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Review: Vocabulary in Language Teaching by Joe Barcroft

This short booklet of 36 pages published in 2017 is a beginner’s introduction to vocabulary, vocabulary learning and teaching. It is one of Joe Barcroft’s language teaching modules at Washington University in St Louis, USA. Joe is a leading researcher in the field of vocabulary acquisition as well as being a Professor of Spanish and Second Language Acquisition.

As well as providing concise analyses of the issues for language teachers, the booklet includes questions for reflection and short quizzes to check understanding. For many readers these will seem superfluous, I think.

Barcroft begins by defining what vocabulary is, reminding is that apart from isolated words, it includes lexical phrases and formulaic language such as “What can I do for you?”. It's worth repeating his reminder that nearly 50% of what we say is in the form of chunks which don't require us to syntactically code sentences. He gives a simple lesson in grammar by providing handy definitions of different type…
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Knowing Your Subject

The title of this blog is borrowed from an article by Mark Enser in the latest edition of Impact, the Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching. Mark reminds us of research carried out by Robert Coe et al (2014) which indicates that having good subject knowledge is one of the main keys to effective teaching. In another publication by Rosenshine - Principles of Instruction (2012) - one of the defining characteristics of effective teaching is claimed to be the ability to provide detailed explanations of the material being taught.

This got me thinking again what subject knowledge entails for language teachers. For the purposes of this blog post, I would split our own subject knowledge into three parts:

1. Linguistic skill - comprehension, fluency, instantly retrievable knowledge of vocabulary and a wide range of structures and idiom.
2. Meta-linguistic and cultural knowledge - knowledge of the rules of the language; the ability explain to classes how the language works; knowing about th…

New GCSEs: intended and unintended consequences

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But the 9-1 GCSEs have brought in their wake a few unintended consequences.

But first there is an intended consequence. It's true the DfE wanted to create a harder and more reliable assessment, arguing that we need to match the standards in other countries. (How reliably they can do this when many countries don't have an equivalent to GCSE must be opne to question.) This they have done, even if the grade outcomes are in line with those o…

Three examples of task-based lessons

Task-based lessons are those where the activity is focused as much (if not more) on the accomplishment of a real life task as on the language being used for it. Well-known second language acquisition scholars Bill VanPatten and Rod Ellis both argue strongly for tasks being the most successful way of generating acquisition. You'd have to take that on faith, mind, since there is no irrefutable evidence that doing a task leads to faster acquisition than doing traditional language-based activities such as comprehension, meaningful drilling and language manipulation activities. However, common sense suggests that giving students an achievable and enjoyable task to complete may be more motivational than many other exercises. This in itself may make learning more likely.

Although the focus is on the task, it means sense to devise tasks so that significant language is recycled as much as possible, since we know repetition helps build memory.

Here are three examples of easy to implement …

Latest additions to frenchteacher

This is one of my regular updates about what's new on frenchteacher.

Up to now I have uploaded almost no PowerPoint presentations, partly because I never made that many when I was teaching, partly because of the copyright issues involved when using pictures (especially commercially). Many teachers seem blissfully unaware of copyright when publishing images. Fortunately, the site has a sizeable archive of photos and graphics which can be used in all circumstances without any credit.

So I have been writing some simple PowerPoints for beginners, near-beginners and low intermediates. My principles are to use clear and striking graphics accompanied by limited text and to build in to the presentation a natural teaching sequence moving from choral repetition with or without text, question-answer (or similar) teacher-led practice, pair work (e.g. guessing games) and some writing, including simple translation and transcription. The presentations can be used in various other wa…

French Verb Blitz

French Verb Blitz is a free verb conjugation app for Apple and Android devices. It could be used by very good ntermediate (GCSE) or advanced pupils wishing to build up speedy recall of verb forms in a wide range of tenses (e.g. conditional perfect is included). The verbs chosen are a bit on the obscure side for GCSE at times and the emphasis in some of the games is definitely on speedy recall rather than just knowledge itself.

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The interface is colourful, clear and ungimmicky, well-suited to phones.…

Pros and cons of pair and group work

Most teachers have made frequent use of pair and group work for many years, notably since the rise of communicative language teaching in the 1980s. Even before then it would have been common for pupils to work in pairs on simple role-play and dialogue tasks. So pair and group work is standard practice, if not universally supported by language teachers.

It’s always worth evaluating, however, whether a practice works - whether, in this case, it helps students develop their proficiency.


Rod Ellis (2005) summarises the advantages of pair/group work (based on Jacobs, 1998)

“1. The quantity of learner speech can increase.
In teacher-fronted classrooms, the teacher typically speaks 80% of the time; in groupwork more students talk for more of the time.

2. The variety of speech acts can increase.
In teacher-fronted classrooms, students are cast in a responsive role, but in groupwork they can perform a wide range of roles, including those involved in the negotiation of meaning.

3. There can be mor…

In defence of drills

There was a time when repetitive drilling was all the rage in language classrooms. If you read Wilga Rivers’ chunky handbook Teaching Foreign Language Skills (various editions from 1968 to 1981), you’ll discover a detailed classification of drill types. Rivers was writing towards the end of the audio-lingual era before communicative language teaching began to exert its huge influence. Audio-lingualism, influenced by behaviourist psychology, assumed that by repeating language over and over again it would become “stamped in”, internalised to be readily available when it was required in an unrehearsed context. It’s not too far-fetched to liken it to more modern skill-acquisition theories which argue that language can become “automatised” through repetitive practice.

In some circles drilling is now considered a dirty word - “drill and kill”, is how some put it. But while I can agree that drilling may have been overdone in the past (think of Longmans Audio-Visual French), you can easily mak…

Dissecting a lesson: talking about a family

Here is a French resource with a lesson sequence and comments based on the topic of family. It would suit a class of reasonably motivated near-beginners who have already done some groundwork on family vocabulary. You could use it as an introduction to the topic with a high-attaining group.

This type of lesson would be typical of the oral-situational approach (adapted direct method) with elements of imaginative storytelling and communicative language teaching. You need to make the language as comprehensible as possible, probably with a little recourse to translation from time to time to make sure this is the case.

As you look through this plan, consider how many repetitions students are hearing, reading and saying.

1. First, display a picture of a family (it’s easy to find copyright-free ones on Tell the class it’s up to them to invent the details you are going to ask them about. As answers come, write them up on the board. You might find it suitable to use a picture of you…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:

Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…