Three degrees of ‘Contification’ – two guest posts by Vicki Brownlee and Mike Elliott

Another instalment, in our series of posts in which language educators from around the globe share their experiences with aspects of my language teaching approach. This time around I thought of sharing two posts rather than one, because the teachers who authored them, Vicki and Mike, showcase two very different pproaches to incorporating EPI or elements of it in their teaching practice, both very interesting in their own right. Although quite divergent in many ways, they converge on the same core principles which I swear by and constitute the pillars of EPI. Two brilliant posts, as inspirational as and fascinating and the previous ones by Julia, Chloe and Heather. Enjoy.

Post 1: Vicki Brownlee (Head of Languages @ Howden School, East Riding, England)

When I discovered your work I had been using what I described as ‘chunking’ along with LAM (only I didn’t give it a name) for just short of 10 years but I had only used it with one type of pupil – the lowest ability – the pupils, who in year 9 (age 13-14) needed a focus to keep them on track as they would be dropping languages at the end of the year. So they were doing OCR ASSET languages but then we moved on to AQA FCSE! I wrote an article on it for an SEN magazine at the time as ASSET we’re shocked at the number of entries from SEN pupils that we were sending them.

I didn’t use these techniques with any other classes, despite the fact that they were showing results with these lower ability classes. Why? Honestly, I have no idea! I felt the need to teach ‘conventionally’, I thought it was limiting them or I just hadn’t transferred my ideas to other groups? But honestly who knows!

The by-product was that I was starting to see these upils SEN pupils in my GCSE classes and they were ending their GCSE courses with their highest grades in French. I was really lucky that I had some amazing TA’s through this time that ploughed on with the techniques that they had seen me use in KS3 as these pupils moved into mixed ability classes at GCSE – thanks to Karen, Lisa and Jack!

Alongside this I was studying for my masters in psychology and beginning to look more at a psychological level as to how the brain worked and learned, but when I first encountered your LAM and chunking work, it was like someone was affirming what I had been ‘trialling’ with these children (one class in each year group in KS3). So I immediately pushed on and began rolling it out to all classes. It took time for the pupils to buy in and in the last 18 months the department has now ‘bought in’.

We still have textbooks, but in KS3 they are used to guide topics and for a bit of assessment not as a day-to-day resource. I won’t be replacing or renewing them as the bits we don’t like we just don’t use, whether that is units or whole chapters.

In the last two years we have also reduced the curriculum content massively and planned using interleaving, recycling etc so that the whole approach is more joined up. I am still refining some areas and finding what works well with different ability groups and still feel speaking could improve further, however I am very happy with the reading and writing side of it all.

In starting a lesson we always begin with a recap of key structures at 3 levels – red (the easiest), then amber and green. We use a couple of key structures or sentence starters for red; amber looks at recent work and green slightly trickier and from further back. They do this, as they do most of their tasks, on a mini whiteboard, making this all a win in terms of marking!

During the modelling phase we make use of sentence builders with translation activities with the teacher reading sentences in the L2 and the pupils translating into L1 and moving on using this like a dictation. This is the perfect way to highlight elements of grammar that you want pupils to notice.  In the next phase, pupils love the mind reader game, which we play in both the spoken and written form – we play as a whole class and in small groups!  The games are so useful as pupils are hearing and seeing the target language so much. Delayed Dictation has proved exceptionally useful at highlighting and teaching a technique, which is invaluable when listening to longer texts.  Delayed translation is a further and equally useful version, which again practises an essential skill needed in listening.

The Sentence Stealer Game is extremely popular.  Pupils still love games such as 3:1 for whole class translation into L1. I am gradually building a bank of narrow reading activities that I personally find more time consuming to make, but a focused and excellent resource.

As we begin to move into the structured production phase, we begin to remove some of the sentence builder support and again use activities such as delayed dictation and translation.  We also use a range of activities such as one pen, one dice (L1 to L2) and translation based tasks.  Tangled translations are fabulous and can focus on specific structures with careful planning. Pupils can choose to translate into or from the target language to produce their response and the more able will do both! Pyramid Translations take a bit more organising and setting up to ensure that the ‘jobs’ are correctly allocated but the outcome is highly engaged pupils producing some fabulous L2 work.

We also do a weekly low stakes test of core structures that we have identified for each year group. The set of phrases starts at 20 for year 7 going up to 80 for year 11. They mark it themselves and we look for perfection in terms of spelling and accents etc. The aim each week is to equal or preferably improve on a previous score. The whole process takes an absolute maximum of 10 minutes but this has been invaluable and was implemented long before the Contifying of lessons and followed my reading about the usefulness of low stakes testing!

At the end of the lesson I make use of exit tickets (written or verbally) and recap 5 slips – where pupils note five things from that lesson, five from the previous lesson and five from earlier in the topic or a previous topic. This is helping them to see the links in their learning and how they are building a level of complexity in what they are able to do. Pupils love the game ‘boxes’ and we often play for 5 minutes at the end of a lesson, using it as an opportunity to revise receptive and productive chunks rather than just vocabulary.

With a series of templates these activities are very quick to produce with the chosen vocabulary. I use the same resources and activities in sequences of lessons expecting the level of independence to increase or just by adding an extra column to the sentence builder to add a layer of additional complexity or additional pronouns etc. Having everything the same means I rarely have to ‘waste’ time explaining how to do a specific task and we can just do the task. Pupils are writing more accurately and are gradually gaining more independence and autonomy. They are feeling as if they are understanding more too (comprehensible input) and this, along with other measures, I feel is instrumental in our increased uptake for GCSE and the steadily improving outcomes!  It is harder to implement in KS4 with the sheer volume of vocabulary to be covered but we will plough on and keep doing our best to Contify as much as possible.

I am loving teaching again and reading and educational research to justify what I am doing – thank you! My only issue is mini whiteboard pens – I can’t keep up with the quantity we use and the pupils are practising so much!

Vicki has been teaching for just over twenty years and has worked as a GCSE moderator and examiner too. She has always had a keen interest in SEN teaching and recently undertook an online part-time Masters Degree in Psychology with University of Derby. Vicki is currently a Head of Department in a small rural 11-16 school in northern England, where there is currently a huge growth in languages. The school currently teaches Spanish and French (despite her degree being in German) and they have just started the process to introduce Chinese with the help of the Confucius Institute. Vicki has found learning Chinese alongside the pupils to be an enlightening experience and has been introducing Conti methods and activities to the teachers from the Confucius Institute!

Post 2: Mike Elliott (Head of Languages @ Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, Amersham, Buckinghamshire, England)

KS3 French Curriculum Redesign: A Case Study

At the end of each unit in my Year 7 French class, I ask students to complete a Google Form, offering them the chance to comment on their perceived progress, to identify their personal targets, and to see whether they have met the learning objectives for the topic. This particular link contains responses to the question “What have you particularly enjoyed? Have you made progress?”. A useful starting point, perhaps, in determining whether the KS3 Curriculum that I started to redesign is heading in the right direction.

Some of the comments are very flattering (!), but the ones that I really like are these:

“In French, this term I have enjoyed the active games where we get out of our chairs. I have also enjoyed the activities on the board. Overall French has been great and my favourite lesson this term.”

“I have enjoyed playing the interactive games such as ‘voleurs’, where you steal other people’s cards by guessing the phrase they’ve picked.”

“I have enjoyed that we do lots of talking and not just taking down notes.”

“I have enjoyed everything we have covered and I feel as if I have improved massively in pronunciation of French words I am or am not familiar with.”

“I liked learning about the town in French over again and learning about sports.”

Now, it could be that I have a very able cohort (I have), but I have been pleased that the things that we set out to do have largely been achieved. There is reference above to: more speaking; games where students get out of their seats and interact with others; clear improvement in pronunciation; learning a new topic whilst recycling elements from the previous topic. All of these things have led to a purposeful classroom dynamic, following a bespoke Scheme of Work, and referring to agreed department principles. I don’t think it is finished, but I do think we have made a promising start, and, personally, I am excited and motivated to keep revising and developing. What follows is an account of the steps I have taken to redesign the KS3 French Curriculum at the school where I work. It is not intended to be a “this is how you do it” piece, but rather “this is how I did it” and let’s start the discussion… !

Planning

Redesigning the KS3 curriculum was an obvious thing to do given the changes to the GCSE and A-level specification. On the one hand it could be argued that this was obvious anyway, given the increased importance of students being able to express their ideas spontaneously and freely, and no longer having the luxury of controlled assessment tasks, where students could focus on just a small topic area which could be revised, rehearsed – perhaps copied from an older sibling – and then reproduced in test conditions, earning up to 15% of the final GCSE grade. On the other hand, why not objectively reflect on the status quo, and consider making improvements.

It was clear to me as well that there were a number of inspirational teachers around the country who were coming up with new ideas, and new approaches, in order to improve students’ best chance of success, particularly for Speaking and Writing. I attended the Inside Government Conference for Modern Foreign Languages conference in October 2018 and was impressed by Ian Bauckham, who shared some of the key findings from the Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy Review, which I subsequently downloaded and read closely. I was already aware of Gianfranco‘s work, and had already read a number of other articles on the Language Gym looking at various strategies, including implicit vs explicit routines, the importance of comprehensible input, the importance of self-efficacy (one of many words / concepts that I needed to look up!), and all these things were pointing me to the same conclusion: that less is more and, in a lot of cases, textbooks are not the only answer. Some colleagues and I were concerned when looking at the GCSE Textbook – particularly for the Higher Tier – where there were double pages that were almost entirely inaccessible. I accept there is a strong argument to review the current mundane GCSE topics to improve motivation, but I think a bigger factor for motivation is the reward associated with being able to access and understand material. So, if it comes down to a choice between mastering concepts and ensuring that all the mundane topics are covered, it seems clear to me that mastery should be prioritised, even if this means you don’t cover everything. 

Anyway, I became increasingly convinced that going more slowly and focusing on developing confidence, enjoyment and self-efficacy was going to lead to greater motivation, greater enthusiasm and, perhaps, greater uptake throughout the Key Stages. There were also other things that I picked up from various Language Shows over the years: Rachel Hawkes commented in one of her sessions that, despite the fact that she has written or contributed to a number of textbooks, the perfect textbook doesn’t exist in languages, because every chapter would repeat the previous chapter as well as adding new content from the current chapter, so an ideal textbook in languages would be almost exponential in terms of chapter length. In another session, some were talking about making KS3 “grammar and structure heavy”, but light relatively in terms of vocabulary, because once the structures were well understood, it makes it far easier to manipulate those structures in KS4 just by switching the key vocabulary. I was increasingly interested by the idea of knowledge organisers too, which seemed to be paying dividends at the Michaela School and elsewhere, as well as increased focus perhaps on the importance of phonics, and the introduction of good pronunciation earlier on. I was also interested by an AQA GCSE Feedback comment, where they had expressed surprise that so much ‘KS3 vocabulary’ had been misunderstood in one set of exams. This goes to show the importance of recycling and of revisiting vocabulary throughout. 

Starting to build

In the gained time after the exam classes left last year I started seriously thinking about how to restructure the KS3 curriculum. I was already very convinced by a lot of what I had read on the Language Gym blog in particular, and I put some of these ideas to the Head of German and the Head of Spanish. We took a whole day off timetable, to agree our key principles, ready for an official launch to the rest of the department, making sure that we were all singing from the same hymn sheet, and that we were all equally invested in making this a success. The key principles that we agreed were as follows:

  1. Focus on mastery not content: one unit every half term doesn’t make sense for any number of reasons, so why put yourself under unnecessary pressure to cover lots of content quickly and superficially?
  2. High(er) levels of comprehensible input: making students feel more connected, more involved, more engaged and give them a greater sense of reward in what they’re doing.
  3. Lots of recycling of grammar and vocabulary: think very carefully about opportunities to revisit key vocabulary, and to recycle what has been learnt in different contexts.
  4. Communicative functions (cf. Conti): an eminently sensible starting point. What are students going to want / need to do? These become the learning objectives for a unit of work too.
  5. Schemes of Work to contain key vocab & structures, assessments driven by key vocab & structures (“fair” assessments)

In addition to this was an acceptance that Listening and Speaking is probably neglected at times, so we agreed to put more focus on these skills. This resonated with me as my eldest son was 2 at the time, and it was fascinating to watch his speech develop, solely based on what he heard, and this hammered home the point that we are hardwired to learn languages through listening, so why not make this a bigger part of the classroom experience. “Sentence stealers”, “Quiz-Quiz-Trade”, “Mind Reader”, e.g. have been great, and have helped to maintain that sense of progression, enjoyment, and enthusiasm throughout the year.

We also agreed to make key structures and key vocabulary very clear and very explicit in the Schemes of Work, and to ensure that assessments were fair, and encourage and reward ‘thorough processing’, demonstrating real understanding of a text (as opposed to demonstrating good multiple-choice guesswork, or an ability to deal with the demoralising puzzles, riddles and red herrings typically found in Listening or Reading questions).

Practical steps

So, practically, what did I do? I looked at a number of different Year 7 French SoWs, some taken from exam websites, some from other schools, which I then compared with what we normally do. I decided early on that this curriculum redesign would need to be done over a few years at least, so I wanted to have a rolling plan. I decided that four topics felt like a more reasonable number to complete in one year, and I decided not to start with the classic “My name is… / I am 11 years old /  I live in …” topic, based on our school context. When students from a nearby independent primary school arrive in Year 7 having completed Tricolore 2, and they are in the same class as students who have never learnt French, it is easy for both ends of the ability spectrum to be put off, either because it seems like easy, tedious revision or because you feel that everyone in the class is better than you. It creates an unwelcome dynamic.

So I thought perhaps something like “Town” might be a leveller. There may be enough new stuff in that topic for everyone to feel as though they are getting something out of it. Then, I thought we could move on to Sport, and then Talking about Oneself and then Family. I was building up to a point whereby in the third unit, in addition to the classic, hello, my name is, etc, they were able to talk about hobbies too, why they do them, which ones they do when it’s hot, what there is in their town to enable them to do their hobby, etc. and therefore drawing in things that had been previously learnt. For instance, take the sentence “In my town there is an ice rink”. We have a preposition, a possessive adjective, the phrase “there is” which will be used in probably every topic (weather, in my family, …). I was also thinking about introducing the ‘oi’ sound in French (patinoire). All of these things will be revisited frequently, and intentionally. For a hastily-prepared Christmas lesson, it was relatively simple also to go from “the station is next to the church” to “the Christmas tree is next to the television”, and from “in my town there is an ice rink” to “in my stocking there is a present”. 

Getting a little ahead of myself here. Before thinking about key structures and vocabulary, I first thought of the communicative functions (taken from Gianfranco’s magic twelve). Once I had decided on the main Units, I picked the relevant macro functions for Year 7, and then started thinking about the micro-functions. This is where the post-its came in handy. Once I had macro and micro functions in place, I started to think about the key vocab and structures, etc. I have devised sentence builders, although I have tended to opt for relatively short phrases, mainly to facilitate mini-whiteboard work. I may consider extending these in the future. You can see some of the work in progress below:

review

Once I had shuffled around the Post-Its, I started to create a document like this, which – once formatted – I am happy to share. It breaks Units down into the following: macro communicative function; micro communicative function; key vocabulary and structures. From then, each Unit is broken down into suggested lessons.

I have not had any real need to use a textbook this year, other than judiciously-chosen pages which match the topic well (and then, only for cover work or listening homework). When required, I have created most of the Listening tracks myself, recorded on a small voice recorder with USB, and then embedded into Google Slides), although there is a lot of listening happening through the various sentence builder / whiteboard activities. I have created two booklets to cover the first two units (the next two are on my to-do list) and I have included a number of activities, some of which can be completed in class, some as homework/cover, and some that include thorough-processing tasks, modelled on some of Gianfranco’s ideas. Example booklet below:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1he28jcnztokxj3gJ32h-Biz1ikzR8A2g/view?usp=sharing 

What next?

Repeat for Year 8. I need to take on board the successes of this year, and at the same time implement feedback from colleagues and students. I remain utterly convinced that these changes have been massively beneficial, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my lessons with Year 7 this year. Sure, it’s been a lot of work, but most Year 7 resources are ready to go now, bar the odd tweak here and there. If we can continue to harness students’ enthusiasm, interest and motivation that can only be a good thing. I am aware of recent posts questioning the benefits of comprehensible input over engaging culturally-rich texts and, as with most things, a hybrid approach, blending a number of these key ideas is probably best. I am sure, however, that the short term pain will be worth it when enjoying the long term gain. Right, where are those post-its?

Mike Elliott is the Team Leader for Languages, and Subject Leader for French, at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School.

“Contification in practice” – Guest post by Heather Morgan

This is the third post in our series of articles written by experienced language educators who have decided to adopt my approach or aspects of it. This post is by Heather Morgan, a very experienced teacher, with many years as Head of Languages in the bag, many of which in a great Worcester school, The Chantry School, in which the MFL team have wholeheartedly embraced E.P.I.

“Contification in practice” by Heather Morgan 

I have been teaching languages for 15 years in a small rural comprehensive in Worcestershire. I have worked with some fantastic colleagues there, both in the MFL department and the wider school community.

About two to three years ago I started following posts about MFL teaching on Facebook, started reading blogs and I also purchased the book

“The Language Teacher Toolkit” by Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti

I was absolutely fascinated by the research which Gianfranco had done regarding the acquisition of language. Lots of things which I had noticed in my own language learning and also in my experience of teaching languages, suddenly made sense!

As a Head of Department for many years, it had always dismayed me that when I came to analyse the GCSE results, Listening was the skill where pupils seemed to fare the worse (especially in French).

So with this is mind I decided to see if we could incorporate some of Gianfranco’s ideas into our teaching in KS3 in the hope that it will bolster the confidence and therefore the results of our KS4 pupils (and also into KS5, although we do not have a Sixth Form at our school).

Around this time, we had just employed a new colleague – a compatriot of Gianfranco (Italian native speaker – Ambrogio De Santis) and he also was keen to embrace the ideas of Gianfranco; so, we set about “Contify-ing” some of our work. As with all things in teaching, we could not do everything at once so we each focused on a particular group – for me this was Year 8 French.

At this time, we were also very fortunate to be given one hour per fortnight’s timetable dedicated to our own CPD. This meant that I could read around the research (but to be honest I am still getting my head around some of the specialised vocabulary) and also spend some of my time on specific Conti planning. I also invested some of our CPD budget making sure that each of the MFL teachers had the opportunity of attending a CPD session with Gianfranco.

So, these are some of the things we have learnt, and are learning, along the way:

  • Establishing and embedding a key number of universals within the KS3 SOW enables recycling and interleaving e.g.
UNIVERSAL 1 ·         j’ai / je n’ai pas de/ il y a / il n’y a pas de

 

This universal is at the very start of Year 7 (with school bag items, family members, pets etc.) but it is recycled many times through Year 8 and Year 9 as well.

  • Using sentence builders at the start of each block of work introduces patterns (or reinforces patterns) and enables progress.
  • Using sentence builders means that there is lots of scaffolding for weaker learners, but you can also stretch the more able learners.
  • Using a variety of activities which follow the MARS/EARS structure (e.g. sentence stealers / mind readers / delayed dictation / faulty echo / oral ping-pong/ shading in narrow reading / narrow translation) motivates the pupils.

Initially it seems like it is a lot of work to prepare a series of lessons based on Gianfranco’s principles – certainly the first time that both Ambrogio and I prepared one, it took hours. However, once you have the formats for the sentence builders and activities, it takes very little time. Also, we have found that the same 9-12 sentences are used in lots of the activities (e.g. Strip Bingo / Blind OXO). This fits in with the maxim that there should be 95% comprehensible input allowing pupils to thoroughly process the language being taught.

When we had a PGCE student with us last term, she had to produce a resource for one of her assignments.  We advised her to produce a MARS/EARS PowerPoint with at least 2 activities for each stage. This means that she has a blueprint which she can use for any block of work. When I caught up with her again at a Gianfranco Conti CPD session organised at our school, she told me that she had scored very highly in this assignment!

The pupil voice which we have conducted over the last 18 months is very encouraging: pupils find the sentence builders useful and really enjoy a lot of the activities which take them on their journey. Several pupils said that the constant modelling of the language made it stick in their heads and some of them said they could “see” the sentence builders in their head. This means that they feel more confident and willing to have a go at speaking!

The progress which we have made since our initial foray into the world of Conti teaching, is that we think much more carefully about the sequence of the learning and activities. If I’m honest, at the start it was just a series of activities merged together! Now we are much more aware of where each activity fits in the MARS/EARS sequence.

This year we have tried to make our summative assessments be more spontaneous rather than the rote learning of long passages which a lot of our pupils used to rely on. This has certainly worked for our higher ability pupils and by paring it right down for our weaker pupils, they have also been able to achieve a level of spontaneity.

We have tried to take on board the “less is more” mantra but we also acknowledge that there is somewhat of a dichotomy with this and the very content heavy status of the current GCSE. Our aim is to improve fluency and spontaneity in our three year Key Stage 3 and then consolidate in Key Stage 4.

The fluency and spontaneity of some of our pupils in Year 8 and 9 is very encouraging and it is such a shame that this could now be hindered by the lockdown caused by the Corona virus. However, in our on-line lessons we are trying to take on board some of Gianfranco’s ideas of using reading as modelling to try to offset this.

Heather Morgan (former Head of Languages at The Chantry School, Worcestershire).  Having loved learning languages in my small secondary school in Wales, I was determined to further my studies in languages at University. I chose a course which allowed me to study three languages simultaneously and gained a BA (Hons) in Modern Languages from Leicester University in 1986.

Over the years, I have used my knowledge of languages whilst working for an international warehousing and distribution company, for the management services section of local government, and for the sales and administration department for an international china and porcelain company. I retrained as a MFL teacher 15 years ago and I am able to teach French, German and Italian. I have recently decided to work part-time to help my husband with his business. We have also brought up three children – all now flown the nest!

A journey into Contification – Guest-post by Chloe Briand

As language teachers, we are all too familiar with the seemingly Sisyphean task we have chosen as a career: to instil a love for the language we teach in our students whilst developing their linguistic competence towards autonomy, to facilitate their understanding of why they are learning a language and what opportunities lie ahead if they seize that challenge, and finally, to provide them with enough success in their learning to balance out the frustration from what can feel like a never ending process of failed attempts, which is the only way to proficiency. It is a highly complex environment to navigate, for both teachers and learners, even more so when situated in highly Anglo-centric backgrounds, and when faced with divergent research findings on various Second Language acquisition methodologies on what proves to be most effective in the classroom.

Traditionally, we have been guilty of considering innate talent, or aptitude, to be the main factor in successful L2 acquisition. This misconception would allow us to predict students’ success, or failure, accordingly. This meant that our methods in class were mostly tailored to suit a finite number of students, who demonstrated these “aptitude” attributes (such as the ability to infer meaning, grammatical flair, a sensitive ear to phonemes, memory capacity, etc.) along with the motivation and determination to succeed. The way I trained as a French and Spanish teacher back in Swansea, Wales, back in the early 2000s, with the exclusive use of Target Language in the classroom and the clear veto of any use of English, most certainly confirmed that predicate. The cognitive factors at hand here were not addressed systematically in our methods; upon reflexion, I can clearly see that my training was designed to cater to a small portion of students who would be able to, not only process highly dense input through their overly able decoding and sound discriminating faculties, but also to synthesize complex grammatical concepts through abstract meaning and apply their newly acquired knowledge into their production of language. This was of course doomed to fail, and I very soon observed that such an approach lost me most of my students, who were discouraged, feeling highly anxious, and at times, completely overwhelmed with what I asked of them, especially when comparing themselves to the 2 or 3 students in the class who could keep up.

I believe this approach is what has built our reputation over the years as an impossible subject to learn, because in truth, it really was. How many times have we heard parents at teacher interviews confess they were “no good at languages” when they were at school, and that they wished they had continued with it rather than give up? To this day, children are still largely experiencing that feeling of hopelessness and that it is just “too hard”. And I agree. What we have been doing as language teachers is teach ourselves, or the impossible minority of students who possess the motivation and those abilities, and who will learn the language no matter what is thrown at them in class. I was one of those students at school. No matter what the method was, who the teacher was, I was passionate about language and I was determined to learn, so I experienced success regardless. Unfortunately, this left the vast majority of our students on the side of the road.

Another crucial element that contributed to this phenomenon throughout the last decades is the multiplicity of methodologies developed over the years, through developing academic research on second language and its acquisition. A constant evolution from the direct method, the audiolingual method, the communicative approach, the Task-Based Learning, the Content and Language Integrated Learning, a focus on interaction and transaction, an explicit teaching of grammar, a target language only approach: the abundance of suggestions was both extremely stimulating and confusing. There is often a feeling that we must reinvent the wheel with every new method that comes out, which led many practitioners to feel like they had no clear guidance on, or understanding of, how to best teach their students.

More and more, language teachers started to incorporate multiple approaches into their classrooms, based on what they observed to be effective. We started to use English purposefully to reinforce understanding of concepts and instructions with students, scaffolding into different layers what we exposed them to, in order to cater to every range of ability. We adopted the communicative approach combined with task-based learning assessment in order to contextualise their learning. We were striving to find the right balance between communication and explicit grammar teaching to facilitate analysis of language. A lot of thinking about learning and curriculum design was taking place, but there was no consistent approach across the board.

At my current school, back in 2016, we found ourselves at a crossroads. Multiple languages were on offer since Year 7, but we struggled with low numbers and retention in middle and senior school for some of them, and with many disengaged students throughout the years, despite highly experienced and passionate teachers. Our number one priority was to address students’ engagement and to stabilize numbers into sustainability. To that end, we introduced a carousel of languages in Year 7, where students study 2 languages throughout the year before selecting one to pursue in Year 8 (this would allow them to experience them first-hand, and not just randomly select a language without really knowing). We also introduced a national qualification in Year 9 and 10, the Certificate II VET in Applied Language, which focuses on both social and workplace competencies (for clarification, VET in Australia stands for Vocational Educational Training, which provides nationally accredited qualifications designed in partnership with industries and the government in an effort to train people with workplace skills and technical knowledge to help them advance their career).  These measures meant less time to teach in Year 7, as we were now delivering 2 languages, and a high volume of prescriptive assessment tasks in Year 9 and 10. The challenge was enormous, but we had restored a sense of purpose to what we were doing, and soon, all teachers found themselves scrutinizing their curriculum and experimenting with a range of tools and methods, as we were committed to empowering all students to become the best language learners they could be. This is when Dr Conti came in.

Back in 2017, Dr Conti came to deliver his first workshop, and within the space of 3 hours, managed to open our eyes to his world of comprehensible input, working memory and thorough processing. In that time, he validated what we intuitively knew already: our syllabi were too full, and they were not effective. We did not leave room for recycling and we were throwing vocab list upon vocab list at our students, hoping that some would “stick”. The discussions that ensued from this moment not only radically changed our approaches, but they also made us better practitioners, in that we started to critically observe each element of our curriculum in order to decide whether it was truly necessary to build students’ competencies. We kept on using multiple teaching tools, but the pedagogy underpinning them became clearer. In brief, we started making room and we started embedding systematic recycling, knowledge organisers, extensive processing of language in all 4 skills, and communicative functions of language. It was a revolution.

But revolutions do take time, and a lot of arduous and consistent work across teams, in order to reach their objective. With a renewed sense of purpose underpinning our programs (with the carousel in Year 7 and the VET Certificate II in Year 9 and 10), change was possible. By the time Dr Conti came back to our school for his second workshop the following year, we were all eager to ask more specific questions about his MARS’EARS sequence, the transition from oral to written fluency, and how to best maximise class time for successful learning. We had started to see the shift in students’ engagement and participation in classes, at every step of the range of abilities. They were active, focused and very enthusiastic about the skills they were developing. The anxiety levels had dropped significantly as we recycled language thoroughly, as modelling through listening became our focus when introducing new content, and as thorough processing finally allowed students to internalise what we covered in class. Our students’ survey results were unanimous: they felt positive about learning a language, empowered to do so, and their self-esteem was soaring as a result. What more could we ask for?

Upon looking back at these past few years, I am in awe of my amazing colleagues for undertaking such a challenge and for seizing every opportunity to make their student’s experience better. This has been quite the journey, from overhauling our methodologies across all languages to training for VET delivery, and I could not have worked with more committed and passionate practitioners. I am also deeply grateful for Dr Conti’s support and influence in guiding our practice. His wealth of experience and practical approaches enabled us to trial and experiment his method very quickly, but more importantly, he facilitated this drastic change to our teaching through saying out loud what everybody thought quietly: less is more, and with the right approach, far more effective. In future, we will continue to use an evidence-based evaluation of our programs, to develop teachers’ skills through training, and to collect feedback from all our stakeholders, but so far, results are staggering.

If we are to truly impact our students’ lives through our teaching, we must empower them all to believe in their own potential, and we must enable them to experience systematic success in our lessons. Only then will they open up to the possibility of making a second language part of who they are as they continue to grow as young adults. After all, Sisyphus did prove to the Gods that by embracing life’s challenges as our own, we give them their true value and significance.

Chloe Briand is the Head of Languages at Methodist Ladies’ College, Melbourne, Australia, where she leads a team of 20 staff across 4 languages (French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese). With over 17 years of teaching practice across 4 countries and her experience of a wide range of school environments, academic excellence and innovation drive her curriculum design, along with pioneering approaches to teaching languages, through authentic contexts and experiential learning.

The art and science of creating sentence builders – key factors to consider in creating your sentence builders

Introduction: no, I have not invented sentence builders

I have not invented sentence builders. Of course not. They have existed for decades. The way I design and use them, however, differs substantively from what I have seen done in the past. I remember coming across hundreds of them when I first started teaching, but never finding exactly what I wanted.

I wanted a tool which was accessible to all of my students; easy for the children to use; which contained the right amount of words and structures my students could cope with.

I also wanted a tool that I could use for the approach that I was developing, Listening As Modelling (aka LAM), which has now become a teaching technology used by classroom practitioners from all over the world, but in those days was still in the making.

The sentence builders made by some prominent authors on TES and elsewhere fell short in this regard. They were too crowded, contained no English translation (taboo for many authors) or other means to establish meaning. The words in them were arranged randomly which made access to them and their meaning more arduous for the students.

Like many vocabulary and grammar organizers that I see floating on the internet these days, those sentence builders were not designed for introducing vocabulary orally and went against or ignored the most fundamental principles of cognitive pyschology and what we know about enhancing attention and learning.

In this post, the first in a series of posts on how to create and use sentence builders, I will deal – very concisely – with some key issues to consider when designing a sentence builder (henceforth SB).

Key factors to consider when creating your SB

(1) surrender value of the construction and vocabulary selected (e.g. Is it a high-frequency construction?) – I have already discussed in previous posts on this blog how, in E.P.I., in designing a unit of work, one gets from the target communicative functions to the key constructions one is planning to teach (here). What I would like to reiterate here, though, is the importance of choosing sentence constructions which are learnable and useful for real life communication. Not selected randomly because we like them or are found in the book in use.

(2) comprehensible input (Is the content of the SB comprehensible without any need to use any other resource?) This is key. Most sentence builders I see do not contain the L1 translation or images which  make the learners’ access to the meaning of the SB content possible. Comprehensible input is key to learning and the L1 translation provides very useful scaffolding. You will remove it gradually once the students become familiar with the content. I still remember a lady (on a Facebook group) criticizing my sentence builders, saying that they looked great but shouldn’t have the L1 translation. The very next day I asked my students, both in my more able and less able groups, through an anonymous questionnaire, if they preferred my SBs with or without the translation. The answer was unanimous: keep the translation at the beginning, remove it later. Every single student found the translation useful, especially ‘dodgy translation’ (word-for-word L1 translation, even when grammatically wrong in the L1 – see below). The L1 translation has another important benefit: it shows the differences and similarities between the two languages. We know this helps L2 acquisition.

(3) input enhancement techniques (Have I made what I want the students to notice more distinctive?). For instance, in the sentence builder below, aimed at absolute beginners, I wanted to highlight negatives, the relative pronoun ‘que’ and how some adjectives don’t change from ‘o’ to ‘a’ in the feminine. When you use the sentence builder to model the content, you will of course use your voice to emphasize the very same items and others.

sentence builder animals

(4) cognitive load and ease of visual access – (Is it easy on the eye? Is it too crowded? Are the words arranged according to an easily identifiable and logical system? Is this the clearest font? etc.). Many sentence builders, knowledge organisers and writing frames I see on the Web, do not consider these very important issues. I won’t discuss those issues here, but I will soon upload a video on my YouTube Channel to discuss Cognitive Load with reference to SBs. One of the obvious issues relates to working memory capacity and digit span, which, as I have mentioned many times over in previous posts, is very limited, amounting to 3 to 4 lexical chunks or words on average.

(5) phonological and orthographic similarity of the lexical items (are there items in here that could cause cross-association because they sound or look too similar?) When words are too similar in sound or spelling, they can cause interference and consequently hinder learning. Hence, you will avoid, especially with beginners or weaker students, items or chunks that are too similar along those dimensions. We know from science that phonological similarity causes more problems to the human brain, and since our brain ‘voices’ everything we read (even when we read silently) even words which may not look similar but do sound very similar to the learner (as in ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’, ‘lust’ and ‘last’ to an Italian ear) can cause massive problems. Phonological and orthographic similiarities are the main reason why students find verb conjugations so hard to learn! So, do avoid embedding entire unfamiliar verb conjugations in your sentence builders. Start with one or two persons first, then, once the students have become highly familiar with the construction and vocabulary, insert the remaining persons.

(6) opportunities for recycling and interleaving old/new items (have I seized any opportunity to recyle and interleave core items?). The columns in an SB can be used to recycle and interleave previously learnt items, so why not exploit this great advantage they give you over many other vocabulary-teaching tools? What I usually do, is slot in those columns my set of universals or desirables.

(7) opportunities for seed-planting of upcoming material – by the same token, just as you can recycle old material, you could put in the sentence builder chunks and grammar that you will expand on in a lesson or unit that you are planning to teach in the not too far future. I call this technique seed-planting. A very useful technique in that it primes the students for future learning thereby facilitating the acquisition of the to-be-taught items.

(8) target collocations /colligations – this will inform your segmentation of the content (What do I put in each column to underscore the pattern gluing the words together or high frequency collocations?) How you combine or isolate items in each column can help facilitate learning by drawing attention to them or to the fact that they are usually used in combination with specific items. For instance, in the sentence builder above, I could have chosen to have ‘que’ in a column of its own. However, dealing with absolute beginners, I am simply putting it together with ‘se llama’ in the chunk because I want to use ‘que se llama’ as a whole unanalysed building block. At a later date, when I will be explicitly modeling the use of relatives in Spanish, I will ‘isolate’ it so that it will be (a) more salient and (b) it will be easy to contrast it with other relative pronouns and show how it can be used in combination with prepositions. By writing it in ‘red’, though, I am making it more distinctive to the student and hopefully someone will ask me why I used a different colour for that word.

(9) chunking that facilitates noticing of phonological and phonotactic patterns (e.g. French: which chunks include liaison or assimilation phenomena which could be useful for the student to notice/learn?) An example of this is ‘liaison’ in French. If there is a word that liaises with another in your sentence builder and you want them to learn the liaison easily and effectively, chunking the two items together will prevent the possibility that they might ‘miss’ the liaison. By learning them as a chunk they are learning them as an item; so there will be more chances that ‘je suis allemand’ will be learnt as ‘jesuizalman’ rather than ‘je’ / ‘sui’ / ‘alman’. The same applies to the issue of assimilation. If the sentence builder above featured the indefinite article ‘un‘ in isolation in ‘Tengo un pajaro’ , the chances of them learning it as ‘tengo’ ‘un‘ ‘pajaro’ would be higher than them learning it correctly as ‘tengo umpajaro’ which is the correct pronunciation (the ‘n’ being pronounced as ‘m’ in connected speech due to the assimilation phenomenon).

(10) visuals that may support the learning of the target vocabulary (e.g. Can I replace the English translation with pictures instead? Do I have a set of flashcards or other visual aids to support the teaching of the SB’s content?)  Dual coding, whereby images and words are used in combination, helps massively in bringing about stronger retention. Whilst having sound (your voice) and written text helps, using images in combination with the SB is even more powerful. I make sure I use all three media when possible. Before or after introducing the construction with the sentence builder, do use visuals. In certain cases, with very basic sentence builders introducing places, colours, animals, food, etc. you will be able to add in images instead of the L1 translation.

Conclusion

Do bear in mind that an SB is only a tool that is as good as what you are going to do with it. I still remember when I first talked to the great Steve Smith about SBs a couple of years ago. He asked me: how would you use them? As a writing frame, right? He had never used an SB before as a means to present vocabulary orally because, for donkey years, SBs have been used as writing frames or grammar-teaching tools.

So, first off, you need to decide what you are going to use the SB for: for Listening As Modelling (aka LAM), i.e. the set of instructional sequences and techniques I talk about in my book “Breaking the sound barrier” or as a writing frame? That decision is crucial: as it affects massively how you are going to design the sentence builder. Why?Because my ‘scripted listening techniques’ will require more focus and will pose greater cognitive load than copying bits from a sentence frame in order to write a sentence or paragraph in your own sweet time.

Reading and writing exist in space, which means that you can go back to the text at will. But Listening exists in time, aural input lingering in sensory memory for barely two seconds; hence, when you use sentence builders to present language through listening you must be aware of anything that may add an extra cognitive challenge. Hence the importance of a clear SB design with spaces in between words, alphabetical order, etc; of input enhancement techniques; of highly patterned comprehensible input; of ‘dodgy translation’ (i.e. word for word L1 translation which may flout L1 grammar rules) which makes it clear what each word means (e.g. translating ‘J’ai dix ans’ ‘I have ten years’ as opposed to ‘I am ten years old’).

In conclusion, designing effective SBs should be, just like teaching, both a science and an art. Something you design with a clear pedagogic framework and instructional technique in mind.

No, I haven’t invented sentence builders, but I have perfected their usage as teaching tools after twenty years of using them in the classroom with primary to university students; asking for lots of feedback from my ‘classes’ on how to improve them to facilitate their learning. Bouncing ideas off my colleagues (e.g. Dylan Vinales, with whom I am currently writing a Spanish book of activities centred around sentence builders and follow-up activities: “Spanish sentence builders – a lexicogrammar approach).

After much experimentation with both very weak and very able students, I have become aware of the benefits and drawbacks of using this tool and how it can be made more effective using techniques which involve focus on sounds, vocabulary, lexis, syntax and even discourse. Many of which I share in my workshops around the world, have shared in my second book and will soon share on this blog. Watch this space.

A final word. An OFSTED inspector has recently said to me that SBs make language learning too easy. They shouldn’t be used. The students should not be provided with ready-made worked examples of how sentences are built; they shoud work that out by themselves. The answer to this person, who boasted that having taught for 15 years he was an expert, is that, according to research, the main reason for which students drop modern languages in Year 9 in the UK is that they find languages difficult and too much work.

This doesn’t mean we must dumb down our learning expectations, but that we must teach in ways that suit the adolescent learner’s cognitive capacity and style; that are engaging; that rely more on the aural route than on the written one; and that are based on what we know about second language acquisition.

We know the brain chunks every single language item we learn. That’s how we acquire language – any language. Traditionally, this has been done by teaching words and then the glue (i.e. the grammar) that chunks them together in sentences. This painstaking process often carried out through less-than-engaging techniques has failed students and teachers alike for many decades. Hence, the continuous decline of languages in schools in England. Adding in phonics, high-frequency word lists and banning ludic activities, as some prominents UK MFL ‘gurus’ propose, won’t make this approach any more palatable or easier for youngsters.

The Sentence builders, if designed and used effectively, make this all-important chunking process much easier, whilst the LAM activities we propose, not only make the explicit teaching of phonics nearly redundant, but make language learning much more fun and durable. And because they rely mainly on the aural medium (in synergy with visual coding) to introduce the new constructions and vocabulary, sentence builders and L.A.M. make learning much easier.

 

If you want to find out a bit more about how to use sentence builders and Listening As Modelling (aka LAM) do get hold of my book, “Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen”, co-authored with Steve Smith.

 

Dylan Viñales on our forthcoming workbook for Spanish, French, German and Italian learners, based on E.P.I.

In this very witty and informative blog post, Dylan talks about our forthcoming Spanish workbook, the first in a series of books for independent and classroom learning, based on our EPI principles. The booklet is currently being translated into French, German and Italian.

https://mrvinalesmfl.wordpress.com/2020/04/28/from-building-sentences-to-sentence-building-my-journey-to-mars/?fbclid=IwAR0FVgA9xn_ZMKM29-38ZJeBft-FUN-q6Im1B6RHjZbJQkTJPG46_z9FJss

“My experience with lesson “Contification” – guest post by Julia Hegarthy

This is the first in a series of posts written by language educators from around the world who have been experimenting with my approach. In this post a passionate language educator, Julia Hegarthy, head of languages in an independent school in New South Wales, relates how she went about applying EPI to her context. Here is her bio:

I work in an independent school in Sydney. We are a small Language Faculty running French in Yr 7, Chinese in Yr 8 and small elective classes in both Languages in 9 and 10. We have not yet had a Continuers class through to HSC level but we have been running the French Beginner HSC courses since 2015 and our numbers in this course are growing stronger every year.

In Australia there is no adequate textbook for the fast-paced and demanding 2-year HSC Beginners course, and so, after seeing Gianfranco Conti in action at a Language convention in Sydney in 2017, I decided to implement aspects of Extensive Processing Instruction. It made sense to me that to get students to hold a 5-minute conversation about their personal world in the space of not even two full years of instruction, the teacher ought to model structures related to their personal world intensively until their brain can automatically retrieve these structures….

The importance of rote learning had always been clear to me, however, I had been lacking the pedagogical tools (or creativity!) to make this appealing to the students. Seeing how the 300 strong conference room was responding to stating their Emotional Temperature in Malaysian through False Echo and “Mini translations” immediately struck me as an ingenious way to drill without causing my students ‘death by Powerpoint or worksheet coma’. I remembered I had a stack of Mini Whiteboards and WB markers in a dusty corner of our store cupboard somewhere and they haven’t left my teacher bag since. Another staple is a box of dice, so we can play any sort of ‘no snake no ladder’ translation game at our leisure.

Today, I still consider myself at the beginning of our journey to ‘contify’ our programs (I tend to agree with Gianfranco it is a LONG process.  It’s also worth mentioning that because we are still bound by the parameters of the current HSC format, I haven’t been able to throw out teaching the old way of responding to comprehension questions altogether – yet!). However, I am making a conscious attempt to use the MARS/EARS sequence with all my classes for all units and this year, I have thrown out textbooks for French altogether.

Actually, I should say I am using the MARS sequence with all classes, and EARS is mostly ‘extension’ material. I find this method is brilliant for differentiation; because it allows lesser able/confident students to operate with their scaffold for longer, whilst eager learners ‘wean’ themselves off much quicker, therefore cycling through the sequence at a faster speed, thriving on activities such as Fast and Furious and Pyramid Translations  that would be way beyond some of my students’ level of competence. The fascinating thing is to see them actually DO the activities and ENJOY doing them.

Independent pair or group work is no longer a pain and (for the most part) I truly don’t have to worry about groups being off task and can use my teaching time cruising around from group to group, giving feedback in real time. I think a lot of this is also due to the fact that the games and activities very much appeal to students’ competitive nature. I give ‘Dojo’ points in younger years for a certain number of quickest and most correct WB ‘hands up’ for example.

I have been buying and downloading lots of Gianfranco’s resources on TES and am adapting his worksheets and Sentence Builders to suit the exact need of my unit and class. This IS more time consuming initially, but once they are created and filed in an orderly and logical fashion, it is easy enough to pull together any lesson on any topic within a very short time frame. The other big bonus was (still is of course) that most of the structures from the worksheet and Sentence Builders also feature across the Language Gym’s activities, meaning that students have another option to ‘make them stick’ via this online modus.

I also explicitly tell my students about the approach – we look at the curve of forgetting together and on my online lesson plans I include a mention of which ‘stage’ we are at in a given lesson, which I find helps them to understand the relevance of what I am doing.

Here is an example of what I did before Coronavirus sent me into self-isolation with my Yr 12 class on Relationships

Modelling/Awareness Raising:

Hand out Sentence Builder with structures

Mini WB activities – Choral repetitions, Faulty Error, Spot the error, delayed repetition, delayed copying

Education Perfect list with the exact sentences from the SB as follow up in Reading / Listening mode (no translating into French at this stage)

Receptive Processing

Mini WB activities (lots of French – English translations)

RAM/LAM worksheets

Lots of reading out aloud – (they love reading aloud in class ‘until they make a mistake’ in which case another student interrupts, corrects and has earned the right to read on)

1 Pen 1 Dice

Find your match

Sentence Stealer

Quelquechose Game (you may know it as ALGO game)

Language Gym Workout (Vocab Section)

Textivate activities

Education Perfect list with the exact sentences from the SB as follow up in Reading / Listening mode (no translating into French at this stage)

Structured Production

Mini WB activities (now include translations into French)

Dictations (running, delayed, mad)

Education Perfect list with the exact sentences from the SB across all modes incl translation into French

ImmerseMe activities

No snakes no ladders translation game

Find someone who

Oral Ping Pong

Expansion

Education Perfect lists (my students also create and maintain their own individual lists which they are allowed to use at this stage)

Education Perfect Grammar units on the grammar point in question (in this case direct and indirect object pronouns)

ImmerseMe activities

Piranha Grammar

Role plays

4,3,2 Technique

Pyramid Translations

Highly scaffolded writing tasks

This was about 6 one hour lessons and at the end I made them hand in a free writing: You want to nominate your best friend for participation in the TV show “Le meilleur ami du monde”. Write the letter to the production company in which you describe your friend and why they should win the title. (150 words – use all structures and features covered to date)

As I said, I am still in a ‘hybrid’ stage, where I do sometimes revert to using texts/audio from a textbook instead of just my own creations; however, overall, I find that implementing the Conti method into my teaching has increased student motivation and my own zest for stepping into the classroom.

 

A bit about Julia

Julia Hegarty, Head of Department for Languages at Oxford Falls Grammar School is living proof that commanding another language is a concrete and demonstrable life skill that can take you places around the world. Born in Germany, Julia moved to the UK for her  university studies and graduated with a First Class BA Hons degree in French, Italian and Business Studies, having spent one year of the degree studying and doing work placements in France. Julia went on to work in a London based financial communications agency, travelling around the world in the course of equity capital offerings for German and French clients before meeting her husband and deciding to re-train as a teacher after settling in Australia 10 years ago. Julia a dynamic, creative and engaging language teacher, with a passion for foreign languages.

EN ROUTE TO SPONTANEITY (PART 1): THE CURVE OF SKILL ACQUISITION AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR THE LANGUAGE CLASSROOM

The curve of skill-acquisition

You may have heard the expression ‘it’s been a learning curve’. Well, Cognitive psychologists working in the Skill Theory paradigm- which I am currently reading and writing about for my forthcoming book – have observed, for skills as different as making cigars out of tobacco leaves or writing computer programs, that learning follows a curve representing a power function that looks like the curve in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: the curve representing the power law of learning

Learning curve

The same is true of language learning. After intensive training (massed practice), L2 learners first experience a drastic improvement in task performance in terms of decreasing reaction time and error-making (represented by the steep decline); this decline indicates that the learners, after performing a task a few times have routinised it (what we call ‘proceduralization’).

For instance, a student may have learned to use the perfect tense of French regular verbs in the context of a structured communicative drill. Whilst at the beginning s/he was performing the task slowly, having to retrieve and apply the relevant grammar rule consciously (declarative knowledge),  after several repetitions of the task s/he has now mastered the task.

When mastery has occurred and your students have routinized the task-at-hand (i.e. can perform it fairly effortlessly and speedily) and errors have decreased drastically, the curve starts to flatten (around point 20 on the curve) . This is where the typical grammar test, for instance, indicates the student has ‘got’ it and can apply the grammar rule fairly accurately and with some ease in the task they have been practising (although not necessarily in other tasks).

Automatization is a long process

At this point, if practice is continued, research shows that the curve flattens. This flattening of the curve shows that the process of automatization is very slow; the gains in speed and accuracy are steady but minimal. Why? The brain goes slowly when it comes to automatizing things, because anything we automatize – including mistakes – cannot be subsequently unlearnt (a phenomenon known as ‘fossilization’ in language learning).

The problem in much language learning in English schools at Key Stage 3 (beginner to intermediate stage) is that once the students evidence ‘mastery’, teachers  often move to the next topic/grammar structure instead of  providing automatization practice – what cognitive psychologists often refer to as ‘overlearning’.

Automatization as fluency

In language learning, automatization practice equals work on fluency, getting the students to use the target vocab and/or structures under communicative pressure and time constraints, what Johnson (1996) calls R.O.C.S (aka Real Operating Conditions). ROCs are ‘desirable difficulties’ (Bjork and Linn 2006) which pose variable demands on learners’ processing ability when performing the targeted behaviour or task, in resemblance with real-life conditions. Pedagogically speaking, the application of ROCs in LT results in task grading: manipulating different factors to vary the complexity of the tasks. Among them, Johnson (1996) highlights degree of form focus, time constraints, affective factors, cognitive and processing complexities.

Paul Nation calls this all-important dimension of language learning the ‘fluency strand’.

Figure 2: the fluency strand

Cumbria transfer mistake

Most teachers, partly because they feel under pressure to ‘cover the syllabus’ and partly because they are reassured by progress tests that their students ‘know’ the target L2 items neglect this area of L2 proficiency. Yet, automatization practice is key, because (1) it is essential for spontaneity; (2) what is automatized is never forgotten and (3) if fluency training aims – as it should – at automaticity across a range of linguistic contexts and tasks, it enables students to use what they have learnt more flexibly in real-life interactions.

Basically, tragically, practice with the target items ends exactly when it is needed the most ! And, more importantly, that practice is needed over a long period of time ( through distributed practice).

Automatization is more than speed of retrieval

This kind of training gets eventually the students not merely to fast retrieval which requires little or no conscious awareness (what psychologists call ‘ballistic processing’) but, more interestingly, produces qualitative changes in the way we retrieve and apply the vocab/structures we need to successfully execute the target task. In other words, automaticity means that the brain finds a more efficient way to produce that vocabulary and those structures in the context of a given task. We know this because MRIs show that when L2 learners have become fluent in the execution of a task, the brain areas activated during the execution of that task shrink, a sign that the brain makes less effort and needs to recruit fewer neural circuits. This qualitative change is called by researchers restructuring.

Main implications for language pedagogy

The main implications for language learning are obvious: we need to spend more time on automaticity (aka fluency) training. This means:

(1) cutting down the curriculum to allow for lots of recycling, task repetition and fluency practice once the students show they master the content of a unit of work. Textbooks go  way too fast !

(2) lots of recycling and task repetition at regular intervals. These will be very close in time to each other at the beginning of the curve and gradually more distant as the curve flattens;

(3) deliberate work on fluency/automaticity, by increasing the communicative pressure and time constraints in the execution of tasks (e.g. the 4,3,2 technique, Messengers, Market place, Speed dating, my mixed-skill ‘Spot the difference’, etc.)

(4) ensuring that the same set of vocabulary and grammar structures are practised across different contexts, as learning is context and skill dependent (e.g. what is learnt in reading and listening is not transferred automatically to writing and speaking; what is learnt practising a task won’t be transferred to another, even though the two tasks are very similar).

(5) teaching chunks (e.g. sentence frames and heads), as it reduces cognitive load thereby speeding up processing and fluency. Teaching multi-word chunks means that there are fewer grammar rules (if any) to apply and automatize, as opposed to teaching single words that the learners must learn to bind together grammatically in real time.

The curriculum-design matrix in figure 3 below (aka the “Conti matrix”), makes provision for all of the above. As explained in previous posts, in my approach automatization occurs in the context of tasks designed to elicit language processing and production under what Keith Johnson calls R.O.C. (real operating conditions), i.e. in communicative drills and tasks I will discuss in greater detail in my next post.

Figure 3- The Conti Matrix

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Practice with the language they KNOW

Of course, before venturing into this type of training, it is crucial that the students have mastered the target items, i.e. they can recall them with some ease and without the help of reference materials.

This is unfortunately one of the most common problems in much of the communicative language learning I have observed in 25+ years of teaching; the students are interacting orally, yes, but having way too often to resort to the help of word/phrase lists. When you stage fluency-development activities, the students shouldn’t need to do this. They should have had already plenty of retrieval practice which has weaned them off such lists first. That’s why, in my Recycling Matrix, the students get to the automatization phase at the very end of a macro-unit (i.e. unit 5).

Make time for fluency training

Some may object that there is not enough time for this type of training. My response is that it is all down to effective curriculum design and smart use of lesson time. But it is also dependant on your mission as a language teacher: are you imparting abstract knowledge of grammar structures or are you forging confident and effective L2 speakers ? Are you preparing students for exams or for real-life use? Are you teaching to cover the syllabus or for durable learning and spontaneity?

In the early years of language instruction, when exams are not and should not be a concern, you can and must make time for fluency practice.  Focus on the target items and tasks you students truly must learn to perform confidently, spontaneously and as accurately as possible and cut down the superfluous.

Less is more.

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Book review: Dannielle Warren’s “100 ideas for the classroom – MFL outstanding lessons

I rarely write reviews of books, but I have decided to make an exception for Dannielle Warren’s “100 ideas for secondary teachers – Outstanding MFL lessons”, edited by Bloomsbury. The reason: it is a concise, clearly written book that every teacher, both novice and experienced – regardless of their geographical location or working context – will find useful. A real treasure trove for pre-service teachers, of course, looking for a versatile and varied repertoire of tested instructional techniques and strategies.

I have always appreciated the contributions Dannielle has made to the UK modern foreign languages community over the years on various social media and teacher platforms such as TES. I have also always liked the persona she has displayed in the process: a passionate language educator, willing to share free resources and always humbly acknowledging the work of others that she dutifully magpies and adapts creatively often surpassing the original. I remember when years ago she politely asked me if she could copy and adapt my Spanish GCSE revision quickies ideas and came up with her own improved version of the original Conti format.

The book is a well thought-out ensemble of teaching ideas for the classroom categorised as follows: Speaking; Listening; Reading; Writing; Grammar; Translation; Vocabulary; Marking, Feedback and Improvements; Revision. It must have not been easy for Dannielle to pick and choose only 100 ideas, as I am sure she knows and uses many hundreds more. However, the activities she ended up selecting constitute a formidable language teacher toolkit which includes some classics and some less known but very effective games, tasks and strategies that, having tried many of them myself, I know work, even with the most challenging classes.

These are my favourites in the very comprehensive collection the book offers:

  • Chatty Jenga
  • Speaking ladders
  • Talking frames
  • Dictation drawing
  • What’s next
  • Break it up
  • The detectives
  • Mosaic writing (of course)
  • One pen one dice
  • Verb towers
  • Translation grids
  • Spot the error race
  • Revision pong

The book is reasonably priced and has had fantastic reviews by practising teachers on various social media and on Amazon which confirm my opinion of the book as an extremely useful resource to have on your desk at home or in your department to dip into during your lesson planning when you are short of ideas or looking for inspiration.

What you will not find in the book is a rationale for each activity or where and why they should occur in an instructional sequence. This is possibly my only ‘even better if’ for Dannielle, should she plan a second edition.

In conclusion, Dannielle’s book is a little masterpiece that every language teacher should read. It is good value for money, very accessible, very clearly written and contains ideas adaptable to any teaching context I can think of. What is more, the book has an accompanying website with links to relevant online resources:

https://www.bloomsbury.com/cw/100-ideas-for-secondary-teachers-outstanding-mfl-lessons/online-resources/