More on universals, desirables, controlled input and implicit learning

This very concise post was motivated by the fact that many colleagues seem to have misunderstood what my ‘universals’ are about and by the high level of interest for this strategy shown by the teachers who attended my recent rounds of workshops in England and Australia.

My ‘universals’

So let me spell it out clearly: the ‘universals’ are high surrender value grammar structures, lexical patterns and/or functions that you feel your students are currently not learning effectively due to insufficient exposure or practice in your extant input.

By making such language items your ‘universals’, you commit yourself to embed them systematically in your daily input, week in week out from the beginning to the end of the year. This entails embedding them in your classroom talk, in your learning management routines (from instructions to oral and written feedback), in your every resource, in your every receptive and productive task.

Hence, my ‘universals’ are not – as some seem to believe – the dream list of ‘recyclables’ (key connectives, high frequency verbs, useful idioms, etc.) cutting across all topics that many teachers put on a sheet for their students to refer to whenever they write an essay or deliver a presentation. Far from it.

Rather, they are a very effective strategy to provide extensive exposure to and practice with language items that you are not currently teaching successfully; they are not to stay on a list that your students keep in their books ; you MUST ensure they are part of the comprehensible input you feed your students every day, and of the output that you push out of them.

For example, in my context, I was dissatisfied with my pre-intermediate students’ mastery of the French negatives and phrases used to compare and contrast; with their ability to create questions and with their repertoire of verbs. So, in every single lesson of mine I now make sure that my students get tons of implicit exposure to these structures and patterns across all four skills. Here is the full list of my year 7 French universals (see figure 1 below).

Figure 1 – year 7 French Universals



The hoped-for outcome: that by processing receptively and productively these items for a few minutes every day the whole year through they will become so familiar and embedded in my students’ cognition that by the end of term 3 they will be acquired by most if not all of them.

My ‘desirables’

My ‘desirables’ are also language items that I aim to teach implicitly. However, differently from the ‘universals’ they are aimed at only the most talented, inquisitive and proactive of my students. They consist of structures or patterns that are more complex and advanced and which I include in my input on a daily basis too hoping for the top 5 – 10 % of my students to notice and pick up.

An example of ‘desirables’ for my year 11 students refers to the subjunctive and patterns such as ‘bien que / sans que / pourvu que + subjunctive’ which I have been planting in my resources since last year. Another example, with the same group: the pluperfect indicative.

Comprehensible controlled input and feasible pushed output as crucial to the effective teaching of universals and desirables

Obviously, you cannot implicitly teach universals and desirable without constantly recycling them through controlled input which is highly patterned, repetitive and 95 % comprehensible. Authentic texts will not include as many instances of your universal or desirable items as you need to drill them in effectively. Moreover, authentic texts rarely include comprehensible input.

By the same token, unstructured tasks will not ensure that your students will include them in their output; hence the need to provide extensive productive practice which elicits their deployment task after task, the easiest and safest way of achieving this being oral and written translation tasks involving feasible output (e.g. those discussed here).

In my next post ‘The two keys to effective language teaching and learning: controlled input and pushed output’ I will elaborate on this further.


This post was motivated by the fact that some colleagues have equated my universals to Barry Smith’s top tens or to examination boards lists of essential structures/lexical patterns, what teachers often refer to as ‘recyclables’.

Unlike the above, my ‘Universals’ and ‘Desirables’ are what YOU want them to be; I conceived them as a way to keep in my attentional focus the structures and/or lexical patterns I was teaching less successfully so that they would feature day in day out in my input and in my students output.

For the universals/desirable strategy to truly impact your students they need to be recycled systematically and methodically in your lessons. The more they occur in your input and your students’ output the better.

The universals ILRs (implicit learning routines) I use in my daily practice ( e.g. ‘grumpy time’ or ‘question time’) take very little time and allow me to never lose track of my universals, whatever the topic-at-hand is (see here for discussion of my ILRs). Scaffolds like the one below (see figure 2) will assist your students when they are asked to produce the universals orally or in writing.

Figure 2 – scaffold I use to model and encourage use of negatives


I have tested this strategy many times over and it has never disappointed me.


Translation tasks and techniques that have significantly enhanced my teaching

(This post was co-authored with Dylan Vinales during last week’s Garden International School professional learning afternoon)

1.Introduction: the case for translation 

In the last forty years or so, most emerging L2 methodologies have dismissed the use of translation as a counterproductive practice. In particular, the emphasis on 100 % use of the Target Language lain by CLT and other approaches has often resulted in an outright ban of the L1 from the modern language classroom, and with it, evidently, the dismissal of translation.

As I identified in a recent review of the relevant literature (Conti, 2016), translation has been out of favour for the following reasons:

  • It is associated with the Grammar translation approach;
  • It is assumed that L1 use in the classroom hampers L2 acquisition;
  • Translation is seen by many as a mechanical transfer of meaning from one language to another – not a communicative activity;
  • Translation tasks are perceived as boring;
  • Translation is seen as independent of the other four skills;
  • Translation takes up lots of valuable time that could be devoted to more beneficial communicative activities;
  • Translation is believed to be appropriate only for training translators.

In recent years, however, theorists and researchers working in the Cognitive paradigm have been re-assessing the role of the L1 and translation as a means to support and enhance L2 acquisition. Numerous studies seem to indicate that translation does indeed provide numerous cognitive advantages in instructed L2 settings over 100% Target Language.

Consequently, as often happens in modern language education, the pendulum has swung back again and the new England-and-Wales GCSE Modern Language Exam now includes a mandatory translation module.

The most valuable advantage of translation pertains, in my opinion, to the cognitive comparison between the L2 and the L1 it promotes, which often results in noticing the gap between the two languages, thereby potentially pre-empting/correcting L1 negative transfer or, conversely, providing confirmation for L1 positive transfer. An example: last week one of my students, whilst playing one of my oral-translation games (see below) noticed that when saying ‘Il est avocat’ in French, unlike English, the indefinite article is not used. He subsequently asked me if that was the rule in French and once I confirmed, he translated the next sentence in the challenge ‘She is a teacher’ (=elle est enseignante) correctly.

In my post ‘The case for translation in foreign language instruction’ I have written about the pros and cons of translation extensively and provided a number of important recommendations as to how to design and implement translation tasks. Hence, in the below I will not delve into a discussion of the merits of translation practice in the L2 classroom.

My position statement is that translation from and into the L2 can be effective in instructed L2 settings in scaffolding and enhancing acquisition. However, it should NOT dominate classroom practice, and should be used judiciously when dealing with less able and motivated learners. Also, I do believe that in lesson time, with novice to intermediate learners, oral translation practice should be preferred to written translation, as the development of oral fluency should be our main concern. Finally, with the few exceptions of snappy high-pace starts such as ‘quick-fire’ translation starters (see below), written translation ought to be mainly used for out-of-the classroom consolidation work, as it is time-consuming and has the potential to be boring.

In conclusion, I refer the reader to the link to my previous post for an in-depth evidence-based discussion of the benefits of translation practice; in the below, I reserve to outline the most successful translation teaching techniques I have been using over the years with novice to intermediate students. Before proceeding let me list a few caveats

2. Caveats

Please note that in a typical less of mine:

  1. the translation tasks are ‘chunk-’ rather than single-words based; although the students will have to monitor the accurate manipulation of inflected forms of individual verbs, adjectives and nouns, I do devise the to-be-translated texts as sequence of chunks and patterns rather than strings of words. This is reflected in my assessment too, which is chunk-, rather than word-based too;
  2. the chunks selected for inclusion in the to-be-translated texts are high-surrender value lexical items. I often include in my texts my ‘universals’ (see here if you are not familiar with this term). In this sense, my translation tasks become very valuable recycling tools, which allow my students to revisit past and present vocabulary across all units of work;
  3. the translation tasks below are intended to elicit output which recycle ‘chunks’ and ‘patterns’ extensively practised beforehand . In other words, the to-be-translated text contains what I call ‘feasible output’, i.e. output that the average student is able to translate with little support from the teacher or other reference materials in the target performance conditions. The notion of ‘feasible output’ is central to my design of any to-be-translated text , as what puts students off translation is usually the fact that they have to consult reference materials time and again and their lack of linguistic relevance to previous learning (and I am talking about the relevance to the linguistic content – not to the topic, here).
  4. as it is obvious from the previous point, translation tasks are fully integrated in the instructional sequence at hand. They are not simply intended to practise translation skills; they are a means to reinforce the chunks and patterns at hand’;
  5. translation tasks for use at lower levels of proficiency should be designed in a way that minimizes cognitive overload. This means that with average ability students I never place more than one challenging item per sentence. For instance, if I know my students struggle with the perfect tense of verbs requiring Etre as an auxiliary I will not include in that sentence a lexical item or morphological or syntactic structure that is likely to cause divided attention.

3. My favourite translation tasks and techniques

Here are some of my favourite translation tasks and techniques. I have been using them for years with great results with my novice to intermediate students and have become integral part of my everyday instructional sequences, both in the Receptive processing stage (as L2 to L1 translation) and in the Structured production phase of my M.A.R.S. sequence.

3.1 Narrow translation

The traditional translation-practice model adopted by Modern Language teachers consists of the following phases:

1. task is assigned

2. task is executed

3. feedback on student performance is provided

After phase (3) the text is usually never to be seen again.

I devised Narrow translation (NT) to overcome the limitations of the above model. Based on the same principle as narrow reading, NT consists of three or more short to-be-translated texts that are extremely similar in terms of chunks and patterns, the differences amounting to 10-15% per cent of the text maximum. So for instance, if to-be-translated-text 1 contains the sentence ‘I live in a small town by the sea’, text 2 will contain the sentence ‘I live in a large town by a lake’, text 3 ‘I live in a small village by a river’ and text 4 ‘I live in a tiny village in the countryside’.

NT texts are short, shorter when they are meant for classroom use rather than as homework assignments and because the texts consist of chunks the students have been exposed to and have practised to death prior to the task, the students complete them quite quickly and usually accurately, which gives them a sense of achievement.

With novices or lower ability students, I usually provide alongside the to-be-translated texts 1,2 and 3 a text ‘0’ which has its L2-translation alongside. This gimmick functions as a motivational scaffold for less confident learners.

Narrow translations have been very successful with my students as they have allowed me to enhance the recycling of the target chunks many times over. They also provide me with a valuable opportunity for transferability of the target chunks and structures to a variety of linguistic contexts which are similar enough to be familiar but sufficiently different to still present a challenge. This doesn’t usually happen with traditional translation tasks whereby the student normally completes a translation, gets feedback on it, but doesn’t typically get the opportunity to have several goes at using the full range of patterns they have just practised in the translation.

In administering narrow-translation tasks I go through three phases:

(1) the texts differ from each other only in terms of lexical items in conjunction with same patterns/chunks; the verbs and tenses stay the same; so for instance, if text 1 was in the first person of the verbs used, so will be the other texts.

(2) the texts differ in terms of lexical items and the persons of the verbs used, e.g. if texts 1, 2 and 3 were in the first person singular, text 4 will be in the third singular, text 5 in the first plural, etc. (see example in figure 1 below).

(3) the differences also encompass change in tenses and the inclusion of subordinate clauses.

The moves in phases 2 and 3 are necessary at higher levels of proficiency to encourage expansion and autonomy (the ‘E’ and ‘A’ in my MARS +EARS framework).

Fig. 1 – Sample Narrow Translation Texts – The words in bold indicate the instances in which the texts differ from one another

narrow translation

My classes have reported learning a lot and most importantly gaining a lot of confidence in translation thanks to NT. Do bear in mind that I use NT sparingly in classroom time, I  mainly assign it as homework. If you do use NT texts in the classroom, do ensure they are quite short.

3.2 Oral translation games (OB)

3.2.1 No Snakes No Ladders (NSNL)

The no-frills (no fancy visuals, cards, etc.) oral-translation boardgame ‘No snakes no ladders’ is extremely useful and very simple to make and use. It is due its simplicity and high effectiveness that has gone viral in our Department.

It consists of a track made up of about 30 cases (see picture below). Each case contains a to-be-translated chunk that the students will have practised to death prior to the game. The chunks become increasingly difficult as the game unfolds. Figure 2 below, shows an example I used last week with a year 9 French mixed-ability class

Figure 2 – Sample No-Snakes-No-ladders game

board game

The rules are as follows: in groups of three students (2 player + 1 referee) or five (2 teams of two players and one referee), players take turn in rolling a dice. Whichever case the player/team lands based on their dice score, they will have 10-15 seconds to translate the relative sentence(s) into the target language orally. The referee will then tell the players (with the help of the answer sheet) if their translation is correct. If the translation is correct they will have another go and casting the dice and will advance to the next case where they will have to translate the next sentence and so on. However, if their translation isn’t correct, the referee will read to them the right version twice in order for the players to attempt to memorize it for the next round when they will have another go. After the opponents’ turn the player will have another chance at casting the dice; if they answer the question they originally got wrong correct. The person who is closer to the finishing line ten minutes into the game will win.

The role of the student referee is key to the success of the game. I observed many a lesson in which teachers used similar board games without providing the answer key . How on earth are the students going to know, unless the teacher is constantly around, if their output is correct or not?

My students love it and report learning lots from it. A google slide template of the game (track and referee card) prepared by Dylan Vinales can be found here . My pdf template can be found here.

3.2.2 Oral translation ping pong

This is a very simple totally student-centred GCSE translation revision starter or plenary which requires little preparation. I have been using it recently in the run-up to the orals and my students seemed to enjoy it.

The students work in pairs. They have a sheet with the same English sentences to translate into French, but Partner A has the translation of half the sentences (e.g. sentences 1 to 10), whereas Partner B has the translation of the other half (e.g. sentences 11 to 20).

I call it ‘Oral ping-pong translation’ because the two partners take turns in challenging each other with a sentence. After one partner has attempted the translation, his/her opponent shows him/her the correct answer and points are awarded (3 for perfect sentence, 2 for one mistake only, 1 if there are mistakes but at least the verb is correctly formed). I give the students a time limit (10 minutes); when the time is up the person with the higher score wins. Best to have people of similar ability in each pair. Figure 3 illustrates an example I made for an able year 11 group of mine. Obviously, the activity can be done in writing too.

Fig 3 – Oral ping pong partner A and partner B sheets

oral ing A.png

oral ping B.png

As a follow-up activity, I get the students to make a note of the most serious mistakes they made in their books so that I have an idea of what their problem areas are.

3.3 Find someone who with L1 (first language) cards

This game is an adaptation of the find-someone who with L2 cards I have discussed in previous posts. Each student is given (1) a grid like the one in figure 4a before, with prompts such as ‘Find someone whose father is a lawyer’; (2) a card with a number with fictitious details (e.g. my father is a lawyer).

Figure 4a . Find someone who with cards in the first language : grid with task prompts for students to fill in

find someone who_L1_grid

Figure 4b . Find someone who with cards in the first language – cards to cut up which students will translate in answering their classmates’ questions

find someone who_L1_cards

The students’ task is to find the people with the card which contains the details they are looking for and they must do so by asking questions in the target language. In this version, the cards are in the L1 (see figure 4, above); hence, the students need, each time they ask and are asked a question, to answer translating orally the prompts on the grid and on their card from the L1 to the L2.

So, whilst the find-someone-who version with L2 cards is mostly a receptive processing task (the only production aspect of it being reading aloud the L2 questions and answers), this version is both productive and receptive.

5. Oral Communicative Drills (OCDs)

These consist of very short L1 dialogs to translate into the L2. Again, I put students in groups of three. Two students translating their respective lines into the target language and a third students (who has the target language version of all the dialogs) giving feedback.

OCDs are not fun and students are not crazy about them. In the student voice I have carried out they usually get a rating of 3 out of 5. However, the students find them beneficial in preparing them for the less structured communicative activities that follow, In fact, this is the purpose of  these drills, to practise the target chunks and patterns in a highly structured conversation in order to prepare for less controlled tasks such as surveys, interviews or role plays.

Figure 5 . Oral communicative drills- Students take turn translating questions/answers whilst a third student, who has the target language version of each card, listens critically and provide corrective feedback


6. Quick-fire translation starter

 I use this as a starter in nearly every lesson of mine. It requires minimum preparation and all you need is your voice, mini-whiteboards and markers. You utter sentences in the L1 or L2 and students need to translate in a fixed time limit.

I usually start with L2 sentences to translate into the L1 and then vice versa, making sure that the sentences used in the second round are pretty much the translation of the ones used in the first round or are at least very similar in structure.

An observer once noted that whilst some students manage to complete the translation easily in the time allocated, others struggle. As a way to differentiate you may want to give an extra sentence for those who finish earlier whilst extending the time for those who struggle.

7.Translation with metalinguistic cues

Translating challenging sentences from L1 to L2 can pose a massive strain on a less able or novice’s working memory executive function. As a result, some students make mistakes due both to cognitive overload and/or ineffective self-monitoring.

This technique may help a lot in this respect as it consists of cueing the students as to the presence of specific items they usually find challenging or make mistakes with whilst providing a cryptic comment in brackets that may help them getting them right by inviting caution or providing a heuristic. Take a look, for instance, at this extract from a text I gave one of my year 9 French classes last week; in my comments in brackets I provided the students with reminders as to issues I know they usually struggle with.

Yesterday we went (Etre verb) to the shopping mall. The place was (perfect tense or imperfect?) very crowded and noisy. My father and I went down (Etre verb) to the ground floor to buy a new (careful: word order) phone whilst my mother and my sister went up (Etre verb) to the top floor to buy gifts. After that I had (do not use ‘avoir’ here) an ice cream. It was (prefect tense or imperfect) delicious.

The purpose of this very valuable technique is to scaffold self-monitoring and to sensitize the students to common mistakes in their output.

8. Translation with pre-task problem identification

Whether I am about to stage oral or written translation tasks in my lessons, I do want to know what aspects of the task my students find challenging, which ones can be solved with the help of reference materials and which ones require my intervention. Moreover, I would like the students to approach the task with as high a sense of self-efficacy as possible.

A way to kill both birds with one stone is to ask them prior to the task to go through it and write on a Padlet wall, Google Doc or simply on their mini-boards what they think they will struggle with.

Then put the students in groups of three or four and ask them to work collaboratively on solving the issues flagged – do group students judiciously. If possible, provide them with access to the internet for them to do some research on the problematic items. Throughout this stage you will go around the class monitoring, providing cues and asking questions that may lead them in the right direction but never giving the solution. Do ensure all students take part in the discussions.

After this collaborative-learning phase, the students do the task. The information gathered throughout the two phases above will have provided you with very valuable information about the issues your students have with regards to the task-at-hand and about some of their learning problems. You will treasure those data and let them inform your future planning.

9. Translation with pre-task self-monitoring

This is a technique whose effectiveness I tested during my PhD. It consists of getting the students, prior to engaging in the task, to look at the most frequent mistakes they made in previous translation activities. Where do they get this information? The most time-consuming way is for them to go back to your feedback on each translation task they did before. A faster way is to ask them to keep a record on a tally sheet of their most frequent mistakes every time you provide them with corrective feedback.

Then you will ask them to use the information gathered to make up a checklist of the errors to look out for in the editing phase of the translation. A metacognitive activity.

10. Concluding remarks

Translation can be a very valuable tool, regardless of the bad press it has received over the last forty years, mainly due to its association with the Grammar Translation Method but also because of the emphasis that many emerging schools of thought place on the importance of conducting foreign language lessons entirely in the L2.

I do believe that, unless we are solely concerned with equipping our students with L2 survival skills, translation can have an enhancing effect as a proficiency booster if used judiciously and the to-be-translated texts contain feasible output, i.e. output the students are capable to translate with little assistance from reference materials or L2  experts.

The translation tasks we give our students must be relevant to prior learning. They often are not. Whilst they are losely related to the topic-in-hand they do not recycle the language we have taught our students – a very serious shortcoming. For translation practice to add to the learning process, it MUST recycle and has to be fully integrated with every single instructional sequence.

In the above I have discussed the most effective translation-teaching techniques I use in my lessons. Narrow Translation is valuable due to its recycling and scaffolding power; it massively helps consolidation whilst building learner confidence. The oral translation games, Oral Ping-Pong, No snake No ladders and Find someone who make translation enjoyable by adding a competitive element and being totally student-centred. Finally, I suggested two techniques which provide cognitive scaffolding as they are designed to support less confident learners and/or boost their chances to succeed at the task-in-hand.

To find out more about my approach to teaching get hold of the book Steve Smith and I co-authored ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’.


Review article : ‘Becoming an outstanding languages teacher’ by Steve Smith

Steve Smith’s new book  ‘Becoming an outstanding languages teacher’ (Routledge) is aimed primarily at pre-service modern language teachers and others who want to refine their practice. At 200 pages long and with 14 chapters it makes for a not too daunting read, full of practical ideas, techniques and lesson plans. In his characteristically easy style Steve covers a wide range of aspects of language teaching, including how to run a room effectively, how to exploit visual aids and written texts, ways to teach vocabulary and chunks, how to build listening skills and use questioning techniques and other interactions.

Five chapters examine in some detail the precise dialogues which could occur between the teacher and students. For example, in a lesson sequence based on using a written text with near-beginners Steve precisely describes what the teacher might say, how students would respond, while adding a commentary of “tips of the trade” to make the lesson go along successfully. The text used here, as with others in the book, is in English so it is adaptable to teachers of other languages. Trainee teachers should find these blow-by-blow accounts particularly useful as they learn to plan their lessons. The attention to detail is impressive here as Steve emphasises the importance of precise questioning techniques.

Chapter 7 examines how you might approach the teaching of grammar. The emphasis is not on the explicit teaching of rules (although this is referred to and requires a skill of its own) but on how you build student mastery through providing both lots of comprehensible input in a very structured way, allowing skills to develop. It’s clear that Steve does not come from one particular theoretical standpoint in this book, allowing room for the development of skills and placing value on communication and input. This chapter also shows how grammatical skill can be developed through listening activity, an area I have written about myself a good deal.

Chapter 6 provides a list of what Steve calls “purposeful games”. This include some familiar ones along with a few you may not have come across. The point comes across clearly that the best games are tasks which have a purpose and where input and practice are to the fore. Teachers will be able to dip into this book and pick out ideas they can immediately apply in the classroom.

Chapter 11 considers how you might get the best out of students of all abilities. Steve draws on his own experience teaching mainly higher attaining students, but also brings in reference to teaching relatively lower attaining students and those with special needs. For the latter he refers mainly to the work of specialist in this field David Wilson. He also examines specific techniques students need to develop such as essay and summary writing (useful for exams in England and wales in particular).

The final chapter attempts to distil what “outstanding” teaching might involve – not an easy thing to describe and clearly subject to subjective interpretation. To help with this he employs three “case studies” to show that excellence can come in different forms and with different methodologies. These case studies look at the “bilingual” approach used successfully at the Michaela Community School in London, the AIMLANG (Accelerated Integrated Methodology) approach used in Canada and elsewhere and the TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling). Steve’s examines what these approaches have in common as well as what separates them, attempting to demonstrate that successful teachers all share certain principles – the importance of target language input, repetition and recycling, along with a degree of grammatical explanation. Above all, Steve’s thesis is that it is the delivery of the approach which counts more than the approach itself. Teachers have to be able to asses different approaches, believe in what they are doing and deliver lessons with skill. Generic teacher skills such as showing effective cognitive and affective empathy, managing behaviour, sharing a passion and being well-organised are more crucial than the detail of particular methodologies.

All in all, teachers and departments should find this readable volume an excellent addition to their library.

Eight listening-research findings every teacher should be aware of and their implications for teaching and learning


As my regular readers would know, Steve Smith and I are currently in the process of writing a book on aural instruction. This has involved reviewing a vast amount of research on the various areas of listening pedagogy in the last year or so. In this post, I will concisely discuss eight sets of research findings I have come across, that I believe every modern language instructor should be aware of and have had a transformative impact on my teaching.


1. Anxiety seriously affects listening comprehension (Elkhafaifi, 2005; Lund, 1991; Vogely, 1998; Graham, 2011; Vaefee, 2016)

Psychologists distinguish between three types of anxiety: trait, state and situation specific (Vafaee, 2016).  Foreign Language Anxiety or FLA, is a well-documented phenomenon which refers to what psychologists MacIntyre and Gardner (1991) describe as ‘situation specific’ anxiety or “the feeling of tension and apprehension specifically associated with second language context, including speaking, listening and learning’.

There is a wealth of research indicating that anxiety negatively affects the acquisition, processing, retention and use of language by foreign language students (MacIntyre, 1995; Spielmann & Radnofsky, 2001, Vafaee, 2016).

FLA can be for some L2 learners a generalised feeling which cuts across all dimensions of learning a foreign language. However, there is mounting research evidence (e.g. Scarcella and Oxford, 1992; Graham, 2011; Vafaee, 2016) clearly showing that for many foreign language students FLA is specifically listening-task related. Scarcella and Oxford (1992) found that students were particularly vulnerable to FLA when they approached listening tasks under the false impression that they had to understand every single word to successfully complete a listening comprehension task.

Several studies (e.g. Lund, 1991; Vogely, 1998; Elkhafaifi, 2005; Vafee, 2016) have clearly evidenced that FLA impedes L2 listening comprehension. There are several reasons for this. One refers to Working Memory’s ability to effectively control its attentional mechanisms: especially inhibiting and shifting, two key processes in the execution of complex tasks (Miyake et al.,2000). Another reason refers to the fact that anxiety typically automatically triggers in humans inner verbal activity (e.g. self talk); this, Rapee (1993) suggests, would take up the sound storage resources of Working Memory, which results in hampering the listener’s ability to store and process incoming sounds (i.e. if the brain sound storage facilities or Phonological Loop is busy processing our own inner speech triggered by anxiety, there is no space to store any incoming sounds).

Obviously, because anxiety affects Working Memory performance, students with weaker executive functions and memory spans (usually our lower ability students) will be more affected by this phenomenon.

It is also evident, that this listening-related anxiety will be enhanced in the case of students who are naturally prone to anxiety (i.e. suffer from trait-specific anxiety).

The implications are obviously that efforts must be made in order to:

(1) ensure we develop our students’ can-do attitude or self-efficacy (here are some suggestions);

(2) stage more activities that teach listening skills (here are some suggestions) and less that test;

(3) enhance their self-knowledge and task knowledge through the teaching of listening strategies (see point 6 below)

(4) provide students with oral input which contains vocabulary which is mostly accessible in meaning (as stated in the next section, for effective comprehension of an aural text to happen and lead to learning a student must know at least 95 to 98 % of the vocabulary it contains).

2.Vocabulary Depth is a more decisive factor than Vocabulary Breadth with more advanced L2 learners in effective listening comprehension (Vafaee, 2016)

It is a well-established research fact that vocabulary knowledge (VK) has a hugely important role in listening comprehension.

When it comes to listening comprehension and instruction it is important to note, however, that knowing what a word means in isolation and in its written form is different from being able to understand its meaning when it is heard in connected speech (i.e. as part of the speech stream we process aurally).  For instance, French-English cognates may help an English learner of French when reading a French text but much less so when they hear them during a listening comprehension task. By the same token, in English, being able to recognize a word in its strong but not weak form can lead to comprehension problems (Vanderplank, 1993).

Although there is no universal consensus as to the exact figure, most scholars agree that an L2 listener must ‘know’ at least 95 % of the words in a text (98% according to Nation); this means that the breadth of vocabulary one knows plays an important role in listening comprehension.

How many words does one need to know to comprehend most L2 texts aurally? There is not consensus, but I would go along with Van Zeeland & Schmitt (2012)’s figure of 2,000 to 3,000 families of words at intermediate level (e.g. GCSE in England) and 6,000-7,000 families of words with advanced students (e.g. A Level in England).

Whilst Breadth of VK is fundamental for effective aural comprehension at all levels of proficiency, it seems less important than Depth at Upper Intermediate to Avdanced Level (Vafaee, 2016). Depth, often measured through WAT (word associate test) refers to the following types of relationships a word has at three levels at least: paradigmatic (meaning), syntagmatic (collocation – how words occur together) and polisemy (multiple meanings of a word).

In other words, teaching students the multiple meanings of L2 lexical items; the words they are usually followed by and their meaning associations with words they are related with, seems to be more important than teaching a wide range of vocabulary at upper intermediate level and above superficially when it comes to facilitating reading and listening comprehension.

I am a strong advocate of teaching words in as many combinations with other words as possible starting from lower levels of proficiency (which means a lot of comprehensible written and aural input); with their synonyms and antonyms ; with their different morphological alterations (adjectives with derived adverbs, for instance). Rather than covering lots of words superficially and in fixed contexts.

Here is a link to a nice blog post by ‘Busy Teacher’, listing ten useful activities to teach collocations, one major facet of vocabulary depth.

3. Syntactic knowledge facilitates learning at intermediate levels of proficiency (Field, 2013; Vafaee, 2016)

Vafaee (2016) finally proved that syntactic knowledge (SK) plays a significant role in listening comprehension. SK ( knowledge of how sentences are correctly constructed ) is deployed by the brain (Working Memory) during the so-called Parsing stage of speech comprehension, i.e. the establishment of relationships between the meaning of individual words and whole utterances. Since Parsing involves pattern recognition, it is crucial in understanding the meaning of an utterance once the vocabulary items have been recognised.

SK, in order to play an effective role in listening comprehension, must be applied fast and accurately. Hence, it must be as routinized (proceduralised, automised) as possible. This means that simply knowing how a grammar rule works, e.g. scoring 100% in a gap-fill test will not help in listening comprehension.

The implications for listening instruction are obvious: focus on pattern recognition of the sort envisaged here is highly beneficial for L2 listeners.

4. The ability to segment the speech stream plays a huge role in listening comprehension (Andringa et al 2012; Zoghlami (2016); Simpson (unpublished master’s degree)

Until recently, the importance of the first phase of listening comprehension, what Field (2013) calls ‘Decoding’ was not fully acknowledged by researchers. Yet, when it comes to less ‘transparent’ languages such as English and French, this phase, as I have often maintained is pivotal. One specific process is particularly crucial as it primes vocabulary recognition: speech-stream segmentation, i.e. the identification of an utterance’s word boundaries. This has been evidenced by a number of studies such as Andringa et al (2012), Zoghlami (2016) and Simpson (unpublished Master’s dissertation).

Since without successful segmentation one cannot successfully proceed to the Lexical retrieval and Parsing stages, it is clear how this process is the most important one in aural comprehension. In fact, Zoghlami (2016) found that Segmenting was indeed the single stronger predictor of successful aural comprehension.

The implications of these research findings are obvious and consistent with what I argued in many posts of mine. Instruction in decoding skills (read here), the ability to convert letters into sound and viceversa , reading aloud (see point 9 below) and parsing skills (read here) are therefore a must if we want to raise our students’ listening proficiency. Instruction in phonotactics, e.g. ‘liaison’ (linking) in French is also valuable in this respect; for instance, Simpson’s (unpublished Master’s dissertation) students reported benefiting substantially from being trained in the recognition and production of ‘liaison’ in French.

5. Pre-listening-task single-word prediction can hamper aural comprehension (Graham, 2017)

 Graham (2017) reports how she found that many secondary school modern language teachers tell their students to predict the sort of vocabulary that might come up in a listening task by previewing the questions and other para-textual features (e.g. picture). A questionnaire she administered to 115 teachers revealed that 48% of them said that they often or always asked their students to predict vocabulary that might be included in the listening passage; even more (78%) reminded learners of vocabulary associated with the topic-at-hand.

Graham (2017) reports the following phenomenon, which points to a serious danger associated with this common practice:

“in many instances predictions proved to be unhelpful; for example, by leading learners to imagine hearing the predicted word even if it did not occur, and then drawing erroneous conclusions about the passage as a whole; or focusing so much on trying to hear the predicted items that the overall sense of the passage was ignored. Problems also arose because learners failed to verify whether their predictions were correct or not, possibly because they had never been taught”.

This phenomenon resonates with my experience of L2 student-listeners of lower proficiency and with poor self-efficacy and metacognitive knowledge. Predictions can be valuable, though, when combined with other listening strategies. Which brings me to the next point.

6. Metacognitive knowledge significantly facilitates listening comprehension (Macaro, 2003; Cross, 2010; Vandergrift et al, 2010; Graham 2017)

We know from much research that Metacognitive Knowledge (e.g. self-knowledge, task knowledge, planning, self-monitoring and evaluation) plays an important role in the listening process, especially at less advanced level. Moreover, a number of studies have reported improvement in listening proficiency through approaches aimed at developing learners’ metacognitive awareness and metacognitive strategies use.

For instance, Vandergrift & Tafaghodtari (2010) reported improving the listening attainment of lower proficiency learners through a metacognitive instruction programme for listening consisting of a ‘pedagogical cycle’ (Vandergrift & Tafaghodtari 2010: 472) involving prediction of what might occur in the task, verification or checking of such predictions and post-listening peer discussion of what was heard, reflection on the strategies applied during the task and future target-setting. Learners of all proficiency levels showed greater improvement in the metacognitive strategies of planning, evaluation and problem-solving.

Giving learners opportunities for reflection on and discussion about how they listen and how they understand is relatively easy and does not need to involve a lot of teacher input. Cross (2010). for instance, increased L2 learners’ metacognitive awareness merely by discussing listening activities in pairs, comparing solutions to problems with listening, and writing about their strategies in a journal.

I have personally adopted the following technique, borrowed from Vandergrift (1999), for use with my intermediate classes:

“Before listening to the oral text, Students are given a written version of it with individual words or parts of the text deleted. Students are asked to read the text and to attempt to fill in the missing words. This helps students to use context to develop inferencing, and to predict the word(s) that they might hear. A class discussion, or work in pairs, will allow students to review difficulties and justify choices. A subsequent listening to the text promotes selective attention (planning)and verification of hypotheses (monitoring). (discussing the merits of the decisions made) will promote the strategy of evaluation.”

This activity kills two birds with one stone – on the one hand it develops the metacognitve listening strategies mentioned above, on the other it focuses the students on parsing skills.

Please do note that this sort of training must be carried out for a fairly long time before it can yield significant results and may not work with younger , lower ability and less motivated learners.

Figures 1 and 2 below show the pre-listening and post-listening checklists that Vandergrift (1999) recommends to scaffold pre- and post-task reflection and discussion.


FIgure 1 – Pre-listening scaffold (Vandergrift, 1999)

vandergr 1.png

Figure 2 – Post-listening scaffold (Vandergrift, 1999)

vandergr 2

7. Many foreign language teachers are not fully aware of the differences between Reading and Listening processes (Conti, 2014 – forthcoming)

A couple of years ago I administered an online questionnaire to 106 colleagues from all over the world– a mix of Modern Languages and EFL teachers – aimed at finding out how aware they were of the differences between reading and listening. My research was motivated by anecdotal evidence I had that, whilst it is obvious to all that aural comprehension is harder than reading comprehension, many colleagues I had had in the past were not always fully aware of the very important differences between the two skills; this in my view, was at the root of their neglect and/or ineffective teaching of Listening skills.

Let us Lund (1991) remind us of the main issues in which reading and listening comprehension diverge:

  1. In listening, the complete text is not available for perusal. It is heard as it is uttered. In other words, whilst in reading text exists in space, in listening it exists in time, lasting in the brain only two seconds whilst the listener is only 0.25 seconds behind the speaker. The difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that in listening tasks the students only hear the text twice;
  2. The listener cannot control the pace of the text (unless s/he is in control of the output source);
  3. Listeners are compelled to resort to parallel distributed processing. In other words, they need to juggle several processes at the same time at each stage of comprehension, having to tap into many micro-skills simultaneously with the obvious interferences this causes, especially at lower levels of proficiency;
  4. The sound system of the L2 poses a significant problem;
  5. Gaps in speech are not the same as the gaps one finds in written texts;
  6. Cognates identical in print usually sound differently in continuous speech;
  7. Spoken texts, moreover, have intonation, stress, regional accents, background noise and other variations of acoustic features;
  8. Whereas intermediate readers benefit (as Lund’s experiment showed) from repetition of text, intermediate listeners don’t (they make a first-pass hypothesis and stick to it);
  9. An L2 reader remembers more ideas and details about a text they read than an L2 listener about a text they heard.

Macaro (2003) adds another important difference: in listening we use more top-down strategies and prior knowledge to compensate for the issue Lund lists above (such as: guessing from context, prediction, knowledge of the task, etc.).

My survey results clearly indicated that around three quarters of the sample exhibited serious to very serious gaps in the understanding of the differences between the processes the two skills involved; the gaps I identified were particularly important because they related to the way the brain processes language in the two modalities, especially the role of Working Memory and the heavier load listening poses.

The data also showed that because of the perceived similarities many teachers assumed exist between the two processes, they transferred strategies used in reading instruction (e.g. paying attention to French-English cognates and focus on key-words) to listening instruction with potentially harmful consequences.

The implications for teaching relate to teacher professional development and learner training: both teachers and students must be made aware of the differences between the two receptive skills and of their implications so as to approach listening tasks in a more effective way. The metacognitive-enhancing activities outlined in point 5 above will be helpful in this respect.

8. Reading aloud as a catalyst of listening proficiency (Kato and Tanaka, 2010)

Although reading-aloud (RA) techniques have not always been favourably considered in L2 classrooms,  the usefulness of this approach for the development of lower-level processing efficiency has been widely confirmed in L2 reading research (e.g., Birch, 2007; Janzen, 2007; Gibson, 2008). Much research has clearly shown that reading aloud helps:

(1) develop L2 learners’ accurate phonological representations (e.g., Gibson, 2008);

(2)  raise their awareness of rhythm, stress and intonation, by using connected texts rather than decontextualized vocabulary items (e.g., Kato, 2012);

(3) significantly improve silent reading rate (Suzuki, 1998),

(4) enhance reading performance (Miyasako, 2008), and

(5) reproduction of key words and phrases (Shichino, 2006).Miyasako (2008), for instance, investigated the contribution among upper-secondary level Japanese EFL users of six weeks of RA  practice for L2 reading performance; it was found that RA significantly improved phonological decoding and reading comprehension performance, and that this practice effect was more pronounced with less proficient readers.

(6) improve listening ability – Kato and Tanaka (2010) for instance concluded that “the establishment of pronunciation accuracy/ fluency is crucial for the development of listening ability and that this impact of production ability may linger to a fairly advanced stage of L2 listening learning, in particular as a function of factors such as participants’ L1 – L2 relationship and the relationship between their L2 proficiency and the familiarity and difficulty of listening materials.”

The implications are obvious: do more RA in lessons. Personally, I include short paired read-aloud activities in many of my lessons – as effective but less boring than doing lots of phonics work day in day out. In many of my posts I have described a few of the activities I typically carry out. At this link you will find a very useful PPT from the university of Essex with lots of ways in which RA can be used to enhance L2 learning; ideal for a professional development session in your department.

9.Concluding remarks

The eight research facts I have discussed above have had a transformative impact on my teaching practice as they rectified assumptions, perceptions and practices of mine often developed during my teacher training days. Of the above points, 1, 3, 4 and 6 were possibly the ones that have impacted my practice the most. Point 1 and 6, reminded me to concentrate as much as possible on equipping students with a high sense of self-efficacy and effective listening skills and strategies. Point 3 and 4, focused me on bottom-up processing skills, in an attempt to provide my students with effective speech segmenting and pattern-recognition skills. This was a game changer for me and my students, as during my teacher training I had been taught to focus on top-down listening skills, e.g. predicting vocabulary, guessing from context, using key-words to infer meaning, etc.

I would be interested in knowing from my readers, which of the above points they find more relevant to their professional development and more potentially transformative of their classroom practice.


How to create narrow reading texts using authentic online resources – guest blog by Stacey Johnson from Vanderbilt university


In this very practical and useful post, Stacey Johnson, Senior Lecturer in Spanish and Portuguese, Assistant Director of Technology and Teacher trainer at the Centre for Applied Language Studies at Vanderbilt University gives practical tips on how she has trained her EFL student teachers to create narrow reading texts using authentic resources. The whole process takes her trainees very little time to create texts and it results in highly patterned and effective resources. I like it, as it way less laborious than mine and much more time efficient. Well done, Stacey ! Here it is.

Stacey Johnson on creating narrow reading texts usin authentic resources

In my language teaching methods course for future EFL teachers, we always start with authentic texts as the backbone of our lesson plans. Authentic resources provide students with relevant, interesting target language content, and even more importantly, these resources are imbued with cultural and community knowledge inherent to their context. There are so many benefits to using authentic resources instead of constructed textbook materials! The big obstacle with using authentic resources, however, is that the teacher must create classroom activities that not only make good use of the resources, but also  provide enough structured, recycled language so that student acquire the structures in the authentic text.  Just one or two exposures to a new text is not going to result in students mastering the vocabulary and structures in that text.

So, in my methods course, teacher candidates learn to write lesson plans that use both authentic resources and Conti’s instructions for creating narrow readings. Once we have created lesson plans that include interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational tasks for an authentic resource, we then use part of that resource as a model for constructing narrow readings. For example, in a unit about employment, my methods class might decide that we are going to use a YouTube video as an authentic text, perhaps this one that gives advice to job-seekers about interviewing. Out of all the useful moments in that video, we might use the question “Why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself?” and the answer to that question, “Well, I love coming home to watch EastEnders at the end of the day. That’s my highlight. I also like shopping, chilling with my friends, just having a laugh really.” Once language students have had the opportunity to process this question/answer in its original authentic context, the teacher should provide further opportunities to process versions of the exchange with some meaningful differences.

Creating narrow reading opportunities out of this exchange is fairly easy and takes less time than you might imagine. We have one example of how someone might answer that question in the original authentic text. Now we, as instructors, must imagine how others might answer the question. The idea is to keep the structures and patterns intact, and replace only a few content words or expressions with others that students are very likely to understand. A second job seeker might say the he loves coming home to his family at the end of the day. A third job seeker might say that she enjoys going out to watch a movie at the end of the week. We make small but meaningful changes to the text of our original authentic resource. Before you know it, instead of having just one example of authentic language, we have a handful of patterned examples that provide our students with rich sources of input. Now, we can ask our students to read the questions and answers from 3 or 4 job seekers, and answer questions such as, “Which job-seeker is the most active?” and “Which job-seeker probably has children?” or others that require students to process the new input alongside the original authentic text.

There are many ways to use authentic texts with language learners and an equal number of ways to make use of narrow reading and listening. In my experience and in my methods courses, I find that pairing the two is a particularly useful combination that provides students with the benefits of both patterned input and authentic language and culture

Concluding remarks

When Stacey contacting me with this idea I said to myself: ‘Why had I not thought about myself?’. It is as simple as it is ingenious. I tried it out myself and did not take me more than 15 minutes to put together a decent set of narrow reading texts for my students. Glad to have inspired and to have been inspired back. Cannot thank Stacey enough for this great idea and for taking the time to write her very articulate post.

Tempus fugit – Four strategies to maximise MFL curriculum time


In view of the small amount of curriculum time allocated to MFL/EFL teaching in many schools, finding ways to maximise teaching and learning time is crucial in order to ensure retention is long-lasting and horizontal progression (the accurate routinization of the target items) happens.

In this post, I shall discuss a set of strategies I have been using over the years to address the constraints posed on learning by the very limited contact time I have with my classes (1 hour 50 minutes a week). In my daily fight against time, I have had to make every single minute count. This has entailed:

(1)    effective classroom and learning management, so as to keep students focused and ensure transition from one activity to the next is seamless;

(2)    ensuring long-term retention through impactful teaching strategies;

(3)    smart curriculum design which allows for effective recycling and horizontal progression whilst maximizing coverage;

(4)    using resources which maximise exposure to the target L2 items throughout the duration of the course (as frequency of exposure and production evidently facilitates acquisition);

(5)    rethinking my use of homework.

For reasons of space, but also because Steve Smith and I have dealt with (1) and (2) extensively in our book and in many of our blogs, this post will focus solely on (3), (4) and 5. Before discussing the strategies, it may be useful to go over a distinction I have drawn on several occasions in my blogs, which some readers may not be familiar with, the one between Implicit (or Procedural) and Explicit (Declarative) Knowledge.

2. Implicit vs Explicit Knowledge

Implicit Knowledge (IK)

IK is knowledge you acquire without being conscious of it, bypassing working memory. Think, for instance, of the way you acquired your first language. You learnt how to use it correctly and fluently without anyone teaching you grammar rules, through masses of exposure and repeated use.

Because implicit knowledge is acquired ‘subconsciously’, without the involvement of Working Memory processing, it is used by the brain very rapidly, effortlessly and usually accurately (native speakers only make 10 mistakes every 1,000 words !).

Explicit knowledge (EK)

EK , on the other hand, is knowledge that is acquired consciously and requires Working Memory processing for its retrieval and application. This means that using EK is less efficient than using IK, as any knowledge or skill we apply consciously requires more cognitive effort. So for, instance, a novice applying the rule for the formation of the perfect tense in French step by step to obtain ‘Nous avons mangé’ (we ate) will take much more time than simply producing the same verb form by rote, as a chunk.

Can EK become IK?

The debate as to the answer to this question has been raging for decades. I believe it to be indeed possible and that enabling EK to become IK is in actual fact the ultimate goal of language teaching. It is, however, a very long and painstaking process which can take up to several years for certain structures.

3. Time-saving tips

The strategies I am proposing below are not easy to implement and will require you, if you do choose to implement them, to do a lot more work on your long-term planning and teaching resources. Their aim is to optimize recycling and facilitate horizontal progression and long-term retention, whilst maximising coverage so that drastic reduction in content may not be necessary.

3.1 TIP 1. Embed an ‘Implicit Route’ in your curriculum

Most grammar and vocabulary teaching in the British system occurs explicitly. This is absolutely fine. However, automatizing explicit knowledge, as mentioned above, can be extremely time-consuming, much more time-consuming than implicit learning. This means that if we do aim at the automaticity of what we teach, the time spent on each structure and item will take a lot of our curricular time.

So, how about embedding in our curriculum an ‘implicit route’ running alongside the ‘explicit route’, whereby your students learn part of the core structures, vocabulary and morphemes in your syllabus ‘subconsciously’, so to speak, merely through repeated daily exposure and production?

Embedding an implicit route means that you can reduce the amount of  content you plan to teach explicitly. So, for instance, in year 7, I typically teach implicitly 8 to 10 core grammar patterns that I would normally teach explicitly, thereby freeing up more curriculum time for the consolidation of other material. Here are some of the ways in which I have embedded implicit learning in my teaching.

(1)    ILRs (implicit learning routines)

(2)    Universals

(3)    Seed-planting


3.1.1 Implicit Learning Routines (ILRs)

ILRs refer to specific daily routines you carry out in every lesson, which involve recognition or production of the same sets of patterns or chunks day in day out. You will support the recognition or production of the target input/output through the use of scaffolds such as sentence builders, substitution tables, writing frames or word lists (with L1 translation is necessary), but you will not engage in any explicit grammar teaching.

Scaffolds must be well-crafted, as they play a crucial role at the beginning of implementing an ILR. The idea is that the scaffold is used by the students until the specific ILR-related language is routinized and it is not needed any longer.

Figure 1 – Example of scaffold used for the ‘taking the emotional temperature’ ILR


It is crucial that ILRs are embedded in the lesson flow in a way which does not disrupt but rather supports the teaching of the topic-at-hand and that they do not take too much lesson time; mine take on average five minutes once the students get the hang of it.

Please do bear in mind that whilst I only have two lessons per week on a week A and one on a week B, our lessons are 1 hour 10 minutes long, so embedding several ILRs in one lesson is easier for me than, say, for someone teaching 40-minute lessons. Here are some examples of my ILRs.

(1) Register routines – as mentioned in some of my previous posts, register routines can be extremely valuable for Implicit learning purposes. As you call the register, ask each student to answer specific questions whilst the rest of the class is engaged in a warm-up task. Alternatively, you can turn the routine in a listening activity whereby the rest of the class note down their classmates’ answers.

Two of my register routines include :

– ‘Taking the emotional temperature’- I have described it in a couple of previous posts. As you call the register you ask each student how they feel on the day using adjectives expressing emotions or physical states (e.g. I am ill ) at beginner level and more complex sentences at higher levels (e.g. I am tired because I did not sleep well last night);

– ‘What did you do yesterday?’ – ask them to tell you three things they did yesterday;

(2) Small-talk routines – I usually stage these before the actual lesson start, after taking the register. A small talk routine could be literally about any topic which elicit the structures you selected for implicit learning (what they did last week-end; what they had for breakfast; what lessons they have on that day and why they like them or dislike them) I usually stage the same small talk routine for 5 to 6 weeks in a row; with particularly able groups I alternate two small talk routines every other lesson. One small-talk routine that Betty Lohman-Malone, HoD at Bordesley Green Girls’ School (Birmingham) uses with her younger learners is ‘The weather routine’ whereby she asks her students what the weather is like outside. This has meant for her not having to teach the weather explicitly any more.

(3) Learning management routines – these do not simply refer to classroom instructions and the typical transactional language used in pupil-to-pupil and pupil-to-teacher (or vice versa) interaction. But also to ‘live marking’, when you go around monitoring and write in the students’ books comments, as well ‘delayed marking’ when you write feedback on assignments; in both cases you can provide linguistic input designed to recycle specific structures (e.g. modal verbs, adjectives, connectives) – ask the students to translate your feedback into the L1 to make sure they read and processed your input.

(4) Student voice routines – these refer to feedback you may ask students to give you on your teaching along with advice on what you could do better. You will provide scaffolding which elicit the structure / chunks you want your students to use (e.g. the lesson was good but next time you could do that). I usually do this using a google form, a google doc displayed on the classroom screen or a ‘slow chat’ using Edmodo. Again, no more than five minutes.

(5) Exit-ticket routines – As my year 7 and 8 students leave, as an exit ticket, they will tell me or the class what they are planning to do after school or next week-end so as to elicit the use of the immediate future in Spanish and French (I am going to…). With my year 10 and 11 I used more complex structures and a wider range of idioms.

(6) ‘Universals’ routines – These are routines designed to practise each year-group’s ‘universals’. Which brings me to next point.

3.1.2 The ‘Universals’ 3.What they are

For every year group, I select a set of core items I call universals, i.e. chunks, patterns and morphemes, which I set out to teach implicitly in every lesson, through  (1) ILRs, (2) exposure to texts, and (3) production tasks eliciting their deployment and (4) homework.

I call them ‘universals’, as I make sure that they are contextualised in every single topic I teach, appear in nearly every lesson, in tests and homework. Here are, for example, the ‘universals’ I selected for my Year 7 French last year:

Figure 2 – Year 7 French ‘universals’

Untitled How I select my ‘universals’

I select my Universals based on the following criteria :

(a)  they are high-frequency items ; this means they are useful, likely to co-occur naturally in text/speech with many of the core items in the syllabus. Being high-frequency, working out activities or finding or creating texts in which to embed them is relatively easy.

(b)  they are easy to recyle across contexts (usually high-frequency items are).

(c ) their understanding / use does not require much explanation ; usually, showing several examples of how they work, modelling their use and providing the students with a scaffold suffice.

(e) (in some cases) they may be easy to acquire and high-frequency in the real world but you feel your typical student does not get enough exposure to them in the classroom for one reason or another (e.g. their low saliency in the daily input, your resources, your classroom talk, your pushed output). For instance, our GCSE examination board requires the candidates to use a wide repertoire of verbs in their output ; hence, from year 7 I have selected  ‘phrases + infinitive’ as a universal in order to ensure that students learn a lot of verbs in the infinitive (easier to learn as they do not need conjugating ; e.g. je dois aller ; je vais faire.) How I embed the ‘universals’ in my teaching

Embedding ‘universals’ requires a bit of creativity and hard work. Here is how I do it :

1.’Universals’ ILRs

Any of the ILRs discussed above can be used to drill in the universals ; hence, potentially, any ILR can be a universal ILR. However, there are four routines that cut across every year group I teach that I use in nearly every lesson, contextualised in the topic-at-hand, for practising what I call my ‘Major Universals’, i.e. ‘Creating questions’ , ‘Negative structures’, ‘Describing things, places or events’ and ‘Phrases with the infinitive’.  Here they are:

(a) Question time – at one point in the lesson, a question mark or my ‘questions spinning-wheel’ (see my previous post)  appears and my students know that it is question time. Using their universals booklet (an organizer containing all the universals with examples of how to use them) they have to ask questions on their miniwhiteboards on the topic-at-hand based on a prompt I or the spinning-wheel gives them.

Figure 3 – Spinning wheel from

oral production

(b) Grumpy time – when the images of ‘grumpy smurf’ (for my younger learners) or the devil appear on the classroom screen, my students know that whatever question I ask (obviously related to the topic-at-hand) they have to answer or rewrite it using a negative structure. I typically ask 5 or 6 questions and they are not allowed to use the same negative structure more than once

Figure 3 – the ‘grumpy smurph’ prompts my primary students to use negative structures


(c) Modal time –  this is a time slot during which the students practise oral or written interaction with other students through structures or semi-structured tasks (e.g. role plays) in which they ask each other and answer questions involving the use of modals + infinitive. Example : when covering the topic ‘house chores’, partner 1 asks : ‘Can you please help your mother doing the washing-up ?’ ; partner B ‘ Sorry, I can’t help mum. I have to walk the dog now’.

(d) Picture time – A picture appears on the screen, which elicits the vocabulary/structures related to the topic-at-hand. The students, orally or in writing are tasked with describing the picture. Tasks may involve pair-work or performed individually. Prompts may be given in the form of questions, sentence stems (such as ‘the action takes place in… ; ‘I can see…’ ; Unfortunately… ; The most interesting thing is..), false statements that students need to rewrite correctly, depending on the target ‘pushed output’. A very effective way, in my experience, to train the students for the GCSE photo-card task whilst staying in the topic-at-hand.

Another universals ILR which I stage with my GCSE classes refers to the use of ‘if clauses’ (type 2)  a structure my students used to grasp quite easily but kept making mistakes with for in oral production. Whatever the topic-at-hand, last year I started to ask my students to make sentences using the French structure ‘Si + subject pronoun + imperfect indicative, subject pronoun + present conditional. Using the specific ILR day in day out has finally, for the first time, last year, got every single one of my students to acquire the structure accurately without mixing up Imperfect and Conditional as several of them used to do.

2.Create a ‘universals’ booklet

I create a booklet containg the universals which contains examples of their usage. The students keep a copy of the booklet for use as a scaffold

3. Embed ‘universals’ in the classroom environment

Posters or other reference materials can be put up on the wall as further scaffolds for use during the ILRs

4. Embed ‘universals’ in your tasks and resources

To me this is paramount, even though it is very time-consuming. I embed as many universals as possible in most of the written input the students get. It is fairly easy as they relate to high-frequency structures, but it often means having to create resources. Same applies to the ‘pushed output’ I want to elicit from my students, which means having to get creative in order to ensure they use the universals in productive tasks, too.

5. Recyle ‘universals’ through homework

This is easy for productive tasks – e.g. when assigning a writing task, simply ask the students to include all or some of the universals.  For receptive tasks, selecting or creating texts or activities which contain the target structures will require a bit more work.

6. Embed ‘universals’ in your classroom talk

This is a bit difficult at the start and it may require you to make significant changes to the way you structure your classroom talk. For instance, an awkward change I have had to make relates to classroom instruction where I swicthed from more natural and accurate instructions in the imperative forms (e.g. Ecoutez !) to ‘Il faut’ or modal verbs (on doit) + the infinitive, in order to expose my students to as many infinitive forms as possible. The latter way of giving instructions is less authentic but serves the purpose of drilling in one of my major ‘universals’ (phrases + infinitive), hence, I sacrificed authenticity for surrender value.

7. Embed  ‘universals’ in tests

This is as easy as it is time-consuming, especially if you do follow a textbook quite closely and use its materials for high-stake assessments. One way around this is to administer several low-stake assessments and embed the universals in those.

3.1.4  The seed-planting technique

This technique, that I discussed in greater depth in a previous post, consists of frequently exposing the students to a given L2 item prior to its explicit teaching. For example, if you are planning to teach item X in week 6 of Term 1, you will ensure that the students will come across that item several times, whether in texts, through ILRs or any other means in weeks 1 to 5, drawing their attention to it and ensuring they understand what it means

This implicit learning technique works very well in synergy with explicit teaching in that the students usually get to the explicit grammar lesson with a good understanding of the target structure. This means that you will use up less lesson time for explicit teaching and will be able to focus more on communicative practice.

3.2 TIP 2 – Cut down ‘traditional’ coverage

As I have attempted to show above, by adding an Implicit Route, you will be able to reduce the amount of vocabulary and structures you typically cover explicitly. However, if you do teach a unit every six weeks as most textbooks used in England recommend, you may have to reduce your curriculum coverage even further if you do want to achieve optimal horizontal progression and long-term retention. I did and this not only has not at all affected my GCSE results, but has also substantially enhanced the students’ sense of self-efficacy and, in turn, their motivation levels

3.3 TIP 3 – Inductive grammar learning (IGL)

It may seem contradictory to advocate IGL, which is notoriously a very time-consuming approach to teaching grammar when one is attempting to save curriculum time. In my experience, though, if you start IGL with your younger learners, as they grow older and more versed in inductive grammar learning, you will save time later on, when they will become more autonomous and ‘quick’ at picking up grammar rules and at unpacking unfamiliar patterns in your input. It is a process which may be time-consuming and painstaking at the beginning, but which will pay enormous dividends later on.

Students who are highly versed in IGL are more able to work independently; which means that you will be able to ‘flip’ much of the grammar teaching to your students after two or even one year of frequent inductive grammar work with them.

3.4 TIP 4 – Teach chunks rather than single words

As I often advocate in my posts, teaching vocabulary in chunks is much more time efficient than teaching single words and much more pedagogically sound. For a rationale for this assertion, which has mainly to do with ease of language processing (as a 3-4 words chunk has the same cognitive load of a single word), please read here.

This strategy is particularly effective with students who have been trained in IGL (Inductive Grammar Learning) as they will be more effective in ‘unpacking’ chunks and manipulating them to enhance their generative power.

4. Concluding remarks

In many of my previous posts on this blog, I have argued that most of the MFL textbooks currently in use in English schools cover way too many topics. The authors of such textbooks usually recommend teachers cover a topic consisting of a fairly wide range of structures and vocabulary per half-term (i.e. roughly 6-7 weeks) – an impossible task if we want students to truly acquire the target content.

Cutting down on the number of topics covered explicitly is a must, in my opinion. In the Spanish Department in my school, Dylan Vinales and I have cut down the number of units taught explicitly by half, whilst embedding an Implicit Learning route which runs along the Explicit Learning one.

The synergy resulting from the implementation of Implicit and Explicit instruction has paid enormous dividends and has meant covering fewer topics but teaching them in greater depth, obtaining better long-term retention and horizontal progression. Moreover, the number of words and structures taught implicitly have abundantly made up for the amount of items we eliminated from the original schemes of work. Hence, the proverbial saying ‘less is more’ truly applied in our context.

The Implicit Route, should you choose to use my approach, must be planned and resourced carefully, though, in order for optimal exposure to and production of the implicit target content to occur. The more opportunities for recycling, the greater the chances that implicit acquisition will happen.

The strategies discussed in this post work best when implemented synergistically. For instance, the universals or any other structures practised implicitly could be eventually taught explicitly in dedicated lessons; hence, the ‘universals’ technique could be viewed as an instance of seed-planting.

I strongly recommend the use of ILRs. They are easy to implement, free up valuable curriculum time and do enhance students’ acquisition in a relatively effortless way.

In my next post I will discuss more ‘smart recycling’ strategies that I devised in order to maximise the learning of the items I choose to teach explicitly and how the synergy Implicit + Explicit can be exploited to its full potential.


Eight narrow reading techniques that will enhance your students’ vocabulary and reading skills


1. Introduction

This post describes eight Narrow reading techniques that have significantly enhanced my students’ vocabulary and reading skills.

As explained in previous posts, Narrow Reading is a powerful technique based on the concept that getting your students to go over and over the same text through a range of comprehension tasks may be tedious for them; whilst by creating several reading passages (I tend to use three to six) that are very similar in terms of topic, structure, vocabulary and patterns, you will still be recycling the same target linguistic features but through a wider range of texts adding in and allowing for more variety.

In my experience, Narrow reading texts are most effective, when they:

  • are near-identical in terms of patterns;
  • contain comprehensible input (90% accessible in meaning without resorting to dictionaried or extra-textual help);
  • are relatively short (very short for absolute beginners, of course, as shown in figure 1 below)

Figure 1 – Example of Narrow reading texts for absolute beginners of English

Spot the differences photo

The activities I usually ask my students to perform on Narrow reading texts are different from the typical ‘true or false’, ‘who, where, what, when, etc.’ or other classical comprehension questions, because such tasks often encourage skimming and scanning, educated guesswork and picking details, rather than processing texts in a more thorough and meticulous way.

Skimming and scanning, educated guesswork and inferencing are obviously very important skills, which should be fostered in the L2 classroom. However, I want my students to process the texts in their entirety paying attention to as much text as possible, in order to intensify the students’ exposure to the vocabulary and patterns I intend to recycle. Hence, what I have done over the years, is trying to come up with tasks which, whilst being engaging and involving problem-solving, aim to get them to do just that.

In sum, the main aim of Narrow reading tasks is to ‘trick’ the students into processing what is basically the same text over and over again whilst making them read six. In this sense, they are possibly one of the most effective recycling tools ever, allowing L2 teachers to expose their learners to the core items in their syllabi many times over throughout the duration of the academic year.

2.Eight effective Narrow reading techniques

The eight techniques described below, are Narrow reading tasks that I carry out in my lessons, day in day out and my students enjoy. Obviously, they are contextualised in the topic-at-hand.

1.Spot the differences – This is a narrow reading activity which typically involves 3 to 6 texts (the more the better) of around 100 words that are completely identical apart from a few key details. The task is for the students to spot such details in each text which are different from all the other five texts. So if text A  in line 3 reads ‘she is tall’ all the other texts will read at the same line ‘she is short’ or ‘she is average height’. Obviously, you can make it into a competition under time constraints with the right group.

The rationale for the activity is to trick the students into reading the same texts three to six times over (thereby recycling the same lexis, patterns and grammar) whilst giving them a task which requires them to pay attention to the slightest detail in order to find the differences.

As a follow-up you can do a ‘Spot the differences’ Listening task in which you will re-use the same texts (changing the target details of course) and will read out to them. Since the focus will be on modelling you will be reading the text at modelling, not near-native speed. Same rationale: getting them to listen to the same text and patterns over and over again.

Figure 2 – ‘Spot the differences’ (French example)

Spot the differences photo

2.Bad translation -‘Bad translation’ is another very effective Narrow Reading technique I use a lot. It consists of a set of very similar texts (typical 3 or 4) and their respective translations. The task is for the students to spot four or five mistakes the teacher deliberately made in the translation to lay emphasis on certain vocabulary or structures. This forces the students to really process the Target language texts in great detail and learn vocabulary incidentally as they do so.

By doing this task, you are again tricking the students in re-reading the same sort of text, patterns and vocabulary several times over but with the added benefits of the L1 translation,which may result in some learning of new vocabulary in the process. The same texts can be recycled as follow-up by placing gaps in the Target Language text or in the translations.

The same technique can also be turned into a Listening activity in which the students are provided with the translation and listen to the teacher as he reads the Target Language text.

3.Summaries – In this activity, the students are once again given 3 to 6 texts on the same topic, not identical but very similar in structure and language content. You summarise each text in 40-50 words  in the L1 or L2 , depending on the students’ level. The task is for the students to find which summary matches which text. To make the task more challenging, you may want to add an extra summary or two, as distractors.

4.Picture – select an image from the internet or the textbook in use, which refers to the topic-at-hand or to specific grammar structures or patterns you want to recycle. Then create three or more narrow reading texts which describe the picture in detail. Make sure, though, that only one text and one text only is a 100% accurate description of the picture, whilst the others have one or two details in excess which do not match the picture. The task is for the students to identify the only text that matches the picture in every single detail.

This task kills two birds with one stone in that not only it does enhance the students’ vocabulary and reading skills but can also be used to prepare MFL GCSE students for the oral photocard task by modelling useful language and approaches to that task.

5.Questions –  This narrow reading technique requires a bit more work. I created it in order to focus my students not only on the content of the target texts, but also on understanding L2 questions. After creating 3 to 6  texts that are very similar in content and structure, write a set of ten or more questions in the target language, making sure that each text contains the answer to all of the questions you created but one. The students’ task is to find the one question that does not apply to each specific text (i.e. there is no answer to that question in the text)

6.Overgeneralizations – This is kind of reminiscent of ‘Spot the differences’. After creating the texts you will write ten or more statements in the target language about them which are true of all the texts except for one (e.g. ‘All the people in the texts play a sport). The students’ task is to find for each of the statements the one text it does not apply to. The statement could be in English or in the L2.

7.List – Create as many narrow reading texts as you can on the same topic. Then display a long list of details in the L1 or L2 taken from the various texts and display it on the board. The task is for the students to match the information on the list to the text it comes from.

8.The most / The least – After creating the text, you will write a number of  gapped sentences such as: the most positive person is…; the sportiest person is … the biggest house is…, the person who visited most places is…  . Students are tasked with filling the gaps. This technique has the added benefit of drilling in superlatives, a structure that KS3 students of French find quite difficult to acquire.

3.The follow-up

More traditional activities, classics such as true or false or other comprehension questions tasks, cloze, sorting information into categories (linguistic or semantic), ‘Find the French for the following’ etc, can of course follow and are indeed desirable as they truly enhance the power of Narrow Reading tasks. The risk is staying on the same texts a bit too long, which may disengage some students.

Narrow listening tasks, recycling the same texts used for Narrow reading by changing a few details here and there are another very effective alternative, depending on the level of the students. Some classes may cope with receiving the same input aurally, some may not. You may have to shorten the texts and simplify the task, when adapting them for listening purposes. You will also have to read them at modelling speed, rather than native or near-native pace.

Any other vocabulary tasks / games drilling in the language you embedded in the Narrow reading tasks will be useful before engaging in production.

Structured and semi-structured ‘pushed-output’ written and then oral tasks in which the students will be asked to re-use the same language patterns and vocabulary found in the narrow reading texts would obviously be the icing of the cake.

4. Concluding remarks

Narrow reading tasks constitute an effective and engaging way to increase exponentially the exposure your students get to the target patterns, vocabulary and grammar structures that you want them to acquire though the written medium.

Such tasks are powerful because they do not ask students to simply pick details in response to questions asking who, where and what, which may encourage some of them to simply skim and scan through texts in search of clues which may prompt educated guesses or inferences, but ‘trick’ the students into processing the texts more closely and thoroughly, whilst giving them a problem to solve. This makes enhancing the exposure to the target items more effective and engaging.

To-date, Narrow reading tasks have not been sufficiently used in published instructional materials because they are not a well-known technique and are time-consuming to make. You often find clusters of texts of similar topics that share some linguistic features; however, narrow reading texts are most effective, in my experience of using them for over a decade, when they are extremely similar in structure, repeat the same patterns over and over again and when the tasks associated with them have a problem-solving component and even a competitive element.

Mounting research evidence shows Narrow reading texts do enhance students’ vocabulary. Moreover, we know from masses of empirical studies that high-frequency exposure to the same patterns (syntactic, morphologica, phonogical, etc.) does sensitize students to them, thereby facilitating acquisition.