by Gianfranco Conti, PhD. Co-author of 'The Language Teacher toolkit', 'Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen', 'Memory: what every teacher should know' and of the 'Sentence Builders' book series. Winner of the 2015 TES best resource contributor award, founder and CEO of www.language-gym.com, co-founder of www.sentencebuilders.com and creator of the E.P.I. approach.
This post aims at providing language educators interested in my approach with an up-to-date description of the MARSEARS instructional sequence faithful to the ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ of EPI, as opposed to the many adaptations and hybridizations floating on social media these days, which may be as or even more effective, but often substantively misrepresent the original framework.
The MARSEARS sequence
As can be seen in figures 1 & 2 below, a typical unit of work lasts a term and consists of five sub-units: four of which deal with new material and consist of MARSEA (Modelling, Awareness-raising, Receptive processing, Structured Production, Expansion and Autonomy) and two of RS (Routinization and Spontaneity) which aim at consolidating and automatizing that material, as well as interweaving it with materials from previous units (e.g. in Term 2 in year 8, you will interweave core vocabulary and grammar from Term 1 in…
Many CPD providers around the world are currently delivering courses on the implementation of EPI. Whilst I welcome the fact that the ‘Word’ is being spread, often it is spread incorrectly, sending mixed message and often misrepresenting the approach. This is because many of these providers have not received extensive training in the approach, haven’t fully understood it and/or haven’t implemented it in the classroom for long enough or in a sufficiently wide range of learning contexts to fully master it.
Consequently, I have been asked by many classrooms practitioners and CPD providers, mainly from the UK, Australia, North America, the Middle East and South-East Asia, to stage an accreditation programme which would assure that whoever delivers courses on EPI has received thorough training in the approach across the main areas of language teaching and learning.
The programme, which is organized and delivered in partnership with the University of Bath Spa (UK) consists of two levels: Level 1, for those who want to obtain the “EPI teacher accreditation” and Level 2, for those who want to become accredited EPI teacher trainers. The completion of the L1 course is of course a prerequisite for accessing Level 2.
Please note that no professional development provider has completed Level 1 yet, although quite a few people are already three quarters of the way. This means that no CPD provider yet is an EPI-accredited teacher or trainer and whilst people can deliver by all means FREE EPI CPD, they shouldn’t charge fees for it. This is unfortunately happening in England and constitutes a breach of copyright.
The Level 1 programme comprises the following modules:-
(4a) Implementing EPI at Key Stage 4 or (4b) Implementing EPI at Key Stage 2
(5) Final Assessment: delegates will need to create a detailed design of a MARS EARS sequence for KS2/3 or 4 inclusive of overview, activities and pedagogic rationale for the selection and sequencing of tasks . This includes:-
Online tutorial with Dr Conti to introduce this module (1 hour)
Input and feedback from Dr Conti on Scheme of Work
Course fee for all of the above is £700 per delegate. Fee includes the 5 modules above and programme certification. If you prefer, you can book and pay for each course individually as you go along.
If you have completed some of the modules already, you do not need to repeat them. Please let us know dates when informing us of each course which you have previously attended.
Information on Becoming an Accredited EPI Trainer to follow. Please register your interest with Denise – firstname.lastname@example.org. Delegates on this trainer course will have completed the above Becoming an Accredited EPI Teacher modules first. Please book yourself onto the correct module.
Here are the Becoming an EPI Teacher Dates for those of you living in the Western hemisphere. Please note that Australia/Eastern-hemisphere friendly dates in April and May will be published very soon on the Network for Learning website (www.networkforlearning.org.uk) and on this blog.
Please note that the face-to-face events above are those staged by Network For learning. There are (and will be) also other events hosted by schools in the UK in Australia. You can find the upcoming ones this month, listed here.
Details about the Level 2 programme will be published in Autumn 2023.
Learned attention (Nick Ellis, 2012) is a phenomenon whereby the way we parse input in the L1 constrains the way we process the L2 . In other words, our first language has conditioned us over the years to parse language through cues in the input which may be different in the target language.
For instance, English speakers learning Spanish may not notice Spanish nouns/adjectives’ masculine or feminine endings in the input we provide them with, because the notion of gender does not exist in their first language. By the same token, English learners of French may not notice that a French verb is in the simple future because in English the simple future is cued by ‘will’ whereas in French it is indicated by a bound morpheme (i.e. inflectional changes to the verb ending). For English learners of German, the issue is of course even more complex as word order requires parsing mechanisms which are completely different in their L1 and cases do not exists at all in English.
This is particularly important when teachers stage traditional listening and reading comprehension tasks whereby the texts are flooded with an L2 language feature which is processed differently in the L1. Since the brain can’t process meaning and form (e.g. grammar) simultaneously, when carrying out such tasks, many learners are not likely to notice the target L2 feature, especially in listening, when the time window for parsing any given sentence is about 1 to 2 seconds. Flooding aural/written texts is only effective when listening and reading tasks include alongside focus-on-meaning tasks a substantive focus-on-form component which directs the learners’ attention to form, i.e. prosody (e.g. intonational patterns), grammar (e.g. verb endings), syntax (word order), etc.
It should be noted that grammar structures are not merely acquired through productive use, as many believe, but also through many repeated encounters in the aural and written input they process. However, if our students are blind and deaf to the target linguistic features because they are ‘blocked’ by our L1-induced learned attention, this is not likely to happen. This is very important considering that in many UK classrooms a big chunk of the daily classroom work occurs through reading – even when the students engage in writing, it is often with the support of reading materials or written scaffolds (e.g. knowledge organizers), which is basically… reading!
But isn’t it enough to simply raise their awareness, do a nice PPP (presentation – practice – production) lesson and lots of gap-fills, translations and other structured drills? The answer: for starters, these are productive (usually written) tasks which won’t necessarily transfer to listening and reading (according to the Transfer Appropriate Processing principle). Secondly, learned attention has been automatised (learnt subconsciously) through thousands and thousands of hours of first language use. Hence, any training aiming at successfully ‘rewiring’ the brain must be regular and sustained over time– if you believe it’s a priority, of course.
Figure 1 – Learned attention defined
Obviously, the blocking effect of L1-induced learned attention is stronger, the more demanding the parsing of a text is from a cognitive-load point of view. So, for instance, sentences which are longer, more syntactically complex and/or contain unfamiliar vocabulary are more likely to exacerbate the phenomenon. The same happens when a grammar feature is redundant in terms of meaning building; for example, in the sentence ‘Demain on va aller au stade’ (Tomorrow we are going to go to the stadium), the time marker already cues the students to the fact that the action is future and the subject pronoun ‘on’ that it is ‘us’ going. This means that there is no need for the learner to pay attention to the verb ‘aller’ (‘va’) and to the syntactic pattern underlying the construction ‘present of aller + infinitive’.
Based on Tomlin and Villa’s (1997) model of attention (see figure 2 below) we may posit that the detection of a target linguistic feature is more likely to occur when language learners are alert to it. In other words, a learner who has been alerted to a specific feature in the input may orientate their attention to it and eventually notice it. Hence the importance of helping learners notice less salient L2 items by making them more distinctive; of raising their awareness of cross-linguistic differences in processing those items; of staging activities which focus them regularly and deliberately on those items by making them task essential (i.e. necessary for the successful completion of a task).
Figure 2 – Tomlin and Villa’s model of attention
Implications for the classroom
Whilst language teachers are usually aware of other ways in which our first language may work against L2 acquisition (aka L1 negative transfer), learned attention is in my experience a phenomenon many are less aware of and don’t deliberately plan for. Yet, this phenomenon has important implications for teaching, especially when we ask our students to process aural/written texts. Here are some of them:
(1) since the brain cannot process simultaneously meaning and form (e.g. grammar & syntax), traditional reading and listening comprehension or ‘Find the French equivalent in the text’ sort of tasks will not help learners consolidate the target grammar structures, as many teachers think, it doesn’t matter how much they flood the texts with instances of the target grammar features. Texts need also be exploited, as we do in EPI, in ways which target all levels of processing, i.e.: spelling, sound to spelling correspondence, grammar, syntax, etc (figure 3).
Figure 3 – In EPI, texts are exploited by staging activities which ‘hit’ every single level of processing
(2) input-enhancement techniques (Sharwood-Smith, 1994) aimed at making the features ‘blocked’ by our learned attention SALIENT maybe used (e.g. acoustic cues such as raising your voice whilst reading aloud/speaking or visual cues such as highlighting word endings (figure 4)
Figure 4: Input enhancement used in the modelling phase to help learners of L2 Italian notice masculine and feminine endings in the past participle of verbs requiring Essere in the perfect tense
3) noticing activities such as (i) deep processing techniques contrasting (inductively or through guided discovery) the way a target grammar structure is deployed in the L1 and the L2 may be used to make it more salient and memorable such as ‘Dodgy translation’, ‘Faulty echo’, ‘Track the structure’ or ‘Write it as you hear it’ and (ii) receptive tasks (e.g. Partial dictations, Track the structure,) which make the target grammar structure task essential (see figures 5 to 7 ); (iii) editing activities in which the students are given texts flooded with errors with a specific grammar structure;
(4) daily efforts to ‘rewire’ the brain by training it to direct attention to inflectional endings may also be desirable in the early stages of instructed second language acquisition;
(5) in planning grammar instruction, it is key to identify the L1 ‘blocking’ mechanisms which may impede our learners’ noticing of the target structures, then try to counter them by raising learner awareness and by providing tons of practice, as already suggested above;
(6) it is key to model and practise the problematic items vulnerable to learned attention in highly familiar contexts so as to reduce cognitive load;
(7) if these structures are very important, like word order in German, for instance, make them your universals, as we call them in EPI – i.e. the core non-negotiables that you will focus on almost obsessively for a whole year.
Figure 5, 6 and 7: Activities which help enhance the saliency of blocked linguistic features
In conclusion, teaching grammar is not just about teaching rules through examples on a powerpoint or YouTube videos and ask the students to practise them through oral and written tasks. To enable language learners to see and hear the L2 linguistic features ‘blocked’ by learned attention, grammar instruction is also, and possibly more importantly at the early stages of ISLA, about redirecting the learners’ attention when they read and listen to L2 input, by training them day in day out to focus their eyes and ears on parts of the target language words and sentences they wouldn’t normally see or hear because of their first language processing habits. Grammar and Syntax are not only acquired by doing a few gap-fills and drills here and there, but also by processing masses of aural and written input many times over.
Processing input for meaning only isn’t sufficient, especially aural input, which is particularly fragile due to its fleeting nature (it decays from sensory memory after 2 seconds only and every new incoming sentence erases every physical trace of the previous one…). Hence, teachers need to find the way to rewire the way their learners process L2 input and create an alertness to the features which are processed differently in their first language. This means that curriculum design should consider, especially when dealing with beginner learners, the ways in which L1 learned attention majorly hinders the effective parsing – and, subsequently the learning – of the language features they purport to teach. Once identified the potential areas to target, teachers should provide a regular diet of brain-rewiring receptive activities, deliberately targeting those areas. This can be done through minimal prep/high impact receptive tasks such as: Faulty echo, Partial dictations, Listen and correct, Spot the silent endings, Track the structure, Dodgy translation, Editing tasks, Choose the correct endings; Complete the endings with the options provided, etc. In other words, the bread and butter of EPI.
Here is a list of evidence-based grammar-teaching tips based on my recent review of the specialised literature, which I routinely share in my Grammar workshops. I discuss many more in my workshops, of course, but I have been told that my posts are too long…
1. Don’t make the learning of grammar-rules the main focus of language instruction (Ellis and Shintani 2013). Make the grammar learning content lighter with students with low LAA (language-analytic ability , i.e the ability to treat language as an object of analysis and arrive at linguistic generalizations,which is at the core of the constructs of language learning aptitude and metalinguistic awareness, which are implicated in our ability to learn explicitly). These children are less good at analysing, spotting, memorizing and abstracting from patterns (faculties which correlate highly with IQ and rote-learning ability). As deKeyser, one of the strongest proponents of explicit grammar teaching has often pointed out, grammar instruction is more suitable for high-aptitude learners (de Keyser, 2015);
2. Make it enjoyable (Graham, 2022). Much grammar learning results in learner boredom (Murphy, 2022). Gamify it as much as possible through board games (e.g. No snakes no ladders), Interactive oral games (Oral ping-pong) and competitions (e.g. My Piranha grammar, Fast and Furious, Full circle).
3. Make it relevant to the children’s world and personal and academic goals, as relevance is key in fostering motivation to learn languages (Dornyey and Muir, 2019). In a series of French lessons on what one did last weekend, do we need every single verb requiring ETRE in the perfect tense, as textbooks usually do? How many times are the students ever going to be born , die, fall, go upstairs, downstairs, etc. in the context of such a unit?
4. Use a synergy of Explicit and Implicit learning (Ellis and Shintani, 2013). To maximize implicit learning capitalize on the power of syntactic priming/persistence, i.e. a phenomenon whereby repeated processing of the same syntactic pattern leads to subconscious learning of grammar. This can be done using highly-patterned input, input-flooding and input enhancement, i.e. emphasizing specific grammar items, e.g. inflectional endings, through acoustic or visual devices (e.g. enunciating a verb ending louder; highlighting a preposition; colour coding case-endings in German). Another way to maximize subconscious learning is to exploit input at all level of grain (Nick Ellis, 2015), by staging intensive reading and listening (i.e. a series of activities which exploit the same texts at the level of phonological,lexical, grammatical, syntactic, semantic, discourse, etc. processing).
Figure 0: structural (syntactic) priming
5. Don’t spend too much time talking about grammar; grammar should be used more than it should be talked about.
6. For grammar to be used effectively and efficiently in fluent aural and oral processing it needs to be applied in a split second (Levelt, 1989). Hence, (1) be more tolerant of errors in spoken than in written production (Nation, 2013) and (2) ensure that you practise grammar through listening and speaking too; most language teachers don’t. (3) don’t overuse acronyms to learn grammar rules (e.g. MRS VANDERTRAMP) – if your learners become overreliant on them, they will never become fluent speakers
7. Introduce new structures in 100% familiar linguistic contexts (e.g. with known vocabulary) in order to decrease cognitive load (Conti and Smith, 2020). By the same token, avoid presenting and initially practising a new structure in high-element interactivity contexts as much as possible (Sweller, 2006).New grammar structures should be processed in sentences which are simple, short and where vocabulary and pronunciation will pose a negligible cognitive load.
8. Gradually phase out scaffolds. Move gradually from receptive processing to highly structured, then semi-structured and finally unplanned production. Don’t make the mistake as I did for many years, of explaining a grammar rule, then giving a list of examples and finally asking the students, without any substantive receptive processing, to produce sentences to show you they have understood. You will automatically exclude a significant chunk of the students and induce quite a few mistakes. Stage a few receptive tasks, first. Research suggests that successful acquisition of a grammar structure correlates highly with success (i.e. at least 60% accuracy) in the initial retrieval episodes (Boers, 2021). So ensure that you go to production when you are likely to secure a highly successful retrieval rate.
9. With non-transparent (deep orthography) languages where the sound-to-spelling correspondance is fairly low, such as French, do ensure that the students can accurately read aloud the morpheme(s) associated with the target structure. E.g., if teaching ‘ils regardent’, do ensure that they have routinised the correct pronunciation of ‘ent’ (i.e. that it is silent). Remember that even when we read silently, we still subvocalize what we read. A good strategy is to model and practise the grammar aurally first alongside their written form, as we do in EPI (e.g. through sentence builders).
10. Be aware of the factors which facilitate or impede grammar acquisition such as L1 positive/negative transfer, saliency or lack thereof, function-form mapping reliability, contextual factors, etc. (Nick Ellis, 2015). I have summarised these factors in figure 1 below.
Figure 1: factors facilitating the acquisition of an L2 grammar item
11. (Especially with students with low L1 literacy) Show (e.g., through a think-aloud protocol) how you would form and use the L1 equivalent of the target L2 structure first and draw or elicit a comparison from the students. Tribushinina et al, 2022 evidences that this contrastive approach is particularly effective with younger and weaker learners.
12. Be cognizant of the fact that when the brain focuses on meaning (e.g., in a reading comprehension) it doesn’t pay attention to form. Hence combine activities with a focus on form with others which have a focus on meaning (Ellis and Shintani, 2013) when exploiting texts. Note: the brain processes function words (e.g. determiners, auxiliaries, discourse an time markers, pronouns) as grammar, not as vocabulary. Hence, when we process a text for meaning quickly (as we do when we skim and scan a text to find the answer to reading comprehension tasks) we don’t usually process these key words which often our students don’t acquire until late in the acquisition process. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that these words do not carry meaning crucial for comprehension (are not semantically salient) and we generally focus on content words when we read for meaning (the so-called Redundancy effect). Figure 2 provides a list of the key function words in a language.
Figure 2: list of function words
13.Mind processability theory, whereby one cannot learn a structure which requires for its execution the mastery of a number of cognitive operations, unless those operations have been proceduralised (Pienemann, 1998). For instance, according to this theory (which has been proven to be reliable by countless studies), no point teaching the perfect tense of French verbs requiring the auxiliary ETRE, unless the students have acquired 60% mastery of the sub-steps its deployment requires, e.g. selecting the correct present form of the verb ETRE, retrieving the correct past participle, making it agree in gender and number, etc. Sadly, most textbooks in England do exactly that, thereby setting up a lot of students, even those of high ability, for failure. Figure 3, below shows the procedures which determine the natural order of acquisition of a second language according to processability theory. Note that processability is a function of cognitive load, i.e.: if I have to form a sentence requiring five cognitive operations, my brain won’t simply be able to cope because of the overwhelming cognitive load. The beauty of teaching lexicogrammar is, of course, that chunk-learning bypasses the natural order and sequences of acquisition.
Figure 3:the six procedures determining the natural order of acquisition of grammar structures. It may take years to get to procedure 6 in real life acquisition, however, the students are often asked to produce subordinate sentences relatively early in the instructed acquisition process, thereby making lots of mistakes.
14. Be mindful of TAP (aka transfer appropriate processing): if a structure is learnt and practised in a specific linguistic context or through a given task, it won’t be easily transferred to another, especially once it has been routinised. A typical example: in many UK classrooms, reflexive verbs are usually practised exclusively within the context of daily routine, hence students find it notoriously difficult to transfer them to other contexts. Another implication of TAP: recycle your core (non-negotiable) items across as many contexts and tasks as possible (Conti and Smith, 2021)
15. Following on point 13 and 14, make your grammar teaching multi-modal, or grammar learning will be confined to only reading and writing – as it often unfortunately is the case in most classrooms. Grammar learnt only or mostly through reading and writing will be pretty much useless in the real world.
14. Still following on point 14 (about the TAP phenomenon), grammar testing should closely match practice (Purpura, 2005): if you practise a grammar structure through tasks X, Y and Z, it is not fair to test them using task W, unless you are testing for the learners’ ability to transfer knowledge. Yet, often students are tested on a given structure through essay writing when they may have practised it mostly through quizzes and multiple choice gap-fills.
15. Always assess grammar uptake (1) through a mixture of structured assessment (e.g. gap-fills) and free-production tasks e.g., talk to me about last weekend (Ellis and Shintani, 2013). The former will tell you if they can do it when there are prompts or a clear pattern as to what they are required to retrieve and usually pose a lower cognitive load; the latter is a test of spontaneous deployment of the target structure (hence it will tell you if the target structures have really been acquired).
16. Don’t simply assess the learning of a grammar structure based on a test carried out when the retrieval strength is high (i.e. right at the end of series of lessons on it, when it is expected and the students have had it in their focal awareness for weeks). Carry out impromptu assessment several weeks later too, to see how much has been truly retained (due to the law of memory decay, we usually forget around 80% of what we learn after 4 weeks in the absence of regular consolidation). Don’t make the impromptu assessment summative or formal, so that it won’t demoralize the students if they do badly. Some formative feedback will do.
17. Never assess using grammaticality (correctness) judgement tasks whereby a student needs to tell you if a sentence is grammatically accurate or not, as they have 50% chances of getting the answers right by merely guessing. Not a valid way to assess. NCELP does this and I still don’t get why.
18. Do not overload your curriculum – grammar coverage in UK textbooks is overambitious and inevitably results in shallow and short-lived learning. Decide on a limited amount of core structures which will be your non-negotiables, i.e. structures that, no matter how, every single learner can and must learn by the end of the course. By not overloading you enhance the chances of recycling. Which brings me to the next point.
19. Recycle, recycle, recycle. Grammar structures require more recycling than vocabulary because they require the learning and application of abstract knowledge in a short time window. Make sure that you find opportunities for recycling through retrieval practice activities, texts, my staircase design (Smith and Conti, 2021) but also, and more importantly, by sequencing your achievement units smartly so that each subsequent unit lends itself naturally to the recycling of the core structures practised in the previous one(s). Example of recycling/interleaving of ETRE and AVOIR in figure 4 below: . As mentioned in point 18, the fewer the core grammar items one teaches, the easier it is to recycle them. Having a narrow sets of core grammar items to focus on, doesn’t mean not having other peripheral items to teach explicitly and/or implicitly and/or incidentally.
Figure 4: Year 7 Unit 2 (partial) curriculum overview. The present indicative of AVOIR and ETRE and adjectival agreement are constantly recycled throughout a term of work on describing people.
20. Following on point 18: error correction only works when it addresses only a limited number of mistakes (Ellis et al, 2015). Hence, for the vast majority of your learners, only correct three or four error types max in your students’ input; these could refer to your non-negotiables, so that you have a powerful convergence of course objectives and corrective feedback. A powerful synergy.
I hope the above is useful to you and look forward to your comments. You will find this and more in our new edition of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit” which will be published in a couple of months.
In ten days I will be leaving for Australia for a short speaking tour, a round of 6 workshops in Brisbane, Melbourne and NSW (Coffs Harbour). Right after that, hoping that I will still have some voice left, I will be touring the UK talking about EPI, how to implement it at KS3 and 4; how to design the EPI curriculum and how to teach phonics and grammar. Below are the current dates. I hope to meet you at one of the events to
You must be logged in to post a comment.