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What is the phonological loop?

This post is about how we use part of our short-term memory (working memory) to process sounds, words and longer utterances. I also intend to show how knowing about the phonological loop can help you refine your practice as a language teacher.

Firstly, what is the phonological loop and where does it fit into a popular model of working memory? To start with, it's probably best to start by activating another component of short-term memory, your visuo-spatial sketchpad. Look at this diagram:


That is one depiction of the well-known model of working memory put forward by cognitive psychologists Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch back in 1974. But first, when we see, hear, touch, taste or smell something our sensory memory takes note (beneath our consciousness). As far as language is concerned, we choose to pay attention to it and the information enters working memory, more specifically what are called the visuo-spatial sketchpad (aka scratchpad) and/or the phonological loop, the two store…
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The curriculum compendium

My dictionary tells me that "deep dive" means an "in-depth examination or analysis of a topic." I've seen and heard the expression used a lot in recent months and always in a single context - curriculum planning in school. We all know why curriculum planning is in the forefront of school leaders' thinking at the moment: Ofsted. But actually, while in the past I always instinctively disliked agendas being set by Ofsted, in this case I think that the issue f curriculum is so fundamental to what teachers do that it's welcome to hear of so many schools talking about. For MFL teachers in particular it forces us to address some of the fundamentals of what we do. I'm not just talking about which vocabulary, topics and grammar we teach, the order we do things in, and so on, but the fundamentals of why we teach the way we do.

These fundamentals include issues such as the very nature of second language learning. If we have a clearer understanding of how acqui…

Book review: Making every MFL lesson count

It's surprising how few books there are specifically aimed at MFL teachers, so it is welcome when another one comes along so soon after Dannielle Warren's 100 Ideas book which I recently reviewed here.

The newly published book is by James A. Maxwell a teacher and principal at a school in Northern Ireland. It's from the "Making every... lesson count" series from Crown House Publishing, runs to 168 pages and costs £12.99, or slightly less for the Kindle version.

In his section entitled Final Thoughts, James writes that his book "has endeavoured to demonstrate how current research in cognitive science may translate into the MFL classroom, while also acknowledging that there is a whole separate body of research into the science of second-language learning..." This was worth mentioning, since the reader will find that this informative and partly anecdotal book is primarily influenced by the current educational zeitgeist which is all about cognitive science a…

Book review: 100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Outstanding MFL Lessons

This pocket-sized book of 123 pages is written by British teacher Dannielle Warren. Having had a sneak pre-publication version of the manuscript, I’ve now had the chance to read the final product. It’s a pretty quick and easy read, consisting of 100 easy to implement lesson ideas divide into nine sections entitled Speaking, Listening, Reading, Writing, Grammar, Translation, Vocabulary, Marking/Feedback/Improvements and Revision.

The ideas are often familiar, tried-and-tested and frequently requiring little preparation. Many teachers will recognise classics such as Battleships, structure strips, vocab bingo, dictation drawing ( “ read and draw”) and Trapdoor. Some of the ideas are nor one-off activities or games, for example the one called Exploiting Texts which gives a few ways to use written texts. None of this is a criticism, since, as I know, when you write about language teaching ideas you can’t assume how much knowledge each reader possesses. In that respect, the book hits the m…

Dictation revisited

When the communicative movement began to take hold, particularly in the 1980s, dictation went out of fashion to a considerable degree in UK schools. Many teachers were already rejecting it as a classroom exercise since pupils often found it too hard and the results were often poor. Furthermore, as an activity it's hard to call it "communicative" in any way. Indeed, in many teaching contexts I would not personally recommend dictation, but in an MFL secondary setting, with assessment requirements in mind and very limited teaching time available, it makes sense as part of a varied diet of input-based, interactive and communicative practice, with form emphasis on listening and speaking.

Nowadays, transcription and dictation have made a return for a few reasons. First, it's increasingly clear that a secure grasp of phonics (sound-grapheme correspondences) and sound phonological memory are important for listening skill. (When we listen we need an accurate phonological repr…

Game shows you could use in language lessons

I started a thread on the GILT Facebook group the other day. GILT = Global Innovative Language Teachers, in case you don't know of it. My topic was TV and radio game shows you can adapt for productive language lessons. Here are the ideas teachers came up with. I'll begin with the ones I used to use on occasion:

The Price is Right (guessing prices of items to practise numbers and descriptive language).Countdown (in French Le jeu des chiffres et des lettres) for practising numbers).Just a Minute (the BBC radio show where you have to talk for a minute without repetition, hesitation or deviation) - good for fluency practice and oral exam revision.University Challenge (UK TV show - general knowledge team quiz for advanced students - good for listening, speaking and general cultural knowledge).Would I Lie to You? (BBC TV panel show - advanced level, guessing if someone’s story is true or false - listening and fluency).Call my Bluff (old BBC panel show) - for advanced level, students …

Filling the gaps

All teachers at some time make use of gap-fill activities. There are very good reasons for doing so, whether the focus is on careful listening with a transcript, grammatical awareness, vocabulary retrieval or general comprehension. I particularly liked them for scaffolding listening with classes, combining comprehension with phonics and grammar. A gap-fill really gets students listening intensively and supports the process of listening. If you are keen on the idea of Listening as Modelling (as described in our listening book) you may prefer this type of task to general comprehension exercises which can end up promoting guesswork.

You can use gap-full in all kinds of ways and with different aims in mind. As a little exercise I thought I’d make a list if all the types of gap-fill I could think of.  These are all with LISTENING in mind, more than reading. These could help you focus on the precise aim of the gap-fill or just provide you with some variations to make it more interesting for…

Book review: Teaching Literature in the A Level Modern Languages Classroom

Well, well, this is an excellent book! The type of book I wish I had access to as a young teacher learning to teach A level. Written by Katherine Raithby and Alison Taylor and published by Routledge (the date of publication is given as 2020, curiously), this book of 250 pages provides an in depth guide to teaching literary works, a compulsory element of A level MFL since 2016. It will be a standard reference work for quite a few years to come and certainly falls into the category "must read".

The book consists of 11 chapters and six appendices. Chapter titles include: why teach literature? choosing the text; introducing the text; teaching the novel and short story; teaching the play; understanding characters; understanding themes, style and structure; writing the examination essay; sparking creative language use - before and beyond the set text. The appendices cover sources of information, lists of literary language phrases and examples of reading logs. The languages and text…

One teacher’s methodological journey

This is a lengthy guest blog, which teacher Casey Creel kindly sent me. It’s the transcript of an interview she carried out with Dave Limburg, a professor of modern foreign languages at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina. Dave has self-published two of his own textbooks as well as a German grammar overview. He also coordinates the Munich study abroad semester and the German club and the conversation club Stammtisch. I am publishing the transcript more or less verbatim. It’s interesting to see one teacher’s journey from a very traditional grammar-translation approach to something more communicative.

Casey: Hi Dave
Dave: Hey, how are you?
Casey: Good, I’m in the middle of report writing, but I’m otherwise good.
Did you learn any foreign languages before you went to university?
Dave: Yes, my family took us to Heidelberg when I was 8 so I learned German there for about two months. It made a big impression, even if it was short. Later my siblings and I took German lessons from a fam…