Thursday, 23 March 2017

The weak interface

What is meant by the "weak interface" in second language acquisition research? Why is it significant for language teachers?

The balance of opinion among second language acquisition scholars is that the large majority of second language is acquired implicitly, i.e. sub-consciously as learners hear, read and communicate meanings. In this regard second language acquisition is much like first language acquisition. You know yourself that you only became fluent once you were immersed in the language for lengthy periods. You would not have got there by learning vocab, doing grammar practice and comprehension exercises.

However, most researchers now believe that explicit instruction in rules and practice of forms (through drills, structured question-answer and other interactions etc) helps learners acquire language. This might seem obvious to most teachers who work on that assumption! When I talk to teachers and trainees the majority believe that skill-acquisition trumps input alone.

Studies of the brain show, however, that implicit (sub-conscious) and explicit (conscious) knowledge are stored in distinct parts of the brain. For learners to speak fluently they need their mental representation of the language to be stored in the sub-conscious area. You don't usually get time to "think through" sentences when you speak. The question is: can explicitly learned and practised language pass across the interface between the explicit and implicit "zones"?

Krashen hypothesised that this was not possible and that explicit instruction or "focus on form" was futile. Students only acquire language by understanding messages, he argued (and still does). It is an alluring and elegant hypothesis, but few scholars now seem to accept it. Essentially it is now usually thought that there is a "weak interface" between the explicit and implicit domains. This means that knowledge acquired through explicit instruction and structured practice, including speaking drills, can "leak" into the sub-conscious domain where we need it to speak fluently and have an intuitive grasp of rules.

If this view is correct, teachers have always been right to believe that you can present and practise new language in a structured fashion with a focus on form. In other words, "practice can make perfect" and you can acquire language, to a degree, in the same way you learn any complex cognitive skill.

But even if you accept the weak interface position and therefore the idea that some explicit knowledge can become implicit, the consensus view among scholars is still that meaningful input remains the foundation of second language acquisition. Most acquisition occurs "beneath the radar" as it does in child language acquisition.

What does this mean for language teachers?

It probably means that you should try to ensure that lessons contain lots of understandable and interesting target language (by no means 100%) but that you should (as you probably do) explain some rules, especially the simple ones, encourage output in speech and writing, and try to do enough controlled practice to give students the possibility of automatising ("internalising") their knowledge. Also worth noting is the fact that, when you do form-focused drills, students are receiving comprehensible input, even though it may not be the most interesting. In any case, with the limited time you have available success will always be patchy, but the principles remain sound.

Main source: N.Ellis: The weak interface, consciousness, and form-focussed instruction: mind the doors. In Form-focused Instruction and Teacher Education. Studies in Honour of Rod Ellis, Oxford, 2007.

(I think he meant "mind the gap" as this is what he mentions in his conclusion.)

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Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Different ways of doing dictation


Dictation can be described a s a technique where pupils hear some spoken material, hold it in their memory for a short time, then write down what they heard.

It is one of the ancient crafts of language teaching. L G Kelly, in his 1969 book 25 Centuries of Language Teaching traces it back to at least the early middle ages. The Direct Methodists (progressives of their day) from the turn of the twentieth century valued it (Sweet, Passy).

Some like it, some hate it. Some accuse it of being boring and uncommunicative, a relic of the past when grammar-translation ruled the world; others argue that it has a valuable place, reinforcing phonological memory, improving grammar, spelling and listening skills. Over the years it has fallen out of fashion (particularly with rise of audio-lingualism and communicative language teaching), then seen a recent revival with MFL and EFL teachers around the world having their students walking around the classroom doing "running dictations". It's as if teachers see a value in dictation but try to make it less boring for them and the pupils.

What it is actually for? Is it primarily about building listening skills or improving grammar and spelling? The answer is no doubt that it achieves both and that, if done in moderation, is a valuable tool in the language teacher's kit.

Let's not forget too that it is a low-preparation task (which does not make it a poor one - it is easy for teachers to think that minimal prep =laziness and that the task is therefore less valuable). It may also be worth noting that transcription is also recommended in the latest version of the DfE's national curriculum for MFL. At Key Stage 3 pupils should "transcribe words and short sentences that they hear with increasing accuracy."

The advantages of dictation

I can't do much better than Ruth Montalvan who offers a comprehensive list of possible advantages. I have highlighted a few significant points. I also have doubts about one or two! Do you?

1. Dictation can help develop all four language skills in an integrative way.
2. As students develop their aural comprehension of meaning and also of the relationship among segments of language, they are learning grammar.
3. Dictation helps to develop short-term memory. Students practise retaining meaningful phrases or whole sentences before writing them down.
4. Practice in careful listening to dictation will be useful later on in note-taking exercises.
5. Correcting dictation can lead to oral communication.
6. Dictation can serve as an excellent review exercise.
7. Dictation is psychologically powerful and challenging.
8. Dictation fosters unconscious thinking in the new language.
9. If the students do well, dictation is motivating.
10. Dictation involves the whole class, no matter how large it is.
11. During and after the dictation, all the students are active.
12. Correction can be done by the students.
13. Dictation can be prepared for mixed ability groups.
14. Dictation can be prepared for any level.
15. The students, as well as the teacher, can get instant feedback (if the exercise is corrected immediately).
16. The dictation passage can (and should) be completely prepared in advance. (It can also be taped.)
17. Dictation can be administered quite effectively by an inexperienced teacher.
18. While dictating, the teacher can move about, giving individual attention.
19. Dictation exercises can pull the class together, for example, during those valuable first minutes.
20. Dictation can provide access to interesting texts, by introducing a topic, for example, or summarising it.
21. Research has shown the learning to write down what you hear can encourage the development of literacy.


I would point these out:

1. There is little authentic communication going on during dictation.
2. Dictation can be dull to administer and for pupils to do.
3. It can be dispiriting for pupils if poorly prepared and managed.
4. In terms of "opportunity cost" are there better things you can do with your time?

What happens when you do dictation?

It's complex. You can describe dictation as a 'decoding-recoding' activity. What the pupil hears is first run through the brain’s 'phonological loop' where it is matched against words stored in long-term memory. The loop has a capacity of roughly seven units of information. These units decay after around two seconds unless you rehearse them in your head. This is still enough time to do a dictation simply by ‘listening to the echo’, so long as the segments are very short (e.g. phrase length) and that they are either repeated or generously spaced, and that the material is familiar (thanks to Scott Thornbury and his A-Z of ELT).

Pupils then have to apply their knowledge of spelling and morphological and syntactic rules to reproduce the message on paper. This includes their ability to apply their knowledge of phonics (sound-spelling relationships).

You can see why so many pupils find dictation hard. If there is any weakness in any of the above areas, performance will be hampered. On the other hand, the task reinforces skills in all these areas. Retrieval of phonological and written forms builds long term memory.

How do you administer dictation?

The tried-and-tested approach is to read a whole sentence or paragraph for pupils to get the gist of the subject matter. You then re-read the material in short meaningful chunks of about three to five words (this may vary depending on the ability of the class). You then re-read the whole sentence or para graph again for pupils to check their work. You can always give advice on what type of mistakes to look for.

You can mark the dictation by displaying the correct version and getting pupils either to mark their own work or that of a neighbour. Tell pupils to take great care as they often fail to spot mistakes. Give them time. You can calculate scores if you think that is motivational for the class: either simply add up the number of errors or take that number of a given total, e.g. 40. Some classes get competitive about this type of thing, but remember that for every winner there is a loser!

Variations on dictation

Now let's get to the bit you might be most interested in. Here are some activities you might try out - and I am not going to include paired and running dictation which are quite commonplace in classrooms these days.

1. Scaffold the task in various ways:

a. Supply the first letter of each word - this simple variation adds a further puzzle-solving element pupils may appreciate.
b. Supply all consonants, but no vowels, or vice versa.
c. Provide a gapped version omitting chosen grammatical points such as articles, verbs or prepositions.
d. Supply a faulty transcription, tailoring it to the needs of the class. For stronger classes include more errors or more subtle ones (e.g. adjective agreements and accents).
e. Provide a translation - give pupils a translation in English of the text you read. This allows them to focus on form less than meaning, lightening the load on memory.

2. Pause and paraphrase

This is good for higher levels. Read longer sections than usual three times, pause, then get students to paraphrase what they heard. This is really only partial dictation. Each section must be too long for students to transcribe word for word.

3. Change the tense

Read a text in one tense and get pupils to transcribe it, but changing the tense of each verb. You just need to be careful about your choice of text so that this task makes sense. A series of completed actions works well.

You could practise the use of the imperfect tense by reading a descriptive piece in the present tense, asking pupils to alter the verbs into the imperfect.

4. Team dictation 

You could pre-teach some of the vocab the pupils will hear. Then read while students take notes. Then put them in groups of three with roles: leader, editor, writer. Re-read the text and let the groups try to reproduce the text.

5. Group dictation

Put the class into groups with one person (a pupil with a good accent) as the dictator and the others as writers. After a certain time display the correct text.

6. Include dictation in other tasks

To save time with higher-attaining groups, instead of handing out TL comprehension questions on a spoken or written text, dictate them first. This has the added advantage of acting as a pre-reading or pre-listening task.

If you like domino tasks, supply blank "dominoes" (small rectangles of paper or card divided in two) and dictate the words to the class before they play.

After oral question answer work, to reinforce the latter dictate questions to the class which they have to answer.

7. Jigsaw dictation

Dictate a paragraph in the usual way, but with the sentences out of order. After transcribing what they hear, students must re-order the sentences to make a coherent account.

8. Back to back dictation

This is a just a variation on paired dictation. Making students sit back to back gives a fun twist.

9. Dictation with mime

This just adds a fun element. Ask one pupil to come to the front and mime what you are reading. This would work well with a dictation based on describing daily routines, aches and pains or sports activities.

10. Video dictation

For advanced students use video clips for close transcription tasks. This makes for excellent training for listening exams, including paraphrase tasks.

11. Dictate factually incorrect information

In this case there will be no error in the language, but there will be factually incorrect information. For example, if you were working on superlatives you might dictate:

The highest mountain in the world is Ben Nevis.
The longest river in the world is the Thames.

Pupils usually enjoy picking up factual errors. With very weak classes you could scaffold this by supplyng clues on the board.

12. Dictation-comprehension

Dictate three or four sentences that either tell a story or give information about something or someone. Then ask the pupils to listen and decide whether a further statement is true, false or possible, e.g.


One morning John went to the park with his dog.
He walked for half an hour in the rain.
He stopped at a cafe and had a coffee and a piece of cake.
He met a good friend in the park.

Then say:

John went for a walk with his cat.
The weather was poor.
He drank a latte at the cafe.
His friend was called Arthur.

You could build in recycling of language into this task. You can also make it as obvious or as subtle as you wish, depending on the class.


It's easy to make the case for dictation, especially for English and French where the sound-spelling relationships are often tenuous. Dictation is still widely practised in France and with good reason.

If you fear it's boring, you can spice it up with your delivery. Why not use exaggerated intonation, use gesture to drop hints and cause amusement (arm gestures for French accents, a cocked leg for the c cedilla), deliberately very slow delivery or exaggerated adjective agreements? Try to get pupils to enjoy the sounds for their own sake.

Don't forget that point about workload. Dictation takes little or no preparation and your time and health are valuable. 

Whatever you do, don't make it impossibly hard or pupils will soon switch off and not look forward to doing dictation. Many pupils report that they like doing dictation and I have no doubt that it build their all round language skills and knowledge.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

GCSE video listening resources

From the feedback I receive from French teachers, a popular resource on my site are the video listening worksheets. Finding appropriate video material for this level is a bit of a challenge, certainly harder than sourcing A-level video clips. In nearly all cases the worksheets would suit pupils aiming for Higher Tier at GCSE. I base the choice of videos on a number of factors:

- Interest level of the material
- Clarity of language
- Difficulty of language
- Length of video
- Relevance to GCSE topics

With these criteria in mind I have built up a set of worksheets linked to external videos. Here they are:

Future tense – song Octobre by Francis Cabrel
Conditional tense – song –Mourir demain – Pascal Obispo
Environment – eating meat
Why learn French?
Health – making vegetable soup
Technology – Ariane rocket
Jobs – cartoon short film
Health/sport – roller blading in Paris
Health/sport – Papa Cochon fait de l’exercice
Home life/food – Peppa Pig – les crêpes
Home life – Peppa Pig – Noël
Home life/DIY – Papa Pig accroche une photo
Home life – Peppa Pig – une chasse au trésor
Home life – Philippe describes his daily routine
Perfect tense/holidays – silly song Si t’as été à Tahiti
Holidays – Visit to Venice
Holidays – favourite holidays
Holidays – a French camp site
Family – a mother describes her daughters
Health/sport – walking
Hobbies – tags and graffiti
Food – a “vinstub” restaurant in Strasbourg

The exercise types I use for each worksheet depend to some extent on the nature of the recording, but include true/false/not mentioned, gap-fills, comprehension questions, matching tasks and word lists to complete. In all cases the exercises require close listening to the texts and several listenings. The videos can be done in a computer room independently, led by the teacher or set as homework. I provide answer keys.

I imagine that teachers find other ways to exploit the clips apart from the exercises I suggest.

I am always on the look-out for good videos, so if you have any links do let me know. I should also mention that I have a number of videos on the Y8 and Y9 pages of the site which may also suit GCSE classes. On occasion links to videos go dead, so I also ask teachers to let me know when this happens. It's often possible to find the same clips elsewhere.

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Friday, 17 March 2017

Dolanguages A-level film storyboards

Some of you will be familiar with the Steve Glover's brilliant site which has support materials for all the A-level languages films and books. Each unit he writes for films features a choice of resources you can purchase. These include:

  • Comprehensive questions on each scene
  • Contextualised grammar exercises
  • Questions on technique for film analysis
  • Matching quotations to themes to prepare for paragraphing
  • An essay planning guide
  • An essay plan and sample essay
  • Analysis of individual scenes
  • Gapped summaries
  • Character guides
  • A detailed summary of the film with gapped exercises

A new element Steve has recently added to the films section is "storyboards" (i.e. sets of still, hand-drawn stills which summarise the content of the films). If you know about films you'll be aware that directors usually prepare a storyboard to summarise their movie before production starts. Steve has drawn all the pictures himself (talented chap!) and added brief summaries in French. He has made sure to include all the key moments. The example below is a selection of his slides for Au Revoir les enfants by Louis Malle.

I really like these. You can imagine using them in class, perhaps at the revision stage or using pictures at random to generate spontaneous discussion. They also represent a useful scene-by-scene summary for students wishing to review the whole film.  Check out his site for more examples.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Three ways to help A-level students enrich their spoken language

One of the benefits of leading exam board training sessions is that you get to pick up new ideas from the attending teachers. In this case, while leading a a session for AQA with teachers in York today, I was talking about ways to get A-level students to produce more sophisticated language in their speaking assessments.

I suggested that one way of varying pair work practice on an A-level sub-theme was to interrupt pairs of conversing students after, say, four minutes, then to display on the board five idiomatic phrases or complex syntactic structures which the students have to include in their conversations with a new partner for the next four minutes. Then, four minutes later, you add another five phrases or structures and ask students to include all ten chunks of new language into their next conversation with a new partner. And so on until the task runs out of steam.

Example phrases could be:

Ce que je trouve intéressant, c'est...
Il va sans dire que...
J'aurais plutôt l'impression que...
Qu'on le veuille ou non...
J'estime que...
Ça ne m'étonne pas que... (+ subjonctif)
D'un côté... en revanche...
Un argument clé à mon avis, c'est...

This is a good example of giving a "twist" to a lesson, getting pairs of students to repeat a task with a slight variation with a new partner. It's a bit like classic speed-dating with an extra element. The result is that students repeat and recycle language, adding new elements as they go along.

One of the teachers present then suggested a variation on this. Instead of writing up new phrases for pairs to work on, you can get students to work in small groups around a table and place cards (about a dozen) with structures and phrases in the middle. Each time a student uses a structure on a card they get to keep the card. The winner is the student with the most cards when they have all been used. (You could keep supplying new cards while they are conversing.)

A third variation suggested by another delegate was to give each student the equivalent of a bingo card with at least a dozen phrases and structures on. Each time a student uses a phrase on the card they get to cross it out until all the phrases are used. After each "round" you could hand out a new bingo card.

You could probably come up with other variations. In all the above cases you get to "gamify" conversation and to make it a little more engaging while broadening the students' repertoire of language. I have found that students enjoy the extra little challenge of artificially working in new language. It is quite likely that the phrases they have deliberately included will become. a permanent part of their conversational repertoire.

In all these cases you would be wise to model the use of each new phrase at some point.

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Monday, 13 March 2017

Everyday MFL

This is a plug for an excellent blog I was reminded of today while refreshing and weeding my list of French teacher blogs from around the world.

Everyday MFL is a rich source of very practical lesson ideas for language teachers. the anonymous author writes:

"The vision for this blog was to create something that MFL teachers can use. My hope is that the ideas are practical, adaptable and easy to use in your classroom. Perhaps, you will stumble across something you have never tried before that inspires and enthuses your students. Maybe, you will happen upon an idea long forgotten. Alternatively it might just be that something on here sparks your imagination and creativity into life."

Mission accomplished, I would suggest.

Recent posts include:
  • A comprehensive list of practical revision techniques, including ones entitled "last man standing bingo", "environmentally-friendly strip bingo" (nice!), vocab battles, dictation, collaborative mind maps and detailed advice on preparing for exam papers (from a teacher who clearly knows their stuff).
  • A ready-made Y9 lesson for talking about options for GCSE. Ideas for the lesson include providing a list of jobs and asking pupils to think how languages would be useful for them, getting pupils to list companies with connections to France, Spain and Germany, then talking about Brexit. Various short videos are provided to enhance the lesson.
  • A post covering a range of pedagogical issues including using 50/50 hands-up/no hands-up, the use of "core language sheets", "Find someone who" tasks and Snakes and Ladders oral board games to maximise target language use.

Here is one idea the author describes as follows:

How long can you keep it up for? 

"This one is all about conversation. Give groups of 3-4 students a series of cards with questions and maybe some support via a speaking mat if needed. Nominate a starting student. Explain that student 1 can question any of students 2,3, and 4. After 2,3 or 4 has answered then they have 3 options. The first is to ping the question back at person one. The second is to ask someone else the same question. The third is to ask another question of someone else. Tell the group they have to keep the conversation going as long as possible. Write up on the board the amount of minute and half-minutes they have managed to keep the conversation going in Spanish. I think some teachers call this group talk. It may well be that but I want the focus to be on the time aspect. They tend to feel more confident and sit taller when they realise they have just managed 5 minutes in Spanish together."

There are plenty more practical ideas you could try out, with examples being in Spanish, German and some French. I suggest you go and have a look if you'd like some more ideas for your repertoire.

Enjoying sounds (3)

This is the third and last post in the series about teaching listening. Like the others it is adapted from the forthcoming book Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher. I am grateful to Gianfranco Conti who provided many of the ideas presented in this post and which have featured in posts on his blog The Language Gym.

This blog looks at how to develop listening and grammatical skill at the same time and suggests questions you can ask yourself regarding why your pupils may be struggling with listening tests. I also suggest some tech sources which can enhance the development of listening skills.

Teaching grammar through listening

One way to integrate listening within the teaching of other skills is to teach grammar through listening tasks. Here are three examples which involve listening to bite-size chunks of language.

Sentence puzzles

Sentence puzzles (see Figure 1) are an effective way to teach grammar and syntax through listening. Provide  students with a set of jumbled-up sentences to unscramble while you say them in the correct order. The task is to re-write them correctly in the table/grid provided, placing each element of the sentence under the right heading. After completing the transcribing task, ask students to work out the rule. Here are some sentence puzzles in French, followed by the grid.

Figure 1 Sentence puzzles for teaching grammar through listening

                   1.  suis   allé   stade   je   au   ne   jamais
                   2.  rien   n’   vu   elle   café   au   a
                   3.  sommes   ne   en   nous   pas    taxi   rentrés
                   4.  est   restaurant   on   sorti   au   n’   pas
                   5.  n’   tu   fait   rien   as   ville   en

Personal pronoun
Past participle

Sorting tasks

Read aloud a number of sentences each containing a specific structure that you want students to notice. As they listen, students have to categorise the structure. For example, you could work on tenses with intermediate or advanced classes by reading a series of sentences, each one featuring a different tense. Students simply tick off the tense they hear in each case from a list. A second example could focus on adjective endings in French. You read a series of statements, each one featuring the use of an adjective in its feminine form. Students note down whether the adjective is regular or irregular. Sorting tasks are easy to improvise and use as starters, fillers or plenaries.

“Find someone who”

Each student is given a card with fictitious details and a grid showing the details to look for. The task is to find people with those details on their cards by asking questions in the TL. Although it may appear to be a speaking task, this activity is mainly a listening one as students read out details in response to questions. Figure 2 shows an example grid.

Figure 2 “Find someone who” grid

Find someone who…
Possible questions
Name on card
never reads

What sports do you do?
Do you read much?
How often do you play computer games?
Do you go out with your parents?
What do you do at the weekend?
Do you watch much TV?
How often do you go out?

goes out every evening

goes out with parents a lot

never does sport

no longer goes out

does sport four times week

reads every day

plays computer games every day

rarely watches TV

What if my classes seem to be struggling with listening tests?

A common concern expressed by teachers is that their classes struggle with listening tests. This perception is partly due to the fact that, as we’ve seen, listening is a fleeting task, where students usually only get two chances to decode a lot of information. Panic can set in, minds go blank. Here are ten deliberately challenging questions which may suggest how to improve your students’ listening performance (with acknowledgment to Gianfranco Conti).

  1. Do you devote enough lesson time to some form of listening practice (including oral interaction tasks with you or a partner student)?
  2. Are listening skills a main concern in your planning, both short and longer term? Do you put most of your effort into teaching vocabulary and grammar at the expense of building a bank of resources and a repertoire of strategies for listening?
  3. Do your students perceive listening as crucial to their learning? Do you encourage them to practise listening independently?
  4. Are you aware enough of the cognitive challenges your students face while listening or learning to listen? When your students perform really poorly at a listening task, do you ask them what was hard?
  5. Do you just stick to the textbook, pick tasks and press the play button following the teacher’s book recommendations? Or do you adapt text book tasks to make them better learning opportunities? Do you plan for any pre- and post-listening tasks?
  6. Do the texts you use contain comprehensible input, i.e. where the students already understand the large majority of the vocabulary and where the grammar doesn’t pose major challenges?
  7. Do the large majority of your listening activities consist of comprehension tasks? How often do you use listening activities to model new language in context, sentence construction and correct use of grammar and pronunciation?
  8. How much do you focus in your lessons on training the students in bottom-up processing skills, especially decoding skills (how to turn a combination of letters into sounds) and any other skills which help students interpret the sound stream?
  9. Do your students enjoy listening? Do you think of ways of making it more enjoyable, e.g. by video listening or including purposeful activities such as trying to spot mistakes or untruths in a message?
  10. Do your students feel confident that they’ll succeed? Do they say “Miss, I’m not good at listening”? If you’ve previously raised their own self-belief in this area they’re more likely to be motivated to do the task.

Tech tips

Try the interactive video quizzes provided by Ashcombe School, England (available at the time of writing). These are a series of simple interviews with native speakers, pitched at low-intermediate to intermediate level, along with associated gap-filling activities which you can do online. Languages covered are French, German and Spanish.

Audio Lingua ( has a large bank of audio clips spoken by native speakers. Languages covered include French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Portuguese. You can listen online or download the files.

A smartphone is now a good source of audio material. At a simple level students can converse with their digital assistant, e.g. Siri (iPhone and iPad) or Google Assistant (Android/Google). Amazon devices and their assistant Alexa perform the same function. You can set students a series of TL questions to ask their phone or tablet the answers to which they can transcribe. 

In addition advanced level students can download the app TuneIn Radio, or similar, which will let them listen to TL speech radio. You need to make sure, however, that students are aware that radio broadcasts will seem very fast so they’ll have to persevere. 

The News in Slow French site, and its equivalents for other languages, offers reports at a slower pace together with transcriptions.

The brilliant Lyrics Training site links to pop videos in various languages. You listen to the song and complete a gap-fill task at the bottom of the page. As you write the most recent line of song repeats itself to give you time to check before you move on. I’d recommend this strongly for advanced level classes who wish to do enjoyable independent work.

Text-to-Speech apps allow students to copy and paste or type in texts which can then be listened to. They are useful when students have to prepare presentations or memorised answers to questions. Voki is a well-known app of this type.

Set a listening task from the internet, preferably with a specific worksheet. You choose the source based on interest and language level. You can check the task is done by issuing a paper or electronic worksheet.

Concluding remarks

It’s worth noting that the very best way to see a quantum leap in your students’ listening performance is if they have the opportunity for an immersion experience, preferably in the TL country. The best teachers try to make this possible whenever circumstances allow. You nearly always see significantly improved listening test scores from students who have recently spent time on a family exchange.

Let’s be clear: listening skills can’t be quickly fixed; you can’t teach them like a point of grammar or a list of vocabulary. They take years to develop through masses of exposure, carefully graded input, practice at strategies and interaction. But if you focus on them from the start it’s more likely your classes will perform well in the future.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Enjoying sounds (2)

This is the second blog in this mini-series about teaching listening and which is based on a chapter in my forthcoming book Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher.

Teacher talk

In recent years teacher talk has become unfashionable in some quarters. It’s certainly true that too much talk and too little student activity is undesirable, but in language teaching we know how valuable teacher talk can be in providing meaningful target language input. Talking at length has its value too. Here are two simple, low-preparation, high-impact examples which demonstrate the point:

“Detect my lies”

Give a simple account about yourself or, for example, what you did during the last weekend or a recent holiday. You can choose your topic depending on what theme, grammar or vocabulary you’ve recently covered. Simply talk for about two minutes and ask the class to detect five lies within your account. You could make these quite subtle inaccuracies or blindingly obvious inventions, depending on your class. Use as many verbal cues as possible to help students understand, e.g. repetition, rewording and hesitation.

Interview with a visitor

Your visitor might be a foreign language assistant, a native speaker visitor or even a colleague of yours. You interview the person for about 5-10 minutes, while the class either take notes or complete an information grid, including personal details such as name, age, family, hobbies, films recently watched, favourite music, travel experiences, and so on. For this activity to be successful it’s important that the visitor be primed in terms of how much language your class knows. If you show the person the information grid beforehand this helps greatly. The students report their answers to you or a partner.


Many effective teachers use transcribing and formal dictation to develop listening skill, grammatical competence and spelling. Dictation is very effective when you want your class to be particularly calm and focused, but you have to pitch it at the right level. It’s very easy to make dictation too difficult, in which case it becomes dispiriting and counter-productive for all concerned. It’s an excellent task for revision purposes, but only once structures and vocabulary have been taught and practised. As an exercise in pedagogical analysis consider the following, with regard to dictation:

Dictation or “running dictation”?

Running dictation, when you get students to work in pairs, with one partner fetching the text pinned up somewhere in the room and “delivering” to their partner, the scribe, is a popular task since students enjoy it and it keeps them physically active.  But is it better than traditional teacher-led dictation?

In either form, dictation can be tailored very precisely to the class, as can the speed of delivery when you do it in the traditional way. It’s particularly useful in French where the sound-spelling correspondences are more difficult than with, say, German or Spanish.

In favour of traditional dictation:
  • Students get to hear a better TL model. This means that students develop a better notion of the relationship between sounds, spellings, morphology and syntax.
  • Student concentration may be good for long periods. It’s usually useful for maintaining good behaviour.
  • Students often say they enjoy it.

  • It may seem very passive. Some students find it so hard that they dislike doing it. Some teachers find it dull.
  • Although it involves listening and thinking, there’s no speaking.

In favour of running dictation:
  • The students are speaking as well as listening.
  • They get quite excited and competitive; it's fun for them.
  • Because it's physically active it may suit restless students.
  • The students collaborate, e.g. they spell out words to each other. 

  • The students may hear poor models of pronunciation so develop a weak sense of sound/grammar/spelling relationships.

You may draw your own conclusions, but I’d consider using both approaches depending on whether you wish to emphasise the fun side or the “hard work” aspect. If I wanted to calm a class, I’d use formal dictation; if I wanted to excite the class, I’d do running dictation.

Of course, there are other ways of doing dictation, including simple paired dictation at the desk (which could be in the form of taking a phone message with students sitting back to back, to make it a little more fun.) An idea to make dictation more accessible is to give students a sheet marked rather like this:

_ _ _   _ _ _ _ _ . _ _ - _  _ _ _ _ _?  This gives them more clues to spelling when doing the task because the number of letters per word is indicated.

In the last blog I shall look at the idea of teaching grammar through listening (with thanks to Gianfranco Conti) before making some concluding remarks.