the structure and the challenges it poses, one may decide to provide more cues , scaffolding and resources.

(6)Short essays with prompts. Students are asked to write a short essay with bullet prompts which cue them heavily as to what they are supposed to write so as to elicit use of the target structure(s).

3.2.3.2 Oral tasks

These are usually the most neglected productive tasks and possibly the most important ones in bringing about automization.

(1) Sentence builders. Students, working in pairs, give each other sentences in the L1 to translate into the L2 using a sentence builder. I usually make this into a game; I prepare a deck of cards with the English sentences to translate and the students take turns in picking a card and translating it. Students work in groups of three, one of them being the referee; the more accurate player wins.

(2) Communicative drills. I usually start with these. Students are given prompts in the L2, L1 or in English. The tasks are constructed to elicit use of the target structure in a communicative context. Example (Teaching SER versus ESTAR in Spanish in the contexts of health issues):

Partner 1  :  Doctor I am ill

Partner 2:  What is the problem?

Partner 1: I am feeling nauseous and my stomach hurts

 Partner 2: Where is the pain ? etc.

(3) ‘Find someone who…’ with cards – It is one of my favourites. Students are given a card with fictitious name and details. The task is to find 8-10 people with specific details on their cards. Students go around asking questions which aim at eliciting those details; in the process, the deployment of the target structure is elicited (read here for more on this activity).

(4) Picture tasks with prompts. (see above)

(5) Oral sentence recombining. Oral version of the sentence-recombining task described above)

4. Lesson-planning Tips

(1) Narrow down the focus of your grammar lesson as much as possible

(2) Carefully consider L1 interference and mistakes commonly made by the average student you teach. How can you pre-empt them?

(3) Identify every single cognitive step involved in the application of the target rule and address each of them through extensive practice in the lesson.

 (4) Use as many ways as you can think of to explain the target rule. The more angles, analogies and visual representations you can use to explain the target rule, the more likely you are to make that rule ‘stick’. Try to come up with something memorable, like an acronym, a visual narrative or a diagram.

(5) Plan your examples carefully ensuring they are clear and unambiguous – do not improvise!

(6) Recycle the same vocabulary over and over again throughout the lesson in order to ease cognitive load

(7) Zoom in and zoom out – as you plan the lesson you must focus as much on the lesson-at-hand (zoom in) as on what you have covered already and are planning to cover in the future (zoom out).

(8) Make sure that the final part of your lesson or cycle or lessons does not simply end with a receptive-processing activity; your aim should be bringing about automization. Hence, you may want to use an oral task requiring the students to use the target structure in oral production (e.g. through picture tasks or communicative drills under timed conditions).

5. Concluding remarks

Whether we decide to opt for a deductive or inductive instructional approach, the end-goal of grammar teaching must be the high routinization of the target grammar structure across all four skills. What is meant by this is that the students should be enabled – through extensive practice – to apply the target morpheme or syntactic pattern rapidly and correctly, in the context of ‘spontaneous’ speech. This entails going beyond the current models of grammar instruction used in UK-based Modern Language education whereby grammar is imparted and tested through cloze tasks and written translation. The attainment of automization of the target grammar structures must be our primary concern when we explicitly teach L1 morphology and syntax.

Some language educators might frown upon my advocacy of automization and drills – words which are reminiscent of some legacy methods. The problem is that what we have done in the last three or four decades is completely throw away the old for the ‘new’ without recognizing that grammar/translation, old-school oral and written audio-lingual drills and communicative language teaching have all got something important to bring to the table. Learning a language is like learning to play tennis or football; first you need lots of modelling and drills; then less challenging, ‘low-stake’ matches; finally, after much practice, one may be ready for the tournament and take on the champions.

Another important concern must be that students are provided with as many chances  as possible to succeed at learning whatever morpheme or syntactic structure we aim to teach. This calls for an approach which reduces as much as possible learner cognitive load and provides tons of recycling across all four language skills. The approach laid out in this post aims to accomplish that through the following principles:

  1. The target grammar structure should be presented in familiar linguistic contexts, i.e. within sentences which contain syntactic patterns and/or vocabulary the students have routinized previously;
  2. Plenty of receptive practice which (a) allows the less confident and gifted learners to process the target structure(s) in less cognitively heavy and less threatening contexts; (b) facilitates and reinforces understanding, should the teacher’s explanation of the rule not be fully grasped; (c) embeds the learning in a meaningful communicative context rather than in a ‘vacuum’ as happens when the rule is presented through loose sample sentences on a board or computer screen;
  3. Structured learning through a movement from smaller units of discourse to bigger ones and from highly structured to less structured ones.

Should grammar instruction stop at the last ‘S’ of MARS, i.e. ‘Structured production’? The answer is no, of course. The follow-up to MARS, refers to two phases I call Expansion and Autonomy, in which the learners are given opportunities to use the target structure in the context of increasingly less structured interactional communicative tasks across an increasingly wide-ranging set of topics. These phases should be staged in subsequent lessons once the students, after frequent spaced practice, will have become confident and versed in the deployment of the target structure and ready to ‘walk’ on their own two feet, so to speak, without the ‘crutches’ provided by word-lists, sentence builders, verb tables and other scaffolding methods. In order to better understand what I mean by Expansion and Autonomy, please read the last section of this blog.

From guesswork to ‘knowwork’, from quizzing to teaching: the mind-shift that may enhance L2 students’ listening skills (Listening Instruction, part 2)

Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of ‘The Language Teacher toolkit’ and Dylan Vinales of Garden International School

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1.Introduction – Beyond testing and quizzing

A recurrent theme in my blogs is the belief that Modern Language listening instruction, as it is currently carried out in many L2 classrooms, is more about testing than modelling.  Students are usually asked to listen to a text uttered at near-native or native speed and answer a set of questions on it which typically involve picking out a few details here and there or deciding whether some statements made about that text are true or false. In other words, quizzes through and through, which often elicit a lot of guesswork from the students who are not always adequately prepared for them and equipped at best with basic inference strategies.

Add to this the fact that typically the aural input found in textbooks and other published resources does not contain the repetitions, redundancies and cues that not only facilitate understanding, but also make language more noticeable and memorable.

To make things worse, students are usually asked to listen to each listening extract two or three times maximum and the pre-listening task preparation and post-task recycling are usually minimal. Once the marking is over and done with, the class move on and the listening track just listened to is usually not revisited again. As it is obvious, not much learning occurs, as such practice does not allow for many opportunities for students to notice and analyse new language items and patterns.

This model is seriously at odds with the way humans learn languages in the early stages of first language acquisition, where input from caregivers and the family entourage is usually fairly highly patterned, repetitive and cue-rich (especially in terms of visual input) and the same language is recycled over and over again in very similar contexts with frequent positive and negative feedback which confirms or negates the children’s inferences.

Such an approach to listening instruction also clashes with the way in which much second language learning occurs in naturalistic/immersive environments, where L2 learners usually develop their listening skills through extensive oral interaction with native speakers or other L2 experts who repeat, paraphrase, explain and use plenty of cues to facilitate the comprehension of their input. In real life, humans are active listeners who use their eyes as much as their ears to comprehend their interlocutor’s input often cueing them to any breakdown in communication and negotiating meaning with them when that happens.

  1. 2. The aims of this post

In this post I reiterate and expand on a concept I put across in my article ‘Listening Instruction Part 1′. The notion, that is, that at lower levels of proficiency listening instruction should concern itself more with listening-as-modelling (henceforth LAM) than with listening for testing comprehension.

But WHY is it crucial to implement LAM ?

First and foremost, as it is obvious, to prepare our student for aural comprehension, the most important skill in real-life communication – around 45 % of total real-life communication involving the listening modality whilst only 15 % occurs through reading and only 10% through writing. If our learners acquire the L2 target grammar and vocabulary almost exclusively through the written medium – as it often happens – they will struggle when processing it aurally, a common phenomenon in the typical UK classroom. On the other hand, frequent exposure to LAM will enhance their ability to code new input thereby lessening the processing cognitive load and – as an added benefit – facilitating the noticing of any grammatical and syntactic features in aural input.

Secondly, masses of LAM will impact students pronunciation and decoding skills, which in turns may enhance their oral and reading skills. Effective listening comprehension requires mastery of bottom-up processing skills as much as it does top-down. LAM develops learner bottom-up processing skills by constantly modelling L2 vocabulary, functions,  grammar and syntax through the listening medium.

Thirdly, by aiming at modelling rather than quizzing, LAM allows for the explicit instruction of grammar and syntax through the listening medium – which is impossible during listening comprehension tasks as the students are focusing on answering questions.

Fourthly, the fact that LAM recycles the same core items time and again and is highly patterned makes the input more accessible and memorable.

3. Eight features of effective LAM practice

To be most effective, LAM activities – as I envisage them- should:

  1. address all levels of language processing, from the phonological features of words to the understanding of larger discourse structures (long sentences and paragraphs) both in terms of meaning and how they function;
  2. include highly patterned (e.g. lots of repetition) comprehensible input uttered at a speech rate which is accessible to the target learners;
  3. start with highly structured and highly scaffolded activities which become gradually less structured and more demanding;
  4. Start with smaller units of discourse and gradually build up to larger ones;
  5. involve a variety of tightly-sequenced tasks which recycle the same language items and patterns;
  6. prepare the students for any subsequent listening comprehension tasks;
  7. avail itself of visual aids and other cues (e.g. typographic devices to translation) which facilitate understanding of the input;
  8. explicitly promote the noticing of new L2 items

In the below, I will show how this can be done through low effort and high impact activities which I have been using for a long time and have significantly impacted my students’ proficiency. Most of the activities below are not rocket science and you may be implementing some of them already in your lessons – although probably not as often as I would advocate. Interestingly, some of them are regarded as ‘legacy methods’ and are consequently somewhat frowned upon, despite the fact that recent research seems to indicate they can indeed positively impact proficiency.

  1. The mindshift advocated: from quizzing on listening to teaching through listening

Although the activities, their design, their sequencing and implementation are important factors to consider in the implementation of listening instruction, the key issue is the mindshift that it is advocated here: from quizzing on listening to teaching through listening.

This shift requires teachers to adopt a different attitude, deploy a different range of strategies and set different expectations. It doesn’t do away with listening comprehensions, as I do believe they play an important role, too, in fostering the development of crucial inference strategies.

The difference is that in the approach I advocate, listening comprehensions are staged at the end of an instructional sequence; after much listening-as-modelling and other activities recycling and drumming in the target input have occurred. At a stage, that is, in which the students are actually ready to carry out the listening-comprehension task(s), because they will have processed by then most of the language they need to know to successfully complete it/them several times over through listening-as-modelling activities and other modalities (e.g. reading and speaking tasks).

Hence listening-as-modelling serves two functions: on the one hand it models new language; on the other it prepares the learner for listening comprehension tasks, which could be viewed in this sense as plenaries designed to assess whether uptake of the target vocabulary or structures has occurred.

5. Some LAM activities 

5.1. Caveat

The following is a list of the modelling-as-listening activities that are easier to prepare and implement and which, in my professional experience have high surrender value. As it is obvious, for effective modelling to occur, teachers will carry out a sequence of three or four of these activities per lesson, ensuring that each activity recycles the same target L2 items over and over again. Moreover, as already stated above, modelling should start through highly scaffolded activities targeting lower-order processing skills and gradually move on to higher-order ones.

A recurrent feature, which I believe to be the greatest strength of LAM of the kind advocated here, is that every single one of the activities below calls for the application of two or more skills of the same time. For instance, Micro-listening enhancers, partial dictations and sentence builders involve reading and writing  as well as listening and dictations can also be used to enhance transformational writing skills and even promote cognitive comparison and metalinguistic enhancement.

Three types of LAM activities are absent from the list below as they are already common currency in the typical language classroom and it is thus taken for granted that most teachers use them. Firstly, the common practice of uttering a set of vocabulary items and asking the class to repeat them one or more times; secondly, playing a recording of a dialog /role-play and asking the students to re-read it; thirdly, teacher fronted talk in the target language. It should be noted, however,  that the effectiveness of the first two of the above practices is usually undermined by the fact that any word processed aurally does not linger in Working Memory for longer than two seconds and is overwritten by any new incoming information. Hence, if there is no abundant recycling after the initial aural exposure, retention of the phonological level of the input is usually quite poor .

As for fronted-teacher talk in the target language, it is a listening-as-modelling practice that has great potential for learning when the input is carefully and craftily constructed to explicitly model language through lots of repetition, highly patterned discourse, reference to audio-visuals and/or realia and techniques which focus students on specific language items and allow Noticing to occur. Sadly, though, the teacher fronted-talk I have witnessed over 25 years of teacher training and observations in British classrooms is rarely planned and constructed this way and often novice to intermediate students only get the gist of what the instructor says without learning much from it.

5.2 Sample LAM activities

5.2.1 Micro-listening enhancers (MLEs)

Since I have talked about MLEs extensively in previous blogs, it will suffice to say here that they consists of phonological-awareness-raising activities which aim at developing decoding and coding skills, i.e. the ability to turn letters and combination to sounds and to match sounds to letters and combination of letters. As mounting research evidence shows, these skills are crucial to effective listening and even reading skills (Macaro, 2007).

I use these activities on a daily basis prior to staging more challenging listening or speaking activities to focus on sound that students find more problematic, as way to prep them.  Examples of these activities can be found at this link. Here are four types of  MLEs that I use a lot:

  • Spot the foreign sound (students listen to the teacher as s/he utters L2 words and identify sounds that do not exist in their language, whilst inductively working out letter-to-sound equivalence)
  • Spot the silent letter (example: Furniture, Chair, Wardrobe, Fridge)
  • Minimal pairs (e.g. Chair / Cheer ; Sink / Think; Hair/heir )
  • Fill in the missing letters

It is important to note that the words/phrases used in the MLE activities ought to be part of the target vocabulary one aims to teach in the lesson-at-hand.

5.2.2 Sentence builders / Writing mats

Sentence builders or writing mats are an excellent way to model writing through listening whilst at the same time teaching vocabulary. The teacher makes up sentences in the target language using the words in each column/box reading them aloud a few times at accessible speed and students write them out in their native language on mini-whiteboards or iPads (the way I use them within a full lesson sequence is outlined in more detail here). I usually embed the translation of new/challenging in the sentence builder/writing mats to facilitate comprehension.

As a follow-up, the sentences made in the process can be recycled in any of the activities below. This is one of the sequences I use:  teacher-led sentence builder > narrow listening > student-led sentence builder (group-work) > structured oral interaction (e.g. communicative drills eliciting vocabulary/phrases modelled in the sentence builder activity) > reading aloud (if time) > listening comprehension (to assess uptake of target items) . Obviously, each activity will recycle the input found in the sentence builder + a few unfamiliar items thrown here and there to spice up the language and elicit inference strategies.

5.2.3 Dictations and partial dictations – beyond forging good spelling habits…

Although they are often dubbed as ‘legacy methods’ , there is mounting research evidence that dictations and partial dictations can positively impact listening comprehension ability  (e.g. Marzban et al, 2013; Kuo, 2010). Dictations can be used to enhance other important aspects of L2 proficiency beside word spelling and coding/decoding skills. For instance, I use them quite frequently to model correct grammar and even  transformations writing strategies. These are but a few uses one can make of dictations:

  • To model vocabulary usage. Partial dictations are an excellent means to focus students’ attention on specific vocabulary items and collocations whilst at the same time modelling their pronunciation and how they relate syntactically to other words. When the missing words are new, I usually provide the L1 translation in brackets, next to the gap. I find partial dictations particularly valuable when teaching L2 items which are notoriously less salient (e.g. prepositions, articles, word endings) and go often unnoticed;
  • To teach grammar. In a cognitive-comparison activity, the teacher displays a number of sentences in the L1 on the board/screen and dictates to the students the translation of those sentences in the L2 to raise their awareness of important morphological and/or syntactic differences between the two languages in conveying the same meaning. The students write out the sentences, are asked to spot the differences and work out the relevant L2 grammar rules inductively.
  • To provide feedback on learner errors. After identifying a number of common errors in the student oral and/or written output in the handling of a set of L2 items, the teacher displays on the board incorrect L2 sentences in which those errors have been embedded. S/he will then dictate the correct L2 version of those sentences and ask the students to compare differences and work out the rules that were flouted in the erroneous output.
  • To model transformational writing skills. As already discussed in a previous blog (here)sentence recombining tasks can be powerful tools to develop transformational writing skills. Dictations can be used to model sentence-recombining strategies. Take the sentences:           

My mother is friendly, funny and affectionate. / She can be stingy at times. / She often tells me off for being lazy

Through dictation students can be shown various ways in which they can be recombined (e.g. My mother is friendly, funny and affectionate but can be stingy at times and often tells me off for being lazy or although my mum can be stingy at times and often tells me off for being lazy, she is friendly, funny and affectionate, etc.). After several aural examples, more written examples may be provided and subsequently the students can     have a go at sentence recombining themselves

5.2.4 Reading aloud

Short sessions of reading aloud passages recycling the lesson’s target vocabulary followed by equally short comprehension tasks (e.g. list five points made in the passage you have just read) or even oral translation are minimal-preparation tasks that have been shown to significantly impact students’ oral proficiency (Seo, 2014). I usually get students to read aloud to each other in dyads or triads and it works quite well. However, more able students enjoy it more than less able ones, especially when dealing with longer texts. I tend to shy away from carrying out reading aloud with long texts.

5.2.5 Jigsaw listening

This is a classic which the students enjoy and another minimal preparation activity. Mounting research evidence points to its effectivennes in enhancing listening comprehension skills (e.g. Fajar Satria Pambudi et al, 2013).  All you have to do is get hold of the transcript of an audio-track, jumble the lines up and put the resulting text on the screen for student to put it back together in its original form as they listen to the recording. I usually carry it out before staging a listening comprehension task (using its transcript for the jigsaw activity), especially with weaker groups, highlighting items that I want to draw the students’ attention to.

5.2.6 Narrow listening

I have dealt with narrow listening and narrow reading extensively in previous blogs. They consist of a set of  short passages on the same topic which contain highly patterned input and recycle the same vocabulary to death, with very few variations. The high recycling and the recurring patterns facilitate understanding and recall. I usually get the students to carry out very short comprehension tasks on them which increase in difficulty as they progress through them. See an example here. I use narrow listening a lot and it has definitely enhanced my students’ listening skills. I usually follow it up with narrow reading activities recycling the same language.

5.2.7 Nursery rhymes, poems and songs

Songs are possibly the best LAM activities because of their potential for motivation. However, to have the highest surrender value they should recycle the lesson’s target items – which is not always easy. If you have a talented musician amongst your ML colleagues you can get them to alter the lyrics of popular songs to include the target vocabulary or structures. I do have one such colleague and draw on his talent on a weekly basis.

Songs, nursery rhymes and poems can be exploited for many purposes at a range of levels (see my post here). As a LAM activity, I usually exploit them by (a) gapping the lyrics; (b)  doing a jigsaw listening task; (c) inserting random extraneous words that they need to identify and circle as they listen and (d) doing a transcription task of a whole section of it (e.g. the refrain or a stanza).

  1. Highly patterned story-telling with visual cues.

Story-telling can be very powerful but requires lots of preparation when we are dealing with lower proficiency group, so I tend to use it mostly with strong intermediate or with upper intermediate groups. The story should be interesting and the input should be highly patterned and accessible and recycle the lesson’s target items; moreover it is advisable to prep the students through a lot of vocabulary-building activities prior to the activity to lessen the cognitive load during the story-telling. I usually tell the story in short instalments. After each instalment I show the transcript of what I have just read on the screen, ask a few comprehension or what-comes-next questions and move on to the next bit.

Concluding remarks

In this post I have made a case for a mind-shift in listening instruction from quizzing on aural input to teaching and learning through aural input. I have described a range of minimum-preparation / high-impact Listening-as-modelling (LAM) activities that use aural input to model pronunciation, decoding skills, sentence building and to enhance the acquisition of lexical and grammar items through cognitive comparison, noticing and abundant recycling.

The frequent use of LAM activities in my lessons has greatly enhanced my students’ learning, the most tangible outcome being substantial gains in their pronunciation, decoding skills, oral fluency and general listening comprehension. Hence, I strongly recommend ML teachers incorporate LAM activities in their every lesson, mindful of the following recommendations I made in paragraph 3, above:

  1. include highly patterned (e.g. lots of repetition) comprehensible input uttered at a speech rate which is accessible to the target learners;
  2. start with highly structured and highly scaffolded activities which become gradually less structured and demanding;
  3. start with smaller units of discourse and gradually build up to larger ones;
  4. use a variety of tightly-sequenced tasks which recycle the same language items and patterns;
  5. each LAM activity should prepare the students for any subsequent listening comprehension tasks;
  6. make use of visual aids and other cues (e.g. typographic devices to translation) which facilitate understanding of the input;
  7. explicitly promote the noticing of any new L2 items in the aural input.

Listening comprehension tasks should be staged after the linguistic material they contain has been processed aurally through a range of LAM activities so as to ensure that our students are no more engaged in mere guesswork, but that they actually come to the task prepared. This shift from guesswork to ‘know work’ may not only enhance their chances to understand but also their sense of efficacy and self-esteem as listeners.

For more on our views on language teaching and learning do get hold of our book “The Language Teacher Toolkit” available here

How to design and use narrow reading and listening as part of an integrated instructional sequence.

Please note: this post was co-authored with Steve Smith of The language teacher toolkit

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Introduction: the benefits of highly patterned comprehensible input 

In many posts of mine I observed that way too often Modern Language teachers get too quickly to the production phase of a lesson. The all-important receptive stage, where the target L2 items (be it vocabulary or grammar) are processed by the students in meaningful context, not as isolated items on a Power-point, Quizlet flashcards or online games is either missed out or whizzed through. Yet, whilst I do not espouse methodological approaches which are almost exclusively based on teaching language through comprehensible input (e.g. C.I. or T.P.R.S.), I strongly believe that before engaging in the production of newly presented L2 items, students should be exposed to masses of comprehensible aural and written input. I shall not dwell on the rationale for this assertion as I have discussed it at length in many previous posts on this blog.

By Comprehensible Input I mean texts (oral or written) which are accessible by the target students in both linguistic and cognitive terms; this entails that they contain for the most part vocabulary and grammar structures which the learner readers/listeners know or can relatively easily infer from the context or by their similarity to L1 items.

As I have often advocated the Comprehensible Input we should expose our students to ought to be highly patterned and should recycle any target L2-items we intend to impart as much as possible, even at the risk of sounding slightly artificial.

The fact that the input is comprehensible and  highly patterned and that it recycles the same vocabulary over and over again significantly facilitates comprehension and uptake for obvious reasons:

  • the target items are processed over and over again;
  • they are processed in a range of linguistic contexts many of which familiar thereby facilitating the predictability of any unknown vocabulary item;
  • the recurring patterns (e.g. the same sentence stems + a new vocabulary item), even though initially unfamiliar, do become familiar after a few encounters, which provides additional contextual cues for the understanding of the text;
  • repetition enhances retention.

The most powerful authentic forms of patterned comprehensible input that I have ever come across in ‘real life’  are nursery rhymes, children’s poems and stories, songs and, obviously, caregiver talk. As you may know, methodologies such as C.I. and TPRS make regular use of such forms of comprehensible input. I do, too, especially contemporary pop songs, as the refrains, the music, the subject matter and the para-textual references to teen-students sub-culture do help make the language items they contain ‘stick’.

In this post, however, I will concern myself with a more artificial but equally powerful form of comprehensible input that I use day in day out in my lessons:  narrow reading (NR) / narrow listening (NL).

Although I discussed the rationale for the use of this technique in a previous post (here), I fell short of showing how to design and use NR and NL activities, two very important issues considering that Modern Languages NR- and NL-based resources are very hard to come by both in textbooks and online.

Moreover, in the below I set out to demonstrate how NR can be used as part of an effective instructional sequence which integrates all four language skills.

What is NR/NL?

NR/NL consists of a few short texts on the very same topic (e.g. hobbies) which contain highly patterned comprehensible input and recycle a given set of vocabulary over and over again. As the example below shows, I tend to use six or seven texts of five-to-six lines long and usually include a gloss in the right margin where I either translate the more challenging items in the text in the L2 or provide an L1-synonym or explanation.

A narrow reading example : the place I live in

Please do note that the following example was designed for purely demonstrative purposes . I chose English, rather than the languages I usually teach (i.e. French, Spanish and Italian), for the same reason, as a lingua franca that all my readers would understand. Also note that I would normally put a gloss in the right margin listing one or two words per paragraph that I would expect my students to majorly struggle with. Finally, do bear in mind that this is only the text part of the NR activities; I reserve to discuss the NR-based tasks in paragraph 5, below. Here are a sample narrow-reading set of texts consisting of six paragraphs on the topic ‘the place I live in’.

My name is Ian.  I am 19. I live in a large town in the north of England very far from London . There is a lot to do there for young people my age, so it is never boring. There is a stadium, a few leisure centres,  cinemas, youth clubs and a good nightlife. The people are quite open and friendly. My town is surrounded by mountains, which is great because I love skiing. There is also a fairly big lake where we bathe in the summer when the weather is hot. The beach is very far away, though, which is a shame. When I am older I would like to move to Hong-Kong because my father lives there with my step-mum and he says that it is great.

My name is Andy.  I am fifteen and live on a farm in the countryside in the south of Wales, not far from Swansea. The farm is surrounded by beautiful woods. The scenery is great, but  there is not a lot to do for young people my age. So it can be boring at times. There is only a small leisure centre a few kilometres away with  a coffee shop nearby. Fortunately, there are lots of woods and hills nearby where I go hiking and mountain biking, my favourite sports. The people in the area are generally warm and friendly. The beach is not far but the weather is quite cold and windy. We only go there when the weather is very nice and we only bathe in the sea in the summer. When I am older I would love to own a ranch in Texas.

My name is Marco. I am 16 and live in a small town in the North of Italy, not far from Venice. There is a lot to do there for young people my age, so it is never boring. There are lots of sports facilities like gyms, stadiums, tennis clubs, etc. Moreover, the people are generally nice and friendly. My town is surrounded by hills and mountains, which is great because I love trekking and skiing. There is also a lake nearby where we bathe when the weather is hot. The beach is only one hour away, which is fantastic because I love the seaside. There are also woods nearby with a little lake where we bathe when the weather is hot. When I am older I would like to live and work here, as I love my hometown.

My name is Pierre. I am thirteen and live on a town on the coast, not far from Nice, in the South of France. There are heaps of things to do there for people my age. There are shopping centres, sports facilities, cinemas, youth clubs, etc. I love the people there, because they are very warm and open. The beach is great and I go there nearly every day in the spring and summer. I love skiing but I rarely go to the mountain because it is quite far from where I live. Fortunately, there is an artificial ski slope in my town where I usually go once a week. When I am older I would like to move to Paris.

My name is Sarah. I am 17 and live in a little village in the countryside not far from Paris. There is not much to do there, so it can be very tedious  at times, but the people are generally nice and friendly. My village is surrounded by woods and there is a river nearby where we bathe in the summer when the weather is hot. The beach is three hours away, though, which is a shame because I love the seaside. The mountains are nearer, though, which is great because I also love skiing.  When I am older I would love to live in a place near the Mont Blanc.

My name is Anna. I am 14 and live in a fairly big town not far from London. There are heaps of things to do there, so I am always busy. However, the people are quite ‘cold’ and unfriendly. My town is surrounded by the countryside and hills, which is great because I love horse-riding and hiking. There is a big lake an hour away where I go sailing and bathe in when the weather is nice and hot. I enjoy skiing but the mountains are very far away. Fortunately, there is an artificial ski slope in a nearby town, about an hour away by car. I usually go there once or twice a month. I love my hometown and if I found a very good job, I would love to live and work there.

The design

Step 1 – Decide on the core items of the vocabulary and/or grammar you want to impart. Your choice will obviously be influenced for the most part by the curriculum you are working with or a specific corpus you use as a reference framework. The example above, instead, being a purely  demonstrative exercise, includes chunks of language and grammar items that I chose pretty randomly, e.g.:

  • There are lots of things to do for young people
  • The people are…
  • My town is surrounded by…
  • …where I bathe in when the weather is hot
  • There is a …. X hours away
  • So it can be …. at times

Step 2 – Decide on the peripheral-learning L2 items you may want to embed for anaphoric recycling (or ‘seed-planting’ ); these are items that you do not intend to directly focus on in the current lesson but that you intend to explicitly/ formally teach a few weeks -or even months- down the line (read here to understand what I mean) . They are peripheral in the sense that you merely want the students to notice and get acquainted to them not necessarily to make a conscious effort to acquire them.  In the example below, one of the ‘planted seeds’ for peripheral learning would be the present conditional forms at the end of each paragraph. Other peripheral items included in the texts above are ‘tedious’, ‘heaps of’, ‘scenery’ and other less common words which appear in the text more frequently.

Step 3 –  Create the texts. Make sure that they are not completely identical but that they contain very similar sentence stems and chunks of language. Ensure that there are some cognates, but not too many. Try to deploy them in such a way that they help the reader find her way around by providing cue to the meaning of items that would otherwise hinder understanding. Finally, make sure that there are ‘bits’ that the student will struggle with and might have to look at the gloss you will have put in the margin or even consult the dictionary in order to decipher their meaning.

Step 4- Prepare the pre-reading activities. These will include vocabulary learning games or tasks which should be staged prior to the actual reading of the texts and I usually flip (i.e. students do them at home in the run-up to the actual lesson). The vocabulary-learning worksheet I will give the students will feature a box which lists the core and peripheral vocabulary in both the L1 and the L2 and will contain matching exercises, odd one outs, definition games, gap-fills,  wordsearches, anagrams, easy and short translations, etc.

Step 5- Prepare the reading activities. These will be staggered, going from very easy tasks which focus on the gist to increasingly more difficult ones which demand the students to focus on specific more minute details. Please note that the questions below are designed with ITALIAN learners of L2 English in mind.

These are some typical tasks:

  • Go through the texts above and write down IN ITALIAN one detail for each person, making sure that the details you list refer to different things each time
  • Note down any five details about ANDY and MARCO IN ITALIAN
  • Fill the table below in ENGLISH
Sarah Pierre  

Anna

 

Area they live in

 

Leisure activities they do and/or enjoy  

 

Things near / not far from where he/she lives
Things they do not like about the place they live in

 

Where they would like to live one day  

 

 

  • Complete the following statements about Ian based on the texts
  1. Ian ha ___________ anni
  2. La sua citta’ e’ molto lontano da _______________
  3. Ci sono molte cose da fare per ______________________________
  4. La mia citta’ e’ circondata da _________________
  5. E’ un peccato che la spiaggia _________________
  6. Un giorno vorrei vivere a Hong Kong perche’ ____________________
  • True or false statements in ITALIAN or L2 depending of level of students. These should cover all texts (two each?)
  • Closed questions in ITALIAN or L2.
  • A gap-fill, i.e. texts which are very similar to the ones they have just read are gapped and students have to complete them with or without cues.

Etc.

The follow-up

In my approach, NR is always fully integrated with listening, speaking and writing. Before engaging the students in a narrow-reading activity, I usually start with a Listening-as-modelling activity which is intended to focus the students on the pronunciation and sentence-building process. One of my favourites involves  using a sentence builder (see the table before, in Fig. 1) containing some of the core/peripheral vocabulary chunks found in the NR texts and making up sentences in the target language which I utter clearly to the students who have to translate them on mini-boards. Please note: (1) the sentence builder is usually bigger than the one in the figure below and will contain more rows (usually 8 to 10) and even colums; (2) with lower-proficiency groups I include the L1 translation in the table, too.

I live in a big town woods by hills
My town is In the south-east nearby
There are not far from of England
I live on a farm surrounded London

After this Listening-as-modelling activity the students will carry out the NR activities, which may last 15-20 minutes. With a highly motivated group I then go straight to a Narrow Listening set of activities. With less motivated groups I usually stage some fun activities in between (e.g. quiz, battle ship, a www.language-gym.com boxing or rock-climbing game) recycling the target vocabulary, as too much receptive work of this kind can be tiring.

The NL  texts and tasks I use are extremely similar to the narrow reading texts and tasks  outlined above. What I usually do is recycle the NR texts by tinkering with them slightly. For instance, going back to the above example, I would change age, name of places, geographical location, hobbies – a five minutes job. It is worth pointing out that I normally use fewer texts for NL than I do for NR (4 maximum)

After the NL tasks I will stage oral communicative activities which recycle the target vocabulary/structures. I will start with highly structured tasks such as ‘Find someone who’ or role-plays which will elicit patterned output similar to the one modelled through NR and NL. I will then move on to less structured oral pairwork activities (e.g. semi-structured interviews or picture tasks) which will pave the way for the final expansion phase in which the students will communicate without any support or structures.

With less able groups I might involve the students in some form of online interpersonal writing prior to the less structured oral work (e.g. a slow chat on Edmodo  in which students ask closed questions to their peers eliciting the us of the target vocabulary / grammar structure

Conclusion

NR and NL are very effective ways of modelling and drilling in new L2 items. They must be carefully designed, though, as they must contain comprehensible input which is highly ‘patterned’ and rich in contextual cues which facilitate understanding of any unfamiliar L items. By highly patterned I mean input which contains chunks of language and syntactic structures which recur frequently in the to-be-read/to-be-listened texts. Designing NR /NL texts and related activities can be quite time-consuming but I can guarantee you that they will make a difference to your teaching especially when used synergistically as per the instructional sequence outlined above.

Professional development series (2) – How to make the most out of lesson observations

Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’.

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1. Introduction – The why of lesson observations

Lesson observations serve a range of purposes. Whatever the intended outcome, in my experience, very few people truly look forward to them and even fewer find the process to significantly impact their teaching practice, not in the long-term anyway. The reasons? Firstly, the fact that more than often the people involved – both observers and observes – carry out lesson observations more because they have to than because they actually attach any significant learning value to them – “Time is tight and there are more important issues to attend to!”. Secondly, because of the way the process is structured. Thirdly, because of the frequently inadequate follow-up. Fourthly, the lack of training in coaching skills essential in some of the scenarios I will discuss below. Finally, other factors undermine the effectiveness of the process, ranging from the culture and micro-cultures of a specific school or Department to affective issues involving the relationships between the people involved.

From personal experience I do believe that lesson observations, especially peer-observations, can indeed enhance one’s teaching craft, provided that a number of important cognitive and affective variables are controlled for and that the protagonists of the process – observer(s) and observee –  engage in a long-term collaborative effort characterised by (1) mutual trust and respect, (2) intellectual honesty and (3) openness to change.

One major factor in the success of the process is its orientation, i.e. the final goal (Performance management? Learning from a colleague? Both?) as it will inevitably shape the whole process, from beginning to end. In this regard, let me note that by and large I am against using lesson observations to assign a score to teacher performance, not in the way it is commonly done in this day and age, anyways. Why? It is short-sighted; it is carried out using evaluative tools (the observation checklists) and procedures (e.g. there is usually one rater only) which lend themselves to strong subjective bias; their impact on teaching and learning does not justify the anxiety, stress and time investment they cause in many observees and often the observer-evaluator does not know enough about language acquisition to be able to pontificate on what constitutes effective language teaching and learning. Not to mention the fact that many teachers often put on a one-off show to impress the observers,  performing in the observed lesson way beyond the level of organization, creativity, commitment and zeal of a typical lesson of theirs. We all know that.

After all, if the culture of a department is one of transparency, openness, mutual trust and practice-sharing every Head should be aware of what their colleagues’ strengths, areas for improvements and teaching styles are, anyway. Hence, besides the fact that associating numbers to performances through measurement scales of ludicrous invalidity is futile, one should not need to have to sit through a lesson to know how ‘well’ their colleagues teach.

In conclusion, I believe lesson observations should be used solely to enhance teaching and learning. However, even if  they were indeed to be used to evaluate teaching, they should still have a positive wash-back effect on teaching and learning. Moreover, unless they are carried out as part of a principled, carefully-structured and positive process with plenty of support from the course administrators they are absolutely useless exercises which do little for teacher well-being, self-efficacy and professional development. An open-door policy as well as regular collaborative lesson-planning, team-teaching and  conversations with peers on teaching and learning are much more likely to impact professional development that a one-off observation per term followed by feedback.

2. The aim of the present post

In this post I make a few suggestions on how to enhance the positive impact of lesson observations, based on the teacher development literature I have reviewed, on my own experience of what has worked well for me and my colleagues in the past, on social cognitive theory principles and, last but not least, common sense. Below, I envisage the following three lesson-observation scenarios:

  1. The observer as a coach
  2. The observer as a learner
  3. The observer as an assessor

The suggestions below presume that the working  environment one is operating in is not a highly dysfunctional one but rather one with a reasonable degree of mutual trust and professional respect. Establishing trust, transparency, and a caring and non-judgmental atmosphere is pivotal. Moreover, it is presumed that the team share fairly homogenous views on language teaching methodology.

  1. General principles

3.1. Teachers should be provided with a reference framework which clearly details what constitutes effective Modern Language teaching and learning . As I often reiterate in my posts, a Department should agree on a common set of guiding pedagogic principles which would underpin its teaching and learning practices; ideally, they would also develop a common language to refer to those practices. This will warrant cohesion and coherence across the Department both in terms of teaching practices and of evaluation procedures.

3.2 The evaluation of a lesson cannot limit itself to the assessment of the producti.e. the lesson as it unfolds before our eyes.  The lesson one observes  is but the end-result of a process. Hence, effective coaching on and/or valid assessment of a lesson should start before the to-be-observed lesson actually occurs! This entails that the observer and the observee should actually meet to discuss the to-be-observed lesson at least  a day or two before it is actually implemented.

In an observer-as-an-evaluator scenario, the observer may want to limit  their  intervention to asking questions about the  observee’s lesson plan to elicit the why of his / her choices as they may want to stay as neutral and objective as possible.

In an observer-as-a-coach scenario the observee’s input may be more interventionist in nature and invite the observee to reconsider aspects of their lesson plan by asking more or less open questions; in this case, the observer will attempt to bring potential issues with the observee’s  lesson to their conscious awareness and collaboratively come to solutions. S/he may also want to restructure the observee’s cognition vis-a-vis teaching methodology issues which emerge from the discussion

In an observer-as-a learner scenario, the roles are reversed; the observee becomes the coach, but the questions will be more or less the same as the ones asked in the previous scenario. Ideally, the observee will plan the lesson in the form of a think-aloud protocol, verbalising his thoughts as the observer listens and occasionally interrupts to seek clarification or expansion.

Whatever the approach, it must be clear at every single moment of the interaction between observer and observee that the focus is as much on the process of teaching (the lesson planning) as it is on the product (the lesson teaching), as (1) many issues undermining the effectiveness of a lesson have to do more with the planning and sequencing of activities than with the classroom implementation and (2) because, over-emphasizing the product and suggesting a few things here and there that a teacher could have done differently in a specific lesson may give the observee the impression that merely ‘tinkering’ with their existing performance may be enough; whilst this may be sufficient in certain cases, in others the changes needed may entail deeper cognitive restructuring (e.g. addressing misconceptions about language acquisition; filling gaps in their competence;  reconsider the approach to short-term and/or medium-planning or to material design; etc.).

It is noteworthy that I have rarely come across in a post-observation discussion and/or evaluation document an item that focuses on this very important aspect of a lesson: the how and why of its conception. The focus is always solely on the product, thereby potentially failing to identify some of the root-causes of ineffective teaching and limiting itself to the observable.

3.3. Whatever the context, any observed lesson must be considered as part of a teaching and learning curricular sequence. One cannot consider a lesson in a vacuum, as disjointed from what happened before and after. Hence, in the pre-observation meeting, a substantial part of the discussion should centre on the curricular context both in terms of what came before and of the follow-up. An effective teacher is also an effective curriculum planner; I have come across  many teachers who had a greater impact on their students’ learning than others who were more effective than them in terms of classroom delivery, purely by virtue of their superior medium- and long-term planning.

Long-term planning requires greater attentional capacity and a more organic approach to teaching ; lesson observations that focus on the product and on the here-and-now always fail to spot this and a great teacher attribute goes often neglected in the lesson evaluation.

In this case, too, it is interesting to note that lesson-evaluation documents regularly fail to include this crucial aspect of lesson planning.  What they do always include, on the other hand, is the item: ‘Evidence of learning’, despite the fact that 40 % of whatever is taught in a given lesson will be forgotten one hour later and that 80 % is forgotten a week later without reinforcement of the distributed (rather than massed) kind. Whilst I do agree that by the end of the lesson there will be some tangible evidence of learning, lesson observers and course auditors should concern themselves much more on long-term retention than they do on the here-and-now (as argued here). In coaching/modelling scenarios, this important skill is often neglected, too.

3.4 The lesson observation must be part of a LONG-TERM process aiming at enhancing the professional developments of all parties involved.

Lesson observations are usually followed by a feedback session at end of which targets for improvement are set for the observee. These targets are at best revisited at the end of the academic year or performance-management cycle. However, several decades of research in teacher development have shown that this practice is highly ineffective as a way to enhance teacher competence.

As Cognitive psychology posits, skills are acquired through masses of practice, highly scaffolded at the beginning of the process and increasingly less structured until autonomy has been attained. Frequent formative feedback from an expert plays an important role, too. This implies that the observer or other expert associated with  the process must commit themselves to a long-term coaching of the observee for any area of development to be effectively addressed. This, in my experience, rarely happens, usually because course administrators do not provide busy classroom practitioners with the time and resources that such a process requires in order to bring about transformational change. Other reasons refer to the lack of training in effective coaching skills, lack of peer-support and self-complacency.

Any follow-up ought to focus only on one major area of development at time, in order to pre-empt divided attention.The follow-up process may include:

  • Teacher-led research on the to-be addressed issue(s)
  • Some sort of coursework which encapsulates the finding of such research and envisages/documents the application of those findings in the teacher’s classroom practice;
  • Collaborative planning and/or teaching with an expert;
  • Subsequent observations focused on the target area of competence;
  • Learning discussions with peers.

3.5 (In the lesson-evaluation scenario) Use subject-specific lesson-evaluation documents:  Many secondary  schools use the same lesson-discussion / evaluation documents across all subjects. This fails to consider the unique nature of language learning. Departments ought to come up with a documents which integrates the evaluation of generic skills with that of more subject-specific ones. This is one of the most common and most serious shortcomings of lesson evaluations in English secondary schools.

3.6. (In the lesson-evaluation scenario) Ensure that lesson observations are conducted by two subject-experts : Any evaluative process of a teacher’s performance, especially when it is related to their professional appraisal and/or a pay-rise, should control for subjective bias as much as possible. The reliability of the process can be  enhanced by having two experts ; from an affective point of view, it would be better if the observee could pick one of the observers.

Evidently, having two  observers poses a number of logistical challenges; in my view, however, this makes the process much more accountable and objective and, from a learning point of view, the observee will be more likely to learn more from two experts than from one.

Conclusion

Commonly, in many schools the run-up and follow-up to lesson observations are not carried out in a way which is conducive to significantly enhancing teacher professional development. One reason is the inadequate focus on the observee’s actual lesson-planning process and on the why of their instructional choices (e.g. sequencing of activities). Secondly, much of the lesson observation focus is on the here-and-now, which does not capture the long-term intentions, implications and effects of teacher performance on student learning. Thirdly, lesson observations are rarely  followed-up with a serious and systematic attempt to address the identified area(s) of development through a long-term plan, mainly for lack of support and effective coaching. Finally, lesson-evaluators often use inadequate assessment procedures  whose main shortcomings are the short-term focus, the use of whole-school  multi-traits scales and no inter-rater reliability procedures.

For more on my views on teacher development please read the following post: “Why teachers teach the way they do”.

Why I teach the way I teach. The Skill-Theory principles which underpin my teaching approach

Fig. 1 – The most influential Skill-Theory account of language acquisition (Anderson, 1983)

1. Introduction

In a previous post, I argued that every language teacher, both novice and expert, should ask themselves the question “How do I believe that languages are learnt?” as a starting point for a deep and productive reflection on their own teaching practice.

The answer to that question is key, as without a clear and solid set of pedagogic principles our curriculum planning and design and every other decision that affects teaching and learning in our classroom will be random and haphazard or based on ‘hunches’. Imagine choosing a course-book, creating assessment procedures and materials,  deciding to integrate Information Technology or Generic-skill learning in our teaching without having formed an opinion as to how languages are best taught and learnt? Would you believe me if I told you that I have seen this done, time and again, even in some of the best  schools in the world?

As I suggested in that post, teachers and language departments should identify the set of pedagogic principles that truly constitute the tenets of their teaching philosophy and classroom approach and draw on them to ‘frame’ their long-, medium- and short-term planning, their discussions on teaching and learning (e.g. the ones that occur after a lesson observation), their assessment and any big decision of theirs that may significantly impact teaching and learning. Having such a framework will warrant coherence and fairness in peer and student assessment. It will also give the course administrators a better idea of what Modern Language (ML) teaching and learning is about in the institution they manage.

This is my own personal answer to the question “How do I believe that language are learnt?”, or rather part of it, as I will narrow the scope of this post only to the main tenets of my approach to ML teaching – borrowed from Skill Theory. Hence I will leave out other major influences on my personal pedagogy (e.g. Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis, Bandura’s Self-efficacy theory, Selinker’s Interlanguage hypothesis, MCcLelland and Rumelhart’s Connectionism, etc.).

2. My set of guiding principles

2.1  Skill Theory – the (very) bare bones

Whilst it integrates elements from several SLA theories, My approach is rooted in Cognitive-psychology-based accounts of instructed  second language acquisition, especially what Applied Linguists call Skill Theory (as laid out in Anderson,1994; Johnson, 1996,; DeKeyser, 1998; Jensen, 2007). I underscored the word ‘instructed’ for a reason: I do not believe that Skill Theory provides an accurate account of how languages are learnt in naturalistic environments.

In a nutshell, Skill Theorists observe that every complex task humans learn is made up of several layers of sub-tasks. For instance, driving a car requires a driver to pay attention to the road and take important decisions as to where to turn, how fast to go, when to brake; however, whilst taking these decisions, the driver is carrying out multiple ‘lower-order’ tasks such as changing gear, physically pushing the brakes, operating the indicator, etc.

Skill theorists observe that lower-order tasks are performed subconsciously, without requiring the brain’s Working Memory to pay much conscious attention to them (or, as they say: they only occupy subsidiary awareness). This, in their view, points to an adaptive feature of the brain: in order to be able to solely focus on the most important aspect(s) of any complex tasks, the brain, throughout Evolution, has learnt to automatize the less complex tasks.

This is  because, based on current models of Working Memory (e.g. Baddeley,1999) the brain has very little cognitive space to devote to any given task. For instance, when it comes to numbers, Working Memory channel capacity can only process  7+/- 2 digits at any one time  Miller (1965). In simpler terms, the only way for the brain to effectively and efficiently mult-task, is to automatize sub-tasks which are less complex.

Fig. 2 – Working Memory as conceived by Baddeley (1999)

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Skill Theorists argue that the same applies to language learning. A language learner needs to automatize lower order skills so as to be able to free up space in Working Memory in order to execute more complex tasks requiring the application of higher order skills. Example: you cannot form the perfect tense if you do not form the past participle of a verb and have not learnt the verb ‘to have’. Hence, the aim of language teaching is to train language learners to automatize the knowledge that the instructor provides explicitly to them (i.e. the knowledge of how a rule is formed). Once automatized, it will not require the brain’s conscious attention and the learner will have more space in their Working Memory to deal with the many demands that a language task poses to them.

Imagine having to produce a sentence and  having to think simultaneously (in real time!) about the message you want to convey, the most suitable vocabulary to convey it through, tense, verb endings, word order, agreement, etc. an impossible task for a novice whose mistakes will be due mainly to (cognitive) overload). Such a task would be a fairly easy one for an advanced learner as s/he will have automatized most of the grammar- and syntax-related tasks and will only have to focus on the message and the lexical selection.

This automatization process is long and requires a greater focus on fluency,  lots of scaffolding in the initial phase and negative feedback (correction) plays an important role.

A final point: Skill theorists (e.g. De Keyser 1998) propose that Communicative Language teaching which integrates explicit grammar instruction and focus on skill-automatization constitutes to date the most effective ML teaching methodology.

2.2 Skill-Theory principles and their implications for teaching and learning

2.2.1 Principle 1: language skills are acquired in the same way as any other human skill

The main point Skill-theory proponents make is that languages are learnt in much the same way as humans acquire any other skill (e.g. driving a car, cook, paint). This sets it apart from other influential schools of thoughts, which view language skills as a totally unique set of skills, whose functioning is regulated by innate mechanisms that formal instruction cannot impact (the so-called Mentalist approaches). This is a hugely important premise as it endorses what Applied Linguists call a strong interface position, i.e. the belief that whatever is learnt consciously (e.g. a grammar rule) can become automatized, i.e. executable subconsciously, through practice.

2.2.2 Principle 2: In instructional settings where the L2 grammar is taught explicitly, grammar acquisition involves the transformation of Declarative into Procedural knowledge

Whatever we learn is stored in the brain in one of two forms: (1) Declarative Knowledge, or the explicit knowledge of how things work and it is applied consciously (like knowing all the steps involved in the formation of the perfect tense) or (2) Procedural knowledge, the knowledge we acquire by doing and that we use to perform a specific task automatically, without thinking (like knowing how to ride a bike).

Example: I have declarative knowledge of the English  perfect tense when I can explain the rule of its formation and application. I have procedural knowledge of it when I can use it without knowing the rule (e.g.  because I have picked it up whilst listening to English songs or interacting with English native speakers).

Declarative knowledge has the advantage of having generative power, e.g.: if I learn the rule of perfect tense formation for French regular verbs I will be able to apply it to every single regular verb I come across. On the other hand, Procedural knowledge is limited only to the regular perfect forms I learn.

An advantage of Procedural Knowledge is that it is fast. So, a beginner who was taught ten perfect verb forms by rote learning can apply all of them instantly without thinking. Another beginner who was taught the rule of perfect tense formation, will have to apply each step of the rule one by one, which will slow down production.

According to Skill Theorists the aim of any skill instruction, including Modern Language teaching is to enable Declarative Knowledge to become Procedural (or Automatic). In the context of grammar learning, this means that a target rule which is initially applied slowly, step by step, occasionally referring to conjugation tables, will be applied – after much practice of the kind described in 2.2.6 below – instantly with little cost in terms of Working Memory processing efficiency.

It should be noted that our students pick up Procedural knowledge all the time in our lessons when we teach them unanalysed chunks such as classroom instructions or formulaic language. Whilst teaching such chunks should not be discouraged, Skill Theorists do believe that, in view of their limited generative power, instruction should not excessively rely on rote learning.

2.2.3 Principle 3: The human brain has limited cognitive space for  processing language, so it automatizes lower order receptive and productive skills in order to free up space and facilitate performance

When we learn to drive, we need to learn basic skills such as how to switch on the engine, change gear, press the clutch, turn on the wipers, operate the brakes, etc. before we actually take to the road. Once the lower order operations and skills listed above have been automatized or at least routinized to the extent that we do not have to pay attention to them (by-pass Working Memory’s attentional systems), we can actually be safe in the assumption that we can wholly focus on the higher order skills which will allow us to take the split seconds decisions that will prevent us from getting lost, clash with other cars, break the traffic laws whilst dealing with our children messing about in the back seats.

This is what the brain does, too, when learning languages. Because Working Memory has a very limited space available when executing any task,  the brain has learnt to automatize lower order skills so that, by being performed ‘subconsciously’ they free up cognitive space. So, for instance, if I am an advanced L2 speaker who has routinized accurate L2 pronunciation, grammar and syntax to a fairly high degree , I will be able to devote more conscious attention (Working Memory space) to the message I want to put across. On the other hand, if I still struggle with pronunciation, word order, irregular verb forms and sequencing tenses most of my attention will be taken up by the mechanics of what I want to say, rather than the meaning; this will slow me down and limit my ability to think through what I want to say due to cognitive overload.

In language teaching this important principle translates as follows: in order to enable our students to focus on the higher order skills involved in L2 comprehension and production we need to ensure that the lower-order ones have been acquired or performance will be impaired. Here are a few scenarios which illustrate what I mean.

Example 1: a student who struggles with pronunciation and decoding skills in English (i.e. being able to match letters and combinations of letters with the way they are sounded) will find it difficult to comprehend aural input from an English native speaker as they will not be able to identify the words they hear with the phonological representation they have stored in their brain. Hence, listening instruction ought to concern itself with automatizing those skills first (read here why and how).

Example 2: for a student who has not routinised Masculine, Feminine and Neuter endings in German, applying the rules of agreement in real time talk will be a nightmare. The same student will take for ever to write a sentence containing a few adjectives and nouns because his brain’s (working memory’s) capacity will be taken up by decisions such as what agrees with what, what the correct ending is and what the word order is; by having to deal with these lower order decision s/he will lose track of the higher order issue: to generate a meaningful and intelligible sentence

Example 3: if you teach long words (e.g. containing three syllables or more) to a beginner who has not automatized the pronunciation of basic target language phonemes, his Working Memory will struggle to process it (because of Phonological Loop overload), which will impair rehearsal and its commitment to Long-Term Memory.

Example 4: you cannot hope for a student of French or Italian to be able to acquire the Perfect tense if they have not automatized the formation of the verbs ‘to be’ and ‘to have’ and of the Past Participle. Yet, often we require our students to produce under time constraints Perfect tense forms a few minutes after modelling the formation of the Past Participle.

Hence, teaching ought to focus much more than it currently does, on the automatization of lower order skills (or micro-skills as we may also call them) across all four language skills . In this sense, progression within a lesson should mainly refer to the ability of our students to produce the target L2 item with greater ease, speed and accuracy (horizontal progression), rather than moving from a level of grammar complexity to a higher one, from using two adjectives in a sentence to using five or from using only one tense to using three (vertical progression).

The progression I believe teachers should prioritize is of the horizontal kind. We should concern ourselves with vertical progression only if and when horizontal progression has achieved automatization of the target L2 item.

Most of the failures our students experience in our lessons is due to focusing on vertical progression to soon, mostly because of teachers’ rush to cover the syllabus and/or ineffective recycling.

2.2.4 Principle 4: Acquisiton is a long pain-staking process whose end-result is highly-routinized consistently- accurate performance (which approximates, rarely matches native-speaker performance)

Automatization is a very long process. Think about a sport, hobby or other activity you excel at. How long it took you to get there. How much practice, how many mistakes, how much focus. Every skill takes huge amounts of practice in order for it to be automatized, lower order skills usually taking less time than higher order ones as they require simpler cognitive operations (there are exceptions though, e.g., in language learning, the acquisition of rules governing items which are not salient such as articled prepositions in French, Spanish or Italian).

The process is long for a reason; whenever a given L2 grammar rule is fully acquired, it gives rise to a cognitive structure (called by Anderson,2000, a ‘production’) which can never be modified. As a  result, the brain is very cautious and requires a lot of evidence that whatever rule we apply in our performance is correct. Hence we need to use a specific grammar rule lots of times and receive lots of positive feedback on it, before a permanent production is formed and incorporated.

Do not forget, also, that when a learner is figuring out if their grasp and usage of a given L2 grammar rule is correct s/he might have two or even more possible hypotheses about how it may work and try them concurrently, awaiting positive or negative feedback to confirm or discard them. Hence, the brain needs to make sure that one of the hypotheses it is testing about how a given language item works ‘prevails’ so to speak over the others substantially before ‘accepting’ to incorporate it as a permanent structure. In the absence of negative feedback – hence the importance of correction, especially in the initial stages of instruction – the brain might store more than one form.

Example: a student keeps using (1) ‘j’ai allé’ and (2) ‘je suis allé’ alternatively to mean ‘I went’ in French ; if he does not heed or receive regular corrective feedback pointing to (2) as the correct one and  does not use (2) in speaking and writing often enough to routinize it, (1) and (2) will still compete for retrieval in his brain.

2.2.5 Principle 5 : the extent to which an item is acquired depends largely on the range and frequency of its application (i.e. across how many context I can use it accurately and automatically)

A tennis player being able to perform a back-hand shot only from one specific point of the tennis court cannot be said to have acquired mastery of back-hand shooting. Evidently, the more varied and complex the linguistic and semantic contexts I can successfully apply  a given grammar rule and vocabulary in,  the greater will be the extent of its acquisition.

Example: whilst learning the topic ‘animals’ student X  has practised over and over again the word ‘dog’ for three weeks only in the contexts ‘I have a dog’,’ my dog is called rex’,  ‘Mark has a dog’, ‘I like dogs because they are cute and playful’, ‘we have a dog in the house’. Student Y, on the other hand, has been given plenty of opportunities to practise the word dog in associations with all the persons of the verb ‘to have’, with many more verbs (e.g. feed, groom,  love,  walk , etc.), with a wider range of adjectives new and old (good, bad, loyal, funny, lazy, grredy,etc.) and other nouns (I have a dog and a turtle, a dog and a cat, etc.). Student Y will have built a more wide-ranging and complex processing history for the word ‘dog’ which will warrant more neural associations in Long-term memory and, consequently greater chances of future recall and transferrability across semantic fields and linguistic contexts.

Consequently, language teachers must aim at  recycling each core target item across as many linguistic and semantic  contexts as possible. For instance, if I am teaching the perfect tense in term 3 and I have covered four different semantic areas prior to that, I would ensure that that tense is recycled across as many of those areas too. In a nutshell: the extent to which the target L2 items have been acquired by our students will be largely a function of their processing history with those items.

In concusion, the more limited the input we provide them with and the output we demand of them the less deeply we are likely to impact their learning.

2.2.6 Principle 6: Acquisition is about learning to comprehend and produce language faster under Real Operating Conditions

The five principles laid out above entail that for language acquisition to occur, effective teaching must aim at enabling the learners to understand and produce language under real life conditions or, as Skill-Theorists say ‘Real Operating Conditions’ (ROC). This changes the focus of instruction from simply passing the knowledge of how grammar works and what vocabulary means (Declarative Knowledge) to enabling students to apply it quickly and accurately (Procedural knowledge) by providing lots of training in fluency. Hence, for grammar to be acquired we must go beyond lengthy grammar explanations, gap-fill exercises and quizzes. E.g.: students must be asked to use the grammar in speaking and writing under time pressure.

Training students to be fluent across all four skills means scaffolding instruction much in the same way as one would do in tennis or football coaching. First, one would start by working on automatizing the micro-skills, as already discussed above. Secondly, one would focus on routinizing the higher-order skills by providing an initial highly structured support which is gradually phased out. This translates itself, in my classroom practice as follows:

(1) An initial highly controlled reception/production phase – During this phase the target L2 item is practised in a controlled environment. The input given and the output demanded are highly controlled and the chances of error are minimised by providing lots of scaffolding (e.g. vocab lists; grammar rule reminders; writing mats,dictionaries, etc.) and guidance and by imposing no time constraints. Example (speaking practice in the present tense ): highly structured role-play in the present tense only,  where each student has to translate their respective lines from the L1 to the L2 or are given very clear L1 prompts; the language is simple and the students are very familiar with the verbs to be conjugated; verb tables are available on the desk.

The phase, in my approach, usually begins with lots of modelling through listening and reading (comprehensible input which recycles to death the vocabulary and structures I want to see in their input).

(2) A semi-structured phase – Here the support is reduced. The input provided and the output expected are more challenging but the teacher still designs the activities with a specific set of vocabulary and grammar structures in mind. Some form of support still available. Example (speaking practice in the present tense): interview in the present tense across a range of familiar topics. Prompts for questions and answers are provided by the teacher (in the L1 or L2). The students are given some time to look at the prompts and think about the answers. Prompts look like this:

Partner 1: ask where Partner 2 usually goes at the week-end

Partner 2: answer providing three details of your choice relating to sport

In this phase the teacher’s control on learner input is reduced and the students can experiment with words and phrases of their choice.

(3) An expansion phase – Here the support is removed. Examples (speaking practice in the present tense): (1) Students are shown pictures and are recorded and assessed as they describe them in a limited amount of time. The task may elicit a degree of creativity and the use of communication strategies to make up for lack of vocabulary. (2) students are asked to have a conversation about the target topic with only a vague prompt as a cue (e.g. talk about your hobbies). They generate questions and answers impromptu under time constraints. Conversation is recorded and assessed.

It must be stressed that the three phases above do not necessarily occur within the same lesson but may take three or even more lessons in which much recycling of the core target items occurs incessantly.

3. Concluding remarks

A lot of L2 teaching nowadays concerns itself with the passing of grammar and declarative knowledge of the target language. Such knowledge stays in our students’ brains as declative because way too often teachers are obsessed with vertical progression at all costs. This attitude, though, short-circuits and straight-jackets learning preventing the learners from truly automatizing the grammar structures and vocabulary we aim to teach them.

L2 students’ failure at acquiring what we teach them and eventually their disaffection with the learning process is often due to the inadequate amount of horizontal progression we allow for in our classrooms. Automatization, ACROSS ALL FOUR SKILLS,  the ability to apply the core L2 items in the performance of tasks rapidly, fluidly and accurately should take priority in the classroom over activities which build intellectual knowledge (e.g. lengthy grammar explanations and gap-fills), concern themselves  with producing artefacts (e.g. iMovies) or simply entertain (e.g. games and quizzes).

Grammar teaching is currently taught in many classrooms through teacher –led explanations followed by gap-fills. This does not lead to automatization and fluency. Grammar structures ought to be taught in the context of interaction which mimicks real life, first through communicative (highly structured) drills then through activities which increasingly allow the students more creativity and freedom in terms of output choice.

Vocabulary ought to be recycled through as many linguistic contexts as possible, shying away from the almost behaviouristic tendency  one observes in many language classrooms to teach and practise the target words in isolation or almost exclusively in the same unambitiously narrow range of phrases (a tendency encouraged by current ML textbooks and many popular specialised websites, e.g. the tragically unambitious Linguascope).

In conclusion, effective ML teaching, as viewed by Skill theory, concerns itself with

  • the micro-skills needed by the students to carry out the complex tasks teachers often require their students to perform. In many contexts, e.g. listening instructions,such micro-skills (e.g. decoding skills) are grossly neglected, often leading to failure and learner disaffection;
  • providing the students with opportunities to automatize everything they are taught before the class move on to another set of grammar rules, vocabulary or learning strategies;
  • building a wide-ranging processing history so that many neural connections are built between a new target item and as many ‘old’ items as possible through real-time language exposure/use;
  • fluency, i.e. the ability to perform each target L2 item as rapidly and accurately as possible;
  • skill-building rather than knowledge-building. Knowledge building is only the starting point of acquisition; that is why error correction that merely informs of the error and cryptically states the rule is considered as having very limited impact on learning.

For those interested in finding out more, please check out this online article by  Jensen (2007) [click on the rectangular download button]

References and suggested bibliography

Anderson, J.R. (1987). Skill acquisition Compilation of weak-method solutions. Psychological Revie. 94(2) 192-210

Anderson. J.R. et al. (1994). Acquisition of procedural skills from examples. Journal of experimental psychology, 20, 1322 -1340.

DeKeyser, R.M. (1998). Beyond focus on form: Cognitive perspectives on learning and practicing a second language grammar . In C. Doughty and J. Williams. (EDs). Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition. (pp42-63) New York: Cambridge university Press

Jensen, E. (2007) Introduction to brain-compatible learning, 2nd edn. Thousand

Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Johnson, K. (1996). Language Teaching and Skill learning. Oxford: Blackwell.

Schneider, W. & Shiffrin. R. (1997) Controlled and automatic information processing.