The art and science of creating sentence builders – key factors to consider in creating your sentence builders

Introduction: no, I have not invented sentence builders

I have not invented sentence builders. Of course not. They have existed for decades. But I did coin that term and the way I design and use them differs substantively from what I have seen done in the past. I remember coming across hundreds of them when I first started teaching, but never finding exactly what I wanted.

I wanted a tool which was accessible to all of my students; easy for the children to use; which contained the right amount of words and structures my students could cope with.

I also wanted a tool that I could use for the approach that I was developing, Listening As Modelling (aka LAM), which has now become a teaching technology used by classroom practitioners from all over the world, but in those days was still in the making.

The sentence builders made by some prominent authors on TES and elsewhere fell short in this regard. They were too crowded, contained no English translation (taboo for many authors) or other means to establish meaning. The words in them were arranged randomly which made access to them and their meaning more arduous for the students.

Like many vocabulary and grammar organizers that I see floating on the internet these days, those sentence builders were not designed for introducing vocabulary orally and went against or ignored the most fundamental principles of cognitive pyschology and what we know about enhancing attention and learning.

In this post, the first in a series of posts on how to create and use sentence builders, I will deal – very concisely – with some key issues to consider when designing a sentence builder (henceforth SB).

Key factors to consider when creating your SB

(1) surrender value of the construction and vocabulary selected (e.g. Is it a high-frequency construction?) – I have already discussed in previous posts on this blog how, in E.P.I., in designing a unit of work, one gets from the target communicative functions to the key constructions one is planning to teach (here). What I would like to reiterate here, though, is the importance of choosing sentence constructions which are learnable and useful for real life communication. Not selected randomly because we like them or are found in the book in use.

(2) comprehensible input (Is the content of the SB comprehensible without any need to use any other resource?) This is key. Most sentence builders I see do not contain the L1 translation or images which  make the learners’ access to the meaning of the SB content possible. Comprehensible input is key to learning and the L1 translation provides very useful scaffolding. You will remove it gradually once the students become familiar with the content. I still remember a lady (on a Facebook group) criticizing my sentence builders, saying that they looked great but shouldn’t have the L1 translation. The very next day I asked my students, both in my more able and less able groups, through an anonymous questionnaire, if they preferred my SBs with or without the translation. The answer was unanimous: keep the translation at the beginning, remove it later. Every single student found the translation useful, especially ‘dodgy translation’ (word-for-word L1 translation, even when grammatically wrong in the L1 – see below). The L1 translation has another important benefit: it shows the differences and similarities between the two languages. We know this helps L2 acquisition.

(3) input enhancement techniques (Have I made what I want the students to notice more distinctive?). For instance, in the sentence builder below, aimed at absolute beginners, I wanted to highlight negatives, the relative pronoun ‘que’ and how some adjectives don’t change from ‘o’ to ‘a’ in the feminine. When you use the sentence builder to model the content, you will of course use your voice to emphasize the very same items and others.

sentence builder animals

(4) cognitive load and ease of visual access – (Is it easy on the eye? Is it too crowded? Are the words arranged according to an easily identifiable and logical system? Is this the clearest font? etc.). Many sentence builders, knowledge organisers and writing frames I see on the Web, do not consider these very important issues. I won’t discuss those issues here, but I will soon upload a video on my YouTube Channel to discuss Cognitive Load with reference to SBs. One of the obvious issues relates to working memory capacity and digit span, which, as I have mentioned many times over in previous posts, is very limited, amounting to 3 to 4 lexical chunks or words on average.

(5) phonological and orthographic similarity of the lexical items (are there items in here that could cause cross-association because they sound or look too similar?) When words are too similar in sound or spelling, they can cause interference and consequently hinder learning. Hence, you will avoid, especially with beginners or weaker students, items or chunks that are too similar along those dimensions. We know from science that phonological similarity causes more problems to the human brain, and since our brain ‘voices’ everything we read (even when we read silently) even words which may not look similar but do sound very similar to the learner (as in ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’, ‘lust’ and ‘last’ to an Italian ear) can cause massive problems. Phonological and orthographic similiarities are the main reason why students find verb conjugations so hard to learn! So, do avoid embedding entire unfamiliar verb conjugations in your sentence builders. Start with one or two persons first, then, once the students have become highly familiar with the construction and vocabulary, insert the remaining persons.

(6) opportunities for recycling and interleaving old/new items (have I seized any opportunity to recyle and interleave core items?). The columns in an SB can be used to recycle and interleave previously learnt items, so why not exploit this great advantage they give you over many other vocabulary-teaching tools? What I usually do, is slot in those columns my set of universals or desirables.

(7) opportunities for seed-planting of upcoming material – by the same token, just as you can recycle old material, you could put in the sentence builder chunks and grammar that you will expand on in a lesson or unit that you are planning to teach in the not too far future. I call this technique seed-planting. A very useful technique in that it primes the students for future learning thereby facilitating the acquisition of the to-be-taught items.

(8) target collocations /colligations – this will inform your segmentation of the content (What do I put in each column to underscore the pattern gluing the words together or high frequency collocations?) How you combine or isolate items in each column can help facilitate learning by drawing attention to them or to the fact that they are usually used in combination with specific items. For instance, in the sentence builder above, I could have chosen to have ‘que’ in a column of its own. However, dealing with absolute beginners, I am simply putting it together with ‘se llama’ in the chunk because I want to use ‘que se llama’ as a whole unanalysed building block. At a later date, when I will be explicitly modeling the use of relatives in Spanish, I will ‘isolate’ it so that it will be (a) more salient and (b) it will be easy to contrast it with other relative pronouns and show how it can be used in combination with prepositions. By writing it in ‘red’, though, I am making it more distinctive to the student and hopefully someone will ask me why I used a different colour for that word.

(9) chunking that facilitates noticing of phonological and phonotactic patterns (e.g. French: which chunks include liaison or assimilation phenomena which could be useful for the student to notice/learn?) An example of this is ‘liaison’ in French. If there is a word that liaises with another in your sentence builder and you want them to learn the liaison easily and effectively, chunking the two items together will prevent the possibility that they might ‘miss’ the liaison. By learning them as a chunk they are learning them as an item; so there will be more chances that ‘je suis allemand’ will be learnt as ‘jesuizalman’ rather than ‘je’ / ‘sui’ / ‘alman’. The same applies to the issue of assimilation. If the sentence builder above featured the indefinite article ‘un‘ in isolation in ‘Tengo un pajaro’ , the chances of them learning it as ‘tengo’ ‘un‘ ‘pajaro’ would be higher than them learning it correctly as ‘tengo umpajaro’ which is the correct pronunciation (the ‘n’ being pronounced as ‘m’ in connected speech due to the assimilation phenomenon).

(10) visuals that may support the learning of the target vocabulary (e.g. Can I replace the English translation with pictures instead? Do I have a set of flashcards or other visual aids to support the teaching of the SB’s content?)  Dual coding, whereby images and words are used in combination, helps massively in bringing about stronger retention. Whilst having sound (your voice) and written text helps, using images in combination with the SB is even more powerful. I make sure I use all three media when possible. Before or after introducing the construction with the sentence builder, do use visuals. In certain cases, with very basic sentence builders introducing places, colours, animals, food, etc. you will be able to add in images instead of the L1 translation.


Do bear in mind that an SB is only a tool that is as good as what you are going to do with it. I still remember when I first talked to the great Steve Smith about SBs a couple of years ago. He asked me: how would you use them? As a writing frame, right? He had never used an SB before as a means to present vocabulary orally because, for donkey years, SBs have been used as writing frames or grammar-teaching tools.

So, first off, you need to decide what you are going to use the SB for: for Listening As Modelling (aka LAM), i.e. the set of instructional sequences and techniques I talk about in my book “Breaking the sound barrier” or as a writing frame? That decision is crucial: as it affects massively how you are going to design the sentence builder. Why?Because my ‘scripted listening techniques’ will require more focus and will pose greater cognitive load than copying bits from a sentence frame in order to write a sentence or paragraph in your own sweet time.

Reading and writing exist in space, which means that you can go back to the text at will. But Listening exists in time, aural input lingering in sensory memory for barely two seconds; hence, when you use sentence builders to present language through listening you must be aware of anything that may add an extra cognitive challenge. Hence the importance of a clear SB design with spaces in between words, alphabetical order, etc; of input enhancement techniques; of highly patterned comprehensible input; of ‘dodgy translation’ (i.e. word for word L1 translation which may flout L1 grammar rules) which makes it clear what each word means (e.g. translating ‘J’ai dix ans’ ‘I have ten years’ as opposed to ‘I am ten years old’).

In conclusion, designing effective SBs should be, just like teaching, both a science and an art. Something you design with a clear pedagogic framework and instructional technique in mind.

No, I haven’t invented sentence builders, but I have perfected their usage as teaching tools after twenty years of using them in the classroom with primary to university students; asking for lots of feedback from my ‘classes’ on how to improve them to facilitate their learning. Bouncing ideas off my colleagues (e.g. Dylan Vinales, with whom I am currently writing a Spanish book of activities centred around sentence builders and follow-up activities: “Spanish sentence builders – a lexicogrammar approach).

After much experimentation with both very weak and very able students, I have become aware of the benefits and drawbacks of using this tool and how it can be made more effective using techniques which involve focus on sounds, vocabulary, lexis, syntax and even discourse. Many of which I share in my workshops around the world, have shared in my second book and will soon share on this blog. Watch this space.

A final word. An OFSTED inspector has recently said to me that SBs make language learning too easy. They shouldn’t be used. The students should not be provided with ready-made worked examples of how sentences are built; they shoud work that out by themselves. The answer to this person, who boasted that having taught for 15 years he was an expert, is that, according to research, the main reason for which students drop modern languages in Year 9 in the UK is that they find languages difficult and too much work.

This doesn’t mean we must dumb down our learning expectations, but that we must teach in ways that suit the adolescent learner’s cognitive capacity and style; that are engaging; that rely more on the aural route than on the written one; and that are based on what we know about second language acquisition.

We know the brain chunks every single language item we learn. That’s how we acquire language – any language. Traditionally, this has been done by teaching words and then the glue (i.e. the grammar) that chunks them together in sentences. This painstaking process often carried out through less-than-engaging techniques has failed students and teachers alike for many decades. Hence, the continuous decline of languages in schools in England. Adding in phonics, high-frequency word lists and banning ludic activities, as some prominents UK MFL ‘gurus’ propose, won’t make this approach any more palatable or easier for youngsters.

The Sentence builders, if designed and used effectively, make this all-important chunking process much easier, whilst the LAM activities we propose, not only make the explicit teaching of phonics nearly redundant, but make language learning much more fun and durable. And because they rely mainly on the aural medium (in synergy with visual coding) to introduce the new constructions and vocabulary, sentence builders and L.A.M. make learning much easier.

If you want to find out a bit more about how to use sentence builders and Listening As Modelling (aka LAM) do get hold of my book, “Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen”, co-authored with Steve Smith.

Dylan Viñales on our forthcoming workbook for Spanish, French, German and Italian learners, based on E.P.I.

In this very witty and informative blog post, Dylan talks about our forthcoming Spanish workbook, the first in a series of books for independent and classroom learning, based on our EPI principles. The booklet is currently being translated into French, German and Italian.

“My experience with lesson “Contification” – guest post by Julia Hegarthy

This is the first in a series of posts written by language educators from around the world who have been experimenting with my approach. In this post a passionate language educator, Julia Hegarthy, head of languages in an independent school in New South Wales, relates how she went about applying EPI to her context. Here is her bio:

I work in an independent school in Sydney. We are a small Language Faculty running French in Yr 7, Chinese in Yr 8 and small elective classes in both Languages in 9 and 10. We have not yet had a Continuers class through to HSC level but we have been running the French Beginner HSC courses since 2015 and our numbers in this course are growing stronger every year.

In Australia there is no adequate textbook for the fast-paced and demanding 2-year HSC Beginners course, and so, after seeing Gianfranco Conti in action at a Language convention in Sydney in 2017, I decided to implement aspects of Extensive Processing Instruction. It made sense to me that to get students to hold a 5-minute conversation about their personal world in the space of not even two full years of instruction, the teacher ought to model structures related to their personal world intensively until their brain can automatically retrieve these structures….

The importance of rote learning had always been clear to me, however, I had been lacking the pedagogical tools (or creativity!) to make this appealing to the students. Seeing how the 300 strong conference room was responding to stating their Emotional Temperature in Malaysian through False Echo and “Mini translations” immediately struck me as an ingenious way to drill without causing my students ‘death by Powerpoint or worksheet coma’. I remembered I had a stack of Mini Whiteboards and WB markers in a dusty corner of our store cupboard somewhere and they haven’t left my teacher bag since. Another staple is a box of dice, so we can play any sort of ‘no snake no ladder’ translation game at our leisure.

Today, I still consider myself at the beginning of our journey to ‘contify’ our programs (I tend to agree with Gianfranco it is a LONG process.  It’s also worth mentioning that because we are still bound by the parameters of the current HSC format, I haven’t been able to throw out teaching the old way of responding to comprehension questions altogether – yet!). However, I am making a conscious attempt to use the MARS/EARS sequence with all my classes for all units and this year, I have thrown out textbooks for French altogether.

Actually, I should say I am using the MARS sequence with all classes, and EARS is mostly ‘extension’ material. I find this method is brilliant for differentiation; because it allows lesser able/confident students to operate with their scaffold for longer, whilst eager learners ‘wean’ themselves off much quicker, therefore cycling through the sequence at a faster speed, thriving on activities such as Fast and Furious and Pyramid Translations  that would be way beyond some of my students’ level of competence. The fascinating thing is to see them actually DO the activities and ENJOY doing them.

Independent pair or group work is no longer a pain and (for the most part) I truly don’t have to worry about groups being off task and can use my teaching time cruising around from group to group, giving feedback in real time. I think a lot of this is also due to the fact that the games and activities very much appeal to students’ competitive nature. I give ‘Dojo’ points in younger years for a certain number of quickest and most correct WB ‘hands up’ for example.

I have been buying and downloading lots of Gianfranco’s resources on TES and am adapting his worksheets and Sentence Builders to suit the exact need of my unit and class. This IS more time consuming initially, but once they are created and filed in an orderly and logical fashion, it is easy enough to pull together any lesson on any topic within a very short time frame. The other big bonus was (still is of course) that most of the structures from the worksheet and Sentence Builders also feature across the Language Gym’s activities, meaning that students have another option to ‘make them stick’ via this online modus.

I also explicitly tell my students about the approach – we look at the curve of forgetting together and on my online lesson plans I include a mention of which ‘stage’ we are at in a given lesson, which I find helps them to understand the relevance of what I am doing.

Here is an example of what I did before Coronavirus sent me into self-isolation with my Yr 12 class on Relationships

Modelling/Awareness Raising:

Hand out Sentence Builder with structures

Mini WB activities – Choral repetitions, Faulty Error, Spot the error, delayed repetition, delayed copying

Education Perfect list with the exact sentences from the SB as follow up in Reading / Listening mode (no translating into French at this stage)

Receptive Processing

Mini WB activities (lots of French – English translations)

RAM/LAM worksheets

Lots of reading out aloud – (they love reading aloud in class ‘until they make a mistake’ in which case another student interrupts, corrects and has earned the right to read on)

1 Pen 1 Dice

Find your match

Sentence Stealer

Quelquechose Game (you may know it as ALGO game)

Language Gym Workout (Vocab Section)

Textivate activities

Education Perfect list with the exact sentences from the SB as follow up in Reading / Listening mode (no translating into French at this stage)

Structured Production

Mini WB activities (now include translations into French)

Dictations (running, delayed, mad)

Education Perfect list with the exact sentences from the SB across all modes incl translation into French

ImmerseMe activities

No snakes no ladders translation game

Find someone who

Oral Ping Pong


Education Perfect lists (my students also create and maintain their own individual lists which they are allowed to use at this stage)

Education Perfect Grammar units on the grammar point in question (in this case direct and indirect object pronouns)

ImmerseMe activities

Piranha Grammar

Role plays

4,3,2 Technique

Pyramid Translations

Highly scaffolded writing tasks

This was about 6 one hour lessons and at the end I made them hand in a free writing: You want to nominate your best friend for participation in the TV show “Le meilleur ami du monde”. Write the letter to the production company in which you describe your friend and why they should win the title. (150 words – use all structures and features covered to date)

As I said, I am still in a ‘hybrid’ stage, where I do sometimes revert to using texts/audio from a textbook instead of just my own creations; however, overall, I find that implementing the Conti method into my teaching has increased student motivation and my own zest for stepping into the classroom.


A bit about Julia

Julia Hegarty, Head of Department for Languages at Oxford Falls Grammar School is living proof that commanding another language is a concrete and demonstrable life skill that can take you places around the world. Born in Germany, Julia moved to the UK for her  university studies and graduated with a First Class BA Hons degree in French, Italian and Business Studies, having spent one year of the degree studying and doing work placements in France. Julia went on to work in a London based financial communications agency, travelling around the world in the course of equity capital offerings for German and French clients before meeting her husband and deciding to re-train as a teacher after settling in Australia 10 years ago. Julia a dynamic, creative and engaging language teacher, with a passion for foreign languages.


The curve of skill-acquisition

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 for my forthcoming book – 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. After intensive training (massed practice), 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, a student 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).

Automatization is a long process

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  providing automatization practice – what cognitive psychologists often refer to as ‘overlearning’.

Automatization as fluency

In language learning, automatization practice equals work on fluency, getting the students to use the target vocab and/or structures under communicative pressure and time constraints, what Johnson (1996) calls R.O.C.S (aka Real Operating Conditions). ROCs are ‘desirable difficulties’ (Bjork and Linn 2006) which pose variable demands on learners’ processing ability when performing the targeted behaviour or task, in resemblance with real-life conditions. Pedagogically speaking, the application of ROCs in LT results in task grading: manipulating different factors to vary the complexity of the tasks. Among them, Johnson (1996) highlights degree of form focus, time constraints, affective factors, cognitive and processing complexities.

Paul Nation calls this all-important dimension of language learning the ‘fluency strand’.

Figure 2: the fluency strand

Cumbria transfer mistake

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 and (3) if fluency training aims – as it should – at automaticity across a range of linguistic contexts and tasks, it enables students to use what they have learnt more flexibly in real-life interactions.

Basically, tragically, practice with the target items ends exactly when it is needed the most ! And, more importantly, that practice is needed over a long period of time ( through distributed practice).

Automatization is more than speed of retrieval

This kind of training gets eventually the students not merely to fast retrieval which requires little or no conscious awareness (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 that task shrink, a sign that the brain makes less effort and needs to recruit fewer neural circuits. This qualitative change is called by researchers restructuring.

Main implications for language pedagogy

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 lots of recycling, task repetition and fluency practice once the students show they master the content of a unit of work. Textbooks go  way too fast !

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

(3) deliberate work on fluency/automaticity, by increasing the communicative pressure and time constraints in the execution of tasks (e.g. the 4,3,2 technique, Messengers, Market place, Speed dating, my mixed-skill ‘Spot the difference’, etc.)

(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 practising a task won’t be transferred to another, even though the two tasks are very similar).

(5) teaching chunks (e.g. sentence frames and heads), as it reduces cognitive load thereby speeding up processing and fluency. Teaching multi-word chunks means that there are fewer grammar rules (if any) to apply and automatize, as opposed to teaching single words that the learners must learn to bind together grammatically in real time.

The curriculum-design matrix in figure 3 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 drills and tasks I will discuss in greater detail in my next post.

Figure 3- The Conti Matrix


Practice with the language they KNOW

Of course, before venturing into this type of training, it is crucial that the students have mastered the target items, i.e. they can recall them with some ease and without the help of reference materials.

This is unfortunately one of the most common problems in much of the communicative language learning I have observed in 25+ years of teaching; the students are interacting orally, yes, but having way too often to resort to the help of word/phrase lists. When you stage fluency-development activities, the students shouldn’t need to do this. They should have had already plenty of retrieval practice which has weaned them off such lists first. That’s why, in my Recycling Matrix, the students get to the automatization phase at the very end of a macro-unit (i.e. unit 5).

Make time for fluency training

Some may object that there is not enough time for this type of training. My response is that it is all down to effective curriculum design and smart use of lesson time. But it is also dependant on your mission as a language teacher: are you imparting abstract knowledge of grammar structures or are you forging confident and effective L2 speakers ? Are you preparing students for exams or for real-life use? Are you teaching to cover the syllabus or for durable learning and spontaneity?

In the early years of language instruction, when exams are not and should not be a concern, you can and must make time for fluency practice.  Focus on the target items and tasks you students truly must learn to perform confidently, spontaneously and as accurately as possible and cut down the superfluous.

Less is more.


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:

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


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 two lessons (including the sentence-builder-centred modelling activities) 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, once verified that most of your students have retained the target chunks at receptive level at least. Don’t worry too much about the students who haven’t yet attained complete autonomy from the sentence builder, as if you keep recycling the target items over and over again across the sub-units to come (see the Conti Matrix below), they will gradually catch up.

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;

(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, anyway;

(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 term 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 want, 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, Best recording, Reading speed chain, All for one/one for all, Role plays, Post and praise, Chain reaction, Fast and Furious, Detective and Informants, Ask the experts, Pyramid retell, Linked skills activities, 10-minute writing, . 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. Note: it doesn’t have to be exactly the same task at time 2, but a very similar one.

Concluding remarks

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.


Figure 1: The Conti matrix

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.

Cumbria transfer mistake.png


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.


Cumbria transfer mistake

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.


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).


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.


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.


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.



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.



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)


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


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.


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)

learning burden.png

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.


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).


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


“Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” – why we wrote it and what it is about


As many of my readers and followers will know, I have always been very passionate about Listening. Why? Because it is simply the most important language skill, the one that teachers should prioritize in the classroom, the precursor to speaking. How can you ever hope to master Speaking, if you are a poor listener?

As a learner of 14 languages, I have experienced firsthand the frustration of not being able to understand aural input at the early stages of L2 learning when even basic target-language speech sounds like a fast flow of undecipherable gibberish. I have also experienced the enhancing power of comprehensible input, of skillful use of audiovisuals and body language, of aural texts flooded with repetitions, of enhanced input and of lessons revolving mostly around sound and oral communication.


the most crucial skillset.png


Developing L2 learners’ aural skills is a must as the human brain is hard-wired to learn through listening by our biology and 150,000 years of evolution. Children listen to their caregivers on average for 9,000 thousand hours before they start producing intelligible output. Through incessant repetition, routines, audiovisual cues and body language oozing out love, empathy and patience, caregivers impart on their children their mother tongue through the oral medium. Add to the above that 45 % (some say 65 %) of verbal communication occurs through listening and 30 % through speaking. Only about 25 % occurs through reading and writing.


the most crucial skillset.png


Yet, in 28 years of teaching and many more as a language learner, I have seen teachers neglect listening skills day in day out. As Chambers (1996) famously pointed out, in the typical English modern language classroom listening is usually about (1) pressing a button, (2) playing an audio track twice to students who answer a number of ‘wh’ or ‘True or False’ questions, (3) giving the answers and (4) assigning a score. What is worse, Chambers (1996) and other subsequent studies have found that listening activities are not usually logically sequenced and integrated in what comes before and after. It is all pretty random and consistent with the textbook’s suggested pedagogic sequence.




Chambers (1996) doesn’t paint a rosy picture. Nor has done any subsequent research. Unsurprisingly, Listening has been labelled the ‘Cinderella skill’, as research has consistently found that it is the skill, teachers

  1. understand the least;
  2. have fewer resources for;
  3. feel the least confident teaching;
  4. neglect the most.

What is worse, it is also the skill language students enjoy the least and fear the most. In fact, there is a specific form of situational anxiety related to listening which has been documented by many studies. Many students’ expectancy of success or Self-efficacy is at its lowest in Listening. Professor Graham of Reading University, one of the greatest experts alive in the field of listening instruction, has researched L2 students’ self-efficacy in Listening for several decades, always finding the same issue time and again: many students approach listening task with a sense of anxiety and a poor repertoire of listening strategies.

Preventing students’ anxiety and building self-efficacy are two of our main foci in the book. We suggest a range of strategies which encompass considering affective and cognitive factors, input design and delivery, metacognitive and cognitive strategies, as well as task and assessment design. The objective: to develop approach motivation and prevent avoidance motivation from setting in.



Unfortunately, the traditional model of aural skills instruction and published textbook materials (Studio and Expo being amongst the worst French textbooks, in my opinion) perpetuate this status quo, by adopting a swim or sink approach to listening: students listen and carry out comprehension tasks without being taught how to listen in the first place. It is akin throwing football players into a match without ever having taught them the basic skills of passing, dribbling, shooting, heading, tackling, etc.

And when listening skills are ‘taught’ it is by mainly focusing on compensatory strategies such as predicting, guessing from context and/or background knowledge, focusing on key words, etc. – all useful strategies, don’t get me wrong, but not what Steve and I believe listening should be mostly about. This approach to listening is ‘Top-heavy’, i.e. it focuses on the development of the set of top-down processing skills that we use in our first language whenever we experience problems in understanding incoming input ; for instance, when we are talking to someone on a bad skype connection or in a noisy bar or when we are listening to someone with a serious speech impairment. In other words, modern languages students are taught from the beginning to the end of a course to resort to survival skills when they listen; not to try and understand the vast majority of the linguistic cues in the input they hear, as they do in their first language.

This practice sends our students the message : you will never get it, so just guess intelligently from context and focus on keywords to get the information you are asked to provide.

Steve and I believe listening instruction in the formative years of language learning should focus on the process of listening (i.e. developing students’ ability to listen), not on the product (e.g. a score out of ten). The approach we advocate in our book, L.A.M. (or Listening As Modelling) is rooted in this belief.

But being able to focus on the process of listening means understanding the cognitive bases of listening, i.e. what happens in the brain as we listen and the potential barriers to comprehension. Without fully understanding such barriers, it is difficult to empathize with our students and prepare them for effective aural comprehension. Providing our readers with an understanding of the listening processes – based on John Field’s seminal work on the cognition of aural comprehension – is the starting point of our book.


the listening process


Once identified (1) the various stages of listening comprehension, (2) the vulnerabilities to aural fluency at each level of processing as well as (3) the obstacles that the finite resources of the human brain and the nature of aural input pose to L2 listeners, Steve and I propose a skill-building approach to listening.

By this we mean approaching listening instruction in the same way as a football coach trains his or her players for the big match, i.e.: building up the micro-skills required by the student-listener gradually and steadily, providing 95-98 % comprehensible input and abundant opportunities for processing key language at every level of grain. Whilst the football player needs to master the micro-skills of dribbling, passing, shooting, heading, etc., the learner-listener needs to master the following core abilities:

  • Phonemic processing (recognizing and analyzing sounds)
  • Syllable processing (recognizing and analyzing syllables)
  • Segmenting (identifying word boundaries)
  • Lexical retrieval
  • Parsing (recognizing grammatical and syntactic patterns, functions words, assigning roles to words, recognizing word classes, etc.)
  • Meaning building (understanding meaning of individual sentences)
  • Discourse building

In our book we provide teachers with a vast array of tested strategies and engaging tasks to develop the above skills in their students. The mission: forging students who are versed in the art of extracting cues from aural input at every level of processing, from sound to vocabulary, from grammar to syntax, from grasping the meaning of an utterance to the understanding of a whole text. At the last count the book contained 218 tasks – all research informed – equally distributed across all the above listed areas.

How many times have you taught segmenting, lexical retrieval or parsing skills through listening? In my experience, few teachers do. Yet, in the first 400-500 milliseconds of processing aural input, our brain execute these skills at a very fast speed. Hence, extensive practice in these core micro-abilities is essential.

The structure of the book is outlined in Table 1 below. Each of the 12 chapters starts with a thorough but concise discussion of the theory and research which provide a rationale for our approach, followed by a substantive section packed with a vast array of practical tips, strategies and tasks. The language used is as simplified and jargon-free as possible, in order to render the book accessible to everyone, even to non-classroom practitioners.

Table 1: breakdown of the book’s content

book's breakdown.png

The only chapters which are different in structure are Chapter 8 and 12. In Chapter 8, we show how listening can be integrated with the other three skills; a very important chapter, in the economy of our book, as a key theme that runs throughout our book is that Listening is a precursor to Speaking and that students should not venture into oral production until they have consolidated the target L2 items receptively first.

In Chapter 12 we provide suggestions on how to develop listening in a language department where this skill is lagging. Here are our 9 principles for framing the planning of an intervention programme:

1. Where are we now? 

An evaluation of current practice is worth carrying out. To what extent do we understand the rationale and research support for activities we do? What percentage of time is spent on one-way and two way-listening? Where listening is happening, to what extent is it focused on process? How do students respond to listening lessons?

2.Target language

How much L2 are we using in class? To what extent does the Scheme of Work/Learning or Curriculum Plan spell out that L2 use is at the heart of lessons? Is this actually carried out? We wouldn’t suggest a specific percentage of L2 use since this is too directive and classes vary, but a conscious decision can be made that L2 is the default position. Most of the listening students do is, as we’ve seen, interpersonal. So should interactive, communicative lessons be a number one priority – using the language, not talking about it? How would L2 based lessons look? We know this is a challenging area for many teachers. Would they include choral repetition, reading aloud, the use of sentence-builder frames, thorough structured drilling and QA interactions, L2 games, less controlled dialogues such as role-play, adapting dialogues, information gap activities and communicative tasks? We know students who receive a consistent diet of meaningful interaction will inevitably become better listeners. Why not share with students the rationale for what you do?

3. It’s fine to just listen

With pressure on to ensure students are active and ‘having fun’, do we avoid long bouts of listening work? We know listening is by no means a passive task, so while lessons usually need to be varied to hold interest, is it fine to plan for quiet, active listening in lessons, alongside a diet of teacher-led and paired oral practice? Is spending 20 minutes working on a gapped transcript or dictation more beneficial than a piece of unstructured role play or producing a digital artefact? Furthermore, importantly, would overworked teachers be justified in seeing the “listening lesson” as a time to recharge batteries as the class does a calm activity? We’re familiar with this feeling!

4. Not just comprehension

Instead of just doing comprehension, how many exercises do we do which develop the micro-skills of listening? Could we weave into lessons activities we suggest in Chapters 3, 4 and 5? Do we do enough transcription, dictation, gap-filling and intonation practice? Do we take every opportunity to develop phonological and phonics skill by doing specific pronunciation practice, teaching letter to sound equivalents and talking about phonetics and phonology? Do we ever make do with second-best when it comes to pronunciation? With our beginners—intermediate students do we exploit short, comprehensible texts thoroughly, rather than longer, harder to understand texts superficially?

5. Listening for a purpose

We know students enjoy meaning-focused tasks with a purpose so do we build into the Scheme of Work at all levels specific communicative tasks and games where the focus is on listening? Do we find a suitable balance of process-focused, nitty-gritty listening work with information gaps, whole class tasks and purposeful games, such as those described in Chapters 6 and 7? Do we make listening social activity whenever we can? Do we have chats at the door when students enter or leave? Do we start lessons with brief listening and speaking exchanges about likes, dislikes, what students did last weekend, last lesson or last night?

6. Confident listeners

We know making listening feasible builds self-efficacy and creates confident listeners. Are we using texts and our own input at or just above the students’ current level? If we use a challenging resource, do we scaffold exercises sufficiently, working the material intensively so students feel they’ve mastered it? Are we flexible in our use of audio material, reading it aloud or giving extra opportunities to listen? Do we also make occasional use of short, authentic material so students get to hear what the real language sounds like? Do we use all the tricks of the trade to make listening comprehensible: gesture, pictures, facial expression, slowing down and so on. Do we deliberately practise these? Do we translate from time to time, paraphrase, repeat and pause? Do we write language up on the board after using it? Do we use formative assessment techniques to check for understanding?

7. Strategies

When comprehension fails, students may have to fall back on compensatory strategies for coping. Do we help students to think of ways they can work out meaning when they don’t understand the input: their general knowledge of the world, their knowledge of what they might expect people to say, the intonation of what’s said, and other linguistic clues? Do we have techniques for developing these skills, such as modelling, thinking aloud and specific exercises? Do we rely too much on these to compensate for weak decoding skills or an inappropriate choice of text? Have you discussed the role and range of strategies to support listening? Have you considered building these into your Scheme of Work? Do you discuss with students their problems with listening and ways to cope with harder texts? Do we do everything we can to find out what students think about listening? Do we attempt to reduce any anxiety about the process?


If we know that vocabulary knowledge is central to listening skill and language acquisition, how might we improve our approach? Are we doing too much isolated word learning? Could we present and practise words through chunks, sentences and paragraphs? Does our syllabus create opportunities to review vocabulary on a regular basis through tasks and texts? Do we take every opportunity to present vocabulary through the aural medium? Do we keep in mind forgetting rates and the principle of spaced learning?

9.Test and exam preparation

Do we have a planned, agreed approach to the run-up to high stakes exams such as the GCSE? Do we match our teaching to the test and vice versa? How influenced are we by washback? Are our students well versed in the question types they’ll encounter? Are we explicit in telling students what they’ll be tested on? Are our own tests fair, generating scores which will not discourage students?

Compared to our previous book, “The Language Teacher Toolkit”, “Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” is more research-informed. Every key statement is referenced and a quick glance at the 20-page long bibliography will give you a clear idea of the amount of reading and research behind this book.

In conclusion, this is an evidence-informed book written by very experienced teachers (60 years of teaching between the two of us!) for other teachers. There are tons of ideas, games, tasks and strategies that we have magpied from the best or have developed and tested ourselves. We are confident you will find something useful in there.

I am personally very proud of this book and I strongly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a clear and no-nonsense guide to listening. Just do not expect magic tricks to pass high-stake examinations. This book is about Listening As Modelling, i.e. building capacity in our student-listeners during the formative years of language learning, when high-stake examinations are not in sight and should in no way affect our teaching.

In our approach L2 instructors are primarily teacher-nurturers, not teacher-examiners. They talk to their students’ eyes; they do not merely press ‘Play’ buttons abdicating modelling to an audio track designed for an anonymous learner. Our mission is to model language, skills and culture; to facilitate linguistic and personal growth; to make learning engaging, enjoyable and successful. Not to quiz students day in day out on what is largely incomprehensible input, thereby building the perception of listening tasks as something you learn little – if anything – from.


We hope that reading this book will deepen your understanding of listening, raise your awareness of its key role in learning and enhance your sense of efficacy and agency vis-à-vis this key skill. In the words of our concluding remarks on page 248 of our book:


Finally, let me thank Dr Elspeth Jones, Professor Emerita at Leeds Beckett University, expert in Internationalism and – last but not least – Steve’s spouse, for patiently editing and formatting the book.

I hope you enjoy our book if you do get hold of it. Any feedback will be much appreciated.


“Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” is available for purchase on Amazon.