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20 ways of doing translation into English

If you look at my blog regularly you'll know that I am not a massive fan of using translation in lessons. I lean towards a "comprehensible input" or "structured direct method" approach, if you like (they are not the same), more than the "let's compare with English", cognitive/analytical approach, as much as possible. That's my bias, which stems from my own lessons at school and the training I received at the University of London back in 1979-80. That's not to say I never used translation. If I did so, it was for variety, because it was in the exam (at A-level) or because I thought it might help fix grammatical accuracy. With advanced students I also knew they saw translating into English as a good mental challenge.

But I never really thought it was the best way to build much fluency or comprehension.

Now, of course, translation is back in GCSE from June 2017. There will be some TL to English translation (minimum 90 words) and there will be some English to TL, although this will most likely not be a set piece translation task. We'll soon know for sure. This means the latest KS3 courses are regrettably featuring more translation and that teachers will dutifully do it, either because they believe in it, or because they feel they have to.

For some balanced arguments about translation:

Here is an attempt to rehabilitate translation:

I'll look at translation into the target language in a later blog. How can we approach translation from the TL? Here are 20 ideas. Do you have others? Do share!

  • Explain why you are doing it. Tell them it's mainly about building comprehension and reading for detail. Warn them, of course, that a word-for-word approach only works sometimes and it's a chance for them to show off how well they can use English.
  • Allow pupils to use Google Translate to see how well it does and to make corrections where they see fit. They will learn something from the process and, let's face it, if they get the chance, many will use it anyway.
  • Alternatively, avoid setting translation for homework. Google Translate is very good at a simple or intermediate level.
  • Work in groups. each group does a different section of text. then bring it all together. Add a competitive element with a time limit or race.
  • Work in groups on the same language, then compare versions.
  • Do it very traditionally as a teacher-led activity so the class get into how you are thinking and hear higher quality input than in a group. make sure all students are kept busy by writing down agreed answers. Use "no hands up" and vigilance where necessary to keep all pupils engaged.
  • Get students to sign up for a forum like Wordreference. Give them specific words or phrases to research.
  • Give them phrases to research using Linguee (
  • Provide gap fill partial translations, especially for weaker groups.
  • "Running translation" - like "running dictaion" but the fetcher brings back some TL for the scribe to translate (with the fetcher's help). Make it a race.
  • "Find the translation" - give students a list of quite hard sentences or short paragraphs. Post translations around the classroom (or hide them) for them to find individually or in teams. Make it a race.
  • "Pick the best translation". Provide pieces of TL with, say, three alternative translations, only one of which is just right. You can make this as subtle as you wish, depending on the class. Pupils can work individually or in pairs.
  • Gapped aural translation. Give pupils a gapped piece of English. gaps must be designed to make guessing hard. Then read them a text in TL. Students fill gaps. You could make these quite funny and implausible.
  • "Translation dictation". Get them to play the role of a written interpreter. The teacher speaks then pupils write down their translation to a time limit. The teacher may have to repeat utterances more than once. This has the benefit of providing target language listening input as well.
  • Do matching tasks: TL on one side, English on the other. Students link up the right pairs.
  • Use parallel texts to provide models. These can be done alongside other comprehension tasks (e.g. those on Y7 page of
  • Hand out cards to students. Half the class get English, half get TL. Then play a sort of whole class pelmanism.
  • Using "find the French" style tasks. Either traditional ones with texts, or an aural one whereby students have to pick out phrases you use in some spoken TL.
  • Use questions in English to deliberately elicit translations from the text.
  • Give "real life" tasks e.g. a menu in French to translate, cooking recipes, an advertising leaflet, instructions.


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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:
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