My upcoming UK speaking tour dates: June – July 2023

After a pretty hectic month of online seminars, I will tour the UK for a month or so. Here are the dates open to the public:

12th June. Lerwick, Shetland – Presentation on “Becoming an EPI teacher’ on behalf of the Shetland Government. Contact: Sarah Henry – Sarah.

14th June. Tavistock College, Tavistock, Devon – Presentation on “Curriculum Design” Contact: Alison Savage –

15th June – Online (half day) –“Grammar in the MFL classroom”. More details, here: Contact:

16th June – Wymondham high Academy, Wymondham, Norfolk. “Becoming an EPI teacher”. Contact: Lauren Sparrow,

17th, 24th June & 1st July – Online (9:30 to 12:00 pm AUSSIE time) MLTAT (Modern Language Teachers Association of Tasmania). Contact:

19th  June – Stamford School. Stamford, Lincolnshire : “Becoming an EPI teacher”. Contact : Catherine Pike. Enroll here:

20th June –Manchester  Parrenthorn High School : “Grammar & Phonics” Contact: Alexandra Havers on

21st June – Malvern College, Malvern: “Becoming an EPI teacher” Worcesteshire. Contact: Paula Roffey on

22nd June – Hull. East Riding Local Authority: “EPI in Primary”. Contact : Kay Ray –

23rd June– Cottenham Village, Cambridgeshire. “Becoming an EPI teacher”. Contact Annabel Whalley on

26th June – Online (full day): Becoming an EPI teacher. Details here:

27th June –Online (half-day): “Implementing EPI at KS4”. Details here:

28 June + 12th July– Online: “Curriculum Design”

29th June – Headington School, Oxford: “Becoming an EPI teacher”. Details here:

30th June – Streatham & Clapham High School, London: “Becoming an EPI teacher” . Details here:

4th & 5th July – Cardiff. South East Wales Education Achievement Service. Not open to externals.

6th July – Thorns Collegiate Academy, Smethwick, West Midlands Liz Haycock: Becoming an EPI teacher. Contact:

7th July – Redhill Academy Trust, Arnold, Nottinghamshire “Becoming an EPI teacher” (short version). Contact :

10th July – President Kennedy School, Coventry. “Memory – What every language teacher should know. Contact: Nick Mort on

11th  July – Houlton School, Clifton-upon-Dunsmore, Warwickshire: “Curriculum Design and procedures”. Contact: Futures Teaching Alliance Email: Telephone: 02476661416 Ext. 2022

12th  July – Second part of Curriculum Design (first part on 28th June)


The real MARSEARS: how an EPI sequence TRULY unfolds (the real ‘Conti method’)

The Language Gym

Why this post?

This post aims at providing language educators interested in my approach with an up-to-date description of the MARSEARS instructional sequence faithful to the ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ of EPI, as opposed to the many adaptations and hybridizations floating on social media these days, which may be as or even more effective, but often substantively misrepresent the original framework.

The MARSEARS sequence


As can be seen in figures 1 & 2 below, a typical unit of work lasts a term and consists of five sub-units: four of which deal with new material and consist of MARSEA (Modelling, Awareness-raising, Receptive processing, Structured Production, Expansion and Autonomy) and two of RS (Routinization and Spontaneity) which aim at consolidating and automatizing that material, as well as interweaving it with materials from previous units (e.g. in Term 2 in year 8, you will interweave core vocabulary and grammar from Term 1 in…

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How to become an accredited EPI teacher

Many CPD providers around the world are currently delivering courses on the implementation of EPI. Whilst I welcome the fact that the ‘Word’ is being spread, often it is spread incorrectly, sending mixed message and often misrepresenting the approach. This is because many of these providers have not received extensive training in the approach, haven’t fully understood it and/or haven’t implemented it in the classroom for long enough or in a sufficiently wide range of learning contexts to fully master it.

Consequently, I have been asked by many classrooms practitioners and CPD providers, mainly from the UK, Australia, North America, the Middle East and South-East Asia, to stage an accreditation programme which would assure that whoever delivers courses on EPI has received thorough training in the approach across the main areas of language teaching and learning.

The programme, which is organized and delivered in partnership with the University of Bath Spa (UK) consists of two levels: Level 1, for those who want to obtain the “EPI teacher accreditation” and Level 2, for those who want to become accredited EPI teacher trainers. The completion of the L1 course is of course a prerequisite for accessing Level 2.

Please note that no professional development provider has completed Level 1 yet, although quite a few people are already three quarters of the way. This means that no CPD provider yet is an EPI-accredited teacher or trainer and whilst people can deliver by all means FREE EPI CPD, they shouldn’t charge fees for it. This is unfortunately happening in England and constitutes a breach of copyright.

The Level 1 programme comprises the following modules:-

(1) Becoming an EPI teacher

(2) Curriculum Design & Lesson Planning in MFL

(3) Phonics and Grammar

(4a) Implementing EPI at Key Stage 4 or
(4b) Implementing EPI at Key Stage 2

(5) Final Assessment: delegates will need to create a detailed design of a MARS EARS sequence for KS2/3 or 4 inclusive of overview, activities and pedagogic rationale for the selection and sequencing of tasks . This includes:-

  • Online tutorial with Dr Conti to introduce this module (1 hour)
  • Input and feedback from Dr Conti on Scheme of Work

Course fee for all of the above is £700 per delegate. Fee includes the 5 modules above and programme certification. If you prefer, you can book and pay for each course individually as you go along.

If you have completed some of the modules already, you do not need to repeat them. Please let us know dates when informing us of each course which you have previously attended.

Information on Becoming an Accredited EPI Trainer to follow. Please register your interest with Denise – Delegates on this trainer course will have completed the above Becoming an Accredited EPI Teacher modules first. Please book yourself onto the correct module.

Here are the Becoming an EPI Teacher Dates for those of you living in the Western hemisphere. Please note that Australia/Eastern-hemisphere friendly dates in April and May will be published very soon on the Network for Learning website ( and on this blog.

15 & 29 March 4pm to 6.30pm on both dates Online

24 March 9.30am to 4pm Watford, Herts (face to face)

28 April 9am to 4pm Online

29 June 9.30am to 4pm Oxford (face to face)

30 June 9.30am to 4pm London (face to face)

Curriculum Design & Lesson Planning in MFL Dates:

28 Feb & 14 Mar 4pm to 6.30pm on both dates Online

30 March 9.30am to 4pm Birmingham (face to face)

9 May 9am to 4pm Online

Please note that the face-to-face events above are those staged by Network For learning. There are (and will be) also other events hosted by schools in the UK in Australia. You can find the upcoming ones this month, listed here.

Details about the Level 2 programme will be published in Autumn 2023.

There’s more to L2 grammar acquisition than meets the eye: learned attention and its implications for teaching


Learned attention (Nick Ellis, 2012) is a phenomenon whereby the way we parse input in the L1 constrains the way we process the L2 . In other words, our first language has conditioned us over the years to parse language through cues in the input which may be different in the target language.

For instance, English speakers learning Spanish may not notice Spanish nouns/adjectives’ masculine or feminine endings in the input we provide them with, because the notion of gender does not exist in their first language. By the same token, English learners of French may not notice that a French verb is in the simple future because in English the simple future is cued by ‘will’ whereas in French it is indicated by a bound morpheme (i.e. inflectional changes to the verb ending). For English learners of German, the issue is of course even more complex as word order requires parsing mechanisms which are completely different in their L1 and cases do not exists at all in English.

This is particularly important when teachers stage traditional listening and reading comprehension tasks whereby the texts are flooded with an L2 language feature which is processed differently in the L1. Since the brain can’t process meaning and form (e.g. grammar) simultaneously, when carrying out such tasks, many learners are not likely to notice the target L2 feature, especially in listening, when the time window for parsing any given sentence is about 1 to 2 seconds. Flooding aural/written texts is only effective when listening and reading tasks include alongside focus-on-meaning tasks a substantive focus-on-form component which directs the learners’ attention to form, i.e. prosody (e.g. intonational patterns), grammar (e.g. verb endings), syntax (word order), etc.

It should be noted that grammar structures are not merely acquired through productive use, as many believe, but also through many repeated encounters in the aural and written input they process. However, if our students are blind and deaf to the target linguistic features because they are ‘blocked’ by our L1-induced learned attention, this is not likely to happen. This is very important considering that in many UK classrooms a big chunk of the daily classroom work occurs through reading – even when the students engage in writing, it is often with the support of reading materials or written scaffolds (e.g. knowledge organizers), which is basically… reading!

But isn’t it enough to simply raise their awareness, do a nice PPP (presentation – practice – production) lesson and lots of gap-fills, translations and other structured drills? The answer: for starters, these are productive (usually written) tasks which won’t necessarily transfer to listening and reading (according to the Transfer Appropriate Processing principle). Secondly, learned attention has been automatised (learnt subconsciously) through thousands and thousands of hours of first language use. Hence, any training aiming at successfully ‘rewiring’ the brain must be regular and sustained over time– if you believe it’s a priority, of course.

Figure 1 – Learned attention defined

Obviously, the blocking effect of L1-induced learned attention is stronger, the more demanding the parsing of a text is from a cognitive-load point of view. So, for instance, sentences which are longer, more syntactically complex and/or contain unfamiliar vocabulary are more likely to exacerbate the phenomenon. The same happens when a grammar feature is redundant in terms of meaning building; for example, in the sentence ‘Demain on va aller au stade’ (Tomorrow we are going to go to the stadium), the time marker already cues the students to the fact that the action is future and the subject pronoun ‘on’ that it is ‘us’ going. This means that there is no need for the learner to pay attention to the verb ‘aller’ (‘va’) and to the syntactic pattern underlying the construction ‘present of aller + infinitive’.

Based on Tomlin and Villa’s (1997) model of attention (see figure 2 below) we may posit that the detection of a target linguistic feature is more likely to occur when language learners are alert to it. In other words, a learner who has been alerted to a specific feature in the input may orientate their attention to it and eventually notice it. Hence the importance of helping learners notice less salient L2 items by making them more distinctive; of raising their awareness of cross-linguistic differences in processing those items; of staging activities which focus them regularly and deliberately on those items by making them task essential (i.e. necessary for the successful completion of a task).

Figure 2 – Tomlin and Villa’s model of attention

Implications for the classroom

Whilst language teachers are usually aware of other ways in which our first language may work against L2 acquisition (aka L1 negative transfer), learned attention is in my experience a phenomenon many are less aware of and don’t deliberately plan for. Yet, this phenomenon has important implications for teaching, especially when we ask our students to process aural/written texts. Here are some of them:

(1) since the brain cannot process simultaneously meaning and form (e.g. grammar & syntax), traditional reading and listening comprehension or ‘Find the French equivalent in the text’ sort of tasks will not help learners consolidate the target grammar structures, as many teachers think, it doesn’t matter how much they flood the texts with instances of the target grammar features. Texts need also be exploited, as we do in EPI, in ways which target all levels of processing, i.e.: spelling, sound to spelling correspondence, grammar, syntax, etc (figure 3).

Figure 3 – In EPI, texts are exploited by staging activities which ‘hit’ every single level of processing

(2) input-enhancement techniques (Sharwood-Smith, 1994) aimed at making the features ‘blocked’ by our learned attention SALIENT maybe used (e.g. acoustic cues such as raising your voice whilst reading aloud/speaking or visual cues such as highlighting word endings (figure 4)

Figure 4: Input enhancement used in the modelling phase to help learners of L2 Italian notice masculine and feminine endings in the past participle of verbs requiring Essere in the perfect tense

3) noticing activities such as (i) deep processing techniques contrasting (inductively or through guided discovery) the way a target grammar structure is deployed in the L1 and the L2 may be used to make it more salient and memorable such as ‘Dodgy translation’, ‘Faulty echo’, ‘Track the structure’ or ‘Write it as you hear it’ and (ii) receptive tasks (e.g. Partial dictations, Track the structure,) which make the target grammar structure task essential (see figures 5 to 7 ); (iii) editing activities in which the students are given texts flooded with errors with a specific grammar structure;

(4) daily efforts to ‘rewire’ the brain by training it to direct attention to inflectional endings may also be desirable in the early stages of instructed second language acquisition;

(5) in planning grammar instruction, it is key to identify the L1 ‘blocking’ mechanisms which may impede our learners’ noticing of the target structures, then try to counter them by raising learner awareness and by providing tons of practice, as already suggested above;

(6) it is key to model and practise the problematic items vulnerable to learned attention in highly familiar contexts so as to reduce cognitive load;

(7) if these structures are very important, like word order in German, for instance, make them your universals, as we call them in EPI – i.e. the core non-negotiables that you will focus on almost obsessively for a whole year.

Figure 5, 6 and 7: Activities which help enhance the saliency of blocked linguistic features

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, teaching grammar is not just about teaching rules through examples on a powerpoint or YouTube videos and ask the students to practise them through oral and written tasks. To enable language learners to see and hear the L2 linguistic features ‘blocked’ by learned attention, grammar instruction is also, and possibly more importantly at the early stages of ISLA, about redirecting the learners’ attention when they read and listen to L2 input, by training them day in day out to focus their eyes and ears on parts of the target language words and sentences they wouldn’t normally see or hear because of their first language processing habits. Grammar and Syntax are not only acquired by doing a few gap-fills and drills here and there, but also by processing masses of aural and written input many times over.

Processing input for meaning only isn’t sufficient, especially aural input, which is particularly fragile due to its fleeting nature (it decays from sensory memory after 2 seconds only and every new incoming sentence erases every physical trace of the previous one…). Hence, teachers need to find the way to rewire the way their learners process L2 input and create an alertness to the features which are processed differently in their first language. This means that curriculum design should consider, especially when dealing with beginner learners, the ways in which L1 learned attention majorly hinders the effective parsing – and, subsequently the learning – of the language features they purport to teach. Once identified the potential areas to target, teachers should provide a regular diet of brain-rewiring receptive activities, deliberately targeting those areas. This can be done through minimal prep/high impact receptive tasks such as: Faulty echo, Partial dictations, Listen and correct, Spot the silent endings, Track the structure, Dodgy translation, Editing tasks, Choose the correct endings; Complete the endings with the options provided, etc. In other words, the bread and butter of EPI.

Twenty evidence-based tips for effective grammar teaching

Here is a list of evidence-based grammar-teaching tips based on my recent review of the specialised literature, which I routinely share in my Grammar workshops. I discuss many more in my workshops, of course, but I have been told that my posts are too long…

1. Don’t make the learning of grammar-rules the main focus of language instruction (Ellis and Shintani 2013). Make the grammar learning content lighter with students with low LAA (language-analytic ability , i.e the ability to treat language as an object of analysis and arrive at linguistic generalizations,which is at the core of the constructs of language learning aptitude and metalinguistic awareness, which are implicated in our ability to learn explicitly). These children are less good at analysing, spotting, memorizing and abstracting from patterns (faculties which correlate highly with IQ and rote-learning ability). As deKeyser, one of the strongest proponents of explicit grammar teaching has often pointed out, grammar instruction is more suitable for high-aptitude learners (de Keyser, 2015);

2. Make it enjoyable (Graham, 2022). Much grammar learning results in learner boredom (Murphy, 2022). Gamify it as much as possible through board games (e.g. No snakes no ladders), Interactive oral games (Oral ping-pong) and competitions (e.g. My Piranha grammar, Fast and Furious, Full circle).

3. Make it relevant to the children’s world and personal and academic goals, as relevance is key in fostering motivation to learn languages (Dornyey and Muir, 2019). In a series of French lessons on what one did last weekend, do we need every single verb requiring ETRE in the perfect tense, as textbooks usually do? How many times are the students ever going to be born , die, fall, go upstairs, downstairs, etc. in the context of such a unit?

4. Use a synergy of Explicit and Implicit learning (Ellis and Shintani, 2013). To maximize implicit learning capitalize on the power of syntactic priming/persistence, i.e. a phenomenon whereby repeated processing of the same syntactic pattern leads to subconscious learning of grammar. This can be done using highly-patterned input, input-flooding and input enhancement, i.e. emphasizing specific grammar items, e.g. inflectional endings, through acoustic or visual devices (e.g. enunciating a verb ending louder; highlighting a preposition; colour coding case-endings in German). Another way to maximize subconscious learning is to exploit input at all level of grain (Nick Ellis, 2015), by staging intensive reading and listening (i.e. a series of activities which exploit the same texts at the level of phonological,lexical, grammatical, syntactic, semantic, discourse, etc. processing).

Figure 0: structural (syntactic) priming

5. Don’t spend too much time talking about grammar; grammar should be used more than it should be talked about. 

6. For grammar to be used effectively and efficiently in fluent aural and oral processing it needs to be applied in a split second (Levelt, 1989). Hence, (1) be more tolerant of errors in spoken than in written production (Nation, 2013) and (2) ensure that you practise grammar through listening and speaking too; most language teachers don’t. (3) don’t overuse acronyms to learn grammar rules (e.g. MRS VANDERTRAMP) – if your learners become overreliant on them, they will never become fluent speakers

7. Introduce new structures in 100% familiar linguistic contexts (e.g. with known vocabulary) in order to decrease cognitive load (Conti and Smith, 2020). By the same token, avoid presenting and initially practising a new structure in high-element interactivity contexts as much as possible (Sweller, 2006).New grammar structures should be processed in sentences which are simple, short and where vocabulary and pronunciation will pose a negligible cognitive load.

8. Gradually phase out scaffolds. Move gradually from receptive processing to highly structured, then semi-structured and finally unplanned production. Don’t make the mistake as I did for many years, of explaining a grammar rule, then giving a list of examples and finally asking the students, without any substantive receptive processing, to produce sentences to show you they have understood. You will automatically exclude a significant chunk of the students and induce quite a few mistakes. Stage a few receptive tasks, first. Research suggests that successful acquisition of a grammar structure correlates highly with success (i.e. at least 60% accuracy) in the initial retrieval episodes (Boers, 2021). So ensure that you go to production when you are likely to secure a highly successful retrieval rate.

9. With non-transparent (deep orthography) languages where the sound-to-spelling correspondance is fairly low, such as French, do ensure that the students can accurately read aloud the morpheme(s) associated with the target structure. E.g., if teaching ‘ils regardent’, do ensure that they have routinised the correct pronunciation of ‘ent’ (i.e. that it is silent). Remember that even when we read silently, we still subvocalize what we read. A good strategy is to model and practise the grammar aurally first alongside their written form, as we do in EPI (e.g. through sentence builders).

10. Be aware of the factors which facilitate or impede grammar acquisition such as L1 positive/negative transfer, saliency or lack thereof, function-form mapping reliability, contextual factors, etc. (Nick Ellis, 2015). I have summarised these factors in figure 1 below.

Figure 1: factors facilitating the acquisition of an L2 grammar item

11. (Especially with students with low L1 literacy) Show (e.g., through a think-aloud protocol) how you would form and use the L1 equivalent of the target L2 structure first and draw or elicit a comparison from the students. Tribushinina et al, 2022 evidences that this contrastive approach is particularly effective with younger and weaker learners.

12. Be cognizant of the fact that when the brain focuses on meaning (e.g., in a reading comprehension) it doesn’t pay attention to form. Hence combine activities with a focus on form with others which have a focus on meaning (Ellis and Shintani, 2013) when exploiting texts. Note: the brain processes function words (e.g. determiners, auxiliaries, discourse an time markers, pronouns) as grammar, not as vocabulary. Hence, when we process a text for meaning quickly (as we do when we skim and scan a text to find the answer to reading comprehension tasks) we don’t usually process these key words which often our students don’t acquire until late in the acquisition process. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that these words do not carry meaning crucial for comprehension (are not semantically salient) and we generally focus on content words when we read for meaning (the so-called Redundancy effect). Figure 2 provides a list of the key function words in a language.

Figure 2: list of function words

13.Mind processability theory, whereby one cannot learn a structure which requires for its execution the mastery of a number of cognitive operations, unless those operations have been proceduralised (Pienemann, 1998).  For instance, according to this theory (which has been proven to be reliable by countless studies), no point teaching the perfect tense of French verbs requiring the auxiliary ETRE, unless the students have acquired 60% mastery of the sub-steps its deployment requires, e.g. selecting the correct present form of the verb ETRE, retrieving the correct past participle, making it agree in gender and number, etc. Sadly, most textbooks in England do exactly that, thereby setting up a lot of students, even those of high ability, for failure. Figure 3, below shows the procedures which determine the natural order of acquisition of a second language according to processability theory. Note that processability is a function of cognitive load, i.e.: if I have to form a sentence requiring five cognitive operations, my brain won’t simply be able to cope because of the overwhelming cognitive load. The beauty of teaching lexicogrammar is, of course, that chunk-learning bypasses the natural order and sequences of acquisition.

Figure 3: the six procedures determining the natural order of acquisition of grammar structures. It may take years to get to procedure 6 in real life acquisition, however, the students are often asked to produce subordinate sentences relatively early in the instructed acquisition process, thereby making lots of mistakes.

14. Be mindful of TAP (aka transfer appropriate processing): if a structure is learnt and practised in a specific linguistic context or through a given task, it won’t be easily transferred to another, especially once it has been routinised. A typical example: in many UK classrooms, reflexive verbs are usually practised exclusively within the context of daily routine, hence students find it notoriously difficult to transfer them to other contexts. Another implication of TAP: recycle your core (non-negotiable) items across as many contexts and tasks as possible (Conti and Smith, 2021)

15. Following on point 13 and 14, make your grammar teaching multi-modal, or grammar learning will be confined to only reading and writing – as it often unfortunately is the case in most classrooms. Grammar learnt only or mostly through reading and writing will be pretty much useless in the real world.

14. Still following on point 14 (about the TAP phenomenon), grammar testing should closely match practice (Purpura, 2005): if you practise a grammar structure through tasks X, Y and Z, it is not fair to test them using task W, unless you are testing for the learners’ ability to transfer knowledge. Yet, often students are tested on a given structure through essay writing when they may have practised it mostly through quizzes and multiple choice gap-fills.

15. Always assess grammar uptake (1) through a mixture of structured assessment (e.g. gap-fills) and free-production tasks e.g., talk to me about last weekend (Ellis and Shintani, 2013). The former will tell you if they can do it when there are prompts or a clear pattern as to what they are required to retrieve and usually pose a lower cognitive load; the latter is a test of spontaneous deployment of the target structure (hence it will tell you if the target structures have really been acquired).

16. Don’t simply assess the learning of a grammar structure based on a test carried out when the retrieval strength is high (i.e. right at the end of series of lessons on it, when it is expected and the students have had it in their focal awareness for weeks). Carry out impromptu assessment several weeks later too, to see how much has been truly retained (due to the law of memory decay, we usually forget around 80% of what we learn after 4 weeks in the absence of regular consolidation). Don’t make the impromptu assessment summative or formal, so that it won’t demoralize the students if they do badly. Some formative feedback will do.

17. Never assess using grammaticality (correctness) judgement tasks whereby a student needs to tell you if a sentence is grammatically accurate or not, as they have 50% chances of getting the answers right by merely guessing. Not a valid way to assess. NCELP does this and I still don’t get why.

18. Do not overload your curriculum – grammar coverage in UK textbooks is overambitious and inevitably results in shallow and short-lived learning. Decide on a limited amount of core structures which will be your non-negotiables, i.e. structures that, no matter how, every single learner can and must learn by the end of the course. By not overloading you enhance the chances of recycling. Which brings me to the next point.

19. Recycle, recycle, recycle. Grammar structures require more recycling than vocabulary because they require the learning and application of abstract knowledge in a short time window. Make sure that you find opportunities for recycling through retrieval practice activities, texts, my staircase design (Smith and Conti, 2021) but also, and more importantly, by sequencing your achievement units smartly so that each subsequent unit lends itself naturally to the recycling of the core structures practised in the previous one(s). Example of recycling/interleaving of ETRE and AVOIR in figure 4 below: . As mentioned in point 18, the fewer the core grammar items one teaches, the easier it is to recycle them. Having a narrow sets of core grammar items to focus on, doesn’t mean not having other peripheral items to teach explicitly and/or implicitly and/or incidentally.

Figure 4: Year 7 Unit 2 (partial) curriculum overview. The present indicative of AVOIR and ETRE and adjectival agreement are constantly recycled throughout a term of work on describing people.

20. Following on point 18: error correction only works when it addresses only a limited number of mistakes (Ellis et al, 2015). Hence, for the vast majority of your learners, only correct three or four error types max in your students’ input; these could refer to your non-negotiables, so that you have a powerful convergence of course objectives and corrective feedback. A powerful synergy. 

I hope the above is useful to you and look forward to your comments. You will find this and more in our new edition of ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit” which will be published in a couple of months.


My upcoming workshops around the UK in March

In ten days I will be leaving for Australia for a short speaking tour, a round of 6 workshops in Brisbane, Melbourne and NSW (Coffs Harbour). Right after that, hoping that I will still have some voice left, I will be touring the UK talking about EPI, how to implement it at KS3 and 4; how to design the EPI curriculum and how to teach phonics and grammar. Below are the current dates. I hope to meet you at one of the events to

6th March Curriculum Design – Tavistock College, Tavistock (Devon) Contact Alison Savage:

7th March – ‘EPI for Primary teachers’ – EAS  Consortium (Cardiff) – Not open to externals

8th March – ‘EPI for secondary teachers’ – EAS Consortium (Cardiff) – Not open to externals

9th March (6 AM – UK time) – ONLINE: Dulwich College Shangai Pudong (Becoming an EPI teacher, PART 2) – Not open to externals

9th March (4 PM – UK time) ONLINE: Becoming an EPI teacher (PART 3) Different time from the same day course with Dulwich

Curriculum Design in Devon

10th March – Ashtead (Surrey) Becoming an EPI teacher. Contact Alicia Palomo-Lopez:

13 March –Edinburgh: ‘Curriculum Design’ – Fettes College Edinburgh. Please enroll at: or contact Sonia Gausinet-Serrano:

14 March – ONLINE: Curriculum Design PART 2 (continued from 28th February course)

15 March – ONLINE: Becoming an EPI teacher (PART 1)

16th & 17th March – ONLINE: Presenting for the Welsh government on EPI for the Welsh-in-a-year programme. Not open to externals

20 March – Oxted, Surrey Becoming an EPI teacher. Contact Angela Gonzalez:

21 March – Bootle Hillside School. Contact Lindsey Collins:

22 –Willingdon (East Sussex) – Teaching phonics & grammar. Contact:

23 March – Poole, Dorset – Becoming an EPI teacher. Enroll here:

24 March – Bushey, Hertfordshire – Becoming an EPI teacher. Enroll here:

27 March – Sandymoor Ormiston Academy Runcorn, Cheshire: Becoming an EPI teacher. , Runcorn, Cheshire. Please contact Julie Sutcliffe:

28 March – ONLINE: Fluency

29 March – ONLINE: Becoming an EPI teacher (PART 2):

30 March – Birmingham:

31 March – HLC Secondary Telford – “EPI & how to applying to KS4” – not sure if it is open to externals, but you may want to try your luck if you are in the area?

My upcoming Uk speaking tour: dates and focus on the events

Leicester, 2nd November. “Becoming an EPI teacher” (Full day) at the Madani Schools Federation. Details in the image below. Open to public

Haileybury, 3rd November- “Developing fluency across all four language skills”. Not open to the public but you can always try your luck.

ONLINE, 5th November. SALT conference. Keynote. To be advertised online this week

ONLINE,7th November “Becoming an EPI teacher: a deep dive into Dr Conti’s Extensive Processing Instruction”

High Wycombe, 8h November. “Becoming an EPI teacher” Contact: Head of Languages at Wycombe High School

ONLINE. 10th-11th November – CSC Consortium (open to CSC teachers only)

Jersey, 14th November “EPI with a focus on Listening as Modelling and evidenced-based MFL pedagogy”. Contact: Martha Gordon on

Papplewick, 16th November‘Extensive Processing Instruction’. Contact Maimouna Cisse on:

London,17th November – “Becoming an EPI teacher: a deep dive into Dr Conti’s Extensive Processing Instruction”

London, 18th November – “Curriculum Design and Lesson Planning in MFL”

21st November, Edinburgh. “From Structured Input to Fluent Output”

22nd November, “Glasgow Becoming an EPI teacher”

Modern Languages Symposium

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 24th November“Becoming an EPI teacher: a deep dive into Dr Conti’s Extensive Processing Instruction”

Chester, 25th November – Becoming an EPI teacher. Contact:

Leeds, 28th November “Curriculum Design and Lesson Planning in MFL”

Dronfield, Derbyshire, 29th NovemberFluency and challenge in MFL the EPI way. Contact:

Sandbach, 30 November – “Grammar and Phonics in MFL” . Contact:

Birmingham, 1st December“Becoming an EPI teacher: a deep dive into Dr Conti’s Extensive Processing Instruction”

ONLINE, 5th December – “Memory: what every language teacher should know”

ONLINE, 6th December –Metacognition in MFL

ONLINE, 7th December – “Teaching Phonics”

ONLINE, 8th-9th December – CSC consortium Wales (open only to CSC teachers)

Sophie Fernandes, head of department at Yavneh College (London) on her journey into EPI, one year on…

Sophie Fernandes is one of those brave and innovative Modern Languages Heads of Department who have had the courage, after many years of teaching, of embracing E.P.I.. Last year, she totally changed the way her and her department at Yavneh College teach. What is really interesting is that the school has successfully applied the methodology to the teaching of Hebrew, a scripted language. Here are her reflections on her journey into EPI and how it has played out in her school. Please note that the article has not been edited in any way.

My journey into EPI, one year on… by Sophie Fernandes

As the summer unfolds, I take time to reflect on the curriculum and improve my resources. After seventeen years of teaching, learning about Extensive Processing Instruction and putting it into practice, has been a fascinating journey….

Despite having taught for so many years, something always puzzled me: how can you teach fluency in a language in three hours a fortnight? In other words, what would a baby learn in terms of language, if the baby would spend three hours a fortnight with its mother? We all know that the baby would not become fluent in its mother tongue, so how are we expected to do it in the classroom?

When I first heard of the EPI methodology and started reading Breaking the Sound Barrier, I particularly liked the research based approach and the sequence of lessons and activities, which stems from it. The focus on the listening skill, often the forgotten skill, made complete sense. Research about minimum comprehensible input, cognitive load, working memory gave answers to what works/does not work in the language classroom and why so many pupils can easily loose interest if the listening process, which mirrors the one we use when we learn a language in real life, is not followed.

We have been using the EPI methodology since September 2021. For the past year we developed our resources throughout the year for our KS3 classes in French, Ivrit. and Spanish.

The EPI methodology provides a structure to planning a sequence of lessons in a way that made real sense (as it mirrors how we learn languages naturally according to the latest research) and provides a method, which helps pupils recall the new language and make the language stick by constantly interleaving the language previously learnt, so that nothing was left on the shelf and forgotten.

In the planning, we started by deciding which language to use, thinking of our non negotiables for each year as well as how to avoid cognitive overload and ensuring we chose language, which was going to leave pupils feeling like they were progressing. 

Each lesson fits in within a sequence of lessons, prior knowledge is interleaved and learning cumulative so that no prior knowledge is left on the shelf.  The structure provided by the methodology, made curriculum and lesson planning quite a serene experience.  There no longer was the fright of the blank Powerpoint, it all made sense.

This planning was then applied to the lessons. Pupils’ level of engagement in the classroom and the fact that everyone can have a go at the activities, was really rewarding.

This was because the curriculum was structured in a way that made it accessible to all pupils, certainly more than with traditional language teaching.

Pupils’ KS3 end of year results have been very good indeed with such a huge percentage obtaining Mastery. Many pupils unpromptedly left the test saying “It was easy Miss”. The options intake also went up by more than 50%.

Pupils become familiar with the sequence of activities,, which are varied enough but not excessively so; hence, the routine is reassuring to them, removing therefore any language anxiety students might have. To SLT or in the context of a Deep Dive, the EPI methodology provides answers, which makes sense to your interviewer, even when he/she is not a specialist of your subject. This is invaluable too.

Having a curriculum that works, seeing pupils’ enjoyment and progress have been an empowering experience. The EPI methodology, being a skill-based approach, provides tools that can make any teacher become a real professional.



Thank you @gianfrancocont9 for such an incredibly useful and thorough training today! The EPI cycle has transformed our curriculum. For our pupils, great engagement levels and fantastic results mirrored the success of this approach! There is no going back!


Where grammar and lexicogrammar intersect: the new Language Gym grammar books series

The Language Gym has just launched the first tome in a series of grammar books entitled Spanish Verb pivots 1: foundation level. This book will soon be adapted to French and German and possibly to other languages (e.g. Italian, Welsh, Irish and Japanese). In this post I detail the rationale for this book series; the underlying methodology; the content and how we wrote it.

1.Who is it for?

The Spanish verb pivots book is aimed at learners in the A1-B1 proficiency range. It can be used to introduce the target verbs and associated grammar and lexicogrammar patterns to absolute beginners. It can also be useful with lower-to-intermediate learners (years 9 to 11 in the U.K.) in order to consolidate, expand and deepen their mastery of those verbs and patterns. The latter learners, in my experience, are often able to master verb formation, but lack depth of knowledge, i.e. knowledge of verb collocations (which lexis the verbs partner with) and colligations (the rules which bind the verbs with what comes before and after them in a sentence).

The book was conceived both for classroom and independent use, whatever the method, setting or course, as it offers ample opportunities for practice through a wide range of activities designed to appeal to learners with a variety of cognitive styles and learning preferences. This is not a book exclusively aimed at EPI teachers!

2.Why this book?

Based on the premise that second language instruction should be first and foremost about empowering learners with the ability to convey meaning in the real world and not to learn grammar for grammar’s sake, the book aims at teaching lexicogrammar (or pattern grammar), i.e.: the grammar glueing together the sentence patterns (or syntactic schemata) that we make use of in order to fulfill a communicative purpose (e.g. describing a person; comparing and contrasting people; making arrangements for an evening out; describing one’s daily activities, etc.).

I conceived and created this book because I felt the current trends in modern language teaching were too concerned with the teaching of isolated grammar rules as totally divorced from a communicative context.  Also, I have always found that textbooks, even when used in synergy with their associated workbooks, provide insufficient multimodal practice. This is a major shortcoming of traditional grammar instruction at large, as research shows clearly that the learning of L2 grammar structures must be multimodal for them to be effectively learnt. Multimodality is one of the most innovative features of this book: the target sentence patterns and morphemes are learnt across all four language skills, including speaking and listening, which are usually the most neglected skills (please note that the audio tracks accompanying Spanish verb pivots are accessible by anyone for free at this link).

3.Why is the book called “ Spanish verb pivots”?

Verbs constitute the core of every sentence we utter and write. In other words, they are the ‘pivots’ around which each sentence pattern develops. Each verb one selects, as well as the social context and the purpose one selects it for, constrain the range of lexical and grammatical choices we can make in producing a sentence. So, for instance, using the verb querer to express what one wants someone to do will require the use of querer + que+ subject + present subjunctive (e.g. quiero que tu vayas al supermercado).

This book aims at teaching how to use the most useful and frequent Spanish verbs in everyday communication in terms of how to:

  • manipulate them effectively (inflectional morphology, e.g. how to conjugate the verbs in the present)
  • deal with the linguistic choices they trigger (pattern grammar, i.e.: the constructions associated with each verb)
  • master the rules which bind words together within a given syntactic pattern (colligations, i.e.: how each word affects the next; for instance how determiners or adjectives agree in gender and number with nouns)

As it is clear from (1), (2) and (3) above, exploring how a verb works also entails learning a lot of other grammar and lexicogrammar rules which emerge organically from the communicative context at hand. For instance, teaching the verb ir will lead to learning articled prepositions (e.g. voy/va/vamos/etc. al cine), possessives (e.g. con mi/mis/su/sus/etc. padres/amigos/hermanos/etc.) and even how to form a final clause (e.g. voy al centro comercial para comprar un ordenador nuevo).

4.What’s in the Spanish book?

The book includes 8  macro-units, each focusing on a different verb or verb set in the present tense. The verbs are: Tener, Ser, Hacer, Ir, Gustar, Estar, Jugar and Modal verbs. Each macro-unit centres on a key verb and explores and drills in, through a wide range of engaging and enjoyable multimodal tasks, all the possible patterns associated with it deemed to be learnable at this level of proficiency. Every macro-unit includes 7-8 sub-units for a total of 55 sub-units. For instance, the unit on ‘Tener’ was broken down into the following sub-units:

1.Tener + un/una + noun (What animals I have)

2.Tengo + un/una + noun + adjective  (What animal I have and its colour)

3.Tener (all persons) + noun + relative clause  (What animal one has)

4.Tener + noun  (How one feels)

5.Tener + classroom objects + adjective  (What school items one has)

6.Tener + clothing item + adjective  (What clothes one has)

7.Tener + number + plural nouns + adjectives  (How many things one has)

8.Tener + number + años (Telling one’s age)

Each macro-unit ends with a revision unit that brings all the content of that unit together and consolidates it through written and oral retrieval-practice tasks.

5.How does the book work?

Each macro-unit starts ‘small’ with the target verb being learnt within very basic sentence patterns and in the first person only. As each unit progresses the target verbs are modelled in sentence patterns which gradually increase in length and complexity. In order to enhance transferrability of learning and lexical depth, each verb is also practised with a variety of lexical sets. For instance, the verb ‘Tener’ is practised with animals, classroom objects, clothes, physical description, emotional and physical states, age, etc.

Task-essentialness is pervasive: each unit contains a plethora of tasks which elicit the application of the target grammar structure multiple times.

Recycling is carefully engineered to allow for repeated receptive and productive processing of the target language items within the same units and across the whole book. As mentioned above, each new unit builds on the previous one in a ‘what I know + 1” fashion, so that the stem of a new sentence builder was covered in the previous sub-unit. Also, revision quickies are interspersed throughout the sub-units and every macro-unit ends with a massive recap of everything covered thus far.

Subconscious learning through input flood and repeated processing works in synergy with explicit learning in the way of (1) awareness-raising boxes at the beginning of each sub-unit, (2) tasks focusing the students’ attention on the target features and (3) metacognitive activities eliciting self-reflection and self-evaluation.

Traditional grammar and lexicogrammar intersect throughout the whole book, as, in order for the learners to be able to become creative with each sentence pattern, they must also master the manipulation of the changeable items in each sentence such as verbs, adjectives, pronouns determiners, etc. The teaching of grammar arises organically from the need to enhance the generative power of each target sentence pattern – this is a major innovation of this book.

The book is very mindful of cognitive load. Hence, each instructional sequence gradually increases the cognitive challenge, with receptive activities in the initial section of each sub-unit paving the way for the productive ones located at the end and with each task priming the next. It goes without saying that the repeated processing and the constant recycling also makes it easier for the content to become effortlessly entrenched.

6.How can one supplement this book to enhance its impact?

Please note that this book is best used in synergy with and , both website featuring self-marking games and activities based on its content. Note that on the latter website, 58 sentence builders based on the “Spanish verb pivots” book are already available.

7.The verb-pivots team

I authored the book in collaboration with three experienced and talented native-speaking teachers of Spanish: the world-famous Dylan Vinales (co-author of many of The Language Gym books); creative, active blogger and twitterata Esmeralda Salgado and former colleague and friend Roberto Jover. I am very thankful to them for their hard work on the project. Brought in in the latter phase of the process, Esmeralda was very valuable in filling some of the gaps Dylan and I had left in the book at that stage, including creating a number of sub-units, following the EPI blueprint. We are especially grateful to her for taking care of the language awareness sections (notoriously tedious and challenging to create) alongside Dylan; as well as the end-of-unit revision sub-units packed with practice and for adding in the metacognitive activities promoting self-reflection and retrieval practice through self-explanation. We are also mega-grateful to the eagle-eyed Roberto for his massive and decisive help in the editing process.

8. Our invaluable guest editors team

Finally, I would like to thank our international team of guest editors recruited by Dylan in the very last leg of the process. They have looked through each unit and have provided us with 25 (25!) pages of precious and thorough feedback, spotting typos and other glitches that needed ironing out. Here’s the full list (in no particular order):

  • Imogen Brown
  • Susie Fernandez Gomez
  • Tom Ball
  • David Dun
  • Thais López Martín
  • Paloma Lozano
  • Lewis Rees
  • Joe Barnes Moran
  • Pam Stallard
  • María Simon
  • Paddy McDevitt
  • Dr M Boyd
  • Jérôme Nogues
  • Inés Glowacka
  • Chris Pye
  • Simona Gravina
  • Aurelie Lethuilier
  • Sonja Fedrizzi  

On 8 common pitfalls of grammar assessment and the art and science of keeping it real

A few days ago I came across a tweet in which a hard-working and very capable language educator I know, an experienced head of Dept at one of the NCELP hub schools, claimed her students showed evidence, in a recently administered test, of impressive progress in the learning of a grammar structure. The author of the tweet, henceforth referred to as ‘Teacher X’, attached a snapshot of the test, designed to assess the learning of a fairly complex Spanish structure, the use of the indirect pronoun with verbs like ‘gustar’.

From what I could glean from the picture shared in the tweet, the test appeared to consist of at least three parts:

1. A task whereby the students were required to choose which of two options was the grammatically correct one;

2. A grammaticality judgment task whereby the students were to determine the correctness of a set of sentences;

3. A task which included a mix of L1 to L2 and L2 to L1 translation : 1/2 the sentences were to be translated from Spanish to English and the other 1/2 from English to Spanish. Each sentence contained an instance of the deployment of the target grammar structure.

In this post I intend to show how the test, the interpretation of its results and the claims made by Teacher X about its outcomes exemplify some common pitfalls of much grammar assessment which undermine the reliability and validity of testing practices in many school settings. Yet the tweet was retweeted by the NCELP official twitter account, which meant that the National Centre of Excellence in Language Programming endorsed the content of the tweet and tacitly approved of Teacher X’s testing practices and claims.

Let us have a look at the issues with that assessment that one can easily identify at a glance.

Pitfall 1: ‘either…or…’ grammar assessment tasks

Assessment tasks whereby the students have a 50/50 chance of getting the answer right through random guessing are evidently unreliable tests of grammar competence. It may surprise you that a NCELP hub school would use a test so obviously invalid – after all, the ‘E’ in NCELP stands for ‘excellence’. But actually, you shouldn’t be: the very director of the NCELP, Emma Marsden, in a peer-reviewed study of hers which she often cites as evidence of the success of grammar instruction (Kasprowitz & Marsden, 2017) used exactly the same type of task. Professor Frank Boers, in his excellent 2021 book, reviews this study, criticizing Kasprowitz and Marsden’s testing approach and describing the results obtained by Marsden and her co-worker (also part of the NCELP team) as ‘disappointing’ (see figure 1 below which summarizes Frank Boers’, 2021, criticism).

Figure 1 – a summary of the points Boers (2021) makes with regards to Kasprowitz and Marsden’s (2017) study with young learners of German. The test format entailed a 50% chance of correct guessing

Pitfall 2 – A task or tasks within the same test paper providing cues to the students on how to execute other tasks

The test-at-hand contained, in the same translation task, an alternance of L2 and L1 sentences (in which the target structure was task-essential) to translate respectively into the L2 and in the L1. This too undermines the reliability of the test, as the students can of course use the L2 sentences as reminders of the target grammar rule(s) or, should they have forgotten the rule(s), even as worked examples from which to infer how to go about translating from the L1 to the L2. For example, if I am testing somebody on the French perfect tense, and ask them to translate into English sentence (i) below:

     (i) J’ai mangé de la viande

And then ask the students to translate into French sentence (ii) below:

     (ii) I ate some chicken

A student who can translate the first sentence correctly into English but is not 100% sure of how to translate the second one into French can easily ‘cheat’ by copying the first portion of sentence (i).

Pitfall 3Scoring translation tasks to asses the learning of a grammar structure holistically

If the translation of a sentence is used as a means to assess grammar, how is the translation of the portion of that sentence which doesn’t contain the target structure scored? In other words, if the to-be-translated sentence reads

They don’t like reading fashion magazines because it’s boring

and the target structure is the use of the indirect pronoun + gustar in Spanish, what happens if a student gets ‘Les gusta’ right but gets everything else wrong? Should they be penalised? By right, if it is a grammar test aimed exclusively at ascertaining the extent to which students master the usage of indefinite pronouns + gustar, the students should score full marks for that sentence. No? The test-at-hand appeared to grade the sentences in terms of accuracy across the board, including the vocabulary and the other structures embedded in the sentences.  Hence, if someone gets the target structure wrong, but translates the rest of the sentence correctly, they may obtain a higher grade than someone who gets the target structure right but gets the rest of the sentence wrong. With this in mind, it is obvious that the test score is unlikely to provide a valid assessment of the learners’ mastery of the specific structure the assessment was designed to target.

Pitfall 4 – Lack of authenticity and transferrability of knowledge

One of the five principles of effective assessment (see figure 2 below) advocated by the most renowned scholars in the field of L2 assessments is authenticity, i.e. the tasks included in the test administered should mirror or at least approximate real-life tasks (Brown, 2004; Purpura, 2006; 2011)

Figure 2: The five effective-assessment principles on which the most eminent L2 assessment specialists worldwide universally agree.

Why is authenticity – or at least an approximation of authenticity – so important? The answer refers to the transfer appropriate processing phenomenon or T.A.P., which states that knowledge is context specific, i.e.: whenever we retrieve knowledge, retrieval is more likely to be effective when the conditions at retrieval are similar to the conditions at learning. Hence, for instance: if I practise using locative adverbs/adverbials in French only or mainly through gap-fill or grammaticality-judgment tasks (e.g. is this sentence correct or incorrect?), I will be unlikely to use it effectively in a conversation with a French speaker about where the places I want to see are located. On the other hand, if I practise the deployment of locative adverbs/adverbials in the context of role-plays, I might be able to transfer it to a real-life interaction in which I ask for directions, for instance.

Another dimension of transferrability refers to the modality-specificity of L2 competence. In other words: what I learn through a skill (e.g. writing) is unlikely to be easily transferred to another (e.g. speaking). Hence, even though I may write fluently in the perfect tense in French, I may not be able to use it fluently in speech. The obvious implication of this is that grammar teaching and assessment must be multi-modal.

Now, if we evaluate the NCELP’s grammar revision, homework and assessment tasks in the light of TAP, we can easily conclude that they are not fit for purpose as they lack authenticity; they don’t typically practise/test grammar knowledge across all four language skills and do not include task-essential communicative task which develop/assess spontaneous deployment of the target L2 structures.

Figure 3: Transfer Appropriate Processing is at play when we attempt to transfer any knowledge acquired through a context/task to another. It is very much like training a puppy to perform a trick at home only to find out that they can’t perform it at the park (because the surrounding environment has changed).

Pitfall 5 – Grammar-knowledge-only assessments

Purpura (2006) makes a distinction between grammar knowledge versus grammar ability which mirrors Larsen Freeman’s one between Grammar and Grammaring and Krashen’s famous dichotomy Learning versus Acquisition. Grammar knowledge refers to declarative knowledge, i.e. the conscious application of grammar rules; grammar ability instead, refers to the ability to apply grammar rules in fluent spoken production, in other words,  Procedural knowledge.

In real-life oral interaction, the usefulness of grammar knowledge accrued through grammatical knowledge tasks (e.g. ‘Correct or Incorrect?’), Gap-fills, ‘Either..or…’ tasks, etc. is very limited not only because these tests flout the ‘authenticity’ principles, but also because, as Wilelm Levelt’s model of word production (the most widely accepted to-date) posits, in order for grammar retrieval to be useful in fluent spoken production, it must occur in a split second. (see figure 4, below).

Figure 4: Wilelm Levelt’s model of word production. When we retrieve a word, the brain first activates its meaning, then its grammar and syntax. In oral production, this process happens in a few hundred milliseconds, which means that grammatical knowledge must be accessed very fast.

So, if we accept the account of skill acquisition provided by Skill theory (e.g. Anderson, 1980) and espoused by the NCELP, Teacher X’s test evidences – at best – that her students are at the beginning of the skill-acquisition curve, I.e. at the awareness stage (see figure 5 below). In other words, the claim by Teacher X that her students had learnt the target structure should be majorly scaled down or the term ‘learnt’ be clarified: what does she mean by it? Her students still have many months or even years to go before they are able to deploy the indirect pronoun + gustar construction in fluent speech. Let me remark, incidentally, that no NCELP assessment does, at least to my knowledge, test learner spontaneous use of the target grammatical structures, even though they do claim on their website and on some of their CPD resources that teaching should aim at automatising knowledge. So one isn’t clear how spontaneity in the use of any of the target structure in their schemes of learning is going to be achieved.

Figure 5: The key stages in the acquisition of a grammar structure according to skill-theory. Fluency in the spontaneous deployment of a grammar structure is a very lengthy process which might take several years.

Pitfall 6: The natural sequences of acquisition

Another important issue further exacerbates the problems discussed in point 5 above: the target structure in Teacher X’s test paper is beyond the current developmental reach of her students (year 8 – UK system). In fact, the use of the indirect pronoun + gustar (and similar verbs) in Spanish emerges quite late in L2-Spanish learners’ spontaneous output (in other words, it is acquired late in the acquisition process). Hence, whilst one can test one’s students’ grasp of the grammar rule, one cannot, by any stretch of imagination, at such an early stage in the L2 learning journey, claim that the students will actually acquire it any time soon.

Processability theory posit that there are fixed developmental sequences in the acquisition of a second language which grammar instruction cannot circumvent but may be able to accelerate (Pienemann, 1998). As can be gleaned from the slide in figure 6, the structure Teacher X tested her beginner learners on entails procedure 5 (sentence procedure) which cannot be acquired by a typical beginner learner as it requires the mastery of procedure 1,2,3, and 4 which are never fully mastered at this level.

Figure 6: Manfred Pienemann’s developmental sequences in L2 acquisition. The theory, which has been proven right by a large number of studies, states that you cannot move to a more advanced procedure unless you have a fairly high degree of mastery in the preceding ones.

Pitfall 7– Highly telegraphed tests. High retrieval strength and the illusion of mastery

Usually a class sits a grammar assessment at the end of a series of lessons on a specific structure (e.g. forming the perfect tense with ETRE) or set of structures (perfect tense usage and formation in French as a whole). This means that retrieval strength for that given structure is likely to be high. Why? Because the teacher will have firmly kept the target structure in the students’ focal attention by practising it lesson in lesson out for a few weeks and by providing corrective feedback on its deployment in oral and written work. So, when the test on that grammar structure is administered, the students know exactly what is expected of them. This state of things is of course exacerbated when the students are told explicitly that the test is going to be on that particular grammar structure – retrieval strenght will be even higher in this case. In such testing conditions, a good chunk of the students is likely to do fairly well, thereby giving the teacher the impression that the students have now mastered the target structure. Exactly what Teacher X was claiming in her tweet.

Now, imagine testing the same students on that very same grammar structure 4-5 weeks down the line without any prior revision and without ‘telegraphing’ the test. Will they do as well? The answer is: unlikely. Plenty of studies show that, not only the learners will be unlikely to use it spontaneously in production and transfer it to unfamiliar tasks, but also that many of them will have forgotten how to use it, especially if there are major cross-linguistic L1-L2 differences in the usage of the target structure (negative transfer). The main reasons for forgetting refer, of course, to (1) memory decay (2) proactive/retroactive interference and (3) cue-dependent forgetting.

Pitfall 8: Are we testing grammar-rule application or the retrieval of memorised exemplars?

When one examines Teacher X’s test, it is obvious that the sentences used to assess the students on the target grammar structure had been used several times in the lessons prior to the assessment. How do we know that? Because those sentences or very similar ones do occur multiple times in the NCELP’s resources on that grammar structure. Hence, the construct validity of the test is undermined, in the sense that we don’t really know whether the students are actually applying the grammar rule or have simply memorised the sentences through exposure or use in the lessons running up to the test.

Concluding remarks

In this post I have identified and discussed a number of common issues in grammar assessment which undermine the validity and reliability of the data thereby obtained. My criticism wasn’t meant to be an ad hominem attack on Teacher X. After all, she has been trained by NCELP in the use of their instructional and assessment practices and was only applying what she got out of their training.

What is important to take away from the above discussion is that before assessing grammar we must have a clear understanding of what it actually means to KNOW grammar. As a teacher, I need to be clear as to what extent and how I expect my students to know and evidence the learning of the target grammar structure(s) by the end of each lesson, sub-unit, unit, year or cycle. That clarity will inform my assessment practices. Testing whether students have understood how a given structure works (awareness) will require a different assessment task than testing whether that structure has been automatised (fluency).

Another important point is that the claims teachers make about their students’ grammar learning  need to be mediated by our understanding of what grammar acquisition involves and by what constitutes VALID testing. We need to be specific as to what we mean by “My students have learnt the French perfect tense”, as (1) grammar knowledge is context- and modality- specific, (2) is constrained by the developmental sequences of acquisition and (3) can be conscious (explicit) or subconscious (implicit).

Finally, tests must be valid and reliable before we can make bold claims about how impressive our students’ progress in grammar learning is – like Teacher X did in her tweet. By making such claims and advertising them to the twitterverse with the keen support of NCELP, one may end up misleading the language-teaching community into adopting assessment practices which – as I have tried to demonstrate above- , are actually flawed in many ways.

To find out more about the approach, do get hold of the best-selling book authored by myself and Steve Smith, “Breaking the Sound Barrier: teaching learners how to listen”. or attend my upcoming workshops