Using translation as a language-proficiency-enhancing technique – A teaching sequence

Please note: this post was co-authored with Steve Smith of with some input from Dylan Vinales of GIS Kuala Lumpur

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In a previous post Gianfranco provided the rationale for using translation in the MFL classroom rooted in common sense and cognitive theory. In that post the point was made that translation, a ‘legacy method’ frowned upon by many language educators for several decades, it is not simply a useful but a truly must-have skill if we are to prepare our students for life in the real world. Why?

Good translation skills can help you get scores of well-paid jobs and language knowers translate for other people on a daily basis. In the Internet age, possessing effective translation skills has become all the more important as (a) sources of information are often not entirely faithful to the original version and things get often lost in translation; (b) reading for gist can get us in trouble – even legal ‘troubles’ – when sharing something on social media or executing an online transaction; missing a crucial detail, such as failing to notice the negative nuance of a word or being misled by a false-friend cognate (e.g. ‘disposable’ which in Italian evokes ‘disponible’, ‘available’) a double negative, an unknown idiom or an obscure cultural reference can cause us to misunderstand the important part of a text.

Someone might object: doesn’t (b) above refer to effective reading skills? Yes and no. Research (as reported by Macaro, 2007) shows that less proficient readers (like the ones we teach at GCSE level in Britain) do often translate into their mother tongue when grappling with more complex and challenging text, rehearsing it in their working memory as they reconstruct meaning. I am a near native speaker of English and French and still find this strategy very useful when dealing with very complex literary texts. It eases the cognitive load and the processing of more challenging concepts.

As far as the benefits of translation for language learning please refer back to Gianfranco’s previous blog: . Here’s a concise summary of the ways translation can benefits the novice-to-intermediate foreign language classroom:

  1. Benefits of L2 to L1 translation (with dictionary)

– learning of new vocabulary in context;

– focus on detail – reading comprehensions do not require students to understand each and every word. Translations do. This often sparks off the use of a wider range of learning strategies (including dictionary use) than reading to answer comprehension questions does;

– because of the focus on detail translation is more likely to bring about the Noticing  of new L2 structures than reading for comprehension would. Noticing is posited by many cognitive researchers as the starting point of the L2 acquisition process (see Schmidt’s, 1980,Noticing hypothesis)

– greater cognitive investment in the processing of L2 texts than reading. This is not necessarily always the case, but often, due to the necessity of having to translate each and every word, the learner will invest more time and effort processing the target text;

– the greater cognitive investment just mentioned above may lead to deeper learning than reading for comprehension would bring about;

– practice in the use of dictionaries, a lifelong learning skill;

– requires minimum preparation but can have high impact if used adequately.


  1. Benefits of L1 to L2 translation (with dictionaries)

– enables teacher to ‘force’ students to focus on language items that other less structured writing tasks may allow students to avoid;

– allows teachers to recycle at will vocabulary and language structures that may not be used spontaneously by the students in other types of writing tasks;

– oral and written translations under time constraints are invaluable instruments for the assessment of oral/written fluency and constitute minimum-preparation starters/plenaries.

– elicits the use of lots of useful learning strategies and dictionary use;

– encourages greater focus on accuracy and on grammar and syntax – when it goes beyond word level;

– differentiation is easy.

The drawbacks are that some students do find translations boring, especially when they are long; some students may found it daunting; assessment is not always straightforward; there are not many examples in the current literature of how to use translation for teaching.

Rationale for this post

This post is motivated by the many queries Steve Smith ( ) and I have received in the last four weeks by readers of our blogs asking how we would prepare students for GCSE level translation tasks. Steve has already written a great post listing a vast array of ways in which translation can be used to enhance language learner proficiency. This post should be seen as complementary to Steve’s in that it purports to provide a teaching sequence based on various L1-to-L2 translation tasks rather than a list of discrete activities.

The teaching sequence

When using translation, like any other learning technique we have to ask ourselves the all-important question: what is it for? Is it to drill in new vocabulary or consolidate ‘old’ language items? Is it to assess students’ oral or written fluency? Is it to teach dictionary skills? Is it to impart learning strategies/translation skills? Or is it to focus on connotative language and its nuances?

The sequence below can be used to enhance/consolidate vocabulary, grammar, fluency and translation strategies across all four skills. More translation-task-based sequences will follow in future posts. It should be noted that the sequence does not necessarily have to take one lesson.

Please note that this sequence presupposes that the students have declarative knowledge of most of the grammar structures included in the target translation task and of part of the vocabulary.

Step 1 – Planning

(a) Prepare or select the translation task. Make sure it is not too long. It should not take more than 20-25 minutes maximum for your average student to complete.

(b) Prepare/select four-five texts very similar in length and linguistic content to the target translation task with some comprehension questions. This is basically, what I call a narrow-reading task (see this example on  ), i.e.: a series of comprehension tasks based on texts that are extremely similar to each other (see my post on narrow reading and listening on this blog). Make sure the tasks include finding in the texts the L2 equivalent of L1 words.

(c) (Optional) If you have the time, prepare three or four more (shorter) texts with the same features for listening comprehension (narrow listening). It seems like a lot of work but it isn’t. All you have to do is to slightly modify the texts you produced for reading comprehension purposes by changing two or three details here and there. Five minutes’ work.

(d) Identify the words/structures you expect the students will have problems with and prepare a set of sentences in the L1 and one in L2 which feature them. Important: make sure the sentences are as similar as possible in grammar/syntax to the kind of sentences found in the translation task. Gap or cut in half the sentences in the target language by removing the key items you want the students to focus on. The gapped sentences in the L2 will be for aural processing; the ones in the L1 for written translation purposes.

Step 2 – Word level teaching

This can be flipped. Using Quizlet, Memrise,  , etc. prepare a series of activities which drill in most of the key unfamiliar lexical items and the grammar structures included in the translation task.

Step 3 – Modelling of target language items through narrow reading

The modelling of the target language items occurs through narrow reading first as it is easier. Dictionaries are allowed. Narrow reading allows for recycling of the key target lexical and grammar items.

Step 4 – Eliciting selective attention to key items through listening with gap-fill

Use the gapped/cut-in-half sentences in the L2 that you prepared in Step 1 (d). You will utter the sentences at moderate speed (the purpose is modelling so speak clearly) to draw the students’ attention to the unfamiliar words/phrases you will have removed when you gapped them.

Step 5 – Reinforcing modelling through narrow listening

Same as Step 3 except that it is through the aural medium.

Step 6 (OPTIONAL) – Paying selective attention to the key target grammar items through grammaticality-judgement quizzes

Here you can stage a ‘Sentence auction’ whereby the students are presented with a number of sentences, some right, some wrong, containing the key items found in the target translation task. Each sentence has a price. Working in groups, the students must decide whether to buy or not the sentence the teachers wants to ‘sell’. If they refuse to buy when the sentence is wrong they win the equivalent of the sentence price; the same happens if they buy a sentence when it is correct. Conversely, if they buy a wrong sentence or refuse to buy a correct one they will lose money. The aim here is to focus the students on the kind of grammar mistakes that, in your experience, they are more likely to make in executing the target translation task

Step 7 – Sentence level translation

You can do this as a whole-class activity or in groups, turning it into a competition. Students translate the L1 sentences you prepared in Step 1 (d) under time conditions. The student(s) making fewer mistakes in each round win(s).

Step 8 – Translation task

You can go about this in two ways. 8a. If you want to assess fluency, you will do it under time constraints. You will break up the text in sentences and you will utter one sentence at a time.Equipped with mini white boards, the students will translate them into the TL in the time you allocated. 8b. If you are not bothered about their ability to operate in exam conditions, you will allocate the time you deem necessary for them to complete the task. Dictionaries allowed.

Step 9 – Follow-up

It would be ideal if you could set as homework a text which is extremely similar to the one done in Step 8.


This sequence does require some preparation time – about 45-60 minutes. However, we are confident the reader will see the advantages of the kind of recycling and selective attention to the key target items that this sequence brings about. The most important outcome of this sequence is that students, in our experience, get to the target task confident and prepared and usually do well. If a series of follow-ups of the kind envisaged in Step 9 occur, the gains obtained will become consolidated. The reader should note this is a ‘no-frills’ sequence, so to speak, devoid of fancy or flashy games; deliberately so, to be as low-effort as possible. However, we are sure there are ways to ‘spice it up’ and make it more engaging.


2 thoughts on “Using translation as a language-proficiency-enhancing technique – A teaching sequence

  1. Oof! This is so thorough; thank you! I will need to re-read this a few times (and visit all the linked posts) to take in all of the information that you’ve shared. I appreciate that you are tackling this topic!

    Liked by 1 person

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