Six things I tried out this year which truly enhanced my teaching



Here are six things that I have tried out this year which significantly enhanced my teaching and two which, whilst being much less successful, provided me with valuable insight in my students’ cognition and affect.

1. Six things that worked

1.1Teaching more verbs

The textbooks and the wordlists that one finds in published instructional materials and on language learning websites traditionally tend to mainly focus on nouns, occasionally throwing the odd adjective here and there. Verbs are usually grossly underrepresented in the published vocab lists. However, when we talk about things and people in our daily lives we  do use a fair range of verbs.

Without verbs the communicative power that we provide our students with is seriously limited. It is all very well to teach students the English, French or Spanish words for dog, cat and other house pets; however, if we only teach them how to say ‘I have’ , ‘I like’ and ‘s/he is’ in the target language, we will equip them with very few contexts they can use those nouns with. How about: ‘I walk the dog’, ‘I play with my cat’, ‘I feed my hamster’, ‘I groom or ride my horse’, ‘I look after my guinea pig’, etc.

Moreover, by widening the range of verbs we also provide a larger number of cognitive ‘hooks’ for the target nouns, contextual cues that will facilitate future recall.

Another benefit of teaching more verbs is that the more our students use them the more they are likely to deploy adverbs – a highly under-taught word class.

Finally, the more our students are exposed to the inflected forms of verbs in the comprehensible input we provide them with, the more likely they will be to ‘pick up’ verb endings and conjugations. When one looks at the reading and listening texts found in UK published textbooks one cannot help notice how poor they are in terms of inflected verb forms. Could this be one of the reasons why English learners of modern languages notoriously lack mastery of verb conjugations?

1.2 Much more listening practice and more listening-for-modelling activities

Another substantial change to my classroom practice has involved the greater use of listening activities as a way to model new language to my students – not merely to test or enhance their comprehension skills. I have substantially increased the use of the following in my lessons:

(a) Speaking mats – I put writing mats or sentence builders up on the classroom screen and make up sentences which I utter aloud for students to write on mini-boards in English. I also use speaking mats with younger learner for micro-dictation (students writing sentences on MWBs in the target language)

(b) Working with gapped transcripts of audio-tracks, videos or songs;

(c) Micro-listening-skills enhancers (see my posts on these);

(d) Jigsaw listening activities;

(e) Story-telling to teach tenses and/or vocabulary (with or without images);

This has massively improved my students’ pronunciation and preparation for the communicative activities I usually stage after the listening-as-modelling activities. (see my blogs on listening for more).

1.3 More decoding-skills teaching and emphasis on pronunciation in general

Working on specific phonemes and combination of letters in a structured way in synergy with the activities listed in the previous paragraph has paid massive dividends, this year.

I have focused on one or two sounds per lesson recycling them over and over again for weeks. I have preferred to apply the principle of distributed over massed practice (i.e. a bit every day).

I have made a conscious effort to lay great emphasis on the importance of accuracy in pronunciation with all of my younger learners (year 5s and 7s) and we have a little pronunciation workshop lasting about ten minutes in every single lesson. We do a lot of work on micro-listening / decoding skills, minimal pairs, reflecting on how differently letters are sounded in the target language compared to their native(s) one(s), simple tongue twisters and paired critical listening. It really has paid off! (see my blog on decoding skills for more).

1.4 Vocabulary, Verbs and Speaking ‘flipping’

This year I tried to flip most of the following:

(a)Vocabulary drills – If I am planning to teach topic ‘X’ on Wednesday I flip the learning of the vocabulary related to that topic setting it as homework on Monday. I usually do this using Students send me the screenshot of the page with the score they obtained;

(b) Verb drills – every week I get the students to practise verb conjugation at home using online verb trainers like the one

(c) (with my GCSE classes) Speaking practice – every week I ask them to record a dialog  with a partner on one of the GCSE topics using their iPads and forward it to me.

1.5 L.I.F.T

LIFT, or Learner Initiated Feedback Technique is something I have used for very many years. It consists of questions about linguistic items they are using in their written pieces that they annotate in the margin of the page they are writing on. For example, if they are not sure whether a clause requires  the subjunctive or  conditional mood, they will underline or circle the verb and write on margin: “Is this verb supposed to be in the subjunctive? Why/Why not?

This year, I have used it more consistently, extensively and, more importantly I have insisted on higher quality questions. It has made me enjoy giving feedback more and my students have reported benefitting from it. (See my blog on LIFT for more)

1.6 The personal learning afternoons

In my school (GISKL), on Fridays lessons finish one and a half hours earlier. The students leave the premises and teachers engage in a range of professional development activities organized by Jose Diez (Director of Professional Learning). Some write reflective journals; some read research and some, like me, reflect on their practice with other colleagues. This has been a God-sent for me as I conceive a lot of my blogs during these sessions, usually carried out with my very creative, talented and resourceful colleagues Dylan Vinales and Ronan Jezequel.

Brainstorming and bouncing off ideas with colleagues – often after reading a research paper – on a specific area of teaching and learning is a very useful experience. Writing about it a posteriori in a blog not only reinforces the outcome of the sessions, but often help me develop it a notch further.

These personal learning afternoons have deeply impacted my professional development, to a much greater extent than any other CPD I was involved in the past had ever done.

2.Things that worked less well

Two things I tried but did not work so well, were: (1) using retrospective verbal reports (RVRs) and (2) reflective journals (RJs). RVRs consist of short reflections on how a specific task went immediately after it has been performed. I did it a couple of times after essay writing or a speaking session and most of the students didn’t really seem to enjoy or learn from it. As for the RJs half of the students really enjoyed them, writing them every week and discussing at length their learning problems and successes and setting themselves targets; the other half either did not do them or, when they did, they did it very superficially and unenthusiastically.

Overall, less successful than expected.


If you want to have a go at trying any of the approaches described above do not implement them with every single class of yours. I chose to try each of the above only with one group at a time the first time around starting from the group that would pose fewer challenges and would benefit the most from it.

For more on the above strategies and approaches,read the book ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’, co-authored with Steve Smith and available on



Five pronunciation and decoding issues in French-as -a-foreign-language instruction that seriously affect grammar learning and should be targeted as early on as possible

Please note: this post was co-authored with Steve Smith of


As I explained in several previous blogs, our students’ ability to decode the target language sounds can seriously impact acquisition. And I am not simply talking of their ability to acquire vocabulary and pronunciation. I am also alluding to the learners potential to notice and internalize grammar. Why? Because receptive decoding, i.e. the way the human brain ‘deciphers’ the sounds we hear, can cue us to certain grammatical features of words (i.e. endings) we process aurally that lead us to noticing and making assumptions about their gender and/or number (for nouns and adjectives), person, conjugation and tenses (for verbs) and other ‘anomalies’ (e.g. ‘l’’ before nouns, the pronoun ‘y’ before a verb).

For instance, today, a student I help outside school, had still not grasped the phonetic difference between ‘ne’ (as it sounds in ‘ne’) and ‘n’ai’ (as in ‘je n’ai’). This has led her for many years to presume that ‘je n’ai pas vu’ was actually spelt ‘je ne pas vu’. This in turn affected her assumptions as to how the Perfect Tense is formed in French which resulted in the mental representation ‘Je + past participle’ (i.e. Je vu). I could not blame her as, evidently, her previous tutor must have not emphasized adequately the difference between ‘Je’ and ‘J’ai’.

In this post I will focus on five pronunciation/decoding issues in FLE (Français Langue Étrangère) instruction which do usually receive some emphasis but are not in my experience duly emphasized and practised in the typical L2-French classroom.

Issue 1: [ə] vs [e] in receptive decoding

This sound is one of the most important to learn in terms of receptive decoding, not only for the ‘Je’ versus ‘J’ai’ distinction alluded to above, but also because of the potential it has for cueing the students to the presence of a plural noun. Take for instance the sentences ‘ le fils de Marie étudie l’anglais’ et ‘les fils de Marie étudient l’anglais’. In this context the inaccurate perception of the sound [ə] as [e] (as in les) may easily cause confusion (is the subject ‘fils’ plural or singular?) – confusion that might exacerbated by the fact that the ‘s’ in ‘fils’ may lead the beginner French learner to believe that the noun is plural.

Another huge issue that novice teachers often overlook is the pronunciation of ‘é’ as [e] or [ə] in active decoding (when reading a word). This is particularly a problem when it comes to the Perfect tense. When a student pronounces ‘j’ai mangé’ same as ‘je mange’ unless there is a time marker (e.g. hier) the potential for confusion and communication breakdown is great.

The difference between the two sounds must be duly emphasized from the very early stages of instruction. Most often teachers do when it comes to the ‘je’ vs ‘j’ai’ dichotomy. I have often witnessed the very good practice of modelling the two sounds by over-emphasizing lip movement in an attempt to create a muscle memory of the articulatory process and through minimal-pair work. What I have not often seen, however, is the teachers recycling those through many other familiar and unfamiliar contexts until the acquisition of those sounds has occurred. To presume that one or two minimum-pair demonstrations will lead to the automatization of the phonemes is over-optimistic; for most students, acquiring the ability to discern between the two sounds in receptive decoding will take several weeks or even months.

As recommended in previous posts, teachers may want to engage students in micro-listening-skill enhancers reinforcing the distinction between the two sounds for a few minutes (10?) per lessons over a period of 4 to 8 weeks in order to obtain very good results.  For the rationale for this approach read my previous post ‘How to teach pronunciation’.

Issue 2: pronunciation of ‘t’ /’d’/ ‘p’ / ‘s’ at the end of words vs same letters + ‘e’ or ‘es’

Learning the correct (active) decoding of  the above consonants with and without ‘e’ or ‘es’ at the end of words from the very early stages of French instruction is of paramount importance. Why? The reason is two-fold. Firstly, if the students are not aware of the distinction ‘t’ vs ‘te’ / ‘tes’, they will not be able to distinguish between masculine and feminine nouns and adjectives – a distinction that many L1 English learners of French find very challenging. Secondly, the pronunciation of ‘t’ / ‘p’ etc. at the end of many words or nouns can cause serious misunderstandings in terms of meaning. Think about the nouns ‘point’ and ‘pointe’; ‘vent’ and ‘vente’; ‘coup’ et ‘coupe’.

Issue 3 – [z] vs [s] in liaison

This is another issue that it is not always tackled effectively. This can cause quite a few problems, the most frequent and important of which pertains to the famous cross-association elles/ils ont vs elles/ils sont. Since this distinction is not often ‘drilled in’ adequately, many learners of French end up confusing the two all the way to year 11 (when they are 16 yrs old). Often, this leads to ‘elles ont treize ans’ being interpreted as ’elles sont treize ans’ and the assumption that the French, too, like the English, use ‘to be’ when telling somebody’s age.

Confusing [z] and [s] is very common and can cause misunderstanding in many contexts, for example: ‘elles avaient beaucoup de choses’ was interpreted by one of my student as ‘elle savait beaucoup de choses’.

Issue 4 – ‘un’ vs ‘une’

The effects of decoding issues with these words on the acquisition of the French grammar are possibly the most obvious. If a learner is not clear about the differences in pronunciation between these two words, they will make incorrect inference as which nouns are masculine and which are feminine. This issue will affect, if unresolved, other more complex structures such as ‘aucun’ vs ‘aucune’.

After modelling the lip-movements through over emphasis of the sound articulation and contrasting English words such as untouchable and unsolvable (in which the two first letters ‘un’ are highlighted in red) with words like Unesco, tune, (where the key letters ‘une’ are highlighted) one may want to reinforce the differences through micro-listening -skill enhancers such as ‘Broken words’ whereby the teacher utters words such lune, lundi, rune, aucun, aucune etc. and the students have to complete the gaps in l__di, r____, auc___, auc____, etc.

Issue 5 –  voicing ‘ent’ at the end of verbs

This is a very common issue that in my experience receives some attention but not as much as it actually requires and deserves. When not acquired effectively, the wrong decoding of ‘ent’ in the third person plural of  the Present Indicative and Subjunctive of verbs can cause quite a lot of problems. In a class I observed recently, for instance, the belief that ‘ent’ is voiced, led to the students often confusing (in a listening activity centred on modal verbs)  ‘veulent’ and ‘veut’, ‘peuvent’ and ‘peut’, and ‘doit’ and ‘doivent’. In the past I have also witnessed issues in the pronunciation of the third person of the imperfect indicative and of the conditional. Another related issue pertains to adverbs (e.g facilement, lentement) which are occasionally mistaken for verbs.

Concluding remarks

Whereas most published course-books usually converge in the way they sequence the teaching of grammar (especially tenses), when it comes to pronunciation they use quite a random approach which does not appear to be principled in any way. I suggest that, pronunciation/decoding skills instruction should first deal with the easiest-to-acquire phonemes and then gradually concern itself with the more challenging ones, another criterion ought to be considered, too; the extent to which, that is, the ineffective mastery of those sounds can affect the acquisition of the grammar of the target language. The five sets of pronunciation/decoding issues discussed above are only but a few examples of the way in which phonological awareness and the ability to transform graphemes into sound can affect the acquisition of the target language grammar. Teachers ought to pay attention to this very important facet of language acquisition and devote sufficient time and effort to it using the research-based framework I outlined in previous posts.

You will find more on this issue in the book ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ that I co-authored with Steve Smith and is available for purchase at


Reading comprehension problems of intermediate L2 students and implications for teaching and learning

Co-authored with Steve Smith of

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As a teacher/researcher, I occasionally ‘use’ my students as ‘guinea pigs’ to test new methods and teaching strategies I come up with and to test my ‘hypotheses about language learning. They have become so used to it that some of them are now very proactive in volunteering information about their thought processes, learning problems and successes and have become eager game to my ‘experiments’.

In the last few months, ten of them have helped me figure out the main comprehension problems year 9 students experience when they read and translate L2 texts, in the context of a little piece of qualitative research into their thinking processes.

Difference between translating and comprehending L2 texts

Obviously, comprehending an L2-text and translating it involve different processes and outcomes. Comprehension entails, as an outcome, the understanding of the message conveyed by the text at different levels; translation involves not only the understanding of a text, but also the ability to put every single word into the correct L1 equivalent, in some cases ensuring that subtle nuances are expressed accurately in the translation.

In the typical CLT (communicative language teaching) approach to language teaching adopted in many British schools, students are not asked to translate word-for-word when grappling with a text; and this is understandable if teachers are involving students in reading practice which aims at developing effective comprehenders of written L2-texts.

However, if teachers are using reading to model the use of new language and teaching new words – which is what I believe reading activities should also be about – simply training students in being able to guess intelligently or infer the meaning of a text may not always be an effective approach, for the following reasons:

(1) it may not explicitly focus students on useful/important details of grammar, syntax and lexical usage;

(2) students may understand what a sentence conveys, but not necessarily what each and every word it contains means (as this may not be necessary to answer five or six comprehension questions).

For comprehensible input to significantly enhance acquisition, it would be desirable for students to be able to translate as many words in a text as possible. Moreover they should be focused on any grammatical or lexical details in the written input worth noticing and learning that they are developmentally ready to acquire. However, much reading instruction carried out in UK secondary schools these days does not encourage this.

Take the typical reading comprehension exercise we give our students. The students are required to read a text and answer a few comprehension questions or ‘true or false?’; then the answers are marked and unless the student is inquisitive and asks questions to teacher or peers or uses a dictionary or other resources, not much will be learnt in terms of vocabulary or grammar – especially in the absence of follow-up which recycles the lexis or structures contained in the text.

Thus, the big decision a teacher has to take is: am I to use a reading comprehension to train students in simply comprehending texts or to learn as much as possible in the process? Or both?

In the little ‘experiment’ I discuss below I wanted to find out what problems students experience as they attempt to comprhend a written text and how accurate their translation of the unfamiliar words in the text was. The findings would inform aspects of my approach to reading instruction.

The ‘method’

The subjects

My ‘subjects’ were ten year 9 students of Spanish of mine grouped, based on their general attainment in Spanish, in 3 High Achievers (HAs), 4 Average Achievers (AAs) and 3 Low Achievers (LAs).

The task

The students were asked to answer 8 comprehension questions on a Spanish text. After answering the questions, they were asked to translate the text word for word.

The text is actually the transcript of the voice-over to a level-B1 video entitled ‘Un dia en la playa’ found at:  .

I chose this text because I was looking for a passage of medium difficulty which would contain quite a few unfamiliar words whose meaning could be fairly easily worked out by the students based on their background knowledge (i.e. what one does normally at the beach) and several contextual cues present in the text (e.g. a fair number of cognates, fairly linear sentence structure, predictable linguistic contexts and clear cohesion devices).

The students could read the passage on my laptop and – during the translation task only – had access to an online dictionary,, open on another tab.

The procedure

The ‘method’ I chose to investigate my students’ reading process was a technique, called ‘concurrent think-aloud’ with introspection, which requires the students to verbalize their thinking as they interpret a text; the teacher can interrupt at any time in order to probe into their thought processes with open or less open questions (e.g. what is the problem you are experiencing here? Why did you translate this word as ‘hat’? Can you think of any other way to work out the meaning of this word? What if you read the whole sentence rather than stopping here?).

This investigative method is far from being scientifically valid in terms of portraying what happens in a student’s head, as a lot that our brain does bypasses consciousness; however, it usually yields some very useful – and often unexpected – information. Every time I have used it with my students it has provided me with a valuable insight into my students’ problems.

The findings

The students did very well in terms of comprehension and managed to translate most of the text correctly. As predictable, the HAs (high achievers) did better than the rest but the other subjects did very well, too, with only two of the LAs (low achievers) experiencing some serious mis-comprehension problems. Most of the comprehension issues occurred at word or phrase rather than sentence level.

Problems identified with the text comprehension and  translation

1. Misuse or insufficient use of bilingual dictionaries – one set of problems related to the misuse and/or underuse of the dictionary ( Here they are:

1a. Not checking the ‘grammar’ of challenging words – Students rarely checked the word class of the word they were looking up. This led occasionally to incorrect interpretations of the sentences they were processing. When asked what the word-class of the word they had problems with was, they were often (60 % of the time) unsure or took them quite a bit of time to figure it out. I will go back to this issue below

1b. Superficial handling of dictionary entries – The LAs and AAs did not often go beyond the first translation option offered by the dictionary and rarely looked at the examples provided. This also led to occasional misunderstanding of the text. The HAs were more thorough and explored the various options sometimes even referring to the forum threads to confirm their hypotheses.

1c. Reluctance to use dictionary – Although is very easy to operate and the computer was right in front of them, the students, especially the LAs exhibited a general reluctance to using the dictionary, thereby relying almost entirely on their instinct. This occasionally led to mistakes in the interpretation of the text or to a correct overall understanding of the meaning of a sentence, but wrong translation of one or more words. (30 % of the time).

1d. Inputting inflected forms of the verbs in the online dictionary – Some of the students – 3 out of ten – attempted to translate verbs they could not work out the meaning of by entering the verb form they found in the text (e.g. apetecía)– not in the infinitive (apetecer). This led to confusion and occasionally to error.

2. Problems reconstructing the meaning of individual unfamiliar words – Overall, the students exhibited a very good grasp of most of the text and most of them answered all eight of the comprehension questions I asked them correctly. However, when asked to translate the text, their inferencing skills let them down in several contexts in which with a bit more creativity, use of their background knowledge and an analysis of the morphology of they might have guessed intelligently what the words in question meant. The less able students were the ones who particularly struggled in this sense. These were the main issues noticed:

2b. Overly-narrow focus – The AAs and LAs often did not read the whole sentence in order to infer the meaning of the challenging unknown word(s). They only focused on the words immediately surrounding the challenging item; when encouraged by me too look at the sentence as a whole, they managed to work the sentence out 90% of the time.

2c. Inadequate use of L1 words in order to guess intelligently meaning of L2 unfamiliar words of similar etymology- Unless the words were obvious cognates, only two of the learners (both HAs) used English words which shared the same etymology with the Spanish words in the text-at-hand that they were having issues with. So, for instance, when faced with the word ‘crucero’, most of the students failed to relate it to the word ‘cruiseship’; the same happened with the verbs ‘tumbarse’ (to lie down) which only two students related to the English word ‘tomb’and ‘apetecia’ (I wanted; felt like) which was associated with the English word ‘appetite’.

2d. Infrequent use of knowledge of previously learnt L2 words -Only half of the students used their knowledge of Spanish words they already knew to interpret any unfamiliar lexis found in the text. This happened with ‘algunas’ (some; any) and ‘secarse’ (to dry oneself) which was translated successfully by five of the students using the words ‘algo’ (something) and ‘seco’ (dry) to reconstruct their meaning.

2e. Accurate interpretation vs inaccurate word-for-word translation – Students often inferred the general meaning of sentences or phrases correctly; however, the inferences led to the wrong translation of some of the constituents of those sentences or phrases. The best example of this is the sentence: ‘Es necesario ponerse crema para que el sol no queme la piel’. The sense that one should put the sun-cream on in order to protect one’s skin from the sun, was grasped by everyone. However, only one student understood that ‘queme’ means ‘burn’; moreover, none of the students noticed or queried the unusual construction of the sentence (para que + noun + subjunctive) and the unfamiliar subjunctive ‘queme’.

Whilst on a communicative level this may be viewed as an effective handling of the text from an interpretive point of view; in terms of learning this way to go about understanding a text does not lead to much learning, especially considering that only one of the students double-checked their translation of the sentence using the online dictionary.

This impressionistic guessing should be encouraged as a survival and/or test-taking strategies; however, as a learning strategy, teachers should encourage students’ double-checking through dictionary or expert help.

2f. Superficial, insufficient or inaccurate structural analysis – the above problems were compounded by the lack of structural analysis alluded to in the previous paragraph. Only five of the students used their knowledge of grammar (e.g. looking at word-endings, agreement, word order and using dictionary to check word-class) to help them reconstruct the meaning of the challenging words. When structural analysis was used it was successful 80% of the time overall (group mean) but only 60% of the time with the three LAs.

One set of comprehension issues related to small functions words (prepositions, connectives and pronouns), even though in certain instances their meaning seemed pretty obvious, e.g. the word ‘como’ (as, since). Pronouns appeared to be amongst the most challenging elements due, I suspect, to their position in the sentence (different to English) and the absence of the personal pronoun (in Spanish, one would say: ‘it put’ meaning ‘I put it’)

The above are very common issues which are not every easy to address as they require a lot of practice and often of the one-to-one session sort

3. Superficial approach to cognates – To my disappointment, most students were all too happy to translate the more obvious cognates found in the text with the English word they immediately evoked. For instance, ‘precioso’ was translated with ‘precious’ where it actually meant ‘beautiful’ in the text; the same happened with ‘arena’ (= sand) which was translated initially by all of the students as ‘arena’ and rectified only by five of them thanks to the dictionary. Other words this happened with included: ‘flotador’ (translated as ‘floater’ in both instances), ‘algo’ (associated by some with ‘algae’ due to the context, too) and ‘falta’ (associated with ‘fault’).

This is a very common issue which may have to be dealt with at the very beginning of instruction to ensure that student understand the differences between the native and the target language from the very outset of L2 learning. L2 learners must be made aware of the existence of false friends and of the semantic and cultural differences that cognate words often carry.

4. Cross-association of homophones – This is a very minor issue, but one which may require some attention as it may have repercussion for learning if it is not dealt with. ‘hambre’ (hunger) and ‘hombre’ were cross-associated by the weaker learners, thereby creating some initial confusion which was eventually resolved without my intervention. Homophones (words sounding similar) or near homophones co-existing in the same text can cause issues in terms of interpretation giving rise to errors or slowing down comprehension. This is a more important issue in L2 French or English learning where this phenomenon is more recurrent.


The above findings cannot be generalized to the whole L2 student population and it would be interesting if other teachers had a go at trying my little ‘experiment’ out to see if they observe similar phenomena. In my experience, though, what I found points to issues that are very common amongst L2 learners of this age and proficiency level and that language teachers, myself included, do not tackle systematically enough. For teachers who may have students who experience similar issues, these are my recommendations.

(1) Through the use of think-alouds or other modelling techniques, teachers may want to train students in the use of bilingual dictionaries, targeting in particular the areas (1a to 1d) identified above. A non-time-consuming way of doing this involves the use of checklists reminding the students to:

– use the dictionaries as often as possible ;

– look at the word class of the target word;

– examine the examples provided by the dictionary;

– check the meaning of a verb using its infinitive form.

Obviously, teachers need to ensure that they do model the use of any checklists they devise in order to scaffold the process and reward every instance in which the students demonstrate their use.

(2) teachers may have to train students in the deployment of the following inferencing strategies:

– Applying structural analysis to challenging words and surrounding linguistic contexts (e.g. What word class does this word fall in? Is this an adjective or an adverb?)

– Searching the whole sentence in which the challenging item is located for cues to its meaning (not just its immediate vicinity);

– Creatively using their knowledge of the L1 to infer L2 words (if the two languages share common etymologies);

– Using other previously learnt L2 words to draw inferences about the meaning of an unfamiliar L2 lexical item.

Such training should occur in frequent sessions for it to pay dividends and impact students reading strategies. One-off sessions don’t result in strategy uptake.

(3) students should be made aware of how ‘tricky’ cognates can be and teachers should attempt to provide regular exposure to ‘false friends’ from the early stages of instruction to drive home and reinforce this awareness.

(4) Teachers ought to ensure that reading tasks do not stop at comprehension questions but regularly feature

– requiring students to translate the meaning of individual words (e.g. what does word X on line 4 mean?) or match a set of L1 words to their L2 equivalent in the text-at-hand;

– analysis of the grammar of the words and sentences in the text (e.g. identify the adjectives and adverbs found on line 3? Why does adjective X have a plural ending? Why is verb Y in the subjunctive?). These ‘old school’ questions get the students in the habit of analyzing the way words relate to one another and how they affect each other;

– ask them to identify L2 words in the  text that resemble L1 words that they may relate to semantically (e.g. find a word in the passage that reminds you of ‘cruise ship’. Answer: ‘crucero’).

(5) instruction should focus much more on the teaching of function words, especially connectives and pronouns in general. Connectives often cued the HAs and AAs to the understanding of unknown words. Unsurprisingly so, as they direct and signpost discourse.

Finally, teachers may want to prep students prior to reading the text-at-hand by designing tasks which, with the above issues in mind, activate any necessary knowledge of the world thematically related to that text. With the reading passage used in the experiment in mind, for example, one could ask them to brainstorm in Spanish as many activities people carry out during a day on the beach as they can think of. How many L1 cognates of the Spanish words they have just brainstormed can they come up with? How many objects can they think of in Spanish that one would bring along to the beach?  Can they think of any other objects that they would need but they do not know the Spanish equivalent of and look them up using an online dictionary? Etc.

Concluding remarks

My little ‘experiment’ identified some of the typical problems L2 intermediate students encounter in grappling with texts which contain a fair number of unfamiliar words. The lesson I learnt from my findings is that inferring the meaning of such words is not as easy for learners at this level of proficiency as one might expect. Hence teachers should ensure that they prep the students adequately by training them in the use of inferencing strategies which address the deficit areas my ‘experiment’ identified.

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

The Language Teacher Toolkit – Why we wrote it and how it may enhance your practice


Both as a teacher trainee twenty years ago and as a teacher trainer later on in my career I always lamented the absence of a book or set of resources for language instructors that would bridge the gap between research and classroom practice. That would not be written in the complex jargon of university professors and yet would provide the novice or inquisitive teacher with a framework or guiding principles informed by the latest language learning research acquisitions whilst being grounded in the invaluable pragmatism and wisdom of veteran teachers ‘who have been there and done that’.

A book that would not be biased towards one methodology or another, prescribing dogmatic solutions. Rather, a book that would provide teachers with a wide range of strategies, rooted in neuroscience and common sense applicable to a broad spectrum of classroom scenarios and learning settings from the Americas to the Far east. In other words, a universal language teacher tool-kit through and through that any classroom practitioner (novice or experienced) could draw on to better comprehend the ‘why’ of language teaching and learning and the ‘how’ of its day-by-day implementation. Accessible whilst credible.

After searching for that book in vain, for two decades, on ‘meeting’ Steve Smith of  a man whose French teaching resources – like thousands of other teachers around the world – I had been using for years, it suddenly dawned on me that his background and experience perfectly complemented mine and would have created the perfect synergy required to produce such a book.

Besides being a first class practitioner with a highly inquisitive and reflective mind and 35 years of teaching experience, Steve is also a very clear, concise and no-nonsense writer. With a Master’s degree in Language Education, a wealth of reading in Applied Linguistics and a 360-degree awareness of teachers’ every day challenges and needs, Steve was the perfect partner in crime for this ambitious enterprise.

‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’, finally completed a couple of weeks ago and available on in a few days, is the result of months and months of blending together two approaches to language instruction – Steve’s and mine –  which do not necessarily always converge but feed on each other thereby producing a very comprehensive and eclectic pedagogic framework and repertoire of teaching strategies.

In our work we have endeavored to cover every single area of competence that an effective language teacher ought to master, providing a balanced mix of theory and practice and ensuring that research findings were always discussed in clear and simple language and systematically related to the nitty gritty of every-day teaching and learning. To make sure that we catered for the needs of language teachers worldwide we have gathered data through social media, specialized forums and research studies into teacher cognition thereby identifying the areas that most teachers are concerned about or interested in.

The content includes: methods, target language teaching, developing spontaneous talk, classroom oral techniques, teaching grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading and writing. We also have chapters on motivation, behaviour management, technology, advanced level teaching, assessment, and differentiated teaching.

With more than 50 years of teaching experience as classroom practitioners and over a century as polyglot language learners between the two of us we have written this book with the following framing questions in mind:

  • What does a language teacher need to know?
  • What is the most concise and user-friendly way of putting this across?
  • How does this translate into concrete lesson planning and classroom implementation?
  • What are the obstacles in the way of putting this into practice with various types of learners in a range of learning contexts?
  • What are the possible solutions to such obstacles?

As far as I am aware this 22-chapter book is one of a kind not merely because of its unique combination of the latest research in language pedagogy with no-nonsense effective classroom strategies, but also, and more importantly, because it is not written by educational consultants or university professors, but by teachers for teachers. Designed with the average teacher’s every-day needs, challenges and concerns in mind. This is why we have provided lots of practical tips as well as a vast array of minimal-preparation high-impact activities (in every chapter) and lesson-plans (at the end of the book) which will hopefully make teachers’ life easier whilst not compromising the quality of their instructional input.

Steve and I are very grateful to Elspeth Jones (Steve’s spouse) for editing and formatting the book and to Steve Glover (renowned resource writer and passionate linguist) for reviewing it and providing us with invaluable recommendations. We would also like to thank the distinguished language educators from various corners of the world who gave us lots of encouragement and insightful feedback throughout the process, e.g. Sara Cottrell of

The book can be found at:

13 commonly made mistakes in vocabulary instruction


In this post I will concern myself with thirteen very common pitfalls of vocabulary instruction and with ways in which they can be easily pre-empted.

Mistake1 – Relying heavily on shallow encoding practices

As already mentioned in many previous posts of mine, a to-be-learnt word lingers in our Sensory Memory for no longer than two or three seconds immediately after we hear it. Thus, in order to commit it effectively to Long-term Memory, we must perform some form of rehearsal. Rehearsal involves either ‘shallow’ or ‘deep’ processing.

In shallow processing we use repetition or matching a word to a visual cue. In deep processing, on the other hand, the brain performs problem-solving operations which require more attentional investment and higher order thinking (e.g. analysis and evaluation) and are meaning-orientated. Typical vocabulary teaching activities of this kind include:

  • Matching synonyms
  • Matching antonyms
  • Odd one out
  • Matching word and definition
  • Providing the definition of a word
  • Sorting words into semantic categories
  • Creatively finding association between words seemingly semantically unrelated
  • Working out the meaning of a word using the surrounding linguistic context

The reason why deep processing is more likely to result in deeper learning than shallow processing is because (1) it requires more cognitive investment on the part of the learner and, more importantly, (2) it creates more and stronger associations between the to-be-learnt word and existing information and words in Long-Term Memory. The latter point is of paramount importance as failure to retrieve a word (forgetting) is usually cue-dependent, i.e. the brain cannot find the required word not because it has vanished from Long-Term Memory, but because it ‘cannot find its way to it’ in the absence of effective contextual cues (physical or psychological elements that were present at the time of learning the word but are absent at the time of recall).

Example: if you taught your students ten words using some of the very entertaining games (e.g. matching words to pictures; word dictation; spelling games), they will have performed lots of fun activities for 10-15 minutes. True. However, you will have engaged your students in 100% shallow encoding; the number of contextual cues you will have provided them  with will have been very limited (as all they did was word-recognition work); and the associations with previously learnt L2 vocabulary will be zero as Linguascope does not present the words in context.

On the other hand, imagine asking your students to: (1) match the target words with their antonyms and synonyms; (2) sort them into different thematic categories or in terms of size or importance; (3) use them to solve a problem (e.g. working out the meaning of a sentence), (4) fulfill a communicative goal (e.g. booking a holiday or simply interviewing a peer), (5) complete gapped sentences meaningfully, (6) create a poem or song in the target language. Your students will be processing the words in terms of meaning and will build hundreds of associations with other L2 words, other existing information in your brain (e.g. your knowledge of the world) and with many other contextual cues (e.g. their peers, the website used to book the holiday, the things that inspired the song or poem). Last but not least, they will have put serious thought into these activities; not just mindlessly matched words to images and sounds as happens in most online vocabulary learning websites (e.g. Quizlet, Memrise, etc.)

The reason why I created my (free) website was dictated by the need to involve my students in less fun but more cognitively challenging deep processing activities. And it has paid enormous dividends in term of vocabulary learning.

It goes without saying that with absolute beginner learners it is not always straightfoward to create activities that promote deep processing.

Mistake 2 –  Limited contextualized practice

You will have surely noticed, whilst doing a Google search, that as you type a sentence Google offers you a range of predictions as to how that sentence is going to end. You will have also noticed how those predictions get gradually narrowed down as you get closer to the end. In other words, based on their users’ behavior, Google has worked out what you are statistically more likely to type next. Well this is, according to existing Cognitivist models of language production what our brain does, too. Based on the probability that you will utter words Y and Z after word X, your brain automatizes and speeds up language production. So, if you have said ‘Quel âge as-tu? (‘How old are you?’ ) 100 times and ‘Quel âge a-t-il?’ (how old is he?) only 10, it is highly probable that the sentence stem ‘Quel âge’ will automatically retrieve ‘as-tu’ rather than ‘a-t-il’.

The implications of this for language teaching and learning in general are enormous, but beyond the scope of this blog. In terms of vocabulary acquisition, the main implication is that vocabulary items MUST NOT be taught as discrete items or in the very limited range of phrases or contexts in which textbooks usually present it. If we do, we are merely teaching the Audiolingual way – i.e. the relentless memorization of the same words/phrases over and over. That is why it is important to:

(1) teach the target words as contextualized in as wide as possible a range of written or aural comprehensible input which models the target vocabulary (e.g. narrow reading and listening). This can be done even with beginners, provided that the texts used are short and accessible. This is the most important part of teaching vocabulary as it models how words relate to and combine with each other in the target language;

(2) integrate grammar/syntax instruction and sentence combining into the teaching of vocabulary so as to increase the generative power of the target lexis;

(3) teach a variety of verbs + noun collocations (not always the same one or two verbs);

(4) involve the students in a lot of structured and semi-structured communicative practice which requires them to use the target vocabulary in as wide as possible a range of linguistic contexts;

(5) try, as much as possible, when teaching new vocabulary, to provide opportunities for students to use it with previously learnt lexis so as to kill two birds with one stone; on the one hand you will recycle old vocabulary, on the other you will provide a further context to ‘anchor’ the new words to.

In much vocabulary teaching I have observed in 25 years, target words (mostly nouns!) are taught for the most part of the lesson as discrete items and/or within the same basic phrases or pattern. Little modelling in context actually occurs and when it does happen it is limited to one text or two. This has created a generation of students who know – at best – lots of isolated words but do not often know how to interpret/use them in more challenging receptive/productive contexts. Remember the famous saying: you shall know a word by the company it keeps.

Mistake 3. The ‘so what?’ effect

A lot of vocabulary learning these days is divorced from a real-life communicative purpose due to a tendency to an OVERreliance on Quizlet and similar digital tech tools. Humans are goal-orientated beings, hence their motivation and cognition are aroused by problem solving and by the attainment of a goal. The most effective way to learn vocabulary is by activating it in order to carry out several real-life tasks in the context of interactional activities. The ‘so what?’ effect, when compounded by discrete and out-of-context word teaching exacerbates the perception by learners that language lessons are just about memorizing words for memorization’s sake and have not much relevance to the real world.

Mistake 4. Misunderstanding of what progression means in terms of vocabulary acquisition

Often teachers from various parts of the world approach me on social media asking me to give them ideas or help them prepare for an imminent lesson observation by a line-manager. Their main worry: showing progression. However, progression in vocabulary acquisition as measured within a specific lesson is a construct of questionable validity.

Firstly, because the same students who show evidence of learning will lose, in the absence of reinforcement, 40% of what they have learnt an hour after the lesson (will return to this point below); 60 % 24 hours later; and 80 % six days later. Vocabulary acquisition does not occur within one lesson, hence, stating that by the end of the lesson students demonstrate to have learnt the target vocabulary is a flawed assumption.


Secondly, as pointed out above, learning words as discrete entities does not mean acquiring them. You need to be able to understand or use them in context for the attainment of a communicative goal or it has no value.

Thirdly, progression in vocabulary acquisition refers to being able to understand/produce the target lexis successfully across as wide as possible a range of contexts (familiar and unfamiliar), at high speed (fluency) and with a high degree of accuracy. Hence teachers ought to measure all of these dimensions of vocabulary learning before claiming that the target vocabulary has been acquired

Yet many lesson observers in a typical British secondary school will require from their observee-teachers that most of the students demonstrate by the end of the lesson the ability to recall accurately orally and/or in writing most of the target words (mostly in isolation); they will see it as the ultimate evidence of learning. And most teachers, too, will agree that this indeed is their main preoccupation.

This leads to a neglect of all the other very important dimensions of progression alluded to above, at the detriment of effective language acquisition.

Mistake 5. Homework timelines

From what I said above about how forgetting occurs, it is evident that setting vocabulary learning homework for Thursday when you have just taught new words on Monday is not very smart if you know that the vast majority of your students will do it on Wednesday night – as it means they will have forgotten 60 % of what they learnt by then.

Solution: if you teach in a high-tech school like mine you can split up the vocabulary learning homework in two and ask them to send it to you in two installments (e.g. via Google classroom). So, using the Monday/Thursday scenario above, one part of the HW will be due on Monday eve and the other one on Wednesday.

Mistake 6. Not planning which level of acquisition you aim at in a lesson

Much ineffective vocabulary teaching stems from not deciding which level/facet of vocabulary acquisition (of the ones mentioned above) one is focusing on. In planning a lesson it is important to decide whether one wants to focus on receptive skills rather than productive ones or on both. Is it just listening for modelling and/or comprehension you want to focus on in lesson one (today) because you want to focus on speaking and pronunciation in lesson 2 (tomorrow)? Is it only the grammatical usage of the target adjectives you are mainly concerned about? Or are you focusing on enhancing speed of retrieval (fluency)?

I also usually decide which 10-15 of the 20-25 words I typically aim to teach in a given lesson will be in my students’ focal awareness and which 10-15 will be in their peripheral awareness. This is another important decision to take in order to pre-empt student cognitive overload.

Mistake 7 – Using audio-tracks to introduce new words

Using audio-tracks to introduce new words has become common practice in many classrooms these days. This can be justified when the teacher does not have a good target language pronunciation; however, when she does, this ought to be avoided. The teacher must clearly show how each new target word is pronounced and get her students to imitate her mouth movements, especially with sounds that are more notoriously challenging, such as the French ‘in’ and the ‘en’ sounds in the words ‘singe’ and ‘serpent’.

This pronunciation-visibility issue is often compounded by the fact that recordings  tend to pronounce the target words at native speed. This can be detrimental when dealing with novice learners whose decoding skills are poor and would benefit from the pronunciation being slowed down in order to render the sounds more intelligible.

Mistake 8 – Using word-lists and mats/sentence builders with students with poor decoding skills

Often students are provided with word lists and talking/writing mats packed with unfamiliar lexical items. I, for one, love using writing mats and have come up with an instructional sequence based on their deployment that I implement quite frequently in my lessons (outlined in a previous blog). If teachers have trained their students extensively in L2 decoding skills there will be no problem as they will be able to convert most of the words into sound fairly accurately. However, in most secondary schools this is not the case.

This can be very harmful since, as I have explained in several blogs, correct or near-correct pronunciation of L2 words is of crucial importance to successful L2-acquisition and performance (Walter, 2008). The main reason is that memory is sound-mediated, so successful recall of L2 words and their meaning require their accurate phonological encoding.

In many lessons I have observed teachers usually pronounced the words and got students with no-decoding-skill training to repeat them aloud a few times before using the words on the lists/mats. However, since words linger in Working Memory for only a few seconds, only a few gifted learners could actually pronounce the words correctly in the subsequent oral tasks. The rest experienced cognitive overload. Hence the teacher ended up having to correct the same students on the same mistakes over and over again for the whole duration of the lesson. At the end of the lesson the pronunciation of the new words was still generally quite poor.

A possible solution: when one is using word-lists and writing mats one may want to model those words extensively through lots of listening and micro-listening tasks. As far as listening is concerned, the easiest zero-preparation way to do this is (a) to utter short accessible sentences and ask the students to write their meaning on MWBs or (b) micro-dictation/transcription tasks. Narrow listening tasks require more preparation but yield excellent results. As for the micro-listening tasks, please refer to this post:

An even better solution: teach decoding skills from the very early stages of instruction so as to avoid these problems when you will be providing your students longer and more complex vocabulary lists for independent learning in the future. An effective L2 decoder is a more effective autonomous learner on many accounts. Unsurprisingly, research has evidenced a correlation between good decoding skills and the pursuit of language study at GCSE (i.e. it is the students with more effective decoding skills who usually choose to continue to study MFL after year 9).

Mistake 9. Presenting and practising new vocabulary moslty in its written form 

As already discussed in my previous blog ‘Nine research facts about pronunciation’ L2 graphemes (letters) automatically activate L1 pronunciation. Hence exposure to L2 words in their written form ought to be avoided as much as possible with beginner learners who have not developed a stable representation of the L2 phonological system. When new lexical items are indeed presented, they should be presented through visual aids or gestures first and then in their written form or simultaneously in both.  I prefer the former modus operandi.

10. Causing cognitive overload

This issue refers to many scenarios I witnessed. Here are four common ones.

(1) the teachers is overambitious and aims at teaching too much vocabulary – without deciding on the receptive vs productive / core vs peripheral dichotomies. The result is poor overall recall.

(2) (with novice learners) the teacher selects complex words which pose a series of important challenges in terms of pronunciation and/or grammar (e.g. word order and agreement). For what we said about the importance of pronunciation and the limitation of Working Memory capacity in terms of phonological storage, teachers must select the target words carefully. When faced with polysyllabic words containing challenging phonemes, one must deploy strategies to make them more accessible to learners both receptively and productively (e.g. ‘chunking’). My colleague Dylan Vinales uses humour, body language and focus on muscle memory as a way to make the pronunciation of such words ‘stick’. Here is a short clip demonstrating the very simple and minimal preparation way in which he does it: )

(3) the teacher selects a lot of cognates in the belief that they are easy to pick up. However, whilst cognates are easy to learn receptively (especially in reading) they can pose serious cognitive challenges in certain aspect of production especially pronunciation and writing, causing processing inefficiency issues. I have experienced this first hand at the early stages of my Spanish learning; Italian and Spanish being so close I would often misspell words which differed by only one letter. Obviously, this issue does not have a major negative impact on acquisition. This phenomenon is referred to by psycholinguists as ‘cross association’

(4) two or more near-homophones are taught in the same lesson. This, too can cause cross association. This happened to me yesterday in my year 7 French class. A week earlier I had just finished a unit on animals in which I had taught ‘grenouille’ (frog) and as we were asking each other what we thought about different rooms in the house, my student Abi asked me: ‘ Tu aimes le grenouille?’ (do you like the frog?) when he actually meant to ask ‘Tu aimes le grenier?’ (do you like the attic?). He had cross-associated ‘grenier’ and ‘grenouille’ due to the common stem the two words share.

11. Not focusing sufficiently on the form of words

When we acquire vocabulary, we tend to learn the meaning first. Form, its morphology, its sound and its syntactic properties emerge later. In deep-orthography languages (e.g. French, English, Chinese), spelling and decoding skills emerge later, for obvious reasons considering how difficult it is for learners to much spelling to print.

Whenever I conduct workshops, teachers ask me why they students have issues with spelling. The ‘Je m’apple’ error is often cited as an example of the students’ deficit in this area. I always answer with the following question: how often do you spend on teaching spelling?

The four different dimensions of knowing a word mentioned above (morphology, sound, meaning and syntax) are stored in four different parts of the brain. Are job is to connect them skillfully through a balanced amount of practice in all four areas. Research (e.g. Boers, 2021) points out that one area that is massively neglected by teacher is the oral form of words. In light of this finding, the current push for the teaching of phonics can only be a good development.

12. Staging productive retrieval practice activities without insufficient rehearsal

For retrieval practice to be effective, it needs to be practised after much rehearsal of the receptive sort. These days, there is a dangerous tendencies to stage retrieval practice activities too early due a misunderstanding of the Robert Bjork’s notion of ‘desirable difficulties, i.e. the idea that making the students try to retrieve the target vocabulary from memory is conducive to learning by virtue of the cognitive effort it involves. Whilst retrieval practice activities are key to learning, and have been common practice in language learning for centuries, they should be staged only when you believe that they will result in a high success rate or they will be counterproductive. Hence, it is key to stage a lot of receptive retrieval activities, carefully graded in terms of difficulty and to scaffold the initial stages of retrieval practice before involving the students in oral and written retrieval practice.

13. Not attaining fluent retrieval

A vocabulary item can only be said to have been acquired when learners can access it automatically and across a wide range of contexts. Automatic access is key. These can be achieved, according to much research (see Segalowitz, 2010; Nation et al, 2016), through (1) systematic revisiting of vocabulary across the units of work and (2) a deliberate type of training which fosters fast and effortless (fluent) retrieval. Such training, more popular in the TEFL than in the MFL/WL world,  involves engaging learners in tasks eliciting repeated processing of the target items and their recognition and/or production under taxing time constraints. Unfortunately, many teachers stop at the ‘mastery’ stage of knowing a word, i.e. when the students demonstrate a high rate of successful recall in an end-of-unit vocab test. A this stage, though, vocabulary isn’t often entrenched yet, and subject to the laws of decay and disuse, it will be likely forgotten a few weeks down the line unless we constantly revisit it using a wide range of tasks. Using the same task (e.g. a Quizlet), as is often done, to practise the same vocabulary set, is not a good idea, since memory is context dependent. Hence, practice with the same task enhances memory which is context- specific but not readily transferrable to other tasks (the so called Transfer Appropriate Processing principle).

Concluding remarks

Some of the above mistakes are more serious than others and may have a more long-lasting detrimental impact on vocabulary acquisition and language learning in general. Vocabulary learning being one of the most important aspects of language acquisition, teachers need to be mindful of the issues discussed in this post. The most important mistakes, in my view, pertain to four areas. Firstly, the bad habit of not contextualizing the teaching of lexis and wasting too much classroom time on discrete-word teaching (which can be flipped). Secondly, the importance of getting the students to learn the words by using them orally or in interactional writing for real-life communication. Thirdly, the insufficient amount of listening practice devoted to modelling good pronunciation and, fourthly, the very limited focus devoted to decoding skills, one of the most important sets of lifelong learning skills a linguist may ever wish to have.

You can find more on vocabulary teaching and learning in my book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ , co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase on