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Showing posts from October, 2015

The best of both worlds

If you are a regular reader of my blogs you'll know that I have always been interested in both ends of the second language acquisition spectrum: conscious (explicit, learning, skill-building etc) and unconscious (natural, implicit, comprehensible input, acquisition etc). The more I have looked at the theory and research over the years, the more I think this particular debate about acquisition is a little futile. Because we cannot be sure what is happening in the 'black box' of the brain, if we make sure we provide meaningful, repetitive, structured exposure to language, plus some explanation, practice and communicative interaction, learning will occur.

Now, the rate at which learning will occur depends on a range of factors, including, crucially, motivation, plus lots of others such as aptitude, teacher quality, number and frequency of lessons, amount of homework, spacing of lessons and quality of input. Anything which can be done to optimise these factors will improve the…

Storytelling strip bingo

This lesson idea comes via teachers Martina Bex and Kristin Duncan. Martina can be found at Thanks!

It's a variation on the listening/vocab 'strip bingo' game where students write a list of topic words on a strip of paper, you read out single words and each time they hear a word at the top or bottom of the list they tear it off. About 10-15 words works well. The first student to tear off all their words is the winner. The game takes about 15 minutes.

In this version, instead of reading out single words, you slowly read a story, or other text, and students have to identify their words in context. This is a harder, but superior version of strip bingo. I would say superior because listening to longer chunks of text gives students more opportunities to pick out words in the continual stream of speech, an absolutely key skill in listening comprehension. It has a heavier 'cognitive load'.

It also, by the way, fits well within the paradigm of that TPRS appr…

Project-Based Learning

This is a draft extract from the forthcoming handbook and is a joint blog written with Gianfranco Conti of

Project-Based Learning (PBL)

This is akin to task-based learning and what is known in the UK as CLIL (Content and Language Integrate Learning).  Terminology varies in this field, but the following definition of CLIL from Coyle et al (2010)* is handy:

A dual-focused educational approach in which an additional language is used for the learning and teaching of both content and language.

When you think about it, it's what you often do when you teach at advanced level where the language becomes little more than the medium through which you teach about a cultural topic, film or literary text for example. At this level much basic grammar and high frequency vocabulary is already quite familiar to students and the focus becomes the content more than the language itself. With that in mind, many language teachers are already familiar with something loosely resembling …

Progress report on the MFL handbook

So far we have about 20 draft chapters completed, most of which need some more work.

Chapter titles include teaching listening, teaching reading, teaching writing, classroom oral techniques, teaching spontaneous speaking, teaching advanced level students, differentiation, target language teaching, games, behaviour management, technology, subject knowledge and assessment.

We are trying to produce something very practical for modern language teachers around the world. This poses one or two challenges in terms of the language used and how the debates are framed in various English-speaking countries. You need to know to tell your mark schemes from your rubrics!

We are anxious not to be too prescriptive or too wedded to one particular approach, but I can reveal that we are leaning towards a pragmatic approach based on elements of skill-building (explanation with practice, rather like the traditional presentation-practice-production model so many teachers favour) along with an acknowledgment t…

Five zero preparation writing activities

This is another brief extract from a draft chapter on writing from our handbook. The latter is gradually taking shape. Gianfranco and I have so many ideas to share! If you have any, do let us know via Twitter or email via

With intermediate groups you can lead a question-answer sequence on a topic, e.g. ‘Describe where you live’ or ‘My school’. As students give answers you can write up partial answers on the board. Students can copy these, filling any gaps as appropriate. If they do not have time they complete the sentences at home. They end up with a reasonably or wholly accurate piece of writing which they can use later for oral practice or exam revision. This makes for a multi-skill lesson with all students actively engaged.

With all levels, when you have worked orally on a text you can improvise questions to which students have to give written answers. You can offer a little support by starting answers for them when needed.

With intermediate students and above…

Five zero preparation speaking activities

For all levels, play 'one word at a time'. You begin a sentence or story with a word and then go round the class eliciting one word at a time to continue the sentence or story. Students could then play the game in groups. This can be amusing and forces students to monitor their grammar.

For intermediate and advanced levels play 'Just a minute'. Students have to try and speak about a topic for one minute without pausing badly or coming to a halt. If they do, another student 'buzzes in' to continue until one minute has elapsed. You can do this as a whole class game or, better, in small groups. The teacher can model the task first.

For advanced students, play 'Alibi'. You tell the class a crime was committed last night by two suspects in the class. Two volunteers go out and prepare their alibi - something they did together last night. They then come back in and are interrogated by the class in turn. While the pair were outside you will have prepared question…

Five zero preparation reading activities

For advanced students, write up some figures taken from a text at random on the board. Ask the students to work in pairs to find the figures in the text and then explain to each other what they refer to, using their own words where possible. When they finish, tell the students to turn over the text so that they cannot look at it. Point at the figures on the board and ask the students what they refer to.

For intermediate and advanced students, write a random list on the board of some key words or ideas from the text, choosing one item per paragraph. Ask the students to sequence them according to the article.

Ask intermediate or advanced students to design a worksheet based on a text. This would be a good chance to talk about assessment and question types. The task also puts students in the shoes if the teacher, thereby helping them develop their own reading strategies.

For all levels, when you worked on a text for some time, ask students to hide the text. You then read aloud the te…

Five zero preparation listening activities

With intermediate classes talk to them for about three minutes about what you did over the previous weekend. Ask students to make notes in English. Then, get them to feed back to you in English or preferably the TL How much did they understand? You could adjust tne task by talking to them, then doing an instant true-false task: Did I...?
Instant true-false. With beginners simply make a series of, say, twenty statements in TL associated with the topic you have been working on. Tell students only half of them will be true. Who can identify them all? You could use really simple, potentially amusing statements: "Paul is a girl. The computer is on the ceiling. My name is Barbie."
'Say the next word or sound'. For near beginners or low intermediates, simply read aloud a text you have been working on. When you pause, either at the end of a word, or in the middle of one, the students have to call out or whisper the next word or sound.
'Describe a picture'. With inte…

Do you have to be such a slave to the syllabus?

If you are a language teacher working in a school you almost certainly have to follow a syllabus, such as, in England and Wales, the GCSE or A-level. Because of a real or perceived lack of time and an understandable sense of duty to the students, you probably stick fairly closely to the programme for fear of missing anything out.

The only problem with this approach is that you might spend too long on boring topics and deprive yourself of doing subjects or tasks you and the students would enjoy more. For instance, when I taught AQA AS-level one of the "sub-topics" was sport and I didn't feel it generated that much communication so I would pay lip service to it by doing a text on drug taking in sport and a discussion sheet to cover key vocabulary and likely exam oral questions. I ignored all the material in the bland text book we had available. This left time to look at different issues, show a movie, read a short story, do a task-based activity or play some useful games.


The Handbook of Language Teaching: a review

As background reading for the handbook Gianfranco and I are writing, I have been reading The Handbook of Language Teaching edited by Michael Long and Catherine Doughty in 2011. Long and Doughty are academic researchers in the field of second language acquisition. As a consequence the focus of their book, a collection of articles from a range of SLA researchers, is on the academic and theoretical rather than everyday classroom practice.

It is a bulky and thorough tome, covering a wide range of issues. There are 38 chapters divided into eight parts. Several of the chapters are summaries of the best and most recent research into second language learning and teaching. Chapter titles from the section on teaching and testing include Methodological Principles, Teaching and Testing Listening Comprehension, Teaching and Testing Reading, Teaching and Testing Speaking, teaching and Testing Writing and Task-Based Teaching.

Each of these chapters takes you on a tour of the research, all referenced i…

Correcting students' errors

I am currently reading The Handbook of Language Teaching edited by Michael Long and Catherine Doughty. It's an excellent summary of research into many aspects of second language learning and teaching. Some teachers may find it slightly heavy-going, full, as it is, with detailed references to research, but I recommend it to you if you are looking for some serious methodological underpinnings to your work as a language teacher.

Diane Larsen-Freeman, a major name is second language acquisition research writes an interesting chapter about teaching grammar, part of which is devoted to error correction.

She begins by saying that the value of correction is hotly debated and that research offers no clear guidance on the best approach. That's useful! Some researchers feel that correcting at all is a waste of time since it makes students anxious and doesn't actually improve acquisition. Most researchers, however, take the view that giving correction in a supportive way is of value.

As …

What happened to climate change?

One of the notable gaps in content in the new draft MFL A-levels is the environment, notably the issue of the climate crisis. This point was earnestly raised by a teacher at a recent A-level launch meeting I led for AQA. He felt that to omit the number one issue facing humanity was, at the least, surprising.

To be fair to the exam boards, it was not entirely their fault. When Michael Gove's ALCAB panel, led by Russell Group academics, looked into A-level, this is the list of topics they put forward for French.

Republican values
Provinces and regions
Québecois culture
Les grands projets
Freedom of expression

The French revolution
The French empire and decolonisation
The Algerian war of independence
The occupation
The Dreyfus affair
Right and left in politics
The revival of antisemitism

The new wave
Popular music
Contemporary television
Impressionsist painting
French mathematics
Science and technology in c…