Skip to main content

Habit-forming, pros and cons

I'm not talking about behaviourist habit forming here, that notion that language could be acquired by an elaborate process of stimulus and response, but about we as teachers use habits to further student learning.

This occurred to me after reading Tom Sherrington's headguruteacher blog about flipped classrooms. He described how his physics classes got into the routine of previewing material before lessons so that classes would be more focused on discussion, question and answer that just transmission of knowledge. Some (including me) are sceptical about the flipped classroom concept, but once the routine is established, it can surely work.

Routines are useful to us. First there are the daily classroom routines we use to start and end lessons, to move from one activity to another, to set and collect homework, to police pair and group work and so on. It's hard to imagine an effective MFL teacher who does not use these.

Then the are the routines we employ as part of our methodology. My AS French classes became used to being introduced to a topic via lists of oral questions with attached vocabulary. They knew I would introduce the topic with an oral synonyms or definitions exercise, followed by some whole group question-answer to get them going and provide good model answers, followed by paired question-answer which the students would expect to lead to a write-up for homework. The expectation was that short answers would not do and students routinely produced short paragraph answers, developing their range and accuracy, whilst producing their own model answers to be referred to at oral exam revision time.

A predictable routine to teaching texts gives confidence to students. Reading aloud by teacher, some group repetition, student reading out loud, find the French, short term memory oral gap fill, correcting false sentences, then full blown question-answer - all this forms a useful routine which students get comfortable with and which, therefore, promotes learning.

A routine approach to flashcard use or picture sequences helps pupils stay with you and understand why you are doing each task in that way. Even better if you share this "secret information" with your class.

The point is that habits help students understand what is going on. When working in the target language clarity is vital, because all too often we over-estimate how much pupils understand. It is vital we lose students as little as possible.

You can go too far with habits, though. If you use the same routine too often the class will get bored, so you have to judge just how far you should rely on students responding to habit. So, let's say that with pairwork you normally let students work with their regular partner next to them. They are comfortable with this and produce good language. Why not just occasionally mix things up to give a different twist to the lesson?

So, in sum, we should not shy away from routines and indeed should develop effective ones, whilst not becoming a slave to them.


Popular posts from this blog

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

Sentence Stealers with a twist

Sentence Stealers is a reading aloud game invented by Gianfranco Conti. I'll describe the game to you, then suggest an extension of it which goes a bit further than reading aloud. By the way, I shouldn't need to justify the usefulness of reading aloud, but just in case, we are talking here about matching sounds to spellings, practising listening, pronunciation and intonation and repeating/recycling high frequency language patterns.

This is how it works:

Display around 15 sentences on the board, preferably ones which show language patterns you have been working on recently or some time ago.Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentenc…

Using sentence builder frames for GCSE speaking and writing preparation

Some teachers have cottoned on to the fact that sentence builders (aka substitution tables) are a very useful tool for helping students prepare for their GCSE speaking and writing tests. My own hunch is that would help for students of all levels of proficiency, but may be particularly helpful for those likely to get lower grades, say between 3-6. Much depends, of course, on how complex you make the table.

To remind you, here is a typical sentence builder, as found on the frenchteacher site. The topic is talking about where you live. A word of warning - formatting blogs in Blogger is a nightmare when you start with Word documents, so apologies for any issues. It might have taken me another 30 minutes just to sort out the html code underlying the original document.

Setting work for home study

A major challenge for language teachers just now is selecting and sharing work with students to do at home. Here a few suggestions on the issue to add to your own. The sites I mention are the tip of the iceberg and focus mainly on French. I have stuck to free resources, not subscription sites.

By the way, I'm not getting into the use of tech here, as I have no great expertise on that. In any case, I imagine for younger learners especially it may be a question of setting other types of work.


For advanced learners the job is not so tough. There is a plethora of listening, reading and grammar material they can use, whether it be from their textbooks, other resources shared electronically or online resources. You may have your favourites, but for a selection for French you can check out my links here and here. You may want to stick with topics on the syllabus, or free up students to read and listen more generally to what interests them.

One idea I used was to ask students to c…

"Ask and move" task

This is a lesson plan using an idea from our book Breaking the Sound Barrier (Conti and Smith, 2019). It's a task-based lesson adapted from an idea from Paul Nation and Jonathan Newton. It is aimed at Y10-11 pupils aiming at Higher Tier GCSE, but is easily adaptable to other levels and languages, including A-level. This has been posted as a resource on

This type of lesson plan excites me more than many, because if it runs well, you get a classroom of busy communication when you can step back, monitor and occasionally intervene as students get on with listening, speaking and writing.