by Gianfranco Conti, PhD. Co-author of 'The Language Teacher toolkit', 'Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen', 'Memory: what every teacher should know' and of the 'Sentence Builders' book series. Winner of the 2015 TES best resource contributor award, founder and CEO of www.language-gym.com, co-founder of www.sentencebuilders.com and creator of the E.P.I. approach.
In the last decade or so, a large number of language educators around the globe have embraced my approach, EPI (aka Extensive Processing Instruction). Many teachers and schools have done so ‘wholesale’, applying it to all aspects of their MFL curriculum; others only partially, incorporating some aspects of my approach e.g. my use of sentence builders, L.A.M. (Listening-As-Modelling), Narrow Reading techniques, Retrieval practice tasks, Chunking-aloud games, Fluency-training activities, Universals, L.I.F.T, etc. Of those who have espoused the approach, some have adopted it in its purest form, adhering to the letter of EPI. Others have ‘hybridized’ it, as it were, combining their existing approach or other approaches with mine (e.g. NCELP + EPI) creatively adapting EPI to their learning context.
Despite its popularity and the many blog posts and articles written on EPI, some published in prominent specialised journals such as Applied Linguistics, there exist gross misconceptions about the approach, some of which I was reminded of during several conversations with language educators at a recent conference in Sheffield, the ALL ‘Language World’. There I realised, to my horror, that even some prominent MFL influencers I talked to on the day had some serious misconceptions about the approach and a superficial understanding of it. They seemed to believe that EPI is about teaching random sentences embedded in substitution tables and getting the students to parrot them until they learn them by rote without any input about grammar, SSC (spelling-to-sound correspondance) and the meaning of individual words. In other words, EPI would consist of merely drilling in a set of unanalysed chunks ad nauseam through a range of ludic activities without a coherent instructional plan or rationale. A very prominent lady said: I don’t understand how it is different from what we used to do it the 80s.
Ten misconceptions about EPI
Here are ten of the most common misconceptions about EPI, supposedly the main reasons why language teachers, according to my detractors, should stay away from ‘contification’:
1. In E.P.I. we don’t teach grammar
2. In E.P.I. we don’t teach phonics
3. In E.P.I. we don’t teach the meaning of single words. The method is about learning unanalysed chunks by rote. Meaningless parroting
4. In E.P.I. talking is merely about read-aloud games a la ‘Sentence stealer’ and oral translation drills such as ‘No snakes no ladders’
5. E.P.I is slow. The coverage is unambitious
6. E.P.I. is about memorising paragraphs with parallel texts
7. In E.P.I. listening and reading comprehensions are banned
8. E.P.I. cannot be used with high-ability classes
9. In E.P.I. we don’t teach culture
10. E.P.I. doesn’t prepare for National Examinations
The reasons for these misconceptions are manyfold. One reason is that quite a few of the blog posts/webinars on EPI floating on the web were written/delivered by people who provided their own understandingor adaptation of my approach and in some cases have never attended any of my trainings (!). Another reason refers to the deliberate attempt by certain people and entities to misrepresent EPI as anti-grammar, anti-phonics, anti-culture, anti-retrieval practice, anti-creativity, and anti- everything else that teachers hold as the untouchable pilllars of language teaching and learning – the aim: to put them off the approach.
Debunking the myths about EPI
In a series of posts – hopefully only two – I intend to debunk every single one of the above myths about EPI. For reasons of space, in the current post I will concern myself only with the top three on the above list.
#1. In E.P.I. grammar is not taught
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Grammar is taught at many points in a typical MARS EARS sequence, both explicitly and implicitly. The learning of grammar, however, unlike what happens traditionally, is not an end in itself; rather it is intended as a way to increase the generative power of the target chunks, i.e.: it aims at enabling the learners to skillfully manipulate the constructions modelled in a given unit of work to suit a communicative purpose. Moreover, it is subordinate to communication and lexis.
So, for instance, if in sub-unit 1 (“Talking about what I did yesterday’) of a unit of work on “Talking about the recent past”, the students have learnt the construction Time marker (e.g. yesterday) + I + perfect tense form + noun or/prepositional phrase, we may decide to teach the full conjugation of the verb ‘Avoir’, or parts of it, so as to enhance the communicative power of the target chunk (i.e. making it applicable to a greater range of agents). Thus, the grammar content is derived opportunistically from the target communicative context and not imposed top-down by the curriculum designer as a list of items to tick off. Figure 1, below, illustrate this point.
Grammar teaching starts explicitly in the initial Modelling/Awareness-raising phases (the M & A in MARS), in which the teacher sensitizes the learners to one or more of the morpho-syntactic features which underpin the target construction. At this stage, we are not talking of a full-fledged grammar explanation but rather of ‘pop-up grammar’, a short capsule of language awareness, which draws attention to specific features in the input the teacher wants the learner to notice.
During the Receptive phase too (the R in MARS), grammar is learnt, implicitly, through input-flooding, input-enhancement (see figure 2 below), thorough processing and repeated processing at every level of grain (phonemic, syllabic, lexical, morpho-syntactic, pragmatic and semantic) of the target structure. The tasks used in this phase aim at inducing the so-called ‘structural (or syntactic) priming effect” first documented by Bock (1986).
Input-flooding and input-enhancement work in synergy in an attempt to draw the learner attention to the target linguistic features. In the example in figure 3 below, for instance, the text is flooded with French perfect tense and imperfect forms which have been highlighted in yellow and blue.
Grammar is also learnt explicitly, through activities which deliberately direct the learner’s attention to the target features (see figures 5 to 8 below). For instance, in a lesson on ‘Talking about last week-end’ in French, the auxiliares AVOIR and ETRE may be gapped from a text which needs to be filled in by the students as part of a partial dictation. Or, as part of a ‘Faulty transcription’ task, the students may be asked to correct wrong instances of the perfect tense occuring in a text similar to the one used in the partial dictation. In a ‘Tracking’ listening activity, the students may be asked to note down how many instances of AVOIR and ETRE they hear in an aural text flooded with perfect tenses read aloud at moderate pace.
Editing activities (e.g. ‘Editing Carousel’ or ‘Best writing’) may also be staged where working individually or in groups, the students would try to spot and correct errors. Whilst the activities above focus on form, focus-on meaning activities will be staged too, including semantic processing activities based on the principles of (1) elaboration (2) distinctiveness (3) appropriateness to retrieval and application (4) relevance to personal experience.
During the Structured production phase (the S in MARS), pairwork retrieval practice and communicative activities elicit production of the target structure. Another short pop-up grammar session may take place at this stage to activate prior knowledge, clarify misconceptions and prime the students for the use of the target structure during this phase, which would ideally last two lessons. After each substantive retrieval practice or communicative task, short bouts of pop-up grammar may be staged to point out common mistakes the teacher noticed during the performance of the tasks.
In the Expansion or Explanation phase (the E in EARS), the target grammar feature is explained more thoroughly. Since, by this stage, the target structure has been processed many times over and the teacher will have already directed the students’ attention to the target feature several times through activation of prior knowledge, corrective feedback and informal assessment, often s/he will be able to teach it through guided-discovery techniques or even through full-fledged inductive tasks. In this phase, grammar and translation drills may be staged, where the learning condition is task-essentialness, i.e.: the target feature is necessary in order to complete the tasks-at-hand (e.g. a gap-fill task requiring the retrieval of an appropriate perfect tense form). It is worth noting that, with lower ability groups, with whom grammatical accuracy is not a priority, one may skip this phase and devote this lesson to consolidation of the target lexis. With higher ability students, a transfer-practice component maybe added in, whereby the structure-at-hand is practised in linguistic contexts and/or tasks different from the one(s) in which it was initially learnt. For instance, if adjectival agreement is being taught in the context of describing clothes using colours, the transfer-practice task could involve applying the agreement rules in other vocabulary domains (e.g. the one learnt in previous units on describing classroom objects, people animals, etc.).
In the Autonomous recall stage (the A in EARS), I always recommend embedding a short grammar assessment task, e.g. an Editing task involving identifying and fixing errors pertaining to the target structures or a translation or othe retrieval-practice task in which the target structure is task-essential. The aim is to test whether the students have grasped how the target structure ‘works’ declaratively and can apply it in familiar tasks.
In the Routinization phase (the R in EARS), form-focused tasks such as ‘Fast & Furious’ or ‘Fixy Echo’ will explicitly focus the students on the target grammar feature, whilst meaning-focused tasks such as ‘The 4,3,2 technique’, ‘Market Place’, ‘Speed Dating’, ‘Five’, ‘All for one one for all’ etc. may be used to elicit the rapid retrieval of the target feature in a communicative context.
Finally, in the Spontaneity phase(the S in EARS), unplanned communicative tasks may be staged in a bid to elicit the deployment of the target structure amongst others (e.g. under timed conditions, the students may be shown a story-board and asked to describe it in the past tense or they may be interviewed on what they did last week, etc.)
As you can see from the above, grammar instruction is woven into every phase of the MARS EARS sequence. How’s the EPI approach to grammar instruction different from the current methodology promoted by the DfE in England?. Here are some key differences:
Grammar is not the end goal of instructionbut a tool to support the achievement of spontaneity and creativity with the language: it serves a communicative purpose. As picture 3 above shows, it is selected based on the Communicative functions we teach and, more precisely, on the construction(s) which convey that function. For example, in teaching the function “Describing what one did last weekend” in French, I may choose to teach the construction: Time marker + Perfect tense of Aller + prepositional phrase. C’était + adjective. As a result, I will decide to teach the perfect tense of aller. This means that the target grammar structure emerges organically from the context; it is learnt in context. The grammar explanation occurs as a way to give the target construction more generative power, i.e.: teach the learners how to manipulate it using declarative knowledge so that they have control over it and doesn’t stay a monolytical unanalysed chunk of language. In other words, declarative knowledge is taught in order to build on procedural knowledge.
The full-fledged explanation of the key grammar point is delayed to the Explanation phase, which occurs after much receptive and productive practice, on the fourth of fifth lesson. This means that grammar teaching is often about reverse engineering, picking apart what the students already know, which makes learning declarative knowledge easier and in some cases even redundant. Delaying the teaching towards the end of each sub-unit (or MARSEA sequence) means that the grammar explanation that at best puts off, at worst excludes a substantive chunk of a mixed ability class at the very outset of a lesson, comes after four lessons packed with inclusive and fun activities, mostly ludic in nature.
The core structures that your students must ‘nail’ by the end of each year or cycle, the ‘non-negotiables’ selected for teaching, what I call ‘Universals’ are not as many as those found in course books such as Dynamo or Studio. They are limited because there is a limit to what can be truly ‘entrenched’ in the ridiculously small time allocation language learning typically gets in primary and secondary schools (1 to 2 hours a week). The criterion for selection? How foundational and key they are in the building of the L2 system. In picture 11 below I have listed my universals for a year 7 French group.
#2. In E.P.I. we don’t teach phonics
This is another myth. The teaching of Phonics or SSC (Spelling-to-Sound Correspondence) is also woven into every step of the MARS EARS sequence. As happens with grammar, phonics too are taught through a synergy of Explicit and Implicit instruction.
The phonemes and syllables the EPI teacher focuses on, though, are derived opportunistically from the vocabulary and grammar you selected, as shown in picture 1 above. For instance, if, as part of the communicative function “Describing people”, you plan to teach words like mère, frère and père, this may prompt you to focus on the phoneme /ɛ/. Moreover, if, as part of the same topic, you are going to teach the present indicative of the verb Etre (suis, es and est) this may trigger a focus on silent consonants s and t. This means that the target phonemes and phonemes clusters will be constantly recycled multiple times across the entire unit.
One of the advantages of modelling language through sentence builders is that the learners hear and see the words being presented simultaneously. Hence, each word the students are taught is concurrently encoded in both its phonemic and graphemic form. Thus, phonics teaching starts implicitly from the get-go, in the Modelling phase.
In the awareness-raising phase, through activities such as “Faulty echo”, “Spot the silent letters”, “Rhyming pairs”, “Write it as you hear it”, “Spot the foreign sound” and many others described in Conti and Smith (2019), the teacher draws attention to specific sounds known to be problematic for the students (e.g. silent consonants in French, nasal sounds, etc.). These noticing activities are used routinely by EPI teachers and are the staples of this initial phase. Input enhancement techniques, both visual (e.g. highlighting silent letters) and acoustic (e.g. stressing specific sounds) are also used in this phase as awareness-raising tools.
In the ensuing Receptive processing phase, listening and reading work in synergy to further reinforce SSC. This is done through a number of engaging ‘Scripted listening’ (listening whilst reading) activities, such as ‘Word Bingo’, ‘Sentence Bingo’, ‘Break the flow’, ‘Spot the missing detail’, ‘Spot the intruder’, ‘Listening puzzle’, ‘Slalom listening’, ‘Jigsaw listening’, etc. These aural tasks elicit dual processing, i.e.: the students simultaneously process aural and written input. For instance, in ‘Spot the intruder’, the learner is given a written text and must identify any words contained in that text, which are not read aloud by the teacher. Most EPI scripted-listening activities are designed to promote ‘thorough processing’, i.e. force the students to pay close attention to every single word in the transcript. Thorough processing means that, if you have flooded the input with the target graphemes/phonemes, the chances of the students learning SSC are likely to be multiplied.
Dictations are also commonly used in EPI, occasionally in synergy with Scripted listening. For instance, in ‘Faulty transcript”, the students need to identify and note down the differences between what they listen to and the corresponding transcript; for example, the text they see might say “Me llamo Paco” whereas the text the teacher reads out would say “Me llamo Juan”. Some of the dictation tasks I use in this phase are detailed in this post. Whilst Scripted listening and Dictation tasks build a strong SSC implicitly, explicit SSC-focused episodes can still be embedded through corrective feedback (e.g. on dictations) or pre-task activation knowledge (e.g. prior to a “Track the sound” task, where the sound to be tracked is /ɛ/ the students may be reminded explicitly of the relevant SSC declarative knowledge in synergy with physical awareness).
In the Structured Production phase, prior to the Chunking aloud games typically staged with beginner to pre-intermediate classes, another short pop-up phonics session may occur to sensitize and prime the students, in which you would stage phonological awareness classics such as ‘Minimal pairs’, ‘Phonemes bingo’, ‘Contrast and response’, ‘Rhyming pairs’ and others detailed in this post . During each chunking-aloud game you will of course walk around monitoring student output, correcting when necessary and making mental notes of the most common mistakes. After each game, you will use the so-gathered observational data to provide whole-class feedback on their decoding skills, before the students proceed to play the next activity. For some EPI classic chunking aloud games, follow this link.
In the Fluency-training phase, tasks and games aimed at speeding up accurate production of the target sounds (e.g. “Chain reading”, tongue twisters, etc.) are staged.
Besides the activities typical of each phase I have just described, in EPI many other techniques and initiatives are carried out which cut through the whole MARS EARS cycle, aimed at promoting alertness to sound, physical awareness, critical listening and other dimensions of sound-related metacognition.
As you can see, just like Grammar teaching, Phonics instruction is pervasive but not overly explicit in EPI; and, because the SSC focus stems opportunistically from the vocabulary and grammatical content of each unit, extensive recycling throughout the MARS EARS sequence is guaranteed.
#3. E.P.I. doesn’t teach the meaning of single words. The target construction are taught as unanalysed chunks.
This is another preposterous misrepresentation. Anyone vaguely familiar with sentence builders knows that every L2 word in the sentence builder is translated in the L1. In fact, in order to make sure that the L1-to-L2 meaning mapping is as unambiguous as possible, I encourage the use of literal translation. For instance: ‘J’ai besoin d’argent’ would be translated in a typical sentence builder as ‘I have need of money’ (instead of ‘I need money’) or ‘J’ai onze ans’ as ‘I have eleven years’ (instead of ‘I am eleven). Hence, from the get-go the students are fully aware of what each constituent of a target construction means. This approach is taken in the brilliant EPI-based website www.sentencebuilders.com as evidenced by the example in Figure 17, below.
Furthermore, plenty of vocabulary building activities used in EPI in the Receptive and Productive phase elicit focus on single words. These include: (1) traditional vocabulary-building activities such as ‘Gap-fill’ tasks, ‘Odd one out’, ‘Categories’, ‘Find the near synonym’, ‘Match L1 and L2 equivalents’ etc. as well as EPI classics such as (2) Sentence puzzles with L1 translation, ‘Find the L2 equivalent in the text’ ‘Gapped translation’, ‘Faulty translation’, Tangled translation’, Word-substitution, etc.
In EPI, the target vocabulary is selected based on three principles:
Relevance to the students. Research shows unequivocably that when the target vocabulary is perceived by L2 learners as relevant, it is more likely to be successfully acquired.
High frequency. Vocabulary which is high frequent is more likely to be useful, as the first 2,000 most frequent words in a language give access to at least 80 % of any generic L2 text.
High surrender value. Vocabulary which is useful in the learning of other vocabulary or even grammar structures should be obviously prioritised. For instance, ‘aller’ has high surrender value, as it is the necessary pre-requisite for the learning of the Immediate future in French. Learning ‘Mettre’ paves the way for the learning of Promettre, Admettre, Sousmettre,etc. High-frequency vocabulary often has higher surrender value, so if one applies criterion (2), one partially satisfies this criterion too.
Many misconceptions are being circulated in UK MFL circles by entities and people who are either misinformed or have a vested interest in portraying EPI as an anti-grammar and anti-phonics approach whereby language learners are fed unanalysed chunks of language whose meaning they learn ‘holistically’, without truly grasping the meaning of each individual lexical item they contain nor the underlying grammar that glues them together. Easy to understand why: grammar, vocabulary and phonics are considered these days by OFSTED as the ‘three pillars of progression’, the key areas, that is, which school inspectors are going to investigate when they visit schools in order to assess teaching and learning. Hence, the message is clear: you will fail OFSTED if you embrace EPI. This is, of course, not true: one can teach EPI and still show ‘progression’ in all the above areas.
In this post, I have attempted to demonstrate that in EPI both grammar and phonics are practised extensively through a powerful synergy of implicit and explicit learning. All the greatest Applied Linguistics theorists and researchers would agree that this synergy is key to successful learning and that implicit (or procedural) knowledge is what teaching should concern itself mostly with. As Ellis and Shintani (2013) posit: “ Instruction needs to be predominantly directed at developing implicit knowledge of the second language while not neglecting explicit knowledge“.
As for the notion that EPI is about the teaching of unanalysed formulaic chunks of language, I hope I have shown that is not the case at all – although, of course, some chunks have the potential to stay unanalysed (e.g. ‘Il y a’ in French or ‘Es gibt’ in German). The meaning of and usage of individual words is modelled and practised in context at all times, faithful to the notion (central to EPI) that ‘you will know a word by the company it keeps’ (Firth, 1957).
In fact, one advantage that EPI has over approaches like the one championed by NCELP, is that, not just the target vocabulary, but also the target phonics and grammar are selected as tools which enable the learner to fulfill a communicative purpose and are seamlessly and organically integrated in the linguistic and even cultural fabric of each unit of work, which allows for abundant meaningful recycling. Take the NCELP approach instead: each lesson consists of two completely disjointed sections, one which deals with explicit phonics instruction following the PPP sequence and one which deals with grammar and vocabulary. In other words, phonics instruction occurs in isolation, as a self-standing episode. Hard to see the logic of such an approach. In addition, the words are not selected based on a unifying theme, but pretty randomly. Moreover, the linguistic content has been selected by the NCELP curriculum designers top-down and without any apparent guiding principle – apart from high frequency for the target lexical items. The result is a random and decontextualised list of phonics, words and grammar rules for the students to regurgitate. Add to this the fact that the guiding principle for vocabulary selection – high frequency – flouts the all-important ‘relevance-to-the-learner principle in that the corpora used for the selection of the target lexical items include mainly texts intended for adults – not adolescents (e.g. European Commission or Parliament documents and newspapers).
In the next post I will concern myself with the remainder of the misrepresentations on that list.
If you want to know more about my approach, do get hold of my books, co-authored with Steve Smith: “Breaking the sound barrier: teaching learners how to listen” and “Memory: what every language teacher should know”.
Here’s a link to a downloadable document that Heads of Modern Foreign Languages in England should find very useful. Authored by a very talented and hard-working Head of Languages, the document provides the content of her ‘deep dive’ with an OFSTED inspector and details how she has implemented and adapted E.P.I. in her school, managing to get 100% of her year 8 students to take up MFL as a GCSE subject at her school.
Kate May, whose twitter handle is @katemayt, is a Head of Languages in an inner-London school. She is a whole school Teaching & Learning lead and runs a teacher research community. Kate is studying MA Education at King’s College, specialising in Language teaching & women in leadership.
In this brilliant post, Catrin Ashton, an ESOL teacher, details how she has applied my methodology, Extensive Processing Instruction, in her lessons. Reading the post, I couldn’t help being WOWed by her passion for teaching, her determination to perfect her craft and the enthusiasm with which she has embraced the methodology. I truly look forward to the second and third part of this great post.
I strongly recommend this article to teachers of any languages, be it EFL, ESL, ESOL or MFL/ ML/WL/LOTE.
“I love all your different activities – gap fill, listening bingo and the pyramid translation – this is particularly challenging but a great way to consolidate my knowledge through repetition. I can remember more this way too!”
When you receive feedback like this from an adult learner, it is such a tremendous boost, it confirms that you are on the right track and that the risks you have taken are worth it! Saying ‘risk’ may sound a little overdramatic but we both knew that when we joined the GILT community over 4 years ago that our teaching practice was going to potentially change forever. It has and we have never looked back.
It was certainly nerve racking to start with. We were fully aware that by introducing Conti activities into our lessons, we were introducing a very different way of working that almost all our learners were unfamiliar with and that was very different to the style and types of tasks that they had experienced before – whether that was from their school days or other adult learning groups. We also knew that it would be a huge amount of work as ensuring our resources were full of comprehensible input that responded to our learner’s’ needs meant writing most of the materials ourselves. However, with the vast majority of our learners wanting to develop their listening and speaking activities, once we read about approaches such as LAM and the MARS EARS pedagogical cycle, we knew we had to take the leap.
Our learners are highly motivated and invested in their learning so we know that when we try something new, we have to know why we are doing it. This is one of the huge advantages of using Conti activities. Each activity shared is backed up by research and this has enabled us to try tasks such as Mind Reader, Faulty Echo, Delayed Copying / Dictation and many more because we can explain to our learners why we are doing the activity and get them fully on board.
“Super class today. I think the way you are teaching is helping me embed everything better than I have ever done before.”
Learner, Lingua Forme
This learner’s comment highlights another huge reason why Conti’s tasks work for our adult learners. Thanks to the MARS EARS approach, we are able to flood the learners with the structures and vocabulary we are working on using a wide range of different activities that promote recycling and repetition. This is absolutely vital for adult learners, who often only meet once a week for 1 to 2 hours and who will very often have little or no contact with French between classes.
In addition, instead of bolting on 5-10 minutes ‘free-style’ conversation at the end of class (we were both guilty of this), we now develop highly structured speaking tasks to encourage the learners to repeat and practise as much as possible. The learners’ confidence has grown unbelievably since we have used speaking activities such as Pyramids and Oral Ping Pongs. We also believe the learners’ confidence has grown because these activities also increase the opportunities for learners to focus not only on ‘what’ they are saying but on ‘how’ they are saying it through more focused work on pronunciation and rhythm.
We recently attended Conti’s online workshops (and both experienced the obligatory sleepless night because our heads were so full of ideas!) and are now weaving in more fluency building activities into our lessons. Many learners now submit voice recordings instead of written scripts for homework, enabling them to focus even more intently on the skill they wish to develop.
We are so excited also to start applying principles we are learning about from the Smith and Conti’s new book, ‘Memory; what every language teacher should know’, as we feel this is particularly pertinent for our work with adult learners.
And let’s not forget about the importance of the interaction and the social aspect of learning for adults. These activities are fun and enjoyed by all – but not just fun for fun’s sake. They are enjoyable because they are relevant, challenging and effective. They help us to nurture the environment that we want for our learners; an environment where people come together to connect, to have fun, to learn and to progress.
It would be remiss of us not to finish by saying a huge thank you to Dr Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith for continuingly inspiring us as you do, for helping us help our learners and for ensuring we receive feedback like this:
“Most certainly I have made far more progress in the time I have attended your classes than in the whole of the five or six previous years at other French groups. I am so pleased I found you.”
Learner, Aspire Languages
Each with over 20 years’ experience in education, teaching and learning, Sarah and Barbara have been running their own small businesses teaching French to adults for over 5 years. Sarah owns Aspire Languages (https://www.facebook.com/aspirelanguages) and Barbara owns Lingua Forme (www.linguaforme.co.uk) In 2020, they came together to share their experiences of using Conti-inspired activities, to pool their resources and to set up Grab & Go Languages, a membership website where teachers can download ‘ready-to-go’ resources from beginners to advanced level to use with their learners. They have recently developed audios for some of their materials and they are also currently working on a mentoring programme designed to support language teachers who are considering making the move from mainstream teaching to running their own businesses teaching adults( https://www.grabandgolanguageresources.co.uk/)
I cannot recall with certainty the exact year I came across Conti’s approach to teaching languages. I imagine it must have been through Twitter. I do remember reading several of his blog posts every so often with interest and finding his ideas making a lot of sense. Yet, applying his ideas to my teaching of French and Spanish hasn’t been a smooth or straight-line path.
For instance, I didn’t quite understand the idea of the sentence builders and, in fact, did not like it much initially. They seem cluttered and aesthetically unappealing. Yet, after going to one of his workshops in Sydney a few years back, I decided to create a couple for my Year 9 students at the time with the purpose of getting them talking about events in the past.
I also tried a few other activities I had gotten from the workshop with several classes and was excited to see they were effective scaffolds to help my students do more speaking in class. In the following years, I continued reading his blog posts and bought the book The Language Teacher Toolkit co-written with Steve Smith. I only took the time to read half of it back then, and I am not ashamed to admit
I saw the strategies as fun and useful, but I was not really applying the MARS EARS sequence to my teaching overall, nor did I probably understand it at the time!
What most attracted me to his work was the fact the context in which these ideas were developed, was very similar to the contexts in which I have been teaching here in Australia. I also loved that they were all based on research, not just ‘something fun and engaging’ but not necessarily useful to learning languages (as is the case of many activities to which I have been exposed in the past).
The more I read (and attended every workshop I could with him!) in the last 4 years or so, the better I understood the whole picture of his approach to the teaching of languages in schools. It has been fascinating to me that the ideas both Conti and Smith have summarised for us in their books, were in accordance with other ideas related to mind-brain friendly educational approaches to which I have also been exposed in the past years. They also all resonated with aspects of what had worked best in my own teaching and learning experiences such as working on metacognition, the importance of reflection and how useful and enriching it is to obtain feedback form students. It was for once, an approach that did not claim to be ‘magic’ or the ‘only effective way to teach languages’ but rather a solid framework on which to base language learning sequences, while still acknowledging the benefits of other aspects of the teaching-learning experience.
I was so excited about what this would mean for the improvement of my teaching of languages in schools that I even did some action research to test some of his ideas with my students. The results were encouraging and got me hooked into doing more of it in a more systematic and organised manner. Sadly, I have not yet found an environment where these ideas are embraced and willingly implemented by all my colleagues. This has essentially meant I have not been able to see the longer-term results of these changes with the students with whom I have worked.
Yet, I can talk about my two most recent experiences briefly here. For instance, last year, as I was starting in a new school, I decided to do as much ‘contification’ of my teaching as possible. It made sense to me to focus on implementation with my two Year 7 classes. I was looking forward to seeing the effects these strategies would have in the long term with these group of students as they move up in the language learning journey. I loved that the differentiation was implicit in the strategies I was using given the quickest learners in my classes were still challenged. These students could always choose to drop the scaffolds, improvise some extension to the sentences with which I provided them, or even combine a couple with a connective to make a more complex sentence (with my own variation of ‘read my mind’ activity for instance). Moreover, the fact all students were working from the start with correct ready-made sentences was definitely helpful to their successful language production. One parent even wrote to me stating her daughter had learned more in a few months than in all the previous years in which she had been doing French in primary school!
Although the lockdown period somewhat interrupted the process, it is also then that I finally took the time to thoroughly read the books The Language Teacher Toolkitand Breaking the Sound Barrier: Teaching Language Learners How to Listen. I went crazy creating and adapting resources to fully suit this approach and was thrilled to realise it was not a hugely time-consuming process. More importantly, creating resources such as a list of 12 to 20 sentences, was incredibly beneficial in making it perfectly clear to me what I intended my students to be able to do with the language each step of the way. More recently, I have benefitted from seeing a great number of examples in the Sentence Builders books and in the Language-gym website for both French and Spanish.
The most fun has been to adapt the strategies that have worked in the classroom to a distance education environment. I have found that many of them can be adjusted, with more or less difficulty, to be delivered through online tools such as Education Perfect or Canvas. For instance, an activity such as Finish the Sentence just required me to record my voice saying some beginning of sentences and then either provide them with some multiple choices or allow them to freely write or record their voice with a possible end to them. More time consuming was to adapt the Find Someone Who to a voice-recorded version of all the cards you would normally give students for them to read. This made it become a just listening activity but, I believe, equally useful. Still, it is obviously yet to be seen how effective these are compared with when they are used in a real classroom environment.
I am very thankful to both Dr Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith for what they have contributed to my reflection and improvement as a Languages teacher. Your blogposts and books in the last few years, including the more recent Memory: What Every Language Teacher Should Know have inspired my professional development and guided me to continue questioning the way I approach my work. Bravo!
London-based Deputy-Head of MFL, MA graduate and talented linguist Adam Fletcher writes about his experience with Contification in an inner city area school where French, Spanish and Italian are taught to children mostly of afro-caribbean ancestry.
In the scorching Summer of 2018, July to be precise, the daily occurrence of close to thirty degree heat temperatures had come to be expected not hoped for, the yellowing and almost disappearing grass across the country left the Earth looking tired, the World Cup was in full swing, and the scent of Summer had already become one that had been in the air since late April. I took what seemed like a marathon 5-hour round trip from my flat in South-East London, crossing the city, taking the train from Kings’ Cross to Cambridge, followed by a bus ride to the quaint, picturesque village of Swavesey, who had a very special visitor in town.
I wouldn’t say that was the start of my trip towards Contification-I had been putting into practice many of the activities he had been introducing to us on a frequent basis. But certainly it was my first taster for understanding the myriad of ways we could use sentence builders, and Gianfranco’s LAM approach began to make real sense. I could see where these afforementioned activities (Mind-readers, sentence chaos, and sentence-stealers) fit into the greater scheme of things, and how they could be incorporated into medium to long-term planning. The warm welcome given to me by the staff at Swavesey, coupled with the relaxed, light-hearted nature of the event, made me feel that the information wasn’t being “imposed” on me, but gently served on a silver teaspoon. When I was ready for more, I would politely ask for it.
Terminology such as pushed output, divided attention, flooded input, the episodic buffer, the noticing hypothesis, high surrender universals, pop-up grammar, LAM, RAM, EPI, MARSEARS along with a whole host of other acronyms,the notion of meaning vrs form and how it affects learned attention, the order of knowledge acquisition (does procedural knowledge precede declarative or vice-versa). All of these notions would previously been dismissed as mere jargon, had it not been for the consistent, indefatigable and passionate way that these terms have been introduced to us practitioners in a progressive manner. With every CPD delivered, with every blog and book written, with every article shared, this methodology begin to make more and more sense, and MFL teachers who adopt it have been empowered to wear that armour to defend themselves against their detractors, and those from above who may feel the need to impose their own agendas upon MFL departments across the country.
What has been so refreshing about the approach, is that, while being research-informed, it sits comfortably across contexts and situations. No more has this been highlighted than in this current period of remote learning, where Conti lessons have been the platform to provide “business-as-usual” lessons. In some ways the approach has been enhanced, thanks to the increased clarity of the teacher’s voice, the use of the chat function substituting mini-whiteboards and giving a clearer, quicker access to in-class data (if it’s typed, it’s easier to read!), and teachers have been given more scope to provide receptive input, and clearly plan and modify that comprehensible input needed for students to acquire the language.
Let’s consider many of the key players on the Twittersphere and pedagogy world, and hot topics imposed on us across the school. Tom Sherrington and his book on Rosenshine’s principles, Doug Lemov’s TLAC techniques (cold-call, no opt-out, positive-framing, do it again to name but a few), Cognitive Load Theory (Baddeley/Sweller) and Dual Coding (Caviglioli) and what that actually looks like in MFL, the Writing Revolution and its focus on phrasal/sentence constructions, Brown and Roediger’s testing effect in Make it Stick (2014), and the emphasis on Retrieval Practice presented to us by Kate Jones (2019). Gianfranco has carefully conditioned us to bring MFL forward into this world (ahead of these trends in most cases), enabling MFL to sit comfortably alongside the wider-school ethos and have their say, and stay ahead of the game. This input, coming first from Gianfranco and co. and their readings, has been pivotal in preparing MFL in reflecting upon these advancements in cognitive science, and ensured that we are able to tick those boxes when presenting our findings to the wider-school context.
The evolution of the approach since when I first was acquainted with Conti and Smith in around 2016 is palpable. In 2017, I tweeted Gianfranco this question:
Evidently, In the space of 4 years, MFL has come so far. The biggest change came upon the release of Breaking the Sound Barrier (2019). By that time, so many practitioners had been exposed to the approach, following a marathon year of CPDs, and were already putting the approach into practice in their classrooms. What the release of the book did, was solidify the foundations of those CPDs, via repeated exposure to the messages and topics covered in his CPDs. Further CPDs on curriculum planning, and a developing understanding of the MARSEARS approach, highlighted to me more and more how the integrated skills approach and aural-first approach to providing input would work in the long-term. The use of English in sentence builders would at first raise some eyebrows, but a greater understanding of the rationale provided by C.J Dodson’s (1967) bilingual method, reintroduced by Butzkamm (2009) would go some way towards helping to understand the exploitation of the L1 as a means to boosting L2 output (Dual-Coding anyone?).
The practical ideas and theory came flooding in thereafter, with Danielle Warren’s 100 ideas for Secondary Teachers providing another great accompaniment to the approach, and providing a resource that hitherto had been dominated by the TEFL world, but never explored by MFL. We are at a pivotal moment in MFL, where the launch of Conti, along with Vinales and Ezequiel’s sentence builders series is providing us with the opportunity to tie-in homework to reflect our classroom practice, boost our lessons, and ensure that repeated exposure to content via a varied repertoire of tasks enables our learners to develop the proceduralised knowledge of the language to then be unpicked declaratively when the learner is ready. As Nation and Webb (2007) state, the biggest challenge for teachers when students are learning through meaning-focused input is supporting comprehension, because if students cannot understand the input, then they feel they may feel discouraged from continuing to learn this way.” In increasing the frequency of encounters with the language, then this is going to go a long way to enabling students to develop their self-efficacy.
This is why I have been delighted recently, to be able to use the wonderful web platform that is Textivate. In copying my narrow-reading and listening activities into the machine, creating parallel texts along with that, see Martin Lapworth describe how here.
I have been able to ensure that whatever content has been covered in the classroom has been revisited outside the classroom. The site also provides text-to-speech recognition, which provides the necessary aural-input to provide dual-coding. With that, I was more enthused when I found out that the Language-Gym will be launching a sentence-builders website, in collaboration with Textivate. This exploitation of technology to complement the input provided in lesson is a game-changer, and goes some way in closing the circuit for LAM enthusiasts like myself. 5 years on, I find that what initially was some practical ideas to help catch the enthusiasm of my learners has now become my teaching ethos. Learning, AFL, homework, assessment, instruction, input and output cycles are now becoming seamlessly intertwined. The tools are there for you, it is now a case of building and adapting the methods and fitting them to what works for you and your learners. As Dylan Wiliam’s mantra of “everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere”, Contifying your approach is certainly a journey that will inevitably take years and years of repeated encounters of the theory and practice it promotes, but there is always something within that approach that you can make work for you. Those first encounters in Swavesey were definitely the beginning of a most rewarding journey for me that CONtinues to thrill and enthral.
Butzkamm, W., 2003. We only learn language once. The role of the mother tongue in FL
classrooms: death of a dogma, Language Learning Journal, 28:1, 29-39.
Dodson, C.J., 1967. Language Teaching and the Bilingual Method. London: Pitman.
Webb, S. and Nation, I., 2017. How Vocabulary Is Learned. Oxford University Press.
I have taught French and Spanish since September 2000 when I officially became an NQT and I had the privilege of becoming Curriculum Leader at the school I currently work in, in September 2006. As a teacher and Curriculum Leader, I have always been keen to try out new strategies to develop teaching and learning across the department and to ensure that our students get the best pedagogy that they deserve.
We had been using the Sentence Builders for a while (I think we called them Learning Mats or Maps at the time) but we felt that there was more that we could do with them and that we were not exploiting them enough. Then, four years ago, I came across the picture of an activity on Facebook that I had never seen before – this picture was of “Sentence Stealer”. Being very curious and inquisitive by nature, I read the rationale behind this activity and thought I would give it a go and this was the start of a gradual but highly rewarding journey.
This is my experience as a teacher and Curriculum Leader and I hope this will help you in your journey.
Start on a small scale
I decided to try the new activities I was coming across with one group only until I got more confident using them. At this stage, I was not aware of the MARS EARS sequence. I mixed the new activities with the ones that the students were used to, to introduce them gradually.
From the start, the students were hooked – it was new, it was fun, it was different, and they were learning and rapidly developing in confidence. Even the normally shy ones would be happy to give these activities a go.
The Sentence Builders became more relevant and were used very thoroughly. The language was repeated in a variety of ways and was quickly remembered by the students.
The turning point for me was when this particular class asked “Can we do this one again tomorrow?”, “What do you have in store for us today?”, “What new activity have you found that we are going to try out?” – they were fully on board, so it was time to move forward and share the approach with my other groups and the department.
Changes with one year group at a time.
After trying a variety of activities, I decided to look into the work and research that Dr Gianfranco Conti had done over the years and started reading his blogs and that’s when I came across the MARS EARS sequence. The rationale and logic behind it made complete sense.
When I decided to implement the sequence with the Schemes of Learning (SoL) we had at the time, it soon became clear that we had far too much content and that we needed to change our SoL. It is always a scary thought, as you suddenly feel like you are not covering all that should be covered but it is like driving a car for the first time – it looks scary but it can be done.
I decided to start from the bottom and work our way up, one year group at a time. So our Y7 SoL got revamped first and the following year, it was our Y8 SoL. It was soon becoming clear that less was more: the students could remember chunks, they were confident in speaking and writing the language and they were gradually moving away from their Sentence Builders. “Stickability” from recycling was happening! This year, the Y9 SoL is getting some serious decluttering!
Our Sentence Builders got revamped too and the amount of vocabulary was reduced thus really focusing on the chunks and key structures. When our students ask us for extra vocabulary, we encourage them to use a dictionary to look up new words that could fit in the Sentence Builders thus developing their own vocabulary and dictionary skills. However, this normally happens when we get to the EARS part of the sequence, as we want them to be able to manipulate the new language before we introduce new words or chunks.
To facilitate the planning stage for myself and my department, I have created a document which is organised into the MARS EARS sequence with activities for each part and each skill. This has reduced the planning time, especially when you are better acquainted with each activity. As each group is different, you might spend more time on a section of the sequence with one group.
The blogs written by Dr Gianfranco Conti and Mr Dylan Viñales have also been an amazing source of inspiration and to this day I still refer to them – I actually have a printed copy of them! I have also purchased the books by Dr Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith (Breaking the Sound Barrier, The Language Teacher Toolkit, Memory – what every language teacher should know) to get an even better understanding. I also purchased the Language Gym books in French & Spanish. It seems like a lot but these are valuable resources.
What does it look like in the classroom?
The following happens over a series of about 6 lessons depending on the groups.
When we start a new topic, I like to spend a whole lesson on MODELLING / AWARENESS RAISING and I use activities such as Ghost Repetition and Faulty Echo to get the students to identify and become familiar with the different sounds.
Then, I will spend time on the RECEPTIVE PROCESSING PHASE – lots of repetition using Sentence Stealer, Sentence Chaos, Listening Slalom (too many activities to list them all). Students are flooded with the language and that is when their confidence increases, as the language is constantly being recycled.
Following this, we move on to the STRUCTURED PRODUCTION – we continue to recycle chunks but this time we are gradually moving away from the Sentence Builders to get them ready for being more spontaneous. One of my favourite activities is “Read, Recall and Rewrite” but there are many to choose from during that phase.
Finally, we move on to the EARS phase (which I think we still need to develop further as a department) – we are continuing to develop “fluency and spontaneity through gradually less controlled but planned communicative tasks” so that students become autonomous. The “4, 3, 2 technique” is a great speaking task to do here but again so many to choose from.
Putting this sequence in place has meant:
Full engagement from students of all abilities
Much better progression within the lesson and from one lesson to another
Increased participation in class
Better use of the language
Better grasp of the grammar when seen more “formally” in the EARS part of the sequence
Less anxiety for students who might not see Languages as an easy subject
I also include activities from amazing practitioners who I follow on Twitter, but I make sure that they fit in the sequence.
How do you get your department on board?
Whenever I come across an idea, I like to try it first before I suggest it to the department.
I have always been fortunate to have worked and work with teachers who are forward thinkers and open-minded and who have embraced the “contification” of the lessons. We have spent a lot of time in departmental meetings discussing the sequence, reviewing and improving our SoL as well as our Sentence Builders, developing activities etc…
The department did spend some time coming to see me in lessons to see what it looked like in practice before they started to use the MARS EARS sequence in their own lessons.
We have not used a textbook at KS3 for years, as we found the content dry and the activities not relevant and not adapted to our students. We prepare all of our resources ourselves and share them to reduce workload (but they are then adapted to our individual groups). At KS4, we have the book recommended by the exam board but we use it more for reference and again we prepare our own tasks. Therefore, I started off by sharing a lot of my MARS EARS resources with my department and now the sharing is across the department, not just from me.
I am also a very enthusiastic person so whenever you get me started on the topic, I am off! This does help when implementing changes in a department.
It is also great when you have trainee teachers, as you can get them on board straight away.
Of course, flexibility is key as to what activities we use and no two lessons are the same, as I want the teachers to keep their individuality but whatever lesson you go into, the MARS EARS sequence is in place.
Is it a lot of work to start with?
Yes, hence why I started on a small scale and only focussed on one year group at a time. Get your team on board as soon as possible, share the work, share the resources.
Is it worth it?
Definitely. Just to see how pupils react and interact makes all the hard work worth it. Recycle and improve previous activities every year, include new ones the following year so that you develop a bank of resources.
Will you soon see the benefits?
Absolutely! But remember that changes don’t happen overnight! We have worked on this for 4 years now and we are still reviewing and improving. I have now been teaching for 21 years (so 17 years when I started this journey) and like most teachers, I have always been passionate about my work and it is never too late to try something new and to review your pedagogy. The students will benefit from it in the end and this is what matters the most.
French is not that hard after all- by Sonja Fedrizzi
When your S2 (year 8) students keep asking you to play yet another round of “Mind Reader”, “Trap Door” or “Sentence Stealer”, you know as a Modern Languages teacher, you are onto something. In my case, it has been the gradual introduction of Gianfranco Conti’s pedagogical framework called “MARS EARS”. The reason I say gradual is because sustainable changes to one’s teaching methods such as Conti’s do not happen overnight. They require thorough planning, the creation of resources and time to reflect on your progress. Luckily, I could rely on the generosity of other language teachers, who shared their knowledge and resources through social media to get me off to a good start.
We’ve all faced this problem, no matter which set (ability level) you teach, there will always be students in whom it seems particularly difficult to ignite the “language spark”. Statements like “it’s too hard” and “I will never speak the language fluently” are all too common. As a consequence, engagement in the class will be mixed. The stop-start nature of school, and frequent absences due to the Covid-19 pandemic only made this worse throughout 2020. These difficulties prompted me to go “full Conti” for the first time this year for some of my classes, starting with a lower-set S2 French class. I’ve long been using specific Conti activities, and they have been received well by all levels of students. This year, however, I experienced the full range of benefits of Conti’s method in particular for ‘levelling up’ lower ability students. I started my journey by delivering a first unit according to The MARS EARS cycle, which I would like to outline here.
MODELLING: With all of the Covid-19 restrictions in place, modelling sounds through sentence builders and tasks like “Faulty Echo” and the “Mind Reading” activity presented me with the first hurdle. Wearing a mask when modelling new chunks of language is almost impossible, which is why a solution had to be found quickly. I opted for video recordings of myself that I would then show in class to my students. My class took well to that and showed great readiness to copy new sounds. As neither choral speaking nor singing was an option due to Covid-19 guidelines, my students recorded themselves at home either on their phones or using the in-built recording function in Microsoft’s ClassNotebook. I subsequently gave them feedback through voice-recordings, using the app https://vocaroo.com/, modelling the sounds correctly that they mispronounced. It took a while to overcome the digital hurdles, but it was worth it.
AWARENESS RAISING: Moving into the stage of awareness raising felt natural and was, quite frankly, a lot of fun. Making sounds in a foreign language can be daunting and uncomfortable for many learners. Losing face in front of peers can become a huge obstacle when trying out new sounds. I therefore included activities where students could record themselves at home speaking in funny voices, for example in the voice of a robot or a mouse. In hindsight, I believe that the stage of awareness raising helped me bond the most with my students. They shared their thoughts on different varieties of English, taught me a number of local expressions I hadn’t come across before and readily engaged in phonics activities. We had lots of chats and the fact that they could share their expertise with me seemed to really empower them.
RECEPTIVE PROCESSING: During this phase, also called the LAM/RAM phase, I included a set of Conti classics in almost every lesson: “Listening slalom”, “Sentence Stealers” and “Spot the differences”. I made sure not to overload my students with unknown sounds and was consciously sticking to the recommendation of having 98% comprehensible input. Reading texts and looking for mistakes in their L1 did at times prove more difficult, which was certainly due to low literacy skills in their L1. However, being able to spot mistakes in English and getting praised for their achievements gave many of my students a huge boost in their self-esteem, which in turn, made them keener to have a go the next time.
STRUCTURED PRODUCTION: The “pushed-output” phase was perhaps the trickiest to get right, but it ended up having a huge payoff. I was somewhat doubtful of making my students produce the target language, even if heavily structured. Would they cope, would they disengage? They didn’t. Thanks to popular games such as “Trapdoor”, “Speaking Ladders” and “Sentence Chaos” students were able to gradually be weaned off their sentence builders and started saying chunks of French. By that point, I realised that their self-efficacy had increased, and they were thus more willing to give it a go.
EXPANSION: This phase had another few surprises in store for me. A grammar lesson with students with below average literacy skills in their L1 seemed risky business as I knew I would not be able to hold their attention for long. Eventually, I decided to let them discover the rules of the “l’article partitif” by exposing them to a number of different shopping scenes yet always including the same structures. When a few students started drawing their own conclusions, asking me “So Miss, so does that mean that when the food item is feminine you have to say, ‘de la’?”, I knew that my deductive approach had worked.
AUTONOMY, ROUTINISATION AND SPONTANEITY: These stages,which include a variety of un-scaffolded speaking activities, such as “Speed-Dating”, “Pyramid Translation” and the “Market Place” (which we played on https://whiteboard.fi/ ), followed. There came a point where my students started experimenting with chunks of the language. Not all of them at first but once the more reluctant learners saw how rewarding it was to “show off” their knowledge of French in a quickfire translation (on the app https://spiral.ac/ ) more and more of them engaged. My highlight was definitely a comment by a dyslexic student. After yet another “Mosaic Reading Translation”, he called out “Miss, French is not that hard after all”.
Ultimately, all my students passed their oral assessment. Two of them asked to redo their speaking assessment as they felt they could do better, which they eventually did. For me, this was a huge breakthrough as their self-efficacy and self-esteem had clearly improved. I do not know if my students will ever need their acquired French in a real-life context. What I do know though is that the implementation of MARS EARS with the focus on LAM (and RAM) through lexicogrammar, gave them the confidence to try something that they had written off as being too difficult.
I am convinced that through the continuous recycling of sentence builders, my lower-set French class built up the confidence to engage in activities as they did not feel overwhelmed by endless lists of vocabulary and tasks, they were not yet ready for. Most importantly though, I know that the Conti-method combined with my own ideas of delivering them using a range of modern digital tools has given my students a sense of achievement and the motivation to apply themselves to task that had seemed “too hard”.
Sonja has been an MFL teacher for thirteen years, teaching all levels of French, Spanish, German and EAL in Austria, Australia and now Edinburgh, Scotland. Responding to the pandemic’s challenges, Sonja has enthusiastically researched, applied, and shared, a range of digital-age teaching resources that align with the Conti method.
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