A journey into Contification – Guest-post by Chloe Briand

As language teachers, we are all too familiar with the seemingly Sisyphean task we have chosen as a career: to instil a love for the language we teach in our students whilst developing their linguistic competence towards autonomy, to facilitate their understanding of why they are learning a language and what opportunities lie ahead if they seize that challenge, and finally, to provide them with enough success in their learning to balance out the frustration from what can feel like a never ending process of failed attempts, which is the only way to proficiency. It is a highly complex environment to navigate, for both teachers and learners, even more so when situated in highly Anglo-centric backgrounds, and when faced with divergent research findings on various Second Language acquisition methodologies on what proves to be most effective in the classroom.

Traditionally, we have been guilty of considering innate talent, or aptitude, to be the main factor in successful L2 acquisition. This misconception would allow us to predict students’ success, or failure, accordingly. This meant that our methods in class were mostly tailored to suit a finite number of students, who demonstrated these “aptitude” attributes (such as the ability to infer meaning, grammatical flair, a sensitive ear to phonemes, memory capacity, etc.) along with the motivation and determination to succeed. The way I trained as a French and Spanish teacher back in Swansea, Wales, back in the early 2000s, with the exclusive use of Target Language in the classroom and the clear veto of any use of English, most certainly confirmed that predicate. The cognitive factors at hand here were not addressed systematically in our methods; upon reflexion, I can clearly see that my training was designed to cater to a small portion of students who would be able to, not only process highly dense input through their overly able decoding and sound discriminating faculties, but also to synthesize complex grammatical concepts through abstract meaning and apply their newly acquired knowledge into their production of language. This was of course doomed to fail, and I very soon observed that such an approach lost me most of my students, who were discouraged, feeling highly anxious, and at times, completely overwhelmed with what I asked of them, especially when comparing themselves to the 2 or 3 students in the class who could keep up.

I believe this approach is what has built our reputation over the years as an impossible subject to learn, because in truth, it really was. How many times have we heard parents at teacher interviews confess they were “no good at languages” when they were at school, and that they wished they had continued with it rather than give up? To this day, children are still largely experiencing that feeling of hopelessness and that it is just “too hard”. And I agree. What we have been doing as language teachers is teach ourselves, or the impossible minority of students who possess the motivation and those abilities, and who will learn the language no matter what is thrown at them in class. I was one of those students at school. No matter what the method was, who the teacher was, I was passionate about language and I was determined to learn, so I experienced success regardless. Unfortunately, this left the vast majority of our students on the side of the road.

Another crucial element that contributed to this phenomenon throughout the last decades is the multiplicity of methodologies developed over the years, through developing academic research on second language and its acquisition. A constant evolution from the direct method, the audiolingual method, the communicative approach, the Task-Based Learning, the Content and Language Integrated Learning, a focus on interaction and transaction, an explicit teaching of grammar, a target language only approach: the abundance of suggestions was both extremely stimulating and confusing. There is often a feeling that we must reinvent the wheel with every new method that comes out, which led many practitioners to feel like they had no clear guidance on, or understanding of, how to best teach their students.

More and more, language teachers started to incorporate multiple approaches into their classrooms, based on what they observed to be effective. We started to use English purposefully to reinforce understanding of concepts and instructions with students, scaffolding into different layers what we exposed them to, in order to cater to every range of ability. We adopted the communicative approach combined with task-based learning assessment in order to contextualise their learning. We were striving to find the right balance between communication and explicit grammar teaching to facilitate analysis of language. A lot of thinking about learning and curriculum design was taking place, but there was no consistent approach across the board.

At my current school, back in 2016, we found ourselves at a crossroads. Multiple languages were on offer since Year 7, but we struggled with low numbers and retention in middle and senior school for some of them, and with many disengaged students throughout the years, despite highly experienced and passionate teachers. Our number one priority was to address students’ engagement and to stabilize numbers into sustainability. To that end, we introduced a carousel of languages in Year 7, where students study 2 languages throughout the year before selecting one to pursue in Year 8 (this would allow them to experience them first-hand, and not just randomly select a language without really knowing). We also introduced a national qualification in Year 9 and 10, the Certificate II VET in Applied Language, which focuses on both social and workplace competencies (for clarification, VET in Australia stands for Vocational Educational Training, which provides nationally accredited qualifications designed in partnership with industries and the government in an effort to train people with workplace skills and technical knowledge to help them advance their career).  These measures meant less time to teach in Year 7, as we were now delivering 2 languages, and a high volume of prescriptive assessment tasks in Year 9 and 10. The challenge was enormous, but we had restored a sense of purpose to what we were doing, and soon, all teachers found themselves scrutinizing their curriculum and experimenting with a range of tools and methods, as we were committed to empowering all students to become the best language learners they could be. This is when Dr Conti came in.

Back in 2017, Dr Conti came to deliver his first workshop, and within the space of 3 hours, managed to open our eyes to his world of comprehensible input, working memory and thorough processing. In that time, he validated what we intuitively knew already: our syllabi were too full, and they were not effective. We did not leave room for recycling and we were throwing vocab list upon vocab list at our students, hoping that some would “stick”. The discussions that ensued from this moment not only radically changed our approaches, but they also made us better practitioners, in that we started to critically observe each element of our curriculum in order to decide whether it was truly necessary to build students’ competencies. We kept on using multiple teaching tools, but the pedagogy underpinning them became clearer. In brief, we started making room and we started embedding systematic recycling, knowledge organisers, extensive processing of language in all 4 skills, and communicative functions of language. It was a revolution.

But revolutions do take time, and a lot of arduous and consistent work across teams, in order to reach their objective. With a renewed sense of purpose underpinning our programs (with the carousel in Year 7 and the VET Certificate II in Year 9 and 10), change was possible. By the time Dr Conti came back to our school for his second workshop the following year, we were all eager to ask more specific questions about his MARS’EARS sequence, the transition from oral to written fluency, and how to best maximise class time for successful learning. We had started to see the shift in students’ engagement and participation in classes, at every step of the range of abilities. They were active, focused and very enthusiastic about the skills they were developing. The anxiety levels had dropped significantly as we recycled language thoroughly, as modelling through listening became our focus when introducing new content, and as thorough processing finally allowed students to internalise what we covered in class. Our students’ survey results were unanimous: they felt positive about learning a language, empowered to do so, and their self-esteem was soaring as a result. What more could we ask for?

Upon looking back at these past few years, I am in awe of my amazing colleagues for undertaking such a challenge and for seizing every opportunity to make their student’s experience better. This has been quite the journey, from overhauling our methodologies across all languages to training for VET delivery, and I could not have worked with more committed and passionate practitioners. I am also deeply grateful for Dr Conti’s support and influence in guiding our practice. His wealth of experience and practical approaches enabled us to trial and experiment his method very quickly, but more importantly, he facilitated this drastic change to our teaching through saying out loud what everybody thought quietly: less is more, and with the right approach, far more effective. In future, we will continue to use an evidence-based evaluation of our programs, to develop teachers’ skills through training, and to collect feedback from all our stakeholders, but so far, results are staggering.

If we are to truly impact our students’ lives through our teaching, we must empower them all to believe in their own potential, and we must enable them to experience systematic success in our lessons. Only then will they open up to the possibility of making a second language part of who they are as they continue to grow as young adults. After all, Sisyphus did prove to the Gods that by embracing life’s challenges as our own, we give them their true value and significance.

Chloe Briand is the Head of Languages at Methodist Ladies’ College, Melbourne, Australia, where she leads a team of 20 staff across 4 languages (French, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese). With over 17 years of teaching practice across 4 countries and her experience of a wide range of school environments, academic excellence and innovation drive her curriculum design, along with pioneering approaches to teaching languages, through authentic contexts and experiential learning.

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

Introduction: no, I have not invented sentence builders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key factors to consider when creating your SB

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

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

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

sentence builder animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

https://mrvinalesmfl.wordpress.com/2020/04/28/from-building-sentences-to-sentence-building-my-journey-to-mars/?fbclid=IwAR0FVgA9xn_ZMKM29-38ZJeBft-FUN-q6Im1B6RHjZbJQkTJPG46_z9FJss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modelling/Awareness Raising:

Hand out Sentence Builder with structures

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

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

Receptive Processing

Mini WB activities (lots of French – English translations)

RAM/LAM worksheets

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

1 Pen 1 Dice

Find your match

Sentence Stealer

Quelquechose Game (you may know it as ALGO game)

Language Gym Workout (Vocab Section)

Textivate activities

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

Structured Production

Mini WB activities (now include translations into French)

Dictations (running, delayed, mad)

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

ImmerseMe activities

No snakes no ladders translation game

Find someone who

Oral Ping Pong

Expansion

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

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

ImmerseMe activities

Piranha Grammar

Role plays

4,3,2 Technique

Pyramid Translations

Highly scaffolded writing tasks

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

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

 

A bit about Julia

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

EN ROUTE TO SPONTANEITY (PART 1): THE CURVE OF SKILL ACQUISITION AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR THE LANGUAGE CLASSROOM

The curve of skill-acquisition

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

Figure 1: the curve representing the power law of learning

Learning curve

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

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

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

Automatization is a long process

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

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

Automatization as fluency

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

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

Figure 2: the fluency strand

Cumbria transfer mistake

Most teachers, partly because they feel under pressure to ‘cover the syllabus’ and partly because they are reassured by progress tests that their students ‘know’ the target L2 items neglect this area of L2 proficiency. Yet, automatization practice is key, because (1) it is essential for spontaneity; (2) what is automatized is never forgotten and (3) if fluency training aims – as it should – at automaticity across a range of linguistic contexts and tasks, it enables students to use what they have learnt more flexibly in real-life interactions.

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

Automatization is more than speed of retrieval

This kind of training gets eventually the students not merely to fast retrieval which requires little or no conscious awareness (what psychologists call ‘ballistic processing’) but, more interestingly, produces qualitative changes in the way we retrieve and apply the vocab/structures we need to successfully execute the target task. In other words, automaticity means that the brain finds a more efficient way to produce that vocabulary and those structures in the context of a given task. We know this because MRIs show that when L2 learners have become fluent in the execution of a task, the brain areas activated during the execution of that task shrink, a sign that the brain makes less effort and needs to recruit fewer neural circuits. This qualitative change is called by researchers restructuring.

Main implications for language pedagogy

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

(1) cutting down the curriculum to allow for lots of recycling, task repetition and fluency practice once the students show they master the content of a unit of work. Textbooks go  way too fast !

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

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

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

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

The curriculum-design matrix in figure 3 below (aka the “Conti matrix”), makes provision for all of the above. As explained in previous posts, in my approach automatization occurs in the context of tasks designed to elicit language processing and production under what Keith Johnson calls R.O.C. (real operating conditions), i.e. in communicative drills and tasks I will discuss in greater detail in my next post.

Figure 3- The Conti Matrix

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Practice with the language they KNOW

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

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

Make time for fluency training

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

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

Less is more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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