Focused Error Correction – how you can make a time-consuming necessity more effective and manageable

Please note: this post was co-authored with my dear colleague Dylan Vinales

I have written extensively about Error Correction on this blog, often reiterating the point that whilst there is some evidence pointing to its effectiveness in enhancing L2 writing accuracy (e.g. Ashwell, 2000 ; Chandler, 2003), the gains obtained do not justify the enormous amount of time and effort invested by teachers in the process.

Take Chandler (2003)’s findings: she calculated that teachers’ marking time amounts on average to around 1 minute per 100 words, the time being slightly less ( around 48”) if one simply underlines errors. Then consider that

(a)   correction of whole texts can achieve significant results (i.e. 10% reduction in error rate) provided the students write in the region of 5,000 words a semester on first drafts

(b)   many types of error are resistant to eradication (Alroe,2011). In other words, improvements accompany large amounts of writing and consequently large amounts of correction.

and do the maths: is this modest benefit worth the effort?

Whilst the answer is probably ‘No’, teachers often do not have much choice, as surveys of student and parent opinion clearly show (Conti, 2001) , both groups of stakeholders expect errors to be corrected. So, chances are that your boss will demand that you correct.

Why the effects of Error Correction are so limited

Learning a language is not merely about accruing intellectual knowledge of the target language. As Truscott (1996) pointed out, learning to master a specific grammar rule doesn’t occur as a sudden revelation resulting from the information a teacher passes to a student through oral or written feedback.

L2 acquisition is much more complex than that: it is a long and painstaking process which may start with the understanding of how a given language item works, but requires extensive practice in the deployment of that item across a wide range of linguistic contexts before it can be said to have been brought to completion. Think about the mastery of Imperfect usage in L2 French, Spanish or Italian; how many years does your average student require in order to fully acquire it? Three? Four? Five years?

There are many factors which undermine commonly practised error-treatment methodologies (thoroughly discussed here). In previous blogs I identified the following ones as key:

(a) Corrective intervention neglects the intentionality dimension of learning from one’s mistake, i.e. it is not proactive in arousing students’ desire to eradicate errors. Yet, this affective dimension is vital to the success of error correction (James, 1998; Conti, 2001).

(b)   As many studies have pointed out, L2 students do not invest sufficient cognitive effort in the corrective process. They do not process the corrections deeply enough; at best, they make a mental note of the mistakes and the relative corrections and move on (Cohen and Cavalcanti, 1990; Conti, 2001; Alroe, 2011).

(c)    The corrective treatment rarely involves a long-term, sustained effort to eradicate mistakes. Yet, this is crucial to the success of error remediation.

(d)   For corrective feedback on item X to be effective, students need to process it many items over. This doesn’t always happen with less frequently occurring L2 items. Item X may occur two or three times in Essay 1 in September but never re-occur until Essay 5 later on in the year. This is a common shortcoming of error correction; one that is way too often overlooked, especially in contexts where highly structured writing tasks and translation are not assigned for fear of stifling creativity and/or negatively impacting student motivation. Yet, corrective feedback, like any other form of instruction, benefits greatly from frequent spaced (distributed) practice.

(e)   usually, teachers are concerned with fixing errors but not with training students in becoming effective independent editors of their own written output. Yet, several studies (see Macaro, 2003) have shown the benefits of enhancing L2-learner ability to self-monitor through a synergy of awareness-raising (what mistakes do I make more often?), error-targeting (what mistakes am I going to eradicate?) and editing strategies (what strategies work best with this error type?)

(f)    L2 writing (see picture 1 below) poses enormous cognitive challenges to novice L2 student-writers attentional resources . As I have discussed in detail here, errors are often the result of Working Memory processing inefficiency rather than lack of knowledge; i.e. the brain is juggling so many demands arising from writing a given sentence that mistakes are made not because the student doesn’t know the grammar rules governing the use of the items in that sentence but rather because of lack of fluency in the application of those rules. Corrective intervention through Indirect Correction (teacher underlines and student self-correct) does not address this very important issue; underlining errors and asking students to self-correct does not prepare them for the cognitive juggling they have to perform as they write in real time; in other words, it does not enhance their editing fluency.

This post is about how I have attempted to address the above issues in my own teaching practice over the last seven months or so.

Picture 1 – Hayes and Flower’s (1981) Cognitive model of the writing process

the writing process.png

Enter Focused Correction

Another common (potential) weakness of corrective feedback, which I did not discuss in previous posts, but which is extremely relevant to the present one, is the fact that Error Correction is rarely, if ever, intentionally and systematically closely tied in with the current objectives of the curriculum. So, if in term 1 your students are learning about the communicative function ‘talking about a past event’ in the context of the topic ‘media and leisure’ many teachers would typically correct an essay assigned on that topic not merely on errors relating to the wrong use of time markers and past tenses, but also on other errors they find in that essay.

In my own research a decade ago, for instance, I found that both at university and secondary level, the approach adopted by most of the teachers I studied, tended to be more comprehensive than selective and when it was indeed selective, it was not consistently based on a specific set of criteria (e.g. frequency, perceived gravity or incomprehensibility) but it appeared to be somewhat ‘random’; moreover, and more importantly, it didn’t focus on the same areas systematically over a longer period of time.

My findings were that less proficient student writers appear to be more likely to benefit from correction when:

(a)   it concentrates on only two or three major target areas (so that their attentional resources can be used more efficiently);

(b)   such areas are perceived as relevant to their current learning (so that they feel more motivated to address them);

(c)    it provides frequent feedback on the same target areas week in week out (so that it enhances their understanding and keeps them constantly focused on the same error types week in week out);

(d)   students have the declarative knowledge for self-correcting the errors with minimal prompting by the teacher (so that students are self-reliant in the process );

(e)   the students’ levels of accuracy in the target areas has a substantive bearing on the grading system adopted (so that students are more motivated to be more accurate).


The criteria described in (a) to (e) above refer to an approach described in the AL literature as ‘Focused correction’ (henceforth FC). A number of studies have indicated that FC is significantly more effective than unfocused error correction (Alroe, 2011). Sheen (2007), for instance, compared the effect of FC on the writing accuracy of ESL learners with those of unfocused correction and no correction. She found that FC resulted in a significant reduction of mistakes in the five target areas (i.e., article, copular ‘be’, regular past tense, irregular past tense and preposition). Ellis et al. (2008) studied the effects of FC on indefinite/definite article use in writing. A control group was contrasted with two experimental groups one of which received focused treatment (only article errors were corrected) and one of which received unfocused treatment (other errors were also corrected).  The experimental groups were significantly better and the trend in the experimental groups suggested that focused feedback may be more effective in the long run.


How I implement Focused Correction

Two years ago I was  required by my previous head of department to adopt a corrective approach (strongly criticised in this Language Gym classic), which involved underlining randomly selected errors categories, coding them using a ludicrously lengthy and laborious coding system and asking students to self-correct.

Having found this methodology ineffective for the reasons discussed above, this year my current head of Department gave me ‘carte blanche’, and after discussing the issue at length, I was given the go-ahead to experiment with FC with my beginner to lower-intermediate classes (years 7 to 9 in the English system).

This is how I have implemented it:

(1)    I selected three FCAs (Focus Correction Areas) per term for all students in a given class. The FCAs were based on the main curricular objectives of the term; for example, with my year 7 beginner class, in Term 1 I focused on adjectival agreement; articles and number of nouns.

(2)    With more gifted students, one or two more FCAs were added;

(3)    Students were free to use L.I.F.T. (Learner Initiated Feedback Technique) a student-driven procedure whereby the students write in the margin of their written piece questions on any doubts they may have about a language item they have used (e.g. ‘Sir, is the use of the article I have underlined correct?); the teacher then replies with a metalinguistic explanation.

(4)    In order to enhance the students’ ability to edit, identify and correct errors in the FCAs, I have staged short and snappy ‘Spot the error’ tasks and other editing-enhancement activities (e.g. ‘Error Auctions’, explained here).

(5)    As the term proceeded, I have increasingly resorted to indirect feedback with error coding (i.e. self-correction). Although, as noted above, I am usually against indirect feedback with coding, in my context, the coding system was (a) much easier to manage for both teachers and students, as it referred only to three error categories, (b) tied in with the topics under study, (c) used in synergy with editing instruction (see point 6 below).

(6)    To further scaffold the process, I have used editing checklists like the one in picture (2) below; the students were expected to go meticulously through their written pieces before handing them in noting down every occurrence of any items referring to the FCAs and ticking it to signal they checked it. Note that this process was totally managed by the students who handed in the checklist with the assignment.

Picture 2 – Editing checklist

editing checklist pic.png

(7)    The tasks have been graded based on Effective Communication (i.e. the extent to which they communicated the requested information) and Accuracy across the FCAs, 70 % of the marks being allocated for the former and 30 % for the latter (10% per FCA).

(8) With some classes I have used error tally sheets in which students logged the number of errors in each category from week to week to enable us to track their error-making trends overtime in each of the FCAs.

It must be noted that in order to ensure that the student output contained as many instances of the target FCAs as possible, the written tasks included alongside unstructured assignments (e.g. ‘Write a 100-words piece about your family’) highly structured tasks designed to elicit the use of specific structures. For instance, to get my year 7 to demonstrate effective production of adjectival agreement, number of nouns and articles:

Write a 100-word piece about your family. Include the following information:

(1)    name, age, birthday;

(2)    a description of yourself both in terms of personality and appearance (including hair and eyes);

(3)    a description of each family member’s appearance;

(4)    a description of their personality;

(5)    a description of one or more pets you have;

I have also used short translation tasks (e.g. narrow translations) for the very same purpose.

Other types of tasks adopted

As I will discuss in a future post, my students do not simply engage in highly-structured tasks. I typically assign four other types of writing tasks:

(1)    Brainstorming writing – (usually in pairs) students brainstorm ideas on a given topic and note them down in full sentences in the target language. Accuracy is not a concern, as the purpose of this activity is to train them in idea generation.

(2)    Unstructured writing – accuracy not a concern. Grading based on effective communication only.

(3)    Fluency writing – the students are asked to write about a topic in a very short amount of time

(4)    Editing tasks – (see above)

Did it work?

The results were very encouraging. A survey showed that my year 9 students found Focused Correction more helpful than previous forms of error correction they had experienced, because they felt it was more manageable and the narrower range of mistakes to deal with meant they knew what to look for when they were editing and/or asked to self-correct.

Although there were fewer mistakes in all the FCAs targeted throughout the year at post-test than pre-test, to attribute the observed increases in accuracy solely to the corrective methodology adopted is problematic. The reduction in error-making is likely to be the result of the synergy between teaching and corrective feedback, and in particular the fact that the two supported each other more closely than in the error treatments traditionally adopted.


Concluding remarks

Error Correction is a time-consuming necessity. Over the years, I have experimented with various techniques. When it comes to beginner-to-novice students, Focused Correction combined with explicit editing instruction has been the most effective with my novice-to-intermediate for the following reasons:

(a) it concentrates on only two or three major target areas (so that the students’ attentional resources can be used more efficiently);

(b) such areas are perceived as relevant to their current learning (so that they feel more motivated to address them);

(c) it provides frequent feedback on the same target areas week in week out (so that it enhances their understanding and keeps them constantly focused on the same error types week in week out);

(d) students have the declarative knowledge for self-correcting the errors with minimal prompting by the teacher (so that students are self-reliant in the process );

(e) the students’ levels of accuracy in the target areas has a substantive bearing on the grading system adopted (so that students are more motivated to be more accurate).

Give it a try !



My favourite read-aloud tasks and how I use them


As discussed in previous posts, although reading-aloud (RA) techniques have not always been favourably considered in L2 classrooms in the last 3 or 4 decades, the usefulness of this approach for the development of lower-level processing efficiency has been widely confirmed in L2 reading research (e.g., Birch, 2007; Janzen, 2007; Gibson, 2008). Much research has clearly shown that reading aloud helps:

(1) develop L2 learners’ accurate phonological representations (e.g., Gibson, 2008);

(2)  raise their awareness of rhythm, stress and intonation, by using connected texts rather than decontextualized vocabulary items (e.g., Kato, 2012);

(3) significantly improve silent reading rate (Suzuki, 1998),

(4) enhance reading performance (Miyasako, 2008),

(5) reproduction of key words and phrases. Miyasako (2008), for instance, investigated the contribution among upper-secondary level Japanese EFL users of six weeks of RA  practice for L2 reading performance; it was found that RA significantly improved phonological decoding and reading comprehension performance, and that this practice effect was more pronounced with less proficient readers.

(6) improve listening ability – Kato and Tanaka (2010) for instance concluded that “the establishment of pronunciation accuracy/ fluency is crucial for the development of listening ability and that this impact of production ability may linger to a fairly advanced stage of L2 listening learning, in particular as a function of factors such as participants’ L1 – L2 relationship and the relationship between their L2 proficiency and the familiarity and difficulty of listening materials.”

(7) boost motivation (Shinozuka et al., 2017).

(8) enhance recall, especially when you repeat the words aloud to another person (Boucher et al (2015).

(9) develop oral fluency by (1) training the articulators, i.e. all the organs involved in the production of sounds (the end stage of oral production); (2) exposure to auto-input through the aural medium. For instance, Seo (2014) found that her experimental group spoke longer after the treatment than they did before, while the control  group did not show a difference in length of time. Moreover, the experimental group used a richer grammar after the treatment while the control group did not show progress

The role of reading aloud in my teaching approach

In my teaching method, E.P.I. (or Extensive Processing Instruction), reading aloud plays an important role for the following reasons:

  • (1) My approach lays a lot of emphasis on the development of decoding skills/pronunciation;
  • (2) Provided that one’s students are confident in their decoding skills (i.e. turning written words into sounds), reading aloud activities of the sort described below, provide a non-threatening opportunity for students to interact orally with each other, thereby providing L2-input to themselves (auto-input) and others;
  • (3) Following on from point (2) – when provided with oral scaffolds of the sort shown in Picture 1 below, one can stage oral (pair-work) communicative tasks with students since the early stages of starting a topic;
  • (4) Since E.P.I. is all about frequent and extensive exposure to and production of key patterns through all four skills, if the interaction referred to in the previous points involves reading aloud texts which repeat those very patterns to death, then it clearly serves the main pedagogic objective of my approach.


Picture 1 – Page 1 of an oral scaffold for conversation on holidays I designed for a year 8 Spanish class

oral scaffold

Important Caveats

  • (1) It is crucial, if you do stage a lot of read-aloud games, that you lay a lot of emphasis on the teaching of decoding skills and pronunciation from day one of your course. I, for one, when it comes to French and English, place decoding skills as my main priority during the first semester of my teaching – yes, even more important than vocabulary and grammar!


  • (2) Let me reiterate, once again, that every single read-aloud activity I stage in my lessons would be designed to recycle the same target pattern(s) over and over hence the texts used contain highly structured input which is flooded with the target items;


  • (3) The role of the teacher is pivotal for the success of these activities. S/he must monitor, prod, and provide feedback all the way through, picking up any problematic areas to address in whole-class feedback prior to the next activity.


My favourite reading aloud tasks

In this section I describe a few of my favourite read-aloud tasks.


  1. Sentence stealer (aka ‘Au Voleur’ or ‘Robo de tarjetas)


This is a very popular game I came up with to make reading aloud as interactive and fun as possible with my younger learners. It has gone viral in our faculty and everyone does it fairly regularly. It takes zero preparation and children love it. Here is how it unfolds:

Step 1 – The students are shown on the classroom screen a list of twelve L2 model sentences they have been practising. Each sentence has a number from 1 to 12.

Step 2 – They are given four blank cards each and asked to secretly write on each card any one of those sentences or simply the number for it.

Step 3 – The game consists of ‘stealing’ as many cards as possible from one’s peer in the five minutes allocated, i.e. classmate ‘X’ will approach classmate ‘Y’ and read out from off the screen any four sentences; if a sentence that ‘X’ reads is on one of ‘Y’’s cards, ‘X’ will have the right to ‘steal’ that card.To make it more fun students play rock, paper, scissors (repeating the three words aloud in the target language) to win the right to guess;

Step 4 – The student with the most cards at the end of the game will win.

Please note, the students cannot interact with the same class mate more than once.

I usually stage this game after I model the target patterns through my sentence builders. Picture 2 illustrates an example from a lesson with absolute beginner EFL learners drilling in ‘I would like + container/quantity + food’ (context: buying food and drinks).

Picture 2 – Sentence stealer gamelexico grammar.png



  1. Mind-reading


This is another very popular zero preparation game which I usually play as a warm-up for the ‘Sentence stealer’ activity. This is how it plays out:

Step1 – Write a set of target chunks on the board;

Step2 – Write secretly one on a mini-board;

Step 3- Choose chunks containing sounds you know they find phonologically challenging and/or containing the target sounds;

Step 4 – Ask the students to guess the hidden chunk reading out any one of the sentences on and reward correct answers.

Picture 3 illustrates an example of this game, designed to recycle the same sentences practised in the ‘Sentence stealer’.

Picture 3 – Mind reading game

mind reading.png


  1. Ghost time


Shadow-reading is a technique which consists of reading aloud a transcript / text as you follow a recording / reading of the text in order to imitate the speaker/reader’s rhythm, intonation and pronunciation, etc.

Ghost time’ is a shadow-reading technique I have come up with and use with my primary classes on a regularly basis. I call it ‘ghost time’ as I ask my students to whisper like ghosts to make it more fun. They absolutely love pretending to be ghosts. Besides the motivational rationale, ‘reading like ghosts’ forces them to slow down and enunciate more clearly the chunks I break down the text into as I read.

Please note that if your aim is to develop your students’ phonological memory you could simply ask your students to repeat what you hear from memory rather than give them the text that you are reading out.

Currently I am carrying out an experiment with this technique. One of my year 5 French (9 year olds) groups partakes in 5 minutes of ghost time per day, whereas with another group I do 5 minutes of dictation. At the end of the year I will get two of my colleagues to evaluate their reading-aloud accuracy and their phonological memory (their ability to repeat a unit of speech they hear accurately) to identify any differences.


  1. Find someone who with cards


It is played like ‘find someone who’ except that the students are given cards containing each one or more details, expressed in the target language. For instance, on the topic of food, one card may read ‘My name is Mark, I like chicken because it is tasty and healthy’ (in the target language of course). The students are also given a grid with a series of questions such as, on the topic of food, ‘Find someone who likes chicken’, ‘Find someone who loves meat’, etc. For each question, they need to find a person with the matching card and write their name in the grid asking questions in the target language, such as ‘What food do you like?’

The reason why I prefer ‘Find someone who with cards’ to the traditional ‘Find someone who’ is because (1) it turns it into a read aloud activity  and (2) it allows me to control the students’ output thereby eliciting exactly the patterns I want them to practise (which will be the same, incidentally, that they will have practised in the other activities).


Picture 4 – Find someone who with cards 



  1. Sentence hunt


This game is meant for younger learners. It is played like hotter and colder.

Step 1 – come up with ten or more short sentences containing the target patterns, grammar structure, chunk and display them on the classroom screen/board

Step 2 – get hold of thirty or more post-its. On ten post-its you will write the ten sentences (one sentence per post-it). On the remaining post-its you will write ‘distractor ‘sentences which are different from the target sentences but similar in structure. I usually recycle the same distractors over and over again throughout the year to minimize waste

Step 3 – scatter the post-its around the classroom on the walls, desks, chairs, anywhere, in as many places as possible

Step 4 – select and send a searcher out of the classroom

Step 5 – now take one of the post-its containing one of the target sentences and place it near other distractor post-its. Make sure the class knows exaclty where it is

Step 6 – now refer back to the list of sentences on the classroom screen/board and point to the students which sentence was on the post-it you have just hidden and instruct the class to repeat it louder and louder as the searcher gets closer to the target post-it and quieter and quieter as they move away. Orchestrate the volume with your hands.

Step 7- call the searcher back in the classroom, instruct him to find the post-it containing the sentence the class are repeating aloud and play the game until the post-it is found. Then do as many rounds as you like. I usually fit about 6 searchers in 5-6 minutes.


  1. Find your match


This activity is not too dissimilar to ‘Find someone who’. In a previous post I described a version of this game with cards. The version below is a ‘no-frills’ one that requires zero preparation.

Step 1 –  the students write secretly on their mini-whiteboards one sentence (or more) from a list you will have put up on your classroom screen/board. For instance, the list might include a range of responses to the question ‘How are you?’ and John might write ‘I am very well, thank you;

Step 2 – the students go around the classroom asking ‘How are you?’. Their task is to find another student with the same sentence on their mini-white boards.

I usually stage several rounds of this game in the same lesson as the students usually find their match quite quickly. You can easily go through five or six rounds in ten minutes and kids enjoy it.


  1. The ‘something’ game (originally ‘The algo game’)


This game, created by my colleague Dylan Vinales, requires minimal preparation, gets the students to practise listening and reading aloud eliciting a strong focus on accurate pronunciation. Students really enjoy it and get very competitive.

Step 1 – Sit the students in pairs, back to back.

Step2 – Give Student 1 sheet A and Student 2 sheet B. Both sheets have different version of the same list of sentences; the sentences which are gapped on student A’s sheet are complete on students’ B sheet and vice versa (see picture below).

Step 3 – Students take turns in reading one gapped sentence each. As they read their gapped sentences they say ‘something’ (or ‘algo’ in Spanish) to signal the presence of a gap (note: each gap corresponds to a key target chunk). When Student B hears student A say ‘something’ s/he will have to read the whole sentence including the missing chunk out twice, whilst his/her opponent writes it down and vice versa.

Step 4 – At the end of the game the students compare the two sheets to see who was more accurate.

Picture 5 – Two students playing the ‘Something game’ (courtesy of Dylan Vinales and Global Innovative Language Teachers)

algo game.png

  1. Musical chairs walk-aloud


This is played like musical chairs except that the students walk around with a text which the students take turns reading aloud; when the reader utters a word belonging to a specific word class (e.g. an adjective or a verb) or part of set of words recently studied (e.g. animals) or containing a specific sound (e.g. ‘th’ as in ‘think’ in English), the class will have to sit down. If you are focusing on sound, make sure you choose ‘readers’ with very good decoding skills and diction.


  1. Critical listening pairwork


This activity is designed to enhance the students’ alertness to sounds fostering metacognition and a climate of self-direction in L2 learning. Although it may seem elaborate, it requires no preparation and elicits a lot of great learning conversations on sound. This is how I structure it:

Step 1 -The teacher reads aloud to class a text on a familiar topic flooded with opportunities for practice of specific phonemes. Students shadow-read;

Step 2- (prep time)The students are given the text and 10 minutes to prepare (on their own) reading aloud with a focus on pronunciation. They identify problems and attempt to solve them with the help of peers. I ask them to note down the main issues identified and the solutions they found/worked out;

Step4 – (At the end of prep time) the teacher provides recording of him/herself reading text. The students are allowed to listen to it for a few minutes before recording themselves;

Step5 – The students now record themselves reading the text;

Step 6 – The students listen to themselves and to a partner and identify targets for improvement (recording can be used in the process).

Step 7 – The students write down their findings, targets and reflections (I usually administer the survey in Picture 6 to elicit these data);

Step 8 – The students review their partner’s self-reflections to see if they would add something else.


Picture 6 – Post-task retrospective survey


These are the advantages of this activity observed by my colleagues and I:

  1. Students focus on pronunciation and listen to themselves and others critically with the added incentive of a wider audience;
  2. Students are given responsibility for identifying targets and strategizing, hence the process helps them become more metacognizant and autonomous in this area of their learning;
  3. The process makes them critical friends and builds relationships, diplomacy and empathy;
  4. It provides the teacher with a wealth of material which helps for future planning and enhances teacher’s awareness of students’ pronunciation issues.


  1. Translistening’

‘Translistening’ is a task I do with my keenest linguists which combines reading aloud, listening and metalinguistic work. I designed it to focus my students on accuracy and to make them pay selective attention to a specific set of error types they kept making, especially word order, agreement, verb formation and mistakes with small function words (e.g. articles and prepositions).

Step 1 – The students are shown a short text in the L1 on the topic-at-hand, flooded with the lexical chunks and/or grammar structures they have been practising lately;

Step 2 – They are put in pairs and given an accurate L2 translation of the text (prepared by the teacher) and two different faulty L2 translations of the same text (which was allegedly produced by two anonymous students from a previous cohort) – one each;

Step 3 – Both translations contain the same number of occurrences of 3 or 4 types of error the class commonly make in their writing.
Step 4 -The students are told that both faulty L2 translations contain the same number of mistakes and their task is to listen to their partner as they read their faulty translation out (twice); with the help of the accurate L2 translation, they must spot as many mistakes as possible. The student who will spot more mistakes will win.

Step 5 – The students are now tasked with noting down and describing briefly the mistakes they identified in the translations, and the grammar rules they relate to;

Step 6 – The students are then asked to translate an L1 text which is extremely similar in structure and vocabulary to the one they have just dealt with.

The task (which take my classes around 50 minutes) elicits thorough processing, as the students really need to pay attention to every single detail they hear and allows the teacher to focus the students on a specific set of mistakes thereby priming them for selective attention to those mistakes in the translation task which follows, usually resulting in a more carefully crafted and more accurate final product.

10. Spot the differences

I have described this task previously as a teacher-centred activity. This is a student-led pair-work version of the game. Student A and B are given two nearly identical texts which differ only in terms of 8-10 words. As Student A reads aloud his text, Student B must spot the differences in his text.

This task combines reading aloud and listening whilst eliciting thorough processing, as Student B must really pay close attention to each and every word being read aloud to them.

11.Interactional Oral Communicative tasks

Of course, any interactional oral task done with a written scaffold is a form of reading aloud. Picture 1 above (reproduced below )shows part of a resource used to scaffold oral interaction in Spanish on the topic ‘Talking about a past holiday . Student A asks the questions and Student B responds in Spanish whilst Student A notes down (in English) his interviewee’s answer. You will find that after a few rounds many of the students will rely less and less on the scaffold, especially if you will have staged several of the read-aloud games discussed above prior to that.

Picture 1 – first page of oral scaffold for Spanish conversation on holiday

oral scaffold

12. Concluding remarks

‘Reading aloud’ was criticised by the proponents of CLT for not being an ‘authentic’ activity which prepares students for life in the real world. However, recent research points to a range of beneficial effects on L2 acquisition, ranging from fostering speaking fluency to enhancing listening skills.

In my approach to language teaching, which lays a lot of emphasis on oral interaction and sensitisation to key lexical/structural patterns, the activities I have just described play a pivotal role at the initial stages of my pedagogic sequence (MARS + EARS), as they allow for masses of repetition of those patterns in a highly structured, non-threatening and fun and engaging way. In my own classroom research, I found the impact of such activities on retention, oral fluency, pronunciation/decoding skills, self-efficacy and general motivational levels to be significant, especially with younger and less able learners.

Of course, the role of the teacher as a vigilant ‘monitor’, motivator and feedback-provider cannot be overplayed when it comes to read-aloud pairwork. Good classroom management is, of course, a must.

I usually stage a battery of read-aloud pairwork activities (3 o 4) after introducing new language through a sentence builder and before engaging in reading and listening tasks. This allows for lots of recycling of the target chunks in a fun and memorable way prior to less structured and more challenging work requiring deeper information processing and aimed at ‘unpacking’ and consolidating the retention of those very chunks, as well as integrating them in a wider range of linguistic contexts.









It is not just about ‘how often’, but ‘how’ you recycle – five learning principles that make it or break it in L2 grammar instruction


In this very concise post I deal with five factors which are often neglected in grammar instruction, yet curriculum designers and teachers ought to heed as they are crucial to its success. In particular, I will focus on the most important dimension of acquisition of an L2 structure, i.e. its extensive receptive and productive recycling over the long period of time required for an L2 learner to fully acquire it. As I will argue, this crucial phase is usually undermined by the erroneous belief held by many practitioners, that recycling is just about the quantity of exposure and practice; whereas, in actual fact, the quality of the recycling is as – if not more – important

Caveat: this post is based on the premise that if students are developmentally ready they can acquire a given grammar structure through the kind of extensive recycling envisaged below.

2. Extensive recycling and interleaving 

Many of us teach grammar in the belief that through much practice it will be finally acquired or automatized. As I often write in my posts, this requires curriculum designers and teachers to keep whatever structure we are imparting on our students ‘alive’ by recycling it over and over throughout the months or even years that follow. Common sense, right?

What cognitive science suggests is that teachers should teach grammar structures A, B, C over time following an ABCABCABC rather than AAABBBCCC pattern.

The ABCABCABC distributed/spaced-practice recycling pattern, also referred in the literature as ‘Interleaving’, allows one’s students to revisit the target structures over and over again in a systematic manner – something that, incidentally, textbooks rarely do.

The AAABBBCCC massed-practice pattern, on the other hand, allows for an intensive exposure/practice phase of each structure but because of the way the brain works, no recycling will mean that automatization will not occur, and memory decay will likely set in.

3. It is not simply about how often you recycle but how you recycle

However, recycling a structure many times over is not enough. Successful acquisition is not merely about the quantity is also about the quality of the recycling; whilst frequency of recycling is a must, for acquisition to occur, effective grammar teaching must take into account other very important factors which determine successful retrieval. These factors affect the way our students process L2 items thereby facilitating or hindering their learning of a given grammar structure / morpheme

4. Five make-it-or-break factors affecting learning


FACTOR 1 : Skill- specificity                                                                                                        

In recycling, we must heed the fact that what we learn through extensive listening or reading practice will result in gains specific to listening or reading not necessarily transferrable to the other three language skills. In other words, most L2 learning is skill-specific.


Implications for teaching: to be effective, the recycling of a target structure needs to occur through all four language skills.


FACTOR 2:  Context-dependency
According to the TAP  (transfer appropriate processing) principle, the context we learn information in plays a massive role in our ability to recall the same information in the future. This is because memory is context dependent. Consequently, a structure learnt through oral mechanical drills may not be retrieved from long-term memory during a more natural spontaneous conversation. By the same token, extensive reading practice may not result in the students being able to do other reading tasks (e.g. Jigsaw reading).



Implications for Teaching: make sure that recycling occurs across as wide a range of tasks, semantic areas and linguistic contexts as possible. If you are using apps such as Quizlet or Memrise, ensure that you vary the structures and  vocabulary the target structure co-occurs with, so as to increase the range of semantic and linguistic retrieval cues.

FACTOR 3 : Deep processing
The most effective recycling is one which involves the learners in deep rather than shallow processing. In other words, the learners’ cognitive investment in the task through which you are recycling goes beyond mere repetition – of the like that Quizlet and Memrise require of them.


Implications for teaching: make sure the target structure is recycled through tasks which (1) require problem solving (e.g. inductive grammar learning tasks, grammaticality judgement tasks, spot the error tasks); (2) asks of them to use the target structure in a real life communicative task to fill an information gap (e.g. a pair-work task whereby student A knows something about what someone they know did yesterday that student B doesn’t know and vice versa, the task being finding out from one another in the past tense the missing information); (3) involve creativity (e.g. If you were a fruit/car/food/colour what would you be and why?; writing a poem using the target structure).

FACTOR 4 – Form-meaning competition
When L2 learners attend to tasks requiring them to focus on the  meaning of the input/output, they do not usually attend to form, especially when the task-at-hand uses up most of the cognitive resources available in their working memory. This is because the brain can only allocate so many resources to the execution of a task and meaning is always prioritised over form unless the task specifically require them to focus on form. Conversely, when the task’s focus is on form, the brain is likely to neglect meaning.


Implications for teaching: recycling should occur through a synergy of tasks which require the students to focus on form (e.g. mechanical drills) and others which require focus on meaning (e.g. communicative  tasks)


FACTOR 5:  Salience


The salience of a grammar item refers to the extent to which it is noticeable by the learner in the input they receive. The more noticeable an item is, the more likely it is that your students will pick it up from the input you give them. The opposite will be true of less salient items.

There are a number of factors which contribute to the noticeability of a morpheme/grammar structure. The most important ones – perceptual salience, semantic weight, regularity, frequency, affective response – have been discussed in this post: What they don’t notice they can’t learn – On the role of salience in instructed language acquisition. As I wrote in that post,

effective teaching is not just about classroom delivery, but also about the way we structure the linguistic input we provide our students with and the way we plan its recycling in our medium- and long-term planning. A teacher who is fully aware of the factors that make certain L2 items s/he sets outs to teach less salient than others and uses such awareness to implement strategies to make those items more noticeable is more likely to secure his learners’ uptake of those items than a teacher who isn’t. Take prepositions, discourse markers, word suffixes and pronouns. They are not semantically salient, i.e. they do not provide essential cues to the meaning of a sentence one is reading or hearing; hence, when we read or hear a sentence, especially a complex one, these items will occupy only peripheral awareness in our working memory (meaning: the brain does not pay much attention to them) hence, they are less likely to be noticed and learnt. This happens in our first language and even more so in a foreign language, especially if we are novice-to-intermediate learners. Add to this the fact that these words are usually quite short and don’t carry stress and are consequently less easy to perceive. A French example: on hearing the French sentence ‘J’y suis allé hier soir après l’école’, as pronounced by a native speaker, a novice is unlikely to perceive the ‘y’ (there). An English example: on processing aurally the sentence ‘Which one of them would you like?’, a novice is very likely not to clearly hear the preposition ‘of’. Unsurprisingly, articles, prepositions and pronouns are amongst the items that L2 learners of French notoriously find the hardest to learn and are usually acquired late in instructed (non-immersive) settings.


Implications for teaching: these factors must be taken into account by L2 instructors in building in recycling in the curriculum, as items which are less salient will require the implementation of instructional strategies and tasks designed to enhance their noticeability in the input and to increase their occurrence in learner output. Take the ‘frequency’ factor. It is obvious that the more high-frequency an L2 item is, the more likely it is that it will be noticed and eventually acquired. Since the opposite will be true of low-frequency L2 items, the instructor will have to ensure that the input they provide their learners with and the output they ‘push’ out of them will be ‘flooded’ with such items.

One very effective strategy to ensure that less salient items are firmly placed in our students’ focal awareness is by making them one of your universals.

More strategies to increase the learnability of less salient items can be found in the above mentioned article (here).


5. Conclusions


The success of recycling doesn’t simply hinge on the quantity of exposure to and practice with the target grammar items your students get from you. The quality of the recycling matters enormously too. Teachers must heed the five factors discussed above if they want to facilitate acquisition of the grammar structures they set out to teach. In my experience, of those factors two are the most commonly neglected by classroom practitioners. Firstly, the TAP principle, i.e. the context specificity of learning an L2 item; way too often these days the students practise and re-practise a given grammar structure using the very same Quizlet/Memrise task/game. Secondly, the issue of salience: less semantically and perceptually salient items do not receive in most curricula the enhanced emphasis they require in order to be learnable.


From Focused to Thorough processing: the mindshift that will enhance your students’ learning

(authored with Dylan Vinales )

1.The attributes of effective aural and written input

In my posts I often point out how, in my view, for the input we give our beginner L2 learners in aural and written texts to truly enhance learning, it ought to satisfy the following criteria:

  1. It has to be comprehensible – i.e. the learners should be able to access 95 % of it without resorting to the use of dictionaries or other resources.
  2. it has to be highly patterned and repetitive – i.e. the text(s) ought to be ‘flooded’ with as many occurrences as possible of the target phonological, lexical and structural patterns – even, I believe, at the expense of its ‘authenticity’; what applied linguists, e.g. Ellis (2010) call ‘enriched input’ (see here for my rationale for this assertion). Hence the notion, central to my pedagogic approach, that at lower levels of proficiency listening and reading tasks should concern themselves mostly with Controlled input rather than Authentic input
  3. It ought to have high surrender value – i.e. it should contain high frequency vocabulary and patterns that can be useful across a wide range of contexts – even if the application to other contexts require some morphological or syntactic manipulation.
  4. It must be learnable – i.e. it should be within the developmental grasp of the learner, e.g. no use asking a young learner to read Milton’s “Paradise Lost” as my English teacher required of me in middle school !
  5. It ought be engaging and memorable – i.e. its content, patterns and/or sounds stand out by virtue of their distinctiveness,  appeal, the cognitive and/or emotional arousal they bring about in the learner, their ‘catchiness’ (in the case of songs or nursery rhymes)

However, as I was brainstorming ideas for a workshop I am going to deliver next week, I realised that I have neglected to write about the most important staple of my pedagogic approach, what I call Thorough  Processing .

2.Thorough processing

As I often reiterate, the reading and listening tasks typically found in textbooks and most other published resources usually require students to answer questions on a text that range from ‘who / where / how/etc.’ questions to ‘True or False’ ones. This encourages what I call Partial ( or Focused)  processing’, as the students do not process the text in its entirety; rather, they skim and/or scan for key words or other intra- or even extra-textual cues which may help them answer the questions. They may, once identified the portions of the text which contain the needed information, read them more thoroughly; however, unless the questions or tasks on the text are numerous and cover every single sentence in the text, several parts of that text will not be processed deeply enough to impact learning.

Yet, for instructors like myself, who lay a strong emphasis on repeated exposure to the target chunks, lexical patterns and structures in the belief that repeated exposure enhances L2 acquisition, this is an important issue; we would want our students to process the text in its entirety; to pay attention to each and every target item so that (1) they become more aware of the way known items behave in a range of phonological, lexical and structural contexts  thereby enhancing their acquisition; (2) notice unknown items thereby beginning their acquisition and, (3) if the text contains material that may enhance their knowledge of the world or their well-being, they benefit from it to the fullest extent rather than gathering ‘bitty’ information.

3.What tasks elicit thorough processing?

The first answers that comes to mind are, obviously, translation and, in the realm of listening, dictation and transcription. No other tasks force a student to pay more attention to individual features of L2 input than these two. However, these tasks can be quite time consuming and many students, especially younger learners, may find them a bit tedious.

In a previous post, here, I have presented a wide range of tasks I devised in order to gamify translation or simply make it more enjoyable (e.g. Oral Ping-pong translation; No snakes no ladders; Narrow translation) and are very popular with students in my school. Please note that although those tasks are described in their L1-to-L2 version, I often use them with much success in the opposite direction, too.

Another technique involving translation and thorough processing from L2 to L1 involves the use of sentence builders. I use this technique, as my regular readers know, to introduce the meaning and model the use of new chunks, patterns and structures whilst recycling old ones. The technique is very simple: I make up sentences using the chunks of language in each column which I read out at moderate pace and ask the students to translate them on their mini whiteboards. As Figure 1 (a SB used with my year 5 French) below shows, my sentence builders are highly structured and contain the L1 translation in brackets. After a few lessons, the L1 translation is partially or completely eliminated.

Figure 1 – SB used with year 5 French students (8-9 years old) to teach family + adjectives


As those who have attended my workshops know all too well – I usually spend about one and half hours on this ! –  there are numerous techniques and tasks which can elicit thorough processing, many of which I have described in previous blogs.

One of the most effective and engaging in my repertoire is ‘Bad translation’, a problem-solving task that I have created as a way to exploit Narrow Reading texts but can be used on any text. The task is for the students to spot eight or more mistakes the teacher deliberately made in a translation of a relatively short text to lay emphasis on certain vocabulary or structures. This forces the students to really process the target language texts in great detail and learn vocabulary incidentally as they do so”. Figure 2, below, illustrates an example I have used with an absolute beginner class

Figure 2 – example of ‘Bad translation’ task designed for and used with a Year 7 Spanish class (11 years old Ss)

spot the translation

Other tasks eliciting thorough processing which I have already described elsewhere:

  • Spot the differences’ –  another task I often stage and have described elsewhere, involves having two very similar texts which contain few differences for the students to spot thereby forcing the reader to more closely and thoroughly process the target text. Please note: the students need to explain what the differences they identified are in the L1 (e.g. text A says ‘X’ whilst text ‘B’ says ‘Y’) to verify whether they are actually processing the text semantically and not simply perceptually.
  • ‘Bad summary’ – a text is summarised in the L’1 or L2 but the summary contains a number of mistakes for the student to pick up. This forces the learner to read two texts at the same time if the summary is in the L2 !
  • ‘Bad description’ – a picture is described in detail. The student is tasked with spotting the errors in the description of the picture.
  • ‘Spot the intruder’ – there are several versions of this. The concept is that you place several extraneous items in a text which the students need to spot. The version I use the most is for perceptual thorough processing: I read a text to my students who are given a version of its transcript containing words which make sense and are grammatical, but are not included in the version I read out to them.  Another favourite of mine is a version whereby the extraneous elements consist of vocabulary items that don’t fit at all semantically (e.g. In my room there is a beautiful but stingy table); the students are simply tasked with crossing them out.
  • ‘Gapped parallel text’ – this consists of an L1 text with the L2 text alongside from which at least one chunk per sentence – not single words – has been removed. The rationale for this approach is that typical cloze tasks involving one-word gap every five words encourage focused processing, whereas more frequent gaps involving chunks, besides being more challenging, they require the learner to process more attentively what comes before and after each gap.
  • Any text reconstruction task  with L1 scaffold like the writing puzzle in Figure 3 below. I often stage this technique as a dictogloss task with beginner classes, i.e. the students, working in groups listen to a text being read and reconstruct it with the help of the L1 translation. You can find hundreds of such tasks on, a website which also allows to create your own.

Figure 3 – Text reconstruction task with L1 scaffold designed for and used with a year 8 French class (12 years old Ss)



Concluding remarks – A pivotal mindshift

Adopting a thorough-processing approach implies an important mindshift from the traditional CA (comprehension – answer) approach to reading and listening instruction to a modelling approach which purports to encourage noticing, high exposure to the core L2 chunks, patterns and structures and, ultimately, actually learning from the texts one reads and listens to .

A teacher who truly wants their students to learn from the listening and reading tasks they set them, will ensure that thorough receptive processing is a regular occurrence in their every lesson. Focused processing tasks requiring students to answer a set of closed questions do have their place in reading and listening instruction, too, of course, as skimming and scanning, inferencing and educated guessing are important strategies, too. We need, as teachers, however, to bear in mind that the primary purposes of reading and listening should be (1) to model and consolidate language; (2)  academic learning; (3) entertainment and (4) personal enrichment. Not to quiz.

The regular use of reading and listening tasks involving the thorough processing of narrow reading texts containing controlled, repetitive and highly patterned comprehensible input has yielded impressive results with my beginner to intermediate classes. I haven’t tried it with higher-proficiency students but I assume the outcomes would be as beneficial for the above discussed reasons.


On the very questionable value of error correction at intermediate level (as commonly practised)

We are language teachers for a reason: language learning is important to us; it is one of our primary foci in life, hence we pay attention to corrections, they are salient to us.

However, this may not be the case for most of our students. Many of the corrections we feed them, unless we make them very distinctive and they are easy to remember, will be forgotten at a ridiculously high rate (nearly 70% of the information decaying from Long-Term Memory within 9 hours from processing it).

What baffles me is how often some teachers seem to forget  that grammar correction is a form of instruction. Like instruction it does one or more of the following:

  1. it teaches
  2. it re-teaches (clarifies, expands, etc.)
  3. it consolidates

Would you ever be able to do any of the 3 things above effectively through a simple correction or sets of corrections in the margin of an essay? I wish grammar instruction was that simple!

Also, would you expect your average students to AUTOMATISE the faulty items thanks to your correction in the margin, by self-correcting or by having one, two or even three remedial error correction sessions devoted to it after marking an essay? Obviously not.

Would you teach several grammar structures in one lesson, as way too many teachers do during post-essay remedial sessions, by providing a PPT with one slide for each error they found in their students essay? No, of course, because they will cause divided attention in most – not all – of the students.

Would you expect most of your students to transfer the corrective information in your feedback to the next essay they write? Of course not, unless you heavily prompt them before they write the next essay through a reminder or checklist (like, I must admit, I often do).

Would you expect most of your students to learn grammar independently? To do the automatisation work that grammar learning requires on their own through hours and hours of self-initiated practice? Maybe from the highly motivated few.

Finally, would you expect your child, when you tell them they have done something wrong to take it onboard straight away, even if they know you are right and never do it again? And if they do that naughty thing all the time, will they stop doing it unless you promise some sort of punishment they fear or some enticing reward?

Mistakes are part and parcel of the process of learning a language. Many of them are developmental and will disappear at some point through much practice and judiciously administered negative feedback. Many others are due to the fact that you are asking your students to write too much too soon thereby causing cognitive overload and processing inefficiency. Others still because we may have not taught and scaffolded a given structure effectively.

A friend of mine once compared error correction to teaching vocabulary through flashcards; you would not teach a word or phrase by showing the same flashcard once or twice using the same technique, she said. Rather, you would show that flashcard many times over; play a range of games with it; alternate choral and individual repetition, etc.

For correction to truly work with MOST of your students you have to re-teach a problematic item over and over again extensively through masses of exposure to aural and written input and lots of productive practice across a wide range of contexts. The results will take a long time before they actually show because language learning is about the invisible, inaudible, intangible process that unfolds inside the students’ heads day in day out and not the correct sentence in the next essay which gives us the (often false) reassurance that they have ‘got’ it.

Language acquisition is not the linear process that many teachers take it to be. Errors may disappear, then reappear and finally disappear again following a U-shaped developmental pattern than has been documented my much research and is regulated by complex cognitive processes and constraints that are not as yet fully understood.  As teachers, it is crucial we recognize this and shy away from short-term, intensive remedial interventions that, as research clearly shows, do not work and imply a very simplistic view of language acquisition.

In conclusion, in order to improve writing output one needs to do a lot of modelling through comprehensible input and guided practice. Corrective feedback, better if personalised and provided in one-to one-sessions, can indeed assist in the process, but only if it is sustained over the long term and may work only if the student is motivated and perseverant and willing to work independently.

But even so, it will be your modelling and scaffolded practice which will ultimately do the trick. Modelling through Listening and Reading, of course, doesn’t mean giving a text and a few comprehension questions, but getting the students to process what they read and listen to in detail (e.g. through narrow reading tasks or TPRS-like circling) so that they may notice the key grammar structures and/or lexical patterns you aim to teach or consolidate.

Corrections worked for us language teachers and may work for the keenest of our students because they value our corrections and love languages. But what about the average student?

You know my conclusions already if you are a regular reader of mine: better investing your time in planning and resourcing your teaching more effectively.


Are they truly ready to write that essay? – Challenges and solutions for your struggling intermediate student-writers (Part 1)



So your students are writing fairly long essays in the target language, but there are lots of mistakes in them, mistakes they often can self-correct when you point them out to them. A lot of mistakes are recurrent ones; they relate to things that you have ‘taught’ them over and over again in lessons and through your feedback and you have spent a lot of time drilling in; things like forgetting to make adjectives and nouns agree; wrong conjugations of verbs; omission or overuse of the definite article; wrong word order; omission of plural endings.

You are frustrated because you feel they should master them by now.

Other mistakes refer to function words, such as prepositions and conjunctions, things you may have not have emphasized enough and in true earnest are not massively important – but still annoy you.

So what is the way forward?

Before attempting to answer this question, let me remind you of the way the brain of an average student who has been taught grammar explicitly and vocabulary through single words processes language as s/he writes:

1- The proposition is created

2- The words that convey that idea are activated and retrieved from Long Term Memory

3- The words are then temporarily held in Working Memory for processing

4- Whilst in Working Memory the words are assembled together in the correct syntactic order and grammar rules are applied

5- The product of the previous phase is physically translated into graphemes

The above described process is quite cumbersome when it doesn’t occur automatically and the brain has to use every little bit of Working Memory’s very limited resources in order to execute each and every process involved.

Let us remember that WM can only process four items at any one time. If the students are used to handling single words – not chunks –  in their language production, that means 1 item = 1 word. This means that if the sentence the student is holding in WM in phase 4 is longer than four words the brain will have issues in monitoring the accuracy of the whole sentence.

For instance: take a French intermediate student having to translate the sentence ‘Yesterday she did not go out with her friends’. Whereas an expert speaker will not have to consciously apply any of the many grammar rules that underlie the production of this sentence, the intermediate learner will have to devote conscious attention to each and every step and take many micro-decision, i.e. Which tense? Is this a verb requiring the auxiliary ETRE or AVOIR? Where does the negative particle ‘pas’ go?  Etc. all these decisions will compromise the speed of execution; and to make things worse, due to the limitations of WM’s span, the items towards the end of the sentence are likely to end up receiving less attention and monitoring and therefore to be more vulnerable to error. Add to this that words decay from Working memory in a few seconds…

Another set of items that is more likely to receive less attention and hence will be more vulnerable to error will be those linguistic features whose contribution to the understanding of the sentence is less crucial; such items include function words, e.g. determiners, conjunctions, prepositions, etc. but also the execution of adjectival agreement, pluralization of nouns and verb conjugations. In other words, the brain will only focus on what is crucial for the expression of meaning – a sort of survival mechanism.

The whole issue is exacerbated by the fact that in the case of English learners of French, Spanish and other highly inflected languages, there is little transfer from the first to the target language in terms of the micro-skills involved in the execution and monitoring of agreement and verb conjugations – as in English you do not make nouns and adjective agree in gender and verbs are not highly inflected (i.e. conjugation are much simpler).

What is the solution then?

In answering this question the starting point will inevitably be another question: are your students actually ready to write extensively , considering the processing limitations just discussed?  Have you ensured that your students:

  • have received masses of practice in producing language under time constraints?
  • have been taught to produce language in chunks rather than single words?
  • have routinized verb formation under time constraints in context? Not simply being able to produce verbs in isolation?
  • have ‘formal accuracy’ firmly in their focal attention as they speak and write? – this is very important if you aim at high levels of formal accuracy. Bear in mind that they will only pay attention to form if you make a big issue out of it in every aspect of your teaching, from pronunciation to spelling, from word endings to sentence order. Way to often, the only time teachers really focus on accuracy is in their corrective feedback – that is a serious shortcoming.
  • have automatized at least the most basic forms of agreement?
  • can spell? – a students who is not confident with spelling, will have to focus attentional capacity on this level of production, which will eat into their WM’s processing capacity
  • have processed the language (grammar structures and lexis) that you expect them to produce in their essays extensively, through masses of exposure to comprehensible (95 % accessible without dictionary) input and productive practice under time constraints?

If the above pre-requisites have not been fulfilled, it is highly likely that your students are simply not ready to write that long essay – at least not as accurately as you expect them to. Chances are they are already doing a good enough job as it is considering their level of proficiency and the training in essay-writing they have received.

After all, they can only put down on paper what you taught them, right?

Hoping that your corrective feedback is going to do the trick is naïve to say the least. Yes, it will increase their awareness of what mistakes they make and maybe will sensitize them to the issue of accuracy; but only very few of your students will massively improve as a result of your corrections or reflection on corrections.

Correction may only work when it becomes remediation, i.e. sustained long-term instruction which targets the problematic items through extensive exposure and skill – not knowledge- based practice.

Concluding remarks

In my next post I will deal with the strategies that you may want to implement to tackle the deficits in your students’ writing. In the meantime, do consider the question in this post’s title: Are they really truly ready to write that essay or am I pushing  them way beyond the boundaries of their processing – not necessarily knowledge – capacity. Is asking your students to produce fairly long essays at the stage they are at in their proficiency development a productive way to foster their development as writers? Is it likely to erode their self-efficacy and motivation?

You might reply that exams are getting closer, only a few months away and you have no choice. Well, in that case, you may have to change the way you teach your students and prepare them for that task.

To start with, ditch single words lists and teach high-frequency chunks; increase the focus on formal accuracy; practise reading and listening for modelling (e.g. through narrow-reading tasks) rather than quizzing purposes (i.e. provides tons of comprehensible input in the aural and written texts you give your students); provide tons of practice in agreement, conjugation and function words usage through micro-writing tasks; give them a lot of text reconstruction tasks (like the ones you can find on the great Textivate website).

More on this and other strategies in my next post on writing.







More on universals, desirables, controlled input and implicit learning

This very concise post was motivated by the fact that many colleagues seem to have misunderstood what my ‘universals’ are about and by the high level of interest for this strategy shown by the teachers who attended my recent rounds of workshops in England and Australia.

My ‘universals’

So let me spell it out clearly: the ‘universals’ are high surrender value grammar structures, lexical patterns and/or functions that you feel your students are currently not learning effectively due to insufficient exposure or practice in your extant input.

By making such language items your ‘universals’, you commit yourself to embed them systematically in your daily input, week in week out from the beginning to the end of the year. This entails embedding them in your classroom talk, in your learning management routines (from instructions to oral and written feedback), in your every resource, in your every receptive and productive task.

Hence, my ‘universals’ are not – as some seem to believe – the dream list of ‘recyclables’ (key connectives, high frequency verbs, useful idioms, etc.) cutting across all topics that many teachers put on a sheet for their students to refer to whenever they write an essay or deliver a presentation. Far from it.

Rather, they are a very effective strategy to provide extensive exposure to and practice with language items that you are not currently teaching successfully; they are not to stay on a list that your students keep in their books ; you MUST ensure they are part of the comprehensible input you feed your students every day, and of the output that you push out of them.

For example, in my context, I was dissatisfied with my pre-intermediate students’ mastery of the French negatives and phrases used to compare and contrast; with their ability to create questions and with their repertoire of verbs. So, in every single lesson of mine I now make sure that my students get tons of implicit exposure to these structures and patterns across all four skills. Here is the full list of my year 7 French universals (see figure 1 below).

Figure 1 – year 7 French Universals



The hoped-for outcome: that by processing receptively and productively these items for a few minutes every day the whole year through they will become so familiar and embedded in my students’ cognition that by the end of term 3 they will be acquired by most if not all of them.

My ‘desirables’

My ‘desirables’ are also language items that I aim to teach implicitly. However, differently from the ‘universals’ they are aimed at only the most talented, inquisitive and proactive of my students. They consist of structures or patterns that are more complex and advanced and which I include in my input on a daily basis too hoping for the top 5 – 10 % of my students to notice and pick up.

An example of ‘desirables’ for my year 11 students refers to the subjunctive and patterns such as ‘bien que / sans que / pourvu que + subjunctive’ which I have been planting in my resources since last year. Another example, with the same group: the pluperfect indicative.

Comprehensible controlled input and feasible pushed output as crucial to the effective teaching of universals and desirables

Obviously, you cannot implicitly teach universals and desirable without constantly recycling them through controlled input which is highly patterned, repetitive and 95 % comprehensible. Authentic texts will not include as many instances of your universal or desirable items as you need to drill them in effectively. Moreover, authentic texts rarely include comprehensible input.

By the same token, unstructured tasks will not ensure that your students will include them in their output; hence the need to provide extensive productive practice which elicits their deployment task after task, the easiest and safest way of achieving this being oral and written translation tasks involving feasible output (e.g. those discussed here).

In my next post ‘The two keys to effective language teaching and learning: controlled input and pushed output’ I will elaborate on this further.


This post was motivated by the fact that some colleagues have equated my universals to Barry Smith’s top tens or to examination boards lists of essential structures/lexical patterns, what teachers often refer to as ‘recyclables’.

Unlike the above, my ‘Universals’ and ‘Desirables’ are what YOU want them to be; I conceived them as a way to keep in my attentional focus the structures and/or lexical patterns I was teaching less successfully so that they would feature day in day out in my input and in my students output.

For the universals/desirable strategy to truly impact your students they need to be recycled systematically and methodically in your lessons. The more they occur in your input and your students’ output the better.

The universals ILRs (implicit learning routines) I use in my daily practice ( e.g. ‘grumpy time’ or ‘question time’) take very little time and allow me to never lose track of my universals, whatever the topic-at-hand is (see here for discussion of my ILRs). Scaffolds like the one below (see figure 2) will assist your students when they are asked to produce the universals orally or in writing.

Figure 2 – scaffold I use to model and encourage use of negatives


I have tested this strategy many times over and it has never disappointed me.