From Target Language to Model Language – the mind shift that has transformed my teaching


1. Target vs Model Language : a hair-splitting distinction of much consequence for input design

In 1997, on my MA TEFL at the Reading University’s Centre for Applied Language Studies (CALS) I was introduced by one of my lecturers to Michael Lewis’ book ‘The Lexical Approach’, possibly the most innovative and inspirational piece of Applied Linguistics literature I have ever read in the field – a book that I recommend wholeheartedly to every language teachers.

Very early in the book Michael Lewis discusses a dichotomy that for ever changed my teaching: the distinction, that is, between Target Language and Model Language. This is how Michael Lewis (1993: articulates the distinction

Model Language is language included in the textbook or otherwise introduced into the classroom, as language worthy of study. It may consist of ‘real’ language, produced for purposes other than language teaching but introduced into the classroom as part of the learning materials […] Target Language is the objective of the teaching programme – language which, it is assumed, the student will ultimately be able to use. (where ‘use’ may mean actively produce or receptively understand)

This distinction inspired me, although my use of the two labels is different to Michael Lewis’. To me the term ‘Model Language’ is better suited to refer to the language the instructor intends to impart on their students, whilst ‘Target Language’ to describe the language one finds in ‘authentic’ texts and native-speakers’  utterances (i.e. the meaning modern language teachers traditionally attach to this term). This is the meaning I will associate with the two terms in the below.

A hair-splitting distinction you may think. And to a certain extent it is.

However, if you do believe that the input we provide our students with day in day out in our lessons has the purpose to model and sensitize the students to the core set of language phonological, collocational and syntactic patterns we purport to teach, then the dichotomy Target vs Model Language has huge implications for teaching and learning.

Even more so if you espouse the view – I discussed in my previous post –  that effective teaching hinges on the successful modelling of language chunks and not merely of discrete words and grammar rules. Hence your Model Language will be patterned in a way which is instrumental to the constant recycling of those chunks and patterns and consequently even more artificial.

2.Input authenticity vs Input learnability

The main implication of the distinction for teaching and learning, in my view, is that for our teaching to be effective in sensitizing L2 learners to the target patterns we must not shy away from providing linguistic classroom input (Model Language) that sounds and reads significantly less authentic than ‘authentic’ L2 input (Target Language).

This goes counter to one of the most pivotal tenets of CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) pedagogy, the principle that learners should learn mainly or even exclusively from ‘authentic’ L2 input – a principle that is deeply embedded in the collective unconscious of many teachers thereby often affecting the way instructors and course books select and/or design instructional materials.

However, as I often reiterate in my blogposts, for input to be effective it must facilitate ‘noticing’ (i.e. the detection) of the target L2 features and recycle them in easily detectable patterns as much as possible. This requires input that fulfils the following criteria; it must

  • be easily accessible in terms of meaning (as I repeat ad nauseam in my blogs, 95 % comprehensible without resorting to an extra-textual resource);
  • be highly patterned – i.e. must contain several repetitions of the target sounds, lexis or syntactic patterns even though they might sound redundant and even less ‘natural’ (whilst still being acceptable) to the native ear;
  • frequently recycle new vocabulary and patterns whilst recycling ‘old’ ones (as this strengthens retention and enhances comprehension);
  • (in the case of aural input) be uttered at less-than-native speed.

‘Authentic’ and ‘Pseudo-authentic’ classroom language and texts rarely meet the above criteria, which makes them less effective for teaching and learning purposes, as they cause learners lots of divided attention by cognitive overload or distraction (e.g. from having to look to many words up in dictionaries) and, potentially, disaffection in less resilient learners.

This issue is far too often compounded by two major – extremely common – shortcomings of L2 instruction:

  • Texts are usually underexploited by textbooks and teachers – one or two sets of comprehension questions and the class move on to the next task.
  • Insufficient time is dedicated to receptive processing (reading and listening) of the target L2 items – an issue I often denounce in my posts

3.The primacy of the Model Language as conditional to learner developmental stage

As it is obvious, the ‘distance’ between the Model Language and the Target Language is bound to be greater at the early stages of L2 development, when students need more exposure to and drilling of the target patterns and chunks of language and when aural input must be uttered with more clarity and at slower speed. This parallels, in our first language development, the complexity ‘chasm’ between ‘Motherese’ and the input we receive as adults.

My colleagues (at Garden International School) and I, for instance, use with our beginners a core set of chunks we call ‘universals’ (high frequency chunks which cut across all topics) which we use as a starting point for the design and selection of the input and the instructional sequences to implement in our every lesson with them.

A sub-set of such ‘universals’, for instance, includes modal verbs followed by verb phrases which we recycle to death through our classroom language, the aural and written texts we give our students and the output we elicit from them through structured oral and written production tasks (pushed output).

In other words, we do not shy away from enhancing the surrender value of our input and the student’s pushed output at the expense of authenticity – as there is no way our ‘universals’ would ever occur  in naturalistic input/output as often as they do in our own artificial Model Language.

At higher levels of proficiency, our list of ‘universals’ increases, which allows us a bit more freedom from the rigid structure that the narrower vocabulary and pattern repertoire of earlier stages imposes. This does allow for more frequent use of authentic texts.

Does this rule out the use of authentic material at lower levels of proficiency? Not entirely. I do believe there is a place for (simple or simplified) authentic texts, especially with more talented and motivated linguists, in order to provide practice and basic training in dealing with less predictable linguistic contexts autonomously through the application of inferencing skills and/or dictionary use as well as some cultural enrichment. In other words, authentic text use at this level of L2-competence would not necessarily serve the purpose of modelling the target patterns but more one of fostering autonomous learning skills (including cross-cultural understanding).

However, from novice to intermediate level it is my belief that the use of authentic texts or the pseudo-authentic texts found in the textbooks currently in use in many UK schools, unless heavily adapted, is more likely to hinder than facilitate learning especially when we are dealing with less gifted, motivated and resilient learners.

4. Conclusion: re-thinking the role and design of teacher input

Frequent exposure to patterned comprehensible input is not simply desirable, it is a pedagogic must. For the following reason:

Psycholinguistic research shows how language processing is intimately tuned to input frequency at all levels of grain: Input frequency affects the processing of phonology and phonotactics, reading, spelling, lexis, morphosyntax, formulaic language, language comprehension, grammatical sentence production and syntax (Ellis, 2002)

Sadly, more than often teachers are eager to see a product before the end of the lesson, the tangible evidence that learning has actually occurred.

As I often reiterate in my blogs, this is flawed from a cognitive point of view and may even seriously hamper learning. Why? Because the learning of an L2 item does not occur in one lesson, but over several months (or even years), going as it does through a painstaking non-linear process of constant revision and restructuring until control is finally achieved.

This over-concern for the product of learning results in many teachers often dwelling insufficiently on the all-important receptive-processing phase of learning any L2 item. After a couple of receptive tasks, they rush to some form of written or oral production.

If we do value the importance of extensive exposure to comprehensible patterned input in paving the way for more effective production in the short term and in securing more long-term retention, then we have to devote more lesson time to reading and listening and pay much more attention to the way we use classroom language and we craft aural and written texts.

The devil is in the detail, hence every opportunity must be seized by the instructor to recycle the target patterns and make them as noticeable as possible, especially when we are dealing with items that are less salient due to their morphology, position in the sentence, frequency of occurrence in naturalistic input or markedness.

This will often result in sacrificing authenticity for learnability, shifting, that is, from an emphasis on the Target Language (or a close approximation of it) to an over-emphasis on the Model Language. Once decided on the core set of patterns /chunks you want to impart and the vocabulary you are going to embed in them, your main concern will be to facilitate the uptake of those patterns in a way that maximizes the use of the little teaching contact time you have available.

At primary level, this shift is an absolute must, as the damage caused by insufficient receptive-processing work and recycling is most harmful at this stage of L2 development. At this age, when the brain is more plastic and sensitive to recurrent patterns, exposing L2 learners to highly patterned comprehensible input pays enormous dividends.

The consequences for curriculum design are obvious and not for the faint-hearted: in many cases an overhaul of your schemes of work and the creation of resources which include and elicit patterned comprehensible input. The former will be dictated by the need to recycle the core target patterns over and over again over the months and years to come. The latter by the need for expanding your repertoire of aural and written texts in order to enhance and deepen receptive processing. No easy endeavour, of course, one that many of my line-managers and colleagues over the years – with only a few enlightened exceptions – have time and again frowned upon.

Who looks at the Schemes of Work, anyway, apart from inspectors… right?

Could this be an opportunity to finally create Schemes of Work that are actually useful to you?


Patterns first – why you should ‘ditch’ word lists, traditional grammar rules and…your textbook

(Co-authored with Steve Smith and Dylan Vinales)


Last week, during a workshop on vocabulary learning that I delivered in my faculty, I carried out a little experiment with my colleagues which aimed at raising their awareness of the limitation of human working memory by making them experience cognitive overload (i.e. the inability of working memory to cope with a task due to excessive demand on their processing capacity).

The task was simple. One person had a list of twenty words and had to utter each word on the list, one by one ( first word 1, then word 2, followed by word 3, etc.) to their partner. The latter had to repeat at each round all the words read so far, rigorously in the same order as they had been read to them ( relying solely on their memory as they had not access to the list).

As expected, the vast majority of the participants started making mistakes after the fourth or fifth item. But there was an outlier: a Chinese lady, V., who could remember ten words, double, that is the group’s average. How had she achieved that?

She had used a mnemonic (a memory strategy). On hearing each word, she had associated it with an image and had built a narrative using each image and word. In other words, she had ‘anchored’ each word to an image that was meaningful to her and to a pattern that gave sense to the input she was receiving.

This well-known ‘trick’ does not make one more intelligent, nor does it point to a bigger Working Memory. What it does, though, is pointing to a mechanism that has enabled humans throughout evolution to overcome the limitations of their working memory and has a decisive role in L2 learning.

As discussed in previous blogposts of mine, Working Memory is very limited in focus and processing capacity, i.e. the minimal distraction causes us to ‘lose’ the data we are handling and it can only process four items at any one time. What is interesting is that monkeys’ working memory shares the same limitations, with a processing capacity of 3 to 4 items nearly identical to ours.

So why is it that monkeys are stuck where homo sapiens started off 150,000 years ago whist we are able to build rockets, transplant organs, clone animals and harness the power of the atom?

According to Cambridge Professor Daniel Bor in his 2012 fascinating book ‘The ravenous brain: how the new science of consciousness explains our insatiable search for meaning’, the human brain has managed to overcome the limitations of its pea-size processor (working memory) by chunking new data to existing brain structures using pattern recognition as the main learning strategy. As Professon Bor puts it,

Perhaps what most distinguishes us humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ravenous desire to find structure in the information we pick up in the world. We cannot help actively searching for patterns — any hook in the data that will aid our performance and understanding. We constantly look for regularities in every facet of our lives, and there are few limits to what we can learn and improve on as we make these discoveries. We also develop strategies to further help us — strategies that themselves are forms of patterns that assist us in spotting other patterns.

In simple terms, the brain applies the patterns available in our Long-Term Memory to interpret whatever we process (see, hear, feel, etc.) and make sense of it; if what we process successfully using those patterns is ‘new’, the brain ‘hooks’  it to existing structures in the brain and compresses it in chunks which it stores in Long-Term Memory.

The reason why this expands the processing capacity of working memory is that, when patterns are applied automatically, i.e. subconsciously, they by-pass working memory, thereby keeping the latter free for performing other operations. That is why we can multi-task when we operate in contexts which we are very familiar with, but not in others which are totally new to us. So, for instance, when we drive a car, we perform sequences of actions automatically so that we can focus on the road and traffic.

What is equally interesting, is that patterns are used by the brain not simply to process the information we are currently handling, but also to predict what will come next. So, for instance, imagine talking to a colleague you know quite well in a specific context; your brain will use behavioural patterns built during your previous interactions with that person not only to elicit from her body language, intonation, lexical choice what mood she is in, what her communicative intentions are, etc., but also to predict what she is likely to say or do next – all based on probability.

This happens linguistically too; when we hear a sentence, our brain uses patterns, both linguistic (phonological, grammatical, etc.) and situational (our previous experiences with similar contexts) to interpret each sentence we process and predict what word, phrase or sentence is going to come next very much like Google does when we type up our query in the search box (see figure 1, below).

This predictive process which happens subconsciously, hence at very high speed in the brain is called Lexical Priming.

Figure 1 – google search and the priming effect


Pattern recognition, Chunking and Priming have therefore one thing in common. Speeding up Working Memory processing capacity. Since, as Skehan’s (2009) diagram below (figure 2) clearly shows, these processes are central to language acquisition, our teaching must aim at fostering and facilitating them.

Figure 2 – Language operational mechanisms involving Working Memory

revised SLA cognitive

That pattern recognition must be central to L2 instruction is evidenced by a number of studies which assessed L2 learners at the beginning of a course simply based on their pattern recognition skills and found that high scores on this measure were a very strong predictor of success at post-test (see summary of one of such studies here).

2. Implications of the above for L2-language learning and teaching

Please note that for reasons of space I will not delve as much as I would like to into the classroom implementations of the principles discussed below, reserving to do so in my next post.

2.1 What I mean by ‘patterns’

The above implies that effective language learning – from a processing perspective – is mainly about rapidly and accurately applying patterns in the understanding of L2 input and the production of L2 output.

Please note that patterns are not simply what we refer to as the phonological, morphological and syntactic rules of the language, but also the multi-word constructions with high generative power that we employ as chunks to express various communicative functions (e.g. ‘I don’t think’ that’ ‘I want you to’, ‘I am not sure if ’, ‘The worst/best thing is…’). This is important, because every teacher claims to teach patterns, but they usually refer to verb endings, agreement, conjugation and the likes.

Hence, effective L2 learning is not simply about learning the rules of grammar and phonology, but also and more importantly about learning how to break down the language into useful multi-word chunks of language (useful = with high surrender communicative value).

Learning single words, from word lists, e.g. the ones found in textbooks or that many teachers upload to Quizlet or Memrise is a clumsy and inefficient way of learning a language as Working Memory can only accomodate 4 items at any given time for only a handful of seconds. By learning 4 chunks made up of 4 words each instead of 4 single words, the brain is still processing 4 items but working with 16 words at the same time.

In first language acquisition children pick up the language through such chunks, after much exposure to them through caregivers’ talk. The grammar that glues the chunks together is not learnt by them explicitly but implicitly. In this sense, in first language acquisition and in L2 learning in immersive environments (e.g. in an international school), the dichotomy between grammar and vocabulary learning does not exist. Children learn how to piece chunks of languages together in the pursuit of the communicative goals they need to achieve not because their parents teach them grammar rules.

L2 acquisition in non-immersive environments is evidently different, of course, as to expect students to pick up a vast array of chunks and patterns implicitly through one or two hours’ exposure per week would be preposterous.

2.2 Implication 1 From authentic target language to patterned model language

The first major implication for L2 instruction is that the teaching of patterns must take a central role in L2 instruction from the very early stages of teaching the target language. This in turn entails providing novice learners  with input which is highly patterned and contains repeated occurrences of useful chunks with high generative power, very much like caregivers do when they deal with toddlers in first language acquisition (e.g. through nursery rhymes).

This requires a shift, from teaching the target language to teaching a model language – to use Michael Lewis’ (1993) famous  distinction – which is not necessarily ‘authentic’ (in that it does not 100% mirror real-life L2 usage) but serves the purpose of sensitizing our students to patterns through much repetition, redundancies and careful selection of highly generative chunks.

This does not mean that one has to rule out the use of authentic material; what it means is that before getting to ‘authentic’ texts the learner must have seriously routinized – at least receptively – a repertoire of patterns and chunks which will allow them to come to grips with the less linguistically predictable and more lexically and syntactically complex ‘authentic texts’. No point using aural or written input that contains cognitive obstacles which will ultimately hinder learning.

It is evident that one should select for teaching high-frequency chunks as much as possible. This will render the model language a closer approximation to the target language or at least will make the transition from the former to the latter easier.

2.3 Implication 2 – Chunks over single words

Like I said above, chunks have higher surrender value and more generative power than single lexical items. Moreover, since Working Memory can only process 4 items simultaneously, regardless if one item equals one word or four or five, teaching chunks makes learning more efficient in terms of cognitive load.

This does not mean that we should not teach single words at all any more. However, starting with chunks does make more sense. So, for instance, one may start with ‘I would like to travel to Spain’ and then subsequently teach the L2 names of countries as single words in order to enhance the generativity of that chunk and/or teach alternatives to ‘travel’ such as ‘go’, ‘drive’, ‘fly’, ‘bike’, etc.

Another advantage of teaching through chunks is that many mistakes with less salient items/rules (e.g. articles and prepositions) can be avoided because such items are learnt as part of the chunks themselves. Think about prepositions before the infinitive in French, how much easier it would be for your students to learn them if you taught those verbs in chunks including the preposition from day one, e.g. je vais commencer à faire mes devoirs,  je vais commencer à jouer, etc.

2.4 Implication 3 – Grammar as subordinate to the teaching of chunks and functions

If we do believe that chunking input based on the core patterns we intend to impart on our students is the main priority of L2 teaching, then grammar does still play an important role, but one that it is subordinate to vocabulary teaching, i.e.: to add generative power to the chunks we set out to teach. Example: if I teach the French chunk : ‘je veux que tu + subjunctive (I want you to…) I will need to teach the conjugation of ‘vouloir’ (to want) in the present indicative and subjunctive of French verbs for that chunk to be used with subjects other than ‘I’ thereby acquiring high surrender value.

If our espoused teaching methodology is Communicative Language Teaching, it only makes sense that the chunks we teach are selected and grouped based on communicative functions (e.g. Accepting / Rejecting, Advising & Suggesting, Agreeing / Disagreeing, Approving / Disapproving, etc.). Unlike what other scholars advocate, I am not opposed to teaching functions and chunks within a specific topic, as having a unifying theme does facilitate retention and allows for a lot of semantic associations within the target word-set.

UK Modern Language textbooks do pay lip service to communicative-functions and patterns teaching but in actual fact they rarely do and focus mainly on grammar and discrete words at the expense of chunks. The Expo and Studio coursebooks,  very popular in England, are appalling in this respect.

2.5 Implication 4 – Words’ collocational behaviour as important as grammar

Another major way in which we can enhance the generative power of chunks is by mastering the collocation of words. This is self-evident, as the wider the range of nouns we can use a given verb in a specific chunk with, the wider the range of communicative contexts we will be able to use that chunk in. Hence, the need for teaching collocations in our daily practice as much and often as possible.

Michael Lewis is the greatest advocate of teaching collocations and I do agree with him that, especially considering the recent changes in the English and Wales syllabus, this dimension of vocabulary teaching is by far the most important. Sadly, however, this is another area which is grossly neglected by most of the Modern Language books currently available on the market.

2.6 Implication 5 – Extensive receptive exposure to patterns as crucial

Masses of research indicate clearly that extensive exposure to phonological, collocational, morphological and syntactic patterns does sensitise learners to them. Unlike what is common practice in many modern language classrooms these days, students should process the target chunks/patterns as extensively as possible before having a go at deploying them in oral or written production. This is a point I have made in many posts of mine so I will not elaborate any further.

2.7 Implication 6 – Comprehensible input as a must for pattern detection and acquisition

Patterns are more likely to be noticed and acquired when they occur in texts which are highly accessible by the target students. This translates in providing students which texts which are not only highly patterned but also whose linguistic content, as a rule of thumb is 90-95 % familiar to the learners.

2.7 Implication 7 – Pushed output essential in recycling

‘Pushed output’ oral and written activities are tasks that allow the teacher total control over student output. Hence, they are crucial in order to ensure that every student has plenty of opportunities to recycle the target chunks. Role plays, translations and communicative drills are very easy to prepare and very effective in this respect.

2.8 Implication 8 – Autonomous learning of patterns as the ultimate foundation for successful L2 life-long learning

Students must become effective pattern-recognizers and pattern-deployers. This does not merely mean emphasizing patterns in our input, but also developing the following skills:

  • the ability to autonomously identify patterns
  • autonomously extract the rule governing the usage of those patterns
  • autonomously experiment with those patterns

As advocated in my post ‘Why we should change our approach to grammar teaching’ this entails getting the students to inductively work out the grammar or phonological patterns from the input we provide, and, after much guided practice aimed at routinizing the patterns in controlled contexts, give them plenty of opportunities to experiment with them in familiar and less familiar contexts.

2.9 Use the first language to spot differences between the L1 and L2

It is natural for L2 learners to use the first language as a starting point for their hypotheses as to how the target language works. To discourage that, as many suggests, by banning the first language from the language classroom is a real waste. Emphasizing the differences or similarities between the two languages in terms of grammatical, lexical and phonological patterns is a must, in my opinion, as it gives our students a marked cognitive advantage.

3. My approach to teaching chunks

This is the approach I use in teaching chunks/patterns in a nutshell:

  1. Present chunks – I do this in sentences orally by using ‘sentence builders’ or other techniques (see post here)
  2. Provide lot of exposure through listening and reading (e.g. through narrow reading and listening). Note: there is no harm in not using the target chunks in oral or written production until the second lesson after first introducing them.
  3. Get the students to ‘unpack’ the chunk (e.g. through inductive grammar tasks)
  4. Practise the chunk in interpersonal writing (e.g. online conversation with peers using platforms such as Edmodo) or micro-writing (e.g. teacher asks questions, students respond in writing on mini-boards)
  5. Highly controlled oral practice (communicative drills eliciting use of target chunks)
  6. Semi-structured oral practice (e.g. interviews, surveys, picture tasks, find-someone who, role-plays)
  7. Free oral practice – it is here that the students are pushed to experiment

It goes without saying that, besides the points made above, all the other principles I laid out in my previous posts on vocabulary teaching (here) ought to inform the teaching of chunks, too. The most important being

  • aim at automaticity in recognition and production
  • prioritise deep processing (creating semantic association) over shallow processing (mere repetition)
  • provide intensive and extensive recycling within the three months after first teaching
  • hook new input to old material in terms of meaning, morphology and sound patterns
  • make the input distinctive (compelling input)


The human brain is a highly sophisticated ‘computing machine’ that handles masses of data every day. However, its processor, working memory, has extremely limited processing capacity. Chunking data by means of patterns has allowed the human brain throughout evolution to overcome the limitations of working memory. Hence, we may consider pattern recognition as possibly the most important skill in the processing and learning of any information.

Humans need to see patterns in everything they see or hear. The same applies to language learners. Language learners who are not provided with patterns or other heuristics which help them make sense of the target information experience frustration and demotivation and use rote learning as the last resort. Nothing wrong with rote learning, provided that it is supported by an understanding of the underlying structure of what one learns and it is retained in the long term; but this is often not the case.

In this article I have advocated the importance of giving prominence to patterns and chunking over the teaching of single words or discrete grammar rules. New lexis should be taught in chunks, as this gives working memory a significant cognitive advantage; grammar should be taught to serve the teaching of chunks, to help the students unpack them and discover and later experiment with their full generative power. The Mastery of words’ collocation is pivotal too in enhancing the generative power of chunks, but it is sorely neglected in current modern language pedagogy.

Last, but not least, we should train students to detect and experiment with chunks as much and as often as possible by themselves, with little input from us, after sensitizing them to their existences through masses of comprehensible highly-patterned input. Inductive grammar learning is therefore a pedagogic must, in order to forge life-long learners who can effectively acquire languages autonomously in the real world.

How to boost your students’ vocabulary whilst creating a positive learning environment

IntroductionVocabulary teaching and affect _ teaching words through emotion.png

The validity of Stephen Krashen’s Affective-filter hypothesis as a theory has been discounted by many a scholar, mainly due to its unfalsifiability. However, it is undeniable that a positive and enjoyable learning environment in which the students feel safe, respected, validated, liked and listened to by their teacher and peers, benefits language acquisition in many ways, both in terms of motivation and in reducing learner anxiety – the number-one inhibitor of language learning according to much research. To create such an environment is a pedagogic imperative, whatever methodology or theory of L2 learning one espouses.

Moreover, we know that linguistic input that is perceived by our students as emotionally salient, is more likely to be retained. Hence, the importance of inducing high levels of emotional arousal in the classroom (e.g. through competition) and of relating as much as possible every lexical item we teach to our learners’ affect, both in terms of present and past emotions they associate with those words and/or their meaning(s).

Here are five strategies I use in my classroom to create a positive and enjoyable learning environment based on mutual trust and respect whilst expanding and/or consolidating my students’ lexical and even grammatical repertoire. I usually scaffold the process by providing lists of phrases with translation which I gradually phase out after a few weeks.

1.Taking the emotional temperature

Knowing how each of your students feels at the beginning of your every lesson is crucial, especially at the early stages of teaching a specific class, in helping you set up a positive and enjoyable environment and teach with empathy.

As you call the register at the beginning of a lesson, ask each of your students how they feel and ask them to respond by using a specific set of words or phrases (like the ones in the sentence builder below (for English-speaking learners of Italian), which you will display on the classroom screen (or share with them on Google classroom as I do).

Vary the words/phrases ever so often ,thereby expanding their lexical repertoire as the year advances. So if during the first four-five weeks you used adjectives such happy, angry, annoyed, stressed, bored, sad, excited, sleepy, worried and calm, in the subsequent four-five weeks ask them to use synonyms or widen the pool or emotions or ask them to make up more complex sentences explaining why they feel the way they do (if they feel comfortable, of course), e.g. I feel tired because I have not been sleeping well recently or I didn’t sleep well last night.

Vocabulary teaching and affect _ teaching words through emotion.png

Staging this activity day in, day out, has helped me teach and recycle new vocabulary and even grammar (past and future tense) obtaining excellent levels of student retention with relatively little effort and saving valuable curriculum time (as I do not have to devote a series of lessons on adjectives expressive emotions, for instance)

2.Learning about your students’ self-concept

An insight in your students’ self-concept is extremely useful in building an idea of who you teach. Students who are less confident and/or have a lower self-esteem are usually more vulnerable to anxiety’.

‘If I were…I would…’ tasks are a subtle and creative way to get students to tell you something about the way they view themselves whilst at the same time practising ‘if-clauses’ in the context of each vocabulary set you teach. Examples:

(whilst teaching adjectives) – If I were a car, I would be a Ferrari, because I am sporty, fast and noisy

(whilst teaching fruit) – If I were a fruit, I would be a cherry, because I am small and round

I stage a ‘If I were…I would’ task with every new set of nouns or adjectives I teach. It is far from being as accurate as a personality test, of course, but gives me quite a few clues as to the personality and mood of my students whilst eliciting their creativity with language and adding a bit of fun to the lesson.

How I do it: (1) I give them a prompt (e.g. If I were a car…); (2) they write the whole sentence down on a mini-board; (3) I ask a  few students at each round to read their sentences out and to some of their peers to translate them in the L1.

3.Creating a bond through peer validation

Encouraging the students in your classes to bond with each other is important from day one. Getting them to compliment each other in the target language is an obvious activity to help you achieve this, which students truly enjoy.

Ask them to write the compliment(s) for one or more of their peers anonymously on a post-it to put it in a box; then you or a student will read them out to the class or you will ask each student in the class to pick up one or more post-its and deliver them to the people they describe. Make sure you write a few yourself for those students who are less likely to get any compliments from their classmates.

This can also be an oral activity whereby the students go around the classroom and compliment their peers orally.

The scope of this activity in terms of application to the topics one usually teaches seems limited to appearance, e.g.  adjectives describing personality and appearance (e.g. I think you are nice and generous), nouns referring to personality traits (e.g. I appreciate your generosity); clothes (e.g. I like the shirt you are wearing because it is really trendy); nouns referring to physical features (e.g. I like your hair).

However, this activity can also be used to express appreciation, lesson in lesson out, for something a peer has done, e.g. You have done really well today because…, Thanks for helping me out during the translation task, I really enjoyed working with you today. Giving them a set of phrases on the screen (or on a sheet to stick in their books) to scaffold the process obviously facilitates the task.

Everyone enjoys being praised. If during the process the students pick up new useful language, as in my experience students do, it is truly a win-win situation for all.

4.Linguistically ‘smart’ praise

Praising students in a way which is commensurate to their effort and/or achievement is something most teachers do. However, what you do not often see teachers do is use praise in a deliberate way to impart specific linguistic input (e.g. to recycle a specific grammar structure or set of words).

Yet, because of its emotionally salient nature, students are more likely to pay attention to praising input and try harder to make sense of it. Hence, instead of simply uttering the usual ‘great’, ‘fantastic’ etc. plan the linguistic content of the positive comments you write or impart orally so as to include useful new vocabulary or structures or to consolidate old ones.

So, if you want to recycle the perfect tense, write your two/three-line comment in that tense: ‘You have produced an excellent piece of work. I have really enjoyed reading it. You have included a wide range of vocabulary. Etc.’ If your aim is to recycle adjectives, write your comment in the form of adjectives: your work is informative, concise, well-presented and thorough. And so on. Ask them to translate your feedback to ensure they have actually understood what you wrote.

In other words, don’t waste this opportunity to use something the students (hopefully) value affectively and cognitively – your feedback – to enhance their vocabulary and grammar

  1. Listening to your students’ voice

Learning how the students feel about your lessons straight from the horse’s mouth is useful in order to gauge their level of enjoyment in your lessons and satisfaction with your teaching. In addition, you show your students that you value their feedback on your performance and that they are not merely the passive recipients of your teaching, but they play an active role in it.

At the end of each lesson ask them to anonymously write on one or more pieces of paper how they feel about your lesson and, if they are linguistically ready, to add in a piece of advice on how you could improve.

Again, since this is not merely a way to get formative assessment that will inform your future practice, but also a linguistically enriching experience, do select the input smartly. So ask them on one occasion to simply use adjectives; example:

The lesson was funny, boring, exciting, interesting, engaging,…

On another, to make sentences containing past tenses. Example:

Today I have learnt a lot, I haven’t learnt much, It was a bit boring,..

Or, with more advanced learners, if-clauses sentences. Example:

If you had done more listening…, If you had talked more slowly…, If you had explained that better…

Or questions. Example:

Next time, could you please do more games, go slower, let us speak more….?

Or superlatives. Example:

the best thing, the worst thing, the funniest thing, the most boring thing was…

As usual, you will provide your students with a bank of words, phrases or sentences as a scaffold to help them in the process. Once all the pieces of paper have been put in a box, you will fish some out and, if you feel comfortable with it, you will read them out to the class and ask somebody to translate for the rest of the class.


The above are minimal preparation strategies to simultaneously help creating a positive atmosphere whilst enhancing your students’ L2 vocabulary and even grammar acquisition. Exploiting the emotional saliency of the contexts these activities create facilitates retention. The secret is carrying out such activities as often as possible, five- ten minutes per day, so as to systematically recycle the target vocabulary and/or structures. This is a great way to consolidate old material and to plant the seeds for items you are planning to teach in the future.

Implementing Listening-As-Modelling in the classroom – a report on a 20-week experiment with my year 8 French classes and its impact on their aural comprehension skills

(Co-written with Steven Smith and Dylan Vinales)

1. Introduction

This post describes the broad lines of a twenty-week long instructional programme in listening skills (a pilot study) Gianfranco carried out with two Year 8 French classes as part of his performance management.

We’ll discuss its main findings and implications for teachers. We hope to include reference to this study in the book we are preparing about teaching listening called Breaking the Sound Barrier.

The study investigated whether extensive L.A.M. (Listening-as-modelling) instruction focusing on the enhancement of micro-listening skills would be more effective than the traditional textbook-like approach (i.e. doing topic-based listening comprehension tasks).

The preliminary findings of the study suggested that the L.A.M. programme was more effective than traditional instruction and significantly enhanced the students’ ability to:

  1. read non-words with correct pronunciation in isolation and in short sentences (including mastery of liaison)
  2. transcribe French texts under dictation conditions;
  3. identify parts of speech in aural input and
  4. comprehend aural texts.

One important caveat: being a pilot study, it was not designed and carried out with the rigour of a ‘proper’ research study. Also, its small scale and the opportunistic sampling (Gianfranco simply chose two classes he teaches) means that the findings are hardly conclusive and generalisable. You may find them interesting nevertheless and we’ll mention at the end some of their possible implications.

Also, it should be borne in mind that all the activities below were fully integrated with the other three skills and grammar teaching. So,for instance, the micro-listening and aural vocabulary activities were always staged prior to communicative oral tasks. This required considerable planning effort – another crucial caveat.

2. The rationale and aims of the study

The main rationale behind this study was the hypothesis that MFL teachers may be able to substantially improve their students’ listening comprehension skills through explicit training in the five skill sets below:

  1. Decoding skills, i.e. ability to match letters and letter patterns to L2 phonemes (also known as GPC: grapheme-phoneme correspondence).
  2. Speech-segmentation skills, i.e. the ability to identify word-boundaries.
  3. Lexical retrieval skills, i.e. the ability to recognize words and retrieve their meaning in real time.
  4. Parsing skills (ability to recognize patterns in aural input).
  5. Alertness to and localisation of sound.

To test this hypothesis a L.A.M. instructional programme was devised and implemented as laid out below.

3. Research and instructional methodology

3.1 Setting and participants

The study was carried out at Garden International School, with two mixed-ability groups of (mostly Asian) Year 8 students of French of more-or-less equivalent number, gender distribution and ability (as measured through a T-test performed on the results of the three baseline assessments). Group A (the experimental group) received the L.A.M. training, whilst Group B (the comparison group) was taught the traditional way.

3.2 Baseline assessment

At the beginning of the study, the students were assessed as follows:

  1. Listening comprehension test: the students listened to a text covering vocabulary studied in Year 7 and primary school and answered questions listed in increasing order of difficulty.
  2. Decoding test: students were required to read out nonsense words in isolation and short sentences containing instances of liaison.
  3. Dictation test.
  4. Questionnaire asking how confident and motivated the students were in listening.

3.3 Baseline assessment findings

Listening Comprehension. The students performed reasonably well at the listening comprehension tests in both groups (75 being the mean score for Group A and 74 for Group B).

Decoding test. Students’ ability to pronounce non-words was poor, less than 50 % of the words correct for both groups (Group A 45.4 %; Group B 43.1 %). No student could accurately perform liaison. Issues were identified with the pronunciation of word endings (e.g. es, et), diphthongs (ou, eu, u) and the ability to differentiate between  le/de and les/des, un and une and other words of similar spelling but different pronunciation.

Dictation. Accuracy below 50% for both group (Group A 47 %; Group A 44 %)

Questionnaire. Both groups displayed average levels of motivation and self-efficacy, most of the students choosing the mid-point of the five-point scale adopted.

T-tests were performed on the results of all the four measures the baseline assessments and showed the two groups were equivalent on all measures  (A T-test assesses whether the averages of two groups are statistically different from each other.)

Let’s look next at the tasks done with the LAM group (group A), then the ‘traditional’ group (Group B).

4. The Listening- As-Modelling Programme 

Here is the instructional approach carried out with the experimental group

4.1 Enhancing alertness and localisation of sounds. A student who is alert is more likely to pick up details in the aural input. This skill is often taken for granted by teachers. In this case students’ level of alertness was raised through:

4.1.1 Spot the intruder;

4.1.2 Track the sound / word;

4.1.3 Spot the mistake;

4.1.4 Faulty echo (teacher reading a sentence twice and asking students to spot the mistake deliberately made in the pronunciation the second time).

4.2 Improvement of speech-segmentation skills. Segmentation is the most important skill in listening comprehension. The programme aimed to enhance segmentation skills by:

4.2.1 Aural/writing synergy.  Presenting new language items always in short sentences through a combination of aural and written input. Hence, I chose substitution tables or sentence builders, in the belief that visually processing the gaps in between words in a sentence whilst hearing that sentence being uttered would enhance students’ sensitivity to segmentation. Other tasks through which I attempted to realise this synergy were: (the word synergy may confuse some teachers) Oral ping-pong (see here for explanation) Paired reading aloud sessions of short texts. Break the flow’ tasks – fairly long sentences written without spacing. (The teacher reads the sentence aloud and students separate the words)

4.2.2 Pattern recognition tasks – effective pattern recognition skills facilitate segmenting in that it is easier to assign roles to the words one recognises in the input. Sentence builders, substitution tables, sentence puzzles and other tasks described (here) were used to focus students on patterns.

4.2.3 Sound-discrimination tasks. This is another crucial skill, as often misinterpretation of speech signals stems from misunderstanding similar sounding words (e.g. the classic ‘ship’ vs ‘sheep’). Tasks used in this area were:

  • Minimal pairs. (students must discriminate between two similar sounding words)
  • Spot the rhyming words (students are given three words containing different sounds and must match them with the words the teacher utters)
  • Spot the mistake (students are given a text which the teacher reads aloud; they must spot the words the teacher is mispronouncing)

4.2.4. Parallel text dictations with L1 parallel text. A short text was dictated. To help students segment, the English version of text was provided.

4. 2.5. Gapped texts dictations. Note that gapped words were not chosen randomly; they contained problematic sounds.

4.3 Improvement of decoding skills. The teaching of decoding skills occurred in every lesson for about ten minutes and focused on the following:

  • Silent versus voiced word endings (weeks 1 to 4), through tasks such as ‘spot the silent letter’ or syllable completion tasks.
  • Discrimination between the sounds un, in, en, an (weeks 5 to 10) using ‘minimal pairs’ or ‘spot the rhyme’.
  • Discrimination between oi, ou, eu and u (weeks 11 to 15).
  • Discrimination between eu(x), é, è  and e (weeks 16 to 20).

As already mentioned above, the tasks typically used in this area were:

  • M.L.E. (Micro-Listening Enhancers) such as minimal pairs and syllable-completion tasks and others (see here ).
  • Critical listening tasks were also used before any production tasks (student A reads aloud whilst student B is briefed to pay selective attention to a target sound and provide feedback on its pronunciation).
  • Short dictations.
  • Highly structured oral Interactional activities which elicited production of the target phonemes (e.g. communicative oral drills and find-someone-who with cards ).

Please note: instruction followed my M.A.R.S. approach, i.e.: Modelling/Awareness-raising first, followed by receptive processing, then structured production. In other words, students only produce the sounds in structured tasks after much aural exposure to the target sounds.

4.4 Improvement of memory for words and speed of lexical retrieval. Four sets of aural tasks were used:

4.5 Improvement of parsing skills. Besides the tasks described in 2.2 above, listening tasks requiring the students to categorize words by word-class/part of speech or by tense were carried out in order to enhance their grammatical sensitivity through the aural medium.

5. The comparison group (Group B)

Besides the typical textbook-like listening comprehension activities non-treatment group the comparison group performed full dictation tasks with the same frequency as the experimental group, in order to ensure that they would not be at a disadvantage at post-test, where the four assessment tasks would include a dictation task.

6. Post-test (final assessment)

At the end of the experiment the students were assessed through the same tasks used at pre-test, plus an aural vocabulary matching task:

– Reading out non-words in isolation and in short sentences.

– Dictation.

– Listening comprehension (done how?)

– Vocabulary recognition (20 words uttered at 5 seconds interval to assess speed of retrieval).

7. Findings

  1. Enhanced alertness to sounds – the students have unanimously reported paying much more attention to sounds, putting it down to the baseline test and the micro-listening activities.
  2. Improvements in decoding skills and pronunciation. Statistically significant improvements in decoding skills were observed from pre-test to post-test (from 45.4 % to 83.4). The results were statistically significantly superior to the comparison group (83.4 % accuracy vs 60.5%). The students put them down to the masses of aural input, to the emphasis the lessons put on phonemes and the micro-listening activities, which they did not always enjoy but significantly enhanced their awareness of the differences between similar-sounding phonemes and words.
  3. Improvements in transcription skills under dictation. Statistically significant improvements were found for this task too. The ratio correct to incorrect words rising by nearly 40% for the experimental group (Group A) and only by 20 % for Group B.
  4. Listening comprehension task. The score of the listening comprehension task too showed a statistically significant advantage for the experimental group, although not as marked as in the other two tasks (group A’s mean score 89.2; group B’s 80.3)
  5. Word matching lexical task. The experimental group very significantly outperformed the comparison group (group A’s mean score 88.4; group B’s 69.7). Interestingly, some comparison group students reporting knowing most of the words they heard but being overwhelmed by the time pressure.
  6. Can-do attitude and motivation vis-à-vis listening. The questionnaire investigating this area has not been administered as yet (planning to do it next week). However, from my conversations with my students throughout the process it emerges clearly that they felt much more confident than at the beginning of the process and that they saw a causality between the L.A.M. activities and their enhanced can-do attitude.

Do note that the effect size was high (i.e. the gains were evenly distributed amongst the students in Group A).

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the students reported finding sentence-builders, substitution tables and sentence puzzles as the most useful activities. The activity they enjoyed the most were spot the intruder, spot the mistake oral repetition sparring and find-someone-who with cards. They did not enjoy dictations but they reported learning a lot from them.

8. Concluding remarks

The study concisely outlined in this post is a small-scale pilot with lots of limitations. Having used the same approach with various classes in the last three years, it does however confirm my observation that students do feel more confident and become substantially more competent at decoding L2 graphemes, transcribing and comprehending of L2 input as a result of this sort of training.

The observation can be made, of course, that students get better at what they practice, so it is little surprise that phonological and spelling skills improve when you spend more time on them. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that listening comprehension improved somewhat along with decoding and transcription. An interesting question to ask is: to what extent would comprehension alone improve if an experimental diet without any transcription was tried, i.e. in this case, if Group B had done no dictation?

However, it is entirely plausible that improving decoding and transcription skills does have the added pay-off discovered in this experiment. Even common sense might predict such an outcome.

Does this suggest that teachers should give more time to the types of tasks done with Group A above? Almost certainly. We would suggest that this is particularly the case with beginners and near-beginners. For intermediate and advanced students such tasks can still play a role, e.g. advanced level transcription, gap-filling and reading aloud. At higher levels, however, it is likely that most listening will focus to a greater extent on comprehension and the ability to participate in more sophisticated discussion.

Of note in the study was the fact that not all decoding skill tasks were enjoyed by the students for long periods of time. How significant is this? Well, on the one hand students vary and do not always like the same things. In addition, we would argue that if students become competent at a skill it increases their confidence (‘self-efficacy’) and makes them enjoy learning in the longer term.  Self-efficacy is a key determinant of success. On the other hand, it may make sense to acknowledge the potential limitations of some tasks by working on micro-listening skills in short burst of, say, 10 minutes, preferably incorporated within other meaningful, communicative, two-way activities so that lessons do not become overtly focused on the form of the language at the expense of meaning. There is a potential danger that too much ‘focus on form’ becomes tedious for some students. Games such as the ones described by Gianfranco here may be used as motivational tools to make the focus on decoding skills less tiresome.

One final point: we are aware that some of the skills described above, e.g. segmenting the sound stream, lexical knowledge and transcription skill are developed by other, non-listening tasks. This is a reminder that listening cannot be taught in isolation and depends on the effective development of speaking, reading and writing.

10 minimal preparation games to enhance phonological awareness and decoding skills


(Co-authored with Steven Smith)


Here are a few zero-preparation activities language teachers can use to enhance their students’ phonological awareness, decoding skills and alertness to sounds and aural input. Although they are especially suited for younger learners, they can be used with older students too.

1. Word Mind-reading

After presenting one or more phonemes and doing much receptive work (like the one envisaged here), the teacher writes a number of words (10-12?) containing that (those) phoneme(s) on the board. After warming the students up, the teacher writes one of those words on a mini-board (making sure the students can’t see it) and asks the students to have a go at guessing the hidden word. This elicits a lot of production of the target sound as the students volunteer their guesses, whilst giving the instructor plenty of chances of providing feedback by teacher echo. Younger learners love it and get very competitive. Of course, if you are practising ‘liaison’ in French you may want to use ‘chunks’ rather than isolated words.

2. Faulty echo

Write a sentence on the board containing one or more phonemes you have practised recently. Then, repeat the sentence twice, once correctly and the second time making one or more mistakes. Reward the person or team (if you split the class into groups) who spot the mistake(s) by uttering the sentence correctly.

3.Track the sound

Read a text and tell your students to clap their hands, put their hand up or make a silly noise every time they hear a specific sound. An alternate version: you read a text and tell them to note down every word they hear containing the target sound (it doesn’t matter if the word’s spelling is incorrect).

Another version the students enjoy, involves telling the students at the outset of the lesson that you will reward any instance of them  spotting the target sounds in the teacher’s input, at any point in the lesson.

This game helps enhancing L2-learner alertness to sound, a pivotal skill in listening skill acquisition.

4.Oral ping pong

Pair students up. Give them a list of sentences each,  which contain one or more of the sounds you have been practising with your class. The game: partner 1 reads out a sentence  from his list once, partner 2 needs to repeat it correctly. Make sure the sentences become increasingly longer as the students proceed down the list. Also, the sentences ping-ponged at each round should, out of fairness, always contain the same amount of items for each player and similar syntactic patterns. Finally, the words should be mono or disyllabic and the students should be familiar with them.

This game is not simply about pronunciation but also about training working memory to hold as many L2 items as possible simultaneously.

5.Say the next word or sound’

For near beginners or low intermediates. Simply read aloud a text you have been working on. When you pause, either at the end of a word, or in the middle of one, the students have to call out or whisper the next word or sound. Make sure that you pause before the target sound(s) or a word containing the target sound(s).

This technique is a very simple and effective way to enhance students’ alertness to aural input whilst practising decoding skills and pronunciation.

6. Memory game

Write on the board 8 to 10 words they know, each containing a different sound that you have been practising recently. Tell the students, divided in teams, that they have 2 minutes to memorize them in preparation for a memory game. When the time is up, erase the words, then utter a sound (e.g. French /u/) and ask the students to recall the word you rubbed out which contained that sound.

7.Disappearing words

Write on the board/classroom screen as many words as you can think of containing some of the sounds you have practised so far. Divide the class in two teams. Pronounce a sound and the first person to put their hand up will get the right to go to the board and erase the word(s) containing that sound; one point per word will then be awarded to their team.

This game is particularly suitable for younger learners – who get very competitive playing it.

8.Letter/Word maths

Write on the board sums such as, in French, ‘Travaille + use = ? ’ and, as you write, pronounce each item in isolation; then ask for someone – or a member of a team if you made it into a competition-  to volunteer the pronunciation of the resulting word (‘e.g. ‘travailleuse). Better if the words you create were not learnt before.

This game enhances the learner’s awareness of the combinatorial patterns in L2-phonology, i.e.  how words / letter clusters affect each other phonologically when they are combined with each other .

9.Non-word auction

Make a powerpoint. On each slide put one or more non-words containing the target phoneme. Make sure the non-word is moulded on one or more target language words they have learnt before, e.g. Paussures (moulded on ‘chaussures’ = shoes ). Divide the students in teams of three or four and give them a fictitious amount of money (e.g. 1,000 dollars). Each word has a price (e.g. 100 dollars). After you pronounce or mispronounce a word, ask them to write on their group’s mini-whiteboard ‘buy’ or ‘reject’. If they buy the word but it was mispronounced, they will lose the amount marked on the slide; if, conversely, the word was indeed pronounced correctly, they will gain that amount. The team with the highest amount of money at the end of the game win.

Of course, you can auction real words, too; but if you do, try and select words the students have not encountered before to see if they are applying decoding skills rather than rote memory.

10.Spot the intruder                          

Version 1: play a song whose lyrics you have doctored by inserting a few extra monosyllabic words here an there containing the target sound(s). Tell them how many ‘intruders’ you added in and to spot them. Of course, you can do this task without necessarily using a song, but simply altering any written text.

Version 2: you can also play the same game in reverse, so to speak, by reading out a text or play a song (if you can sing and play an instrument like some of my current colleagues do), adding to the version you read or play some extra words (not included in the students’ version) and asking the students to spot them as they listen.

Students love this game (especially the second version) and it really enhances they alertness to sound whilst recycling the target phoneme(s).