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

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


Introduction: the benefits of highly patterned comprehensible input 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is NR/NL?

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

A narrow reading example : the place I live in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The design

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are some typical tasks:

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



Area they live in


Leisure activities they do and/or enjoy  


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


Where they would like to live one day  



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


The follow-up

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


1. Introduction – The why of lesson observations

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

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

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

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

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

2. The aim of the present post

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

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

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

  1. General principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

1. Introduction

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

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

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

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

2. My set of guiding principles

2.1  Skill Theory – the (very) bare bones

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Concluding remarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and suggested bibliography

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

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

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

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

Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

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

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

Professional Development Series (1) -Three questions every  teacher wanting to improve their teaching practice should ask themselves



One of the buzz-words in the Professional Development circles these days is ‘Reflective practice’. Teachers are told on a daily basis that being a ‘reflective practitioner’ is a must if they are to build on their craft and enhance the quality of teaching and learning in their classrooms. Teachers are encouraged to work in dyads and triads  to work collaboratively on lesson plans , to carry out peer-observations and read research together… Excellent stuff! I have done it myself during my school’s professional-development afternoons with my insightful and creative colleague Dylan Viñales and it has indeed benefitted my teaching whilst triggering ideas for the blogposts I publish on The Language Gym.

But I do have a teacher-training background and a PhD in Applied Linguistics  on top of 25 years language teaching experience. Would my learning discussions with Dylan be as fruitful were I simply to rely on the input on language teaching methodology I received during my PGCE in Hull 30 years ago?  What my PGCE tutors and my school-based mentors taught me about language teaching methodology was a random mix of tips borrowed from various – often contrasting – schools of thoughts, often discounted by current research findings and cognitive psychology acquisitions. So, for instance, I was taught to teach speaking pretty much in the audio-lingual way whilst being told that my teaching was meant to be absolutely CLT-based. I was told that not talking in the target language was anathema whilst research indicated clearly that code-switching does not do any harm to the students in terms of L2 acquisition. Tragically, many of such misconceptions still persist nowadays in the teaching profession.

So the question is: do most teachers possess sufficient know-how in terms of knowledge of theories and research in second language teaching and learning? The ugly truth, in my experience, is that most language teachers have not received adequate training in this area of their teaching competence and, sadly, many do not often have the time – busy as they are marking and planning lessons – to spend hours reading articles or blogs on L2 teaching methodology. Hence, professional development sessions which encourage practice-sharing and collaborative reflection can be beneficial but only to a certain extent; in order to improve one’s teaching it is imperative, in my view, to have an understanding of how the brain processes and acquires languages, of how language competence evolves and of what constitutes valid assessment, as such an understanding enables one to design the curriculum in a more principled and consistent fashion; to sequence learning activities more effectively and more adaptively; to create tests that are as objective and fair as possible and actually measure what they purport to measure.

So, why this post and its extremely pretentious title…? Because the three questions the title alludes to should be, in my view, the essential starting point of any reflective process on one’s own teaching practice. When I was asked the most important of those questions (“How are language learnt?”) by Professor Ron White – an Applied Linguistics legend – on my MA TEFL course 20 years ago I felt as disorientated as I did after my first parachute jump as a young recruit. I felt I should have known the answer, as I had been teaching for over five years prior to that course! Yet, I could not actually articulate it.  It was only after three months of Language-Learning-Principles lectures and much individual and collaborative reflection with fellow MA-TEFLers that I felt I was starting to nail it.

In my experience and in that of many of the readers that contact me in the social media, not many teachers find it easy to articulate their beliefs as to how languages are learnt; in fact, many of them do not really espouse a specific view of language acquisition or do not have a given principled pedagogic reference framework.

But “Do teachers actually need one?” – the best teacher and head of faculty I have ever worked with – Gillian Bruce – once asked me. “I know many teachers who do not have any knowledge of SLA theory and still get excellent results!”. My come-back to that was: “Would those teachers who get excellent results do even better if they knew more about Language Acquisition theory and research?” My hunch is that they would.

Here are the three questions I think every teacher who wants to improve their own practice should ask themselves  . These questions should be pondered over and answered way before Departments venture in the typical development-time discussions on what the elements of a great language lesson are; on what constitutes best classroom practice; on how to best provide corrective feedback (a highly controversial area of teaching which is massively affected by one’s espoused L2 acquisition theory);  on how to best integrate emerging technologies in the curriculum etc.. How can a language department even remotely hope to tackle the above issues effectively when they have not addressed the three questions below?

  1. The three questions

(1) How are foreign  languages learnt ?

In my opinion this is the most important question a teacher should ask themselves and I encourage every PGCE student /Probationary teacher to do so at the very beginning of their teaching practice. Trainee teachers should ask this question to their PGCE tutors and school-based mentors, too. This is paramount as any long-/medium- and short-term planning should be based on the answer.

In my case, finding the answer to that question and using it to frame my classroom approach was fundamental in enhancing my teaching- a true professional breakthrough for me. It meant sacrificing and adapting much of what I had been doing until then, but it paid enormous dividends. Cognitive models of language acquisition (especially Skill-based theories and Connectionism) provided the basis for my espoused theory of learning and shaped much of what you read in my blogs and of what I have been doing in the classroom for the last 20 years.

Can someone hope to answer that question without reading books or articles on second language acquisition? I believe so, if one has been teaching for a fairly long time, has been an assiduous reflective practitioner over the years and thinks long and hard about their own language learning experiences (what worked and what didn’t).

What matters is not to come up with a universal truth but with a set of guiding principles which are not written in stone – as future experiences or learning discussions with peers might end up restructuring them- but can provide a reference framework which will warrant consistency and cohesion to our approach. As professor Macaro, former Head of the Oxford University Education Department, wrote in his review of our book ‘The Language Toolkit’ :

it’s all very well saying there are no ‘methods’ for teaching a foreign language any more but it can’t then be a free-for-all with teachers doing exactly what they want to do. As much as I believe in teacher professional autonomy, language teaching is so complex that you have to have a series of guiding principles.

Ideally, as a Head of Department you will compare your reference framework/guiding principles with those of your staff and come to a sort of agreement – hopefully through democratic consensus-  as to what the espoused theory of the department is and on how it should shape teaching and learning. This will hopefully bring about consensus amongst the team as to what constitutes desirable and less desirable practice and possibly prevent controversy during post-lesson observation discussions and lead to fairer performance evaluations.

It is very important for the answer to this question to be as unambiguous as possible if you are working as a Department. For instance, in many Department handbooks I have come across lines to this effect: the Department endorses a Communicative Language teaching approach to MFL instruction. What does this entail in practical terms? A set of guiding principles , whilst not being overly prescriptive, should state roughly  how much TLU (target language use) is desirable; roundabout what ratio of receptive-skills-to-productive skills ; suggest possible approaches to listening, reading, speaking, writing, vocabulary and grammar instruction; a framework for the implementation of PBL work; how it is believed that Information technology should be best used to enhance learning etc.


(2) What are the implications of the answer to question (1) for language teaching and learning ?

As hinted above, the answer(s) to the first question will inevitably shape teaching and learning in your classroom, from the emphasis you will give to comprehensible input to the prominence of speaking and auracy/oracy, from teacher-centred to student-centred approaches, from all-out traditional feedback methodology to selective or no error correction, etc.

If you are doing this exercise as a whole Department, this process is bound to cause some controversy and has to be handled with much sensitivity and respect for other colleagues’ views. Having come up with a very clear set of guiding principles in answering question (1) above will definitely help.

My answers to this question are laid out in my blog posts  and I am glad that they are, as the process of writing about them has embedded them even deeper in my cognition . I do advice colleagues to answer this and the other questions in writing; it will impact your practice more.

 (3) Is the answer to (2) truly reflected in your own teaching practice? If not how can you make sure that it is in the light of the existing curriculum, resources and other logistic constraints (e.g. contact time)?

Chances are – as many research studies show – that your practice is not fully aligned with your beliefs. Partly because of your previously acquired metaphors of learning (which you formed throughout your own language learning experiences) which subconsciously shape the way you teach; partly because of the (often textbook-based) curriculum adopted by the school/institution you work at and the exam requirements; finally, the micro-cultures in your department will play an important role in the way you teach.

Will you’ have the guts’ to be true to yourself and find ways to teach the curriculum content in a way which reflects your beliefs? In my experience, teaching in a way which is consistent with one’s beliefs leads to greater satisfaction and self-fulfilment. Sadly, compromise will be necessary as your bosses’ pedagogic dogmata and the exam requirements will indeeed limit the scope of your freedom to a certain extent. In my case, for instance, I have had to adopt feedback-to-writing strategies that are not aligned with my espoused language learning theory and beliefs – despite having researched error correction in second language writing as part of my PhD study.

If you are doing this as a Department, this can be an exciting opportunity to rewrite the dull Schemes of Work that you have (not) been using so far in a way which is much more conducive to effective and productive curriculum design. You might finally come up with schemes of work that people will actually use, not frozen icons on your computer screen for OFSTED inspectors or your line managers to open as part of checklist-ticking exercises.  

Concluding remarks

Reflecting on one’s teaching practice does contribute to making us better teachers. Without a doubt. However, the self-reflection whether conducted alone or in dyads and triads needs to be framed adequately and needs some background knowledge – even fairly basic –  of teaching methodology and acquisition theory. There are many blogs that provide valuable pedagogic know-how, some of my favourites are listed in this post by Steve Smith.

In the absence of an espoused theory of language teaching and learning, I suggested classroom practitioners start the reflective process from the three framing questions discussed above, the most crucial one aiming at identifying the core sets of beliefs we hold about how languages are learnt. Once identified such beliefs one can then lay out the guiding principles which will warrant their classroom practice consistency and cohesion.

To find out more about my views on language teaching and learning do get hold of the book I co-authored with Steve Smith: ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit‘ 

The seed-planting technique: how it has enhanced my teaching and may enhance yours

planting-seeds jpg

1. Introduction – ‘Seed-planting’ or ‘Anaphoric recycling’: a differerent way of recycling


“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant”

                                                                                                                          (R.L.S Stevenson)

A few years back I came across the above line by Robert Louis Stevenson, so true of any teaching/learning experience, but especially relevant to second language acquisition. This is because many of the gains our students make day in, day out are invisible and even though they may not yield any tangible outcomes in the here and now they do often silently contribute to those sudden and ground-breaking ‘light-bulb moments’ they will suddenly experience a week, a month or even a year down the line, which often mark the beginning of acquisition.

Also, just like any other skills, language learning is not about recalling the ten target words, the grammar rule,or learning stategy the teacher taught by the end of a 50-60 minutes lesson ; it is about being able to understand/produce those words as close as possible to native-speaker accuracy and speed long after the end of that lesson. In other words, language instruction should concern itself with the long-term implications of what happens in each and every lesson we teach.

Yet, too much language teaching concerns itself with the short-term, the here-and-now. Consider lesson observations, for instance : how futile is the item ‘evidence of learning’ on the observer’s checklist. Evidence of learning at the end of a sixty-minutes lesson ? Really ? And what about the fact that humans forget more than 40% of what they ‘learn’ at a given time one hour later ? And does being able to recall a list of words at the end of a lesson constitute evidence of language acquisition ? That is the easy bit; one can say those words have been actually learnt only when the students will be able to recognize those words whilst listening to a near-native-speaker audio recording or be able to use them in production – which will probably take many more lessons down the line.

How many lessons on the Perfect Tense have been rated as outstanding by lesson observers – shown lots of evidence of learning, yet a few months later you will have heard the very teachers who taught those lessons complain that the students keep making the same annoying mistakes with the same tense in their speaking and writing? And the explanation : the students are being careless, lazy, dumb,…really ? How about the seeds sown during those fantastic lessons not being watered and looked after properly in the days, weeks and months after their occurrence ?

Any approach to evaluating language learning based solely or mostly on the tangible outcome one observes at the end of a lesson or short cycle of lessons is flawed because it fails to consider that L2 acquisition is less about learning the meaning of word X or the way grammar rule Y operates and more about how the brain speeds up the processing of that word and that grammar rule across a wide range of different linguistic, semantic and cultural contexts. [Please note, incidentally, totally out context, that I am against lesson evaluation of the sort that assigns scores to classroom performance as they are flawed in their purpose and because – based on my experience- way too many observers know too little about language acquisition to be able to pontificate as to what constitutes effective teaching and learning].

I remember, at the end of a lesson observation – in which I had been the observee – my observer telling me that she was concerned about two of my students who had struggled during a mini-board translation task as they were listening to my oral input (short sentences). Unlike the other students in the class, these two boys had not completed every single translation in the time I had allocated ; hence ‘you ought to differentiate better’ was the advice. Yet, two months down the line those boys caught up with the rest of the class at the same task. My observer had focused on the here-and-now, the immediate product of learning, not the process, failing to consider that the two students were refining the skill of processing my oral input and writing every single time they wrote on the miniboard, even if they had not completed the whole translation the first, second or third time around. They knew the meaning of the sentences I uttered ; they simply needed to speed up their ability to process those sentences ; subsequent practice of the same kind lesson in, lesson out allowed for that to happen. The most important thing was not the product, the words on the mini-board, but the process, training their ability to process my input faster. You only learn to hit the ball harder and faster by practising hitting the ball, regardless of the many failures.

In a nutshell, as I often reiterate in my posts, effective teaching and learning cannot happen without effective curriculum design – yes, the Department Schemes of Work that most language teachers don’t look at ! A well-designed language curriculum plans out effectively when, where and how each seed should be sown and the frequency and manner of its recycling with one objective in mind : that by the end of the academic year the course’s core language items are comprehended/produced effectively across all four language skills under real life conditions (or R.O.C.=real operating conditions). The biggest challenge : time constraints – which brings me to ‘why’ I applied the Seed-planting technique in my teaching.

  1. Optimizing contact time through ‘seed-planting’

The greatest obstacle to effective L2 acquisition in most school  settings is definitely time constraints. Hence, teachers must find ways to maximize the use of the time available to them. One way to do this is obvious : if accurate fluency across the listening, reading, speaking and listening modalities is the main objective of instruction, the first and foremost imperative is not to waste too much time on activities which do not promote fluency (e.g. lengthy grammar explanations ; making posters or iMovies in lessons ; masses of Kahoot quizzes).

Another , less obvious approach – the Seed-planting technique or Anaphoric recycling – involves smart curriculum design, by planning in your schemes of work, as meticulousy as possible, the systematic recycling of vocabulary or grammar structures as peripheral-learning items throughout the run-up to the lesson/cycle of lessons in which they are to be taught as core items. Example : if I am planning a set of irregular perfect tense forms in term two, I may want to systematically ‘plant’ them as often as possible in any comprehensible input I will expose my students to throughout term one. I will use typographic devices (e.g. highlighting, underlining or writing in bold/italics) in order to help my students notice each occurrence of the target verb forms. I will also provide some support in the way of translation ( brackets ; a help vocabulary list).

By so doing, the students will have the opportunity to process any ‘planted’ lexical items or morphemes several times over before the lesson in which you will explicitly present them. This will give the students a significant advantage as they will have many previous instances of encountering those items (through aural and written exposure) to relate to ; lots of dots to connect. It will also allow you to use a more inductive approach to grammar instruction as the students will not get to the target structure as totally ‘clean slates’.

Evidently, for this technique to work at its best, the ‘seed-planting’ ought to occur in both aural and written input (i.e. listening and reading) in the context of texts which contain comprehensible input (i.e. input that the students do not need much guesswork or dictionary use to understand ).

Seed-planting can obviously occur through the speaking and writing media too, by providing the students with unanalysed chunks/set phrases / whole sentences to learn by rote which the teacher will ‘unpack when the students are developmentally ready to grasp their constituents.

Many teachers do indeed say they ‘seed-plant’; however the issue is how, how often, how systematically, how meticulously. How they promote the noticing of the target ‘seeds’. How they support the students as they process them. How explicitly and regularly seed-planting is embedded in the Schemes of Work.

A final point: effective anaphoric recycling (seed-planting) does not mean less emphasis on cataphoric recycling (i.e. recycling after explicit teaching).

  1. Benefits of Seed-planting

How this technique has benefitted my teaching practice:

3.1 Greater focus on my short- / medium- and long-term planning

When you have been teaching for as long as I have been you don’t look at the course’s Schemes of Work as much as you should – especially when the curriculum is based on the textbook with little or no alterations. ‘Seed-planting’ has had three positive outcomes in this respect: (1) it has made me reflect much more on both anaphoric and cataphoric recycling and how vocabulary and grammar structures were taught throughout the year. This has enhanced the quality of my recycling, thereby improving the Schemes of Work and my curriculum designing skills; (2) I have actually been using the Schemes of Work more because they finally have some use for me; (3) I have always been meticulous about the linguistic content of my lessons, but this process has made me focus on it in even greater detail.

3.2 More work on receptive skills and comprehensible input

One of the greatest influences on my teaching this year has definitely been Steve Smith’s advocacy of the importance of comprehensible input in L2 acquisition – a view that I was unconvinced before meeting him but that I now espouse. The seed-planting technique has forced me to do more receptive work, especially listening (I highlight the ‘planted’ items in the gapped or whole transcripts I give my students or in the body of the text if I we are doing a jigsaw listening task). The technique has crept into my classroom TLU (Target Language Use) too, making it become a vehicle for the deliberate and systematic seed-planting on a daily basis,

All of the above has greatly benefitted my students

3.3 Less time spent on explicit grammar teaching

Because of the frequent encounters the students have with the target structures prior to their explicit teaching, I have had to do less explicit teaching and/or the students seemed to pick them up more quickly. All in all, grammar teaching felt easier.

3.4 More opportunities for differentiation

Seed-planting has provided me with more opportunities for differentiation. How? Example: if a student completes a reading task earlier than the rest of the class, the ‘planted seed’ can constitute a springboard for a learner-led investigation on the web (possible in my case, because our students are equipped with iPads – 1:1). In fact, the gifted and talented in my lessons are one set of students who has benefitted greatly from this technique as it has propelled them ahead of the topics-in-hand sparking off more independent work on their part.

3.5 Enhanced acquisition(?)

In my perception, hardly a scientific truth, this technique has indeed facilitated the acquisition of the core vocabulary and of the grammar structures I ‘planted’, not simply as a direct result of the greater exposure to the target items, but also because of the benefits listed in the previous points

  1. Drawbacks

The main obstacle to the implementation of this technique is that it requires more work on the part of the curriculum designer(s). It is quite a painstaking process, as it does require fairly detailed planning. If you are a Head of Department you will hear comments like: “But we do it anyway”. Truth is that many teachers do it in some shape of form – but that the devil is in the detail and most importantly in how frequently and deeply the planted items are processed; and in what contexts.

4. Concluding remarks

The acquisition of a word or grammar structure is largely a function of how often the L2 learner processes it across a range of contexts. The more the encounters with a given L2 item and the wider the range of contexts in which those encounters occur, the more successful acquisition is likely to be. Obviously, as I have often reiterated in my blogs,  the ‘how’ of those encounters and what students do with it are very important factors too.

Seed-planting maximises the opportunities of recycling by exposing L2 learners to the set of words or grammar structures you are planning to teach on a given date over several weeks or even months prior to that date promoting through various means the noticing of those items.

Noticing is crucial to acquisition (Schmidt, 1990) and may prompt more inquisitive students to find out more about those items autonomously. Other, less keen and curious students, will benefit from processing those new items in familiar contexts placed in the comprehensible aural or written input they are exposed to, provided that the teacher offers some support (e.g. by glossary or translation in brackets) and guidance. In either case the process will give the learners a useful head-start, which, in my experience, often propels their acquisition of the ‘planted seeds’ further

Many teachers claim they practise seed planting. Truth is many do; however, let me reiterate this, the effectiveness of this technique lies in how systematically and meticulously it is applied in curriculum design.

To find out more about my ideas about language learning, get hold of the book I co-authored: “The Language Teacher Toolkit’


Listening instruction (PART 1) – How the brain processes aural input, instructional challenges and implications for the L2-classroom

Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith (co-author with Gianfranco Conti of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ ) and Dylan Viñales (ML teacher at Garden International School)


1. Introduction – The least practised, understood and researched language skill

Since posting my three articles on listening ( ‘Listening  – the often mis-taught skill’, ‘So…how do we teach listening?” and “Micro-listening tasks you may not be using often enough in your lessons”) I have been flooded with e-mail, Twitter and Facebook messages from Modern Language teachers worldwide, all asking me invariably the same question: “So, how do I improve my students’ listening skills ?”.

This has brought home to me the realization that many L2 teachers – and not simply those working within the English-and-Wales educational system –  are unsure and anxious about what constitutes effective listening instruction practice. This is not surprising; as Professor Weir and his co-workers (in Weir et al., 2013) point out, of the four language skills listening is by far the “least practised in the language classroom, the least researched and the least understood.” To-date, Listening is not fully integrated in L2 curricula (Macaro, 2003)

Yet, listening is the most crucial skill in first language acquisition, as it is through the aural medium that humans learn to speak in the first place. According to a number of studies in naturalistic/immersive environments around 45% of language competence is obtained through listening, 30 % through speaking, 15% from reading and 10% only from writing (Renukadevi, 2014) – ironic how the two top skills on this list are also the most neglected by British-trained teachers…

As a teacher trainee – both at Uni and during my teaching practice – and even on my MA TEFL (where Professor Weir was ironically one of my lecturers)  I was taught close to nothing on how to teach listening; for many years I simply taught listening as I had been taught it myself at school or as prescribed by the course-book in use. CPD on listening was pretty useless and centred on facilitating student guesswork, rather than providing teachers with guiding principles on how to enhance learner listening skills. This is, to my knowledge, what most teachers do and that is why Steve Smith and I devoted an entire chapter of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ to aural skills in an attempt to address some of the most important challenges posed by Listening instruction.

1.1 A ‘trilogy’ about Listening Instruction: goals and expected outcomes

This is the first in a ‘trilogy’ of posts written in collaboration with MFL guru Steve Smith and Garden International School colleague Dylan Viñales. The objectives of these posts are to (1) Discuss the mechanisms underlying the way humans process and interact cognitively and affectively with aural input and listening instruction (in PART 1); (2) identify the shortcomings of much current Listening instructions (PART 2 – to be published next week) and (3)Examine the implications for the classroom (more superficially in PART 1 and in much greater depth and detail in PART 3) and discuss the approach that I have undertaken (not always succesfully) in my own classroom practice in collaboration with some colleagues at Garden International School (Kuala Lumpur).

PART 1 – Identifying the challenges listening-skill instruction poses to teachers and learners

In this post I will narrow down the focus and concentrate on novice-to-intermediate learners discussing how, based on Skill-acquisition models of language learning and my own classroom experience teachers may be able to enhance their students’ proficiency. I will start with a concise reminder of how L2 learners interact with L2 aural input both cognitively and affectively

2. Some important facts about how human interact with and process aural input

2.1 Top-down and Bottom-up processing

There is a general consensus amongst researchers that the human brain comprehends aural input by applying synergistically two types of processing: Top-down and Bottom-up. Top-down processing involves applying our knowledge of the world (schemata), all we know about a specific subject, topic, situation or group of people in the understanding of input which relates to that subject, topic, situation or group of people (Macaro, 2013). For instance, in listening to a love song in a foreign language we have a whole set of expectations about what it is going to be about and we can make educated guesses about what line is going to come next even if we do not understand each and every word – purely based on our previous experiences of listening to love songs.

Brown (2007) identifies the following Top-down skills which he labels Listening macro-skills (for conversational discourse):

  1. Recognize cohesive devices in spoken discourse.
  2. Recognize the communicative functions of utterances, according to situations, participants, goals.
  3. Infer situations, participants, goals using real-world knowledge. (pragmatic competence)
  4. From events, ideas, etc., described, predict outcomes, infer links and connections between events, deduce causes and effects, and detect such relations such as main idea, supporting idea, new information, given information, generalization, and exemplification.
  5. Distinguish between literal and implied meanings.
  6. Use facial, kinesic, body language, and other nonverbal cues to decipher meanings.
  7. Develop and use a battery of listening strategies, such as detecting key words, guessing the meaning of words from context, appealing for help, and signaling comprehension or lack thereof. (p.308)

Bottom-up processing, on the other hand, involves interpreting the aural input by analysing basic linguistic features such as recognizing word boundaries, stress and intonation, grammatical word-classes (nouns, verbs, etc.), systems (tenses, agreement, pluralisation, etc.).Below is Brown’s (2007) list of listening comprehension micro-skills (for conversational discourse) (p. 308)

  1. Retain chunks of language of different lengths in short-term memory
  2. Discriminate among the distinctive sounds of [the target language]
  3. Recognize English stress patterns, words in stressed and unstressed positions, rhythmic structure, intonational contours, and their role in signaling information.
  4. Recognize reduced forms of words.
  5. Distinguish word boundaries, recognize a core of words, and interpret word order patterns and their significance.
  6. Process speech containing pauses, errors, corrections, and other performance variables.
  7. Process speech at different rates of delivery.
  8. Recognize grammatical word classes (nouns, verbs, etc.), systems (e.g., tense, agreement, pluralization), patterns, rules, and elliptical forms.
  9. Detect sentence constituents and distinguish between major and minor constituents.
  10. Recognize that a particular meaning may be expressed in different grammatical forms. (308)

The two processing modes ‘work’ together, concurrently and synergistically to help making sense of what we hear.  Going back to the love song example, for instance, my previous experience of listening to love songs by singer ‘X’, will give rise, in listening to one of her songs, to a set of expectations about what the song is about (top-down processing). The song’s title and the video-clip that accompanies it will expand the set of predictions I am building. My predictions will be confirmed or discarded by the words I will be able to identify (bottom-up processing) whilst at the same time helping me make sense of the words I do not understand. It should be noted that, in my attempt to identify a challenging word I may use its sound (phonological level), its word-class (morphological level), its position in the sentence (syntactic level) – amongst other cues- in order to recognize or make sense of it.

Skills 1, 5 and 7 on the above micro-skills list (in bold) are particularly important as skill 1 speeds up processing, freeing up cognitive space for our brain (working memory) to focus on meaning and skill 5 helps us make sense of what we hear by segmenting the aural input. Without segmentation aural input is perceived by the students as an unintelligible fast-running flow. The inability to segment input, linked with poorly developed decoding skills, is the greatest obstacle to understanding for many novice-to-intermediate learners and the main reason of learner disaffection and low self-efficacy vis-à-vis listening. Hence the need that I reiterate ad nauseam in my blogs for systematic and extensive decoding-skill instruction (i.e. the ability to transform graphemes into phonemes, letters into sounds) from the very early days of L2 instruction (read my post here:Micro-listening tasks you may not be using often enough in your lessons”).

As for skill 7, it is paramount for students to get used to different speeds of delivery in order to train their aural-input processing skills – reading the same text several times at different speeds, from slower to nearnative speed or viceversa pays dividends in this regard, in my experience.

As I will point out in PART 2, very few – if any at all – of the skills identified by Brown (2007) are explicitly and systematically addressed by curriculum designers and course-books in use in most UK educational settings. Yet, they provide teachers with a very useful blueprint for listening instruction by isolating the core macro- and micro-skills; a much needed framework, considering that much L2 listening instruction is currently designed and conducted in an unstructured and in same cases, haphazard fashion. I strongly believe that by integrating the core skills amongst those identified by Brown (2007) in our curriculum and explicitly teaching them to our students we can significantly enhance the impact of listening instruction.

2.2 Processing capacity

Working Memory (WM) Processing capacity is a very important determinant of how effectively and efficiently our students comprehend aural input. As Cornell professor Morten Christiansen and his Warwick Univeristy colleague Nick Chater put it   in a recent ground-breaking paper (Chistiansen and Chater, 2016):,“the ability to quickly process linguistic input […] is a strong predictor of language acquisition outcomes from infancy to midde childhood.”

This is because Working Memory having very limited cognitive space available for the processing of any incoming information, if it is performing too many tasks at the same time it will experience overload and that information will be lost due to divided attention. In order to create more cognitive space, the brain tends to automatize lower order skills (e.g. decoding skills; segmenting aural output; recognizing grammatical word class) so that it has more processing capacity to devote to higher order cognitive skills such as analyzing meaning, building inferences, etc. Hence, without enabling our students to automatise the micro-skills on Brown’s (2007) list, their brain will never manage to have sufficient cognitive space to process higher level listening tasks.

2.2.1 A few important facts about Working Memory 

As concisely laid out in my post on Working Memory (here), WM is a buffer between the world and Long-Term Memory; a ‘device’ in our brain which processes any incoming information and, should the rehearsal of such information be successful, commits it to Long-term Memory (where it will be stored for ever). As you read this post, your WM is processing my words interpreting them based on the existing information in your Long-Term Memory. WM activates information through chains of association triggered by the sound, meaning, grammar, etc. of whatever input it processes. So, for example, if I hear the word ‘dog’, everything to do with the notion of dog will receive electrical impulses along the brain neural network; the language items more strongly connected in our personal processing history will receive the greatest activation and will be easier to recall.

Models of Working Memory posit a system made up of two slave systems, the Visio-spatial Scratchpad which stores images (including language characters from ideographic languages, e.g. Chinese) and a Phonological loop which stores the sounds we hear and consists of two parts: the phonological store (inner ear) and the articulatory control process (inner speech). A third component, the Central Executive, is in charge of orchestrating the functioning of the two slave systems and of managing the flow of data to and from Long-Term Memory.

Much of our students’ success at comprehending L2 aural input will hinge on how efficiently and effectively Working Memory processes such input. This is because:

  1. Working memory storage is fragile – it takes a minimum distraction for the information being processed to be lost (forgetting from divided attention);
  2. Working memory storage capacity is very limited: 7+/- 2 digits only according to Miller (1965), less according to others (Christiansen and Chater, 2016). The Phonological Loop (more precisely: the phonological store or inner ear) can only store only about 1 to 2 seconds of speech at any one time (some say even much less – 100 milliseconds). This has three important implications: (a) that individuals genetically endowed with a larger working memory span will have an advantage; (b) that the ability to store language will be a function of how effectively the students can decode and pronounce the sounds they hear (since the faster they can reproduce the sounds the smaller the space in the phonological store they will occupy) – the argument for ultra-emphasizing decoding-skills instruction; (c) whatever information ‘X’ students hold in Working Memory as they process aural input will be lost when new incoming information ‘Y’ arrives, which means that students have an extremely short time frame to process what they hear before it is overwritten by new input. As Christiansen and Chater (2016) posit, the brain speeds up language processing by ‘chunking’ linguistic material into a hierarchy of increasingly abstract representational formats, from phonemes to syllables, to words, phrases, sentences, discourse. ‘Chunking’ prevents the information held in Working Memory from being erased for ever from our brain (to learn more about chunking read here
  3. The brain works like Google – A given language item’s processing history will determine (a) how easily it will be processed and comprehended and (b) the extent to which it will facilitate or slow down comprehension. Why? An analogy with Google search will help illustrate what I mean: this morning I as I was typing into the Google search box ‘we don’t’ a number of options appear in a hierarchical arrangement: ‘ we don’t talk any more’, ‘we don’t want another hero’, etc. In other words Google statistically predicted the sentence I was looking for based on Google users’ behaviours to-date or, when I searched through my own Google account, based on my own searching history to-date. The brain operates similarly, based on our individual processing history with specific language items; so, just like Google, on hearing the words ‘ we don’t’ our Working Memory will automatically activate any words , phrases, sentences containing those three words that we have heard more frequently; the ones heard most frequently will receive the strongest activation, the ones processed least frequently, the weakest. Other cues/constraints from the environment (e.g. the topic we are talking about, the facial expressions of our interlocutor, etc.) will affect the activation of those words/phrases/sentences too, to a certain extent. (Macaro, 2003).

The most important implications of the above are that:

(a) learners need to practise a lot more listening than they typically do at present, day in, day out. This is fundamental. Ideally, teachers would put a lot of effort in promoting independent listening outside lesson time for pleasure or at least through homework;

(b)  again: listening micro-skills, especially decoding skills, must be taught (I will deal with this point more extensive in my next post)

(c) the core language items must be recycled extensively through listening/speaking across as many contexts as possible -not simply reading and writing – for the reasons outlined in point 3 above (ease of retrieval depending on an individual’s processing history of each language item acquired).

2.3 Differences between audio-recording-based listening comprehension and real-life listening

In real-life conversation and whilst watching audio-visual material paralinguistic features such as visual expressions and other gestures render aural comprehension easier as compared to listening to a recorded text. Moreover, in conversational listening the listener benefits from  repetitions, redundancies, hesitation and pauses in the input which easify comprehension. The typical listening comprehensions we give our students do not offer these facilitative features in their input. This brings into questions the validity of audio-recording-based listening comprehensions (especially in high stake tests and national examinations) as they do not necessarily prepare students for real-life communication. These isssues bring us to the next point.

2.4 Listenership

Listenership refers in the literature to the ability to comprehend our interlocutor(s)’ input and respond to it in real time in the context of a conversational exchange. As it is obvious, it requires the acquisition of an altogether different set of skills to the ones we deploy in ‘passive listening’ activities such as the execution of a listening comprehension task). Listenership thus refers undoubtedly to the most important set of language skills an autonomous L2 speakers requires in the real world, whether as a tourist finding their way around Paris or as a businesswoman negotiating a deal in a video-conference. Listenership can only be acquired through masses of oral communicative practice

2.5 The Listening-as-modelling vs the Listening-to-test-comprehension approaches

In the early stages of L1 acquisition new language items are picked up through highly simplified aural input which is produced by parents/caregivers at a slower speech rate than in normal native-speaker-to-native-speaker communication; repetition and use of gestures to facilitate comprehension are frequent too. Caregiver speech rate increases significantly as the child’s processing ability increases.

The same often happens when,say, an English Native/Expert speaker interacts with a much less proficient L2 speaker. For instance, yesterday, as I was talking to an L2 Italian speaker I found myself talking to them pretty much in the same way as I used to talk to my daughter when she was two, repeating key words several times with greater emphasis, exaggerating facial expressions, pointing at objects around me and often producing ungrammatical utterances to facilitate understanding on their part (e.g. leaving the verb unconjugated and using discourse markers only to indicate the future).

A slower speech rate, lots of visual cues (whether through images and gestures), simplified (comprehensible) input, lots of repetition and translation (yes- translation!) facilitate the new-language modelling function that aural input performs in the early phases of language acquisition; it provides speakers with poor aural-input processing ability with more time and greater chances to notice new linguistic features as segmentation (identifying the boundaries of words) is easier to perform. This is important, as noticing a new phoneme, word or morpheme is thought to mark the beginning of its acquisition (Schmidt, 1990, 1993,1994,1995).

Smith and Conti (2016) drew a clear distinction between the Listening-as-modelling and the Listening-for-testing-comprehension or ‘Quiz approach’ to listening-skill instruction. The former concerns itself with ensuring that L2 students learn through every single aural activity staged; the latter, sadly the more common approach in the typical UK classroom, concerns itself with providing practice in picking out details in order to answer a few questions on a recorded text heard two or three times – hardly an effective way to model new language. As I will discuss in the sequel to this post, to be published next week, the predominance of the ‘quiz approach’ remains to-date the root cause of the inefficacy of much listening instruction; as I shall argue there, listening-comprehension tasks can indeed play an important role in listening-skills acquisition, but only provided that much listening-as-modelling as occurred before.

By listening-as-modelling I do not simply mean the very common practice of asking the students to repeat a word or short phrase a couple of times after the teacher utters them since, as mentioned above, speech stays in working memory for too short a time for that sort of repetition to lead to acquisition. Also such practice models short phrases, not sentence building or more extensive and complex discourse.

Reading aloud is one example of listening-as-modelling that is indeed practised in a number of UK learning settings. In our book (Smith and Conti,2016) Steve and I provide a strong rationale for using it and there is mounting evidence (e.g. Seo, 2014) that even a few minutes per lessons can significantly impact speaking proficiency and willingness to communicate.

And how about the teacher using the target language in most of the lessons? Not an uncommon occurrence in UK classrooms, after all…Well,  it may be argued that teacher fronted talk in the target language does constitute Listening-as-modelling when the target language is used to explicitly model and recycle new language and to deliberately promote noticing (as in the example Steve Smith provides in our books in the section on target language use). However, in 25 years of lesson observations in British schools, I have indeed seen target-language teacher talk being used effectively to facilitate comprehension, but not to explicitly model specific language items through systematically recycled ‘patterned’ input. The teacher’s aural input is usually spontaneous – not a bad thing; however, when teacher contact time is limited (one or two hours a week), this kind of aural input is unlikely to substantially enhance acquisition – at least in my experience. I do believe, however, that in immersive or other input-rich L2 environments such practice can indeed significantly impact learning.

As I reserve to discuss in greater depth in my next post, Listening-as-modelling includes instructional activities which focus the learners on pronunciation and decoding skills, in an effort to facilitate phonological processing and segmentation; on predictive strategies; on the identification of word-classes and systems; on the understanding of syntax and sentence building; on the development of aural-input processing; on building metacognition vis-à-vis the listening process. Listening comprehension is built in such activities but in a way that scaffolds the modelling.

2.6 The affective response

So far we have looked at the way learner cognition responds to aural input. How about the affective response? In my experience, the ‘quiz’ approach, especially in the absence of adequate training in inference strategies and differentiation (difficult when all students listen to the same track at the same pace from the same input source) has led to a generation of disaffected listeners. This is tragic considering the wealth of L2 audio-visual material available on the web. However, as long as listening instruction limits itself to quizzes it will elicit guesswork and guesswork will rarely build learner self-efficacy, a crucial precursor, as Smith and Conti (2016) argued, for the development of intrinsic motivation.

For self-efficacy vis-à-vis aural-input-processing to be fostered in the classroom, the learners must be adequately prepped for any listening task which may be perceived as a test (e.g. a listening comprehension) by a few listening-as-modelling activities which recycle very similar lexical material and phonetic, grammatical and syntactic patterns so as to scaffold success. In the sequel to this post (PART 2) I will explain how I attempt to do it.

3. Conclusions to Part 1: first set of implications for teaching and learning and issues to be tackled in Part 2

The above discussion has huge implications for listening-skills instruction. Please note that each of the point below will be treated more extensively and with several examples in my next post.

(1) students need tons of listening practice which aims at speeding up processing (i.e. automatising ‘chunking’) – I will discuss how in the sequel to this post. A culture of listening-for-learning as opposed to listening-for-testing must be established in the classroom since the very early days of instruction through a variety of activities which aim at modelling comprehensible input and elicit a positive affective response (e.g. jigsaw listenings using songs; sentence building mats,  watching short movies with subtitles; story-telling with visuals). Moreover, speed of delivery should be reduced and varied (in a formative way) and linguistic content should be simplified with repetitions added in if necessary to facilitate comprehension. Transcripts and translations (e.g. parallel texts) could be used to scaffold the modelling process (this, too, will be discussed in my next post).

(2) students need EXTENSIVE practice in pronunciation and decoding skills from the very beginning of their L2 learning experience (e.g. through listening-micro-skills enhancers , partial transcription tasks and even short dictations ). I use them a lot in my lessons and students find them useful and fun. The set of new phonemes and corresponding graphemes taught should not, in my experience, amount to more than three or four per lesson.

(3) listening practice must recycle the target lexical material as much as possible in order to facilitate ‘chunking’ and future ease of retrieval from Long Term Memory. This may call for strategies like narrow listening, i.e. the administration of a series of listening texts which are very similar in terms of lexical, grammatical and syntactic content, thereby requiring increasingly less inferences on the part of the student-listener. At this link you will find an example of L2-French Narrow Reading texts which can be used for Narrow Listening, too. Again, narrow listening is something I used a lot in my lessons, usually preceded by a  battery of narrow reading texts containing the same linguistic material

(4) the target words and set phrases (especially if they are part of an Examination Board core vocabulary) must be recycled through the aural medium in as many different semantic, grammatical and phonetic contexts as possible in order to create a processing history which will facilitate comprehension in the long run (see 2.2.1 above).

(5)  The development of listening-skills, especially those underlying the ability to listen and respond to aural input (listenership) goes hand-in-hand with the development of oral communication skills. Hence, oral communicative activities (e.g. student-to-student conversations) should feature as often as possible in lessons. In order to ensure the type of recycling envisaged in point 3 and 4 above, such oral activities should include a substantial amount of structured activities ‘forcing’ learners to produce the target material (e.g. oral translations; role plays with prompts; cued picture tasks).

(6) listening comprehension tasks should be used almost exclusively as ‘plenary’ activities or tests to be carried out after much modelling of the linguistic material they contain has occurred. This will be perceived by the learners as much fairer than being asked to perform guesswork on an aural text containing lots of unfamiliar language and will enhance their chances to experience success, which will feed into their self-efficacy as L2- listeners. Teachers with good pronunciation may want to read the transcripts themselves rather than play the recording with less adept student-listeners, to facilitate processing. Please note that the Listening-as-modelling I envisage does include a comprehension component.

(7), curriculum planners may want to explicitly and systematically address in their long-/medium- and short-term planning the existing listening macro-skills and micro-skills taxonomies (e.g. the one by Brown, 2007, above). This would provide the curriculum  (e.g. Schemes of Work) with a structure and a specific set of objectives to focus on – surely a massive improvement over the haphazard way in which listening instruction is currently carried out. I use pre-listening tasks mainly as a vehicle for the modelling of the inference/predictive strategies envisaged by Brown’s (2007) and decoding skills (e.g. by reinforcing challenging sounds contained in the target text which may impair comprehension). I tend to use tasks involving focus on micro-skills in the in-listening activities I stage (three or four per task), jigsaw listening, segmentation tasks (identifying word boundaries) and patterns/system identification tasks (identifying word classes, tenses etc.), being my favourites. I use post-listening tasks, instead, for metacognitive reflection or critical listening (see my next post).

(8) Finally, as part of the Listening-for-learning approach, teachers ought to exploit any given recording much more than it is currently done by course-books. Carrying out three or four different activities with the same texts plus a pre-listening and a post-listening one will enhance the chances that the target vocabulary and linguistic features in the listening piece will be retained.

In a nutshell, the current teaching of listening skills does, in my opinion, need a drastic shake-up. The most important change language educators ought to implement is one of mindset, from a culture of listening-for-testing to one of listening-as-learning. This entails more Listening-as-modelling practice as well as more focus on Listenership, which in turns implies more oral interaction in the classroom.This change in orientation – which does not rule out using listening comprehesion tasks, as I hope it is clear from the above discussion – is fundamental if we want to equip the 21st century L2 learners with the skill set required to become effective autonomous listeners.

3.1 What I will write about in PART 2

In my next post I reserve to  delve deeper into the above implications and to discuss the ‘how’ I implement them as part of my daily classroom practice. I shall also point out the most common shortcomings of typical listening-skills instruction in the UK as identified by Steve, Dylan and myself, discussing the way we have addressed them (not always successfully) throughout the last academic year in our classroom practice (at Garden International School, Kuala Lumpur).

Part 2 and 3, the next posts in the ‘trilogy’, will concern itself with the following shortcomings of listening instruction, delving in much greater depth into the day-to-day strategies I have implemented in my classroom practice to address them in collaboration with my colleague Dylan Vinales at Garden International School (Kuala Lumpur):

  1. Insufficient aural/oral skills practice
  2. Poor curriculum design/lesson planning
  3. Ineffective sequencing and integration with other skills
  4. Insufficient ‘patterned’ recycling
  5. Inadequate exploitation of listening resources
  6. Lack of differentiation
  7. The ‘quiz approach’
  8. Insufficient use of listening-as-modelling
  9. No systematic and explicit focus on the development of aural-input processing ability
  10. Insufficient practice in listenership skills


Please note: To find out more about Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti’s ideas on the above, get hold of their book ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’



Brown, D. H. (2007). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Christiansen, M.H. & Chater, N. (2016). Creating language: Integrating evolution, acquisition, and processing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Macaro, E (2003). Teaching and Learning a Second Language A Guide to Recent Research and Its Applications. London:Continuum.

Richards, J. C. (1983). Listening comprehension: Approach, design, procedure. TESOL Quarterly, 17, 219-239.

Rukadevi, D. (2014). The Role of listening in language acquisition; the challenges and strategies in teaching listening. International Journal of Education and Information studies, 4, 59-63

Seo (2014) Does reading aloud improve foreign language learners’ speaking ability. GSTF International Journal on Education (JEd) Vol.2 No.1, June 2014

Smith and Conti (2016). The Language Teacher Toolkit. Amazon.

Weir, C J, Vidakovic, I and Galaczi, E D (2013). Measured Constructs: A history of Cambridge English language examinations 1913-2012. Studies in Language Testing 37