Decoding – The neglected skills set every MFL teacher should teach

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Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of and Dylan Viñales of Garden International School Kuala Lumpur

1. What are decoding skills? Why are they important?

Decoding refers to the process of converting the written symbols (graphemes) of a language into sound (phonemes). Decoding skills are very important in language acquisition for a number of reasons.

The most important reason is the fact that when we acquire new vocabulary, we need to be able to pronounce it correctly if we plan to use it effectively through the oral medium. In this sense, the ability to convert the spelling of a word into its phonological form is a major component of autonomous language learning competence. This is particularly true for those learners who acquire a lot of their vocabulary through reading and not through oral interaction or exposure to aural input.

Another important reason refers to the ability to match the language the students have already learnt aurally, in their spoken form to their graphemic form. Take the very common scenario where a student who learns a French word in its phonological form only subsequently comes across the same word in its written form; if he lacks decoding skills the student is likely to fail to match the written form with its phonological representation with interpretive failure as a result. In this sense, lack of decoding skills can seriously impede reading comprehension of aurally acquired vocabulary thereby slowing down acquisition.

Thirdly, a recent study by Macaro and Erler (2008) has yielded a very interesting finding, i.e.:  a strong correlation between decoding ability and motivation to learn French. The researchers found that KS3 students who report high levels of self-efficacy and possess higher levels of proficiency in decoding skills are more likely to continue to study French at KS4.

  1. Decoding – the neglected skill set

As a number of studies have reported, decoding is not taught explicitly in most UK schools. Erler (2003) studied 359 year 7 students of French using a written rhyme judgment task. The subjects exhibited very poor decoding skills (poor mastery of the pronunciation of main vowels sounds and their combinations and of silent consonants at the end of words).

Woore (2006) carried out a cross-sectional study investigating 94 Year 7 and 94 year 9 learners of French taught by the same teachers in the same school. His results echoed Erler’s (2003) and indicated that the progress in terms of decoding skills from Year 7 to Year 9, whilst statistically significant, were very slight.

Macaro and Erler’s (2008) studied 1735 students of French in Year 7, 8 and 9. They found that they failed nearly half of the correct rhyme judgment tasks they gave their subjects. A further indication that decoding skills are not effectively learnt at KS3.

Finally, Woore (2009) carried out a longitudinal study investigating the decoding skills of 85 KS3  learners of French. Woore asked his subjects to read aloud 53 unusual French words that the students were highly unlikely to have encountered before at two different points in time, i.e.  at the end of Year 7 and at the end of Year 8. Woore found that in both occasions the students decoding ability was very poor, suggesting that little had been learnt in two years of systematic French language instruction.

  1. Conclusions and implications for MFL teachers

Many teachers do raise their learners’ awareness of the way graphemes are sounded in the target language. The teaching of decoding skills, however, is more than often neither explicit nor systematic. An occasional five minutes digression en passant on the pronunciation of a specific grapheme every now and then is not conducive to developing a ‘solid’ repertoire of decoding skills. For decoding skills to be acquired they have to be practised explicitly and systematically. This calls for conscious planning of decoding skills teaching in the MFL curriculum which addresses the very early stages of instruction.

Decoding skills instruction may include a synergy of the following:

Decoding skills are often kept by teachers in their peripheral awareness due to a failure to consider how important they are in mediating vocabulary acquisition and memory activation . In this day and age, when MFL teachers have, more than ever, the ethical imperative of forging autonomous learners who can independently take advantage of the huge TL learning opportunities offered by the Internet, we must equip our students with sound decoding skills; without them, they will not be able to acquire the most important level of the communicative power of TL words.

The literature concisely reviewed above exposes a tragic reality: entire cohorts of students who, after two years of instruction exhibit a dispiriting low mastery of the basic decoding skills. And when the researchers investigated the root causes of the phenomenon, it came down to one and only one issue: erratic teacher commitment to this very important area of TL learning; decoding skills were taught explicitly only when the textbook made reference to them.

One of my teaching and learning resolutions this year is to focus as much as possible on decoding skills with my primary and Year 7 classes. I will test some of my students in the first term and at the end of year using the RAT (read aloud test) that Woore (2009) employed in his study to see if there will have been any improvements. Here are the very unusual words Woore (2009) selected for their read aloud test.

Woore’s (2009) Words included in the RAT

Cinglant  jouxter thonier maçonne dédain gueulez soudain haubert guingois poitrine museau duraille chacun ferreux obtient ralingue piochais veilleur lancée sainfoin loquet poignard traçant trémie peigner embruns peinait Hongrie giclée caleçon acanthe marteaux goinfrez lugeur houblon moineau vaurien maquille thibaude jaugez noceur liégeois quignon enfuie jonchée bêcheuse ougrien huilage


Why narrowing the speaking assessment focus can have a positive washback effect on L2 learning

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Every assessment we carry out in an MFL classroom ought to have a positive washback effect on learning. In this post I argue that with pre-intermediate to intermediate students the way MFL learners are typically assessed does not impact learning as much as it ought to, due to a failure to consider the complex nature of oral skill acquisition and the cognitive demands it poses on learners.

What I mean is that most often learners are assessed using complex multi-traits or holistic scales which are designed to rate their performance across a number of dimensions of proficiency such as fluency, intelligibility,  grammatical accuracy, pronunciation, complexity, range of vocabulary, ability to comprehend and respond to an interlocutor, etc. However, this approach has the potential to have a negative washback effect on learning when we deal with novice to intermediate learners due to the huge cognitive demands it puts on them.

This is because, as I have often reiterated in my posts, at this level of proficiency foreign language learners struggle to cope effectively with all of the demands posed by oral production in real operating conditions. Hence, by assessing them using multi-traits or holistic scales which assess simultaneously all of the above components of oral proficiency we are being hugely unfair to them, as we are not taking into account how finite their cognitive resources are.

Although there is indeed a place for a more multi-dimensional type of assessment in high-stake tests (e.g. end of unit tests), when it comes to the all-important low-stake tests we should administer throughout the learning cycle, I advocate a different approach which takes into account developmental factors in the acquisition of cognitive control, i.e. a type of assessment which focuses on one or maximum two traits at a time. For instance, at one key stage in the unfolding of a unit of work one would focus on the assessment of fluency + intelligibility of output; at another one would focus on range of vocabulary and pronunciation; etc. Obviously, your students will be informed at all times as to which trait will constitute the focus of the forthcoming assessment; this will channel their cognitive resources in one or two directions thereby pre-empting the risk of them chasing too many rabbits at the same time and ending up catching none.

This approach, which I have been using for years, not only has the advantage of focusing the learners on one aspect of cognitive control over oral production at the time – with an obvious positive washback effect on learning; but addresses another important pitfall of oral performance assessment carried out using complex multi-traits scales: the cognitive overload such scales cause oral test raters. Unless raters record the students’ oral performances and listen to them over and over again after the test– which rarely happens with low-stake assessments – complex assessment scales are very likely to cause divided attention, as it is extremely challenging to attend to speaker output and evaluate it at the same time across all of the traits and criteria.

In this sense, low-stake speaking tests assessed using a narrow focus approach do kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, they optimize the use of the student’s cognitive resources; on the other, they facilitate the test-rater’s task. I will add another advantage I have experienced whilst using this approach, which refers to my professional development: by focusing on a different aspect of oral proficiency at a time for each low-stake assessment one gains a higher level of awareness vis-à-vis the variables affecting its development than one would normally do when focusing on several oral proficiency components at the same time.

It goes without saying that in high-stake assessments the use of multi-traits or holistic rubrics is more useful as we do want to have a more comprehensive view of how our students are faring along all the major components of oral proficiency. However, I do feel that many of the holistic and analytical scales adopted by MFL teachers with novice to intermediate speaker learners share a common shortcoming, which has a detrimental washback effect on learning: they do not lay enough emphasis on fluency and on the ability to effectively comprehend and respond to an interlocutor. In their quest for comprehensiveness and for a ‘one fits all’ solution, they fail to consider that each level of proficiency has different developmental features and should therefore be approached differently in terms of assessment. The more novice the learner the more skewed towards fluency the scale should be, the emphasis on accuracy and complexity gradually increasing as we progress further along the language acquisition continuum.

Micro-listening skills (Part 2) – More micro-listening tasks for the foreign language classroom

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As a follow-up to my post ‘Micro-listening enhancers you may not be using in your foreign language lessons’ here is a new list of micro-listening enhancers I frequenty use in my lessons.

  1. Parallel sentences

I usually read out – or record myself or a native-speaker reading out – ten or more sets of two semi-identical sentences, which differ only slightly, at native speaker speed. For instance, in the example below the difference will be ‘vers’ (around) vs ‘à’ (at). The students have to identify the differences and note them down on mini-boards. I am not at all bothered with the spelling of the target word.

Je suis allée au cinéma vers huit heures

Je suis allée au cinéma à huit heures  

  1. Sudden stop

I give students a transcript of a listening text, then play or read the text at native speed, suddenly stopping when I feel fit. The students write on mini-boards the last word I uttered.

  1. Spot the wrong sound

I pronounce a target language sentence or short text making sure that I make a typical L1 transfer phonetic error. For instance, in the sentence below, I would pronounce the ‘h’ the English way. The students need to identify my pronunciation mistake.

J’habite en Malaisie

  1. Spot the correct transcription

The teacher reads out a sentence at near native speed. The students are provided with a gapped version of that sentence and with three near-homophones (words that sound very similar). The task is to choose the correct option.

Teacher says : J’y vais avec lui

Students see (on screen/whiteboard) : J’y vais avec _______

Options to choose from : Louis – lui – l’huile

  1. Sound-tracking

Students are given a short target language text. The teacher reads a sound, for instance /wa/ (as in ‘moi’) and the students, under time conditions, have to scan the text in search for any letter or combination of letters that refer to that sound and highlight them.

  1. Silent letters (group work)

Students are given a set of sentences and, working in group, take turns to read them out to each other, circling the letter they think will not be voiced. The teacher then provides the answers to confirm or not the students’ assumptions.

  1. Break the flow

This is a classic. Students are presented with sentences (on whiteboard/screen) written out as shown below, with no spacing between words. The teacher will utter the sentence two or three times at native speed and the students will have to rewrite the sentences with the appropriate spacing

What students get: Jenefaispasdesportcarjesuisparesseux (=I do not do sport because I am lazy)

What they are meant to do: je ne fais pas de sport car je suis paresseux

  1. Anagrams

Students are given a set of anagrams of words they have never come across before which the teacher will pronounce one by one two or three times. Based on the target sound – which will have been practised beforehand – the students will have to rewrite the words in their accurate form. I like this exercise because, when the words are truly unfamiliar, it does require a good grasp of TL phonology and inferential skills.

  1. IPA practice – back-transcription

This is meant as training in the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA. After much work on phonological awareness and practice and teaching of the IPA equivalent of each target sound (e.g. oi = /wa/; en= / ɑ̃ /) the students are presented with a list of phonetic transcription of words which I usually get from Their task is to write them back in their normal graphemic form.

What students are given: [mwa], [pɑ̃dɑ̃], etc.

The correct answers: moi, pendant, etc.

  1. IPA practice – IPA transcription

This is best done after extensive practice with the previous activity and with the IPA symbols in general. The teacher utters a series of words and students write them out on white boards using the symbols provided. Sheets with the target IPA symbols can be given to students as scaffolding. A tip: do not deal with too many symbols at any one time and keep the words as short as possible

Five compelling reasons to ‘over-emphasize’ pronunciation at Primary school (or in the early stages of acquisition)

1. To facilitate and ‘speed up’ the development of speaking proficiency – as Levelt’s model of first language speaking production posits (see picture 1, below), spoken output requires the orchestration of many complex processes, some more complex than others, but all placing serious demands on our brain, in terms of processing efficiency. The speech production process starts in the conceptualizer that generates ideas and ‘sends’ them to the formulator which translates them into meaningful and grammatically correct sentences; then the monitoring system steps in checking the output accuracy before any sentence is uttered; finally, the articulator will orchestrate the use of the larynx, pharynx and mouth organs, whilst the monitoring system will have been overseeing speech production every step of the way.This process becomes even harder when the ideas generated by the brain (in the conceptualizer) need to be translated into speech in real time in a foreign language; the whole process slows down considerably – hence the hesitations and pauses in our language learners, even the more advanced ones, when speaking in the target language; and their errors, due more to cognitive overload than to carelessness (unless by ‘carelessness’ we mean lack of effective monitoring).

Picture1–Levelt’s model of language production (adapted from:


The complexity of the language production process and the challenges of performing it in a foreign language mean that our Working Memory has to juggle simultaneously all of the tasks that speaking involves and may lead less expert L2 speakers, as already mentioned, to slow down production and make mistakes due to processing efficiency. Hence, foreign language learners need to learn to master the lower order skills, i.e. effective control over larynx, pharynx and articulators  as early as possible in order to ‘free up space’ in Working Memory for the kind of cognitive processing that happens in the conceptualizer and formulator; this will allow Working Memory to work more efficiently and focus only on the higher order skills, i.e.: the negotiation and creation of meaning, the transformation of meaning into the target language vocabulary, the application of grammar rules and self-monitoring.

Consequently, if we do not foster the automatization of pronunciation earlier on, through regular practice, we will delay our students’ development as fluent speakers. I have experienced this often in the past on taking on Year 7 classes which had been given very little pronunciation and/or speaking practice during two years of French/Spanish in Primary. Is this an argument against the Comprehensible Input hypothesis or The Silent way? Maybe.

2.Fossilization – On the other hand, if we plunge L2 learners into highly demanding oral tasks too soon, without focusing long and hard enough on pronunciation through easy and controlled tasks, their Working Memory will  have less monitoring space for sound articulation, as they will focus on the generation of meaning (i.e. what happens in picture 1’s conceptualizer) with potentially ‘disastrous’ consequences for  their pronunciation , in that they will resort to their first language phonological encoding to produce the target language sounds (language transfer). If pronunciation errors due to this issue will keep slipping into performance lesson after lesson, oral practice after oral practice, the mistakes will become fossilized and carried over to later stages of proficiency as fossilized errors tend to be impervious to correction.

3.Phonological encoding affects recall – the more the learners become versed in the articulation of the target language sounds, the faster and more effective will be their retention of target language words in their Long-term memory (encoding). Why? This is because of the limitations of the ‘phonological encoding device’ in our brain’s Working Memory, i.e.: the articulatory loop (see picture 2 below). The articulatory loop has limited space (or channel capacity as psycholinguists call it), hence, if a word is not pronounced ‘fast enough’ the brain may not simply be able to encode it. The faster the articulatory loop ‘pronounces’ the target language the easier it will be (a) to memorize new words, especially longer and more challenging ones (from a phonological point of view) and (b) for Working Memory to process longer units of language (phrases/sentences) – as the less space words take on in the articulatory loop the greater the chances will be for longer words to be held in Working Memory at any one time. This speeds rehearsal in Working Memory and, consequently, uptake as well retrieval and production.

 Picture 2 – adapted from:

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4. Stigmatizing output may lead to simpler L2-input from L2-native speakers – I am not a fan of Stephen Krashen but I do admit that he has come up with some great ideas, such as Narrow Listening and the one that relates to the point I am about to make; the fact, that is, that if a beginner/intermediate learner has bad pronunciation, any L2 expert who will interact with him/her may actually send easier L2 linguistic input his/her way presuming that his/her level of proficiency and/or language aptitude – as signaled by his/her pronunciation – is low. This will have negative implications for  learning as if you are exposed to simplified input when you are at the early stages of language learning you may not learn much from it, not enough to bring you to next level, so to speak.

I tend to agree with Krashen on this one as I have seen this happen several times. And I will add, that often, in naturalistic environments, something even worse may occur: L2 native speakers may avoid engaging in conversations with L2 non-native speakers with poor pronunciation, for fear of not being understood or not understand and having going through the awkward process of asking the interlocutor to repeat.

 5. The critical age hypothesis – This applies only to the first years of Primary school, when children are 5 to 8 years old (or younger); the age, that is, where the sensory-motor skills which control the movement of the larynx, pharynx and the articulators are still ‘plastic’, i.e. amenable to modification. After that age, it seems that the child’s receptiveness to pronunciation modelling/instruction diminishes drastically. If this is true, as compelling recent research evidence suggests, it is at this age that learners must be focused on pronunciation and taught ‘phonics’, pretty much as happens in their first language lessons, through fun and engaging speaking activities, lots of singing, listening and computer assisted phonetic learning.

How to lessen the negative interference of our learners’ mother tongue on their target language pronunciation


This article suggests teaching strategies based on sensory-motor research findings on bilingual speech aimed at reducing the impact of negative first language transfer on L2 target language speech. I will start by examining the process involved in language transfer and its consequence on the acquisition of L2 pronunciation in light of the latest recent research evidence. I shall then proceed to discuss the implications for the foreign language classroom.

Language Transfer

As we all know, our first language (or any other language we know for that matter) can cause interference in the process of acquiring a new one. We refer to this phenomenon as language transfer. Language transfer can be positive (i.e. facilitating learning or performance) or negative (i.e. impeding learning or performance) depending on the similarity/distance between the pre-existing language and the new language one is learning.

For instance, an English native speaker will experience negative transfer when it comes to pronouncing ‘P’ in Spanish ( negative transfer), because in this language the ‘p’ sound is a non-aspirated labial sound with a short onset time, whereas in English it is an aspirated sound with a relatively long onset time. On the other hand, a native speaker of Italian will have no problem with that sound as in his/her language it is pronounced in exactly the same way as it is in Spanish (positive transfer)

The main cognitive cause of Language Transfer is that when we learn a new language our brain uses our default language(s) – more than often our first language – as the starting point for the hypotheses we formulate to make sense of that language and/or as a communicative strategy to fill in any communicative gaps. In the specifics of foreign language pronunciation L2-learners transfer refers to the L2-learners’ application of their L1-phonological categories to decode and represent the foreign language sound system. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that their motor commands (their control over larynx, phrarynx and articulators) have been conditioned by years and years of first language pronunciation. Hence, especially at the early stages, the ‘phonological distance’ (differences in pronunciation) between two languages will play a very important role in determining the accuracy of L2- learner pronunciation.

Negative transfer is more likely to cause error at pronunciation level, when speech occurs in contexts that are difficult to monitor or which require a greater mastery of motor skills. So, for instance, a beginner foreign language learner talking spontaneously in the context of uncontrolled communicative practice will have less time to monitor pronunciation because his/her Working Memory is focused on higher metacomponents such as meaning and grammar; in this kind of context, the target language sounds that s/he finds problematic will be seriously affected by the lack of monitoring. On the other hand, the pronunciation of those problematic sounds is usually much more accurate when they are uttered in isolation, as discrete items – just like a toddler’s blabbing – due to the absence of articulatory interference from the preceding and following sounds in the word/surrounding words and ease of monitoring.

Another way in which L1-transfer affects pronunciation pertains to the fact that skilled L1-readers are very familiar with the written form of their native language, and automatically decode every grapheme (i.e. letter or cluster of letters) they read by producing a phonological representation of the sound (Snow,2002). This means that, when a learner reads a foreign language word its Working Memory will automatically match that sound with a first language phonological representation (i.e. will pronounce it the first language way). Thus, even if that learner reads a given word aloud following the teacher’s rendition of it, the L1 phonological representation of that word in the learner’s Working Memory will cause interference, with negative consequences for learning.

Another less recent finding (Neufeld, 1979) suggests that second language learners’ pronunciation might benefit from a mute period – a period of intense auditory exposure to L2 before attempting to produce the sounds. In Neufeld (1979) students were trained on pronunciation of sounds from Inuktitut, a language to which they had not been exposed previously. The learning process involved intensive listening to the language, with no attempt at producing the sounds. They were later instructed to produce the sounds and their attempts were rated as being mostly native-like. Neufeld claimed that the silent period at the beginning helped the students to accurately produce the language later. Removing students’ own attempts allowed perception to remain more plastic, such that the L2 acoustic template is heard accurately before erroneous phonetic utterances in L2 become fossilised. Producing the sound too early, and therefore incorrectly, would have influenced this acoustic template and thus hindered their production.

A mute period may prove beneficial in enabling the learner to hear (and thus produce) subtly different phonetic features, new phoneme distinctions and unfamiliar sequences of stress patterns. One possibility is that an artificially induced mute period may protect the learner from using first language phonological categories to represent the L2 system, thus enabling higher levels of production performance and avoiding L1 transfer or interference.

The threats posed by L1- language transfer to the correct uptake of  L2- pronunciation at the earlier stages of language acquisition are worrying only if we are aiming at 100 % accuracy due to the risk of fossilization, a phenomenon which, as explained in a previous post refers to the automatisation – often impervious to correction – of L2 learner errors. In most L2- classroom settings, unless we are training future international spies, we will be mostly aiming at clear and intelligible pronunciation with the majority of our learners and near-native accent only with a few talented ones.

How can we reduce the negative impact of L2-transfer on pronunciation?

Firstly, in order to avoid interference from a grapheme’s L1 phonological encoding (see the point made five paragraphs ago) on first introducing a new word it would be preferable not to expose the learners to its written form – this would avoid automated representation of the native phonological representation in Working Memory. In other words, it is better to present it orally, first in association with an image and, after some listening practice, to show it in its written form.

Secondly, L2 learners should be exposed to as much listening as possible in the context of a mute period before engaging in oral activities. Realistically speaking, in a typical state school classroom setting the pre-communicative mute period cannot be that long; but the most important lesson to be learnt from Neufeld’s (1979) research is that students should not be thrown into unstructured communicative practice straight away after presenting the target lexical items. The listening activities the students should be engaged in during this mute period should not only include test-like listening comprehension activities in the traditional sense: e.g. question and answer or true or false which focus solely on meaning. They should also include bottom-up processing activities that focus students on pronunciation and intonation, which involve matching words to sounds,  such as jigsaw listening, gap-fills with options to choose from or , at the basic level, circling a word or phrase from a choice of three or four options.

Thirdly, the observation that students seem to perform challenging L2 phonemes (sounds) more effectively when pronounced in isolation would seem to suggest – according to Simmonds, Wise and Leech (2011) that a babbling phase in which students imitate the target speech sounds in isolation might also improve non-native pronunciation. This can be done at the beginning of a lesson as a warm-up activity – I have done it quite often and it can be fun, depending on how you pitch it to the student and how you conduct it. Or, it can be set a homework activity to be carried out at home for a few minutes, recorded and sent to the teacher for feedback (were the  target sounds performed correctly? What could be done to improve them, etc.)

Finally, students need lots of practice in the context of structured and unstructured communicative activities. Such activities should, in my view, be staged after:

(a) effective modelling of the correct pronunciation;

(b) the mute listening period discussed above;

(c) extensive vocabulary practice through plenty of deep processing learning activities (e.g. the work-outs found on;

(d) Structured oral activities (e.g. find someone who; structured surveys; role-plays with prompts; timed oral translations) preceded by sufficient preparation time

(e) Less structured oral activities (at a later stage) in which students, through interviews, simulations, improvised role-plays, etc. converse freely about the topic-in-hand.

Traditional pronunciation drills (audiolingual style), minimal pairs and tongue-twisters or any other activities focusing students on pronunciation can be thrown in at the pre-communicative stage, provided that they maintain students motivation high and the students understand and accept the rationale behind them.

In conclusion, it is up to teachers to decide – with the course requirement they teach on as well as the interest of the stakeholders in mind, of course – how much emphasis they should put on accuracy. What research shows is that plunging students into unstructured oral communicative practice straight away is not beneficial to the development of accurate pronunciation. The above strategies may not always be easy or practical to implement but are in my experience very effective in enhancing student grasp and execution of the target language pronunciation.