12 strategies for enhancing intermediate language students’ writing

(Co-authored with Steven Smith and Dylan Vinales)


In this post I suggest strategies for enhancing modern-language students’ chances to succeed at writing, based on cognitive models of L2 written production and skill acquisition.

I will start by outlining the processes which underlie writing, as laid out in Hayes and Flowers’ (1980) model of essay writing and Cooper and Matsuhashi’s (1983) account of the Translating processes. Both models will provide us with extremely useful insights in the issues that undermine written performance thereby cueing us to the instructional approaches that may help us ‘fix’ or ideally prevent those issues.

It should be noted that whereas in a previous post I discussed the implications of these models for advanced-level students, here I will concern myself with students preparing for the England and Wales GCSE examination, who typically fall into the Lower to Upper Intermediate proficiency bands. Please note that Steve Smith and I have dealt more thoroughly with this topic in our book, ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ (here).

If you are not interested in the theory behind my approach, go straight to paragraph 4, where I lay out the suggested twelve minimal-preparation/high-impact instructional strategies.

2.Understanding higher order writing processes: Planning, Organising, Goal-setting and Editing

The Hayes and Flower model concerns itself mainly with the higher order writing processes. It posits three main components:

(1) the Task-environment, which includes the Writing Assignment (the topic, the target audience, and motivational factors)and the text one is producing;

(2) the Writer’s Long-term memory (LTM), which provides factual knowledge and skill/genre specific procedures;

(3) the Writing Process, which consists of the three sub-processes of Planning, Translating and Reviewing and occurs in Working Memory.

Figure 1: The Hayes and Flower Model of writing


The Planning process sets goals (e.g. I need to write about the pros of using the car) based on information drawn from the Task-environment (e.g. the essay title: Discuss the pros and cons  of using the car ) and Long-Term Memory  (our background knowledge and our previous experience with similar essay titles).

Once the goals have been established, a writing plan is developed to achieve those goals. More specifically, the Generatings sub-process retrieves information from LTM through an associative chain in which each item of information or concept retrieved functions as a cue to retrieve the next item of information and so forth. (e.g. cars use fossil fuels > fossil fuels cause CO2 emissions> CO2 emissions pollute, etc.)

The Organising sub-process selects the most relevant items of information retrieved and organizes them into a coherent writing plan.

Finally, the Goal-setting sub-process sets rules (e.g. ‘keep it simple’,’avoid long lists of nouns’, ‘add in more tenses and opinions’, etc.) that will be applied in the Editing process.

The second macro-process, Translating, transforms the information retrieved from LTM into language. This is necessary since concepts are stored in LTM in the form of Propositions (‘concepts’/ ‘imagery’), not words – a language that some refer to as ‘Brainese’. Flower and Hayes (1980) provide the following examples of what propositions involve:  [(Concept A) (Relation B) (Concept C)] or {Concept D) (Attribute E)], etc.

Finally, the Reviewing processes of Reading and Editing have the function of enhancing the quality of the written output. The Editing process checks that grammar rules and discourse conventions are not being flouted, looks for semantic inaccuracies and evaluates the text in the light of the writing goals. The Editing process checks that grammar rules and discourse conventions are not being flouted, looks for semantic inaccuracies and evaluates the text in the light of the writing goals.Two important features of the Editing process are: (1) it is triggered automatically whenever a fault is detected; (2) it may interrupt any other ongoing process.

Editing is regulated by an attentional system called the Monitor. This system seems to be more active in certain individuals than others, a phenomenon that has led Stephen Krashen to categorize language learners in ‘High monitors’ and ‘Low Monitors’. In my PhD study I identified a number of factors that appeared to render my subjects more sensitised to form accuracy than others; the most decisive of them were  personality, motivation and previous history as learners. In particular I found that students who had been taught in learning settings where attention-to-form had been emphasized were generaly higher and more effective monitors.

Hayes and Flower’s model is useful in providing teachers with a framework for understanding the many demands that essay writing poses to students. In particular, it helps teachers understand how the recursiveness of the writing process (i.e. the fact that the writer goes back and forth reviewing and editing) may cause those demands to interfere with each other causing cognitive overload and error. For instance, it suggests that if a student’s attention is constantly absorbed by the lower demands of written production, such as dealing with spelling or grammatical concerns, her higher order processes will suffer, and vice versa, with potentially catastrophic consequences for both levels of the text. This is one major reason why so many sixth formers underperform – unsurprisingly so, as how can one plan and write an essay effectively when one is still worrying about basic grammar issues such as agreement and word order, vocabulary choice and even spelling?

Hence, the first implication for teaching is that the lower order processes must be routinized as much as possible through a specific instructional focus on core micro-skills (e.g. spelling, agreement, word-order, ect.)

3. Understanding lower order writing processes : Translating ‘brainese’ into the target language

To truly understand the problems that the students experience in translating the propositional content (the ideas) into the target language we need to look elsewhere, e.g. at Cooper and Matsuhashi (1983)’s account below, which has more important implications for teaching. Cooper and Matsuhashi (1983) posit four stages, which correspond to Hayes and Flower’s (1980) TranslatingWording, Presenting, Storing and Transcribing.

In the first stage, the brain transforms the propositional content into vocabulary. Although at this stage the pre-lexical decisions the writer made at earlier stages and the preceding discourse limit vocabulary choice, Wording the proposition is still a complex task: ‘the choice seems infinite, especially when we begin considering all the possibilities for modifying or qualifying the main verb and the agentive and affected nouns’ (Cooper and Matsuhashi, 1983: 32).

Once she has selected the lexical items, the writer has to tackle the task of Presenting the proposition in standard written language. This involves making a series of decisions in the areas of genre, grammar and syntax. In the area of grammar, Agreement, Word-order and Tense will be the main issues for L1-English learners of target languages like French, German, Italian or Spanish.

The proposition, as planned so far, is then temporarily stored in Working  Memory  while Transcribing takes place. Propositions longer than just a few words will have to be rehearsed and re-rehearsed in Working Memory for parts of it not to be lost before the transcription is complete – which will require a substantial amount of attentional capacity.

The limitations of Working Memory create serious disadvantages for unpractised second language writers. Until they gain some confidence and fluency with spelling, their Working Memory may have to be loaded up with letter sequences of single words or with only 2 or 3 words (Hotopf, 1980). This not only slows down the writing process, but it also means that all other planning must be suspended during the transcriptions of short letter or word sequences. This will also make it hard for the brain to deal with words that are grammatically related but are located quite far from each other in a sentencee.g. ‘Mi madre es inglesa pero parece más italiana que mi padre que es alto y rubio’; with sentences like this one, Working Memory will struggle, as it will be able to deal with only chunks of two or three words at the time, which entails that by the time it gets to process the end-part of the sentence it might miss the fact that ‘italiana’ has to agree with ‘madre’.

The physical act of transcribing the fully formed proposition begins once the graphic image of the output (i.e its spelling) has been stored in Working Memory. In L1-writing, Transcribing occupies subsidiary awareness, enabling the writer to use focal awareness for other plans and decisions. However, this is not the case for the unpractised L2 writer in that she has a limited amount of attention to allocate and that whatever is taken up with the lower level demands of written language must be taken from something else.

This means that linguistic features perceived by the brain as less salient, such as function words, word-endings and copulas (e.g. ‘is’) are likely to be the first victims of Working-Memory loss as caused by divided attention as they are not essential for communication. This is a widely documented phenomenon amongst Novice-to-Intermediate L2 writers.

In sum, Cooper and Matsuhashi (1983) posit two main stages in the conversion of the preverbal message into a speech plan: (1) the selection of the right lexical units and (2) the application of grammatical rules. The unit of language is then deposited in STM awaiting translation into grapho-motor execution. This temporary storage raises the possibility that lower level demands affects production as follows:

(1) causing the writer to omit material during grapho-motor execution (i.e. the physical act of writing) – the most typical mistake in this phase is when students omit copulas (e.g. ‘is’);

(2) leading to forgetting higher-level decisions already made. Interference resulting in WSTM loss can also be caused by lack of monitoring of the written output due to devoting conscious attention entirely to planning ahead, while leaving the process of transcription to run ‘on automatic’.

4. Challenges and implications for the teaching of writing

As the above model clearly suggests, there is much more to writing than meets the eye and it is only through exploring the students’ cognitive processes through Think-aloud procedures that Hayes and Flower could produce the above-discussed model.

The most glaring challenge refers to the many demands that the L2-student writer’s Working Memory must juggle simultaneously as she produces written output, as most performance deficits will stem from inadequate ‘juggling’. Working Memory having very limited cognitive ‘space’ to process all these demands at the same time, teachers need to ensure that as many of these processes as possible are gradually routinised throughout the course in preparation for the exam. The more routinised the processes are, the less cognitive space they will require as they will be carried out subconsciously with negligible cognitive demands on the writer’s attention system.

To tackle the above challenge teachers should:

 – address each of the above processes and the skills/strategies needed to master them;

– (due to the time constraints imposed by the course) prioritise the processes and skills needing more attention (Planning based on a correct understanding the task brief? Idea generation? Lexical search? Syntax? Spelling?) in their Long-/Medium- and Short-term planning based on the identified needs of the target students;

– ensure they create opportunities for practising those skills/strategies over and over again throughout the two years of the GCSE course.

These are, for example, the priorities I have identified with my current group of year 11 students and have been addressing in my teaching, as listed in ascending order of importance:

(9) Understanding the exam brief (accurate interpretation of exam briefs)

(8) Performing noun-adjective agreement accurately

(7) Conjugating irregular verbs accurately across all target tense

(6) Selecting the correct tense

(5) Retrieving the target vocabulary rapidly and accurately in production (an important aspect of fluency)

(4) Using connectives and other discourse markers effectively to organize discourse coherently and cohesively

(3) Monitoring production of small function-words (the least visible item to the editing eye of the L2 student)

(2) Building complex and accurate sentences under time constraints (i.e. under Real Operating Conditions such as an exam)

(1) Self-monitoring (ability to edit based on knowledge of their most common production issues)

Prioritising (a must!) and keeping in my focal awareness the above in my planning has improved my teaching substantially, as some of the above skill-sets, especially (1) to (5), are the most important with the group of students I am currently teaching. Once identified my 5 top priorities, I structured my teaching  accordingly and addressed them systematically in every unit of work I planned in the last year and a bit.

Here are twelve  minimal prep / high-impact instructional strategies that worked for me

4.1 Practise understanding task briefs – First and foremost, as it is obvious, students must be given plenty of practice in understanding writing tasks briefs. At the early stages of preparation for the exams, this is better done by divorcing this activity from the actual essay writing. Give students a series of briefs and help them tackle the task by (a) modelling top-down inference strategies (e.g. using key-words); (b) teaching them the core vocabulary typically occurring in briefs alongside the topic-specific lexis that you will teach anyway as part of the course. When you run out of past-exam task briefs in the target language (e.g. French), translate the ones found in exams in other languages (e.g. German, Spanish, Italian).

4. 2 Increase task familiarity – Task familiarity has a number of major positive effects on students’ performance, some pertaining to the affective and some to the cognitive spheres. Firstly, from a cognitive point of view familiarity with the task will speed up the planning and organizing sub-processes as by practising the same task-type over and over the brain will identify and ultimately acquire schematas (cognitive patterns) which it will be able to apply to those tasks in the future. Secondly, as it is obvious, increased familiarity results in higher levels of expectancy of success and lower anxiety levels.

Many teachers increase task-familiarity by getting their students to practise with as many target writing tasks as possible; e.g. if the students have to write 140 words essay titles containing a 4-bullet-points exam brief, they will get their students to write many essays of this sort. However, this approach can be greatly enhanced by providing as many opportunities to process receptively as many model essays as possible across as many topics as possible. Producing model essays of this sort can be quite time consuming but pays enormous dividends – please note: by model essays I mean high quality essays containing linguistic material with high surrender value.

Obviously, simply asking the students to read model essays will not be enough. The students must be encouraged to notice specific desirable features, such as use of connectives; the deployment of specific idioms or set phrases, etc.. This can be done (a) through metalinguistic questions on the texts (e.g. why is the imperfect use in line 10?; how many adjectives can you spot in paragraph two?; etc.). Using model essays with their translation alongside (i.e. parallel texts) can be particularly useful when purporting to engage students in metalinguistic analysis of the text. (b) by asking the students to translate specific ítems in the text you want to draw their attention to.

Another dimension of task-familiarity pertains to knowing the evaluative criteria set by the Examination Board. The students ought to know in as much detail as possible how the examiner is going to mark their essay and what their baseline at the beginning of the course is as benchmarked against those criteria. This will start their process of self-monitoring vis-à-vis the identified deficits. The model essays alluded to above will be used to set aspirational goals based on the desirable features they will contain, whilst less ‘good’ essays will be shown to enhance student awareness of common pitfalls of ineffective writing. To further enhance such awareness a range of A*, A, B, C, D and E grade essays may be shown to the students who, working in groups, will rate them using the Examination Board criteria. Groups compare each other’s grading and discussion ensues – an AFL classic.

4.3 Increase the students’ planning efficiency – At GCSE level, organization is not a major issue; however, planning the essay before writing by brainstorming what is known and structuring it accordingly will lighten the cognitive load, especially with less proficient learners.

In the course of an interventionist study carried out with Professor Macaro in six Oxfordshire comprehensive schools with year 10 students of French, we used the following planning strategy: once understood the brief, the students were asked to brainstorm as many words, phrases and sentences associated to the various points in the brief as they could recall off the top of their head – any. They would then use the brainstormed items to generate ideas and plan the composition.

This strategy correlated with higher levels of success at post-test, especially with weaker students. The rationale for its success: the brainstorming starts a series of associations which stimulates idea generation; the words and phrases retrieved whilst brainstorming give the student a sense of reassurance that they can write something about each sub-topic and in many case all the students have to do is connect the various bits on their mind map into to produce meaningful and cohesive whole.

4.4 Practise smart coverage – Of course teaching masses of vocabulary is a must ; however, with the little time available it is impossible to cover the whole of the syllabus in the time allocated by the course. By practising smart coverage you will optimize vocabulary teaching. To achieve this you may:

(a) teach high surrender value items and structures. This means: (1) Identify  as many words, phrases and sentences as possible, that can be used whatever the essay title might be (e.g. connectives;  high frequency adjectives such as those expressing like and dislikes and emotions; high frequency verbs such as modal verbs; key tenses; key phrases/idioms such as ‘there are’, ‘to top it off’, ‘what I like/dislike’, ‘the best thing is’ and core structures such ‘after doing something’, ‘I think/don’t think it is’ etc. ); (2) recycle them to death in every single unit of work you are teaching; (3) create opportunities for practising those  items and structures across all four skills day in day out.

(b) recycle as much of the core vocabulary listed by the examination board in their specification as much as possible in your schemes of work. I have a box in every single unit/sub-unit I will teach this year, called ‘Recycling opportunities’ in which I list the words and structures processed in previous units  which I will recycle in the present unit and explain how it can be done.

(c) Focus on verbs much more than you currently do– Whilst nouns are the most important word class in terms of survival communicative skills, verbs significantly increase an L2 speaker/writer’s  autonomous communicative competence and expressive power in academic settings. Students are usually equipped with a very limited range of target-language verbs, partly because teachers are afraid their students will not be able to conjugate them. Teach your students the infinitive of the core verbs as you would teach any other lexical item; once your students know how to conjugate the modal verbs (want, can and must)or any other verbs requiring the infinitive (e.g. il faut in French or Hay que in Spanish) across the main tenses, the students will be able to use those infinitives across a wide range of contexts.

4.5 Masses of ‘smart’ receptive processing – As I reiterated in every post of mine, bombarding students with lots of listening and reading is fundamental to enhance students’ acquisition. However, when using receptive processing to enhance essay writing, whether we use model essays as suggested above or other written or aural texts, we need to ensure that we direct the students attention to the items we want them to incorporate in their writing. In paragraph 3 I discussed two strategies we can use to achieve that.

But what is even more important is that we give them opportunity to use whatever vocabulary or structures we expose to in the receptive input in student-generated productive output after they have processed it. So, if after two or three receptive activities we have encouraged them to notice the use of the pattern ‘After doing something’ we will ensure that they practise it productively afterwards in two or three subsequent tasks. Way too often, this does not happen; all that remains is a few examples scribbled on the whiteboards.

4.6 Address the core micro-skills- According to much research into the acquisition of French and Spanish as L2s, noun-adjective, subject-verb, article-noun and any other form of agreement are acquired (i.e. highly routinized) quite late in the language learning process. Hence, they require much more practice than is currently done in ML classrooms. In view of what we said in terms of the limited storage capacity of working memory, these skills ought to be practised day in day out. The minimal preparation way of dealing with this is devoting five minutes of your lesson to (a) receptive processing activities, such grammaticality judgement quizzes (three or more options are given, e.g. ‘ un chat blanc  / une chat blanc / une chat blanche’ and students to choose the right answer explaining why), partial dictations (students is given ‘Ma souris est ________’ and teacher utters’ ma souris est blanche’); (b) productive ones such as gap-fills (e.g. une souris_____ (blanc)) and  mini-white-board translations (teacher utters sentence in English and students to translate into target language).

Sadly, because agreement and conjugations are not perceived as salient by the anglo-saxon brain, when experiencing cognitive overload, they are usually the first thing to be overlooked by novice L2 student writers.

Ideally, practice in these micro-skills should occur in Primary or at least in the early years of Secondary. Students who have acquired such skills will be more fluent as they will have more cognitive space available in Working Memory to devote to higher order decisions regarding syntax, lexical selection and even planning and content organization.

4.7 Focus on small function words – small function words such as prepositions, conjuctions and articles are not semantically salient, hence they are another frequent victim of cognitive overload. Sadly, they are also one of the items in the syllabus that teachers and textbooks neglect. This is a problem if we consider that prepositions are usually the one set of items that even advanced learners struggle with as they often escape the rule of thumbs we teach them, most of them are polysemic and their usage frequently differs across languages and is not always based on common sense.

Solution: (a) when you do your miniwhiteboard translation practice make sure your sentences include prepositions; (b) when you model grammar/syntax through sentence builders, have a column which include pepositions; (c) do partial dictations where the missing items are function words; (d) use typographic devices to highlight the occurrence and interesting use of a small function word; (e) raise their awareness of the fact that they are likely to overlook this words in the editing phase of their essay writing and of the importance of having a run-through before handing in their piece which focuses solely on them; (f) last but not least: teach them how to use prepositions in context.

4.8 Work on students’ syntax – The students must be taught explicitly how to construct sentences; they will not just acquire it subconsciously through reading – as some ML teachers seem to believe – or by redrafting an essay incorporating their instructor’s corrections.

The best and easiest way to model sentence building is through carefully designed sentence builders like the one in the picture below. I teach grammar and syntax through them all the time thereby providing aural and visual input and presenting the grammar/syntax in context. This synergy between reading and listening truly is key to the success of this technique.

Figure 2 – Sentence builder


The following cognitive-comparison activity also models syntax through listening. Example: the teacher provides a syntactically incorrect L2 sentence resulting from literal L1-to-L2 translation); she then utters the correct L2 version; students to rewrite the wrong version of the sentence correctly.

Another useful task is ‘sentence puzzles’ – or any other task that requires students to rearrange sentences whose elements have been misplaced back into the correct syntactic order (intended meaning is provided). Such tasks enhance learner awareness of the importance of correct word order and can be used by instructors for inductive teaching by modelling correct syntax through the feedback given at the end of the task. A great follow-up to sentence builders.

Transformational writing techniques like the one described and discussed here, are immensely useful, too. My favourite one is sentence recombining. Example: students are given the sentences ‘My brother is annoying’  / ‘He talk too much’ /’He can be helpful at times’  and is given the following three words to merge the three sentences in one: although, because, also. Possible solution: Although my brother is annoying because he talks too much, he can also be helpful at times.

This is part of an exercise I gave yesterday to my year 10 Spanish class: merge the  following sentences into one ‘Mi barrio es ruidoso’ ‘Mi barrio está sucio’ ‘la gente es simpática’. Solution given by one student: Mi barrio es ruidoso y está sucio, sin embargo la gente es muy simpática’

Sentence recombining activities are useful because they involve reading comprehension, modelling, train students in the manipulation of syntax and focus them on form and word order whilst involving a degree of creativity, i.e. deeper processing of information (which enhances retention).

4.9 Forge fast and accurate spellers – spelling can require focal awareness in novice writers thereby undermining the accuracy of higher levels of their output. Hence, the importance of forging fast and accurate ‘spellers’ cannot be overemphasized if we are addressing deficits in our students’ writing performance. When the accuracy issues pertain to the spelling of agreement and conjugation ending the above problems are compounded by grammatical flaws in the output.

Minimal preparation activities include: old school dictations (keep them frequent but short), both full and partial; anagrams and gapped words from which the problematic letters/letter combinations have been omitted.

Daily low-stake spelling challenges (I avoid calling them tests) can be useful in enhancing the students’ focus on this level of writing if you are dealing with particularly sloppy or careless individuals.

4.10 Improve your students’ fluency – Fluency refers to the speed rate at which students can produce accurate writing. Get students used to writing under time conditions in response to an image or a brief similar to the bullet points found in the exam tasks. You may ask them to use a set number of tenses, connectives or opinions as you feel fit. Tell them that the more words they write and the wider their variety, the better. When you stage this kind of activities, grammar accuracy should not be a concern as the main focus is speed and variety of vocabulary exactly as you would do in speaking activities. Do correct their main errors if you believe they will benefit from it, but do not penalize them for making them.

4.11 Do more interactive speaking in class – At GCSE level the linguistic content and register of the students’ oral output will not be different from the written one, unless they are writing a formal letter. Hence, if their spelling is good enough, any work on their speaking fluency will result in gains in written fluency.

4.12 Promote effective editing and self-monitoring – Errors are often context-dependent. It is not by telling a student he has made a mistake and asking to self-correct or by providing a correction with rule explanation that they will not make that mistake again. If the mistakes relate to item ‘X’ (that they know the rule for) in context ‘Y’, they will only eliminate that mistake by practising the use of ‘X’ in context ‘Y’ time and again. What we can do, however, as an alternative to training them not to make recurrent mistakes again, is to train them to Self-monitor effectively by raising their awareness of the mistakes they make more often and by asking them to create a personalised checklists of mistakes to look out for in each and every essay. The students should be taught to review the essay (not ‘read’ it) by going through it several times, each time looking for a different issue so as to avoid cognitive overload. Example: noun-adjective agreement first, small function words second, omissions of verbs third, word order fourth, verb endings fifth, etc.

To sensitize students to the important of editing and bringing the issue of accuracy in their focal awareness, teachers will also stage frequent short and snappy error hunts whereby students need to find errors in model sentences provided by the teacher. A fun way of doing this is to write correct and incorrect model sentences on post-its that you will number and scatter around your classroom or the MFL corridor. Students will be given a set amount of time (I usually give them 10-15 minutes) to spot the post-its with the mistakes and correct them. The student with the most successful corrections wins.

Much more could be said about how to use feedback on error but I will abstain as I have already written way too much on this issue. The reader is invited to read previous blogs on error correction (here) if they want to know more – or our book, of course.

5. Concluding remarks

As I always reiterate on this blog, an understanding of the cognitive processes which underlie students’ performance in given contexts and skills is crucial if we want to address their deficits. In this post I have outlined those processes in their broad lines and suggested ways in which instruction can address them through a systematic and repeated long-term effort.

The main message is that we have to help our student-writers to automatize as many of the processes involved in the writing task as possible, especially those unfolding in the Translating phase so as to enable them to operate with  as light a cognitive load as possible. This will reduce divided attention freeing up more space in their Working Memory to deal with the aspects of production they find more challenging.

Ideally, most of the strategies I discussed above would be carried out from the very early stages of instruction. However, this happens rarely in English-based ML instruction, the result being very sloppy KS4 (KS4) and even KS5 (16+) students who have not been effective trained in writing fluently and accurately and exhibit little cognitive control and flexibility.

A final note: I do not believe that writing should take much of our classroom learning time; most of it should be flipped, unless we are modelling important writing strategies or we are carrying out one-on-one feedback/feedforward activities with our students. In my approach, however, as outlined in this post and, in greater detail, here, much modelling of writing and syntax can and should be done through listening-as-modelling activities as well as reading and interactive speaking. The key, however, for enabling receptive processing to effectively feed into student writing is to explicitly and vigorously foster Noticing.

Promoting learning-to -learn: 12 top tips for effective vocabulary learning



Once a month I stage one-to-one conferences with my students in which we address the issues in their language learning  brought up in their reflective journals and/or any other concerns they may have (e.g. a recurring error that is annoying them or a grammar rule they cannot seem to grasp). Last week a couple of my students asked me what they could do to improve their retention of words. My first answer was that they could use my website (www.language-gym.com ) or others like Quizlet or Memrise. ‘But what if I do not want to use any language learning websites or online games, sir?’ they replied.

Although I was puzzled and disappointed to learn that my website was not seen as a useful or stimulating means to learn vocabulary, it was refreshing to find that some students are not dependent on language websites for their learning but are eager to find autonomous ways to propel their language acquisition further. After all, the best learners are those who seek self-direction and autonomous mastery.

Personalizing one’s learning experience pays enormous dividends as it involves more cognitive and affective involvement on the part of the learner. But when the learner draws entirely on her cognitive and emotional resources without the help of specialised websites, her effort and investment are likely to be even greater as she is being totally self-directed in her language learning management, without following a pre-determined instructional path dictated by others.

As a result, these very pedagogically sound requests prompted me to set up a little workshop on vocabulary learning strategies which I will deliver to my students next week and which I intend to follow up every so often with short and snappy reminders to use those strategies. This post was written whilst brainstorming the vocabulary learning strategies to include in my workshop. In selecting the tip-top strategies I largely drew on the techniques I myself used as a learner of English, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Latin, Greek and Malay.

2. 12 tips for self-directed vocabulary learning

The following are the tips I am planning to give my students in the workshop (in more simplified language). They are but a few of the vocabulary learning strategies available in the literature; the reason why they were chosen over others is because (a) they require minimum preparation in terms of resources; (b) do not involve any financial commitment; (c) have high surrender value; (d) for most of them there is plenty of research pointing to their effectiveness; (e) I use them on a daily basis and they have helped me learn 7 languages.

        1.Phonological hooks

Jot down the to-be-learnt words and associate (drawing a mind-map) them with as many words starting or ending with the same sounds. These do not necessarily have to be words in the target language; you may use words in your L1 or L3, too. The retentive power of this technique can be enhanced by creating logical sentences using the rhyming words. Example: target word ‘fair’ – my hair is fair; target word:  ‘hired’ – he was hired then fired.

This tip is based on the principle that words in the brain are more closely connected with words they alliterate, chime and rhyme with. So, on learning a word, give yourself a time limit and brainstorm as many words as you can recall that rhyme with the target items. You can turn this into a competition with your classmate(s).

  1. The Key-Word Technique

This is a memory strategy that has never failed me and that I have been using over the years with all of the language I have learnt.  It involves using synergistically phonological and/or graphological hooks  along with visual imagery to creatively come up with a mnemonic (memory device). Example:  in Malay, the official language of Malaysia, the word ‘sedia’ means ‘ready’. To remember it I hooked it phonologically to the Italian word ‘sedia’ meaning ‘chair’ in my first language whilst associating it with the  image of one of my students ‘Balaj’ who is always ready to leap up out of his chair whenever I ask a question, super eager to answer it. At the early stages of learning ‘sedia’ I would think of Balaj ready to leap out of the chair to answer my questions and never failed to retrieve the correct meaning of the word.

This technique is especially useful when one is dealing with long words . Example: the word jidohanbaiki  (‘vending machine’ in Japanese) could be anchored to the three words ‘judo on bike’ whilst one would visualize a massive bright red drinks vending machine dressed up in a judo outfit on a bike. I learnt this word  through this imagery twenty-five years ago and still remember it .

This technique is effective because it engages the brain through  visual (the imagery and the spelling) and auditory (the phonological  hook) processing whilst at the same time involving the brain in higher order thinking (creativity) and deep processing through elaboration (i.e. establishing complex semantic connections between two or more items). Another learning principle at play here is Distinctiveness – the more we make a word or concept stand out in our memory, the more we increase working memory span and its likelihood of retention.

  1. Emotional associations

When you are learning new words try to associate them with people or objects that are very meaningful to you. So, for instance, on learning about physical or personality attributes in English, use them to describe people that mean a lot to you and whose personality has deeply affected you – possibly by virtue of those very attributes. If your father has often argued with you over pocket money issues you would make up sentences like: ‘My dad is tight or stingy’. If your younger brother is always unwilling to do his chores: ‘My brother is lazy’, etc. You can do this using celebrities, too (e.g. Kim Kardashian is annoying).

This strategy’s effectiveness is based on the principle that an emotional investment in learning any information increases its distinctiveness and consequently the chances of its retention.

  1. Categorizing by meaning and word-class

Sort the words you are attempting to memorize in as many categories based on their meaning as possible, using your imagination as wildly as possible. Do as many rounds of categorizations  with the same words as you can; by doing more rounds you will force yourself to process the words semantically over and over again from different angles therefore following different neural pathways each time. Remember that (1) the heading of each category can be in your first language; (2) there is no right or wrong, as far as the categories make sense to you.

Example (adjectives again): you are trying to memorize the words ‘stingy’, ‘argumentative’, ‘noisy’, ‘talkative’, ‘lying’, ‘poor’, ‘lazy’, ‘active’, ‘toned’, ‘smart’, ‘hard-working’, ‘petty’, ‘cheerful’, ‘amusing’, ‘bright’, ‘well-built’, ‘slim’, ‘stunning’, ‘overweight’, ‘bad-tempered’, ‘treacherous’, ‘unstable’, ’dodgy’(slang),  ‘choleric’, ‘fit’, ‘affluent’, ‘muscular’, ‘depressed’, ‘elated’, ‘underprivileged’, ‘sneaky’(slang); frustrated’, ‘vindictive’, ‘ecstatic’

In the first round you may simply divide them into 2 categories: Positive and Negative; in the second round into Physical Appearance, Personality, Emotional states; in the third round you may want to narrow it down further, as follows:

(a) Physical fitness: toned, fit, well-built, muscular

(b) Uplifting emotions:  elated, cheerful, ecstatic

(c) Money: poor, affluent, rich, underprivileged, stingy

(d) Dishonesty: sneaky , dodgy, treacherous, lying

(e) Negative emotions: vindictive, frustrated, bad-tempered, choleric


The reason why this approach works is because it requires cognitive investment; creates connections between the words you are processing whilst at the same time involving creativity, all of which results in deep processing  of the target items.When the words do not belong to the same word-class but you have a mix of nouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, etc. a further type of classification you can perform is by grammatical categories. This metalinguistic activity is much more important than teachers give it credit for, as  (a) words belonging to the same word class seem more strongly linked in the brain (as studies of aphasic patients have shown) and (b) because when we try to comprehend target-language input via listening the brain uses its knowledge of the grammar to analyze it (a process called by psycholinguists ‘parsing’).

  1. Ordering, arranging by size, weight, length, intensity, etc.

During evolution, assessing the dimensions of things and the intensity of phenomena has played a crucial role in our survival. Hence any operations involving sorting people, objects and their attributes are perceived by the brain as important and distinctive; moreover, since they involve evaluation they elicit a fair degree of cognitive investment and higher order thinking. Example: in learning the following adjectives ‘ugly’ , ‘unattractive’, ‘horrible’, ‘cute’, ‘beautiful’, ‘disgusting’, ‘stunning’, ‘pleasant looking’; you may arrange them in ascending order from least attractive to most attractive. Another example: in learning geographical terms, you may arrange them in ascending order of size: pebble –  rock – cliff  – mountain – mountain chain – planet.

  1. Building semantic associations with existing material in Long-term memory

Every learning is highly enhanced the more associations you build between the to-be-learnt information and any information currently existing in your brain. For every new L2 word you intend to learn, search your brain for any L2 words you have already learnt which you may associate with them in terms of meaning – any! . If you know words in other languages that relate in meaning to the target words, add those in too. To enhance the effectives of this technique, explain (even in your own language) how the existing words relate to the new words.


New word: affluent

Related words I already know: (1) money (an affluent person has lots of money)

                                                             (2) rich (an affluent person is rich)

                                                              (3) poor (an affluent person is not poor)

                                                              (4) Taylor Swift (she is very affluent)

A way to make such associations even stronger is to connect the target words with their antonyms and synonyms (if you know any).

The learning principle at play here is that the neural connections between words which are closely associated in meaning are stronger.

As a younger learner, either alone – yes, geeky me ! – or with friends learning the same language I would do a word-chain challenge. This consisted in connecting two words very distant in meaning by connecting them through a chain of words logically associated with each other.

Example: link ‘old lady’ and ‘pollution’

Word chain: old lady – pet – kitten – cat – canned food – alluminum – non biodegradable waste – pollution

If you do this with friends as a competition, give yourselves a time limit and the person who will have come up with the longest word-chain will be the winner.

The potential for learning of any semantic association is strengthened when it is reinforced by sound; hence, as already suggested above, try to find words which alliterate and rhyme or chime as well as having semantic connections.

  1. Word activation in context

If you do not process receptively or use a word/phrase within the first week of learning it is likely to be lost for ever. Hence, try and use it as often as you can. The best way would be with native speakers in face-to-face or phone conversations or online chat. What I used to do when no native speaker was available, was to make up meaningful sentences using the new words – as many as possible – then get a native speaker or one of my teachers to give me some feedback.

To keep the memory trace of the new words alive and kicking over the weeks and months to come until it is fully acquired, you will need to practise over and over again at spaced intervals. Read the next point.

  1. Be mindful or memory decay

As you can see from the curve of forgetting rate below, the time where most of the forgetting occurs is within the first 24 hours from first processing it. Hence, this is when most of the memorization work has to be done; use as many of the above strategies as you can! During the remainder of the first week you should go over the target words over and over again, a few minutes for word-set. Better a few minutes per day than one hour once a week.


  1. Get the pronunciation of the word as close to right as possible from the beginning

Words are activated in the brain by their sound, even when we are processing them silently, as we read. This entails that we must try and get their pronunciation right from day one or you may confuse them in the future with other words that sound similar with harmful consequence for your processing ability even for reading comprehension !. You could learn the IPA (the international phonetic alphabet) as this will allow you to work out the pronunciation of any lexical item you are learning by interpreting its phonetic transcription in the dictionary. I did and it was the best thing I have ever done for learning languages. There are plenty of free websites listing the IPA alphabet characters and recording of how each of them is pronounced. What is important is that you do a lot of independent listening  – don’t simply learn words through the written medium.

  1. Have a storage space for key vocabulary

What I do when I learn a language is creating a vocabulary booklet which I divide in as many sub-topics as I can think of. Whenever I encounter a word or phrase I think is worth remembering I write it down in as many sections of the booklet I feel it may belong to. Example: the word ‘flight’ would fit in the ‘transport’ section as well as in the ‘holidays’ section. Once I have chosen the section(s) I will select one or more existing  words in that section that  I associate the target word most closely with and write it next to them, explaining why the two words are associated. So, for instance, ‘flight’ would go next to ‘plane’ (a flight is a journey by plane) and next to ‘to fly’ (they sound similar and a flight is the result of flying) – again, the connections can be written out in the first language.

  1. Google search the target words

If you are a die-hard vocabulary geek, like me you may  want to find out alongside which other words the target lexical items are most frequently used. The quickest way is to place the word in google search which will result in the search engine giving you a range of predictions, as shown in the picture below. This will give you an insight in some of the most frequent collocations that word is associated with and teach you a new word or two


  1. Use songs

There are beautiful songs in every single world language. The beauty of the Internet is that there are plenty of websites with the translation of those songs in your own language(s).  Songs are extremely useful in terms of vocabulary learning as they repeat key words several times over and the music – especially when it is catchy – provide distinctive, memorable and recurring sound patterns which promote memorization.

What I do is focus on the refrain as it is the part of the song I am most likely to retain by virtue of its ‘catchiness’ and repetition in the song. Moreover, refrains typically contain ‘cool’ and ‘interesting’ words or phrases which often have high surrender value.

4. Concluding remarks

Training the students to learn autonomously is ideally what we should do day in day out. However, it is not always easy nor viable in view of the time constraints imposed by the courses we teach on. The above strategies do have high surrender value, though, and are mostly ‘no brainers’. If we plan to impart them effectively, however,  we must be mindful of the importance of not limiting our input to a one-off session. If we do not, we will have simply raised our students’ awareness of their existence but not developed their intentionality to adopt them, their expertise in their deployment and their self-efficacy as strategy users. Hence, we must keep them ‘alive’ in our students’ focal awareness by embedding them in our daily teaching; by reminding the class to use such strategies in preparation of a mini-vocabulary test you are staging next week; by eliciting their use in class every so often; by providing them opportunities to experience success in the deployment of as many as possible of those techniques,etc. Thus, my workshop is but the beginning of a longer process that will unfold on and off over the next three o four months at least. For  a principled framework on how to implement learner training (learning-to-learn), please refer to this blog.

It goes without saying that all of the above strategies can be used by teachers and material designers in their lesson planning and in creating instructional materials. I always do and I have based my whole website http://www.language-gym.com and most of my most popular vocabulary revision resources (e.g. here)  on the above principles.

How to enhance your students’ chances of succeeding at listening (part 1)

(co-authored with Steve Smith and Dylan Vinales)

images (2)


The present article is a sequel to the post ‘Eleven reasons why your students underperform in Listening’ published a couple of days ago. I ended that post stating that in a follow-up article I would suggest practical ways to address the issues in the provision of listening instruction identified as common causes for L2-learner underperformance. Here it is. Please note, however, that since the original version of this article was quite long  I have decided to split it up in two. Hence this post only concerns itself with six of the issues listed below. I reserve to post the second part of the article over the next few days.

2. The issues

Here is a reminder of the issues identified in my previous post:

  1. Teachers are not sufficiently aware of the cognitive challenges that L2 learners face when they try to comprehend L2 aural input;
  2. Listening skills are only a peripheral concern; consequently,
  3. not sufficient time is devoted to listening practice in the classroom;
  4. Teachers do not teach listening skills, they quiz students through listening comprehensions, which are tests through and through;
  5. They usually do not train students in the mastery of bottom-up processing skills (decoding, parsing, etc.);
  6. They often do not teach students effective top-down processing strategies;
  7. Students do not perceive Listening as crucial to their learning;
  8. Teachers do not usually actually plan listening activities, and how they would best fit in the instructional sequence they are implementing. They typically follow the textbook or play recordings haphazardly at random points in the lessons;
  9. Many of the listening texts adopted do not contain comprehensible input, which makes listening become sheer guesswork;
  10. Students do not enjoy listening tasks;
  11. Students are not self-efficacious, i.e. their expectancy of success at listening tasks is low. Teachers do not plan for or scaffold success in listening adequately;

In the present post I will lay out my approach to listening instruction discussing the ways in which I addressed the above issues with my KS3  (1 to 13) and KS4/IGCSE (14-16) students.

2. A skill-based approach

Being based on Skill-theory, my approach is based on the principles below:

(a) Listening is a form of expertise which is acquired like any other skills, e.g. driving, playing chess, tennis or boxing;

(b) becoming an expert requires extensive practice in important processes so that they become more and more automatic;

(c) achieving any type of expertise requires the novice to adjust their performance slowly but steadily to the way in which an expert listener behaves. Hence, teachers needs to understand expert-listener behaviour if they are to induce it in novices.

This brings us to the first issue.

3.1 Teachers are not sufficiently aware of the cognitive challenges that L2 learners face when they try to comprehend L2 aural input (issue 1)

For listening instruction to be successful one needs to be fully aware of and/or consider in one’s planning the cognitive challenges that processing aural input poses to the novice-to-intermediate learner. Let us look at what makes Listening difficult:

  1. Listening is transitory; any sound stays in the brain (in Working Memory’s Phonological store) for one or two seconds and any incoming information will overwrite it;
  2. Hence, students have a very short time-window in which to analyse anything they hear and make sense of it and to carry forward what they understood in the mind in order to understand what comes next;
  3. When listening to a recording, the speech rate is not under the listener’s control (one cannot say ‘speak slower’ as one would do in real life to an interlocutor).

If we consider what a listener needs to do in order to comprehend any speech signal and build meaning, the picture becomes even more complex; comprehension of aural input goes through the following phases (Field, 2014):

  1. A decoding phase, in which she needs to ‘translate’ input into the sounds of the language
  2. A lexical search phase, in which she searches her brain (Long-term memory) for words which match or nearly match these sounds. This helps her break the speech flow she hears further and make sense of it (in a movement that goes from phoneme to syllable to word to phrase)
  3. A parsing phase, in which she must recognize a grammar pattern in a string of words and fit a word to the linguistic context surrounding it
  4. A meaning-building phase in which, having ‘broken’ the speech flow, identified the words she heard and how they fit grammatically in the sentence she finally makes sense of it
  5. A discourse-construction phase, in which the understanding of each unit of meaning (e.g. sentence) is connected to the larger context of the narrative. In this phase, one’s background knowledge will help enhance comprehension by using (a) using world knowledge; (b) knowledge of the speaker; (c) experiences of similar speech events; (d) knowledge of the topic; (c) what has been said so far. For less competent listeners this phase is very important as it compensates for gaps in understanding.

To make things harder, research evidence indicates that listeners do not wait until the end of an utterance before working out its meaning. They appear to analyse what a speaker is saying at a delay of only about ¼ second, or the length of an English syllable (Field, 2014). This means that listening is an on-line process which relies on automatic predictions by the brain which occur at very high speed in the brain.

Because listening is on-line, test-takers often form a first-pass hypothesis and cling to it – difficult to blame them in view of the very limited time-window they have to interpret the input. This entails that if one or two key words at the begining of a sentence or other important meaning unit are misunderstood, the knock-on effect on what follows may be disastrous and unlikely to be corrected during the second take when the audio is re-played.

Implications for teaching and learning – Firstly, effective listening instruction must concern itself with the mastery of each and every one of the above processes, with a special focus on Phases 1 to 3.

Secondly, although all of the above is crucial to effective comprehension, Decoding skills are obviously the most important set of skills, as without the effective identification of the boundaries of the words we hear, the aural input we process will sound as an unintelligible speech flow and the whole comprehension process could not even start. Ironically, though, this is also the most neglected set of skills in L2 instruction.

Since they are so important, Decoding Skills should be addressed explicitly in  any long-, medium- and short-term curriculum planning. I will  discuss how in section 3.4, below.

Thirdly, students must be taught masses of vocabulary through the aural medium, not as isolated items but across as wide a range of linguistic contexts and topics as possible. Important: no point teaching vocabulary only through the written medium as the lexical search phase is activated by its sound. Students must hear the words many times over whether through (a) peer read-aloud sessions; (b) jigsaw listening; (c) dictations (keep them short and snappy not to bore them); (d) gapped dictations; (e) songs or texts with gapped transcripts; (f) narrow listening and any other L.A.M. (listening-as-modelling) activities discussed here.

I feature three or four L.A.M. activities in every single lesson of mine and it has paid enormous dividends in terms of enhanced aural comprehension, decoding skills and pronunciation.

Fourthly, students must be trained in recognizing words fast, under time pressure. This will involve lots of practice which starts with the students being exposed to  aural input uttered at a slower speech rate and gradually increasing in speed of delivery.

For instance, at the beginning of a unit of work you may utter model sentences (for students to translate or transcribe on mini-whiteboards) at a moderate speech rate; as the unit progresses and students will have processed those or similar sentences several times aurally, you will increase the speed of delivery until their listening fluency will allow them to understand near-native talk.

Similarly, do use past exam papers for practice, but at the early stages of the GCSE course you will read them out to them at a slower rate pitched to the level of listening fluency of your students; as the year progresses you will gradually increase the speed until they will be ready for the exam recordings. During the early stages of this process, do repeat chunks of texts if the students ask you to do so – these requests will provide you with a valuable insight into their decoding and parsing issues.

Fifthly, limited grammar is not an option, as it is crucial for the parsing phase. Consequently, to begin with, one must ensure that the core grammar points in your Examination Board’ syllabus are covered thoroughly; secondly, students must process each grammar structure through the aural medium as often as possible – this is the most neglected dimension of L2-teaching and one of the main reasons, in my opinion, why students often struggle to acquire grammar.

Why? Firstly, because part of the challenges that L2 grammar poses to L2 learners refer to pronunciation and or to decoding skills. Secondly, because modelling and practising how grammar works solely through the visual modality clashes with the way our brain is wired. Thirdly, it is evident that learning the same concept through a synergy of modalities (listening + reading + speaking + writing) is likely to be more effective than simply doing it through one or two as usually happens. Finally, whilst listening the students need to focus harder and recruit more attentional resources which may result in greater cognitive arousal and increased Working Memory span

A zero preparation activity to achieve this consists in simply uttering sentences containing the target structure and ask them to translate on mini-boards – I do this in the first and last part of every single lesson of mine, uttering model sentences with high surrender value, i.e. sentences which can be used across several topics, contain core vocabulary and key grammar structures. Another very useful minimal preparation activity involves: (1) showing the students a sentence in which the target structure has been used incorrectly, then (2) uttering the correct version of that sentence and finally (3) asking to notice the difference and amend the initial sentence.

An activity requiring more preparation that I carry out in every single lesson of mine involves the use of sentence builders and sentence puzzles like the ones in the pictures below. I read out sentences putting together the different chunks in the sentence-builder/ sentence-puzzle to model the use of the grammar structure in context and students write translation on mini-board. This activity kills several birds with one stone because it addresses the decoding, lexical and parsing level all in one go and creates connections between a specific grammar structure and several lexical items. Figures 1 and 2 shows 2 sample activities. More techniques for enhancing parsing skills are suggested  below, in section 3.4.

Fig.1 Sentence puzzle : teacher pronounces  the jumbled-up sentences below in the correct order as the students re-write them in the table


Fig. 2  – Sentence builder.  (Typo in column 4 – it should read ‘à present’)


3.2 Listening skills are only a peripheral concern (issue 2); consequently not sufficient time is devoted to listening practice (issue 3) and students do not perceive the importance of listening (issue 7)

In most Modern Language classrooms listening is grossly neglected, despite the fact that it is the most crucial skill in first language acquisition, as it is through the aural medium that humans learn to speak in the first place. According to a number of studies in naturalistic/immersive environments around 45% of language competence is obtained through listening, 30 % through speaking, 15% from reading and 10% only from writing (Renukadevi, 2014).

The human brain is wired to learn languages through listening; hence, by not using the aural medium to teach, we miss out on a daily basis on an extremely important opportunity to enhance our students’ learning. Both my article here and in Smiths and Conti’s (2016) – the Language Teacher Toolkit –  I suggest a range of minimal preparation / high impact listening-as-modelling activities which teach language through listening.

Moreover, even when we read we activate L2 words phonologically, which means that even when interpreting written texts we use the way it sounds to make sense of it. This means that if students do not distinguish clearly between words that sound similar their reading comprehension may be impaired.

Teachers need to recognize that Listening must be a priority not just because 25 % of the exam includes listening, but because learning a language through Listening greatly enhances acquisition. The teaching and learning in my lessons has been hugely enhanced by increasing my focus on listening in the last three years or so.

Finally we need to consider that, in view of the importance of Listening in the language learning process, by not emphasizing it in our lessons we are sending our students the message that listening is not important; this perception is unlikely to motivate them to work on it in class and to pursue it autonomously at home.

Implications for the classroom – First of all, I strongly recommend investing 40 to 60 % of each and every lesson into: (1) listening activities which consist of Listening-as-modelling activities or L.A.M. (this may include work on decoding skills); (2) oral interaction tasks (which includes listening); (3) critical listening (student listening to a peer’s oral output to evaluate or translate it) and (4) listening comprehension. I usually devote around 30 % of a typical lesson to listening, 30 % to speaking, 30 % to reading (mainly as a follow-up to the listening tasks) and only about 10 to writing (of the interpersonal sort).  As for vocabulary learning, I mainly flip it  (students do it at home in the run-up to the lesson as homework) unless we do vocab games or builders as a pre-reading or speaking task.

A culture of listening ought to be created in the classroom whereby (1) the students understand the importance of listening for their development as language learners; (2) they learn new language items from it; (3) they experience listening to appreciate the culture of the target language country (e.g. through videos, songs, movie trailers); (4) they are encouraged to practise listening autonomously (e.g. for personal, enrichment, fun, consolidation work).

Carrying out directed-critical-listening activities three or four times per term, in which the students evaluate oral output from their peers with a focus on specific sounds, intonation patterns or the correct deployment of a grammar structure helps me foster this culture of listening by bringing a metacognitive edge to the process.

An even more effectve way to bring Listening skills into the students and teachers’ focal awareness is by exploiting the exam ‘washback effect’. In other words, give more weighting or prominence to Listening in the exams so that you and your colleagues will be putting more effort into it and the students will focus on it more actively. I reckon that if Examination boards did this, the quality of teaching and learning in the UK will greatly improve.

Finally, another important implication for teachers is that they should not limit their listening activities to comprehension tasks – which brings me to the next point.

3.3   Issue 4: the vast majority of the listening activities staged in lessons consist of comprehension tasks

Listening tasks should be considered as tests through and through and, as I argued here, students do not learn much from them. Tasks like these do not explicitly train your students in decoding skills, do not teach new vocabulary or foster the noticing of new grammar/lexical structures – as the students are focusing on picking out details or establishing if certain statements are true or false and are not encouraged to focus on other levels of the text.

Implications for the classroom – Think about the five phases of listening outlined in paragraph 2.2, i.e.:


2.Lexical search


4.Sentence Meaning-construction

4.Whole Discourse construction

When teaching a specific topic or sub-topic, (1) ensure you have first trained your students to handle each of the above levels, especially the first three. (2) Do a lot of work on the decoding/pronunciation of the target vocabulary in that sub-topic, especially the words containing the most challenging phonemes (see in the next point how); (3) provide them with plenty of opportunities for processing the target vocabulary and the target grammar aurally. (4) When you are confident that they are ready to understand most of the text in the listening comprehension and all they need is a bit of inference and guesswork using context and their knowledge of the world, then, and only then, carry out one or more challenging comprehension tasks.

One useful tip: before you and/or the class mark the listening comprehension, put up on the screen the transcript and ask the students to explain why they gave the answer they came up with; it is a bit time consuming but will give you an insight into how much they really understood and into what they found most problematic. If you can, as a follow-up task, gap the transcript where the most interesting words and grammar structures are and do a partial dictation.

3.4.  Teachers do not train students in the mastery of bottom-up processing skills (decoding, parsing, etc.)

This is a point I have touched in paragraph 2.3 above and made in many previous posts of mine (e.g. here, here an here), so I will go straight to the implications for teaching.

Implications for teaching and learning

1.Decoding skills – Your Schemes of Work ought to include work on pronunciation and decoding skills (how to turn letters and combination of letters into sound) from the very early stages of instruction. Primary is the place where this is systematically done for the first language – why is not systematically done for the second language too?

So, first of all brainstorm with your colleagues the decoding issues which in your experience (both as a learner and a teacher) hinder your students’ understanding of the target language. In French, for instance, you will focus on things like liaison, the difference between ‘e’ and ‘é’, ‘je’ vs ‘j’ai’  and any other words or phrase that may sound similar (e.g. ‘mere’ and ‘maire’). When you have identified the core items, embed micro-listening enhancers (MLEs) like the ones below in your long-, medium- and short term planning. Make sure you recycle the core items across all units.

MLEs take little time to prepare, the students like them and learn a lot from them.

  1. Minimal pairs – two near homophones (e.g. ‘mere’ and ‘maire’) are provided in writing but you will pronounce only one of them; student to identify the one you uttered. This is a very useful activity because of what we said about listening being processed online, at very high speed; students lack flexibility in their interpretation of what they hear, hence, once they interpret a word wrongly they are not likely  to change their mind (Field, 2014). Since many weaker learners will often base their interpretation on one or two key words they hear to build meaning, they can be easily misled by near homophones;
  2. Focus-on-word-endings activities – these are  very useful when it comes to highly inflected languages like German, Spanish, Italian and French. Minimal prep activities: (1) gap the ending of words, utter the words and ask students to fill the gaps; (2) Write five or six words you are teaching as part of the current unit and utter five or six words you taught previously that rhyme with them; students to match the rhyming words; (3) Write 3 or 4 set of letters or combinations of letters (in French: ent, in, ont, ant) and utter ten words which contain those letters in their endings; students to identify which words contain the target letter-set.
  3. Spot the error – Give the students a list of sentences containing a given target item that you have just practised through minimal pairs (e.g. em). Then read them out loud making sure that you read the target item wrongly.
  4. Spot the liaison (in French) – write 8 sentences containing instances of liaison, read them out loud and ask students to identify where the liaison occurs
  5. Spot the intruder – Write a sentence on the board but when you read it out loud add in an extra word or sound. Students to write the extra word on mini-board or repeat the extra sound.

For more tasks of this sort, read here or here .

2.Parsing skills – First of all, make sure than when you introduce and practise a new grammar point you do so through the oral/aural medium; in my post on grammar teaching (here) I have given many examples of how this can be done. In sum, make sure that through sentence builders, partial dictation, L2-to-L1 translation on mini-white-boards (as you utter sentences containing the target grammar structures) the students ‘hear’ the grammar structure and process it orally.

A low prep/ high impact activity involves directed attention to specific grammar features. Whilst listening to the recording (or you) the students need to identify the occurrence(s) in the text of specific items (e.g. how many irregular adjectives/ perfect tenses/ if clauses did you spot? Songs add a bit of enjoyment to this type of activity ; get the lyrics from www.lyricsmania.com and identify any interesting grammar features you may want to direct your students’ attention to.

Inductive learning activities through listening are also very useful in this respect. For instance, provide the students with ten sentences in the first language containing the new grammar structure(s), e.g. the use of ‘rien’ in French. Then read out to them the translation of each sentence and ask them to infer the rule in groups of two or three.

Another task requiring minimal preparation involves giving students a first language sentence and then utter two translations of it, one grammatically correct and one wrong. Students to tell you which one is correct and why.

All of the above activities direct students’ attention to grammar through the listening medium training their ear to process grammar aurally and not simply through the visual (reading) or grapho-motor (writing) modality as far too often happens in the ML classroom.

Moreover it is also important to make sure that in every grammar lessons students employ the core grammar structures in the context of oral interaction. Stage work on decoding skills prior to the interaction and ask them to pay particular attention to specific sounds involved in the production of the grammar structure (e.g. Spanish: do not pronounce ‘h’ in pronouncing ‘Hacer’ ; French: focus on pronunciation of ‘je’, ‘ne’ ‘me’ as opposed to ‘j’ai’, ‘n’ai’, ‘mais’).

3. Lexical recognition skills – As already mentioned above, you ought to ensure that students process the core vocabulary over and over again through the aural medium and across as many linguistic contexts and topics as possible. Sentence builders come handy in this respect because they present words in several combinations with other parts of speech.When you are dealing with high frequency words which in your experience occur often in the listening exam papers, make sure the students can distinguish them clearly from their homophones or near homophones. Use minimal-pair activities to reinforce such differences.

4. Concluding remarks

Listening instruction and sound curriculum design ought to always keep in sight the full scope of the processes involved in the comprehension of aural input, the challenges they pose to the L2 learners and the abilities exhibited by expert listeners as they make sense of what they hear. In the above, I have outlined the main challenges and suggested ways in which teachers can address them in the classroom through minimal preparation / high impact activities. The main points I made:

  • Listening must be given more prominence in ML lessons;
  • Teachers must see the development of listening skills as a core concern in their practice and pass on this perception to their students whilst encouraging them to practise listening autonomously;
  • Listening activities should be used to model new language not simply to test students;
  • Decoding and parsing skills should be focused on in every lesson, especially at the early stages of instruction;
  • Listening instruction based solely on listening comprehension tasks is likely to be ineffective and to engender disaffection is less-able-to –guess students.

In the second part of the article I set out to explore how we can promote top-down processing skills (e.g. predictive strategies and using context to infer meaning), plan effective instructional sequences as well as affective issues referring to motivation and self-efficacy

Eleven reasons why your students are  underperforming in Listening

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These are the most common reasons for undeperforming at listening comprehension tasks that we have  identified both through an extensive review of the existing literature on Listening instruction and our own professional experience.  If your answers to most of the below are ‘Yes’, you may want to radically reconsider your approach to teaching listening and maybe read our next blog, ‘How you can improve your students’ exam results’ which we will publish shortly as well as my past posts on Listening.

  1. Less than 40% of your lesson time is devoted to some form of listening practice (this may include oral-interaction tasks).
  2. Listening-skills are only a peripheral concern in your – and possibly your Department’s – long-, medium- and short-term planning. Hence, you put most of your effort in the teaching of vocabulary and grammar and you have not been building over the years a wide-ranging bank of resources and a repertoire of instructional strategies.
  3. (mainly as a consequence of the two points above) Your students do not perceive Listening as crucial to their learning. Moreover, you have made little effort to ‘push’ them to practise listening autonomously.
  4. You are not sufficiently aware of the cognitive challenges that L2 learners in general and the specific group of your students face whilst listening or learning to listen effectively. In fact you may have not as yet reflected long and hard on this issue and have rarely done any serious research in this domain. When your students perform really poorly at a listening task you do not usually ask them what the issues that hindered their performance were.
  5. You do not actually plan your listening activities and how to exploit them in order to teach new language and/or inference strategies. You are mostly textbook-bound and simply pick the tasks/tracks in there and press the play button following the teacher’s book recommendations or at random points in the lesson. Most of the time you do not plan for any pre- and post-listening follow-up tasks.
  6. The texts you use in your Listening tasks do not usually contain comprehensible input (i.e. whereby the students understand 90 to 95 % of the vocabulary and the grammar structures and syntax do not pose major challenges).
  7. The vast majority of the listening activities you stage in class consist of comprehension tasks; you rarely use listening activities to model new language in context, sentence construction, correct grammar-structure deployment and pronunciation.
  8. You rarely consciously focus in your lessons on training the students in bottom-up processing skills, especially decoding skills (how to turn combination of letters into sounds) and any other skills which help students breaking the flow of sounds they hear into intelligible units of meaning (e.g. words). The ability to break the flow is paramount, as it speeds up working-memory executive function thereby facilitating comprehension. Poor decoding skills usually result in poor comprehension skills. When your students typically acquire grammar and vocabulary through the written medium and not through listening or oral interaction, this issue is greatly exacerbated.
  9. You rarely instruct your students in inference strategies (like the ones listed here by Rebecca Palmer.). And when you do, it is usually through a one-off session, with no substantive follow-up.
  10. Your students do not to enjoy listening tasks. You rarely actively think of ways of making Listening enjoyable. They usually roll their eyes when you tell them you are about to do a listening activity.
  11. Your students are not self-efficacious when it comes to Listening, i.e. they are not very confident that they will succeed at Listening tasks; they often say ‘but Miss, I am not good at listening!. Self-efficacious L2 student-listeners are more likely to be more focused, engaged and perseverant; consequently, poor levels of self-efficacy are likely to result in poorer performance. You do not consciously plan for and actively scaffold success in Listening.

In this post I suggest ways in which the above issues can be addressed.



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’.