Sunday, 27 November 2016

Responses to my blog on teaching lower-achieving pupils

I have put together the responses I've received so far about how to get the best from lower-achieving students. These were posted on Twitter and Facebook and are, by the way, an example of how you can crowd-source ideas. Many thanks to those who responded. See what you think of them.



Make sure they're listening carefully when reading a text in TL by getting then to do actions (apologies for my shocking handwriting here đŸ˜¶)

Shared aim, short varied tasks practicing same in different ways using different media.accountability with recording all marks publicly. Tests at beginning of each lesson to show that effort = progress. Nowhere to hide, use sticks in pot to choose students to answer the questions. Pair, think, share. Seating plans changed until get the best fit. Not easy and I don't profess to hold answer but that's what I do. Will you do mixed ability teaching next as seems new fad... Grrrrrr

With low ability, it's even more important to cheer them on so they don't give up on themselves.

My lower sets LOVE worksheets for consolidation. Doing similar sentences x 20 means less risk for kids & more likely to retain.

Praise, competition, letting form tutor know/contacting home when good progress is being made

1st thing is to develop a relationship with each individual. Easier to get them to work if they know you care about them.

I try to recycle structures, and set high expectations - carefully scaffolded. Agree about cognates. Also teach phonics.

Turn learning into games and keep it simple. Recycle vocabulary.

Concentrate on the understanding and encouraging simple sentences formation. Listening regularly is essential

If a listing exercise requires multiple answers per question, focus on two key aspects, and highlight on the table. They always manage more!

Focus on the key aspect. If learning the past tense and they spell a noun incorrectly, move on. Make sure they know the objective

Keep it simple. If there's a cognate - teach it! Reward everything they do well. Don't dwell on grammar. Smile.

Get parents on side. engage with them & cheer them on. let them know you care.

Short structured achievable tasks, variety, fun, praise, confidence building activities.

Scaffold the learning: shared practice, group/partner practice, guided practice, then independent.

Don't give them stuff that's too hard for them - the curse of knowledge. Whilst at the same time having high expectations.

Important to engage pupils as much as possible - I have names on lolly sticks, they take it in turns to pick who answers.

Interactive stuff: making sentences, clear images and keep grammar as simple as possible.

Frequent oral 'exit tickets', giving thinking time and a chance to emulate stronger/more confident students.


I usually have three objectives (identify vocabulary for 6 family members, say what my family members are called, give further details about my family). Then after we've addressed each one, display the objective slide again and tick off the one they've met. Gives a sense of achievement and therefore motivates.

Small steps, lots of kinaesthetic activities, competitions, lots of talking, rewards and lots of praise. Also regular re-visiting.

Sometimes a list of the activities planned for the lesson helps them stay focused. I break it down into timed segments with a symbol for each type of activity (reading, writing, listening, speaking, games etc.). They tick off when they have done an activity. Sense of achievement and makes them focus more in the bits they don't like as much/find a struggle because they know it won't be forever.

Also linking language to things that interest them (I know this pretty much goes without saying) but I had a potentially very difficult Y9 last year. We set after options to get a head start on GCSE which leaves a group of non-opters who tend to be mostly lower ability. I took them on a virtual holiday around France. Each lesson I began with a story (in English) about where we were, how we had ended up there and which particular problem we had encountered. Then we learnt the language to deal with the problem. We booked the holiday, travelled and bought tickets, ate in fancy restaurants, complained about the hotel, went to Euro 2016 (and literally bought the t-shirt), decided we wanted to stay so applied for jobs at the Paris St Germain shop on the Champs Elysées, became "animateur" and designed children's activities and wrote children's books. No focus on grammar, just useful phrases. I even got them to write "useful French" on the front of their books. We had a ball. They are now year ten but when I bump into them they tell me they miss those lessons. The key thing in all of this though was that there was no pressure for the kids and no pressure for me. No exam to prepare for, total freedom to do what I wanted. It was bliss!

Praise everything! That moment your lowest ability year 7 reads words out loud unprompted with correct pronunciation or recalls vocab/structures from one lesson to the next, the praise is so powerful for their motivation and spurs them on!

I'm taking my lead from the pupils themselves this year in my low ability yr 7 class. They love getting teddies to do things....they read for the teddies, the teddies "help" them write and they role play by giving voices to the teddies. It started off feeling very strange but the pupils love it!!

Teach opinions in whatever language first then these can be built on in any topic e.g. J'aime, j'adore etc - 1st topic did this with cognates, then school, now we are adding infinitives and doing food and drink. They can loosely follow same SOL topic wise as other classes but by recycling verbs they can have a sense of achieving something too. FCSE works really well as a motivator in y9 and KS4. I also teach y7 bottom set with puppets (two puppets - one for me and one for one of the TA's) they absolutely love this and means loads of language happens by talking to the puppet. If they don't understand things the puppets helps and there are mock 'yes, no' style disagreements with the puppets too.

Don't miss steps out - plan backwards. What do you want them to be able to do at the end of the lesson? What do you need to teach them to get them there? This way you will work through each step and it may highlight things you haven't taught them yet that they will need to know!

I haven't read the blog but I find some of them tend to mix up English and French on the page as all the words are muddled for them - I either avoid English entirely on vocab lists etc or make sure everything is painstakingly clear/explain how to use the vocab resource and get them to practise finding words etc first.

By email from Clare ( Teaching Ideas)

Focus on what they can do, short chunks of work with some sort of learning game at the end.

Raffle tickets for great effort, put these in a tub and draw out a winner each half term for an edible prize.

Send praise postcards home.

Seat pupils wisely and change seating plans regularly.

Varied scaffolded texts for writing and give pupils a choice, this allows them to take ownership.

Worksheets which become progressively more challenging the more they do.

Group work, boosts morale and encourages.

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Phobias - parallel reading task

This is an activity from You could copy and paste this on to a sheet of A4 (landscape) with the French text on one side, English on the other. The subject matter should be iteresting for pupils.


Dans un sondage rĂ©cent on a demandĂ© Ă  2000 personnes de quoi ils avaient le plus peur. Il semble qu’il y ait des diffĂ©rences non seulement entre les rĂ©ponses des hommes et celles des femmes, mais aussi entre les diffĂ©rentes gĂ©nĂ©rations.
En tĂȘte de la liste, beaucoup de gens ont peur des hauteurs (58%). En deuxiĂšme place vient parler en public, suivi de prĂšs par la peur des serpents (52%).
Ensuite viennent les araignĂ©es, les souris, les piqĂ»res, l’avion, les grandes foules, les clowns, l’obscuritĂ©, le sang et les chiens (14%). A noter que le dentiste n’Ă©tait pas sur la liste de phobies prĂ©sentĂ©es aux sondĂ©s.
Il est intĂ©ressant de constater aussi que les femmes craignent davantage les araignĂ©es et les souris que les hommes. En gĂ©nĂ©ral, Ă  l’exception des piqĂ»res, les femmes ont un peu plus peur de tout que les hommes.
Mais il y a aussi des différences entre les générations. Les jeunes ont plus peur de parler en public, tandis que les personnes de plus de 60 ans ont plus peur des hauteurs et des serpents.
Il est difficile de comprendre pourquoi tant de personnes ont peur des clowns !


In a recent opinion poll 2000 people were asked what they were most afraid of. It seems that there are differences, not only between the replies of men and women, but also between the different generations.

At the top of the list many people are afraid of heights (58%). In second place comes public speaking, followed closely by the fear of snakes. (52%).
Then come spiders, mice, injections, flying, large crowds, clowns, darkness, blood and dogs (14%). It’s worth mentioning that dentists were not offered as an option to the people polled.
It is also interesting to note that women fear spiders and mice more than men. In general, with the exception of injections, women are a little more afraid of everything than men.

But there are also differences between generations. Young people are more scared of public speaking, whilst people aged over 60 are more frightened of heights and snakes.

It is hard to understand why so many people are frightened of clowns!

Vrai, faux ou pas mentionné ?

1.​ On a posĂ© des questions au public sur leurs phobies.
2.​ Les femmes et les hommes donnent toujours les mĂȘmes rĂ©ponses.
3.​ Les gens ont peur du dentiste.
4.​ Les gens ont le plus peur de parler en public.
5.​ Les femmes ont plus peur des piqĂ»res que les hommes.
6.​ Les femmes ont plus peur des souris que les hommes.
7.​ On a sondĂ© un nombre Ă©gal de femmes et d’hommes.
8.​ Avoir peur d’un clown, c’est facile Ă  comprendre.
9.​ Personne n’a peur de l’obscuritĂ©.
10.​ Les jeunes ont relativement moins peur des hauteurs.
11.​ Plus de 50% des gens ont peur des serpents.
12.​ Plus de 50% des personnes ont peur des araignĂ©es.
13.​ Les gens ont moins peur de l’avion que les grandes foules.

De quoi avez-vous peur ?

1.​Mettez les phobies dans le texte dans votre ordre personnel.
​a) …………………​b) …………………
​c) …………………​d) …………………
​e) …………………​f) ………………….

2.​Ecrivez cinq phrases sur vos peurs personnelles.

​J’ai peur de/des ……………………………………….

3.​Sondage : posez la questions Ă  vos camarades de classe :

​Tu as peur de quoi ?

​Notez les rĂ©sultats et expliquez-les au professeur.
​Par exemple : Paul a peur de(s)….. etc

Teacher’s answers
1. V 2. F 3. PM 4. F 5. F 6. V 7. PM
8. F 9. F 10. V 11. V 12. PM 13. F

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Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Teaching lower-attaining pupils

I would really welcome any comments or suggestions on this blog. Tweet me or send comments to my email which is public at During my career I mainly taught pupils of above average ability, so I am writing partly from my own experience, partly based on what I have read and what other teachers have told me. This post is not about SEN pupils.

I’m going to start by saying that the general principles of language learning apply to nearly all students: exposure to understandable TL, practice, four skills, interaction and recycling. When time is limited with less able students, however, you have to restrict the diet, sometimes quite a lot. The reality is that many pupils do not have great memories.

It is quite likely that classes with more lower ability pupils will take more managing than others. If you are new to teaching, I'd recommend you read Bill Rogers. Doug Lemov or Tom Bennett on classroom behaviour. Good behaviour is the bedrock of learning and pedagogically sound lessons will not guarantee it.

Here are some suggestions on how you might adjust your teaching:

• Instead of trying to get students to be confident in several tenses, stick to just three time-frames, present, past and future. Be rigorous in the grading of language, i.e. doing one tense at a time to avoid confusion.

• In terms of vocabulary, cut down the number of words and chunks to be practised, but practise them frequently. Make the most use of spaced learning to help memories bed in.

• Make greater use of English and translation. Many students have weak literacy skills in English, so you can play a role in building these, along with their TL skills. In addition, lower ability students will have much greater difficulty processing TL input, will get quickly confused and lose motivation.

• Make everything totally clear and simple as possible, providing short-term wins for students. Vocab apps such as Memrise, Quizlet and Quizlet Live can be motivational and are relatively easy since they operate largely at the single word level.

• Explain to students that they will all, at some time, make use of what they are learning. Indeed, they are more likely to use their language than a quadratic equation learned in maths.

• Make sure the school assessment system gives a fair chance of success. Make sure exams are challenging enough, but not too hard.

• If lessons are spaced too far apart, make best use of any homework opportunities to ensure a degree of spaced learning.

• Keep a good balance of four skills, but enhance the role of reading and writing since these in some respects involve a lighter cognitive load. Speaking and listening require having to process lots of information on the spot with no time for reflection. It’s sometimes forgotten that less able students are often happier writing than speaking.

• Be particularly rigorous with your behaviour policy whilst maintaining a positive spirit in the class. Lower-attaining pupils may have low self-esteem and need plenty of encouragement as well as tasks which make them feel successful.

• Where concentration spans are shorter and memories poorer you’d need to vary tasks even more than usual. Lesson plans should be divided into shorter sections.

• Be more careful than usual to set written tasks which will produce fewer errors, then be more selective in correcting error. If you set unfeasible exercises the students lack of belief in their skill will be reinforced.

• Many successful teachers find that more hands-on and visual activities pay dividends, e.g. hand-held flash cards, card-sorting, dominoes and physical activities. But we have to be careful; aspirations need to remain high and you can’t fill time with engaging but futile tasks which don’t promote the formation of long-term memory.

• Give quick wins by using more short-term testing than average.

• Focus more than usual on cultural aspects to encourage greater motivation. Less able students are less likely to buy into learning about grammar and vocabulary for their own sake.

To repeat, I'd be grateful for any constructive feedback on this post.

The TSC view of second language acquisition

As I said in my previous blog, there is much to like in the Teaching Schools Council review of MFL pedagogy, but one aspect stood out to me and I'd like to say a bit more about this. The review argues strongly for a skill-acquisition model of second language acquisition: presentation and practice lead to automaticity and long-term acquisition. For many teachers this will make sense since they were usually taught within that general paradigm.

Here is the link to the review once again:

Note this important paragraph about automaticity from the review:

"Automaticity means that, through regular, meaningful practice, learning becomes stored in long-term memory (sometimes known as procedural memory) and can be accessed without conscious thought. Developing automaticity in a language can enable pupils to devote working memory resources to the meaning being conveyed or on noticing or mastering new or more difficult language."

This is fundamental to the review's theoretical bias, but it is fair to say that this view ignores a large body of thought and research which argues that language acquisition does not work in this way at all. I am referring, of course, to those academics and teachers who believe that acquisition is a sub-conscious process which only occurs when learners are exposed to meaningful messages. Stephen Krashen, the best known proponent of this view, calls this the "comprehension hypothesis".

The argument will be familiar to those of you who are interested in these matters, but for those who know less this is how it goes:

Research shows that learners do not acquire grammatical structures in the order they are taught. They develop their own interlanguage (Selinker) the rules of which evolve and are impervious to instruction. For example, just because you teach and practise the perfect tense in French does not mean that students will be able to use it freely and spontaneously. It is argued they they will eventually achieve this mastery but only through exposure to lots of comprehensible input over a period of time. Acquisition is a sub-conscious process, as it is with first language acquisition. Explicit grammar teaching does not produce fluency.

Furthermore, the idea that you can transfer consciously learned structures into long-term memory or "mental representation" is said to be illusory. There is evidence from brain research that consciously learned language and acquired mental representation are stored differently and that it is not clear whether the first can cross the "interface" into the second. Automaticity (the ability to freely produce spontaneous speech) does not evolve from attention to form and practice.

Arguments such as these persuade many scholars that our best bet about second language acquisition at the moment is that you need meaningful input aided by some attention to form. Michael Long refers to this as "focus on form". The same writer argues against what he calls "focus on forms" (with an s) because this neglects meaning and is ultimately a switch-off for most pupils.

The TSC review is essentially arguing for focus on forms, which has been a long-held view in MFL in the UK and goes back to the grammar-translation approach. You see it through numerous textbooks right up to the present day. Grammar is at the heart of the syllabus. Although the TSC review makes reference to providing stimulating content for students (the comparison with Latin teaching is revealing), there is no explicit acknowledgment that skill-acquisition is not the only game in town.

Now, I don't have a major issue with skill-acquisition and it certainly formed part of my own teaching approach. Skill-acquisition also features strongly in our book The Language Teacher Toolkit. However, as a model it has its limitations and the TSC review should have acknowledged them. We do not yet know how languages are acquired, so it would be more honest to accept this fact and to avoid cherry-picking from research, which is what the TSC report does.

For a good presentation of the interface problem and the limitations of "automaticity" (crossing the interface) do have a look at this excellent video by Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell.

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Friday, 18 November 2016

The Teaching Schools Council MFL pedagogy review

The Teaching Schools Council (TSC) is not well known in the teaching profession. The government established the body in 2011. It co-ordinates Teaching Schools and their alliances. Its nine-member board has a mix of elected and co-opted members. Today the body published a review on MFL pedagogy, presided over by linguist and executive head teacher Ian Baulkham.

The review panel talked to teachers, heads, pupils, parents and researchers and emerged with fifteen recommendations. The ones I would like to pick out are as follows (with my gloss added):

The vast majority of pupils should do a language to 16.
(This is in line with government Ebacc policy. I still have my doubts.)

Grammar, vocabulary and phonics should be explicitly taught in a structured fashion. Practice and skill-building are recommended.
(The pedagogical bias in the review is clear and would suit those who favour a skill-acquisition view of second language acquisition. No reference is made to the comprehension hypothesis favoured by some researchers and teachers.)

Culture, history and literature should be taught without sacrificing the order of grammar teaching.
(Most teachers would support the teaching of culture, but I am not so sure about history and literature up to 16 - my first reaction was that this recommendation is suspiciously in line with DfE policy, but I am told the TSC is independent of government.)

Translation and reading literature should feature in courses.
(This represents a pedagogical bias which some would disagree with. Anyone who, like me, has written short adapted literature extracts for GCSE knows how hard to do and fruitless this is in practice.)

Meanings should always be absolutely clear to pupils.
(I detect an implicit criticism of a TL only approach and an encouragement to translate.)

The four skills should be taught together.
(I like this - there is an unfortunate tendency in some classrooms to divide sessions up by skill, e.g. "this is a listening lesson". The best lessons are often multi-skill and involve real communication in the target language.)

Two or, better, three sessions of 40-60 minutes per week are recommended.
(Perhaps they should have more forcefully recommended three. This recommendation is, however, very welcome given the woeful state of much school MFL timetabling. the report recognises the importance of distributed practice.)

Textbooks are recommended.
(Or more precisely, good textbooks which incorporate a rigorous progression and recycling of language. I would support this recommendation, but I wonder which textbooks they would recommend; the quality is variable and none are brilliant.)

Grouping by ability should ensure the needs of all pupils are met, notably those who wish to go on the A-level.
(It's not clear whether they advocate setting or not.)

Teacher trainers should ensure that there is a planned curriculum to incorporate the pedagogical framework laid out in the review.
(This implies that current training is patchy. My impression is that they are right on this.)

There should be a review of A-level grading.
(Severe grading is thus rightly acknowledged.)

Overall there is a lot to like in this thorough review. Their research sources are somewhat selective and take as read the idea that you can automatise skills through practice. (This is far from universally agreed by scholars.) The message to school leaders about timetabling is valuable and I welcome in general the reminder that a clear, structured progression of grammar and high frequency vocabulary is required. The review correctly identifies elsewhere that languages are unpopular with too many pupils, but whether arguing for more translation, history and literature is the correct antidote is very debatable.

There is no general academic consensus about which language teaching methods work best (as the review acknowledges) and I can imagine some scholars looking at this report very critically indeed. The review suggests a swing of the pendulum back towards traditional methods and alleged "rigour". the recommendations are in line with DfE subject guidance and Ofqual exam specifications. Is this pure coincidence?

The review is worth reading, but I have no idea how influential it will be. Since Ofsted now do not officially recommend any particular teaching methods it looks like another body has taken on that mantle.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Vocab apps and opportunity cost

Opportunity cost is a term from economics. It refers to the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.

In every lesson you plan and teach there are numerous options. They are not all equal in terms of their learning value, that much we can agree on. I'd like to question the value of vocab learning websites/apps.

Now, I must make it clear that isolated word vocab learning can have a place and apps, from what teachers write, suit some pupils well. Teachers report productive lessons and homework using Quizlet and Memrise, for example. One teacher wrote on social media that almost all the homework she sets is based on Quizlet. Quizlet Live (where pupils can compete with each other in class to win vocab games) is getting good reports too.

If you are not familiar with Quizlet or need a reminder here is an example for advanced students doing A-level French.Have a quick look and try the Gravity game.

Perhaps because of my own methodological journey which began with the TL direct method question-answer approach of the late 1960s, I have always been a bit wary of vocabulary learning from lists. Similarly, vocab apps have never appealed to me and I can only imagine using them rarely in the classroom or for homework. I've only recently thought a bit more about what my aversion to them is. What I've been reading gives me some evidence to support my instinctive wariness about isolated word learning.

We know from brain research that words are better retained in memory when repetition and "deeper processing" is involved in learning them. For more on this see my recent blog here. Words will be better remembered, for example, if they are heard or read in context (surrounded by other words), associated with pictures, the context in which they were learned, with the aid of rhymes and alliteration, or when associated with a powerful emotional experience.

Now Quizlet involves a game element (e.g. Gravity), enables the words to be heard as well as seen, and involves repetition and a competitive element. All of these help with retention. On the other hand Quizlet is quite undemanding in terms of deeper processing. Isolated word recognition is, after all, pretty easy, which is why pupils find it so approachable and, to a point, enjoyable. (We cannot underestimate the motivational factor here.)

So back to opportunity cost. What could pupils be doing with their hugely limited time instead of isolated word practice? They could be listening to or reading whole sentences or short paragraphs incorporating the target vocabulary. They would simultaneously be acquiring the ability to separate out words in the sound stream (the main challenge of listening). They could be engaging in oral interactions with partners or the teacher which include the target vocabulary. They could be writing sentences or paragraphs using the same vocabulary. All of these tasks involved some communication and language skills at the sentence and paragraph level. To me this makes more sense than drilling individual words and will,probably produce better long-term retention. If you want to go down the "comprehension hypothesis" (Krashen) route, you might also argue that young humans never acquire vocabulary by learning individual words consciously, they pick them up by hearing them in context.

Let me emphasise that I'm not arguing against teaching isolated words per se. I would advocate doing this at the introductory stage with near-beginners and low-intermediate pupils and even recommend it for revision for assessments, for example. But it would occupy a small fraction of the total teaching time. Last minute cramming is good for short term tests, but poor for long-term retention.

I just wonder if the temptation to use vocab apps because they may be quite fun and are undemanding comes at a cost.

What do you think?

Friday, 11 November 2016

Latest from frenchteacher

Here are the resources I've added to the site in the last month:

Vocabulary booklets for the second year of the new AQA, Eduqas/WJEC and Edexcel A-level. Word lists for each of the sub-themes. These can be added to the existing ones for Year 1 (A-level).
Low intermediate video listening. Trotro part en vacances. Vocab search, true-false and gap-fill. You could exploit this further too with dictation, story re-telling, translation etc. Free sample (see Samples page). (Low intermediate/Y9)y
Easy video listening for near beginners. Trotro a un beau cartable. Short video with French subtitles featuring your favourite donkey-small boy hybrid, French to English matching exercises and true/false. (Near beginners/Y7)
Four short and very simple gapped dictations for beginners. Introductions, town, home, pastimes. Individual letters are indicated in the gaps. (Near beginners/Y7).
Text and exercises on Peppa Pig, her family and friend Suzy. Text, tick off correct statements, questions in French, rewriting and gap-fill. Groin groin! (Near beginners/Y7).
A set of eight GCSE Higher tier role-plays, AQA-style, with example answers. (Intermediate, Y10-11).
Intermediate (GCSE) video listening. Isabelle describes her holiday in Venice. Gap-fill summary sentences. Answers provided. Linked to a YouTube video from France Bienvenue. (Intermediate/Y10-11).

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Becoming an outstanding language teacher

i've been working on a book which will be published by Routledge in the first half of next year (all being well). It's provisionally titled "Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher". The book is aimed at trainee and experienced teachers around the world who aspire to the magic "outstanding" epithet, that piece of English inspection-speak (which I never liked). It's hard to define precisely what excellence means in teaching, of course, yet we have a pretty good idea who the excellent teachers in our schools are. The book tries to unpick aspects if what "outstanding" might look like. What do you have to do for pupils to hold you in the highest regard?

The book is pretty much written and will be around 200 pages long. Its "unique selling point" will be the level of detail in which it analyses individual lessons. There are four chapters which analyse in detail lessons and lesson sequences centred on speaking, reading texts, visuals and writing. I've written line-by-line descriptions with commentary suggesting how you'd interact with the class at each point. I believe this will be particularly useful for teachers new to the craft. Aspects of the latest GCSE and A-level syllabuses will also be looked at.

As with The Language Teacher Toolkit, the underlying methodology is pragmatic and, in this instance,  largely based on my own experience. But to demonstrate that I don't believe in any one "method" I've included some description and brief analysis of some unorthodox approaches which break the usual communicative mould. I'm hoping these case studies will challenge some conventional wisdom.

Even so, all the descriptions do assume the type of general methodological principles we outlined in the Toolkit book - target language use, recycling, structured practice and so on. These are rooted in a sort of half-way house between skill-acquisition and comprehension theory.

But unlike the Toolkit this book makes scant reference to research, even though the latter would support my recommendations. The emphasis once again is on practical techniques and ideas for the classroom based on experience, observation, reading and common sense. Teachers will find plenty of ideas to add to their repertoire. I've done my best not to repeat material used in the Toolkit, although it's hard to avoid a degree of overlap.

There is always a bit of a conundrum with this type of handbook. On the one hand you don't want to come across as preaching and prescriptive, on the other you do need to give your clearest advice. So I've done my best to achieve a balance in that regard. Readers will decide if I've succeeded.

The 14 draft chapters have titles like Running a room, Enjoying sounds, Getting grammatical, Words and chunks, Good games, Dissecting a lesson:texts, Pace, challenge and questions, and Teaching all students. The tone of the book is a bit less formal than the one we employed in the Toolkit, so it's a lighter read, but again it's a book you could either read from cover to cover or dip in and out of.

I'll let you know more when I'm nearer publication.

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Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Making words memorable

Most teachers and researchers would agree that knowing words is even more important than knowing grammar if you wish to be proficient in a language. As linguist David Wilkins wrote in 1972: "Without grammar little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed."One of the frustrations for teachers is pupils' inability to retain vocabulary for productive use. A good deal of research has been done over the years into how pupils might better keep words in memory. Two concepts which have come to the fore are spacing and interleaving.

Spaced practice

A 2003 review of the literature by P.Y. Gu reported that most studies show that students frequently forget words after learning them just once.  Anderson and Jordan (1928) discovered that after initial learning, then one week, three weeks and eight weeks thereafter, the recall success was 66%, 48%, 39% and 37% respectively. Other studies have produced similar results. Unsurprisingly, these researchers recommend, spaced repetition to overcome forgetting. The idea of spaced learning goes back to Ebbinghaus.

Spaced repetition can be difficult to build in to your teaching if you meet a class just once a week, but if you see students more often it clearly makes sense to build in opportunities to review vocabulary in as many ways as possible. (Research also clearly shows that vocab learning is most effective when you do it in as many different, memorable ways as possible.)


Research by Brown et al (2014) shows that learning of specific language items is most effective when it is "interleaved" with other activities. This might go against what some teachers and students believe, namely that it's best to do massed practice. Cramming does produce effective results in the short term (e.g. when preparing for an exam the next day) but it is ineffective if you wish to foster long-term retention. Interleaving may be less satisfying for pupils since there is no apparent immediate reward, but in language learning especially, where long-term memory of vocabulary, morphology and syntax is required, interleaving makes the most sense.

In practice this means presenting/introducing vocabulary or structures either in isolation or (better) in context, then returning to it as many memorable times as possible. To some extent text books build this type of review in to their scheme of work, but it is not done with enough regularity or rigour, so you have to make sure you provide the necessary exposure, whether it be during listening and reading tasks, question-answer and other oral interactions and controlled and free speaking and writing. A skilled teacher can do this partly off the cuff if they are fortunate enough to see their class frequently and even year on year.

This is also an argument for not sticking rigorously to the topic you are meant to cover from week to week. The danger with this is that you leave behind one set of vocabulary or a grammatical structure, not to return to it for several weeks, by which time you are reteaching it from scratch with many pupils.

Making words memorable

As well as spacing and interleaving, research also suggests that vocabulary is better retained when it is taught in a memorable context, not just as isolated words from lists. (This may explain my relative aversion to giving lists to learn to pupils - not to mention the fact that it's just boring.) A study by Chamot (2005), for example, showed that when learners engage in deeper processing of words by seeing or hearing them in context, or for example organising them in semantic mind-maps, they retain them better than when they are presented for rote learning in a list. Gianfranco Conti discusses this type of thing in detail here and in other blog posts on his site.

Research also shows that the more complex you can make networks in the brain (by involving phonological patterns, written spelling, visual images, gestures, smells, tastes, you name it...) the better learners will remember words. Various studies have shown the benefit of teaching words with pictures, e.g. Curran and Doyle (2011), Hockley and Bancroft (2011) and Bisson et al (2014).

In a recent study, Mayer et al (2015) compared the memory performance for words that had been learned according to three conditions: by reading only, by reading and enriching them through pictures, and by reading and performing semantically related gestures. Words that had only been read scored worst, whereas words learned with gestures scored best particularly in the long term. The results are not surprising: observing and self-performing a gesture requires more complex processing than just seeing a static picture.

In sum, don't expect students to remember words if you just teach them once and in only one way. Use spaced repetition, interleaving and deep processing as far as possible.

D. Wilkins (1972) Linguistics in Language Teaching. Edward Arnold, Australia.
H. Ebbinghaus (1885). Über das GedĂ€chtnis. Untersuchungen zur experimentellen Psychologie [Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology] (in German). Trans. Henry A. Ruger & Clara E. Bussenius. Leipzig, Germany: Duncker & Humblot.

Video listening: Trotro part en vacances

Here's another example of the type of video listening worksheets I have on Trotro is a popular young children's show in France. Videos like this are great for classes: they amuse, they are clear and not too long and the language is fairly restricted to quite high frequency language. I hope this video displays in your territory! Apologies for any slight formatting issues.

1. tout Ă  l’heure              a. toys
2. j’ai sommeil                b. big waves
3. faire ma valise           c. net
4. les jouets                   d. sand
5. emporter                    e. later
6. des grosses vagues    f. I’m sleepy
7. du sable                     g. to pack my case
8. un filet                        h. to take
9. des crevettes              i. spade
10. une pelle                   j. armbands
11. un seau                     k. teddy
12. un rateau                  l. shrimps
13. la baignoire              m. full
14. mes bouĂ©es              n. bucket
15. rempli                      o. rake
16. un nounours             p. bathtub

B. Vrai ou faux ?

1. Trotro va partir en vacances demain.  7.  Trotro va pĂȘcher des crevettes avec un filet.
2. Il partira au bord de la mer.          8.  Il fera des chĂąteaux de sable avec un canard.
3. Trotro est trĂšs fatiguĂ©.                      9.   La baignoire est plus amusante que la mer.
4. Trotro doit prĂ©parer son sac Ă  dos.      10. Trotro va emporter son avion.
5. Maman va choisir les jouets de Trotro. 11. Trotro a une bonne idée.
6. Trotro va jouer Nounours sur la plage.  12. Il trouve le petit sac dans la cuisine.

C. Complétez ce paragraphe en choisissant des mots dans la case.

Aujourd’hui Trotro ________ partir en vacances au ________ de la mer. Il doit prĂ©parer son ________ Ă  dos. Trotro veut ________beaucoup de choses, par ________ son avion, ses ________ voitures, sa pelle et son seau. Malheureusement il n’y a ________ assez de place dans son sac, alors il va chercher le ________ sac de Nournours. Alors c’est Nounours qui ________ les petites voitures.

exemple      portera       bord        pas        petit        emporter       petites       sac         va




1. F (aujourd’hui)  2. V   3. V (il a sommeil)   4. V   6. F   7. V   8. F   9. F   10. V   11. V  12. F

Aujourd’hui Trotro va partir en vacances au bord de la mer. Il doit prĂ©parer son sac Ă  dos. Trotro veut emporter beaucoup de choses, par exemple son avion, ses petites voitures, sa pelle et son seau. Malheureusement il n’y a pas assez de place dans son sac, alors il va chercher le petit sac de Nournours. Alors c’est Nounours qui portera les petites voitures.

Able classes could do further work such as retelling the story with the aid of question and answer, dictation or translation

Sunday, 6 November 2016

What do TPRS lessons look like?

Please note that I have made a couple of changes to this post after receiving a message from Martina Bex. The original video I had posted was also incorrect.


TPRS stands for Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. Little known in the UK, it's the most common approach associated with the second language learning hypotheses of Stephen Krashen. These, in a nutshell, claim that the only way to develop proficiency in a second language is through comprehension, not explicitly teaching grammar and vocabulary. For more background try:

Many teachers, largely in the USA, have taken on board the TPRS methodology to produce excellent, engaging lessons for their classes. In essence the starting point of the approach is that students become proficient by being exposed to meaningful, ‘compelling’ listening and reading input. Grammar is usually taught in "pop-ups", within the context of a story being told or reenacted. Lots of input is provided before any output is expected, key vocabulary and structures are recycled and a full range of aids are used to help students grasp meaning: pictures, gestures and objects. There are elements of acting out involved, including having students dress up as characters. The approach may not suit teachers who prefer quite a formal approach to their lessons, since it helps a great deal if the teacher is prepared to act out situations, use mime, props, humour and imagination.

Some elements which TPRS has in common with other approaches are: the use of the visual aids, using all four skills, question-answer sequences called ‘circling’, acting out, doing grammar pop-ups (briefly explaining and modelling grammar structures and morphology) and using stories as a source of input. Even if you think that TPRS is a poor fit with your own syllabus or scheme of work, you might like to include features of it. Here is a typical lesson as described by Martina Bex (

"The heart of a TPRS lesson is the story which looks like this:

A character has a problem.
The character tries to solve the problem and fails.
The character tries to solve the problem in a new way and fails again.
The character tries to solve the problem in a new way and finally succeeds.

 Many teachers use "scripts", or basic story outlines in order to guide the story and/or to target specific structures(words or phrases). Other teachers make up stories based on the answers to personalised questions which they ask students. A basic story script might look like this:
(Character) wants (thing).
(Character) doesn't have (thing).
(Character) goes to (place 1) to find (thing).
There are no (things) at (place 1), only (thing 2).
There are no (things) at (place 2), only (thing 3).
 (Character) (decides that s/he no longer wants it, it's too expensive, buys it and is happy, etc."

Other teachers base stories on the answers to personalised questions asked to students.

Below is an example story script sent to me by Martina Bex, in the style of scripts written by Anne Matava. All of the underlined details in the story are "asked" to the class instead of "told" by the teacher. So the teacher might say, "While Maya was walking, she saw an animal in the distance. What animal did she see?" "Yes, she saw a frog! Maya approached the frog. When she got close to it, what did she think?" "Yes! She thought "This frog makes me hoppy!" etc. The language items in bold are the target structures to be practised.

There once was a girl named Maya, and she was walking to the park. As she walked, she saw that there was an animal in the distance. It was a squirrelShe approached the squirrel. She thought, “This squirrel is cuteI’m going to take it with me!” She grabbed the squirrel and carried it away with her.

Then, Maya walked a little more with the squirrel and saw that there was another animal in the distance. It was a cow. She approached the cow. She thought, “I want milk. I’m going to take it with me!” She grabbed the cow and carried it away with her.

Then, Maya walked a little more with the squirrel and the cow and saw that there was another animal in the distance. It was a fly. She approached the fly. She thought, “This poor fly doesn’t have friendsI’m going to take it with me!” She grabbed the fly and carried it away with her.

Maya walked a little more with the squirrel, the cow, and the flyShe thought, “I’m hungry!" Then, she looked at the animals. She looked at the cow. She said to it, “I’m sorry”. Then, she ate the cow.

How does this story turn into a lesson? Again, I'm quoting directly from Martina Bex here.

1.            Establish meaning for the guide words (target structures, key vocabulary). Most TPRS teachers establish meaning through translation on the board. Students are encouraged to not repeat the word as the teacher says it; they are encouraged to just listen. Then, the teacher gives a gesture for the word. Students mimic the gesture as the teacher continues to say the word aloud in the TL several times. Meaning is typically confirmed once or twice by asking a student in English, "What does [TL structure] mean in English?" English is used because it ensures accuracy and is efficient. Images are better in many situations, but are also subject to misinterpretation.  Most TPRS lessons target three new structures.

2.            Ask personalised questions with the target structures. If the structure is "goes to sleep", you might ask, "When do you go to sleep?" "What do you need to go to sleep?" "When is it difficult to go to sleep?" etc. Discuss these questions with your students. 

3.            Ask a story” using a story script or by spinning a story out of the personalised conversation that you started after establishing meaning. Most teachers bring up actors and have them use props to make the story come to life.

4.            Read the class story. Ideally, you have typed it up so that you can project it and read it together. As you read it, use strategies such as circling, checking for comprehension and personalising. 

5.            Complete several story activities. These can include familiar tasks such as hiding the story then doing a retell from memory, answering questions from memory, doing a true-false task or matching starts and ends of sentences.

Here is Martina Bex doing a Spanish lesson:

Here is an example of "asking a story" without using a pre-prepared story. Note the "circling" technique (question-answer).

For more video extracts of lessons see YouTube (TPRS Hangout).