Thursday, 28 May 2015

Comprehensible input on frenchteacher

I'm one of those teachers, like most I would think, who place a high value on providing what Stephen Krashen christened "comprehensible input". That's why I always wanted to teach primarily through the target language with a strong emphasis on listening and reading for meaning. As a child taught in the 1960s and 70s I also value the "skill-building" approach and as a teacher was happy to do lots of target language structured practice, occasional translation and some explanation.

My website reflects both of those strands, with numerous grammar practice sheets and some grammar explanation handouts, but in fact the bulk of the resources are there to provide meaningful language through texts and listening. The staple resources are articles with exercises and video listening from authentic sources.

With comprehensible input and reading for interest in mind I began last year putting together a set of parallel reading resources for beginners and near beginners which I know many teachers have used. Reading material can, of course, be read aloud to provide useful listening.

So, on the Primary/Year 7 page of I have a good range of short texts laid out in landscape format, with French on the left, English on the right. To make them exploitable they come with a range of simple exercises and vocabulary lists to complete. The exercise types still focus on reading rather than writing - true/false, or true/false/not mentioned and ticking correct sentences (all in French) are the exercise types I use most since they provide even more input.

These are the topics covered: the Eiffel Tower, Channel Tunnel, meerkats, kangaroos, whale, sharks, spiders, ladybirds, dolphins, tigers, vampires, my dog, my family, my house, Cinderella, becoming a vet, Brazil, my friend, my mum, my family, planets, a weather forecast, a simple poem, the boy who cried wolf story and asking directions.

I could envisage these being used as a change from the usual work when you want a filler lesson. There is no grammatical focus, it's all about meaning. With stronger classes you could even use them without the English translation.

I have also posted a cover/front page in case teachers wish to make a booklet of the texts for their classes. This could be for extension work, for example.

If used in class with the whole group, I would read them aloud while the class follows and glances across at the English. With the right classes I would get them to read aloud to the class or in pairs. They could then work on the exercises in silence. At a later stage you could get pupils to fold the sheet in half and try translating back without reference to the English text provided. I'm sure you could come up with other ways to exploit the texts.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Why do girls do better than boys at language learning?

At my school over the years the top set was usually predominantly male and the lower sets were predominantly male. Boys often did very well, some superbly well. Some went to Oxford and Cambridge. But girls did better overall and you would find that pattern repeated not only across the UK, but in other parts of the world as well.

Why is this? Current fashion would have it down to societal and motivational factors, but my hunch is that the girls tend naturally to just be a bit better at learning languages. My first thought is: baby girls pick up languages more quickly than boys and tend to be stronger at communication when older so this must be down to their brains. Venus and Mars. Too simple?

What does the research suggest? Unsurprisingly it is not conclusive about reasons for the difference in attainment, but I did come across this useful summary of general findings based on a large body of research from various countries.

The source is here. I'm quoting directly.

1. Although there is some disagreement as regards performance in individual skills (particularly listening), girls are regularly superior to boys in terms of overall achievement in languages in general (and foreign languages in particular).

2. The number of girls opting for foreign languages in schools and taking public examinations in languages is significantly higher than the number of boys.

3. Boys are superior to girls in tasks concerning spatial ability, but girls generally excel boys in tasks involving verbal skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing).

4. Girls consistently appear more interested in the study of a foreign language than boys, and manifest an evident liking for the culture, the country and the speakers of that language. Whereas boys’ reasons for studying the language are mainly instrumental, girls’ motivations tend to be integrative.

5. Girls are significantly more confident concerning their abilities to master the language. Boys, on the contrary, appear to be more self-deprecating of their linguistic competence.

6. The sex-stereotyping of jobs in society still endorses language learning as an accomplishment for girls. Consequently, girls tend to perceive languages as more vocationally relevant. In other words, they are generally more inclined to believe that languages will be useful to them in their future careers.

That's all well and good, and no great surprise, but it doesn't help us to get to the heart of the matter. Why do girls do better?

One hypothesis is that girls, having been quicker L1 learners, may be better in L2 where the focus is on natural acquisition (nativist, unconscious approaches), whereas boys might do as well or better when the focus is an cognitive (conscious, analytical) approaches. Would that suggest we should use a balance of these approaches to cater for both genders?

Another hypothesis is that boys and girls are equally as good, but societal factors and expectations encourage more girls to do languages than boys. That would imply we need to work more on motivation than methodology.

Some might argue that learning a language takes perseverance and hard work which, on average, girls are better at. That suggests we should make sure the lads do some graft.

Other studies have indicated that girls use a greater range of study strategies which improve performance. Do we do enough to get boys to learn in different ways?

But what if girls' brains are actually better at language acquisition? Is there any support for this hypothesis?

Here is some small-scale neurological evidence reported in 2008 which may help us:

Because we now have the ability to monitor brain activity when learning takes place we may be able to get closer to the solution to the boy/girl difference.
For the above study the researchers saw measurable, physical differences in brain activity during the learning of words. They tentatively conclude:

"In a classroom setting...  boys need to be taught language both visually (with a textbook) and orally (through a lecture) to get a full grasp of the subject, whereas a girl may be able to pick up the concepts by either method."

Perhaps further neurological study will get us closer to knowing more about any differences between boys and girls' language learning, but in the meantime it may be safe to assume that a range of factors are at work. And yet... I do have the feeling that, just as females do better in caring professions and, arguably, in communication in general, girls just enjoy language learning a bit more on average and that probably has something to do with what's between their ears.

What do you think?

Frenchteacher updates

I've added quite a few new resources at various levels over the last month. Here they are:

Worksheet on finir. Re-ordering, translation, then make up some more. Good for Y8 (near beginner)

A text and exercises about superheroes from Greek mythology to the present day. Article, vocabulary to complete, true/false/not mentioned in French and gap fill in French. This would work with good Y10 up to Y12.

A short reading comprehension with questions in English. This is based on a forum post from Good for low intermediate (Y9). Pupils could then write their own.

Five worksheets for using aller, faire, jouer, regarderand manger. Re-ordering and translation + making up more sentences. Good for Y7.

Advanced level text and exercises on the decline of traditional marriage in France. Text, vocabulary to complete, true/false/not mentioned, questions, lexical work, gap fill. All in target language. Good for AS level or even A2.

10 short dictations which could be used as part of a planned sequence or as a standby. They feature common topics and verb tenses. The document includes instructions for teachers not so familiar with dictée. These could be done in the traditional way or as "running dictation" or paired dictation, for example. You could use these with good Y9 or weaker Y10-11s.

Video listening for beginners. Trotro fait un gâteau. With a short vocabulary list to help and simple true/false statements. If you were unaware Trotro is a little cartoon donkey.

Video listening -advanced level. A newsroom interview about wage inequality in France between men and women. Pre-listening discussion, gap fill and questions in French for discussion. Linked to a video from France 24/Youtube.

Translation from English to French on deaths from air pollution. Model answer provided. Advanced level.

Translation into French about the need for immigration in Europe. Model answer provided.

Listening. Interview with Christelle who talks about going to the cinema and a film she has seen. Worksheet linked to a France Bienvenue video. Pre-listening questions, questions and vocabulary to complete. Teacher's answers provided.

Video listening for intermediate level. Jérôme talks about drawing tags and "graffs". With true/false/not mentioned and questions in French. Linked to a video from the excellent Le FLE par les médias site.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Les gestes qui comptent

Some of my blog posts are sparked off my a Twitter reference or chat with other teachers. This is one such post. File it under practical classroom tips.

How do you use your body to help pupils with understanding?

When dictating you can use arms and even your leg for humorous effect to help pupils with written accuracy. Acute, circumflex and grave in French can be done holding your arms at the right angle above your head. Two forward fingers for umlauts or trémas. You can even cock your leg to indicate a c cedilla (ç). (Pupils can also use their own arms to show accents if you give them words.)

Arms are useful for indicating subject pronouns during practice drills. Point to yourself for first person singular, point to left or right for third person singular, point forward with one arm for second singular and two hands for second plural. Use two hands pointing to yourself for first person plural.

Various verbs are easy to demonstrated by use of limbs and body: to dance, to sing, to ride a horse, eat, drink, talk, carry, wear, love, wave, shake, to play tennis/ping-pong/rugby/football/cricket/hockey, to cry, to kick, to pass etc.

Use gesture to indicate illnesses, aches and pains.

Use gesture to indicate height, length, width and weight.

Use pointing gestures to play Simon Says.

Gestures to indicate common nouns: cup, spoon, knife, spade, glass, flower, tree, washing machine, cat (stroking gesture).

Gestures to air spell out letters or words to a class.

Pupils enjoy gesture too and there are plenty of miming style tasks pupils can do in pairs. "Dumb customer" was a favourite of mine. A mute customer has to mime a list of items they wish to buy in the shop while the partner tries to guess them.

Be careful if you use gestures to indicate animals. In a Spanish butcher's, not knowing the word for beef, I indicated horns on my head with fingers and made a bull-like noise. When we put the meat on the barbecue it tuned out to be goat.

Is gesture an aid to acquisition? Surely it must be. It's something we do instinctively for both first and second language acquisition. If you are like me it even becomes an example of what the French call "déformation professionnelle". Namely, you go round speaking to other people using totally unnecessary gestures just because you are, or were, a language teacher!

By the way, there is plenty of research (as well as common sense) to support the idea that pupils and teachers doing gestures can aid learning. Examples: (young children learning vocabulary) (summary of neuroscientific studies) (young learners of maths) (young learners acquiring L2 vocabulary)

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Where did all the A-level linguists go?

All the figures below are from . Brian gets his figures from JCQ.

In 1993 29886 students did A-level French. In 2014 the figure was 10433.
In 1993 10857 students did A-level German. In 2014 the figure was 4187.
In 1993 4850 students did A-level Spanish. In 2014 the figure was 7601.

Taken together we have witnessed an enormous fall in the number of young people studying languages at A-level.

What happened?

In recent times there has been a focus on a number of factors, notably the relative difficulty of obtaining a high grade and the fall in the number of GCSE students following the decision to make languages optional at GCSE from 2004. ALCAB, in their input into the new A-levels, focussed more on what they saw as the unstimulating nature of A-level courses. Others have mentioned the influence of communicative language teaching methods over the years.

But let's look more carefully at what happened to the French numbers over recent years:

2014  10433      A-level entry all subjects 833807
2013  11272
2012  12511
2011  13196
2010    13850
2009    14333
2008    14885
2007    14477
2006    14650
2005    14484
2004    15149
2003    15531
2002    15614 
2001    17939
2000    18221
1999    21072
1998    23633
1997    25916
1996    27490 
1995    27563
1994    28942
1993    29886      A-level entry all subjects 734081

First, when one considers the rise in the overall number of A-levels taken, the fall in French looks even worse. (The same applies to German.)

Next, it is clear that the catastrophic slide in entries occurred from around 1996 to about 2002. Since 2002 the fall has been more gradual, perhaps more noticeable from around 2009.


1.  The decision to make languages optional at GCSE from 2004 did not have a significant effect on A-level take-up.

2.  Severe grading and accountability measures may have contributed to some extent in this millennium.

3.  Other factors were at work before 2002.

As regards the first point, this should not be a great surprise. The vast majority of students who opted out of languages post 2004 would have been weaker candidates who would not have gone on to do A-level French. The decision to make languages optional reduced hugely the number of linguists at age 15, but had little effect further up the chain.

As for the second point, the recent IPSOS/JCQ survey did suggest that some students were put off taking a language for fear of getting a lower grade. Languages were seen to be a riskier choice than other subjects. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the difficulty in obtaining an A* grade may be putting off some candidates in particular. In the same survey, by the way, students suggested they would prefer courses based more strongly on practical skills of communication than ones involving the study of culture, translation and essay. That may suggest ALCAB were wrong in their analysis that A-level languages were not cognitively challenging enough.

So what about point 3?

What happened in the 1990s?

I can only tentatively suggest what happened by looking at the numbers and from my own experience over that period.

Student choices did change in significant ways. I noted that fewer weaker students were opting for French, preferring to take the wider range of subjects on offer, for example Business Studies, Psychology, Theatre Studies, Religious Studies and PE.

If you look at the entries for subjects over that period from 1995 to 2002 these tendencies emerge:

Psychology jumped from  22111  to 34611.
Religious Studies went from 8933  to  10685 (rising to 24213 by 2014).
PE/Sport rose from 7686 to 17140.
Media/Film Studies rose from 7056 to 20172.
Expressive Arts rose from 8984 to 15059.
Business Studies rose from 22687 to 27680.

*See below for what happened with other subjects

Those figures may well suggest that we witnessed students opting for subjects which are sometimes viewed as easier. (In terms of getting higher grades, they are easier.) They may have opted for these as they became available and as schools offered choices more appropriate to the abilities and preferences of students.

Perhaps what we saw, therefore, was students of moderate aptitude who had traditionally chosen French as a third arts option going to other options to get better grades and do something they perceived as more interesting. We did not talk about severe grading in those days because accountability and targets were not all the rage and schools did not crunch the numbers as they do now, but it was understood that some subjects were easier than others.

It is unlikely that this accounts entirely for the disaffection with French and German in the 1990s. In addition, why did languages suffer more than other traditional subjects like history, geography and science? Here I am on much shakier ground. These questions occur to me:

Did the GCSE exam, introduced in 1987, have an effect on students' actual or perceived performance in languages. Are the traditionalist right? Did teaching get wishy-washy? Did we neglect firm grammatical foundations? Did we focus too much on functions and phrase book learning at the expense of solid skills and grammatical knowledge? Was this done to cater for the wider ability range we were teaching compared with the 1950s to 70s?

Was there too great a disconnect between the more modern, communication-based GCSE and the traditional A-level with its translation and literature? Did A-Level, influenced as it is by universities, simply not adapt enough to modern needs? Did students just think A-level was too hard and boring? Should A-level have changed more fundamentally than it did?

Did teaching actually get worse at KS3 and KS4, so that students were left unmotivated by the end of GCSE? Were timetables trimmed? Were teachers well trained enough? Did the growing supply of teachers from the rest of Europe adapt well enough to students' needs?

Did schools fail to value languages as highly as they had? What happened to the old notion that an ambitious and able arts student at A-level would do English, history and French? Did newer teaching methods contribute to this altered perception of languages?

I dare say there is material for a thesis there. It is clear, however, that student choices change over the years and that we could one day see languages post 16 become more popular again. Alas, there are currently no policy plans which will make it happen.


Postscript: in 1938 12.5% of all A-level entries were for French. In 2014 it was 1.25. There are more students now and more subjects, but it makes you think.


*Sociology fell by 8000 in that period before rising back to its 1995 figure of 30000 by 2014.
Politics fell by 3000 before rising again by 2014 to 13761.
Maths fell a little from 1993 to 2002, it seems, then rose rapidly in recent years to far exceed the 1993 numbers.
Law has stayed pretty steady over the years at around 12-15 000.
History fell somewhat up to 2002, then rose again by 2014 to exceed 1993 levels. Geography fell quite fast up to 2002, then held steady.
English has fallen slightly over the years.
Economics fell from 36428 to 17015. It has risen somewhat since.
Classical subjects have stayed steady over the years.
Art has risen slowly over the years.
Physics fell a bit up to 2002, whilst Biology and Chemistry rose somewhat and continue to rise.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Challenges of new MFL A-levels

Until the election result we did not know for sure if the new A-levels, with their decoupled AS level, would become a reality. Now we know. We should see draft specifications from July. What challenges do the new specs pose for departments?

To remind you, teaching for the new exams begins in September 2016. Readers may feel this is two years too soon, what with the new GCSE, upon which the new A-level is claimed to be predicated, starting at the same time.

What's new? I would sum up the key changes as follows:

- Teachers must work with a prescribed list of texts and films (no history, no art, no region etc). No free choice. WJEC users are used to this.
- AS level is "decoupled" but may be co-taught with A-level. Exam boards are expecting take-up to be low.
- Topics will be more tightly focused on the culture of the target language country or countries. They may seem more serious.
- There will be an individual research project element for students.

What will departments have to do?

For those who have not taught literature or film before (roughly 30% of departments, I understand) staff will need to learn some new techniques and do some serious reading and watching! Exam boards will be producing guidance on this and I am sure there will be courses to attend. PM targets there, I suspect! If you have a list of, say, eight texts, you will need to read some, if not all, of them as well as seek advice from other language teachers.

Departments will need to look again at how they split up classes between "language" and "film/literature". They will also need to consider when to do the film and literature, particularly if they have any AS students to consider. That's a big "if". I suspect many schools will have no AS candidates at all.

Departments will need to consider carefully their resource provision. New textbooks? Any textbook at all? New library resources to support film and literature? Resourcing copies for students? Researching web links to support new topics, film and literature, not forgetting personal research projects? Resources to help teachers with methodology?

Departments will need to plan for transition from GCSE. The existing regime has seen AS as a post GCSE transition to A2 level. This will no longer be the case. So care will be needed to order topics and grammar in such a way as to pitch the lower sixth year correctly. Expect exam boards to provide ready-made schemes to help.

The personal research project will need looking at carefully it will only be assessed in the oral, so it may be wise not to go overboard on it, but some students will find it a challenge as well as an opportunity. I welcome this change. Teachers will need to give ideas to help students with their choices and probably allocate class time for reading and listening. I could envisage library/ICT/tablet time with one-to-one target language or English chats about progress. Teachers may welcome new areas to develop their own knowledge along with students.

Preparation on any new exercise types may be needed. Translation is here to stay, so no change there, but look out for any other grammar or comprehension assessment styles. The new speaking test will need to be planned for. Essay planning will need looking at again, along with new mark schemes which, unlike now, will reward subject knowledge alongside structure, relevance and quality of language. Thankfully, essays will be in the target language after Ofqual overturned ALCAB's view and listened to other stakeholders.

When new syllabuses come along, as a Head of Department I would always stress that change is evolutionary. You will be doing a very similar job and probably the single largest challenge will be for teachers who have little or no experience of teaching film and literature. That could be seen as a valuable opportunity for personal development.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, 16 May 2015

How much teacher talk?

I recommend to you Barry Smith's blog about language teaching. Barry is a full-on, skill-building, cognitive code, teach-em-from-the-front, give-em-lots-of-written-word French teacher from the Michaela Community School, a new free school in London led by Katharine Birbalsingh.

In Barry's latest blog he refers to a young PGCE trainee from Cambridge who says they were advised that a lesson should be 10% teacher talk, 90% pupil talk. Barry clearly thinks this is duff advice and I agree.

It is certainly the case that over the last few years Ofsted clearly communicated the notion that a good lesson should not feature lots of teacher talk. Even in my fairly traditional grammar school we would make sure we planned our inspection lessons with plenty of pair work and a less than average amount of teacher talk. (To be fair, we did not have to alter our normal practice that much.)

It is also the case that teacher-led lessons, if poorly done, can switch off pupils and produce poor results.

But Ofsted are now telling schools that there is no preferred style of teaching and, whilst this might imply a kind of "anything goes" approach to teaching, which I could not honestly support, Ofsted are right to row back on the pupil talk emphasis.

So, is there a suitable balance of teacher versus pupil talk in language lessons? Whilst it may be foolish to put a figure on it - I'll do this later nonetheless -  we have to bear in mind this key point:

Pupils need to hear and read enough of the target language to give them the input on which to build proficiency. If you are a Krashenite comprehensible input fan you take this as a given. But even a "skill-builder" values the importance of students hearing and seeing lots of the target language. With this in mind, the teacher and the audio source are the best models. A pair work partner may be pretty good but may be pretty awful, so we cannot deprive students of the high quality comprehensible input they need.

The teacher has to talk a good deal, whether it be to model the language, ask questions, lead oral practice drills, explain grammar, explain phonology and letter-sound relationships, talk about the culture, model good assessment technique etc.

But the good language teacher also knows when to break the lesson up with appropriate pair or group work (pair work is usually better). This is often to stop boredom setting in, to shift the emphasis of the lesson, to allow pupils to try out their oral skills in a less threatening way and explain things to each other. Let's not forget two of the best things we have learned from the communicative movement: information gap tasks and using language for a real communicative purpose.

But if you were to ask me how many words a student should be hearing form the teacher, audio or video, compared with other students.... I would say other students should be playing a minor role. For me it would be closer to 10% pupil, 90% teacher/audio/video.

Thursday, 14 May 2015


Gojimo is an education app for Apple and Android devices. It offers some language learning material for French, German and Spanish. So far it has some exercises for GCSE level, categorised by the areas vocabulary, grammar, reading and writing. Exercises are also broken down by exam board and by a few topic areas.

The app, like others, gives you right/wrong feedback with some explanation. It also keeps your score and progress. Navigation is clear, presentation sober - a bit dull, to be honest.

The vocabulary tasks are simple one word translations, grammar consists of conjugation/translation at a verb only level. Writing involves sentence level translation both ways. You don't type out any answers, just choose from a list. All of these tasks are pretty dull and similar to ones found on other apps of this type.

The reading tasks are better. Each one has a short, accurate passage followed by a series of multi-choice questions in English. The textual content is uninteresting, but at least these tasks work at something beyond word or sentence level.

I find this app hard to recommend as it stands. Exercise types are dull and predictable, material limited for languages (apparently more extensive for other subjects). Some listening content would be welcome. Like other apps of this type it may suit some students who are motivated by working at word and phrase level, but like other apps the algorithm which scores and records a student's progress is so far not matched by the quality of the content. The stress is, alas, very much on getting better exam results rather than inspiring any real interest in the subject.

I have yet to come across a killer content/input-based app for languages and would love to hear of one. What we need will not come free, but I'm sure there is room in the market for a low cost MFL app with high quality interactive reading and listening content.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Standby activities

Things can sometimes go wrong at school. The computer doesn't work, you have to teach a lesson you weren't expecting, you didn't get time to plan that lesson you intended to, the photocopier broke down so you couldn't print those worksheets, you're covering for a colleague and no work was set, the ICT room was double booked. I'm sure you can identify with some or all of those!

That's when you need fall-back or standby activities you can call upon, lessons which you know will work and can be adapted to various levels. So here are ten I would recommend which you could include in your toolbox (oops, I used an "in" word there).

1.  Jacques a dit

This is Simon Says and it is a hit at all levels. You can use it to teach body parts from scratch or to revise them at any time. You can adjust the pace to suit the class, it encourages careful listening and it's good fun.

2.  Bingo games

Here some variations you can use:

Mental arithmetic bingo
With this one, instead of reading out a number, you give classes a simple mental arithmetic sum to solve which leads to the number which may be on their card. You need to teach them simple terms like plus, moins, muliplié par, divisé par. The advantage of this variation is that it provides more mental challenge. The downside is that pupils don't make the immediate link between the number you read and the number written in front of them. You might also need quite a good class to do it.

Reverse bingo ("death bingo")
In this variation all the class stands up. You call numbers and if a number comes up which is on a child's card, they must sit down and they are out of the game. This variation goes by quite quickly and is a fun alternative, but the obvious downside is that once a pupil is "out" they have no more motivation to listen to numbers.

Number sequence bingo.
Instead of just reading a number, you read simple sequences of numbers and pupils have to work out what the next number would have been. You can make this as simple or as hard as you want, depending on the class. e.g. 1,2,3,4 ___ . Or 64,32,16 __. You can cater for any number easily e.g. 5,4,3,2 __. I like this version because students get to hear a lot of numbers, so you are maximising input. the minor downside is that, as in mental arithmetic bingo, pupils do not make an immediate match between the number they hear and the number of the paper.

Group bingo
Just break the class into small groups and get one person to act as caller. This has the advantage of allowing some students to do the calling. The downside is that students may hear poorer models of pronunciation and there is the danger of an over-noisy classroom.

Number in a sentence bingo
In this variation, instead of reading out a number, you read a sentence containing the number. e.g. Il y a 30 personnes dans la classe; j'ai deux frères; le numéro soixante est intéressant. This has a greater level of challenge and is an opportunity to provide input at the sentence level, allowing pupils to hear numbers in context. Some classes may find it too hard and the teacher may need to do a bit of thinking beforehand about the nature of the sentences which are feasible. This may be a version to do with classes who have been studying at least a year.

3.   Aural anagrams

Read out anagrams to the class, letter by letter. Give points to the individual or team which guesses the word first. You can make your choice of words as hard or as easy as possible and fit them to a recently covered topic. Good for all levels.

4.  Word association

This can usefully fill up to 15 minutes. You can do it as a whole, round the class activity or, once students get the idea, they could do it in pairs or groups. I would usually demonstrate the technique in English first. Needless to say, this is good for vocab revision and quick thinking. Good for all levels.

5.   "Just a minute"

You can do this from intermediate level upwards. Demonstrate it to the class first yourself. Students have to try to talk for a minute on chosen topics without hesitating, deviating from the topic or repeating themselves. Once demonstrated, the class can play the game in groups. One person begins and if they go wrong (which usually means they dry up), other members of the group buzz in and continue. Someone needs to time the task. This can be super for practising conversations or presentations. Good for intermediate and above.

6.  My holiday in....

You tell the class what you did during a holiday in some detail. Students may take notes in the target language or in English. You then give them true/false or not mentioned statements. You will need to keep a careful mental note of what you have said. You can then get students to report back to you, or a partner, what you did. This is a good comprehensible input task. You could talk about other topics: last weekend, my pastimes, when I was young etc. Good for intermediates. They may be interested to hear what you did - you can make it all up, of course.

7.   Dictation

You can make these up on the spot and jot them down as you go along. This is a particularly good task for French. You can adjust the level for the class in front of you.

8.  One word at a time

his is where you get the class to make up a story one word at a time. This may be bets done as a whole class task. Pupils can only add a word at a time and everything should work grammatically. Pupils may use the word for full stop if the a sentence has come to a natural end. You can adapt this to the topic or grammar you have been working on. it can lead to amusing accounts. Good for low intermediate and above.

9.   Baccalauréat

This where you give pupils a list of categories and then a letter, with a time limit. they have to come up with a word in each category. This can be played with dictionaries and, as such, build up dictionary skill. You can have a scoring system where an original word gets 10 points, and a word chosen by others gets 5. This perhaps best played in pairs. Marking can get time-consuming and noisy if you don't manage it carefully. Good for low intermediate and above.

10.  Instant vocab quizzes

You tell the class you are going to do a giant vocab quiz with 100 words (TL to English). You then simply read out your words, jotting them down as you do so. Go quite quickly and tell the class not to worry if they miss any. Keep up the pace. Choose your words to allow as many as possible to get a decent score, but do include hard ones. they should all be words the class have come across, but you could throw in some cognates they have never seen or heard. Classes enjoy this task and can be competitive about their scores at the end. A quiz with 100 words takes about 35 minutes to do and score. Good for low intermediate and above.

Monday, 11 May 2015

So what about that Conservative Ebacc commitment?

Update 14.6.15 - now looks like Ebacc will be introduced in full, including GCSE MFL for all, but with first teaching from September 2018.


We will require secondary school pupils to take GCSEs in English, maths, science, a language and history or geography, with Ofsted unable to award its highest ratings to schools that refuse to teach these core subjects.

Conservative manifesto

Given that education barely featured in the election campaign, it's not surprising, perhaps, that this pledge went somewhat under the radar. Needless to say, it has huge ramifications for languages and for school accountability as a whole.

First question: should the government be able to tell Ofsted on what basis they can award grades? It would appear to seriously compromise Ofsted's independence.

Next, with regard to languages, this represents a volte face for the Conservatives. Since languages became optional under Labour, the Conservatives have always resisted the idea of making them compulsory once more. The Ebacc accountability measure certainly bribed schools in the direction of languages and triggered a slightly greater take-up at GCSE, but there was no indication that languages may become compulsory once more.

But let's look at that manifesto pledge more closely.

They say We will require secondary school pupils. I notice they do not say ALL secondary school students. Am I nit-picking?

Next, are we to presume that the statement applies to all schools, including free schools and academies? After all, the national curriculum currently does not. Would we be in the absurd situation of maintained schools having compulsory languages, while academies and frees do not? Could this mean - and I am stretching the argument to its limit here - that this would be an incitement to schools to academise?

The statement about Ofsted grading also suggests that schools may choose to refuse to apply the policy. Does this mean free schools and academies, or all schools?

The phrase "core subjects" is used. Do they mean "core" in the technical sense? This would be new for languages and give them equal status to maths, English and science.

Or, is this pledge really saying that the government accepts many schools will choose not to enforce compulsory languages and humanities and that, as before, the accountability regime will, penalise schools who make that choice, not just by a lower Ebacc score, but a lower overall school rating?

What if they really do mean that all schools must make languages compulsory for all at KS4? This has serious implications with regard to teacher supply. After 2004, many language teachers dropped out of the profession and we are now in a situation where language teacher supply is problematic. If schools were all to reintroduce compulsory languages at KS4 there would not be enough teachers.

Furthermore, we would be back to a situation where many pupils, unable to cope with the demands of (a toughened) GCSE would struggle in the classroom, achieve little and cause problems. Add to this the fact that the government allowed a valid alternative to GCSE to wither (Asset Languages) and seems to undervalue vocational language qualifications, we are potentially left with a real mess.

Let us see how this unfolds. Will realities hit home and will the government quietly abandon their Ebacc pledge?

Saturday, 9 May 2015


I've just come across this interesting and free little site which has scripted situations and a story read aloud at slow and normal speed. It's called Froggyspeak. The strap line is "Learn French at Your Speed". The authors do invite donations, however small, to help run the site.

Each situational dialogue or story chapter is broken down into sections which are read aloud slowly. You can then listen to the whole dialogue read at normal speed. Here are the situations:

Le Cycliste 
Le Chanteur 
La Belle Conductrice 
L'Agent Immobilier 
Le Café du Port L'Hôtel 
Le Médecin Généraliste 
Vacances Relaxantes 
La Route pour Rouen 
Les Nouvelles Lunettes 
Les Ouvriers Invisibles 

In addition, there is a story in episodes called Les Aventures d'Albert.

The writing is accessible and witty.

Here is a short extract from one chapter of the Albert story:

"Nous avons un problème. Les Parisiens ont commencé à acheter des animaux exotiques comme animaux de compagnie et, parfois, ces animaux deviennent trop grands et trop difficiles à garder alors leurs propriétaires les jettent - dans les égouts: et ils se reproduisent ! "

"Ainsi, nous avons une colonie d'alligators sous Montmartre. Nous voulons les emmener à la Ménagerie. Mais ils sont heureux là où ils sont et ne veulent pas se déplacer. Ces créatures sont très nerveuses, même névrotiques.'

 "L'un d'eux est énorme. Il souffre aussi de paranoïa. Il avait été traité par un psychiatre pour animaux mais, malheureusement, l'alligator n'aimait pas le psychiatre et il a mangé ses pieds !C'est pourquoi vous avez besoin de gants épais et de bottes solides." 

You can see that the level is broadly intermediate to high intermediate, but it's made more accessible by a pop-up translation option.

How would you use the site? That's the slightly tricky point. You could present it from the front and play the audio files, but you might as well just read it out, provided your accent is up to the job. You could use the texts as a basis for class oral work - questioning, true/false, correcting false statements etc, but that somewhat takes away from the fun of the stories.

I would be tempted to let students read and listen individually in class via iPad or in the computer room, or for homework. You could design some simple meaning-based worksheet material to check that the reading and listening has been done, bearing in mind that translations are available to the students on the page. This would rule out some exercise types, but you could, for example, do gapped French sentences based on the dialogues or story, but which are not lifted directly from the text.

Anyway, do take a look and see what you think. The authors do welcome feedback. I would say that the quality of the recordings, whilst more than adequate, is not tip top. The site has a homespun look, but is easy to navigate and functions well.

This is yet another example of generous-spirited people sharing useful material online.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Two implications of the election result for MFL

So the nation has voted and totally confounded the pollsters. Like many teachers I am bitterly disappointed and can foresee some messy political times ahead for Cameron over Scotland and Europe, not to mention how this result might affect the lives of the poorest in society. It is easy to predict some serious blood-letting within the Tory party over the EU referendum in 2017. That will be little consolation to Labour and the Lib Dems.

For our field of languages there are two implications which occur to me.

The A-level reforms, involving decoupling of AS levels and the production of new, ALCAB-based, specifications will proceed as planned. Tristram Hunt would have put them on hold. This is very bad news. We can expect AS level numbers to fall significantly and the decline in the take-up of languages at A-level to continue. This may be exacerbated by austerity cuts to come in schools which will mean A-level courses in minority subjects will be squeezed even more. The exam boards will have been doing their best to make the new DfE/ALCAB subject content palatable, but decoupling will have the most damaging effect. How much further can A-level languages fall?

Less publicised has been the low key Conservative manifesto pledge to get secondary schools to ensure all students do Ebacc subjects. One wonders how this marries with the current supply of language teachers. If fulfilled, this would mean a rise in the number of pupils doing GCSE languages, with a possible knock-on effect at A-level and beyond. I doubt very much if this will make much difference. I would have thought that the majority of any additional linguists at KS4 would be those reluctant ones who find languages hard and who would be unlikely to continue to a higher level.

The DfE hope that curriculum reforms and compulsory primary languages will raise standards and take-up. Is this wishful thinking? Probably.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Survey feedback

Roughly every six months I do a Surveymonkey subscriber survey to find out which resources are being used by teachers. I have a generally good idea about how teachers use, but am interested to know how well newer resources are going down and whether it is worth adding more of that type. In every survey I also invite users to make any comments or suggestions.

Here is a summary of the results this time (based on 77 replies):

Parallel texts for Y7 and primary

24% said they have used these. I would also use these in Y7, or even Y8. They are good stand-alone resources which add variety to a course and hopefully make for interesting reading.

Video listening tasks Y9-11

58% said they had used these. I must say I am quite pleased with the use these worksheets linked to online videos are getting. If I were still teaching I would be using them in class and for homework. They are great stand-bys too.

Video listening tasks for adults and A-level

67% have used these.

Resources being used for primary age children

26% have used these. This surprises me a little. This may be secondary teachers who work occasionally in primary, tutors or primary teachers themselves. I would love more primary schools to use the site, but I am not aware that many subscribe.

Translation tasks at any level

80% use these. It looks like translation remains a staple! With the new GCSE on the horizon I shall no doubt add more translations to the Y10-11 page.

Grammar explanation handouts

63% have used these. I am pleased about this. These are a recent addition to the site and I was not sure how useful teachers would find them. Despite what I read about teachers neglecting grammar my impression is that frenchteacher users value it highly. Maybe that's why they use it. Chicken and egg?

Dominoes tasks

28% said they have used these.

Situational dialogues on the adult page

Under 10% have used these. They are quite new on the site and are aimed primarily at adult learners. Most subscribers are teaching children in secondary school. I am pleased that they are getting some use.

A-level cultural topic resources

67% said they have used these. I may build on these in the future if we see prescribed lists of texts come back, but I let me esteemed colleague Steve Glover handle this stuff. He does it well (

General feedback

Most subscribers left comments and there was the occasional suggestion. Two people would like to see more model answers for texts with exercises. This would be a huge task and, whilst I now routinely do this, I am not going to go over the many, many older resources. Sorry!

GCSE and A-level resources seem to be the most used. This is in line with previous surveys.

One respondent asked for more topic-based translation material. Noted!

One respondent requested even more video and reading material. Also noted.

Most mentioned resources were texts, video worksheets and grammar sheets. Quite a few respondents left complimentary comments which I have added to my Testimonials page.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Goodbye MYLO

Minor rant alert.

What an awful shame! I see from the MYLO site that RM will no longer be hosting the site and that is is closing down at the end of July. I presume some government money has run out. Does anyone know?

I have heard that it cost £5 million to set up MYLO, which seems an awful lot of money, but at least that investment produced a quality product which has been widely used and is still fresh and very useful.

It is unusual to find a free to use languages site which combines listening, reading and writing so effectively. I have previously written about it with enthusiasm  here and here.

Is there nobody who can pick up the hosting and maintenance fees for the site? The site is all written, has a good shelf life, works effectively and benefits lots of learners. To throw it away now seems such a terrible waste.

It's not the only useful resource to have got the chop in the last five years. I would also mention the Teacher Resource Exchange, CILT and Teachers' TV. Keeping these resources demands relatively trifling sums of money in the great scheme of things.

I know how I will be voting tomorrow.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Second language learning and acquisition

This is a long, referenced blog which combines all the posts in my earlier series entitled Conscious and Unconscious Language Learning. If you have already read those posts, you should look away now.

Part 1

Throughout the history of the study of language learning and teaching reference has been made to two distinct types of language learning. The first could be characterised as "picking up" a language and normally involves the apparently unconscious acquisition of a language in an informal or natural setting. One thinks of the child who learns their native tongue, or the immigrant who learns the new language without recourse to formal study.

The second type of language learning involves the practice of a language in a formal, systematic way, often in a classroom setting. This has frequently been termed conscious learning.

Such a clear distinction may be controversial and you may already be thinking, quite reasonably, that both types of learning have a role. However, when you read the literature on this it is clear that the dichotomy has often either been hypothesised or taken as axiomatic.

Eric Hawkins (1981) traces the distinction between formal and naturalistic language learning back to John Amos Comenius and John Locke. The latter wrote that learning "by conversation":

    ... is to be prefer'd as the most Expedite, Proper and natural (cited in Hawkins,1981,Ch 4)

By the time of mass education, however, concentration on the written word, rote learning of grammatical rules and forms had long held sway and it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the debate about naturalistic and formal language learning reawakened. The Reform movement began

H.E. Palmer (1922) was well aware of the theoretical problem. He believed that the learning of a foreign language best occurred through a process of "unconscious assimilation". Referring to the learner who has gone beyond the stage of first language acquisition he states:

   The utilisation of his focussed and conscious attention militates against the proper functioning of the natural capacities of assimilation (p.8)

He says, moreover, with regard to older learners:

   By developing their studial powers they simply inhibited the spontaneous powers and effectively stopped them from working well (p.11)

For Palmer, therefore, the distinction between "studial" and "spontaneous" approaches was clear, theoretically at least, since Palmer did not consider pattern practice and question-answer technique to be "studial". Examples of studial learning would have included the setting to memory of grammatical rules or isolated words.

Palmer's focus on unconscious acquisition and inductive learning was following in the footsteps of such teachers as Francke, Jesperson and Vietor. Jesperson (1904) referred to "unconscious mental activity" and postulated that humans acquire language "by virtue of inviolable psychical laws". He also makes the the following point, echoed by a number of contemporary writers:

   We simply cannot avoid thus unconsciously forming types or patterns to go by... as soon as the conditions for these typical formations are at hand (p.117)

In his famous pamphlet entitled Der Sprachunterricht muss umkehren, Viëtor (1886) had almost, at a stroke, brought back attention to the value of naturalistic language learning. This work is now seen as the kickstarter of modern methods of language teaching. His commitment to inductive teaching was unequivocal:

   Death to rules and isolated sentences! (quoted in Howatt, 1984)

When Viëtor refers to the role of grammar within his teaching approach, he states that it "grows naturally out of reading the texts themselves".

When you read the literature of this period, you are struck by the eclecticism of the Reformers. Hawkins (1981) associates Palmer with a reaction against the Reform. If this is true, then Henry Sweet (1899) can be considered a bit of a reactionary. Although he is associated with the Reform movement because of the stress he laid on phonetics and ear training, he had little sympathy for naturalistic methods:

   The fundamental objection to the natural method (is that) it puts the adult into the position of an infant, which he is no longer capable of using and, at the same time, does not allow him to make use of his own special advantages... the power of analysis and generalisation - in short, the power of using a grammar and dictionary (p.186)

The Scotsman J.S. Blackie (1845) can also been seen as a precursor to the Reform movement. Blackie's remarks are fascinating for their time, but echo Locke's of a century and a half earlier:

   The more near a method approaches to the method employed by nature, the more near does that method approach perfection (p.175)

Blackie's four elements of successful foreign language teaching have a modern ring and represent good advice to the new teacher:

1.  appeal to the ear, not the eye (some would have reservations on this point)
2.  establish a close relationship between the sound anf the thing signified
3.  make use of repetition and practice
4.  maintain the learner's interest

He adds that "grammar may be introduced, or rather deduced, out of the preceding practice".

Other representatives of inductive methodology include de Feltre, G.H. Cominius, Webbe, Lamy, Marcel, Gouin, Sauveur, Berlitz and de Sauzé.


J.S. Blackie (1845) "On the Teaching of Languages", The Foreign Quarterly Review, Vol. 25 170-87
E. Hawkins (1981) Modern languages in the Curriculum, Cambridge, C.U.P. 
A.P.R. Howatt (1984)  A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford, O.U.P.
O. Jesperson (1904) How to Teach a Foreign Language. London, George Allen and Unwin
H.E. Palmer (1922) The Principles of Language Study. Republished 1964. Oxford, O.U.P.
H. Sweet (1899) The Practical Study of Languages. London, J.M Dent and Sons.
W. Viëtor (1886) Der Sprachunterricht muss umkehren. (Republished in 2010, Nabu Press)

Part 2

From Soviet psychology and philosophy of language and language learning I shall pick out references to conscious and unconscious learning in the works of Vygotsky, Belyayev and Leontiev.

Vygotsky (1934) draws a distinction between unconscious acts, like tying a knot, where the attention is on the point of the task as opposed to the means of performing it and, on the other hand, conscious acts where one is aware of the "how" of the act. Referring to the chess player, he says:

    Becoming conscious of our operations and viewing each as a process of a certain kind leads to their mastery (p.91-2)

His own empirical studies led him to the conclusion that the study of grammar, by which, we presume, he meant the explicit, deductive method of grammar learning, was:

   ... of paramount importance for the mental development of the child and would help the child to rise to a higher level of speech development (p.100-101).

To make his point clearer he also criticises the views of Soviet psychologists who chose to separate "development" ("the process of maturation subject to natural laws") from "instruction" (the "utilisation of the opportunities of development"). He states, and this argument is particularly relevant to modern debates about acquisition and learning (notably, the Krashen non-interface hypothesis which claims that consciously learned material cannot become "acquired"), that:

   Typical of this school of thought are its attempts to separate with great care the products of development from those of instruction, supposedly to find them in their pure form. No investigation has yet been able to achieve this (p.93).

Belyayev's (1963) argument also focuses on the conscious/unconscious dichotomy. "Only practice leads to the mastery of a foreign language," he says, but with this should be combined the conscious learning of grammar. The teacher should:

   ... induce students not just to reproduce every possible kind of rule, whilst analysing texts and translating into the native language, but principally to listen, speak, read and write in the foreign language (p.27).

He stresses the direct relationship between conscious learning and real language use. What he says is, once again, relevant to later debates:

   It is, however, possible for genuine knowledge of a foreign language (i.e. knowledge which is... intuitive) to be acquired in school conditions as the result of conscious learning. In this case pupils listen, speak, read and write the language without thinking about the rules or having recourse to the native language... This is genuine knowledge... but it differs greatly from the process of acquiring the language; the latter is conscious, while the knowledge of a language to which it leads is unconscious or intuitive (p.30-31).

To sum up, consciously learned material can be "internalised" and become unconscious knowledge which allows you to understand and speak naturally. In addition, conscious learning need not involve explicit rule formulation. He later adds that the leaner's attention should be focused on meaning rather than form:

   Consciousness... must be concentrated not on the linguistic mould, but on the semantic content (p.105).

Elsewhere he seems to lay the stress on traditional Soviet formal learning:

   When a person wishing to master a foreign language acquires theoretical information about its phonetic, lexical, grammatical and stylistic characteristics, the feeling for language appears much earlier... than when the learner tries to acquire the language by exclusively intuitive means (p.94).

Leontiev's (1981) position reiterates that of Belyayev. He distinguishes between "speech activity" which is not automatic and where the language is concentrating on the form of the utterance and "speech acts" where language is used for the attainment of a goal. Leontiev poses the problem for the language teacher in very similar terms to Belyayev:

   We somehow have to turn speech activity into speech acts and render it automatic(p.24).

He talks of "transition from conscious to fully automated activity" (p.41) and further:

   Such automisation presupposes the conscious grasp, so to speak, of the nuclear or basic material (ibid)


   There is no sharp demarcation line between habit forming and instilling in the learner such habits through appropriate exercises (p.45).

In sum, the Soviet methodologists argue for the exploitation of both conscious and unconscious learning, believe that consciousness raising is important and that what is learned consciously can become automatic, intuitive, tacit knowledge.


B.V. Belyayev (1963) The Psychology of Teaching Foreign Languages. Oxford, Pergamon Press
A.A. Leontiev (1981) Psychology in the Language Learning Process. Oxford, Pergamon Press
L.S. Vygotsky (1962) Thought and Language. Cambridge, Mass. M.I.T. Press

Part 3

As we trace the conscious/unconscious distinction through the 20th century when, by the 1970s, it was rechristened the "learning/acquisition" distinction we can agree with Kelly (1969)

   Few theories of language learning are peculiar to the twentieth century, but modern psychological research has given them a point and clarity they had lacked, while clothing them in language that disguises their relationship to older ideas (p.303).

Following the tradition of H.E. Palmer, despite the predominance of grammar-translation approaches in schools worldwide, F.M Hodgson (1955) maintains that the "feeling of what sounds right" cannot be engendered by grammatical study. More precisely, she states that the acquisition of "new linguistic habits":

   ... can only be done by constant practice, not in making statements about language, but in using it meaningfully (Hodgson, 1955)

With his eclectic approach Palmer had not objected to the use of some translation in the classroom, nor did Hodgson discount the possibility of some rule-giving, following oral practice, but the fundamental belief was that language learning was best facilitated by great use of the second language in the classroom, careful selection and grading, and the use of texts rather than isolated words or sentences. The learner was encouraged to use their inductive powers (conscious or unconscious, the distinction was not made clear) in order to "internalise" language. This general approach maintains a strong current in Europe and has been termed, for example,  "rational direct method" (in Krashen, 1982) or more loosely, an "oral approach".

From the 1970s the principal emphasis was as much on the use of meaning rather than form, as on conscious and unconscious learning, although the two are related. This shift of emphasis is associated with what became known as the "communicative" movement, which had its roots in teaching English as a foreign language as well as speech act semantics, discourse analysis and general linguistics.

Butzkamm and Dodson (1980), for example, distinguished between two types of language use, the first stressing conscious manipulation of forms ("medium orientated"), the second where the learner is genuinely interested in expressing a meaning ("message orientated"). They are careful to point out that message and medium do not represent a dichotomy, but the opposite poles of a continuum:

   Medium- and message-orientated communication is not always a clear-cut either-or matter, but a matter of degrees (p.292).

They stress that formal structural practice is a necessary prerequisite to fluency activities and that:

   Methodological substructure is absolutely vital if the learner is to profit from subsequent communicative activities (p. 299). 

Widdowson (1978) drew an analogous, but apparently apparently more watertight distinction between "usage" (where the focus is on conscious, correct grammatical formation) and "use" (where language is used as "appropriate meaningful behaviour" and where conscious attention is moved away from linguistic form (cf. Belyayev and Leontiev, from the previous blog). The implication is that second language learning is more likely to be effective when genuine messages are being communicated, when there is a need to communicate and when language is therefore "embedded in events". As soon as language becomes an abstract symbolic structure, isolated from the real world, it becomes more difficult to apprehend.

It is easy to see, in this context, how the information gap task and task-centred oral work became staples of modern communicative language teaching.

The influence of the philosophers Austin and Searle is also notable in this context. Searle (1969), following Austin, postulated that speech which carries "force", i.e. which carries out a purposeful function as well as having propositional content, is more "serious" and is more likely, some have concluded, to be easily learned. A "speech act" is an utterance which carries force as well as propositional content. The argument runs as follows: "serious" utterances are those which carry an "intention to mean", which actually "do" or "achieve" something and such language is more likely to be internalised. As Hawkins (1981) put it:

   The motor that propels language acquisition seems to be the drive to "do things with words" (p.210).

Hawkins believed that:

   Exchanges in the foreign language classroom... are not uttered with intention to mean(ibid).

To sum up, conscious attention to meaning rather than form will best facilitate second language acquisition. When language is used as a tool it will be learned more quickly. This view is echoed frequently elsewhere:

Hirst (1974), in his book on the school curriculum, writes:

   Learning a concept is like learning to play tennis, not like learning to state the rules and principles that govern play (p.125).

Searle (1969) writes:

   Purely formal study (of language) is necessarily incomplete. It would be as if baseball were studied only as a formal system of rules and not as a game.

Brumfit (1984) adopted a similar position in referring to "accuracy" and "fluency" activities in the classroom. The former aim to develop correct use, whilst the latter aim to develop communicative ability. This is a handy distinction for teachers when they plan their lessons.


J.L. Austin (1962) How to do things with words. Oxford; O.U.P. 

C. Brumfit (1984) Communicative Methodology in Language Teaching. Cambridge: C.U.P
W. Butzkamm and C.J. Dodson (1980) "The Teaching of Communication: from Theory to Practice". I.R.A.L. (p.289-309) 
E.W. Hawkins (1981) Modern Languages in the Curriculum. Cambridge: C.U.P. 

P. Hirst (1974) Knowledge and the CurriculumLondon: Routledge and Paul.
F.M. Hodgson (1955) Learning Modern Languages. Routledge and Kegan paul. Republished 1976 by Portway Education
L.G. Kelly (1969) 25 Centuries of Language Teaching: 500 B.C. - 1969. Rowley, Mass.: Newbery House
S.D. Krashen (1982) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press

J. Searle (1969) Speech Acts. Cambridge: C.U.P
H.G. Widdowson (1980) "Models and Fictions", Applied Linguistics. Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 165-169

Part 4

The findings of post-Bloomfieldian structural linguistics and the fashion for neo-behaviourism in psychology engendered an interest in language teaching based on the automisation of language habits through pattern practice. The success of the "mim-mem" (mimicry and memorisation) courses of the US Army Specialised Training Program also fostered the belief that language could be "stamped in" by induction and generalisation from the repetition and memorisation of sentences and dialogues. Inherent in such audio-lingual approaches was the view that language was best internalised without explicit reference to rules. One assumes that some kind of unconscious learning process was thought to be at work, but in any case, the argument about what was conscious or unconscious was not considered particularly significant since these notions involved introspection (i.e. making claims about unobservable, internal brain processes) and as such were not data of prime interest.

On the other hand, those who allowed a role for conscious learning techniques were still heard despite the flourishing social sciences of linguistics and psychology. Wilga Rivers (1964) questioned over-reliance on audio-lingual, habit-forming techniques which allowed little or no room for genuinely communicative classroom activities:

   Attention should be given to the re-structuring of situations in the classroom whiuch reproduce as closely as possible the real life communicative situations in the native language (p.157).

Rivers (1975) subsequently distinguished between those classroom activities which concentrated on conscious control of structures and accuracy, and those which emphasised the development of communicative skill (cf. Brumfit in the UK). She labelled these skill getting and skill using respectively.

Carroll (1966) wished to swing the balance back towards consciousness. He coined the phrase cognitive code learning to refer to the view that learners should use their powers of analysis and generalisation in order to "acquire conscious control of the language patterns".

Jakobovits (1970) also rejected audio-lingualism in its pure form:

   Practice theory leads to two possible hypotheses about language acquisition: one is that when a child is exposed to a novel grammatical form he imitates it, the other is that by practising this novel form he stamps it in. The evidence available indicates that both hypotheses are false (p.14).

He claims, therefore, that pattern drilling alone does not serve to automise grammatical habits. His evidence for this belief leads us to the most significant influence on later developments in second language learning theory. Jakobovits once more:

  In ordinary speech we use an infinite variety of patterns, and therefore, since the second language learner could not possibly be drilled on an infinite variety of patterns, he could never develop automised speech (p.21).

The idea that language makes infinite use of finite means was not new, but Chomsky (1965), drawing on this and Cartesian ideas of innate ideas, refocused our attention on the role of the creative learner in the language learning process. Since for the first language learner most utterances we produce or hear are novel, and since we have not been explicitly taught any significant number of linguistic rules, von Humboldt (1836, cited in Chomsky, 1965) had concluded that:

   ... one cannot really teach language but can only present the conditions under which it will develop spontaneously in the mind in its own way (p.51).

Chomsky went on to postulate the existence of a faculté de langage which he christened aLanguage Acquisition Device (LAD). This device would process linguistic data in obscure and largely unconscious ways to enable a child to produce and understand new data. Chomsky says: is of course necessary to distinuish carefully between these two functions of external data - the function of initiating or facilitating the operation of innate mechanisms and the function of determining in part the direction that learning will take (Chomsky, 1965, p.57).

It is important to remember that Chomsky, in his discussion of language learning, is referring to the child learning their first language. The question arises, however, to what extent the linguistic input affects the course and rate of second language learning - a vital issue for the teacher.

Brown (1973) found that when children acquiring their first language  learn certain grammatical morphemes they tend to do so in the same order (natural order) and that this order is not related to how often the children hear them or to how often parents reward the children for being correct.

Some researchers attempted to show that this would also hold true for second language acquisition. If so, it might be claimed that how teachers select, grade or order linguistic input is not related to success of language learning.

Dulay and Burt (1974) led the search for innate orders of acquisition among second language learners, hoping to replicate Brown's findings. They claimed to find similar natural orders and stated:

   ...any theory or account of language acquisition... must take into account the independent and central contribution of internal mechanisms to the construction of the new language system (p.77)

Dulay and Burt (1978) labelled these internal mechanisms creative construction and re-christened Chomsky's LAD the cognitive organiser. There was now a basis for a model of second language acquisition where unconscious processes would play a fundamental role.

Interestingly, Dulay and Burt (1978) also noted:

   Given the myriad conscious and unconscious internal factors interacting with input to produce learner speech, it may not be possible to isolate these entirely (p. 68)

To conclude this blog, it is interesting to note how terminology varies according to the theoretical climate of the day. Palmer's subsconscious assimilation (1922) corresponds to what Dulay and Burt mean by creative construction. The latter term was used in the Chomskyan mentalist climate where the learner's internal and creative processes are stressed, whereas Palmer's term was coined in the climate of psychological associations which viewed the person more as a passive receptacle for external stimuli.

To be continued....


R. Brown (1973) A First Language. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 
J.B Carroll (1966) "The Contributions of Psychological Theory and Educational Rsearch to the Teaching of Foreign Languages", in Valdman (ed.) Trends in Language Teaching. New York: McGraw Hill, 93-106.
N. Chomsky (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press 
H. Dulay and M. Burt (1974) "Natural Sequences in Child Second Language." Language Learning, Vol. 24 p. 37-53
H. Dulay and M. Burt (1978) "Some Remarks on Creativity in Language Acquisition". In W.C Ritchie (ed.) Perspectives in Neurolinguistics and Psycholinguistics. New York: Academic Press, 175-183
L.A. Jakobovits (1970) Foreign Language Learning: a Psycholinguistic Analysis of the Issues. Rowley, Mass.: Newbery House 
H.E. Palmer (1922) The Principles of Language Study. Republished 1964. Oxford, O.U.P.
W. Rivers (1975) A Practical Guide to the Teaching of French. London: O.U.P.

Part 5

This part starts to examine Stephen Krashen's influential hypotheses about language learning and acquisition. Krashen continues to be a significant influence in the world of language teaching and the term "comprehensible input", coined by Krashen, can almost be written without quotation marks, such is its currency. What was Krashen saying?

His hypotheses follow a traditional belief about two types of second language learning, although it makes unusually specific predictions and claims to be based on empirical evidence. It is a boldly expressed set of claims, notable for its attractive elegance. Its very clarity and simplicity arouse suspicion!

Acquisition and Learning

For Krashen these two terms are mutually exclusive and are used in a particularly narrow sense. First, acquisition:

   Language acquisition is a subconscious process; language acquirers are not usually aware of the fact they are acquiring language, but are only aware of the fact that they are using the language for communication (Krashen, 1982, p.10)

Elsewhere Krashen states that acquisition occurs through a process of "creative construction" (Krashen, 1978). It closely resembles the way a young child comes to master its first language. Acquisition is enabled by the existence of the innate Language Acquisition Device (LAD) à la Chomsky. He explains that acquired linguistic competence (his term) is also subconscious and that we have an implicit "feel" for correctness.

Learning is described as:

   ... conscious knowledge of a second language, knowing the rules, being aware of them, and being able to talk about them (Krashen, 1978)

Learning, therefore, relates very specifically to explicit grammatical knowledge and to activities, we presume, such as the memorisation of vocabulary lists and rules of grammar. It also clearly refers not just to a process, but to the product, the knowledge that derives from the process.

Krashen makes the huge claim that learners only become proficient at a language through acquisition, not through learning. Learning can only allow a student to monitor their utterances or utterances they hear as being correct. Put simply, people become proficient at a language by hearing or reading messages they understand. Acquisition is unconscious and will occur naturally if the input is meaningful. This is what is termed comprehensible input.

The Input Hypothesis 

Krashen labelled this the Input Hypothesis.  He wrote:

   The Input Hypothesis claims that we acquire language in an amazingly simple way - when we understand messages (Krashen, 1985, p.vii)

More specifically:

   The Input Hypothesis makes the following claim: a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to move from stage i to stage i + 1 is that the acquirer understand input that contains i + 1, where "understand" means that the acquirer is focused on the meaning and not the form of the message (Krashen, 1982, p.21).

The "acquirer" understands the new element (the "+ 1") by using other, non-linguistic information e.g. contextual clues and knowledge of the world. Krashen disagrees with the commonly held view that we acquire structure (i.e. tacit linguistic competence) be learning and practising it.

In sum, the Input Hypothesis relates to acquisition, not learning and we acquire by understanding language that contains language a bit beyond our current level of competence.

So, Krashen claims that learning cannot become acquisition. In other words, what we learn from explicit grammar instruction cannot seep into our naturally acquired competence. He calls this the Non-interface Hypothesis. This means that there may be no point in teaching grammar explicitly as only being exposed to meaningful messages, as a child would be, will cause acquisition to take place.

Krashen's Monitor Hypothesis claims that learning can only help us monitor the accuracy of what we hear or say. It might allow us to correct a mistake we have made, for example.

It is worth adding that by this hypothesis input is much more important than conversation. Conversation is most useful in language acquisition because it is a way of obtaining moreinput. Talk is output, and as such is of little use for further acquisition. Krashen would therefore recommend lessons to contain as many input activities as possible and relatively few output tasks. This is the thinking of the TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Stories) movement, popular with many teachers in North America. This is also why Krashen strongly favours the use of extensive reading.

The Natural Order Hypothesis

Krashen cites Dulay and Burt in claiming that both first and second language acquirers tend to acquire certain grammatical morphemes in a natural, predictable order. The order of acquisition is related to difficulty and is similar in some ways for first and second language acquirers. It follows that:

   Students may be able to learn some structures consciously, but true subconscious acquisition will come only when the students are ready (Dulay, Burt and Krashen, 1982, p.201)

Some writers believed that natural orders could be used to design syllabuses, but Krashen does not take this view. He feels language chosen as input should not be fine-tuned in the traditional way, but rough-tuned.

The Affective Filter Hypothesis

One attractive element of Krashen's hypotheses is that they incorporate affective as well as cognitive domains. Drawing directly from the work of Dulay and Burt (1973, 1974, 1978), he postulates that affective factors relate directly to acquisition, but not learning. Broadly speaking, well-motivated students are predicted by the theory to well at communicative tasks, whereas learners of high aptitude would perform well on grammatical tasks such as cloze tests. Students with poor motivation are said to have strong affective filters (i.e. much of the input will not become intake). So the filter acts as a potential barrier between input and acquired competence.

Other factors which have been held to account for successful acquisition, such as memory, intelligence or language learning aptitude, are thought by Krashen to be good predictors of conscious learning success, but poor predictors of real language acquisition. This claim is supported by the success of first ands second language acquirers in immersion or bilingual environments.


Over the years there has been a fair amount of "Krashen bashin'". Here are some of the criticisms which have been levelled at his hypotheses.

Firstly, the clear-cut distinction between acquisition and learning has been much criticised. Put simply, the distinction between acquisition and learning is impossible to prove. A good model or theory needs to be falsifiable.

Next, critics consider the argument that learning cannot become acquisition questionable. Many language learners feel that language they have learned by conscious application and rote learning can become part of their automised competence.  Learning can become acquisition, one may think. How do we know that what we can say is the result of acquisition and not, in part at least, the product of explicit learning? Krashen's distinction is, as I see it, an attractive but unfalsifiable leap of faith.

Krashen might respond that during explicit practice of patterns and memorisation we are, in fact, being exposed to comprehensible input, but input of a poor quality. Meaning-based acquisition would be more effective. For example, if we do a translation from the target language, we are getting meaningful input, even if it is less efficient than a task where we work with a source text in the target language (getting, in the process, even more input).

The fact is that we cannot be sure that what Krashen says is right and attempts to prove the hypotheses empirically are likely to be unconvincing. How can we design an experiment with two identical, parallel groups of students, with a large enough sample, reproducible, learning by using different methods, with the same teacher, in the same conditions?

As with the acquisition-learning hypothesis, the first criticism of the Input Hypothesissurrounds the lack of a clear definition of comprehensible input; some argue that Krashen never sufficiently explains the values of i or i+1.

More importantly, the input hypothesis focuses on comprehensible input as necessary, although not sufficient, for second language acquisition to the neglect of any possible importance of output. How do we know that output is not also, simultaneously, input? Perhaps through talking students identify gaps in their knowledge and then attend more carefully to relevant input.

As for the Affective Filter Hypothesis, whilst it is attractive to include motivation in a theory of language acquisition (we all know motivation is crucial), how do we know that other, non-affective factors are not just as important? My own experience over many years was that language learning aptitude was a major factor in success and distinguished clearly between pupils of similar motivation in terms of long term proficiency, not just grammar tests. Yes, all students can acquire a new language naturally, but for some it takes much longer.

The Natural Order Hypothesis has come in for criticism. For example, it does not take into account the influence of the first language when students are acquiring a new language. The order of acquisition may be different for the second language acquirer. Others have said that morpheme studies offer no indication that second language learners similarly acquire other linguistic features (phonology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics) in any predictable sequence let alone in any sequence at all.

In the final blog of this series I shall look at the practical implications of the study of conscious and unconscious language learning for the teacher.

H. Dulay and M. Burt (1973) "Should We Teach Children Syntax", Language Learning Vol. 23
H. Dulay and M. Burt (1974) "natural Sequences in Child Second Language Acquisition", Language Learning Vol. 24, p.37-53
H. Dulay and M. Burt (1978) "Some Remarks on Creativity in Language Acquisition", in W.C. Ritchie (ed.)
H. Dulay, M. Burt and S.D. Krashen (1982) Language Two. New York: O.U.P.
S.D. Krashen (1978) "Individual variation in the Use of the Monitor", in W.C. Ritchie (ed.) 175-183 
S.D. Krashen (1982) Principles and Practice in Sercond Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press (kindly made available online at:
S.D. Krashen (1985) The Input Hypothesis. London: Longman
W.C. Ritchie (1978) Perspectives in Neurolinguistics and Psycholinguistics. New York: Academic Press

Stephen Krashen is making previously published work available online at

Part 6

So far I have looked at the early European Reform movement, Soviet perspectives, the post Reform up to communicative theory in Europe, North American perspectives after audio-lingualism and the work of Stephen Krashen. Writing as a teacher rather than an academic, what can a teacher take from this discussion of theory?

Although Krashen claims that humans acquire languages in one way, by hearing and reading meaningful messages (he may be right, but we cannot be sure), most have argued over the years that we learn second languages in different ways. In some contexts it is primarily through unconscious acquisition processes, where there are large amounts of exposure to the second language and where formal tuition is unavailable. In the context of school second language learning it seems that formal practice and consciousness-raising play a significant role. In all likelihood, learning occurs through a combination of conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious learning.

Perhaps we should think of conscious and unconscious learning not as a dichotomy, but as a continuum running from, on the one hand, the most clear-cut cases of acquisition through mere exposure to, on the other hand, the most clear cut cases of formal learning.

This table shows how various writers have described the two ends of such a continuum:

LEARNING                                    ACQUISITION                    SOURCE
(CONSCIOUS)                              (UNCONSCIOUS)

conscious                                         unconscious                            Palmer, Vygotsky
learning                                            acquisition                             Krashen
explicit                                             implicit                                  McLaughlin, Reber 
rehearsal                                          performance                           Hawkins
classroom                                        naturalistic                              Ellis
formal                                              functional                               Stern
accuracy                                          fluency                                   Brumfit
knowledge                                       task-based                              Bialystok
controlled                                        automatic                                McLaughlin
medium                                           message                                  Dodson
declarative                                       procedural                              Faerch
usage                                               use                                          Widdowson
competence                                     capacity                                   Widdowson
studial                                             spontaneous                             Palmer
synthetic                                         analytic                                   Wilkins
rules                                                procedures                              Ellis
knowing how                                  knowing that                             ?
mechanical                                      active                                     Belyayev
speech activity                                speech acts                             Leontiev
theoretical                                      intuitive                                   Belyayev
output approach                             input approach                         Krashen
form                                               meaning                                     ?
skill getting                                    skill using                                Rivers
cognitive code                                creative construction               Carroll, Dulay and Burt
problem solving                             language specific                      Felix
cognitive structures strategies        cognitive structures tactics        Selinker

Although a continuum lacks the elegance of a qualitative distinction, it may explain the observable facts of language learning more accurately. Littlewood (1984) and Stevick (1984) proposed this kind of continuum. In the classroom it seems to me that various conscious, semi-conscious and subconscious are in operation during a language activity. In a controlled learning activity (such as a graded question-answer sequence) the student will be subconsciously allowing their natural language acquisition capacity to function whilst also focusing on form and comparing with their first language. Who can be sure what precise processes are leading to long term internalised competence?

It is the experience of many secondary teachers that in the early stages of learning a greater emphasis on formal practice is required than for very young learners or advanced students.The latter see their fluency improve rapidly as a result of lots of target language exposure as well as formal practice. As progress is made "learning" becomes less significant and "acquisition" more so. In other words automatic processes come to predominate over controlled ones in most communicative situations. Primary teachers may feel that formal explanations of grammar are less useful in building motivation. The infrequent nature of primary school lessons makes solid progress hard to achieve, whilst even in secondary schools, lack of time and contact slots in the timetable place severe constraints on what can be achieved.

Do different students need different diets? If the aim is long term acquisition, then large amounts of target language may be suitable. If the teacher knows the student will drop the subject after three years, is a different diet appropriate? How would one distniguish between different students in this way whilst allowing for equal opportunity and aspiration for all?

Is a fundamental problem with accounts which stress unconscious learning that older learners must be allowed to bring to bear the cognitive and experiential advantages they have? It is generally (not universally) agreed that language learning ability declines somewhat with age, so should we actually avoid trying to replicate what the young child appears to do so easily?  

In England and Wales the GCSE exam implicitly recognises the role of both the "learning" and "acquisition" ends of the continuum. Perhaps the coming generation of syllabuses, with their inclusion of translation, will push some teachers more towards formal learning and focus on form. On the other hand, many will feel that the current controlled assessment regime has pushed us towards a considerable amount of memory learning and that GCSE has, paradoxically, moved us towards a greater use of "phrase book learning", to the detriment of long term acquisition.

Brian Page wrote:

   There seems to be no evidence, and I certainly have no belief, that we shall ever have a coherent and accurate picture of second language learning (Page, 1985, p.34)

When one looks at all the factors which come in to play with second language acquisition (e.g. Bialystok and Hakuta, 1994) including the mind, age, personality, social function, individual language differences and so on, we are reminded what a complex, hard to pin down area this is.

You can see from this look at the conscious/unconscious debate provides no definitive answers. Indeed, this is only one way of looking at language acquisition. We might be wise to agree with Littlewood (1984) who argues that methodology should be based not so much on the intrinsic adequacy of a theoretical account as on the type of learning environment the teacher is working in. As a general rule, it may be that exploiting the "learning" end of the continuum is sensible for the teacher when there is little additional linguistic input outside the classroom. Of course, this can be achieved whilst providing plenty of "comprehensible input".

Theory is interesting, but teachers may prefer to base their practice on what seems to work, what produces the best outcomes. What works may depend on the age of the learner, school context, timetable, class groupings, intrinsic motivation of pupils, group dynamics, the skill set and personality of the teacher and whether the teacher actually believes in their approach.

I have previously blogged about what Ofsted (the English and Welsh school inspection body) have to say about what works. One senior inspector remarked that what succeeds is "traditional things done well". Indeed, perhaps the goal should not be so much about finding the methods work best, but focusing on what the "done well" means - and this may involve generic teacher qualities as much as specific methodologies. Anyway, here is what Ofsted observed as factors involved in successful practice in classrooms:

  • Well-managed relationships: teachers took care to build up students’ confidence and encourage them to take risks.
  • Teachers’good subject knowledge, including knowledge of the examination syllabus.
  • Clear objectives in lesson plans, ensuring that prior learning was recapped, and that the lesson had a logical structure so that planned outcomes were reached.
  • Effective use of the interactive whiteboard to present and explain new work.
  • Good demonstration of the target language by the teacher to improve students’ listening skills and pronunciation. 
  • Lively and varied lessons which students enjoyed effective, collaborative work in groups and on paired tasks.
  • Careful monitoring of students’ progress.
  • Teachers’ expert use of the target language.
  • Planning that took students through a logical series activities and catered for the needs of all students.
  • Pace and challenge: students were expected to do a lot of work in the lesson thorough practice of new work before students were expected to use it.
  • Very effective use of activities bringing the whole class together to test learning, monitor progress and redirect the lesson if necessary.
  • Intercultural knowledge and understanding built into the lesson.
  • Language learning strategies taught very well to develop students’ understanding of learning the language.
  • Very good deployment of teaching assistants and foreign language assistants in lessons.

So that was the last in this series of blogs. If you read them all, thanks for doing so! I think it's useful for teachers to have some kind of theoretical underpinning to what they do.


E. Bialystok and K. Hakuta (1994) In Other Words: The Science and Psychology of Second language Acquisition. Basic Books.
W.T. Littlewood (1984) Foreign and Second Language Learning. Cambridge: C.U.P. 
B. Page (1985) "Research and the Teacher of Foreign Languages in Secondary Schools", in Second Language Learning Research Problems and Perspectives (ed. Brumfit, Lunt and Trim, C.I.L.T.)
E.W. Stevick (1984) "Memory, Learning and Acquisition", in Universals of Second Language Acquisition (eds. Eckman, Bell and Nelson. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, 1984.)