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Showing posts from November, 2015

Does output practice make you a more proficient linguist?

In my previous blog I talked about the issue of the interface between conscious and unconscious learning. I stress that I am no academic scholar and look at this from the point of view of a teacher with an interest in and some knowledge of the field of second language acquisition research.

In the fascinating Nick Ellis chapter I referred to yesterday, he develops his views about explicit and implicit learning by referring to output practice. If you go along with the Krashen input hypothesis (we acquire language by no more than understanding messages), then listening and reading are far more important than speaking, the latter skill only being useful in as far as it provides the opportunity to get more input. Ellis challenges this as follows: firstly, output practice (structured speaking tasks such as pattern drills and rules) can be used to construct utterances in working memory. The principle of "practice makes perfect" applies. Next, he then refers to a model of learning (…

The interface problem

No, it's not the name of a new movie. This is one of those things second language acquisition researchers worry about and which has a significant implications for the way we teach languages. What is it?

Back in 1981-ish Stephen Krashen reworked a very old idea about language learning, namely that there are two ways we learn, the first conscious, the second unconscious. This is sometimes called in psychology explicit and implicit learning. Krashen decided to rechristen them learning and acquisition. Since then, brain research has suggested that there is a lot in this and that the brain has two quite distinct ways of processing new information, the first when we pay conscious attention, the second when information is absorbed "beneath the radar", by osmosis (for want of a better word).

Krashen went further though. He hypothesised that consciously, explicitly learned knowledge could not become part of the unconscious, implicit system. In other words, he argued, there is abs…

Games for Teaching Primary French

This is a review of the book Games for Teaching Primary French by Danièle Bourdais and Sue Finnie, just published by Crown House at £18.99.

I should say at the outset that I have precisely zero experience of teaching primary French, but I did teach many Y7 classes over the years, so I might have some useful observations to make. I would expect games for primary children to involve a good deal of activity and these do.

This well-priced book of 250 pages is divided into sections with the titles Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing, Numbers, Grammar and Playing with Sounds. The authors describe the book as a practical toolkit ('in' word, that) containing a wide variety of fun and engaging games for all abilities, from beginners to more competent learners. The no-tech games are designed to support existing schemes of work and are claimed to be based on sound pedagogy and years of classroom experience. All good so far!

There then follows a large number of games, one per page or tw…

There is no best method

I've been reading the excellent concluding chapter of Diane Larsen-Freeman and Marti Anderson's book Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (2011). Having analysed a range of language teaching methods practised around the world, they consider the question which many teachers would ask: is there a best method? The answer, unsurprisingly, is no. But they examine the question in much more detail.

One of the arguments they make for learning about methods is that it helps keep your teaching practice alive. They quote from an article by N.S. Prabhu (1992):

...if the teacher engages in classroom activity with a sense of intellectual excitement, there is at least a fair probability that learners will begin to participate in the excitement and to perceive classroom lessons mainly as learning events - as experiences of growth for themselves.*

I like that. It chimes with something I have always thought, namely, that if you believe in your approach and can justify it in principle, …

Book review: Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (2011)

As part of our research for the handbook project I have been reading a range of books from the field of second language learning and teaching. The latest one I've been reading is by Diane Larsen-Freeman and Marti Anderson, two leading researchers and writers in the field. It's called Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching. It is aimed at trainee teachers and teachers in general, rather than academics.

The approach of this book is to go through a good number of language teaching methods and to analyse, quite closely, the principles and practice associated with them. It's not particularly easy to divide methodologies up in this way; different writers classify them in various ways. For example, the whole area of "direct method" gets complicated and overlaps with aspects of audio-lingualism and the communicative approach.

Anyway, Diane and Marti, after a preface looking at why teachers might be interested in methods, examine in turn grammar-translation, the D…

The Modern Language Teacher's Handbook by Gill Ramage

Gill Ramage's book The Modern Language Teacher's Handbook was published in 2012. It's a concise, admirably clear summary of most of the key issues of interest to language teachers learning their trade. It would be of most relevance to teachers in the UK.

The contents are familiar for this type of book: the aims of modern language learning, lesson planning, teaching listening, speaking, reading, writing, target language use, grammar teaching, assessment and authenticity. There is also a chapter on using technology, links with native speakers, trips and exchanges and work experience.

Gill takes a very pragmatic approach to language teaching, recognising, for example, the practical limits of working in the target language and the realities of working with lower-attaining students. She hardly refers at all to theory and research, which may appeal to teachers who are wary of (or uninterested in) such things.

The main thrust of the book is practical advice and classroom ideas, …

Target Language Toolkit

Allison Chase published, earlier this year, a handy little book which would make a useful addition to a departmental library. It is called Target Language Toolkit (90 ideas to get your language learners using more target language).

The chapter titles are;

What does Ofsted say about the target language?
Identifying key language.
Implementing target language routines.
Monitoring and assessing learners' progress in using the target language.
Games and activities to encourage TL use.
Using ICT.
Target language beyond the classroom.
Cracking the toughest nuts.
Homework and independent learning.
Implementing a whole department TL initiative.

This is very much a practical book, with instantly usable ideas for the classroom. It reports Ofsted observations and guidelines (thereby ticking one teacher box), but does not engage in any discussion of the theoretical basis form using TL, which should be pretty self-evident anyway.

Allison provides useful lists of TL phrases for French, German an…

The new A-level Individual Research project

As you maybe already know, one new aspect of the MFL A-levels, first teaching starting in September 2016, is the idea of the Individual Research Project. This will be done by students only at A-level, not AS-level, and will be assessed as part of the A-level speaking test. The chosen subject has to be firmly rooted in the culture of the target language country. It actually constitutes the majority of marks in the oral assessment and will be assessed by means of a presentation and discussion lasting about 10 minutes. (The rest of the oral will be topic discussion from a stimulus card.) Final details are still being hammered out between the exam boards and Ofqual.

In principle, it seems to be one of the better ideas to have emerged from the DfE/ALCAB. It resembles coursework which we used to do some years ago, where students had a free choice of subject, assessed, at that time, by an essay. Students get to develop their research skills and I recall students producing some really interes…


This was a draft extract from the MFL Handbook Gianfranco Conti and I wrote. Motivation is a huge topic, but see what you make of this:

See also:

Zoltán Dörnyei and Kata Csizér (1998)* produced, from their studies, these ‘ten commandments for motivating language learners’. They are of a general nature, but make good sense.
1.            Set a personal example with your own behaviour. 2.            Create a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere in the classroom. 3.            Present the tasks properly. 4.            Develop a good relationship with the learners. 5.            Increase the learners’ linguistic self-confidence. 6.            Make the language classes interesting. 7.            Promote learner autonomy. 8.            Personalise the learning process. 9.            Increase the learners’ ‘goal-orientedness’. 10.          Familiarize learners with t…