This post was written in response to a query by a Modern Language teacher on the professional platform I co-founded with Dylan Vinales, the 11,000-teachers-strong Facebook group Global Innovative Language Teachers. The query echoed many other queries I have received in the last few months and have not had the time to answer due to my touring commitments, so I felt finally compelled to respond.
The query reads as follows:
“Hello! It’s been a year and half now that we have CONTIFIED our lessons and our curriculum in my Department and we are so happy to see the benefits that this is having on pupils’ listening and reading skills as well as their fluency at writing. However, pupils feel that the sentence builders are not having quite the same impact on their ability to speak more spontaneously (the A.R.S. of the EARS part of the MARS EARS?) – especially GCSE groups – and they think that the speaking activities such as “read my mind” or “find someone who” are fake speaking activities, as they are actually reading/ listening. Can I ask you what would you suggest to address this? Can you bombard me with successful speaking activities you do in your classes? Gianfranco Conti / Steve Smith any articles/ blogs/opinions on this matter? Any chapter from your latest book? Thanks for your help”
Sentence builders and Parallel texts are merely MODELLING tools for presenting the target L2 chunks and patterns and how they work in highly comprehensible and structured contexts. They include worked examples which reduce cognitive load and enhance language awareness; whilst they contribute to spontaneity – as scaffolding tools – they are by no means sufficient in developing spontaneity. There is much more to it!
After the modelling, in my approach, one needs to stage an intensive phase of listening and reading tasks (RECEPTIVE PROCESSING PHASE) involving lots of comprehensible input, thorough processing and input-flooding (lots of repetition – quite repetitive and structured for weaker learners and less structured for stronger ones). The interactive reading aloud activities (e.g. Mind reading, Sentence stealer, Sentence chaos, Liar liar) in this phase are only meant to practice decoding skills and articulatory fluency. Not spontaneity. They are desirable with weaker learners with poor or emerging decoding skills and are solely aimed at developing the students’ mastery of the phonotactics of the language (an important sub-set of decoding skills), which is an important prerequisite of fluency. This phase would last one lesson or even longer until you are satisfied that receptive mastery has been attained/fine-tuned. The activities I envisage for this phase are described in great detail in our latest book.
After this modelling phase you will do lots of highly structured forced (controlled) output tasks which recycle every single chunk you have just modelled as well as ‘old’ ones (from previous lessons). This INTENSIVE retrieval practice phase, which will involve at least one full lesson, is KEY if you want to attain fluency and spontaneity. In this phase you gradually wean the students off the sentence builder. I find that a lot of teachers who claim to be espousing my approach neglect this bit. This phase includes my oral / interactive translation games (No snakes no ladders, Communicative translation drills, Chain reaction, Oral Ping-Pong, etc.), traditional drills and highly structured communicative tasks which – based on the principles of ‘Task naturalness”, “Task utility” or “Task essentialness” – force the students to use the target chunks. If you don’t stage this phase, you will never wean your students off the sentence builder. You will move on to the next phase, only when you have verified your students have retained the target chunks successfully.
In the third main phase you may (but don’t have to, if you adopt a radical lexicogrammar approach) want to focus on the grammar underlying the chunks and patterns in more detail and provide consolidating practice (highly controlled still, to avoid cognitive load). In some cases (e.g. for verb conjugations and agreements in French) you have to, if you want to increase the generative power of the target L2 chunks.
Finally, you will work on Fluency and Spontaneity through gradually less controlled but usually PLANNED communicative tasks, until you get to complete autonomy (this starts in the unit in hand but will continue later on) At this point, task-planning shouldn’t be necessary any longer. This task-supported phase is key and is often neglected by many on the basis that there is not much time available. My counter-arguments are laid out below:
(1) with year 7 to 9 (UK system) students, scrap lengthy, cumbersome, useless and time-consuming end-of-unit assessments; instead, assess the students every five or six lessons through short and easy-to-mark low-stake assessments worth about 10 to 20% of the overall final grade – this helps you keep track of your students’ progress- and through frequent retrieval practice (verifying the uptake of the target chunks);
(2) in year 7 to 9 high-stake tests are not that important and if done in massive doses they can be counterproductive;
(3) in Stimmt, Viva, Studio, Mira, Expo, etc. the end-of-unit assessments are UNSCIENTIFIC and UNRELIABLE on a number of accounts (e.g. construct validity, internal and external validity, face validity, etc.) – hence, wasting three lessons on them doesn’t yield useful data at all;
(4) automaticity (fluency) training yields learning that is long-lasting;
(5) any assessment data you obtain at the end of a unit is of little use in terms of advancing learning, as you can’t go back and re-teach a unit, can you, if you find out several of your students are not doing well;
(6) ending a term with the thing students hate the most (tests) is the worst thing you can do for students’ motivation – the last few lessons of a terms should be used to celebrate learning and showing students they CAN DO languages, thereby enhancing their self-efficacy (you can still assess them in the process if you really want in less threatening ways, by observing and listening in as they carry out tasks);
(7) you still get the data your senior management wants by having several smaller and easy-to-mark low-stake assessments;
(8) less is more: no harm staying on a unit longer if you have a wide repertoire of interesting and challenging (but still within the learners’ zone of optimal development) tasks that students enjoy, i.e. : Things in common, Messengers, 4,3,2 technique, Speed dating, Market place, Role plays, Post and praise, Chain reaction, Find someone who (without cards), Alibi, etc. In this phase you will recycle materials from previous units too and will be more tolerant of errors.
Task repetition is a must to enhance fluency development (Bygate, 2009, 2015). So, staging the same task two or more times during this phase will be beneficial.
In conclusion, sentence builders and my reading-aloud games are no panacea, they are only the first step in a gradual fluency and spontaneity build-up from modelling and controlled input tasks to unplanned and less structured tasks which focus on autonomous competence. You can truly say you have ‘contified’ your lessons if you stage all the phases outlined above. I have used that approach for years, so I know it can be done, even with low-ability and challenging students, if one is brave enough to (1) cut down content; (2) create comprehensible-input materials and resources; (3) scrap traditional assessment. It is not easy, that’s why if you really buy into this, you would start one year at a time. CONSTANT RECYCLING IS KEY !
The whole pedagogical cycle – as outlined above – is time consuming because achieving fluency and spontaneity is a time-consuming business. You can’t move from unit to unit every six weeks hoping to achieve durable learning and fluency and hoping that a couple of self-quizzing tasks a la Michael School, Quizlet activities or Kahoots a day, recycling previous items will suffice. That’s a foolish assumption. This may work in geography and science, but not in languages, which require skill automaticity (fluent L2 readers recognize around 250 vocabulary items per minute !). At KS3 (UK System), i.e. 11 to 13/14 yrs old, in the absence of high-stake national examinations constraints this can be achieved.
The Conti recycling Matrix below shows how I envisage the planning of a unit-of-work with middle school learners (yr 7 to yr 9 UK system) and intermediate learners. In each sub-unit, the first two lessons do not recycle ‘old’ items in order to avoid interference; they only focus on the new target items. As you can see, the Fluency / Spontaneity phase occurs at the end of a unit (sub-unit 5 in the picture), whilst the constant recycling across all sub-units (represented by the ticks) keeps the items learnt in every previous unit alive. So, every time you move to the next sub -unit, the items from the previous sub-units are constantly recycled through retrieval practice in which the previous sub-unit items are interwoven with the items-at-hand in the receptive and productive activities you stage – what textbooks NEVER do.