Review article : ‘Becoming an outstanding languages teacher’ by Steve Smith

Steve Smith’s new book  ‘Becoming an outstanding languages teacher’ (Routledge) is aimed primarily at pre-service modern language teachers and others who want to refine their practice. At 200 pages long and with 14 chapters it makes for a not too daunting read, full of practical ideas, techniques and lesson plans. In his characteristically easy style Steve covers a wide range of aspects of language teaching, including how to run a room effectively, how to exploit visual aids and written texts, ways to teach vocabulary and chunks, how to build listening skills and use questioning techniques and other interactions.

Five chapters examine in some detail the precise dialogues which could occur between the teacher and students. For example, in a lesson sequence based on using a written text with near-beginners Steve precisely describes what the teacher might say, how students would respond, while adding a commentary of “tips of the trade” to make the lesson go along successfully. The text used here, as with others in the book, is in English so it is adaptable to teachers of other languages. Trainee teachers should find these blow-by-blow accounts particularly useful as they learn to plan their lessons. The attention to detail is impressive here as Steve emphasises the importance of precise questioning techniques.

Chapter 7 examines how you might approach the teaching of grammar. The emphasis is not on the explicit teaching of rules (although this is referred to and requires a skill of its own) but on how you build student mastery through providing both lots of comprehensible input in a very structured way, allowing skills to develop. It’s clear that Steve does not come from one particular theoretical standpoint in this book, allowing room for the development of skills and placing value on communication and input. This chapter also shows how grammatical skill can be developed through listening activity, an area I have written about myself a good deal.

Chapter 6 provides a list of what Steve calls “purposeful games”. This include some familiar ones along with a few you may not have come across. The point comes across clearly that the best games are tasks which have a purpose and where input and practice are to the fore. Teachers will be able to dip into this book and pick out ideas they can immediately apply in the classroom.

Chapter 11 considers how you might get the best out of students of all abilities. Steve draws on his own experience teaching mainly higher attaining students, but also brings in reference to teaching relatively lower attaining students and those with special needs. For the latter he refers mainly to the work of specialist in this field David Wilson. He also examines specific techniques students need to develop such as essay and summary writing (useful for exams in England and wales in particular).

The final chapter attempts to distil what “outstanding” teaching might involve – not an easy thing to describe and clearly subject to subjective interpretation. To help with this he employs three “case studies” to show that excellence can come in different forms and with different methodologies. These case studies look at the “bilingual” approach used successfully at the Michaela Community School in London, the AIMLANG (Accelerated Integrated Methodology) approach used in Canada and elsewhere and the TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling). Steve’s examines what these approaches have in common as well as what separates them, attempting to demonstrate that successful teachers all share certain principles – the importance of target language input, repetition and recycling, along with a degree of grammatical explanation. Above all, Steve’s thesis is that it is the delivery of the approach which counts more than the approach itself. Teachers have to be able to asses different approaches, believe in what they are doing and deliver lessons with skill. Generic teacher skills such as showing effective cognitive and affective empathy, managing behaviour, sharing a passion and being well-organised are more crucial than the detail of particular methodologies.

All in all, teachers and departments should find this readable volume an excellent addition to their library.


Eight listening-research findings every teacher should be aware of and their implications for teaching and learning


As my regular readers would know, Steve Smith and I are currently in the process of writing a book on aural instruction. This has involved reviewing a vast amount of research on the various areas of listening pedagogy in the last year or so. In this post, I will concisely discuss eight sets of research findings I have come across, that I believe every modern language instructor should be aware of and have had a transformative impact on my teaching.


1. Anxiety seriously affects listening comprehension (Elkhafaifi, 2005; Lund, 1991; Vogely, 1998; Graham, 2011; Vaefee, 2016)

Psychologists distinguish between three types of anxiety: trait, state and situation specific (Vafaee, 2016).  Foreign Language Anxiety or FLA, is a well-documented phenomenon which refers to what psychologists MacIntyre and Gardner (1991) describe as ‘situation specific’ anxiety or “the feeling of tension and apprehension specifically associated with second language context, including speaking, listening and learning’.

There is a wealth of research indicating that anxiety negatively affects the acquisition, processing, retention and use of language by foreign language students (MacIntyre, 1995; Spielmann & Radnofsky, 2001, Vafaee, 2016).

FLA can be for some L2 learners a generalised feeling which cuts across all dimensions of learning a foreign language. However, there is mounting research evidence (e.g. Scarcella and Oxford, 1992; Graham, 2011; Vafaee, 2016) clearly showing that for many foreign language students FLA is specifically listening-task related. Scarcella and Oxford (1992) found that students were particularly vulnerable to FLA when they approached listening tasks under the false impression that they had to understand every single word to successfully complete a listening comprehension task.

Several studies (e.g. Lund, 1991; Vogely, 1998; Elkhafaifi, 2005; Vafee, 2016) have clearly evidenced that FLA impedes L2 listening comprehension. There are several reasons for this. One refers to Working Memory’s ability to effectively control its attentional mechanisms: especially inhibiting and shifting, two key processes in the execution of complex tasks (Miyake et al.,2000). Another reason refers to the fact that anxiety typically automatically triggers in humans inner verbal activity (e.g. self talk); this, Rapee (1993) suggests, would take up the sound storage resources of Working Memory, which results in hampering the listener’s ability to store and process incoming sounds (i.e. if the brain sound storage facilities or Phonological Loop is busy processing our own inner speech triggered by anxiety, there is no space to store any incoming sounds).

Obviously, because anxiety affects Working Memory performance, students with weaker executive functions and memory spans (usually our lower ability students) will be more affected by this phenomenon.

It is also evident, that this listening-related anxiety will be enhanced in the case of students who are naturally prone to anxiety (i.e. suffer from trait-specific anxiety).

The implications are obviously that efforts must be made in order to:

(1) ensure we develop our students’ can-do attitude or self-efficacy (here are some suggestions);

(2) stage more activities that teach listening skills (here are some suggestions) and less that test;

(3) enhance their self-knowledge and task knowledge through the teaching of listening strategies (see point 6 below)

(4) provide students with oral input which contains vocabulary which is mostly accessible in meaning (as stated in the next section, for effective comprehension of an aural text to happen and lead to learning a student must know at least 95 to 98 % of the vocabulary it contains).

2.Vocabulary Depth is a more decisive factor than Vocabulary Breadth with more advanced L2 learners in effective listening comprehension (Vafaee, 2016)

It is a well-established research fact that vocabulary knowledge (VK) has a hugely important role in listening comprehension.

When it comes to listening comprehension and instruction it is important to note, however, that knowing what a word means in isolation and in its written form is different from being able to understand its meaning when it is heard in connected speech (i.e. as part of the speech stream we process aurally).  For instance, French-English cognates may help an English learner of French when reading a French text but much less so when they hear them during a listening comprehension task. By the same token, in English, being able to recognize a word in its strong but not weak form can lead to comprehension problems (Vanderplank, 1993).

Although there is no universal consensus as to the exact figure, most scholars agree that an L2 listener must ‘know’ at least 95 % of the words in a text (98% according to Nation); this means that the breadth of vocabulary one knows plays an important role in listening comprehension.

How many words does one need to know to comprehend most L2 texts aurally? There is not consensus, but I would go along with Van Zeeland & Schmitt (2012)’s figure of 2,000 to 3,000 families of words at intermediate level (e.g. GCSE in England) and 6,000-7,000 families of words with advanced students (e.g. A Level in England).

Whilst Breadth of VK is fundamental for effective aural comprehension at all levels of proficiency, it seems less important than Depth at Upper Intermediate to Avdanced Level (Vafaee, 2016). Depth, often measured through WAT (word associate test) refers to the following types of relationships a word has at three levels at least: paradigmatic (meaning), syntagmatic (collocation – how words occur together) and polisemy (multiple meanings of a word).

In other words, teaching students the multiple meanings of L2 lexical items; the words they are usually followed by and their meaning associations with words they are related with, seems to be more important than teaching a wide range of vocabulary at upper intermediate level and above superficially when it comes to facilitating reading and listening comprehension.

I am a strong advocate of teaching words in as many combinations with other words as possible starting from lower levels of proficiency (which means a lot of comprehensible written and aural input); with their synonyms and antonyms ; with their different morphological alterations (adjectives with derived adverbs, for instance). Rather than covering lots of words superficially and in fixed contexts.

Here is a link to a nice blog post by ‘Busy Teacher’, listing ten useful activities to teach collocations, one major facet of vocabulary depth.

3. Syntactic knowledge facilitates learning at intermediate levels of proficiency (Field, 2013; Vafaee, 2016)

Vafaee (2016) finally proved that syntactic knowledge (SK) plays a significant role in listening comprehension. SK ( knowledge of how sentences are correctly constructed ) is deployed by the brain (Working Memory) during the so-called Parsing stage of speech comprehension, i.e. the establishment of relationships between the meaning of individual words and whole utterances. Since Parsing involves pattern recognition, it is crucial in understanding the meaning of an utterance once the vocabulary items have been recognised.

SK, in order to play an effective role in listening comprehension, must be applied fast and accurately. Hence, it must be as routinized (proceduralised, automised) as possible. This means that simply knowing how a grammar rule works, e.g. scoring 100% in a gap-fill test will not help in listening comprehension.

The implications for listening instruction are obvious: focus on pattern recognition of the sort envisaged here is highly beneficial for L2 listeners.

4. The ability to segment the speech stream plays a huge role in listening comprehension (Andringa et al 2012; Zoghlami (2016); Simpson (unpublished master’s degree)

Until recently, the importance of the first phase of listening comprehension, what Field (2013) calls ‘Decoding’ was not fully acknowledged by researchers. Yet, when it comes to less ‘transparent’ languages such as English and French, this phase, as I have often maintained is pivotal. One specific process is particularly crucial as it primes vocabulary recognition: speech-stream segmentation, i.e. the identification of an utterance’s word boundaries. This has been evidenced by a number of studies such as Andringa et al (2012), Zoghlami (2016) and Simpson (unpublished Master’s dissertation).

Since without successful segmentation one cannot successfully proceed to the Lexical retrieval and Parsing stages, it is clear how this process is the most important one in aural comprehension. In fact, Zoghlami (2016) found that Segmenting was indeed the single stronger predictor of successful aural comprehension.

The implications of these research findings are obvious and consistent with what I argued in many posts of mine. Instruction in decoding skills (read here), the ability to convert letters into sound and viceversa , reading aloud (see point 9 below) and parsing skills (read here) are therefore a must if we want to raise our students’ listening proficiency. Instruction in phonotactics, e.g. ‘liaison’ (linking) in French is also valuable in this respect; for instance, Simpson’s (unpublished Master’s dissertation) students reported benefiting substantially from being trained in the recognition and production of ‘liaison’ in French.

5. Pre-listening-task single-word prediction can hamper aural comprehension (Graham, 2017)

 Graham (2017) reports how she found that many secondary school modern language teachers tell their students to predict the sort of vocabulary that might come up in a listening task by previewing the questions and other para-textual features (e.g. picture). A questionnaire she administered to 115 teachers revealed that 48% of them said that they often or always asked their students to predict vocabulary that might be included in the listening passage; even more (78%) reminded learners of vocabulary associated with the topic-at-hand.

Graham (2017) reports the following phenomenon, which points to a serious danger associated with this common practice:

“in many instances predictions proved to be unhelpful; for example, by leading learners to imagine hearing the predicted word even if it did not occur, and then drawing erroneous conclusions about the passage as a whole; or focusing so much on trying to hear the predicted items that the overall sense of the passage was ignored. Problems also arose because learners failed to verify whether their predictions were correct or not, possibly because they had never been taught”.

This phenomenon resonates with my experience of L2 student-listeners of lower proficiency and with poor self-efficacy and metacognitive knowledge. Predictions can be valuable, though, when combined with other listening strategies. Which brings me to the next point.

6. Metacognitive knowledge significantly facilitates listening comprehension (Macaro, 2003; Cross, 2010; Vandergrift et al, 2010; Graham 2017)

We know from much research that Metacognitive Knowledge (e.g. self-knowledge, task knowledge, planning, self-monitoring and evaluation) plays an important role in the listening process, especially at less advanced level. Moreover, a number of studies have reported improvement in listening proficiency through approaches aimed at developing learners’ metacognitive awareness and metacognitive strategies use.

For instance, Vandergrift & Tafaghodtari (2010) reported improving the listening attainment of lower proficiency learners through a metacognitive instruction programme for listening consisting of a ‘pedagogical cycle’ (Vandergrift & Tafaghodtari 2010: 472) involving prediction of what might occur in the task, verification or checking of such predictions and post-listening peer discussion of what was heard, reflection on the strategies applied during the task and future target-setting. Learners of all proficiency levels showed greater improvement in the metacognitive strategies of planning, evaluation and problem-solving.

Giving learners opportunities for reflection on and discussion about how they listen and how they understand is relatively easy and does not need to involve a lot of teacher input. Cross (2010). for instance, increased L2 learners’ metacognitive awareness merely by discussing listening activities in pairs, comparing solutions to problems with listening, and writing about their strategies in a journal.

I have personally adopted the following technique, borrowed from Vandergrift (1999), for use with my intermediate classes:

“Before listening to the oral text, Students are given a written version of it with individual words or parts of the text deleted. Students are asked to read the text and to attempt to fill in the missing words. This helps students to use context to develop inferencing, and to predict the word(s) that they might hear. A class discussion, or work in pairs, will allow students to review difficulties and justify choices. A subsequent listening to the text promotes selective attention (planning)and verification of hypotheses (monitoring). (discussing the merits of the decisions made) will promote the strategy of evaluation.”

This activity kills two birds with one stone – on the one hand it develops the metacognitve listening strategies mentioned above, on the other it focuses the students on parsing skills.

Please do note that this sort of training must be carried out for a fairly long time before it can yield significant results and may not work with younger , lower ability and less motivated learners.

Figures 1 and 2 below show the pre-listening and post-listening checklists that Vandergrift (1999) recommends to scaffold pre- and post-task reflection and discussion.


FIgure 1 – Pre-listening scaffold (Vandergrift, 1999)

vandergr 1.png

Figure 2 – Post-listening scaffold (Vandergrift, 1999)

vandergr 2

7. Many foreign language teachers are not fully aware of the differences between Reading and Listening processes (Conti, 2014 – forthcoming)

A couple of years ago I administered an online questionnaire to 106 colleagues from all over the world– a mix of Modern Languages and EFL teachers – aimed at finding out how aware they were of the differences between reading and listening. My research was motivated by anecdotal evidence I had that, whilst it is obvious to all that aural comprehension is harder than reading comprehension, many colleagues I had had in the past were not always fully aware of the very important differences between the two skills; this in my view, was at the root of their neglect and/or ineffective teaching of Listening skills.

Let us Lund (1991) remind us of the main issues in which reading and listening comprehension diverge:

  1. In listening, the complete text is not available for perusal. It is heard as it is uttered. In other words, whilst in reading text exists in space, in listening it exists in time, lasting in the brain only two seconds whilst the listener is only 0.25 seconds behind the speaker. The difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that in listening tasks the students only hear the text twice;
  2. The listener cannot control the pace of the text (unless s/he is in control of the output source);
  3. Listeners are compelled to resort to parallel distributed processing. In other words, they need to juggle several processes at the same time at each stage of comprehension, having to tap into many micro-skills simultaneously with the obvious interferences this causes, especially at lower levels of proficiency;
  4. The sound system of the L2 poses a significant problem;
  5. Gaps in speech are not the same as the gaps one finds in written texts;
  6. Cognates identical in print usually sound differently in continuous speech;
  7. Spoken texts, moreover, have intonation, stress, regional accents, background noise and other variations of acoustic features;
  8. Whereas intermediate readers benefit (as Lund’s experiment showed) from repetition of text, intermediate listeners don’t (they make a first-pass hypothesis and stick to it);
  9. An L2 reader remembers more ideas and details about a text they read than an L2 listener about a text they heard.

Macaro (2003) adds another important difference: in listening we use more top-down strategies and prior knowledge to compensate for the issue Lund lists above (such as: guessing from context, prediction, knowledge of the task, etc.).

My survey results clearly indicated that around three quarters of the sample exhibited serious to very serious gaps in the understanding of the differences between the processes the two skills involved; the gaps I identified were particularly important because they related to the way the brain processes language in the two modalities, especially the role of Working Memory and the heavier load listening poses.

The data also showed that because of the perceived similarities many teachers assumed exist between the two processes, they transferred strategies used in reading instruction (e.g. paying attention to French-English cognates and focus on key-words) to listening instruction with potentially harmful consequences.

The implications for teaching relate to teacher professional development and learner training: both teachers and students must be made aware of the differences between the two receptive skills and of their implications so as to approach listening tasks in a more effective way. The metacognitive-enhancing activities outlined in point 5 above will be helpful in this respect.

8. Reading aloud as a catalyst of listening proficiency (Kato and Tanaka, 2010)

Although reading-aloud (RA) techniques have not always been favourably considered in L2 classrooms,  the usefulness of this approach for the development of lower-level processing efficiency has been widely confirmed in L2 reading research (e.g., Birch, 2007; Janzen, 2007; Gibson, 2008). Much research has clearly shown that reading aloud helps:

(1) develop L2 learners’ accurate phonological representations (e.g., Gibson, 2008);

(2)  raise their awareness of rhythm, stress and intonation, by using connected texts rather than decontextualized vocabulary items (e.g., Kato, 2012);

(3) significantly improve silent reading rate (Suzuki, 1998),

(4) enhance reading performance (Miyasako, 2008), and

(5) reproduction of key words and phrases (Shichino, 2006).Miyasako (2008), for instance, investigated the contribution among upper-secondary level Japanese EFL users of six weeks of RA  practice for L2 reading performance; it was found that RA significantly improved phonological decoding and reading comprehension performance, and that this practice effect was more pronounced with less proficient readers.

(6) improve listening ability – Kato and Tanaka (2010) for instance concluded that “the establishment of pronunciation accuracy/ fluency is crucial for the development of listening ability and that this impact of production ability may linger to a fairly advanced stage of L2 listening learning, in particular as a function of factors such as participants’ L1 – L2 relationship and the relationship between their L2 proficiency and the familiarity and difficulty of listening materials.”

The implications are obvious: do more RA in lessons. Personally, I include short paired read-aloud activities in many of my lessons – as effective but less boring than doing lots of phonics work day in day out. In many of my posts I have described a few of the activities I typically carry out. At this link you will find a very useful PPT from the university of Essex with lots of ways in which RA can be used to enhance L2 learning; ideal for a professional development session in your department.

9.Concluding remarks

The eight research facts I have discussed above have had a transformative impact on my teaching practice as they rectified assumptions, perceptions and practices of mine often developed during my teacher training days. Of the above points, 1, 3, 4 and 6 were possibly the ones that have impacted my practice the most. Point 1 and 6, reminded me to concentrate as much as possible on equipping students with a high sense of self-efficacy and effective listening skills and strategies. Point 3 and 4, focused me on bottom-up processing skills, in an attempt to provide my students with effective speech segmenting and pattern-recognition skills. This was a game changer for me and my students, as during my teacher training I had been taught to focus on top-down listening skills, e.g. predicting vocabulary, guessing from context, using key-words to infer meaning, etc.

I would be interested in knowing from my readers, which of the above points they find more relevant to their professional development and more potentially transformative of their classroom practice.


How to create narrow reading texts using authentic online resources – guest blog by Stacey Johnson from Vanderbilt university


In this very practical and useful post, Stacey Johnson, Senior Lecturer in Spanish and Portuguese, Assistant Director of Technology and Teacher trainer at the Centre for Applied Language Studies at Vanderbilt University gives practical tips on how she has trained her EFL student teachers to create narrow reading texts using authentic resources. The whole process takes her trainees very little time to create texts and it results in highly patterned and effective resources. I like it, as it way less laborious than mine and much more time efficient. Well done, Stacey ! Here it is.

Stacey Johnson on creating narrow reading texts usin authentic resources

In my language teaching methods course for future EFL teachers, we always start with authentic texts as the backbone of our lesson plans. Authentic resources provide students with relevant, interesting target language content, and even more importantly, these resources are imbued with cultural and community knowledge inherent to their context. There are so many benefits to using authentic resources instead of constructed textbook materials! The big obstacle with using authentic resources, however, is that the teacher must create classroom activities that not only make good use of the resources, but also  provide enough structured, recycled language so that student acquire the structures in the authentic text.  Just one or two exposures to a new text is not going to result in students mastering the vocabulary and structures in that text.

So, in my methods course, teacher candidates learn to write lesson plans that use both authentic resources and Conti’s instructions for creating narrow readings. Once we have created lesson plans that include interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational tasks for an authentic resource, we then use part of that resource as a model for constructing narrow readings. For example, in a unit about employment, my methods class might decide that we are going to use a YouTube video as an authentic text, perhaps this one that gives advice to job-seekers about interviewing. Out of all the useful moments in that video, we might use the question “Why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself?” and the answer to that question, “Well, I love coming home to watch EastEnders at the end of the day. That’s my highlight. I also like shopping, chilling with my friends, just having a laugh really.” Once language students have had the opportunity to process this question/answer in its original authentic context, the teacher should provide further opportunities to process versions of the exchange with some meaningful differences.

Creating narrow reading opportunities out of this exchange is fairly easy and takes less time than you might imagine. We have one example of how someone might answer that question in the original authentic text. Now we, as instructors, must imagine how others might answer the question. The idea is to keep the structures and patterns intact, and replace only a few content words or expressions with others that students are very likely to understand. A second job seeker might say the he loves coming home to his family at the end of the day. A third job seeker might say that she enjoys going out to watch a movie at the end of the week. We make small but meaningful changes to the text of our original authentic resource. Before you know it, instead of having just one example of authentic language, we have a handful of patterned examples that provide our students with rich sources of input. Now, we can ask our students to read the questions and answers from 3 or 4 job seekers, and answer questions such as, “Which job-seeker is the most active?” and “Which job-seeker probably has children?” or others that require students to process the new input alongside the original authentic text.

There are many ways to use authentic texts with language learners and an equal number of ways to make use of narrow reading and listening. In my experience and in my methods courses, I find that pairing the two is a particularly useful combination that provides students with the benefits of both patterned input and authentic language and culture

Concluding remarks

When Stacey contacting me with this idea I said to myself: ‘Why had I not thought about myself?’. It is as simple as it is ingenious. I tried it out myself and did not take me more than 15 minutes to put together a decent set of narrow reading texts for my students. Glad to have inspired and to have been inspired back. Cannot thank Stacey enough for this great idea and for taking the time to write her very articulate post.