Monday, May 8, 2023

Live marking

 In this post, I would like to concentrate on the one element of our job which most of the colleagues (myself including) that I have spoken to over the years as a teacher and as a leader, enjoy the least: marking!

We all appreciate that marking and feedback are pivotal to our role as teachers, and they are also essential for our students in terms of moving their learning forward but that doesn't mean that everything needs to be or should be marked!

Unfortunately, there are still schools, leaders, and teachers out there who desire to mark every piece of work and record written feedback into students' books for the sake of the 'marking policy'! Consequently, the workload is becoming unmanageable forcing more and more teachers to give up teaching because this way of working is unsustainable and their work/life balance as well as wellbeing are becoming seriously compromised!

On the other hand, there is also a rising number of Trusts, schools and leaders that are moving away from the 'traditional marking' in favour of a more efficient and effective feedback method such as 'live marking'.

                     image @freepik

What is live marking and why are practitioners adopting it as a more effective method?

Foremost, live marking is a method which provides effective feedback on student work while they are still in the process of completing it, the idea being, is to give students instant feedback on their work. 
Therefore, in my practice, whilst students are working, I circulate the classroom looking at their work and pointing out the good elements in their work and address mistakes or misconceptions during their working process. If I spot that quite a few of my students are making the same type of a mistake or struggle with the same type of a concept, I stop the process and re-address or re-teach the concept (responsive teaching).

I often use it also when students have completed an independent piece of writing. In this case, I would collect 6-7 pieces of writing, put them under my visualiser and mark them 'live', while the rest of the class follows and marks their own work alongside
Even though students' pieces of writing differ, from experience, they make the same types of mistakes, i.e., in German, not writing nouns with capital letters, mis-spelling certain sounds (ei/ie), making mistakes with the WO, making mistakes with the construction of their tenses - missing out the past participle, auxiliary verb, the infinitive or using the wrong verb/adjectival ending etc.
*Examples of live marking

The pros of live marking are:
  • it is timely: in other words, it is within the timeframe that is meaningful to students' learning.
  • it is specific: in other words, specific to the key LOs that the students are aiming to secure during the learning episode or in the period of learning.
  • it is action-based: to move students' learning forward they complete a specific (targeted) step or a task.
  • it addressed common misconceptions or high frequency errors, thus reducing their likelihood of making that mistake in the first place.
Live marking is aligned with the EEFs 2021 guidance report's feedback principles, provides instant gratification (students feel motivated) and is a win in terms of workload (no longer taking stacks of books home and spending the evenings and weekends marking).

However, there is also caveat to bear in mind. Nothing is perfect! 
Live marking can be time-consuming. Getting around the whole class within the limits of the lesson can be challenging, even impossible. Therefore, in my own classroom, when planning my lessons, I decide beforehand how many books or which students' books I want to sample during that specific learning episode, and I use it alongside other feedback strategies, such as MWBs, C4U, cold call, RP, questioning etc. 
In my 18 years of teaching, this method has proven more impactful than any other that I have tried previously, including the infamous 'triple marking'!

In conclusion, I believe when trying any new approach or method, it is important to ensure it is fit for purpose for our individual and unique contexts, finding out what works and doesn't work for us and our own classrooms is essential as there is no one size fits all! It is very much trial and error to find the best 'fit'!

*template for independent writing by @teacheryDiaz

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Worked examples in the Language classroom

 One of the most effective teaching strategy for languages classroom are worked examples. As a type of instructional method, they provide students with a clear and structured way to learn new language structures i.e., grammatical concepts, fulfil tasks and they can support them in the development of all 4 language skills (receptive and productive). 
Worked examples are essentially step-by-step model demonstrated by the teacher guiding the students through the process whilst explaining each step as well as the reasoning behind it in order to solve a problem or complete a task.

                         Image by Freepik

What are the benefits of worked examples? 
Here are mine …
  • Improved comprehension: Worked examples provide my students with a clear and structured approach in terms of understanding new and complex structures, in terms of completing certain tasks and development of their language skills, making it easier for them to comprehend the process.
  • Reduced cognitive load: By breaking it down (chunking it) into smaller steps, my students are able to focus on each step individually without being overwhelmed.  For us, the teachers, this is important; being aware of the limitations of the WM as well as taking into account that some of our learners might need more time to embed the new knowledge into their LTM (SEND/lower prior attainers).
  • Increased problem-solving ability: They provide my students with a model that they can apply to similar scenarios and contexts in the future, thus fostering/supporting their metacognitive strategies.
  • Increased confidence: Seeing how concepts/tasks are tackled step-by-step helps my students to feel more confident in their own ability to approach and complete similar tasks, hence nurturing their self-efficacy along the way as well.
There are different ways how I model worked examples to my learners depending on the concept/skill or the type of the class that I teach. However, one of the most useful investment for my classroom has been my visualiser and I cannot recommend it strongly enough!
Examples of step-by-step model (writing)
Here are some examples of how I use worked examples in my own classroom:

  • Grammar: I often use worked examples to teach grammar rules and concepts, such as verb conjugation, sentence structures or word order, which can be tricky in German. For example, I provide my students with a worked example of a sentence using the present, past or future tense of a verb, and then ask students to apply this rule to create their own sentences.
  • Speaking and vocabulary: Worked examples can also be used to teach speaking skills and new vocabulary. For example, I show students a worked example of a conversation in German (also providing scaffolds where needed), highlighting key vocabulary words, chunks, and their meanings. My students then practice using these chunks/words in their own conversations. Where scaffolds are used these will be removed gradually as students become more confident and independent.
  • Writing: Worked examples can be particularly useful for teaching writing skills. For example, I prepare a worked example of a well-written piece of writing (WAGOLL), highlighting the key elements such as the variety of languages, vocabulary, structures - we analyse it together. I often show my students 2 or 3 examples and they have to rank them from the most developed response to the simplest one. After we have worked extensively with the examples, students then practice their own pieces of writing independently using this model.
  • Reading/Listening: In the context of reading or listening skills, using a worked example shows my learners how to approach a reading comprehension question i.e., by identifying the main idea, looking for supporting evidence (I get my students to highlight/underline where they have found the answer), and summarising key points. By seeing this process modelled, my learners can better understand how to approach similar questions on their own and in listening tasks, they can improve their ability to listen for and understand important information in spoken target language.
                                                      Worked examples of the 80-90 word writing task

To use worked examples effectively in the classroom, I 

  • start with simple examples and gradually increase the difficulty.
  • provide plenty of opportunities for my students to practice tackling similar concepts/tasks on their own.
  • encourage my students to ask lots of questions and provide feedback during the guided practice/modelling process.
  • use a variety of examples to show how the same concepts/ideas/structures can be applied in different contexts.

In conclusion, worked examples are a valuable teaching tool in modern language classrooms. By providing our students with clear examples and opportunities to practice using these concepts/structures and language on their own, we can help our students develop strong foundations in the target language.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Mini whiteboards - the number 1 classroom tool?

With recent publications of various edu-books, mini whiteboards seem to be experiencing some kind of 're-birth' in the world of education, with many subjects only just discovering their effectiveness. In my own classroom, I have been using them for several years...

Using mini whiteboards (MWB) is an excellent way of checking for students' understanding and addressing gaps in their knowledge as well as misconceptions quickly and effectively.
They are a powerful tool which supports formative assessment, and they are referred to by Tom Sherrington as 'the number one bit of classroom kit.' 
For many languages classroom and teachers, they are irreplaceable. From my personal experience even the most reluctant learners are willing to share their knowledge using them much more readily as they perceive them lower threat - any mistakes can be easily erased!

However, using them effectively and efficiently does require a certain level of organisation and 'training'. 
Sometimes teachers can be reluctant in using them especially with more 'challenging' classes as they are worried it can become chaotic and the behaviour of students can get 'out of hand'. 
Creating routines is essential for their effective use and even my most tricky classes on Friday afternoon enjoy using them and I can promise you there is no chaos! Students need to be 'trained' how and when to use them! Be very explicit with your instructions!

If you are a novice teacher or indeed an experienced one only starting to use them, there are some steps to consider before you go ahead...
                         Upklyak -

  • Planning - like planning your lesson, the use of MWBs needs to be planned. When do you want to use them and for what purpose - RP, CFU, dictation, translation, grammar practice...?
  • Distribution - think about how you are going to manage the logistics of giving them out? I get them ready in the morning before my lessons start. They are in packs (baskets) on the side of the desk for an easy access and distribution. I also explain to students how I want them to be used and handled, i.e only when I ask them to, they are not to be touched or used before (no fiddling with pens or doodling). After the use students need to make sure the lids are back on the pens and together with the sponges, they are put neatly back into their baskets out of the way.
  • Response format - it might be obvious to us, but clarifying as to how students need to write their responses, i.e, using large writing, answering simultaneously when you ask them to, can save time and avoid endless questions, confusion, or competition as to who answers first. Students need to understand you are looking for precise/correct/best answers thus avoiding answers being rushed and inaccurate.
  • Safe environment - creating safe environments where mistakes are welcome and encouraged is also important in terms of successful execution. A colleague of mine - a geographer also asks her students to write 'G' if her student is guessing the answer.
  • Use - Being explicit when to use them and how to show their responses is also a 'must'. Students are often keen to share their knowledge and if not instructed specifically to show their boards on command, i.e. 'Show me, 3, 2, 1, now', the session can erupt in chaos and as mentioned above in some kind of a competition.
                                                                      Example of Research Lead's One pager - EWA
What do I use mini whiteboards for?
  1. Retrieval practice - for testing of vocabulary or chunks of language in this way, the teacher can see instantly what students know and what they struggle with.
  2. Dictation - as this will be a new part of the GCSE course, MWBs can be used easily to check students' knowledge of SSCs and provide instant feedback in terms of whether more work is needed on phonics etc.
  3. Minimal pairs - I use these often to re-enforce correct pronunciation. I display on my main board set of words, similar in their spelling/pronunciation, read one out and students need to write which option is correct - 1 or 2.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  4. Translation - I simply say a sentence/chunk/word in L1 and students translate into L2 and vice versa. If students don't know a specific word, they can replace it with a synonym or leave a gap to be then reviewed and the gaps in knowledge to be addressed when checking answers.
  5. Grammar checks - could be used for recognition of tenses, WO, conjugation, adjectival agreements etc...
  6. Mini writing - I use this mostly with my KS3 classes as a consolidation task - I ask my students to write as much as they can in 5 minutes about themselves/their family/pets/hobbies/school etc.
  7. Brainstorming/mind maps - another way of using MWBs is for planning or brainstorming vocab/ideas/grammar points prior to completing an independent piece of writing. This could be done individually (think-pair-share) or in pairs.
In conclusion, I personally would recommend them. They are an integral part of my teacher toolkit and a way to involve even my most reluctant learners. However, to use them successfully, make sure students know your expectations and you have a firm routine in place.
Finally, most importantly, enjoy using them!

If you find my ideas and resources useful, you can show your appreciation by buying me a☕. Link here.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

GCSE Picture task: How I teach it and how we practise it

 The Picture-based task is the second part of the current GCSE speaking exam for both exam boards Edexcel and AQA. In the case of the Edexcel exam board, which we use at my Academy, in terms of quantitative value, the task is worth 24 marks. For the foundation tier, it is recommended that it should last 2 1/2 - 3 mins, for the higher tier, 3 - 3 1/2 mins. The task contains a picture and set of questions drawn from one topic and is allocated by the exam board.

Regardless of which exam board you are using, the strategies that I have been utilising successfully in my own classroom and which I will be sharing in this post can be easily applied/adapted to any context.

As opposed to the Role Play task, which is very short and doesn't need extended answers, the Picture-based task is a task that requires students to extend their answers and respond spontaneously. They need to be able to describe the picture in front of them, use the prompts provided to prepare for 'what is coming' and consequently respond to set of follow up questions posed by the teacher - examiner. In these questions students will need to be able to use opinions and justifications on the topic related to the picture, use past and future tense and for the students sitting the higher tier exam to respond to an unknown question.

I strongly believe, that the speaking (as well as the writing) section of the GCSE exam gives students the opportunity to be in control. It is the part where with our expert teaching, guidance, support, careful coaching and extensive practice, they can truly 'smash' it! 
It is our obligation to prepare our learners the best we can so they can achieve their potential and experience success.

The strategies that I use, ensure that all of my students are participating and progressing and where necessary they are getting the support they need because many of them find the speaking element quite tricky. 

The main objective for the steps listed below is to reduce the cognitive load and to allow students to practise each individual bullet point (grammatical structure) extensively before moving onto the next one thus not overloading students' WM.


  1. Lesson starts with a retrieval task - 'Cops and Robbers' (template available on my resource page under RP) where students compile vocabulary, structures, ideas related to the picture task - firstly individually and then check with partners for more ideas. They feed back to the class.
  2. Students have their own copies of the student version of the PT and I also display it on the board. We start with the description only, first! In English, we brainstorm sentences that we could use in TL, generating simple sentences to start with. We use the PALM acronym to help with ideas/structure.
  3. Working as a whole class, I ask for volunteers to give one sentence each (in TL) to describe the picture i.e., student 1 says: 'On the picture there is..., student 2 adds 'The people/boys etc. are playing/chatting..., student 3 contributes with: 'They are at home in the living room... until we have about 5-6 pieces of information describing the picture. Students have to listen to each other so they don't repeat the same sentences and to ensure that what they adding are makes sense. We practise this as a class (later on with cold calling) a few times also adding connectives.
  4. After the practice as a whole class, I pair students up (I do this myself to ensure students are paired by the tier and suitability). In pairs students practise together taking turns, each saying/adding a sentence. This ensures all students are speaking/participating and have their partner there to support them if they need it. I circulate the classroom, listen to their responses and provide feedback. We call it 'ping-pong speaking'. In this way, we practise 3-4 different cards rehearsing the first bullet point only, until students are confident with it.
  5. I ask 3-4 pairs then 'ping-pong' speak for the class. I don't expect perfection, I just want all of my students to feel confident to give me a response. We aim for the best we can do.
After the rehearsal of the first point we move to the second one and proceed in the same way. We aim to practise 2-3 points per lesson depending on the class.

I certainly don't expect 'perfection' but work on getting everybody to feel confident and able to respond and to get the best possible outcome for each individual student, providing scaffolding initially - I do/we do/you do in pairs/you do individually

For the lower prior attaining students, it is my belief, that providing high frequency verbs, structures, vocabulary that could be easily used across topics, is the key to build their self-efficacy and to achieve success.

Please, share in comments any other ideas/strategies you use with your own students which have proven successful and high impact.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Deep Dive

 As there is a lot of anxiety around the Ofsted Deep Dives in the teaching community, in this post, I would like to share my experience with my recent Ofsted MFL Deep Dive in a hope that it might be useful to some of you at some level even though experiences will vary from school to school; also depending on whether your inspector was a subject specialist or not.

During the late afternoon of the day when the call came in, we were notified by our SLT about which departments will be 'deep dived'. Reading this post, you can rightly guess - ours was one of them.

The inspector that was assessing our department, was MFL specialist with a degree in French and an ex Headteacher. 
In my opinion, for the Subject Leader, this information could be a positive one in terms of being reassured that the inspector will have the understanding of how your subject, in my case - languages, is taught and learnt in U.K. secondary schools or negative one in terms of they can scrutinise, question and unpick your curriculum and provision in much more depth than a non-specialist inspector. 

However, in both scenarios the scrutiny will be a thorough and intensive one! 

Here is what it looked like on the day...

The format of the day:
I have taught my first lesson as normal.
From the second lesson, to start with, I had a cca. 30 minutes long interview with the inspector answering a set of questions such as: 
  • How closely is your curriculum aligned with the National Curriculum for MFL?
  • How do you ensure your curriculum is ambitious?
  • Why have you sequenced it like this?
  • How do you ensure there is a clear progression in your curriculum?
  • Walk me through what students can do in year 7 as opposed in year 8, at KS3 as opposed in GCSE?
  • What do you expect your students to know by the time they leave your school?
  • How do you ensure students retain the essential knowledge?
  • How do you close the gaps in their knowledge?
  • How do you address misconceptions? How do you know students understand?
  • What is your marking and feedback policy like? Why? What is the rationale behind it?
  • What forms of assessment do you use to assess your students? How often?
  • How do you support students with SEND?
  • How do you stretch your higher attaining students?
  • How does your staff keep their language knowledge up to date?
  • What does the CPD look like in your school/department?
In my case, the inspector didn't want to see any of my documents, all I was asked to do is to 'walk the inspector through' it. I suppose it was to gauge whether I knew it really well; why we have planned it the way we have and how we knew the curriculum was working for our students. Obviously, this could have been different if it was a non-specialist, and they could have asked to see our curriculum map and sequencing documents...
After the interview, we have moved onto joined lesson observations
We observed 3 lessons, each for 20 minutes to see if what I was saying can be seen in the classroom practice - a part of Ofsted's triangulation.

First observation was year 10 GCSE class - the teacher was modelling under the visualiser co-construction of an 80-90-word task in the run up to students' CAEs. The inspector asked me to select 2 ex. books, one to be from a student with SEND/EAL and carefully looked through students' books and folders which contained various workbooks providing scaffolding, such as i.e., writing and speaking workbooks... with a comment: 'I can see what you have been talking about...'
When looking through the SEND/EAL student's book, I mentioned that the student has joined the school in year 9 and chose to take up GCSE German. ( I knew this student as I taught him the previous year.)
This was followed (after the inspector looked at the Retrieval Practice tasks in the book) by a comment: 'I can see, he is getting it...'
Second observation was year 8 class completing their summative assessment. 
Still, we stayed for cca. 15 minutes during which the inspector circulated the classroom, looking at students completing the assessment and picking up some ex. books to look through (again selecting 2 - one being a SEND student). I was also asked to take a note of their names as these students would become a part of the pupil voice and interview. The class teacher was circulating during the assessment.
Third observation was my own class of year 8 students covered by our ECT who only found out she will be covering my lesson in the morning when she arrived in school as the day's timetable was emailed later on in the evening and I haven't picked it up till the morning - I suppose we got some sleep, at least! 
During this part of the lesson, students were completing independently translation activity whilst the teacher was circulating and then giving feedback using CFU/ probing questions/process questions etc. 
The inspector sat at the back of the classroom next to a student and at one point, quietly asked the student to read out a small section of her writing. As previously, 2 ex. books were selected. 
The students whose books were selected were also interviewed by the inspector as part of the triangulation and evidence collecting process.

There was one more round of observations during the last lesson, this time with a member of the SLT and I also got to be observed with my year 7 class
This was the second lesson in the sequence of lessons talking about pets. I was using MWBs for dictation, translation, CFU as well as cold calling - grammatical concepts of genders which I haven't taught explicitly in this sequence, but students could transfer the knowledge of it from their previous learning and could produce written output independently.

After this set of observations at the end of the lesson, the inspector came back to my classroom and asked me a few additional questions that are mentioned in the list above. 
I also had to respond to a comment about independent speaking, specifically pair/group work which wasn't witnessed. The inspector felt there was a lot of speaking but it was teacher led. 
At this point, I had to 'defend my cause' and explain that the KS3 classes observed were at the start of the learning sequence and nowhere near the independent spoken production phase which is only possible after extensive practice and rehearsal towards the end of the learning sequence. In response to the GCSE class, I had to explain that we did not change our lesson planning because we had the Ofsted in, and at that point, we were preparing students for their writing CAEs hence that was why writing strategies inc. metacognition were modelled and taught.
In a response to this comment, we have offered to the inspector to come and see another lesson to demonstrate that our students can speak independently, even though it wouldn't be in our current lesson sequence.
The last stage was the interview with the team. The feedback from them was that they were asked about safeguarding, workload, briefly about the curriculum and our ECT was asked whether she feels she is getting adequate mentoring and support during her first teaching year.
On the morning of the next day, we were told unofficially, the department had done well, the inspectors were happy with the evidence and won't be seeing more language lessons! Well done, team!

From the experience I had, the inspector was not interested in what pedagogical approach to language teaching we use/follow but was interested in students making progress: knowing more, remembering more and thus being able to do more!!
The experience was very intense and exhausting, and I was in bed by 8pm! 

No curriculum is perfect. The only advice from my own experience, would be: Know your curriculum and the rationale behind it really well, make sure it is logically sequenced, the staff in your department also knows it and can verbalize it, ensure that what you say is evident in the classroom practice, can be confirmed by your students during their interview and don't hide anything or don't put up an 'one off show'! Do what you normally do and if something is not there yet (it's work in progress), say it and say what you are doing about it.

The curriculum is not finite; it is a working document which is constantly reviewed and adapted as necessary...

We use Conti E.P.I approach, examples of our curriculum map and sequencing documents are available on my Curriculum page.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

This one in on motivation

 "Motivation is complex and invisible which makes it hard to understand."

                                                                                        Peps Mccrea: Motivated Teaching

Human beings have always been concerned with motivation – a notion of how to get themselves or others to act or behave in a certain way.

We – teachers are no different. Throughout our professional career and day-to-day life, we struggle with how to motivate ourselves but also our learners in our subjects. Our students often find it challenging to generate the effort and persist at the tasks they are given to them – to motivate themselves.

In many instances, they are motivated by external (extrinsic) determinants such as reward systems or grades, however, frequently some of our learners are motivated by their interests, long-lasting values, or curiosity from within – by so called intrinsic motivations which are not necessarily recognized by external rewards.

The interplay between the extrinsic forces acting on persons and the intrinsic motives and needs inherent in human nature is the territory of Self-Determination Theory.’ (, 2022)

The evidence behind the SDT informs us that to facilitate intrinsic motivation in our learners we need to fulfil their three psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

For the development of intrinsic motivation, it is essential that our learners feel that they have a choice in what they are doing, they feel they can do it – self-efficacy and that they feel connected.

Having taught in secondary education in England for the past 18 years, over the years I have often heard colleagues complaining about their students' lack of motivation in language learning.
Talking from my personal experience and pupil voice I have conducted on this issue, the most common responses from my learners have been the following ones:
  1. Most people around the world speak English anyway so they feel there is no need to learn another language which requires a lot of effort and takes up a lot of time to learn to a 'decent' level, so why 'waste' the energy...
  2. They don't see how languages could be relevant to their careers, they don't want to work or live abroad.
  3. They don't have the cultural awareness or 'closeness' to other communities or cultures.
  4. They don't believe they can learn another language as languages are perceived as difficult and only people who are academic can learn them successfully. They lack the self-belief - self - efficacy in their ability to learn them. 
So, the questions that pose themselves are: 
How can we - teachers (who are so passionate about languages and who can list an x number of reasons why to learn a language) convince our students not to give up on such a useful skill - superpower? How can we support and motivate them? 

Getting it right at KS3

Each student that arrives in our classroom brings with them varying degrees of knowledge, cultural experiences, aspirations, backgrounds, and preconceptions.
At many schools, students are assigned a language based on, a tutor group or half/half split which can often result in students being assigned a language they might not been so keen on or the school might teach only one language...
Therefore, the aim of many language teachers is to turn that 'frown upside down' from the very first lesson and to continue inspiring and motivating them. This might be easier said than done!

1. The Teacher
To address the issue of languages being perceived as difficult, it can be highly effective to share our own language learning journey including our own struggles, showing our photographs, sharing our stories and experiences living in another country as for many of us, our teachers are the ones who inspired us to learn a language.

Many of us will remember fondly a teacher who inspired us. As M(F)L teachers there is a strong chance, the teacher taught languages.

They inspired us because of their passion for language, expert knowledge of the subject, enthusiasm & encouragement. How they guided us on our journey from complete novice to advanced linguist, the cultural anecdotes they shared with us, how they made the language meaningful & relevant within the walls of the classroom. This is what we want to relate to our students to foster their intrinsic motivation. The teacher really can make a difference!

2. The Curriculum
During the pandemic and the first lockdown, I had the time to review our curriculum and engage with the most recent educational research, including SLA more deeply and decided to re-design our curriculum completely in a way that would enable our students to develop their self-efficacy and consequently improve their motivation and attitudes towards language learning. 

So, what did we do?

First and foremost, we ditched the textbook and the purely didactic approach!
I, the Subject Leader, studied the most recently discussed approaches on language teaching:
  • Teaching languages via academic - grammar-based approach (NCELP)
  • Teaching languages via parallel texts à la Michaela style
  • Teaching languages via E.P.I (Conti)
  • Teaching languages via TPRS 
As I reviewed these four approaches, I felt that the E.P.I approach would be possibly the best fit for our context at KS3. 
We have researched, read upon, attended CPD and talked to colleagues/community about the E.P.I approach. Based upon what we found out, we decided to modify our KS3 SOW/curriculum to follow its principles.
We agreed on a format we wanted, used the textbook as a guide in terms of identifying the essential knowledge (vocabulary, structures) we needed to teach our students as this would lead to our GCSE course (5-year learning journey). We wanted these to be aligned to ensure coherent sequencing.
As a team we have divided and shared the workload to create new resources and worked on lesson sequences. 
This is the path we follow in year 7-8, in year 9, 10 and 11 we use more blended approach and combine more varied pedagogical approaches based on the needs of each individual class.
To read in more detail about the E.P.I approach including the different tasks that we use or development of each modality, search the blog archive, please.

3. The cultural aspect

'Teachers in many schools report that languages remain confined to the languages classroom, and this leads to pupils not seeing the real world benefit.' (Language Trends 2020, British Council).

Learning about the culture of another country is equally important. Children are naturally curious and when young they are more open to something 'unusual', to particularities of different cultures and ways of life. This 'story telling' that I have mentioned above, will bring the culture to 'life'. 
Cultural events, trips, exploring traditions and festivals, playing with maps and creating activities which are relevant, will bring the purposefulness.

There have been many webinars organised by Linguascope on incorporating culture into the languages curricula presented by various mfltwitterati for secondary teachers, such as Suzi Bewell, Isabelle Jones, Claire Wilson and many others available in the Linguascope staffroom as well as by Association for Languages Learning - ALL, presented by Judith Rifeser, Crista Hazel, Esmeralda Salgado etc.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Does practice really make 'perfect'?


“If challenge, explaining, modelling & questioning are the ingredients for learning, practice is the oven in which it is baked.”                                                                                                                                                                                       Allison/Tharby: Making every lesson count                                                                                                                

We often hear the saying: 'Practice makes perfect!' However, what is perfection? Does it even exist? If we are to consider it, I would argue that only 'perfect' practice makes 'perfect '! 
I am more inclined to agree with: 'Practice makes better and permanent.'

Practice is the learning journey from the first encounter with new language to its mastery for independent use. Without it, sounds and letters can be seen or heard, yet quickly forgotten, so practice is the route to retention. Practice is about meaningful processing of knowledge; it develops automatization and confidence. In other words, practice is a wide array of activities that are "engaged systematically, deliberately, with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in second language" (DeKeyser, 2007).

Meaningful practice is not mechanical, its aim is to bring together language that has been learnt over time for the purpose of meaningful communication. This can be achieved after a lot of meaningful and structured practice.

If we consider that in their home language, children are exposed to more than 17,000 hours of exposure by the age of four (Roffwarg et al., 1066, cited in Collins & Muñoz, 2016), this is nowhere near possible to achieve in secondary foreign language classroom in England, where learners typically have around 450 hours over five years of language learning (NCELP, 2021). Understandably, due to the constrains of timetabled curriculum, when we see our students on average two or three times a week for 50-60 minutes, it is vital to make the most of the practice, firstly by identifying what our students need to practise and secondly, the best way they should do it.

In the first instance, students profit from practising 'comprehensible input' (listening and reading) via structured tasks such as making phoneme-grapheme correspondences or connecting word or structure to its meaning / function, thus establishing knowledge receptively before they are expected to produce it productively through speaking and writing. 

Students need multiple encounters with new language in a variety of contexts to embed it in LTM - research suggests between 8-20 encounters for learning vocabulary (Schmitt, 2008). As far as I know, there is no conclusive consensus as to the optimum intervals between practice. However, it is clear that practice should be frequent enough to prevent forgetting, but spaced enough to create a certain degree of 'struggle' in recall - a 'desirable difficulty' (Bjork, 2016).
This type of practice is often not sufficiently represented in the textbooks where more emphasis is put on comprehension tasks with the focus on understanding of the key words or 'deducing' the overall message from several cues. The other issue with many textbooks is that they often rush to produce the new language and don't provide ample opportunities to practise decoding or parsing skills.

The whole purpose of practice is to ensure that linguistic knowledge, structures, and forms are well embedded in LTM and can be recalled quickly and effortlessly, thus becoming automatic, to develop and deepen students' receptive and productive skills as well as provide students with plethora of opportunities to interact in TL and reduce the rate of error. 

So, what types of practice can we use...

In her book 'Making good progress' Daisy Christodoulou discusses the "knowing-doing gap" - the concept that our students know what they are supposed to do, yet don't do it reliably.
For example, in German, my students may know that after 'weil', the verb moves to the end of the sentence, yet only some of my students will do so consistently.
The answer to this knowing-doing gap for Christodoulou lies in deliberate practice, specifically, the isolation and practice of the particular micro-skill. The small components of deliberate practice may look very different to the final skill. 
If the final skill was to write a high-level paragraph on a certain topic, we need to ensure that after the material has been broken down into small steps (Rosenshine), students have ample opportunities for deliberate practice of these components within lessons. 

This doesn't mean that deliberate practice should be easy, on contrary it should be challenging. In the case of the above scenario, it could be its application within a variety of contexts not just a specific topic or even looking at other conjunctions with the same rule.
Guiding student practice and monitoring their understanding is crucial. If we agree with the theory of 'practice makes permanent' rather than perfect (Lemov, Woolway & Yezzi, 2018) then the use of CFU, worked examples, guided practice are detrimental to our students' learning. 

In some lessons, our students will be dependent on direct instruction, explanation and working with models, in some they will rely on heavy or light guidance using writing frames and worked examples and in other lessons they will work at the autonomy stage - hopefully, at this stage they will be manipulating the language for their own purposes in both written and spoken form. 

                            Image: macrovector on Freepik

Strategies to support practice:

  • Sentence Builders / KO - these allow us to place the core knowledge in one place, have potential to reduce CL and support RP and self-quizzing.
  • Retrieval Practice (RP) - see a separate blog post on RP here.
  • Micro skills - as mentioned above
  • Overlearning - as per D. Willingham's findings from cognitive science - 'practice doesn't make perfect' (Practice makes perfect - But only if you practice beyond the point of perfection, 2004). In other words, for a new skill to become automatic or new knowledge to become long-lasting, sustained practice beyond the point of mastery is necessary (Maxwell, 2019). When designing and sequencing the curriculum, it is important to build in opportunities for students to overlearn. For example, if past tense has been explicitly taught and via deliberate practice mastered in the context of 'travel and tourism', return to it within a different context later on in the sequence to provide ('real life') opportunities to 'overlearn' the structures within this context.
  • Skills-based practice - Listening / Speaking / Reading / Writing - I wrote separate blog posts on each skill, click on the links for more.
The journey from dependency to autonomy will vary depending on the class and difficulty of the material. We are the judges as to making the decision whether our students had enough practice and are ready to move on. 

A caveat, as per the MFL Ofsted Review (2016), in the U.K. schools, at GCSE most students will be at the novice level with only the most proficient linguists being at the expert level!
This might be even more challenging to achieve due to the upcoming changes within the new GCSE and creating even bigger gap transitioning to A-Level!

James A Maxwell: Making every MFL lesson count (2019)
Shaun Allison & Andy Tharby: Making every lesson count (2017)
MFL Ofsted Review (2016)

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Lexical approach and chunking

Recently, I have been looking more closely at the research analysing the 'lexical approach' of language teaching. Here are some key facts that have been summarised by Scott Thornbury (2019) in Learning language in chunks. Part of the Cambridge Papers in ELT series.[pdf] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (For further reading, see references). 

Even though the paper refers in more detail to ELT there are also many parallels drawn to SLA which might be considered in context in our classrooms.

Over 25 years ago Michael Lewis published 'The Lexical Approach' (Lewis, 1993), prompting a radical re-think of the way we view language and how we teach it. He argued that "language consists of chunks, which, when combined, produce continuous coherent text" (Lewis, 1997)

By 'chunks' Lewis was referring to the following:

  • collocations (to get a call, to do the shopping, give way ...)
  • fixed expressions ( all of a sudden, by the way ...)
  • formulaic utterances (I'll get back to you later, I'm on my way...)
  • sentence starters (I believe that, As far as I know...)
  • verb patterns ( I hate to tell you.../I hate flying...)
  • idioms and catchphrases  (under the weather, break a leg ...)

Lewis was not the first to relate to language in these terms, however, his contribution was to argue that language teaching needed to be reformed/revolutionised...

            *pixabay image
(Lexical) chunks consist of more than one word, they are conventionalised, exhibit varying degrees of fixedness and idiomaticity and they are probably learned and processed as single items ('holophrases'). 
There is growing evidence, i.e. from read-aloud studies (Ellis et al, 2008) that chunks are processed holistically, rather than as a sequence of individual words. 
A number of studies have established that there are many chunks that are as or more frequent than, the most frequent individual words (Shin & Nation, 2008).

How could the learning of chunks profit language learning?

The 3 main reasons that have been put forward for prioritising the learning of lexical chunks are:
  1. Fluency - facilitation of fluent processing. The possession of memorized store of 'chunks' allows more rapid processing, not only for the production of language but also for reception, since 'it is easier to look up something from LT memory than compute it' (Ellis et al., 2008). Some researchers noted that when chunks were used more confidently, they contributed more to the perception of fluency (Boers & Lindstromberg, 2009)
  2. Idiomaticity - 'The use of chunks can help students to be perceived as idiomatic language users, disposing of a relatively impressive lexical richness and syntactic complexity' (Boers & Lindstromberg, 2009), alluding to native-like proficiency.
  3. Language development - another strong argument in favour of a lexical approach is that 'lexical phrases may also provide the raw material itself for language acquisition' (Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1989). In other words, the phrases are first learned as unanalysed wholes. 'The Lexical Approach claims that, far from language being the product of the application of rules, most language is acquired lexically, then "broken down" ... after which it becomes available for re-assembly in potentially new combinations' (Lewis, 1997). Ellis (1997) agrees: 'Learning grammar involves abstracting regularities from the stock of known lexical phrases.'
Based on studies (mainly with young learners), Ellis & Shintani (2014) accept that 'the prevailing view today is that learners unpack the parts that comprise a sequence and, in this way, discover L2 grammar. In other words, formulaic sequences serve as a kind of starter pack from which grammar is generated.'

Other researchers are less convinced, especially when it comes to literate adult learners who are inclined to unpack formulaic expressions for their words not syntax. (Wray, 2002). 
Scheffler (2015) concurs that, even if these 'unpacking' processes apply in L1 acquisition, the sheer enormity of the input exposure required to 'extract' a workable grammar is simply unfeasible in most L2 learning contexts' (Thornbury, 2019).
Swan (2006) argues that: ' Much of the language we produce is formulaic, certainly; but the rest has to be assembled in accordance with the grammatical patterns of language [...]. If these patterns are not known, communication beyond the phrase-book level is not possible.'

          *pixabay image

How are chunks best learned and taught?

In the summary mentioned above, these 4 groups are cited:

1. The phrasebook approach - the practical applications of the approach are: 
  • rote learning of formulaic expressions
  • drilling
  • shadowing - learner listens to extracts of authentic talk and 'sub-vocalises' at the same time
  • jazz chants - for young learners, preselected chunks are embedded via chants and songs
2. The awareness-raising approach - Krashen (1985) Input Hypothesis - the necessity for high quantities of roughly-tuned input as a source of learning
  • extensive reading and listening tasks
  • 'chunking' of texts - identifying possible chunks
  • listening to extracts of authentic speech and marking a transcript into tone units to identify likely chunks
  • record-keeping and frequent review
  • recycling chunks in learners' own texts (spoken or written)
3. The analytic approach - while Boers & Lindstromberg (2009) agree that time should be devoted to raising awareness about the role of chunks, they are sceptical that learners will be able to identify them without an aid. Their research supports the view that directing learners' attention to the compositional features of chunks can optimise their memorability. Their analytical approach comprises of:
  • teach vocabulary in chunks 
  • select chunks for targeting, also based on collocational strength and teachability
  • reveal non-arbitrary properties of chunks to make them more memorable
  • complement to improve chances of retention, elaboration of meaning and form
4. The communicative approach - Gatbonton & Segalowitz (2005) propose approach called ACCESS, which incorporates stages of controlled practice of formulaic utterances, embedded within communicative tasks. In other words, presenting and practising short chunks of functional language, before learners partake in interactive tasks that require the repeated use of these chunks for communication. 
'The ultimate goal of ACCESS is to promote fluency and accuracy while retaining the benefits of the communicative approach. In ACCESS, this is accomplished by promoting the automatization of essential  speech segments in genuine communicative contexts' (Gatbonton & Segalowitz, 2005).

With the restriction of the language curriculum time currently available, as well as the attitudes to language learning in many U.K. schools (even though it seems to be improving due to the pressures of Ebacc), the Lexicogrammar approach advocated by G.Conti which teaches language via chunks using sentence builders foremost and focuses on explicit grammar application later on in its sequence, might be the better solution for many schools in terms of development of communicative skills, self-efficacy and motivation compared to the very didactic approach of NCELP, which might be more suitable for highly academic or advanced learners. Or indeed combining a variety of approaches based on our specific contexts; especially if we want our students to know more and remember more (Ofsted MFL review, 2016). 

Key takeaways

Whatever strategy we might embrace, effective teaching should take into account the following:
  • distinction whether we teach production (speaking/writing) as well as reception (listening/reading)
  • the need to focus on meaning as well as form
  • the importance of teaching vocabulary in context, not as isolated items
  • the need to teach vocabulary deliberately, rather than just rely on incidental learning (Webb & Nation, 2017)
  • providing learners with the autonomy about what they are learning - 'the more one engages with a word (deeper processing), the more likely the word will be remembered for later use' (Schmitt, 2000) 
  • the importance of forming associations with vocabulary items - schemata - to aid retention and support memory - LTM - recall
  • the need for regular reviews - spaced and interleaved practice - retrieval practice
  • development of metacognitive skills - learners setting their own targets and measuring their success against them, making decisions about what and how they learn vocabulary


Ellis, R., & Shintani, N. (2014). Exploring language pedagogy through second language acquisition research, 71. London: Routledge
Gatbonton, E., & Segalowitz, N. (2005) Rethinking communicative language teaching: a focus on access to fluency. Canadian Modern Language Review, 61
Lindstromberger, S., & Boers, F. (2008). Teaching chunks of language: from noticing to remembering. Helbling Languages.
Selivan, L. (2018). Lexical grammar: Activities for teaching chunks and exploring patterns. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Webb, S., & Nation, P. (2017). How vocabulary is learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Scott Thornbury (2019) Learning language in chunks. Part of the Cambridge Papers in ELT series.[pdf] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.