Eleven low-preparation/high-impact tips for enhancing reading tasks


Please note: this post was authored in collaboration with Steve Smith of The Language Teacher Toolkit and Dylan Vinales of Garden International School 


Reading texts are often under-exploited in most current published materials and typical Modern Language lessons. Moreover, the type of activities, the way they are sequenced and the levels of the text they address often seem to be chosen and planned haphazardly. In addition, the texts chosen for pre-intermediate to intermediate learners are not usually constructed in a way which is conducive to learning as they lack the sort of repetition and linguistic patterning that facilitate the noticing and uptake of new L2 items. Finally, no pre-task and post-task activities are typically carried out, which means that students come to the text not sufficiently prepped and that much of the newly processed language is lost.

Eleven tips for enhancing the impact of reading tasks

Here are eleven tips to address the above issues with novice-to-intermediate students through low-prep/high-impact activities that I use day in day out in my lessons.

1.Create the need to read – the most potent motivator in language learning is the need to understand and to communicate a message. Hence in selecting or designing written or aural input one should ask oneself: how can I make the students WANT to read on? What title, picture(s), first line or paragraph of a text can I come up with in order to get the students to want to read on the rest of the story, article, poem or lyrics of a song? For instance, last week I used a few – very dramatic – scenes from the video-clip of Kenza Farah’s song ‘Coup de Coeur’, as a teaser for my year 10 students. I then played the song to them and used the lyrics for a set of reading tasks. I have rarely seen them so motivated – they really could not wait to understand what the song was about.

Creating the need to read is not easy and I cannot say that I have fully cracked it; but I am trying and I think every language teacher should, considering that arising cognitive and emotional arousal of this sort is highly conducive to learning.

2.Ensure the students can recognize at least 90 % of the items in the text they are reading without having to resort to the dictionary (flip the learning of the key vocabulary prior to the reading of the text) – We often advise our students to read more in the belief that this will definitely help learn more vocabulary. However, it is not simply how extensively they read which will make a difference, but also what  and how they read. Research clearly indicates that for L2 reading to be an effective catalyst of vocabulary acquisition, the to-be-read material must be 95% comprehensible without much effort. This can be attained by using, besides words that have already been learnt, cognates, predictable contexts and repetition (see point 3 below).

Enabling the students to understand the gist or the main message of the text-in-hand or training them to answer a few reading comprehension questions does not enhance vocabulary acquisition. The students need to understand as much as possible of the linguistic environment surrounding the target lexis if we want them to acquire it.

This entails often having to alter authentic materials when dealing with novice-to-intermediate students and occasionally even the reading passages found in textbooks. In order to avoid having to modify the texts, what I do is flipping the learning of the more challenging vocabulary they contain prior to reading them; so, for example, knowing that my year 8 will read text ‘X’ on Monday next week, I will set vocabulary-building homework the Friday. before

3.Ensure there is a lot of repetition and highly patterned language – Repetition of words and patterns in texts is crucial and the lack of it is possibly the greatest shortcoming of most of the published Modern Languages reading materials currently on the market. Exposure to the target vocabulary and grammar through receptive processing being essential for effective acquisition every reading text we use in class should include as much repetition as possible on at least three levels: (1) the target lexical items (be them words or phrases), (2) the target grammar structure(s) and (3) syntactic patterns (e.g. the same sentence stem or slight variations of the same sentence stems as in: I live in a city called Paris ; I live in a village called Cagnes-sur-mer).

Sadly, one of the damages done by the Communicative Language Approach to Modern Language education is the notion that L2 students ought to read only or mainly authentic texts. However, I do not believe this to be always ‘healthy’ practice with novice-to-intermediate learners.as repetitions of words and patterns even when sounding redundant and artificial do scaffold learning.

Songs and poems are often more memorable because they use frequent repetitions and come in handy in the reading sessions; narrow-reading texts , many of which I have published (free) on www.tes.co.uk , are rife in recycling of words and patterns too.

4. If you do include the L1-translations of the challenging words, place them in a box in the margin of the page (not in brackets, next to the words) – Research evidence indicates that a gloss located in the margin of the text (where the L1 translation is provided) is more likely to facilitate future recall than placing the translation in brackets next to the unfamiliar word (within the text). I usually highlight or underline any unfamiliar words in the text that I have included in the gloss in order to signal to the students that it has been translated for them.

5.Before staging the reading do some work on decoding skills– Research by Walker (2009) indicates that learner issues with L2-decoding of the text-in-hand, especially when different L2 items may be pronounced by the students erroneously as homophones (i.e. phonetically identical) may hinder reading comprehension. Think about ‘je parle’ and ‘j’ai parlé’, for instance that many pre-intermediate learners of French pronounce identically. This phenomenon is caused by the fact that even when we read silently, the instant we process a word we activate its sound by engaging the phonological loop in our Working Memory. What I do, prior to engaging my students in reading, is to focus my students on the pronunciation of specific combinations of letters which I predict might cause them issues in processing the text-at-hand; for this purpose I use a range of my MLEs (Micro-listening enhancers).

 6.Warm the students up prior to the reading through work on top-down processing skills – this is as important as the work on bottom-up processing skills recommended in the previous point. The easiest zero-preparation way to do this is to tell the students the title and the topic(s) of the text and ask them to brainstorm as many words as possible in the target language which they associate with them. Alternatively or additionally you could give them a few pictures which refer to the content of the text and ask them to do the same – the pictures could be used to create the need to read alluded to in point one. Another minimum preparation strategy which involves writing (and even speaking if done in a group through a discussion) is to ask them to jot down a few sentences predicting the content of the to-be-read text.

7.Create several short tasks rather than one or two long ones  – in a very small-scale research of mine carried out a few years back I found that my students found more enjoyable and useful to carry out several short tasks with four or five questions rather than one or two longer tasks with eight to ten questions. This was particularly true of lower ability students. Several shorter tasks provide more variety, and a sense of having completed more challenges. Moreover, one can address more levels of the same texts and recycle the same items through different questions, which will facilitate acquisition.

8.Design tasks with varying foci – It always baffles me how limited the number and range of tasks that published materials associate with each of their texts are. When I design or plan reading activities I endeavour to address points (a) to (f) below, usually one per task; the fact that the tasks are many but short pre-empts the work from being tedious and time-consuming. Moreover, sequencing the task in ascending level of difficulty allows for effective differentiation.

(a) reading for gist – tasks that require the students to pick out the text’s key message/details (e.g. list the five main points made in the text about what constitute a healthy lifestyle);

(b) simple reinforcement of key words in the text – tasks that only aim at recycling the key items (e.g. translate the following French words/phrases in the text you have just read) and are not designed to ‘quiz’ the students, but merely to get them to re-visit the text and re-process it. This means that these tasks need not be particularly challenging as they serve the purpose of modelling; this is why I usually put this tasks as first or second in my reading-tasks sequence;

(c) fostering noticing of lexical/grammar structure– these are questions which promote the noticing of a specific L2 grammar items of syntactic structure (e.g. why does line 20 read “if I had gone’ and not ‘If I went’?);

(d) promoting use of inference strategies – these require the students to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words using context;

(e) practising using dictionaries/reference materials;

(f) L1-to-L2 translation skills.

9.Stage a read-aloud session – Staging a read-aloud session after performing the above tasks provides a cognitive break and gives you an idea, whilst you are walking around the class monitoring student-pronunciation, of how the acquisition of decoding skills is proceeding. This will inform the planning of any subsequent delivery of decoding-skill instruction.

10. Follow-up with one or more listening tasks – A follow-up through listening-as-modelling and listening-comprehension activities helps reinforcing the vocabulary and, more importantly, focuses the students on pronunciation. The easiest listening-as modelling activity to prepare is obviously dictation of sentences taken from the just-read-text containing the key-items you set out to teach (with or without L1-translation). Partial dictations require very little preparation too. Jigsaws are a bit more time-consuming but students enjoy them a lot.

11. Recycle key lexis in subsequent lessons – after reading a passage, some really nice idioms, structures or other interesting and useful lexis found in that text get left behind and often lost for ever. I do attempt to make sure that that does not happen, by: (a) setting it as homework using language-gym.com – but one can use Memrise or Quizlet instead; (b) creating a new reading text (my favourite strategy) which include those items; (c) devising a nice starter with which to begin the next lesson; (d) recycling the items alongside any new lexis you are planning to teach in the next lesson

Concluding remarks

Much too often the reading passages used in the ML lessons are under-exploited and a substantial part of the valuable material they contain gets ‘lost’ in the absence of adequate and consistent recycling in subsequent lessons. At present, I am not aware of any published material which effectively addresses all of the levels of exploitation of a text I outlined in the above post, which is appalling. This is due too many factors, one of which refers to the fear that the students might get bored, a concern I sympathize with to a certain extent; this issue can, however, be partly controlled for by providing several shorter tasks with varying foci.

The most important message this post purports to convey is that reading tasks should try to squeeze out as much learning out of any text-at-hand as possible; students should be prepped both in terms of bottom-up and top-down processing skills (especially decoding skills); they should also be encouraged to notice  new items through activities which engage them in deep processing; finally, unless we are merely equipping students with survival skills, limiting the focus of receptive processing (not simply reading but listening, too) to the understanding of the main points contained in a text has very little surrender value in terms of the enhancement of reading fluency and the acquisition of vocabulary, morphology, syntax and any other aspect of L2 competence.

Creating the need to read or understand should also be an important concern of ours as way too often the texts students work on in ML lessons are rather dull. Whilst this is quite difficult to do with the texts we give novice-to-intermediate learners, when working at higher level of proficiency it should not be an impossible task.

As far as point 2 to 11 are concerned, our frustration with the current lack of resources which address all of the above has led Steve Smith and myself to creating reading material and associated tasks which we are writing as we speak and whose first instalment is published here. The aim: to create a resource which enables intermediate learners of French to learn as much as possible from L2 written texts to the point of allowing them to translate short English passages (GCSE style) into French off the top of their head by the end of each unit.

As for point 1, i.e. ‘creating the need to read’, Steve and I are both working on developing a set of strategies which we intend to share with our readers in a future post.

To find out about our ideas on reading instruction, get hold of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’, the book Steve Smith and I co-authored .

‘Quizzifying’ feedback on error – four ways to spice up the correction of your students’ writing


Please note: this post was co-authored with Steve Smith of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’


As my regular readers will know, I am not a fan of traditional explicit error correction (error pointed out and correction provided), as (a) it does not involve the students actively in the correction process – they are merely passive recipients of the feedback process and (b)  students do not usually pay attention to it (Cavalcanti, 1990; Conti, 2004).

Even the common practice of underlining and coding errors and asking the student to self-correct is of limited effectiveness. Firstly, because one cannot correct errors with structures one does not know. Secondly, for errors for which the rule is ‘known’, this practice stops at the product  (the mistake) thereby failing to address the most important issue: the cognitive processes which caused the mistake in the first place – which usually refer to cognitive overload/ divided attention. In order to address self-correctable performance errors effectively teachers have to provide the learners with practice in processing the linguistic environment(s) that caused those mistakes – during production of the same sort as the one in which they were made. This is very rarely done in my experience.

Any corrective intervention, in order to impact the target students, must (1) involve the students in deep processing of negative feedback (i.e. involving substantial cognitive investment and higher order thinking skills); (2) be as distinctive and memorable as possible, so as to bring the target mistake into the student’s focal awareness; (3) give rise to a positive affective response on the part of the students whilst lowering the anxiety resulting from being told they made mistakes; (4) provide students with a clear path to future success in the handling of the structure (e.g. by enhancing the metalinguistic awareness necessary for avoiding that mistake in the future and/or providing a memory strategy); (5) provide extensive practice aimed at eradicating the target mistake(s).

Moreover, for error correction to be effective, a culture of attention to formal accuracy has to be fostered and actively supported across all levels of receptive and productive practice. In many communicative classrooms nowadays this does not happen, and accuracy has become a secondary concern, regardless of the fact that if we are indeed preparing our students to use the target language for work – and not merely survival-level communication – their output needs to be as error-free as possible.

In this post I describe four techniques I use with my students to ‘spice up’ the correction process of performance errors. They are more time-consuming than ordinary correction techniques, hence I don’t use them all the time and only with groups I believe will benefit from them.

Let me reiterate the importance of providing our students with extensive practice with a ‘faulty’ structure in writing and speaking (in that order). Only repeated spaced practice fixes mistakes; explicit correction or self-correction with codes as well as any of the techniques below are only the beginning -the awareness-raising phase – of the remediation process. The reader should bear this in mind in reading the below.

2.The techniques

Here are the techniques. The reader should note that I usually ask the students, as a follow-up, to explain the rule either in writing or to a group of peers and to produce (as homework) 10 original sentences containing that structure on a set topic (e.g. health and lifestyle). All the techniques below can be turned into a competition; my more able groups love to compete against each other ‘in Error hunts’.

It goes without saying that one should only use these techniques with self-correctable errors which refer to L2 items that the students know in abstract how to use but occasionally fail to use under real operating conditions due to processing inefficiency/cognitive overload or to a specific linguistic context.

2.1 Choose the right option – a student has made a mistake in the handling of a structure. Instead of supplying the correction or asking to self-correct, you provide two or even three possible options to choose from – only one being correct – and ask her to provide a rationale for her choice. This technique is particularly useful when dealing with students who may find the self-correction task daunting as it provides a cue that might confirm their hypotheses. Example:

Intended meaning: if I had more money I would buy a new car

Error: si j’ai plus d’argent j’acheterais une nouvelle voiture

Option 1: Si j’avais eu plus d’argent j’acheterais une nouvelle voiture

Option 2: Si j’aurais plus d’argent j’acheterais une nouvelle voiture

Option 3 (the correct one) : Si j’avais plus d’argent j’acheterais une nouvelle voiture

2.2 Error hunt – Tell students that there are an ‘X’ number of mistakes in a specific sentence or section of their essay and challenge them to find them under timed conditions. You may cue them as to the nature of the mistakes (e.g. Spelling, Word order, Verb ending, Tense, etc.). This technique has more potential for learning than simply pointing the students to the specific word or word cluster where a mistake is and ask to self-correct. Why? Because, as pointed out above very often it is the context where a mistake is found that causes the student to get the application of a given grammar rule wrong, not the knowledge of the rule itself.  In other words, the student-writer’s working memory experiences processing inefficiency due to the challenges posed by the surrounding linguistic environment  (e.g. too many grammar rules to juggle at the same time). Error hunts enable  the student to re-process the faulty item receptively in the challenging environment that caused her to err but receptively, which allows her more time to think and to bring to consciousness the source(s) of the mistake.

2.3 Code the errors – Errors in essays are underlined. The students are given a list of error categories such as ‘Spelling’, ‘Word order’, ‘Agreement’, etc. and are asked to code the errors underlined by themselves or working in a group. This can be made into a competition. Tip: do not underline too many errors and leave the categories broader with less proficient groups of learners.

2.4 Error auctions –  In marking your year 11 students’ essays you found a set of mistakes that are common to most of them. Time-wise it is more practical to deal with those in class, together, rather than individually. Hence, you may stage an error auction. You put a sample sentence for each of the errors you elect to target on a different slide of a Power Point. You assign a ‘price’ to each, depending on how difficult you think the error will be to correct (e.g. 1,000 dollars for an omission of the subjunctive, 100 dollars for a spelling mistake). You divide the students into groups of three,  and assign them a budget (e.g. 5,000 dollars). You will show each sample sentence and will give the students a set amount of time to write on mini-boards (one per group) the correct version of that sentence (with or without explanation of the rule – at your discretion). The groups that get it right are awarded the amount of money specified on the slide; the ones that get it wrong, lose it. The group with the most money at the end of the game wins.


Error correction must aim at involving the students actively in the feedback-handling process and to bring about high levels of cognitive and emotional arousal in order to give rise to learning. The four techniques I have just outlined help making the correction distinctive and more engaging but are no panacea. The most important part of the remedial learning process is extensive spaced practice for months and months on end under self-monitoring conditions (i.e. the students is producing output specifically monitoring the application of the problematic rules). Any correcting intervention that stops at awareness-raising is doomed to fail.

Planning the grammar lesson – heading for M.A.R.S.

Please note: this post was co-authored with Dylan Viñales during a Garden International School professional development afternoon and Steve Smith of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’.

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In this post I lay out the approach to grammar instruction I undertake in a typical lesson. I shall start by outlining what I believe the main aims and concerns of grammar instruction should be. I will then proceed to describe the three-phase framework I adopt and the typical tasks I carry out at each stage.

2. Aims and focus of grammar teaching

2.1 Knowledge vs Automization

Grammar teaching in many language classrooms is about passing the knowledge of how a grammar rule works . The presumption is that if students evidence that they have understood how the target grammar structure works  through a cloze or a written translation task, they have learnt it and the class can move on. This is however an overly simplistic  view of grammar acquisition, as it equates language learning with merely storing facts in Long-term memory – as you would do in any other content-based subject such as History, Geography or Biology.

The product of this kind of grammar instructions is students who, after four or five years of language learning instruction take forever to conjugate verbs across tenses; who often talk like ‘robots’, pausing in between words to decide which verb/adjectival ending or tense to select; who constantly back-track as they speak, self-correcting grammar mistakes that are caused more by lack of fluency than by a knowledge gap. Useless to say, many of these students often cannot cope when they attempt to use the target language in the real world.

As I reiterate ad nauseam in my blogs, language learning being about SKILL not Knowledge acquisition,  grammar instruction ought to aim primarily at enabling learners to accurately and rapidly apply L2 morphemes  across all four language skills and through a vast array of contexts at real-life-communication speed or R.O.C. (Real Operating Conditions).This implies an important mindshift as it entails  involving students in extensive skill-based grammar practice of both the receptive (listening, reading and translation) and productive sort (writing and speaking under time pressure) which ultimately aims at automization.

2.2. Process vs Product

It follows from the above that the focus of instruction should not only be the visible, i.e. the tangible outcome of a lesson, e.g. the nice little paragraph in the perfect tense which gives us the false reassurance and evidence we proudly show our colleagues that our students ‘have got it’; grammar teaching should also be about the invisible, i.e. the processes that lead to spontaneity / automaticity in language understanding and production.

This means engaging students in activities which develop each of the processes and sub-processes leading to the accurate application of a given grammar rule in real time across all four skills (e.g. as part of a spontaneous conversation).

Teachers ought to identify such processes and explicitly address them in their teaching and curriculum design. Example: producing a sentence like ‘If I had lots of money I would buy a Ferrari’ in French requires mastery of the Imperfect  Indicative (I had) as well as the Present Conditional (I would). To enable students to produce such sentences automatically with any personal pronoun (you, he, we, etc.) I will have to ensure first that those specific tenses and moods have been automatized or at least highly routinized.

Most of the time this doesn’t happen; the result: students who struggle to produce such sentences, not because they do not understand the underlying rules, but because they have not automatized the necessary sub-steps the application of that structure requires.

2.3 ‘Spontaneous’ grammar = spontaneous speech

Every prominent UK-based ML educator these days emphasizes the importance of fostering spontaneous speech in the language classroom but very few (e.g. Professor Macaro, bloggers Steve Smith and Jake Hunton) talk about the importance of ‘spontaneous’ grammar production. Yet it is difficult to fathom how, in school-based language education, one can even remotely hope to be able to develop student spontaneous speech without first achieving spontaneous (= highly routinized) grammar production.

Grammar instruction MUST be first and foremost about bringing about ‘spontaneity’ in grammar production.

3. A basic framework for grammar lessons and grammar teaching principles

Here is the basic framework I use in grammar lessons. I call it MARS. (Modelling/Awareness-raising Receptive processing, Structured production). The three phases are listed in chronological order but receptive processing activities can occur in the final phase, too, should the teacher feel that a reading or listening-as-modelling task or two may be needed as a pre- writing or pre-speaking activity. The sequence I tend to use is: Listening > Reading > Writing > Listening (snappy decoding-skill/pronunciation reminders using Micro-listening enhancers) > Speaking; I often alternate Listening and Reading tasks as I feel fit, so the above sequence is not set in stone. However, I do always stage writing tasks before speaking ones.

Please note: the 3 phases envisaged below do not have to occur all in one lesson. If the target structure is quite complex, it is preferable to cover the Modelling/Awareness-raising, Receptive processing and some Writing in one lesson and more Writing and Speaking in a follow-up session ( in which speaking would receive most of the emphasis).

3.1 Modelling and Awareness-raising  (PHASE 1) 

In the first phase of this approach the instructor models the target structure and raises learner awareness (e.g. through cognitive comparison) of the differences between the first and second language usage. This is the equivalent of the Presentation phase in the traditional PPP model that you will have been taught on your PGCE or CELTA course.

During this phase one should ensure that cognitive load is lessened by:

  1. using the first language if rule is complex;
  2. producing examples which contain language items the students are very familiar with;
  3. avoid engaging students in production unless you are dealing with particularly gifted students;
  4. providing the L1 translation of the examples in order to foster inter-lingual comparison;
  5. avoiding presenting exceptions to the rule you are presenting (do it later).

In this phase the teacher may decide to use a deductive or an inductive approach. In the deductive approach, the teacher explains the target grammar structure and provides examples of its usage. In the inductive approach, on the other hand, s/he presents the students with examples of the application of the target grammar structure and asks the students to work out the underlying rules  by themselves – although the teacher may intervene when the students are stuck with guiding questions. Inductive teaching involves problem solving and consequently greater cognitive investment which means, at least in theory, that it should bring about better retention.

There is no consensus as to which method is more effective; I use both, depending on the challenges posed by the target structure, the group I am working with and, of course, the time available – inductive teaching being obviously more time-consuming.

3.2 Receptive processing (Phase 2)

This is the most neglected area in explicit grammar teaching instruction. In most of the lessons I have observed in 25 years of teaching the teacher goes immediately from modelling to some form of production. This may work with some students. However, learning is greatly enhanced by getting the students to process the new grammar structure extensively, many times over, through reading and listening tasks which focus them on its formation and usage across a range of linguistic contexts. In a previous blog I gave the following rationale for this phase:

(a) receptive processing is less cognitively challenging than production, especially when effective support/scaffolding is provided; (b) if the texts in use contain language the students are familiar with, they provide old material to hook the new items to, which may facilitate retention; (c) it models the application of the target structure in context, not in a communicative vacuum (as the sentences used by teachers and course-books as examples do); (d) reading allows more time for students to process the new information – production puts much more cognitive and emotional pressure on them; (e) aural modelling through listening – when the transcript of the track is visible to the learners- can be valuable in preventing many decoding/pronunciation errors which may impede acquisition – going back to the English present perfect scenario: think of the pronunciation of ‘I have read’ as opposed to ‘I read’; of ‘I have written’ versus ‘I write’. In French, I have significantly reduced the voicing of ‘-ent’ in the third person plural of the present indicative (e.g. ils parlent) by extensive modelling through listening practice.

Important tip: this phase ought to begin with tasks which pose a relatively light cognitive load thereby allowing for more focus on the target structure.

3.2.1 Reading tasks

These may include :

  • Grammaticality judgment quizzes such as ‘Right or wrong?’ (students asked to decide, working alone or in groups, if a sentence is wrong or right and explain why); ‘Spot the correct one’ (two, three or four sentences are given which have the same intended meaning but only one is correct; students have to spot it and explain why it is correct) – this task lends itself well to a Kahoot quiz; Cloze tasks with options. It is imperative that the language used in each of the above is extremely familiar to the learner.
  • Sentence re-ordering tasks (the words in a sentence are randomly and incorrectly arranged and students are asked to place them in the right order) – obviously not all grammar structures lend themselves to this type of task;
  • Sentence builders (see example here) (teacher writes sentence in the first language; students to translate it by putting together the words/phrases in the sentence builder)
  • Text searches (student need to find as many instances as possible of target-structure use in a series of short texts and translate the sentences they are contained in orally or in writing );
  • Error identification and correction (students are given a set of sentences some of which are right and some of which contain one mistake referring to target structure use; students must identify the mistakes and explain and correct them)
  • Short-text translations. This is definitely one of my favourites. I always include translations in this phase of my grammar teaching. These are three ways I use it in my lessons: (1) write L2 sentence on screen/whiteboard and students translate on mini-board under time constraints; (2) group-work (students are given a set of sentences to translate; (3) I utter the sentence and students write on mini-boards;
  • Narrow reading texts with comprehension tasks. I always mention these in my blogs as I believe they are extremely useful (read here to know more about them)

Usually, I use at least three or four of the above tasks in each grammar lesson of mine ensuring that every task recycles the same vocabulary in order to facilitate comprehension. Morevoer, I always alternate these tasks with some of the LAM (Listening-as-modelling) activities described below. It goes without saying that easier tasks should go first and that there should be a logic to the way the above activities are sequenced.

3.2.2 Listening-as-modelling (LAM) Tasks

The following low-prep/high-impact tasks are some of my favourites LAM activities. Some of these tasks do involve some reading and writing, so they do more than addressing listening skills. Listening-as-modelling tasks are very important as an incorrect pronunciation of key grammatical features can seriously (negatively) impact communication and future learning. Think about the past of ‘to read’ in English ‘I read’, how easy it would be to presume that it is pronounced like the present ‘I read’; or, in French, the common mistake of voicing the silent ‘e’ in the ending of the first person of the present tense (e.g. ‘je parle’) which sound like the first person of the imperfect (e.g. ‘je parlais’); etc.

(1) Micro-listening enhancers (MLEs) (see examples of MLEs here) – these are of great help when working with highly inflected languages such as French, German or Spanish, as they can focus students on word endings thereby preventing many typical pronunciation mistakes L2 learners of these languages often make (e.g. my pet hate, the pronunciation of ‘-ent’ in the third person plural of the present tense in French).

(2) Partial dictations – these are a very effective follow-up to MLEs and are a great means to verify if students have acquired sound coding/decoding skills and to raise awareness of how the gapped elements fit in a sentence (e.g. word order of adjectives in French, Spanish and Italian ).

(3) Dictations – These can be used for a range of purpose, besides the obvious one of practising spelling and decoding skills. For instance, they can be employed (a) to promote cognitive comparison between the L1 and the L2. Example: in teaching word order in French one could write a sentence exemplifying the rule ‘noun before adjective’ in English; one would then dictate the French translation of that sentence to show how in French the adjective follows the noun instead and ask the students to notice the difference ; (b). To model transformational writing such as sentence-recombining strategies (see paragraph below)

(4) Sentence builders (using a sentence builder, teacher makes sentences for students to write on mini-whiteboards in the L1 or the L2 to model syntax)

(5) Paired reading-aloud with translation and/or critical listening – (1) Translation: students read short texts to each other and translate orally what they hear their partner say. (2) Critical listening: students evaluate pronunciation of the key-words involved in the application of the target structures.

(6) Narrow listening with comprehension tasks (same principle as Narrow reading)

3.2.3 Structured production (Phase 3)

Here are a few minimal prep/high impact activities I use in this phase. Written tasks

(1) Parallel texts with partial translation (students are given parallel texts where the L2 version is gapped; the gaps are obviously placed where the target structure is used in order to focus the students on its application in the text);

(2) Cloze tasks

(3) Translations (from L1 to L2)

(4) Sentence recombining tasks – two sentences are given and students are required to blend them in one new sentence using the target grammar structure. Example: Sentence is ‘My mother is 42. She is a lawyer. She really enjoys her job.’; Target structure is relative pronouns; Cue is:  ‘who, whom, which or where’ Recombined sentence could be: ‘My mother, who is 42, works as a lawyer and really enjoys her job’

(5) Old school drills (to practise verb conjugation and agreement in inflected languages (e.g. French, German and Spanish). Example (Spanish) : Maria ______ ( present indicative of ‘IR) = Maria va. As far as verb-conjugation drills are concerned, there are a few online verb conjugators (e.g. my own www.language-gym.com) which really help.

(5) Picture tasks. These are another one of my favourites. Students must describe a picture making up sentences which include the target structures. Depending on the structure and the challenges it poses, one may decide to provide more cues , scaffolding and resources.

(6)Short essays with prompts. Students are asked to write a short essay with bullet prompts which cue them heavily as to what they are supposed to write so as to elicit use of the target structure(s). Oral tasks

These are usually the most neglected productive tasks and possibly the most important ones in bringing about automization.

(1) Sentence builders. Students, working in pairs, give each other sentences in the L1 to translate into the L2 using a sentence builder. I usually make this into a game; I prepare a deck of cards with the English sentences to translate and the students take turns in picking a card and translating it. Students work in groups of three, one of them being the referee; the more accurate player wins.

(2) Communicative drills. I usually start with these. Students are given prompts in the L2, L1 or in English. The tasks are constructed to elicit use of the target structure in a communicative context. Example (Teaching SER versus ESTAR in Spanish in the contexts of health issues):

Partner 1  :  Doctor I am ill

Partner 2:  What is the problem?

Partner 1: I am feeling nauseous and my stomach hurts

 Partner 2: Where is the pain ? etc.

(3) ‘Find someone who…’ with cards – It is one of my favourites. Students are given a card with fictitious name and details. The task is to find 8-10 people with specific details on their cards. Students go around asking questions which aim at eliciting those details; in the process, the deployment of the target structure is elicited (read here for more on this activity).

(4) Picture tasks with prompts. (see above)

(5) Oral sentence recombining. Oral version of the sentence-recombining task described above)

4. Lesson-planning Tips

(1) Narrow down the focus of your grammar lesson as much as possible

(2) Carefully consider L1 interference and mistakes commonly made by the average student you teach. How can you pre-empt them?

(3) Identify every single cognitive step involved in the application of the target rule and address each of them through extensive practice in the lesson.

 (4) Use as many ways as you can think of to explain the target rule. The more angles, analogies and visual representations you can use to explain the target rule, the more likely you are to make that rule ‘stick’. Try to come up with something memorable, like an acronym, a visual narrative or a diagram.

(5) Plan your examples carefully, ensuring they are clear and unambiguous – do not improvise!

(6) Recycle the same vocabulary over and over again throughout the lesson in order to ease cognitive load

(7) Zoom in and zoom out – as you plan the lesson you must focus as much on the lesson-at-hand (zoom in) as on what you have covered already and are planning to cover in the future (zoom out).

(8) Make sure that the final part of your lesson or cycle or lessons does not simply end with a receptive-processing activity; your aim should be bringing about automization. Hence, you may want to use an oral task requiring the students to use the target structure in oral production (e.g. through picture tasks or communicative drills under timed conditions).

5. Concluding remarks

Whether we decide to opt for a deductive or inductive instructional approach, the end-goal of grammar teaching must be the high routinization of the target grammar structure across all four skills. What is meant by this is that the students should be enabled – through extensive practice – to apply the target morpheme or syntactic pattern rapidly and correctly, in the context of ‘spontaneous’ speech. This entails going beyond the current models of grammar instruction used in UK-based Modern Language education whereby grammar is imparted and tested through cloze tasks and written translation. The attainment of automization of the target grammar structures must be our primary concern when we explicitly teach L1 morphology and syntax.

Some language educators might frown upon my advocacy of automization and drills – words which are reminiscent of some legacy methods. The problem is that what we have done in the last three or four decades is completely throw away the old for the ‘new’ without recognizing that grammar/translation, old-school oral and written audio-lingual drills and communicative language teaching have all got something important to bring to the table. Learning a language is like learning to play tennis or football; first you need lots of modelling and drills; then less challenging, ‘low-stake’ matches; finally, after much practice, one may be ready for the tournament and take on the champions.

Another important concern must be that students are provided with as many chances  as possible to succeed at learning whatever morpheme or syntactic structure we aim to teach. This calls for an approach which reduces as much as possible learner cognitive load and provides tons of recycling across all four language skills. The approach laid out in this post aims to accomplish that through the following principles:

  1. The target grammar structure should be presented in familiar linguistic contexts, i.e. within sentences which contain syntactic patterns and/or vocabulary the students have routinized previously;
  2. Plenty of receptive practice which (a) allows the less confident and gifted learners to process the target structure(s) in less cognitively heavy and less threatening contexts; (b) facilitates and reinforces understanding, should the teacher’s explanation of the rule not be fully grasped; (c) embeds the learning in a meaningful communicative context rather than in a ‘vacuum’ as happens when the rule is presented through loose sample sentences on a board or computer screen;
  3. Structured learning through a movement from smaller units of discourse to bigger ones and from highly structured to less structured ones.

Should grammar instruction stop at the last ‘S’ of MARS, i.e. ‘Structured production’? The answer is no, of course. The follow-up to MARS, refers to two phases I call Expansion and Autonomy, in which the learners are given opportunities to use the target structure in the context of increasingly less structured interactional communicative tasks across an increasingly wide-ranging set of topics.

A third phase, Routinization, will occur when the teacher is satisfied that the student can perform the target structure autonomously through a wide enough range of linguistic contexts; at that point, the main concern will be speeding up the rate of target structure deployment with automization as an aspirational goal.This phase should unfold longitudinally in subsequent lessons once the students, after frequent spaced practice, will have become confident and versed in the deployment of the target structure and ready to ‘walk’ on their own two feet, so to speak, without the ‘crutches’ provided by word-lists, sentence builders, verb tables and other scaffolding methods. In order to better understand what I mean by Expansion and Autonomy, please read the last section of this blog. To peruse a practical example of my approach, read this post detailing how I taught the French negatives to a group of 15 year old students last week.

To find out more about my approach to teaching get hold of the book Steve Smith and I co-authored ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’.

From guesswork to ‘knowwork’, from quizzing to teaching: the mind-shift that may enhance L2 students’ listening skills (Listening Instruction, part 2)

Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of ‘The Language Teacher toolkit’ and Dylan Vinales of Garden International School

picture read aloud

1.Introduction – Beyond testing and quizzing

A recurrent theme in my blogs is the belief that Modern Language listening instruction, as it is currently carried out in many L2 classrooms, is more about testing than modelling.  Students are usually asked to listen to a text uttered at near-native or native speed and answer a set of questions on it which typically involve picking out a few details here and there or deciding whether some statements made about that text are true or false. In other words, quizzes through and through, which often elicit a lot of guesswork from the students who are not always adequately prepared for them and equipped at best with basic inference strategies.

Add to this the fact that typically the aural input found in textbooks and other published resources does not contain the repetitions, redundancies and cues that not only facilitate understanding, but also make language more noticeable and memorable.

To make things worse, students are usually asked to listen to each listening extract two or three times maximum and the pre-listening task preparation and post-task recycling are usually minimal. Once the marking is over and done with, the class move on and the listening track just listened to is usually not revisited again. As it is obvious, not much learning occurs, as such practice does not allow for many opportunities for students to notice and analyse new language items and patterns.

This model is seriously at odds with the way humans learn languages in the early stages of first language acquisition, where input from caregivers and the family entourage is usually fairly highly patterned, repetitive and cue-rich (especially in terms of visual input) and the same language is recycled over and over again in very similar contexts with frequent positive and negative feedback which confirms or negates the children’s inferences.

Such an approach to listening instruction also clashes with the way in which much second language learning occurs in naturalistic/immersive environments, where L2 learners usually develop their listening skills through extensive oral interaction with native speakers or other L2 experts who repeat, paraphrase, explain and use plenty of cues to facilitate the comprehension of their input. In real life, humans are active listeners who use their eyes as much as their ears to comprehend their interlocutor’s input often cueing them to any breakdown in communication and negotiating meaning with them when that happens.

  1. 2. The aims of this post

In this post I reiterate and expand on a concept I put across in my article ‘Listening Instruction Part 1′. The notion, that is, that at lower levels of proficiency listening instruction should concern itself more with listening-as-modelling (henceforth LAM) than with listening for testing comprehension.

But WHY is it crucial to implement LAM ?

First and foremost, as it is obvious, to prepare our student for aural comprehension, the most important skill in real-life communication – around 45 % of total real-life communication involving the listening modality whilst only 15 % occurs through reading and only 10% through writing. If our learners acquire the L2 target grammar and vocabulary almost exclusively through the written medium – as it often happens – they will struggle when processing it aurally, a common phenomenon in the typical UK classroom. On the other hand, frequent exposure to LAM will enhance their ability to code new input thereby lessening the processing cognitive load and – as an added benefit – facilitating the noticing of any grammatical and syntactic features in aural input.

Secondly, masses of LAM will impact students pronunciation and decoding skills, which in turns may enhance their oral and reading skills. Effective listening comprehension requires mastery of bottom-up processing skills as much as it does top-down. LAM develops learner bottom-up processing skills by constantly modelling L2 vocabulary, functions,  grammar and syntax through the listening medium.

Thirdly, by aiming at modelling rather than quizzing, LAM allows for the explicit instruction of grammar and syntax through the listening medium – which is impossible during listening comprehension tasks as the students are focusing on answering questions.

Fourthly, the fact that LAM recycles the same core items time and again and is highly patterned makes the input more accessible and memorable.

3. Eight features of effective LAM practice

To be most effective, LAM activities – as I envisage them- should:

  1. address all levels of language processing, from the phonological features of words to the understanding of larger discourse structures (long sentences and paragraphs) both in terms of meaning and how they function;
  2. include highly patterned (e.g. lots of repetition) comprehensible input uttered at a speech rate which is accessible to the target learners;
  3. start with highly structured and highly scaffolded activities which become gradually less structured and more demanding;
  4. Start with smaller units of discourse and gradually build up to larger ones;
  5. involve a variety of tightly-sequenced tasks which recycle the same language items and patterns;
  6. prepare the students for any subsequent listening comprehension tasks;
  7. avail itself of visual aids and other cues (e.g. typographic devices to translation) which facilitate understanding of the input;
  8. explicitly promote the noticing of new L2 items

In the below, I will show how this can be done through low effort and high impact activities which I have been using for a long time and have significantly impacted my students’ proficiency. Most of the activities below are not rocket science and you may be implementing some of them already in your lessons – although probably not as often as I would advocate. Interestingly, some of them are regarded as ‘legacy methods’ and are consequently somewhat frowned upon, despite the fact that recent research seems to indicate they can indeed positively impact proficiency.

  1. The mindshift advocated: from quizzing on listening to teaching through listening

Although the activities, their design, their sequencing and implementation are important factors to consider in the implementation of listening instruction, the key issue is the mindshift that it is advocated here: from quizzing on listening to teaching through listening.

This shift requires teachers to adopt a different attitude, deploy a different range of strategies and set different expectations. It doesn’t do away with listening comprehensions, as I do believe they play an important role, too, in fostering the development of crucial inference strategies.

The difference is that in the approach I advocate, listening comprehensions are staged at the end of an instructional sequence; after much listening-as-modelling and other activities recycling and drumming in the target input have occurred. At a stage, that is, in which the students are actually ready to carry out the listening-comprehension task(s), because they will have processed by then most of the language they need to know to successfully complete it/them several times over through listening-as-modelling activities and other modalities (e.g. reading and speaking tasks).

Hence listening-as-modelling serves two functions: on the one hand it models new language; on the other it prepares the learner for listening comprehension tasks, which could be viewed in this sense as plenaries designed to assess whether uptake of the target vocabulary or structures has occurred.

5. Some LAM activities 

5.1. Caveat

The following is a list of the modelling-as-listening activities that are easier to prepare and implement and which, in my professional experience have high surrender value. As it is obvious, for effective modelling to occur, teachers will carry out a sequence of three or four of these activities per lesson, ensuring that each activity recycles the same target L2 items over and over again. Moreover, as already stated above, modelling should start through highly scaffolded activities targeting lower-order processing skills and gradually move on to higher-order ones.

A recurrent feature, which I believe to be the greatest strength of LAM of the kind advocated here, is that every single one of the activities below calls for the application of two or more skills of the same time. For instance, Micro-listening enhancers, partial dictations and sentence builders involve reading and writing  as well as listening and dictations can also be used to enhance transformational writing skills and even promote cognitive comparison and metalinguistic enhancement.

Three types of LAM activities are absent from the list below as they are already common currency in the typical language classroom and it is thus taken for granted that most teachers use them. Firstly, the common practice of uttering a set of vocabulary items and asking the class to repeat them one or more times; secondly, playing a recording of a dialog /role-play and asking the students to re-read it; thirdly, teacher fronted talk in the target language. It should be noted, however,  that the effectiveness of the first two of the above practices is usually undermined by the fact that any word processed aurally does not linger in Working Memory for longer than two seconds and is overwritten by any new incoming information. Hence, if there is no abundant recycling after the initial aural exposure, retention of the phonological level of the input is usually quite poor .

As for fronted-teacher talk in the target language, it is a listening-as-modelling practice that has great potential for learning when the input is carefully and craftily constructed to explicitly model language through lots of repetition, highly patterned discourse, reference to audio-visuals and/or realia and techniques which focus students on specific language items and allow Noticing to occur. Sadly, though, the teacher fronted-talk I have witnessed over 25 years of teacher training and observations in British classrooms is rarely planned and constructed this way and often novice to intermediate students only get the gist of what the instructor says without learning much from it.

5.2 Sample LAM activities

5.2.1 Micro-listening enhancers (MLEs)

Since I have talked about MLEs extensively in previous blogs, it will suffice to say here that they consists of phonological-awareness-raising activities which aim at developing decoding and coding skills, i.e. the ability to turn letters and combination to sounds and to match sounds to letters and combination of letters. As mounting research evidence shows, these skills are crucial to effective listening and even reading skills (Macaro, 2007).

I use these activities on a daily basis prior to staging more challenging listening or speaking activities to focus on sound that students find more problematic, as way to prep them.  Examples of these activities can be found at this link. Here are four types of  MLEs that I use a lot:

  • Spot the foreign sound (students listen to the teacher as s/he utters L2 words and identify sounds that do not exist in their language, whilst inductively working out letter-to-sound equivalence)
  • Spot the silent letter (example: Furniture, Chair, Wardrobe, Fridge)
  • Minimal pairs (e.g. Chair / Cheer ; Sink / Think; Hair/heir )
  • Fill in the missing letters

It is important to note that the words/phrases used in the MLE activities ought to be part of the target vocabulary one aims to teach in the lesson-at-hand.

5.2.2 Sentence builders / Writing mats

Sentence builders or writing mats are an excellent way to model writing through listening whilst at the same time teaching vocabulary. The teacher makes up sentences in the target language using the words in each column/box reading them aloud a few times at accessible speed and students write them out in their native language on mini-whiteboards or iPads (the way I use them within a full lesson sequence is outlined in more detail here). I usually embed the translation of new/challenging in the sentence builder/writing mats to facilitate comprehension.

As a follow-up, the sentences made in the process can be recycled in any of the activities below. This is one of the sequences I use:  teacher-led sentence builder > narrow listening > student-led sentence builder (group-work) > structured oral interaction (e.g. communicative drills eliciting vocabulary/phrases modelled in the sentence builder activity) > reading aloud (if time) > listening comprehension (to assess uptake of target items) . Obviously, each activity will recycle the input found in the sentence builder + a few unfamiliar items thrown here and there to spice up the language and elicit inference strategies.

5.2.3 Dictations and partial dictations – beyond forging good spelling habits…

Although they are often dubbed as ‘legacy methods’ , there is mounting research evidence that dictations and partial dictations can positively impact listening comprehension ability  (e.g. Marzban et al, 2013; Kuo, 2010). Dictations can be used to enhance other important aspects of L2 proficiency beside word spelling and coding/decoding skills. For instance, I use them quite frequently to model correct grammar and even  transformations writing strategies. These are but a few uses one can make of dictations:

  • To model vocabulary usage. Partial dictations are an excellent means to focus students’ attention on specific vocabulary items and collocations whilst at the same time modelling their pronunciation and how they relate syntactically to other words. When the missing words are new, I usually provide the L1 translation in brackets, next to the gap. I find partial dictations particularly valuable when teaching L2 items which are notoriously less salient (e.g. prepositions, articles, word endings) and go often unnoticed;
  • To teach grammar. In a cognitive-comparison activity, the teacher displays a number of sentences in the L1 on the board/screen and dictates to the students the translation of those sentences in the L2 to raise their awareness of important morphological and/or syntactic differences between the two languages in conveying the same meaning. The students write out the sentences, are asked to spot the differences and work out the relevant L2 grammar rules inductively.
  • To provide feedback on learner errors. After identifying a number of common errors in the student oral and/or written output in the handling of a set of L2 items, the teacher displays on the board incorrect L2 sentences in which those errors have been embedded. S/he will then dictate the correct L2 version of those sentences and ask the students to compare differences and work out the rules that were flouted in the erroneous output.
  • To model transformational writing skills. As already discussed in a previous blog (here)sentence recombining tasks can be powerful tools to develop transformational writing skills. Dictations can be used to model sentence-recombining strategies. Take the sentences:           

My mother is friendly, funny and affectionate. / She can be stingy at times. / She often tells me off for being lazy

Through dictation students can be shown various ways in which they can be recombined (e.g. My mother is friendly, funny and affectionate but can be stingy at times and often tells me off for being lazy or although my mum can be stingy at times and often tells me off for being lazy, she is friendly, funny and affectionate, etc.). After several aural examples, more written examples may be provided and subsequently the students can     have a go at sentence recombining themselves

5.2.4 Reading aloud

Short sessions of reading aloud passages recycling the lesson’s target vocabulary followed by equally short comprehension tasks (e.g. list five points made in the passage you have just read) or even oral translation are minimal-preparation tasks that have been shown to significantly impact students’ oral proficiency (Seo, 2014). I usually get students to read aloud to each other in dyads or triads and it works quite well. However, more able students enjoy it more than less able ones, especially when dealing with longer texts. I tend to shy away from carrying out reading aloud with long texts.

5.2.5 Jigsaw listening

This is a classic which the students enjoy and another minimal preparation activity. Mounting research evidence points to its effectivennes in enhancing listening comprehension skills (e.g. Fajar Satria Pambudi et al, 2013).  All you have to do is get hold of the transcript of an audio-track, jumble the lines up and put the resulting text on the screen for student to put it back together in its original form as they listen to the recording. I usually carry it out before staging a listening comprehension task (using its transcript for the jigsaw activity), especially with weaker groups, highlighting items that I want to draw the students’ attention to.

5.2.6 Narrow listening

I have dealt with narrow listening and narrow reading extensively in previous blogs. They consist of a set of  short passages on the same topic which contain highly patterned input and recycle the same vocabulary to death, with very few variations. The high recycling and the recurring patterns facilitate understanding and recall. I usually get the students to carry out very short comprehension tasks on them which increase in difficulty as they progress through them. See an example here. I use narrow listening a lot and it has definitely enhanced my students’ listening skills. I usually follow it up with narrow reading activities recycling the same language.

5.2.7 Nursery rhymes, poems and songs

Songs are possibly the best LAM activities because of their potential for motivation. However, to have the highest surrender value they should recycle the lesson’s target items – which is not always easy. If you have a talented musician amongst your ML colleagues you can get them to alter the lyrics of popular songs to include the target vocabulary or structures. I do have one such colleague and draw on his talent on a weekly basis.

Songs, nursery rhymes and poems can be exploited for many purposes at a range of levels (see my post here). As a LAM activity, I usually exploit them by (a) gapping the lyrics; (b)  doing a jigsaw listening task; (c) inserting random extraneous words that they need to identify and circle as they listen and (d) doing a transcription task of a whole section of it (e.g. the refrain or a stanza).

  1. Highly patterned story-telling with visual cues.

Story-telling can be very powerful but requires lots of preparation when we are dealing with lower proficiency group, so I tend to use it mostly with strong intermediate or with upper intermediate groups. The story should be interesting and the input should be highly patterned and accessible and recycle the lesson’s target items; moreover it is advisable to prep the students through a lot of vocabulary-building activities prior to the activity to lessen the cognitive load during the story-telling. I usually tell the story in short instalments. After each instalment I show the transcript of what I have just read on the screen, ask a few comprehension or what-comes-next questions and move on to the next bit.

Concluding remarks

In this post I have made a case for a mind-shift in listening instruction from quizzing on aural input to teaching and learning through aural input. I have described a range of minimum-preparation / high-impact Listening-as-modelling (LAM) activities that use aural input to model pronunciation, decoding skills, sentence building and to enhance the acquisition of lexical and grammar items through cognitive comparison, noticing and abundant recycling.

The frequent use of LAM activities in my lessons has greatly enhanced my students’ learning, the most tangible outcome being substantial gains in their pronunciation, decoding skills, oral fluency and general listening comprehension. Hence, I strongly recommend ML teachers incorporate LAM activities in their every lesson, mindful of the following recommendations I made in paragraph 3, above:

  1. include highly patterned (e.g. lots of repetition) comprehensible input uttered at a speech rate which is accessible to the target learners;
  2. start with highly structured and highly scaffolded activities which become gradually less structured and demanding;
  3. start with smaller units of discourse and gradually build up to larger ones;
  4. use a variety of tightly-sequenced tasks which recycle the same language items and patterns;
  5. each LAM activity should prepare the students for any subsequent listening comprehension tasks;
  6. make use of visual aids and other cues (e.g. typographic devices to translation) which facilitate understanding of the input;
  7. explicitly promote the noticing of any new L2 items in the aural input.

Listening comprehension tasks should be staged after the linguistic material they contain has been processed aurally through a range of LAM activities so as to ensure that our students are no more engaged in mere guesswork, but that they actually come to the task prepared. This shift from guesswork to ‘know work’ may not only enhance their chances to understand but also their sense of efficacy and self-esteem as listeners.

For more on our views on language teaching and learning do get hold of our book “The Language Teacher Toolkit” available here