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

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

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Introduction: the benefits of highly patterned comprehensible input 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is NR/NL?

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

A narrow reading example : the place I live in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The design

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are some typical tasks:

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

Anna

 

Area they live in

 

Leisure activities they do and/or enjoy  

 

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

 

Where they would like to live one day  

 

 

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

Etc.

The follow-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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1. Introduction – The why of lesson observations

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

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

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

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

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

2. The aim of the present post

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

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

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

  1. General principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

1. Introduction

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

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

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

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

2. My set of guiding principles

2.1  Skill Theory – the (very) bare bones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) An initial highly controlled phase which includes: modelling, receptive processing and structured production– During this phase the target L2 item is practised in a controlled environment. The phase starts with lots of comprehensible input through the listening and written medium. The target grammar/vocabulary is recycled extensively before the students engage in production.

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

(2) A semi-structured expansion phase –This phase is about consolidation and recycling and cuts across all the topics subsequently taught. So, for instance, if one has introduced the French negatives in Term 1 under the topic Leisure, they will recycle them throughout the subsequent terms as part of the topics taught in those terms until the teacher feels fit. This will ensure that the target structure/vocabulary is systematically recycled in combination with old and new.

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

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

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

This phase ends when the teacher feels the students can produce the target structure/vocabulary without support.

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

(4) A routinization phase – in this phase, the only concern is speed of delivery. The teacher focuses on training the students to produce language ‘fast’, under R.O.C. (real operation conditions), i.e. real life conditions, across various topics and in spontaneous conversations. In this phase the production activities of election will be oral translation drills and communicative activities (e.g. general conversations, simulations, more complex picture tasks) under time constraints. The tasks will not limit themselves to topic X or Y; rather, they will tap on various areas of human experience at once.

It must be stressed that the four phases above may stretch over a period of several months.

3. Concluding remarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and suggested bibliography

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

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

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

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

Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

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

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