More on universals, desirables, controlled input and implicit learning

This very concise post was motivated by the fact that many colleagues seem to have misunderstood what my ‘universals’ are about and by the high level of interest for this strategy shown by the teachers who attended my recent rounds of workshops in England and Australia.

My ‘universals’

So let me spell it out clearly: the ‘universals’ are high surrender value grammar structures, lexical patterns and/or functions that you feel your students are currently not learning effectively due to insufficient exposure or practice in your extant input.

By making such language items your ‘universals’, you commit yourself to embed them systematically in your daily input, week in week out from the beginning to the end of the year. This entails embedding them in your classroom talk, in your learning management routines (from instructions to oral and written feedback), in your every resource, in your every receptive and productive task.

Hence, my ‘universals’ are not – as some seem to believe – the dream list of ‘recyclables’ (key connectives, high frequency verbs, useful idioms, etc.) cutting across all topics that many teachers put on a sheet for their students to refer to whenever they write an essay or deliver a presentation. Far from it.

Rather, they are a very effective strategy to provide extensive exposure to and practice with language items that you are not currently teaching successfully; they are not to stay on a list that your students keep in their books ; you MUST ensure they are part of the comprehensible input you feed your students every day, and of the output that you push out of them.

For example, in my context, I was dissatisfied with my pre-intermediate students’ mastery of the French negatives and phrases used to compare and contrast; with their ability to create questions and with their repertoire of verbs. So, in every single lesson of mine I now make sure that my students get tons of implicit exposure to these structures and patterns across all four skills. Here is the full list of my year 7 French universals (see figure 1 below).

Figure 1 – year 7 French Universals



The hoped-for outcome: that by processing receptively and productively these items for a few minutes every day the whole year through they will become so familiar and embedded in my students’ cognition that by the end of term 3 they will be acquired by most if not all of them.

My ‘desirables’

My ‘desirables’ are also language items that I aim to teach implicitly. However, differently from the ‘universals’ they are aimed at only the most talented, inquisitive and proactive of my students. They consist of structures or patterns that are more complex and advanced and which I include in my input on a daily basis too hoping for the top 5 – 10 % of my students to notice and pick up.

An example of ‘desirables’ for my year 11 students refers to the subjunctive and patterns such as ‘bien que / sans que / pourvu que + subjunctive’ which I have been planting in my resources since last year. Another example, with the same group: the pluperfect indicative.

Comprehensible controlled input and feasible pushed output as crucial to the effective teaching of universals and desirables

Obviously, you cannot implicitly teach universals and desirable without constantly recycling them through controlled input which is highly patterned, repetitive and 95 % comprehensible. Authentic texts will not include as many instances of your universal or desirable items as you need to drill them in effectively. Moreover, authentic texts rarely include comprehensible input.

By the same token, unstructured tasks will not ensure that your students will include them in their output; hence the need to provide extensive productive practice which elicits their deployment task after task, the easiest and safest way of achieving this being oral and written translation tasks involving feasible output (e.g. those discussed here).

In my next post ‘The two keys to effective language teaching and learning: controlled input and pushed output’ I will elaborate on this further.


This post was motivated by the fact that some colleagues have equated my universals to Barry Smith’s top tens or to examination boards lists of essential structures/lexical patterns, what teachers often refer to as ‘recyclables’.

Unlike the above, my ‘Universals’ and ‘Desirables’ are what YOU want them to be; I conceived them as a way to keep in my attentional focus the structures and/or lexical patterns I was teaching less successfully so that they would feature day in day out in my input and in my students output.

For the universals/desirable strategy to truly impact your students they need to be recycled systematically and methodically in your lessons. The more they occur in your input and your students’ output the better.

The universals ILRs (implicit learning routines) I use in my daily practice ( e.g. ‘grumpy time’ or ‘question time’) take very little time and allow me to never lose track of my universals, whatever the topic-at-hand is (see here for discussion of my ILRs). Scaffolds like the one below (see figure 2) will assist your students when they are asked to produce the universals orally or in writing.

Figure 2 – scaffold I use to model and encourage use of negatives


I have tested this strategy many times over and it has never disappointed me.