They can’t learn what they don’t notice – on the role of salience in language learning

The extent to which a target language structure is salient (i.e. is noticeable, stands out) is likely to affect its chances to be acquired by a learner. This is consonant with Schmidt’s (1990) Noticing hypothesis which states that noticing a given grammar structure is the starting point for its acquisition.

A number of factors concur to making certain items more salient than others; some refer to frequency and regularity of use, some to their semantic importance, some to how easy it is to hear or perceive them, some to the challenges that the items themselves or the linguistic context in which we process them pose to our working memory.

Why should this be of interest to language teachers? The answer refers to a point that I reiterate to death in my posts: effective teaching is not just about classroom delivery, but also about the way we structure the linguistic input we provide our students with and the way we plan its recycling in our medium- and long-term planning. A teacher who is fully aware of the factors that make certain L2 items s/he sets outs to teach less salient than others and uses such awareness to implement strategies to make those items more noticeable is more likely to secure his learners’ uptake of those items than a teacher who isn’t.

Take prepositions, discourse markers,  word suffixes and pronouns. They are not semantically salient, i.e. they do not provide essential cues to the meaning of a sentence one is reading or hearing; hence, when we read or hear a sentence, especially a complex one, these items will occupy only peripheral awareness in our working memory (meaning: the brain does not pay much attention to them) hence, they will be less likely to be noticed and learnt. This happens in our first language and even more so in a foreign language, especially if we are novice-to-intermediate learners.

Add to this the fact that these words are usually quite short and don’t carry stress and are consequently less easy to perceive. A French example: on hearing the French sentence ‘J’y suis allé hier soir après l’école’, as pronounced by a native speaker, a novice is unlikely to perceive the ‘y’ (there). An English example: on processing aurally the sentence ‘Which one of them would you like?’, a novice is very likely not to clearly hear the preposition ‘of’. Unsurprisingly, articles, prepositions and pronouns are amongst the items that L2 learners of French notoriously find the hardest to learn and are usually acquired late in instructed (non-immersive) settings.

In this post I will concern myself with:

(a) the factors which determine the salience of L2 morphemes /grammar structures;

(b) the implications such factors have for teaching, materials design and curriculum planning ;

(c) the strategies we can implement to counteract those factors and make them play in our hands in our attempt to enhance our learners’ acquisition.

Factor 1 – Perceptual salience

As Goldschneider and DeKeyser (2001) posit, salience refers to how easy it is to hear or perceive a given structure. This was briefly touched upon previously and pertains to a number of dimensions of processing in instructed L2 acquisition. One common context refers to phonological processing; if the learner does not hear an L2 item clearly s/he is less likely to learn it. Think about the gender of definite articles in French, ‘le’, ‘la’ and ‘les’ and how difficult it is for a novice learner to distinguish them from one another, especially when they are uttered by a French native speaker at native speed or by a non-native speaker with incorrect aperture and protrusion of the lips.

Perceptual salience is the root cause of many issues that hinder our students’ target language acquisition. To go back to the definite articles example, for instance, their perceptual ‘fuzziness’ not only affects the acquisition of articles both in terms of gender and usage (which differs greatly from English) but also affects the acquisition of noun gender and pluralization because articles usually indicate to the listener if the noun they precede is masculine or feminine, singular and plural.

The fact that phonological salience of some L2 items can seriously hinder acquisition of pivotal grammar structures constitutes one of the most powerful arguments for ensuring that our learners acquire effective decoding skills (the ability to turn letters into sounds) from the very early stages of language learning.

Another common context refers to items that are not salient in one’s mother tongue and therefore one’s brain is not ‘wired’ to pay attention to. A classical example is desinences (word endings) for English learners of highly inflected languages such as French and German. The Anglo-saxon brain is less used to handling the endings of words, as in English desinences are not so important. In French, however, and more so in German, word-endings (suffixes) play a major role in signalling relationships between the various constituents of a sentence or utterance (gender, number, case). The result: the students, even when told time and again – mostly through correction – to pay attention to agreement, keep omitting the required feminine and/or plural desinences.

A third all-important context refers to processing efficiency, i.e. the brain’s ability to juggle the various tasks a novice-to-intermediate must perform in processing an utterance/sentence. Our Working Memory having only limited attentional resources to devote to production, when a sentence or utterance we process is very challenging, the brain will prioritize the items that are more salient (i.e. crucial for conveying the intended meaning) and will neglect those that are less so – a sort of survival mechanism.

As a result, novice learners processing a challenging sentence will be more concerned with its meaning than with the minute details of the grammar (e.g. whether the endings are masculine or feminine; whether an adjective is regular or irregular) and will hardly notice them. Obviously, time pressure and other interferences from the environment are likely to exacerbate processing inefficiency.

Factor 2 – Semantic weight

I have already touched on this. Content words (e.g. nouns, adjectives, most verbs) are semantically more salient than function words (prepositions, determiners, conjunctions) and affixes and suffixes; hence, they are usually noticed and eventually acquired earlier than the latter. Amongst function words, the ones that are less essential to the understanding of meaning – e.g. determiners – are more likely to be neglected by the novice-to-intermediate learners. This is one of the main reasons why your students find learning article usage so difficult to acquire.

Factor 3 – Frequency

The frequency in which an item is processed and produced by a learner makes it more salient, too. This is the strongest argument in support for extensive recycling, especially in the case of items which are intrinsically less salient.

Factor 4 – Regularity

Structures which are regular are more easily noticed than irregular ones, because of their consistency and frequency, and are consequently more salient. That is why irregular forms, unless they occur frequently in the input the learner receives, are usually acquired late and even more advanced students struggle with them.

Factor 5 – Affective response

This refers to the affective response an L2 item evokes in the learner. For instance, a student may be interested or uninterested in learning vocabulary which refer to a topic relevant to its personal interests. Or, a specific set of items is necessary in order for him to pass a test or exam or achieve a personal goal (e.g. getting by in a country is planning to visit in the immediate future).

Factor 6 – Teacher and curriculum focus

The emphasis a teacher and the materials he uses lay on specific features of the language will to a great extent determine their degree of salience. For instance, if the teacher day in day out focuses the students on the phonological qualities of L2 words, or on a specific morpheme (e.g. adjectival agreement) she will evidently render them more salient and noticeable. For example, because of the requirements of the examination board we use in our school, CIE, verb accuracy has become one of my daily foci in lessons, inevitably enhancing their salience in my students’ perception. Unsurprisingly, their attention to and mastery of verbs has increased greatly as a result. In conclusion, we, as teachers are very much responsible for what our students perceive as salient.


The issues discussed below have huge implications for teaching and learning. The salience of an L2 structure priming its acquisition, it is evident that teachers ought to try as much as possible to enhance the noticeability of less salient items.

The most important implication for teachers is to keep the salience principle in their focal awareness as they plan to teach less salient items, considering all the possible barriers to their noticeability and learnability.

Secondly such items should be recycled more frequently and systematically than one would normally do with more salient linguistic features (e.g. by using my recycling ‘tool’ in the picture below). As I wrote in an old post of mine, one of the greatest shortcomings of current MFL instruction in the UK is the lack of systematic and regular focus on the automization of agreement (both noun-to-adjective and subject-to-verb) at the early stages of instruction.

Figure 1 – Recycling tool


Moreover, since less salient items are more likely to be affected by error – as they occur less frequently – they may fossilize (become automated) earlier; hence, at the early stages of their teaching, instruction ought to be intensive.

Also, at the early stages of exposing our students to target L2 items that are less salient, these should not occur in linguistically challenging contexts, so as to avoid cognitive overload. So, for instance, in teaching and drilling in prepositions, discourse markers (e.g. connectives) or any other function words, it will be more effective to present them in simple texts, in conjunction with cognates or other words the students are strongly familiar with.

Furthermore, tactics should be devised to enhance their perceptual salience. Thus, in the case of items that are difficult to hear clearly (e.g. ‘le’ vs ‘les’ or ‘je’ vs ‘j’ai’ in French) frequent contrastive work, exaggerating sounds (e.g. through over-aperture or protrusion),  emphasis on decoding, and heuristics (e.g. a mnemonic) could be used to ensure that the students form and consolidate a clear phonological representation.

Other strategies refer to activities which, regardless of the topic-at-hand focus students on less salient items. One such activity is ‘Track the word(s)’, whereby the students whilst reading or listening to a text has to note down as many occurrences as possible of one or more linguistic features (e.g. French: track as many instances as possible of ‘un’ and ‘une’ as you can hear in the recording).

Partial dictations and Cloze reading tasks in which only less salient features are removed is another strategy I often use to focus students on these items. I have recently found partial dictations where word-endings are removed particularly effective in focusing my novice students of French and Spanish on the gender and number of adjectives and nouns – notoriously less salient features.

Typographic (e.g. highlighting word-endings; dotting or underlining letters) or graphic devices can also be very effective in drawing student attention to less salient items if used regularly and consistently. For instance, in the sentence builders I typically use to introduce new syntactic patterns I make sure that a column is reserved to the prepositions, connectives, determiners or pronouns the students are less likely to notice.

Last but not least, the salience of less noticeable L2 items can be enhanced through teacher focus and exam washback effect. I personally try to enhance my students’ focus on smaller function words not only by recycling them more frequently, but also by rewarding their recognition and correct use both in low- and in high-stake assessments . Lists of desirable linguistic features can be given to the students for them to use for reference in drafting essays – telling them that the occurrence of n correct instances of such structures will result in n extra points.


The perceptual and semantic salience of the items we set out to teach contributes massively to acquisition. In full-immersion contexts, where the L2 learner acquires the language through exposure to naturalistic input, less salient items are acquired relatively late.

However, in instructed settings, where they have total control over L2-input, teachers have a massive opportunity to speed up and enhance the acquisition of such items by encouraging their noticing, by increasing the students’ exposure to them through frequent recycling and by ensuring that the students form a correct phonological representation in order to disambiguate as early on as possible decoding and coding problems that can have disastrous consequence for the acquisition of important morphological features.

In my experience – and that is why I wrote this piece – the principle of salience does not generally guide MFL teachers’ curriculum planning and materials design as much as it should. Evidence of that is the lack of FLE and ELE published resources that focus on function words and noun/adjective/verb desinences practice.

Poor L2 learner mastery of less salient features does not often impair communication; it does, however, often impact the clarity and cohesion of learner output and gives a sense of ‘sketchiness’. Not to mention the fact that research clearly shows that when mistakes with some of these features occur frequently they can highly irritate less sympathetic L2 native speakers.

I have personally found that keeping the barriers to salience constantly in my focal awareness in my teaching has made a world of difference to my students’ learning. In my long-term planning I now constantly look for opportunities to recycle less ‘noticeable’ items (e.g. prepositions, pronouns, discourse markers, affixes and suffixes), especially at the early stages of instruction. In my materials design I try as much as possible to minimize potential for cognitive overload and to proactively direct student attention to those features.

In conclusion, we, as teachers are very much responsible for what our students perceive as salient and have the power to bring less salient items into their focal attention through little daily zero-preparation gestures such as the questions we ask and more incisive, ‘invasive’ and long-term measures such as our material design and curriculum planning.





En route to spoken fluency via task repetition – the ‘4, 3, 2 technique’ and ‘Market place’

(this post was co-authored with Dylan Vinales of Garden International School Kuala Lumpur)




In this post I will concern myself with two  fluency-enhancing techniques that I got acquainted with 15 years ago during my MA TEFL through this very useful article by Nation (1989) but I have only started using regularly last year, after reading  de Jong and Perfetti’s (2011) fascinating report on their experimental study which persuaded me of the potential of such techniques.

As I discuss below, these techniques, have not only benefitted my students linguistically by impacting their fluency and aspects of their grammar accuracy, but also affectively, by enhancing their sense of self-confidence as L2-speakers. What I like the most about both techniques is that they require minimum preparation and my Intermediate and Upper Intermediate classes – the only groups I have used it with – truly enjoy it.

I shall first discuss how the techniques work, then concisely present some research evidence which supports their effectiveness as fluency-enhancers and finally explain why they work and you may want to use them in your classroom, especially with more advanced exam classes.

The 4,3,2 technique

How and why it works

The version of this technique, as found in Nation (1983), de Jong and Perfetti (2011) and in the other articles I read differs slightly from mine. Let us start with Nation’s version: the students work in pairs.  They are given a few minutes to prepare a 4-minute talk on a specific event or topic (note: they are not allowed to write anything down). They then deliver the talk to another student in the 4 minutes originally allocated. After that they are asked to deliver the talk to another student in 3 minutes and to another one still after that in 2 minutes. In their experiments, both Nation and de Jong Perfetti (2011) found that this activity enhanced their students performance. Nation (1989) identified the following improvements in his subjects:

  1. FLUENCY. Firstly, there was an increase in the rate of speaking from the first to the third delivery. For example, one of his subjects went from 86 words per minute in the first delivery, to 100 in the second and 127 in the third – an increase of 48 % in total. Secondly, there was a mark decrease in the number of false starts, hesitations and repeated words decreased significantly.
  2. ACCURACY. Nation noticed increases in grammar accuracy in certain aspects during the activity, particularly for errors not involving inflections, where the speaker repeated the same grammatical context.
  3. CONTROL OF CONTENT. The speakers reduced the amount of words from time 1 to time 3 in certain cases by as many as 100 words, but without making important omissions and negatively impacting complexity:

Analysis of the talks showed that in all except one case omission was the major reduction strategy. In most cases the omitted information was not important. In each of these talks two or more changes of construction resulted in increase in complexity. The increase in complexity was the result of embedding a finite or non-finite clause.

de Jong and Perfetti (2011)’s findings were very similar. In addition they identified three very important benefits in terms of fluency for their subjects that were not shown in previous research. Firstly, they found that the beneficial impact of regular practice with the technique was long-lasting. Secondly, they found that the improvements in fluency were transferred to new topics, not simply to the ones under study. Thirdly, they found that it was not merely speed of retrieval of the vocabulary items they used in their speeches that enhanced fluency, but rather automatization in the production of longer chunks of language and sentence structures through repeated use. They concluded that the 4,3,2 technique can promote automaticity.

Why it works

There are several reasons why this technique is so effective, some less obvious than others. The more obvious ones refer to the short terms gains from Time 1 to Time 3. Fluency development is encouraged from time 1 to 2, firstly, at the semantic level, because the students generate the content during the planning time and the first round of talk; so during the second and third round they do not have to think about the content anymore, which means that the planning does not interfere with other aspects of production and more attentional resources can be freed up. This means that more attention can be focused on monitoring the accuracy of the output or on the retrieval of items that could not be retrieved the first time because of cognitive overload. Secondly, whilst time pressure may cause some mistakes, it may also decrease the pauses and hesitations thereby increasing speed of delivery. Thirdly, when the same structure or chunk is used across all three rounds, the technique allows the speaker to monitor and refine its representation at each time; thus, a structure or chunk one might struggle with at time 1, might be refined at time 2 and perfected at time 3.

The reasons why regularly practising this technique has long-term effects which transcend the boundaries of specific topics or contexts are more complex and beyond the scope of this article. It will suffice to say that they refer to the automatization of processing mechanisms which underlie production and are more morphological and syntactic, rather than lexical in nature. To find out more, read here .

How I use it in my lessons

My experience with this technique leads me to concur with Nation and de Jong and Perfetti’s findings and therefore it will remain one of my oral-fluency-enhancing activities of election par excellence. The way I use it, though, is slightly different from the above.

First of all, I put students in groups of three rather than two. Student 1 speaks, Student 2 notes down the main points in the speech and Student 3 is the critical listener charged with giving feedback on specific features I want him/her to pay attention to (e.g. handling of verbs, use of connectives, range of vocab) – normally no more than two sets of features in order not to cause divided attention. The feedback session at the end of each round is brief, around 2 minutes.

Secondly, I usually give students four bullet points such as the following that I used with my students as a prompt two days ago.

Talk to me about

  • a past holiday;
  • a holiday you are planning to go on in the near future;
  • your ideal holiday;
  • what you usually do during the holidays when you don’t travel anywhere.

Thirdly, during the planning time I allow the students to write down notes, ask me questions or use online resources for help.

The rationale for having three students instead of two is : (1) if you have only one student listening and noting down the main points in the speaker’s speech there would be no critical listener to provide him/her with feedback on performance; (2) if you only have one critical listener attending to the content and the linguistic level simultaneously their attention would be divided. Also, rotating the students across all the three roles widens the pedagogic scope of the activity; the hope is that, as they listen, they will notice and possibly learn new linguistic features from their peers’ output. Throughout the activity, the speeches are recorded on iPads. The students will view the recordings at home and do some self-evaluation in their reflective journals.

Some of my more motivated student have found this activity so beneficial that they actually do it at home alone and send me the recordings – a teacher’s dream !

Market place

This technique, too, involves repetition and a change of audience. Differently from the 4,3,2 technique, however, Market place has not been the object of experimental studies. Based as it is on the same principles, though, is it fairly safe to infer that it would benefit students in much the same way.

In Marketplace, the learners are divided into buyers and sellers.  The teacher briefs the sellers as to what they are going to sell and each of them is allocated some time to prepare their own sales talk while the buyers are given receptive practice in the sort of vocabulary they are likely to hear from the sellers. For instance, two weeks ago, I told my students they had to sell a holiday to the South of France; the brief was:

Talk your customers through the following:

  • the accomodation
  • the facilities
  • the activities offered
  • the excursion to nearby towns/resorts
  • the nightlife

Each seller is given a stall (a desk) and the buyers circulate around the marketplace going from seller to seller listening to the sales talks and jotting down on their iPad or book the main points. I usually give a seller a set amount of time so that every round of ‘sales’ ends at the same time. At the end of the activity the buyers will decide on the holiday they will buy explaining in writing– in the target language – why they opted for that specific package.

This activity provides lots of repetition and chances to perfect delivery. The students love it and it requires minimum preparation.

Concluding remarks

There is plenty of research evidence that repeating the same tasks several times enhances fluency. The 4,3,2 techniques and Market place make repetition a bit more fun and the fact that students talk to a different audience each time makes it a little more interesting. The students’ feedback on them has always been positive; they learnt a lot both as listeners and as speakers and, most importanty, it enhanced their can-do attitude or self-efficacy as L2 speakers. I use it mostly with fairly homogeneous intermediate and upper intermediate groups, as I am not sure it would work with mixed ability classes. It works well with my classes because our examination board requires them to converse with the examiner about two topics in five minutes, hence cutting down hesitations and false starts is paramount, as well as speed of delivery. Giving the rationale for the 4,3,2 technique and telling them that there is research evidence that it works definitely helped to get the students to buy into it in the run-up to their oral exams. I strongly recommend both activities if developing your students’ fluency is high on your agenda.

For more on my ideas on improving speaking fluency, get hold of the book I co-authored with Steve Smith ‘The language teacher toolkit’ available on

Are we raising a breed of ‘dyslexic’ foreign language learners?

All teachers who have taught dyslexic children at some point in their career will know how challenging it can be to keep them engaged and motivated, how low their self-confidence as language learners usually is, how frustrated they often get as they struggle to make sense of what they read. But hang on, doesn’t this description also apply to quite a few of the language learners we teach?

Well, in fact, one may argue that many of our students do exhibit a form of deficit in their foreign language competences akin to a disorder called ‘Phonological dyslexia’, described by Ellis (1984) as the inability ‘to read unfamiliar words or non-words aloud, suggesting impairment of grapheme-phoneme conversion and/or phonemic assembly’. In other words, ‘Phonological dyslexics’ are individuals who are not able to sound unfamiliar words out. This inability to convert graphemes (letters) into phonemes (sounds) – unsurprisingly – seriously impairs these individuals’ reading comprehension skills.

Erler (2004) is highly indicative of this state of affairs. In her study of 359 year 7 students of French (from two middle-achieving English comprehensive schools) she found that after one year of instruction (with two contact hours a week) their knowledge of spelling-sound rules was poor, both schools obtaining the same mean score at the rhyming-word test she administered, i.e. 2.75 correct choices out of 14. She concluded:

The results seem to indicate that, with a few exceptions, pupils had little idea after one year of learning French about spelling-sound rules for principal vowel sounds in the language and for the general rule of silent final consonants. These are key rules for being able to decode from print to sound, and are essential for reading comprehension (p. 5)

What is equally interesting – and tragic – is that only 7.6% of Erler’s informants reported they felt ‘happy’ when reading French aloud in lesson; the vast majority of the students felt negatively about decoding and spelling written French.

Another interesting finding by Erler was that 75 % of the total sample Year 7s thought that it was indeed useful to know pronunciation and 63% stated that they were aware of subvocalizing to sounds when reading in French, confirming what we know about automatic phonological loop activation in working memory during reading (in simpler words: whether we are aware of it or not, the brain automatically converts letters into sounds as we read, even when we are not reading aloud).

These findings are dispiriting for several reasons. Firstly, because, as much L1 and L2 research clearly indicates (e.g. Stanovich, 1980; Bryant and Bradley, 1983; Sprenger and Casalis, 1995; Gathercole and Baddeley, 2001) decoding skills are crucial to comprehension of written texts and poor readers often exhibit serious deficits in their deployment. Heaps of research indicate that a child’s early knowledge of phonological awareness is a strong predictor of their fluency in later years (Stanovich, 1986). Muter and Diethelm (2001) found that students of French as a foreign language who were able to tell where syllables in a word begin and end were more proficient readers than those who didn’t.

Secondly, as I have argued in many of my posts and will write about more extensively in my forthcoming book ‘Breaking the sound barrier’ (Conti and Smith, 2017), phonological awareness is crucial in listening comprehension in that it helps the brain make sense of the speech flow by identifying word-boundaries, intonation patterns, etc.

Thirdly, and more tragically, as Erler’s concluded, the students she investigated exhibited decoding deficits (in French) comparable to those symptomatic of dyslexic reading impairment. Now, students who are de facto dyslexic are less likely to have high levels of can-do attitude and self-confidence in language learning, both strong predictors of success in language learning (Macaro, 2007). Could this be one of the reasons why many of our students don’t enjoy learning languages? Could addressing this major deficit enhance their motivation? I believe so.

Erler’s findings chime with my own experience as a veteran MFL teacher with over 20 years’ experience at primary, secondary and tertiary level. Decoding skills – also referred in the literature as GPC (grapheme-phoneme correspondences), spelling-sound rules or Phonological Awareness  – are not duly emphasized in British schools and, when they are indeed embedded in the curriculum, instruction is undermined – in my opinion – by the following shortcomings which serious limit its effectiveness:

1.Decoding skills instruction is not given sufficient prominence in the curriculum;

2.It is often an add-on; it is not fully integrated with the curriculum content and goals;

3.As per Dr Rachel Hawkes’ approach, phonics are often taught through gestures and tongue twisters, but the target phonemes are rarely consciously and systematically recycled in the lesson through listening, reading and speaking tasks which aim at their organic acquisition. This approach limits the acquisition of the target phonemes as it is divorced from fluency across all four skills and from real-life-like communication. In my approach the target phonemes are consciously recycled in every single task (both receptive and productive) I stage to teach the topic-at-hand (be it grammar, communicative function or vocabulary);

4. Instruction rarely ventures beyond word-level practice, which is not conducive to acquisition – the input we process and the output we produce usually contains more than one word…;

5.The target graphemes are usually sequenced randomly without considering (a) the level of challenge they pose to the learner; (b) how their teaching contributes to facilitate other aspects of L2 acquisition, such as grammar – for instance: (in French) a focus on letters that are silent earlier on in the instruction process will serve the purpose of assisting the acquisition of present tense forms. Instructional sequences ought to be based on a (possibly evidence-based) rationale;

6.Each target phoneme is not usually focused on for sufficiently long periods of time and recycled consistently and extensively across the curriculum;

7.Phonemic awareness skills (see picture below) are not focused on explicitly in the early years of L2 instruction, yet I have found that primary and year 7 students benefit greatly from practising them and research shows clearly that they prime the connection of sound to print.

Figure 1 : the Phonemic awareness development continuum (Courtesy of University of Oregon)


8.Students with poor phonemic sensitivity are not identified at the beginning of the course, yet I found it extremely useful to have a good idea from day one as to who was less gifted in this area of language aptitude (the natural predisposition to decode letters and repeat and manipulate sounds);

9.Students are rarely – if ever – tested on their decoding ability or phonological awareness (to assess progress in these areas). This is a serious shortcoming considering how pivotal this set of skills is for language learning effectiveness and success; I found that including opportunities for assessment (e.g. old school dictation or short transcription tasks) has increased my students’ focus on decoding skills and their motivation to learn them.

These and more common shortcomings of decoding skill instruction will be dealt with in greater depth in my next post.


Many foreign language students in England appear to have poor decoding skills. This hinders the development of their reading and listening fluency whilst seriously denting their confidence. As I have written in my forthcoming TES article ‘Enhancing MFL learner motivation – the road less travelled’, one of the most important reasons why our students lack confidence and motivation may relate to their inability to make sense of the target language, be its grammar or its decoding/pronunciation.

One of the group of students I have been trialling my decoding-skill training program with reported to me the other day that they were so much happier to be finally able to read out written French following a set of specific spelling-to-sound rules. They felt empowered by the decoding pinciples they had been taught, as the constant -often random – guessing frustrated them. I do believe that in languages like French and English, where spelling-sound correspondence can be challenging, a students’ sense of efficacy as a decoder can substantially enhance their motivation.

In conclusion, much more effort and thought should be put into effective decoding-skill instruction, which should go beyond the teaching of sounds through gestures, a few tongue twisters and listening or singing along to song; a principled framework should be arrived at, which integrates phonics instruction organically and systematically with the teaching of grammar and vocabulary and extensive practice across all four skills to ensure long-lasting retention and automatization.

To find out more about our ideas on decoding skills instruction get hold of our book, The Language Teacher Toolkit,

Why marking students’ books should be the least of a language teacher’s priorities


1. Introduction

Never, as in this day and age, secondary schools in the UK have made such a big fuss about the importance of marking student books and never has giving feedback been so tiresome and time-consuming for teachers. Based on the intuitively compelling notion – supported by recent research claims by the likes of Hattie – that a more cognitively demanding student involvement in the feedback-handling process significantly enhances learning, Modern Language teachers are now asked in many cases to place marking at the top of their priorities and engage in elaborate corrective approaches.

The trending remedial methodology prescribing a conversation-for-learning approach to marking, whereby the feedback unfolds in the form of a dialogue between corrector and correctee, book-marking has become a very taxing process for both parties but especially for teachers. Chilling horror stories of teachers forced to three to four-hour book-marking marathons per day using 3 different ink-colours or stamps (a different one for each stage in the feedback dialogue) to the detriment of their family life, keep resurfacing on online teacher forums and Facebook pages. SLT’s frequent book checks obviously adding to teacher stress.

This article was written in response to dozens of messages I have been getting from UK-based colleagues distressed by this state of affairs and asking invariably the same question: is the time and effort I put in book marking justified? In the below I intend to answer this question by drawing on thirty years of error-correction research, my personal experience as a learner of 14 languages and teacher of five and, more importantly, neuroscience and common sense. I will also suggest alternative remedial approaches to MFL learner errors which are as or even more effective than the trending methodologies.

2. What L2 error-correction research says

  1. Surveys of students and parents’ opinion have consistently indicated that they want books to be marked (Ferris,1999);
  1. Students often find teacher corrections confusing and unhelpful, hence do not learn much from them (Hedgcock and Lefkowitz, 1998);
  1. Students do not possess effective feedback-handling strategies and have a very superficial attitude to teacher corrections. They simply look at the mark or comments on their work, make a mental note of them but invest very little – if any – cognitive effort in processing teacher corrections (Cohen, 1987; Cohen and Cavalcanti, 1990; Conti, 2004). My PhD study (Conti,2001) found that students writing an essay per week and regularly and timely receiving detailed corrective feedback on the latter are clueless as to what the most common errors in their written work are and can only recall about 10% of the errors corrected by the instructor in their latest piece.
  1. Many errors appear to be impervious to error correction (Truscott, 1996). Despite repeated corrections, the vast majority of errors, especially the ones which refer to more complex grammatical points or less salient features (e.g. article, prepositions, word endings) keep re-occurring.
  1. Intensive grammar and editing instruction targeting specific errors has also shown to be largely ineffective (Polio et al, 1998).
  2. Once errors are automatized (or ‘fossilised’ as psycholinguists say) nothing can be done to completely eradicate them (Mukkatesh, 1988). Hence preventing students from automatizing mistakes seems to be more effective than treating them.
  1. An excessive concern with error treatment may affect students’ motivation negatively (James, 1998).
  1. An excessive concern with error treatment can also lead to error avoidance which stifles creativity with the language by inhibiting risk-taking (Krashen, 2000).
  1. Both direct and indirect correction do not impact students’ accuracy more effectively than no correction at all. Indirect correction has negatively impacted students’ motivation in some studies (Semke, 1984, Robb et al, 1986, Kepner, 1991).
  1. In studies in which the writing of students whose essays received only feedback on content was compared to the writing of students whose work was corrected, the former condition had a better impact on certain aspects of their writing proficiency (the no-correction group producing more higher order propositions than the correction group). These studies concluded that error correction may actually damage the development of written proficiency.
  1. Extensive strategy training in self-monitoring and feedback-handling strategies occurring over a long period seems to enhance essay-writing accuracy in the areas of grammar, vocabulary and spelling in university contexts . My study (Conti, 2001), which pioneered a feedback technique aimed at enhancing student involvement in the corrective process (a more elaborate version of what today is referred to as D.I.R.T. = Dedicated Improvement Reflection Time) obtained impressive gains in writing accuracy and even proficiency; however, it required a huge diagnostic effort, many hours of learner training and high levels of expertise on the part of the instructor (I spent countless hours of research and piloting before implementing the program).
  1. Students who are more motivated and have higher levels of self-regulation are more likely to benefit from correction (Conti, 2001; 2004)
  1. For errors to be reduced or eradicated, students need to engage in a conscious and sustained long-term effort (Conti, 2004)
  1. Errors are more likely to be eradicated when they refer to structures our students process frequently both receptively and productively (Loewen, 1998).
  1. Some errors are caused by lack of knowledge. Others by processing inefficiency or cognitive overload (i.e. the brain cannot juggle all the demands of the writing process successfully because they are simply too many and some errors slip through). The latter mistakes are usually self-correctable by the students.
  1. It is useless to correct errors which refer to structures the learners are not developmentally ready to acquire as they do not have the cognitive maturity to internalize them.

3. Should we stop correcting then?

The obvious answer is ‘No’ as students and parents do demand we correct. Moreover, as a language learner I have personally benefitted greatly from correction, so I do know it can work. The above research findings and what we know about how the human brain acquire languages cannot be ignored, though, and should inform our pedagogy.

What the 16 points above tell us is that to simply highlight a few errors and ask students to self-correct or do some research on the erroneously applied grammar rule is not going to enhance accuracy or language acquisition. This is because the acquisition of a grammar item is a complex process that takes months or even years of practice; it does not happen as a sudden revelation resulting from a correction. If the mistakes are made in speaking they will require extensive speaking practice; if they are made in writing, extensive writing practice. Simply telling a student you made mistake ‘X’ and asking them to self-correct it, do research on it, have a conversation with their teacher about it, or even all of the above,  will not be enough; it will only be the beginning phase of a very long process.

Thus, if I correct a student at the beginning of term 1 on item ‘X’ I will have to consistently keep that item in their focal awareness for the months to come, whilst providing spaced practice in the usage of that item week in week out until the end of Term 3. This is because learning a language is about acquiring automaticity in the execution of a specific set of skills which are acquired through masses of extensive (not intensive) practice. Note that I said ‘in the months to come’, not in a one-off remedial lesson

Other subjects, such as the Humanities or the Sciences, are less about automaticity and more about intellectual retention of knowledge and facts, hence they require a different type of corrective intervention. So, whereas in such subjects one can write in a book ‘it is fact X not Y’ and all the students will have to do is memorize that fact, in languages this will not be enough. The acquisition of a given grammar rule will require masses of spaced practice across a wide range of contexts coupled with positive or negative feedback on each and every application of that rule.

In football coaching, one cannot hope to improve a player’s dribbling skills by telling them what they are doing wrong, asking them to think about what they can do to improve and hope that just because they have understood the suggestions they are (a) going to take them on, (b) implement them and (c) act them out often and skilfully enough to automatize them. The player will first need to WANT to heed the advice and then practise it over and over again, even when the coach is not there to support him, and, only when it has worked many times over, he may finally internalize it. This example encapsulates all the challenges that effective error correction poses to teacher and learner alike, i.e.:

(1) the student must understand the correction;

(2) must want to learn from it (intentionality – the most important factor in the success of error correction);

(3) must practise it consistently over a long period of time at spaced intervals;

(4) must receive feedback that tells him/her that s/he is performing it correctly every time.

Can an overworked teacher even remotely hope to be able to successfully take each individual student in the classes s/he teaches through all of the above four stages with every single problematic item they target? Not really, that is why error correction, whether through D.I.R.T. or any other form of error correction is bound to have little impact on students’ proficiency.

And often it is not even an issue of time or resources; the greatest obstacle to the success of error correction relates to the issue of intentionality (the desire to act on one’s problems). The fact that a student engages in a dialog about error and responds effectively to the teacher’s corrective prompts does not mean that s/he will have the desire to eradicate the target mistake(s) which is essential for him/her to succeed. Cognitive engagement without intentionality rarely yields proficiency gains in language acquisition, because without intentionality the learner is unlikely to autonomously seek the opportunities for practice that lead to acquisition.

Not to mention another issue pertaining to the affective impact of an overemphasis on error correction: it skews learning towards remediation, towards ‘fixing’ rather than ‘creating’, towards form rather than content. Obsession with correction usually engenders fear of making mistakes, not a healthy catalyst of language learning.

4. Conclusions and implications for teaching and learning

What are the conclusions to be drawn and most importantly, what is the way forward?

The most important conclusion to be drawn, a huge U-turn from the recommendations I gave in the final chapter of my PhD study 12 years ago, is that book-marking should be kept to the minimum. What is much more important and more impactful in terms of teaching and learning is how the problem areas the teacher identifies in their students’ output inform our future short-, medium- and long-term planning. Thus, on finding that in doing homework ‘X’ or essay ‘Y’ most students made a given set of mistakes, it will be much more effective to focus on those mistakes in whole class activities through extensive practice over the weeks to come (at spaced intervals), rather than writing the same comments and corrections in every student’s book.

Secondly, students of similar linguistic background typically make by and large the same mistakes at various levels of proficiency. Instead of focusing on those mistakes in the remedial phase of teaching (correction) why not concentrating our efforts on pre-empting those errors by teaching the areas they refer to more effectively in the first place. In planning a lesson, for instance, I always try to predict the errors my students are likely to make and devise tactics and support materials to pre-empt or reduce their occurrence. Let us not forget that many of our students’ mistakes are caused by L1 transfer as well as by misleading explanations and/or examples, the materials we use and the translations we provide (e.g. J’ai 16 ans means literally ‘I have 16 years’ but by translating as ‘I am 16’ we lead the students to assume that ‘J’ai’ means ‘I am’). By the same token, scaffolding learning more carefully so as to gradually build up mastery rather than immediately throwing the students in the deep end can prevent many errors; for instance, as I always maintain in my blogs, teachers often go way too quickly from the presentation of a grammar point straight to production, missing out the all-important receptive phase (e.g. reading) which models target structure use in context. Last, but not least, let us ensure that we cover those problematic areas more thoroughly and extensively in our curriculum planning (more recycling and less coverage!).

Thirdly, instead of marking student output a few hours or days after the error has occurred, by focusing on the product, why not marking it as things happen as much as possible, focusing on the process? This approach, known as ‘live marking’ means going around the classroom as students grapple with a new language structure monitoring their output as they read, speak or write and intervene as soon as a serious mistake takes place by asking questions which promote self-correction such as ‘are you sure about this?’ and maybe probe into the causes of that error if it does not disrupt the task-at-hand.

Fourthly, the motivation to take an active and more responsible role in the feedback process can be fostered through L.I.F.T. (learner initiated feedback technique) whereby the students ask the teachers for feedback themselves. E.g., in writing an essay, a student unsure about the use of a grammar structure may ask in the margin of the essay ‘ should I use the perfect tense or the perfect tense continuous here?’.  By so doing, it is the student who is initiating the feedback process. The teacher is merely responding. The fact that the student chooses item ‘X’ himself, as the focus of the teacher’s intervention, may enhance the students’ depth of engagement in the learning of that item.

Personalised editing checklists to be used by the students in the editing phase of their writing prior to handing in their work, may also help enhance learner responsibility and the accuracy of the final product; if applied consistently over a long period of time they might even end up improving their self-monitoring skills – not necessarily written proficiency though.The students make a list of a few mistakes that keep cropping up in their work which they elect to eliminate from their writing. The list may grow as the year progresses, of course. They will then use that list to go through each new assignment when they review their drafts, one item at the time. Useful with exam classes in my experience. Better for the list to include only 5 to 6 items at a time, although more keen and able students may include more. I tend to use editing checklists in synergy with L.I.F.T. (students apply checklist and ask questions in the margin when they have doubts).

There are other strategies that can be implemented to tackle errors that are more effective than the trending dialogic and/or D.I.R.T.-based corrective approaches as they are usually applied in many foreign language classrooms. But I reserve to deal with such tactics in my next blogpost, for reasons of space.

In conclusion, by all means, if you are a teacher on a very light timetable and teach small classes, as I was when I carried out my PhD experiment, do carry on with D.I.R.T. and/or conversing with students in writing in their books using three or different pen colours. It might pay dividends at least with some of your more motivated students.  However, if you are a snowed-under practitioner in a busy state school, you may want to heed my advice and spend more time planning and working out ways to teach more effectively, as that is more likely to advance your students’ learning.

The problem is that school-wide policies are rarely drafted by language experts or educators who understand how language acquisition occurs so you may have to carry on as you are told… For many non-language specialists MFL learning is about memorising grammar rules and vocabulary lists – a purely intellectual endeavour. As current accounts of L2 learning posits, though, language acquisition is not about accruing intellectual knowledge and errors are more often than not the result of ineffective performance linked to working-memory executive function than lack of understanding or knowledge gaps. And performance deficits can only be addressed through practice, not reflection.

As Mark Solomon and Keith Netcher, the facilitators of a very useful workshop on feedback I attended last Friday at my school said, one should only provide feedback if it is likely to have an impact. If not, it is simply a worthless box-ticking endeavour.

Do get hold of the book I co-authored with Steve Smith ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit‘ to find out more about our ideas on error correction and smart book-marking

Eleven intervention strategies for underachieving L2-listeners

(Co-authored with Dylan Vinales of Garden International School)


Your students have not done well in their listening mocks. They are demotivated and lacking confidence in their listening skills. With only a few months to go before the actual exam you are panicking. What to do? Past-paper practice? It did not really solve the problem in the past, in fact it further demotivated a big chunk of your class… If this is you, here are eleven strategies that might just do the trick.

1. Caveat: No quick fix

For your students’ listening skills to improve substantially you will need three to four months of systematic work of the kind envisaged below. Listening skills are notoriously slow to develop because they require the mastery of a vast array of challenging micro-skills that must be executed at very high speed in the brain (words lingering in working memory for only about 2 seconds). Hence, you need to be systematic, patient and resilient, mindful of the fact that the improvements your students will be making will be invisible for several weeks to come but will definitely show up in the end.

2.Daily exposure to substantive amounts of aural input

You need to ensure that your students practise listening on a daily basis. One of the likely reasons why your students are underachieving is because they are not processing aural input often enough and/or not in a way that is conducive to learning. Hence you must:

  • Increase the amount of target language use both on your part and on your students’. Some minimal-prep teacher-led activities: every beginning and/or ending of the lesson, utter sentences for students to translate on the spot (on mini whiteboards or iPads) ; ask the class questions to answer in writing on mini-whiteboards; give them a gapped text and read out to them the full-text version; do (very short) dictations on mini white boards; radically increase the amount of questions you ask, especially closed questions aimed at modelling (e.g. ‘Is it X or Y? questions) ; Some minimal-prep- student-led activities: oral pair-work activities such as survey, role plays, find-someone-who or speak-and-draw activities ; short paired reading-aloud sessions (student A read short paragraph whilst student B translates orally or summarizes the gist of it);
  • Plan tasks which aim at teaching language through listening (L.A.M. = Listening As Modelling). This means less test-like tasks and more tasks of the sort described below (see points 5 to 10 below) which actually focus on developing the core listening micro-skills

Remember: with listening, task variety is key in order not to bore the students but also so as to allow you to recycle the target vocabulary over and over again. Also, keep each task short and sweet and ensure marking is quick and easy.

3.A holistic approach

In order to improve your students’ listening skills you shouldn’t see listening-skills building as separate from reading, speaking, writing and grammar instruction. By ‘holistic’ I mean two things.

Firstly, make sure each listening task does not occur randomly in the instructional sequences you stage in your lessons. For instance, ensure that before the listening comprehension on text ‘X’ the students have received plenty of practice in the unfamiliar language items which occur in that text through plenty of word recognition and pattern recognition tasks. This way your students will come to the listening comprehension tasks more prepared and will have more chances to be successful – this is crucial.

Secondly, focus students on pattern recognition both at word level (e,g.. prefixes and suffixes) and at sentence level (e.g. word order, verb constructions, subordinate clauses) , not only through listening but also through other skills, such as reading.


4.Confidence / self-efficacy building

A language learner’s sense of efficacy (i.e. their perception that they are successful at a given task) is one of the most powerful predictors of success in MFL learning. To enhance your students’ chances of succeeding at listening you need to scaffold success in every lesson so as to build their confidence in themselves as successful listeners as much as possible. Give them plenty of opportunities to succeed by (a) pitching the tasks carefully to their level: (b) as mentioned above, by prepping them adequately for each listening comp.; (c) by letting them listen to the texts as often as they request; (d) after playing the track a few times read the transcript to them at a slower speed than in the original recording in order to give them another final chance to get it right.

Remember: you can only truly enjoy what you are good – or perceive yourself to be good – at. There is no chance of getting your students to enjoy listening unless they experience some degree of success at it.

5.Ability to convert letters into sounds and viceversa

Start all over again from the most basic listening micro-skillset : decoding skills, i.e. the ability to convert letters into sounds and viceversa. Focus on the sounds that cause the most serious comprehension issues to your students (e.g. word-endings or ‘eu’ vs ‘u’  in French). Minimal pairs (i.e. identifiying differences between two words that are very similar in sound, such as ‘vous’ and ‘vu’, ‘ship’ or ‘sheep’), rhyming or onset pairs and spot-the-foreign or -silent letters tasks are minimal preparation activities that do work (see this post for more on these tasks). Make sure these sounds are then recycled in any subsequent input they will process (e.g. listening comp) and output (e.g. tongue twisters; role plays) they will produce in the rest of the lesson.

6.Ability to break down the speech flow

This is a very important set of micro-skills. Without the ability to break down the speech flow, your students will never be able to ‘slow down’ the aural input in their heads. So you need to train them on a daily basis in the art of identifying the boundaries of the words they hear. A low prep task: get a set of sentences or a very short text and eliminate the gaps between the words. Then read each line out to the class at slower-than-native-speaker speed asking them to draw the boundaries between the words. Finally show them the original version for marking.

Spot-the-intruder is another favourite of mine. Doctor the lyrics of a song or the transcript of an L2-recording by inserting a few extraneous words of your choice, then play the song and ask them to identify the ‘intruders’. The purpose is to get them to listen and focus on phonemic level of the text. The students really enjoy this activity.

7.Teaching vocabulary aurally and in high-frequency chunks

Teach them lots of vocabulary but do it aurally/orally and in phrases/sentences in which they occur more frequently in TL speech. Make sure the students hear each of the words/phrases you explicitly aim to teach in a lesson at least five times. If you do frequent vocabulary mini-tests, as I do, make sure they involve listening.

When testing vocabulary uptake do not simply stage isolated word or chunk recognition; make sure you include the target lexical items in longer sentences, too.

8.Focus on parsing skill

As explained in my post ‘Teaching grammar through listening’, the ability to effectively recognize aurally the patterns that bind words together is crucial to comprehension. Hence, training students in this skill is paramount. Sentence puzzles are a minimal preparation activity which does wonders in this respect (see examples below). I do sentence puzzles or the other similar activities described in this post every day.


9.Inference and predictive skills

I am not very fond of this approach, but training students in the art of guessing intelligently from context has yielded positive outcomes in a number of research studies. Inference: use written texts  for training first and move on to audio texts only when you think they are ready – as applying inference strategies to reading comprehension is easier and less threatening. Model the process to the class in think-aloud demonstrations of how one can use grammar, syntax, key words and knowledge of the world to guess meaning (think-aloud = verbalise your thoughts as you execute the task). Then provide practice by giving them texts with a set number of words for them to infer the meaning of using surrounding context. Prediction: demonstrate approach by think-aloud, then give students jigsaw puzzles or do ‘guess what comes next’ tasks (i.e. students read the beginning of a narrative and have to guess what comes next).

  1. Lots of short low stake assessments

Rather than getting the students to sit through a whole past exam paper – which can be tedious and daunting – do only one task at a time with them as often as possible. As I said above, prep them thoroughly beforehand aiming at them coming to the task with a mastery of around 90 to 95% of the words in the target text.

  1. Retrospective reports

At the beginning of your intervention programme you may want to elicit as much information as possible as to the problems that your students experience in performing listening tasks. One method that usually yields useful data involves retrospective reports carried out immediately after task completion. Ask the students, as part of a classroom discussion or in writing (e.g. on a google doc) to describe what they found difficult about the task. Do this with more than one task, if time allows it, in order to get as clear a picture as possible of what gaps you need to address. Your findings will inform your subsequent planning. I have always found this a very useful exercise.

  1. Task familiarity and task-specific strategies

This is obvious: once identified the exam tasks your students usually lose the most marks in, invest some time going through the past exam papers and identify their most typical features, such as the format, the register, the typical comprehension questions asked, the kind of vocabulary and grammar structures they contain, the syntax (e.g. Is there a lot of subordination? Are they rich in adjectives, adverbs or idioms you do not normally teach?). Your findings will inform your short, medium and long term planning


Anyone aiming at improving the listening skill of a group of underperforming students needs to  plan their intervention in a multi-layered, holistic and eclectic way in the context of an approach which provides extensive practice in the micro-skills which render comprehension possible. This entails addressing all the levels involved in the comprehension of aural input in a systematic way day in day out over a period of at least three to four months before one can see significant results. Finally, drastically increasing the exposure to ‘smart’ aural input which models language use and pattern recognition and recycles high-frequency vocabulary and grammar at will rather than ‘quizzing’ students is key to the enhancement of learner listening skills.

To find out more about my ideas about teaching do get hold of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit‘ the book I co-authored with Steve Smith of




How many new words should you teach per lesson?

Introduction – The wrong question

The question in the title is one of the most common ones I am asked by colleagues from all corners of the globe. And whenever I have googled that question in the past ten years I have always invariably found the same answer crop up in EFL and MFL forums, blogs and websites: 8 to 10 words per contact hour. I have always wondered where those numbers came from as there is no consensus amongst researchers as to what constitutes an ideal number of new words to teach per lesson. Unsurprisingly so. As I will argue below, it is impossible to answer the question with a precise figure unless we define clearly what we mean by ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ new words and have a 360-degree awareness of the target learning contexts with their unique interaction of affective and cognitive factors as well as other important individual variables such as the methodology in use, available resources, logistics, timelines, socio-economic factors, etc.

I personally ‘teach’ 20 to 25 words minimum per lesson, but what the word ‘teach’ means to me may not be what other colleagues take it to mean.

The good news 

The good news for MFL teachers in England and Wales is that by the end of a typical GCSE course the estimated vocabulary size of a successful MFL student should be 2,000 words at GCSE Higher and 1,000 at GCSE Lower (Milton, 2006). If we divide that number by 5 years of learning French (from yr 7 to yr 11) two hours per week, that would equate with, 5.2 words per lesson, in truth a very manageable burden. In 2006, however, the national average showed that GCSE students in English state schools had accrued a vocabulary amounting to less than 1,000 words each (see picture, below, from Milton, 2006).


Why the title question is the wrong question to ask yourself

In deciding how many words to teach per lesson one has to take into account a number of contextual factors which play a decisive role in vocabulary acquisition and, more importantly, the depth and range of one’s learning intentions. The question ‘How many words should I teach?’ cannot be answered unless we first consider the following :

(1) Depth of knowledge – Knowing a word entails knowing many things about the word: its literal meaning, its various connotations, its spelling, its derivations, collocations (knowing the words that usually co-occur with the target word), frequency, pronunciation, the syntactic constructions it is used in, the morphological options it offers and a rich variety of semantic associates such as synonyms, antonyms, homonyms (Nagy and Scott, 2000). How deep one intends to go will entail spending more time hence teaching fewer words.E.g., if I teach a set of French irregular adjectives in terms of how they change from masculine to feminine, rather than just focusing on their main meaning and pronunciation of the masculine form, I will evidently have less time which will in turn limit the amount of words I can teach.

(2) Receptive vs Productive knowledge – as Nation (1990) notes vocabulary items in the learners’ receptive vocabulary might not be readily available for productive purposes, since vocabulary reception does not guarantee production. In other words, students may learn to recognize words whilst not being able to use them in speech or in writing. This difference is often overlooked whilst is crucial in planning a vocabulary lesson. If one is planning to simply teach new words for receptive use, they can teach, in my experience, as many as 40 with an able group, as recognition – especially through the written medium – is easier than production.

Moreover, although they are both receptive modalities, learning vocabulary through listening and reading obviously require providing students with two different types of extensive training which means that if you really aim to thoroughly develop the two skill sets – as you should – you will inevitably have less time available.

(3) Speed of recognition and production and degree of contextualisation – When we talk of recognition and production we need to consider (a) the element of speed and  (b) the ability to understand the target words in unfamiliar contexts as markers of mastery . The faster a student recognizes a word (in familiar and unfamiliar contexts) as heard or read will tell us to what degree it has been automatized. The same applies to written and oral production (the hardest to automatize).

A vocabulary item can only be said to be fully acquired when it can be produced spontaneously (and correctly) within the context it was taught as well as unfamiliar contexts. With this in mind, to say ‘I taught ten words in yesterdays’ lesson’ is flawed. I may have presented those words and got the students to practise them and maybe they could recall them in isolation at the end of the lesson or even in one or more sentences. However, that does not mean the words have been learnt, because words are never used in isolation and not simply in two or three sentences learned by rote. Moreover, acquiring a vocabulary item takes weeks and in certain cases even months of practice in context.

(4) Word learnability – the learnability of the target word places further constraints on the number of words one decides to teach. ‘Learnability’ refers to the level of challenge a word poses to the learner. For instance:  long polysyllabic words with unfamiliar phonemes will be harder for beginners to retain; abstract and connotative words are  usually more difficult to acquire than concrete and denotative lexis; cognates are easier to recognize, etc. When deciding how many words to teach, the learnability factor is crucial.

(5) Shallow vs Deep processing –  the method you use will also play an important role in deciding how many words you aim to teach. The deeper the degree of semantic processing the more likely the students are to recall them in the future. Deep processing includes activities such as: establishing association within new and old words, categorizing them; finding opposites and synonyms; writing the definition; inferencing their meanings from context; creating mnemonics to enhance future recall); odd one out; etc. Shallow processing involves little cognitive effort (e.g. learning by repeating aloud; the games). Teacher with effective vocabulary teaching methods are usually more successful at teaching larger amounts of words.

(6) Time, recycling opportunities and learning habits – the numbers of words you can teach will also depend on how many chances you can find in your lesson to recycle them. Do you have enough time, resources or activities in your repertoire for you to recycle each word you set out to teach a minimum of 5 to 8 times (through deep processing tasks) within the lesson? Do you have resources to ensure the recycling of the same items in subsequent lessons?

It takes me a lot of time and effort to create resources that allow me to effectively recycle all the target words I set  out to teach in lesson 1, as well as all the subsequent lessons in which I revisit them. The more words you aim to teach, the more the effort you will have to put in follow-up lessons to create recycling opportunities. This is something you have to factor in when you decide on the number of words to teach in a given lesson or your teaching will have been in vain.

Connected with this is the issue of homework and learning habits and strategies. Are your students the kind of learners who do your homework consistently? If you flip vocabulary learning to them, will they actually do it? What the students do at home and how effectively their learning strategies are will have an impact to on how many words you plan to teach. In the case of one of the two year 9 groups I currently teach the amount of work they do outside the classroom – not their aptitude – profoundly affects the number of words I plan to teach each day.

(7) Chunks –  The memorization of chunks is productive and powerful. It serves two objectives: it enables the student to have chunks of language available for immediate use and it also provides the student with information that can be broken down and analysed at later stages. Chunks allow you teach more words in one go as Working Memory can process chunks made up of 7+/- 2 items (Miller, 1956). Moreover, in real life we rarely process words in isolation.

The main advantage of the use of lexical chunks is that they build on the fluency of the language learner as they facilitate clear, relevant and concise language and are stored as ready-to–use units that can be retrieved and used without the need to compose on-line through word selection and grammatical sequencing. This means that there is less demand on cognitive processing capacity.

I hardly ever teach vocabulary in isolation, unless I am focusing on speed of recognition, decoding/pronunciation or spelling (e.g through the games). I always present vocabulary for the first time either through texts containing comprehensible input which allows easy inferencing from context or through sentence builders (see figure below). Teaching in chunks and short sentences allows me to recycle old material whilst presenting new material but also to include more vocabulary.


(8) Chunking and word awareness – Chunks have another important impact on how many words you will be able to teach. Once you have unpacked each chunk you taught, made the students notice the underlying grammatical pattern (e.g. I want you to go to the cinema) and got them to use that pattern over and over again with new lexical items, you will have enhanced the generative learning power of that chunk. The more morphological (e.g. prefix, suffixes) and syntactic patterns (rather than grammar rules) you teach your students the greater the chances for them to learn new words by ‘hooking’ them to those patterns. This process, known as ‘chunking’ happens in the brain at incredibly high speed in L1 acquisition and plays a crucial role in L2 vocabulary acquisition; hence, the more automatized the ability to recognize those patterns in aural and written input will be in your students, the more likely they will be to learn more words in your lessons.

Word awareness refers to a learner’s ability to ‘unpack’ the way words work both in relation to other words (synonyms, antonyms, collocations, etc.), their word class (adjectives, nouns, etc.) and how they are formed (prefixes, suffixes, etymology, similarities with mother tongue words, etc.). Word awareness promotes chunking, hence, acquisition. Creating a culture of word awareness in your classroom does not require much preparation, just asking lots of questions such as: Is it an adjective or a noun? Does this go before or after the verb? Does it remind you of a word in our language? Why does this word end in ‘-ly’?, etc. Research in word-awareness (also referred to as word-consciousness) it is still pretty scant, but many scholars believe that a strong emphasis on it in the classroom can greatly impact vocabulary acquisition. The more word -aware your students are the greater the amount of words you will be able to teach them in lessons.

(9) The students – last but not least. This is self-evident. Your students are the best source of evidence that you are gauging the amount of vocabulary input correctly. Regular low stakes assessment will tell you how much of what you have taught gets retained or lost along the way as the term advances. Online surveys through google forms or the likes will allow you to find out in a few minutes how they feel about their vocab learning, if you are being too ambitious or spot on. They can also help you find out about their learning habits.

Not all students have the same ability to learn vocabulary. Students who are low in any of the crucial components of language aptitude, especially Working Memory span and Phonemic sensitivity will be particularly disadvantaged and their presence in your class will have to be taken into account as they will be more prone to cognitive overload. Differentiated instruction will be a must in mixed ability classes.

The students’ current level of proficiency will also be an important variable to consider. The more advanced the learner is the easier for them will be to use conscious and subconscious learning strategies to acquire vocabulary. Hence you will be able to teach way more new words per lesson to your advance level students than to your GCSE ones.

Motivation is obviously another crucial factor. I am not going to discuss it as it is beyond the scope of this post. It will suffice to say that motivation enhances cognitive and affective arousal which in turns increases Working Memory span and the chances to memorize words. Hence, the more fun and relevant to your students’ lives and interests your vocabulary teaching is, the more words you will be able to teach effectively.

Concluding remarks

The issues above refer to but a few of the many factors one needs to consider in deciding how many words to teach per lesson. The most important thing I would like the reader to take home from this post is that vocabulary acquisition being a long process, planning a successful vocabulary lesson is about zooming out and thinking about the bigger picture and the longer term: what matters is not how many words you teach in a given lesson but how your subsequent teaching is going to ensure that those words will be automatized both receptively and productively by your learners across a wide range of contexts, both familiar and unfamiliar. In order to do so, the language instructor must master effective vocabulary teaching strategies, know the students well and implement skillful and systematic recycling never losing sight of the challenges that words and the contexts those words are taught in pose to the learner. A culture of word awareness that you build in day in day out through regular questioning, both metalinguistic and metacognitive in nature, will also facilitate your task and allow you to teach an increasingly larger amount of words per lesson, as your students become more alert to the morpho-syntactic properties of the target language words.Ultimately, it will be student feedback and regular low stake assessments that will tell you whether you are teaching the correct amount of words per lesson.

Ten things I did in 2016 that have significantly enhanced my teaching

The year just gone was one of the best I have ever had in terms of professional development as a teacher, researcher, writer and CPD provider. In this blog I share ten things that I have tried out in 2016 that, in my view, have significantly enhanced teaching and learning in my lessons.

 1.Doubled the exposure to receptive processing and delayed production

One major change to my teaching has involved massively increasing my students’ exposure to comprehensible input before engaging them in production. Thus, on introducing a new phoneme, grammar structure, communicative function and/or vocabulary set, I now ensure my students process the target items receptively through as wide as possible a range of listening and reading tasks which recycle them to death (narrow reading being one of my favourite reading/listening tasks).

In order to enable my students to learn from the aural and written input provided, as illustrated in the texts in figure 1, I make sure it contains lots of patterned repetitions, cognates and familiar language and contextual clues which facilitate inference (so that 95 % would be accessible without resorting to guessing or dictionaries). I also usually provide a gloss in the margin and use typographic devices to draw their attention to items I want them to notice.

Figure 1 – narrow reading texts including comprehensible input with lots of patterned repetitions and cognates


I found that massively increasing receptive processing and delaying production – often to the second lesson on a new topic – has greatly benefitted my students, both in terms of confidence and understanding of the target items, especially when the tasks carried out on the aural and written texts involve lots of pattern recognition (see point 2), recycling and, most importantly, modelling. It is important to reiterate again the distinction between reading and listening aimed at modelling and reading and listening aimed at quizzing (i.e. the typical listening/reading comprehension). In my approach, listening and reading comprehension tasks are staged only at the end of the whole process.

2.Grammar and pattern recognition through listening

The extensive research I have carried out this year has made me aware of a gap in traditional explicit grammar instruction methodology: grammar is rarely taught regularly and systematically through listening and very few – if any – published materials purporting to do that exist. In my instructional model (MARS), exemplified in this post, grammar instruction nearly always begins with modelling of target grammar use through a L.A.M. (Listening-As-Modelling ) activity such as a sentence-builders, sentence puzzles or cognitive comparison tasks.

Figure 2. Sentence puzzles


This approach to grammar instruction addresses two important skillsets involved in listening comprehension, i.e.: decoding and parsing skills. As I detailed in one of my most widely read posts. ‘Teaching grammar through listening’, the latter skillset is paramount in the Parsing phase of comprehension, when Working Memory attempts to interpret what it hears using the grammar of the language (by fitting the words identified to the surrounding linguistic context).

3.Inductive Grammar teaching

The adoption of the approach touched upon in the previous paragraph has led me to abandon deductive grammar teaching and the traditional PPP sequence (Presentation, Practice, Production). Unless I am pressed for time, I now involve the students in problem solving activities which requires them to figure out the target grammar rule(s) by themselves based on the Listening-as-Modelling activities staged. Example: I may start with a sentence puzzle modelling how the negatives are used in French; after many examples, I would ask the students, working in groups of two or three, to work out the rule and explain it on a google document or padlet wall shared with me and the rest of the class.

After this student-led discovery phase, intensive receptive processing practice will ensue through listening and reading tasks (e.g. narrow reading), grammar quizzes and puzzles, and oral interaction (find your match or find someone who with cards). Since in my approach automatizing grammar is the main purpose of grammar instruction, this receptive phase is followed by structured oral practice – see next paragraph.

Figure 3 – Find-someone-who with cards. Grid to fill in (above) and Cards (below)


4. Communicative oral drills and closed questions

In the past year I perfected and intensified the use of CDs and closed questions in an attempt to routinize the target grammar structures and vocabulary.

4.1. Communicative drills (CDs)

Communicative drills, as the figure below show, are very short and highly structured tasks which ‘force’ the students to deploy the target items as many times as you feel fit, over and over again, in the context of real-life-like situations. Unlike audiolingual drills, CDs typically include lexical items (words and chunks) of high surrender value (e.g. high frequency words or formulaic language) which are very useful in real life communication and are contextualised in the topic-at-hand.

In the teaching sequence I typically use in my lessons, M.A.R.S. (Modelling, Awareness-Raising, Receptive processing, Structured production), CDs occur in the end-phase, after lots of receptive processing as occurred which exposed the students frequently to the same language included in the CDs. I usually stage three or four different types of CDs per session.

Figure 4. 2 type of Communicative Drills I use in my lessons. Translation into French (above) and Illustrated cards game in the past tense (below)


CD 2.png

4.2 Closed questions

I have also massively increased the amount of closed questions I ask my students as, unlike some language teaching ‘gurus’ advocate, I believe that closed questions – not open questions- are key to the development of spontaneity. By the way, by ‘closed questions’ I do not simply mean ‘true or false’ or ‘Yes or No’ questions, but also questions such as ‘What is your name?’, ‘What sport do you like?’, ‘What did you do last weekend?’ – as opposed to open questions such as ‘Talk to me about yourself’.

But, why more closed questions? Firstly, because by prioritising open questions students are not pushed to diversify their vocabulary. Secondly, they do not learn much vocabulary from the questions themselves (and questions are powerful modellers of new language). Thirdy, because ‘spontaneous speakers’ are first and foremost ‘spontaneous comprehenders’. The comprehension dimension of ‘oral spontaneity’ is often neglected, although is by all accounts as important as the production dimension.

Imagine asking the open question ‘What do you do in your free time?’ the student can get away with the usual ‘I play football and go to the cinema’. However, asking students a wider range of closed questions such as ‘What sport do you do?’, ‘What tv shows do you watch?’, ‘What movies do you watch?’, ‘What social media do you use?’, ‘What do you read?’, ‘What music do you listen to?’ allows you to tap into specific areas of their vocabulary and grammar knowledge, as well as developing their Listenership. Students who are asked a lot of closed questions get constant stimulation thereby learning more language both receptively – as they decode the questions – and productively, as they retrieve the specific vocabulary needed to answer (I usually ask them to pack at least three details in each answer, however close the questions is).

Both the intensive communicative oral drilling and the use of closed questions have greatly enhanced my grammar teaching whilst allowing me to recycle old and new vocabulary.

5.Hyper-questioning and Listenership

Not only have I increased the amount of closed questions I ask in class, but I have actually made a conscious and systematic effort in every single lesson to ask more questions overall, both open, closed and yes/no or true/false ones. This has entailed:

(1) More modelling of new language in the presentation stage through questioning techniques such as ‘Either / or’ (e.g. pointing at a picture on screen: ‘Is he doing ‘X’ or ‘Y’?) Substitution, etc.;

(2) Work on increasing speed of student response to questions;

(3) Learning about question formation through modelling (e.g. question puzzles) and explicit grammar study (e.g. studying word order and hyphenation in French questions);

(4) Reading comprehension tasks which involve understanding of questions rather than statements set;

(5) Widening the questions repertoire I expose the students to;

(6) Designing oral tasks and assessments which lay more emphasis on asking questions.

Why? In order to develop the area of oral spontaneity that is usually less focused on by teachers: ‘spontaneous comprehension’ or ‘Listenership’ as it is known amongst Applied Linguists.

A regular zero-preparation activity that I have staged regularly in lessons  has involved asking questions to my students who, equipped with mini-boards, respond in writing under time constraints. Another frequent minimal preparation starter or plenary has consisted of giving my students a statement and asking them to write on mini whiteboards a possible question that statement could be the answer to.

6.My recycling tool

Last year I also created a simple recycling tool (in the figure below) that has allowed me to recycle the core grammar items more systematically over the whole school year. It consists of a spreadsheet on which I keep track of how often I practise a given grammar structure. In selecting the items on the tracking sheet and assigning them a priority I have used another strategy, discussed in the next paragraph.


7.Error-informed curriculum design and delivery

Irritated by the disproportionate emphasis lain by English schools on very time-consuming and largely ineffective dialogic corrective practices (e.g. students respond to feedback and teacher respond to student response, etc.), last year I decided to tackle learner errors from three different angles.

Firstly, as discussed in paragraph 1, by delaying production in order to pre-empt errors stemming from unfamiliarity with the target structure (as errors are often made by rushing production); secondly, as discussed in paragraph 4, by engaging students in as many structured tasks as possible before venturing in less structured ones; thirdly, by monitoring my students’ mistakes, keeping a tally of their most frequent ones and using my findings to inform my teaching.

So, whenever I went through their books or recordings or listened in as they interacted with one another during oral activities, I noted down day in day out on a google doc their more common and serious mistakes and modified my schemes of work accordingly making sure that I would tackle those issues in the lessons to come. It was not very time consuming; it reduced the time I spent writing in their books (as I was going to deal with them in class anyway) and has made me become a better observer and listener of my students’ output.                                                                        

8.The 4,3,2 technique

This technique consists of getting a student to answer the same open question (e.g. ‘What did you do last weekend) three times. At time one you will ask them to answer the question in two minutes; at time two, in one minute and a half (i.e. 3/4 of the time employed at time 1); at time three in one minute. This technique, which I reserve to discuss in a forthcoming post, has been proven to significantly enhance L2 learner oral fluency not only within the topic in which the students use the technique but in terms of overall speaking spontaneity and proficiency.

Although I have been using it with my GCSE students only for three months, it has already paid good dividends. The rationale for its success is that it helps the students – after much practice – to automatize sub-routines thereby speeding up Working Memory processing.

9. Experiments with pronunciation of problematic French endings

As part of my on-going research on decoding-skill instruction in the last part of 2016 I endeavoured to enhance my year 8 students’ ability to pronounce French word endings; more specifically I worked on the pronunciation of silent word endings (e.g. ‘s’, ‘t’, ‘e’) in French using the Micro-Listening Enhancers detailed in this PPT (put together with my colleague Dylan Vinales for a conference we delivered recently). After a baseline assessment in which identified the problematic endings I carried out instruction as follows : 10 minutes session per lesson, contextualizing the decoding-skill work within the teaching of the vocabulary-at-hand. After a whole term of such instruction, the students’ ability to pronounce the endings which were problematic at pre-test increased by an average of 70 %, with 2 of the 17 students in the class making only a couple of mistakes.

10.‘Spot the intruder’ and ‘Spot the error’ listening tasks

These tasks have been regular features in my lessons for the last nine months or so. They focus students on listening for detail like nothing else, thereby developing their bottom-up processing skills. They require very little preparation, all one has to do is doctor the lyrics of a target language song by inserting a few extra words here and there (usually small ones) or errors; students then listen to the song tasked with identifying the items planted in the text. Here is an example by Dylan Vinales which cleverly combines a number of my micro-listening enhancers including ‘Spot the intruder’ and ‘Spot the mistake’. Here is a video of Dylan and Ronan Jezequel rehearsing the song the tasks are based on in one of our classrooms at Garden International School.

To find out about my ideas on reading instruction, get hold of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’, the book Steve Smith and I co-authored .