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.



13 thoughts on “Tempus fugit – Four strategies to maximise MFL curriculum time

  1. Thank you for a very interesting and useful article. You managed to express the ideas which I’ ve been thinking of for a long time but couldn’t shape so clearly. I wonder if it’s possible to have a look at your booklet of universals for English? It would be really helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

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