Translation tasks and techniques that have significantly enhanced my teaching

(This post was co-authored with Dylan Vinales during last week’s Garden International School professional learning afternoon)

1.Introduction: the case for translation 

In the last forty years or so, most emerging L2 methodologies have dismissed the use of translation as a counterproductive practice. In particular, the emphasis on 100 % use of the Target Language lain by CLT and other approaches has often resulted in an outright ban of the L1 from the modern language classroom, and with it, evidently, the dismissal of translation.

As I identified in a recent review of the relevant literature (Conti, 2016), translation has been out of favour for the following reasons:

  • It is associated with the Grammar translation approach;
  • It is assumed that L1 use in the classroom hampers L2 acquisition;
  • Translation is seen by many as a mechanical transfer of meaning from one language to another – not a communicative activity;
  • Translation tasks are perceived as boring;
  • Translation is seen as independent of the other four skills;
  • Translation takes up lots of valuable time that could be devoted to more beneficial communicative activities;
  • Translation is believed to be appropriate only for training translators.

In recent years, however, theorists and researchers working in the Cognitive paradigm have been re-assessing the role of the L1 and translation as a means to support and enhance L2 acquisition. Numerous studies seem to indicate that translation does indeed provide numerous cognitive advantages in instructed L2 settings over 100% Target Language.

Consequently, as often happens in modern language education, the pendulum has swung back again and the new England-and-Wales GCSE Modern Language Exam now includes a mandatory translation module.

The most valuable advantage of translation pertains, in my opinion, to the cognitive comparison between the L2 and the L1 it promotes, which often results in noticing the gap between the two languages, thereby potentially pre-empting/correcting L1 negative transfer or, conversely, providing confirmation for L1 positive transfer. An example: last week one of my students, whilst playing one of my oral-translation games (see below) noticed that when saying ‘Il est avocat’ in French, unlike English, the indefinite article is not used. He subsequently asked me if that was the rule in French and once I confirmed, he translated the next sentence in the challenge ‘She is a teacher’ (=elle est enseignante) correctly.

In my post ‘The case for translation in foreign language instruction’ I have written about the pros and cons of translation extensively and provided a number of important recommendations as to how to design and implement translation tasks. Hence, in the below I will not delve into a discussion of the merits of translation practice in the L2 classroom.

My position statement is that translation from and into the L2 can be effective in instructed L2 settings in scaffolding and enhancing acquisition. However, it should NOT dominate classroom practice, and should be used judiciously when dealing with less able and motivated learners. Also, I do believe that in lesson time, with novice to intermediate learners, oral translation practice should be preferred to written translation, as the development of oral fluency should be our main concern. Finally, with the few exceptions of snappy high-pace starts such as ‘quick-fire’ translation starters (see below), written translation ought to be mainly used for out-of-the classroom consolidation work, as it is time-consuming and has the potential to be boring.

In conclusion, I refer the reader to the link to my previous post for an in-depth evidence-based discussion of the benefits of translation practice; in the below, I reserve to outline the most successful translation teaching techniques I have been using over the years with novice to intermediate students. Before proceeding let me list a few caveats

2. Caveats

Please note that in a typical less of mine:

  1. the translation tasks are ‘chunk-’ rather than single-words based; although the students will have to monitor the accurate manipulation of inflected forms of individual verbs, adjectives and nouns, I do devise the to-be-translated texts as sequence of chunks and patterns rather than strings of words. This is reflected in my assessment too, which is chunk-, rather than word-based too;
  2. the chunks selected for inclusion in the to-be-translated texts are high-surrender value lexical items. I often include in my texts my ‘universals’ (see here if you are not familiar with this term). In this sense, my translation tasks become very valuable recycling tools, which allow my students to revisit past and present vocabulary across all units of work;
  3. the translation tasks below are intended to elicit output which recycle ‘chunks’ and ‘patterns’ extensively practised beforehand . In other words, the to-be-translated text contains what I call ‘feasible output’, i.e. output that the average student is able to translate with little support from the teacher or other reference materials in the target performance conditions. The notion of ‘feasible output’ is central to my design of any to-be-translated text , as what puts students off translation is usually the fact that they have to consult reference materials time and again and their lack of linguistic relevance to previous learning (and I am talking about the relevance to the linguistic content – not to the topic, here).
  4. as it is obvious from the previous point, translation tasks are fully integrated in the instructional sequence at hand. They are not simply intended to practise translation skills; they are a means to reinforce the chunks and patterns at hand’;
  5. translation tasks for use at lower levels of proficiency should be designed in a way that minimizes cognitive overload. This means that with average ability students I never place more than one challenging item per sentence. For instance, if I know my students struggle with the perfect tense of verbs requiring Etre as an auxiliary I will not include in that sentence a lexical item or morphological or syntactic structure that is likely to cause divided attention.

3. My favourite translation tasks and techniques

Here are some of my favourite translation tasks and techniques. I have been using them for years with great results with my novice to intermediate students and have become integral part of my everyday instructional sequences, both in the Receptive processing stage (as L2 to L1 translation) and in the Structured production phase of my M.A.R.S. sequence.

3.1 Narrow translation

The traditional translation-practice model adopted by Modern Language teachers consists of the following phases:

1. task is assigned

2. task is executed

3. feedback on student performance is provided

After phase (3) the text is usually never to be seen again.

I devised Narrow translation (NT) to overcome the limitations of the above model. Based on the same principle as narrow reading, NT consists of three or more short to-be-translated texts that are extremely similar in terms of chunks and patterns, the differences amounting to 10-15% per cent of the text maximum. So for instance, if to-be-translated-text 1 contains the sentence ‘I live in a small town by the sea’, text 2 will contain the sentence ‘I live in a large town by a lake’, text 3 ‘I live in a small village by a river’ and text 4 ‘I live in a tiny village in the countryside’.

NT texts are short, shorter when they are meant for classroom use rather than as homework assignments and because the texts consist of chunks the students have been exposed to and have practised to death prior to the task, the students complete them quite quickly and usually accurately, which gives them a sense of achievement.

With novices or lower ability students, I usually provide alongside the to-be-translated texts 1,2 and 3 a text ‘0’ which has its L2-translation alongside. This gimmick functions as a motivational scaffold for less confident learners.

Narrow translations have been very successful with my students as they have allowed me to enhance the recycling of the target chunks many times over. They also provide me with a valuable opportunity for transferability of the target chunks and structures to a variety of linguistic contexts which are similar enough to be familiar but sufficiently different to still present a challenge. This doesn’t usually happen with traditional translation tasks whereby the student normally completes a translation, gets feedback on it, but doesn’t typically get the opportunity to have several goes at using the full range of patterns they have just practised in the translation.

In administering narrow-translation tasks I go through three phases:

(1) the texts differ from each other only in terms of lexical items in conjunction with same patterns/chunks; the verbs and tenses stay the same; so for instance, if text 1 was in the first person of the verbs used, so will be the other texts.

(2) the texts differ in terms of lexical items and the persons of the verbs used, e.g. if texts 1, 2 and 3 were in the first person singular, text 4 will be in the third singular, text 5 in the first plural, etc. (see example in figure 1 below).

(3) the differences also encompass change in tenses and the inclusion of subordinate clauses.

The moves in phases 2 and 3 are necessary at higher levels of proficiency to encourage expansion and autonomy (the ‘E’ and ‘A’ in my MARS +EARS framework).

Fig. 1 – Sample Narrow Translation Texts – The words in bold indicate the instances in which the texts differ from one another

narrow translation

My classes have reported learning a lot and most importantly gaining a lot of confidence in translation thanks to NT. Do bear in mind that I use NT sparingly in classroom time, I  mainly assign it as homework. If you do use NT texts in the classroom, do ensure they are quite short.

3.2 Oral translation games (OB)

3.2.1 No Snakes No Ladders (NSNL)

The no-frills (no fancy visuals, cards, etc.) oral-translation boardgame ‘No snakes no ladders’ is extremely useful and very simple to make and use. It is due its simplicity and high effectiveness that has gone viral in our Department.

It consists of a track made up of about 30 cases (see picture below). Each case contains a to-be-translated chunk that the students will have practised to death prior to the game. The chunks become increasingly difficult as the game unfolds. Figure 2 below, shows an example I used last week with a year 9 French mixed-ability class

Figure 2 – Sample No-Snakes-No-ladders game

board game

The rules are as follows: in groups of three students (2 player + 1 referee) or five (2 teams of two players and one referee), players take turn in rolling a dice. Whichever case the player/team lands based on their dice score, they will have 10-15 seconds to translate the relative sentence(s) into the target language orally. The referee will then tell the players (with the help of the answer sheet) if their translation is correct. If the translation is correct they will have another go and casting the dice and will advance to the next case where they will have to translate the next sentence and so on. However, if their translation isn’t correct, the referee will read to them the right version twice in order for the players to attempt to memorize it for the next round when they will have another go. After the opponents’ turn the player will have another chance at casting the dice; if they answer the question they originally got wrong correct. The person who is closer to the finishing line ten minutes into the game will win.

The role of the student referee is key to the success of the game. I observed many a lesson in which teachers used similar board games without providing the answer key . How on earth are the students going to know, unless the teacher is constantly around, if their output is correct or not?

My students love it and report learning lots from it. A google slide template of the game (track and referee card) prepared by Dylan Vinales can be found here . My pdf template can be found here.

3.2.2 Oral translation ping pong

This is a very simple totally student-centred GCSE translation revision starter or plenary which requires little preparation. I have been using it recently in the run-up to the orals and my students seemed to enjoy it.

The students work in pairs. They have a sheet with the same English sentences to translate into French, but Partner A has the translation of half the sentences (e.g. sentences 1 to 10), whereas Partner B has the translation of the other half (e.g. sentences 11 to 20).

I call it ‘Oral ping-pong translation’ because the two partners take turns in challenging each other with a sentence. After one partner has attempted the translation, his/her opponent shows him/her the correct answer and points are awarded (3 for perfect sentence, 2 for one mistake only, 1 if there are mistakes but at least the verb is correctly formed). I give the students a time limit (10 minutes); when the time is up the person with the higher score wins. Best to have people of similar ability in each pair. Figure 3 illustrates an example I made for an able year 11 group of mine. Obviously, the activity can be done in writing too.

Fig 3 – Oral ping pong partner A and partner B sheets

oral ing A.png

oral ping B.png

As a follow-up activity, I get the students to make a note of the most serious mistakes they made in their books so that I have an idea of what their problem areas are.

3.3 Find someone who with L1 (first language) cards

This game is an adaptation of the find-someone who with L2 cards I have discussed in previous posts. Each student is given (1) a grid like the one in figure 4a before, with prompts such as ‘Find someone whose father is a lawyer’; (2) a card with a number with fictitious details (e.g. my father is a lawyer).

Figure 4a . Find someone who with cards in the first language : grid with task prompts for students to fill in

find someone who_L1_grid

Figure 4b . Find someone who with cards in the first language – cards to cut up which students will translate in answering their classmates’ questions

find someone who_L1_cards

The students’ task is to find the people with the card which contains the details they are looking for and they must do so by asking questions in the target language. In this version, the cards are in the L1 (see figure 4, above); hence, the students need, each time they ask and are asked a question, to answer translating orally the prompts on the grid and on their card from the L1 to the L2.

So, whilst the find-someone-who version with L2 cards is mostly a receptive processing task (the only production aspect of it being reading aloud the L2 questions and answers), this version is both productive and receptive.

5. Oral Communicative Drills (OCDs)

These consist of very short L1 dialogs to translate into the L2. Again, I put students in groups of three. Two students translating their respective lines into the target language and a third students (who has the target language version of all the dialogs) giving feedback.

OCDs are not fun and students are not crazy about them. In the student voice I have carried out they usually get a rating of 3 out of 5. However, the students find them beneficial in preparing them for the less structured communicative activities that follow, In fact, this is the purpose of  these drills, to practise the target chunks and patterns in a highly structured conversation in order to prepare for less controlled tasks such as surveys, interviews or role plays.

Figure 5 . Oral communicative drills- Students take turn translating questions/answers whilst a third student, who has the target language version of each card, listens critically and provide corrective feedback


6. Quick-fire translation starter

 I use this as a starter in nearly every lesson of mine. It requires minimum preparation and all you need is your voice, mini-whiteboards and markers. You utter sentences in the L1 or L2 and students need to translate in a fixed time limit.

I usually start with L2 sentences to translate into the L1 and then vice versa, making sure that the sentences used in the second round are pretty much the translation of the ones used in the first round or are at least very similar in structure.

An observer once noted that whilst some students manage to complete the translation easily in the time allocated, others struggle. As a way to differentiate you may want to give an extra sentence for those who finish earlier whilst extending the time for those who struggle.

7.Translation with metalinguistic cues

Translating challenging sentences from L1 to L2 can pose a massive strain on a less able or novice’s working memory executive function. As a result, some students make mistakes due both to cognitive overload and/or ineffective self-monitoring.

This technique may help a lot in this respect as it consists of cueing the students as to the presence of specific items they usually find challenging or make mistakes with whilst providing a cryptic comment in brackets that may help them getting them right by inviting caution or providing a heuristic. Take a look, for instance, at this extract from a text I gave one of my year 9 French classes last week; in my comments in brackets I provided the students with reminders as to issues I know they usually struggle with.

Yesterday we went (Etre verb) to the shopping mall. The place was (perfect tense or imperfect?) very crowded and noisy. My father and I went down (Etre verb) to the ground floor to buy a new (careful: word order) phone whilst my mother and my sister went up (Etre verb) to the top floor to buy gifts. After that I had (do not use ‘avoir’ here) an ice cream. It was (prefect tense or imperfect) delicious.

The purpose of this very valuable technique is to scaffold self-monitoring and to sensitize the students to common mistakes in their output.

8. Translation with pre-task problem identification

Whether I am about to stage oral or written translation tasks in my lessons, I do want to know what aspects of the task my students find challenging, which ones can be solved with the help of reference materials and which ones require my intervention. Moreover, I would like the students to approach the task with as high a sense of self-efficacy as possible.

A way to kill both birds with one stone is to ask them prior to the task to go through it and write on a Padlet wall, Google Doc or simply on their mini-boards what they think they will struggle with.

Then put the students in groups of three or four and ask them to work collaboratively on solving the issues flagged – do group students judiciously. If possible, provide them with access to the internet for them to do some research on the problematic items. Throughout this stage you will go around the class monitoring, providing cues and asking questions that may lead them in the right direction but never giving the solution. Do ensure all students take part in the discussions.

After this collaborative-learning phase, the students do the task. The information gathered throughout the two phases above will have provided you with very valuable information about the issues your students have with regards to the task-at-hand and about some of their learning problems. You will treasure those data and let them inform your future planning.

9. Translation with pre-task self-monitoring

This is a technique whose effectiveness I tested during my PhD. It consists of getting the students, prior to engaging in the task, to look at the most frequent mistakes they made in previous translation activities. Where do they get this information? The most time-consuming way is for them to go back to your feedback on each translation task they did before. A faster way is to ask them to keep a record on a tally sheet of their most frequent mistakes every time you provide them with corrective feedback.

Then you will ask them to use the information gathered to make up a checklist of the errors to look out for in the editing phase of the translation. A metacognitive activity.

10. Concluding remarks

Translation can be a very valuable tool, regardless of the bad press it has received over the last forty years, mainly due to its association with the Grammar Translation Method but also because of the emphasis that many emerging schools of thought place on the importance of conducting foreign language lessons entirely in the L2.

I do believe that, unless we are solely concerned with equipping our students with L2 survival skills, translation can have an enhancing effect as a proficiency booster if used judiciously and the to-be-translated texts contain feasible output, i.e. output the students are capable to translate with little assistance from reference materials or L2  experts.

The translation tasks we give our students must be relevant to prior learning. They often are not. Whilst they are losely related to the topic-in-hand they do not recycle the language we have taught our students – a very serious shortcoming. For translation practice to add to the learning process, it MUST recycle and has to be fully integrated with every single instructional sequence.

In the above I have discussed the most effective translation-teaching techniques I use in my lessons. Narrow Translation is valuable due to its recycling and scaffolding power; it massively helps consolidation whilst building learner confidence. The oral translation games, Oral Ping-Pong, No snake No ladders and Find someone who make translation enjoyable by adding a competitive element and being totally student-centred. Finally, I suggested two techniques which provide cognitive scaffolding as they are designed to support less confident learners and/or boost their chances to succeed at the task-in-hand.

To find out more about my approach to teaching get hold of the book Steve Smith and I co-authored ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’.