Tempus fugit – Four strategies to maximise MFL curriculum time


In view of the small amount of curriculum time allocated to MFL/EFL teaching in many schools, finding ways to maximise teaching and learning time is crucial in order to ensure retention is long-lasting and horizontal progression (the accurate routinization of the target items) happens.

In this post, I shall discuss a set of strategies I have been using over the years to address the constraints posed on learning by the very limited contact time I have with my classes (1 hour 50 minutes a week). In my daily fight against time, I have had to make every single minute count. This has entailed:

(1)    effective classroom and learning management, so as to keep students focused and ensure transition from one activity to the next is seamless;

(2)    ensuring long-term retention through impactful teaching strategies;

(3)    smart curriculum design which allows for effective recycling and horizontal progression whilst maximizing coverage;

(4)    using resources which maximise exposure to the target L2 items throughout the duration of the course (as frequency of exposure and production evidently facilitates acquisition);

(5)    rethinking my use of homework.

For reasons of space, but also because Steve Smith and I have dealt with (1) and (2) extensively in our book and in many of our blogs, this post will focus solely on (3), (4) and 5. Before discussing the strategies, it may be useful to go over a distinction I have drawn on several occasions in my blogs, which some readers may not be familiar with, the one between Implicit (or Procedural) and Explicit (Declarative) Knowledge.

2. Implicit vs Explicit Knowledge

Implicit Knowledge (IK)

IK is knowledge you acquire without being conscious of it, bypassing working memory. Think, for instance, of the way you acquired your first language. You learnt how to use it correctly and fluently without anyone teaching you grammar rules, through masses of exposure and repeated use.

Because implicit knowledge is acquired ‘subconsciously’, without the involvement of Working Memory processing, it is used by the brain very rapidly, effortlessly and usually accurately (native speakers only make 10 mistakes every 1,000 words !).

Explicit knowledge (EK)

EK , on the other hand, is knowledge that is acquired consciously and requires Working Memory processing for its retrieval and application. This means that using EK is less efficient than using IK, as any knowledge or skill we apply consciously requires more cognitive effort. So for, instance, a novice applying the rule for the formation of the perfect tense in French step by step to obtain ‘Nous avons mangé’ (we ate) will take much more time than simply producing the same verb form by rote, as a chunk.

Can EK become IK?

The debate as to the answer to this question has been raging for decades. I believe it to be indeed possible and that enabling EK to become IK is in actual fact the ultimate goal of language teaching. It is, however, a very long and painstaking process which can take up to several years for certain structures.

3. Time-saving tips

The strategies I am proposing below are not easy to implement and will require you, if you do choose to implement them, to do a lot more work on your long-term planning and teaching resources. Their aim is to optimize recycling and facilitate horizontal progression and long-term retention, whilst maximising coverage so that drastic reduction in content may not be necessary.

3.1 TIP 1. Embed an ‘Implicit Route’ in your curriculum

Most grammar and vocabulary teaching in the British system occurs explicitly. This is absolutely fine. However, automatizing explicit knowledge, as mentioned above, can be extremely time-consuming, much more time-consuming than implicit learning. This means that if we do aim at the automaticity of what we teach, the time spent on each structure and item will take a lot of our curricular time.

So, how about embedding in our curriculum an ‘implicit route’ running alongside the ‘explicit route’, whereby your students learn part of the core structures, vocabulary and morphemes in your syllabus ‘subconsciously’, so to speak, merely through repeated daily exposure and production?

Embedding an implicit route means that you can reduce the amount of  content you plan to teach explicitly. So, for instance, in year 7, I typically teach implicitly 8 to 10 core grammar patterns that I would normally teach explicitly, thereby freeing up more curriculum time for the consolidation of other material. Here are some of the ways in which I have embedded implicit learning in my teaching.

(1)    ILRs (implicit learning routines)

(2)    Universals

(3)    Seed-planting


3.1.1 Implicit Learning Routines (ILRs)

ILRs refer to specific daily routines you carry out in every lesson, which involve recognition or production of the same sets of patterns or chunks day in day out. You will support the recognition or production of the target input/output through the use of scaffolds such as sentence builders, substitution tables, writing frames or word lists (with L1 translation is necessary), but you will not engage in any explicit grammar teaching.

Scaffolds must be well-crafted, as they play a crucial role at the beginning of implementing an ILR. The idea is that the scaffold is used by the students until the specific ILR-related language is routinized and it is not needed any longer.

Figure 1 – Example of scaffold used for the ‘taking the emotional temperature’ ILR


It is crucial that ILRs are embedded in the lesson flow in a way which does not disrupt but rather supports the teaching of the topic-at-hand and that they do not take too much lesson time; mine take on average five minutes once the students get the hang of it.

Please do bear in mind that whilst I only have two lessons per week on a week A and one on a week B, our lessons are 1 hour 10 minutes long, so embedding several ILRs in one lesson is easier for me than, say, for someone teaching 40-minute lessons. Here are some examples of my ILRs.

(1) Register routines – as mentioned in some of my previous posts, register routines can be extremely valuable for Implicit learning purposes. As you call the register, ask each student to answer specific questions whilst the rest of the class is engaged in a warm-up task. Alternatively, you can turn the routine in a listening activity whereby the rest of the class note down their classmates’ answers.

Two of my register routines include :

– ‘Taking the emotional temperature’- I have described it in a couple of previous posts. As you call the register you ask each student how they feel on the day using adjectives expressing emotions or physical states (e.g. I am ill ) at beginner level and more complex sentences at higher levels (e.g. I am tired because I did not sleep well last night);

– ‘What did you do yesterday?’ – ask them to tell you three things they did yesterday;

(2) Small-talk routines – I usually stage these before the actual lesson start, after taking the register. A small talk routine could be literally about any topic which elicit the structures you selected for implicit learning (what they did last week-end; what they had for breakfast; what lessons they have on that day and why they like them or dislike them) I usually stage the same small talk routine for 5 to 6 weeks in a row; with particularly able groups I alternate two small talk routines every other lesson. One small-talk routine that Betty Lohman-Malone, HoD at Bordesley Green Girls’ School (Birmingham) uses with her younger learners is ‘The weather routine’ whereby she asks her students what the weather is like outside. This has meant for her not having to teach the weather explicitly any more.

(3) Learning management routines – these do not simply refer to classroom instructions and the typical transactional language used in pupil-to-pupil and pupil-to-teacher (or vice versa) interaction. But also to ‘live marking’, when you go around monitoring and write in the students’ books comments, as well ‘delayed marking’ when you write feedback on assignments; in both cases you can provide linguistic input designed to recycle specific structures (e.g. modal verbs, adjectives, connectives) – ask the students to translate your feedback into the L1 to make sure they read and processed your input.

(4) Student voice routines – these refer to feedback you may ask students to give you on your teaching along with advice on what you could do better. You will provide scaffolding which elicit the structure / chunks you want your students to use (e.g. the lesson was good but next time you could do that). I usually do this using a google form, a google doc displayed on the classroom screen or a ‘slow chat’ using Edmodo. Again, no more than five minutes.

(5) Exit-ticket routines – As my year 7 and 8 students leave, as an exit ticket, they will tell me or the class what they are planning to do after school or next week-end so as to elicit the use of the immediate future in Spanish and French (I am going to…). With my year 10 and 11 I used more complex structures and a wider range of idioms.

(6) ‘Universals’ routines – These are routines designed to practise each year-group’s ‘universals’. Which brings me to next point.

3.1.2 The ‘Universals’ 3.What they are

For every year group, I select a set of core items I call universals, i.e. chunks, patterns and morphemes, which I set out to teach implicitly in every lesson, through  (1) ILRs, (2) exposure to texts, and (3) production tasks eliciting their deployment and (4) homework.

I call them ‘universals’, as I make sure that they are contextualised in every single topic I teach, appear in nearly every lesson, in tests and homework. Here are, for example, the ‘universals’ I selected for my Year 7 French last year:

Figure 2 – Year 7 French ‘universals’

Untitled How I select my ‘universals’

I select my Universals based on the following criteria :

(a)  they are high-frequency items ; this means they are useful, likely to co-occur naturally in text/speech with many of the core items in the syllabus. Being high-frequency, working out activities or finding or creating texts in which to embed them is relatively easy.

(b)  they are easy to recyle across contexts (usually high-frequency items are).

(c ) their understanding / use does not require much explanation ; usually, showing several examples of how they work, modelling their use and providing the students with a scaffold suffice.

(e) (in some cases) they may be easy to acquire and high-frequency in the real world but you feel your typical student does not get enough exposure to them in the classroom for one reason or another (e.g. their low saliency in the daily input, your resources, your classroom talk, your pushed output). For instance, our GCSE examination board requires the candidates to use a wide repertoire of verbs in their output ; hence, from year 7 I have selected  ‘phrases + infinitive’ as a universal in order to ensure that students learn a lot of verbs in the infinitive (easier to learn as they do not need conjugating ; e.g. je dois aller ; je vais faire.) How I embed the ‘universals’ in my teaching

Embedding ‘universals’ requires a bit of creativity and hard work. Here is how I do it :

1.’Universals’ ILRs

Any of the ILRs discussed above can be used to drill in the universals ; hence, potentially, any ILR can be a universal ILR. However, there are four routines that cut across every year group I teach that I use in nearly every lesson, contextualised in the topic-at-hand, for practising what I call my ‘Major Universals’, i.e. ‘Creating questions’ , ‘Negative structures’, ‘Describing things, places or events’ and ‘Phrases with the infinitive’.  Here they are:

(a) Question time – at one point in the lesson, a question mark or my ‘questions spinning-wheel’ (see my previous post)  appears and my students know that it is question time. Using their universals booklet (an organizer containing all the universals with examples of how to use them) they have to ask questions on their miniwhiteboards on the topic-at-hand based on a prompt I or the spinning-wheel gives them.

Figure 3 – Spinning wheel from http://www.wheeldecide.com

oral production

(b) Grumpy time – when the images of ‘grumpy smurf’ (for my younger learners) or the devil appear on the classroom screen, my students know that whatever question I ask (obviously related to the topic-at-hand) they have to answer or rewrite it using a negative structure. I typically ask 5 or 6 questions and they are not allowed to use the same negative structure more than once

Figure 3 – the ‘grumpy smurph’ prompts my primary students to use negative structures


(c) Modal time –  this is a time slot during which the students practise oral or written interaction with other students through structures or semi-structured tasks (e.g. role plays) in which they ask each other and answer questions involving the use of modals + infinitive. Example : when covering the topic ‘house chores’, partner 1 asks : ‘Can you please help your mother doing the washing-up ?’ ; partner B ‘ Sorry, I can’t help mum. I have to walk the dog now’.

(d) Picture time – A picture appears on the screen, which elicits the vocabulary/structures related to the topic-at-hand. The students, orally or in writing are tasked with describing the picture. Tasks may involve pair-work or performed individually. Prompts may be given in the form of questions, sentence stems (such as ‘the action takes place in… ; ‘I can see…’ ; Unfortunately… ; The most interesting thing is..), false statements that students need to rewrite correctly, depending on the target ‘pushed output’. A very effective way, in my experience, to train the students for the GCSE photo-card task whilst staying in the topic-at-hand.

Another universals ILR which I stage with my GCSE classes refers to the use of ‘if clauses’ (type 2)  a structure my students used to grasp quite easily but kept making mistakes with for in oral production. Whatever the topic-at-hand, last year I started to ask my students to make sentences using the French structure ‘Si + subject pronoun + imperfect indicative, subject pronoun + present conditional. Using the specific ILR day in day out has finally, for the first time, last year, got every single one of my students to acquire the structure accurately without mixing up Imperfect and Conditional as several of them used to do.

2.Create a ‘universals’ booklet

I create a booklet containg the universals which contains examples of their usage. The students keep a copy of the booklet for use as a scaffold

3. Embed ‘universals’ in the classroom environment

Posters or other reference materials can be put up on the wall as further scaffolds for use during the ILRs

4. Embed ‘universals’ in your tasks and resources

To me this is paramount, even though it is very time-consuming. I embed as many universals as possible in most of the written input the students get. It is fairly easy as they relate to high-frequency structures, but it often means having to create resources. Same applies to the ‘pushed output’ I want to elicit from my students, which means having to get creative in order to ensure they use the universals in productive tasks, too.

5. Recyle ‘universals’ through homework

This is easy for productive tasks – e.g. when assigning a writing task, simply ask the students to include all or some of the universals.  For receptive tasks, selecting or creating texts or activities which contain the target structures will require a bit more work.

6. Embed ‘universals’ in your classroom talk

This is a bit difficult at the start and it may require you to make significant changes to the way you structure your classroom talk. For instance, an awkward change I have had to make relates to classroom instruction where I swicthed from more natural and accurate instructions in the imperative forms (e.g. Ecoutez !) to ‘Il faut’ or modal verbs (on doit) + the infinitive, in order to expose my students to as many infinitive forms as possible. The latter way of giving instructions is less authentic but serves the purpose of drilling in one of my major ‘universals’ (phrases + infinitive), hence, I sacrificed authenticity for surrender value.

7. Embed  ‘universals’ in tests

This is as easy as it is time-consuming, especially if you do follow a textbook quite closely and use its materials for high-stake assessments. One way around this is to administer several low-stake assessments and embed the universals in those.

3.1.4  The seed-planting technique

This technique, that I discussed in greater depth in a previous post, consists of frequently exposing the students to a given L2 item prior to its explicit teaching. For example, if you are planning to teach item X in week 6 of Term 1, you will ensure that the students will come across that item several times, whether in texts, through ILRs or any other means in weeks 1 to 5, drawing their attention to it and ensuring they understand what it means

This implicit learning technique works very well in synergy with explicit teaching in that the students usually get to the explicit grammar lesson with a good understanding of the target structure. This means that you will use up less lesson time for explicit teaching and will be able to focus more on communicative practice.

3.2 TIP 2 – Cut down ‘traditional’ coverage

As I have attempted to show above, by adding an Implicit Route, you will be able to reduce the amount of vocabulary and structures you typically cover explicitly. However, if you do teach a unit every six weeks as most textbooks used in England recommend, you may have to reduce your curriculum coverage even further if you do want to achieve optimal horizontal progression and long-term retention. I did and this not only has not at all affected my GCSE results, but has also substantially enhanced the students’ sense of self-efficacy and, in turn, their motivation levels

3.3 TIP 3 – Inductive grammar learning (IGL)

It may seem contradictory to advocate IGL, which is notoriously a very time-consuming approach to teaching grammar when one is attempting to save curriculum time. In my experience, though, if you start IGL with your younger learners, as they grow older and more versed in inductive grammar learning, you will save time later on, when they will become more autonomous and ‘quick’ at picking up grammar rules and at unpacking unfamiliar patterns in your input. It is a process which may be time-consuming and painstaking at the beginning, but which will pay enormous dividends later on.

Students who are highly versed in IGL are more able to work independently; which means that you will be able to ‘flip’ much of the grammar teaching to your students after two or even one year of frequent inductive grammar work with them.

3.4 TIP 4 – Teach chunks rather than single words

As I often advocate in my posts, teaching vocabulary in chunks is much more time efficient than teaching single words and much more pedagogically sound. For a rationale for this assertion, which has mainly to do with ease of language processing (as a 3-4 words chunk has the same cognitive load of a single word), please read here.

This strategy is particularly effective with students who have been trained in IGL (Inductive Grammar Learning) as they will be more effective in ‘unpacking’ chunks and manipulating them to enhance their generative power.

4. Concluding remarks

In many of my previous posts on this blog, I have argued that most of the MFL textbooks currently in use in English schools cover way too many topics. The authors of such textbooks usually recommend teachers cover a topic consisting of a fairly wide range of structures and vocabulary per half-term (i.e. roughly 6-7 weeks) – an impossible task if we want students to truly acquire the target content.

Cutting down on the number of topics covered explicitly is a must, in my opinion. In the Spanish Department in my school, Dylan Vinales and I have cut down the number of units taught explicitly by half, whilst embedding an Implicit Learning route which runs along the Explicit Learning one.

The synergy resulting from the implementation of Implicit and Explicit instruction has paid enormous dividends and has meant covering fewer topics but teaching them in greater depth, obtaining better long-term retention and horizontal progression. Moreover, the number of words and structures taught implicitly have abundantly made up for the amount of items we eliminated from the original schemes of work. Hence, the proverbial saying ‘less is more’ truly applied in our context.

The Implicit Route, should you choose to use my approach, must be planned and resourced carefully, though, in order for optimal exposure to and production of the implicit target content to occur. The more opportunities for recycling, the greater the chances that implicit acquisition will happen.

The strategies discussed in this post work best when implemented synergistically. For instance, the universals or any other structures practised implicitly could be eventually taught explicitly in dedicated lessons; hence, the ‘universals’ technique could be viewed as an instance of seed-planting.

I strongly recommend the use of ILRs. They are easy to implement, free up valuable curriculum time and do enhance students’ acquisition in a relatively effortless way.

In my next post I will discuss more ‘smart recycling’ strategies that I devised in order to maximise the learning of the items I choose to teach explicitly and how the synergy Implicit + Explicit can be exploited to its full potential.



Eight narrow reading techniques that will enhance your students’ vocabulary and reading skills


1. Introduction

This post describes eight Narrow reading techniques that have significantly enhanced my students’ vocabulary and reading skills.

As explained in previous posts, Narrow Reading is a powerful technique based on the concept that getting your students to go over and over the same text through a range of comprehension tasks may be tedious for them; whilst by creating several reading passages (I tend to use three to six) that are very similar in terms of topic, structure, vocabulary and patterns, you will still be recycling the same target linguistic features but through a wider range of texts adding in and allowing for more variety.

In my experience, Narrow reading texts are most effective, when they:

  • are near-identical in terms of patterns;
  • contain comprehensible input (90% accessible in meaning without resorting to dictionaried or extra-textual help);
  • are relatively short (very short for absolute beginners, of course, as shown in figure 1 below)

Figure 1 – Example of Narrow reading texts for absolute beginners of English

Spot the differences photo

The activities I usually ask my students to perform on Narrow reading texts are different from the typical ‘true or false’, ‘who, where, what, when, etc.’ or other classical comprehension questions, because such tasks often encourage skimming and scanning, educated guesswork and picking details, rather than processing texts in a more thorough and meticulous way.

Skimming and scanning, educated guesswork and inferencing are obviously very important skills, which should be fostered in the L2 classroom. However, I want my students to process the texts in their entirety paying attention to as much text as possible, in order to intensify the students’ exposure to the vocabulary and patterns I intend to recycle. Hence, what I have done over the years, is trying to come up with tasks which, whilst being engaging and involving problem-solving, aim to get them to do just that.

In sum, the main aim of Narrow reading tasks is to ‘trick’ the students into processing what is basically the same text over and over again whilst making them read six. In this sense, they are possibly one of the most effective recycling tools ever, allowing L2 teachers to expose their learners to the core items in their syllabi many times over throughout the duration of the academic year.

2.Eight effective Narrow reading techniques

The eight techniques described below, are Narrow reading tasks that I carry out in my lessons, day in day out and my students enjoy. Obviously, they are contextualised in the topic-at-hand.

1.Spot the differences – This is a narrow reading activity which typically involves 3 to 6 texts (the more the better) of around 100 words that are completely identical apart from a few key details. The task is for the students to spot such details in each text which are different from all the other five texts. So if text A  in line 3 reads ‘she is tall’ all the other texts will read at the same line ‘she is short’ or ‘she is average height’. Obviously, you can make it into a competition under time constraints with the right group.

The rationale for the activity is to trick the students into reading the same texts three to six times over (thereby recycling the same lexis, patterns and grammar) whilst giving them a task which requires them to pay attention to the slightest detail in order to find the differences.

As a follow-up you can do a ‘Spot the differences’ Listening task in which you will re-use the same texts (changing the target details of course) and will read out to them. Since the focus will be on modelling you will be reading the text at modelling, not near-native speed. Same rationale: getting them to listen to the same text and patterns over and over again.

Figure 2 – ‘Spot the differences’ (French example)

Spot the differences photo

2.Bad translation -‘Bad translation’ is another very effective Narrow Reading technique I use a lot. It consists of a set of very similar texts (typical 3 or 4) and their respective translations. The task is for the students to spot four or five mistakes the teacher deliberately made in the translation to lay emphasis on certain vocabulary or structures. This forces the students to really process the Target language texts in great detail and learn vocabulary incidentally as they do so.

By doing this task, you are again tricking the students in re-reading the same sort of text, patterns and vocabulary several times over but with the added benefits of the L1 translation,which may result in some learning of new vocabulary in the process. The same texts can be recycled as follow-up by placing gaps in the Target Language text or in the translations.

The same technique can also be turned into a Listening activity in which the students are provided with the translation and listen to the teacher as he reads the Target Language text.

3.Summaries – In this activity, the students are once again given 3 to 6 texts on the same topic, not identical but very similar in structure and language content. You summarise each text in 40-50 words  in the L1 or L2 , depending on the students’ level. The task is for the students to find which summary matches which text. To make the task more challenging, you may want to add an extra summary or two, as distractors.

4.Picture – select an image from the internet or the textbook in use, which refers to the topic-at-hand or to specific grammar structures or patterns you want to recycle. Then create three or more narrow reading texts which describe the picture in detail. Make sure, though, that only one text and one text only is a 100% accurate description of the picture, whilst the others have one or two details in excess which do not match the picture. The task is for the students to identify the only text that matches the picture in every single detail.

This task kills two birds with one stone in that not only it does enhance the students’ vocabulary and reading skills but can also be used to prepare MFL GCSE students for the oral photocard task by modelling useful language and approaches to that task.

5.Questions –  This narrow reading technique requires a bit more work. I created it in order to focus my students not only on the content of the target texts, but also on understanding L2 questions. After creating 3 to 6  texts that are very similar in content and structure, write a set of ten or more questions in the target language, making sure that each text contains the answer to all of the questions you created but one. The students’ task is to find the one question that does not apply to each specific text (i.e. there is no answer to that question in the text)

6.Overgeneralizations – This is kind of reminiscent of ‘Spot the differences’. After creating the texts you will write ten or more statements in the target language about them which are true of all the texts except for one (e.g. ‘All the people in the texts play a sport). The students’ task is to find for each of the statements the one text it does not apply to. The statement could be in English or in the L2.

7.List – Create as many narrow reading texts as you can on the same topic. Then display a long list of details in the L1 or L2 taken from the various texts and display it on the board. The task is for the students to match the information on the list to the text it comes from.

8.The most / The least – After creating the text, you will write a number of  gapped sentences such as: the most positive person is…; the sportiest person is … the biggest house is…, the person who visited most places is…  . Students are tasked with filling the gaps. This technique has the added benefit of drilling in superlatives, a structure that KS3 students of French find quite difficult to acquire.

3.The follow-up

More traditional activities, classics such as true or false or other comprehension questions tasks, cloze, sorting information into categories (linguistic or semantic), ‘Find the French for the following’ etc, can of course follow and are indeed desirable as they truly enhance the power of Narrow Reading tasks. The risk is staying on the same texts a bit too long, which may disengage some students.

Narrow listening tasks, recycling the same texts used for Narrow reading by changing a few details here and there are another very effective alternative, depending on the level of the students. Some classes may cope with receiving the same input aurally, some may not. You may have to shorten the texts and simplify the task, when adapting them for listening purposes. You will also have to read them at modelling speed, rather than native or near-native pace.

Any other vocabulary tasks / games drilling in the language you embedded in the Narrow reading tasks will be useful before engaging in production.

Structured and semi-structured ‘pushed-output’ written and then oral tasks in which the students will be asked to re-use the same language patterns and vocabulary found in the narrow reading texts would obviously be the icing of the cake.

4. Concluding remarks

Narrow reading tasks constitute an effective and engaging way to increase exponentially the exposure your students get to the target patterns, vocabulary and grammar structures that you want them to acquire though the written medium.

Such tasks are powerful because they do not ask students to simply pick details in response to questions asking who, where and what, which may encourage some of them to simply skim and scan through texts in search of clues which may prompt educated guesses or inferences, but ‘trick’ the students into processing the texts more closely and thoroughly, whilst giving them a problem to solve. This makes enhancing the exposure to the target items more effective and engaging.

To-date, Narrow reading tasks have not been sufficiently used in published instructional materials because they are not a well-known technique and are time-consuming to make. You often find clusters of texts of similar topics that share some linguistic features; however, narrow reading texts are most effective, in my experience of using them for over a decade, when they are extremely similar in structure, repeat the same patterns over and over again and when the tasks associated with them have a problem-solving component and even a competitive element.

Mounting research evidence shows Narrow reading texts do enhance students’ vocabulary. Moreover, we know from masses of empirical studies that high-frequency exposure to the same patterns (syntactic, morphologica, phonogical, etc.) does sensitize students to them, thereby facilitating acquisition.


13 commonly made mistakes in Modern Language Instruction

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1. Too much zooming in not enough zooming out

The acquisition of a phoneme, lexical item, grammar structure or learning strategy is a very long and painstaking process involving lots of exposure and practice and much trial and error that may last months or even years. Moreover, a big obstacle to long-term retention is the fact that the human brain forgets at a ridiculously high rate;  42 % of what we learn is usually lost within 20 minutes from first memorizing it, 64 % after 9 hours and 80 % after one week without consolidation (see figure 1 below)

Figure 1 – Rate of human forgetting


Hence, medium and long-term planning are more important, in the greater scheme of things, than short-term planning – what is the point in teaching ten new lexical items on Monday in the perfect lesson, if on Friday nearly eight of them will have been forgotten?

Yet, it is not uncommon for teachers to focus mostly on the here-and-now, to ‘zoom in’ without ‘zooming out’; new items are taught, the instructor dwells on them for two or three lessons, then moves on after being satisfied through a test (usually done in writing) that most of the students have ‘learnt’ them.

The bigger picture, the long-term planning in those schemes of work that very few of us look at in their daily practice, is what matters the most if we want long-term retention to happen.

The most important part of a lesson, any lesson, is the bit in which you set out what you intend the students to be able to do with the content of that lesson in the long term (e.g. receptive and/or productive mastery?) by when (e.g. the end of the year?) and think about how you are going to get there from the end of that lesson onwards.


2. Insufficient ‘horizontal’ progression

In ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’, Steve Smith and I draw a distinction between ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ progression in lessons. The former refers to progression from a lower level of language complexity to a higher one, whilst the latter refers to progression in terms of speed and control (e.g. I can produce language faster and with fewer mistakes at time 2 than at time 1).

If we do endorse, as I do, the equation Learning = Automaticity, then horizontal progression across all four skills (each skill involving different processes) should really take priority over vertical progression in lessons as well as throughout the whole of the academic year. Hence, vertical progression should only be attempted once much horizontal progression has been achieved. E.g.: no point teaching students how to form complex sentences in French, Spanish or Italian if they have not automatized how to use basic verb forms, articles or make noun and adjective agree, right?

Yet, how many of us venture into teaching more complex grammatical or syntactic structures without having ensured that the basic ones have been automatized (100 % accuracy) or at least routinized (80 % accuracy) thereby seriously damaging our students’ learning? How many of our Advanced level students of French, Spanish and German still struggle with adjectival agreement, gender and number of nouns, verb conjugation and word order in year 13?

Horizontal progression is the most neglected aspect of language teaching and learning, because it ‘slows down’ the coverage of the syllabus and requires extra resources. But when it comes to horizontal progression, less is more – is it better to teach ten grammar items in year 7 ‘superficially’, knowing that you will have to re-teach them over and over again all the way to year 11, or cut down coverage by half (as I have done) so that routinization will actually happen the first time around thanks to extensive exposure and usage?


Figure 2 – Less is more when it comes to curriculum design

oral production

In my approach, the teacher selects only a few core grammar structures per year and tracks down their level of routinization throughout the year through low-stake assessments, some given as homework (e.g. a student records himself as he describes a picture under time constraints).

The pace dictated by textbooks, one unit every six weeks is unrealistic and unfair to our students. Only few of them can cope and we end up teaching to those few if we keep to this pace. No wonder only those few choose to pursue Modern Languages beyond GCSE.


3.Five common recycling mistakes

Many of us recycle systematically and extensively across units. Many more don’t – their curriculum design does not make explicit provision for recycling opportunities of old material across new units and topics are ‘compartmentalised’ so to speak. But even those who recycle often make the following very common ‘mistakes’.

Mistake 1 – Vocabulary and grammar are often recycled using digital tools such as Memrise and Quizlets or other resources (e.g. Powerpoints or textbooks) which practise vocabulary in the very same phrases/sentences or context in which they were originally learnt. Recycling, though, is most effective when the to-be-consolidated vocabulary is ‘hooked’ (possibly through semantic processing) to an increasingly wider range of contexts, be these words, images, sounds or tasks. So, re-using the same set of Quizlet, Memrise or Linguascope activities does not constitute effective recycling because it limits the range of retrieval cues available to the learner at recall. In simpler words:  consolidating the word ‘plage’ using the same sentence ‘je vais à la plage’ is going to be much less conducive to retention than recycling it through a wide range of contexts (e.g. ‘je suis à la plage’, ‘il y a une belle plage près de chez moi’, ‘la plage est bondèe’, ‘j’habite près de la plage’, etc.) because associating 5 contexts to that word offers working memory a wider range of retrieval paths and consequently more chances of successful recall.

Mistake 2:  words are often recycled in isolation, which is ineffective for the same reason discussed above: learning is more effective when an item is processed in association with a wide range of other items or linguistic contexts.

Mistake 3 : the target vocabulary and grammar – especially the latter – are rarely recycled across all four skills, listening and speaking tending to be the most neglected.

Mistake 4 : homework is rarely used to recycle old material, yet there are many minimal-preparation tasks that one can set for out-of-school assignments to effectively serve that purpose. Projects to be carried out exclusively as homework are one of them.

Mistake 5 : We tend to recycle items that we teach explicitly (i.e. by explaining the rules governing their usage). But why not recycling systematically and consciously items that we don’t actually teach explicitly, but we would like our students to pick up implicitly? Which brings me to the next point.


4.Over-emphasis on explicit learning

Not all classroom learning must occur explicitly. Much research shows that masses of exposure to highly patterned, repetitive comprehensible input (i.e. 90-95 % accessible in meaning without extratextual help) can bring about learning. Hence, a big chunk of teaching and learning in the modern language classroom can and should occur implicitly.

As an example, at the beginning of every lesson I teach, as I call the register, I ask the students to tell me how they feel using the vocabulary in the table below which I project on the screen and they have in their books. By staging this activity every day, after a few weeks, the students not only learn all the vocabulary in the table without any explicit teaching, but often even internalize the basic rule of adjectival agreement in French (‘add ‘e’ to the end of the adjective with feminine nouns’) by mere usage and/or exposure.

Figure 2 – Taking the emotional temperature (daily lesson starter)


Also, at the end of lessons, as an ‘exit ticket’,  I usually ask my students to tell me, write on mini-whiteboards or discuss with their classmates 4 or 5 things they are going to do after school or at the weekend, using the immediate future (‘je vais + infinitive’ in French or ‘voy a + infinitive’ in Spanish) which is modelled on a scaffolding sheet that I project on the interactive whiteboard. Again, after a few weeks, with no explanation, they usually grasp implicitly and effortlessly how to use that tense merely through repeated usage.

After delivering countless workshops on how to embed implicit learning in the curriculum it has become apparent to me that, at least in British schools, most teachers do not have a principled approach to implicit teaching. Yet, implicit learning through frequent exposure and usage, when carefully and methodically planned and implemented can yield amazing results.

5.Too much single-word teaching

As I repeat ad nauseam in my blogs (e.g. here) , teaching single words is less effective than teaching them through functional chunks, i.e. phrases used in the performance of communicative functions (list of communicative functions, here). Why? Firstly, because our brain’s working memory can only process 4 items at any one time, so better learning four items consisting of chunks of three or four words than four items consisting of one, as this will result in less cognitive effort when creating sentences. Think of the processes involved in creating and uttering a sentence (listed in the figure below), how cumbersome it can be to a novice as s/he executes each stage using single words.

Figure 4 – Oral production of a sentence

oral production

Secondly, learning vocabulary through chunks can avoid a series of commonly made mistakes if it is done smartly. For instance, when teaching clothes, teaching ‘J’ai une chemise verte’ (I have a green shirt) and ‘j’ai un blouson vert (I have a green coat), rather than simply teaching the noun preceded by the determiner (i.e. ‘une chemise’ or ‘un blouson’), as books usually do, means that (a) you teach more vocabulary in one go and (b) that you do not have to teach noun-to-adjective agreement explicitly, thereby reducing the chances of the students making mistakes in handling that structure for many years to come – as they commonly do.

Thirdly, it is evident from research that advanced learners and native speakers produce language in the attainment of a communicative goal through the execution of specific speech routines which consists of chunks of language that they piece together at high speed. Hence, chunking should be actively fostered in the foreign language classroom.

6.Cognitively overloading students

In my latest round of workshops in England, a few weeks ago, I made the attendees experience cognitive overload in attempting to memorize Japanese or Malay numbers from 1 to 10. It was a frustrating but eye-opening experience, as they experienced what their students often go through in their lessons.

If our brains can only contain four items at any one time and we are not teaching them chunks, imagine how hard it must be for a beginner to keep a sentence as long as six or seven words in their Working Memory whilst making adjectives and nouns agree with one another, conjugating verbs, getting the word order right etc. This is one common cause of cognitive overload (C0) and the main reason why you should teach chunks rather than single words.

Other very common causes of CO involve:

  • receptive tasks which involve input which is not comprehensible input (i.e. less than 90% of it is accessible without resorting to extratextual help);
  • comprehension questions on aural texts delivered at high speed;
  • tasks which cause anxiety and stress (two strong inhibitors of Working Memory performance);
  • having to attend to several tasks at the same time, e.g. when we ask our students to peer assess speaking performance with a multi-trait rubric which includes several items to feedback on (e.g. use of tenses, range of vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.)

7. Over-reliance on shallow processing

The ability to recall a specific lexical item is not simply a function of the power law of practice but also of how many associations it has with other lexical items and information in long-term memory, as well as how strong those association are. Moreover, retention will be stronger when the cognitive and emotional investment of the learner is deeper.

Hence vocabulary teaching activities should involve mostly meaning-based associations, sorting and classifying, problem solving, creativity with the language and any other task which is about deep processing. Yet, a lot of vocabulary teaching is about shallow processing, that is, mere repetition, without much involvement of higher order thinking skills, which usually creates a weaker memory trace.

8.Vocabulary, communicative functions and grammar are not usually taught across all four skills

Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing are four different skills which involve four different sets of processes and micro-skills. Hence the use of the target lexical items, grammar structures and functions need to be acquired by our students across four skills, not just one or two, as it usually happens. Think of how many times you have tested your students’ uptake of the grammar structures you have taught over the years through listening and speaking, for instance; not many, right?

9.Under-emphasis on modelling comprehensible input through the receptive skills (listening and reading)

In British schools, there is an over-emphasis on grammar, vocabular teaching (often through games) and production, especially highly-scaffolded writing at the detriment of modelling comprehensible input through Listening and Reading, the former being by far the more neglected of the two skills. Yet, much research evidence shows that extensive exposure to highly patterned comprehensible input significantly facilitates learning.

Moreover, an added benefit of doing a lot of such receptive work is that aural and written texts make the recycling of old material easier (you can embed in texts any language you like), than doing productive work.  In the last three years, I have literally doubled the amount of receptive work through comprehensible aural and written input I do with my students and this has significantly enhanced my teaching.

The issue is that many teachers want their students to come up with some form of product by the end of every lesson, as concrete evidence that learning happened.

A final point, when teachers talk about automaticity and fluency, many seem to forget that automaticity in the execution of receptive skills is as important as automaticity in speaking and writing production. Oral spontaneity, for instance, cannot be achieved if one cannot process aural input fast and accurately.


10. Ineffective listening instruction

I shall briefly touch on this issue as I have discussed it extensively in many previous posts and articles of mine; not only, as mentioned above, Listening is highly neglected, but it is also usually badly taught. As I have been vocally advocating for the last two years, listening comprehension tasks do not teach listening skills; nor do they model language use – they are tests through and through which elicit the application of inferencing strategies (see here for more).


11. Insufficient focus on creating questions

‘Creating questions’ is a communicative function which plays a key role in oral spontaneity. You cannot acquire oral spontaneity unless you can master this function. Yet, MFL students are often given long lists of questions to answer or memorize the answers to, but are rarely systematically taught how to form questions. There is no textbook currently on the UK market which dedicates to this function the space and treatment it thoroughly deserves.

Since last year, I have made ‘creating questions’ one my ‘universals’, i.e. one of the ten functions/structures that I set out to teach in every single lesson of mine, regardless of the topic-at-hand (I am going to write a post about my ‘universals’ over the next few days).  Nowadays, as my primary students see the free wheeldecide.com  wheel appear on my classroom screen, whatever question prompt the wheel selects, they know they have to produce a question in the context of the topic-at-hand on their miniboards using that prompt (scaffolding is provided of course).

Figure 6 – Spin the wheel from http://www.wheeldecide.com

oral production.png


12. One method fits all

What is most striking about the textbooks in use in UK schools is that by and large they use the same methodological approach from beginners to intermediate. The level of difficulty may increase as you move from year 7 to year 11, but you see the same sort of tasks and task sequences; the same emphasis on the four skills; the same speed of delivery in the listening tracks; the same insufficient amount of recycling; the same target language-to-first language ratio; etc.

Yet, it is evident that at different levels of proficiency L2 learners have different needs. Hence approaches may be required which differ from level to level and even from language to language. So, with beginners one may have to use a much more structured approach than one would with upper intermediate students; may need to do more work on decoding skills, may need to focus more on the receptive skills, especially listening; may have to make greater use of the first language; etc.


13.Flawed assessment and assessment ladders

The vast majority of the assessment tasks and procedures found in the textbooks currently on the market leave much to be desired for many reasons to do with:

(1) construct validity, i.e. they do not actually measure what they purport to measure as they do not test the students fairly on the actual content and skills taught by the course (e.g. listening tests are more about educated guesswork than actual understanding, an important survival skill set but not one that we actually  systematically teach);

(2) the flawed assumption they are based upon, that progression is about how many tenses you master and the length of the text-at-hand (but a shorter text can be more challenging than a longer one);

(3) grammar tests assess the acquisition of the target structure mainly through gap-fill tasks, which do not tell as anything about students’ ability to use that structure in real time and under time constraints (e.g. in a spontaneous conversation). They only tell us about their grasp of how the grammar structure works (i.e. declarative knowledge as opposed to procedural knowledge).

The assessment ladders that are currently circulating in British MFL circles are a major cause for concern to me, as they have not been created, as they should have been, a posteriori, emerging from actual data, i.e. by observing what students do at different levels of proficiency; rather, they have been created a priori, by individuals who are not even expert language acquisition researchers who have arbitrarily decided what students should and should not be able to do at different developmental levels.

In other words, unless I study what poor, average and very able students can and cannot do well on a specific listening, speaking, reading and writing task or set of tasks at different levels of proficiency how can I – unless I have psychic powers – come up with an assessment ladder which states effectively what students should be able to do in each of the four skills at level 1 to 9?

So, for instance, in wanting to come up with an effective year 7 to 11 nine-point writing assessment ladder, I would have to start by asking my best A* year 11 students to write an essay under exam constraints and determine, based on their performance, what the features of a typical level 9 essay are and then work my way down to year 7 by studying students at each key developmental stage. A long and painstaking process – but because assessment does have an important wash-back effect on teaching, it is paramount that it is done well, rather than opting for quick-and-dirty solutions which give us a botched-up and vague measurement of our students’ ability, as the old National Curriculum Levels used to do.

The rubrics that I have seen posted on social networks, on some highly renowned and respected educators’ websites and published by Pearson are very disappointing in this respect.

What Modern Language teachers like and dislike about professional development events



In the last ten days, I have delivered a few workshops in a number of secondary schools around England, which focused on Listening, Grammar, Spontaneous speaking and Vocabulary instruction.

As usual, in order to gauge the 220 participants’ expectations and find out about their professional context and previous professional development experiences, I sent them an online survey which 210 of them completed.

In this post, I will share the most interesting data I obtained from the survey, as I believe the common trends I have identified in the delegates’ responses may help colleagues who run CPD (continuous professional development) in the MFL field select and/or conduct courses more effectively.

The participants

The sample included 210 secondary and primary MFL teachers from the private (55 %) and public sector (45 %) whose average teaching experience was 12 years.

The questions

The survey included two sets of questions. The first set elicited biographic data, the second included the following (mostly open-ended) questions:

  1. Why are you attending this workshop?
  2. What are the areas of your MFL teaching expertise that you are less confident in?
  3. How much has previous CPD (continuous professional development) from external providers enhanced your practice?
  4. What disappointed you the most about the CPD events you attended in the past?
  5. What did you enjoy the most about CPD events you attended in the past?
  6. Which of the following areas interests you the most: Vocabulary instruction, Listening instruction, Grammar instruction, Spontaneous speaking instruction?
  7. Which of the four language skills do you feel you neglect in your typical lesson?

The responses

Question 1 – why are you attending the workshop?

This question elicited the widest range of responses although two common trends were particularly obvious. Whilst 38 % of the teachers decided to attend my workshops because they had either read ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ and/or my blog, another 42 % stated that their main rationale was to obtain new ideas, 20% of them adding that they wanted ‘research-based’ ideas. 12% of the sample kind of echoed the same aspirations by stating they were seeking to ‘revitilise’ their teaching and to be inspired.

This is interesting in the light of two sets of answers I obtained to question 5 (What disappointed you the most about the CPD events you attended in the past?); one set referring to the sense that previous CPD events had proposed nothing new, the other conveying frustration at lack of inspiration due in some cases to a narrow focus on assessment.

Question 2 – What are the areas of your MFL expertise that you are less confident in?

This is the question with the least degree of variance, 80 % of the respondents stating that Listening was the area of their teaching expertise they felt less confident in. It should be noted that 40 % of the same respondents who flagged Listening as their weakest area included ‘speaking’ or ‘spontaneous speaking’ in their answer. What is particularly interesting about this finding is that Listening was also the skill that the vast majority of the respondents felt they neglected the most in their teaching.

Question 3 – How much has previous CPD  (continuous professional development) from external providers enhanced your practice?

This question required the respondents to choose a number from 1 to 5, one being ‘very little’ and 5 ‘massively’. The mean score was 3, which, although indicates an overall positive trend, still points to 40% dissatisfaction with CPD. This, in light of the high cost of many CPD events for schools (cover + course fees) is a cause for concern.

Question 4 – What disappointed you the most about CPD events you attended in the past?

Evidently, this was the question that I was most interested in, in the run-up to my own workshops and is a question that I recommend all CPD providers ask delegates prior to their events. The answers I obtained were extremely useful. Three main trends could be identified.

Firstly, 71 % of the respondents pointed to the lack of practical ideas that could be applied to their teaching context (20 % of them stating that the CPD was too theoretical).

Secondly, 18 % said that there was lots of ‘waffle’ or ‘talking’ but not much valuable content.

Thirdly, 9 % described CPD as ‘boring’, ‘uninspiring’, ‘lacking engagement’ or ‘lacking pace’.

Question 5 – What did you enjoy the most about past CPD events?

71 % answered that they liked new practical usable ideas whilst most of the remainder (22 %) stated that they enjoyed practice-sharing and networking  with colleagues from other schools.

Question 6 – Which of the following areas interest you the most: Vocabulary instruction, Listening instruction, Grammar instruction, Spontaneous speaking instruction?

41 % of the respondents selected Spontaneous Speaking as their main interest, 39 % Listening, 14 % Grammar and 6 % Vocabulary. This is very interesting as CPD in the area of spontaneous speaking is the one which, based on feedback received by my readers and on my own experience, is also the least frequent and effective.

Question 7 – Which of the four skills do you neglect the most?

Speaking and Listening came top of the list, chosen by 41 and 39% of the respondents, whilst 10 % said they did not neglect any of them and 6 and 4 % respectively neglected reading and writing. In other words, they reported avoiding teaching the very skills they felt less confident teaching and, arguably, the most important in real-life communication!

Concluding remarks

This sample is not necessarily representative of the whole MFL teachers’ population in England. However, if it indeed were, there are important lessons to be learnt from the data my survey gathered.

1.More emphasis on Listening and Speaking

The most important lesson in my opinion pertains to the two areas MFL teachers feel least confident teaching and appear to neglect the most in their daily practice: Listening and Speaking, especially ‘Spontaneous speaking’. Hence, more CPD in these two areas is needed, especially considering the emphasis the new GCSE specification places on oral spontaneity. Based on the questions and reactions I got during my workshops, when tackling the issue of speaking spontaneity and listening, many teachers do not seem to have a methodological framework on how to approach these two major areas of MFL teaching and learning – especially Listening.

Moreover, Heads of departments and course administrators may have to emphasize the collective focus of their teams on these two areas. This can be done by devoting department meetings to reading research (e.g. specialist blogs), practice-sharing and reflection on how to best teach these skills. In my school, these three professional development strategies have yielded significant positive results.

2. More practical teaching strategies informed by research

Another important set of data relates to what the teachers do not enjoy about CPD. I queried those data when I actually met the teachers in person to find out more about the dislike of theory that they voiced in the survey. What many of them said was that they did not mind references to theory and research as far as by the end of the workshops(s) they had something new and practical they could implement in their lessons the next day. They reported that this happened rarely and that often, whilst the theories or approaches presented may have differed from what they had heard in the past, the tasks or resources the CPD providers presented were nothing new.

Many of the participants complained about the fact that often CPD providers’ suggestions are based more on their own hunches, personal experiences and fads than on current research. It was apparent during my workshops that there is a growing demand amongst classroom practitioners these days for research-based teaching and learning strategies.

3. The need for inspiration and innovation

What was evident from the survey data and my conversations with many of the teachers at my workshops was a frustration with CPD providers that kept recycling and/or repackaging the old. They wanted to be ‘inspired’ and to get new ideas to inject in their teaching but they said that they had not really got much of that recently.

The need for ‘Inspiration’ was a common thread in most of my respondents’ comments and in my conversations with the delegates at my workshops. Our profession is more than ever in need of inspiration and this is unlikely to come from ‘consultants’ who are not currently teaching, as they lack credibility – how can they fully empathise with the challenges that the ordinary classroom practitioner faces in the classroom? This is a point that many teachers raised in my workshops.

4. Collaborative learning a must

It is apparent that many MFL teachers want to know what works well in other schools, especially in the areas they are less confident in. What was most apparent was that many teachers were very worried about the new GCSE specification and wanted to know what their colleagues from other schools were doing. However, many of them complained that that did not happen in many CPD events. For reasons of coverage, I too did little of that in my own workshops this time around. CPD providers and course administrators may have to be mindful of that and create opportunities for attendees of different institutions to share practice, especially in the areas that seem to concern them the most.

5. More neuroscience

Something that emerged from my conversations with several teachers in my workshops was their fascination with how we acquire and process languages. Many delegates came to me at the end of my workshops to comment on how useful and eye-opening it was to understand the challenges that language learning poses to our students from a cognitive perspective. CPD providers should ground their practical suggestions as much as possible in neuroscience so as to (1) provide a stronger rationale for their approaches and techniques and (2) help develop creators of knowledge rather than passive consumers of it.