On fluency and spontaneity: beyond “practice makes perfect”

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

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

Cumbria transfer mistake.png


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


Cumbria transfer mistake.png


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

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

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

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


Cumbria transfer mistake

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

Cumbria transfer mistake

Cumbria transfer mistake.png

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

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

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

Cumbria transfer mistake.png

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

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

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

Cumbria transfer mistake


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

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

Back to school

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


2. Teach for learning, not coverage. 

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

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


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


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

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

3.Put listening and speaking first.

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

the most crucial skillset

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

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



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

Ask yourself:

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


9.Avoid cognitive overload

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

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

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

learning burden.png

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

 10.Practise selective error correction.

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

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

  • it concentrates on only two or three major target areas (so that their attentional resources can be used more efficiently);
  • such areas are perceived as relevant to their current learning (so that they feel more motivated to address them);
  • it provides frequent feedback on the same target areas week in week out (so that it enhances their understanding and keeps them constantly focused on the same error types week in week out);
  • students have the declarative knowledge for self-correcting the errors with minimal prompting by the teacher (so that students are self-reliant in the process);

11.Make learning as interpersonal as possible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

16. Concluding remarks

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

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


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


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


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

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


the most crucial skillset.png


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


the most crucial skillset.png


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




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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


the listening process


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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 1: breakdown of the book’s content

book's breakdown.png

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

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

1. Where are we now? 

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

2.Target language

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

3. It’s fine to just listen

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

4. Not just comprehension

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

5. Listening for a purpose

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

6. Confident listeners

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

7. Strategies

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


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

9.Test and exam preparation

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

Beyond transcription: unlocking the full power of dictation – My favourite dictation tasks



0. Introduction

Dictations were taboo for many years in mainstream language education. However, with recent research findings indicating that decoding skills (the ability to match print to sound) are crucial to language acquisition, especially in the realms of listening and reading fluency development, they have become ‘fashionable’ again.

I have always been a passionate advocate of dictation and have been using it for over 30 years as a means to develop decoding and listening skills, but also to foster metalinguistic awareness, vocabulary learning and syntactic knowledge.

In this post, I set out to discuss some of my favourite dictation tasks, reserving to provide a much wider range of techniques in my forthcoming book*.

1.Delayed dictation

Delayed dictation is a great zero-prep activity. Younger learners love it, it’s great fun and helps practise a key language processing skill, ‘holding chunks in working memory’, as well as, of course, decoding and transcription skills. This is how it unfolds:

Step 1 – Utter a sentence that the students are familiar with, or at least 95-98 % comprehensible input, and tell them to ‘hold it inside their heads’ for ten seconds.

Step 2- As they try to hold the sentence in their heads, count up to ten (aloud), make funny noises or utter random words in the target language to distract them .

Step 3 – Finally, ask them to write the words down on their mini whiteboards and show you.

Tip : you can follow this up with ‘Sentence puzzle’ (see below)

The effectiveness of delayed dictation refers to two well-known cognitive mechanisms: the Zeigarnik effect and the ‘Desirable difficulty’ principle.

The ‘Zeigarnik effect’ (Zeigarnick, 1927) posits that a task that has already been started establishes a task-specific tension, which improves retention and cognitive accessibility of the relevant contents. The tension is relieved upon completion of the task. Delayed dictation, by interrupting the task, induces a cognitive tension which may enhance retention.

‘Desirable difficulties’ is a concept develop by R. A. Bjork (1994). The main idea is that introducing difficulties during learning will result in superior long-term retention because the greatest gains in storage strength occur when retrieval strength is low. Delayed dictation involves a desirable difficulty, in that the learner must hold the chunk in working memory as s/he rehearse it prior to writing it down.

Here are two forms of delayed dictation one can deploy to develop students syntactic awareness whilst practicing transcribing skills.

1.1 Delayed dictation with signaled combining

Step 1 – Show the sentence to be combined with the cue in brackets. For instance:

I have a sister (who)

Her name is Marie

Step 2 – Combine the sentences, e.g. I have a sister who is called Marie’ and say it to the class

Step 3 – After 10 seconds, the students write the sentence out on their mini whiteboards.

Tips: this task can be an effective prelude to an explicit sentence-combining task.

1.2 Delayed dictation with open sentence combining

Step 1 – show the sentences to be combined. For instance:

I have a sister

My sister is called Marie

She is friendly, pleasant and helpful

I argue with her from time to time

she is too talkative

Step 2 – combine the sentences according to whichever pattern you intend to model or reinforce, for instance, and utter the resulting sentence, e.g.:

my sister, who is called Marie, is very friendly, pleasant and helpful but from time to time I argue with her because she is too talkative

Step 3 – after 10  seconds, the students are tasked with writing the sentence as the teacher uttered it

Mad dictation

Mad dictation is a dictation in which you alternate slow, moderate, fast and very past pace. It is very successful with students of all ages, but especially younger learners.

Preparation: select a text containing familiar sentence patterns and around 90% comprehensible input.

Step 1 – Tell the students to listen to the text as you read it at near-native speed and to note down key words

Step 2 – Tell them to pair up with another student and to compare the key words they noted down. Tell them they are going to work with that person for the remainder of the task.

Step 3 – Read the text a second time. This time read some bits slowly, some fast and some at moderate pace. The purpose of these changes of speed is to get the students to miss some of the words out.

Step 4 – The students work again with their partner in an attempt to reconstruct the text.

Step 5 – Read the text a final time, still varying the speed of delivery.

Step 5 – The students are given another chance to work with their partner.

Step 6 – They are now given 30 seconds to go around the tables and steal information from other pairs

Tip – some of the students might panic the first time you stage this activity. Hence, it is helpful to let them know how the activity will unfold.

3. Sentence puzzles with metalinguistic categories

Sentence puzzles are a great way to sensitize students to syntactic order through the aural medium. A fantastic (recapping) lesson starter or plenary task that students love. When you add the metalinguistic categories element, you also enhance their language awareness and contribute to the explicit development of their parsing skills.

Step 1 – Write on the board the short-hand / symbols of a sentence pattern you have modelled and your students are familiar with. For instance, :

Time marker + Subject + Verb + Adverb of place

Step 2 – Ask the students to copy out the above in their books / or mini whiteboard

Step 3 – Utter a jumbled-up version of a sentence which follows that pattern. Ensure the students are very familiar with every word in the sentence

Step 4 – The students now unjumble the sentences they hear placing each element under the appropriate heading. For example :

Time marker        Subject            Verb           Adverbial of place

Hier                         Je                 suis allé             au cinéma


  1. Partial dictations with parsing grids

Partial dictations can be used to focus students explicitly on phonology, morphology and syntax by omitting from the gapped text the students must complete a key constituent of the target structure.  In this sense, they can effectively promote noticing.

For instance, as far as phonology are concerned, you could gap the parts of word which refer to the target sounds and students will have to complete the words as they listen.

In the realm of morphology, instead, imagine teaching the perfect tense of French verbs ; you could gap all the auxiliaries or all the past participles. Another example pertains to word ending in highly inflected languages, which could be gapped to draw the students’ attention to the gender and number of nouns/adjectives or to verb tenses and/or conjugations.

Parsing grids (see example in Fig. 1 below) can be used in combination with partial dictations, thereby focusing the students more explicitly on syntax.

parsin grid

5. Spot the missing word

In this task, words are omitted from the text. In this sense, it could be considered a partial dictation, the notable difference being that the students are not alerted to the presence of a gap by a blank space.

To add a metalinguistic focus, the words removed could refer to item the students usually tend to omit by mistake (e.g. the auxiliary in the formation of the perfect tense in French or Italian).

Step 1 – Remove words (containing the target sounds if your focus in phonological) from a text.

Step 2 – Read out the text

Step 3 – The students are required to write down the missing words in the correct place

6. Write it as you hear it

This task is not a dictation in the traditional sense of the word, but it is very effective in raising student awareness of GPC (grapheme-phoneme correspondence) through the transcription of oral input, by contrasting the way words sound with their spelling. For this reason, this task is most useful with less transparent languages such as English and French. This is how it unfolds:

Step 1 – Display a few sentences on the board and give the students a copy of those sentences on a sheet

Step 2 – Read them out at moderate pace enunciating them as clearly as possible

Step 3 – Ask the students, as they listen, to write, under the correct version they have their own phonetic transcription of what they heard.

Step 4 – Ask them to pair up with two other students and to come up with a phonetic transcription they all agree with

7. Syllabling

Syllable processing may contribute more to the all-important decoding phase of listening comprehension than phoneme processing (Field, 2015).

A growing body of research suggests that we process aural input by dividing it in syllables not in phonemes, as it is commonly believed.

Syllable-level information appears to contribute more than is sometimes realised to effective processing for the following reasons (Field, 2015):

(1) many words are monosyllabic;

(2) single stressed syllable provide cues to the identity of longer words;

(3) to the function of words (content versus function words) and

(4) to where the boundaries of words fall.

(5) The rhythm of a language is shaped by what happens at syllable level.

Yet, most listening instruction concerns itself with phonemes. As John Field points out, in focusing on syllables, EFL teachers need to concern themselves with at least three factors which shape a language’s rhythm.

(1) the structure of a syllable (i.e. the number of consonants that a language permits within a syllable). Most languages have a CV (consonant – vowel) and CVC. Spanish and Italian rely heavily on open CV syllable. English allows very complex structures (e.g. CCCVCCCC, e.g. in the word strengths).

(2) the frequency of weak syllables (like those in English containing schwa ).

(3) the ratio between the time taken by weak and by strong syllables.

An unfamiliar rhythm can interfere significantly with a listener’s ability to recognize known words in connected speech.

There is a fixed number of syllables, around 500, in every languages. This is one of a range of activities I have used over the years to focus my student onto the most frequent syllables in the target language.

Step 1 – Dictate syllable by syllable. Students transcribe

Step 2 – Dictate syllable by syllable again. Students check and make changes if they feel fit

Step 4 –  Students pair up with another student and compare transcriptions

8. Read, look up and say it

This task combines a technique originally devised by Jones (1960), ‘Read and look up’, with dictation. It is a form of dictation with a double whammy, in that both partners are actually being challenged.

Step 1 – Partner 1, who dictates, must read silently a set of sentences one by one.

Step 2 – he must then look up and repeat each sentence to Partner 2 without looking at the text as s/he speaks. Every time s/he manages to recall the full sentence s/he scores a point per word s/he remembers correctly.

Step 3 – Partner 2, on the other hand, will get a point for each word s/he transcribes correctly

9.Collocational grids

9.1 Modelling dictation

Collocational grids (see example in Fig 2) can be used to model collocations, as in the activity below:

Step 1 – Give a students a grid like the one in figure 1 below, designed to practise verb collocations, in which the first collocation partner is provided (e.g. I read , I play, I watch, I listen to)

Step 2 –  Utter sentences which contain both the first and the second collocation partner too (e.g. I read a book, I play tennis, I watch a film, I listen to a song) whilst the students note them down in the appropriate row of the grid (e.g. book, poem, article, novel, will be written on the same row as ‘read’)

Fig 2. – A collocational grid

collocational grids

9.2 Retrieval practice

Collocational grids can also be used for retrieval practice. For instance, going back to the example in the picture, you could utter the noun phrases ‘a book’ , ‘a gift’, ‘stamps’, ‘music’,etc. in random order, and the students will have to write them on the correct row.

10.Concluding remarks

There is much more to dictation than meets the eyes. As the examples above clearly show, they can impact L2 development on different levels, from spelling to decoding skills, vocabulary and syntax. What is key, as I always reiterate, is to ensure the input is 98 % comprehensible, and flooded with many occurrences of the target patterns. The point in the instructional sequence they occur at is evidently also crucial.

How I teach lexicogrammar (PART 2) – The  8 tenets of Extensive Processing Instruction in the novice-to-intermediate classroom

Fig.1 – the MARS EARS framework


0. Introduction

In the first post in this series dedicated to my teaching approach, Extensive Processing Instruction (or E.P.I.), I discussed the M.A.R.S. E.A.R.S. framework in its broad lines.

In the present post I will concern myself with the eight key principles that are crucial for the success of my approach and anyone wanting to adopt E.P.I. ought to heed.

Note that if you haven’t read my previous post, ‘How I teach lexicogrammar (Part 1)‘ I strongly recommend you do before reading on, so as to gain a better understanding of what follows.

1. Chunking

E.P.I. prioritises the teaching of chunks derived from Communicative Functions (see post here) over the teaching of single words and traditional grammar, in the belief that this approach (1) reflects the way the brain is hard-wired to acquire languages; (2) speeds up fluency as it is a faster and more efficient way of producing language; (3) facilitates processing by reducing the cognitive load on working memory; (4) makes language learning more about communication and implicit learning and less about explicit learning and application of rules.

Whilst grammar still places a prominent role in EPI, it serves the expression of communicative functions, hence EPI is about communicative lexicogrammar, construction grammar and usage-based grammar.

For more on the rationale and implementation of chunking, please refer to this previous post of mine  

2. Comprehensible Input

Masses of research have evidenced that with average-ability learners any L2 input that is less than 98 % comprehensible (i.e. understandable by the listeners/readers without help) is very unlikely to be conducive to learning. With more gifted learners, 90 % may suffice. Any input below the 80% comprehensibility threshold is likely to cause serious comprehension issues .

It is obvious, then, that if we aim to model L2 language through aural/writen tasks, , we must provide students with comprehensible input which contains language they are largely familiar with. This is very rarely the case with most of published world languages teaching materials, especially coursebooks and, in my experience, with a lot of target language input given by instructors in EFL and WL/MFL classrooms worldwide. The main reason: the belief, rooted in the CLT approach, that students should be given input which is as ‘authentic’ as possible.

However, asking students to perform listening/reading comprehension tasks on aural texts containing a substantive amount of language beyond their comprehensibility threshold encourages the deployment of compensatory strategies (e.g. guessing) rather than the promoting of noticing and modelling of syntax, morphology, lexis and phonology.

Moreover, this practice may be perceived as unfair by the students (e.g. “why am I being asked to listen to/read something I haven’t learnt and don’t understand?”), may engender student anxiety and, should the student fail, undermine their self-efficacy and motivation.

Another dimension of input comprehensibility relates to the speed rate at which aural texts are usually delivered. As noted previously, speed of processing is a function of listening fluency, hence, a beginner student-listener should not be asked to perform a task on texts delivered at native or near-native speed. Yet, this practice is very common in secondary schools in England, with negative consequence for L2-student motivation.

I believe the speed of delivery with beginners ought to be commensurate to their level of listening fluency even at the risk of sounding patently non-native, and should be increased gradually and judiciously as L2 learners’ proficiency grows.

3. Flooded Input

Mothers excel at providing their infant children with masses of input which is simplified, repetitive, highly patterned and rightly pitched to their current level of language proficiency. They ‘flood’ their input with instance after instance of the words or phrases they want their little ones to learn, going back to those words in various ways in their input; in other words, they provide ‘flooded input’.

E.P.I. is big on flooded input. I believe that, at the risk of not sounding authentic, L2 teachers must provide their students with masses of input ‘flooded’ with occurrences of the target linguistic patterns.

This is intuitive: if we want our students to acquire a specific pool of new chunks or to consolidate previously learnt ones, we need to ensure that they occur many times over in our (98% comprehensible) input in order to facilitate their noticing and retention.

Fig. 2 – Nursery rhymes contain lots of flooded input


Flooded input is especially crucial when we deal with items which are less easily noticed by L2 learners (e.g. prepositions, connectives, pronouns, copulas, word-endings) because of their morphology, position in a sentence or simply because of their frequency in L2 input and are consequently acquired quite late by L2 learners. By flooding the aural input with such items thereby increasing the students’ exposure to them, we are more likely to enhance their chances to notice and consequently acquire them.

By the same token, by patterning the input, we ensure that it follows a repetitive and predictable structure which facilitates understanding and retention of the target items. This is very much what happens in the nursery rhymes, songs and stories that children are fed throughout their infancy.

Fig. 3 – A patterned poem flooded with the same target structure


Our emphasis on flooded and patterned input is another major reason why E.P.I. advocates the use of aural/written texts ‘manufactured’ for L2 teaching purposes. One of the benefits of such texts is that they may contain as many instances as we feel fit of items that occur very rarely in the aural input students normally process in the typical L2 classroom. Think about ‘negatives’, for instance: how many ‘authentic’ texts describe events using lots of negative structures?

Narrow reading (NR) and Narrow listening (NL) texts are extreme examples of flooded and highly patterned input.  NR and NL consist of clusters of texts (I typically use 4 to 6) which are totally identical except for a few details here and there (see examples in figures 4  and 5 below.

Fig 4 – a set of Spanish narrow reading texts with tasks designed for a year 8 class



Fig 5 – EFL narrow reading texts for French students


Every single interactive read-aloud game described here (e.g. the globally successful ‘Sentence stealer’) aims at providing lots of flooded input.

Fig 6 – The read aloud game ‘Sentence Stealer’ in a lesson on the immediate future in Spanish. Even to non Spanish-speakers the input-flooding is quite obvious.



4. Controlled Input

We believe that in instructed L2 instruction the input we provide our students with needs to be tightly controlled in order to possess all of the attributes discussed above. Note that at the initial stage of a new EPI instructional sequence  the input provided to the learners in the Receptive Processing phase (the R in the MARS sequence) does not deviate in any way from the new language patterns and lexical items presented in the modelling phase

L2 learners respond very well to controlled input, because (1) it allows for more recycling of the new items; (2) at the early stages of an instructional sequence, it facilitates processing and reduces cognitive load, as the students do not need to resort to dictionaries or expert help to understand the input; (3) it makes them feel ‘safer, as it decreases the chances of encountering material they are not familiar with.

5. Thorough processing

As noted above, the reading and listening tasks typically found in textbooks and most other published resources usually require students to answer questions on a text that range from ‘who , where, how, etc.’ questions to ‘True or False’ ones. This encourages what we call Partial processing, as the students do not process the text in its entirety; rather, they skim and/or scan for key words or other intra- or even extra-textual cues which may help them answer the questions. They may, once identified the portions of the text which contain the needed information, read them more thoroughly; however, unless the questions or tasks on the text are numerous and cover every single sentence in the text, several parts of that text will not be processed deeply enough to impact learning.

Moreover, one of the most serious limitations of working memory is its inability to focus on form and meaning at the same time. Hence, if students are asked to perform on texts only task which focus on meaning (e.g. typical ‘who?’, ‘where?’, ‘what ?’ ‘when’ or ‘True or false’ comprehension questions) they will not be able to learn much about the linguistic features in the text, especially the less salient ones.

Yet, for those who, like us, lay a strong emphasis on repeated exposure to the target chunks, lexical patterns and structures in the belief that repeated exposure enhances L2 acquisition, this is an important shortcoming; we want our students to process the text in its entirety; to pay attention to each and every target item so that (1) they become more aware of the way known items behave in a range of phonological, lexical and structural contexts  thereby enhancing their acquisition; (2) notice unknown items thereby beginning their acquisition and, (3) if the text contains material that may enhance their knowledge of the world or their well-being, they benefit from it to the fullest extent rather than gathering ‘bitty’ information.

Hence, we advocate that L2 reading and listening tasks should mostly involve thorough processing of the target texts. Typical examples of thorough processing tasks are translations, dictations and error-identification tasks. Some of my favourites:

  • Bad translation: the students are given a text in the target language and a translation of the text containing and X number of mistakes. The students are tasked with spotting the mistakes in the translation
  • Faulty description: the students are shown a picture and given four narrow reading texts each providing a description of the picture in the target language which contains one more inaccuracies. The students are tasked with spotting the inaccuracies
  • Spot the intruder: the students are given a text which contains extraneous words which don’t fit grammatically or in meaning (depending on the focus). The task is to spot the extraneous word
  • Sentence puzzles: the students must reconstruct a jumbled-up sentence containing the target sentence pattern and lexis
  • Delayed dictation: the teacher utters a sentence that the students will be familiar with, or at least 95-98 % comprehensible input, and tell them to ‘hold it inside their heads’. As they try to keep it in their heads, s/he makes funny noises or utter random words in the target language to distract them for a few seconds. Finally, s/he asks them to write the words on their mini whiteboards and show you.
  • Gapped parallel texts: the students are given a text in the target language and a translation of that text whose gaps are designed to draw the students’ attention to specific linguistic features.

Fig 7 – A ‘Bad translation’ task for students of Spanish


Fig 8 – Gapped Parallel text for learners of Spanish as a foreign language


6. Pushed Output

As just discussed, I believe that with novice learners the input we provide needs to be tightly controlled in order to possess all of the attributes discussed above. I do also believe that they must be given a wide range of opportunities for transforming every single bit of the input they process receptively into output.

This calls for an approach to the design of oral and written tasks which elicit the production, at the end of a typical instructional sequence (what I call ‘Structured production’), of the very same L2 vocabulary and structures that were modelled and practised through listening and reading at the very beginning of that sequence.

Hence, if, say, you presented and practised through listening and/or reading 20 new vocabulary chunks and 2 new syntactic patterns, you would engage your students in oral and written tasks that force them to produce all of those vocabulary items and patterns many times over – alongside previously learnt linguistic items (interleaving) if you feel these will not cause cognitive overload and interference.

Fig 9 – From controlled input to pushed output


This points to the full integration E.P.I. envisages for listening/reading and to the key role listening holds in priming oracy. It also points to an important difference between Communicative Language Teaching (in its stronger forms) and EPI,  i.e. the fact that before engaging in unstructured productive oral and written tasks,  L2-learners must sit through an intensive phase of highly structured communicative tasks and drills which recycle the target L2 items to death.

In my opinion, one of the greatest shortcomings of common classroom practice in England is that teachers go way too soon from the Presentation Phase to open-ended tasks and questions which do not enable the teacher to recycle and consolidate at will every single target item, as their students have the freedom to answer as they please -often using the same answer / set of answers in the same way from year 7 to year 11 !

Only highly structured production and targeted retrieval practice can provide sufficient opportunities for the L2 teacher to recycle the target chunks and patterns whilst staying within the limited scope of Feasible Output, i.e. output we know the students are capable of producing.

The effective E.P.I. teacher creates frequent opportunities in the Structured Production phase for Pushed Output which is Controlled (i.e. it is limited to the target patterns and chunks) and Feasible.

Fig 10 – An oral translation game for learners of Spanish as a foreign language involving retrieval practice


Translation drills, mostly interactional games, are the preferred means of elicit pushed output for the reason that they allow the teacher to control the student output as much as possible thereby ensuring that the target items are recycled at will. My favourite translation games and tasks are described here. The rationale for the preference of translation over pictures is that:

  • it promotes noticing key differences and similarities between he L1 and the L2, which promotes acquisition;
  • it forces the students to use specific chunks/patterns whereas pictures are less narrow in the output they elicit;

As explained in my previous post, after the students have had extensive Pushed Output practice, the teacher will stage tasks involving less structured speaking and writing tasks which involve more creativity and autonomy.

Fig 11 – Oral communictaive drills for learners of French as a foreign language



7. Recycling

I have discussed this point extensively in previous posts. Effective teaching is not just about the effective first lesson on a target item, but also about ensuring that after the intensive recycling that occurs at the initial stages of an instructional sequence that item is extensively recycled over the months and even years to come.

As I have often reiterated in this blog, intensive intra-lesson and inter-lesson recycling are both crucial, as most forgetting (around 56 % ) occurs one hour after processing a to-be-learnt item and after six days, in the absence of reinforcement, the learner is left with very little (30 %).

Fig 12 – Ebbinghaus curve of human forgetting rate


This is why my method is called E.P.I. , where the ‘E’ in the acronym stands for ‘Extensive’ and alludes to the emphasis my methodology lays on carefully planned recycling through Interleaving (explained in detail here), whereby any new set of chunks/patterns is learnt and practised with previously learnt items and recycled with new ones at spaced intervals.

Fig 13- Spaced practice


In the Expansion phase of a typical E.P.I. instructional sequence, for instance, having taught and practised structure ‘Y’ (e.g. Time marker + perfect tense of irregular verbs + prepositional phrase) and being satisfied that the students after a few lessons have routinised the structure in the context of the function ‘Talking about what I did yesterday’, before moving on to a new unit and new material, they will make sure (a) that structure ‘Y’ is practised with structures ‘X’ and ‘W’ learnt in previous units and (b) that it will be practised in all the units to come in some shape or form.

Fig 14 – The Expansion phase in the MARS EARS sequence


The best form of recycling involves of course, spaced practice, whereby material is revisited systematically at intervals that are frequent at the initial stages and become gradually sparser.

Of course, effective recycling require skillful and careful curriculum design and is much harder to implement when one teaches one meaty unit of work every six-seven weeks with two hours of contact time per week.

Hence, my advocacy of a ‘Less is more’ approach, whereby curriculum design in the formative years of L2 learning focuses more on the quality than the quantity of coverage and on the development of automaticity – which brings me to the next point.


Automaticity is the ultimate goal of E.P.I., as it is a key prerequisite of fluency. Hence, great emphasis is lain by the E.P.I. teacher on practising speed of retrieval. During the recycling phase, what I called ‘EARS’ in my previous post, tasks such as the ‘4,3,2 technique’, ‘Market place’, ‘Speed dating’, ‘Chain reaction’ and ‘Fast and Furious’ are staged alongside traditional communicative tasks ( e.g. information gap activities) in order to train students in producing language under Real Operating Conditions.

Fig 15 – The 4,3,4 technique


Fig 16 – Chain Reaction. The students, who have three lives, are lined up and are tasked with translating orally on the spot (give them 5-6 seconds) from their L1 into the target language, each chunk as it appears on the slides, losing a life each time they get it wrong. Every time they pass or get something wrong they lose a life. Great as a starter or plenary.




Before venturing in subsequent posts in a more detailed account of the various stages in the MARS EARS sequence, from the M (modelling) to the S (spontaneity), I have hereby attempted to outline the key principles of my approach. Any language educator embracing EPI must heed such principles as they are all interdependently crucial to its effectiveness. 







In the last few weeks I have been asked by many of my readers and colleagues on the Facebook professional group I founded (Global Innovative Language Teachers) the following questions:

(1) what I mean by teaching through chunks and patterns / constructions as opposed to single words and traditional grammar,

(2) where I get the chunks and patterns from and

(3) how I teach them.

Whilst I reserve to answer question (3) in a much more detailed post in the very near future outlining my MARS EARS sequence step by step, here I will deal with (1) and (2) as I know that many teachers are currently in the process of re-designing or tweaking their schemes of learning in preparation for the next academic year.

Here are the key principles of my curriculum design and classroom teaching.


This is the bread and butter of Communicative Language Teaching. The teaching of lexis and grammar should serve communication, hence language learning should be about learning to perform real world communicative tasks through a range of high frequency L2 chunks and constructions.

Consequently, grammar should not be taught to novice-to-intermediate learners in futile abstract categories such as ‘Perfect tense’, ‘Imperfect tense’, or ‘Prepositions’; by the same token, vocabulary should not be selected randomly and taught through uncontextualized single words, based on a theme that means all and nothing, e.g. sports, house, holidays.

Our choice of the grammar and lexis we want to impart on our students should be driven instead by the communicative functions we believe are most important for our students to master in the real world (or, if you want to be more pragmatic – to pass the exams!).

But what do we mean by Communicative Functions (CF)?

In my latest professional development tour of England, I realised that the vast majority of England-based language teachers are not familiar with the concept. Here are some examples of key communicative functions:

– creating questions

– describing people

– describing places

– reporting an event in the past

– talking about the way one used to be

– talking about future plans

– comparing and contrasting

– expressing a purpose, etc.

A full list of CF, adapted from Finocchiaro and Brumfit (1983),  one of many freely available on the internet, can be found here .


The starting point of any L2 curriculum design and teaching should be the communicative functions that one wants to cover by the end of the academic year, course, key stage 3 (i.e. years 7 to 9) or even key stage 4 (i.e. years 10 to 11).

Choose with your colleagues the top 20, 15 or 12 (depending on the time and resources available) functions that you believe your students MUST master by a specific stage in their L2-learning journey and decide how many you should teach each year and plan for their systematic recycling over the years. Remember: LESS IS MORE.

I usually choose 12 top Communicative Functions that I want my students to learn by the end of year 9, which I break down in micro-functions. I call them The Majestic 12.

Example of  a macro-function: Describing people.

Examples of micro-functions: describing their character, describing their physical appearance, comparing and contrasting people, saying what the worst and best things about them are, etc.

If you were to choose your own Majestic 12, what would they be?


Once identified the CFs, you then identify the key patterns and chunks used most frequently to express them:


FUNCTION: Comparing and contrasting


X is more + adjective than Y

X is as + adjective as Y

Z is less  + adjective than Y

Compared to X, Y is more + adjective

Teaching patterns is key. Without pattern recognition and activation students’ growth as L2 listeners, speakers, readers and writers is substantively stunted.

The Structural Deficit Hypothesis (SDH) attributes difficulties in the acquisition of reading to syntactic processing deficiencies (Bentin, Deutsch and Liberman, 1990; Menyuk et al., 1991; Scarborough, 1991). The SDH claims that an absence of syntactic knowledge or lack of processing ability interferes with higher level text comprehension.

MFL teachers in England often complain about their students using Google translator. However, if one doesn’t explicitly and systematically teach syntactic patterns, how can one expect their students to be able to string single words together grammatically and logically without help?

Take the list of subordinate clauses in Figure 1 below: how many of those do you explicitly teach and recycle over and over again from year 7 to year 11? When I ask this question in my workshops, only one or two participants put their hands up.

FIGURE 1 – List of key subordinate clauses in English


At this stage you choose the context that best suits the teaching of that function in the launching phase and in the subsequent recycling phases. This is different from what is customarily done in my experience in English schools, where one usually chooses the context first (e.g. talking about hobbies) and then the target linguistic items (usually expressed in terms of words and grammar structures).

This is how I go about it:


FUNCTION: Comparing and contrasting


Talking about family (launching)

Talking about school subjects / teachers (recycling)

Talking about people I met during the holidays (recycling)



This way, communication drives your choice of the grammar and the theme. And when you share your objectives with your students, you will share a communicative purpose, e.g.: ‘Today we are going to learn how to talk about plans for the week-end. By the end of the lesson you will be able to understand the meaning of the  patterns and vocabulary in this sentence builder (or any other knowledge organiser you may want to use) and some aspects of their usage.’

Similarly, when approaching the teaching of the imperfect tense in French, you will not teach all the seven rules of the imperfect  – which overloads students and puts them off this tense; rather, it will be in one instance: ‘talking about how you and your family/friends used to be’ a function which will allow you to recycle time markers, adjectives, family members, adverbials, etc. killing several birds with one stone. In another instance: describing a past event (weather, places). In another instance still: describing what you were doing when something (e.g. an accident) happened. Each instance with its own contextualised chunks and patterns. Nothing wrong, of course, after coming across several instances of the Imperfect in pulling all the threads together and unifying them under the metalinguistic umbrella-term ‘the imperfect’.

When communication drives your selection of the grammar you teach, you don’t risk overloading your students with a myriad of rules and sub-rules and exceptions to them, that classic grammarians many centuries ago categorised under one convenient label (e.g. ‘Prepositions’, ‘Adverbs’, ‘Conditional’) artificially separating the inseparable: grammar from vocabulary.

Grammar and Lexis are too closely intertwined to be considered as distinct from one another: learning the word ‘beautiful’ in French (‘beau’) means learning its word-class, its word-order, its feminine and plural form, its grammatical attributes, not simply its meaning.



In my approach, grammar learning occurs organically after much exposure to and use of the target chunks and pattern through activities constantly recycling the same language over and over again (highly controlled input followed by  highly controlled output).

Here is how a typical instructional sequence of mine (MARS’ EARS) unfolds over two or three lessons:

1.Modelling – this phase models the use of X number of chunks and patterns presented IN CONTEXT through sentence builders / story telling / songs / etc. My modelling tool par excellence are sentence builders such as the one in the picture below, because:

1. They are a great way to teach lexical and syntactic patterns in context;

2. They allow you to model chunks and patterns through listening and reading – reinforcing print to sound correspondence. You make and read aloud sentences, whilst the students translate them on mini white boards;

3. They are very clear and accessible knowledge organisers;

4. They help prevent agreement mistakes in languages like French, German, Spanish, Italian, etc. For instance, in the sentence builder below, clothes are taught together with the feminine or masculine form of the related adjective from the word go;

5. They help create a vocabulary-rich learning environment;

6. They can be used as a scaffold in students’ books or – as I do – constantly on the classroom screen as students interact orally;

7. They are a fantastic way to recycle old material and to plant the seed of new linguistic items you plan to teach in the near or distant future (implicit learning). Just put such items in a column of the sentence builder with the translation and they will be learnt effortlessly through exposure;

8. You can play many interactive games with them (e.g. sentence puzzles, guess what comes next, faulty echo, etc.)

9. Students love them – in every single student voice questionnaire I administered, the children rated them as the single most useful resource I gave them. Possibly because ‘they allow students to take ownership of their learning, resulting in active engagement early on’, as noted by my colleague Ursula Maley.

FIGURE 2 – sentence builders for a year 7 French class on describing  clothes

SB Clothes.png

2.Awareness-raising –  the learners are concisely sensitised to the patterns/rules governing the target chunks; their formation and use. This is not the typical lengthy explanation on a Power Point but rather ‘pop-up grammar’.

3. Receptive processing – provides high-intensity processing of enriched input practice through the receptive skills (Controlled Input). ‘Death by chunks’ through highly structured activities such as these fun read aloud games,(e.g. mind reading with prompts, sentence stealer, find someone who with cards, find your match) engaging narrow reading and listening tasks involving problems solving and thorough processing, sentence puzzles (e.g. the rock climbing game on http://www.language-gym.com or mosaic writing in FIGURES 3a and 3b), dictations, gapped parallel texts, etc. Every text is manufactured in order to be flooded with the same chunks and patterns over and over again and to contain 90 to 95 % comprehensible input. Scaffolding is available throughout (e.g. sentence builder on desks or classroom screen).

FIGURE 3a – Sentence puzzle (1):  Mosaic writing

mosaic writing

FIGURE 3b – Sentence puzzle (2) : rock-climbing game from http://www.language-gym.com

rock climbing.png

4. Structured production – provides intensive scaffolded and HIGHLY CONTROLLED production practice (Pushed Output). The chunks are now used in structured tasks. These include fun translation games, highly structured information-gap activities (see example in picture 6a and 6b below),  Narrow translation, creative tasks (see example in picture 7), Interactional writing . Scaffolding is  still available throughout.

Translation and other tasks that elicit highly controlled output are crucial at this stage, as you want your students to produce every single chunk you taught them, not simply come out with the same answer to a given question from year 7 to 11 (e.g. Q: ‘What did you do last week-end?’ A: ‘I played football, went to the cinema and ate pizza’). Pushed output tasks allow you to practise the production of as wide a range of target chunks as possible whilst recycling old material (Interleaving); this means you have total control over the output, something that traditional communicative tasks usually don’t allow.

FIGURE 4 – Oral translation board game – ‘No snakes no ladders’. The game is played in three, two players and a referee who has the solutions. When one mistake is made, the referee reads out the correct translation to the player who waits for his turn; if s/he gets it right the second time, s/he can cast the die and continue the race.

oral boardgame.png

FIGURE 5 – Oral ping pong translation – two players challenging each other. Scoring: 3 points for 100% accurate sentence; 2 points if mostly accurate; 1 point if only verb is accurate.

oral boardgame.png

Figure 6a – A classic information-gap game – two detectives on different shifts are following the same person. They call each other and must fill in the details missing from their notes asking their partner.

oral boardgame.png

Figure 6b – An oral interaction scaffold designed to support a conversation on family. Questions are listed with a range of possible answers including the target chunks (translations provided)


Figure 7 – Structured creative tasks

oral boardgame.png


5. Expansion: two things happen in this phase:

(1) the target patterns/chunks are learnt in greater depth in order to teach the students how to make sense of the target patterns/constructions. This is your typical grammar lesson, except that it occurs after the students have already memorised the chunks and have been sensitised to the underlying grammar through relentless exposure and use .

Learning grammar by deconstructing the chunks one has already used over and over again is evidently much easier than learning it ex novo through decontextualized examples on a PowerPoint slide or textbook page.

(2) the target chunks are practised with old and new vocabulary and structures overtime through systematic recycling (INTERLEAVING). This is vital; since memory is context-dependent, learning the perfect tense within the topic ‘holidays’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be transferred automatically to other contexts.

Scaffolding may still be necessary during this phase.

6.Autonomy – intensive oral and written practice at the end of which scaffolding is phased out. This phase starts within the first few lessons from presenting the chunks and runs through the whole academic year and even beyond and must be planned carefully in your schemes of learning.

This is where your traditional communicative tasks are carried out and students experiment more creatively with previously learnt chunks. The difference is that now the students come to those tasks with tons of relevant routinized chunks, patterns and sentences.

7.Routinization – focus is on recycling throughout the academic year and beyond through interleaving and fluency and automation-promoting activities. Some tasks simply recycle; others are designed to foster speed of retrieval and automatization (see 4,3,2 technique in picture 8, below). Other sample tasks here.


Figure 8 – the 4,3,2 technique


8. Spontaneity – practice in unplanned response to a stimulus (a picture, a set of questions, a problem) is provided at spaced intervals over the year to assess students’ ability to perform the target item(s). This is assessment for learning, not a traditional high-stake assessment. Students’ performance in these tasks is not graded; feedback is only positive, to foster willingness to talk.

Figure 9 – the MARS’ EARS sequence


In sum, only after the students have learnt the patterns as vocabulary, as chunks, does the teacher actually explain the grammar rules that govern the use of the target constructions in order to enhance their generative power, i.e.: to enable the students to manipulate them creatively and spontaneously, at will. Or, even better, if you have the right students, you will ask them to inductively work out the rule by themselves – my favourite approach (see picture 9 below)

Figure 9 – Inductive task on French negatives


It will be obvious by now that I don’t teach grammar; not the traditional way at least. I teach chunks of language and constructions which convey a communicative function. Grammar is not necessary, but it is valuable in expanding the power of the chunks for future use, to enhance their expressive range and depth. 

In other words I am teaching grammar through lexis and lexis through grammar – i.e. lexicogrammar.

This is a faster way to learn and activate what we traditionally call grammar and to help students get how grammar relates to real-world communication. Because ‘talking about how we used to be’ makes more sense to younger learners than the term ‘Imperfect’. Because learning through the ‘deconstruction’ of what one is familiar with already is easier than building from scratch. Because concrete, hands-on and contextualised information is easier to grasp than abstract notions presented in a vacuum.

It is worth reminding the reader that in my approach the content is reduced substantively compared to the norm (in my case from 6 to 3 units per year), as the main focus of instruction is not to accrue flimsy intellectual knowledge about the language or to memorise lists of words; rather, it is to bring about automaticity, fluency and spontaneity in the receptive and productive skills. However, the use of Implicit learning routines and other strategies discussed here , along with the vocabulary-rich environment you will have created through all the activities mentioned above, will eventually make up for the explicit content you cut out.

This goes beyond mere retention of information, hence it requires lots of recycling and tasks which foster speed of retrieval and execution. The aspirational goal being not having to re-teach in the years to come the same basic structures over and over again (as often happens !) and to forge student who can think in the L2 on the spot, with confidence and  without much hesitation.

Please note: this post was written with a lot of useful input from my former colleague and Head of Spanish at Garden International School, Dylan Vinales, who has helped me over the years through his application, creativity and feedback to refine the E.P.I. (Extensive Processing Instruction) methodology and its practical implementation.