by Gianfranco Conti, PhD. Co-author of 'The Language Teacher toolkit', 'Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen', 'Memory: what every teacher should know' and of the 'Sentence Builders' book series. Winner of the 2015 TES best resource contributor award, founder and CEO of www.language-gym.com, co-founder of www.sentencebuilders.com and creator of the E.P.I. approach.
The Language Gym has just launched the first tome in a series of grammar books entitled “Spanish Verb pivots 1: foundation level“. This book will soon be adapted to French and German and possibly to other languages (e.g. Italian, Welsh, Irish and Japanese). In this post I detail the rationale for this book series; the underlying methodology; the content and how we wrote it.
1.Who is it for?
The Spanish verb pivots book is aimed at learners in the A1-B1 proficiency range. It can be used to introduce the target verbs and associated grammar and lexicogrammar patterns to absolute beginners. It can also be useful with lower-to-intermediate learners (years 9 to 11 in the U.K.) in order to consolidate, expand and deepen their mastery of those verbs and patterns. The latter learners, in my experience, are often able to master verb formation, but lack depth of knowledge, i.e. knowledge of verb collocations (which lexis the verbs partner with) and colligations (the rules which bind the verbs with what comes before and after them in a sentence).
The book was conceived both for classroom and independent use, whatever the method, setting or course, as it offers ample opportunities for practice through a wide range of activities designed to appeal to learners with a variety of cognitive styles and learning preferences. This is not a book exclusively aimed at EPI teachers!
2.Why this book?
Based on the premise that second language instruction should be first and foremost about empowering learners with the ability to convey meaning in the real world and not to learn grammar for grammar’s sake, the book aims at teaching lexicogrammar (or pattern grammar), i.e.: the grammar glueing together the sentence patterns (or syntactic schemata) that we make use of in order to fulfill a communicative purpose (e.g. describing a person; comparing and contrasting people; making arrangements for an evening out; describing one’s daily activities, etc.).
I conceived and created this book because I felt the current trends in modern language teaching were too concerned with the teaching of isolated grammar rules as totally divorced from a communicative context. Also, I have always found that textbooks, even when used in synergy with their associated workbooks, provide insufficientmultimodal practice. This is a major shortcoming of traditional grammar instruction at large, as research shows clearly that the learning of L2 grammar structures must be multimodal for them to be effectively learnt. Multimodality is one of the most innovative features of this book: the target sentence patterns and morphemes are learnt across all four language skills, including speaking and listening, which are usually the most neglected skills (please note that the audio tracks accompanying Spanish verb pivots are accessible by anyone for free at this link).
3.Why is the book called “ Spanish verb pivots”?
Verbs constitute the core of every sentence we utter and write. In other words, they are the ‘pivots’ around which each sentence pattern develops. Each verb one selects, as well as the social context and the purpose one selects it for, constrain the range of lexical and grammatical choices we can make in producing a sentence. So, for instance, using the verb querer to express what one wants someone to do will require the use of querer + que+ subject + present subjunctive (e.g. quiero que tu vayas al supermercado).
This book aims at teaching how to use the most useful and frequent Spanish verbs in everyday communication in terms of how to:
manipulate them effectively (inflectional morphology, e.g. how to conjugate the verbs in the present)
deal with the linguistic choices they trigger (pattern grammar, i.e.: the constructions associated with each verb)
master the rules which bind words together within a given syntactic pattern (colligations, i.e.: how each word affects the next; for instance how determiners or adjectives agree in gender and number with nouns)
As it is clear from (1), (2) and (3) above, exploring how a verb works also entails learning a lot of other grammar and lexicogrammar rules which emerge organically from the communicative context at hand. For instance, teaching the verb ir will lead to learning articled prepositions (e.g. voy/va/vamos/etc. al cine), possessives (e.g. con mi/mis/su/sus/etc. padres/amigos/hermanos/etc.) and even how to form a final clause (e.g. voy al centro comercial para comprar un ordenadornuevo).
4.What’s in the Spanish book?
The book includes 8 macro-units, each focusing on a different verb or verb set in the present tense. The verbs are: Tener, Ser, Hacer, Ir, Gustar, Estar, Jugar and Modal verbs. Each macro-unit centres on a key verb and explores and drills in, through a wide range of engaging and enjoyable multimodal tasks, all the possible patterns associated with it deemed to be learnable at this level of proficiency. Every macro-unit includes 7-8 sub-units for a total of 55 sub-units. For instance, the unit on ‘Tener’ was broken down into the following sub-units:
1.Tener + un/una + noun (What animals I have)
2.Tengo + un/una + noun + adjective (What animal I have and its colour)
5.Tener + classroom objects + adjective (What school items one has)
6.Tener + clothing item + adjective (What clothes one has)
7.Tener + number + plural nouns + adjectives (How many things one has)
8.Tener + number + años (Telling one’s age)
Each macro-unit ends with a revision unit that brings all the content of that unit together and consolidates it through written and oral retrieval-practice tasks.
5.How does the book work?
Each macro-unit starts ‘small’ with the target verb being learnt within very basic sentence patterns and in the first person only. As each unit progresses the target verbs are modelled in sentence patterns which gradually increase in length and complexity. In order to enhance transferrability of learning and lexical depth, each verb is also practised with a variety of lexical sets. For instance, the verb ‘Tener’ is practised with animals, classroom objects, clothes, physical description, emotional and physical states, age, etc.
Task-essentialness is pervasive: each unit contains a plethora of tasks which elicit the application of the target grammar structure multiple times.
Recycling is carefully engineered to allow for repeated receptive and productive processing of the target language items within the same units and across the whole book. As mentioned above, each new unit builds on the previous one in a ‘what I know + 1” fashion, so that the stem of a new sentence builder was covered in the previous sub-unit. Also, revision quickies are interspersed throughout the sub-units and every macro-unit ends with a massive recap of everything covered thus far.
Subconscious learning through input flood and repeated processing works in synergy with explicit learning in the way of (1) awareness-raising boxes at the beginning of each sub-unit, (2) tasks focusing the students’ attention on the target features and (3) metacognitive activities eliciting self-reflection and self-evaluation.
Traditional grammar and lexicogrammar intersect throughout the whole book, as, in order for the learners to be able to become creative with each sentence pattern, they must also master the manipulation of the changeable items in each sentence such as verbs, adjectives, pronouns determiners, etc. The teaching of grammar arises organically from the need to enhance the generative power of each target sentence pattern – this is a major innovation of this book.
The book is very mindful of cognitive load. Hence, each instructional sequence gradually increases the cognitive challenge, with receptive activities in the initial section of each sub-unit paving the way for the productive ones located at the end and with each task priming the next. It goes without saying that the repeated processing and the constant recycling also makes it easier for the content to become effortlessly entrenched.
6.How can one supplement this book to enhance its impact?
Please note that this book is best used in synergy with www.language-gym.com and www.sentencebuilders.com , both website featuring self-marking games and activities based on its content. Note that on the latter website, 58 sentence builders based on the “Spanish verb pivots” book are already available.
7.The verb-pivots team
I authored the book in collaboration with three experienced and talented native-speaking teachers of Spanish: the world-famous Dylan Vinales (co-author of many of The Language Gym books); creative, active blogger and twitterata Esmeralda Salgado and former colleague and friend Roberto Jover. I am very thankful to them for their hard work on the project. Brought in in the latter phase of the process, Esmeralda was very valuable in filling some of the gaps Dylan and I had left in the book at that stage, including creating a number of sub-units, following the EPI blueprint. We are especially grateful to her for taking care of the language awareness sections (notoriously tedious and challenging to create) alongside Dylan; as well as the end-of-unit revision sub-units packed with practice and for adding in the metacognitive activities promoting self-reflection and retrieval practice through self-explanation. We are also mega-grateful to the eagle-eyed Roberto for his massive and decisive help in the editing process.
8. Our invaluable guest editorsteam
Finally, I would like to thank our international team of guest editors recruited by Dylan in the very last leg of the process. They have looked through each unit and have provided us with 25 (25!) pages of precious and thorough feedback, spotting typos and other glitches that needed ironing out. Here’s the full list (in no particular order):
A few days ago I came across a tweet in which a hard-working and very capable language educator I know, an experienced head of Dept at one of the NCELP hub schools, claimed her students showed evidence, in a recently administered test, of impressive progress in the learning of a grammar structure. The author of the tweet, henceforth referred to as ‘Teacher X’, attached a snapshot of the test, designed to assess the learning of a fairly complex Spanish structure, the use of the indirect pronoun with verbs like ‘gustar’.
From what I could glean from the picture shared in the tweet, the test appeared to consist of at least three parts:
1. A task whereby the students were required to choose which of two options was the grammatically correct one;
2. A grammaticality judgment task whereby the students were to determine the correctness of a set of sentences;
3. A task which included a mix of L1 to L2 and L2 to L1 translation : 1/2 the sentences were to be translated from Spanish to English and the other 1/2 from English to Spanish. Each sentence contained an instance of the deployment of the target grammar structure.
In this post I intend to show how the test, the interpretation of its results and the claims made by Teacher X about its outcomes exemplify some common pitfalls of much grammar assessment which undermine the reliability and validity of testing practices in many school settings. Yet the tweet was retweeted by the NCELP official twitter account, which meant that the National Centre of Excellence in Language Programming endorsed the content of the tweet and tacitly approved of Teacher X’s testing practices and claims.
Let us have a look at the issues with that assessment that one can easily identify at a glance.
Pitfall 1: ‘either…or…’ grammar assessment tasks
Assessment tasks whereby the students have a 50/50 chance of getting the answer right through random guessing are evidently unreliable tests of grammar competence. It may surprise you that a NCELP hub school would use a test so obviously invalid – after all, the ‘E’ in NCELP stands for ‘excellence’. But actually, you shouldn’t be: the very director of the NCELP, Emma Marsden, in a peer-reviewed study of hers which she often cites as evidence of the success of grammar instruction (Kasprowitz & Marsden, 2017) used exactly the same type of task. Professor Frank Boers, in his excellent 2021 book, reviews this study, criticizing Kasprowitz and Marsden’s testing approach and describing the results obtained by Marsden and her co-worker (also part of the NCELP team) as ‘disappointing’ (see figure 1 below which summarizes Frank Boers’, 2021, criticism).
Figure 1 – a summary of the points Boers (2021) makes with regards to Kasprowitz and Marsden’s (2017) study with young learners of German. The test format entailed a 50% chance of correct guessing
Pitfall 2– A task or tasks within the same test paper providing cues to the students on how to execute other tasks
The test-at-hand contained, in the same translation task, an alternance of L2 and L1 sentences (in which the target structure was task-essential) to translate respectively into the L2 and in the L1. This too undermines the reliability of the test, as the students can of course use the L2 sentences as reminders of the target grammar rule(s) or, should they have forgotten the rule(s), even as worked examples from which to infer how to go about translating from the L1 to the L2. For example, if I am testing somebody on the French perfect tense, and ask them to translate into English sentence (i) below:
(i) J’ai mangé de la viande
And then ask the students to translate into French sentence (ii) below:
(ii) I ate some chicken
A student who can translate the first sentence correctly into English but is not 100% sure of how to translate the second one into French can easily ‘cheat’ by copying the first portion of sentence (i).
Pitfall 3 – Scoring translation tasks to asses the learning of a grammar structureholistically
If the translation of a sentence is used as a means to assess grammar, how is the translation of the portion of that sentence which doesn’t contain the target structure scored? In other words, if the to-be-translated sentence reads
They don’t like reading fashion magazines because it’s boring
and the target structure is the use of the indirect pronoun + gustar in Spanish, what happens if a student gets ‘Les gusta’ right but gets everything else wrong? Should they be penalised? By right, if it is a grammar test aimed exclusively at ascertaining the extent to which students master the usage of indefinite pronouns + gustar, the students should score full marks for that sentence. No? The test-at-hand appeared to grade the sentences in terms of accuracy across the board, including the vocabulary and the other structures embedded in the sentences. Hence, if someone gets the target structure wrong, but translates the rest of the sentence correctly, they may obtain a higher grade than someone who gets the target structure right but gets the rest of the sentence wrong. With this in mind, it is obvious that the test score is unlikely to provide a valid assessment of the learners’ mastery of the specific structure the assessment was designed to target.
Pitfall 4 – Lack of authenticity and transferrability of knowledge
One of the five principles of effective assessment (see figure 2 below) advocated by the most renowned scholars in the field of L2 assessments is authenticity, i.e. the tasks included in the test administered should mirror or at least approximate real-life tasks (Brown, 2004; Purpura, 2006; 2011)
Figure 2: The five effective-assessment principles on which the most eminent L2 assessment specialists worldwide universally agree.
Why is authenticity – or at least an approximation of authenticity – so important? The answer refers to the transfer appropriate processing phenomenon or T.A.P., which states that knowledge is context specific, i.e.: whenever we retrieve knowledge, retrieval is more likely to be effective when the conditions at retrieval are similar to the conditions at learning. Hence, for instance: if I practise using locative adverbs/adverbials in French only or mainly through gap-fill or grammaticality-judgment tasks (e.g. is this sentence correct or incorrect?), I will be unlikely to use it effectively in a conversation with a French speaker about where the places I want to see are located. On the other hand, if I practise the deployment of locative adverbs/adverbials in the context of role-plays, I might be able to transfer it to a real-life interaction in which I ask for directions, for instance.
Another dimension of transferrability refers to the modality-specificity of L2 competence. In other words: what I learn through a skill (e.g. writing) is unlikely to be easily transferred to another (e.g. speaking). Hence, even though I may write fluently in the perfect tense in French, I may not be able to use it fluently in speech. The obvious implication of this is that grammar teaching and assessment must be multi-modal.
Now, if we evaluate the NCELP’s grammar revision, homework and assessment tasks in the light of TAP, we can easily conclude that they are not fit for purpose as they lack authenticity; they don’t typically practise/test grammar knowledge across all four language skills and do not include task-essential communicative task which develop/assess spontaneous deployment of the target L2 structures.
Figure 3: Transfer Appropriate Processing is at play when we attempt to transfer any knowledge acquired through a context/task to another. It is very much like training a puppy to perform a trick at home only to find out that they can’t perform it at the park (because the surrounding environment has changed).
Pitfall 5 – Grammar-knowledge-only assessments
Purpura (2006) makes a distinction between grammar knowledge versus grammar ability which mirrors Larsen Freeman’s one between Grammar and Grammaring and Krashen’s famous dichotomy Learning versus Acquisition. Grammar knowledge refers to declarative knowledge, i.e. the conscious application of grammar rules; grammar ability instead, refers to the ability to apply grammar rules in fluent spoken production, in other words, Procedural knowledge.
In real-life oral interaction, the usefulness of grammar knowledge accrued through grammatical knowledge tasks (e.g. ‘Correct or Incorrect?’), Gap-fills, ‘Either..or…’ tasks, etc. is very limited not only because these tests flout the ‘authenticity’ principles, but also because, as Wilelm Levelt’s model of word production (the most widely accepted to-date) posits, in order for grammar retrieval to be useful in fluent spoken production, it must occur in a split second. (see figure 4, below).
Figure 4: Wilelm Levelt’s model of word production. When we retrieve a word, the brain first activates its meaning, then its grammar and syntax. In oral production, this process happens in a few hundred milliseconds, which means that grammatical knowledge must be accessed very fast.
So, if we accept the account of skill acquisition provided by Skill theory (e.g. Anderson, 1980) and espoused by the NCELP, Teacher X’s test evidences – at best – that her students are at the beginning of the skill-acquisition curve, I.e. at the awareness stage (see figure 5 below). In other words, the claim by Teacher X that her students had learnt the target structure should be majorly scaled down or the term ‘learnt’ be clarified: what does she mean by it? Her students still have many months or even years to go before they are able to deploy the indirect pronoun + gustar construction in fluent speech. Let me remark, incidentally, that no NCELP assessment does, at least to my knowledge, test learner spontaneous use of the target grammatical structures, even though they do claim on their website and on some of their CPD resources that teaching should aim at automatising knowledge. So one isn’t clear how spontaneity in the use of any of the target structure in their schemes of learning is going to be achieved.
Figure 5: The key stages in the acquisition of a grammar structure according to skill-theory. Fluency in the spontaneous deployment of a grammar structure is a very lengthy process which might take several years.
Pitfall 6: The natural sequences of acquisition
Another important issue further exacerbates the problems discussed in point 5 above: the target structure in Teacher X’s test paper is beyond the current developmental reach of her students (year 8 – UK system). In fact, the use of the indirect pronoun + gustar (and similar verbs) in Spanish emerges quite late in L2-Spanish learners’ spontaneous output (in other words, it is acquired late in the acquisition process). Hence, whilst one can test one’s students’ grasp of the grammar rule, one cannot, by any stretch of imagination, at such an early stage in the L2 learning journey, claim that the students will actually acquire it any time soon.
Processability theory posit that there are fixed developmental sequences in the acquisition of a second language which grammar instruction cannot circumvent but may be able to accelerate (Pienemann, 1998). As can be gleaned from the slide in figure 6, the structure Teacher X tested her beginner learners on entails procedure 5 (sentence procedure) which cannot be acquired by a typical beginner learner as it requires the mastery of procedure 1,2,3, and 4 which are never fully mastered at this level.
Figure 6: Manfred Pienemann’s developmental sequences in L2 acquisition. The theory, which has been proven right by a large number of studies, states that you cannot move to a more advanced procedure unless you have a fairly high degree of mastery in the preceding ones.
Pitfall 7– Highly telegraphed tests. High retrieval strength and the illusion of mastery
Usually a class sits a grammar assessment at the end of a series of lessons on a specific structure (e.g. forming the perfect tense with ETRE) or set of structures (perfect tense usage and formation in French as a whole). This means that retrieval strength for that given structure is likely to be high. Why? Because the teacher will have firmly kept the target structure in the students’ focal attention by practising it lesson in lesson out for a few weeks and by providing corrective feedback on its deployment in oral and written work. So, when the test on that grammar structure is administered, the students know exactly what is expected of them. This state of things is of course exacerbated when the students are told explicitly that the test is going to be on that particular grammar structure – retrieval strenght will be even higher in this case. In such testing conditions, a good chunk of the students is likely to do fairly well, thereby giving the teacher the impression that the students have now mastered the target structure. Exactly what Teacher X was claiming in her tweet.
Now, imagine testing the same students on that very same grammar structure 4-5 weeks down the line without any prior revision and without ‘telegraphing’ the test. Will they do as well? The answer is: unlikely. Plenty of studies show that, not only the learners will be unlikely to use it spontaneously in production and transfer it to unfamiliar tasks, but also that many of them will have forgotten how to use it, especially if there are major cross-linguistic L1-L2 differences in the usage of the target structure (negative transfer). The main reasons for forgetting refer, of course, to (1) memory decay (2) proactive/retroactive interference and (3) cue-dependent forgetting.
Pitfall 8: Are we testing grammar-rule application or the retrieval of memorised exemplars?
When one examines Teacher X’s test, it is obvious that the sentences used to assess the students on the target grammar structure had been used several times in the lessons prior to the assessment. How do we know that? Because those sentences or very similar ones do occur multiple times in the NCELP’s resources on that grammar structure. Hence, the construct validity of the test is undermined, in the sense that we don’t really know whether the students are actually applying the grammar rule or have simply memorised the sentences through exposure or use in the lessons running up to the test.
In this post I have identified and discussed a number of common issues in grammar assessment which undermine the validity and reliability of the data thereby obtained. My criticism wasn’t meant to be an ad hominem attack on Teacher X. After all, she has been trained by NCELP in the use of their instructional and assessment practices and was only applying what she got out of their training.
What is important to take away from the above discussion is that before assessing grammar we must have a clear understanding of what it actually means to KNOW grammar. As a teacher, I need to be clear as to what extent and how I expect my students to know and evidence the learning of the target grammar structure(s) by the end of each lesson, sub-unit, unit, year or cycle. That clarity will inform my assessment practices. Testing whether students have understood how a given structure works (awareness) will require a different assessment task than testing whether that structure has been automatised (fluency).
Another important point is that the claims teachers make about their students’ grammar learning need to be mediated by our understanding of what grammaracquisition involves and by what constitutes VALID testing. We need to be specific as to what we mean by “My students have learnt the French perfect tense”, as (1) grammar knowledge is context- and modality- specific, (2) is constrained by the developmental sequences of acquisition and (3) can be conscious (explicit) or subconscious (implicit).
Finally, tests must be valid and reliable before we can make bold claims about how impressive our students’ progress in grammar learning is – like Teacher X did in her tweet. By making such claims and advertising them to the twitterversewith the keen support of NCELP, one may end up misleading the language-teaching community into adopting assessment practices which – as I have tried to demonstrate above- , are actually flawed in many ways.
This post is aimed at providing language educators interested in my approach with an up-to-date description of the MARSEARS instructional sequence faithful to the ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ of EPI, as opposed to the many adaptations and hybridizations floating on social media these days, which may be as or even more effective, but often substantively misrepresent the original framework.
The MARSEARS sequence
As can be seen in figure 1 below, a typical unit of work lasts a term and consists of five sub-units: four of which deal with new material and consist of MARSEA (Modelling, Awareness-raising, Receptive processing, Structured Production, Expansion and Autonomy) and two of RS (Routinization and Spontaneity) which aim at consolidating and automatizing that material, as well as interweaving it with materials from previous units (e.g. in Term 2 in year 8, you will interweave core vocabulary and grammar from Term 1 in year 8, and if you can, from Terms 1,2 and 3 in year 7). The holes in between units can be used for revision and/or fluency training. Important: I recommend that the structured production phase (in green in figure 1) last two lessons with average-ability learners rather than one, as indicated in the picture.
Figure 1: a macro-unit is subdivided in five sub-units. The first four sub-units include the MARSEA sequence, whilst the last sub-unit include the RS phases which culminate in the spontaneity assessment task. The ticks refer to the recycling of the target items (the material included in the sentence builders). Items 5 to 8 refer to the new items, whereas items 1 to 4 refer to the ones taught in the previous unit.
1 – Modelling – the target sentence pattern(s) is (are) modelled through sentence builders or any other means. I prefer sentence builders, occasionally preceded by a round of two of flashcards to sensitize the students to any new vocabulary included in the target sentence builder. Activating prior lexical or morpho-syntactic knowledge before the modelling of the target construction will obviously help, should the target sentence builder include previously encountered material (for instance: if you are teaching the perfect tense of verbs requiring the auxiliary ‘Avoir’ in French, you may want to activate their knowledge of the present indicative of AVOIR and the meaning of the verbs you have included in the sentence builders).
2 – Awareness-raising – the learners’ attention is drawn to specific features in the model sentences, e.g. SSC (symbol-to-sound correspondence), phonotactics (e.g. liaison), intonation patterns, grammar and syntax. This is snappy pop-up grammar and pop-up phonics awareness-raising aimed at sensitizing the learners to specific linguistic features in the input, so that when they encounter them multiple times in the next (receptive) phase they are more likely to pay attention to and eventually internalize them.
3 – Receptive processing – in the first part of this phase, the focus is on sentence-level processing only, at least with beginner to pre-intermediate students. The teacher engages the students in the repeated processing of the model sentences through a variety of enjoyable snappy activities mostly through the aural medium. The input is flooded with multiple occurrences of the target pattern and the instructor is deliberate in targeting the whole range of listening and reading sub-skills: phonological and graphological processing (both at phonemic and syllabic level); segmenting; lexical retrieval, parsing (grammar and syntax), and semantic (meaning) processing. The activities include a balance of focus-on-form (phonics, grammar, syntax and function words) and focus-on-meaning activities. Scripted listening (i.e. listening whilst reading) activities enable the students to develop decoding (SSC) and segmenting skills, key for vocabulary acquisition through the aural medium.
In the second part of this phase, the teacher proceeds to work on connected texts, which include current and previously studied material. The texts usually include narrow listening and narrow reading texts, i.e. near-identical texts where the discourse structure is identical but some of the lexical items differ. The highly-patterned texts are flooded with the target features and contain at least 90 % comprehensible input. Input-enhancement (both acoustic and visual) draws attention to the target features.
The input-flooding, input-enhancement, repeated processing and thorough-processing elicited by the tasks included in the instructional sequences throughout this phase, allow for multiple encounters with the target input, which is likely to result in implicit learning. Throughout the phase the teacher will EXPLICITLY and repeatedly point the students’ attention to the target phonological, grammatical and syntactic features thereby ensuring that IMPLICIT and EXPLICIT learning work in synergy. Deep-processing activities can also be embedded in this phase to elicit the greater cognitive investment that according to much research (e.g. Leow, 2015) results in longer-lasting learning.
Important: the listening and reading activities staged in this phase are not your typical receptive activities. They are Listening-As-Modelling (LAM) and Reading-As-Modelling (RAM) activities which are designed to model speaking and writing as part of your effort to convert input into output. This doesn’t mean you won’t stage any traditional Listening and Reading comprehensions. You will do both. For obvious reasons, though, with beginner-to-intermediate learners you will stage listening-for-learning (LAM) tasks prior to engaging in listening-for-testing ones.
4 – Structured production – in the first part of this pushed-output phase, the beginner-to-pre-intermediate learners engage in chunking-aloud games/tasks (e.g. Sentence stealer, Sentence chaos, Mind-reading, Lie-detector) which elicit repeated processing of the target sentence patterns. These games, too, will involve an alternation of focus-on-meaning and focus-on-form activities. These games aim at enhancing decoding skills, phonotactic and articulatory fluency. More importantly, chunking-aloud games, being fun and inclusive, foster learner willingness to communicate and participate, two key pre-requisites for the attainment of oral fluency.
In the second part of this phase, the learners engage in retrieval practice and in highly structured oral and written communicative activities. Initial individual or pair-work written activities – carried out using worksheets or digital resources – help transitioning from receptive to productive retrieval and pave the way for a series of engaging and enjoyable oral retrieval practice activities (some of which, not all, are described here). The latter involve group work and are totally student-managed, typically consisting of competitions between two players with a referee/coach (equipped with an answer sheet) providing instant positive or negative feedback and awarding points. The fact that these activities are totally student-managed means that the teacher can devote his/her attention to monitoring learner performance whilst moving around the classroom. This enables him/her to gather a lot of observational data and engage in the provision of formative feedback.
5 – Expansion – this phase is about learning explicitly the morpho-syntactic patterns that have already been processed many times over. The teacher may decide to do this deductively (explicitly teaching the grammar); through guided discovery (leading the students with guiding questions to working out the grammar rules) or totally inductively (the learners, given a number of sentences exemplifying the target rules infer the rules by themselves). Receptive and productive activities from the previous phases (in which the target rule is task-essential) can be employed here.
6 – Autonomous recall – this is where short achievement tests are staged. These are snappy, easy-to mark, low-stake assessments aimed at ascertaining whether the students have attained at least receptive mastery of the target input (or productive if you are dealing with groups of higher attainers). As far as I am concerned, I prefer to make the first three assessments (whether form- or meaning-focused) receptive in nature and the last two productive. The rationale: the ability to perform productive retrieval emerges later than receptive. Also, throughout the structured productive phase in each sub-unit I have usually already obtained a good idea of where my students are in terms of productive retrieval in non-exam conditions. A grammar assessment component, initially receptive and later productive, can be included with the right groups at the end of each sub-unit..
7-Routinization/Fluency training – in this phase, a number of truly engaging and enjoyable pushed-output activities are staged which aim at consolidating the target material and speeding up its receptive and productive retrieval. The activities, based on Paul Nation’s research into fluency training, typically involve: (1) repeated processing, (2) task-repetition; (3) pre-task priming; (4) pre-task planning; (5) incrementally challenging timed constraints. As happens in the previous phases, one will alternate tasks which focus on negotiation of meaning (‘Messengers’, ‘Dictogloss’, ‘Five’, Detective and Informants’, ‘All for one and one for all’, ‘Secret sentences’, ‘View and Recall race’) with others which focus on form (e.g. ‘Chain reading’; ‘Chain dictation’, ‘Tongue twisters’, ‘Fast and Furious’, ‘Puzzle race’). Very important: since automatization means making what is already known more easily and rapidly retrievable, the language used in this phase should include only familiar lexis and grammar.
8 – Spontaneity – In this phase communicative tasks (e.g. Oral picture-description tasks; Interviews; Role-plays) require the students to produce UNPLANNED output under time constraints to simulate R.O.C. (Real Operating Conditions). One of these tasks can be used too for assessment purposes. With lower-ability learners, the assessment could include some planning time and even a short priming task.
Wow! This is long !
An understandable reaction is to consider this too long and time-consuming. The answer: fluency can’t be achieved using the traditional PPP approach or short instructional sequences of a couple of lessons, as textbooks purport to do. Students need to receive substantive structured receptive and productive practice to be able to attain that degree of proceduralization of the input which will ensure long-term retention. Much textbook-based teaching fails in this regard and, consequently, more than often teachers at KS4 (15-16 years old) have to reteach what was taught at KS3 (years 11 to 13) all over again wasting valuable time (now THAT is time-consuming!). Also, going ‘slower’ means being more inclusive thereby increasing the chances of a higher future GCSE and A-level uptake. Fortunately, at KS3 one can afford to go slower, as the focus should be on fostering fluency development and a passion for language learning, rather than manufacturing cohorts of exam takers.
Note that at KS4, the EPI teacher will be able to go faster, having built strong foundations at KS2 and 3, as opposed to flimsy declarative knowledge, as often happens.
In this post I have provided an outline of the MARSEARS sequence faithful to the true letter and spirit of EPI. Teachers are, of course, very free to adapt it to their own contexts always hopefully cognizant of the fact that they can’t hope to create fluency at KS3, unless they teach exceptionally gifted learners, in three or four lessons or by stopping at the structured production phase as some advocate.
The aim of this sequence is to be inclusive and create durable learning. Each phase in the sequence primes the next one. So, whilst the challenge increases gradually, the students get to the next phase prepared and more confident. Building learner can-do attitude is key in the design and delivery of an EPI instructional sequence, as self-efficacy is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictors of language learning success.
Obviously, each MARSEARS sequence must not be considered in isolation but in relation to the curriculum as a whole, always ensuring that the core items you have identified as the non-negotiables (or Universals, as I call them), the must-learn phonics, vocabulary and grammar, are constantly recycled across contexts, consistently with the Transfer Appropriate Processing principle and with what we know about memory decay and proactive/retroactive interference (Bjork’s law of disuse).
Finally, the key to successful teaching is ensuring that the students – all of them – enjoy learning and succeed at it on a daily basis. Unless this happens, students are unlikely to develop a passion for language learning. Traditional PPP, especially when consisting of masses of grammar learning, however well-planned and systematic, is unlikely to be inclusive and exciting for the average teenager.
In the last decade or so, a large number of language educators around the globe have embraced my approach, EPI (aka Extensive Processing Instruction). Many teachers and schools have done so ‘wholesale’, applying it to all aspects of their MFL curriculum; others only partially, incorporating some aspects of my approach e.g. my use of sentence builders, L.A.M. (Listening-As-Modelling), Narrow Reading techniques, Retrieval practice tasks, Chunking-aloud games, Fluency-training activities, Universals, L.I.F.T, etc. Of those who have espoused the approach, some have adopted it in its purest form, adhering to the letter of EPI. Others have ‘hybridized’ it, as it were, combining their existing approach or other approaches with mine (e.g. NCELP + EPI) creatively adapting EPI to their learning context.
Despite its popularity and the many blog posts and articles written on EPI, some published in prominent specialised journals such as Applied Linguistics, there exist gross misconceptions about the approach, some of which I was reminded of during several conversations with language educators at a recent conference in Sheffield, the ALL ‘Language World’. There I realised, to my horror, that even some prominent MFL influencers I talked to on the day had some serious misconceptions about the approach and a superficial understanding of it. They seemed to believe that EPI is about teaching random sentences embedded in substitution tables and getting the students to parrot them until they learn them by rote without any input about grammar, SSC (spelling-to-sound correspondance) and the meaning of individual words. In other words, EPI would consist of merely drilling in a set of unanalysed chunks ad nauseam through a range of ludic activities without a coherent instructional plan or rationale. A very prominent lady said: I don’t understand how it is different from what we used to do it the 80s.
Ten misconceptions about EPI
Here are ten of the most common misconceptions about EPI, supposedly the main reasons why language teachers, according to my detractors, should stay away from ‘contification’:
1. In E.P.I. we don’t teach grammar
2. In E.P.I. we don’t teach phonics
3. In E.P.I. we don’t teach the meaning of single words. The method is about learning unanalysed chunks by rote. Meaningless parroting
4. In E.P.I. talking is merely about read-aloud games a la ‘Sentence stealer’ and oral translation drills such as ‘No snakes no ladders’
5. E.P.I is slow. The coverage is unambitious
6. E.P.I. is about memorising paragraphs with parallel texts
7. In E.P.I. listening and reading comprehensions are banned
8. E.P.I. cannot be used with high-ability classes
9. In E.P.I. we don’t teach culture
10. E.P.I. doesn’t prepare for National Examinations
The reasons for these misconceptions are manyfold. One reason is that quite a few of the blog posts/webinars on EPI floating on the web were written/delivered by people who provided their own understandingor adaptation of my approach and in some cases have never attended any of my trainings (!). Another reason refers to the deliberate attempt by certain people and entities to misrepresent EPI as anti-grammar, anti-phonics, anti-culture, anti-retrieval practice, anti-creativity, and anti- everything else that teachers hold as the untouchable pilllars of language teaching and learning – the aim: to put them off the approach.
Debunking the myths about EPI
In a series of posts – hopefully only two – I intend to debunk every single one of the above myths about EPI. For reasons of space, in the current post I will concern myself only with the top three on the above list.
#1. In E.P.I. grammar is not taught
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Grammar is taught at many points in a typical MARS EARS sequence, both explicitly and implicitly. The learning of grammar, however, unlike what happens traditionally, is not an end in itself; rather it is intended as a way to increase the generative power of the target chunks, i.e.: it aims at enabling the learners to skillfully manipulate the constructions modelled in a given unit of work to suit a communicative purpose. Moreover, it is subordinate to communication and lexis.
So, for instance, if in sub-unit 1 (“Talking about what I did yesterday’) of a unit of work on “Talking about the recent past”, the students have learnt the construction Time marker (e.g. yesterday) + I + perfect tense form + noun or/prepositional phrase, we may decide to teach the full conjugation of the verb ‘Avoir’, or parts of it, so as to enhance the communicative power of the target chunk (i.e. making it applicable to a greater range of agents). Thus, the grammar content is derived opportunistically from the target communicative context and not imposed top-down by the curriculum designer as a list of items to tick off. Figure 1, below, illustrate this point.
Grammar teaching starts explicitly in the initial Modelling/Awareness-raising phases (the M & A in MARS), in which the teacher sensitizes the learners to one or more of the morpho-syntactic features which underpin the target construction. At this stage, we are not talking of a full-fledged grammar explanation but rather of ‘pop-up grammar’, a short capsule of language awareness, which draws attention to specific features in the input the teacher wants the learner to notice.
During the Receptive phase too (the R in MARS), grammar is learnt, implicitly, through input-flooding, input-enhancement (see figure 2 below), thorough processing and repeated processing at every level of grain (phonemic, syllabic, lexical, morpho-syntactic, pragmatic and semantic) of the target structure. The tasks used in this phase aim at inducing the so-called ‘structural (or syntactic) priming effect” first documented by Bock (1986).
Input-flooding and input-enhancement work in synergy in an attempt to draw the learner attention to the target linguistic features. In the example in figure 3 below, for instance, the text is flooded with French perfect tense and imperfect forms which have been highlighted in yellow and blue.
Grammar is also learnt explicitly, through activities which deliberately direct the learner’s attention to the target features (see figures 5 to 8 below). For instance, in a lesson on ‘Talking about last week-end’ in French, the auxiliares AVOIR and ETRE may be gapped from a text which needs to be filled in by the students as part of a partial dictation. Or, as part of a ‘Faulty transcription’ task, the students may be asked to correct wrong instances of the perfect tense occuring in a text similar to the one used in the partial dictation. In a ‘Tracking’ listening activity, the students may be asked to note down how many instances of AVOIR and ETRE they hear in an aural text flooded with perfect tenses read aloud at moderate pace.
Editing activities (e.g. ‘Editing Carousel’ or ‘Best writing’) may also be staged where working individually or in groups, the students would try to spot and correct errors. Whilst the activities above focus on form, focus-on meaning activities will be staged too, including semantic processing activities based on the principles of (1) elaboration (2) distinctiveness (3) appropriateness to retrieval and application (4) relevance to personal experience.
During the Structured production phase (the S in MARS), pairwork retrieval practice and communicative activities elicit production of the target structure. Another short pop-up grammar session may take place at this stage to activate prior knowledge, clarify misconceptions and prime the students for the use of the target structure during this phase, which would ideally last two lessons. After each substantive retrieval practice or communicative task, short bouts of pop-up grammar may be staged to point out common mistakes the teacher noticed during the performance of the tasks.
In the Expansion or Explanation phase (the E in EARS), the target grammar feature is explained more thoroughly. Since, by this stage, the target structure has been processed many times over and the teacher will have already directed the students’ attention to the target feature several times through activation of prior knowledge, corrective feedback and informal assessment, often s/he will be able to teach it through guided-discovery techniques or even through full-fledged inductive tasks. In this phase, grammar and translation drills may be staged, where the learning condition is task-essentialness, i.e.: the target feature is necessary in order to complete the tasks-at-hand (e.g. a gap-fill task requiring the retrieval of an appropriate perfect tense form). It is worth noting that, with lower ability groups, with whom grammatical accuracy is not a priority, one may skip this phase and devote this lesson to consolidation of the target lexis. With higher ability students, a transfer-practice component maybe added in, whereby the structure-at-hand is practised in linguistic contexts and/or tasks different from the one(s) in which it was initially learnt. For instance, if adjectival agreement is being taught in the context of describing clothes using colours, the transfer-practice task could involve applying the agreement rules in other vocabulary domains (e.g. the one learnt in previous units on describing classroom objects, people animals, etc.).
In the Autonomous recall stage (the A in EARS), I always recommend embedding a short grammar assessment task, e.g. an Editing task involving identifying and fixing errors pertaining to the target structures or a translation or othe retrieval-practice task in which the target structure is task-essential. The aim is to test whether the students have grasped how the target structure ‘works’ declaratively and can apply it in familiar tasks.
In the Routinization phase (the R in EARS), form-focused tasks such as ‘Fast & Furious’ or ‘Fixy Echo’ will explicitly focus the students on the target grammar feature, whilst meaning-focused tasks such as ‘The 4,3,2 technique’, ‘Market Place’, ‘Speed Dating’, ‘Five’, ‘All for one one for all’ etc. may be used to elicit the rapid retrieval of the target feature in a communicative context.
Finally, in the Spontaneity phase(the S in EARS), unplanned communicative tasks may be staged in a bid to elicit the deployment of the target structure amongst others (e.g. under timed conditions, the students may be shown a story-board and asked to describe it in the past tense or they may be interviewed on what they did last week, etc.)
As you can see from the above, grammar instruction is woven into every phase of the MARS EARS sequence. How’s the EPI approach to grammar instruction different from the current methodology promoted by the DfE in England?. Here are some key differences:
Grammar is not the end goal of instructionbut a tool to support the achievement of spontaneity and creativity with the language: it serves a communicative purpose. As picture 3 above shows, it is selected based on the Communicative functions we teach and, more precisely, on the construction(s) which convey that function. For example, in teaching the function “Describing what one did last weekend” in French, I may choose to teach the construction: Time marker + Perfect tense of Aller + prepositional phrase. C’était + adjective. As a result, I will decide to teach the perfect tense of aller. This means that the target grammar structure emerges organically from the context; it is learnt in context. The grammar explanation occurs as a way to give the target construction more generative power, i.e.: teach the learners how to manipulate it using declarative knowledge so that they have control over it and doesn’t stay a monolytical unanalysed chunk of language. In other words, declarative knowledge is taught in order to build on procedural knowledge.
The full-fledged explanation of the key grammar point is delayed to the Explanation phase, which occurs after much receptive and productive practice, on the fourth of fifth lesson. This means that grammar teaching is often about reverse engineering, picking apart what the students already know, which makes learning declarative knowledge easier and in some cases even redundant. Delaying the teaching towards the end of each sub-unit (or MARSEA sequence) means that the grammar explanation that at best puts off, at worst excludes a substantive chunk of a mixed ability class at the very outset of a lesson, comes after four lessons packed with inclusive and fun activities, mostly ludic in nature.
The core structures that your students must ‘nail’ by the end of each year or cycle, the ‘non-negotiables’ selected for teaching, what I call ‘Universals’ are not as many as those found in course books such as Dynamo or Studio. They are limited because there is a limit to what can be truly ‘entrenched’ in the ridiculously small time allocation language learning typically gets in primary and secondary schools (1 to 2 hours a week). The criterion for selection? How foundational and key they are in the building of the L2 system. In picture 11 below I have listed my universals for a year 7 French group.
#2. In E.P.I. we don’t teach phonics
This is another myth. The teaching of Phonics or SSC (Spelling-to-Sound Correspondence) is also woven into every step of the MARS EARS sequence. As happens with grammar, phonics too are taught through a synergy of Explicit and Implicit instruction.
The phonemes and syllables the EPI teacher focuses on, though, are derived opportunistically from the vocabulary and grammar you selected, as shown in picture 1 above. For instance, if, as part of the communicative function “Describing people”, you plan to teach words like mère, frère and père, this may prompt you to focus on the phoneme /ɛ/. Moreover, if, as part of the same topic, you are going to teach the present indicative of the verb Etre (suis, es and est) this may trigger a focus on silent consonants s and t. This means that the target phonemes and phonemes clusters will be constantly recycled multiple times across the entire unit.
One of the advantages of modelling language through sentence builders is that the learners hear and see the words being presented simultaneously. Hence, each word the students are taught is concurrently encoded in both its phonemic and graphemic form. Thus, phonics teaching starts implicitly from the get-go, in the Modelling phase.
In the awareness-raising phase, through activities such as “Faulty echo”, “Spot the silent letters”, “Rhyming pairs”, “Write it as you hear it”, “Spot the foreign sound” and many others described in Conti and Smith (2019), the teacher draws attention to specific sounds known to be problematic for the students (e.g. silent consonants in French, nasal sounds, etc.). These noticing activities are used routinely by EPI teachers and are the staples of this initial phase. Input enhancement techniques, both visual (e.g. highlighting silent letters) and acoustic (e.g. stressing specific sounds) are also used in this phase as awareness-raising tools.
In the ensuing Receptive processing phase, listening and reading work in synergy to further reinforce SSC. This is done through a number of engaging ‘Scripted listening’ (listening whilst reading) activities, such as ‘Word Bingo’, ‘Sentence Bingo’, ‘Break the flow’, ‘Spot the missing detail’, ‘Spot the intruder’, ‘Listening puzzle’, ‘Slalom listening’, ‘Jigsaw listening’, etc. These aural tasks elicit dual processing, i.e.: the students simultaneously process aural and written input. For instance, in ‘Spot the intruder’, the learner is given a written text and must identify any words contained in that text, which are not read aloud by the teacher. Most EPI scripted-listening activities are designed to promote ‘thorough processing’, i.e. force the students to pay close attention to every single word in the transcript. Thorough processing means that, if you have flooded the input with the target graphemes/phonemes, the chances of the students learning SSC are likely to be multiplied.
Dictations are also commonly used in EPI, occasionally in synergy with Scripted listening. For instance, in ‘Faulty transcript”, the students need to identify and note down the differences between what they listen to and the corresponding transcript; for example, the text they see might say “Me llamo Paco” whereas the text the teacher reads out would say “Me llamo Juan”. Some of the dictation tasks I use in this phase are detailed in this post. Whilst Scripted listening and Dictation tasks build a strong SSC implicitly, explicit SSC-focused episodes can still be embedded through corrective feedback (e.g. on dictations) or pre-task activation knowledge (e.g. prior to a “Track the sound” task, where the sound to be tracked is /ɛ/ the students may be reminded explicitly of the relevant SSC declarative knowledge in synergy with physical awareness).
In the Structured Production phase, prior to the Chunking aloud games typically staged with beginner to pre-intermediate classes, another short pop-up phonics session may occur to sensitize and prime the students, in which you would stage phonological awareness classics such as ‘Minimal pairs’, ‘Phonemes bingo’, ‘Contrast and response’, ‘Rhyming pairs’ and others detailed in this post . During each chunking-aloud game you will of course walk around monitoring student output, correcting when necessary and making mental notes of the most common mistakes. After each game, you will use the so-gathered observational data to provide whole-class feedback on their decoding skills, before the students proceed to play the next activity. For some EPI classic chunking aloud games, follow this link.
In the Fluency-training phase, tasks and games aimed at speeding up accurate production of the target sounds (e.g. “Chain reading”, tongue twisters, etc.) are staged.
Besides the activities typical of each phase I have just described, in EPI many other techniques and initiatives are carried out which cut through the whole MARS EARS cycle, aimed at promoting alertness to sound, physical awareness, critical listening and other dimensions of sound-related metacognition.
As you can see, just like Grammar teaching, Phonics instruction is pervasive but not overly explicit in EPI; and, because the SSC focus stems opportunistically from the vocabulary and grammatical content of each unit, extensive recycling throughout the MARS EARS sequence is guaranteed.
#3. E.P.I. doesn’t teach the meaning of single words. The target construction are taught as unanalysed chunks.
This is another preposterous misrepresentation. Anyone vaguely familiar with sentence builders knows that every L2 word in the sentence builder is translated in the L1. In fact, in order to make sure that the L1-to-L2 meaning mapping is as unambiguous as possible, I encourage the use of literal translation. For instance: ‘J’ai besoin d’argent’ would be translated in a typical sentence builder as ‘I have need of money’ (instead of ‘I need money’) or ‘J’ai onze ans’ as ‘I have eleven years’ (instead of ‘I am eleven). Hence, from the get-go the students are fully aware of what each constituent of a target construction means. This approach is taken in the brilliant EPI-based website www.sentencebuilders.com as evidenced by the example in Figure 17, below.
Furthermore, plenty of vocabulary building activities used in EPI in the Receptive and Productive phase elicit focus on single words. These include: (1) traditional vocabulary-building activities such as ‘Gap-fill’ tasks, ‘Odd one out’, ‘Categories’, ‘Find the near synonym’, ‘Match L1 and L2 equivalents’ etc. as well as EPI classics such as (2) Sentence puzzles with L1 translation, ‘Find the L2 equivalent in the text’ ‘Gapped translation’, ‘Faulty translation’, Tangled translation’, Word-substitution, etc.
In EPI, the target vocabulary is selected based on three principles:
Relevance to the students. Research shows unequivocably that when the target vocabulary is perceived by L2 learners as relevant, it is more likely to be successfully acquired.
High frequency. Vocabulary which is high frequent is more likely to be useful, as the first 2,000 most frequent words in a language give access to at least 80 % of any generic L2 text.
High surrender value. Vocabulary which is useful in the learning of other vocabulary or even grammar structures should be obviously prioritised. For instance, ‘aller’ has high surrender value, as it is the necessary pre-requisite for the learning of the Immediate future in French. Learning ‘Mettre’ paves the way for the learning of Promettre, Admettre, Sousmettre,etc. High-frequency vocabulary often has higher surrender value, so if one applies criterion (2), one partially satisfies this criterion too.
Many misconceptions are being circulated in UK MFL circles by entities and people who are either misinformed or have a vested interest in portraying EPI as an anti-grammar and anti-phonics approach whereby language learners are fed unanalysed chunks of language whose meaning they learn ‘holistically’, without truly grasping the meaning of each individual lexical item they contain nor the underlying grammar that glues them together. Easy to understand why: grammar, vocabulary and phonics are considered these days by OFSTED as the ‘three pillars of progression’, the key areas, that is, which school inspectors are going to investigate when they visit schools in order to assess teaching and learning. Hence, the message is clear: you will fail OFSTED if you embrace EPI. This is, of course, not true: one can teach EPI and still show ‘progression’ in all the above areas.
In this post, I have attempted to demonstrate that in EPI both grammar and phonics are practised extensively through a powerful synergy of implicit and explicit learning. All the greatest Applied Linguistics theorists and researchers would agree that this synergy is key to successful learning and that implicit (or procedural) knowledge is what teaching should concern itself mostly with. As Ellis and Shintani (2013) posit: “ Instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the second language while not neglecting explicit knowledge“.
As for the notion that EPI is about the teaching of unanalysed formulaic chunks of language, I hope I have shown that is not the case at all – although, of course, some chunks have the potential to stay unanalysed (e.g. ‘Il y a’ in French or ‘Es gibt’ in German). The meaning of and usage of individual words is modelled and practised in context at all times, faithful to the notion (central to EPI) that ‘you will know a word by the company it keeps’ (Firth, 1957).
In fact, one advantage that EPI has over approaches like the one championed by NCELP, is that, not just the target vocabulary, but also the target phonics and grammar are selected as tools which enable the learner to fulfill a communicative purpose and are seamlessly and organically integrated in the linguistic and even cultural fabric of each unit of work, which allows for abundant meaningful recycling. Take the NCELP approach instead: each lesson consists of two completely disjointed sections, one which deals with explicit phonics instruction following the PPP sequence and one which deals with grammar and vocabulary. In other words, phonics instruction occurs in isolation, as a self-standing episode. Hard to see the logic of such an approach. In addition, the words are not selected based on a unifying theme, but pretty randomly. Moreover, the linguistic content has been selected by the NCELP curriculum designers top-down and without any apparent guiding principle – apart from high frequency for the target lexical items. The result is a random and decontextualised list of phonics, words and grammar rules for the students to regurgitate. Add to this the fact that the guiding principle for vocabulary selection – high frequency – flouts the all-important ‘relevance-to-the-learner principle in that the corpora used for the selection of the target lexical items include mainly texts intended for adults – not adolescents (e.g. European Commission or Parliament documents and newspapers).
In the next post I will concern myself with the remainder of the misrepresentations on that list.
If you want to know more about my approach, do get hold of my books, co-authored with Steve Smith: “Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” and “Memory: what every language teacher should know”.
Here’s a link to a downloadable document that Heads of Modern Foreign Languages in England should find very useful. Authored by a very talented and hard-working Head of Languages, the document provides the content of her ‘deep dive’ with an OFSTED inspector and details how she has implemented and adapted E.P.I. in her school, managing to get 100% of her year 8 students to take up MFL as a GCSE subject at her school.
Kate May, whose twitter handle is @katemayt, is a Head of Languages in an inner-London school. She is a whole school Teaching & Learning lead and runs a teacher research community. Kate is studying MA Education at King’s College, specialising in Language teaching & women in leadership.
In this brilliant post, Catrin Ashton, an ESOL teacher, details how she has applied my methodology, Extensive Processing Instruction, in her lessons. Reading the post, I couldn’t help being WOWed by her passion for teaching, her determination to perfect her craft and the enthusiasm with which she has embraced the methodology. I truly look forward to the second and third part of this great post.
I strongly recommend this article to teachers of any languages, be it EFL, ESL, ESOL or MFL/ ML/WL/LOTE.
“I love all your different activities – gap fill, listening bingo and the pyramid translation – this is particularly challenging but a great way to consolidate my knowledge through repetition. I can remember more this way too!”
When you receive feedback like this from an adult learner, it is such a tremendous boost, it confirms that you are on the right track and that the risks you have taken are worth it! Saying ‘risk’ may sound a little overdramatic but we both knew that when we joined the GILT community over 4 years ago that our teaching practice was going to potentially change forever. It has and we have never looked back.
It was certainly nerve racking to start with. We were fully aware that by introducing Conti activities into our lessons, we were introducing a very different way of working that almost all our learners were unfamiliar with and that was very different to the style and types of tasks that they had experienced before – whether that was from their school days or other adult learning groups. We also knew that it would be a huge amount of work as ensuring our resources were full of comprehensible input that responded to our learner’s’ needs meant writing most of the materials ourselves. However, with the vast majority of our learners wanting to develop their listening and speaking activities, once we read about approaches such as LAM and the MARS EARS pedagogical cycle, we knew we had to take the leap.
Our learners are highly motivated and invested in their learning so we know that when we try something new, we have to know why we are doing it. This is one of the huge advantages of using Conti activities. Each activity shared is backed up by research and this has enabled us to try tasks such as Mind Reader, Faulty Echo, Delayed Copying / Dictation and many more because we can explain to our learners why we are doing the activity and get them fully on board.
“Super class today. I think the way you are teaching is helping me embed everything better than I have ever done before.”
Learner, Lingua Forme
This learner’s comment highlights another huge reason why Conti’s tasks work for our adult learners. Thanks to the MARS EARS approach, we are able to flood the learners with the structures and vocabulary we are working on using a wide range of different activities that promote recycling and repetition. This is absolutely vital for adult learners, who often only meet once a week for 1 to 2 hours and who will very often have little or no contact with French between classes.
In addition, instead of bolting on 5-10 minutes ‘free-style’ conversation at the end of class (we were both guilty of this), we now develop highly structured speaking tasks to encourage the learners to repeat and practise as much as possible. The learners’ confidence has grown unbelievably since we have used speaking activities such as Pyramids and Oral Ping Pongs. We also believe the learners’ confidence has grown because these activities also increase the opportunities for learners to focus not only on ‘what’ they are saying but on ‘how’ they are saying it through more focused work on pronunciation and rhythm.
We recently attended Conti’s online workshops (and both experienced the obligatory sleepless night because our heads were so full of ideas!) and are now weaving in more fluency building activities into our lessons. Many learners now submit voice recordings instead of written scripts for homework, enabling them to focus even more intently on the skill they wish to develop.
We are so excited also to start applying principles we are learning about from the Smith and Conti’s new book, ‘Memory; what every language teacher should know’, as we feel this is particularly pertinent for our work with adult learners.
And let’s not forget about the importance of the interaction and the social aspect of learning for adults. These activities are fun and enjoyed by all – but not just fun for fun’s sake. They are enjoyable because they are relevant, challenging and effective. They help us to nurture the environment that we want for our learners; an environment where people come together to connect, to have fun, to learn and to progress.
It would be remiss of us not to finish by saying a huge thank you to Dr Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith for continuingly inspiring us as you do, for helping us help our learners and for ensuring we receive feedback like this:
“Most certainly I have made far more progress in the time I have attended your classes than in the whole of the five or six previous years at other French groups. I am so pleased I found you.”
Learner, Aspire Languages
Each with over 20 years’ experience in education, teaching and learning, Sarah and Barbara have been running their own small businesses teaching French to adults for over 5 years. Sarah owns Aspire Languages (https://www.facebook.com/aspirelanguages) and Barbara owns Lingua Forme (www.linguaforme.co.uk) In 2020, they came together to share their experiences of using Conti-inspired activities, to pool their resources and to set up Grab & Go Languages, a membership website where teachers can download ‘ready-to-go’ resources from beginners to advanced level to use with their learners. They have recently developed audios for some of their materials and they are also currently working on a mentoring programme designed to support language teachers who are considering making the move from mainstream teaching to running their own businesses teaching adults( https://www.grabandgolanguageresources.co.uk/)
I cannot recall with certainty the exact year I came across Conti’s approach to teaching languages. I imagine it must have been through Twitter. I do remember reading several of his blog posts every so often with interest and finding his ideas making a lot of sense. Yet, applying his ideas to my teaching of French and Spanish hasn’t been a smooth or straight-line path.
For instance, I didn’t quite understand the idea of the sentence builders and, in fact, did not like it much initially. They seem cluttered and aesthetically unappealing. Yet, after going to one of his workshops in Sydney a few years back, I decided to create a couple for my Year 9 students at the time with the purpose of getting them talking about events in the past.
I also tried a few other activities I had gotten from the workshop with several classes and was excited to see they were effective scaffolds to help my students do more speaking in class. In the following years, I continued reading his blog posts and bought the book The Language Teacher Toolkit co-written with Steve Smith. I only took the time to read half of it back then, and I am not ashamed to admit
I saw the strategies as fun and useful, but I was not really applying the MARS EARS sequence to my teaching overall, nor did I probably understand it at the time!
What most attracted me to his work was the fact the context in which these ideas were developed, was very similar to the contexts in which I have been teaching here in Australia. I also loved that they were all based on research, not just ‘something fun and engaging’ but not necessarily useful to learning languages (as is the case of many activities to which I have been exposed in the past).
The more I read (and attended every workshop I could with him!) in the last 4 years or so, the better I understood the whole picture of his approach to the teaching of languages in schools. It has been fascinating to me that the ideas both Conti and Smith have summarised for us in their books, were in accordance with other ideas related to mind-brain friendly educational approaches to which I have also been exposed in the past years. They also all resonated with aspects of what had worked best in my own teaching and learning experiences such as working on metacognition, the importance of reflection and how useful and enriching it is to obtain feedback form students. It was for once, an approach that did not claim to be ‘magic’ or the ‘only effective way to teach languages’ but rather a solid framework on which to base language learning sequences, while still acknowledging the benefits of other aspects of the teaching-learning experience.
I was so excited about what this would mean for the improvement of my teaching of languages in schools that I even did some action research to test some of his ideas with my students. The results were encouraging and got me hooked into doing more of it in a more systematic and organised manner. Sadly, I have not yet found an environment where these ideas are embraced and willingly implemented by all my colleagues. This has essentially meant I have not been able to see the longer-term results of these changes with the students with whom I have worked.
Yet, I can talk about my two most recent experiences briefly here. For instance, last year, as I was starting in a new school, I decided to do as much ‘contification’ of my teaching as possible. It made sense to me to focus on implementation with my two Year 7 classes. I was looking forward to seeing the effects these strategies would have in the long term with these group of students as they move up in the language learning journey. I loved that the differentiation was implicit in the strategies I was using given the quickest learners in my classes were still challenged. These students could always choose to drop the scaffolds, improvise some extension to the sentences with which I provided them, or even combine a couple with a connective to make a more complex sentence (with my own variation of ‘read my mind’ activity for instance). Moreover, the fact all students were working from the start with correct ready-made sentences was definitely helpful to their successful language production. One parent even wrote to me stating her daughter had learned more in a few months than in all the previous years in which she had been doing French in primary school!
Although the lockdown period somewhat interrupted the process, it is also then that I finally took the time to thoroughly read the books The Language Teacher Toolkitand Breaking the Sound Barrier: Teaching Language Learners How to Listen. I went crazy creating and adapting resources to fully suit this approach and was thrilled to realise it was not a hugely time-consuming process. More importantly, creating resources such as a list of 12 to 20 sentences, was incredibly beneficial in making it perfectly clear to me what I intended my students to be able to do with the language each step of the way. More recently, I have benefitted from seeing a great number of examples in the Sentence Builders books and in the Language-gym website for both French and Spanish.
The most fun has been to adapt the strategies that have worked in the classroom to a distance education environment. I have found that many of them can be adjusted, with more or less difficulty, to be delivered through online tools such as Education Perfect or Canvas. For instance, an activity such as Finish the Sentence just required me to record my voice saying some beginning of sentences and then either provide them with some multiple choices or allow them to freely write or record their voice with a possible end to them. More time consuming was to adapt the Find Someone Who to a voice-recorded version of all the cards you would normally give students for them to read. This made it become a just listening activity but, I believe, equally useful. Still, it is obviously yet to be seen how effective these are compared with when they are used in a real classroom environment.
I am very thankful to both Dr Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith for what they have contributed to my reflection and improvement as a Languages teacher. Your blogposts and books in the last few years, including the more recent Memory: What Every Language Teacher Should Know have inspired my professional development and guided me to continue questioning the way I approach my work. Bravo!