Are we raising a breed of ‘dyslexic’ foreign language learners?

(Co-authored with Steve Smith and Dylan Vinales)

All teachers who have taught dyslexic children at some point in their career will know how challenging it can be to keep them engaged and motivated, how low their self-confidence as language learners usually is, how frustrated they often get as they struggle to make sense of what they read. But hang on, doesn’t this description also apply to quite a few of the language learners we teach?

Well, in fact, one may argue that many of our students do exhibit a form of deficit in their foreign language competences akin to a disorder called ‘Phonological dyslexia’, described by Ellis (1984) as the inability ‘to read unfamiliar words or non-words aloud, suggesting impairment of grapheme-phoneme conversion and/or phonemic assembly’. In other words, ‘Phonological dyslexics’ are individuals who are not able to sound unfamiliar words out. This inability to convert graphemes (letters) into phonemes (sounds) – unsurprisingly – seriously impairs these individuals’ reading comprehension skills.

Erler (2004) is highly indicative of this state of affairs. In her study of 359 year 7 students of French (from two middle-achieving English comprehensive schools) she found that after one year of instruction (with two contact hours a week) their knowledge of spelling-sound rules was poor, both schools obtaining the same mean score at the rhyming-word test she administered, i.e. 2.75 correct choices out of 14. She concluded:

The results seem to indicate that, with a few exceptions, pupils had little idea after one year of learning French about spelling-sound rules for principal vowel sounds in the language and for the general rule of silent final consonants. These are key rules for being able to decode from print to sound, and are essential for reading comprehension (p. 5)

What is equally interesting – and tragic – is that only 7.6% of Erler’s informants reported they felt ‘happy’ when reading French aloud in lesson; the vast majority of the students felt negatively about decoding and spelling written French.

Another interesting finding by Erler was that 75 % of the total sample Year 7s thought that it was indeed useful to know pronunciation and 63% stated that they were aware of subvocalizing to sounds when reading in French, confirming what we know about automatic phonological loop activation in working memory during reading (in simpler words: whether we are aware of it or not, the brain automatically converts letters into sounds as we read, even when we are not reading aloud).

These findings are dispiriting for several reasons. Firstly, because, as much L1 and L2 research clearly indicates (e.g. Stanovich, 1980; Bryant and Bradley, 1983; Sprenger and Casalis, 1995; Gathercole and Baddeley, 2001) decoding skills are crucial to comprehension of written texts and poor readers often exhibit serious deficits in their deployment. Heaps of research indicate that a child’s early knowledge of phonological awareness is a strong predictor of their fluency in later years (Stanovich, 1986). Muter and Diethelm (2001) found that students of French as a foreign language who were able to tell where syllables in a word begin and end were more proficient readers than those who didn’t.

Secondly, as I have argued in many of my posts and will write about more extensively in my forthcoming book ‘Breaking the sound barrier’ (Conti and Smith, 2017), phonological awareness is crucial in listening comprehension in that it helps the brain make sense of the speech flow by identifying word-boundaries, intonation patterns, etc.

Thirdly, and more tragically, as Erler’s concluded, the students she investigated exhibited decoding deficits (in French) comparable to those symptomatic of dyslexic reading impairment. Now, students who are de facto dyslexic are less likely to have high levels of can-do attitude and self-confidence in language learning, both strong predictors of success in language learning (Macaro, 2007). Could this be one of the reasons why many of our students don’t enjoy learning languages? Could addressing this major deficit enhance their motivation? I believe so.

Erler’s findings chime with my own experience as a veteran MFL teacher with over 20 years’ experience at primary, secondary and tertiary level. Decoding skills – also referred in the literature as GPC (grapheme-phoneme correspondences), spelling-sound rules or Phonological Awareness  – are not duly emphasized in British schools and, when they are indeed embedded in the curriculum, instruction is undermined – in my opinion – by the following shortcomings which serious limit its effectiveness:

1.Decoding skills instruction is not given sufficient prominence in the curriculum;

2.It is often an add-on; it is not fully integrated with the curriculum content and goals;

3.As per Dr Rachel Hawkes’ approach, phonics are often taught through gestures and tongue twisters, but the target phonemes are rarely consciously and systematically recycled in the lesson through listening, reading and speaking tasks which aim at their organic acquisition. This approach limits the acquisition of the target phonemes as it is divorced from fluency across all four skills and from real-life-like communication. In my approach the target phonemes are consciously recycled in every single task (both receptive and productive) I stage to teach the topic-at-hand (be it grammar, communicative function or vocabulary);

4. Instruction rarely ventures beyond word-level practice, which is not conducive to acquisition – the input we process and the output we produce usually contains more than one word…;

5.The target graphemes are usually sequenced randomly without considering (a) the level of challenge they pose to the learner; (b) how their teaching contributes to facilitate other aspects of L2 acquisition, such as grammar – for instance: (in French) a focus on letters that are silent earlier on in the instruction process will serve the purpose of assisting the acquisition of present tense forms. Instructional sequences ought to be based on a (possibly evidence-based) rationale;

6.Each target phoneme is not usually focused on for sufficiently long periods of time and recycled consistently and extensively across the curriculum;

7.Phonemic awareness skills (see picture below) are not focused on explicitly in the early years of L2 instruction, yet I have found that primary and year 7 students benefit greatly from practising them and research shows clearly that they prime the connection of sound to print.

Figure 1 : the Phonemic awareness development continuum (Courtesy of University of Oregon)


8.Students with poor phonemic sensitivity are not identified at the beginning of the course, yet I found it extremely useful to have a good idea from day one as to who was less gifted in this area of language aptitude (the natural predisposition to decode letters and repeat and manipulate sounds);

9.Students are rarely – if ever – tested on their decoding ability or phonological awareness (to assess progress in these areas). This is a serious shortcoming considering how pivotal this set of skills is for language learning effectiveness and success; I found that including opportunities for assessment (e.g. old school dictation or short transcription tasks) has increased my students’ focus on decoding skills and their motivation to learn them.

These and more common shortcomings of decoding skill instruction will be dealt with in greater depth in my next post.


Many foreign language students in England appear to have poor decoding skills. This hinders the development of their reading and listening fluency whilst seriously denting their confidence. As I have written in my forthcoming TES article ‘Enhancing MFL learner motivation – the road less travelled’, one of the most important reasons why our students lack confidence and motivation may relate to their inability to make sense of the target language, be its grammar or its decoding/pronunciation.

One of the group of students I have been trialling my decoding-skill training program with reported to me the other day that they were so much happier to be finally able to read out written French following a set of specific spelling-to-sound rules. They felt empowered by the decoding pinciples they had been taught, as the constant -often random – guessing frustrated them. I do believe that in languages like French and English, where spelling-sound correspondence can be challenging, a students’ sense of efficacy as a decoder can substantially enhance their motivation.

In conclusion, much more effort and thought should be put into effective decoding-skill instruction, which should go beyond the teaching of sounds through gestures, a few tongue twisters and listening or singing along to song; a principled framework should be arrived at, which integrates phonics instruction organically and systematically with the teaching of grammar and vocabulary and extensive practice across all four skills to ensure long-lasting retention and automatization.

To find out more about our ideas on decoding skills instruction get hold of our book, The Language Teacher Toolkit,

Eleven low-preparation/high-impact tips for enhancing reading tasks


Please note: this post was authored in collaboration with Steve Smith of The Language Teacher Toolkit and Dylan Vinales of Garden International School 


Reading texts are often under-exploited in most current published materials and typical Modern Language lessons. Moreover, the type of activities, the way they are sequenced and the levels of the text they address often seem to be chosen and planned haphazardly. In addition, the texts chosen for pre-intermediate to intermediate learners are not usually constructed in a way which is conducive to learning as they lack the sort of repetition and linguistic patterning that facilitate the noticing and uptake of new L2 items. Finally, no pre-task and post-task activities are typically carried out, which means that students come to the text not sufficiently prepped and that much of the newly processed language is lost.

Eleven tips for enhancing the impact of reading tasks

Here are eleven tips to address the above issues with novice-to-intermediate students through low-prep/high-impact activities that I use day in day out in my lessons.

1.Create the need to read – the most potent motivator in language learning is the need to understand and to communicate a message. Hence in selecting or designing written or aural input one should ask oneself: how can I make the students WANT to read on? What title, picture(s), first line or paragraph of a text can I come up with in order to get the students to want to read on the rest of the story, article, poem or lyrics of a song? For instance, last week I used a few – very dramatic – scenes from the video-clip of Kenza Farah’s song ‘Coup de Coeur’, as a teaser for my year 10 students. I then played the song to them and used the lyrics for a set of reading tasks. I have rarely seen them so motivated – they really could not wait to understand what the song was about.

Creating the need to read is not easy and I cannot say that I have fully cracked it; but I am trying and I think every language teacher should, considering that arising cognitive and emotional arousal of this sort is highly conducive to learning.

2.Ensure the students can recognize at least 90 % of the items in the text they are reading without having to resort to the dictionary (flip the learning of the key vocabulary prior to the reading of the text) – We often advise our students to read more in the belief that this will definitely help learn more vocabulary. However, it is not simply how extensively they read which will make a difference, but also what  and how they read. Research clearly indicates that for L2 reading to be an effective catalyst of vocabulary acquisition, the to-be-read material must be 95% comprehensible without much effort. This can be attained by using, besides words that have already been learnt, cognates, predictable contexts and repetition (see point 3 below).

Enabling the students to understand the gist or the main message of the text-in-hand or training them to answer a few reading comprehension questions does not enhance vocabulary acquisition. The students need to understand as much as possible of the linguistic environment surrounding the target lexis if we want them to acquire it.

This entails often having to alter authentic materials when dealing with novice-to-intermediate students and occasionally even the reading passages found in textbooks. In order to avoid having to modify the texts, what I do is flipping the learning of the more challenging vocabulary they contain prior to reading them; so, for example, knowing that my year 8 will read text ‘X’ on Monday next week, I will set vocabulary-building homework the Friday. before

3.Ensure there is a lot of repetition and highly patterned language – Repetition of words and patterns in texts is crucial and the lack of it is possibly the greatest shortcoming of most of the published Modern Languages reading materials currently on the market. Exposure to the target vocabulary and grammar through receptive processing being essential for effective acquisition every reading text we use in class should include as much repetition as possible on at least three levels: (1) the target lexical items (be them words or phrases), (2) the target grammar structure(s) and (3) syntactic patterns (e.g. the same sentence stem or slight variations of the same sentence stems as in: I live in a city called Paris ; I live in a village called Cagnes-sur-mer).

Sadly, one of the damages done by the Communicative Language Approach to Modern Language education is the notion that L2 students ought to read only or mainly authentic texts. However, I do not believe this to be always ‘healthy’ practice with novice-to-intermediate repetitions of words and patterns even when sounding redundant and artificial do scaffold learning.

Songs and poems are often more memorable because they use frequent repetitions and come in handy in the reading sessions; narrow-reading texts , many of which I have published (free) on , are rife in recycling of words and patterns too.

4. If you do include the L1-translations of the challenging words, place them in a box in the margin of the page (not in brackets, next to the words) – Research evidence indicates that a gloss located in the margin of the text (where the L1 translation is provided) is more likely to facilitate future recall than placing the translation in brackets next to the unfamiliar word (within the text). I usually highlight or underline any unfamiliar words in the text that I have included in the gloss in order to signal to the students that it has been translated for them.

5.Before staging the reading do some work on decoding skills– Research by Walker (2009) indicates that learner issues with L2-decoding of the text-in-hand, especially when different L2 items may be pronounced by the students erroneously as homophones (i.e. phonetically identical) may hinder reading comprehension. Think about ‘je parle’ and ‘j’ai parlé’, for instance that many pre-intermediate learners of French pronounce identically. This phenomenon is caused by the fact that even when we read silently, the instant we process a word we activate its sound by engaging the phonological loop in our Working Memory. What I do, prior to engaging my students in reading, is to focus my students on the pronunciation of specific combinations of letters which I predict might cause them issues in processing the text-at-hand; for this purpose I use a range of my MLEs (Micro-listening enhancers).

 6.Warm the students up prior to the reading through work on top-down processing skills – this is as important as the work on bottom-up processing skills recommended in the previous point. The easiest zero-preparation way to do this is to tell the students the title and the topic(s) of the text and ask them to brainstorm as many words as possible in the target language which they associate with them. Alternatively or additionally you could give them a few pictures which refer to the content of the text and ask them to do the same – the pictures could be used to create the need to read alluded to in point one. Another minimum preparation strategy which involves writing (and even speaking if done in a group through a discussion) is to ask them to jot down a few sentences predicting the content of the to-be-read text.

7.Create several short tasks rather than one or two long ones  – in a very small-scale research of mine carried out a few years back I found that my students found more enjoyable and useful to carry out several short tasks with four or five questions rather than one or two longer tasks with eight to ten questions. This was particularly true of lower ability students. Several shorter tasks provide more variety, and a sense of having completed more challenges. Moreover, one can address more levels of the same texts and recycle the same items through different questions, which will facilitate acquisition.

8.Design tasks with varying foci – It always baffles me how limited the number and range of tasks that published materials associate with each of their texts are. When I design or plan reading activities I endeavour to address points (a) to (f) below, usually one per task; the fact that the tasks are many but short pre-empts the work from being tedious and time-consuming. Moreover, sequencing the task in ascending level of difficulty allows for effective differentiation.

(a) reading for gist – tasks that require the students to pick out the text’s key message/details (e.g. list the five main points made in the text about what constitute a healthy lifestyle);

(b) simple reinforcement of key words in the text – tasks that only aim at recycling the key items (e.g. translate the following French words/phrases in the text you have just read) and are not designed to ‘quiz’ the students, but merely to get them to re-visit the text and re-process it. This means that these tasks need not be particularly challenging as they serve the purpose of modelling; this is why I usually put this tasks as first or second in my reading-tasks sequence;

(c) fostering noticing of lexical/grammar structure– these are questions which promote the noticing of a specific L2 grammar items of syntactic structure (e.g. why does line 20 read “if I had gone’ and not ‘If I went’?);

(d) promoting use of inference strategies – these require the students to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words using context;

(e) practising using dictionaries/reference materials;

(f) L1-to-L2 translation skills.

9.Stage a read-aloud session – Staging a read-aloud session after performing the above tasks provides a cognitive break and gives you an idea, whilst you are walking around the class monitoring student-pronunciation, of how the acquisition of decoding skills is proceeding. This will inform the planning of any subsequent delivery of decoding-skill instruction.

10. Follow-up with one or more listening tasks – A follow-up through listening-as-modelling and listening-comprehension activities helps reinforcing the vocabulary and, more importantly, focuses the students on pronunciation. The easiest listening-as modelling activity to prepare is obviously dictation of sentences taken from the just-read-text containing the key-items you set out to teach (with or without L1-translation). Partial dictations require very little preparation too. Jigsaws are a bit more time-consuming but students enjoy them a lot.

11. Recycle key lexis in subsequent lessons – after reading a passage, some really nice idioms, structures or other interesting and useful lexis found in that text get left behind and often lost for ever. I do attempt to make sure that that does not happen, by: (a) setting it as homework using – but one can use Memrise or Quizlet instead; (b) creating a new reading text (my favourite strategy) which include those items; (c) devising a nice starter with which to begin the next lesson; (d) recycling the items alongside any new lexis you are planning to teach in the next lesson

Concluding remarks

Much too often the reading passages used in the ML lessons are under-exploited and a substantial part of the valuable material they contain gets ‘lost’ in the absence of adequate and consistent recycling in subsequent lessons. At present, I am not aware of any published material which effectively addresses all of the levels of exploitation of a text I outlined in the above post, which is appalling. This is due too many factors, one of which refers to the fear that the students might get bored, a concern I sympathize with to a certain extent; this issue can, however, be partly controlled for by providing several shorter tasks with varying foci.

The most important message this post purports to convey is that reading tasks should try to squeeze out as much learning out of any text-at-hand as possible; students should be prepped both in terms of bottom-up and top-down processing skills (especially decoding skills); they should also be encouraged to notice  new items through activities which engage them in deep processing; finally, unless we are merely equipping students with survival skills, limiting the focus of receptive processing (not simply reading but listening, too) to the understanding of the main points contained in a text has very little surrender value in terms of the enhancement of reading fluency and the acquisition of vocabulary, morphology, syntax and any other aspect of L2 competence.

Creating the need to read or understand should also be an important concern of ours as way too often the texts students work on in ML lessons are rather dull. Whilst this is quite difficult to do with the texts we give novice-to-intermediate learners, when working at higher level of proficiency it should not be an impossible task.

As far as point 2 to 11 are concerned, our frustration with the current lack of resources which address all of the above has led Steve Smith and myself to creating reading material and associated tasks which we are writing as we speak and whose first instalment is published here. The aim: to create a resource which enables intermediate learners of French to learn as much as possible from L2 written texts to the point of allowing them to translate short English passages (GCSE style) into French off the top of their head by the end of each unit.

As for point 1, i.e. ‘creating the need to read’, Steve and I are both working on developing a set of strategies which we intend to share with our readers in a future post.

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

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


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  



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.


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 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 us of the target vocabulary / grammar structure


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.

Reading comprehension problems of intermediate L2 students and implications for teaching and learning

Co-authored with Steve Smith of

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As a teacher/researcher, I occasionally ‘use’ my students as ‘guinea pigs’ to test new methods and teaching strategies I come up with and to test my ‘hypotheses about language learning. They have become so used to it that some of them are now very proactive in volunteering information about their thought processes, learning problems and successes and have become eager game to my ‘experiments’.

In the last few months, ten of them have helped me figure out the main comprehension problems year 9 students experience when they read and translate L2 texts, in the context of a little piece of qualitative research into their thinking processes.

Difference between translating and comprehending L2 texts

Obviously, comprehending an L2-text and translating it involve different processes and outcomes. Comprehension entails, as an outcome, the understanding of the message conveyed by the text at different levels; translation involves not only the understanding of a text, but also the ability to put every single word into the correct L1 equivalent, in some cases ensuring that subtle nuances are expressed accurately in the translation.

In the typical CLT (communicative language teaching) approach to language teaching adopted in many British schools, students are not asked to translate word-for-word when grappling with a text; and this is understandable if teachers are involving students in reading practice which aims at developing effective comprehenders of written L2-texts.

However, if teachers are using reading to model the use of new language and teaching new words – which is what I believe reading activities should also be about – simply training students in being able to guess intelligently or infer the meaning of a text may not always be an effective approach, for the following reasons:

(1) it may not explicitly focus students on useful/important details of grammar, syntax and lexical usage;

(2) students may understand what a sentence conveys, but not necessarily what each and every word it contains means (as this may not be necessary to answer five or six comprehension questions).

For comprehensible input to significantly enhance acquisition, it would be desirable for students to be able to translate as many words in a text as possible. Moreover they should be focused on any grammatical or lexical details in the written input worth noticing and learning that they are developmentally ready to acquire. However, much reading instruction carried out in UK secondary schools these days does not encourage this.

Take the typical reading comprehension exercise we give our students. The students are required to read a text and answer a few comprehension questions or ‘true or false?’; then the answers are marked and unless the student is inquisitive and asks questions to teacher or peers or uses a dictionary or other resources, not much will be learnt in terms of vocabulary or grammar – especially in the absence of follow-up which recycles the lexis or structures contained in the text.

Thus, the big decision a teacher has to take is: am I to use a reading comprehension to train students in simply comprehending texts or to learn as much as possible in the process? Or both?

In the little ‘experiment’ I discuss below I wanted to find out what problems students experience as they attempt to comprhend a written text and how accurate their translation of the unfamiliar words in the text was. The findings would inform aspects of my approach to reading instruction.

The ‘method’

The subjects

My ‘subjects’ were ten year 9 students of Spanish of mine grouped, based on their general attainment in Spanish, in 3 High Achievers (HAs), 4 Average Achievers (AAs) and 3 Low Achievers (LAs).

The task

The students were asked to answer 8 comprehension questions on a Spanish text. After answering the questions, they were asked to translate the text word for word.

The text is actually the transcript of the voice-over to a level-B1 video entitled ‘Un dia en la playa’ found at:  .

I chose this text because I was looking for a passage of medium difficulty which would contain quite a few unfamiliar words whose meaning could be fairly easily worked out by the students based on their background knowledge (i.e. what one does normally at the beach) and several contextual cues present in the text (e.g. a fair number of cognates, fairly linear sentence structure, predictable linguistic contexts and clear cohesion devices).

The students could read the passage on my laptop and – during the translation task only – had access to an online dictionary,, open on another tab.

The procedure

The ‘method’ I chose to investigate my students’ reading process was a technique, called ‘concurrent think-aloud’ with introspection, which requires the students to verbalize their thinking as they interpret a text; the teacher can interrupt at any time in order to probe into their thought processes with open or less open questions (e.g. what is the problem you are experiencing here? Why did you translate this word as ‘hat’? Can you think of any other way to work out the meaning of this word? What if you read the whole sentence rather than stopping here?).

This investigative method is far from being scientifically valid in terms of portraying what happens in a student’s head, as a lot that our brain does bypasses consciousness; however, it usually yields some very useful – and often unexpected – information. Every time I have used it with my students it has provided me with a valuable insight into my students’ problems.

The findings

The students did very well in terms of comprehension and managed to translate most of the text correctly. As predictable, the HAs (high achievers) did better than the rest but the other subjects did very well, too, with only two of the LAs (low achievers) experiencing some serious mis-comprehension problems. Most of the comprehension issues occurred at word or phrase rather than sentence level.

Problems identified with the text comprehension and  translation

1. Misuse or insufficient use of bilingual dictionaries – one set of problems related to the misuse and/or underuse of the dictionary ( Here they are:

1a. Not checking the ‘grammar’ of challenging words – Students rarely checked the word class of the word they were looking up. This led occasionally to incorrect interpretations of the sentences they were processing. When asked what the word-class of the word they had problems with was, they were often (60 % of the time) unsure or took them quite a bit of time to figure it out. I will go back to this issue below

1b. Superficial handling of dictionary entries – The LAs and AAs did not often go beyond the first translation option offered by the dictionary and rarely looked at the examples provided. This also led to occasional misunderstanding of the text. The HAs were more thorough and explored the various options sometimes even referring to the forum threads to confirm their hypotheses.

1c. Reluctance to use dictionary – Although is very easy to operate and the computer was right in front of them, the students, especially the LAs exhibited a general reluctance to using the dictionary, thereby relying almost entirely on their instinct. This occasionally led to mistakes in the interpretation of the text or to a correct overall understanding of the meaning of a sentence, but wrong translation of one or more words. (30 % of the time).

1d. Inputting inflected forms of the verbs in the online dictionary – Some of the students – 3 out of ten – attempted to translate verbs they could not work out the meaning of by entering the verb form they found in the text (e.g. apetecía)– not in the infinitive (apetecer). This led to confusion and occasionally to error.

2. Problems reconstructing the meaning of individual unfamiliar words – Overall, the students exhibited a very good grasp of most of the text and most of them answered all eight of the comprehension questions I asked them correctly. However, when asked to translate the text, their inferencing skills let them down in several contexts in which with a bit more creativity, use of their background knowledge and an analysis of the morphology of they might have guessed intelligently what the words in question meant. The less able students were the ones who particularly struggled in this sense. These were the main issues noticed:

2b. Overly-narrow focus – The AAs and LAs often did not read the whole sentence in order to infer the meaning of the challenging unknown word(s). They only focused on the words immediately surrounding the challenging item; when encouraged by me too look at the sentence as a whole, they managed to work the sentence out 90% of the time.

2c. Inadequate use of L1 words in order to guess intelligently meaning of L2 unfamiliar words of similar etymology- Unless the words were obvious cognates, only two of the learners (both HAs) used English words which shared the same etymology with the Spanish words in the text-at-hand that they were having issues with. So, for instance, when faced with the word ‘crucero’, most of the students failed to relate it to the word ‘cruiseship’; the same happened with the verbs ‘tumbarse’ (to lie down) which only two students related to the English word ‘tomb’and ‘apetecia’ (I wanted; felt like) which was associated with the English word ‘appetite’.

2d. Infrequent use of knowledge of previously learnt L2 words -Only half of the students used their knowledge of Spanish words they already knew to interpret any unfamiliar lexis found in the text. This happened with ‘algunas’ (some; any) and ‘secarse’ (to dry oneself) which was translated successfully by five of the students using the words ‘algo’ (something) and ‘seco’ (dry) to reconstruct their meaning.

2e. Accurate interpretation vs inaccurate word-for-word translation – Students often inferred the general meaning of sentences or phrases correctly; however, the inferences led to the wrong translation of some of the constituents of those sentences or phrases. The best example of this is the sentence: ‘Es necesario ponerse crema para que el sol no queme la piel’. The sense that one should put the sun-cream on in order to protect one’s skin from the sun, was grasped by everyone. However, only one student understood that ‘queme’ means ‘burn’; moreover, none of the students noticed or queried the unusual construction of the sentence (para que + noun + subjunctive) and the unfamiliar subjunctive ‘queme’.

Whilst on a communicative level this may be viewed as an effective handling of the text from an interpretive point of view; in terms of learning this way to go about understanding a text does not lead to much learning, especially considering that only one of the students double-checked their translation of the sentence using the online dictionary.

This impressionistic guessing should be encouraged as a survival and/or test-taking strategies; however, as a learning strategy, teachers should encourage students’ double-checking through dictionary or expert help.

2f. Superficial, insufficient or inaccurate structural analysis – the above problems were compounded by the lack of structural analysis alluded to in the previous paragraph. Only five of the students used their knowledge of grammar (e.g. looking at word-endings, agreement, word order and using dictionary to check word-class) to help them reconstruct the meaning of the challenging words. When structural analysis was used it was successful 80% of the time overall (group mean) but only 60% of the time with the three LAs.

One set of comprehension issues related to small functions words (prepositions, connectives and pronouns), even though in certain instances their meaning seemed pretty obvious, e.g. the word ‘como’ (as, since). Pronouns appeared to be amongst the most challenging elements due, I suspect, to their position in the sentence (different to English) and the absence of the personal pronoun (in Spanish, one would say: ‘it put’ meaning ‘I put it’)

The above are very common issues which are not every easy to address as they require a lot of practice and often of the one-to-one session sort

3. Superficial approach to cognates – To my disappointment, most students were all too happy to translate the more obvious cognates found in the text with the English word they immediately evoked. For instance, ‘precioso’ was translated with ‘precious’ where it actually meant ‘beautiful’ in the text; the same happened with ‘arena’ (= sand) which was translated initially by all of the students as ‘arena’ and rectified only by five of them thanks to the dictionary. Other words this happened with included: ‘flotador’ (translated as ‘floater’ in both instances), ‘algo’ (associated by some with ‘algae’ due to the context, too) and ‘falta’ (associated with ‘fault’).

This is a very common issue which may have to be dealt with at the very beginning of instruction to ensure that student understand the differences between the native and the target language from the very outset of L2 learning. L2 learners must be made aware of the existence of false friends and of the semantic and cultural differences that cognate words often carry.

4. Cross-association of homophones – This is a very minor issue, but one which may require some attention as it may have repercussion for learning if it is not dealt with. ‘hambre’ (hunger) and ‘hombre’ were cross-associated by the weaker learners, thereby creating some initial confusion which was eventually resolved without my intervention. Homophones (words sounding similar) or near homophones co-existing in the same text can cause issues in terms of interpretation giving rise to errors or slowing down comprehension. This is a more important issue in L2 French or English learning where this phenomenon is more recurrent.


The above findings cannot be generalized to the whole L2 student population and it would be interesting if other teachers had a go at trying my little ‘experiment’ out to see if they observe similar phenomena. In my experience, though, what I found points to issues that are very common amongst L2 learners of this age and proficiency level and that language teachers, myself included, do not tackle systematically enough. For teachers who may have students who experience similar issues, these are my recommendations.

(1) Through the use of think-alouds or other modelling techniques, teachers may want to train students in the use of bilingual dictionaries, targeting in particular the areas (1a to 1d) identified above. A non-time-consuming way of doing this involves the use of checklists reminding the students to:

– use the dictionaries as often as possible ;

– look at the word class of the target word;

– examine the examples provided by the dictionary;

– check the meaning of a verb using its infinitive form.

Obviously, teachers need to ensure that they do model the use of any checklists they devise in order to scaffold the process and reward every instance in which the students demonstrate their use.

(2) teachers may have to train students in the deployment of the following inferencing strategies:

– Applying structural analysis to challenging words and surrounding linguistic contexts (e.g. What word class does this word fall in? Is this an adjective or an adverb?)

– Searching the whole sentence in which the challenging item is located for cues to its meaning (not just its immediate vicinity);

– Creatively using their knowledge of the L1 to infer L2 words (if the two languages share common etymologies);

– Using other previously learnt L2 words to draw inferences about the meaning of an unfamiliar L2 lexical item.

Such training should occur in frequent sessions for it to pay dividends and impact students reading strategies. One-off sessions don’t result in strategy uptake.

(3) students should be made aware of how ‘tricky’ cognates can be and teachers should attempt to provide regular exposure to ‘false friends’ from the early stages of instruction to drive home and reinforce this awareness.

(4) Teachers ought to ensure that reading tasks do not stop at comprehension questions but regularly feature

– requiring students to translate the meaning of individual words (e.g. what does word X on line 4 mean?) or match a set of L1 words to their L2 equivalent in the text-at-hand;

– analysis of the grammar of the words and sentences in the text (e.g. identify the adjectives and adverbs found on line 3? Why does adjective X have a plural ending? Why is verb Y in the subjunctive?). These ‘old school’ questions get the students in the habit of analyzing the way words relate to one another and how they affect each other;

– ask them to identify L2 words in the  text that resemble L1 words that they may relate to semantically (e.g. find a word in the passage that reminds you of ‘cruise ship’. Answer: ‘crucero’).

(5) instruction should focus much more on the teaching of function words, especially connectives and pronouns in general. Connectives often cued the HAs and AAs to the understanding of unknown words. Unsurprisingly so, as they direct and signpost discourse.

Finally, teachers may want to prep students prior to reading the text-at-hand by designing tasks which, with the above issues in mind, activate any necessary knowledge of the world thematically related to that text. With the reading passage used in the experiment in mind, for example, one could ask them to brainstorm in Spanish as many activities people carry out during a day on the beach as they can think of. How many L1 cognates of the Spanish words they have just brainstormed can they come up with? How many objects can they think of in Spanish that one would bring along to the beach?  Can they think of any other objects that they would need but they do not know the Spanish equivalent of and look them up using an online dictionary? Etc.

Concluding remarks

My little ‘experiment’ identified some of the typical problems L2 intermediate students encounter in grappling with texts which contain a fair number of unfamiliar words. The lesson I learnt from my findings is that inferring the meaning of such words is not as easy for learners at this level of proficiency as one might expect. Hence teachers should ensure that they prep the students adequately by training them in the use of inferencing strategies which address the deficit areas my ‘experiment’ identified.

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

Why MFL teachers may have to rethink their approach to foreign language reading instruction



In a previous post I already concerned myself with reading instruction; more specifically, I advocated that much reading skills instruction in UK classrooms tends to revolve around comprehension tasks. I also pointed out how such practice is detrimental to the development of reading proficiency, as it does little more than testing students on their ability to find details in a text rarely engaging students in real life tasks. As I advocated in that post, reading instruction should do much more than that: should inspire L2 learners to read independently and equip them with effective reading skills and learning strategies (e.g. using online dictionaries or knowing how to exploit the full learning potential of an online article). Moreover students should be given a degree of choice in terms of the to-be-read-texts.

Thus, foreign language teachers need first and foremost to develop their students’ self-efficacy as readers, i.e. the belief that they can read, they can comprehend L2 texts whilst making reading an enjoyable experience. To believe that s/he can be effective at reading an L2 text a learner will need more than a growth mindset; s/he will have to experience repeated episodes of success in reading tasks and a feeling of progression.

For teachers to enable students to experience such success they need to be able to understand the cognitive processes involved in the L2-learner comprehension of L2 written text. Most importantly, they need to be conversant with some recent research findings which are somewhat counter-intuitive and may force them to reconsider the way they teach not just reading, but all the other three macro-skills too.

Thus, in this post I set out to concisely outline how the human brain processes foreign language written text and explain why UK teachers may have to change their current instructional approach to reading.

Top-down processing accounts of L2 reading

Before the early 70’s the dominant theory of reading comprehension was that the reconstruction of the intended meaning of a text proceeds ‘bottom-up’, i.e. from the decoding of the smallest units (letters) to incrementally larger units, i.e.: words, then clause, then sentences, etc. Reading was seen as a linear process of recognizing one word after the other until the entire meaning of a sentence is grasped. This view of the reading process was discounted by subsequent research.

Seminal work by Goodman (1972) and subsequently Rumelhart (1980) turned reading theory upside-down (literally!). Rumelhart’s model of reading proposed that the human brain processes written text using top-down rather than bottom-up processing. His theory, rooted in cognitive psychology and still widely accepted by many scholars and researchers, posited the existence of cognitive structures called schemata which encapsulate all of our background knowledge with regards to specific life situations or concepts and consist of elaborate frameworks of objects and relations which we use to make sense of the world. For instance, when we think about a ‘haunted house’ we will activate schemata which contain all the experiences we had stored over the years about haunted houses – whether mediated by fiction or in real life. Schemata being also culturally situated, a Chinese learner’s schemata about a haunted house may be different from an Italian or a Maori’s. Schemata are, in this sense, the building blocks of cognition and “reflect the experiences, conceptual understanding, attitudes, values, skills, and strategies …[we] bring to a text situation” (Vacca & Vacca, 1999, p. 15).

To go back to the haunted house example. Imagine one is reading a short story about a haunted house (in their native language). Top down processing theory posits that that learner, in order to comprehend the text will apply his/her knowledge about the topic (content schemata) and of the genre-specific features of short-story texts (discourse schemata). Content and discourse schemata will be activated by cues in the text and applied to reconstruct the intended meaning; so, for instance the sentence ‘she saw a ghost’ will activate a range of expectations about the consequences of seeing a ghost (e.g  ‘she screamed’, ‘she ran’); one of them may match automatically what comes next or may not. Failure to understand, then, may mean that (a) the cue in the text is ineffective or (b) there is no schema in the brain which matches that cue and that text. In this sense, reading is not just a receptive skill, but require construction of meaning and cognition, in that, if we find in the text information we do not have a schema for, that information may result in the creation of a new one.

This model has been applied by L2 theorists and researchers to L2 reading, too: L2 learners would apply their content and formal schemata to makes sense of L2 text. Consistent with this theory, schemata application would not require the reader to recognize every single lexical item and morpheme. This psycholinguistic framework, viewing reading as a game of guessing, sampling, predicting, and verifying top-down hypotheses, emphasizes the role of higher level syntactic and semantic processes and minimizes the role of component and bottom-up processes.The application of schemata entailing that one does not need to decode every single word in the text, you may now understand why on your PGCE you were told that you should teach students to look for key words to enable them to understand texts. And I am sure quite a lot of you still model this strategy with GCSE, IB or A level groups.

However, just as I did, you too will have found that this inferential approach does not work all the time. In the absence of a solid and wide-ranging vocabulary repertoire, this inferential approach often leads students to making wrong assumptions about the intended meaning of L2 text. So, when someone uses the typical UK textbook with simple and predictable texts packed with known word and cognates about very familiar topics like daily routine, free time and hobbies, etc… this approach may work. With more complex and less predictable texts (e.g. authentic texts) however, this is often not the case.

Interactive models of L2 reading

Hence, more recently, the pendulum has swung back again: in recent years, scholars and researchers have re-discovered the importance of bottom-up processing in reading comprehension. New cognitive accounts of the reading process have been proposed which are widely accepted by the academic community: interactive models which recognize the synergy of top-down and bottom-up processing in reconstructing the intended meaning of L2-texts. From this perspective, it is claimed that information processing of text is driven by both bottom up and top-down information’ i.e. the processing of the physical stimuli (bottom-up processing) and the context provided by expectation and previous knowledge (top-down processing) (Carrell et al., 1998).  Prior knowledge with the help of accelerated bottom-up processes influences the perception, speed, and conceptual framework in reading processes. This view proposes multiple, independent, parallel routes simultaneously processing information with a cross-checking mechanism. Active routes are contingent upon the information presented, the individual’s knowledge and the task demands (Grabe, 2004).

In conclusion, whilst we read in the L2 our working memory activates different systems simultaneously to process the different levels of the text in an attempt to comprehend the author’s intended meaning: higher order skills (e.g. content schemata) and lower order skills (e.g. letter and word recognition).

The role of phonological processing and oral fluency in reading proficiency

One specific set of lower order skills has received particular attention in recent years: lower level verbal processing in working memory and, in particular phonological processing. There is a vast body of research evidence indicating that poor readers exhibits deficits in phonological processing and ability in general.

There are a number of reasons as to why efficient phonological processing correlates with high level of reading proficiency. Firstly, as discussed in previous posts (e.g. ‘Words in the minds’) the establishment of a complete and solid phonological representation for a word appears to be the first and the most important requisite for success in early L2 vocabulary acquisition for a young L2 learner (Segalowitz et al, 1991)

Secondly, there is clear evidence that meaning activation in Working Memory is mediated through phonology (e.g. Metsala & Ehri, 1998; Proctor, Carlo, August, and Snow, 2005). This is because when we learn a word, we encode it through its phonological representation (see my description of the role of articulatory loop in ‘Eight important facts about working memory’ for more info on this point); hence, when we identify a word, its phonological representation is automatically and very rapidly activated and precedes the retrieval of its meaning from Long-term memory. In other words, meaning activation is mediated by phonology.

Thirdly, rapid lower level verbal processing means that the brain can free up cognitive space in Working Memory during reading; this means that there is more space available for higher level cognitive processing, from the application of formal schemata (e.g. the analysis of grammar/syntax) to the application of content schemata.

Another important set of evidence points to a strong correlation between oral fluency and reading proficiency (e.g. Geva and Ryan, 1993 and Droop and Verhoeven, 2004). Droop and Verhoeven’s study is particularly interesting as the two groups they compared were equivalent at pre-test in terms of knowledge of vocabulary but not in terms of oral fluency; the group with higher levels of oral fluency were the more proficient readers. Hence better oracy skills correlated with more effective reading skills.

General implications for reading instruction in the foreign language classrooms

Effective reading comprehension being dependent on how effective top-down and bottom-up processing are performed, L2 reading instruction must concern itself with, on the one hand, training students in the skillful application of schemata; on the other, it must provide learners with masses of instruction in (a) topic-specific vocabulary and word-recognition skills; (b) metalinguistic knowledge (the ability to recognize parts of speech, noun/verb/adjective inflections, syntactic order, etc.) ; (c) discourse markers (connectives) and their function as text organizers and, much more than it is usually done, (d) phonological awareness.

It should be pointed out that of the four elements just listed, two, range of vocabulary and phonological awareness are the most widely acknowledged by research as effective enhancers of reading proficiency. Hence I strongly recommend these should take priority in our teaching of reading skills.

Practical implications

The obvious corollary of the above discussion for the foreign language classroom is that a sound approach to reading instruction must include fairly traditionally activities such as:

  • Schemata activation activities – These should include; (1) pre-reading activities activating the background knowledge students have about the topic(s) dealt with in the to-be-read text (e.g. brainstorming student assumptions as to why people smoke before reading an article on the causes of smoking); (2) activities which require students to predict / infer what comes next in a text based on their knowledge of the world, e.g. jigsaw reading or ‘guess what comes next’ tasks (whereby a very short story where only the opening line is visible to start with is displayed on the classroom screen and the students have to infer what the next line is about); (3) before reading a challenging L2 text students may be asked to read similar texts in the L1- an idea originated with Krashen;
  • Vocabulary building activities of the likes found at (work-outs section). These should be carried out routinely prior to engaging students in any reading task and should focus on the words included in the to-be-read texts in order to lessen cognitive load during reading; they should also be carried out after each reading task for consolidation purposes;
  • Metalinguistic tasks engaging students in contextualized structural analysis of the target text (e.g. whereby students are asked to identify to what part-of-speech category words belong to)
  • Extensive practice in the recognition of discourse markers (e.g. gap-fill or translation tasks);
  • Narrow reading tasks – these kill a lot of birds with one stone as narrow reading helps enhancing vocabulary by constantly recycling it from text to text (five or six texts should be used) and by requiring the application of the same schemata set;
  • Metacognitive retrospective tasks – students are asked to reflect on two or three main issues that impeded their understanding of the target text and what they could do to overcome them.

The most important implications for L2 reading instruction, however, refer to oral fluency and phonological skills and their link with reading proficiency. Teachers may have to focus much more than they currently do, in my experience on enhancing phonological awareness. In a previous post on ‘Listening micro-skills enhancers’ (  I indicated several examples of very-easy-to-set-up activities that students enjoy, which focus on this hyper-neglected dimension of oracy.

Moreover, the evidence that higher levels of oral fluency correlate with higher levels of reading proficiency even when vocabulary range is equivalent entails that ways must be find to integrate lots of oral practice in the foreign language classroom – a pedagogical recommendation that I have often made in my posts, advocating that a substantial chunk of each lesson should be devoted to learner-to-learner oral interaction tasks (of the communicative sort).


Based on the above discussion teachers may have to rethink the way they teach reading skills. Firstly, their approach to reading skill instruction should focus systematically on both top-down and bottom-up processing skills. The two skills can be taught separately, obviously; they do not have to be explicitly integrated in every single lesson. Oral fluency, vocabulary building and phonological awareness must be focused on much more than it is currently done in foreign language lessons as they are pivotal to the development of reading proficiency.

Narrow reading and narrow listening – enhancing receptive skills through focused and purposeful recycling


As mentioned in previous posts, listening in my opinion is not taught effectively in many MFL classrooms as students are often engaged in listening comprehension tasks that ‘feel’ more like tests and involve almost exclusively top-down processing skills. Another reason is that instructors and textbooks often do not exploit the full potential of the target texts. Students listen to a recording two or three times, answer a few comprehension questions and then the text is ‘ditched’ and the teacher moves on to a new text  which may deal with a similar topic area but rarely recycles the same material. As far as reading is concerned, things are a bit better and occasionally textbooks do provide two or three activities on the same text. But even so, the full potential of a text is often wasted.

In what follows I propose an approach to listening and reading that I have used very often over the years, which, although quite time-consuming, can yield great results if executed properly and implemented regularly.

Narrow listening

When I was in my teens, Internet did not exist and finding the lyrics of a song, in Italy – where I lived in those days – was not easy. Hence, a lot of my school mates, aware of my anglo-phone background (my mother having grown up in England) would ask me to write up the lyrics of the British hits that were ‘invading’ and taking over Italy at that time. To be able to do that, although I was already near-native at that stage, I had to listen to each song over and over again, sometimes going over the same line a dozen times to decode problematic words.

Useless to say, that process was as useful as it was tedious; I learnt loads, both in terms of bottom-up processing skills and in terms of vocabulary. But can we ask students to do the same? Apart from a few highly self-motivated individuals, the vast majority of our learners would not. Yet, as I argued in a previous post, if students simply listen to a text once or twice only, the learning benefits will be relatively low; students often need to process the same text several times in order to fully understand and learn new vocabulary from it.

One obvious solution is to exploit each text several times by engaging the learners in four or five tasks based around it.  However, this can be boring and repetitive. So, what can one do, to ensure that the students listen to the same words over and over again without listening and re-listening to the same text?

I found a possible solution a few years back, whilst reading the work of Stephen Krashen and his ‘narrow listening’ technique. ‘Narrow listening’ involves asking several L2 proficient/native speakers to talk about a specific topic whilst recording them in the process; the questions should be quite ‘narrow’ in their focus so as to elicit similar content and, consequently, language (vocabulary and grammar). At the end of the process one would listen to all the recordings obtained thereby being exposed several times to fairly similar language.

When I first got acquainted with this technique, I liked its aims: firstly, to facilitate learner understanding of the target input, by creating the same ‘narrow’ context for each interview and by recycling the same vocabulary over and over again; secondly, to consolidate vocabulary through that recycling. However, Krashen’s approach, being based on a spontaneous response on the part of the interviewees, does not guarantee any control on the teacher’s part over the vocabulary contained in their input. This means that the effect that song-transcribing had on me could not be guaranteed 100 % all of the time through Krashen’s technique.

Hence I decided to adapt Krashen’s model and increase my degree of control over the input. In my model, the interviewees are not just improvising; each is given a script that will not take longer than 30 to 40 seconds to read for beginner to pre-intermediate learners and about 1 minute for GCSE level students. The wording of each script is quite similar – but not identical – and the input is ‘comprehensible’ (i.e. mostly familiar language or cognates, with a few unfamiliar words). The ‘secret’ is to make sure that the same pool of words is recycled constantly whilst the texts sound different and have slightly different messages (e.g. some negative; some positive; some ‘neutral’) – not an easy thing to do. Even though the process can be quite laborious, the learning benefits of this practice in terms of vocabulary acquisition, consolidation and self-efficacy are remarkable.

In international schools like the one I work at where there are lots of young native speakers of the target language(s) (and their parents) this approach is not too difficult to implement. But one can go about it a different way, by searching the web for short videos/recordings which are very similar in content. I did that, for instance, in the context of daily routine; I found a serious of youtube videos shot by French teenagers, which actually contained very similar language and used them for narrow listening tasks. In the absence of L2 native speakers, other L2 experts (e.g. colleagues) may be used.

But what tasks should the students be involved in whilst narrow-listening? Unlike Krashen, who believes they should not be doing anything but listening, I do believe the students should be demonstrating understanding one way or another. The type of activity we decide to engage them in will depend on what we are trying to focus them on: is it inferring the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary? Is it consolidating old vocabulary? Is it listening for gist? Is it identifying specific details? Or is it all of the above? The answers to these questions will determine the in-listening tasks we will set. I usually do one or more of the following:

  1. Given the word in English spot the French/Spanish equivalent on the recording;
  2. Identify the meaning of the following French words in the recording;
  3. Jot down two/three/four etc. main points each speaker makes;
  4. Spot the speakers who express similar/different opinions or do/have done similar/different things;
  5. Comprehension questions. As you will know if you read my previous posts, these are not my favourite kind of tasks.

Narrow listening activities should be preceded by warm-up vocabulary and schemata activation activities and followed by consolidation activities further recycling the target lexis in order to maximize retention.

Narrow reading

The same principle underlying narrow listening can be applied to reading with the same beneficial impact on L2 acquisition. In fact, I often use the transcripts employed in narrow listening for my narrow reading sessions. I strongly recommend using fewer texts for narrow reading than one would use in narrow listening. Narrow reading is easier to implement as there’s no need for native speakers and similar texts are easy to find. For instance, recently I was doing some work on the environment and finding five similar texts on things to do or not to do to protect the environment was easy – and each text was authentic L2 material.

In conclusion, narrow listening is a technique that I recommend to colleagues and that I wish textbooks and other published instructional materials adopted more often than they currently do. It has the great advantage of exposing the students to similar comprehensible input, which allows for easier access to unfamiliar language, due to the contextual and linguistic clues they get from listening to several similar texts; moreover, similar vocabulary is recycled over and over again which fosters consolidation and retention; finally, students get to listen to accessible L2 language for relatively long time as uttered by different people. However, it does require some extra-work and the availability of several L2 experts willing to co-operate.

In order to save time and effort, Krashen’s approach may be easier to implement and can work, too, if one chooses the right questions. I do it sometimes and ask students to go around school with their iPads – not in lesson time, obviously –  to interview as many L2 native speaker schoolmates as possible about a specific topic (e.g. food in the canteen). When the focus of the question is very narrow (e.g. talk to be about a typical day in school), the likelihood of the vocabulary overlapping across interviewees is quite high.

Why reading comprehension tasks can be detrimental to L2-reading skills development

The Language Gym

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The enhancement of reading skills proficiency in foreign language learners has never been as crucial to their linguistic and holistic development as in the 21st century classroom, due to the prominent role that digital technology and the Internet play in their lives. The Internet allows foreign language students easier and cheaper access to masses of information without having to purchase or borrow a book, and allows for a vast variety of choice of topics and text-types.

The goals of reading in the 21st century classroom

With this in mind, in this day and age, more than ever, in their daily practice, curriculum planners, L2-instructional material writers and teachers need to have reading proficiency development in their focal rather than subsidiary awareness, striving, as much as possible, to enable learners to become competent autonomous readers. This means ensuring that they :

  1. WANT to read independently – this implies experiencing…

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