Foreign language instructors’ most frequent pitfall and implications for teaching and learning


Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of 

As already discussed in previous posts, my instructional approach to foreign language teaching is rooted in Cognitive theories of L2 acquisition and, more specifically, in Skill theory (e.g. Anderson, 2000). Hence, my teaching is based on two main assumptions: (1) for any macro-skill to be fully acquired each and every micro-skill that that macro-skill can be broken down into must be fully acquired, too; (2) certain linguistic features are less teachable than others based on the cognitive challenges they pose to the learner, not on innate mechanisms (e.g. you would not ask a child who has not learnt the multiplication tables to solve a complex equation); many of the cognitive challenges will be of course posed by L1 negative transfer.

In twenty-five years of professional practice Steve and I have seen many language instructors frequently flout the above principles, often due to the pace and content dictated by ‘sketchy’ schemes of work or to the typical British MFL textbook structure. The new PBL trend further exacerbates the issue by neglecting the skill-building dimension of language learning.

This post concerns itself with a phenomenon which most teachers observe day-in day-out in their classroom with novice to intermediate learners: recurrent learner errors in the execution of the following micro-skills, which refer to the execution of high frequency and quite important linguistic features in most of the languages taught in the UK (e.g. French, Spanish, Italian, German, Latin etc.)

  1. Effectively manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number
  4. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of case (German and Latin)
  5. Placing adjectives after noun (French, Italian and Spanish)
  6. Positioning direct/indirect pronouns before (most) verbs
  7. Effectively decoding target language words (ability to turn letters into sound)

Teachers complain about the recurrence of student errors in these areas on a daily basis. What is most worrying is that many of these errors occur in written output, when, that is, an L2 writer has potentially more time to monitor and, consequently, to self-correct. This can only mean two things: (1) either the student lacks declarative knowledge of the grammar structure to deploy or (2) s/he has failed to apply the grammar rule due to cognitive overload. Both scenarios indicate that the to-be-applied structure is far from being routinized. Why?

The answer: for any skill to be routinized, the brain must create what Skill-theorists call a Production. A Production is like a program embedded in our Brain’s operating system which is triggered by a cue. Skill-theorist call this cue the ‘IF-condition’ of a production and the brain’s response to that cue the ‘THEN condition’. For instance, in the case of Noun-adjective agreement,

IF an adjective qualifies a noun (in French)

THEN that adjective’s ending must agree in gender and number with the noun

 IF the noun is feminine 

 THEN the adjective adds an ‘-e’ to the ending, unless it is irregular or ends in ‘-e’ already

This Production is – at least in theory – easy to create at declarative level (i.e. as a rule). The problem is that an English-speaking novice/intermediate student’s first language will work against its application at the early stages of internalizing the rule, because of negative transfer (in English you do not change adjectival endings in this context); this is especially the case when a student is working under time constraints or communicative pressure and is not asked to focus explicitly on agreement. Hence, two, three or even four lessons on adjectival agreement will never be sufficient, like many teachers seem to presume. They are often satisfied that their students seem to get adjectival agreement right during the lessons explicitly devoted to that grammar structure and they move on to another topic or skill.

The problem is that after two, three or even ten lessons that Production is only at the very early stages of its routinization. It will take many instances of application and positive feedback on its deployment for that Production to be automatized (i.e. applied quickly and effortlessly) as the brain is very cautious before ‘deciding’ to create any new permanent cognitive structure. Hence the fundamental micro-skills listed above must be practised as extensively as possible whether in class or through homework – ideally in every single lesson – before one can assume they have been mastered.

Although I am sure that most teachers would agree with most of the above, I wonder how many MFL classroom practitioners actually focus consistently and extensively enough on ensuring that they are effectively routinized. Yet, unless we do not care about accuracy, lack of routinization of the above micro-skills can undermine the subsequent learning of important complex structures and, consequently, progression along the L2 acquisition continuum. Here is an example. Think about the first three items in the micro-skills list above:

  1. Manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number

A few years ago I observed a lesson where the instructor was teaching her students (French) reflexive verbs in the Perfect tense (e.g. je me suis habillée) where the Past Participle has to agree in gender and number with the subject. It was clear to me not only that the students had not at all routinized the three micro-skills above but that they had not received much practice in verb-ending manipulation at all – a fundamental skill to master when learning a Latin language. Their processing ability was poor and this hindered their progression throughout the lesson. They were clumsy and slow in manipulating verbs and this impacted their accuracy and fluency.

Much of the cognitive overload that hinders language acquisition in French, Spanish, Italian and German learning is due to the insufficient practice students receive across those micro-skills. The Anglo-Saxon brain being not wired for and not used to manipulating verb and adjectival endings, a great amount of effort must be put on a daily basis by teachers on practising this specific set of micro-skills consistently  and systematically since the very early stages of learning. As I intend to show below, it is easy, not very time consuming and it pays enormous dividends. In my case, with CIE as an examination board, getting my student to be 100% correct in verb and tenses formation is a must, since the written exams assessment scheme requires high levels of accuracy (e.g. the written piece must feature the accurate use of 18 different verbs).

The same applies to any of the other micro-skills on that list. Consider word order of adjectives. Taken in isolation, the rule/Production “IF an adjective qualifies the noun, THEN place the adjective after the noun” seems easy to grasp and acquire. And at the end of a single lesson on it, teachers usually feel confident that it has been learnt. However, the above Production, when combined with the other related productions “IF the adjective qualifies a noun it must agree in gender and number with that noun” and “IF the noun is feminine THEN the adjective adds an ‘-e’ becomes much less easy to handle effectively and efficiently in cognitive terms unless the other two Productions have been highly routinized. Processing of the above Productions becomes even more cumbersome with novice learners when it occurs in the context of the creation of a complex sentence where they are coping with several structures simultaneously (e.g. conjugating the verbs in the sentence, choosing the right preposition, retrieving the correct lexis).

If novice to intermediate learners are not provided sufficient practice in the above micro-skills the risk of L1 transfer impacting student output will always be present, especially when the learners are working under pressure in contexts where there is not much time for self-monitoring (e.g exams, oral performance). This may lead to the fossilization of erroneous forms (i.e. the permanent internalization of mistakes) even when the learners know the rule(s) relative to those forms. This is a widely documented phenomenon in English secondary schools.

In conclusion, curriculum designers and teachers must reconsider the way they go about progression, in my view, or at least allow for more practice of the above micro-skills and related structures. Teachers using Independent Inquiry / PBL must be particularly cautious as this aspect of L2 learning is often neglected in their instructional approach. Creative ways must be found to embed any of the activities below.

Implications for the classroom – curriculum design and minimumpreparation teaching strategies

  1. Systematic recycling in Schemes of Work: in the first two or even three years of instruction, schemes of work should make explicit reference to the above micro-skills and allow for constant recycling. Opportunities for regular formative assessment aimed at evaluating the routinization of the micro-skills should be included, too.
  1. Micro-skill tracking : As I already advocated in a previous post, the use of a tracking sheet where one logs all the instances of recycling of each micro-skill in lessons can be extremely handy in assisting recycling
  1. Grammaticality judgment quizzes (to be used only at initial stages): Write three phrases on the board of which only one is accurate: e.g. une belle femme – une beau femme – une bel femme
  1. Gap-fills with or without options (still for the initial stages only): there are plenty of free gap-fills activities online (e.g.; ). I have uploaded lots of free ones onto has loads, too.
  1. Online self-marking verb trainers (at any stage): I find verb-trainers very valuable to the point that I created my own (free at I ask my students to go on it every day for five minutes purely as a habit formation tool. Do not presume that just because they get 100 % on a verb trainer module and they can conjugate verbs very fast they have routinized verb use, obviously. They need to demonstrate correct deployment of verbs under real operating conditions, first.
  1. Mini White board activities (novice to advance stage depending on complexity)

5a. Translations (my favourite);

5b. Verb training – give pronoun, verb and tense and ask students to conjugate on the spot;

5c. From sound to letter (decoding skills) – pronounce a sound (e.g. ‘uah’ – in French) and ask students to write the combination of letters it represents (e.g. oi) ;

5d. Short dictations – utter a word that you have never taught your students and ask them to guess its spelling based on their decoding-skills repertoire

5e. Picture task –  example: picture of a green car; students to write: una macchina verde (Italian) / une voiture verte (French)


  1. Oral translation (novice to advance stage depending on complexity) – This is another favourite of mine. Students are given cards with bullet points and need to translate them into the target language in real time. Each bullet point will elicit the execution of the target micro-skill (e.g. agreement; verb conjugation; word order). This can be done impromptu, if one wants to assess student level of fluency or after some preparation. Although they require a bit more preparation – not much, though – the cards can be used across languages.


Teachers often complain about their students’ mistakes in the execution of the following micro-skills:

  1. Effectively manipulating word endings to make subject and verb agree
  2. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of gender
  3. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of number
  4. Effectively manipulating word endings to make adjective agree with noun/pronoun in terms of case (German and Latin)
  5. Placing adjectives after noun (French, Italian and Spanish)
  6. Positioning direct/indirect pronouns before (most) verbs
  7. Effectively decoding target language words (ability to turn letters into sound)

However, the problem lies in the lack of extensive practice the students receive in the performance of those skills. At the early stages of instruction students must be given extensive practice as frequently as possible until there is evidence that they have automatized them and that their execution occupies only subsidiary awareness. Moving on to another topic or structure prematurely can have serious negative consequences for student learning.

Why foreign language teachers have to rethink their approach to grammar instruction

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In one of my latest posts I made some recommendations as to how grammar instruction should be implemented. One particular point made in that post seems to have resonated the most with my readers:

Never say ‘my students have learnt structure ‘X’ effectively’ unless you have evidence that they can perform it accurately under Real Operating Conditions.

What this statement alludes to is a common misconception amongst many L2 teachers that a given grammar rule has indeed been acquired by their learners if these can articulate it and/or apply it accurately in the context of gap-fill exercises, multiple choice quizzes, translations or written pieces. This assumption leads to a misguided approach to grammar teaching, i.e. one that:

  • Teaches grammar through means which merely impart intellectual knowledge, i.e. how the target grammar rule works (e.g. verb formation, contexts in which structure ‘X’ should be used and not used);
  • Involves the students in the application of the grammar rule in contexts in which working memory’s attentional systems have more time to monitor performance than real-time communication would normally allow them ;
  • Does not aim at high levels of routinization (i.e. automization) of the target structure application, i.e. the transformation of declarative knowledge into procedural knowledge. In other words, focuses on the conscious application of the target grammar rule, not on its automatic (and accurate) implementation;

Such an approach can have harmful consequences for learning, especially in the absence of systematic and well-planned recycling of the grammar structures taught (another common flaws of much grammar teaching). The reason being that in the absence of routinization the learners are likely to make errors in contexts where they experience cognitive overload, such as oral unstructured communicative practice, essay writing under time constraints, or any other circumstances in which their working memory’s attentional capabilities are drastically reduced (e.g. when under stress).

The recurrence of such errors may lead to their automatization and to the consolidation in Long term Memory of erroneous forms relative to a given grammar structure which may end up competing for retrieval with the correct structure. For example, a student who has learnt the Perfect tense formation rule “Auxiliary ETRE + PAST PARTICIPLE’ (for verbs like ‘ALLER’ or ‘SORTIR’) but has not had the time and practice to routinize it, may get it wrong several times – as it often happens – and say ‘J’ai allé’, for instance’ when performing under R.O.C (real operating conditions). If that mistake keeps happening over and over again and it is not treated effectively it may become automatized; when that happens, the student will end up storing in their brain two cognitive structures referring to ‘Aller’ in the Perfect Tense: ‘J’ai allé’ and ‘Je suis allé’(the correct form). When under communicative pressure or stress, the two forms will compete for retrieval and the more automatized structure will win. Notice that the automatized structure – not necessarily the correct one –  WILL win the retrieval race even though the student does consciously know the rule and will be able to self-correct the mistake once he is cued to its occurrence. This has huge consequences for teaching and learning.

Before delving further into the implications of the above point for L2 grammar instruction, let me quickly reiterate some key points made in previous posts about grammar acquisition and automatization

Automatization or Routinization –

Automatization (or routinization) means that the performance of an L2 grammar rule is applied without having to ‘think’, so to speak. In other words, the performance of the grammar rule bypasses consciousness and Working Memory. This is easy to understand, but how does one measure routinization, i.e. the extent to which a grammar rule is automatized?

To my knowledge, no studies so far have measured automatization in quantifiable terms. And for teaching purposes it is not necessary in my opinion to know how many milliseconds a native speaker takes to deploy a grammar structure. The kind of automatization that a teacher would want to detect in their students’ oral output will be dependent on many factors, such as the years of instruction, individual variables, the type of structure whose deployment one is assessing, the linguistic context in which the structures is being used (familiar or unfamiliar), etc. Hence, it is up to the teacher to decide, based on the specific context they operate in, how close to native speaker speed they would like their students’ performance to be and which criteria best serve their pedagogic purpose. I use the very simple scale below to assess the accurate automatization of a given structure. It allows me to assess speed and accuracy of deployment simultaneously. The categories are quite broad but allow me to get useful enough data.

Very fast     Highly accurate   Quite accurate    Fairly accurate   Inaccurate   Highly inaccurate

Fast            Highly accurate   Quite accurate    Fairly accurate   Inaccurate   Highly inaccurate

Fairly fast   Highly accurate   Quite accurate    Fairly accurate   Inaccurate   Highly inaccurate

Slow            Highly accurate   Quite accurate    Fairly accurate   Inaccurate   Highly inaccurate

Very slow    Highly accurate   Quite accurate    Fairly accurate   Inaccurate   Highly inaccurate

The tasks one uses to assess automatization and the task linguistic environment will have a bearing on the accuracy and speed of rule application. Hence, one has to stick to the same task/linguistic context for the whole year if one wants to map progression consistently. I tend to use oral translation tasks in which the language used is familiar so as to focus the student’s cognitive resources solely on the target structure.

The three routes to grammar acquisition (routinization)

According to my espoused theory of L2 acquisition, Skill Theory, grammar rule routinization in a typical classroom setting occurs along three routes:

(1) Procedural to Procedural : this route does not involve explicit grammar rule learning. To go back to the “je suis allee’ example, the learner will learn the perfect tense of ‘Aller’ without having to consciously understand the mechanics of its formation. They will just learn ‘je suis allé’ as a chunk, like you do with a lexical item. They will also learn the other perfect tense forms of ‘Aller’ in the same way. This approach allows for quick routinization but lack generative power because the students do not have a rule to generalize to other verbs / contexts.

(2) Declarative to Procedural: this route is the most commonly used by L2 teachers. The target rule is taught explicitly before being practised. For instance, the teacher will teach how to form the Perfect tense of ‘Aller’ and of all the other verbs requiring ‘Etre’ as an auxiliary, ensuring that the students understand the underlying pattern. Automatization takes longer to occur along this route as the learner will have to automatize every single step in the application of the rule.

(3) Mix of (1) and (2): in this approach, which is my favourite, one uses the procedural-to-procedural way first, then, once the learners have had sufficient exposure to the target rule, the rule is brought into their conscious awareness and is explicitly taught – connecting the dots a posteriori so to speak. Using the ‘Je suis allee’ example: the teacher would first provide lots of exposure to the verbs requiring ‘Etre’ in the Perfect Tense teaching them as ‘chunks’ in context; then, after they feel that they have been routinized, the teacher will provide them/ask them to infer the rule(s). This approach combines the strengths of both approaches but requires more effort in planning and resourcing than the other two – and also more creativity, as one has to design activities which bring about opportunities to practise all the target verb forms before the onset of the declarative stage.

Implications for teaching and learnin

1.Aim at grammar rule routinization. Whatever the approach one elects to undertake, the crucial issue remains the same: the learners must automatize the target structure before one can safely assume that it has been internalized by the students. So, first and foremost, one must provide grammar practice conducive to automatization (i.e. fast and accurate rule application); secondly assessments of the kind outlined above gives us a fairly good idea as to where our students are in terms of accurate automatization and cognitive control.

As far as the learning activities which foster automatization are concerned, the same recommendations I have made for fluency development in previous posts apply here. The learners need lots of practice in applying grammar rules under time constraints in linguistic contexts which become increasingly more challenging. So after an initial stage which includes the usual gap-fills, ending manipulations (e.g. by using my verb trainer at and written translations in the absence of any time constraint and communicative pressure, two stages should ensue: firstly, a stage in which the rule application occurs in writing under time constraints (e.g through L1 to L2 translations on MWBs ); secondly, a phase in which the grammar rule is applied in speaking in response to a stimulus (e.g. oral translation, picture task, conversation, etc.).

The key issue is that teachers aim consciously at automatization and plan for it by ensuring there is extensive practice in routinization and recycling of the target structures.

2. Do not jump steps and plan for horizontal progression. If grammar structure ‘Y’ requires the routinization of structure ‘X’ as a prerequisite for its successful uptake, then structure ‘X’ will have to be drilled in over and over again until it has been acquired. Hence, for ‘Je suis allee’ to be taught successfully (using route 2) the learners will have to have routinized the formation of the verb ‘Etre’ as well as past-participle formation. This is not often done; teachers do usually ensure that the students know the formation of the present of ‘Avoir’ and ‘Etre’ and of the Past Participle before embarking in the learning of the Perfect tense but do not ensure that they have been automized. In many cases the teacher explains Past-Participle-formation rules in the same lesson in which they teach and practise Perfect tense formation. This poses an unnecessarily heavy cognitive load on the learner. Thus it is crucial that teachers plan for horizontal progression by ensuring that extensive practice in target structure application is provided to learners until automatization has reached the desirable level (e.g. Fast application / quite accurate).

3. Assess grammar rule routinization – not understanding/knowedge of . Assessment of the kind envisaged above ought to be carried out to ascertain that the target grammar rules have indeed been automatized, especially when they refer to key structures. To ‘know’ / ‘understand’ how a grammar rule works does not equate with having acquired it; so do not use assessment tasks that merely test knowledge and understanding of the target rule

4. Teacher response to error on specific grammar structures should be based on their level of automatization. Teachers often get frustrated at seeing errors recurring over and over again despite many grammar explanations and corrections. However, neither the explanations nor the corrections are conducive to automatization. Teacher response to errors relative to a given structure should aim at provide extensive practice in that structure’s deployment leading to its accurate automatization. Only at that stage will the errors in the application of that structure cease to occur or at least drastically diminish. Hence, simply correcting errors with the Perfect Tense of ‘aller’ when they write ‘J’ai alle’ in an essay at the very early stages of routinization of the ‘Etre verbs’ rule may constitute a helpful reminder, but is hardly likely to eradicate the error.


Accurate automatization of the target grammar rule being the ultimate goal of any explicit grammar instruction, foreign language teachers may have to rethink the way they teach grammar and assess its internalization as well as their response to learner grammar errors. Foreign language learners must receive extensive practice in target grammar rule application under time constraints and R.O.C. (real operating conditions).

Teachers can only claim that their learners have acquired a specific grammar structures when they can deploy it fast and accurately across a fairly wide range of familiar and unfamiliar contexts. Hence, the assessment of grammar uptake must be carried out not through typical traditional means (e.g. gap-fills, grammar rule explanations or written translations) but through tasks which elicit from them a fast response in cognitively demanding contexts.

Curriculum designers must take into consideration the fact that grammar rule acquisition requires extensive practice. Hence, sufficient time must be allocated to grammar teaching – if it is one of the course’s priorities – and frequent opportunities for recycling must be carefully planned for.

Finally, let us not forget that accurate automatization of grammar rules contributes to fluency enhancement. This is a further reason for fostering its attainment as much as possible in our daily practice.

16 tips for effective grammar teaching in the foreign language classroom

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Dylan Viñales of Garden International School.

  1. Do not use the target language for challenging grammar points– Using the target language when explaining a complex grammar point can cause cognitive deficit which may hinder understanding of the target structure you are attempting to teach. Hence, when introducing a new grammar structure it is advisable to use the students’ L1. Your decision as to whether to use the L1 rather than the L2 will also be dictated by time and resources constraints.
  2. Identify the cognitive steps that the application of the target rule involves and teach one step at the time – Many complex grammar structures require the learner to apply a number of cognitive steps. Some steps will be more difficult to execute than others as they involve cognitive operations that the students are not used to performing in their native language. In many lessons I have observed these were taken for granted and not modelled and practised sufficiently. For a complex structure to become automatized, every cognitive operation its application involves must be routinized. Notice that here ‘routinized’ does not merely means ‘knowing’ how to perform each operation, but performing automatically, bypassing conscious attention. Think about the Perfect Tense in French; it is not enough for the students to know each person of the verb ‘to have’ and how to form the past participle of verbs in –er, -re and –ir. The students will have to have automatized each of those operations if we want them to perform Perfect Tense formation accurately under real operating conditions.
  3. Teach irregular forms before you teach the regular ones – as I wrote in a previous post, in my experience it is more effective to teach the dominant rule governing a grammar structure after one is sure that the students have automatized the less dominant rule. Why? Think about irregular verb forms. You first tell the students that the conjugation of French verbs in the present tense follows a given pattern; then, after a few lessons – often before the students have even automatized those forms – you tell them that there are verbs that do not follow those patterns and you ask them to restructure the system that they have worked hard on creating. This will lead (a) to a lot of overgeneralization errors (where the learners will apply the regular verb formation rules to irregular forms); (b) disorientation. By teaching irregular forms first, on the other hand, without focusing on rules, but as lexical items, there will be no need for any cognitive restructuring later. Teachers must ensure, however, that the irregular forms are automatized before moving on.
  4. Tolerate overgeneralizations and don’t correct them – If you choose not to follow the previous principle, do ensure that you do not correct any overgeneralizations (e.g. j’ai prendu* or j’ai veni*). In fact, do encourage them; after all, it is a rule you are teaching and you want to ensure that rule is incorporated in the brain’s operating system. To correct an overgeneralization slows down the rule acquisition process as it sends negative feedback to the brain, which will inhibit acquisition of the target rule.
  5. Do not present the target grammar structure in linguistically challenging contexts – when illustrating and practising a new grammar rule you must ensure that the brain’s finite cognitive resources are properly channelled. Hence the load on working memory must be kept to the minimum to free up cognitive space. Minimizing the linguistic and conceptual challenge posed by any text used to model the target rule application is thus imperative. Avoid long and complex sentences; avoid examples containing unfamiliar language; provide the L1 translation next to each L2 example.
  6. Provide plenty of receptive practice before you ask the students to go productive – Before asking your students to apply the grammar rule in oral or written L2 production provide plenty of opportunities to notice, analyze and evaluate its deployment in the context of listening and/or reading texts. This will enhance the acquisition process by lessening the cognitive load (recognition is usually less challenging in cognitive/motor-sensorial terms than production) and will support successful production by providing correct models in context often pre-empting potential L1 transfer performance errors. For example: take the third person of the present (indicative) tense of French verbs (e.g. ils regardent); by focusing students through lots of modelling on the pronunciation of the ending ‘-ent’ you will avoid the very common mispronunciation of that ending that many students perform and often fossilize. Receptive practice may include texts containing occurrences of he target structure and asking students to perform some sort of structural analysis on them (e.g. What form of the verb is this? Why is this adjective placed before the verb? Is ‘normalement’ a verb ? ). Grammaticality-judgment multiple choice quizzes are very useful in this respect, too.
  7. Involve students in plenty of controlled practice within non-challenging contexts to start with – Steve Smith’s latest blog on controlled practice at illustrates very clearly how such practice can be implemented effectively through a number of tasks ranging from very easy gap-fills, mechanical audiolingual-style manipulation drills and more challenging written and oral translations. This phase is usually overlooked and not practised extensively enough, yet it is as important as practising extensive rallying in tennis before learning to play a proper match.
  8. Aim at cognitive control in unplanned speech as the end-goal of grammar teaching – The teaching of every single grammar structure should aim at the learners’ ability to perform the application of a grammar rule under Real Operating Conditions. A teacher cannot claim that a grammar structure is acquired until a learner can perform it fast, accurately and spontaneously (in unplanned speech) under Real Operating Conditions. This refers back to my advocacy of frequent involvement of students in masses of interactional writing and oral communicative activities (peer coaching of the kind envisaged in point 14, below, can be used here to enhance learner focus on target structure performance). A large amount of structured drills and less structured communicative activities will be needed for students to automatise the target grammar rule(s).
  9. Plan every grammar lessons with L1 positive and negative transfer in mind – Always plan for ways to control for the ‘threats’ to L2 grammar learning posed by the L1 grammar. Also, do seek ways to capitalize on the similarities between the L1 and L2.
  10. Consciously recycle grammar structures frequently – funny how everyone that comes across this concept says ‘of course!’ but very few teachers actually do it. Yet this is so important and is the reason why it is crucial that a teacher carries on teaching the same class for as long as possible over the years. A good tip is to keep a tally of the structures you teach. I do this on a google document which looks like a grid which lists the key target grammar structures (horizontally) and my classes (vertically); every time I go over a structure I tick it. This gives me an overview of how often I have recycled each structure during a given segment of the academic year.
  11. Use scaffolds and mnemonics with complex structures – When dealing with a complex structure (e.g. one involving multiple cognitive operations) scaffolds can help a great deal. Scaffolds can consist of a number of reminders such as, for adjectives, questions like the following:

    a. Does this adjective have a regular or irregular ending?

    b. Is it one of those adjectives that goes before or after the noun?

    c. Is the adjective plural or singular? Make sure you use the appropriate ending.

Every time the students go through each adjective whilst writing a piece, they will have to log their answers and show it to the teacher as evidence.

  1. Remember that for a grammar structure to be fully acquired it must be practised across all four skills – This is self-explanatory. A grammar structure must be acquired across all four skills; this calls for masses of listening, reading, speaking and writing practice.
  2. Flipped learning of the target structure prior to lesson – Student-led inquiry on how certain grammar rules work prior to classroom instruction is a great way to enhance student learning – provided the target structures are relatively simple and within the developmental grasp of the learners. This can be done through inductive learning whereby the students are given examples of the target structure and are asked questions to answer by doing some autonomous research.
  3. Peer/teacher coaching with narrow focus – during oral pair-work activities (controlled and/or unstructured) students may be asked to peer-coach with an eye to only evaluate the use of the target structure.
  4. Metacognitive enhancement in the feedback process – Get the students, on getting your feedback on their errors to engage in deep processing of your corrections. You may do this in a structured way like I do by using ‘correction sheets’ which require the students to select five or six serious mistakes (which they are developmentally ready to deal with) they want to target; reflect on the causes of them (with your help, if needed); do some research on them (if they result from lack of knowledge); work out a scaffold and/or remedial strategy; produce own examples of the application of the broken rule. I have used this approach often and it can be very effective, especially with highly motivated students. In my PhD study, I obtained amazing results with this technique.
  5. Conscious use of formulaic language containing complex grammar structures usually associated with a higher developmental level in order to pave the way for future learning – Example, my colleague Dylan Vinales teaches his students as early as year 7 or 8 the following phrases containing complex grammar structures as unanalyzed chunks: Si tuviera mucho tiempo me gustaria… / Ojala fuera más… / Si me hubieras preguntado hace 5 años habría dicho que + imperfect. By memorizing these and other phrases containing the same structures the students will be better prepared for explicit instruction on those structures later on in their learning when the teacher will ‘connect the dots’ so to speak by making references to all the unanalysed chunks he will have taught them by then. This approach is most effective if the introduction and recycling of the unanalyzed chunks is planned carefully.

In conclusion, for grammar teaching to be effective we need to convert the students’ declarative (intellectual) knowledge of a grammar rule into procedural knowledge (automatization). Teachers must recognize that this is a very lengthy process which starts from a very slow application of all the cognitive steps subsumed in the application of the rule to fast deployment of the rule which bypasses consciousness.

For this to happen students must be involved in a lot of structured and unstructured practice. Often, in my experience, many teachers do not do enough of either kind, yet they express frustration when their students keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Grammar is not acquired by only doing lots of gap-filling exercises or written translations. The only way to automatize grammar rules is by practising their application under time constraints with lots of support to start with and by slowly fading out any scaffolding until routinization has occurred. Hence, oral communicative activities have a major role to play in promoting L2 grammar acquisition.

Never say ‘my students have learnt structure ‘X’ effectively unless you have evidence that they can perform it accurately under Real Operating Conditions.

You can find more on this topic in the book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ I co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase at

Five useful things many MFL teachers don’t do


  1. Teach word structural analysis

As I argued in my previous post ‘Why foreign language teachers may want to rethink their approach to reading instruction’, effective reading comprehension results from the successful use of Top-down and Bottom-up processing. In that post I did not provide an exhaustive list of all the bottom-up comprehension strategies L2 teachers can model to their students, but I did underscore the importance of enhancing learner word recognition skills.

One strategy that can be taught to our students in order to enhance their chances to comprehend unfamiliar words is a powerful strategy called Structural Analysis which is not often taught in the typical mainstream UK classroom and has literally ‘saved my life’ in many situations.

This consists in training students in analyzing the morphology of the unfamiliar words they encounter in the written input they are exposed to by dividing them into parts, i.e. separating the root word from its prefixes and suffixes. Instruction in Structural analysis will include teaching

  1. what the most common prefixes in the target language mean (see: for fairly comprehensive lists of prefixes meaning in English);
  2. what the most common suffixes are and mean (see: for a very exhaustive list of suffixes and prefixes in French); and,
  3. with the help of web-based resources, the most useful root words and how to use them in order to infer the meaning of unknown lexis (e.g. ).

Learner training in Structural analysis may be carried out using the following framework:

Step 1 – Rationale for the training (i.e. to enhance students’ ability to comprehend unknown words)

Step 2 –  Raising awareness of what Prefixes, Affixes and Root words are;

Step 3 – Modelling strategy use (e.g. through think-aloud: teacher shows examples of how applying one’s knowledge of a prefix/suffix/root word as well as the context one can correctly infer the meaning of a word)

Step 4 – Extensive word-meaning-inference practice with written (or even spoken texts) preferably in the context of the unit-of-work topics. Also, the target words should not occur in isolation but in short texts;

Step 5 – Recycling the same strategy in three or four subsequent lessons in the context of 10 -15 minutes word-meaning-inference activities relevant to the topic-in-hand;

This kind of activities develop important compensation strategies, which are essential life-long language learning skills; they involve a high degree of creativity thereby tapping in high-order thinking skills. They may also have the very positive effect of enhancing our learners’ self-efficacy as readers as they will feel equipped with a new powerful tool for comprehending TL text without having to resort to the dictionary. This effect will only be brought about if the teacher plans the activities carefully, providing lots of initial ‘small wins’.

2. Train learners in oral compensation strategies

If the main aim of our language teaching is to develop our learners’ ability to cope with the linguistic demands of target language interaction, it should be imperative for us to train them regularly and systematically (not the one-off tip or session) in the effective use of compensation (communication) strategies – an important life-long survival skill. These strategies refer to the ways in which an individual creatively makes up for the expressive limitations of his target language competence (e.g. lack of vocabulary). Here are four useful compensation strategies to teach MFL learners:

  • Coinage – i.e. the individual makes up a word that does not exist using a related lexical item in their repertoire. For instance: a learner of French does not know the French verb ‘Nourrir’ (=to feed) but knows the noun ‘Nourriture’ (=‘Food’). He then makes up the word ‘Nourriturer’, which is wrong, but conveys the meaning;
  • Approximation – i.e. to go back to the above example, instead of saying ‘Nourrir’ the learner says ‘Donner de la nourriture’ (to give food), which is not exactly the best translation, but it is very close in meaning, conveys the idea and is acceptable French;
  • Paraphrasing – i.e. the students do not know a given word so they explain it, a bit like a dictionary definition would do;
  • Simplification – i.e. instead of using the same complex sentence structure he/she would use in his/her native language, the learner simplifies it so as to be able to convey the basic meaning.

The same framework outlined in the previous paragraph can be applied here, except that step 4 would include productive rather than receptive practice.

Compensation strategies are a very important skill and just like any other skill they must be practised extensively and regularly in order to be learnt. Some teachers may frown upon this type of instruction on the grounds that it may lead to sloppy L2 output or pidginization. Nonetheless, these strategies are powerful learning tools; for example when you produce a wrong but intelligible word through coinage, a native or expert TL interlocutor will understand you and usually provide you with the correct L2 form. This lexical transaction is more likely to lead to retention than looking up the same word in the dictionary.

3. Explain how the brain works

Foreign language learners, especially the more committed and metacognitive ones, do, in my experience, enjoy knowing more about how their brain works when they learn the target language. This does not mean that one should spend a whole lesson talking about neuroscience…However, showing them the diagram below, that maps out how the brain retains vocabulary over time and involving them in devising a personalised schedule based on that diagram would not take too much of your lesson time; would not require scientific jargon and would foster metacognition (thinking about and planning one’s learning).

With some of my groups I also venture in brief and concise explanations of (a) how Working Memory operates in an attempt to hammer home the importance of concentration, good pronunciation and associative strategies; (b) how forgetting is often cue-dependent; (c) why performance errors occur. Whenever one teaches about the above it is important to keep it as brief and visual as possible; not to over intellectualize and to relate the discussion to your students’ learning whilst showing them clearly why and how the knowledge you are imparting on them will benefit them in the short- and long-term.

4. Implement attitude-changing programs

In every class there are students who are less engaged, disaffected or even hostile. After a few pep-talks, disciplinary measures, referrals to pastoral middle-managers, things may get a bit better but there is rarely much change. This is often due to the fact that these scenarios are not handled through a structured, principled, well though-out attitude change program.

It is beyond the scope of this post to delve into the ins and outs of attitude-changing-programs implementation; here it will suffice to point out how for any attitudinal change to work, it must start by identifying the issues at the root of the negative attitude one wants  to change vis-a-vis the following metacomponents of attitude identified by Zimbardo and Leippe (1991):

  • Behaviours (what students do in their daily approach to languages)
  • Intentions (what their short-/medium-/long-term objectives are with the language)
  • Cognitions (their beliefs about languages)
  • Affective responses (how much they enjoy language learning)

The picture below (from:  illustrates where the most positive and committed of our students usually are in terms of these four attitudinal components:

The principles I outlined in my post on motivation (“Eight motivational theories and their implications for the classroom”) can then be applied to address the four areas one by one. For instance, one may want to start by inducing a level of cognitive dissonance to address learner beliefs (cognitions); by identifying what students excel at and enjoy so as to cater for their preferences in lessons and enhance their sense of fulfillment and enjoyment; to set short-term manageable goals in order to increase their sense of self-efficacy; etc.

Of course, most teachers are busy and over worked and may object that they do not have the time to do all this. My main point here is that, if one does wish to turn around a disaffected student or group of students, one should at least first try to ascertain what the actual roots of the problem are, through a structured and deep inquiry process based on the above framework.

5. Ask older language students to observe you

We often have our colleagues or senior teachers observe us. A recent trend in some schools in the UK is also to have students to observe us using checklists where they tick or cross things they see us do or not do. A strategy I have used in the past and that has paid huge dividends was to ask older A2 language students ( around 18 years old) to observe one or more lessons of mine and give me feedback on one or more specific areas of my teaching in which a younger person’s perspective may be more useful than an adult’s, e.g. motivation, empathy towards students, levels of pupils’ engagement, etc. What I find useful about having an older language student observe me is that students of this age are more in sync with adolescent-learner mentality and affective responses than my colleague’s whilst being still fairly mature and cognizant of what language learning entails; moreover, being former students of mine, these individuals are usually more able to relate the observed students’ experiences to their own when they were indeed taught by me and provide even more useful feedback as a result.

Of the ‘curse’ of tense-driven progression in MFL learning

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For too many years the UK National Curriculum posited the ‘mastery’ of tenses as the main criteria for progression along the MFL proficiency continuum. A learner would be on Level 4 if s/he mastered one tense + opinions, on Level 5 if s/he mastered two, etc. This preposterous approach to the benchmarking of language proficiency has always baffled me and has caused enormous damage to MFL education in the UK for nearly two decades. Not surprisingly I felt relieved when the current British government ‘scrapped’ the National Curriculum Levels. Sadly, this approach to progression is so embedded in much UK teaching curriculum design and practice that it will be very difficult to uproot, especially considering that some Examination boards still place too much emphasis on tenses in their assessment of GCSE examination performance.

But why am I so anti- tense-driven progression? There are two main reasons. First and foremost, the expressive power of a speaker/writer in any language is not a function of how many tenses s/he masters; it is more a function of – in no particular priority order:

  1. How much vocabulary (especially verbs, nouns and adjectives) s/he has acquired;
  2. How flexibly s/he can apply that vocabulary across context;
  3. How intelligible his/her output is;
  4. How effectively s/he can use time- markers (which will clearly signpost the time dimension we are referring to in communication);
  5. How effectively s/he masters the various functions of discourse (agreeing, disagreeing, evaluating, etc.) which will hinge on his/her knowledge of discourse markers (however, moreover, etc.) and subordination;
  6. How effectively s/he masters L2 syntax; etc.

In fact, in several world languages tenses do not really exist. In Bahasa Malaysia, for instance, one of the official languages of the beautiful country I live in, tenses – strictly speaking – do not exist. The past, the present and the future are denoted by time adverbials, e.g. one would say ‘Yesterday I leave my wallet in the hotel room’. Sentences like this one, would convey more meaning than the more accurate ‘I left my wallet in the hotel room’, since it is perfectly intelligible and more useful if one needs to tell the owner of the hotel one stayed in last week, when the wallet was left behind. Yet, according to the former National Curriculum Levels the second sentence would be a marker of higher proficiency…

Placing so much emphasis on the uptake of tenses skews the learning process by channeling teachers and students’ efforts away from other equally or even more important morphemes and aspects of the languages, which somehow end up being neglected and receiving little emphasis in the classroom and textbooks. It also creates misleading beliefs in learners about what they should prioritize in their learning.

This is one of the main problems with tense-driven progression, but not the main one. The most problematic issue refers to the pressure that it puts on teachers and learners to acquire as many tenses as possible in the three KS3 years. This is what, in my view, has greatly damaged British MFL education in the last 20 years, since the UK National Curriculum Levels were implemented. Besides resulting in overemphasizing tense teaching, such pressure has two other very negative outcomes.

Firstly, many teachers end up neglecting the most important dimension of learning – Cognitive Control. This occurs due to the fact that not enough time is devoted to practising each target tense; hence MFL students often learn the rules governing the tenses but cannot use them flexibly, speedily and accurately under communicative and/or time pressure. The pressure to move up one notch, from a lower level to a higher level – often within the same lesson – reduces the opportunities for practice that students ‘badly’ require to consolidate the target material, unduly increasing cognitive overload.

Secondly, often students are explicitly encouraged or choose to memorize model sentences which they embed in their speech or writing pieces in order to achieve a higher grade, learning them ‘ad hoc’ for a scheduled assessment. This would be acceptable if it led to acquisition or if it were supported by a grasp of the tenses ; but this is not always the case.

In conclusion, I advocate that the benchmarking criteria that UK teachers adopt explicitly or implicitly, consciously or subconsciously to assess progression in MFL learning should be based on a more balanced approach to the measurement of proficiency; one which emphasizes discourse functions, range of vocabulary (especially mastery of verbs and adjectives) and pronunciation, much more than it currently – a year since the National Curriculum Levels were abolished –  still does. As I have often reiterated in my posts, teaching should concern itself above all with acquisition of cognitive control rather than with the learning of mere rule knowledge. Progression should be measured more in terms of speed and accuracy of execution under real-life-like communicative pressure, width of vocabulary, functions and structures mastered as well as syntactic complexity. Tenses are important, of course, but they should not take priority over discourse features which are more crucial to effective communication.

What is the most effective approach to foreign language instruction? – Part 1

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Introduction – Of metaphors teachers live by and pedagogy ‘evangelists’

Every single one of us lives by metaphors, behavioural templates which we acquire through our interaction with the environment we grow up and live in. The language learning metaphors that are at the heart of our teaching come to a large extent from our experiences as language learners. These images of learning are so strongly embedded in our cognition that according to researchers it takes years of training and teaching practice to replace them with new templates; in certain cases, they are even impervious to  ‘conditioning’, despite the demands of teacher trainers, course administrators or students – I have observed this phenomenon first-hand time and again in most of the schools I have worked at.

Our beliefs about L2 learning play an enormous role in determining what teachers we will become and our response to any new methodology that we are asked to adopt. Some individuals will reject new instructional approaches in the belief that if they are such good linguists and their teachers’ approach worked so well for them, why should it not work for their own students? Some others – like I did, for instance, during and after my PGCE – will integrate elements of their existing belief system with the new methodology (-ies) to create a sort of personalized ‘hybrid’ – a ‘syncretistic’ approach. Others, instead – what I call the ‘radical converts’ – will espouse the new methodology with some kind of fanaticism often becoming zealous evangelists of their new pedagogic ‘dogmata’

It is the third attitude that one must be wary of: the blind allegiance to any approach that claims to have found a universal pedagogical fit for every learner. Any such claim will be unfounded because every learner brings to bear on the learning process a range of genetic and acquired individual variables that play an important role in language aptitude as well as in the cognitive/emotional response to teachers and their methodology. Whilst some guiding principles may be ‘universal’ in that they refer to general mechanisms that regulate human cognition across age, race, gender, G.I. factor and language aptitude, their implementation will ALWAYS be conditioned by contextual variables.

Consequently, I am not going to play the ‘know-all L2-pedagogue’, here, and tell teachers what the best approach is. After all, if your students are happy, motivated and learning lots, you have found the best approach already. You may want to enhance and vary your repertoire of teaching strategies, but after all, if the vast majority of your students are getting where you want them to be in the time and with the resources that you have been allocated by your course administrators, you do not need anyone to tell you how to teach; unless someone throws the spanner in the works, that is, and tells you that you must ‘integrate’ new technology, life-long learning skills, etc. into your healthy and balanced teaching echo-system…

Psychology, however, does give us some clear indication of how humans acquire cognitive skills. So, if one believes, as it is logical to presume, that language acquisition involves the same processes and mechanisms involved in the acquisition of any other cognitive ability, it is possible to identify some core pedagogical principles as crucial to any form of explicit foreign language instruction. Moreover, there is some sound research empirical evidence out there that should inform our teaching; to claim that it is conclusive and irrefutable would be preposterous, but to ignore it because it is not would be irresponsible. After all, what teachers must do with research evidence is to make an informed choice and ask themselves the questions: do these findings resonate with me and my past experiences? Is it worth trying this out? And, after trying it out: did it work? And if it didn’t, you can modify it or reject it altogether and look elsewhere.

Thirteen pedagogic principles rooted Cognitive psychology

The following are the pedagogical principles rooted in Cognitive psychology theory and research that worked for me. I am no evangelist, thus I am not positing them as the Gospel’s truths: these are merely some of the beliefs I formed in more than 2 decades of primary, secondary and tertiary MFL teaching, researching and, most importantly, reflecting on my own practice and listening to my students.

I am not concerning myself explicitly with the most important issue– motivation. It goes without saying that no methodology will ever be effective unless the teacher brings about a high level of his/her learners’ cognitive and emotional arousal and develops their self-efficacy.

Finally, let me reiterate that the principles below are based on the epistemological assumption that language skills are acquired in the same way as any other cognitive human skill.

  1. Practice makes perfect – Every language skill and item, in order to be acquired, is subject to the ‘Power Law of Practice’ (Anderson, 2000). Hence Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing, Translation/Interpreting, Grammar and any other skills must all be practised extensively. This entails that any instructional approach (e.g. Grammar Translation and PBL) which does not emphasize all four skills in a balanced manner is defective. Instruction can be successful only through extensive practice and recycling of the kind envisaged in the next two points.
  1. Recycling must start from day one – forgetting starts occurring immediately after a given item has passed into Long-term Memory (Anderson and Jordan,1998). As the diagram below clearly shows, after 19 minutes one loses 40 % of what was recalled at time 0; after 9 hours, 56 % and after 6 days, 75 %. Recycling is imperative and must be of the spaced, distributed kind (a bit every so often) not of the massed kind (a lot of it once a week). Moreover, recycling must start on the same day something has been learnt. Instruction must model independent vocabulary learning habits which focus on autonomous recycling; it must also be mindful of human forgetting rate and provide for consolidation accordingly.


  1. Effective language learning = high levels of cognitive control – A language item can be said to be acquired only when it can be performed accurately and efficiently (with little hesitation) under real time conditions in unmonitored execution (e.g. spontaneous conversation). This means that acquisition occurs along a conscious to automatic continuum; it starts from a declarative stage where the application of the knowledge about a specific language item is applied slowly under the brain’s conscious control and it ends when the execution of that item is fully automatic and bypasses working memory (Johnson, 1996). Instruction must involve extensive practice which starts with highly structured tasks (i.e. gap-fill or audiolingual drills) which become increasingly less structured with time and aim at developing cognitive control (the ability to perform effectively in real operating conditions).
  1. Production should always come after extensive receptive processing – Humans learn languages by imitating others’ linguistic input. Instruction should engage learners in masses of receptive practice before engaging them in production. Thus, ideally, extensive listening/reading practice (in the way of comprehensible input) should always precede speaking/writing practice. This rules out reading or listening comprehension tasks as valuable receptive practice, as these are tests, not effective sources of modelling; reading/listening for personal enjoyment or enrichment would be more conducive to learning in this regard.
  1. Cognitive overload should be prevented and controlled for – cognitive overload occurs when learners are engaged in tasks that pose challenging demands on their working memory. Teachers ought to prepare their students for a given task by facilitating their cognitive access to each level of challenge posed by that task. Thus, before reading a challenging text, the learners should be taught the key vocabulary and grammar points it contains and effective strategies to tackle it. Moreover, the text could be adapted to incorporate more contextual clues that may facilitate inference of unfamiliar lexis.
  1. Focus on micro-skills as much as you do on the macro- ones – To execute any task in the L2 (e.g. an unplanned role-play) effectively, the brain must acquire effective cognitive control over both the higher meta-components (e.g. generating meaning) and the lower order skills involved (e.g. pronunciation and intonation). By automatizing lower order language skills, the brain frees up space in learner Working Memory thereby facilitating processing efficiency and cognitive control and, consequently, performance – this is like learning to drive a car whereby a driver automatizes the basic skills such as changing gear or accelerating so that s/he can focus on the road. Instruction must identify and systematically address every set of macro- and micro-skills that typical language tasks involve. Following on from (2) such micro-skills must be practised extensively, too.
  1. Learning is enhanced by depth of processing, distinctiveness of input and personal investment – Learning of any language item does not simply involve practice, but also depth of processing. Instruction must engage learners in semantic analysis and association in order to strengthen the memory trace and to increase the range of context-dependent cues at encoding which will enhance the recall of any target item. The distinctiveness of instructional input (how outstanding and memorable it is) is also an important learning enhancing factor. Personal investment, how much the learning taps into an individual’s emotions and personal background increases retention, too. Hence, in choosing topics and learning materials learner opinions and tastes should always be taken into account (e.g. personalized reading-for-enjoyment activities).
  1. Grammar taught explicitly can be acquired – On condition that it is practised extensively, in context, and through masses of communicative practice which starts from controlled tasks and progresses through increasingly challenging unstructured ones. The process is a lengthy one so it may require training students to work on it independently, too. Implications: recycling is imperative and must occur mostly through the cognitive-control enhancement dimension, i.e. less gap-fills and written translation and more oral semi-structured and unstructured tasks. To enhance grammar acquisition the exceptions to the rule governing an ‘X’ structure should be taught before the dominant rule, e.g. irregular before irregular forms (see my article ‘Irregular before regular…’ for the psycholinguistic rationale for this approach).
  1. Corrective feedback is important, especially at the early stages of instruction – However, in order to be effective it must be processed by the brain long and deeply enough for it to be rehearsed in Working Memory and stored permanently in Long-term memory. Hence, any feedback practice on an erroneous executed ‘X’ item must :
  • Be distinctive;
  • Engage learners in deep processing;
  • Recycle the corrective feedback;
  • Be carried out through various means in order to provide more contextual cues for its recall;
  • Not limit itself to treating the symptom (i.e. the error) but also and more importantly the root cause (whether lack of knowledge, processing inefficiency, etc.)
  • Bring about learner intentionality to eradicate the error (i.e. motivate them to address the error in the future in a sustained effort to eliminate it).

(Conti, 2004)

  1. Learning strategies can be taught – On condition that a persuasive rationale for their instruction is provided; that they are modelled and scaffolded effectively and are practised very extensively through a variety of contexts (Cohen, 1998; Macaro, 2007)
  1. Metacognition should be modelled regularly – enhancing learner metacognition is imperative as a learner who knows how to learn and perform best is a learner who is bound to be more successful. Research shows clearly that highly metacognizant individuals are more successful at L2 learning (Macaro, 2007). Ideally, teaching should regularly scaffold holistic and task specific metacognition by prompting students to monitor and evaluate every level of their language learning and performance. The same approach concisely outlined in point 9 applies here.
  1. Individual variables must be assessed at the beginning of instruction – Learner individual factors may inhibit or facilitate learning. Ideally, at the beginning of instruction it may be helpful (but not always viable, I know…) to obtain as much information as to the following students’ characteristics
  • Previous history as language learners;
  • Personality traits;
  • Learning strategies;
  • Learning preferences (NOT learning styles – but rather how one enjoys learning)
  • Language proficiency across all skills;
  • Language aptitude;
  • Personal interests;
  • Processing efficiency (e.g. how well learners process language);

    This is very time consuming and does require quite a lot of resources and expertise.

  1. Sources of divided attention must be controlled for – This is the most obvious learning principle (Eysenk, 1988); that is why I placed it last. In a lot of UK state school classrooms to expect every student to be focused 100 % of the time is unrealistic. However, in settings where behavior management is not an issue, teachers should endeavour to minimize any distraction stemming from any sources which are directly under their control. One of them is the excessive manipulation of digital media (e.g. app smashing) which hijacks learners’ finite attentional resources away from language processing. Digital media can be effective target language learning enhancers, but must be used judiciously to expand not shrink learning.

In conclusion, as already stated above, the above list is by no means exhaustive. It only includes some of the many pedagogic principles which, in my opinion, ought to underlie any instructional approach regardless of the educationl setting and espoused theory. Unfortunately, something important is missing: how should one implement the above principles in curriculum design, lesson planning and across all four macro-skills? Some of the answers can be found in the other articles on this blog. More answers will be provided in the sequel to this article in the very near future, in which I will concern myself with how those principle should inform pedagogy vis-à vis the four macro-skills, grammar, translation and learning strategy instruction.

Irregular before regular – maximizing explicit grammar instruction by inverting traditional instructional sequences

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In most coursebooks and schemes of work adopted by UK MFL education providers, the exceptions to a given grammar structure are usually taught after the dominant rule governing that structure has been imparted. In the present post I argue that in many cases inverting the teaching sequence may have a more beneficial impact on acquisition. The rationale for this approach is rooted in the way the brain forms and revise the L2 Interlanguage system.

When a learner is taught a grammar rule, the brain creates a cognitive ‘structure’ that s/he will consolidate through much receptive exposure and production. As already discussed in my post on how L2 grammar ‘rules’ are acquired, when a grammar structure is in the process of being automatised, the brain tends to be extremely circumspect in accepting as ‘correct’ – and consequently ‘learnable’ – any use of that structure which does not match the declarative knowledge (or mental rule representation) stored in Long-Term Memory which refers to it. This is particularly true of the final stage in L2 grammar structure acquisition – Andersons’s (2000) Strengthening process. During this stage, the brain needs to be particularly impervious to any alteration to the rule system referring to that structure in order for that system to be stable and avoid encoding ambiguity. For any successful cognitive restructuring of an existing grammar rule to occur two conditions must be met:

  • The grammar rule one wants to restructure must be fully acquired for any exception to it to be incorporated; only then will the brain be more likely to ‘see’ the exception to that rule as a separate subsystem which does not pose any ‘threats’ to the dominant rule system;
  • The exception to the rule must be processed by the brain numerous times in salient and meaningful contexts; this entails that exceptions to a given rule which do not occur frequently in the language processed in classroom or out-of-the-classroom L2-based activities are less likely to be internalized as they will be ‘masked’ so to speak by the dominant rule.

Let us look at an example: teaching the Passé Composé in French. Coursebooks normally begin with the verbs forming this tense with ‘Avoir’ and after a few lessons move on to the ‘Etre’ verbs. Whilst some of the more able and focused learners can cope with this, in my experience many learners cannot. Very often, teachers may believe students have acquired mastery over the two sets of rules based on their learners’ ability to perform successfully at cloze tasks or other mechanical grammar activities. However, in less structured activities (e.g. spontaneous speech) errors in this area will be usually rife.

Issues in acquiring the exception to the dominant Passé Composé rule are exacerbated by the fact that very few of the verbs requiring Etre are high frequency verbs, hence the students do not usually receive great exposure to them when processing classroom or naturalistic French input. This will make restructuring of the ‘have + past participle’ rule more difficult.

In this case, teaching the ‘Etre’ verbs before the ‘Avoir’ ones is a more effective strategy; once acquired the exception (Etre + past participle) through extensive modelling and practice, the learners will find it easier to learn the dominant rule due to the very frequent occurrence of ‘Avoir Verbs’ in classroom or naturalistic target language input.

The same applies to any other grammar structure where the exceptions to the rule do not occur very frequently in the instructional or naturalistic target language input. Think about irregular past participle such as ‘reçu’, ‘vecu’, ‘su’, etc. which are notoriousy less easy for students to acquire than ‘pris’ or ‘fait’, for instance.

In conclusion, L2 teachers, curriculum designers and course-book writers may want to invert the traditional instructional sequence whereby irregular forms are taught after the regular ones. Moreover, before moving from the less dominant ‘X’ rule sub-system to the dominant one, they ought to ensure as much as possible that the former has been internalized through masses of practice; in other words, that the learners master the use of the target grammar structure not simply in terms of knowing the rule but also in terms of cognitive control over its use, under Real Operating Conditions (see my post on ‘Cognitive Control’ if not clear as to what I mean here).