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

planting-seeds jpg

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


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

                                                                                                                          (R.L.S Stevenson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Optimizing contact time through ‘seed-planting’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Benefits of Seed-planting

How this technique has benefitted my teaching practice:

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

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

3.2 More work on receptive skills and comprehensible input

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

All of the above has greatly benefitted my students

3.3 Less time spent on explicit grammar teaching

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

3.4 More opportunities for differentiation

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

3.5 Enhanced acquisition(?)

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

  1. Drawbacks

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

4. Concluding remarks

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

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

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

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

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


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

  1. Great article as usual. I think new textbooks should be designed as per your research from the field. Seed planting or anaphoric recycling is as important as what I call deep recycling or cumulative recycling (DR + 1 = Recycling of vocabulary or grammar structure plus something new be it another context or input source focusing on some other vocabulary or grammar item)

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