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How to ensure grammatical rigour without resorting to translation

So, this post follows on from the previous one about translation.

To recap: in essence, my view is that translation (both from and into the target language) can have a valuable place. Translation into the target language has a particularly beneficial effect on accuracy and can be a concise way of practising and testing a range of grammatical structures. Translation from the target language is a good source of comprehensible input and ensures students look at the detail of a text, but it is, it should be added, too much about the accurate and idiomatic use of the first language.

The cost of translation, particularly into the target language, is that it takes away time from target language input which, I maintain, remains the principal way of bringing about comprehension and fluency. So can we kill two birds with one stone? Can we have foreign language input whilst ensuring grammatical rigour?

I would answer with a clear yes and it involves a tried and tested approach of selecting and grading language, doing controlled practice of all sorts (repetition, question-answer, oral drilling of various types (tense changing, word replacing, gap filling etc), explaining how the language works and allowing for freer practice once a new grammatical structure has been understood and practised. The first language can be largely avoided by recourse to gesture, mime, pictures, film and use of cognates. The rigour comes from repetitive practice and in the insistence on accuracy. The fun and motivation comes from doing it well and allowing for creative activity too. The process of practising and the focus on accurate form are a type, though maybe not the best type, of comprehensible input, so the natural processes of acquisition can go on "in the background", at the sub-concious level. (You would have to read some Stephen Krashen to see this claim refuted - in brief he argues that as soon as you focus on form you are seriously limiting the natural processes of language acquisition.)

Translation (both ways) can come in at some point as a reinforcement activity.

The strong form of the communicative movement, with its focus on functions and notions, with relatively little focus on grammar, has probably got a bad name for target language use. Traditionalists see it as woolly, confusing for students and lacking in rigour. The approach I advocate, which is nothing new and which is, in a sense, a weak form of the communicative approach, works if you give it enough time. It can produce fluent learners with good grammatical control and conscious knowledge.


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What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…

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When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…