Fig.1 – the MARS EARS framework
In the first post in this series dedicated to my teaching approach, Extensive Processing Instruction (or E.P.I.), I discussed the M.A.R.S. E.A.R.S. framework in its broad lines.
In the present post I will concern myself with the eight key principles that are crucial for the success of my approach and anyone wanting to adopt E.P.I. ought to heed.
Note that if you haven’t read my previous post, ‘How I teach lexicogrammar (Part 1)‘ I strongly recommend you do before reading on, so as to gain a better understanding of what follows.
E.P.I. prioritises the teaching of chunks derived from Communicative Functions (see post here) over the teaching of single words and traditional grammar, in the belief that this approach (1) reflects the way the brain is hard-wired to acquire languages; (2) speeds up fluency as it is a faster and more efficient way of producing language; (3) facilitates processing by reducing the cognitive load on working memory; (4) makes language learning more about communication and implicit learning and less about explicit learning and application of rules.
Whilst grammar still places a prominent role in EPI, it serves the expression of communicative functions, hence EPI is about communicative lexicogrammar, construction grammar and usage-based grammar.
For more on the rationale and implementation of chunking, please refer to this previous post of mine
2. Comprehensible Input
Masses of research have evidenced that with average-ability learners any L2 input that is less than 98 % comprehensible (i.e. understandable by the listeners/readers without help) is very unlikely to be conducive to learning. With more gifted learners, 90 % may suffice. Any input below the 80% comprehensibility threshold is likely to cause serious comprehension issues .
It is obvious, then, that if we aim to model L2 language through aural/writen tasks, , we must provide students with comprehensible input which contains language they are largely familiar with. This is very rarely the case with most of published world languages teaching materials, especially coursebooks and, in my experience, with a lot of target language input given by instructors in EFL and WL/MFL classrooms worldwide. The main reason: the belief, rooted in the CLT approach, that students should be given input which is as ‘authentic’ as possible.
However, asking students to perform listening/reading comprehension tasks on aural texts containing a substantive amount of language beyond their comprehensibility threshold encourages the deployment of compensatory strategies (e.g. guessing) rather than the promoting of noticing and modelling of syntax, morphology, lexis and phonology.
Moreover, this practice may be perceived as unfair by the students (e.g. “why am I being asked to listen to/read something I haven’t learnt and don’t understand?”), may engender student anxiety and, should the student fail, undermine their self-efficacy and motivation.
Another dimension of input comprehensibility relates to the speed rate at which aural texts are usually delivered. As noted previously, speed of processing is a function of listening fluency, hence, a beginner student-listener should not be asked to perform a task on texts delivered at native or near-native speed. Yet, this practice is very common in secondary schools in England, with negative consequence for L2-student motivation.
I believe the speed of delivery with beginners ought to be commensurate to their level of listening fluency even at the risk of sounding patently non-native, and should be increased gradually and judiciously as L2 learners’ proficiency grows.
3. Flooded Input
Mothers excel at providing their infant children with masses of input which is simplified, repetitive, highly patterned and rightly pitched to their current level of language proficiency. They ‘flood’ their input with instance after instance of the words or phrases they want their little ones to learn, going back to those words in various ways in their input; in other words, they provide ‘flooded input’.
E.P.I. is big on flooded input. I believe that, at the risk of not sounding authentic, L2 teachers must provide their students with masses of input ‘flooded’ with occurrences of the target linguistic patterns.
This is intuitive: if we want our students to acquire a specific pool of new chunks or to consolidate previously learnt ones, we need to ensure that they occur many times over in our (98% comprehensible) input in order to facilitate their noticing and retention.
Fig. 2 – Nursery rhymes contain lots of flooded input
Flooded input is especially crucial when we deal with items which are less easily noticed by L2 learners (e.g. prepositions, connectives, pronouns, copulas, word-endings) because of their morphology, position in a sentence or simply because of their frequency in L2 input and are consequently acquired quite late by L2 learners. By flooding the aural input with such items thereby increasing the students’ exposure to them, we are more likely to enhance their chances to notice and consequently acquire them.
By the same token, by patterning the input, we ensure that it follows a repetitive and predictable structure which facilitates understanding and retention of the target items. This is very much what happens in the nursery rhymes, songs and stories that children are fed throughout their infancy.
Fig. 3 – A patterned poem flooded with the same target structure
Our emphasis on flooded and patterned input is another major reason why E.P.I. advocates the use of aural/written texts ‘manufactured’ for L2 teaching purposes. One of the benefits of such texts is that they may contain as many instances as we feel fit of items that occur very rarely in the aural input students normally process in the typical L2 classroom. Think about ‘negatives’, for instance: how many ‘authentic’ texts describe events using lots of negative structures?
Narrow reading (NR) and Narrow listening (NL) texts are extreme examples of flooded and highly patterned input. NR and NL consist of clusters of texts (I typically use 4 to 6) which are totally identical except for a few details here and there (see examples in figures 4 and 5 below.
Fig 4 – a set of Spanish narrow reading texts with tasks designed for a year 8 class
Fig 5 – EFL narrow reading texts for French students
Every single interactive read-aloud game described here (e.g. the globally successful ‘Sentence stealer’) aims at providing lots of flooded input.
Fig 6 – The read aloud game ‘Sentence Stealer’ in a lesson on the immediate future in Spanish. Even to non Spanish-speakers the input-flooding is quite obvious.
4. Controlled Input
We believe that in instructed L2 instruction the input we provide our students with needs to be tightly controlled in order to possess all of the attributes discussed above. Note that at the initial stage of a new EPI instructional sequence the input provided to the learners in the Receptive Processing phase (the R in the MARS sequence) does not deviate in any way from the new language patterns and lexical items presented in the modelling phase
L2 learners respond very well to controlled input, because (1) it allows for more recycling of the new items; (2) at the early stages of an instructional sequence, it facilitates processing and reduces cognitive load, as the students do not need to resort to dictionaries or expert help to understand the input; (3) it makes them feel ‘safer, as it decreases the chances of encountering material they are not familiar with.
5. Thorough processing
As noted above, the reading and listening tasks typically found in textbooks and most other published resources usually require students to answer questions on a text that range from ‘who , where, how, etc.’ questions to ‘True or False’ ones. This encourages what we call ‘Partial processing’, as the students do not process the text in its entirety; rather, they skim and/or scan for key words or other intra- or even extra-textual cues which may help them answer the questions. They may, once identified the portions of the text which contain the needed information, read them more thoroughly; however, unless the questions or tasks on the text are numerous and cover every single sentence in the text, several parts of that text will not be processed deeply enough to impact learning.
Moreover, one of the most serious limitations of working memory is its inability to focus on form and meaning at the same time. Hence, if students are asked to perform on texts only task which focus on meaning (e.g. typical ‘who?’, ‘where?’, ‘what ?’ ‘when’ or ‘True or false’ comprehension questions) they will not be able to learn much about the linguistic features in the text, especially the less salient ones.
Yet, for those who, like us, lay a strong emphasis on repeated exposure to the target chunks, lexical patterns and structures in the belief that repeated exposure enhances L2 acquisition, this is an important shortcoming; we want our students to process the text in its entirety; to pay attention to each and every target item so that (1) they become more aware of the way known items behave in a range of phonological, lexical and structural contexts thereby enhancing their acquisition; (2) notice unknown items thereby beginning their acquisition and, (3) if the text contains material that may enhance their knowledge of the world or their well-being, they benefit from it to the fullest extent rather than gathering ‘bitty’ information.
Hence, we advocate that L2 reading and listening tasks should mostly involve thorough processing of the target texts. Typical examples of thorough processing tasks are translations, dictations and error-identification tasks. Some of my favourites:
- Bad translation: the students are given a text in the target language and a translation of the text containing and X number of mistakes. The students are tasked with spotting the mistakes in the translation
- Faulty description: the students are shown a picture and given four narrow reading texts each providing a description of the picture in the target language which contains one more inaccuracies. The students are tasked with spotting the inaccuracies
- Spot the intruder: the students are given a text which contains extraneous words which don’t fit grammatically or in meaning (depending on the focus). The task is to spot the extraneous word
- Sentence puzzles: the students must reconstruct a jumbled-up sentence containing the target sentence pattern and lexis
- Delayed dictation: the teacher utters a sentence that the students will be familiar with, or at least 95-98 % comprehensible input, and tell them to ‘hold it inside their heads’. As they try to keep it in their heads, s/he makes funny noises or utter random words in the target language to distract them for a few seconds. Finally, s/he asks them to write the words on their mini whiteboards and show you.
- Gapped parallel texts: the students are given a text in the target language and a translation of that text whose gaps are designed to draw the students’ attention to specific linguistic features.
Fig 7 – A ‘Bad translation’ task for students of Spanish
Fig 8 – Gapped Parallel text for learners of Spanish as a foreign language
6. Pushed Output
As just discussed, I believe that with novice learners the input we provide needs to be tightly controlled in order to possess all of the attributes discussed above. I do also believe that they must be given a wide range of opportunities for transforming every single bit of the input they process receptively into output.
This calls for an approach to the design of oral and written tasks which elicit the production, at the end of a typical instructional sequence (what I call ‘Structured production’), of the very same L2 vocabulary and structures that were modelled and practised through listening and reading at the very beginning of that sequence.
Hence, if, say, you presented and practised through listening and/or reading 20 new vocabulary chunks and 2 new syntactic patterns, you would engage your students in oral and written tasks that force them to produce all of those vocabulary items and patterns many times over – alongside previously learnt linguistic items (interleaving) if you feel these will not cause cognitive overload and interference.
Fig 9 – From controlled input to pushed output
This points to the full integration E.P.I. envisages for listening/reading and to the key role listening holds in priming oracy. It also points to an important difference between Communicative Language Teaching (in its stronger forms) and EPI, i.e. the fact that before engaging in unstructured productive oral and written tasks, L2-learners must sit through an intensive phase of highly structured communicative tasks and drills which recycle the target L2 items to death.
In my opinion, one of the greatest shortcomings of common classroom practice in England is that teachers go way too soon from the Presentation Phase to open-ended tasks and questions which do not enable the teacher to recycle and consolidate at will every single target item, as their students have the freedom to answer as they please -often using the same answer / set of answers in the same way from year 7 to year 11 !
Only highly structured production and targeted retrieval practice can provide sufficient opportunities for the L2 teacher to recycle the target chunks and patterns whilst staying within the limited scope of Feasible Output, i.e. output we know the students are capable of producing.
The effective E.P.I. teacher creates frequent opportunities in the Structured Production phase for Pushed Output which is Controlled (i.e. it is limited to the target patterns and chunks) and Feasible.
Fig 10 – An oral translation game for learners of Spanish as a foreign language involving retrieval practice
Translation drills, mostly interactional games, are the preferred means of elicit pushed output for the reason that they allow the teacher to control the student output as much as possible thereby ensuring that the target items are recycled at will. My favourite translation games and tasks are described here. The rationale for the preference of translation over pictures is that:
- it promotes noticing key differences and similarities between he L1 and the L2, which promotes acquisition;
- it forces the students to use specific chunks/patterns whereas pictures are less narrow in the output they elicit;
As explained in my previous post, after the students have had extensive Pushed Output practice, the teacher will stage tasks involving less structured speaking and writing tasks which involve more creativity and autonomy.
Fig 11 – Oral communictaive drills for learners of French as a foreign language
I have discussed this point extensively in previous posts. Effective teaching is not just about the effective first lesson on a target item, but also about ensuring that after the intensive recycling that occurs at the initial stages of an instructional sequence that item is extensively recycled over the months and even years to come.
As I have often reiterated in this blog, intensive intra-lesson and inter-lesson recycling are both crucial, as most forgetting (around 56 % ) occurs one hour after processing a to-be-learnt item and after six days, in the absence of reinforcement, the learner is left with very little (30 %).
Fig 12 – Ebbinghaus curve of human forgetting rate
This is why my method is called E.P.I. , where the ‘E’ in the acronym stands for ‘Extensive’ and alludes to the emphasis my methodology lays on carefully planned recycling through Interleaving (explained in detail here), whereby any new set of chunks/patterns is learnt and practised with previously learnt items and recycled with new ones at spaced intervals.
Fig 13- Spaced practice
In the Expansion phase of a typical E.P.I. instructional sequence, for instance, having taught and practised structure ‘Y’ (e.g. Time marker + perfect tense of irregular verbs + prepositional phrase) and being satisfied that the students after a few lessons have routinised the structure in the context of the function ‘Talking about what I did yesterday’, before moving on to a new unit and new material, they will make sure (a) that structure ‘Y’ is practised with structures ‘X’ and ‘W’ learnt in previous units and (b) that it will be practised in all the units to come in some shape or form.
Fig 14 – The Expansion phase in the MARS EARS sequence
The best form of recycling involves of course, spaced practice, whereby material is revisited systematically at intervals that are frequent at the initial stages and become gradually sparser.
Of course, effective recycling require skillful and careful curriculum design and is much harder to implement when one teaches one meaty unit of work every six-seven weeks with two hours of contact time per week.
Hence, my advocacy of a ‘Less is more’ approach, whereby curriculum design in the formative years of L2 learning focuses more on the quality than the quantity of coverage and on the development of automaticity – which brings me to the next point.
Automaticity is the ultimate goal of E.P.I., as it is a key prerequisite of fluency. Hence, great emphasis is lain by the E.P.I. teacher on practising speed of retrieval. During the recycling phase, what I called ‘EARS’ in my previous post, tasks such as the ‘4,3,2 technique’, ‘Market place’, ‘Speed dating’, ‘Chain reaction’ and ‘Fast and Furious’ are staged alongside traditional communicative tasks ( e.g. information gap activities) in order to train students in producing language under Real Operating Conditions.
Fig 15 – The 4,3,4 technique
Fig 16 – Chain Reaction. The students, who have three lives, are lined up and are tasked with translating orally on the spot (give them 5-6 seconds) from their L1 into the target language, each chunk as it appears on the slides, losing a life each time they get it wrong. Every time they pass or get something wrong they lose a life. Great as a starter or plenary.
Before venturing in subsequent posts in a more detailed account of the various stages in the MARS EARS sequence, from the M (modelling) to the S (spontaneity), I have hereby attempted to outline the key principles of my approach. Any language educator embracing EPI must heed such principles as they are all interdependently crucial to its effectiveness.
INTRODUCTION: TEACHING THROUGH CHUNKS
In the last few weeks I have been asked by many of my readers and colleagues on the Facebook professional group I founded (Global Innovative Language Teachers) the following questions:
(1) what I mean by teaching through chunks and patterns / constructions as opposed to single words and traditional grammar,
(2) where I get the chunks and patterns from and
(3) how I teach them.
Whilst I reserve to answer question (3) in a much more detailed post in the very near future outlining my MARS EARS sequence step by step, here I will deal with (1) and (2) as I know that many teachers are currently in the process of re-designing or tweaking their schemes of learning in preparation for the next academic year.
Here are the key principles of my curriculum design and classroom teaching.
2. LANGUAGE TEACHING SHOULD SERVE REAL WORLD COMMUNICATION
This is the bread and butter of Communicative Language Teaching. The teaching of lexis and grammar should serve communication, hence language learning should be about learning to perform real world communicative tasks through a range of high frequency L2 chunks and constructions.
Consequently, grammar should not be taught to novice-to-intermediate learners in futile abstract categories such as ‘Perfect tense’, ‘Imperfect tense’, or ‘Prepositions’; by the same token, vocabulary should not be selected randomly and taught through uncontextualized single words, based on a theme that means all and nothing, e.g. sports, house, holidays.
Our choice of the grammar and lexis we want to impart on our students should be driven instead by the communicative functions we believe are most important for our students to master in the real world (or, if you want to be more pragmatic – to pass the exams!).
But what do we mean by Communicative Functions (CF)?
In my latest professional development tour of England, I realised that the vast majority of England-based language teachers are not familiar with the concept. Here are some examples of key communicative functions:
– creating questions
– describing people
– describing places
– reporting an event in the past
– talking about the way one used to be
– talking about future plans
– comparing and contrasting
– expressing a purpose, etc.
A full list of CF, adapted from Finocchiaro and Brumfit (1983), one of many freely available on the internet, can be found here .
3. THE STARTING POINT: COMMUNICATIVE FUNCTIONS AND ‘THE MAJESTIC 12’
The starting point of any L2 curriculum design and teaching should be the communicative functions that one wants to cover by the end of the academic year, course, key stage 3 (i.e. years 7 to 9) or even key stage 4 (i.e. years 10 to 11).
Choose with your colleagues the top 20, 15 or 12 (depending on the time and resources available) functions that you believe your students MUST master by a specific stage in their L2-learning journey and decide how many you should teach each year and plan for their systematic recycling over the years. Remember: LESS IS MORE.
I usually choose 12 top Communicative Functions that I want my students to learn by the end of year 9, which I break down in micro-functions. I call them The Majestic 12.
Example of a macro-function: Describing people.
Examples of micro-functions: describing their character, describing their physical appearance, comparing and contrasting people, saying what the worst and best things about them are, etc.
If you were to choose your own Majestic 12, what would they be?
4. IDENTIFYING KEY PATTERNS AND CHUNKS
Once identified the CFs, you then identify the key patterns and chunks used most frequently to express them:
FUNCTION: Comparing and contrasting
PATTERNS AND CHUNKS:
X is more + adjective than Y
X is as + adjective as Y
Z is less + adjective than Y
Compared to X, Y is more + adjective
Teaching patterns is key. Without pattern recognition and activation students’ growth as L2 listeners, speakers, readers and writers is substantively stunted.
The Structural Deficit Hypothesis (SDH) attributes difficulties in the acquisition of reading to syntactic processing deficiencies (Bentin, Deutsch and Liberman, 1990; Menyuk et al., 1991; Scarborough, 1991). The SDH claims that an absence of syntactic knowledge or lack of processing ability interferes with higher level text comprehension.
MFL teachers in England often complain about their students using Google translator. However, if one doesn’t explicitly and systematically teach syntactic patterns, how can one expect their students to be able to string single words together grammatically and logically without help?
Take the list of subordinate clauses in Figure 1 below: how many of those do you explicitly teach and recycle over and over again from year 7 to year 11? When I ask this question in my workshops, only one or two participants put their hands up.
FIGURE 1 – List of key subordinate clauses in English
5. CHOOSING THE CONTEXT
At this stage you choose the context that best suits the teaching of that function in the launching phase and in the subsequent recycling phases. This is different from what is customarily done in my experience in English schools, where one usually chooses the context first (e.g. talking about hobbies) and then the target linguistic items (usually expressed in terms of words and grammar structures).
This is how I go about it:
FUNCTION: Comparing and contrasting
Talking about family (launching)
Talking about school subjects / teachers (recycling)
Talking about people I met during the holidays (recycling)
6.COMMUNICATION DRIVES THE TEACHING OF GRAMMAR
This way, communication drives your choice of the grammar and the theme. And when you share your objectives with your students, you will share a communicative purpose, e.g.: ‘Today we are going to learn how to talk about plans for the week-end. By the end of the lesson you will be able to understand the meaning of the patterns and vocabulary in this sentence builder (or any other knowledge organiser you may want to use) and some aspects of their usage.’
Similarly, when approaching the teaching of the imperfect tense in French, you will not teach all the seven rules of the imperfect – which overloads students and puts them off this tense; rather, it will be in one instance: ‘talking about how you and your family/friends used to be’ a function which will allow you to recycle time markers, adjectives, family members, adverbials, etc. killing several birds with one stone. In another instance: describing a past event (weather, places). In another instance still: describing what you were doing when something (e.g. an accident) happened. Each instance with its own contextualised chunks and patterns. Nothing wrong, of course, after coming across several instances of the Imperfect in pulling all the threads together and unifying them under the metalinguistic umbrella-term ‘the imperfect’.
When communication drives your selection of the grammar you teach, you don’t risk overloading your students with a myriad of rules and sub-rules and exceptions to them, that classic grammarians many centuries ago categorised under one convenient label (e.g. ‘Prepositions’, ‘Adverbs’, ‘Conditional’) artificially separating the inseparable: grammar from vocabulary.
Grammar and Lexis are too closely intertwined to be considered as distinct from one another: learning the word ‘beautiful’ in French (‘beau’) means learning its word-class, its word-order, its feminine and plural form, its grammatical attributes, not simply its meaning.
7. GRAMMAR LEARNING AFTER CHUNKS LEARNING – THE SEQUENCE MARS’ EARS
In my approach, grammar learning occurs organically after much exposure to and use of the target chunks and pattern through activities constantly recycling the same language over and over again (highly controlled input followed by highly controlled output).
Here is how a typical instructional sequence of mine (MARS’ EARS) unfolds over two or three lessons:
1.Modelling – this phase models the use of X number of chunks and patterns presented IN CONTEXT through sentence builders / story telling / songs / etc. My modelling tool par excellence are sentence builders such as the one in the picture below, because:
1. They are a great way to teach lexical and syntactic patterns in context;
2. They allow you to model chunks and patterns through listening and reading – reinforcing print to sound correspondence. You make and read aloud sentences, whilst the students translate them on mini white boards;
3. They are very clear and accessible knowledge organisers;
4. They help prevent agreement mistakes in languages like French, German, Spanish, Italian, etc. For instance, in the sentence builder below, clothes are taught together with the feminine or masculine form of the related adjective from the word go;
5. They help create a vocabulary-rich learning environment;
6. They can be used as a scaffold in students’ books or – as I do – constantly on the classroom screen as students interact orally;
7. They are a fantastic way to recycle old material and to plant the seed of new linguistic items you plan to teach in the near or distant future (implicit learning). Just put such items in a column of the sentence builder with the translation and they will be learnt effortlessly through exposure;
8. You can play many interactive games with them (e.g. sentence puzzles, guess what comes next, faulty echo, etc.)
9. Students love them – in every single student voice questionnaire I administered, the children rated them as the single most useful resource I gave them. Possibly because ‘they allow students to take ownership of their learning, resulting in active engagement early on’, as noted by my colleague Ursula Maley.
FIGURE 2 – sentence builders for a year 7 French class on describing clothes
2.Awareness-raising – the learners are concisely sensitised to the patterns/rules governing the target chunks; their formation and use. This is not the typical lengthy explanation on a Power Point but rather ‘pop-up grammar’.
3. Receptive processing – provides high-intensity processing of enriched input practice through the receptive skills (Controlled Input). ‘Death by chunks’ through highly structured activities such as these fun read aloud games,(e.g. mind reading with prompts, sentence stealer, find someone who with cards, find your match) engaging narrow reading and listening tasks involving problems solving and thorough processing, sentence puzzles (e.g. the rock climbing game on http://www.language-gym.com or mosaic writing in FIGURES 3a and 3b), dictations, gapped parallel texts, etc. Every text is manufactured in order to be flooded with the same chunks and patterns over and over again and to contain 90 to 95 % comprehensible input. Scaffolding is available throughout (e.g. sentence builder on desks or classroom screen).
FIGURE 3a – Sentence puzzle (1): Mosaic writing
FIGURE 3b – Sentence puzzle (2) : rock-climbing game from http://www.language-gym.com
4. Structured production – provides intensive scaffolded and HIGHLY CONTROLLED production practice (Pushed Output). The chunks are now used in structured tasks. These include fun translation games, highly structured information-gap activities (see example in picture 6a and 6b below), Narrow translation, creative tasks (see example in picture 7), Interactional writing . Scaffolding is still available throughout.
Translation and other tasks that elicit highly controlled output are crucial at this stage, as you want your students to produce every single chunk you taught them, not simply come out with the same answer to a given question from year 7 to 11 (e.g. Q: ‘What did you do last week-end?’ A: ‘I played football, went to the cinema and ate pizza’). Pushed output tasks allow you to practise the production of as wide a range of target chunks as possible whilst recycling old material (Interleaving); this means you have total control over the output, something that traditional communicative tasks usually don’t allow.
FIGURE 4 – Oral translation board game – ‘No snakes no ladders’. The game is played in three, two players and a referee who has the solutions. When one mistake is made, the referee reads out the correct translation to the player who waits for his turn; if s/he gets it right the second time, s/he can cast the die and continue the race.
FIGURE 5 – Oral ping pong translation – two players challenging each other. Scoring: 3 points for 100% accurate sentence; 2 points if mostly accurate; 1 point if only verb is accurate.
Figure 6a – A classic information-gap game – two detectives on different shifts are following the same person. They call each other and must fill in the details missing from their notes asking their partner.
Figure 6b – An oral interaction scaffold designed to support a conversation on family. Questions are listed with a range of possible answers including the target chunks (translations provided)
.5. Expansion: two things happen in this phase:
(1) the target patterns/chunks are learnt in greater depth in order to teach the students how to make sense of the target patterns/constructions. This is your typical grammar lesson, except that it occurs after the students have already memorised the chunks and have been sensitised to the underlying grammar through relentless exposure and use .
Learning grammar by deconstructing the chunks one has already used over and over again is evidently much easier than learning it ex novo through decontextualized examples on a PowerPoint slide or textbook page.
(2) the target chunks are practised with old and new vocabulary and structures overtime through systematic recycling (INTERLEAVING). This is vital; since memory is context-dependent, learning the perfect tense within the topic ‘holidays’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be transferred automatically to other contexts.
Scaffolding may still be necessary during this phase.
6.Autonomy – This phase marks the end of each sub-unit in the Conti Matrix in figure 7. It is the phase in which you stage a set of low-stake assessments to verify the students are ready to move on to the next sub-unit and sets of items (in my approach: a new construction). The assessment will consist of two or three tasks, easy to mark and targeting mainly the receptive skills for the first three sub-units – you will move to the productive skills towards the end of the unit. I don’t usually tell my students there will be a test.
In essence, in this phase you want to find out if any scaffolding material (e.g. the sentence builders) can be phased out and the students are ready to stand on their own two feet. Do bear in mind that in the new MARSE cycle (beginning after this phase in the next sub-unit) you must keep recycling the material you have just covered (see the ticks in the Matrix below) as much as possible through constant retrieval practice across all four skills.
Figure 7 : The Conti Matrix for the planning of a unit of work (one term / trimester). Each unit of work is made up of five sub-units. In each of the first four sub-units you would stage a MARSE cycle for each new target item. In the last sub-unit, you will focus solely on fluency and spontaneity.
7.Routinization – focus is on recycling throughout the academic year and beyond through interleaving and fluency and automation-promoting activities. Some tasks simply recycle; others are designed to foster speed of retrieval and automatization (see 4,3,2 technique in picture 8, below). Other sample tasks here.
Figure 8 – the 4,3,2 technique
8. Spontaneity – This phase occurs at the end of a unit and continues throughout the subsequent units in the months and year to come, through deliberate and carefully planned recycling. It is the most important phase, as it is the phase you have been working for throughout the unit thus far: this is where all the things you have taught up to this point in the unit are put to use in the context of communicative tasks (see figure 9 for a definition of ‘task’).
Figure 9 – Definition of tasks (Nunan, 2015)
If you follow my unit-planning matrix (in figure 10, below), you will stage this phase in the final weeks of each term. You will possibly allocate to this phase 6-8 full lessons. This means doing away with the typical high-stake end-of-unit assessment that many departments in the UK stage at the end of a typical term. The rationale for this choice and how to implement it is explained in detail here.
Figure 10 – The Conti recycling matrix
I would normally stage two ‘rich’ communicative tasks which elicit the use of all the L2 items practised in the unit so far and the recycling of items learnt in previous units. The two tasks will be very similar in terms of the cognitive operations and procedures they involve, as well as in the type of language they require to be executed, in order for the second task to reinforce what was learnt in the previous one. They also integrate all four skills. The framework for the implementation of rich tasks is sketched out in figure 11 below.
Figure 11 – Framework for the implementation of a rich task
The first rich task is usually staged at the end of a series of smaller and less complex pre-tasks designed to activate prior knowledge and practise the structures and routines required by the richer task. These smaller tasks will include fairly straightforward “information-gap’, ‘opinion’ and ‘reasoning’ communicative tasks, role-plays and games such as the 4,3,2 technique, Messengers and Marketplace.
Each rich task is also preceded by a planning phase which involves (1) brainstorming of the language relevant to the task; (2) prediction of potential problem areas and (3) cooperative strategies such as ‘think, pair and share’. A post-task review involving feedback to the students on their (linguistic and non-linguistic) performance will follow both rich tasks.
Figure 12 – Type of tasks
Besides this task-supported phase, practice in unplanned response to a stimulus (a picture, a set of questions, a problem) is also provided at spaced intervals over the year to assess students’ ability to perform the target item(s) in the form of one or more termly teacher-student sessions. This is assessment for learning, not a traditional high-stake assessment. Students’ performance in these tasks is not graded; feedback is only positive, to foster willingness to talk.
Figure 13 – The MARS EARS pedagogic cycle
8. GRAMMAR TEACHING / LEARNING OCCURS AFTER LEARNING CHUNKS
In sum, only after the students have learnt the patterns as vocabulary, as chunks, does the teacher actually explain the grammar rules that govern the use of the target constructions in order to enhance their generative power, i.e.: to enable the students to manipulate them creatively and spontaneously, at will. Or, even better, if you have the right students, you will ask them to inductively work out the rule by themselves – my favourite approach (see picture 9 below)
Figure 14- Inductive task on French negatives
9. CONCLUSION – GRAMMAR VS LEXICOGRAMMAR
It will be obvious by now that I don’t teach grammar; not the traditional way at least. I teach chunks of language and constructions which convey a communicative function. Grammar is not necessary, but it is valuable in expanding the power of the chunks for future use, to enhance their expressive range and depth.
In other words I am teaching grammar through lexis and lexis through grammar – i.e. lexicogrammar.
This is a faster way to learn and activate what we traditionally call grammar and to help students get how grammar relates to real-world communication. Because ‘talking about how we used to be’ makes more sense to younger learners than the term ‘Imperfect’. Because learning through the ‘deconstruction’ of what one is familiar with already is easier than building from scratch. Because concrete, hands-on and contextualised information is easier to grasp than abstract notions presented in a vacuum.
It is worth reminding the reader that in my approach the content is reduced substantively compared to the norm (in my case from 6 to 3 units per year), as the main focus of instruction is not to accrue flimsy intellectual knowledge about the language or to memorise lists of words; rather, it is to bring about automaticity, fluency and spontaneity in the receptive and productive skills. However, the use of Implicit learning routines and other strategies discussed here , along with the vocabulary-rich environment you will have created through all the activities mentioned above, will eventually make up for the explicit content you cut out.
This goes beyond mere retention of information, hence it requires lots of recycling and tasks which foster speed of retrieval and execution. The aspirational goal being not having to re-teach in the years to come the same basic structures over and over again (as often happens !) and to forge student who can think in the L2 on the spot, with confidence and without much hesitation.
Please note: this post was co-authored with my dear colleague Dylan Vinales
I have written extensively about Error Correction on this blog, often reiterating the point that whilst there is some evidence pointing to its effectiveness in enhancing L2 writing accuracy (e.g. Ashwell, 2000 ; Chandler, 2003), the gains obtained do not justify the enormous amount of time and effort invested by teachers in the process.
Take Chandler (2003)’s findings: she calculated that teachers’ marking time amounts on average to around 1 minute per 100 words, the time being slightly less ( around 48”) if one simply underlines errors. Then consider that
(a) correction of whole texts can achieve significant results (i.e. 10% reduction in error rate) provided the students write in the region of 5,000 words a semester on first drafts
(b) many types of error are resistant to eradication (Alroe,2011). In other words, improvements accompany large amounts of writing and consequently large amounts of correction.
and do the maths: is this modest benefit worth the effort?
Whilst the answer is probably ‘No’, teachers often do not have much choice, as surveys of student and parent opinion clearly show (Conti, 2001) , both groups of stakeholders expect errors to be corrected. So, chances are that your boss will demand that you correct.
Why the effects of Error Correction are so limited
Learning a language is not merely about accruing intellectual knowledge of the target language. As Truscott (1996) pointed out, learning to master a specific grammar rule doesn’t occur as a sudden revelation resulting from the information a teacher passes to a student through oral or written feedback.
L2 acquisition is much more complex than that: it is a long and painstaking process which may start with the understanding of how a given language item works, but requires extensive practice in the deployment of that item across a wide range of linguistic contexts before it can be said to have been brought to completion. Think about the mastery of Imperfect usage in L2 French, Spanish or Italian; how many years does your average student require in order to fully acquire it? Three? Four? Five years?
There are many factors which undermine commonly practised error-treatment methodologies (thoroughly discussed here). In previous blogs I identified the following ones as key:
(a) Corrective intervention neglects the intentionality dimension of learning from one’s mistake, i.e. it is not proactive in arousing students’ desire to eradicate errors. Yet, this affective dimension is vital to the success of error correction (James, 1998; Conti, 2001).
(b) As many studies have pointed out, L2 students do not invest sufficient cognitive effort in the corrective process. They do not process the corrections deeply enough; at best, they make a mental note of the mistakes and the relative corrections and move on (Cohen and Cavalcanti, 1990; Conti, 2001; Alroe, 2011).
(c) The corrective treatment rarely involves a long-term, sustained effort to eradicate mistakes. Yet, this is crucial to the success of error remediation.
(d) For corrective feedback on item X to be effective, students need to process it many items over. This doesn’t always happen with less frequently occurring L2 items. Item X may occur two or three times in Essay 1 in September but never re-occur until Essay 5 later on in the year. This is a common shortcoming of error correction; one that is way too often overlooked, especially in contexts where highly structured writing tasks and translation are not assigned for fear of stifling creativity and/or negatively impacting student motivation. Yet, corrective feedback, like any other form of instruction, benefits greatly from frequent spaced (distributed) practice.
(e) usually, teachers are concerned with fixing errors but not with training students in becoming effective independent editors of their own written output. Yet, several studies (see Macaro, 2003) have shown the benefits of enhancing L2-learner ability to self-monitor through a synergy of awareness-raising (what mistakes do I make more often?), error-targeting (what mistakes am I going to eradicate?) and editing strategies (what strategies work best with this error type?)
(f) L2 writing (see picture 1 below) poses enormous cognitive challenges to novice L2 student-writers attentional resources . As I have discussed in detail here, errors are often the result of Working Memory processing inefficiency rather than lack of knowledge; i.e. the brain is juggling so many demands arising from writing a given sentence that mistakes are made not because the student doesn’t know the grammar rules governing the use of the items in that sentence but rather because of lack of fluency in the application of those rules. Corrective intervention through Indirect Correction (teacher underlines and student self-correct) does not address this very important issue; underlining errors and asking students to self-correct does not prepare them for the cognitive juggling they have to perform as they write in real time; in other words, it does not enhance their editing fluency.
This post is about how I have attempted to address the above issues in my own teaching practice over the last seven months or so.
Picture 1 – Hayes and Flower’s (1981) Cognitive model of the writing process
Enter Focused Correction
Another common (potential) weakness of corrective feedback, which I did not discuss in previous posts, but which is extremely relevant to the present one, is the fact that Error Correction is rarely, if ever, intentionally and systematically closely tied in with the current objectives of the curriculum. So, if in term 1 your students are learning about the communicative function ‘talking about a past event’ in the context of the topic ‘media and leisure’ many teachers would typically correct an essay assigned on that topic not merely on errors relating to the wrong use of time markers and past tenses, but also on other errors they find in that essay.
In my own research a decade ago, for instance, I found that both at university and secondary level, the approach adopted by most of the teachers I studied, tended to be more comprehensive than selective and when it was indeed selective, it was not consistently based on a specific set of criteria (e.g. frequency, perceived gravity or incomprehensibility) but it appeared to be somewhat ‘random’; moreover, and more importantly, it didn’t focus on the same areas systematically over a longer period of time.
My findings were that less proficient student writers appear to be more likely to benefit from correction when:
(a) it concentrates on only two or three major target areas (so that their attentional resources can be used more efficiently);
(b) such areas are perceived as relevant to their current learning (so that they feel more motivated to address them);
(c) it provides frequent feedback on the same target areas week in week out (so that it enhances their understanding and keeps them constantly focused on the same error types week in week out);
(d) students have the declarative knowledge for self-correcting the errors with minimal prompting by the teacher (so that students are self-reliant in the process );
(e) the students’ levels of accuracy in the target areas has a substantive bearing on the grading system adopted (so that students are more motivated to be more accurate).
The criteria described in (a) to (e) above refer to an approach described in the AL literature as ‘Focused correction’ (henceforth FC). A number of studies have indicated that FC is significantly more effective than unfocused error correction (Alroe, 2011). Sheen (2007), for instance, compared the effect of FC on the writing accuracy of ESL learners with those of unfocused correction and no correction. She found that FC resulted in a significant reduction of mistakes in the five target areas (i.e., article, copular ‘be’, regular past tense, irregular past tense and preposition). Ellis et al. (2008) studied the effects of FC on indefinite/definite article use in writing. A control group was contrasted with two experimental groups one of which received focused treatment (only article errors were corrected) and one of which received unfocused treatment (other errors were also corrected). The experimental groups were significantly better and the trend in the experimental groups suggested that focused feedback may be more effective in the long run.
How I implement Focused Correction
Two years ago I was required by my previous head of department to adopt a corrective approach (strongly criticised in this Language Gym classic), which involved underlining randomly selected errors categories, coding them using a ludicrously lengthy and laborious coding system and asking students to self-correct.
Having found this methodology ineffective for the reasons discussed above, this year my current head of Department gave me ‘carte blanche’, and after discussing the issue at length, I was given the go-ahead to experiment with FC with my beginner to lower-intermediate classes (years 7 to 9 in the English system).
This is how I have implemented it:
(1) I selected three FCAs (Focus Correction Areas) per term for all students in a given class. The FCAs were based on the main curricular objectives of the term; for example, with my year 7 beginner class, in Term 1 I focused on adjectival agreement; articles and number of nouns.
(2) With more gifted students, one or two more FCAs were added;
(3) Students were free to use L.I.F.T. (Learner Initiated Feedback Technique) a student-driven procedure whereby the students write in the margin of their written piece questions on any doubts they may have about a language item they have used (e.g. ‘Sir, is the use of the article I have underlined correct?); the teacher then replies with a metalinguistic explanation.
(4) In order to enhance the students’ ability to edit, identify and correct errors in the FCAs, I have staged short and snappy ‘Spot the error’ tasks and other editing-enhancement activities (e.g. ‘Error Auctions’, explained here).
(5) As the term proceeded, I have increasingly resorted to indirect feedback with error coding (i.e. self-correction). Although, as noted above, I am usually against indirect feedback with coding, in my context, the coding system was (a) much easier to manage for both teachers and students, as it referred only to three error categories, (b) tied in with the topics under study, (c) used in synergy with editing instruction (see point 6 below).
(6) To further scaffold the process, I have used editing checklists like the one in picture (2) below; the students were expected to go meticulously through their written pieces before handing them in noting down every occurrence of any items referring to the FCAs and ticking it to signal they checked it. Note that this process was totally managed by the students who handed in the checklist with the assignment.
Picture 2 – Editing checklist
(7) The tasks have been graded based on Effective Communication (i.e. the extent to which they communicated the requested information) and Accuracy across the FCAs, 70 % of the marks being allocated for the former and 30 % for the latter (10% per FCA).
(8) With some classes I have used error tally sheets in which students logged the number of errors in each category from week to week to enable us to track their error-making trends overtime in each of the FCAs.
It must be noted that in order to ensure that the student output contained as many instances of the target FCAs as possible, the written tasks included alongside unstructured assignments (e.g. ‘Write a 100-words piece about your family’) highly structured tasks designed to elicit the use of specific structures. For instance, to get my year 7 to demonstrate effective production of adjectival agreement, number of nouns and articles:
Write a 100-word piece about your family. Include the following information:
(1) name, age, birthday;
(2) a description of yourself both in terms of personality and appearance (including hair and eyes);
(3) a description of each family member’s appearance;
(4) a description of their personality;
(5) a description of one or more pets you have;
I have also used short translation tasks (e.g. narrow translations) for the very same purpose.
Other types of tasks adopted
As I will discuss in a future post, my students do not simply engage in highly-structured tasks. I typically assign six other types of writing tasks:
(1) Brainstorming writing – (usually in pairs) students brainstorm ideas on a given topic and note them down in full sentences in the target language. Accuracy is not a concern, as the purpose of this activity is to train them in idea generation.
(2) Unstructured communicative writing – accuracy not a concern. Grading based on effective communication only.
(3) Fluency writing – the students are asked to write about a topic in a very short amount of time
(4) Editing tasks – (see above)
(5) Transformative writing (e.g sentence combining; paraphrasing; summarising)
(6) Creative writing
Did it work?
The results were very encouraging. A survey showed that my year 9 students found Focused Correction more helpful than previous forms of error correction they had experienced, because they felt it was more manageable and the narrower range of mistakes to deal with meant they knew what to look for when they were editing and/or asked to self-correct.
Although there were fewer mistakes in all the FCAs targeted throughout the year at post-test than pre-test, to attribute the observed increases in accuracy solely to the corrective methodology adopted is problematic. The reduction in error-making is likely to be the result of the synergy between teaching and corrective feedback, and in particular the fact that the two supported each other more closely than in the error treatments traditionally adopted.
Error Correction is a time-consuming necessity. Over the years, I have experimented with various techniques. When it comes to beginner-to-novice students, Focused Correction combined with explicit editing instruction has been the most effective with my novice-to-intermediate for the following reasons:
(a) it concentrates on only two or three major target areas (so that the students’ attentional resources can be used more efficiently);
(b) such areas are perceived as relevant to their current learning (so that they feel more motivated to address them);
(c) it provides frequent feedback on the same target areas week in week out (so that it enhances their understanding and keeps them constantly focused on the same error types week in week out);
(d) students have the declarative knowledge for self-correcting the errors with minimal prompting by the teacher (so that students are self-reliant in the process );
(e) the students’ levels of accuracy in the target areas has a substantive bearing on the grading system adopted (so that students are more motivated to be more accurate).
Give it a try !
As discussed in previous posts, although reading-aloud (RA) techniques have not always been favourably considered in L2 classrooms in the last 3 or 4 decades, the usefulness of this approach for the development of lower-level processing efficiency has been widely confirmed in L2 reading research (e.g., Birch, 2007; Janzen, 2007; Gibson, 2008). Much research has clearly shown that reading aloud helps:
(1) develop L2 learners’ accurate phonological representations (e.g., Gibson, 2008);
(2) raise their awareness of rhythm, stress and intonation, by using connected texts rather than decontextualized vocabulary items (e.g., Kato, 2012);
(3) significantly improve silent reading rate (Suzuki, 1998),
(4) enhance reading performance (Miyasako, 2008),
(5) reproduction of key words and phrases. Miyasako (2008), for instance, investigated the contribution among upper-secondary level Japanese EFL users of six weeks of RA practice for L2 reading performance; it was found that RA significantly improved phonological decoding and reading comprehension performance, and that this practice effect was more pronounced with less proficient readers.
(6) improve listening ability – Kato and Tanaka (2010) for instance concluded that “the establishment of pronunciation accuracy/ fluency is crucial for the development of listening ability and that this impact of production ability may linger to a fairly advanced stage of L2 listening learning, in particular as a function of factors such as participants’ L1 – L2 relationship and the relationship between their L2 proficiency and the familiarity and difficulty of listening materials.”
(7) boost motivation (Shinozuka et al., 2017).
(8) enhance recall, especially when you repeat the words aloud to another person (Boucher et al (2015).
(9) develop oral fluency by (1) training the articulators, i.e. all the organs involved in the production of sounds (the end stage of oral production); (2) exposure to auto-input through the aural medium. For instance, Seo (2014) found that her experimental group spoke longer after the treatment than they did before, while the control group did not show a difference in length of time. Moreover, the experimental group used a richer grammar after the treatment while the control group did not show progress;
(10) develop coding ability which in turns facilitate processing and learning vocabulary. Practice in reading aloud connected speech facilitate our ability to chunk vocabulary (chunking is an essential process in vocabulary acquisition). This enables working memory (the articulatory loop) to process words more rapidly, thereby enhancing our ability to commit a larger amount of words to long-term memory. The fact that many children in England, as highlighted by Erler’s (2011) landmark study (see Picture 0 below) seem to have very poor decoding skills, is quite worrying in this respect.
Picture 0 – Erler (2011) study summarised
The role of reading aloud in my teaching approach
In my teaching method, E.P.I. (or Extensive Processing Instruction), reading aloud plays an important role for the following reasons:
- (1) My approach lays a lot of emphasis on the development of decoding skills/pronunciation;
- (2) Provided that one’s students are confident in their decoding skills (i.e. turning written words into sounds), reading aloud activities of the sort described below, provide a non-threatening opportunity for students to interact orally with each other, thereby providing L2-input to themselves (auto-input) and others;
- (3) Following on from point (2) – when provided with oral scaffolds of the sort shown in Picture 1 below, one can stage oral (pair-work) communicative tasks with students since the early stages of starting a topic;
- (4) Since E.P.I. is all about frequent and extensive exposure to and production of key patterns through all four skills, if the interaction referred to in the previous points involves reading aloud texts which repeat those very patterns to death, then it clearly serves the main pedagogic objective of my approach.
Picture 1 – Page 1 of an oral scaffold for conversation on holidays I designed for a year 8 Spanish class
- (1) It is crucial, if you do stage a lot of read-aloud games, that you lay a lot of emphasis on the teaching of decoding skills and pronunciation from day one of your course. I, for one, when it comes to French and English, place decoding skills as my main priority during the first semester of my teaching – yes, even more important than vocabulary and grammar!
- (2) Let me reiterate, once again, that every single read-aloud activity I stage in my lessons would be designed to recycle the same target pattern(s) over and over hence the texts used contain highly structured input which is flooded with the target items;
- (3) The role of the teacher is pivotal for the success of these activities. S/he must monitor, prod, and provide feedback all the way through, picking up any problematic areas to address in whole-class feedback prior to the next activity.
My favourite reading aloud tasks
In this section I describe a few of my favourite read-aloud tasks.
1.Sentence stealer (aka ‘Au Voleur’ or ‘Robo de tarjetas)
This is a very popular game I came up with to make reading aloud as interactive and fun as possible with my younger learners. It has gone viral in our faculty and everyone does it fairly regularly. It takes zero preparation and children love it. Here is how it unfolds:
Step 1 – The students are shown on the classroom screen a list of twelve L2 model sentences they have been practising. Each sentence has a number from 1 to 12.
Step 2 – They are given four blank cards each and asked to secretly write on each card any one of those sentences or simply the number for it.
Step 3 – The game consists of ‘stealing’ as many cards as possible from one’s peer in the five minutes allocated, i.e. classmate ‘X’ will approach classmate ‘Y’ and read out from off the screen any four sentences; if a sentence that ‘X’ reads is on one of ‘Y’’s cards, ‘X’ will have the right to ‘steal’ that card.To make it more fun students play rock, paper, scissors (repeating the three words aloud in the target language) to win the right to guess;
Step 4 – The student with the most cards at the end of the game will win.
Please note, the students cannot interact with the same class mate more than once.
I usually stage this game after I model the target patterns through my sentence builders. Picture 2 illustrates an example from a lesson with absolute beginner EFL learners drilling in ‘I would like + container/quantity + food’ (context: buying food and drinks).
Picture 2 – Sentence stealer game
This is another very popular zero preparation game which I usually play as a warm-up for the ‘Sentence stealer’ activity. The teacher-led version plays out as follows:
Step1 – Write a set of target chunks on the board;
Step2 – Write secretly one on a mini-board;
Step 3- Choose chunks containing sounds you know they find phonologically challenging and/or containing the target sounds;
Step 4 – Ask the students to guess the hidden chunk reading out any one of the sentences on and reward correct answers.
Picture 3 illustrates an example of this game, designed to recycle the same sentences practised in the ‘Sentence stealer’.
Picture 3 – Mind reading game
In the student-led version, two children – who play against each other – secretly write on their mini-whiteboards three or more sentences (taken from those displayed on the classroom screen or whiteboard). They then take turns at guessing each other’s sentences.
- Ghost time
Shadow-reading is a technique which consists of reading aloud a transcript / text as you follow a recording / reading of the text in order to imitate the speaker/reader’s rhythm, intonation and pronunciation, etc.
Ghost time’ is a shadow-reading technique I have come up with and use with my primary classes on a regularly basis. I call it ‘ghost time’ as I ask my students to whisper like ghosts to make it more fun. They absolutely love pretending to be ghosts. Besides the motivational rationale, ‘reading like ghosts’ forces them to slow down and enunciate more clearly the chunks I break down the text into as I read.
Please note that if your aim is to develop your students’ phonological memory you could simply ask your students to repeat what you hear from memory rather than give them the text that you are reading out.
Currently I am carrying out an experiment with this technique. One of my year 5 French (9 year olds) groups partakes in 5 minutes of ghost time per day, whereas with another group I do 5 minutes of dictation. At the end of the year I will get two of my colleagues to evaluate their reading-aloud accuracy and their phonological memory (their ability to repeat a unit of speech they hear accurately) to identify any differences.
- Find someone who with cards
It is played like ‘find someone who’ except that the students are given cards containing each one or more details, expressed in the target language. For instance, on the topic of food, one card may read ‘My name is Mark, I like chicken because it is tasty and healthy’ (in the target language of course). The students are also given a grid with a series of questions such as, on the topic of food, ‘Find someone who likes chicken’, ‘Find someone who loves meat’, etc. For each question, they need to find a person with the matching card and write their name in the grid asking questions in the target language, such as ‘What food do you like?’
The reason why I prefer ‘Find someone who with cards’ to the traditional ‘Find someone who’ is because (1) it turns it into a read aloud activity and (2) it allows me to control the students’ output thereby eliciting exactly the patterns I want them to practise (which will be the same, incidentally, that they will have practised in the other activities).
Picture 4 – Find someone who with cards
- Sentence hunt
This game is meant for younger learners. It is played like hotter and colder.
Step 1 – come up with ten or more short sentences containing the target patterns, grammar structure, chunk and display them on the classroom screen/board
Step 2 – get hold of thirty or more post-its. On ten post-its you will write the ten sentences (one sentence per post-it). On the remaining post-its you will write ‘distractor ‘sentences which are different from the target sentences but similar in structure. I usually recycle the same distractors over and over again throughout the year to minimize waste
Step 3 – scatter the post-its around the classroom on the walls, desks, chairs, anywhere, in as many places as possible
Step 4 – select and send a searcher out of the classroom
Step 5 – now take one of the post-its containing one of the target sentences and place it near other distractor post-its. Make sure the class knows exaclty where it is
Step 6 – now refer back to the list of sentences on the classroom screen/board and point to the students which sentence was on the post-it you have just hidden and instruct the class to repeat it louder and louder as the searcher gets closer to the target post-it and quieter and quieter as they move away. Orchestrate the volume with your hands.
Step 7- call the searcher back in the classroom, instruct him to find the post-it containing the sentence the class are repeating aloud and play the game until the post-it is found. Then do as many rounds as you like. I usually fit about 6 searchers in 5-6 minutes.
- Find your match
This activity is not too dissimilar to ‘Find someone who’. In a previous post I described a version of this game with cards. The version below is a ‘no-frills’ one that requires zero preparation.
Step 1 – the students write secretly on their mini-whiteboards one sentence (or more) from a list you will have put up on your classroom screen/board. For instance, the list might include a range of responses to the question ‘How are you?’ and John might write ‘I am very well, thank you;
Step 2 – the students go around the classroom asking ‘How are you?’. Their task is to find another student with the same sentence on their mini-white boards.
I usually stage several rounds of this game in the same lesson as the students usually find their match quite quickly. You can easily go through five or six rounds in ten minutes and kids enjoy it.
- The ‘something’ game (originally ‘The algo game’)
This game, created by my colleague Dylan Vinales, requires minimal preparation, gets the students to practise listening and reading aloud eliciting a strong focus on accurate pronunciation. Students really enjoy it and get very competitive.
Step 1 – Sit the students in pairs, back to back.
Step2 – Give Student 1 sheet A and Student 2 sheet B. Both sheets have different version of the same list of sentences; the sentences which are gapped on student A’s sheet are complete on students’ B sheet and vice versa (see picture below).
Step 3 – Students take turns in reading one gapped sentence each. As they read their gapped sentences they say ‘something’ (or ‘algo’ in Spanish) to signal the presence of a gap (note: each gap corresponds to a key target chunk). When Student B hears student A say ‘something’ s/he will have to read the whole sentence including the missing chunk out twice, whilst his/her opponent writes it down and vice versa.
Step 4 – At the end of the game the students compare the two sheets to see who was more accurate.
Picture 5 – Two students playing the ‘Something game’ (courtesy of Dylan Vinales and Global Innovative Language Teachers)
- Musical chairs walk-aloud
This is played like musical chairs except that the students walk around with a text which the students take turns reading aloud; when the reader utters a word belonging to a specific word class (e.g. an adjective or a verb) or part of set of words recently studied (e.g. animals) or containing a specific sound (e.g. ‘th’ as in ‘think’ in English), the class will have to sit down. If you are focusing on sound, make sure you choose ‘readers’ with very good decoding skills and diction.
- Critical listening pairwork
This activity is designed to enhance the students’ alertness to sounds fostering metacognition and a climate of self-direction in L2 learning. Although it may seem elaborate, it requires no preparation and elicits a lot of great learning conversations on sound. This is how I structure it:
Step 1 -The teacher reads aloud to class a text on a familiar topic flooded with opportunities for practice of specific phonemes. Students shadow-read;
Step 2- (prep time)The students are given the text and 10 minutes to prepare (on their own) reading aloud with a focus on pronunciation. They identify problems and attempt to solve them with the help of peers. I ask them to note down the main issues identified and the solutions they found/worked out;
Step4 – (At the end of prep time) the teacher provides recording of him/herself reading text. The students are allowed to listen to it for a few minutes before recording themselves;
Step5 – The students now record themselves reading the text;
Step 6 – The students listen to themselves and to a partner and identify targets for improvement (recording can be used in the process).
Step 7 – The students write down their findings, targets and reflections (I usually administer the survey in Picture 6 to elicit these data);
Step 8 – The students review their partner’s self-reflections to see if they would add something else.
Picture 6 – Post-task retrospective survey
These are the advantages of this activity observed by my colleagues and I:
- Students focus on pronunciation and listen to themselves and others critically with the added incentive of a wider audience;
- Students are given responsibility for identifying targets and strategizing, hence the process helps them become more metacognizant and autonomous in this area of their learning;
- The process makes them critical friends and builds relationships, diplomacy and empathy;
- It provides the teacher with a wealth of material which helps for future planning and enhances teacher’s awareness of students’ pronunciation issues.
‘Translistening’ is a task I do with my keenest linguists which combines reading aloud, listening and metalinguistic work. I designed it to focus my students on accuracy and to make them pay selective attention to a specific set of error types they kept making, especially word order, agreement, verb formation and mistakes with small function words (e.g. articles and prepositions).
Step 1 – The students are shown a short text in the L1 on the topic-at-hand, flooded with the lexical chunks and/or grammar structures they have been practising lately;
Step 2 – They are put in pairs and given an accurate L2 translation of the text (prepared by the teacher) and two different faulty L2 translations of the same text (which was allegedly produced by two anonymous students from a previous cohort) – one each;
Step 3 – Both translations contain the same number of occurrences of 3 or 4 types of error the class commonly make in their writing.
Step 4 -The students are told that both faulty L2 translations contain the same number of mistakes and their task is to listen to their partner as they read their faulty translation out (twice); with the help of the accurate L2 translation, they must spot as many mistakes as possible. The student who will spot more mistakes will win.
Step 5 – The students are now tasked with noting down and describing briefly the mistakes they identified in the translations, and the grammar rules they relate to;
Step 6 – The students are then asked to translate an L1 text which is extremely similar in structure and vocabulary to the one they have just dealt with.
The task (which take my classes around 50 minutes) elicits thorough processing, as the students really need to pay attention to every single detail they hear and allows the teacher to focus the students on a specific set of mistakes thereby priming them for selective attention to those mistakes in the translation task which follows, usually resulting in a more carefully crafted and more accurate final product.
10. Spot the differences
I have described this task previously as a teacher-centred activity. This is a student-led pair-work version of the game. Student A and B are given two nearly identical texts which differ only in terms of 8-10 words. As Student A reads aloud his text, Student B must spot the differences in his text.
This task combines reading aloud and listening whilst eliciting thorough processing, as Student B must really pay close attention to each and every word being read aloud to them.
11.Interactional Oral Communicative tasks
Of course, any interactional oral task done with a written scaffold is a form of reading aloud. Picture 1 above (reproduced below )shows part of a resource used to scaffold oral interaction in Spanish on the topic ‘Talking about a past holiday . Student A asks the questions and Student B responds in Spanish whilst Student A notes down (in English) his interviewee’s answer. You will find that after a few rounds many of the students will rely less and less on the scaffold, especially if you will have staged several of the read-aloud games discussed above prior to that.
Picture 1 – first page of oral scaffold for Spanish conversation on holiday
12. Concluding remarks
‘Reading aloud’ was criticised by the proponents of CLT for not being an ‘authentic’ activity which prepares students for life in the real world. However, recent research points to a range of beneficial effects on L2 acquisition, ranging from fostering speaking fluency to enhancing listening skills.
In my approach to language teaching, which lays a lot of emphasis on oral interaction and sensitisation to key lexical/structural patterns, the activities I have just described play a pivotal role at the initial stages of my pedagogic sequence (MARS + EARS), as they allow for masses of repetition of those patterns in a highly structured, non-threatening and fun and engaging way. In my own classroom research, I found the impact of such activities on retention, oral fluency, pronunciation/decoding skills, self-efficacy and general motivational levels to be significant, especially with younger and less able learners.
Of course, the role of the teacher as a vigilant ‘monitor’, motivator and feedback-provider cannot be overplayed when it comes to read-aloud pairwork. Good classroom management is, of course, a must.
I usually stage a battery of read-aloud pairwork activities (3 o 4) after introducing new language through a sentence builder and before engaging in reading and listening tasks. This allows for lots of recycling of the target chunks in a fun and memorable way prior to less structured and more challenging work requiring deeper information processing and aimed at ‘unpacking’ and consolidating the retention of those very chunks, as well as integrating them in a wider range of linguistic contexts.
In this very concise post I deal with five factors which are often neglected in grammar instruction, yet curriculum designers and teachers ought to heed as they are crucial to its success. In particular, I will focus on the most important dimension of acquisition of an L2 structure, i.e. its extensive receptive and productive recycling over the long period of time required for an L2 learner to fully acquire it. As I will argue, this crucial phase is usually undermined by the erroneous belief held by many practitioners, that recycling is just about the quantity of exposure and practice; whereas, in actual fact, the quality of the recycling is as – if not more – important
Caveat: this post is based on the premise that if students are developmentally ready they can acquire a given grammar structure through the kind of extensive recycling envisaged below.
2. Extensive recycling and interleaving
Many of us teach grammar in the belief that through much practice it will be finally acquired or automatized. As I often write in my posts, this requires curriculum designers and teachers to keep whatever structure we are imparting on our students ‘alive’ by recycling it over and over throughout the months or even years that follow. Common sense, right?
What cognitive science suggests is that teachers should teach grammar structures A, B, C over time following an ABCABCABC rather than AAABBBCCC pattern.
The ABCABCABC distributed/spaced-practice recycling pattern, also referred in the literature as ‘Interleaving’, allows one’s students to revisit the target structures over and over again in a systematic manner – something that, incidentally, textbooks rarely do.
The AAABBBCCC massed-practice pattern, on the other hand, allows for an intensive exposure/practice phase of each structure but because of the way the brain works, no recycling will mean that automatization will not occur, and memory decay will likely set in.
3. It is not simply about how often you recycle but how you recycle
However, recycling a structure many times over is not enough. Successful acquisition is not merely about the quantity is also about the quality of the recycling; whilst frequency of recycling is a must, for acquisition to occur, effective grammar teaching must take into account other very important factors which determine successful retrieval. These factors affect the way our students process L2 items thereby facilitating or hindering their learning of a given grammar structure / morpheme
4. Five make-it-or-break factors affecting learning
FACTOR 1 : Skill- specificity
In recycling, we must heed the fact that what we learn through extensive listening or reading practice will result in gains specific to listening or reading not necessarily transferrable to the other three language skills. In other words, most L2 learning is skill-specific.
Implications for teaching: to be effective, the recycling of a target structure needs to occur through all four language skills.
FACTOR 2: Context-dependency
According to the TAP (transfer appropriate processing) principle, the context we learn information in plays a massive role in our ability to recall the same information in the future. This is because memory is context dependent. Consequently, a structure learnt through oral mechanical drills may not be retrieved from long-term memory during a more natural spontaneous conversation. By the same token, extensive reading practice may not result in the students being able to do other reading tasks (e.g. Jigsaw reading).
Implications for Teaching: make sure that recycling occurs across as wide a range of tasks, semantic areas and linguistic contexts as possible. If you are using apps such as Quizlet or Memrise, ensure that you vary the structures and vocabulary the target structure co-occurs with, so as to increase the range of semantic and linguistic retrieval cues.
FACTOR 3 : Deep processing
The most effective recycling is one which involves the learners in deep rather than shallow processing. In other words, the learners’ cognitive investment in the task through which you are recycling goes beyond mere repetition – of the like that Quizlet and Memrise require of them.
Implications for teaching: make sure the target structure is recycled through tasks which (1) require problem solving (e.g. inductive grammar learning tasks, grammaticality judgement tasks, spot the error tasks); (2) asks of them to use the target structure in a real life communicative task to fill an information gap (e.g. a pair-work task whereby student A knows something about what someone they know did yesterday that student B doesn’t know and vice versa, the task being finding out from one another in the past tense the missing information); (3) involve creativity (e.g. If you were a fruit/car/food/colour what would you be and why?; writing a poem using the target structure).
FACTOR 4 – Form-meaning competition
When L2 learners attend to tasks requiring them to focus on the meaning of the input/output, they do not usually attend to form, especially when the task-at-hand uses up most of the cognitive resources available in their working memory. This is because the brain can only allocate so many resources to the execution of a task and meaning is always prioritised over form unless the task specifically require them to focus on form. Conversely, when the task’s focus is on form, the brain is likely to neglect meaning.
Implications for teaching: recycling should occur through a synergy of tasks which require the students to focus on form (e.g. mechanical drills) and others which require focus on meaning (e.g. communicative tasks)
FACTOR 5: Salience
The salience of a grammar item refers to the extent to which it is noticeable by the learner in the input they receive. The more noticeable an item is, the more likely it is that your students will pick it up from the input you give them. The opposite will be true of less salient items.
There are a number of factors which contribute to the noticeability of a morpheme/grammar structure. The most important ones – perceptual salience, semantic weight, regularity, frequency, affective response – have been discussed in this post: What they don’t notice they can’t learn – On the role of salience in instructed language acquisition. As I wrote in that post,
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 are 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.
Implications for teaching: these factors must be taken into account by L2 instructors in building in recycling in the curriculum, as items which are less salient will require the implementation of instructional strategies and tasks designed to enhance their noticeability in the input and to increase their occurrence in learner output. Take the ‘frequency’ factor. It is obvious that the more high-frequency an L2 item is, the more likely it is that it will be noticed and eventually acquired. Since the opposite will be true of low-frequency L2 items, the instructor will have to ensure that the input they provide their learners with and the output they ‘push’ out of them will be ‘flooded’ with such items.
One very effective strategy to ensure that less salient items are firmly placed in our students’ focal awareness is by making them one of your universals.
More strategies to increase the learnability of less salient items can be found in the above mentioned article (here).
The success of recycling doesn’t simply hinge on the quantity of exposure to and practice with the target grammar items your students get from you. The quality of the recycling matters enormously too. Teachers must heed the five factors discussed above if they want to facilitate acquisition of the grammar structures they set out to teach. In my experience, of those factors two are the most commonly neglected by classroom practitioners. Firstly, the TAP principle, i.e. the context specificity of learning an L2 item; way too often these days the students practise and re-practise a given grammar structure using the very same Quizlet/Memrise task/game. Secondly, the issue of salience: less semantically and perceptually salient items do not receive in most curricula the enhanced emphasis they require in order to be learnable.