16 tips for effective grammar teaching in the foreign language classroom

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Dylan Viñales of Garden International School.

  1. Do not use the target language for challenging grammar points– Using the target language when explaining a complex grammar point can cause cognitive deficit which may hinder understanding of the target structure you are attempting to teach. Hence, when introducing a new grammar structure it is advisable to use the students’ L1. Your decision as to whether to use the L1 rather than the L2 will also be dictated by time and resources constraints.
  2. Identify the cognitive steps that the application of the target rule involves and teach one step at the time – Many complex grammar structures require the learner to apply a number of cognitive steps. Some steps will be more difficult to execute than others as they involve cognitive operations that the students are not used to performing in their native language. In many lessons I have observed these were taken for granted and not modelled and practised sufficiently. For a complex structure to become automatized, every cognitive operation its application involves must be routinized. Notice that here ‘routinized’ does not merely means ‘knowing’ how to perform each operation, but performing automatically, bypassing conscious attention. Think about the Perfect Tense in French; it is not enough for the students to know each person of the verb ‘to have’ and how to form the past participle of verbs in –er, -re and –ir. The students will have to have automatized each of those operations if we want them to perform Perfect Tense formation accurately under real operating conditions.
  3. Teach irregular forms before you teach the regular ones – as I wrote in a previous post, in my experience it is more effective to teach the dominant rule governing a grammar structure after one is sure that the students have automatized the less dominant rule. Why? Think about irregular verb forms. You first tell the students that the conjugation of French verbs in the present tense follows a given pattern; then, after a few lessons – often before the students have even automatized those forms – you tell them that there are verbs that do not follow those patterns and you ask them to restructure the system that they have worked hard on creating. This will lead (a) to a lot of overgeneralization errors (where the learners will apply the regular verb formation rules to irregular forms); (b) disorientation. By teaching irregular forms first, on the other hand, without focusing on rules, but as lexical items, there will be no need for any cognitive restructuring later. Teachers must ensure, however, that the irregular forms are automatized before moving on.
  4. Tolerate overgeneralizations and don’t correct them – If you choose not to follow the previous principle, do ensure that you do not correct any overgeneralizations (e.g. j’ai prendu* or j’ai veni*). In fact, do encourage them; after all, it is a rule you are teaching and you want to ensure that rule is incorporated in the brain’s operating system. To correct an overgeneralization slows down the rule acquisition process as it sends negative feedback to the brain, which will inhibit acquisition of the target rule.
  5. Do not present the target grammar structure in linguistically challenging contexts – when illustrating and practising a new grammar rule you must ensure that the brain’s finite cognitive resources are properly channelled. Hence the load on working memory must be kept to the minimum to free up cognitive space. Minimizing the linguistic and conceptual challenge posed by any text used to model the target rule application is thus imperative. Avoid long and complex sentences; avoid examples containing unfamiliar language; provide the L1 translation next to each L2 example.
  6. Provide plenty of receptive practice before you ask the students to go productive – Before asking your students to apply the grammar rule in oral or written L2 production provide plenty of opportunities to notice, analyze and evaluate its deployment in the context of listening and/or reading texts. This will enhance the acquisition process by lessening the cognitive load (recognition is usually less challenging in cognitive/motor-sensorial terms than production) and will support successful production by providing correct models in context often pre-empting potential L1 transfer performance errors. For example: take the third person of the present (indicative) tense of French verbs (e.g. ils regardent); by focusing students through lots of modelling on the pronunciation of the ending ‘-ent’ you will avoid the very common mispronunciation of that ending that many students perform and often fossilize. Receptive practice may include texts containing occurrences of he target structure and asking students to perform some sort of structural analysis on them (e.g. What form of the verb is this? Why is this adjective placed before the verb? Is ‘normalement’ a verb ? ). Grammaticality-judgment multiple choice quizzes are very useful in this respect, too.
  7. Involve students in plenty of controlled practice within non-challenging contexts to start with – Steve Smith’s latest blog on controlled practice at www.frenchteacher.net illustrates very clearly how such practice can be implemented effectively through a number of tasks ranging from very easy gap-fills, mechanical audiolingual-style manipulation drills and more challenging written and oral translations. This phase is usually overlooked and not practised extensively enough, yet it is as important as practising extensive rallying in tennis before learning to play a proper match.
  8. Aim at cognitive control in unplanned speech as the end-goal of grammar teaching – The teaching of every single grammar structure should aim at the learners’ ability to perform the application of a grammar rule under Real Operating Conditions. A teacher cannot claim that a grammar structure is acquired until a learner can perform it fast, accurately and spontaneously (in unplanned speech) under Real Operating Conditions. This refers back to my advocacy of frequent involvement of students in masses of interactional writing and oral communicative activities (peer coaching of the kind envisaged in point 14, below, can be used here to enhance learner focus on target structure performance). A large amount of structured drills and less structured communicative activities will be needed for students to automatise the target grammar rule(s).
  9. Plan every grammar lessons with L1 positive and negative transfer in mind – Always plan for ways to control for the ‘threats’ to L2 grammar learning posed by the L1 grammar. Also, do seek ways to capitalize on the similarities between the L1 and L2.
  10. Consciously recycle grammar structures frequently – funny how everyone that comes across this concept says ‘of course!’ but very few teachers actually do it. Yet this is so important and is the reason why it is crucial that a teacher carries on teaching the same class for as long as possible over the years. A good tip is to keep a tally of the structures you teach. I do this on a google document which looks like a grid which lists the key target grammar structures (horizontally) and my classes (vertically); every time I go over a structure I tick it. This gives me an overview of how often I have recycled each structure during a given segment of the academic year.
  11. Use scaffolds and mnemonics with complex structures – When dealing with a complex structure (e.g. one involving multiple cognitive operations) scaffolds can help a great deal. Scaffolds can consist of a number of reminders such as, for adjectives, questions like the following:

    a. Does this adjective have a regular or irregular ending?

    b. Is it one of those adjectives that goes before or after the noun?

    c. Is the adjective plural or singular? Make sure you use the appropriate ending.

Every time the students go through each adjective whilst writing a piece, they will have to log their answers and show it to the teacher as evidence.

  1. Remember that for a grammar structure to be fully acquired it must be practised across all four skills – This is self-explanatory. A grammar structure must be acquired across all four skills; this calls for masses of listening, reading, speaking and writing practice.
  2. Flipped learning of the target structure prior to lesson – Student-led inquiry on how certain grammar rules work prior to classroom instruction is a great way to enhance student learning – provided the target structures are relatively simple and within the developmental grasp of the learners. This can be done through inductive learning whereby the students are given examples of the target structure and are asked questions to answer by doing some autonomous research.
  3. Peer/teacher coaching with narrow focus – during oral pair-work activities (controlled and/or unstructured) students may be asked to peer-coach with an eye to only evaluate the use of the target structure.
  4. Metacognitive enhancement in the feedback process – Get the students, on getting your feedback on their errors to engage in deep processing of your corrections. You may do this in a structured way like I do by using ‘correction sheets’ which require the students to select five or six serious mistakes (which they are developmentally ready to deal with) they want to target; reflect on the causes of them (with your help, if needed); do some research on them (if they result from lack of knowledge); work out a scaffold and/or remedial strategy; produce own examples of the application of the broken rule. I have used this approach often and it can be very effective, especially with highly motivated students. In my PhD study, I obtained amazing results with this technique.
  5. Conscious use of formulaic language containing complex grammar structures usually associated with a higher developmental level in order to pave the way for future learning – Example, my colleague Dylan Vinales teaches his students as early as year 7 or 8 the following phrases containing complex grammar structures as unanalyzed chunks: Si tuviera mucho tiempo me gustaria… / Ojala fuera más… / Si me hubieras preguntado hace 5 años habría dicho que + imperfect. By memorizing these and other phrases containing the same structures the students will be better prepared for explicit instruction on those structures later on in their learning when the teacher will ‘connect the dots’ so to speak by making references to all the unanalysed chunks he will have taught them by then. This approach is most effective if the introduction and recycling of the unanalyzed chunks is planned carefully.

In conclusion, for grammar teaching to be effective we need to convert the students’ declarative (intellectual) knowledge of a grammar rule into procedural knowledge (automatization). Teachers must recognize that this is a very lengthy process which starts from a very slow application of all the cognitive steps subsumed in the application of the rule to fast deployment of the rule which bypasses consciousness.

For this to happen students must be involved in a lot of structured and unstructured practice. Often, in my experience, many teachers do not do enough of either kind, yet they express frustration when their students keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Grammar is not acquired by only doing lots of gap-filling exercises or written translations. The only way to automatize grammar rules is by practising their application under time constraints with lots of support to start with and by slowly fading out any scaffolding until routinization has occurred. Hence, oral communicative activities have a major role to play in promoting L2 grammar acquisition.

Never say ‘my students have learnt structure ‘X’ effectively unless you have evidence that they can perform it accurately under Real Operating Conditions.

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


Spontaneity in the foreign language classroom: how do we forge autonomous L2 speakers?


0. Introduction

In a previous post I concerned myself with the notion of spontaneity in target language production and provided some pedagogical ‘tips’ on how teachers can foster it in the  typical foreign language classroom. Today, during the professional learning time that Garden International School allocates to discussion and reflection every Friday afternoon, I discussed the issue further with my colleague Dylan Vinales, Head of Spanish, and experienced MFL teacher. This post encapsulates the main points of our discussion and expands on it.

1.What do we mean by ‘spontaneous talk’ in target language production ?

What does the notion of ‘spontaneous talk’ actually refer to in the context of L2 learning? In our view it means that when an L2 learner produces speech to initiate a conversation or respond to an external stimulus they do so ‘thinking on their feet’ , so to speak, without any pre-planning and without relying on any sort of support (e.g. vocabulary lists, talking mats, dictionaries, etc.). In other words, spontaneity equates with unplanned autonomous speech production.

Of course, as I advocated in my previous post, a competent L2 speaker is not simply one who can produce language ‘spontaneously’; s/he must first and foremost be intelligible and fluent and will possess a wide-ranging enough repertoire of vocabulary and discourse functions to be able to communicate effectively across various contexts.

Hence, any sensible foreign language teacher would not aim at learner spontaneity as divorced from fluency and intelligibility as the end-goal of their instruction; and whilst reserving to place a greater focus on accuracy and complexity at later stages of development, they will also aim at developing a level of learner mastery of L2 grammar use high enough to allow for generative power – the ability, that is, to effectively manipulate language grammatically/syntactically so as to generate new utterances from phrases /sentences acquired as formulaic items (e.g. from ‘I want you to know’ to ‘I want them to know’; from ‘To go camping’ – they go camping; from ‘ he plays with us’ to ‘they play with me’).

2. Define the teaching and learning focus

Developing spontaneous talk has been a very ‘trendy’ topic in the international teaching community in recent years. These days every L2 language educator posits ‘spontaneity’ in language production as the ultimate desirable goal of L2 teaching. However, I do wonder how much MFL teacher professional development and planning time is invested in figuring out ways to bring about spontaneity; how much effort is put into planning for spontaneity-fostering activities; how much formative assessment is devoted to tracking learner development across this all-important dimension of oral proficiency development.

For spontaneity to be attained teachers must keep the achievement of the ability to produce unplanned fluent intelligible talk in their focal awareness from the very early stages on L2 learning. A big chunk of their short, medium- and long-term planning must regularly focus on this steep goal; and this needs not be detrimental to the development of the other skills since, as I will discuss below, listening, reading and even writing  play an important role in the process.

3. Fostering Intelligible fluency

Fluency, conceived as a measure of time-to-word speech ratio, refers to the automatization of speech production; the speed, that is, at which words are retrieved from long-term memory to match a speech plan and uttered as part of an intelligible speech production unit (e.g. a sentence). Hence, it can only be achieved through masses of practice in retrieving language from long-term memory under R.O.C. (real operating conditions). Consequently, involving the students in oral interaction as much as possible is imperative; this calls for frequent student-to-student and/or student-to-expert speaker interaction.

4. Classroom practice: from controlled to unstructured

Let me reiterate here a point I have often made on this blog: the importance of starting from an imitative, highly scaffolded and controlled practice stage in which the students receive lots of prompts and support. This stage needs to be one of intensive and extensive practice; it can take a whole lesson, or even two, if the attainment of spontaneity is truly a priority. Throughout this stage the oral activities should become increasingly more challenging and should elicit more varied and complex responses. Activities may include: role plays/dialogues with visual or L1/L2 cues; Find someone who with real or fake identities; Oral translations; Surveys; Simulations; etc. Steve Smith, with whom I am currently authoring ‘The MFL teacher’s handbook’, outlines concisely what controlled practice activities may include in his latest blog: http://t.co/fkOSSeSAHC.

The highly scaffolded stage will be followed by a consolidation and expansion phase in which the language practised and learnt during the first phase is reinforced through activities aiming at strengthening retention in preparation for the next phase, in which communicative practice will occur without scaffolding. This phase, too, should allow for extensive practice. Interactional writing activities can be used during this phase (see my post at https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/the-writing-skill-most-foreign-language-techers-dont-teach-writership/  for this). During this phase the students should be encouraged to take risks and expand their vocabulary autonomously.

The final stage is the autonomous stage in which communication occurs without scaffolding and in which accuracy is not a concern unless it impedes communication and errors should go untreated (common errors raising concern can be dealt with at the end of each round of oral interaction or at the end of the lesson). Whilst scaffolding materials are removed, the teacher will play an important role, monitoring, facilitating and providing feedback on student performance. At the end of this phase the students can be asked to video themselves talking in pairs – rigorously without a script.

In a previous post I proposed a framework which integrates the three phases just outlined with emerging digital technologies used successfully in our school by myself and other colleagues (see: https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/05/07/digital-learning-and-oral-fluency-in-the-mfl-classroom-rescuing-the-neglected-skill/ )

Please note that it is crucial that throughout each phase teachers ensure that students are exposed to an increasingly wide range of questions, as ‘spontaneous’ speakers must be able to react to as many external stimuli as possible in real time. The complexity of the questions should ideally increase, too. Research in L1 and L2 acquisition clearly indicates that the variety, length and complexity of the questions learners are asked play an important role in language acquisition.

This also calls for a form of flipped learning which is not sufficiently encouraged and scaffolded in the typical L2 classroom: actively seeking opportunities for oral practice outside the classroom. Funny how since the advent of certain emerging technologies educators put enormous effort in promoting flipped learning of the digitally-mediated kind; however, very few language educators seem to focus on this more potentially beneficial form of autonomous learning, which can but does not have to involve the digital medium.

Think of the enormous benefits of having the vast majority of your students practising oral skills regularly outside lesson time. Yet, how many MFL meetings are devoted to try and work out ways to create opportunities for and instill in L2 students the desire to do just that and to scaffold the process in a principled way? The real flipped MFL classroom is the classroom where students WANT to carry on learning by their own free will; where speaking happens after the lesson is over. In international schools like the one I work in, where there are plenty of target language speaker students and parents, not to explicitly and systematically foster this kind of engagement is a massive missed opportunity.

Another dimension of fluency refers to speed of sound production. When our articulators (larynx, mouth organs, etc.) have not automatized effectively the pronunciation of the target language sounds, speech production will slow down and vocabulary retrieval will be hampered too, as memory is phonologically mediated. It follows that pronunciation must be focused on consistently, too. This will call for instruction in micro-listening and decoding skills of the kind I have advocated in my posts on these topics.

Throughout the process, teachers must obviously ensure that their learners’ output is intelligible. Hence, the practice of getting students – when working in TL oral pair-work – to jot down the meaning of what their partners/interlocutors have just told them in response to a question may be useful. Yes, it does slow down the conversation, but (a) it is a real life task (L2 speakers interpret for their peers all the time); (b) it makes the listener pay more attention to their partner’s input; (c) you will not get the students to do it all the time. Say you have organized an oral communicative activity such as a GCSE style interview; you may want to engage each student in four rounds of interviews; the students will do the L1 translating/interpreting for two of the four rounds, whereas for the other two rounds, the listener will focus on providing feedback on their partner’s pronunciation, range of vocabulary, correct use of tenses or any other language feature(s) constituting the focus of the lesson.

Here are some other practical easy-to-set-up activities to promote fluency other than oral learner-to-learner communicative activities. They are very effective as pre-communicative activities as they foster fast retrieval from long-term memory whilst not involving the use of the articulators and the added emotional stress and cognitive load of oral interaction:

  • Fluency is about speed of retrieval of the required L2 items from long-term memory. Hence, getting students to respond to a visual stimulus, a sentence to finish up in their own words or questions under time constraints (possibly setting a minimum required number of words) provides good training. I do this quite often as a starter with my GCSE classes other with MWBs (mini white boards) or on a google doc shown on the classroom screen. It is paramount to vary the type of stimuli / questions as much as possible and avoid merely sticking to the topic-in-hand;
  • Engaging the students in translations of short sentences on MWBs – again under time constraints – accomplishes the same purposes whilst forcing the students to be accurate and allowing the teacher control over student output. Students are shown short sentences on the classroom screen and must translate under time constraints. 100% accuracy is not a must;
  • Where logistically and technologically possible, give the students an iPad or other recording device and ask them to record themselves talking about a specific topic, possibly one that is not too recent but that you know they can talk about. Better if you give them five or six specific sub-topics to focus on in the way of bullet points; including one or two sub-topics which you know they will find particularly challenging in terms of vocabulary will give you an idea of how well they can cope in terms of compensatory strategies deployment.
  • Interactional writing (see my post: https://gianfrancoconti.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/the-writing-skill-most-foreign-language-techers-dont-teach-writership/)

A final point: teachers often ‘compartmentalize’ teaching and learning by topic; what I mean is that whilst dealing with a unit of work (e.g. work and career) the oral activities during the 6-8 week period devoted to that unit only cover the topic-in-hand. That should not be the case. To develop spontaneity, ways need to be found for learners to be engaged ever so often during those 6-8 weeks in conversation/information-gap activities on past topics or even on topics never encountered before to ‘test’ their communicative limits

5.Vocabulary repertoire and communicative functions

Speaking autonomous competence requires knowing a wide enough range of vocabulary to express yourself across a sufficient range of semantic and functional contexts. In other words, for a learner to spontaneously produce language utterances that enable them to meet their communicative goals, they must possess a repertoire of lexical items (words and stock phrases) with high surrender value which allows them (a) to talk about a wide range of topics; (b) perform the most important communicative functions (personal, interpersonal, directive, referential and imaginative; complete list at: http://www.carla.umn.edu/articulation/polia/pdf_files/communicative_functions.pdf ).

Hence, vocabulary teaching must be an important focus of classroom / out-of-the-classroom L2 learning. Whilst it is more time-effective to ‘flip’ vocabulary learning, it may be more beneficial to choose web-tools/apps which do not simply focus on word level and teach words as discrete items (e.g. www.linguascope.com, www.vocabexpress.com or www.languageperfect.com ) but which enable students to learn the words in context and across as many linguistic contexts as possible.

It is important for vocabulary teaching which aims at developing fluent spontaneity to aim at (a) fast retrieval and (b) transfer across contexts. Here, too, the MWB translation activities under time constraints of the kind outlined above can come in very handy. Recycling, as I often reiterate in my posts is extremely important for reason I have already explained to death on this blog. Teachers must plan carefully for recycling ensuring that each unit of work provide opportunities for the recycling of old ‘material’. This rarely happens in MFL department or course-book schemes of work, yet is possibly the most important factor in determining learners’ retention of the target vocabulary.

An important` point: very often British L2 textbooks and online resources provide detailed lists of nouns but not verbs. However, without the mastery of a wide repertoire of verbs the generative power of nouns is limited and the ability to talk across a wide range of topics is drastically reduced – affecting the learner potential to talk ‘spontaneously’ across context. Adjectives/Adverbs are often neglected, too.

For a principled approach to teaching vocabulary refer to my post ’13 steps to effective vocabulary teaching’.

6. Aural skill instruction: providing models and teaching listenership vs ‘quizzes’

In order to effectively foster fluent spontaneity teachers need to change their attitude to listening skills instruction. The listening tasks teachers must involve their students in will not be those which aim at testing their inferential strategies (e.g. true and false quizzes), but those that model useful language and teach learners to be effective interlocutors (e.g. be able to function effectively in the context of a conversational exchange by understanding and responding to their interlocutors’ utterances).

6.1 Modelling useful language

Students must be engaged in listening activities involving exposure to useful comprehensible input which aims at (a) reinforcing and expanding their existing repertoire of vocabulary and communicative strategies; (b) enhancing their pronunciation and decoding skills; (c) modelling ‘spontaneous’ talk.

For (a) and (b) to be achieved teachers must involve students in tasks which require them to pay attention to lexis and sound. A very easy-to-set-up activity is obviously translation. The teacher utters useful sentences and students translate them on mini boards. Transcribing short texts can also help. Another  activity involves providing the students with a – as literal as possible – gapped translation of a listening text and play the audio track; the task: to fill in the gaps in the translation (in English of course). Jigsaw listening and L2 gapped-text tasks can be useful, too.

As far as (c) is concerned, videos of native speakers (not actors) engaging in spontaneous interaction / talk can be beneficial as they model useful linguistic and paralinguistic features of native-speaker spontaneous talk.  Such videos can be found on the web or can be created by teachers interviewing native speakers (e.g. language assistants or L2-native-speaker colleagues). Because they don’t have to last more than a few minutes and have to be as spontaneous as possible, they require no planning – apart from deciding on the questions to ask. Thus the process is not very time consuming.

6.2 Listenership

Listenership development can be fostered by involving students in any listening or oral communicative activity which requires them to understand and respond. Some of the MWBs activities outlined above can be recycled in this context, too. Videos of conversational/transactional exchanges between native speakers where students need to demonstrate understanding of the questions being asked. Frequent practice in answering a wide range of questions and responding to statements – for instance, as a starter, make a statement in the L2 and ask the students to respond saying if and why they agree/disagree with it (example: the food in the canteen is unhealthy). If we are aiming at fluency too, we can do this under time constraints. Obviously, any oral communicative activity involving negotiation of meaning will serve this purpose,too.

7.Encouraging risk-taking and modelling and practising compensatory strategies

Students should be encouraged to take risks. For this it is crucial that errors are tolerated in unstructured oral communicative practice. Risk-taking, however, requires some scaffolding, too. By this I mean that students should be equipped with effective strategies to cope with communication breakdown, e.g. how to make up for lack of vocabulary.

We advocate the teaching of the following compensatory strategies:

Coinage – this involves showing the students how you can create an L2 word from and L1 word (this strategy does not obviously apply to all languages). For instance: how to get the French for university, city or proximity by changing the ‘y’ to ‘é’ or how to obtain the Spanish equivalent of verbs ending in ‘-ate’ in English by replacing ‘-ate’ with ‘-ar’ e.g.: exagerar, alternar, enumerar, etc. This also entails encouraging students to create new L2 words that may actually not exist but can be understood, such as ‘ her eyes are watering’ for ‘she is crying’;

Paraphrase – this involves teaching students how to make up for lack of vocabulary by providing a basic definition/description of a word (e.g. for ‘glass’ – you use it to drink water);

Approximation – this involves using a word that is close enough in meaning to the one you need (e.g. ship for sailboat) with or without the use of miming to enhance expressive power;

Teaching the above strategies can be a lot of fun. Some teachers may frown upon the idea of their students learning how to produce erroneous L2 items in order to get the message through. However, these strategies are not simply compensatory strategies; they are ultimately learning strategies in that their use usually results in a correction which provides the accurate L2 form.

Spontaneity does require the kind of risk-taking and creativity that the application of these strategies entails. Compensatory strategies allow a speaker to keep up the spontaneous talk even when they lack vocabulary and grammar; hence, they are important communicative ‘tools’.


Spontaneity in oral production can only be achieved through tons of practice, especially of the productive kind. For learners to be spontaneous they need:

  • Masses of vocabulary. The more vocabulary a learner knows the more they will be likely to communicate;
  • Practice in manipulating stock lexical phrases (formulaic language) to adapt them effectively to various linguistic contexts. This may require some teaching of grammar and syntax;
  • A classroom climate which encourages one-to-one oral interaction and risk-taking and prioritizes fluency and communication over grammatical accuracy;
  • Extensive controlled and highly scaffolded one-to-one oral interaction practice which leads to unstructured practice. Such practice should aim at developing transferrable communicative routines, whose automatization will ultimately lead to spontaneity;
  • autonomous vocabulary learning and seeking oral interaction opportunities outside the classroom;
  • practice in compensatory strategies;
  • listening which models useful language and transferrable communicative routines.

A final point: if teachers do value spontaneity, fluency and intelligibility in speech production as the most important end-goals of L2 learning, then they should ensure that this is reflected in their curriculum design and everyday teaching. The achievement of spontaneity requires relentless practice and systematic formative assessment. Fortunately, as I have attempted to show above, focusing on spontaneity in speech does not harm the development of the other three skills. Even reading, which I have not mentioned thus far, can indirectly play an important role in enhancing spontaneity by widening our students’ vocabulary – provided, that is, that they possess effective decoding skills which enable them to accurately transform L2 graphemes into L2 sounds.

Five tips to encourage spontaneous talk


Today I came across the following tips for encouraging spontaneous talk whilst browsing the web.

Top 5 tips for encouraging spontaneous talk in the MFL classroom

  1. Have keyphrases on the wall so they can use them when they want – e.g. ‘I would like…’
  2. Take all opportunities to encourage students – ‘I need a pen’
  3. Give as much supportas possible – literacy mats/vocab sheets/peer help
  4. Rewardbravery!
  5. Build it into routineslike entering the classroom (hold up a MWB of a key phrase at the door like ‘opinion in French’ and they have to give an example as they come in. That way each child has said something in TL before you’ve even done the register!)

(source: http://www.michellecairnsmfl.wordpress.com)

These are useful tips which can help teachers create a culture which may encourage pupils to talk in class, no doubt. But do they really promote spontaneous talk? In order to answer this question let us have a look at what ‘spontaneous’ means. The Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary offers the following definition of the adjective ‘spontaneous’:

Performed or occurring as a result of a sudden impulse or inclination and without premeditation or external stimulus:

Michelle Cairns’ tips reflect the kind of pedagogic advice given by several other MFL educators and are rooted in a misunderstanding of the notion of ‘spontaneous talk’ both in terms of the cognitive processes it involves and the developmental mechanisms that lead to the ability to produce speech autonomously.

Since ‘spontaneous talk’ refers to the ability to produce speech without prompts, Michelle Cairns’ tips, like those dished out by many other MFL educators, refer but to the very embryonal stage of spontaneous talk, what in my model of speaking skill acquisition I refer to as the ‘imitative’ stage. However, in order to bring our learners from the ability to ‘parrot’ phrases on the wall or on writing mats to what applied linguists call ‘autonomous speaking competence’ (i.e. spontaneous speech) it takes way more than those five tips, unless we hold a very simplistic view of oral proficiency acquisition.

For spontaneous talk to be developed effectively in large classes (i.e. classes of the size typically found in secondary schools), the top tip according to much research (e.g. Varonis and Gass, 1985; Pica,1996; Macaro, 1997; Donato and McGlone, 1997; Macaro, 2007) should be to engage students in NNS (non-native speaker)-to-NNS oral interaction in the context of tasks requiring negotiation of meaning (e.g. information gap tasks).

Whilst the ‘parroting’ stage alluded to above is important, especially when it ‘drills in’ carefully selected high frequency phrases useful in the real world, the most important part of the oral-skill acquisition process occurs when students are practising the skill of putting a message across to an interlocutor, regardless of the mistakes they make. Only after much such practice, supported by writing mats, dictionaries and expert TL speakers at the early stages one can develop spontaneous speech.

Many teachers refrain from staging oral tasks involving oral learner-to-learner interaction for the following reasons:

  • Students do not always stay on task and lapse in their L1
  • Teachers are concerned about the negative effective for learning of pairing students of different levels of proficiency; the more able learners might not be ‘stretched’ enough if they work with less able ones;
  • By working with their peers, learners might pick up erroneous utterance that they might end up fossilizing;
  • Not all students enjoy it.

As for (a), studies by Brooks and Donato (1994), Knight (1996) and Brooks et al. (1997), Anton and Di Camilla (1998) found that students do generally stay on task and do tend to use the TL most of the time. What is more interesting, even when they do lapse into their L1, they tend to use it for TL learning enhancing behaviours, i.e. (1) to facilitate the negotiation of meaning; (2) to talk about the task (e.g. how to conduct it; what the expectations were). These studies also produced an interesting finding: learner-to learner interaction tasks promote a whole host of self-regulation strategies which enhance TL acquisition and that I observe every day in my lessons during such activities (e.g. whispering to oneself to repeat a word they have just heard from a peer or teacher in order to commit it to memory) – a further reason to implement such classroom activities.

As for point (b) and (c), above, Iwashita (2001) investigated if pairing students of different levels of proficiency might have adverse effects on the frequency of interaction and the modified output that would result from the interactions. She got her students to work in three proficiency pairs: High-High, Low-Low and Hig-Low. She found that the lower proficiency students gained a lot from working with higher proficiency students and produced lots of modified output, whilst the higher proficiency learners were not seemingly disadvantaged.

Finaly, as far as point (d) is concerned, Macaro (1997) found that oral pair-work made most of the students feel comfortable and they  reported learning and remembering a lot. Very few of the students reported negative attitudes.

Obviously, the process of acquiring spontaneity in TL speech production will have to be supported by the teaching of masses of TL vocabulary (not just nouns – but a wide range of verbs, too), of discourse function markers and by lots of exposure to comprehensible aural input.

Computer/ Tablet-mediated interactional writing (see my previous post on it) can also play a very important role, as it allows the learner to converse through the written medium at a speed high enough to practise fast TL processing but slow enough to allow for more self-monitoring.

The one tip from Michelle Cairns’ post that I would definitely ‘save’ as pivotal in fostering spontaneous speech is to ‘reward bravery’, not only to create an atmosphere conducive to risk-taking and tolerance of error, but also because it encourages the deployment of another important catalyst of spontaneous speech development: communication strategies, the ways, that is, in which MFL learners compensate for their lack of language by coining new words, paraphrasing or explaining unknown vocabulary, resort to gestures or onomatopoeias or overgeneralize TL rules.

These are my top tips for developing spontaneous talk beyond the obvious imitative stage that Michelle Cairns’ pedagogic advice in her very useful blog referred to:

  1. Teach masses of vocabulary, ensuring there is a balanced mix of nouns, adjectives and verbs. As Macaro (2007) and Conti (2015) point out, far too often teachers neglect equipping their learners with a wide enough range of verbs. Extensive reading should be promoted as a way to acquire new vocabulary;
  2. Involve students in lots of oral interaction involving negotiation of meaning and practising a wide repertoire of communicative functions (e.g. comparing and contrasting; persuading; agreeing and disagreein). Oral interaction tasks should be sequenced wisely in terms of the cognitive load they place on the learners; hence, one would start with highly controlled tasks (the imitative stage Michelle Cairnes alluded to) and gradually move to less structured communicative activities (e.g. the ones investigated by Varonis and Gass, 1985, and Macaro (1997);
  3. Expose learners to lots of comprehensible aural input (e.g. through narrow listening tasks). Increase the amount of listening tasks which aim at modelling language use rather than testing students. In other words, use the listening tasks to draw students’ attention to the language items you want them to ‘pick up’ rather than simply ask to guess if statements are true or false or identify details in the text;
  4. Model to students creative ways to put a message across to an interlocutor when they do not know vocabulary; i.e. train them in the deployment of communicative strategies;
  5. Ask them to practise digitally-mediated interactional writing independently with their peers or other target language knowers on the internet – the way I picked up two of my languages.

In conclusion, the acquisition of ‘spontaneity’ in speech production (autonomous speaking competence) is a complex process which goes from an imitative stage in which the learner is highly dependent on models and scaffolding to an autonomous stage in which the learner has a sufficiently wide repertoire of vocabulary, discourse function markers and compensatory strategies. Teachers must plan for it carefully and work towards its attainment through the systematic application of the five principles just outlined whilst creating a non-judgmental learning environment conducive to risk-taking. Ultimately, the extent to which students become effective autonomous TL speakers will largely hinge on the amount of vocabulary they know, the speaking practice they will have received and their willingness to take risks.

A final point: spontaneous speech without the development of fluency intended as the automatization of intelligible speech production is not conducive to effective communication under real operating conditions (e.g. real life communication). Hence, in my view, MFL educators should posit ‘fluent spontaneous speech’ as the desirable goal of speaking proficiency instruction, where fluency refers to time-to-word ratio in intelligible-speech production.

Apologies to Michelle Cairns for the criticism of her tips, which is not specifically directed at her or her blog – which actually usually contains excellent teaching resources and advice for teachers – but to a general attitude towards MFL pedagogy found in many language teaching blogs which may be misleading as it presupposes and divulges an overly simplistic view of language acquisition.

Decoding – The neglected skills set every MFL teacher should teach

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net and Dylan Viñales of Garden International School Kuala Lumpur

1. What are decoding skills? Why are they important?

Decoding refers to the process of converting the written symbols (graphemes) of a language into sound (phonemes). Decoding skills are very important in language acquisition for a number of reasons.

The most important reason is the fact that when we acquire new vocabulary, we need to be able to pronounce it correctly if we plan to use it effectively through the oral medium. In this sense, the ability to convert the spelling of a word into its phonological form is a major component of autonomous language learning competence. This is particularly true for those learners who acquire a lot of their vocabulary through reading and not through oral interaction or exposure to aural input.

Another important reason refers to the ability to match the language the students have already learnt aurally, in their spoken form to their graphemic form. Take the very common scenario where a student who learns a French word in its phonological form only subsequently comes across the same word in its written form; if he lacks decoding skills the student is likely to fail to match the written form with its phonological representation with interpretive failure as a result. In this sense, lack of decoding skills can seriously impede reading comprehension of aurally acquired vocabulary thereby slowing down acquisition.

Thirdly, a recent study by Macaro and Erler (2008) has yielded a very interesting finding, i.e.:  a strong correlation between decoding ability and motivation to learn French. The researchers found that KS3 students who report high levels of self-efficacy and possess higher levels of proficiency in decoding skills are more likely to continue to study French at KS4.

  1. Decoding – the neglected skill set

As a number of studies have reported, decoding is not taught explicitly in most UK schools. Erler (2003) studied 359 year 7 students of French using a written rhyme judgment task. The subjects exhibited very poor decoding skills (poor mastery of the pronunciation of main vowels sounds and their combinations and of silent consonants at the end of words).

Woore (2006) carried out a cross-sectional study investigating 94 Year 7 and 94 year 9 learners of French taught by the same teachers in the same school. His results echoed Erler’s (2003) and indicated that the progress in terms of decoding skills from Year 7 to Year 9, whilst statistically significant, were very slight.

Macaro and Erler’s (2008) studied 1735 students of French in Year 7, 8 and 9. They found that they failed nearly half of the correct rhyme judgment tasks they gave their subjects. A further indication that decoding skills are not effectively learnt at KS3.

Finally, Woore (2009) carried out a longitudinal study investigating the decoding skills of 85 KS3  learners of French. Woore asked his subjects to read aloud 53 unusual French words that the students were highly unlikely to have encountered before at two different points in time, i.e.  at the end of Year 7 and at the end of Year 8. Woore found that in both occasions the students decoding ability was very poor, suggesting that little had been learnt in two years of systematic French language instruction.

  1. Conclusions and implications for MFL teachers

Many teachers do raise their learners’ awareness of the way graphemes are sounded in the target language. The teaching of decoding skills, however, is more than often neither explicit nor systematic. An occasional five minutes digression en passant on the pronunciation of a specific grapheme every now and then is not conducive to developing a ‘solid’ repertoire of decoding skills. For decoding skills to be acquired they have to be practised explicitly and systematically. This calls for conscious planning of decoding skills teaching in the MFL curriculum which addresses the very early stages of instruction.

Decoding skills instruction may include a synergy of the following:

Decoding skills are often kept by teachers in their peripheral awareness due to a failure to consider how important they are in mediating vocabulary acquisition and memory activation . In this day and age, when MFL teachers have, more than ever, the ethical imperative of forging autonomous learners who can independently take advantage of the huge TL learning opportunities offered by the Internet, we must equip our students with sound decoding skills; without them, they will not be able to acquire the most important level of the communicative power of TL words.

The literature concisely reviewed above exposes a tragic reality: entire cohorts of students who, after two years of instruction exhibit a dispiriting low mastery of the basic decoding skills. And when the researchers investigated the root causes of the phenomenon, it came down to one and only one issue: erratic teacher commitment to this very important area of TL learning; decoding skills were taught explicitly only when the textbook made reference to them.

One of my teaching and learning resolutions this year is to focus as much as possible on decoding skills with my primary and Year 7 classes. I will test some of my students in the first term and at the end of year using the RAT (read aloud test) that Woore (2009) employed in his study to see if there will have been any improvements. Here are the very unusual words Woore (2009) selected for their read aloud test.

Woore’s (2009) Words included in the RAT

Cinglant  jouxter thonier maçonne dédain gueulez soudain haubert guingois poitrine museau duraille chacun ferreux obtient ralingue piochais veilleur lancée sainfoin loquet poignard traçant trémie peigner embruns peinait Hongrie giclée caleçon acanthe marteaux goinfrez lugeur houblon moineau vaurien maquille thibaude jaugez noceur liégeois quignon enfuie jonchée bêcheuse ougrien huilage

Resilience and perseverance in the foreign language classroom – Inhibitors and catalysts


Please note: this post was written in collaboration with my colleagues Dylan Viñales as part of the Garden International School PLA’s (personal reflection afternoons) 

Academic resilience is defined as the ability to effectively deal with setback, stress or pressure in the academic setting. Resilience is related to the notion of Perseverance, the persistence in a course of action; the ability, that is, to stay on course despite adversities. These are two of the core generic life-long learning skills that many educators rightly posit as fundamental for academic success, across all subject areas, including languages. Yet, in my experience, as I will argue below, a lot of the language teaching carried out in many MFL classrooms works against the development of these pivotal skills. Why?

The main reason is the spoon-feeding that a lot of MFL teachers do in their classrooms, afraid as they are that their  students might get bored or lose motivation. Lots of modelling, lots of scaffolding, lots of support material, lots of word-lists, lots of praise, lots of rewards. What about developing learner resourcefulness, one of the most important attributes of a resilient autonomous language learner?

Another reason is the over-‘gamification’ of language learning. Don’t get me wrong, there is room for games and ludic activities in MFL learning, but there is a marked tendency, in many settings, to gamify everything, to make every learning activity into a game. This has the danger of creating a perception of the MFL classroom as a place to go to in order to have fun and play games; of language learning as a ‘playful’ less ‘serious’ or less ‘academic’ subject.

And what about the over ‘cartoonization’ of language learning? The overuse of cliparts, cartoons and animations in the illustration of the target language items on posters, PPTs, websites, iMovies, etc.? This, in my view, does contribute to a small extent in terms of engagement, but much more so serves as a distraction, thus often ending up hindering learning.

Finally, the misuse of emerging technologies by some MFL practitioners has made things worse in a number of important respects. Firstly, the use of apps like Tellagami, Yakit kids, Chatterpix which are basically the digital version of old school colouring and drawing on paper, with juvenile voice-over; more acceptable for some teachers because associated with the digitally-assisted-learning hype. Secondly, the overuse of websites which not only gamify learning but also, in our opinion, tragically unambitiously focus on the ‘easy’ bits of language learning: word level learning (e.g. www.linguascope.com). Thirdly, the general focus on the ‘wow’ effect that a lot of digitally assisted learning involves in order to grab student attention; such an approach, when overdone, does create wow-dependent engagement that is too ephemeral to result in a strong life-long learning ethos.

Getting our learners used to this kind of spoon-fed, ludic, gamified, fun, wow-mongering type of learning since a very early age can result in creating a generation of overly reliant language learners who lack the two very skills this post is about, perseverance and resilience, for the obvious reason that these skills do need to be practised in order to be learned. In order to learn to stay on task in the face of adversities one has to practise overcoming obstacles, such as boredom, task complexity, mistakes, cognitive deficits and failure in general.

Therefore, exposing our learners to the boring, dull and ‘painful’ aspects of language learning becomes a must; and it is our duty as teachers to equip students with the metacognitive, cognitive and affective strategies which will help them cope.

Hence, from the very early days instruction ought to include:

  1. Inductive learning;
  2. Challenge and risk-taking in a safe and non-judgmental environment (see point 6, below)
  3. Activities fostering autonomy and resourcefulness;
  4. Awareness-raising of the rationale for each learning activity – especially the boring and dull ones; that is, how it can enhance learning;
  5. Praise for each observed instance of resilience and perseverance;
  6. A positive attitude to error-making – students must be made to accept error as a necessary and valuable by-product of learning which propels language acquisition further; not something to be afraid of. A lot of care must be taken in order to ensure that corrections are perceived by the students as non-judgmental as possible
  7. Self-efficacy enhancement (see my post on self-efficacy for this) – teachers must develop ways to heighten their learners’ expectancy of success, i.e. their sense of being able to succeed at specific language tasks and at MFL learning in general.
  8. Cognitive and affective coaching by the teacher– students must feel that their teacher is going to support them every step of the way should they get ‘stuck’; not by doing the work for them, of course, but by pointing them in the right direction through effective questioning and/or cueing;
  9. Role-modelling – research on resilience shows the importance of the input of ‘charismatic adults’ in developing young learner resilience. If the teacher or other adult in the classroom is perceived as a resilient and tenacious individual, this may inspire their student to follow in their footsteps. Older students, too, may serve as role-models if the target pupils can identify with them across a range of attributes (e.g. gender, age, sub-culture, ability range. family circumstances, etc.); the fact that someone perceived as similar to them was successful, may enhance their perseverance and resilience.
  10. The establishment of a culture of empathy and mutual respect and support in the classroom, so that when students do make mistakes or experience setbacks, they will have empathetic peers who will provide affective scaffolding.
  11. Affective strategies modelling – strategies like inner talk or self-relaxing techniques can be modelled to the students through think-aloud techniques or videos to help them enhance their coping skill. Modelling the use of motivational quotes (like the ones that you will have posted on your classroom walls) as a strategy to ‘push’ oneself forward when feeling down can be of a great help, too.
  12. Last but not least: some ‘boring’ activities (e.g. old-fashioned translation, verb drills and conjugations), provided that the students are told why they are important and relevant to their learning.

In conclusion, MFL language learning (in the classroom) should be an enjoyable and stimulating experience. However, if we do want to forge perseverant and resilient learners we must be mindful of the effect of overly spoon-feeding and entertaining them with games, wow-inducing app-smashing and other gimmicks which encourage a misconception of what language learning is really about. In order to become resilient our students must be made aware of and experience the challenges and inevitable setbacks that language learning entails whilst feeling part of a safe, supportive and empathetic learning environment where errors are tolerated or even encouraged.