Five useful things many MFL teachers don’t do


  1. Teach word structural analysis

As I argued in my previous post ‘Why foreign language teachers may want to rethink their approach to reading instruction’, effective reading comprehension results from the successful use of Top-down and Bottom-up processing. In that post I did not provide an exhaustive list of all the bottom-up comprehension strategies L2 teachers can model to their students, but I did underscore the importance of enhancing learner word recognition skills.

One strategy that can be taught to our students in order to enhance their chances to comprehend unfamiliar words is a powerful strategy called Structural Analysis which is not often taught in the typical mainstream UK classroom and has literally ‘saved my life’ in many situations.

This consists in training students in analyzing the morphology of the unfamiliar words they encounter in the written input they are exposed to by dividing them into parts, i.e. separating the root word from its prefixes and suffixes. Instruction in Structural analysis will include teaching

  1. what the most common prefixes in the target language mean (see: for fairly comprehensive lists of prefixes meaning in English);
  2. what the most common suffixes are and mean (see: for a very exhaustive list of suffixes and prefixes in French); and,
  3. with the help of web-based resources, the most useful root words and how to use them in order to infer the meaning of unknown lexis (e.g. ).

Learner training in Structural analysis may be carried out using the following framework:

Step 1 – Rationale for the training (i.e. to enhance students’ ability to comprehend unknown words)

Step 2 –  Raising awareness of what Prefixes, Affixes and Root words are;

Step 3 – Modelling strategy use (e.g. through think-aloud: teacher shows examples of how applying one’s knowledge of a prefix/suffix/root word as well as the context one can correctly infer the meaning of a word)

Step 4 – Extensive word-meaning-inference practice with written (or even spoken texts) preferably in the context of the unit-of-work topics. Also, the target words should not occur in isolation but in short texts;

Step 5 – Recycling the same strategy in three or four subsequent lessons in the context of 10 -15 minutes word-meaning-inference activities relevant to the topic-in-hand;

This kind of activities develop important compensation strategies, which are essential life-long language learning skills; they involve a high degree of creativity thereby tapping in high-order thinking skills. They may also have the very positive effect of enhancing our learners’ self-efficacy as readers as they will feel equipped with a new powerful tool for comprehending TL text without having to resort to the dictionary. This effect will only be brought about if the teacher plans the activities carefully, providing lots of initial ‘small wins’.

2. Train learners in oral compensation strategies

If the main aim of our language teaching is to develop our learners’ ability to cope with the linguistic demands of target language interaction, it should be imperative for us to train them regularly and systematically (not the one-off tip or session) in the effective use of compensation (communication) strategies – an important life-long survival skill. These strategies refer to the ways in which an individual creatively makes up for the expressive limitations of his target language competence (e.g. lack of vocabulary). Here are four useful compensation strategies to teach MFL learners:

  • Coinage – i.e. the individual makes up a word that does not exist using a related lexical item in their repertoire. For instance: a learner of French does not know the French verb ‘Nourrir’ (=to feed) but knows the noun ‘Nourriture’ (=‘Food’). He then makes up the word ‘Nourriturer’, which is wrong, but conveys the meaning;
  • Approximation – i.e. to go back to the above example, instead of saying ‘Nourrir’ the learner says ‘Donner de la nourriture’ (to give food), which is not exactly the best translation, but it is very close in meaning, conveys the idea and is acceptable French;
  • Paraphrasing – i.e. the students do not know a given word so they explain it, a bit like a dictionary definition would do;
  • Simplification – i.e. instead of using the same complex sentence structure he/she would use in his/her native language, the learner simplifies it so as to be able to convey the basic meaning.

The same framework outlined in the previous paragraph can be applied here, except that step 4 would include productive rather than receptive practice.

Compensation strategies are a very important skill and just like any other skill they must be practised extensively and regularly in order to be learnt. Some teachers may frown upon this type of instruction on the grounds that it may lead to sloppy L2 output or pidginization. Nonetheless, these strategies are powerful learning tools; for example when you produce a wrong but intelligible word through coinage, a native or expert TL interlocutor will understand you and usually provide you with the correct L2 form. This lexical transaction is more likely to lead to retention than looking up the same word in the dictionary.

3. Explain how the brain works

Foreign language learners, especially the more committed and metacognitive ones, do, in my experience, enjoy knowing more about how their brain works when they learn the target language. This does not mean that one should spend a whole lesson talking about neuroscience…However, showing them the diagram below, that maps out how the brain retains vocabulary over time and involving them in devising a personalised schedule based on that diagram would not take too much of your lesson time; would not require scientific jargon and would foster metacognition (thinking about and planning one’s learning).

With some of my groups I also venture in brief and concise explanations of (a) how Working Memory operates in an attempt to hammer home the importance of concentration, good pronunciation and associative strategies; (b) how forgetting is often cue-dependent; (c) why performance errors occur. Whenever one teaches about the above it is important to keep it as brief and visual as possible; not to over intellectualize and to relate the discussion to your students’ learning whilst showing them clearly why and how the knowledge you are imparting on them will benefit them in the short- and long-term.

4. Implement attitude-changing programs

In every class there are students who are less engaged, disaffected or even hostile. After a few pep-talks, disciplinary measures, referrals to pastoral middle-managers, things may get a bit better but there is rarely much change. This is often due to the fact that these scenarios are not handled through a structured, principled, well though-out attitude change program.

It is beyond the scope of this post to delve into the ins and outs of attitude-changing-programs implementation; here it will suffice to point out how for any attitudinal change to work, it must start by identifying the issues at the root of the negative attitude one wants  to change vis-a-vis the following metacomponents of attitude identified by Zimbardo and Leippe (1991):

  • Behaviours (what students do in their daily approach to languages)
  • Intentions (what their short-/medium-/long-term objectives are with the language)
  • Cognitions (their beliefs about languages)
  • Affective responses (how much they enjoy language learning)

The picture below (from:  illustrates where the most positive and committed of our students usually are in terms of these four attitudinal components:

The principles I outlined in my post on motivation (“Eight motivational theories and their implications for the classroom”) can then be applied to address the four areas one by one. For instance, one may want to start by inducing a level of cognitive dissonance to address learner beliefs (cognitions); by identifying what students excel at and enjoy so as to cater for their preferences in lessons and enhance their sense of fulfillment and enjoyment; to set short-term manageable goals in order to increase their sense of self-efficacy; etc.

Of course, most teachers are busy and over worked and may object that they do not have the time to do all this. My main point here is that, if one does wish to turn around a disaffected student or group of students, one should at least first try to ascertain what the actual roots of the problem are, through a structured and deep inquiry process based on the above framework.

5. Ask older language students to observe you

We often have our colleagues or senior teachers observe us. A recent trend in some schools in the UK is also to have students to observe us using checklists where they tick or cross things they see us do or not do. A strategy I have used in the past and that has paid huge dividends was to ask older A2 language students ( around 18 years old) to observe one or more lessons of mine and give me feedback on one or more specific areas of my teaching in which a younger person’s perspective may be more useful than an adult’s, e.g. motivation, empathy towards students, levels of pupils’ engagement, etc. What I find useful about having an older language student observe me is that students of this age are more in sync with adolescent-learner mentality and affective responses than my colleague’s whilst being still fairly mature and cognizant of what language learning entails; moreover, being former students of mine, these individuals are usually more able to relate the observed students’ experiences to their own when they were indeed taught by me and provide even more useful feedback as a result.


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