Skip to main content

How checklists can raise student proficiency

I am grateful to Martin Heeley, a PGCE student at York University for reminding me about how useful checklists can be in improving students' performance on tasks and I shall use an example of his below to demonstrate the point.

Example one: for advanced level conversation practice

When I used to prepare A-level students for their AQA oral examination which included 10 minutes of conversation on the two cultural topics they had been studying, in the run-up to the exam I would pair off students to practise questions I had provided them with. I would periodically change the pairings to keep up interest and provide a slightly different focus. To improve their range of language I would then write up a checklist of expressions they had to include in their conversations. So, let's say they were preparing for a discussion on the films of François Truffaut, I might write up:

Un élément clé de la nouvelle vague...
Ce qui est important, c'est le fait que...
Il va sans dire que...
Les opinions sont partagées sur cette question, mais moi...
En ce qui concerne l'usage de la caméra, on peut dire que...
On ne peut pas sous-estimer l'influence de la vie de Truffaut sur...

I would then say that in the next five minutes, the "candidate" had to incorporate somehow each of those expressions into their conversation. This would become a source of challenge and amusement, focus minds a bit more and gradually the expressions would become handy elements to be used in the future. Individual students would take pleasure in deliberately overusing certain phrases for comic effect. Needless to say, such expressions become handy comfort blankets in the actual exam.

Five minutes later I would alter the list to widen the students' range of expression, perhaps giving my own examples of how the formulae could be used.

Example two: GCSE/intermediate level writing

The principle is just the same as the above, except this time you provide a set of phrases or expressions which students have to incorporate into a written composition. So, let's say students had to describe a journey they had made, you might give them:

Apès être parti(s) de la maison...
En arrivant à....
Ce qui m'a plu le plus, c'était...
Le pire moment était quand...
On venait de + infinitif.... quand...
Le plus intéressant, c'était le moment où...
Avant de + infinitif

We know what happens when you adopt this approach. Just as in the A-level example, students latch on to these lifebuoys and use them in subsequent work, gradually increasing their repertoire of language.

Example three: Martin Heeley's example (via

This is another writing example at a post beginner/very low intermediate level. I like the fact that this type of checklist makes pupils reflect on what it takes to write interesting and varied language. They do a lot of this type of thing in English lessons and it really helps pupils who are genuinely not sure what to write.

As examination boards move back to linear papers and away from controlled assessment, students will need an armoury of phrases and little techniques to help them write and speak under pressure. Teachers would do well to make good use of checklists.


  1. Thanks for this.

    When mine are preparing for assessment, I make them generate their own checklist based on what I told them after their last assessment:

  2. Thanks for commenting. I have added your blog to my blog roll on


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

What is the natural order hypothesis?

The natural order hypothesis states that all learners acquire the grammatical structures of a language in roughly the same order. This applies to both first and second language acquisition. This order is not dependent on the ease with which a particular language feature can be taught; in English, some features, such as third-person "-s" ("he runs") are easy to teach in a classroom setting, but are not typically fully acquired until the later stages of language acquisition. The hypothesis was based on morpheme studies by Heidi Dulay and Marina Burt, which found that certain morphemes were predictably learned before others during the course of second language acquisition. The hypothesis was picked up by Stephen Krashen who incorporated it in his very well known input model of second language learning. Furthermore, according to the natural order hypothesis, the order of acquisition remains the same regardless of the teacher's explicit instruction; in other words,

The 2026 GCSE subject content is published!

Two DfE documents were published today. The first was the response to the consultation about the proposed new GCSE (originally due in October 2021) and the second is the subject content document which, ultimately, is of most interest to MFL teachers in England. Here is the link  to the document.  We are talking about an exam to be done from 2026 (current Y7s). There is always a tendency for sceptical teachers to think that consultations are a bit of a sham and that the DfE will just go ahead and do what they want when it comes to exam reform. In this case, the responses to the original proposals were mixed, and most certainly hostile as far as exam boards and professional associations representing the MFL community, universities, head teachers and awarding bodies are concerned. What has emerged does reveal some significant changes which take account of a number of criticisms levelled at the proposals. As I read it, the most important changes relate to vocabulary and the issue of topics

What is skill acquisition theory?

For this post, I am drawing on a section from the excellent book by Rod Ellis and Natsuko Shintani called Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research (Routledge, 2014). Skill acquisition is one of several competing theories of how we learn new languages. It’s a theory based on the idea that skilled behaviour in any area can become routinised and even automatic under certain conditions through repeated pairing of stimuli and responses. When put like that, it looks a bit like the behaviourist view of stimulus-response learning which went out of fashion from the late 1950s. Skill acquisition draws on John Anderson’s ACT theory, which he called a cognitivist stimulus-response theory. ACT stands for Adaptive Control of Thought.  ACT theory distinguishes declarative knowledge (knowledge of facts and concepts, such as the fact that adjectives agree) from procedural knowledge (knowing how to do things in certain situations, such as understand and speak a language).

Pros and cons of pair and group work

Most teachers have made frequent use of pair and group work for many years, notably since the rise of communicative language teaching in the 1980s. Even before then it would have been common for pupils to work in pairs on simple role-play and dialogue tasks. So pair and group work is standard practice, if not universally supported by language teachers. It’s always worth evaluating, however, whether a practice works - whether, in this case, it helps students develop their proficiency. Pros Rod Ellis (2005) summarises the advantages of pair/group work (based on Jacobs, 1998) “1. The quantity of learner speech can increase. In teacher-fronted classrooms, the teacher typically speaks 80% of the time; in groupwork more students talk for more of the time. 2. The variety of speech acts can increase. In teacher-fronted classrooms, students are cast in a responsive role, but in groupwork they can perform a wide range of roles, including those involved in the negotiation of meaning. 3. There can

La retraite à 60 ans

Suite à mon post récent sur les acquis sociaux..... L'âge légal de la retraite est une chose. Je voudrais bien savoir à quel âge les gens prennent leur retraite en pratique - l'âge réel de la retraite, si vous voulez. J'ai entendu prétendre qu'il y a peu de différence à cet égard entre la France et le Royaume-Uni. Manifestation à Marseille en 2008 pour le maintien de la retraite à 60 ans © AFP/Michel Gangne Six Français sur dix sont d’accord avec le PS qui défend la retraite à 60 ans (BVA) Cécile Quéguiner Plus de la moitié des Français jugent que le gouvernement a " tort de vouloir aller vite dans la réforme " et estiment que le PS a " raison de défendre l’âge légal de départ en retraite à 60 ans ". Résultat d’un sondage BVA/Absoluce pour Les Échos et France Info , paru ce matin. Une majorité de Français (58%) estiment que la position du Parti socialiste , qui défend le maintien de l’âge légal de départ à la retraite à 60 ans,