THE CURVE OF SKILL ACQUISITION AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR THE LANGUAGE CLASSROOM

You may have heard the expression ‘it’s been a learning curve’. Well, Cognitive psychologists working in the Skill Theory paradigm- which I am currently reading and writing about – have observed, for skills as different as making cigars out of tobacco leaves or writing computer programs, that learning follows a curve representing a power function that looks like the curve in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: the curve representing the power law of learning

Learning curve

The same is true of language learning. L2 learners first experience a drastic improvement in task performance in terms of decreasing reaction time and error-making (represented by the steep decline); this decline indicates that the learners, after performing a task a few times have routinised it (what we call ‘proceduralization’).

For instance, the learner may have learned to use the perfect tense of French regular verbs in the context of a structured communicative drill. Whilst at the beginning s/he was performing the task slowly, having to retrieve and apply the relevant grammar rule consciously (declarative knowledge),  after several repetitions of the task s/he has now mastered the task.

When mastery has occurred and your students have routinized the task-at-hand (i.e. can perform it fairly effortlessly and speedily) and errors have decreased drastically, the curve starts to flatten (around point 20 on the curve) . This is where the typical grammar test, for instance, indicates the student has ‘got’ it and can apply the grammar rule fairly accurately and with some ease in the task they have been practising (although not necessarily in other tasks).

At this point, if practice is continued, research shows that the curve flattens. This flattening of the curve shows that the process of automatization is very slow; the gains in speed and accuracy are steady but minimal. Why? The brain goes slowly when it comes to automatizing things, because anything we automatize – including mistakes – cannot be subsequently unlearnt (a phenomenon known as ‘fossilization’ in language learning).

The problem in much language learning in English schools at Key Stage 3 (beginner to intermediate stage) is that once the students evidence ‘mastery’ teachers  often move to the next topic/grammar structure instead of doing  working on providing automatization practice – what psychologists often refer to as ‘overlearning’.

In language learning, automatization practice equals work on fluency, getting the students to use the target vocab and/or structures under time constraints, what Keith Johnson calls R.O.C. (aka Real Operating Conditions). Paul Nation calls this all-important dimension of language learning the ‘fluency strand’.

Most teachers, partly because they feel under pressure to ‘cover the syllabus’ and partly because they are reassured by progress tests that their students ‘know’ the target L2 items neglect this area of L2 proficiency. Yet, automatization practice is key, because (1) it is essential for spontaneity; (2) what is automatized is never forgotten.

This kind of training gets the students not merely to speed up retrieval (what psychologists call ‘ballistic processing’) but, more interestingly, produces qualitative changes in the way we retrieve and apply the vocab/structures we need to successfully execute the target task. In other words, automaticity means that the brain finds a more efficient way to produce that vocabulary and those structures in the context of a given task. We know this because MRIs show that when L2 learners have become fluent in the execution of a task, the brain areas activated during the execution of a given task shrink, a sign that the brain makes less effort and needs to recruit fewer neural circuits. This qualitative change is called : restructuring.

The main implications for language learning are obvious: we need to spend more time on automaticity (aka fluency) training. This means:

(1) cutting down the curriculum to allow for overlearning once the students show they master the content of a unit of work. Textbooks go too fast !

(2) lots of recycling and task repetition at regular intervals. These will be very close to each other at the beginning of the curve and more distant as the curve flattens;

(3) deliberate work on automaticity by increasing the time constraints in the execution of tasks (e.g. the 4,3,2 technique)

(4) ensuring that the same set of vocabulary and grammar structures are practised across different contexts, as learning is context and skill dependent (e.g. what is learnt in reading and listening is not transferred automatically to writing and speaking; what is learnt practicing a task won’t be transferred to another, even though the two tasks are very similar);

The curriculum-design matrix in figure 2 below (aka the “Conti matrix”), makes provision for all of the above. As explained in previous posts, in my approach, automatization occurs in the context of tasks designed to elicit language processing and production under what Keith Johnson calls R.O.C. (real operating conditions), i.e. in communicative tasks I will discuss in greater detail in my next post.

Figure 2 – The Conti Matrix

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Book review: Dannielle Warren’s “100 ideas for the classroom – MFL outstanding lessons

I rarely write reviews of books, but I have decided to make an exception for Dannielle Warren’s “100 ideas for secondary teachers – Outstanding MFL lessons”, edited by Bloomsbury. The reason: it is a concise, clearly written book that every teacher, both novice and experienced – regardless of their geographical location or working context – will find useful. A real treasure trove for pre-service teachers, of course, looking for a versatile and varied repertoire of tested instructional techniques and strategies.

I have always appreciated the contributions Dannielle has made to the UK modern foreign languages community over the years on various social media and teacher platforms such as TES. I have also always liked the persona she has displayed in the process: a passionate language educator, willing to share free resources and always humbly acknowledging the work of others that she dutifully magpies and adapts creatively often surpassing the original. I remember when years ago she politely asked me if she could copy and adapt my Spanish GCSE revision quickies ideas and came up with her own improved version of the original Conti format.

The book is a well thought-out ensemble of teaching ideas for the classroom categorised as follows: Speaking; Listening; Reading; Writing; Grammar; Translation; Vocabulary; Marking, Feedback and Improvements; Revision. It must have not been easy for Dannielle to pick and choose only 100 ideas, as I am sure she knows and uses many hundreds more. However, the activities she ended up selecting constitute a formidable language teacher toolkit which includes some classics and some less known but very effective games, tasks and strategies that, having tried many of them myself, I know work, even with the most challenging classes.

These are my favourites in the very comprehensive collection the book offers:

  • Chatty Jenga
  • Speaking ladders
  • Talking frames
  • Dictation drawing
  • What’s next
  • Break it up
  • The detectives
  • Mosaic writing (of course)
  • One pen one dice
  • Verb towers
  • Translation grids
  • Spot the error race
  • Revision pong

The book is reasonably priced and has had fantastic reviews by practising teachers on various social media and on Amazon which confirm my opinion of the book as an extremely useful resource to have on your desk at home or in your department to dip into during your lesson planning when you are short of ideas or looking for inspiration.

What you will not find in the book is a rationale for each activity or where and why they should occur in an instructional sequence. This is possibly my only ‘even better if’ for Dannielle, should she plan a second edition.

In conclusion, Dannielle’s book is a little masterpiece that every language teacher should read. It is good value for money, very accessible, very clearly written and contains ideas adaptable to any teaching context I can think of. What is more, the book has an accompanying website with links to relevant online resources:

https://www.bloomsbury.com/cw/100-ideas-for-secondary-teachers-outstanding-mfl-lessons/online-resources/

WHY I AM STILL DISAPPOINTED WITH THE NCELP RESOURCES BUT WHY IT IS STILL A LAUDABLE INITIATIVE

So I browsed the NCELP websites and whilst there are many good things a language teacher can get out it – and for free ! – especially the research, the visuals and some nice vocabulary-building ideas, I was very disappointed with the schemes of work they published. This is a link to one of them, which is emblematic of my concerns.

So whilst I do believe NCELP to be a very laudable initiative, one that every language teacher should be aware and take advantage of, I think it has serious shortcomings which refer to their claims, principles, resources and the transformative power of the whole initiative. These are the major issues I see with the Schemes of Work and resources found on the website:

  • The pace of the SOW is too fast, especially in view of the ineffective and insufficient recycling, for acquisition and fluency to happen;
  • The sequencing of the content and activities doesn’t often make sense from a language acquisition point of view. The claim is that the NCELP material is evidence-based. However, there is little research evidence guiding the selection and sequencing of the linguistic content; no reference whatsoever to research into natural order of acquisition of French, German or Spanish morphemes. No apparent consideration of learnability issues in the acquisition of L2 morphemes, e.g. as per processability theory or the very useful heuristic found in Nation and Newton (2013), for example;
  • The recycling is limited and it is largely recycling of single words, not lexical or syntactic patterns;
  • The sequences found in the Power points (old school PPP) that are supposed to supplement the SOWs are light on the receptive skills, especially listening as modelling. It is not clear where the students get the aural modelling they need for speaking. The modelling  phase is short and not very substantive. It reminds me of the pre-NCELP classic Rachel-Hawkes-style PPTs from TES – so where’s the innovation?
  • The variety of resources is limited, and the activities on the slides are frankly a bit dull;
  • Quite a few of the oral activities,  e.g. ‘Yes or No’ pair-work tasks  (1) do not allow for effective retrieval practice because the students can basically answer ‘yes I can’ or ‘no I can’t’ without evidencing they understand what the other person is saying; (2) do not elicit forced output, so the students can basically choose to say what they like and avoid more challenging items. This reduces the chances of recycling the target items effectively in the productive tasks.
  • Both encoding and retrieval practice are insufficient. Quite superficial work which often barely scratches the surface. Lots of supplementation is required of teachers;
  • There is no deliberate planned effort to achieve spontaneity; no time is built in the units of work for that. In fact , you hardly find any rich communicative tasks, not even at more advanced proficiency levels;
  • Not obvious at all how they do actually apply the skill-theory framework that appears to underpin their pedagogical approach. There is no attempt at automatization. Not even a sense that they try to build up to it;
  • The frequency word lists are not very useful because knowing how frequently a word is used without knowing what it is most frequently used with presupposes that words are used in isolation. One wonders how useful it is for a teacher to know that a word is number 106 in terms of frequency of use without listing alongside what phrases / patterns they usually occur most frequently in. Also, examination boards not being aligned with such lists, they are not going to be useful for examination purposes either;
  • No work on collocations or colligations – this focus on single words to me is rooted in the dark ages of language pedagogy ignoring all the great research done by Michael Lewis and other great minds in SLA research. I have made my argument against single-word teaching many times over on this blog. e.g. here;
  • No mention of a Comprehensible Input threshold. In fact, they recommend the use of authentic texts, which we know for a fact are not conducive to learning if they contain less  95 % comprehensible input. Nor do they suggest a substantive pre-reading / -listening sequence (e.g. the ones Steve and I lay out in “Breaking the Sound barrier”). The belief that training students in reading and listening strategies with native or native-like texts can effectively enhance receptive skills and learning is based on findings from research studies where the so-called “Hawthorne effect” (the fact that trainer and subject know they are part of a research project), with substantive injection of external support and resources  and with hand-picked groups of students all end up skewing the outcomes in favour of the intervening variable (the training); but to reproduce the same type of training with every single class of yours on a full timetable with the limited time and resources available to the average teacher and without specialised training is much harder – especially with more challenging classes (I talk from experience!). One major piece of advice I would like to give anyone wanting to use the NCELP reading and listening comprehension tasks: try to supplement the listening activities with some of my L.A.M. (listening as modelling tasks) which focus students on the levels of processing that most NCELP activities neglect or superficially touch upon (i.e. syllable, lexical retrieval,  morphological / syntactic parsing and discourse levels).
  • Vocabulary is not modelled sufficiently through the aural medium. This is bizarre considering the emphasis laid by NCELP on phonics and decoding skills; surely the students’ decoding skills would benefit from getting lots of aural input, no?
  • They mention the importance of recycling vocabulary across a wide number of contexts (based, I presume, on the Transfer Appropriate Processing principle) – something I have been advocating for in every single post of mine. Yet this is not applied at all in the schemes of work or Power Points;
  • Although NCELP claims that the end of a typical instructional sequence should integrate all four skills, that is hardly ever the case. The best they can do is Dictogloss, which does not really integrate all four skills, unless the whole activity is carried out in the target language – what are the chances of that happening in the average classroom?
  • No serious work on oral fluency anywhere, as already mentioned. It seems like spontaneity will magically happen. Task-based learning is the dominant fad in SLA research at the moment. NCELP ignores it altogether, whilst Australia and New Zealand are making it a mandatory and crucial aspect of their National Curricula. I deliver workshops and keynotes in Australia on a regular basis and I am always impressed with their attempt to integrate rich communicative tasks in their lesson sequences;
  •  There is a massive emphasis on phonics but little on phonotactics and on reading aloud; they could do with integrating some of these interactive read-aloud tasks a la Conti in their instructional sequences. No point in mastering phonics without extensive oral practice in the phonotactics of the language. Moreover, phonics can be boring unless you make them more playful and interactive;
  • The resources appear rushed, as if the need for populating the website is driving the production of PPTs ( An example of a PPT here) and worksheets, rather than the attainment of a quality product;
  • One of the principles they claim underpin their pedagogic practice echoes the point I have been making for ever on this blog and in my latest book with Steve Smith, which they state as follows: Establish grammatical knowledge in reading and listening before expecting learners to produce the grammar in writing and speaking. Yet, this is not done in any PPT of theirs – not a single one not a single one of the fifty I reviewed ! This is one of the most important problems in the lesson sequences they propose; finally,
  • I have had several complaints from the NCELP portal users about the user-friendliness of the website.

There are other issues with (1) the assessments which are not often reflective of valid testing practice, (2) the pedagogic principles that NCELP claims are based on research but are actually based on hand-picked research (Emergentism, Comprehensible Input, Task-based learning, Lexical priming, Statistical learning, Implicit instruction effectiveness, Natural order of acquisition and other research are completely ignored); (3) there is a gap – quite big at times – between what is preached in the principles and the actual implementation in the resources; (4) the CPD Power Points need spicing up and more practical examples ought to be provided in order to be more impactful. The list could go on.

In conclusion, I do honestly think that NCELP is a great initiative and there are lots of freebies that can benefit teachers, especially those on a low budget. However, the resources are often botched up, fairly repetitive and not very inspiring. The most disappointing thing for me are the schemes of work, especially the pace, the poor recycling and a disregard for some key research and language acquisition theory. I don’t see anything massively innovative about the resources; but this wouldn’t be a problem if they looked like they could be effective in modelling, consolidating, recycling and retrieving the instructional input. The truth is: they don’t.

I don’t believe the stuff I see on the NCELP website at the moment has transformative potential. Nor that it has the power to inspire and enthuse teachers and pupils in a big way, which is really the objective a transformative initiative such as this one should prioritize. However, it is still early days and the website has a plethora of resources which teachers can tweak and adapt to their contexts. Of course, each PPT will require a lot of supplementation, adaptation and spicing up, especially when it comes to reading and listening.

 

PLEASE NOTE: you can find out more about my approach to modern language instruction, especially in the areas of Listening and Speaking, in the book I co-authored with the legendary Steve Smith. Here’s a link to a very comprehensive review of the book, authored by Rebeca Arndt of UCF (Florida) , recently published in the prestigious journal Applied Linguistics.

 

 

 

My approach: Extensive Processing Instruction (E.P.I.) – an important clarification in response to many queries

Introduction

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

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”

The response

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 for previous units too and will be more tolerant of errors. Task repetition is a must to enhance fluency development (Bygate, 2009, 2015).

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.

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On fluency and spontaneity: beyond “practice makes perfect”

Fluency (intended as effortless effective communication) and Spontaneity (intended as the ability to effectively perform unplanned speech to initiate or respond to speech) are not only about practising speaking on a regular basis. Of course,  practice does help make perfect. However, in instructed language acquisition, the lack of contact time and exposure characteristic of school settings calls for a planned and principled approach to spontaneity which maximises the use of the few hours and resources available. Here is a list, in no particular order, of the main factors and strategies overlooked by many language educators, which promote the development of fluency and spontaneity in non-immersive school settings:

1. Listening to a lot of good-quality 90-to-95 % comprehensible input through activities which model speaking and recycle what you want your students to say many times over (input-flooding). This is the single most deficient and neglected dimension of speaking instruction (Conti and Smith, 2019). Most listening tasks in books and published materials do not model language – they test student on what they hear. That is why Steve Smith and I wrote our latest book.

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2.Understanding what processes speaking involves and targeting them through deliberate practice. So, what kind of speaking you do, not merely the quantity of it, is paramount. Ask yourself: what am I doing this speaking task for? Is it to focus on pronunciation, grammar/syntactic accuracy, fluency, complexity, effective communication, communication strategies etc.? Each purpose will shape the type of task you are going to stage.

 

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3. Making sure students learn to chunk language. Model and teach language in chunks. The longer the stretches of language the students can produce in one go without breaks, the better (Wood, 2010). Pauses should occur at the end of each clause, not in the middle. If pauses occur in the middle of clauses, it may point to disfluency at some level of production, e.g. articulation, vocabulary retrieval issues, grammar/syntax issues, etc.(Segalowitz, 2010). Clause chaining appears to be one of the most effective strategies the human brain has developed in order to reduce cognitive load in fluent communication.

4. Task-repetition: we know that task-repetition leads to improvements in fluency (Bygate, 2015). Students benefit from task-familiarity even 9 weeks after the first execution of a task (Bygate, 2009).

5.Sequencing speaking tasks effectively. For instance: ensuring that an instructional sequence goes from highly structured to less structured production; from planned to unplanned production (the latter occurring very late in a sequence). That a series of listening tasks pave the way for a speaking activity.

6.(this is possibly the most important bit) Preventing anxiety and nurturing the motivation to talk. Anxiety prevention: creating non-threatening opportunities for talking in a non-threatening and empathetic environment; preparing the students effectively for speaking tasks (we know planning reduces cognitive load); providing solid scaffolding for less confident learners (e.g. my prepping them for more challenging tasks through a series of pre-tasks; providing differentiation by support). Motivation-to-talk: avoiding the ‘so-what’ effect (so common in language classrooms), staging tasks which are engaging, FUN and have a clear purpose, possibly real-life like.

 

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7. Specific training in the automatic retrieval of the target linguistic features, by, for instance, gradually increasing the time constraints and communicative pressure in which the students have to deliver the same talk (e.g. in tasks such as the 4,3,2 technique; Messengers; Market place; Speed dating; Ask and move tasks). This kind of fluency training which Paul Nation calls the “fluency strand” is possibly the most neglected, yet by far the most important.

Cumbria transfer mistake

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8. Having classroom routines such as entry, register and exit routines which provide the students with opportunities for implicit learning and with attentional frames for sets of useful formulaic chunks/phrases. Make sure you scaffold each routine appropriately at the beginning to ensure nobody finds it threatening (e.g. put up a poster with key phrases by the door or a sentence builder on the classroom screen). Don’t correct, recast.

9.knowing when to go to production. Way too often students are asked to produce new language features  beyond their current level of competence after insufficient receptive processing of and exposure to them through listening and reading. Yet, we know, that if students go to production to soon (e.g. the classic “repeat after me” on saying something for the very first time) you are likely to induce error and negative learning (de Jong, 2009). Provide plenty of receptive practice before you ask your students to speak and write.

10.Finally, the goals and content of your course is likely to impact the development of fluency. If your course content focuses mainly on grammar structures you are more likely to focus on the accumulation of intellectual knowledge and less on the building of fluent communication. If, on the other hand, as I do, your focus is on communicative functions, you are more likely to stage communicative tasks, which may result in greater fluency.

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These are but a few of the most important – yet often neglected – facets of fluency training. To claim, as I read on certain blogs, that this or that activity promotes spontaneity is vague and unhelpful. Every single speaking activity, even repeating aloud, helps promote fluency and spontaneity to a degree.

However, it is not sufficient to make bizarre claims such as the one that Jenga blocks promote spontaneity, as I have read recently on a blog on the allegedly best way of teaching speaking. It is all too easy and random. One needs to be clear as to how, to what extent and, most importantly, which dimension of speaking competence that activity addresses.

In a nutshell: plan for spontaneity. Have a principled approach to it, possibly one rooted in research evidence, not hearsay or folklore. One which deliberately addresses as many of the above areas as possible.

Cumbria transfer mistake

 

To find out more about my approach to language teaching, get hold of our latest book “Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” co-authored with Steve Smith

Back to school – my top tips for the new academic year

Back to school

The new academic year is about to start for many colleagues around the world. This post was written in response to those who have asked me what my top tips for successful teaching and learning would be. I initially came up with a twenty bullet points list. I subsequently reduced the list to 15 items, prioritising what the 6,000 teachers and lecturers who have attended my workshops this year identified as their most important take-aways from the sessions.

My top teaching-and-learning tips for the new academic year

1. Promote self-efficacy: set your students up for success.

Self-efficacy (i.e. can-do attitude) is one of the most potent predictors of language learning success (Macaro, 2003). A self-efficacious student has high expectancy of success at the language tasks you stage in the classroom and at language learning in general; s/he is more likely to be intrinsically motivated and resilient. Self-efficacy is built through repeated experiences of success at a task; hence, it must be nurtured carefully, day in day out.

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Instructional strategies that can be used to enhance self-efficacy include: minimizing cognitive load; controlled input-output; scaffolding understanding and production (e.g. through worked examples); pre-task planning; cooperative strategies; etc. (Conti and Smith, 2019).

Considering that FLA (foreign language anxiety), a powerful inhibitor of self-efficacy is rampant in language learning classrooms, teachers must endeavour to create the optimal conditions for learner success without dumbing down teaching and learning (Conti and Smith, 2019). Student self-efficacy is particularly low in Listening because of its test-like nature in many language classrooms (Graham, 2017). Hence, teachers may want to find ways to lower the students’ anxiety in this skill area and design tasks the students enjoy, succeed at and learn from.

Finally, Consider the cognitive load that the input you give and the tasks you set your students cause them: can they handle it? (see point 8 below).

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2. Teach for learning, not coverage. 

Don’t rush through content because the textbook does ! Let’s be mindful of human forgetting rates (see the curve of human forgetting below); most of what you have taught on day 1 will be forgotten by day 7 in the absence of regular spaced recycling (Ebbinghaus, 1885). Hence, recycle each lesson’s target items as much as possible across as many modalities as possible.

Ensure your students receive extensive practice in the target items across a wide range of contexts– this is key as we know that learning is context-specific (the so-called T.A.P. or transfer appropriate processing principle). Coursebooks unfortunately rarely do that, so you will have to heavily supplement them with your own activities and resources.

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The recycling matrix below can help you ensure the core target items in your syllabus are revisited receptively and productively many times over throughout the year and that the core content is interleaved.

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In many schools the course is too heavy on content, especially at beginner to intermediate levels (e.g. UK years 7 to 9) and often students complain that the teacher is going too fast. This is often due to the fact that the schemes of learning are based on the pace suggested by the textbook.

If you are using a UK textbook such as Studio, Expo, Zoom, Stimmt, Viva and Mira and you cover a unit from that textbook per half-term, you may be going too fast. These books do not recycle sufficiently. Devote double the time to that unit. Make ‘Less is more’ your motto. Fluency and automaticity, the ultimate goals of language learning (see point 15 below), require extensive processing and productive practice.

3.Put listening and speaking first.

Language lessons, especially in the formative years of learning, should be mostly about sound (Conti and Smith, 2019). Humans are hard-wired to learn language through sound, and memory of words is mediated by sound, even when we read silently (Field, 2009). Hence making language learning mainly about reading and writing may actually hinder L2 acquisition. Since 45 % of human communication occurs through the aural medium, – and only 25% through reading and writing – listening is the most crucial skill for survival in the target language country.

the most crucial skillset

With beginner to intermediate students, a typical lesson ought to involve listening at least 60 to 70 % of the time. And since most listening tasks usually involve other skills and enhance learning by virtue of this multi-skill synergy, you won’t be neglecting reading, speaking and writing either ! Examples:

  • Traditional reading aloud and reading aloud games a la Conti (e.g ‘Robo de tarjetas’ or ‘Sentence stealer’) involve speaking and reading – even writing if the students are asked to make their own sentences;
  • dictations, from simple transcription tasks to dictocomp and dictogloss, involve listening, writing and reading;
  • activities on songs can involve all four skills;
  • favourites of mine such as Spot the difference, Bad translation, Spot the intruder, Spot the missing detail, Gapped parallel texts and others involve reading, listening and writing.

flooding

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4. Make your listening and reading tasks opportunities to learn new language items and consolidate old ones.

Ask yourself:

  • Does this task feel and look like a test?
  • Is this listening activity / task modelling speaking?
  • Am I dwelling on this text sufficient time for my students to learn?
  • If what we hear lingers in the brain only a few seconds, am I giving my students opportunities to learn from the aural input they have just processed by staging post-tasks that recycle the language in that input?

5. Use a triadic routine for complex tasks (Ellis, 2015; Rost, 2016; Conti and Smith, 2019)

  • Phase 1: Have a pre-task phase which prepares the students as thoroughly as possible for tasks. The preparation could have a metacognitive component (e.g. how can I prevent errors I made before in executing the same task?); a linguistic component drilling in the less familiar language items needed to complete the task and even an affective component aimed at lowering anxiety. Research shows that this preparation, if thoroughly and effectively carried out, contributes to lessening the cognitive load during the execution of the task.
  • Phase 2: students execute the task. Ensure the task falls within the students’ zone of proximal development. If it involves the receptive skills ensure it includes comprehensible input and if it involves output, feasible output.
  • Phase 3: After the task has been completed, have a post-task phase in which you review the performance, address any identified issues and consolidate the linguistic content. This doesn’t mean a ten-minute task, but possibly a series of logically sequenced activities which recycle the key items, help student get better at using them and addresses errors and misgivings. This phase could also include a repetition of the task done in Phase 2.

6. Don’t go to production until you have evidence that your students have consolidated sounds, vocabulary or grammar item receptively.

Give your students plenty of practice through listening and reading tasks before you make them write and/or speak. De Jong (2005) points out that when students produce L2 items which have not been consolidated receptively, they are more likely to make mistakes. Brain imaging research indicates that when students listen the brain is simultaneously ‘speaking’ silently, as it were, as listening activates the same neuronal paths that are normally in use when we speak (except the motor cortex involved in physically producing sounds). In other words, speaking doesn’t mirror listening; listening is speaking without the articulation of sounds. 

As the picture below shows, do lots of extensive ear training before asking students to venture into the production of sounds, especially the more challenging ones.

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7. Teach sentence patterns and high-frequency chunks in context.

Grammar can’t be taught like a math formula: applying a fixed formula to the sentences without the understanding of the meaning in context. Vocabulary can’t be just learned by memorizing without understanding how actual words are used in a sentence.

With beginner to lower-intermediate students, lists of single words are pretty much useless unless the students are fluent in the use of sentence patterns or are very gifted at applying grammar rules to chunk them together as they produce output. It has been calculated by many researchers that 50 % at least of what we write amount to multi-words units; the figure is greater for spoken output. Here is a classification of chunks by Michael Lewis (1990), the father of the lexical approach (you can find a much more fine-grained one in Gustaffson and Verspoor, 2017).

Table 1: classification of lexical items by Lewis (1990)

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Use sentence builders like the one below to model sentence patterns, collocations and colligations.

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Focus on single words only when your students are more advanced and master a wide range of sentence frames they can slot those words in. Flooding your aural and written input with many repetitions of the target sentence patterns is a very effective way of teaching them. Forced written and oral output containing many occurrences of the same target patterns will reinforce the learning of those patterns resulting in greater fluency.

Teaching chunks this way doesn’t mean avoiding teaching your students the grammar that keeps the chunk together. It means securing strong implicit learning of those patterns first; the explicit learning can occur at a later stage, through ‘reverse-engineering’, so to speak.

8.Teach as early and deeply as possible function words (determiners, prepositions, connectives, etc.) 

Function words are the words that glue content-words, phrases and sentences together. They give us important clues about meaning when we listen and read and help us piece together lexis and discourse when we speak and write. Have you ever wondered why many of your final-year students are still not fluent in the recognition and production of connectives, prepositions and even determiners?

The reason is that these words are less noticeable and learnable because they are less semantically and physically salient in the input our students process; hence, unless your texts are packed with occurrences of these words and your tasks focus their students on those words, they will never acquire them. Using input-enhancement techniques (e.g. exaggerating their pronunciation when you speak; using typographic devices to make them more noticeable and distinctive;etc.) evidently helps substantively too, as it promotes noticing.

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9.Avoid cognitive overload

Think about the cognitive complexity of the language items you are planning to teach and of the task you intend to stage to practise them. Also consider the language items you are aiming to teach and ask yourself:  how many cognitive steps does learning those items entail? Are those steps challenging? If the answer is yes, then their cognitive load is likely to be high.

Plan for ways to scaffold comprehension and don’t refrain from using the students’ first language to facilitate learning. Avoid teaching too many paired associates which interfere with each other such as words with their synonyms or antonyms, or words that look or sound very similar, as research shows they cause interference (Nation and MacAlister, 2015). Consider the learning burden of words (see figure 1 below, adapted from Nation, 2007). Use dual coding (e.g. visual and audio input) to facilitate learning. Avoid getting the students to listen to lengthy explanations on audio or video.

Table 2. The learning burden of a word (Nation, 2007)

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Another dimension of cognitive load pertains to the input we give our students. According to research (e.g. Nation and Hu, 2015), the vast majority of L2 learners learn very little from a text which is less than 95 % comprehensible without support. A minority of gifted learners can cope with 90% comprehensible input. Do you give your students, especially when you test them, 90 to 95 % comprehensible input? If you don’t, do you ensure you prepare them thoroughly for that task, bearing in mind that learning the words they are going to hear in a text from a worksheet prior to listening to / reading it won’t help substantively the average learner?

 10.Practise selective error correction.

Teachers spend on average 1 minute of their precious time correcting 100 words of their students’ written output with very modest returns: around 10 % after six months of corrections (Chandler, 2006). And many mistakes are resistant to correction (Conti, 2005, Alroe,2003).

To enhance the effectiveness of your feedback you may want to reduce the number of errors you focus your corrections on. There is evidence that selective error correction which focuses on a very narrow range of errors is more effective than correction which focuses randomly on all or most of the errors in an essay. With younger learners, target only two or three major error categories per term. This will increase your students’ attention to those error types whilst making the corrective process easier and more purposeful for both you and your students. Here are the benefits of focused error correction:

  • it concentrates on only two or three major target areas (so that their attentional resources can be used more efficiently);
  • such areas are perceived as relevant to their current learning (so that they feel more motivated to address them);
  • 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);
  • 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);

11.Make learning as interpersonal as possible

L2 learning should involve a balance of focus on meaningful interaction and focus on form. Many of the form-orientated and meaning-based activities language teachers stage as individual work can be turned into interactional tasks/games with a bit of creativity and imagination on our part. Nation and Newton (2009) and Conti and Smith (2019) detail a wide range of listening activities which involve interaction between teachers and students and between students.

12. Focus as much on meaning as you do on form.

Stage activities, tasks and games which focus students on phonemes, morphology and syntax and others that focus on communication. For instance, you could stage awareness-raising activities to draw your students’ attention to a specific item you want to teach (focus on form); followed by drills consolidating that items (focus on form); then stage communicative tasks which involve negotiation of meaning (e.g. Find someone who; surveys; Post and praise; Detectives and informants; Ask and move: Spot the difference; Things in common; Expert jigsaw; Listen, Recall and Repeat; etc.); finally, you could stage a few activities to address frequent errors you noticed during the communicative tasks, thereby focusing on form again.

13.Set fluency as the ultimate goal of your teaching.

Fluency ought to be the ultimate goal of your teaching. Hence, ensure that, once your students ‘know’ the items you have been teaching throughout a unit, they are given plenty of opportunities to use them across all 4 macro-skills and as wide as possible a range of communicative contexts with one goal in mind: the ability to understand and produce language accurately, as effortlessly and fast as possible.

This entails lots of task repetition and executing the same task under increasingly challenging time constraints.  Tasks such as Nation’s (2001) ‘4,3,2 technique’ and ‘Market place’ and Linked-skills tasks or Conti’s ‘Oral fluency cards’, ‘Fast and furious’, ‘Chain reaction’ and ‘Pyramid translation’ involve tons of repetition and challenge the learners to produce the same output at an increasingly higher rate of speed.

If you don’t have time for this fluency-training stage think of ways to make time for it – it is so essential! One solution is to reduce the content of the curriculum; another is laid out in point (14) below.

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14. Avoid time-consuming high-stake end-of-unit tests

In many UK secondary schools, a substantive portion of each term is devoted to the preparation and staging of end-of-unit high-stake assessments. In many of the schools I have worked at or visited over the years, five lessons or more are ‘wasted’ revising for the end-of-unit test, doing the test and then going through it and set useless targets. The end-result? Students who learn to the test, cramming rather than spacing out learning; results which give us an artificial and unreliable snapshot of our students’ progress and do not really advance learning.

Better replace those high-stake end-of-unit tests with several snappy and easy-to mark low-stake assessments which tell us how students are progressing over the course of the term-at-hand. This repeated-measures assessment mode provides more reliable data whilst enabling the teacher to spot deficits as the term progresses allowing him/her to address them before it is too late. The time usually devoted to high-stake end-of-unit tests could then be devoted to the fluency training alluded to in point (13).

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15.Make language learning less of an intellectual endeavour for the few

Language learning should be as inclusive as possible. By making it intellectual and making it more about processing than memorizing through lots of exposure and use, you may penalize the less gifted linguists from day one of your grammar teaching. As Schmitt (1999) points out ‘Processing language is much more complicated than memorizing it‘.

Hence, model useful, high-frequency ready-made chunks for students to memorize; give them masses of opportunities to process those chunks receptively (through listening and reading  95 % comprehensible input) and then produce them in feasible output. This will speed up the onset of fluency because anyone can memorize and recall multi-word chunks, but only a few gifted beginners can piece words together accurately applying grammar rules on the spot -‘online’ – under communicative pressure. Read this if you are interested in finding out how I suggest this can be done.

16. Concluding remarks

I hope you found the above reminders useful. In case you are wondering which five tips I removed from the original list, here they are:

  • Decide on the key pedagogic principles that should underpin teaching and learning in your department;
  • Create a  vocabulary-rich learning environment;
  • Get the students to process texts extensively, at every level of grain:
  • Establish a great rapport with your students. This is as – if not more – important as pedagogic principles and techniques;
  • Be the most empathetic and sympathetic colleague you can be. With every one of your colleagues – not only the ones you like.

 

If you want to find out more about the above principles and techniques and on how they can be implemented in the language classroom, do get hold of the book I have co-authored with Steve Smith, “Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen”, available on Amazon