Eight narrow reading techniques that will enhance your students’ vocabulary and reading skills


1. Introduction

This post describes eight Narrow reading techniques that have significantly enhanced my students’ vocabulary and reading skills.

As explained in previous posts, Narrow Reading is a powerful technique based on the concept that getting your students to go over and over the same text through a range of comprehension tasks may be tedious for them; whilst by creating several reading passages (I tend to use three to six) that are very similar in terms of topic, structure, vocabulary and patterns, you will still be recycling the same target linguistic features but through a wider range of texts adding in and allowing for more variety.

In my experience, Narrow reading texts are most effective, when they:

  • are near-identical in terms of patterns;
  • contain comprehensible input (90% accessible in meaning without resorting to dictionaried or extra-textual help);
  • are relatively short (very short for absolute beginners, of course, as shown in figure 1 below)

Figure 1 – Example of Narrow reading texts for absolute beginners of English

Spot the differences photo

The activities I usually ask my students to perform on Narrow reading texts are different from the typical ‘true or false’, ‘who, where, what, when, etc.’ or other classical comprehension questions, because such tasks often encourage skimming and scanning, educated guesswork and picking details, rather than processing texts in a more thorough and meticulous way.

Skimming and scanning, educated guesswork and inferencing are obviously very important skills, which should be fostered in the L2 classroom. However, I want my students to process the texts in their entirety paying attention to as much text as possible, in order to intensify the students’ exposure to the vocabulary and patterns I intend to recycle. Hence, what I have done over the years, is trying to come up with tasks which, whilst being engaging and involving problem-solving, aim to get them to do just that.

In sum, the main aim of Narrow reading tasks is to ‘trick’ the students into processing what is basically the same text over and over again whilst making them read six. In this sense, they are possibly one of the most effective recycling tools ever, allowing L2 teachers to expose their learners to the core items in their syllabi many times over throughout the duration of the academic year.

2.Eight effective Narrow reading techniques

The eight techniques described below, are Narrow reading tasks that I carry out in my lessons, day in day out and my students enjoy. Obviously, they are contextualised in the topic-at-hand.

1.Spot the differences – This is a narrow reading activity which typically involves 3 to 6 texts (the more the better) of around 100 words that are completely identical apart from a few key details. The task is for the students to spot such details in each text which are different from all the other five texts. So if text A  in line 3 reads ‘she is tall’ all the other texts will read at the same line ‘she is short’ or ‘she is average height’. Obviously, you can make it into a competition under time constraints with the right group.

The rationale for the activity is to trick the students into reading the same texts three to six times over (thereby recycling the same lexis, patterns and grammar) whilst giving them a task which requires them to pay attention to the slightest detail in order to find the differences.

As a follow-up you can do a ‘Spot the differences’ Listening task in which you will re-use the same texts (changing the target details of course) and will read out to them. Since the focus will be on modelling you will be reading the text at modelling, not near-native speed. Same rationale: getting them to listen to the same text and patterns over and over again.

Figure 2 – ‘Spot the differences’ (French example)

Spot the differences photo

2.Bad translation -‘Bad translation’ is another very effective Narrow Reading technique I use a lot. It consists of a set of very similar texts (typical 3 or 4) and their respective translations. The task is for the students to spot four or five mistakes the teacher deliberately made in the translation to lay emphasis on certain vocabulary or structures. This forces the students to really process the Target language texts in great detail and learn vocabulary incidentally as they do so.

By doing this task, you are again tricking the students in re-reading the same sort of text, patterns and vocabulary several times over but with the added benefits of the L1 translation,which may result in some learning of new vocabulary in the process. The same texts can be recycled as follow-up by placing gaps in the Target Language text or in the translations.

The same technique can also be turned into a Listening activity in which the students are provided with the translation and listen to the teacher as he reads the Target Language text.

3.Summaries – In this activity, the students are once again given 3 to 6 texts on the same topic, not identical but very similar in structure and language content. You summarise each text in 40-50 words  in the target language. The task is for the students to find which summary matches which text. To make the task more challenging, you may want to add an extra summary or two, as distractors.

4.Picture – select an image from the internet or the textbook in use, which refers to the topic-at-hand or to specific grammar structures or patterns you want to recycle. Then create three or more narrow reading texts which describe the picture in detail. Make sure, though, that only one text and one text only is a 100% accurate description of the picture, whilst the others have one or two details in excess which do not match the picture. The task is for the students to identify the only text that matches the picture in every single detail.

This task kills two birds with one stone in that not only it does enhance the students’ vocabulary and reading skills but can also be used to prepare MFL GCSE students for the oral photocard task by modelling useful language and approaches to that task.

5.Questions –  This narrow reading technique requires a bit more work. I created it in order to focus my students not only on the content of the target texts, but also on understanding questions. After creating 3 to 6  texts that are very similar in content and structure, write a set of ten or more questions in the target language, making sure that each text contains the answer to all of the questions you created but one. The students’ task is to find the one question that does not apply to each specific text (i.e. there is no answer to that question in the text)

6.Overgeneralizations – This is kind of reminiscent of ‘Spot the differences’. After creating the texts you will write ten or more statements in the target language about them which are true of all the texts except for one (e.g. ‘All the people in the texts play a sport). The students’ task is to find for each of the statements the one text it does not apply to. The statement could be in English or in the L2.

7.List – Create as many narrow reading texts as you can on the same topic. Then display a long list of details taken from the various texts and display it on the board. The task is for the students to match the information on the list to the text it comes from.

8.The most / The least – After creating the text, you will write a number of  gapped sentences such as: the most positive person is…; the sportiest person is … the biggest house is…, the person who visited most places is…  . Students are tasked with filling the gaps. This technique has the added benefit of drilling in superlatives, a structure that KS3 students of French find quite difficult to acquire.

3.The follow-up

More traditional activities, classics such as true or false or other comprehension questions tasks, cloze, sorting information into categories (linguistic or semantic), ‘Find the French for the following’ etc, can of course follow and are indeed desirable as they truly enhance the power of Narrow Reading tasks. The risk is staying on the same texts a bit too long, which may disengage some students.

Narrow listening tasks, recycling the same texts used for Narrow reading by changing a few details here and there are another very effective alternative, depending on the level of the students. Some classes may cope with receiving the same input aurally, some may not. You may have to shorten the texts and simplify the task, when adapting them for listening purposes. You will also have to read them at modelling speed, rather than native or near-native pace.

Any other vocabulary tasks / games drilling in the language you embedded in the Narrow reading tasks will be useful before engaging in production.

Structured and semi-structured ‘pushed-output’ written and then oral tasks in which the students will be asked to re-use the same language patterns and vocabulary found in the narrow reading texts would obviously be the icing of the cake.

4. Concluding remarks

Narrow reading tasks constitute an effective and engaging way to increase exponentially the exposure your students get to the target patterns, vocabulary and grammar structures that you want them to acquire though the written medium.

Such tasks are powerful because they do not ask students to simply pick details in response to questions asking who, where and what, which may encourage some of them to simply skim and scan through texts in search of clues which may prompt educated guesses or inferences, but ‘trick’ the students in processing the texts more closely and thoroughly, whilst giving them a problem to solve. This makes enhancing the exposure to the target items more effective and engaging.

To-date, Narrow reading tasks have not been sufficiently used in published instructional materials because they are not a well-known technique and are time-consuming to make. You often find clusters of texts of similar topics that share some linguistic features; however, narrow reading texts are most effective, in my experience of using them for over a decade, when they are extremely similar in structure, repeat the same patterns over and over again and when the tasks associated with them have a problem-solving component and even a competitive element.

Mounting research evidence shows Narrow reading texts do enhance students’ vocabulary. Moreover, we know from masses of empirical studies that high-frequency exposure to the same patterns (syntactic, morphologica, phonogical, etc.) does sensitize students to them, thereby facilitating acquisition.


13 commonly made mistakes in Modern Language Instruction

download (1)

1. Too much zooming in not enough zooming out

The acquisition of a phoneme, lexical item, grammar structure or learning strategy is a very long and painstaking process involving lots of exposure and practice and much trial and error that may last months or even years. Moreover, a big obstacle to long-term retention is the fact that the human brain forgets at a ridiculously high rate;  42 % of what we learn is usually lost within 20 minutes from first memorizing it, 64 % after 9 hours and 80 % after one week without consolidation (see figure 1 below)

Figure 1 – Rate of human forgetting


Hence, medium and long-term planning are more important, in the greater scheme of things, than short-term planning – what is the point in teaching ten new lexical items on Monday in the perfect lesson, if on Friday nearly eight of them will have been forgotten?

Yet, it is not uncommon for teachers to focus mostly on the here-and-now, to ‘zoom in’ without ‘zooming out’; new items are taught, the instructor dwells on them for two or three lessons, then moves on after being satisfied through a test (usually done in writing) that most of the students have ‘learnt’ them.

The bigger picture, the long-term planning in those schemes of work that very few of us look at in their daily practice, is what matters the most if we want long-term retention to happen.

The most important part of a lesson, any lesson, is the bit in which you set out what you intend the students to be able to do with the content of that lesson in the long term (e.g. receptive and/or productive mastery?) by when (e.g. the end of the year?) and think about how you are going to get there from the end of that lesson onwards.


2. Insufficient ‘horizontal’ progression

In ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’, Steve Smith and I draw a distinction between ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ progression in lessons. The former refers to progression from a lower level of language complexity to a higher one, whilst the latter refers to progression in terms of speed and control (e.g. I can produce language faster and with fewer mistakes at time 2 than at time 1).

If we do endorse, as I do, the equation Learning = Automaticity, then horizontal progression across all four skills (each skill involving different processes) should really take priority over vertical progression in lessons as well as throughout the whole of the academic year. Hence, vertical progression should only be attempted once much horizontal progression has been achieved. E.g.: no point teaching students how to form complex sentences in French, Spanish or Italian if they have not automatized how to use basic verb forms, articles or make noun and adjective agree, right?

Yet, how many of us venture into teaching more complex grammatical or syntactic structures without having ensured that the basic ones have been automatized (100 % accuracy) or at least routinized (80 % accuracy) thereby seriously damaging our students’ learning? How many of our Advanced level students of French, Spanish and German still struggle with adjectival agreement, gender and number of nouns, verb conjugation and word order in year 13?

Horizontal progression is the most neglected aspect of language teaching and learning, because it ‘slows down’ the coverage of the syllabus and requires extra resources. But when it comes to horizontal progression, less is more – is it better to teach ten grammar items in year 7 ‘superficially’, knowing that you will have to re-teach them over and over again all the way to year 11, or cut down coverage by half (as I have done) so that routinization will actually happen the first time around thanks to extensive exposure and usage?


Figure 2 – Less is more when it comes to curriculum design

oral production

In my approach, the teacher selects only a few core grammar structures per year and tracks down their level of routinization throughout the year through low-stake assessments, some given as homework (e.g. a student records himself as he describes a picture under time constraints).

The pace dictated by textbooks, one unit every six weeks is unrealistic and unfair to our students. Only few of them can cope and we end up teaching to those few if we keep to this pace. No wonder only those few choose to pursue Modern Languages beyond GCSE.


3.Five common recycling mistakes

Many of us recycle systematically and extensively across units. Many more don’t – their curriculum design does not make explicit provision for recycling opportunities of old material across new units and topics are ‘compartmentalised’ so to speak. But even those who recycle often make the following very common ‘mistakes’.

Mistake 1 – Vocabulary and grammar are often recycled using digital tools such as Memrise and Quizlets or other resources (e.g. Powerpoints or textbooks) which practise vocabulary in the very same phrases/sentences or context in which they were originally learnt. Recycling, though, is most effective when the to-be-consolidated vocabulary is ‘hooked’ (possibly through semantic processing) to an increasingly wider range of contexts, be these words, images, sounds or tasks. So, re-using the same set of Quizlet, Memrise or Linguascope activities does not constitute effective recycling because it limits the range of retrieval cues available to the learner at recall. In simpler words:  consolidating the word ‘plage’ using the same sentence ‘je vais à la plage’ is going to be much less conducive to retention than recycling it through a wide range of contexts (e.g. ‘je suis à la plage’, ‘il y a une belle plage près de chez moi’, ‘la plage est bondèe’, ‘j’habite près de la plage’, etc.) because associating 5 contexts to that word offers working memory a wider range of retrieval paths and consequently more chances of successful recall.

Mistake 2:  words are often recycled in isolation, which is ineffective for the same reason discussed above: learning is more effective when an item is processed in association with a wide range of other items or linguistic contexts.

Mistake 3 : the target vocabulary and grammar – especially the latter – are rarely recycled across all four skills, listening and speaking tending to be the most neglected.

Mistake 4 : homework is rarely used to recycle old material, yet there are many minimal-preparation tasks that one can set for out-of-school assignments to effectively serve that purpose. Projects to be carried out exclusively as homework are one of them.

Mistake 5 : We tend to recycle items that we teach explicitly (i.e. by explaining the rules governing their usage). But why not recycling systematically and consciously items that we don’t actually teach explicitly, but we would like our students to pick up implicitly? Which brings me to the next point.


4.Over-emphasis on explicit learning

Not all classroom learning must occur explicitly. Much research shows that masses of exposure to highly patterned, repetitive comprehensible input (i.e. 90-95 % accessible in meaning without extratextual help) can bring about learning. Hence, a big chunk of teaching and learning in the modern language classroom can and should occur implicitly.

As an example, at the beginning of every lesson I teach, as I call the register, I ask the students to tell me how they feel using the vocabulary in the table below which I project on the screen and they have in their books. By staging this activity every day, after a few weeks, the students not only learn all the vocabulary in the table without any explicit teaching, but often even internalize the basic rule of adjectival agreement in French (‘add ‘e’ to the end of the adjective with feminine nouns’) by mere usage and/or exposure.

Figure 2 – Taking the emotional temperature (daily lesson starter)


Also, at the end of lessons, as an ‘exit ticket’,  I usually ask my students to tell me, write on mini-whiteboards or discuss with their classmates 4 or 5 things they are going to do after school or at the weekend, using the immediate future (‘je vais + infinitive’ in French or ‘voy a + infinitive’ in Spanish) which is modelled on a scaffolding sheet that I project on the interactive whiteboard. Again, after a few weeks, with no explanation, they usually grasp implicitly and effortlessly how to use that tense merely through repeated usage.

After delivering countless workshops on how to embed implicit learning in the curriculum it has become apparent to me that, at least in British schools, most teachers do not have a principled approach to implicit teaching. Yet, implicit learning through frequent exposure and usage, when carefully and methodically planned and implemented can yield amazing results.

5.Too much single-word teaching

As I repeat ad nauseam in my blogs (e.g. here) , teaching single words is less effective than teaching them through functional chunks, i.e. phrases used in the performance of communicative functions (list of communicative functions, here). Why? Firstly, because our brain’s working memory can only process 4 items at any one time, so better learning four items consisting of chunks of three or four words than four items consisting of one, as this will result in less cognitive effort when creating sentences. Think of the processes involved in creating and uttering a sentence (listed in the figure below), how cumbersome it can be to a novice as s/he executes each stage using single words.

Figure 4 – Oral production of a sentence

oral production.png

Secondly, learning vocabulary through chunks can avoid a series of commonly made mistakes if it is done smartly. For instance, when teaching clothes, teaching ‘J’ai une chemise verte’ (I have a green shirt) and ‘j’ai un blouson vert (I have a green coat), rather than simply teaching the noun preceded by the determiner (i.e. ‘une chemise’ or ‘un blouson’), as books usually do, means that (a) you teach more vocabulary in one go and (b) that you do not have to teach noun-to-adjective agreement explicitly, thereby reducing the chances of the students making mistakes in handling that structure for many years to come – as they commonly do.

Thirdly, it is evident from research that advanced learners and native speakers produce language in the attainment of a communicative goal through the execution of specific speech routines which consists of chunks of language that they piece together at high speed. Hence, chunking should be actively fostered in the foreign language classroom.

6.Cognitively overloading students

In my latest round of workshops in England, a few weeks ago, I made the attendees experience cognitive overload in attempting to memorize Japanese or Malay numbers from 1 to 10. It was a frustrating but eye-opening experience, as they experienced what their students often go through in their lessons.

If our brains can only contain four items at any one time and we are not teaching them chunks, imagine how hard it must be for a beginner to keep a sentence as long as six or seven words in their Working Memory whilst making adjectives and nouns agree with one another, conjugating verbs, getting the word order right etc. This is one common cause of cognitive overload (C0) and the main reason why you should teach chunks rather than single words.

Other very common causes of CO involve:

  • receptive tasks which involve input which is not comprehensible input (i.e. less than 90% of it is accessible without resorting to extratextual help);
  • comprehension questions on aural texts delivered at high speed;
  • tasks which cause anxiety and stress (two strong inhibitors of Working Memory performance);
  • having to attend to several tasks at the same time, e.g. when we ask our students to peer assess speaking performance with a multi-trait rubric which includes several items to feedback on (e.g. use of tenses, range of vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.)

7. Over-reliance on shallow processing

The ability to recall a specific lexical item is not simply a function of the power law of practice but also of how many associations it has with other lexical items and information in long-term memory, as well as how strong those association are. Moreover, retention will be stronger when the cognitive and emotional investment of the learner is deeper.

Hence vocabulary teaching activities should involve mostly meaning-based associations, sorting and classifying, problem solving, creativity with the language and any other task which is about deep processing. Yet, a lot of vocabulary teaching is about shallow processing, that is, mere repetition, without much involvement of higher order thinking skills, which usually creates a weaker memory trace.

8.Vocabulary, communicative functions and grammar are not usually taught across all four skills

Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing are four different skills which involve four different sets of processes and micro-skills. Hence the use of the target lexical items, grammar structures and functions need to be acquired by our students across four skills, not just one or two, as it usually happens. Think of how many times you have tested your students’ uptake of the grammar structures you have taught over the years through listening and speaking, for instance; not many, right?

9.Under-emphasis on modelling comprehensible input through the receptive skills (listening and reading)

In British schools, there is an over-emphasis on grammar, vocabular teaching (often through games) and production, especially highly-scaffolded writing at the detriment of modelling comprehensible input through Listening and Reading, the former being by far the more neglected of the two skills. Yet, much research evidence shows that extensive exposure to highly patterned comprehensible input significantly facilitates learning.

Moreover, an added benefit of doing a lot of such receptive work is that aural and written texts make the recycling of old material easier (you can embed in texts any language you like), than doing productive work.  In the last three years, I have literally doubled the amount of receptive work through comprehensible aural and written input I do with my students and this has significantly enhanced my teaching.

The issue is that many teachers want their students to come up with some form of product by the end of every lesson, as concrete evidence that learning happened.

A final point, when teachers talk about automaticity and fluency, many seem to forget that automaticity in the execution of receptive skills is as important as automaticity in speaking and writing production. Oral spontaneity, for instance, cannot be achieved if one cannot process aural input fast and accurately.


10. Ineffective listening instruction

I shall briefly touch on this issue as I have discussed it extensively in many previous posts and articles of mine; not only, as mentioned above, Listening is highly neglected, but it is also usually badly taught. As I have been vocally advocating for the last two years, listening comprehension tasks do not teach listening skills; nor do they model language use – they are tests through and through which elicit the application of inferencing strategies (see here for more).


11. Insufficient focus on creating questions

‘Creating questions’ is a communicative function which plays a key role in oral spontaneity. You cannot acquire oral spontaneity unless you can master this function. Yet, MFL students are often given long lists of questions to answer or memorize the answers to, but are rarely systematically taught how to form questions. There is no textbook currently on the UK market which dedicates to this function the space and treatment it thoroughly deserves.

Since last year, I have made ‘creating questions’ one my ‘universals’, i.e. one of the ten functions/structures that I set out to teach in every single lesson of mine, regardless of the topic-at-hand (I am going to write a post about my ‘universals’ over the next few days).  Nowadays, as my primary students see the free wheeldecide.com  wheel appear on my classroom screen, whatever question prompt the wheel selects, they know they have to produce a question in the context of the topic-at-hand on their miniboards using that prompt (scaffolding is provided of course).

Figure 6 – Spin the wheel from http://www.wheeldecide.com

oral production.png


12. One method fits all

What is most striking about the textbooks in use in UK schools is that by and large they use the same methodological approach from beginners to intermediate. The level of difficulty may increase as you move from year 7 to year 11, but you see the same sort of tasks and task sequences; the same emphasis on the four skills; the same speed of delivery in the listening tracks; the same insufficient amount of recycling; the same target language-to-first language ration; etc.

Yet, it is evident that at different levels of proficiency L2 learners have different needs. Hence approaches may be required which differ from level to level and even from language to language. So, with beginners one may have to use a much more structured approach than one would with upper intermediate students; may need to do more work on decoding skills, may need to focus more on the receptive skills, especially listening; may have to make greater use of the first language; etc.


13.Flawed assessment and assessment ladders

The vast majority of the assessment tasks and procedures found in the textbooks currently on the market leave much to be desired for many reasons to do with:

(1) construct validity, i.e. they do not actually measure what they purport to measure as they do not test the students fairly on the actual content and skills taught by the course (e.g. listening tests are more about educated guesswork than actual understanding, an important survival skill set but not one that we actually  systematically teach);

(2) the flawed assumption they are based upon, that progression is about how many tenses you master and the length of the text-at-hand (but a shorter text can be more challenging than a longer one);

(3) grammar tests assess the acquisition of the target structure mainly through gap-fill tasks, which do not tell as anything about students’ ability to use that structure in real time and under time constraints (e.g. in a spontaneous conversation). They only tell us about their grasp of how the grammar structure works (i.e. declarative knowledge as opposed to procedural knowledge).

The assessment ladders that are currently circulating in British MFL circles are a major cause for concern to me, as they have not been created, as they should have been, a posteriori, emerging from actual data, i.e. by observing what students do at different levels of proficiency; rather, they have been created a priori, by individuals who are not even expert language acquisition researchers who have arbitrarily decided what students should and should not be able to do at different developmental levels.

In other words, unless I study what poor, average and very able students can and cannot do well on a specific listening, speaking, reading and writing task or set of tasks at different levels of proficiency how can I – unless I have psychic powers – come up with an assessment ladder which states effectively what students should be able to do in each of the four skills at level 1 to 9?

So, for instance, in wanting to come up with an effective year 7 to 11 nine-point writing assessment ladder, I would have to start by asking my best A* year 11 students to write an essay under exam constraints and determine, based on their performance, what the features of a typical level 9 essay are and then work my way down to year 7 by studying students at each key developmental stage. A long and painstaking process – but because assessment does have an important wash-back effect on teaching, it is paramount that it is done well, rather than opting for quick-and-dirty solutions which give us a botched-up and vague measurement of our students’ ability, as the old National Curriculum Levels used to do.

The rubrics that I have seen posted on social networks, on some highly renowned and respected educators’ websites and published by Pearson are very disappointing in this respect.

What Modern Language teachers like and dislike about professional development events



In the last ten days, I have delivered a few workshops in a number of secondary schools around England, which focused on Listening, Grammar, Spontaneous speaking and Vocabulary instruction.

As usual, in order to gauge the 220 participants’ expectations and find out about their professional context and previous professional development experiences, I sent them an online survey which 210 of them completed.

In this post, I will share the most interesting data I obtained from the survey, as I believe the common trends I have identified in the delegates’ responses may help colleagues who run CPD (continuous professional development) in the MFL field select and/or conduct courses more effectively.

The participants

The sample included 210 secondary and primary MFL teachers from the private (55 %) and public sector (45 %) whose average teaching experience was 12 years.

The questions

The survey included two sets of questions. The first set elicited biographic data, the second included the following (mostly open-ended) questions:

  1. Why are you attending this workshop?
  2. What are the areas of your MFL teaching expertise that you are less confident in?
  3. How much has previous CPD (continuous professional development) from external providers enhanced your practice?
  4. What disappointed you the most about the CPD events you attended in the past?
  5. What did you enjoy the most about CPD events you attended in the past?
  6. Which of the following areas interests you the most: Vocabulary instruction, Listening instruction, Grammar instruction, Spontaneous speaking instruction?
  7. Which of the four language skills do you feel you neglect in your typical lesson?

The responses

Question 1 – why are you attending the workshop?

This question elicited the widest range of responses although two common trends were particularly obvious. Whilst 38 % of the teachers decided to attend my workshops because they had either read ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ and/or my blog, another 42 % stated that their main rationale was to obtain new ideas, 20% of them adding that they wanted ‘research-based’ ideas. 12% of the sample kind of echoed the same aspirations by stating they were seeking to ‘revitilise’ their teaching and to be inspired.

This is interesting in the light of two sets of answers I obtained to question 5 (What disappointed you the most about the CPD events you attended in the past?); one set referring to the sense that previous CPD events had proposed nothing new, the other conveying frustration at lack of inspiration due in some cases to a narrow focus on assessment.

Question 2 – What are the areas of your MFL expertise that you are less confident in?

This is the question with the least degree of variance, 80 % of the respondents stating that Listening was the area of their teaching expertise they felt less confident in. It should be noted that 40 % of the same respondents who flagged Listening as their weakest area included ‘speaking’ or ‘spontaneous speaking’ in their answer. What is particularly interesting about this finding is that Listening was also the skill that the vast majority of the respondents felt they neglected the most in their teaching.

Question 3 – How much has previous CPD  (continuous professional development) from external providers enhanced your practice?

This question required the respondents to choose a number from 1 to 5, one being ‘very little’ and 5 ‘massively’. The mean score was 3, which, although indicates an overall positive trend, still points to 40% dissatisfaction with CPD. This, in light of the high cost of many CPD events for schools (cover + course fees) is a cause for concern.

Question 4 – What disappointed you the most about CPD events you attended in the past?

Evidently, this was the question that I was most interested in, in the run-up to my own workshops and is a question that I recommend all CPD providers ask delegates prior to their events. The answers I obtained were extremely useful. Three main trends could be identified.

Firstly, 71 % of the respondents pointed to the lack of practical ideas that could be applied to their teaching context (20 % of them stating that the CPD was too theoretical).

Secondly, 18 % said that there was lots of ‘waffle’ or ‘talking’ but not much valuable content.

Thirdly, 9 % described CPD as ‘boring’, ‘uninspiring’, ‘lacking engagement’ or ‘lacking pace’.

Question 5 – What did you enjoy the most about past CPD events?

71 % answered that they liked new practical usable ideas whilst most of the remainder (22 %) stated that they enjoyed practice-sharing and networking  with colleagues from other schools.

Question 6 – Which of the following areas interest you the most: Vocabulary instruction, Listening instruction, Grammar instruction, Spontaneous speaking instruction?

41 % of the respondents selected Spontaneous Speaking as their main interest, 39 % Listening, 14 % Grammar and 6 % Vocabulary. This is very interesting as CPD in the area of spontaneous speaking is the one which, based on feedback received by my readers and on my own experience, is also the least frequent and effective.

Question 7 – Which of the four skills do you neglect the most?

Speaking and Listening came top of the list, chosen by 41 and 39% of the respondents, whilst 10 % said they did not neglect any of them and 6 and 4 % respectively neglected reading and writing. In other words, they reported avoiding teaching the very skills they felt less confident teaching and, arguably, the most important in real-life communication!

Concluding remarks

This sample is not necessarily representative of the whole MFL teachers’ population in England. However, if it indeed were, there are important lessons to be learnt from the data my survey gathered.

1.More emphasis on Listening and Speaking

The most important lesson in my opinion pertains to the two areas MFL teachers feel least confident teaching and appear to neglect the most in their daily practice: Listening and Speaking, especially ‘Spontaneous speaking’. Hence, more CPD in these two areas is needed, especially considering the emphasis the new GCSE specification places on oral spontaneity. Based on the questions and reactions I got during my workshops, when tackling the issue of speaking spontaneity and listening, many teachers do not seem to have a methodological framework on how to approach these two major areas of MFL teaching and learning – especially Listening.

Moreover, Heads of departments and course administrators may have to emphasize the collective focus of their teams on these two areas. This can be done by devoting department meetings to reading research (e.g. specialist blogs), practice-sharing and reflection on how to best teach these skills. In my school, these three professional development strategies have yielded significant positive results.

2. More practical teaching strategies informed by research

Another important set of data relates to what the teachers do not enjoy about CPD. I queried those data when I actually met the teachers in person to find out more about the dislike of theory that they voiced in the survey. What many of them said was that they did not mind references to theory and research as far as by the end of the workshops(s) they had something new and practical they could implement in their lessons the next day. They reported that this happened rarely and that often, whilst the theories or approaches presented may have differed from what they had heard in the past, the tasks or resources the CPD providers presented were nothing new.

Many of the participants complained about the fact that often CPD providers’ suggestions are based more on their own hunches, personal experiences and fads than on current research. It was apparent during my workshops that there is a growing demand amongst classroom practitioners these days for research-based teaching and learning strategies.

3. The need for inspiration and innovation

What was evident from the survey data and my conversations with many of the teachers at my workshops was a frustration with CPD providers that kept recycling and/or repackaging the old. They wanted to be ‘inspired’ and to get new ideas to inject in their teaching but they said that they had not really got much of that recently.

The need for ‘Inspiration’ was a common thread in most of my respondents’ comments and in my conversations with the delegates at my workshops. Our profession is more than ever in need of inspiration and this is unlikely to come from ‘consultants’ who are not currently teaching, as they lack credibility – how can they fully empathise with the challenges that the ordinary classroom practitioner faces in the classroom? This is a point that many teachers raised in my workshops.

4. Collaborative learning a must

It is apparent that many MFL teachers want to know what works well in other schools, especially in the areas they are less confident in. What was most apparent was that many teachers were very worried about the new GCSE specification and wanted to know what their colleagues from other schools were doing. However, many of them complained that that did not happen in many CPD events. For reasons of coverage, I too did little of that in my own workshops this time around. CPD providers and course administrators may have to be mindful of that and create opportunities for attendees of different institutions to share practice, especially in the areas that seem to concern them the most.

5. More neuroscience

Something that emerged from my conversations with several teachers in my workshops was their fascination with how we acquire and process languages. Many delegates came to me at the end of my workshops to comment on how useful and eye-opening it was to understand the challenges that language learning poses to our students from a cognitive perspective. CPD providers should ground their practical suggestions as much as possible in neuroscience so as to (1) provide a stronger rationale for their approaches and techniques and (2) help develop creators of knowledge rather than passive consumers of it.

From Target Language to Model Language – the mind shift that has transformed my teaching


1. Target vs Model Language : a hair-splitting distinction of much consequence for input design

In 1997, on my MA TEFL at the Reading University’s Centre for Applied Language Studies (CALS) I was introduced by one of my lecturers to Michael Lewis’ book ‘The Lexical Approach’, possibly the most innovative and inspirational piece of Applied Linguistics literature I have ever read in the field – a book that I recommend wholeheartedly to every language teachers.

Very early in the book Michael Lewis discusses a dichotomy that for ever changed my teaching: the distinction, that is, between Target Language and Model Language. This is how Michael Lewis (1993: articulates the distinction

Model Language is language included in the textbook or otherwise introduced into the classroom, as language worthy of study. It may consist of ‘real’ language, produced for purposes other than language teaching but introduced into the classroom as part of the learning materials […] Target Language is the objective of the teaching programme – language which, it is assumed, the student will ultimately be able to use. (where ‘use’ may mean actively produce or receptively understand)

This distinction inspired me, although my use of the two labels is different to Michael Lewis’. To me the term ‘Model Language’ is better suited to refer to the language the instructor intends to impart on their students, whilst ‘Target Language’ to describe the language one finds in ‘authentic’ texts and native-speakers’  utterances (i.e. the meaning modern language teachers traditionally attach to this term). This is the meaning I will associate with the two terms in the below.

A hair-splitting distinction you may think. And to a certain extent it is.

However, if you do believe that the input we provide our students with day in day out in our lessons has the purpose to model and sensitize the students to the core set of language phonological, collocational and syntactic patterns we purport to teach, then the dichotomy Target vs Model Language has huge implications for teaching and learning.

Even more so if you espouse the view – I discussed in my previous post –  that effective teaching hinges on the successful modelling of language chunks and not merely of discrete words and grammar rules. Hence your Model Language will be patterned in a way which is instrumental to the constant recycling of those chunks and patterns and consequently even more artificial.

2.Input authenticity vs Input learnability

The main implication of the distinction for teaching and learning, in my view, is that for our teaching to be effective in sensitizing L2 learners to the target patterns we must not shy away from providing linguistic classroom input (Model Language) that sounds and reads significantly less authentic than ‘authentic’ L2 input (Target Language).

This goes counter to one of the most pivotal tenets of CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) pedagogy, the principle that learners should learn mainly or even exclusively from ‘authentic’ L2 input – a principle that is deeply embedded in the collective unconscious of many teachers thereby often affecting the way instructors and course books select and/or design instructional materials.

However, as I often reiterate in my blogposts, for input to be effective it must facilitate ‘noticing’ (i.e. the detection) of the target L2 features and recycle them in easily detectable patterns as much as possible. This requires input that fulfils the following criteria; it must

  • be easily accessible in terms of meaning (as I repeat ad nauseam in my blogs, 95 % comprehensible without resorting to an extra-textual resource);
  • be highly patterned – i.e. must contain several repetitions of the target sounds, lexis or syntactic patterns even though they might sound redundant and even less ‘natural’ (whilst still being acceptable) to the native ear;
  • frequently recycle new vocabulary and patterns whilst recycling ‘old’ ones (as this strengthens retention and enhances comprehension);
  • (in the case of aural input) be uttered at less-than-native speed.

‘Authentic’ and ‘Pseudo-authentic’ classroom language and texts rarely meet the above criteria, which makes them less effective for teaching and learning purposes, as they cause learners lots of divided attention by cognitive overload or distraction (e.g. from having to look to many words up in dictionaries) and, potentially, disaffection in less resilient learners.

This issue is far too often compounded by two major – extremely common – shortcomings of L2 instruction:

  • Texts are usually underexploited by textbooks and teachers – one or two sets of comprehension questions and the class move on to the next task.
  • Insufficient time is dedicated to receptive processing (reading and listening) of the target L2 items – an issue I often denounce in my posts

3.The primacy of the Model Language as conditional to learner developmental stage

As it is obvious, the ‘distance’ between the Model Language and the Target Language is bound to be greater at the early stages of L2 development, when students need more exposure to and drilling of the target patterns and chunks of language and when aural input must be uttered with more clarity and at slower speed. This parallels, in our first language development, the complexity ‘chasm’ between ‘Motherese’ and the input we receive as adults.

My colleagues (at Garden International School) and I, for instance, use with our beginners a core set of chunks we call ‘universals’ (high frequency chunks which cut across all topics) which we use as a starting point for the design and selection of the input and the instructional sequences to implement in our every lesson with them.

A sub-set of such ‘universals’, for instance, includes modal verbs followed by verb phrases which we recycle to death through our classroom language, the aural and written texts we give our students and the output we elicit from them through structured oral and written production tasks (pushed output).

In other words, we do not shy away from enhancing the surrender value of our input and the student’s pushed output at the expense of authenticity – as there is no way our ‘universals’ would ever occur  in naturalistic input/output as often as they do in our own artificial Model Language.

At higher levels of proficiency, our list of ‘universals’ increases, which allows us a bit more freedom from the rigid structure that the narrower vocabulary and pattern repertoire of earlier stages imposes. This does allow for more frequent use of authentic texts.

Does this rule out the use of authentic material at lower levels of proficiency? Not entirely. I do believe there is a place for (simple or simplified) authentic texts, especially with more talented and motivated linguists, in order to provide practice and basic training in dealing with less predictable linguistic contexts autonomously through the application of inferencing skills and/or dictionary use as well as some cultural enrichment. In other words, authentic text use at this level of L2-competence would not necessarily serve the purpose of modelling the target patterns but more one of fostering autonomous learning skills (including cross-cultural understanding).

However, from novice to intermediate level it is my belief that the use of authentic texts or the pseudo-authentic texts found in the textbooks currently in use in many UK schools, unless heavily adapted, is more likely to hinder than facilitate learning especially when we are dealing with less gifted, motivated and resilient learners.

4. Conclusion: re-thinking the role and design of teacher input

Frequent exposure to patterned comprehensible input is not simply desirable, it is a pedagogic must. For the following reason:

Psycholinguistic research shows how language processing is intimately tuned to input frequency at all levels of grain: Input frequency affects the processing of phonology and phonotactics, reading, spelling, lexis, morphosyntax, formulaic language, language comprehension, grammatical sentence production and syntax (Ellis, 2002)

Sadly, more than often teachers are eager to see a product before the end of the lesson, the tangible evidence that learning has actually occurred.

As I often reiterate in my blogs, this is flawed from a cognitive point of view and may even seriously hamper learning. Why? Because the learning of an L2 item does not occur in one lesson, but over several months (or even years), going as it does through a painstaking non-linear process of constant revision and restructuring until control is finally achieved.

This over-concern for the product of learning results in many teachers often dwelling insufficiently on the all-important receptive-processing phase of learning any L2 item. After a couple of receptive tasks, they rush to some form of written or oral production.

If we do value the importance of extensive exposure to comprehensible patterned input in paving the way for more effective production in the short term and in securing more long-term retention, then we have to devote more lesson time to reading and listening and pay much more attention to the way we use classroom language and we craft aural and written texts.

The devil is in the detail, hence every opportunity must be seized by the instructor to recycle the target patterns and make them as noticeable as possible, especially when we are dealing with items that are less salient due to their morphology, position in the sentence, frequency of occurrence in naturalistic input or markedness.

This will often result in sacrificing authenticity for learnability, shifting, that is, from an emphasis on the Target Language (or a close approximation of it) to an over-emphasis on the Model Language. Once decided on the core set of patterns /chunks you want to impart and the vocabulary you are going to embed in them, your main concern will be to facilitate the uptake of those patterns in a way that maximizes the use of the little teaching contact time you have available.

At primary level, this shift is an absolute must, as the damage caused by insufficient receptive-processing work and recycling is most harmful at this stage of L2 development. At this age, when the brain is more plastic and sensitive to recurrent patterns, exposing L2 learners to highly patterned comprehensible input pays enormous dividends.

The consequences for curriculum design are obvious and not for the faint-hearted: in many cases an overhaul of your schemes of work and the creation of resources which include and elicit patterned comprehensible input. The former will be dictated by the need to recycle the core target patterns over and over again over the months and years to come. The latter by the need for expanding your repertoire of aural and written texts in order to enhance and deepen receptive processing. No easy endeavour, of course, one that many of my line-managers and colleagues over the years – with only a few enlightened exceptions – have time and again frowned upon.

Who looks at the Schemes of Work, anyway, apart from inspectors… right?

Could this be an opportunity to finally create Schemes of Work that are actually useful to you?

Patterns first – why you should ‘ditch’ word lists, traditional grammar rules and…your textbook

(Co-authored with Steve Smith and Dylan Vinales)


Last week, during a workshop on vocabulary learning that I delivered in my faculty, I carried out a little experiment with my colleagues which aimed at raising their awareness of the limitation of human working memory by making them experience cognitive overload (i.e. the inability of working memory to cope with a task due to excessive demand on their processing capacity).

The task was simple. One person had a list of twenty words and had to utter each word on the list, one by one ( first word 1, then word 2, followed by word 3, etc.) to their partner. The latter had to repeat at each round all the words read so far, rigorously in the same order as they had been read to them ( relying solely on their memory as they had not access to the list).

As expected, the vast majority of the participants started making mistakes after the fourth or fifth item. But there was an outlier: a Chinese lady, V., who could remember ten words, double, that is the group’s average. How had she achieved that?

She had used a mnemonic (a memory strategy). On hearing each word, she had associated it with an image and had built a narrative using each image and word. In other words, she had ‘anchored’ each word to an image that was meaningful to her and to a pattern that gave sense to the input she was receiving.

This well-known ‘trick’ does not make one more intelligent, nor does it point to a bigger Working Memory. What it does, though, is pointing to a mechanism that has enabled humans throughout evolution to overcome the limitations of their working memory and has a decisive role in L2 learning.

As discussed in previous blogposts of mine, Working Memory is very limited in focus and processing capacity, i.e. the minimal distraction causes us to ‘lose’ the data we are handling and it can only process four items at any one time. What is interesting is that monkeys’ working memory shares the same limitations, with a processing capacity of 3 to 4 items nearly identical to ours.

So why is it that monkeys are stuck where homo sapiens started off 150,000 years ago whist we are able to build rockets, transplant organs, clone animals and harness the power of the atom?

According to Cambridge Professor Daniel Bor in his 2012 fascinating book ‘The ravenous brain: how the new science of consciousness explains our insatiable search for meaning’, the human brain has managed to overcome the limitations of its pea-size processor (working memory) by chunking new data to existing brain structures using pattern recognition as the main learning strategy. As Professon Bor puts it,

Perhaps what most distinguishes us humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ravenous desire to find structure in the information we pick up in the world. We cannot help actively searching for patterns — any hook in the data that will aid our performance and understanding. We constantly look for regularities in every facet of our lives, and there are few limits to what we can learn and improve on as we make these discoveries. We also develop strategies to further help us — strategies that themselves are forms of patterns that assist us in spotting other patterns.

In simple terms, the brain applies the patterns available in our Long-Term Memory to interpret whatever we process (see, hear, feel, etc.) and make sense of it; if what we process successfully using those patterns is ‘new’, the brain ‘hooks’  it to existing structures in the brain and compresses it in chunks which it stores in Long-Term Memory.

The reason why this expands the processing capacity of working memory is that, when patterns are applied automatically, i.e. subconsciously, they by-pass working memory, thereby keeping the latter free for performing other operations. That is why we can multi-task when we operate in contexts which we are very familiar with, but not in others which are totally new to us. So, for instance, when we drive a car, we perform sequences of actions automatically so that we can focus on the road and traffic.

What is equally interesting, is that patterns are used by the brain not simply to process the information we are currently handling, but also to predict what will come next. So, for instance, imagine talking to a colleague you know quite well in a specific context; your brain will use behavioural patterns built during your previous interactions with that person not only to elicit from her body language, intonation, lexical choice what mood she is in, what her communicative intentions are, etc., but also to predict what she is likely to say or do next – all based on probability.

This happens linguistically too; when we hear a sentence, our brain uses patterns, both linguistic (phonological, grammatical, etc.) and situational (our previous experiences with similar contexts) to interpret each sentence we process and predict what word, phrase or sentence is going to come next very much like Google does when we type up our query in the search box (see figure 1, below).

This predictive process which happens subconsciously, hence at very high speed in the brain is called Syntactic Priming.

Figure 1 – google search and the priming effect


Pattern recognition, Chunking and Priming have therefore one thing in common. Speeding up Working Memory processing capacity. Since, as Skehan’s (2009) diagram below (figure 2) clearly shows, these processes are central to language acquisition, our teaching must aim at fostering and facilitating them.

Figure 2 – Language operational mechanisms involving Working Memory

revised SLA cognitive

That pattern recognition must be central to L2 instruction is evidenced by a number of studies which assessed L2 learners at the beginning of a course simply based on their pattern recognition skills and found that high scores on this measure were a very strong predictor of success at post-test (see summary of one of such studies here).

2. Implications of the above for L2-language learning and teaching

Please note that for reasons of space I will not delve as much as I would like to into the classroom implementations of the principles discussed below, reserving to do so in my next post.

2.1 What I mean by ‘patterns’

The above implies that effective language learning – from a processing perspective – is mainly about rapidly and accurately applying patterns in the understanding of L2 input and the production of L2 output.

Please note that patterns are not simply what we refer to as the phonological, morphological and syntactic rules of the language, but also the multi-word constructions with high generative power that we employ as chunks to express various communicative functions (e.g. ‘I don’t think’ that’ ‘I want you to’, ‘I am not sure if ’, ‘The worst/best thing is…’). This is important, because every teacher claims to teach patterns, but they usually refer to verb endings, agreement, conjugation and the likes.

Hence, effective L2 learning is not simply about learning the rules of grammar and phonology, but also and more importantly about learning how to break down the language into useful multi-word chunks of language (useful = with high surrender communicative value).

Learning single words, from word lists, e.g. the ones found in textbooks or that many teachers upload to Quizlet or Memrise is a clumsy and inefficient way of learning a language as Working Memory can only accomodate 4 items at any given time for only a handful of seconds. By learning 4 chunks made up of 4 words each instead of 4 single words, the brain is still processing 4 items but working with 16 words at the same time.

In first language acquisition children pick up the language through such chunks, after much exposure to them through caregivers’ talk. The grammar that glues the chunks together is not learnt by them explicitly but implicitly. In this sense, in first language acquisition and in L2 learning in immersive environments (e.g. in an international school), the dichotomy between grammar and vocabulary learning does not exist. Children learn how to piece chunks of languages together in the pursuit of the communicative goals they need to achieve not because their parents teach them grammar rules.

L2 acquisition in non-immersive environments is evidently different, of course, as to expect students to pick up a vast array of chunks and patterns implicitly through one or two hours’ exposure per week would be preposterous.

2.2 Implication 1 From authentic target language to patterned model language

The first major implication for L2 instruction is that the teaching of patterns must take a central role in L2 instruction from the very early stages of teaching the target language. This in turn entails providing novice learners  with input which is highly patterned and contains repeated occurrences of useful chunks with high generative power, very much like caregivers do when they deal with toddlers in first language acquisition (e.g. through nursery rhymes).

This requires a shift, from teaching the target language to teaching a model language – to use Michael Lewis’ (1993) famous  distinction – which is not necessarily ‘authentic’ (in that it does not 100% mirror real-life L2 usage) but serves the purpose of sensitizing our students to patterns through much repetition, redundancies and careful selection of highly generative chunks.

This does not mean that one has to rule out the use of authentic material; what it means is that before getting to ‘authentic’ texts the learner must have seriously routinized – at least receptively – a repertoire of patterns and chunks which will allow them to come to grips with the less linguistically predictable and more lexically and syntactically complex ‘authentic texts’. No point using aural or written input that contains cognitive obstacles which will ultimately hinder learning.

It is evident that one should select for teaching high-frequency chunks as much as possible. This will render the model language a closer approximation to the target language or at least will make the transition from the former to the latter easier.

2.3 Implication 2 – Chunks over single words

Like I said above, chunks have higher surrender value and more generative power than single lexical items. Moreover, since Working Memory can only process 4 items simultaneously, regardless if one item equals one word or four or five, teaching chunks makes learning more efficient in terms of cognitive load.

This does not mean that we should not teach single words at all any more. However, starting with chunks does make more sense. So, for instance, one may start with ‘I would like to travel to Spain’ and then subsequently teach the L2 names of countries as single words in order to enhance the generativity of that chunk and/or teach alternatives to ‘travel’ such as ‘go’, ‘drive’, ‘fly’, ‘bike’, etc.

Another advantage of teaching through chunks is that many mistakes with less salient items/rules (e.g. articles and prepositions) can be avoided because such items are learnt as part of the chunks themselves. Think about prepositions before the infinitive in French, how much easier it would be for your students to learn them if you taught those verbs in chunks including the preposition from day one, e.g. je vais commencer à faire mes devoirs,  je vais commencer à jouer, etc.

2.4 Implication 3 – Grammar as subordinate to the teaching of chunks and functions

If we do believe that chunking input based on the core patterns we intend to impart on our students is the main priority of L2 teaching, then grammar does still play an important role, but one that it is subordinate to vocabulary teaching, i.e.: to add generative power to the chunks we set out to teach. Example: if I teach the French chunk : ‘je veux que tu + subjunctive (I want you to…) I will need to teach the conjugation of ‘vouloir’ (to want) in the present indicative and subjunctive of French verbs for that chunk to be used with subjects other than ‘I’ thereby acquiring high surrender value.

If our espoused teaching methodology is Communicative Language Teaching, it only makes sense that the chunks we teach are selected and grouped based on communicative functions (e.g. Accepting / Rejecting, Advising & Suggesting, Agreeing / Disagreeing, Approving / Disapproving, etc.). Unlike what other scholars advocate, I am not opposed to teaching functions and chunks within a specific topic, as having a unifying theme does facilitate retention and allows for a lot of semantic associations within the target word-set.

UK Modern Language textbooks do pay lip service to communicative-functions and patterns teaching but in actual fact they rarely do and focus mainly on grammar and discrete words at the expense of chunks. The Expo and Studio coursebooks,  very popular in England, are appalling in this respect.

2.5 Implication 4 – Words’ collocational behaviour as important as grammar

Another major way in which we can enhance the generative power of chunks is by mastering the collocation of words. This is self-evident, as the wider the range of nouns we can use a given verb in a specific chunk with, the wider the range of communicative contexts we will be able to use that chunk in. Hence, the need for teaching collocations in our daily practice as much and often as possible.

Michael Lewis is the greatest advocate of teaching collocations and I do agree with him that, especially considering the recent changes in the English and Wales syllabus, this dimension of vocabulary teaching is by far the most important. Sadly, however, this is another area which is grossly neglected by most of the Modern Language books currently available on the market.

2.6 Implication 5 – Extensive receptive exposure to patterns as crucial

Masses of research indicate clearly that extensive exposure to phonological, collocational, morphological and syntactic patterns does sensitise learners to them. Unlike what is common practice in many modern language classrooms these days, students should process the target chunks/patterns as extensively as possible before having a go at deploying them in oral or written production. This is a point I have made in many posts of mine so I will not elaborate any further.

2.7 Implication 6 – Comprehensible input as a must for pattern detection and acquisition

Patterns are more likely to be noticed and acquired when they occur in texts which are highly accessible by the target students. This translates in providing students which texts which are not only highly patterned but also whose linguistic content, as a rule of thumb is 90-95 % familiar to the learners.

2.7 Implication 7 – Pushed output essential in recycling

‘Pushed output’ oral and written activities are tasks that allow the teacher total control over student output. Hence, they are crucial in order to ensure that every student has plenty of opportunities to recycle the target chunks. Role plays, translations and communicative drills are very easy to prepare and very effective in this respect.

2.8 Implication 8 – Autonomous learning of patterns as the ultimate foundation for successful L2 life-long learning

Students must become effective pattern-recognizers and pattern-deployers. This does not merely mean emphasizing patterns in our input, but also developing the following skills:

  • the ability to autonomously identify patterns
  • autonomously extract the rule governing the usage of those patterns
  • autonomously experiment with those patterns

As advocated in my post ‘Why we should change our approach to grammar teaching’ this entails getting the students to inductively work out the grammar or phonological patterns from the input we provide, and, after much guided practice aimed at routinizing the patterns in controlled contexts, give them plenty of opportunities to experiment with them in familiar and less familiar contexts.

2.9 Use the first language to spot differences between the L1 and L2

It is natural for L2 learners to use the first language as a starting point for their hypotheses as to how the target language works. To discourage that, as many suggests, by banning the first language from the language classroom is a real waste. Emphasizing the differences or similarities between the two languages in terms of grammatical, lexical and phonological patterns is a must, in my opinion, as it gives our students a marked cognitive advantage.

3. My approach to teaching chunks

This is the approach I use in teaching chunks/patterns in a nutshell:

  1. Present chunks – I do this in sentences orally by using ‘sentence builders’ or other techniques (see post here)
  2. Provide lot of exposure through listening and reading (e.g. through narrow reading and listening). Note: there is no harm in not using the target chunks in oral or written production until the second lesson after first introducing them.
  3. Get the students to ‘unpack’ the chunk (e.g. through inductive grammar tasks)
  4. Practise the chunk in interpersonal writing (e.g. online conversation with peers using platforms such as Edmodo) or micro-writing (e.g. teacher asks questions, students respond in writing on mini-boards)
  5. Highly controlled oral practice (communicative drills eliciting use of target chunks)
  6. Semi-structured oral practice (e.g. interviews, surveys, picture tasks, find-someone who, role-plays)
  7. Free oral practice – it is here that the students are pushed to experiment

It goes without saying that, besides the points made above, all the other principles I laid out in my previous posts on vocabulary teaching (here) ought to inform the teaching of chunks, too. The most important being

  • aim at automaticity in recognition and production
  • prioritise deep processing (creating semantic association) over shallow processing (mere repetition)
  • provide intensive and extensive recycling within the three months after first teaching
  • hook new input to old material in terms of meaning, morphology and sound patterns
  • make the input distinctive (compelling input)


The human brain is a highly sophisticated ‘computing machine’ that handles masses of data every day. However, its processor, working memory, has extremely limited processing capacity. Chunking data by means of patterns has allowed the human brain throughout evolution to overcome the limitations of working memory. Hence, we may consider pattern recognition as possibly the most important skill in the processing and learning of any information.

Humans need to see patterns in everything they see or hear. The same applies to language learners. Language learners who are not provided with patterns or other heuristics which help them make sense of the target information experience frustration and demotivation and use rote learning as the last resort. Nothing wrong with rote learning, provided that it is supported by an understanding of the underlying structure of what one learns and it is retained in the long term; but this is often not the case.

In this article I have advocated the importance of giving prominence to patterns and chunking over the teaching of single words or discrete grammar rules. New lexis should be taught in chunks, as this gives working memory a significant cognitive advantage; grammar should be taught to serve the teaching of chunks, to help the students unpack them and discover and later experiment with their full generative power. The Mastery of words’ collocation is pivotal too in enhancing the generative power of chunks, but it is sorely neglected in current modern language pedagogy.

Last, but not least, we should train students to detect and experiment with chunks as much and as often as possible by themselves, with little input from us, after sensitizing them to their existences through masses of comprehensible highly-patterned input. Inductive grammar learning is therefore a pedagogic must, in order to forge life-long learners who can effectively acquire languages autonomously in the real world.

How to boost your students’ vocabulary whilst creating a positive learning environment

IntroductionVocabulary teaching and affect _ teaching words through emotion.png

The validity of Stephen Krashen’s Affective-filter hypothesis as a theory has been discounted by many a scholar, mainly due to its unfalsifiability. However, it is undeniable that a positive and enjoyable learning environment in which the students feel safe, respected, validated, liked and listened to by their teacher and peers, benefits language acquisition in many ways, both in terms of motivation and in reducing learner anxiety – the number-one inhibitor of language learning according to much research. To create such an environment is a pedagogic imperative, whatever methodology or theory of L2 learning one espouses.

Moreover, we know that linguistic input that is perceived by our students as emotionally salient, is more likely to be retained. Hence, the importance of inducing high levels of emotional arousal in the classroom (e.g. through competition) and of relating as much as possible every lexical item we teach to our learners’ affect, both in terms of present and past emotions they associate with those words and/or their meaning(s).

Here are five strategies I use in my classroom to create a positive and enjoyable learning environment based on mutual trust and respect whilst expanding and/or consolidating my students’ lexical and even grammatical repertoire. I usually scaffold the process by providing lists of phrases with translation which I gradually phase out after a few weeks.

1.Taking the emotional temperature

Knowing how each of your students feels at the beginning of your every lesson is crucial, especially at the early stages of teaching a specific class, in helping you set up a positive and enjoyable environment and teach with empathy.

As you call the register at the beginning of a lesson, ask each of your students how they feel and ask them to respond by using a specific set of words or phrases (like the ones in the sentence builder below (for English-speaking learners of Italian), which you will display on the classroom screen (or share with them on Google classroom as I do).

Vary the words/phrases ever so often ,thereby expanding their lexical repertoire as the year advances. So if during the first four-five weeks you used adjectives such happy, angry, annoyed, stressed, bored, sad, excited, sleepy, worried and calm, in the subsequent four-five weeks ask them to use synonyms or widen the pool or emotions or ask them to make up more complex sentences explaining why they feel the way they do (if they feel comfortable, of course), e.g. I feel tired because I have not been sleeping well recently or I didn’t sleep well last night.

Vocabulary teaching and affect _ teaching words through emotion.png

Staging this activity day in, day out, has helped me teach and recycle new vocabulary and even grammar (past and future tense) obtaining excellent levels of student retention with relatively little effort and saving valuable curriculum time (as I do not have to devote a series of lessons on adjectives expressive emotions, for instance)

2.Learning about your students’ self-concept

An insight in your students’ self-concept is extremely useful in building an idea of who you teach. Students who are less confident and/or have a lower self-esteem are usually more vulnerable to anxiety’.

‘If I were…I would…’ tasks are a subtle and creative way to get students to tell you something about the way they view themselves whilst at the same time practising ‘if-clauses’ in the context of each vocabulary set you teach. Examples:

(whilst teaching adjectives) – If I were a car, I would be a Ferrari, because I am sporty, fast and noisy

(whilst teaching fruit) – If I were a fruit, I would be a cherry, because I am small and round

I stage a ‘If I were…I would’ task with every new set of nouns or adjectives I teach. It is far from being as accurate as a personality test, of course, but gives me quite a few clues as to the personality and mood of my students whilst eliciting their creativity with language and adding a bit of fun to the lesson.

How I do it: (1) I give them a prompt (e.g. If I were a car…); (2) they write the whole sentence down on a mini-board; (3) I ask a  few students at each round to read their sentences out and to some of their peers to translate them in the L1.

3.Creating a bond through peer validation

Encouraging the students in your classes to bond with each other is important from day one. Getting them to compliment each other in the target language is an obvious activity to help you achieve this, which students truly enjoy.

Ask them to write the compliment(s) for one or more of their peers anonymously on a post-it to put it in a box; then you or a student will read them out to the class or you will ask each student in the class to pick up one or more post-its and deliver them to the people they describe. Make sure you write a few yourself for those students who are less likely to get any compliments from their classmates.

This can also be an oral activity whereby the students go around the classroom and compliment their peers orally.

The scope of this activity in terms of application to the topics one usually teaches seems limited to appearance, e.g.  adjectives describing personality and appearance (e.g. I think you are nice and generous), nouns referring to personality traits (e.g. I appreciate your generosity); clothes (e.g. I like the shirt you are wearing because it is really trendy); nouns referring to physical features (e.g. I like your hair).

However, this activity can also be used to express appreciation, lesson in lesson out, for something a peer has done, e.g. You have done really well today because…, Thanks for helping me out during the translation task, I really enjoyed working with you today. Giving them a set of phrases on the screen (or on a sheet to stick in their books) to scaffold the process obviously facilitates the task.

Everyone enjoys being praised. If during the process the students pick up new useful language, as in my experience students do, it is truly a win-win situation for all.

4.Linguistically ‘smart’ praise

Praising students in a way which is commensurate to their effort and/or achievement is something most teachers do. However, what you do not often see teachers do is use praise in a deliberate way to impart specific linguistic input (e.g. to recycle a specific grammar structure or set of words).

Yet, because of its emotionally salient nature, students are more likely to pay attention to praising input and try harder to make sense of it. Hence, instead of simply uttering the usual ‘great’, ‘fantastic’ etc. plan the linguistic content of the positive comments you write or impart orally so as to include useful new vocabulary or structures or to consolidate old ones.

So, if you want to recycle the perfect tense, write your two/three-line comment in that tense: ‘You have produced an excellent piece of work. I have really enjoyed reading it. You have included a wide range of vocabulary. Etc.’ If your aim is to recycle adjectives, write your comment in the form of adjectives: your work is informative, concise, well-presented and thorough. And so on. Ask them to translate your feedback to ensure they have actually understood what you wrote.

In other words, don’t waste this opportunity to use something the students (hopefully) value affectively and cognitively – your feedback – to enhance their vocabulary and grammar

  1. Listening to your students’ voice

Learning how the students feel about your lessons straight from the horse’s mouth is useful in order to gauge their level of enjoyment in your lessons and satisfaction with your teaching. In addition, you show your students that you value their feedback on your performance and that they are not merely the passive recipients of your teaching, but they play an active role in it.

At the end of each lesson ask them to anonymously write on one or more pieces of paper how they feel about your lesson and, if they are linguistically ready, to add in a piece of advice on how you could improve.

Again, since this is not merely a way to get formative assessment that will inform your future practice, but also a linguistically enriching experience, do select the input smartly. So ask them on one occasion to simply use adjectives; example:

The lesson was funny, boring, exciting, interesting, engaging,…

On another, to make sentences containing past tenses. Example:

Today I have learnt a lot, I haven’t learnt much, It was a bit boring,..

Or, with more advanced learners, if-clauses sentences. Example:

If you had done more listening…, If you had talked more slowly…, If you had explained that better…

Or questions. Example:

Next time, could you please do more games, go slower, let us speak more….?

Or superlatives. Example:

the best thing, the worst thing, the funniest thing, the most boring thing was…

As usual, you will provide your students with a bank of words, phrases or sentences as a scaffold to help them in the process. Once all the pieces of paper have been put in a box, you will fish some out and, if you feel comfortable with it, you will read them out to the class and ask somebody to translate for the rest of the class.


The above are minimal preparation strategies to simultaneously help creating a positive atmosphere whilst enhancing your students’ L2 vocabulary and even grammar acquisition. Exploiting the emotional saliency of the contexts these activities create facilitates retention. The secret is carrying out such activities as often as possible, five- ten minutes per day, so as to systematically recycle the target vocabulary and/or structures. This is a great way to consolidate old material and to plant the seeds for items you are planning to teach in the future.

Implementing Listening-As-Modelling in the classroom – a report on a 20-week experiment with my year 8 French classes and its impact on their aural comprehension skills

(Co-written with Steven Smith and Dylan Vinales)

1. Introduction

This post describes the broad lines of a twenty-week long instructional programme in listening skills (a pilot study) Gianfranco carried out with two Year 8 French classes as part of his performance management.

We’ll discuss its main findings and implications for teachers. We hope to include reference to this study in the book we are preparing about teaching listening called Breaking the Sound Barrier.

The study investigated whether extensive L.A.M. (Listening-as-modelling) instruction focusing on the enhancement of micro-listening skills would be more effective than the traditional textbook-like approach (i.e. doing topic-based listening comprehension tasks).

The preliminary findings of the study suggested that the L.A.M. programme was more effective than traditional instruction and significantly enhanced the students’ ability to:

  1. read non-words with correct pronunciation in isolation and in short sentences (including mastery of liaison)
  2. transcribe French texts under dictation conditions;
  3. identify parts of speech in aural input and
  4. comprehend aural texts.

One important caveat: being a pilot study, it was not designed and carried out with the rigour of a ‘proper’ research study. Also, its small scale and the opportunistic sampling (Gianfranco simply chose two classes he teaches) means that the findings are hardly conclusive and generalisable. You may find them interesting nevertheless and we’ll mention at the end some of their possible implications.

Also, it should be borne in mind that all the activities below were fully integrated with the other three skills and grammar teaching. So,for instance, the micro-listening and aural vocabulary activities were always staged prior to communicative oral tasks. This required considerable planning effort – another crucial caveat.

2. The rationale and aims of the study

The main rationale behind this study was the hypothesis that MFL teachers may be able to substantially improve their students’ listening comprehension skills through explicit training in the five skill sets below:

  1. Decoding skills, i.e. ability to match letters and letter patterns to L2 phonemes (also known as GPC: grapheme-phoneme correspondence).
  2. Speech-segmentation skills, i.e. the ability to identify word-boundaries.
  3. Lexical retrieval skills, i.e. the ability to recognize words and retrieve their meaning in real time.
  4. Parsing skills (ability to recognize patterns in aural input).
  5. Alertness to and localisation of sound.

To test this hypothesis a L.A.M. instructional programme was devised and implemented as laid out below.

3. Research and instructional methodology

3.1 Setting and participants

The study was carried out at Garden International School, with two mixed-ability groups of (mostly Asian) Year 8 students of French of more-or-less equivalent number, gender distribution and ability (as measured through a T-test performed on the results of the three baseline assessments). Group A (the experimental group) received the L.A.M. training, whilst Group B (the comparison group) was taught the traditional way.

3.2 Baseline assessment

At the beginning of the study, the students were assessed as follows:

  1. Listening comprehension test: the students listened to a text covering vocabulary studied in Year 7 and primary school and answered questions listed in increasing order of difficulty.
  2. Decoding test: students were required to read out nonsense words in isolation and short sentences containing instances of liaison.
  3. Dictation test.
  4. Questionnaire asking how confident and motivated the students were in listening.

3.3 Baseline assessment findings

Listening Comprehension. The students performed reasonably well at the listening comprehension tests in both groups (75 being the mean score for Group A and 74 for Group B).

Decoding test. Students’ ability to pronounce non-words was poor, less than 50 % of the words correct for both groups (Group A 45.4 %; Group B 43.1 %). No student could accurately perform liaison. Issues were identified with the pronunciation of word endings (e.g. es, et), diphthongs (ou, eu, u) and the ability to differentiate between  le/de and les/des, un and une and other words of similar spelling but different pronunciation.

Dictation. Accuracy below 50% for both group (Group A 47 %; Group A 44 %)

Questionnaire. Both groups displayed average levels of motivation and self-efficacy, most of the students choosing the mid-point of the five-point scale adopted.

T-tests were performed on the results of all the four measures the baseline assessments and showed the two groups were equivalent on all measures  (A T-test assesses whether the averages of two groups are statistically different from each other.)

Let’s look next at the tasks done with the LAM group (group A), then the ‘traditional’ group (Group B).

4. The Listening- As-Modelling Programme 

Here is the instructional approach carried out with the experimental group

4.1 Enhancing alertness and localisation of sounds. A student who is alert is more likely to pick up details in the aural input. This skill is often taken for granted by teachers. In this case students’ level of alertness was raised through:

4.1.1 Spot the intruder;

4.1.2 Track the sound / word;

4.1.3 Spot the mistake;

4.1.4 Faulty echo (teacher reading a sentence twice and asking students to spot the mistake deliberately made in the pronunciation the second time).

4.2 Improvement of speech-segmentation skills. Segmentation is the most important skill in listening comprehension. The programme aimed to enhance segmentation skills by:

4.2.1 Aural/writing synergy.  Presenting new language items always in short sentences through a combination of aural and written input. Hence, I chose substitution tables or sentence builders, in the belief that visually processing the gaps in between words in a sentence whilst hearing that sentence being uttered would enhance students’ sensitivity to segmentation. Other tasks through which I attempted to realise this synergy were: (the word synergy may confuse some teachers) Oral ping-pong (see here for explanation) Paired reading aloud sessions of short texts. Break the flow’ tasks – fairly long sentences written without spacing. (The teacher reads the sentence aloud and students separate the words)

4.2.2 Pattern recognition tasks – effective pattern recognition skills facilitate segmenting in that it is easier to assign roles to the words one recognises in the input. Sentence builders, substitution tables, sentence puzzles and other tasks described (here) were used to focus students on patterns.

4.2.3 Sound-discrimination tasks. This is another crucial skill, as often misinterpretation of speech signals stems from misunderstanding similar sounding words (e.g. the classic ‘ship’ vs ‘sheep’). Tasks used in this area were:

  • Minimal pairs. (students must discriminate between two similar sounding words)
  • Spot the rhyming words (students are given three words containing different sounds and must match them with the words the teacher utters)
  • Spot the mistake (students are given a text which the teacher reads aloud; they must spot the words the teacher is mispronouncing)

4.2.4. Parallel text dictations with L1 parallel text. A short text was dictated. To help students segment, the English version of text was provided.

4. 2.5. Gapped texts dictations. Note that gapped words were not chosen randomly; they contained problematic sounds.

4.3 Improvement of decoding skills. The teaching of decoding skills occurred in every lesson for about ten minutes and focused on the following:

  • Silent versus voiced word endings (weeks 1 to 4), through tasks such as ‘spot the silent letter’ or syllable completion tasks.
  • Discrimination between the sounds un, in, en, an (weeks 5 to 10) using ‘minimal pairs’ or ‘spot the rhyme’.
  • Discrimination between oi, ou, eu and u (weeks 11 to 15).
  • Discrimination between eu(x), é, è  and e (weeks 16 to 20).

As already mentioned above, the tasks typically used in this area were:

  • M.L.E. (Micro-Listening Enhancers) such as minimal pairs and syllable-completion tasks and others (see here ).
  • Critical listening tasks were also used before any production tasks (student A reads aloud whilst student B is briefed to pay selective attention to a target sound and provide feedback on its pronunciation).
  • Short dictations.
  • Highly structured oral Interactional activities which elicited production of the target phonemes (e.g. communicative oral drills and find-someone-who with cards ).

Please note: instruction followed my M.A.R.S. approach, i.e.: Modelling/Awareness-raising first, followed by receptive processing, then structured production. In other words, students only produce the sounds in structured tasks after much aural exposure to the target sounds.

4.4 Improvement of memory for words and speed of lexical retrieval. Four sets of aural tasks were used:

4.5 Improvement of parsing skills. Besides the tasks described in 2.2 above, listening tasks requiring the students to categorize words by word-class/part of speech or by tense were carried out in order to enhance their grammatical sensitivity through the aural medium.

5. The comparison group (Group B)

Besides the typical textbook-like listening comprehension activities non-treatment group the comparison group performed full dictation tasks with the same frequency as the experimental group, in order to ensure that they would not be at a disadvantage at post-test, where the four assessment tasks would include a dictation task.

6. Post-test (final assessment)

At the end of the experiment the students were assessed through the same tasks used at pre-test, plus an aural vocabulary matching task:

– Reading out non-words in isolation and in short sentences.

– Dictation.

– Listening comprehension (done how?)

– Vocabulary recognition (20 words uttered at 5 seconds interval to assess speed of retrieval).

7. Findings

  1. Enhanced alertness to sounds – the students have unanimously reported paying much more attention to sounds, putting it down to the baseline test and the micro-listening activities.
  2. Improvements in decoding skills and pronunciation. Statistically significant improvements in decoding skills were observed from pre-test to post-test (from 45.4 % to 83.4). The results were statistically significantly superior to the comparison group (83.4 % accuracy vs 60.5%). The students put them down to the masses of aural input, to the emphasis the lessons put on phonemes and the micro-listening activities, which they did not always enjoy but significantly enhanced their awareness of the differences between similar-sounding phonemes and words.
  3. Improvements in transcription skills under dictation. Statistically significant improvements were found for this task too. The ratio correct to incorrect words rising by nearly 40% for the experimental group (Group A) and only by 20 % for Group B.
  4. Listening comprehension task. The score of the listening comprehension task too showed a statistically significant advantage for the experimental group, although not as marked as in the other two tasks (group A’s mean score 89.2; group B’s 80.3)
  5. Word matching lexical task. The experimental group very significantly outperformed the comparison group (group A’s mean score 88.4; group B’s 69.7). Interestingly, some comparison group students reporting knowing most of the words they heard but being overwhelmed by the time pressure.
  6. Can-do attitude and motivation vis-à-vis listening. The questionnaire investigating this area has not been administered as yet (planning to do it next week). However, from my conversations with my students throughout the process it emerges clearly that they felt much more confident than at the beginning of the process and that they saw a causality between the L.A.M. activities and their enhanced can-do attitude.

Do note that the effect size was high (i.e. the gains were evenly distributed amongst the students in Group A).

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the students reported finding sentence-builders, substitution tables and sentence puzzles as the most useful activities. The activity they enjoyed the most were spot the intruder, spot the mistake oral repetition sparring and find-someone-who with cards. They did not enjoy dictations but they reported learning a lot from them.

8. Concluding remarks

The study concisely outlined in this post is a small-scale pilot with lots of limitations. Having used the same approach with various classes in the last three years, it does however confirm my observation that students do feel more confident and become substantially more competent at decoding L2 graphemes, transcribing and comprehending of L2 input as a result of this sort of training.

The observation can be made, of course, that students get better at what they practice, so it is little surprise that phonological and spelling skills improve when you spend more time on them. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that listening comprehension improved somewhat along with decoding and transcription. An interesting question to ask is: to what extent would comprehension alone improve if an experimental diet without any transcription was tried, i.e. in this case, if Group B had done no dictation?

However, it is entirely plausible that improving decoding and transcription skills does have the added pay-off discovered in this experiment. Even common sense might predict such an outcome.

Does this suggest that teachers should give more time to the types of tasks done with Group A above? Almost certainly. We would suggest that this is particularly the case with beginners and near-beginners. For intermediate and advanced students such tasks can still play a role, e.g. advanced level transcription, gap-filling and reading aloud. At higher levels, however, it is likely that most listening will focus to a greater extent on comprehension and the ability to participate in more sophisticated discussion.

Of note in the study was the fact that not all decoding skill tasks were enjoyed by the students for long periods of time. How significant is this? Well, on the one hand students vary and do not always like the same things. In addition, we would argue that if students become competent at a skill it increases their confidence (‘self-efficacy’) and makes them enjoy learning in the longer term.  Self-efficacy is a key determinant of success. On the other hand, it may make sense to acknowledge the potential limitations of some tasks by working on micro-listening skills in short burst of, say, 10 minutes, preferably incorporated within other meaningful, communicative, two-way activities so that lessons do not become overtly focused on the form of the language at the expense of meaning. There is a potential danger that too much ‘focus on form’ becomes tedious for some students. Games such as the ones described by Gianfranco here may be used as motivational tools to make the focus on decoding skills less tiresome.

One final point: we are aware that some of the skills described above, e.g. segmenting the sound stream, lexical knowledge and transcription skill are developed by other, non-listening tasks. This is a reminder that listening cannot be taught in isolation and depends on the effective development of speaking, reading and writing.