Do teachers know how to teach grammar?- Of beliefs and misgivings, perceptions and reality

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1.Introduction

In the prequel to this post, “Language teachers and Grammar – Should we worry?”, Steve and I partially answered the question in the title through our discussion of language teachers’ KAL (Knowledge About Language) . In that post we reviewed empirical studies which identified serious deficits in pre-service and in-service teachers’ KAL which affect their ability to teach grammar explicitly (Brumfit et al. 1996; Borg, 2001 and 2015; Swan, 2006).

In the present post we aim to widen the perspective on teachers’ ‘know-how’ in the area of explicit grammar teaching. It is important to note that our discussion of the available research will extend beyond the boundaries of what teachers do in the classroom as we believe that grammar-teaching related competence refers also to the extent to which

(a) language instructors’ beliefs and attitudes about language teaching are aligned with current theory and research;

(b) their teaching intentions match students’ learning agendas, preferences and other individual variables (e.g. age, personality, educational biographies, etc.);

(c) they are aware of their own classroom practice – this aspect of teacher competence is important, we believe, as without self-awareness one cannot identify deficits in their performance, the crucial starting point of any effective professional development.

2. Important disclaimer

The research reviewed below is by no means exhaustive or conclusive. It does, however, yield interesting and useful findings which resonate with our professional experience and should be heeded by colleagues as well as course administrators as they point to issues which do commonly hinder effective grammar teaching and learning in secondary school settings.

3. Teachers beliefs about grammar instruction

Beliefs often play an influential role in how effective the teacher will be in the classroom (Richards,1998) by acting as a filter for their instructional judgements and decision making in class and subsequently providing a “systematic justification process with which to plan, assess, judge, decide, accept, deny or act” (Ezzi, 2012).

3.1 Do teachers believe grammar should be taught?

By and large the empirical studies that we located in the core literature found that language teachers feel that Explicit Grammar Teaching is central to language learning and students need direct and explicit teaching of grammar rules for accuracy (e.g. Chandler,1998; Schultz, 1996 and 2001; Burges & Etherington, 2002; Ebsworth & Schweers, 1997; Potgieter & Conradie, 2013; Graus and Coppen, 2014).

It must be pointed out, however, that the existing empirical data are by no means consistent across the board as they are inevitably affected by socio-cultural variables, curricular constraints and students’ agendas. For instance, Eisenstein-Ebbsworth and Schweers (1996) found that, although all of the university ESL teachers they studied thought grammar should be taught, the New York- based ones were significantly less in favour of conscious grammar instruction than their Puerto Rico counterparts. The researchers attributed this phenomenon to the more traditional approach to language teaching usually adopted in Puerto Rico. As one of their informant stated, grammar learning had been such an important part of their learning experience, that they did not see any reason to abandon it. The researchers concluded that awareness of research plays a minimum role in L2 teachers’ rationale for the approach to use in grammar teaching.

Moreover, differences have been identified by some studies between second-language and foreign-language teachers. Mitchel et al. (1992) and Brumfit et al (1996) found that the second-language teachers they studied rarely did any explicit grammar teaching, wherever foreign language teachers regularly did so. This is a finding that definitely resonates with our own experience.

3.2 The main source of teachers’ beliefs about grammar teaching

Eisenstein-Ebbsworth and Schweers’ (1996) findings refer to the all-important point we made in the conclusion to our post ‘Why teachers teach the way we do’, that ultimately teachers’ beliefs about grammar pedagogy are largely shaped by their previous learning experiences much more than by their method classes on teacher training courses and subsequent CPD – which explains why L2 teachers’ grammar teaching approaches are often outdated. Borg (2015) concluded his review of the relevant literature stating that:

In reporting their beliefs about grammar teaching, teachers commonly refer to the impact of their views of their prior language learning experiences; there is evidence that these may exert a more significant impact on teachers’ views than the results of formal research into grammar teaching. This is not surprising: an apparent lack of impact of formal theory on teachers’ cognition has also been reported in mainstream education (e.g. Crawley and Salyer, 1995).

Mitchel et al. (1994) noted how the teachers they studied ‘had been influenced very little by those theories of second-language acquisition that downgrade the role of explicit form-focused instruction in the learning of a foreign language’. Their findings are echoed by a number of other studies.

In Chandler (1998), for instance, the vast majority of the respondents to a postal questionnaire stated that most of their knowledge of grammar was learnt in school and constituted the basis of their existing pedagogy. Chandler was concerned with the lack of understanding of the role of language awareness in language learning which he referred to as ‘confident ignorance’.

Nespor (1987) found the teachers can be influenced by ‘a crucial experience or some particularly influential teacher produces a richly-detailed episodic memory which later serves the student as an inspiration and a template for his or her own teaching practices”.

Farrell (1999) reported how his subjects refused to teach grammar deductively as it had not worked for them as language learners.

Other factors appear to affect teachers’ beliefs about grammar. Ebsworth and Schweers (1997) claim that, when it comes to “articulating their rationales, teachers referred to various factors shaping their views, such as student wants, and syllabus expectations”. Borg (2015) notes how in many cases teachers choose to teach grammar not because they actually believe it will enhance language acquisition, but because they believe that students expect it. Andrews (2003) notes how schools’ microcultures affect teachers beliefs (e.g. the beliefs and practices of one’s colleagues).

4. What are teachers’ instructional preferences ?

Research suggests that modern language instructors still favour the PPP (presentation, practice, production) instructional sequence marked by a deductive approach to grammar teaching with teacher-to-class interaction and drills as the preferred mode of delivery and practice. This is often the case even when they believe that language teaching must develop student communicative ability (Andrews, 2003; Wang, 2009; Borg, 2015). Despite the teachers investigated had received formal training in Communicative Language Teaching, little evidence was found of CLT in their grammar teaching classroom practices. This reflects findings by Richards and Pennington (1998), Sato and Kleinsasser (1999), Richards, Gallo, and Renandya (2001).

This type of approach is quite outdated and not aligned with the current wisdom in grammar pedagogy, which advocates a more eclectic approach (a) integrating form focused instruction (FFI) with tasks involving negotiation of meaning (CLT); (b) combining deductive and inductive learning and (c) aiming at the proceduralization (automatization) of grammar structures (Lightbown and Spada, 2008). The last point (c) is particular important in our view as it refers to the greatest shortcoming of much current grammar pedagogy; the failure, that is, to recognize that a grammar structure can only be considered as fully ‘learnt’ by a student when s/he can deploy it correctly in fluent oral/written speech and teach grammar accordingly.

A finding by Andrews (2003) is interesting in this regard as it may provide an explanation why some teachers may prefer a deductive rather an inductive approach to grammar teaching and alludes to a very common scenario in secondary British schools. Andrews found that teachers with high levels of explicit KAL feel more confident teaching grammar inductively than those with lower levels of it. The reason is obvious: deductive teaching allows the teacher total control over the pedagogic content of the grammar lesson; inductive teaching is less predictable, may require improvisation and the ability to answer students’ grammar queries on the spot.

  1. Do teachers have sufficient knowledge of their students’ grammar cognition to teach them effectively?

Research shows that the effectiveness of any instruction depends on the extent to which teacher intentions and learners’ expectations, wants and needs are aligned (Dornyei, 2005). A substantial lack of alignment often results in students’ disaffection and less effective learning. Hence, one facet of teacher competence is the ability to adapt one’s teaching to learner preferences and agendas.

Two large scale studies carried out by Schultz (1996, 2001) set out to investigate to what extent teachers’ and students’ beliefs about how languages are learnt matched.  In her 1996 study, Schultz studied teacher and student attitudes to grammar teaching and error correction. 94% of the 824 students she investigated stated they wanted to be corrected when they made errors in class. However, only 48 % of the 92 teachers on the study concurred with them. Schultz also identified ‘perturbing differences’ between teachers and students’ stances on this issue. The vast majority of the students believed that the formal study of the L2 grammar is essential to effectively master a language whereas only 64 % of the teachers concurred with this view.

In a subsequent study with Colombian students (Schultz, 2001) the gap between students and teachers’ perception was even greater. Whilst 76 % of the students said they valued grammar, only 30% of the teachers thought their students did.  Mismatches like these have been reported by numerous other studies (Cathcart & Olsen, 1976; Yorio, 1986; Spada, 1987; Wesche, 1981).

We would add that, in our experience, students’ parents’ own beliefs about language learning may play an important role, here, especially with infant and adolescent learners.

Another astonishing finding in his area comes from a study by Berry (1997), who asked ten teachers of English in Hong Kong to rate the knowledge of grammatical terminology (metalanguage) of 372 students they taught. The discrepancies were huge indicating that the teachers grossly overestimated their students’ knowledge of metalanguage. Berry stated that such discrepancies have the potential to cause serious problems in the classroom.

I personally found this to be an issue when I was lecturing at university and school with the language assistants I supervised. The language assistants – coming from foreign school systems with a solid tradition of formal instruction – did take for granted that their L1-English students would understand the metalanguage they used in their grammar explanations. This did put some students off.

  1. Do teachers’ beliefs and classroom practices match?

Several studies indicate that there is often a clear mismatch between what teachers says they do in the classroom when they teach grammar and what they actually do.

Andrews (2003) observed teachers whose stated beliefs were rooted in Communicative Language Teaching. He found very little evidence of CLT in their grammar teaching classroom practice.

Basturmken et al (2004) reports incongruences with regards to corrective practices whereby the teachers’ classroom behavior contradicted their stated belief that one should not interrupt students’ oral output during communicative activities to correct unless errors impede intelligibility. Basturmken and his co-workers put these incongruences down to the fact that when teachers talk about their beliefs they draw on their espoused theory and/or abstract technical knowledge of grammar pedagogy; however, when they respond to classroom contexts they draw on their practical knowledge. The two types of knowledge may not be necessarily aligned, especially in less experienced teachers (Borg, 2015).

Ng and Farrell (2003) and Farrel and Lim (2005) who found similar inconsistencies vis-à-vis error correction and other areas of grammar instruction, put them down to the fact that teachers often have to adapt their beliefs to curricular and student needs and goals. This, too, is a finding that strongly resonates with our experience and points to a common source of teacher frustration.

  1. Do teachers know how to teach grammar?

Research has identified that in many cases the problem is not so much lack of grammar knowledge but the teacher’s ability to transform that knowledge in pedagogic content; in other words, the ability to turn what they know in effective materials and lesson plans. This phenomenon seems to be partly caused by lack of knowledge of the adequate grammar terminology (Hislam and Cajkler, 2005). In our view, though, the most crucial factor is the absence of adequate training in this aspect of teaching which causes teachers to rely largely on the textbook or – as we discussed above – on their previous images of learning. Unfortunately, the kind of teacher training provided on PGCE or CELTA courses seems to fail in this respect (Borg, 2015).

  1. Concluding remarks

The research discussed above is by no means conclusive, exhaustive and consistent enough to grant any generalization of the findings discussed to the whole international language teaching population. However, the studies reviewed do identify important issues which very strongly resonate with our teaching experience (which amounts to almost 60 years between the two of us!) and have important implications for language teaching and learning.

Firstly, overall modern foreign language teachers – and ESL teachers to a lesser extent – seem to believe that grammar teaching is important and should be implemented in lessons. However, their approaches to grammar teaching appear to be rooted in very outdated views of grammar acquisition. This finding calls for much greater emphasis on professional development which models more eclectic and modern approaches to explicit grammar instruction of the likes of those recommended by Lightbown and Spada (2008), Swan (2006) and many of our blogs. The approaches envisaged would (1) integrate grammar and negotiation of meaning, (2) combine inductive and deductive teaching and (3) aim at automatization of target morphemes.

Such professional development, in order to be successful needs to involve extensive not merely intensive practice. Also, since schools’ micro-cultures seems to play an important role in re-shaping beliefs and approaches to grammar pedagogy, trusted and charismatic colleagues will play an important role in the process.

Schools administrators need to recognize that the process of re-shaping teacher beliefs and practices vis-à-vis grammar pedagogy is a very long and complex one which requires a lot of quality time and support that they must be prepared to allocate. Results cannot be expected at the end of a few weeks or even months’ training. It is likely to take much longer than that!

Another finding with huge implications for teacher training and professional development programs refers to the incongruences between teachers’ stated beliefs and actual classroom practice. Such incongruences may be due to various factors. The most important ones refer to (a) the dichotomy declarative vs procedural knowledge and (b) the inability to transform grammar knowledge into a lesson plan (in other words: the lack of a principled framework). Whereas (b) calls for CPD of the likes envisaged in the previous paragraphs, (a) calls for the need for teachers to elicit more non-judgemental student and peer feedback on their teaching practice and self-reflection supported by reflective journals, lesson-videoing, etc.

Finally, a worrying finding discussed above refers to (a) incongruences between teacher beliefs / goals and learner expectations / needs and (b) gross mismatches between teacher perceived levels of student grammar-related cognition and actual ones. The former issue can seriously hinder effective learning and it is imperative that teachers assess students’ beliefs about and attitudes to grammar to find the pedagogic fit that best suits their classroom. As for (b), an initial assessment of new students’ KAL may be desirable to better match their needs. This is rarely done in UK secondary school settings, in our experience.

In conclusion, the biggest lesson to be learnt from the research reviewed in this and in our previous post is that schools must place greater emphasis than it is currently done on professional development in the areas of grammar knowledge (KAL) and grammar pedagogy

-END –

PART 2 – Do teachers know grammar?

  1. The rise-fall-rise of Explicit Grammar Instruction

Explicit Grammar Instruction (henceforth EGI) was the primary mode of language instruction from the Romans to the first half of the 20th century. It fell out of favour in the 70s/80s with much of the international modern language teaching community with the advent of theories and methodologies based on the epistemological dogma that it does not significantly enhance L2 proficiency development. Such theories and methodologies, based as they were on experiential models of learning and on the attainment of communicative competence as the ultimate goal of language learning, inevitably marginalized the formal teaching of grammar. Nativist theories, such as Krashen’s, even advocated the total ban of EGI in the belief that a natural order of acquisition of L2 grammar structures exists which cannot be altered by formal instruction.

Recently, however, a substantive cohort of L2 educators has advocated that, whilst EGI, on its own, does not enhance acquisition, when integrated with approaches like CLT it may indeed be beneficial and a mounting body of empirical evidence seems to endorse this view (Ellis, 1990, Harley 1993, Ellis,2003). This has prompted a grammar revival that in the last two decades or so has started to creep into mainstream modern language education.

The effective integration of EGI into communicative language teaching or task-based learning is not without challenges. Steve and I believe that EGI can play an important role, however it (1) should not dominate modern language lessons; (2) should be carried out as part of a variable-focus curriculum concerned predominantly with the teaching of communicative functions and vocabulary; (3) should occur mainly in the context of interactional tasks aiming at developing fluency as well as grammar accuracy and syntactic complexity;  (4) should aim at creating procedural knowledge (as opposed to traditional approaches which focus mainly on declarative knowledge); and (5) should involve inductive learning as well as deductive approaches

2.Caveat

The reader should bear in mind that the body of research we shall draw upon in our attempt to answer the above questions is by no means representative of the international teacher community. To generalize the findings of the studies reported above would be preposterous and unfair. However, the data that the studies we shall very concisely review below do yield very interesting findings which do resonate with our experience and do raise important issues which both governments and education providers must heed and address as part of their professional development programmes as they refer to important areas of teacher competence which, in our experience, are grossly neglected.

Please also note that for reasons of space we shall discuss only studies which we deem as representative of each research strand and topic.

3. Do teachers know the target language grammar?

Researchers refer to the knowledge of how language works as KAL (knowledge about language) or LA (language awareness). An important distinction must be drawn between Declarative and Procedural knowledge of the grammar of a language. Declarative knowledge refers to the explicit knowledge of the grammar rules, i.e. being able to articulate how a grammar rule works. Having the procedural knowledge of the grammar of a language means being able to use it in production, by-passing consciousness, so to speak (e.g. I can use the imperfect tense in French but I cannot explain why). Most native speakers of a language who have not been taught language explicitly, for instance, would possess procedural knowledge of their mother tongue but very little – if any – declarative knowledge of it.

As many language theorists and educators believe nowadays, there is a clear link between explicit knowledge of the formal aspects of language and performance when using that language. Hence, as Andews (2008: 1) puts it:

fostering learners’ ability to analyse and describe a language accurately is likely to help them become more effective users of that language. Arising from this is the belief that teachers of a language need an understanding of how that language works and an ability to analyze that language to function effectively as teachers.

It follows that it is paramount that teachers’ subject specific competence ought to include high levels of declarative knowledge as well as the ability to teach it effectively.

3.1 How much do university language students know?

Research investigating L2 teachers’ levels of KAL has yielded shocking results which raise serious concerns. First off, let us have a look at a set of UK-based studies which investigated how much metalinguistic knowledge modern languages university students know. Why should we be interested in this? Because (1) these students constitute the UK language learners elite, the pool from which language teachers usually come, hence, (2) studying them will tell us how much metalinguistic knowledge language teachers are exposed to at secondary school level.

Bloor (1986), Alderson et al (1997) and Alderson et al (2010) investigated the metalinguistic knowledge of 63 students enrolled on language courses in British universities. Bloor’s (1986) findings were the most dispiriting: most students failed to meet the Department of Education and Science target that 16-year-olds should be able to identify verb, noun pronoun, adjective, adverb, article, preposition and conjunction. The only grammatical terms they could identify were ‘verb’ and ‘noun’. Alderson et al (2009) replicated Bloor’s study to see if things had improved 23 years on. Their study confirmed Bloor’s (1986) dispiriting findings although they observed slight improvements in terms of the understanding of metalinguistic terms. They recommended that an increased focus on teaching the use of the terms rather than simply presenting them to students might ensure that they are able to fully understand them, rather than just being familiar with them.

3.2 How about teacher trainees?

Wray (1993) and Williamson and Hardman (1995) investigated the KAL of pre-service teachers at the start of their teacher training programme. Their results confirmed Bloor’s (1986). Some findings were astonishing. In Wray’s study, only 30% of the subjects could identify adverbs and; 23 % pronouns and less than 10% prepositions. Williamson and Hardman (1995) found that their informants scored only 5.6 out of 10 on a question requiring them to name parts of speech. They concluded that the 99 trainees they studies had serious gaps in knowledge about grammar, misconceptions about it and a lack of metalanguage for analyzing language use. Several other studies (e.g Chandler et al., 1988) concurred with these findings.

3.3 In-service teachers’ KAL

Andrews investigated practicing teachers’ levels of KAL in a few studies (e.e. 1994, 199a and 2005). His findings confirmed Bloor’s (1986) and Alderson’s (2009). Andrews (1999a), is particularly interesting because it compared the explicit knowledge of grammar  and grammatical terminology of 4 groups:

  1. NNS (non-native speakers) of English
  2. NNS prospective teachers of English
  3. NS (native speakers) of English with a background in English studies
  4. English NS trainee teachers of modern languages

Andrews found that on average the levels of grammar knowledge were utterly inadequate, although the NNS teachers of English did much better than the other groups. The lowest scores were obtained by the prospective teachers (group 4).

Mitchell et al (1994), in an interesting project in English secondary school settings which involved, amongst others, classroom observations of several Modern Language teachers found that generally, levels of KAL were inadequate and that

There was some evidence that the limits to teachers’ own linguistic knowledge were a constraint on the development of maximally effective KAL work. This could be seen even in some KAL focused units, which at times seemed to have conveyed inaccurate messages to pupils; more generally, teachers’ tendency to avoid technical vocabulary in KAL-related talk seemed linked at times to insecurity in using grammatical or discourse terminology.

Shuib (2009) set to investigate English language teachers’ nature and level of grammatical awareness. Questionnaire and interview techniques were used to elicit data from primary school teachers who were following their B. Ed TESOL programme in Universiti Sains Malaysia in 2006 and 2007. Her data confirmed previous findings. She concluded that in terms of training, her findings suggested that more efforts need to be made at teacher training institutions to promote grammatical awareness among aspiring teachers.

Other interesting findings come from studies by Grossman, Wilson and Shulman (1989) and Beard (1999), which demonstrated that teachers tend to avoid teaching grammar due to their uncertainty about their knowledge of grammar and inadequacy of grammatical knowledge. Beard (1999) noted that besides having much ‘intuitive implicit knowledge’ about grammar, the problem for many teachers is the inability to make the implicit knowledge explicit and to use the appropriate technical terms (metalanguage).

4. Concluding remarks

Although the studies just reviewed and many other investigations carried out all over the world do paint the same bleak picture, we know that there are many excellent practitioners who do have high levels of grammar knowledge. Thus, it is important to reiterate that these research findings, whilst spotting a worrying trend, cannot and should not be generalised to the whole international language teaching community. We have, however, the ethical imperative to heed these findings and, as Borg (2015) puts it,

on the assumption that an explicit understanding of language plays a major role in the effectiveness of the work of language teachers, these findings suggest the need for language teacher preparation programmes to dedicate substantial time to the development of trainees’s declarative knowledge about the language.

We would add that practising teachers should not be afraid to recognize KAL as an area of their subject specific competence requiring development. After all, as Chandler et al.’s (1988) informants stated, most teachers’ KAL was acquired during their school days. A deficit that stems from the way an educational system is run should not be viewed as something to be ashamed of. Hence, senior teachers/professional tutors/line-managers should be encouraged to address any observed gaps in their colleagues’ KAL through professional development strategies in a non-judgemental way.

You can find more on this topic in the book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ I co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase at http://www.amazon.com

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Language teachers and grammar – should we worry? (Part 1)

Please note: this post was co-authored by Steve Smith of The Language Teacher toolkit (www.frenchteacher.net)

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  1. Introduction

This is the first of a series of posts on language teachers’ attitudes, beliefs, conceptions and practices in the realm of grammar teaching which will address the following questions:

  1. Do teachers know the target language grammar?
  2. What beliefs do teachers hold about conscious grammar instruction? Where do these beliefs come from?
  3. How good are teachers at teaching grammar?
  4. Do teachers practise what they preach ?
  5. Do L2-students want to learn grammar?

The present post will concern itself with the first of these five questions.

  1. The rise-fall-rise of Explicit Grammar Instruction

Explicit Grammar Instruction (henceforth EGI) was the primary mode of language instruction from the Romans to the first half of the 20th century. It fell out of favour in the 70s/80s with much of the international modern language teaching community with the advent of theories and methodologies based on the dogma that it does not significantly enhance L2 proficiency development. Such theories and methodologies, based as they were on experiential models of learning and on the attainment of communicative competence as the ultimate goal of language learning, inevitably marginalized the formal teaching of grammar. Nativist theories, such as Krashen’s, even advocated the total ban of EGI in the belief that a natural order of acquisition of L2 grammar structures exists which cannot be altered by formal instruction.

Recently, however, a substantive cohort of L2 educators has advocated that, whilst EGI, on its own, does not enhance acquisition, when integrated with approaches like CLT it may indeed be beneficial and a mounting body of empirical evidence seems to endorse this view (Ellis, 1990, Harley 1993, Ellis,2003). This has prompted a grammar revival that in the last two decades or so has started to creep into mainstream modern language education.

The effective integration of EGI into communicative language teaching or task-based learning is not without challenges. Steve and I believe that EGI can play an important role, however it (1) should not dominate modern language lessons; (2) should be carried out as part of a variable-focus curriculum concerned predominantly with the teaching of communicative functions and vocabulary; (3) should occur mainly in the context of interactional tasks aiming at developing fluency as well as grammar accuracy and syntactic complexity;  (4) should aim at creating procedural knowledge (as opposed to traditional approaches which focus mainly on declarative knowledge); and (5) should involve inductive learning as well as deductive approaches.

3.Caveat

The reader should bear in mind that the body of research we shall draw upon in our attempt to answer the above questions is by no means representative of the international teacher community. To generalize the findings of the studies reported above would be unfair. However, the data that the studies we shall very concisely review below do yield very interesting findings which do resonate with our experience and do raise important issues which both governments and education providers must heed and address as part of their professional development programmes as they refer to important areas of teacher competence which, in our experience, are grossly neglected.

Please also note that for reasons of space we shall discuss only studies which we deem as representative of each research strand and topic.

4. Do teachers know the target language grammar?

Researchers refer to the knowledge of how language works as KAL (knowledge about language) or LA (language awareness). An important distinction must be drawn between Declarative and Procedural knowledge of the grammar of a language. Declarative knowledge refers to the explicit knowledge of the grammar rules, i.e. being able to articulate how a grammar rule works. Having the procedural knowledge of the grammar of a language means being able to use it in production, by-passing consciousness, so to speak (e.g. I can use the imperfect tense in French but I cannot explain why). Most native speakers of a language who have not been taught language explicitly, for instance, would possess procedural knowledge of their mother tongue but very little – if any – declarative knowledge of it.

As many language theorists and educators believe nowadays, there is a clear link between explicit knowledge of the formal aspects of language and performance when using that language. Hence, as Andews (2008: 1) puts it:

fostering learners’ ability to analyse and describe a language accurately is likely to help them become more effective users of that language. Arising from this is the belief that teachers of a language need an understanding of how that language works and an ability to analyze that language to function effectively as teachers.

It follows that it is paramount that teachers’ subject specific competence ought to include high levels of declarative knowledge as well as the ability to teach it effectively.

4.1 How much do university language students know?

Research investigating L2 teachers’ levels of KAL has yielded shocking results which raise serious concerns. First off, let us have a look at a set of UK-based studies which investigated how much metalinguistic knowledge modern languages university students know. Why should we be interested in this? Because (1) these students constitute the UK language learners elite, the pool from which language teachers usually come, hence, (2) studying them will tell us how much metalinguistic knowledge language teachers are exposed to at secondary school level.

Bloor (1986), Alderson et al (1997) and Alderson et al (2010) investigated the metalinguistic knowledge of 63 students enrolled on language courses in British universities. Bloor’s (1986) findings were the most dispiriting: most students failed to meet the Department of Education and Science target that 16-year-olds should be able to identify verb, noun pronoun, adjective, adverb, article, preposition and conjunction. The only grammatical terms they could identify were ‘verb’ and ‘noun’. Alderson et al (2009) replicated Bloor’s study to see if things had improved 23 years on. Their study confirmed Bloor’s (1986) dispiriting findings although they observed slight improvements in terms of the understanding of metalinguistic terms. They recommended that an increased focus on teaching the use of the terms rather than simply presenting them to students might ensure that they are able to fully understand them, rather than just being familiar with them.

4.2 How about teacher trainees?

Wray (1993) and Williamson and Hardman (1995) investigated the KAL of pre-service teachers at the start of their teacher training programme. Their results confirmed Bloor’s (1986). Some findings were astonishing. In Wray’s study, only 30% of the subjects could identify adverbs and; 23 % pronouns and less than 10% prepositions. Williamson and Hardman (1995) found that their informants scored only 5.6 out of 10 on a question requiring them to name parts of speech. They concluded that the 99 trainees they studies had serious gaps in knowledge about grammar, misconceptions about it and a lack of metalanguage for analyzing language use. Several other studies (e.g Chandler et al., 1988) concurred with these findings.

4.3 In-service teachers’ KAL

Andrews investigated practicing teachers’ levels of KAL in a few studies (e.e. 1994, 1999 and 2005). His findings confirmed Bloor’s (1986) and Alderson’s (2009). Andrews (1999), is particularly interesting because it compared the explicit knowledge of grammar  and grammatical terminology of 4 groups:

  1. NNS (non-native speakers) of English
  2. NNS prospective teachers of English
  3. NS (native speakers) of English with a background in English studies
  4. English NS trainee teachers of modern languages

Andrews found that on average the levels of grammar knowledge were utterly inadequate, although the NNS teachers of English did much better than the other groups. The lowest scores were obtained by the prospective teachers (group 4).

Mitchell et al (1994), in an interesting project in English secondary school settings which involved, amongst others, classroom observations of several Modern Language teachers found that generally, levels of KAL were inadequate and that

There was some evidence that the limits to teachers’ own linguistic knowledge were a constraint on the development of maximally effective KAL work. This could be seen even in some KAL focused units, which at times seemed to have conveyed inaccurate messages to pupils; more generally, teachers’ tendency to avoid technical vocabulary in KAL-related talk seemed linked at times to insecurity in using grammatical or discourse terminology.

Shuib (2009) set to investigate English language teachers’ nature and level of grammatical awareness. Questionnaire and interview techniques were used to elicit data from primary school teachers who were following their B. Ed TESOL programme in Universiti Sains Malaysia in 2006 and 2007. Her data confirmed previous findings. She concluded that in terms of training, her findings suggested that more efforts need to be made at teacher training institutions to promote grammatical awareness among aspiring teachers.

Other interesting findings come from studies by Grossman, Wilson and Shulman (1989) and Beard (1999), which demonstrated that teachers tend to avoid teaching grammar due to their uncertainty about their knowledge of grammar and inadequacy of grammatical knowledge. Beard (1999) noted that besides having much ‘intuitive implicit knowledge’ about grammar, the problem for many teachers is the inability to make the implicit knowledge explicit and to use the appropriate technical terms (metalanguage).

4.4 Concluding remarks

Although the studies just reviewed and many other investigations carried out all over the world do paint the same bleak picture, we know that there are many excellent practitioners who do have high levels of grammar knowledge. Thus, it is important to reiterate that these research findings, whilst spotting a worrying trend, cannot and should not be generalised to the whole international language teaching community. We have, however, the ethical imperative to heed these findings and, as Borg (2015) puts it,

on the assumption that an explicit understanding of language plays a major role in the effectiveness of the work of language teachers, these findings suggest the need for language teacher preparation programmes to dedicate substantial time to the development of trainees’s declarative knowledge about the language.

We would add that practising teachers should not be afraid to recognize KAL as an area of their subject specific competence requiring development. After all, as Chandler et al.’s (1988) informants stated, most teachers’ KAL was acquired during their school days. A deficit that stems from the way an educational system is run should not be viewed as something to be ashamed of. Hence, senior teachers/professional tutors/line-managers should be encouraged to address any observed gaps in their colleagues’ KAL through professional development strategies in a non-judgemental way.

The sequel to this post can be found here

You can also find more on this topic in the book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ which I co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase here

Why teachers teach the way they do

Please note: this post was co-authored by Steve Smith, with input from  Dylan Vinales

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Introduction

This post is the first in a series of articles in which we explore teacher’s beliefs, conceptions, images of learning and attitudes vis-a-vis teaching. In other words, what teacher education theorists and researchers refer to as ‘teacher cognition’.

An insight in the way language teacher cognition ‘works’ is of interest to any L2 educator and administrator who values self- and other-professional development. This series of posts will draw on the core literature on teacher cognition in an attempt to enhance language teachers’ understanding of why they teach the way they do.

Beliefs, conceptions about and attitudes to language teaching and learning

There are many reasons why we teach the way we do. The most prominent ones refer to the way we were taught and learnt languages (Borg, 2003). It is mainly our language learning ‘biographies’ – as researchers call our history as L2 learners – that shape our beliefs. Some of our beliefs are so strong and so deeply embedded in our cognition that, as we will argue below, even years of pre-service and in-service teacher education will not be able to alter them. Educational researchers refer to them as ‘central’ or ‘core’ beliefs. Others, the ‘peripheral’ ones, are more amenable to change, but still require quite a lot of conditioning in order to be modified.

Previous images of learning that we have acquired throughout our L2-acquisition experience seem to have a huge bearing on our beliefs about and attitudes to language teaching. Calderhead and Robson (1991) define these images as “general metaphors for thinking about teaching; overall concepts of a lesson; memorized snapshots of particular experiences; conceptions of a subject; ideas about how students learn”. These images act as models of action (Johnson, 1994), triggering automatic responses to the various contexts teachers face on a daily basis. It appears from research that teacher training courses do not discard previous images of learning, especially those that last only a few weeks (e.g. CELTA).

What teacher training courses do is – at best – enhance teachers’ intellectual knowledge about and grasp of pedagogy and their repertoire of techniques, i.e. declarative knowledge (MacDonald et al, 2001). However, their ‘automatic’ teaching behaviour will be still determined by their previous images of learning for as long as it takes for the teacher to automatize the newly acquired pedagogy – a process that may take several years and, in many cases, may never happen. 

Hence, ‘experienced teachers’ does NOT necessarily equate with ‘expert teachers’ !

So, for example, a student-teacher trained in Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) but previously taught in a Grammar-Translation setting throughout her history as an L2 learner might have clear knowledge of how a CLT teacher should teach and may be able to plan a lesson using the framework their trainers modelled on her training; however, in her classroom practice when responding ‘automatically’ to a situation, especially if under stress, the images of learning embedded in her cognition will take over (a widely documented scenario in teacher cognition research).

If after her teacher training the same teacher carries on teaching in settings where CLT is explicitly encouraged by the course, CPD is CLT orientated, textbooks and teaching materials are CLT based and colleagues espouse and implement CLT in their classrooms, one can foresee how this teacher may eventually automatize CLT practices. However, if in her post-training years she teaches in contexts where instructional approaches are not aligned with CLT and/or alongside more experienced colleagues who embrace other methods, she might evolve differently.

The existence of the dichotomy between teacher declarative and procedural (or practical) knowledge is evidenced by a number of studies which report how numerous language instructors’ perception of the approach they use in the classroom differs greatly from their students and/or observers’. For instance, Ng and Farrell (2003) found that teachers who said they believed one should minimize explicit error correction in lessons actually corrected a lot. Loewen and Ellis (2004) identified similar behaviours in their informants. Hawkey (2003) found that teachers and learners’ perception of the way they taught did not match in many respects.

All of the above brings into question the value of much of the professional development practice taking place in schools around the world, as it lacks the momentum, support, resources and long-term planning required to succeed. Not to mention the fact that it often lacks an educational rationale strong enough for teachers to buy into it.

The above also suggests that self-reflection, whether carried out by the teacher alone or in dyads or triads may not necessarily per se results in much enhancement in terms of procedural knowledge. For self-reflection to pay dividends, it must not only generate change at an intellectual level (e.g. I see this is not working, I should try this out); the change must result in classroom implementation which is sustained long enough for it to be automatized. In 25 years of experience we have rarely seen this happen successfully. Have you?

Yet, scores of blog posts and articles are shared on a daily basis on social media strongly encouraging teachers to self-reflect but never, to our knowledge, discuss the most important ‘bit’: how we get from the outcome of the self-reflection to actual change (intended as long-lasting practical change in classroom behaviour not in teachers’ heads). Moreover, how can we be sure that teachers do have the cognitive ‘tools’ to self-reflect effectively?

Steve and I are strong believers in self-reflection as a teaching competence enhancer,  yet there are a series of serious obstacles in the way of productive self-reflection that one has to consider:

(1) can we be truly objective and honest with ourselves? – After all we have a vested interest in appearing good in our own eyes (a question of self-preservation);

(2) do we fully trust/value the professional judgement of the person who gives us feedback? Are they credible? Do they walk the talk? Are you going to listen to a very teacher-centred Head of Languages telling you to do more oral group-work? Or to a rigid, autocratic and closed-minded member of the Senior Leadership Team advocating growth mindset?  And if we actually do listen to peer feedback, what are the chances of us investing a lot of time and effort processing and acting on it?

(3) one has to have sufficient levels of cognition about language teaching pedagogy to be able to evaluate one’s teaching;

(4) one has to have the time and the ability to be able to research and process any relevant research – when it is available. It must be noted that reading pedagogic literature/research may create declarative knowledge but it does not follow that it will result in deep learning. And even if it will, for that learning to give rise to procedural knowledg it will take a lot of effort and time – often more than the average teacher can afford.

(5) for self-reflection based professional development to succeed, teachers must invest a lot of cognitive effort in the process. For instance, our blogging has definitely impacted our teaching practice and, indirectly, that of those around us; and research shows that producing coursework on a given area of pedagogy does enhance the chance of professional development impacting practice (Borg, 2003). However, this is not always easy in busy state schools were teachers are overloaded with teaching and marking.

(6) last, but not least. One has to have high levels of motivation and resilience to consistently carry out self-reflection and to learn from it. How many snowed-under secondary school language teachers actually have that?

The ineffectiveness of much professional development practice in bringing about substantive change in teacher cognition and behaviour is often due to the fact that much CPD does not explicitly aim at creating teaching procedural knowledge. Procedural knowledge, in order to be acquired, requires lots of modelling, extensive practice with lots of initial support which is gradually phased out and, most importantly, intentionality (the desire to change). Schools’ professional development courses usually fall short of doing this. And, to make things worse, they divide teachers’ attention by setting too many objectives failing to recognize how cognitively overloaded full-time classroom practitioners already are in their professional and personal lives. As the old saying goes, he who chases two rabbits catches none.

Furthermore, the colleagues you work with will be an important surrounding variable, too, as teacher competence is very much socially constructed. Much of our professional development will be dependent on that. Motivated, knowledgeable, inspiring, supportive and empathetic line-managers and colleagues will have a major impact on one’s professional development. Hence, the idea of having self-reflecting triads of teachers is a great idea, at least on paper. However, especially in the light of what we said before about the imperviousness to change of previous images of learning, the gap between declarative and procedural knowledge, and that between perceived and actual practice, the implementation of such approaches must be carefully thought out. For instance, it is all very well to tell teachers ‘ choose who  you want to work with’; however, one might choose someone one gets along with, not necessarily someone who might provide a productive cognitive challenge and new information and ideas which may propel them further professionally.

Concluding remarks

This post serves as an introduction to a series of articles on teacher cognition. It  has highilighted some crucial issues in teacher education: the existence of core beliefs and behaviours acquired during our learning biographies which, as research shows, may be impervious to change and require several years of training and teaching practice in order to be altered. This has huge implication for in-service professional development. The most important one is that for CPD to work it must aim at developing teacher procedural knowledge (i.e. automatised behaviours) not simply intellectual knowledge about teaching. This entails that in-house professional development programmes must narrow their focus; aim at extensive rather than intensive practice; provide teachers with sufficient quality time to self-reflect, share and try out new teaching strategies. Finally, and most crucially, they must recognize that the proceduralization of behaviour takes a long time and requires tons of scaffolding from various angles and sources. Consequently, they must device a well thought-out long-term support system and clever ways to keep up teachers’ motivation to grow professionally.

The next installment- Teacher beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and misperceptions vis-à-vis grammar teaching

In the next installment of the ‘why teachers teach the way they do’ series we will focus on why teachers teach grammar the way they do. We will present and discuss some research findings which paint a worrying picture as to how much pre-service teachers actually know about grammar and grammar pedagogy. We will also map out how teacher cognition in the realm of TLA (teacher language awareness) and TMA (teacher metalinguistic awareness) actually changes from the pre-service training to the novice and expert stage.

You can find more on this topic in the book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ I co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase at http://www.amazon.com

Beyond imitation – Five L2 writing teaching techniques that work, yet few Modern Language teachers use

Please note: this post was co-authored by Steve Smith of www.frenchteacher.net 

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  1. Introduction – Why modern language teachers need to re-evaluate their attitudes and strategies about teaching writing

In these writers’ experience, many foreign classrooms instructors’ attitudes and strategies about teaching writing are more product- than process-oriented. By this we mean that explicit writing instruction – when it does occur – tends to rely mostly on

(1) ‘imitation’ – the provision of lists of model phrases/sentences which in the best scenarios are ‘drilled in’ through gap-fill practice;

(2) explicit grammar instruction which is rarely contextualized in whole-discourse practice (e.g. essay writing);

(3) learning from feedback on written output (usually a creative piece of narrative or discursive essay) – which usually occurs through annotations on margins, lists of targets or, in the best scenarios, one-to-one conferences. Feedback usually tackles all the deficit areas through one set of corrections / conference session;

(4) essay writing practice – often from day one, in the belief that practice makes perfect.

Some teachers train their students to compose in their native language first and  then  translate the L1 output thereby generated into the L2. This cumbersome process, however, must be utterly discouraged by teachers if they want students to attain some degree of fluency in target language writing and become more ‘spontaneous’ writers. Moreover, as Kobayashi and Rinnert (1992) found, this approach does indeed lead to more complex L2 output, but also lead to making many more errors than composing directly in the L2, for obvious reasons: the sentences language learners create when composing in their native language are usually too cognitively challenging and linguistically complex for their existing levels of L2 proficiency. Hence, the translations are bound to be inaccurate. Finally, it is this kind of approach which encourages less resilient and committed students to ‘google-translate’.

None of the above focuses the learners explicitly on the process of writing intended as the transformation of concepts or ideas (or ‘propositions’ as cognitive pyschologists call them) into words and syntactic structures.

One scenario in which the process of writing is indeed focused on in the UK modern language classroom refers to the teaching of higher meta-components of essay composition, e.g. planning, prioritizing, organizing and evaluating ideas. In other words: content production and organization. To our knowledge, however, even this practice is not as frequent and systematic as it should be.

Another strategy is to engage students in L2 reading in the belief that the language items in the articles or narratives they read in class or as assignments will be internalized and eventually resurface in their written pieces. This is not an erroneous assumption if students do read frequently and extensively in the target language.

Our take on the above is that these approaches usually work with the more talented, committed, self-reliant and highly metacognizant language learners, especially those who are highly proficient writers in their first language. But what is the student is not a gifted L1 writer; does not memorize the lists of connectives, model phrases and key terms her teacher diligently prepared for her whilst writing her essay; does not read extensively outside the classroom; does not spend more than a few minutes’ time – as most students do – processing her teacher’s feedback and rarely refers to the targets set for her? How do we expect such students to improve their essay writing?

  1. Strategies suggested in previous posts

In previous posts Gianfranco tackled the issue by suggesting that:

(1) teachers practice writing instruction which addresses different communicative and discourse functions/skills as discrete items in each lesson or set of lessons. The assignments set would engage students in intensive practice of those functions. So, for example, if the functions is ‘explaining’, instructors would teach a series of lessons on the relevant discourse markers (e.g. because, due to the fact that, etc.) – contextualized in the topic at hand – and provide in- and out-of-the classroom practice in those discourse markers. This would still be ‘imitation’, though, if the teachers simply provided lists and asked the learners to ‘get on with it’ and fill in a cloze text or make-up random sentences. It would focus on the process, however, if the students were asked to analyze the use of the discourse markers under study in model L2 texts; to work out different ways to convey the message contained in a sentence through using a range of discourse markers without significantly altering the meaning.

(2) teachers do not throw students in the deep end by asking them to write essay after essay from day one; but rather, that classroom and out-of-the-classroom activities focus on micro-writing, i.e. the process of writing an introduction/conclusion or developing one of the ideas brainstormed in the idea-generation phase into a paragraph.

(3) teacher feedback focus not simply on providing a correct L2 alternative to the student erroneous output (product-based feedback), but attempt to address the cognitive causes of learner deficits by collaboratively investigating the processes that underlie those deficits (process-based feedback). This entails that feedback on a piece of writing may be provided over several sessions each session focusing on different deficits identified in student output (e.g. one session on the relevance of some of the concepts selected by the students ; one on the organization of the essays; one on sentence level errors).

(4) parallel texts be used in order to raise learner awareness of the differences between L2 and L1 writing across a number of dimensions of the text. If done from the very early days of instruction, this kind of work can dispel the assumptions held by many language learners that the L2 is but a literal, word for word translation of the L1.

  1. The writing process as transformation

In this post we shall tackle the issue from a different angle: we shall focus on one aspect of L2 writer proficiency development which is often neglected by modern language teachers: the development of linguistic variety (both in terms of vocabulary and grammar structures), clarity, concision and, most importantly, syntactic maturity (i.e. the ability to produce complex sentences). The rationale for choosing these aspects of writer development is motivated by the fact that, as Phillips (1996) rightly notes:

Currently, theorists regard writing not as a product but as a continuous process of arranging and re-arranging words and syntactic structures until a writer finds the ones which best communicate the desired idea or message.

Syntactic maturity is based on the principle that mature writers tend to use more transformations in their writing and therefore write with more syntactic complexity. William Strong says “that syntactic growth (in terms of increased sentence length, depth of modification, and subordination) is a natural and inexorable feature of normal language development ” (1986). In “An I-Search Perspective on Language/Composition Research” he identifies three indices of syntactic growth:

(1) increased noun modification by means of adjectives, relative clauses, and phrases;

(2) increased nominalization in clausal, infinitive, and gerund constructions;

and (3) increased depth of modification through embedding.

In the twenty-first century class, more than ever, teachers need to identify methods for teaching writing which provide students with choice and flexibility (both lexical and structural). Why ‘more than ever’? Because in this day and age, the ‘cut and paste’ attitude to processing and sharing knowledge is rampant. Hence, our learners need to be equipped with the cognitive and linguistic tools to transform whatever knowledge they process into their own words, effectively, not merely to avoid plagiarism, but also because transformation involves higher order thinking and consequently deeper learning and greater ownership over the information being communicated.

If we, as teachers, accept this premise, then the predominantly imitative / model-based approach to writing currently in use in most UK modern language classrooms needs to be replaced by or at least supplemented with a more dynamic approach which explicitly promotes and nurtures syntactic complexity by actively engaging the learners in more than mere imitation – i.e. the sheer application of a pre-packaged model; an approach, that is, that explicitly encourages the student writer to use the model phrases/sentences provided by teachers, L2 texts or reference materials in a transformational, creative and risk-taking fashion.

4.Beyond imitation

3.1 – Sentence-combining techniques

One set of techniques that does push writing instruction well beyond the boundaries of sheer imitation and has a highly successful track-record -evidenced by scores of L1 and L2 writing research studies – is Sentence combining, defined by Phillips (1996) as

A technique of putting strings of sentence kernels together in a variety of ways so that completed sentences possess greater syntactic maturity.

In her seminal review of L1 sentence combining studies Phillips (1996) concludes that

Most of the experiments on sentence combining relate sentence combining and cumulative sentence exercises to gains in syntactic maturity.

Mounting evidence indicates that L2 student writing, too, benefits from intensive sentence combining instruction (Cooper and Morain, 1980; Enginarlar, 1994; Riazi, 2002; Juffs et al., 2014).

3.1.1 Signaled combining.

Two sentences are provided and specific instructions for sentence construction are provided. Here is an example I have used with a pre-intermediate class

I have a sister (who)

Her name is Marie

The result would be :

I have a sister who is called Marie

Signaled combining is useful when one wants to drill in a particular grammar structure or connectives in a controlled linguistic environment.

3.1.2 Open sentence combining.

In this approach,the students are not cued. For example, the kernels below

I have a sister

My sister is called Marie

She is friendly, pleasant and helpful

I argue with her from time to time

she is too talkative

could be combined as

my sister, who is called Marie, is very friendly, pleasant and helpful but from time to time I argue with her because she is too talkative

As Mellon (cited in Daiker, 1985) notes, open combining has the advantage to allow the students to learn a variety of ways ‘to transform sentences, make linguistic choices, experiment with structures and discern which sentences produce the most effective results in written language.

3.1.3 The cumulative sentence (page 13)

This approach has Robert Marzano, Joseph Lawlor, Terry Phelps, Nancy Swanson, and Dennis Packard amongst its strongest advocates. The concept of the cumulative sentence evolved from Christensen’s belief that written composition is an additive process in which a writer begins with a major idea and then adds to it so that the reader can grasp the meaning.

The cumulative sentence, says Christensen, “is the opposite of the periodic sentence. . . . It is dynamic rather than static, representing the mind thinking. The main clause exhausts the mere fact of the idea. . . . The additions stay with the main idea”. A cumulative sentence contains a main clause and several modifying clauses. Here is an example:

she came to our house

she came yesterday

she was dressed in black

she was accompanied by her brother

her brother looked sad

Could be combined as :

she came to our home yesterday, dressed in black, accompanied by her brother who looked sad

As Phillips points out, cumulative sentences encourage students to vary their output, add metaphoric descriptions, rephrase confusing periodic sentences into clearer ones and eliminate redundant elements.

 3.1.4 Whole-discourse exercises

These are more challenging but more useful if we are trying to forge effective essay writers as they do not confine syntactic transformation and manipulation to stand-alone sentences but contextualize them in the development of a concept or set of concepts. Whole discourse exercises build on the previous techniques by presenting the students with various sets of sentence kernels (Gianfranco usually uses 5 or six sets); the task: to create a sentence out of each set and then group the resulting sentences cohesively into a meaningful and logically arranged paragraph.

Mellon (1985) says that whole-discourse exercises have two benefits. The first is that by freeing students from concern with content, whole-discourse exercises help students improve their syntactic manipulations. The second is that whole discourse exercises help students improve writing both within and between sentences.

The way Gianfranco goes about creating whole discourse exercises is by decombining a paragraph from a textbook and asking the students to recombine it. Students enjoy it and learn a lot of vocabulary in the process, too.

3.1.5 Decombining

Decombining can be used as a starting point for any of the recombining activities described above, not simply for Whole-discourse exercises. In the absence of sentence combining exercises in published MFL materials, teachers can make their own by decombining sentences found in the coursebooks or L2 sources available to them.

However, decombining is a great learning activity for students, too, as by deconstructing texts they become more aware of the writing process, especially when they are required to analyze the choices made by the author. What Gianfranco normally does, is to ask the students to decombine a text in a given lesson and ask them to go back to it two or three lessons later and have a go at recombining it –without having the original in front of them, obviously.

  1. Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing is an important skill to have and one which requires transformation. It develops students’ vocabulary by forcing them to use synonyms; their grammar/syntax by often having to drastically alter the sentence structure (e.g. from active to passive voice); it may even encourage the use of metaphors, imagery, analogy and other rhetorical figures in more adventurous learners.

One very fruitful activity Gianfranco carries out with his A2 students is to ask them to paraphrase sentences which sound ambiguous or even obscure in an attempt to enhance their clarity (he provides the sentence in the L2 with the intended meaning that the author failed to express effectively next to it).

  1. Summarizing and Shrinking

Upper intermediate student-writers often lack concision. Summarizing is a very effective way to get students to learn to be concise, especially if they are given a word limit and are not allowed to repeat more than a very limited number of the language items included in the original text.

Shrinking, one of Gianfranco’s favourite writing activities, pushes the summarizing challenge a notch further by requiring the students to concentrate the meaning of a paragraph into a single sentence. A word or even character limit can be imposed, here, too. In the past Gianfranco has used Twitter for this activity – forbidding any word abbreviations/contractions or verb ellipses.

6. Tips

  1. Do not spend too much classroom time on these activities – after a few lessons in which you would have modelled how to go about these activities (e.g. using think-aloud techniques) assign these activities as homework;
  2. Distributed better than massed practice – Better do a little bit of the above every lesson, contextualized in the topic at hand, possibly after practising the vocabulary you will include in the sentence. Unless you have highly motivated or highly needy students, do not spend a whole lesson doing this – students may find it tedious. A lot of these activities make for excellent plenaries.
  3. Avoid cognitive overload – Unless you are working with very proficient L2 writers, do not use too much unfamiliar language in the to-be-combined/paraphrased/shrunk texts.
  4. Make it fun and/or competitive – sentence combining/paraphrasing and shrinking on MWBs or on Twitter under time conditions can easily be made fun and competitive.
  5. Match to ability – whereas all of the above can be used with any of your upper intermediate learners, only the easiest forms of sentence combining and paraphrasing are suitable for your intermediate learners (e.g. signaled combining)
  6. Extensive modelling – Do provide a lot of modelling before engaging the students into the more open ended of the above activities. There will be students who will find these activities very challenging. Since these are likely to be those who need this kind of practice the most, prepping them adequately so as to enhance their chances to succeed is paramount.

7. Concluding remarks

Much written instruction in UK high schools occurs through the imitation of models, feedback on writing practice and explicit grammar instruction. However, not much explicit and systematic effort is made to develop variety, clarity, concision and syntactic maturity, the ability to produce sentences that are longer, contain complex subordination and deeper modification. Yet, the attainment of these four goals is a must if we aim to forge effective writers and communicators in general.

Another reason to focus on the development of L2-learner ability to transform and manipulate language effectively refers to the fact that a lot of 21st-century-student learning occurs through the digital medium, mostly on the Internet. Hence, today’s language learners need, more than ever, to be able to transform whatever L2 knowledge they find on internet based sources into their own words not only to avoid plagiarism but also to make it their own.

Sentence combining, Paraphrasing, Summarizing and Shrinking hold the potential to enhance these areas of L2 learner writing proficiency. The effectiveness of the sentence combining techniques discussed above is supported by a vast body of research evidence. As for the other three we could not locate any substantial research evidence. However, they worked well for us – as language learners – and for many of our students over the years.

We believe that if students received systematic practice in activities of this kind from their pre-intermediate days all the way to GCSE (intermediate to upper intermediate level), the notoriously huge gap between learner writing proficiency at the end of KS4 (14-16 years old) and the level of competence needed at KS5 (16 to 18 years old) would be significantly reduced.

More on this topic can be found in ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ , the book Steve Smith and I co-authored, published on http://www.amazon.co.uk

Using translation as a language-proficiency-enhancing technique – A teaching sequence

Please note: this post was co-authored with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net with some input from Dylan Vinales of GIS Kuala Lumpur

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In a previous post Gianfranco provided the rationale for using translation in the MFL classroom rooted in common sense and cognitive theory. In that post the point was made that translation, a ‘legacy method’ frowned upon by many language educators for several decades, it is not simply a useful but a truly must-have skill if we are to prepare our students for life in the real world. Why?

Good translation skills can help you get scores of well-paid jobs and language knowers translate for other people on a daily basis. In the Internet age, possessing effective translation skills has become all the more important as (a) sources of information are often not entirely faithful to the original version and things get often lost in translation; (b) reading for gist can get us in trouble – even legal ‘troubles’ – when sharing something on social media or executing an online transaction; missing a crucial detail, such as failing to notice the negative nuance of a word or being misled by a false-friend cognate (e.g. ‘disposable’ which in Italian evokes ‘disponible’, ‘available’) a double negative, an unknown idiom or an obscure cultural reference can cause us to misunderstand the important part of a text.

Someone might object: doesn’t (b) above refer to effective reading skills? Yes and no. Research (as reported by Macaro, 2007) shows that less proficient readers (like the ones we teach at GCSE level in Britain) do often translate into their mother tongue when grappling with more complex and challenging text, rehearsing it in their working memory as they reconstruct meaning. I am a near native speaker of English and French and still find this strategy very useful when dealing with very complex literary texts. It eases the cognitive load and the processing of more challenging concepts.

As far as the benefits of translation for language learning please refer back to Gianfranco’s previous blog: https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/translation-part-1-the-case-for-translation-in-foreign-language-instruction/ . Here’s a concise summary of the ways translation can benefits the novice-to-intermediate foreign language classroom:

  1. Benefits of L2 to L1 translation (with dictionary)

– learning of new vocabulary in context;

– focus on detail – reading comprehensions do not require students to understand each and every word. Translations do. This often sparks off the use of a wider range of learning strategies (including dictionary use) than reading to answer comprehension questions does;

– because of the focus on detail translation is more likely to bring about the Noticing  of new L2 structures than reading for comprehension would. Noticing is posited by many cognitive researchers as the starting point of the L2 acquisition process (see Schmidt’s, 1980,Noticing hypothesis)

– greater cognitive investment in the processing of L2 texts than reading. This is not necessarily always the case, but often, due to the necessity of having to translate each and every word, the learner will invest more time and effort processing the target text;

– the greater cognitive investment just mentioned above may lead to deeper learning than reading for comprehension would bring about;

– practice in the use of dictionaries, a lifelong learning skill;

– requires minimum preparation but can have high impact if used adequately.

 

  1. Benefits of L1 to L2 translation (with dictionaries)

– enables teacher to ‘force’ students to focus on language items that other less structured writing tasks may allow students to avoid;

– allows teachers to recycle at will vocabulary and language structures that may not be used spontaneously by the students in other types of writing tasks;

– oral and written translations under time constraints are invaluable instruments for the assessment of oral/written fluency and constitute minimum-preparation starters/plenaries.

– elicits the use of lots of useful learning strategies and dictionary use;

– encourages greater focus on accuracy and on grammar and syntax – when it goes beyond word level;

– differentiation is easy.

The drawbacks are that some students do find translations boring, especially when they are long; some students may found it daunting; assessment is not always straightforward; there are not many examples in the current literature of how to use translation for teaching.

Rationale for this post

This post is motivated by the many queries Steve Smith (www.frenchteacher.net ) and I have received in the last four weeks by readers of our blogs asking how we would prepare students for GCSE level translation tasks. Steve has already written a great post listing a vast array of ways in which translation can be used to enhance language learner proficiency. This post should be seen as complementary to Steve’s in that it purports to provide a teaching sequence based on various L1-to-L2 translation tasks rather than a list of discrete activities.

The teaching sequence

When using translation, like any other learning technique we have to ask ourselves the all-important question: what is it for? Is it to drill in new vocabulary or consolidate ‘old’ language items? Is it to assess students’ oral or written fluency? Is it to teach dictionary skills? Is it to impart learning strategies/translation skills? Or is it to focus on connotative language and its nuances?

The sequence below can be used to enhance/consolidate vocabulary, grammar, fluency and translation strategies across all four skills. More translation-task-based sequences will follow in future posts. It should be noted that the sequence does not necessarily have to take one lesson.

Please note that this sequence presupposes that the students have declarative knowledge of most of the grammar structures included in the target translation task and of part of the vocabulary.

Step 1 – Planning

(a) Prepare or select the translation task. Make sure it is not too long. It should not take more than 20-25 minutes maximum for your average student to complete.

(b) Prepare/select four-five texts very similar in length and linguistic content to the target translation task with some comprehension questions. This is basically, what I call a narrow-reading task (see this example on https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/ks3-4-french-narrow-reading-on-hobbies-11098035  ), i.e.: a series of comprehension tasks based on texts that are extremely similar to each other (see my post on narrow reading and listening on this blog). Make sure the tasks include finding in the texts the L2 equivalent of L1 words.

(c) (Optional) If you have the time, prepare three or four more (shorter) texts with the same features for listening comprehension (narrow listening). It seems like a lot of work but it isn’t. All you have to do is to slightly modify the texts you produced for reading comprehension purposes by changing two or three details here and there. Five minutes’ work.

(d) Identify the words/structures you expect the students will have problems with and prepare a set of sentences in the L1 and one in L2 which feature them. Important: make sure the sentences are as similar as possible in grammar/syntax to the kind of sentences found in the translation task. Gap or cut in half the sentences in the target language by removing the key items you want the students to focus on. The gapped sentences in the L2 will be for aural processing; the ones in the L1 for written translation purposes.

Step 2 – Word level teaching

This can be flipped. Using Quizlet, Memrise, www.language-gym.com  , etc. prepare a series of activities which drill in most of the key unfamiliar lexical items and the grammar structures included in the translation task.

Step 3 – Modelling of target language items through narrow reading

The modelling of the target language items occurs through narrow reading first as it is easier. Dictionaries are allowed. Narrow reading allows for recycling of the key target lexical and grammar items.

Step 4 – Eliciting selective attention to key items through listening with gap-fill

Use the gapped/cut-in-half sentences in the L2 that you prepared in Step 1 (d). You will utter the sentences at moderate speed (the purpose is modelling so speak clearly) to draw the students’ attention to the unfamiliar words/phrases you will have removed when you gapped them.

Step 5 – Reinforcing modelling through narrow listening

Same as Step 3 except that it is through the aural medium.

Step 6 (OPTIONAL) – Paying selective attention to the key target grammar items through grammaticality-judgement quizzes

Here you can stage a ‘Sentence auction’ whereby the students are presented with a number of sentences, some right, some wrong, containing the key items found in the target translation task. Each sentence has a price. Working in groups, the students must decide whether to buy or not the sentence the teachers wants to ‘sell’. If they refuse to buy when the sentence is wrong they win the equivalent of the sentence price; the same happens if they buy a sentence when it is correct. Conversely, if they buy a wrong sentence or refuse to buy a correct one they will lose money. The aim here is to focus the students on the kind of grammar mistakes that, in your experience, they are more likely to make in executing the target translation task

Step 7 – Sentence level translation

You can do this as a whole-class activity or in groups, turning it into a competition. Students translate the L1 sentences you prepared in Step 1 (d) under time conditions. The student(s) making fewer mistakes in each round win(s).

Step 8 – Translation task

You can go about this in two ways. 8a. If you want to assess fluency, you will do it under time constraints. You will break up the text in sentences and you will utter one sentence at a time.Equipped with mini white boards, the students will translate them into the TL in the time you allocated. 8b. If you are not bothered about their ability to operate in exam conditions, you will allocate the time you deem necessary for them to complete the task. Dictionaries allowed.

Step 9 – Follow-up

It would be ideal if you could set as homework a text which is extremely similar to the one done in Step 8.

Conclusion

This sequence does require some preparation time – about 45-60 minutes. However, we are confident the reader will see the advantages of the kind of recycling and selective attention to the key target items that this sequence brings about. The most important outcome of this sequence is that students, in our experience, get to the target task confident and prepared and usually do well. If a series of follow-ups of the kind envisaged in Step 9 occur, the gains obtained will become consolidated. The reader should note this is a ‘no-frills’ sequence, so to speak, devoid of fancy or flashy games; deliberately so, to be as low-effort as possible. However, we are sure there are ways to ‘spice it up’ and make it more engaging.

10 common shortcomings of secondary curriculum design and textbooks in the UK

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net. Many thanks to Dylan Vinales of Garden International School, too, for the thought-provoking discussion we had on the topic prior to writing this.

Introduction

In this post I will concern myself with issues in typical secondary school MFL curriculum design as evidenced by the schemes of work – and the textbooks these are often based on – which in my view seriously undermine the effectiveness of foreign language instruction in many British secondary schools.

Effective curriculum design is as crucial to successful MFL instruction as effective classroom delivery is and must be based on sound pedagogy and skillful planning. As I intend to discuss in this post, much curriculum planning and textbook writing flouts some of the most fundamental tenets of sound foreign language pedagogy and neglects important dimensions of language acquisition. Although Steve Smith of www.frenchteacher.net – with whom I am currently writing ‘The MFL teacher handbook’ – noted in his blog that the new editions of some British textbooks are actually addressing some of the issues I am about to discuss, there is still much scope for improvement.

Issue n 1 – Coverage vs Time available

Schemes of work are typically over-ambitious as they often reflect the structure of the textbook adopted; they usually aim to cover a given topic (i.e. a chapter / module in the textbook) in 6-7 weeks. This does not allow the students to truly acquire the target material, especially when it comes to grammar structures. As I have showed in a number of previous posts, the acquisition of grammar structures which involve ending manipulations/agreement and differ substantially from their L1 equivalent may take months to internalize. Another problem is that schemes of work – when based on textbooks – often devote only one or two lessons to each of the five or six sub-topics that make up the unit-in-hand and then move on to the next sub-topic. This does often not allow for sufficient recycling.

Solution – obvious: teach less but in greater depth; recycle more.

Issue n 2 – Fluency: the neglected objective

In previous blogs I pointed out how effective foreign language teaching ought to aim at developing fluency across all four skills and especially into areas where speed of processing is paramount to be an effective communicator: oral interaction and interpersonal writing (e.g. instant messaging). Fluency was defined in previous post as the ability to produce intelligible oral or written speech in response to a stimulus at high speed. This is a crucial skill for students to develop if we want to enable them to use the target language in the real world, especially in the workplace. Yet, fluency rarely – if ever- features expicitly as a goal in UK MFL departments’ schemes of work. Hence, teachers neither plan for fluency development nor are allocated adequate resources and training to teach fluency. Nor do they formally assess fluency.

Moreover, the issue highlighted in the previous paragraph often works against the attainment of fluency as rushing through a unit entails neglecting horizontal progression. Without sufficient horizontal progression fluency cannot be obtained.

Solution – Plan for the attainment of fluency. Include activities to develop speech automatization and opportunities for its assessment.

Issue n 3 – Topic compartmentalization / Lack of recycling

Schemes of work – even those that are not based on textbooks – rarely recycle adequately. Many colleagues – obviously not language teachers – ask me why I have uploaded over 1,600 teaching resources in two years on http://www.tes.com  and why I created a whole website devoted mainly to vocabulary teaching (www.language-gym.com). The answer is that textbooks and schemes of work usually compartmentalize teaching; term 1a one teaches topic X, term 1b topic Y, term 2a topic Z etc. Each time a topic or structure is covered, it is rarely consciously and systematically recycled in later units. I have had to produce my own worksheets and online resources to guarantee the necessary recycling; it has paid off, but teachers, as overloaded with work as they already are, should not have to do this.

Solution: include in the schemes of work a section in each unit headed ‘recycling opportunities’ and include activities aiming at consolidating old material. Also, make sure that each end of unit assessment tests students on material covered in previous units – or even previous years.

Issue 4 – What about communicative functions?

Most UK textbooks and MFL departments more or less explicitly adopt a weak communicative notional/functional syllabus with a variable focus (i.e. functions/notions + grammar). However, they usually patently neglect to focus adequately on important communicative functions. A glance at Finocchiaro and Brumfit’s (1983) classification of communicative functions (at http://www.carla.umn.edu/articulation/polia/pdf_files/communicative_functions.pdf ) will clarify what I mean. Much typical British secondary school teaching focuses mainly on Referential communicative functions and on only a few interpersonal functions. However, many Interpersonal and Imaginative functions are hardly touched on. Moreover, many important Personal functions are grossly neglected, too – although, I am sure you will agree,  they are crucial in daily life.

In PBL-based schemes of work this issue is worsened by the nature of the approach adopted which focuses on the attainment of a product rather than interpersonal communication.

Communicative functions are pivotal to effective target language proficiency. They are way more important than many other things textbooks teach.

Solution: use Finocchiaro and Brumfit’s taxonomy to fill the gaps in this area that you will identify in your schemes of work. Make sure that you recycle functions over and over again throughout the year.

Issue 5 – The 2 neglected word-classes

Textbooks, schemes of work and specialized websites focus mainly on nouns and –tragically – neglect verbs and adjectives – and hence adverbs from which adjectives are obtained. Verbs, as I pointed out in previous blogs, are essential in order to acquire a high level of autonomous speaking competence (spontaneous talk). One of the reasons for this neglect, I suspect, is that state-school English learners are notoriously bad at conjugating verbs; hence, textbooks dumb down their comprehensible input and target vocabulary by including only few essential and often more ‘learnable’ verbs.

Solution: include lists of target verbs in the schemes of work. Using quizlet or memrise to create your own online activities to drill them in (in the infinitive). You could use my verb trainer at www.language-gym.com – the pictures help the students learn the verb meaning as they conjugate – or my Work-outs.

Issue 6 – How about improvisation?

Schemes of work are usually planned around specific topics, which, in England, repeat themselves every year – how boring! However, autonomous speaking competence (spontaneous talk) is about being able to talk ‘across topics’ so to speak; to be able to have a ‘natural’ conversation with a speaker of the target language which is not bound to a specific topic or sub-topic but touches different aspects of human life and experiences. MFL departments – at least to my knowledge – never really plan for this. Yet, nearly everyone these days states that spontaneous talk is high on their agenda.

Solution: plan for one or two lessons every now and then – maybe in between half-terms? – which are entirely dedicated to talking, reading, listening and writing in the target language without being tied down to a specific topic. A very easy-to-set-up task is a general conversation task where the students ask each other a wide variety of questions covering several topics, including some that have never been covered before – but that the students possess the linguistic tools to talk about.

Issue 7 – Grammar, the ‘poor sister’

This point is so obvious that I will not dwell too long over it. British textbooks devote a ridiculously small amount of space to grammar and to its recycling. Teachers have to toil on a daily basis to resource grammar teaching.

Solution: teach more grammar and recycle it to death (see my previous post: 16 tips for effective grammar teaching’.

Issue 8 – Intercultural competence

Textbooks and schemes of work often include sections about ‘La Francophonie’ or other facts about the target language civilization. However, one very important dimension of cultural awareness is nearly always missing: how to avoid culture shock or other ‘faux pas’ and, more generally, how to train students to deal with target language native speakers in a way which is culture-sensitive and can foster effective integration. In an era where the labour market is so globalized, intercultural competence has become an important lifelong learning skill which our students need to be equipped with.

Solutions: Cultural awareness teaching should be more about the (cross-cultural) skills than the facts.

Issue 9 – Variety of topics

Every year, from year 6/7 to year 11, English teenagers keep learning about the same blocked topics, often relearning the same words. Here again, textbooks play an important role. As I tweeted earlier on today, most English textbooks seem to replicate the Metro textbook blueprint.

Solution: try new topics or combinations of topics. Prioritize topics teenagers are really interested in like relationships, entertainment, gadgets, social media, fashion, etc, rather than house chores or pets…

Issue 10 – Teaching sequences

The ‘Metro textbook blueprint’ is evident in all its successors not only in terms of the topics which receive more emphasis, but also in the way they sequence grammar structures. In a future post Steve and I will propose how we believe grammar structures should be sequenced and the rationale for it. There are many things we believe textbook writers and curriculum designers in the UK should change. One thing that springs to mind, for instance is modal verbs (e.g. Vouloir, Pouvoir, Devoir in French). One wonders why they are always introduced quite late when they are so important in everyday communication and have very high surrender value. Imagine how ‘handy’ they can be to a beginner learner, before they even start conjugating verb, followed as they are by infinitives. Moreover, their acquisition earlier on would partly address issue 5 by enabling the students to use many verbs at will quite easily.

Solution: Consider the surrender value and learnability of the target grammar structures. Would learning them earlier or later facilitate acquisition in your opinion? If so, don’t wait for the textbook sequence to teach them.

Conclusion

Some of the shortcomings in the typical secondary school MFL curriculum and course-book design I have just discussed are much more important than others. My pet hates are the lack of recycling, the insufficient focus on oral fluency, the neglect of verbs and adjectives and the sketchy and superficial approach to grammar. The reader should note that I have deliberately not dealt with the teaching of lifelong learning skills as I do believe that MFL teacher contact time being so limited, most of them are best taught explicitly as separate from the foreign language curriculum – unless, of course they overlap with the aims of the course (e.g. independent enquiry skills, problem solving, intercultural communication, effective communication, empathy, resilience).

Your greatest priority as a curriculum designer – and every teacher to a certain extent is one – should definitely be the systematic recycling of the target vocabulary, grammar and communicative functions and the allocation of sufficient time for deep encoding to occur. This will entail doing away with the one chapter per half-term approach, a tragic legacy of the Metro-based Schemes of Work.

Foreign language instructors’ most frequent pitfall and implications for teaching and learning

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net 

As already discussed in previous posts, my instructional approach to foreign language teaching is rooted in Cognitive theories of L2 acquisition and, more specifically, in Skill theory (e.g. Anderson, 2000). Hence, my teaching is based on two main assumptions: (1) for any macro-skill to be fully acquired each and every micro-skill that that macro-skill can be broken down into must be fully acquired, too; (2) certain linguistic features are less teachable than others based on the cognitive challenges they pose to the learner, not on innate mechanisms (e.g. you would not ask a child who has not learnt the multiplication tables to solve a complex equation); many of the cognitive challenges will be of course posed by L1 negative transfer.

In twenty-five years of professional practice Steve and I have seen many language instructors frequently flout the above principles, often due to the pace and content dictated by ‘sketchy’ schemes of work or to the typical British MFL textbook structure. The new PBL trend further exacerbates the issue by neglecting the skill-building dimension of language learning.

This post concerns itself with a phenomenon which most teachers observe day-in day-out in their classroom with novice to intermediate learners: recurrent learner errors in the execution of the following micro-skills, which refer to the execution of high frequency and quite important linguistic features in most of the languages taught in the UK (e.g. French, Spanish, Italian, German, Latin etc.)

  1. Effectively manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number
  4. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of case (German and Latin)
  5. Placing adjectives after noun (French, Italian and Spanish)
  6. Positioning direct/indirect pronouns before (most) verbs
  7. Effectively decoding target language words (ability to turn letters into sound)

Teachers complain about the recurrence of student errors in these areas on a daily basis. What is most worrying is that many of these errors occur in written output, when, that is, an L2 writer has potentially more time to monitor and, consequently, to self-correct. This can only mean two things: (1) either the student lacks declarative knowledge of the grammar structure to deploy or (2) s/he has failed to apply the grammar rule due to cognitive overload. Both scenarios indicate that the to-be-applied structure is far from being routinized. Why?

The answer: for any skill to be routinized, the brain must create what Skill-theorists call a Production. A Production is like a program embedded in our Brain’s operating system which is triggered by a cue. Skill-theorist call this cue the ‘IF-condition’ of a production and the brain’s response to that cue the ‘THEN condition’. For instance, in the case of Noun-adjective agreement,

IF an adjective qualifies a noun (in French)

THEN that adjective’s ending must agree in gender and number with the noun

 IF the noun is feminine 

 THEN the adjective adds an ‘-e’ to the ending, unless it is irregular or ends in ‘-e’ already

This Production is – at least in theory – easy to create at declarative level (i.e. as a rule). The problem is that an English-speaking novice/intermediate student’s first language will work against its application at the early stages of internalizing the rule, because of negative transfer (in English you do not change adjectival endings in this context); this is especially the case when a student is working under time constraints or communicative pressure and is not asked to focus explicitly on agreement. Hence, two, three or even four lessons on adjectival agreement will never be sufficient, like many teachers seem to presume. They are often satisfied that their students seem to get adjectival agreement right during the lessons explicitly devoted to that grammar structure and they move on to another topic or skill.

The problem is that after two, three or even ten lessons that Production is only at the very early stages of its routinization. It will take many instances of application and positive feedback on its deployment for that Production to be automatized (i.e. applied quickly and effortlessly) as the brain is very cautious before ‘deciding’ to create any new permanent cognitive structure. Hence the fundamental micro-skills listed above must be practised as extensively as possible whether in class or through homework – ideally in every single lesson – before one can assume they have been mastered.

Although I am sure that most teachers would agree with most of the above, I wonder how many MFL classroom practitioners actually focus consistently and extensively enough on ensuring that they are effectively routinized. Yet, unless we do not care about accuracy, lack of routinization of the above micro-skills can undermine the subsequent learning of important complex structures and, consequently, progression along the L2 acquisition continuum. Here is an example. Think about the first three items in the micro-skills list above:

  1. Manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number

A few years ago I observed a lesson where the instructor was teaching her students (French) reflexive verbs in the Perfect tense (e.g. je me suis habillée) where the Past Participle has to agree in gender and number with the subject. It was clear to me not only that the students had not at all routinized the three micro-skills above but that they had not received much practice in verb-ending manipulation at all – a fundamental skill to master when learning a Latin language. Their processing ability was poor and this hindered their progression throughout the lesson. They were clumsy and slow in manipulating verbs and this impacted their accuracy and fluency.

Much of the cognitive overload that hinders language acquisition in French, Spanish, Italian and German learning is due to the insufficient practice students receive across those micro-skills. The Anglo-Saxon brain being not wired for and not used to manipulating verb and adjectival endings, a great amount of effort must be put on a daily basis by teachers on practising this specific set of micro-skills consistently  and systematically since the very early stages of learning. As I intend to show below, it is easy, not very time consuming and it pays enormous dividends. In my case, with CIE as an examination board, getting my student to be 100% correct in verb and tenses formation is a must, since the written exams assessment scheme requires high levels of accuracy (e.g. the written piece must feature the accurate use of 18 different verbs).

The same applies to any of the other micro-skills on that list. Consider word order of adjectives. Taken in isolation, the rule/Production “IF an adjective qualifies the noun, THEN place the adjective after the noun” seems easy to grasp and acquire. And at the end of a single lesson on it, teachers usually feel confident that it has been learnt. However, the above Production, when combined with the other related productions “IF the adjective qualifies a noun it must agree in gender and number with that noun” and “IF the noun is feminine THEN the adjective adds an ‘-e’ becomes much less easy to handle effectively and efficiently in cognitive terms unless the other two Productions have been highly routinized. Processing of the above Productions becomes even more cumbersome with novice learners when it occurs in the context of the creation of a complex sentence where they are coping with several structures simultaneously (e.g. conjugating the verbs in the sentence, choosing the right preposition, retrieving the correct lexis).

If novice to intermediate learners are not provided sufficient practice in the above micro-skills the risk of L1 transfer impacting student output will always be present, especially when the learners are working under pressure in contexts where there is not much time for self-monitoring (e.g exams, oral performance). This may lead to the fossilization of erroneous forms (i.e. the permanent internalization of mistakes) even when the learners know the rule(s) relative to those forms. This is a widely documented phenomenon in English secondary schools.

In conclusion, curriculum designers and teachers must reconsider the way they go about progression, in my view, or at least allow for more practice of the above micro-skills and related structures. Teachers using Independent Inquiry / PBL must be particularly cautious as this aspect of L2 learning is often neglected in their instructional approach. Creative ways must be found to embed any of the activities below.

Implications for the classroom – curriculum design and minimumpreparation teaching strategies

  1. Systematic recycling in Schemes of Work: in the first two or even three years of instruction, schemes of work should make explicit reference to the above micro-skills and allow for constant recycling. Opportunities for regular formative assessment aimed at evaluating the routinization of the micro-skills should be included, too.
  1. Micro-skill tracking : As I already advocated in a previous post, the use of a tracking sheet where one logs all the instances of recycling of each micro-skill in lessons can be extremely handy in assisting recycling
  1. Grammaticality judgment quizzes (to be used only at initial stages): Write three phrases on the board of which only one is accurate: e.g. une belle femme – une beau femme – une bel femme
  1. Gap-fills with or without options (still for the initial stages only): there are plenty of free gap-fills activities online (e.g. www.language-gym.com; www.languagesonline.org.uk ). I have uploaded lots of free ones onto www.tes.co.uk. www.frenchteacher.net has loads, too.
  1. Online self-marking verb trainers (at any stage): I find verb-trainers very valuable to the point that I created my own (free at www.language-gym.com). I ask my students to go on it every day for five minutes purely as a habit formation tool. Do not presume that just because they get 100 % on a verb trainer module and they can conjugate verbs very fast they have routinized verb use, obviously. They need to demonstrate correct deployment of verbs under real operating conditions, first.
  1. Mini White board activities (novice to advance stage depending on complexity)

5a. Translations (my favourite);

5b. Verb training – give pronoun, verb and tense and ask students to conjugate on the spot;

5c. From sound to letter (decoding skills) – pronounce a sound (e.g. ‘uah’ – in French) and ask students to write the combination of letters it represents (e.g. oi) ;

5d. Short dictations – utter a word that you have never taught your students and ask them to guess its spelling based on their decoding-skills repertoire

5e. Picture task –  example: picture of a green car; students to write: una macchina verde (Italian) / une voiture verte (French)

 

  1. Oral translation (novice to advance stage depending on complexity) – This is another favourite of mine. Students are given cards with bullet points and need to translate them into the target language in real time. Each bullet point will elicit the execution of the target micro-skill (e.g. agreement; verb conjugation; word order). This can be done impromptu, if one wants to assess student level of fluency or after some preparation. Although they require a bit more preparation – not much, though – the cards can be used across languages.

Conclusion

Teachers often complain about their students’ mistakes in the execution of the following micro-skills:

  1. Effectively manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number
  4. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of case (German and Latin)
  5. Placing adjectives after noun (French, Italian and Spanish)
  6. Positioning direct/indirect pronouns before (most) verbs
  7. Effectively decoding target language words (ability to turn letters into sound)

However, the problem lies in the lack of extensive practice the students receive in the performance of those skills. At the early stages of instruction students must be given extensive practice as frequently as possible until there is evidence that they have automatized them and that their execution occupies only subsidiary awareness. Moving on to another topic or structure prematurely can have serious negative consequences for student learning.