How many new words should you teach per lesson?

Introduction – The wrong question

The question in the title is one of the most common ones I am asked by colleagues from all corners of the globe. And whenever I have googled that question in the past ten years I have always invariably found the same answer crop up in EFL and MFL forums, blogs and websites: 8 to 10 words per contact hour. I have always wondered where those numbers came from as there is no consensus amongst researchers as to what constitutes an ideal number of new words to teach per lesson. Unsurprisingly so. As I will argue below, it is impossible to answer the question with a precise figure unless we define clearly what we mean by ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ new words and have a 360-degree awareness of the target learning contexts with their unique interaction of affective and cognitive factors as well as other important individual variables such as the methodology in use, available resources, logistics, timelines, socio-economic factors, etc.

I personally ‘teach’ 20 to 25 words minimum per lesson, but what the word ‘teach’ means to me may not be what other colleagues take it to mean.

The good news 

The good news for MFL teachers in England and Wales is that by the end of a typical GCSE course the estimated vocabulary size of a successful MFL student should be 2,000 words at GCSE Higher and 1,000 at GCSE Lower (Milton, 2006). If we divide that number by 5 years of learning French (from yr 7 to yr 11) two hours per week, that would equate with, 5.2 words per lesson, in truth a very manageable burden. In 2006, however, the national average showed that GCSE students in English state schools had accrued a vocabulary amounting to less than 1,000 words each (see picture, below, from Milton, 2006).

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Why the title question is the wrong question to ask yourself

In deciding how many words to teach per lesson one has to take into account a number of contextual factors which play a decisive role in vocabulary acquisition and, more importantly, the depth and range of one’s learning intentions. The question ‘How many words should I teach?’ cannot be answered unless we first consider the following :

(1) Depth of knowledge – Knowing a word entails knowing many things about the word: its literal meaning, its various connotations, its spelling, its derivations, collocations (knowing the words that usually co-occur with the target word), frequency, pronunciation, the syntactic constructions it is used in, the morphological options it offers and a rich variety of semantic associates such as synonyms, antonyms, homonyms (Nagy and Scott, 2000). How deep one intends to go will entail spending more time hence teaching fewer words.E.g., if I teach a set of French irregular adjectives in terms of how they change from masculine to feminine, rather than just focusing on their main meaning and pronunciation of the masculine form, I will evidently have less time which will in turn limit the amount of words I can teach.

(2) Receptive vs Productive knowledge – as Nation (1990) notes vocabulary items in the learners’ receptive vocabulary might not be readily available for productive purposes, since vocabulary reception does not guarantee production. In other words, students may learn to recognize words whilst not being able to use them in speech or in writing. This difference is often overlooked whilst is crucial in planning a vocabulary lesson. If one is planning to simply teach new words for receptive use, they can teach, in my experience, as many as 40 with an able group, as recognition – especially through the written medium – is easier than production.

Moreover, although they are both receptive modalities, learning vocabulary through listening and reading obviously require providing students with two different types of extensive training which means that if you really aim to thoroughly develop the two skill sets – as you should – you will inevitably have less time available.

(3) Speed of recognition and production and degree of contextualisation – When we talk of recognition and production we need to consider (a) the element of speed and  (b) the ability to understand the target words in unfamiliar contexts as markers of mastery . The faster a student recognizes a word (in familiar and unfamiliar contexts) as heard or read will tell us to what degree it has been automatized. The same applies to written and oral production (the hardest to automatize).

A vocabulary item can only be said to be fully acquired when it can be produced spontaneously (and correctly) within the context it was taught as well as unfamiliar contexts. With this in mind, to say ‘I taught ten words in yesterdays’ lesson’ is flawed. I may have presented those words and got the students to practise them and maybe they could recall them in isolation at the end of the lesson or even in one or more sentences. However, that does not mean the words have been learnt, because words are never used in isolation and not simply in two or three sentences learned by rote. Moreover, acquiring a vocabulary item takes weeks and in certain cases even months of practice in context.

(4) Word learnability – the learnability of the target word places further constraints on the number of words one decides to teach. ‘Learnability’ refers to the level of challenge a word poses to the learner. For instance:  long polysyllabic words with unfamiliar phonemes will be harder for beginners to retain; abstract and connotative words are  usually more difficult to acquire than concrete and denotative lexis; cognates are easier to recognize, etc. When deciding how many words to teach, the learnability factor is crucial.

(5) Shallow vs Deep processing –  the method you use will also play an important role in deciding how many words you aim to teach. The deeper the degree of semantic processing the more likely the students are to recall them in the future. Deep processing includes activities such as: establishing association within new and old words, categorizing them; finding opposites and synonyms; writing the definition; inferencing their meanings from context; creating mnemonics to enhance future recall); odd one out; etc. Shallow processing involves little cognitive effort (e.g. learning by repeating aloud; the www.linguascope.com games). Teacher with effective vocabulary teaching methods are usually more successful at teaching larger amounts of words.

(6) Time, recycling opportunities and learning habits – the numbers of words you can teach will also depend on how many chances you can find in your lesson to recycle them. Do you have enough time, resources or activities in your repertoire for you to recycle each word you set out to teach a minimum of 5 to 8 times (through deep processing tasks) within the lesson? Do you have resources to ensure the recycling of the same items in subsequent lessons?

It takes me a lot of time and effort to create resources that allow me to effectively recycle all the target words I set  out to teach in lesson 1, as well as all the subsequent lessons in which I revisit them. The more words you aim to teach, the more the effort you will have to put in follow-up lessons to create recycling opportunities. This is something you have to factor in when you decide on the number of words to teach in a given lesson or your teaching will have been in vain.

Connected with this is the issue of homework and learning habits and strategies. Are your students the kind of learners who do your homework consistently? If you flip vocabulary learning to them, will they actually do it? What the students do at home and how effectively their learning strategies are will have an impact to on how many words you plan to teach. In the case of one of the two year 9 groups I currently teach the amount of work they do outside the classroom – not their aptitude – profoundly affects the number of words I plan to teach each day.

(7) Chunks –  The memorization of chunks is productive and powerful. It serves two objectives: it enables the student to have chunks of language available for immediate use and it also provides the student with information that can be broken down and analysed at later stages. Chunks allow you teach more words in one go as Working Memory can process chunks made up of 7+/- 2 items (Miller, 1956). Moreover, in real life we rarely process words in isolation.

The main advantage of the use of lexical chunks is that they build on the fluency of the language learner as they facilitate clear, relevant and concise language and are stored as ready-to–use units that can be retrieved and used without the need to compose on-line through word selection and grammatical sequencing. This means that there is less demand on cognitive processing capacity.

I hardly ever teach vocabulary in isolation, unless I am focusing on speed of recognition, decoding/pronunciation or spelling (e.g through the www.language-gym.com games). I always present vocabulary for the first time either through texts containing comprehensible input which allows easy inferencing from context or through sentence builders (see figure below). Teaching in chunks and short sentences allows me to recycle old material whilst presenting new material but also to include more vocabulary.

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(8) Chunking and word awareness – Chunks have another important impact on how many words you will be able to teach. Once you have unpacked each chunk you taught, made the students notice the underlying grammatical pattern (e.g. I want you to go to the cinema) and got them to use that pattern over and over again with new lexical items, you will have enhanced the generative learning power of that chunk. The more morphological (e.g. prefix, suffixes) and syntactic patterns (rather than grammar rules) you teach your students the greater the chances for them to learn new words by ‘hooking’ them to those patterns. This process, known as ‘chunking’ happens in the brain at incredibly high speed in L1 acquisition and plays a crucial role in L2 vocabulary acquisition; hence, the more automatized the ability to recognize those patterns in aural and written input will be in your students, the more likely they will be to learn more words in your lessons.

Word awareness refers to a learner’s ability to ‘unpack’ the way words work both in relation to other words (synonyms, antonyms, collocations, etc.), their word class (adjectives, nouns, etc.) and how they are formed (prefixes, suffixes, etymology, similarities with mother tongue words, etc.). Word awareness promotes chunking, hence, acquisition. Creating a culture of word awareness in your classroom does not require much preparation, just asking lots of questions such as: Is it an adjective or a noun? Does this go before or after the verb? Does it remind you of a word in our language? Why does this word end in ‘-ly’?, etc. Research in word-awareness (also referred to as word-consciousness) it is still pretty scant, but many scholars believe that a strong emphasis on it in the classroom can greatly impact vocabulary acquisition. The more word -aware your students are the greater the amount of words you will be able to teach them in lessons.

(9) The students – last but not least. This is self-evident. Your students are the best source of evidence that you are gauging the amount of vocabulary input correctly. Regular low stakes assessment will tell you how much of what you have taught gets retained or lost along the way as the term advances. Online surveys through google forms or the likes will allow you to find out in a few minutes how they feel about their vocab learning, if you are being too ambitious or spot on. They can also help you find out about their learning habits.

Not all students have the same ability to learn vocabulary. Students who are low in any of the crucial components of language aptitude, especially Working Memory span and Phonemic sensitivity will be particularly disadvantaged and their presence in your class will have to be taken into account as they will be more prone to cognitive overload. Differentiated instruction will be a must in mixed ability classes.

The students’ current level of proficiency will also be an important variable to consider. The more advanced the learner is the easier for them will be to use conscious and subconscious learning strategies to acquire vocabulary. Hence you will be able to teach way more new words per lesson to your advance level students than to your GCSE ones.

Motivation is obviously another crucial factor. I am not going to discuss it as it is beyond the scope of this post. It will suffice to say that motivation enhances cognitive and affective arousal which in turns increases Working Memory span and the chances to memorize words. Hence, the more fun and relevant to your students’ lives and interests your vocabulary teaching is, the more words you will be able to teach effectively.

Concluding remarks

The issues above refer to but a few of the many factors one needs to consider in deciding how many words to teach per lesson. The most important thing I would like the reader to take home from this post is that vocabulary acquisition being a long process, planning a successful vocabulary lesson is about zooming out and thinking about the bigger picture and the longer term: what matters is not how many words you teach in a given lesson but how your subsequent teaching is going to ensure that those words will be automatized both receptively and productively by your learners across a wide range of contexts, both familiar and unfamiliar. In order to do so, the language instructor must master effective vocabulary teaching strategies, know the students well and implement skillful and systematic recycling never losing sight of the challenges that words and the contexts those words are taught in pose to the learner. A culture of word awareness that you build in day in day out through regular questioning, both metalinguistic and metacognitive in nature, will also facilitate your task and allow you to teach an increasingly larger amount of words per lesson, as your students become more alert to the morpho-syntactic properties of the target language words.Ultimately, it will be student feedback and regular low stake assessments that will tell you whether you are teaching the correct amount of words per lesson.

Ten things I did in 2016 that have significantly enhanced my teaching

The year just gone was one of the best I have ever had in terms of professional development as a teacher, researcher, writer and CPD provider. In this blog I share ten things that I have tried out in 2016 that, in my view, have significantly enhanced teaching and learning in my lessons.

 1.Doubled the exposure to receptive processing and delayed production

One major change to my teaching has involved massively increasing my students’ exposure to comprehensible input before engaging them in production. Thus, on introducing a new phoneme, grammar structure, communicative function and/or vocabulary set, I now ensure my students process the target items receptively through as wide as possible a range of listening and reading tasks which recycle them to death (narrow reading being one of my favourite reading/listening tasks).

In order to enable my students to learn from the aural and written input provided, as illustrated in the texts in figure 1, I make sure it contains lots of patterned repetitions, cognates and familiar language and contextual clues which facilitate inference (so that 95 % would be accessible without resorting to guessing or dictionaries). I also usually provide a gloss in the margin and use typographic devices to draw their attention to items I want them to notice.

Figure 1 – narrow reading texts including comprehensible input with lots of patterned repetitions and cognates

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I found that massively increasing receptive processing and delaying production – often to the second lesson on a new topic – has greatly benefitted my students, both in terms of confidence and understanding of the target items, especially when the tasks carried out on the aural and written texts involve lots of pattern recognition (see point 2), recycling and, most importantly, modelling. It is important to reiterate again the distinction between reading and listening aimed at modelling and reading and listening aimed at quizzing (i.e. the typical listening/reading comprehension). In my approach, listening and reading comprehension tasks are staged only at the end of the whole process.

2.Grammar and pattern recognition through listening

The extensive research I have carried out this year has made me aware of a gap in traditional explicit grammar instruction methodology: grammar is rarely taught regularly and systematically through listening and very few – if any – published materials purporting to do that exist. In my instructional model (MARS), exemplified in this post, grammar instruction nearly always begins with modelling of target grammar use through a L.A.M. (Listening-As-Modelling ) activity such as a sentence-builders, sentence puzzles or cognitive comparison tasks.

Figure 2. Sentence puzzles

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This approach to grammar instruction addresses two important skillsets involved in listening comprehension, i.e.: decoding and parsing skills. As I detailed in one of my most widely read posts. ‘Teaching grammar through listening’, the latter skillset is paramount in the Parsing phase of comprehension, when Working Memory attempts to interpret what it hears using the grammar of the language (by fitting the words identified to the surrounding linguistic context).

3.Inductive Grammar teaching

The adoption of the approach touched upon in the previous paragraph has led me to abandon deductive grammar teaching and the traditional PPP sequence (Presentation, Practice, Production). Unless I am pressed for time, I now involve the students in problem solving activities which requires them to figure out the target grammar rule(s) by themselves based on the Listening-as-Modelling activities staged. Example: I may start with a sentence puzzle modelling how the negatives are used in French; after many examples, I would ask the students, working in groups of two or three, to work out the rule and explain it on a google document or padlet wall shared with me and the rest of the class.

After this student-led discovery phase, intensive receptive processing practice will ensue through listening and reading tasks (e.g. narrow reading), grammar quizzes and puzzles, and oral interaction (find your match or find someone who with cards). Since in my approach automatizing grammar is the main purpose of grammar instruction, this receptive phase is followed by structured oral practice – see next paragraph.

Figure 3 – Find-someone-who with cards. Grid to fill in (above) and Cards (below)

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4. Communicative oral drills and closed questions

In the past year I perfected and intensified the use of CDs and closed questions in an attempt to routinize the target grammar structures and vocabulary.

4.1. Communicative drills (CDs)

Communicative drills, as the figure below show, are very short and highly structured tasks which ‘force’ the students to deploy the target items as many times as you feel fit, over and over again, in the context of real-life-like situations. Unlike audiolingual drills, CDs typically include lexical items (words and chunks) of high surrender value (e.g. high frequency words or formulaic language) which are very useful in real life communication and are contextualised in the topic-at-hand.

In the teaching sequence I typically use in my lessons, M.A.R.S. (Modelling, Awareness-Raising, Receptive processing, Structured production), CDs occur in the end-phase, after lots of receptive processing as occurred which exposed the students frequently to the same language included in the CDs. I usually stage three or four different types of CDs per session.

Figure 4. 2 type of Communicative Drills I use in my lessons. Translation into French (above) and Illustrated cards game in the past tense (below)

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4.2 Closed questions

I have also massively increased the amount of closed questions I ask my students as, unlike some language teaching ‘gurus’ advocate, I believe that closed questions – not open questions- are key to the development of spontaneity. By the way, by ‘closed questions’ I do not simply mean ‘true or false’ or ‘Yes or No’ questions, but also questions such as ‘What is your name?’, ‘What sport do you like?’, ‘What did you do last weekend?’ – as opposed to open questions such as ‘Talk to me about yourself’.

But, why more closed questions? Firstly, because by prioritising open questions students are not pushed to diversify their vocabulary. Secondly, they do not learn much vocabulary from the questions themselves (and questions are powerful modellers of new language). Thirdy, because ‘spontaneous speakers’ are first and foremost ‘spontaneous comprehenders’. The comprehension dimension of ‘oral spontaneity’ is often neglected, although is by all accounts as important as the production dimension.

Imagine asking the open question ‘What do you do in your free time?’ the student can get away with the usual ‘I play football and go to the cinema’. However, asking students a wider range of closed questions such as ‘What sport do you do?’, ‘What tv shows do you watch?’, ‘What movies do you watch?’, ‘What social media do you use?’, ‘What do you read?’, ‘What music do you listen to?’ allows you to tap into specific areas of their vocabulary and grammar knowledge, as well as developing their Listenership. Students who are asked a lot of closed questions get constant stimulation thereby learning more language both receptively – as they decode the questions – and productively, as they retrieve the specific vocabulary needed to answer (I usually ask them to pack at least three details in each answer, however close the questions is).

Both the intensive communicative oral drilling and the use of closed questions have greatly enhanced my grammar teaching whilst allowing me to recycle old and new vocabulary.

5.Hyper-questioning and Listenership

Not only have I increased the amount of closed questions I ask in class, but I have actually made a conscious and systematic effort in every single lesson to ask more questions overall, both open, closed and yes/no or true/false ones. This has entailed:

(1) More modelling of new language in the presentation stage through questioning techniques such as ‘Either / or’ (e.g. pointing at a picture on screen: ‘Is he doing ‘X’ or ‘Y’?) Substitution, etc.;

(2) Work on increasing speed of student response to questions;

(3) Learning about question formation through modelling (e.g. question puzzles) and explicit grammar study (e.g. studying word order and hyphenation in French questions);

(4) Reading comprehension tasks which involve understanding of questions rather than statements set;

(5) Widening the questions repertoire I expose the students to;

(6) Designing oral tasks and assessments which lay more emphasis on asking questions.

Why? In order to develop the area of oral spontaneity that is usually less focused on by teachers: ‘spontaneous comprehension’ or ‘Listenership’ as it is known amongst Applied Linguists.

A regular zero-preparation activity that I have staged regularly in lessons  has involved asking questions to my students who, equipped with mini-boards, respond in writing under time constraints. Another frequent minimal preparation starter or plenary has consisted of giving my students a statement and asking them to write on mini whiteboards a possible question that statement could be the answer to.

6.My recycling tool

Last year I also created a simple recycling tool (in the figure below) that has allowed me to recycle the core grammar items more systematically over the whole school year. It consists of a spreadsheet on which I keep track of how often I practise a given grammar structure. In selecting the items on the tracking sheet and assigning them a priority I have used another strategy, discussed in the next paragraph.

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7.Error-informed curriculum design and delivery

Irritated by the disproportionate emphasis lain by English schools on very time-consuming and largely ineffective dialogic corrective practices (e.g. students respond to feedback and teacher respond to student response, etc.), last year I decided to tackle learner errors from three different angles.

Firstly, as discussed in paragraph 1, by delaying production in order to pre-empt errors stemming from unfamiliarity with the target structure (as errors are often made by rushing production); secondly, as discussed in paragraph 4, by engaging students in as many structured tasks as possible before venturing in less structured ones; thirdly, by monitoring my students’ mistakes, keeping a tally of their most frequent ones and using my findings to inform my teaching.

So, whenever I went through their books or recordings or listened in as they interacted with one another during oral activities, I noted down day in day out on a google doc their more common and serious mistakes and modified my schemes of work accordingly making sure that I would tackle those issues in the lessons to come. It was not very time consuming; it reduced the time I spent writing in their books (as I was going to deal with them in class anyway) and has made me become a better observer and listener of my students’ output.                                                                        

8.The 4,3,2 technique

This technique consists of getting a student to answer the same open question (e.g. ‘What did you do last weekend) three times. At time one you will ask them to answer the question in two minutes; at time two, in one minute and a half (i.e. 3/4 of the time employed at time 1); at time three in one minute. This technique, which I reserve to discuss in a forthcoming post, has been proven to significantly enhance L2 learner oral fluency not only within the topic in which the students use the technique but in terms of overall speaking spontaneity and proficiency.

Although I have been using it with my GCSE students only for three months, it has already paid good dividends. The rationale for its success is that it helps the students – after much practice – to automatize sub-routines thereby speeding up Working Memory processing.

9. Experiments with pronunciation of problematic French endings

As part of my on-going research on decoding-skill instruction in the last part of 2016 I endeavoured to enhance my year 8 students’ ability to pronounce French word endings; more specifically I worked on the pronunciation of silent word endings (e.g. ‘s’, ‘t’, ‘e’) in French using the Micro-Listening Enhancers detailed in this PPT (put together with my colleague Dylan Vinales for a conference we delivered recently). After a baseline assessment in which identified the problematic endings I carried out instruction as follows : 10 minutes session per lesson, contextualizing the decoding-skill work within the teaching of the vocabulary-at-hand. After a whole term of such instruction, the students’ ability to pronounce the endings which were problematic at pre-test increased by an average of 70 %, with 2 of the 17 students in the class making only a couple of mistakes.

10.‘Spot the intruder’ and ‘Spot the error’ listening tasks

These tasks have been regular features in my lessons for the last nine months or so. They focus students on listening for detail like nothing else, thereby developing their bottom-up processing skills. They require very little preparation, all one has to do is doctor the lyrics of a target language song by inserting a few extra words here and there (usually small ones) or errors; students then listen to the song tasked with identifying the items planted in the text. Here is an example by Dylan Vinales which cleverly combines a number of my micro-listening enhancers including ‘Spot the intruder’ and ‘Spot the mistake’. Here is a video of Dylan and Ronan Jezequel rehearsing the song the tasks are based on in one of our classrooms at Garden International School.

To find out about my ideas on reading instruction, get hold of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’, the book Steve Smith and I co-authored .

 

 

 

Teaching Grammar through listening (English-as-a-foreign-language version)

1. Introduction

In all of my posts on grammar instruction I have made the very important point that for grammar to be fully acquired it must be practised extensively through all four skills. However, this is not what usually happens, grammar practice occurring in most language classrooms predominantly through the written medium. Hence grammar is mostly read and written, but rarely processed aurally and orally.

Of the four language skills, the one that is always neglected in grammar instruction is definitely Listening. In the typical grammar lesson, the target grammar structure is hardly ever practised through the aural medium.This may not only negatively impact acquisition of that structure, but also listening proficiency development at large. Why? The answer refers to the so-called parsing phase of listening comprehension.

The parsing phase is the stage in the comprehension of aural input in which the listener recognizes a grammar pattern in a string of words and fits it to the surrounding linguistic context. This important stage is paramount not simply to listening comprehension but also to acquisition, because pattern recognition facilitates the chunking of new L2 items and their assimilation in the learner’s existing L2-system.

In this post I intend to show how grammar can be modelled and practised aurally through highly impactful L.A.M. (Listening As Modelling) activities requiring relatively little preparation which I use regularly in my lessons.

2.L.A.M. grammar activities

2.1 Sentence puzzles

Sentence puzzles like the one in Figure 1 below are a very effective way to teach grammar and syntax through listening. The students are provided a set of jumbled-up sentences  to unscramble whilst the teacher utters them in the correct order. The task is for the students to re-write them correctly in the table/grid provided, placing each element of the sentence under the right heading. After completing the transcribing task, the students are charged with inductively working out the rule. The example in Figure 1 focuses on the use of key negatives in English.

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Whilst writing the words under each heading in the table the students build an awareness of how word order works, at the same time learning what word class each item belongs in, and all this through the aural medium, thereby combining three skills (listening, reading and writing) together. When the meaning of each word is provided in brackets, new vocabulary is also learnt.

2.2 Sentence builders

Sentence builders take a bit more time to make, but they can be exploited in so many ways that their surrender value is more than worth the effort. The teacher makes and utters sentences using the various chunks of language in the table to demonstrate how the target structure works. Whilst the teacher models the sentences, the students write down their meaning on mini whiteboards. As a follow-up, the students are tasked with working out the rule inductively. Since you are modelling, not testing comprehension, the sentences should be uttered at moderate speed. The example below focuses on the use of negatives and can be used as a follow-up or as a precursor to the sentence puzzle in Figure 1.

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2.3 Sorting tasks

The teacher utters a number of sentences each containing a specific structure that s/he wants to draw the students’ attention to. As they listen, the students are tasked with categorizing the structure using a grid or table. In the first example provided in Figure 3, below, the task requires the students to categorize the different verb forms employed in ten sentences uttered by the teacher to reinforce phonological and grammar awareness. Students enjoy sorting tasks; I do them in every single lesson of mine, often exploiting songs.

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2.4 Listening hunts

In listening hunts the teacher reads a short narrative and the students are asked to spot and write down as many instances as possible of the target structure(s) contained in the text. I usually tell the students in advance the number of occurrences of the target items in order to enhance their focus.

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2.5 Interlingual comparisons

This technique is particularly effective when the word order in which the target structure is deployed in the L2 is markedly different from the L1. As the example in Figure 5 below shows, erroneous versions of target structure use are provided resulting from word-for-word translation from L1 to L2. The teacher will dictate the correct version of each sentence which will be written right under the flawed version. The students are then charged with figuring out the differences between L1 and L2 usage and inductively work out the rule.

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2.6. Find your match

This activity serves two purposes. Firstly, to practise decoding skills and pronunciation; secondly, aural processing of the target structure. The students are provided with cards containing simple sentences featuring the target structure(s). Each card contains four pieces of information about a person; each piece information on the cards has a match in four of the other cards. The task is to go around the classroom interviewing people in order to find the four persons whose cards match one’s own. This tasks is useful in that it elicits a lot of production and receptive processing of the target structure.

Fig 7 – Find your match (French negatives)

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2.7 ‘Find someone who’ with cards

Each students is given a card with fictitious details and a grid with the details to look for. The task is to find the people with those details on their cards by asking questions in the target language. Although it may appear as a speaking task, this activity is actually mainly a listening one as the students read out aloud details in response to questions.

Fig.8 – Find someone who with cards (grid to fill in by students as they go around interviewing)

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2.8 Partial dictations

Partial dictations are extremely easy to prepare and are very effective in focusing learners on the target structure. All one has to do is (1) create texts packed with instances of target structure use: (2)  gap the texts  where the target structure has been deployed; (3) read out the text whilst the students fill the gaps. Easy and highly effective. Tip: do not use one long text, use several short ones; it keeps the students more focused.

2.9 Songs with gapped lyrics to fill in

Songs with gapped lyrics to fill in as you play them are a great way to model and practise target language use in authentic contexts. Think about the song ‘Once I was seven years old’ by Lukas Graham; how useful for any teachers wanting to hammer in the past tense in English. The only issue, of course, is finding a song which contains a sufficient number of occurrences of the target structure. Once found one, all one has to do is to gap the song (do put the gapped words on display for less able students).

2.10 Interactive oral tasks

Any interactive oral task designed to elicit use of the target structure will obviously provide the students with plenty of aural processing as well as production practice. It is not the scope of this post, but I reserve to deal with ways to provide oral production practice in target structure use in a future post

2.11 Concluding remarks

Grammar must be heard, read, spoken and written by our learners if we want them to fully acquire it. This multi-sensorial approach to grammar instruction is rarely implemented in language lessons. The skill that is most neglected in grammar instruction is undoubtedly Listening, regardless of the fact that the brain is naturally wired to acquire grammar acoustically. More effort must be put by teachers in this area of grammar teaching by integrating traditional activities with skill-based approaches to instruction which provide extensive receptive oral practice through Listening-As-Modelling activities (LAM) and oral interaction.

For more on my ideas on listening, get hold of the book co-authored with Steve Smith ‘The language teacher toolkit’ available on www.amazon.co.uk

The ugly truth about school-based Modern Language teaching

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(with Steve Smith)

I was recently criticised by some of Stephen Krashen’s fans for something that to me and many other teachers is a sad given : MFL teachers operating in secondary schools have simply no time to teach languages the way they should ideally be taught. Time and syllabus constraints force teachers to extremely tight schedules which do not allow for the extensive listening and reading practice that it is evident from much research that every language learner benefits from before engaging in real-life-like speaking.

If I had five hours contact time a week I would teach entirely differently from the way I teach now.  This would be my recipe: lots of daily receptive exposure to compelling aural and written input ; plenty of oral interaction through fun and challenging communicative activities (even more than the 30 minutes per lesson I do now);  engaging multimedia project-based learning ;  drama and art activities ; cultural awareness-raising through videos and realia ; exciting enquiry-based grammar learning.

The problem is, for teachers working in England to effectively prepare their students for GCSE and A-Level examinations, all of the very desirable above simply cannot be done as often as one would like. We all know that. Hence, effective teaching in our context is not merely about applying what we know best benefits language acquisition ; but it is first and foremost how to make the most of the time we have available to build our students’ linguistic competence, self-confidence and motivation adapting what we know about human language acquisition to the context we operate in.

The American army knew this all too well when they had to prepare their troops linguistically for the Normandy invasion in 1945. Surely they could not afford to put their soldiers through hours and hours of receptive learning through engaging stories in the belief that languages are best learnt subconsciously through exposure to comprehensible input (as many Americans in Dr Krashen’s camp – my critics – believe). Hence they devised an approach which was drill-based ; lots of repetition through controlled tasks aimed at practising phrase after phrase to death until they were so embedded in their soldiers’ memory that they became spontaneous. In this approach, grammar was taught through robotic repetition and manipulation of small parts of sentences, e.g. I play tennis, my mother plays tennis, my father doesn’t play tennis, we play tennis.

Although ideologically I do not agree with this method at all, and it is not the way I learnt the seven languages I am fluent in and the other seven I speak less well, I see the merit of aspects of this approach in the beginning phase of every learning, the parroting stage of classroom-based acquisition. Lots of drilling does help embed the core vocabulary and grammar structures, it is undeniable. And it can be made fun, too, with a bit of imagination – e.g. my receptive drills in the game room at http://www.language-gym.com/#/game-room  or my oral communicative drills. And if the phrases and words we embed in the drills consists of lexical items and sentences which can be very useful in the real world and are taught and practised within typical real-life communicative contexts, all the better still !

The truth is that every method language researchers and educationsts have come up with in the last fifty – sixty decades or so is effective in its own way, each of them addressing one different stage or facet of the complex process that language acquisition is. To say my method is better than yours is preposterous. Yet proponents of each method do, sometimes inspired by a genuine passion for and belief in the validity of their approach, more than often driven by a business or political agenda.

We, as school-based teachers, have been historically the victims of this state of affairs, decade after decade. Subjected to fads which were not a faithful reflection of each new method,but rather the botched-up adaptation of often-sound theories and methodologies by governments and their consultants, which reshaped them to fit the target cultural, political and socio-economic context, mindful less of our needs or our students’ than of their own agendas.

The result is a teaching profession whose pedagogic beliefs – whether we are aware of it or not- are often a hybrid of all the methodological approaches it has been exposed to in the last forty years or so  – whether through word of mouth, readings, CPD, government policies, etc. So many of us are advocates of the Communicative approach whilst teaching grammar like the Romans or the Greeks used to 2,000 years ago ; believe that reading extensively for pleasure will subconsciously result in learning whilst we train our students to teach towards reading comprehension tests that teach little ; advocate the importance of oral interaction and listening but most lessons are about reading and writing – or  embrace enquiry-based learning tasks where students barely ever speak; say one should tolerate error and that mistakes are ‘good’ (as CLT preaches) but then make a huge fuss about them by excessively focusing students on correction (through D.I.R.T., stamps and time-consuming dialogic practices).

Eclecticism or pedagogic hypocrisy ? Neither, in my opinion. The ugly truth is that a lot of us are confused and disoriented ; overloaded with government and school policy requirements which change way  too often and quickly ; overflooded with information coming from different camps ; misinformed by CPDs which squeeze years of researching and theorizing in one or two Powerpoint slides ; galvanized by keynote speakers who excite us with great ideas which are difficult to translate into our classroom practice.

Hence, as I always ‘preach’ in my posts, the need for (a) having a clear understanding of modern language pedagogy so as to be able to understand the state of the art of educational pedagogy beyond the different factions and fads’ political agendas ; (b) having a basic reference framework based on that understanding that will enable us to approach lesson and curriculum planning, assessment and feedback in a no-nonsense, practical and principled way.

Having such an understanding and such a framework  – which in my case is MARS + EAR ( see my blogposts on this) – has made my everyday lesson planning much easier and hassle-free and when questioned by my superiors it has allowed me to provide them with a clear rationale for my pedagogic strategies and choices rooted in Skill-Theory and neuroscience. Maybe not perfect, but working well for me. Incidentally, it was interesting to see how Rachel Hawkes and others – who had never publicly advocated Skill theory principles before – have recently published a paper which reflects all of the views I have expressed in my blog in the last year or so. It means that after all, some English MFL ‘influencers’ have finally decided to embrace neuroscience…

The path to becoming a better teacher does come through reflectivity, as most of todays’ CPD gurus preach. But understanding the basic neuroscience facts about language acquisition and developing your own framework fuels and structures that reflectivity and significantly reduces the occurrence of the cognitive block that many teachers who contact me through social media tell me they often experience when they plan lessons. It also reduces the likelihood that your planning is driven by the activities/resources you find rather than the much healthier opposite scenario, i.e.: you choosing the activities/resources to best serve your planning.

Steve Smith and I wrote our book ‘The Language Teacher Toolkitto provide our colleagues with such an understanding of Modern Language pedagogy  and with such a principled teaching framework. Interestingly, we came to it from totally different camps, Steve being a believer in the importance of comprehensible input, whilst I am a Skill-theory fan ; still we could come to an agreement of what constitutes a useful, pragmatic, ‘fadless’ and hassle-free approach to language teaching. Other bloggers, such as Sara Cottrel of www.musicuentos.com  and Justin Slocum Bailey of Indwelling languages have also been pursuing the same noble intent.

No, I am not merely trying to plug our book. My point is that once you have a clear understanding of the basic processes that regulate  human learning, are aware of the core research facts and regularly reflect on your classroom experience in the light of that understanding and that awareness, you will have a powerful pedagogic compass to orientate yourself through the jungle of bastardised pedagogic messages – like the ones I discussed in my previous post – which make our daily professional life so much more challenging and confusing.

In conclusion, the ugly truth that Modern Languages teachers have to contend to, day in day out is that time, logistics, syllabus constraints and government policies prevent them from teaching the way one ideally should. Educationists and researchers rarely recognize that, detached as they are from our world and more concerned with plugging their fads than with the often harsh reality of bog standard state schools. Curriculum designers, teacher trainers, examination boards and textbook authors do attempt to incorporate the new methodologies and fads in their work but they often do so superficially or clumsily at the detriment of sound pedagogy, giving rise to belief systems and practices which teachers often have to adhere to uncritically and which often clash with one another and with common sense. The result is the current state of affairs : an overloaded and overworked teaching profession that is often confused as to what constitutes best pedagogic practice disorientated as it is by mixed messages coming from multiple directions. This may affects teachers’ efficacy thereby eroding their self-confidence, motivation and, ultimately, their well-being.

The solution : getting a better understanding of pedagogy so that you can make an informed choice as to which method to apply where, when and with who ; so that you build instructional sequences based on a method rather than a hunch ; so that you do not let tasks and games you know or have found guide your teaching instead of your know-how; so that you can tell SLT why they got it all wrong.

The Language Teacher Toolkit is available here, on http://www.amazon.co.uk

Teaching grammar through Listening (for MFL teachers)

 

Please note: the examples in this blopost are mostly in French. I will publish another post for EFL teachers in the immediate future

1. Introduction

In all of my posts on grammar instruction I have made the very important point that for grammar to be fully acquired it must be practised extensively through all four skills. However, this is not what usually happens, grammar practice occurring in most language classrooms predominantly through the written medium. Hence grammar is mostly read and written, but rarely processed aurally and orally.

Of the four language skills, the one that is always neglected in grammar instruction is definitely Listening. In the typical grammar lesson, the target grammar structure is hardly ever practised through the aural medium.This may not only negatively impact acquisition of that structure, but also listening proficiency development at large. Why? The answer refers to the so-called parsing phase of listening comprehension.

The parsing phase is the stage in the comprehension of aural input in which the listener recognizes a grammar pattern in a string of words and fits the latter to the linguistic context surrounding it. This important stage is paramount not simply to listening comprehension but also to acquisition, because pattern recognition facilitates the chunking of new L2 items and their assimilation in the learner’s existing L2-system.

In this post I intend to show how grammar can be modelled and practised aurally through highly impactful L.A.M. (Listening As Modelling) activities requiring relatively little preparation which I use regularly in my lessons.

2.L.A.M. grammar activities

2.1 Sentence puzzles

Sentence puzzles like the one in Figure 1 below are a very effective way to teach grammar and syntax through listening. The students are provided a set of jumbled-up sentences  to unscramble whilst the teacher utters them in the correct order. The task is for the students to re-write them correctly in the table/grid provided, placing each element of the sentence under the right heading. After completing the transcribing task, the students are charged with inductively working out the rule.

Whilst writing the words under each heading in the table the students build an awareness of how word order works, at the same time learning what word class each item belongs in, and all this through the aural medium, thereby combining three skills (listening, reading and writing) together. When the meaning of each word is provided in brackets, new vocabulary is also learnt.

Fig.1 – Sentence puzzle

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2.2 Sentence builders

Sentence builders take a bit more time to make, but they can be exploited in so many ways that their surrender value is more than worth the effort. The teacher makes and utters sentences using the various chunks of language in the table to demonstrate how the target structure works. Whilst the teacher models the sentences the students write down their meaning on mini whiteboards. As a follow-up, the students are tasked with working out the rule inductively.

Fig. 2 – Sentence builder 

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2.3 Sorting tasks

The teacher utters a number of sentences each containing a specific structure that s/he wants to draw the students’ attention to. As they listen, the students are tasked with categorizing the structure using a grid or table. In the first example provided in Figure 3, below, the task requires the students to identify four of the tenses employed in the five sentences by the teacher (the fifth tense is a distractor). Students enjoy sorting tasks; I do them in every single lesson of mine, often exploiting songs.

Fig. 3 – Sorting tasks

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2.4 Listening hunts

In listening hunts the teacher reads a short narrative and the students are asked to spot and write down as many instances as possible of the target structure(s) contained in the text. I usually tell the students in advance the number of occurrences of the target items in order to enhance their focus.

Figure 4 – Listening hunt

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2.5 Interlingual comparisons

This technique is particularly effective when the word order in which the target structure is deployed in the L2 is markedly different from the L1. As the example in Figure 5 below shows, erroneous versions of target structure use are provided resulting from word-for-word translation from L1 to L2. The teacher will dictate the correct version of each sentence which will be written right under the flawed version. The students are then charged with figuring out the differences between L1 and L2 usage and inductively work out the rule.

Fig. 5

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2.6. Find your match

This activity serves two purposes. Firstly, to practise decoding skills and pronunciation; secondly, aural processing of the target structure. The students are provided with cards containing simple sentences featuring the target structure(s). Each card contains four pieces of information about a person; each piece information on the cards has a match in four of the other cards. The task is to go around the classroom interviewing people in order to find the four persons whose cards match one’s own. This tasks is useful in that it elicits a lot of production and receptive processing of the target structure.

Fig 6 – Find your match (French negatives)

find-your-match

2.7 ‘Find someone who’ with cards

Each students is given a card with fictitious details and a grid with the details to look for. The task is to find the people with those details on their cards by asking questions in the target language. Although it may appear as a speaking task, this activity is actually mainly a listening one as the students read out aloud details in response to questions.

Fig.7 – Find someone who with cards (grid to fill in by students as they go around interviewing)

listen-to-your-teacher-and-rewrite-the-sentences-below-accordingly-in-the-space

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2.8 Partial dictations

Partial dictations are extremely easy to prepare and are very effective in focusing learners on the target structure. All one has to do is (1) create texts packed with instances of target structure use: (2)  gap the texts  where the target structure has been deployed; (3) read out the text whilst the students fill the gaps. Easy and highly effective. Tip: do not use one long text, use several short ones; it keeps the students more focused.

2.9 Songs with gapped lyrics to fill in

Songs with gapped lyrics to fill in as you play them are a great way to model and practise target language use in authentic contexts. Think about the song ‘Once I was seven years old’ by Lukas Graham; how useful for any teachers wanting to hammer in the past tense in English. The only issue, of course, is finding a song which contains a sufficient number of occurrences of the target structure. Once found one, all one has to do is to gap the song (do put the gapped words on display for less able students).

2.10 Interactive oral tasks

Any interactive oral task designed to elicit use of the target structure will obviously provide the students with plenty of aurally processing as well as production practice. It is not the scope of this post, but I reserve to deal with ways to provide oral production practice in target structure use in a future post

2.11 Concluding remarks

Grammar must be heard, read, spoken and written by our learners if we want them to fully acquire it. This multi-sensorial approach to grammar instruction is rarely implemented in language lessons. The skill that is most neglected in grammar instruction is undoubtedly Listening, regardless of the fact that the brain is naturally wired to acquire grammar acoustically. More effort must be put by teachers in this area of grammar teaching by integrating traditional activities with skill-based approaches to instruction which provide extensive receptive oral practice through Listening-As-Modelling activities (LAM) and oral interaction.

For more on my ideas on listening, get hold of the book co-authored with Steve Smith ‘The language teacher toolkit’ available on www.amazon.co.uk

Five mixed messages that have severely damaged modern language education

Introduction

Over the decades, since the 70’s pedagogic revolution which saw the total rejection of Grammar-Translation methodology and Audiolingualism, teachers have been the recipients of scores of mixed messages about how languages are acquired and should be taught which have greatly damaged the teaching profession and Modern Language provision at large.  I referred to them in the title as ‘mixed messages’ because they have often been the result of the overgeneralization , misinterpretation, vulgarization or distortion  of research findings, hypotheses or even theories of some validity, which have given rise to ‘myths’ about language teaching and learning that have been haunting the teaching profession for decades and still shape in many cases the way many of us teach.

1.Languages are acquired by children subconsciously, hence no need to teach them grammar – This belief is at the root of the ban on grammar teaching that affected MFL provision in England for decades. The main culprit was a man by the name of Stephen Krashen who maintained that languages are acquired through being passively exposed to masses of comprehensible input (i.e. input mostly consisting of known language), just like children do in their first language. Well, we now know that Krashen’s theory might apply to immersive environments in which one is bombarded by masses of L2 language input, but not to input-poor settings like a secondary school with one or two hours’ contact time a week. And in fact, many studies have shown that even in immersive environments this is not entirely true.

This ‘mixed message’ has damaged language learning in a number of ways. Firstly, by basically saying: no need to really teach grammar, as it simply doesn’t work. Secondly, by overemphasizing target language talk in the classroom, so that at one point it was anathema to use the first language even  to give basic instructions; all based on the preposterous belief that by talking in the target language lesson in lesson out the students would miraculously acquire the language. A likely scenario if one sees their students every day; an unlikely one if you only see them once or twice a week.

It is not simply enough to speak to students in the target language for them to assimilate the vocabulary, grammar structure and pronunciation they hear. For learners to acquire a given L2 item they must notice it, understand what it means in their own language, whether through body language, imagery or by using objects or the first language as references.

By the same token, it is not enough for students to read extensively in the target language to massively speed up acquisition, unless, that is, they are exceptionally proactive and inquisitive students who asks themselves lots of questions, who consistently try to answer those questions with dictionaries or by asking language experts; who effectively store and recycle the vocabulary they come across, etc. Reading independently helps, for sure, but at a lower level of proficiency especially, it is what one reads that is very important, how patterned, how repetitive, how novice-learner-friendly the input is.

2. Do not use the first language in the classroom – Another preposterous myth. Why not? When we know that every language learner uses their first language as a starting point for their inferences and hypotheses on how the target language works; when it is a fact that code-switching does not interfere at all with language activation in the brain and acquisition; when it is obvious that it is very common for learners to learn the target language grammar by comparing what they hear or read in that language with their first language version; when it is clear that the L1 translation scaffolds Target language learning. Why not?

Well, the first part of the answers was provided above: the idea that learners would acquire the second language by simply being exposed to comprehensible input. The second part of the answers is the ugly truth of business, of the multimillion business called TEFL , i.e. Teaching English as  Foreign Language. A business that thrives on three flawed principles: (1) you do not need to speak your students’ foreign language to teach effectively – which means that any reasonably educated English native speaker can teach it; (2) you do not need to teach grammar that well – which means you do not need to have a linguistics degree to teach English; (3) because language teaching works best when it is student-centred, the role of the teacher is less important – which means that less training is required.

These three ‘beautiful lies’ suited the EFL business in the 70’s and 80’s when it was booming and expanding overseas and the demand for cheap manpower (EFL teachers) exceeded the supply. Hence, the new methodology, CLT -in its extreme form – offered a convenient justification for allowing any Tom, Dick and Harry with native speaker competence to teach English in China, Korea or Japan after a six-week diploma. I often wondered, had they not invented the Communicative Approach would the EFL industry have boomed as it did; without the Target-Language-only dogma, would such industry even be able to exist?

3.It is not important for students to understand all they read or hear. It is understanding the main points that matters

This is another mixed message which has damaged much modern language education. Yes, it is the main message that counts if you are teaching L2-learners to cope; however, if you are using reading and listening to enhance their linguistic competence, it is not enough for them to simply understand the main points in an utterance or text they process. Research shows clearly that a learner needs to understand 90 to 95 % of what they process to be able to learn from it, e.g. to notice new language structures or vocabulary embedded in a text.

This mixed message has shaped the approach to reading and listening adopted by many a language teacher and has led to generations of disaffected language learners fed up with guessing their answers to True-or- False or ‘who-has-done-this-or-that questions.It is obvious that this approach will be acceptable when you are teaching survival language skills, but not if you are preparing L2-students for the kind of autonomous linguistic competence that the 21st century language learner will need for a business conference on Skype, a customer service phone-call, a professional e-mail, to study in a foreign university or to be an effective interpreter or translator.

4.Teachers must be tolerant of mistakes

This is one of the fundamental tenets of Communicative Language Teaching and came about as a reaction against Behaviourism which preached the total opposite. i.e. that errors had to  be avoided at all costs. The fact is that the truth is somewhere in the middle: errors should not be avoided or penalised; in fact they should be encouraged as they are the natural by-product of learning. Hence, teachers must be tolerant of errors as by being intolerant they would discourage their students from experimenting with the language.

The problem, however, is that in many quarters this has led to an overly tolerant acceptance of error and, more importantly, to overly encouraging fluency at the expense of accuracy. This has led to cohort after cohort of language learners who have fossilised (automatized) mistakes because they have often been encouraged to talk beyond their level of competence through unstructured tasks they were not ready for. I still see this happen in many TBL (task based learning) and PBL (project based learning) classes in which students are asked to tackle tasks way beyond their level of competence.

I see the effects of this attitude on many primary students who come to secondary with many fossilised mistakes (especially pronunciation errors) they have automatized because ‘it is okay to make mistakes’ at that age and correcting them or focusing them on accuracy would put them off languages. ‘Children learn subconscioulsy anyway…’

Truth is, if  a learner keeps making the same mistakes over and over again because they are made to talk or write beyond their level of competence and are not sufficiently focused on accuracy those mistakes will become engrained in their production system and, once fossilised, will never be amenable to correction or re-learning (Mukkatesh, 88; Ellis, 1994). Whilst teachers must be tolerant and encouraging of error to a certain degree, they must be able to stamp them out as early as possible, before they become fossilised – unless, once again, our aim is simply to forge language survival skills not highly competent speakers.

5.Pronunciation is not important – it is to be able to be understood by a sympathetic L2 native speaker that matters

Pronunciation has been another victim of Stephen Krashen’s methodology and of Communicative Language Teaching. Hence, it comes very low in teachers’ priority these days, despite the fact that vocabulary recall is activated by sound; that reading comprehension is impeded by poor decoding skills (the ability to effectively pronounce L2 letters/words into the target language). Do not get me wrong, I am not advocating here that every learner must become a near-native pronouncer; tons of research shows clearly, though, that an effective decoder of the target language is more likely to be successful at language learning than an ineffective one. Obvious corollary: L2 learners should be taught masses of pronunciation and decoding skills as early as possible, in primary, and pronunciation mistakes – based on what we said in the previous paragraph – should be stamped out as early as possible.

Conclusion

The five misconceptions discussed above are only a few of the myths about language teaching and learning that have crept into our profession’s core of shared beliefs and have in some cases assumed the status of dogma, to the point that if one does not conform to them is deemed as less competent or ‘rogue’. Two obvious instances of this are the over emphasis on the fact that the target language should be used most of the time by the teacher when interacting with the class and the semi-total ban on detailed grammar teaching in the classroom. As I often reiterate on this blog, teachers need to equip themselves with the know-how about language acquisition and pedagogy which will ultimately allow them to dispell such strait-jacketing dogmata and any other theory and methodology imposed on them by unscrupulous ‘fad’-mongers or self-proclaimed language-education gurus.