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Selection and grading

A fundamental principle of choosing a resource for a class should normally be skilled selection and grading.

This involves choosing material which approximates to the current level of a class and then takes them a step further. With a text, for example, you do not want to overload the students with too much new vocabulary or unfamiliar grammar. Some theorists would favour a "finely tuned" selection and grading whereby you very carefully design or choose a resource to include previously practised material plus just a little more. Others would favour "rough-tuning", arguing that you do not need to worry too much about focusing on the form and that interesting content of roughly the right level should be sufficient.

Teachers who favour more naturalistic approaches (e.g. TPRS or CLIL) place less emphasis on fine-tuning, whilst making sure, in general, that they limit the range of vocabulary and grammar they present and practise.

Most teachers in a high school context stick with a more finely-tuned approach, at least in the early stages, basing their selection and grading on a grammatical progression with topics bolted on.

My own preference in early stages is for a fine-tuning approach. This the one adopted by traditional textbooks going back many years and features a grammatical syllabus with just a small amount of new material being introduced at each level, with plenty of revision built in. The Tricolore course does this pretty well for more able learners. A good principle to keep in mind is that you do not want to present learners with lots of new vocabulary whilst you are also teaching a new point of grammar. Gianfranco Conti, in his excellent blog, refers to this in Point 2 here. In essence you shouldn't overload students with too much new material at once.

One clear disadvantage of fine-tuning, with its focus on form, is that it restricts the topics you can cover so you end up avoiding potentially interesting subject matter. The familiar challenge is to try and marry smart selection and grading with interesting content. It's not easy.

At a more advanced level, once the basics of syntax, vocabulary and morphology have been grasped and partly internalised, I would be less fussy about fine-tuning. By this stage my own inclination is to assume that lots of comprehensible input will generally do the job along with however much controlled practice seems necessary with the group in front of you.

There is, alas, despite what some claim, little convincing research which lends support to either of these approaches and in practice I would think most teachers in the school setting use a mixture of fine and rough-tuning.

What I consider poor practice is choosing a resource which is clearly much too easy or much too hard for a group. This is a potential danger of wanting to use, at all cost, authentic resources. The latter have not been written with learners in mind so are very unlikely to be finely tuned and may not even be roughly tuned. The current requirement to include literary texts in GCSE teaching causes a real issue with selection and grading. Hardly any material from a novel or play will be suitable so teachers will be wise to avoid these and make use of well-chosen songs or poems. Feature films are also an issue and can only really be justified at lower levels for their cultural value with most classes.

I have written a little more on this here.


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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…

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

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…