Lost for words? Where we might be going wrong in the teaching of reading

As teachers, we’ve all had that sinking feeling in year 11: students don’t seem to know enough words to excel in the reading and listening papers, and are flummoxed by the grammar and sentence structure. Deep down we know that at least some of the marks they do gain are the fruit of guesswork. If you’ve ever felt anything like this, you’re not alone, and we see it in the marks that students score at GCSE. Take 2019 AQA GCSE French, for example, where average marks in the receptive (listening & reading) papers lagged considerably behind marks in papers testing the productive skills (speaking and writing).

AQA GCSE French Higher Tier Average % score
Listening 51
Reading 65
Writing 73
Speaking 72

Researchers have identified that there is indeed a vocab “gap” at GCSE: The official vocab list for AQA is about 1,400 lines, yet Milton (2006) identified that students sit the exam with only around 950 words under their belt; progress in acquiring new words stalls dramatically in years 8, 9 and 10. There is no data anywhere to suggest that this situation has improved or is improving. Milton also finds that as a country, we’re getting worse, not better.

So, where are we going wrong? Why can’t students read?

Comprehensible input

Perhaps the most dominant of all concepts in how we should teach reading in MFL today is that of ‘comprehensible input’. It dates back to Krashen’s core hypothesis that we can create the best conditions for L2 acquisition if we look at how we learn our mother tongue. Today as teachers, we are frequently told by commentators, trainers and people selling us resources that the texts we use in lessons should be 95-98% comprehensible – i.e. contain maximum 1 in 20 (and ideally fewer) new words. If we teach in this way, we are told, this helps students learn the words and structures we’re teaching them, and helps students be fluent. This is the defence given when people like me say that we should be reading more interesting and ambitious texts in the MFL classroom. No!, they say. Comprehensibility is king! The key is comprehensibility and repetition, and this is more important than giving students high quality texts – such is the received wisdom.

Most frequently, commentators refer to the work of Paul Nation to justify this assertion. The problem is, though, that’s not what Paul Nation said. Below I lay out the differences between Paul Nation’s work, and how it has been (mis-)construed in the UK teaching environment.

Paul Nation’s work in 2000 and 2006 The UK context today
The research finding Nation found that texts need to be composed of 95-98% known words for students to be able to understand the text: he wanted to know “what percentage coverage of text is needed for unassisted reading pleasure” The message has been distorted to say that Texts need to be composed of 95-98% known words for students to be able to learn new aspects of language. Comprehensible input is sold to us as a method which makes learners fluent: that’s not what Nation/Hu said.
Type and mode of reading Nation was proposing that teachers adopt “extensive reading programmes” within their curricula: i.e. students should read a book every two weeks and read 4,200 words per week. He felt that only highly (95-98%) comprehensible texts would be suitable for this vast volume of reading as students couldn’t afford to be slowed down We don’t do anything approaching “extensive reading” in UK classrooms: we read less than one quarter of that amount per week at best, and it is very rare to find MFL courses in schools where students are expected to read widely beyond lesson time
Research context Nation’s research was based on undergraduate level learners of English who had already what we could consider a very advanced level of English – who were looking to acquire much rarer words and phrases. They already had the grammar under their belts. Our students have only very basic knowledge of vocab and generally are still getting on top of core linguistic features such as tenses and negation. They’re looking to learn the first 1000-1500 words of the TL – not the 5000th, 6000th, 7000th words.
Academic discourse There was, has been and continues to be healthy academic debate about the validity of Nation’s assertions. Cobb (2007, 2008), for example, rejects the whole hypothesis of “extensive reading programmes” as a valuable and realistic component of a language course. Schmitt et al (2011) rejected the idea of a 95% “cut-off” and suggested that a larger range of texts have value, along a continuum, depending on context. Nation’s work tends to be presented to us as irrefutable fact: it isn’t, and never was.

There are some other key flaws, though, specific to the UK classroom context which we need to be mindful of when we are considering the relevance of the 95-98% comprehensibility rule to UK classrooms:

  1. Mixed ability classrooms. We know that, even in schools which set by ability, there is a huge variety of ability and proficiency among our 30 or so students. So we might design a text which is 95-98% comprehensible – but in reality…
    • for some it will be far too easy and their vocab won’t progress
    • for others it will be far too hard – and barely comprehensible at all (sub 75%, let’s say)
      … so what this means is that by thinking too much about the text, we sometimes don’t think enough about individual learners and their experience of it.
  2. A blunt measurement tool. Up until GCSE, most learners are really beginners, and they will struggle with all sorts of things beyond vocab: tense structures, irregular forms, idiomatic usage (e.g. the verb plaire à), unfamiliar word order and unfamiliar use of tense (e.g. depuis, venir de, absence of present continuous in FR). So measuring a text in terms of the number of unknown words is pretty simplistic – and doesn’t help us get a true sense of what might be difficult about a text. Remember, what’s often hard about a GCSE text is its unexpected twist in meaning, it’s distractors or its atypical ordering of information. None of this is picked up in the 95% comprehensibility test.
  3. The GCSE itself. While people wanting to sell us their resources or training might want us to believe that comprehensible input is the silver bullet (after all, they need us to think that, otherwise we wouldn’t buy their stuff!), the writers of GCSE simply don’t sign up to this cosy consensus. The blunt truth is this: GCSE texts are nowhere near 95-98% comprehensible. Here’s an example from AQA French 2018 (higher tier):
    aqa reading - Copy
  4. Have a look at the vocab here: it’s tricky! It’s way beyond 95-98% comprehensible for a GCSE student and contains many words that aren’t on AQA’s own GCSE vocab list. A student who has been taught using highly comprehensible texts will flounder when they read this – as they need very good lexical inferencing skills (Nassaji and Hu 2012) or “morphological problem solving” skills (Anglin, quoted in Hu 2013) to make sense of what they see. Even if they can hazard a guess at the questions that AQA asks of this text, students will struggle to really understand it, and feel very uncertain of themselves. By the way, if you think this all boils down to GCSEs just getting harder and harder, have a look at this GCSE text from 1991: 1991 writing_2
  5. Comprehensible input isn’t sufficient
    So now for some maths – bear with me! Let’s assume the following:
    a) students receive a weekly average of 1000 words input (including reading & listening) in MFL lessons (based on typical textbook coverage, adding a bit for teacher TL use and homeworks)
    b) students are in lessons for 38 weeks per year
    c) students spend 4.5 years preparing for GCSE – allowing for absence, assessment weeks, missed lessons, etc
    d) students need to encounter a word at least 8 times before they really can learn and know it (this is a very optimistic figure – as Nation (2014) points out, the real number is probably much higherThis allows us to project how many words a student might work, through their exposure to comprehensible input, based on various scenarios.
    – with an average of 98% comprehensible input, a student would learn 95 words per year and 438 over the whole course
    – with an average of 95% comprehensible input, a student would learn 238 words per year and 1071 over the whole courseHow accurate are my projections? Well, Milton and Meara (1998) and Milton (2006) have done research to work out the average number of words that GCSE students have under their belt by testing students themselves – and their figure was approx 850. So my figures tally with theirs, and reflect a use of texts with comprehensibility of around 96% (or slightly higher, if we think students need fewer encounters with a word to learn it) across English schools.The problem with this? Well, AQA’s own GCSE French vocab list is 1359 items long – not to mention all the irregular verb forms. That’s a gap of significantly more than 20%. Using the same model, I also calculate that to reach the 1400 words needed for coverage of the specified vocab list, students would need to read considerably more than they currently do – which seems unrealistic given the limited lesson time we all have. Specifically, using the same assumptions:
    – to learn 1400 words based on average 95% comprehensibility, students need an average 1310 words input per week during KS3 and KS4 (this would be very challenging at KS3!!)
    – to learn 1400 words based on average 98% comprehensibility, students need a whopping 3275 words input per week during KS3 and KS4: this is palpably not achievable in the vast majority of settings.

So if comprehensible input is imperfect – perhaps flawed – what does the evidence say we need to do about it?

Comprehensible input is still valuable – but as a guiding principle it is flawed. The key point that research consistently makes is that learning languages is not all about repetition. That’s contrary to a lot of what we read or are told: games, hacks and tools which ‘trick’ students into repeating words or phrases over, and over, and over again are widely praised and shared (and sold). Yet the man who came up with the 95-98% comprehensibility test himself (Paul Nation, 2015) says that it is not the quantity of encounters with words that matters most, but the quality of those encounters. He even says that the cognitive benefit of students stopping to read, looking up a word in the dictionary and finding its meaning outweighs the cost of any slowdown in pace of reading that this might incur (ibid.). MFL teaching in the UK really is behind the curve on this one. So if repetition isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, what else is important, according to the literature?
1.Content matters because it is the driver of motivation. If students are interested in reading what we give them, they will put more effort in, and learn more, as Hulstijn (1996) wrote:

“First and foremost, assign learners reading texts that are interesting and motivating. If the text does not alert their curiosity, learners will not be willing to devote the required mental effort to unfamiliar words”.

More recently than this, Macalister (2015) and Day et al (2002) insist that the natural and genuine purpose of reading must be preserved in the MFL classroom. In other words, we can’t j
ust dish up any old bland nonsense because it fits our scheme of work – the text has to be worthy in and of itself: the purpose of reading is usually related to pleasure, information and general understanding”. As Williams pithily put it in 1986, as his very first core principle of teaching using texts in MFL, “in the absence of interesting texts, very little is possible”. If the text we’re using in class is bland and boring, then getting them to learn is going to be like pushing a train up a hill. I like Haastrup’s (1989) quote below in Hulstijn’s (1996) work; some of it is a little anachronistic now, but is core assertion is right.

“‘Learners will always find out the meaning of words that are important to them’ (p43). If a desire to know a word’s meaning is the driving force, the mental elaboration required for acquisition will then come of its own accord. However it is the teacher’s and course designer’s task to provide learners with easily accessible glosses and learner-friendly, nontedious review opportunities”.

2.The type of task matters: we need to maximise deep cognitive engagement – in other words, get students thinking and working hard, not just quickly and superficially.

Nassaji and Hu (2012) found that tasks that enquire “deeper level of cognitive effort and attention enhance vocabulary learning”. They encourage teachers to maximise students’ “involvement” in the tasks they are doing, both motivationally and cognitively, and encourage teachers to design tasks with the following characteristics:
– motivation to read the text and understand what it says needs to be high – i.e. use engaging texts!
– effort needs to be involved in searching for the meaning of new words
– tasks need to involve evaluation of the topic and the words

Williams in 1986 indeed asserted that reading should be an interactive process, requiring students to respond and react to a text, not just comprehend it. His work is old now, but I don’t think it’s outdated.
3.Proficiency matters: Many researchers have found that more proficient students can cope with more unknown vocab and remember more of it more successfully (Sheffelbine 1990): so the 95-98% comprehensibility rule should be flexible – and definitely lower for our more able students. Frequent encounters and repetition matter more less able learners.
4.How we deal with new words matters: Hulstijn (1996) and others remind us of obne of the basics: Never leave new words to guesswork, always gloss them or insist on dictionary use always follow up new words with intentional, directed practice of words that students have seen whilst reading. If we do this well, we can cope with more unknown words.
5.We can tackle ‘harder’ texts: We can read things which are less than 95% comprehensible and still learn effectively (MacQuillan 2016, Schmitt et al 2011, Sanchez and Schmitt 2010). My hunch is that this isn’t an option if we want our students to get top grades – it’s an absolute must, and we need to adapt our teaching, differentiation and styles of tasks to make it possible. Should we make texts which are 85%, 90% comprehensible the mainstay of our classroom resources? Probably not, but they have to appear sometimes.

Milton (2011) openly advocates for faster progression in MFL vocab in the formative years of y8, y9 and y10. Finding that progress in these years almost grinds to a halt, he argues that this is a consequence of too little new vocab being introduced, too much thematic repetition and not enough inclusion of the less-frequent words which are actually necessary for any sense of communicative fluency. He argues that while for some, this repetition of topics and core vocab might be presented as a virtue, the other side of the coin is that it limits progress and makes for “demotivated learners”. He makes the case for a richer, more varied seam of themes and topics during the secondary year, a healthier balance of frequent and less frequent vocab.

OK so what does this mean for me as a teacher?

Firstly, despite all this, highly comprehensible texts still have an important role and they will still need to be a major tool in our toolkit. But they’re not the only one, and we need to think about how we deploy them.

  • how comprehensible – or not – is the text for each student in my class?
  • is everyone stretched and challenged in the right way?
  • is everyone making maximum progress?
  • if I can’t adapt each text for each student (almost definitely the case!), then do I use a variety of different grades of text so that each student has opportunities to surge ahead during a few weeks?
  • am I doing activities with the new words which guarantee a high return-on-investment, i.e. activities which are cognitively demanding?

Secondly, we need to acquaint students with tricky texts, right the way through the course, so that they are at ease with this when they sit their exam. This means teaching them lexical inferencing skills (Nassaji and Hu) like:

  • spotting key letter patterns and word families (chaud -> chaleur -> chaleureux etc)
  • contextual clues (Zahar 2001: does the text give a clue to the meaning of a word? what kind of clues might exist?)
  • good knowledge of the topics being taught

Thirdly, it is imperative to select texts which maximise students’ motivation and investment. Williams (1986) urged teachers to give a bunch of classroom texts to students to rate, and ask them to categorise them as “interesting”, “all right” or “boring”. I think we know what students would make of the vast majority of KS3 and KS4 resources. I try to apply these three questions each time I’m choosing or creating a resource:

1.Is this the best text I could use to teach this?

2.Are they going to want to read this?

3.What are they learning, beyond just the words?

So here’s a summary for you of what I hope this blog has suggested:

  • reading is a problem at KS3 and KS4
  • the original research into comprehensible input is quite different from how it is presented to us today
  • there are some drawbacks of comprehensible input and the volume of reading it requires when dealing with the English GCSE, or indeed mixed ability classrooms
  • that repetition of input isn’t the only important thing: the content of the text and the nature of the tasks associated with the text are more important
  • comprehensible input will always have a role, but we should make sure that we prepare students for the reality of GCSE by teaching students how to make sense of harder texts – and also find ways to teach which enable us to use harder texts where the potential gains are bigger

Do I say this because I care solely about getting students through the GCSE? Well, unsurprisingly, no. I also recognise that real life doesn’t deliver “comprehensible input” – even in things like restaurant menus, weather forecasts and ticket machines. More importantly, I want students to continue with their studies of MFL at A-level and beyond. Students will look at the A-level course spec and see that they have to read a book. Unless they’ve been shown and taught trickier texts throughout KS3 and KS4, and see themselves as skilled, perceptive readers, they will rightly balk at the idea of reading a book in Y12 or Y13. And they’ll think we’re crackers when we say that they’re going to have to read one.

Select Bibliography – click link below

Select Bibliography

Using film in MFL

On this page you’ll find two videos.

  • The first is a general guide to some of the activities we can explore in the classroom, using film as a platform, to develop listening, speaking, reading and writing
  • The second gives specific suggestions on teaching using the film Les contes de la périphérie

1. General film ideas

2. Les contes de la périphérie

This video is based on Nikolaj Larsen’s Contes de la Banlieue, available free online (including via http://www.culturetheque.com) and I chose it because:

  • it’s about, and in many ways by young people of a similar age to our learners
  • the topics it cover absolutely cater to GCSE but take the imagination far further than GCSE

Apologies – this video was a lockdown idea, and is a little unrehearsed, but you’ll get tbe idea…

Culturally evocative, high frequency vocab for GCSE French and German

This list isn’t exhaustive – it’s the result of an hour or so brainstorming during lockdown.   I would not expect my GCSE candidates to know all this vocab. But I would want them to know what a lot of it means and why I taught it to them. I also strongly encourage my students to use this kind of vocab in speaking exams and written work.

Words made it onto these lists for all sorts of reasons:

  • they allow me to digress into a little story about the TL world – to help them develop positive attachments to TL speakers, places and identities
  • they’re fun to use, expressive or unique to the TL
  • they’re linguistically interesting (help me learn about the structure or develoment of the TL)
  • they’re my personal faves… and I love telling my students about my favourite words. Like gescheit.



greetings Messieurs dames

Mesdames et Messieurs

Fais comme chez toi

Bonjour, bonsoir

Bonne journée, bonne soirée

ça va / ça gaze / quoi de neuf / wesh


bon app(étit), bonne route, bonne continuation

Meine Damen und Herren

die Herrschaften !

hereinspaziert !

Servus, grüezi, hallo

Na ? Was’ los?

Alles klar?

Grüß Gott

Mahlzeit ! Guten Appetit ! Lass dir schmecken!

Hobbies, free time, leisure vélo vocab : le Tour, le vélo, le maillot jaune, rouleur, attaque, domestique

hand, pétanque, pelota

Les Bleus

traîner, glander


s’amuser=se régaler


grasse matinée

nuit blanche

cinéma, cinéaste, auteur

lire des BD

rappeurs, tecktonik, chanson



wandern, Bergsteigen


zum Hallen-/Freibad gehen

Schlagermusik hören


sturmfrei haben

Feierabend !

zum Sport gehen

Bundesliga, WM/EM

Trainer, Schiedsrichter, Torwart

meine Habseiligkeiten




Self, family, relationships, identity le pacs, pacsé

mes vieux

verlan: reum, reup

babtou, toubab

black, blanc, beur

rebeu, renoi, métisse

le bled


lourd, relou

énervant, vénère

louche, chelou

avoir la tchatche



liberté, égalité, franternité, solidarité

valeurs républicaines

la Ve République

chrétien, musulman

avoir les papiers

Mama / Mutti

Papa / Vati















katholisch, evangelisch, muslimisch




Clothes & shopping chic



gilet (jaune!)

parfumerie, parfum

boutique / grand surface

hypermarché / superette



Hausschuhe /


Tracht : Dirndl, Lederhose


House, home, region immeuble


banlieue, banlieusard


Ile-de-France / en province






terrain vs terroir

régions: Languedoc, Provence, Bretagne, Aqutaine, Pays Baque, Alpes, Bourgogne, Franche-Comté, Wallonie, Normandie, etc

la patrie

Wohnung, WG

Innenhof, Vorderhaus

Haus (means sth different)






Regions: Rheinland, Baden, Schwaben, Bayern, Sachsen, Tirol, Steiermark, Südtirol


Wir können alles. Außer Hochdeutsch.


Vaterland, Muttersprache

Food, diet, health boulangerie/viennoiserie: baguette, pain au chocolat (maxi-chocolat !)

café au lait / express / p’tit noir

formule / à la carte

entrée / plat / déssert

« du jour »

« maison »


croque (monsieur/madame)



amuse-bouche 😊

steak : à point, seignant, bleu, medium, bien cuit

moules marinières

fromages : chèvre, gruyère, brie, comté

plats/spécialités : soupe de poissons, salade niçoise, tartiflette, fondue savoyarde, aligot (mmm)

vin : rouge, blanc, rosé, champagne, crémant

mousse au chocolat

crêpes suzette

bière (blonde)



Wurst (Bock-, Weiß-, Blut-, Brat-)

Currywust (m/o Darm; m/o Senf; Pommes dazu?)




Brötchen/Stulle/Schrippe/Semmel usw


Bier: Helles/Pils, Weiß-


Wiener Melange


zusammen oder getrennt?

Festivals and national calendar Réveillon

14 juillet

les grandes vacances





1. Mai

Tag der deutschen Einheit


Mariä Himmelfahrt

der Krampus



Christkind / Sankt Nikolaus





School & education CM1, CM2, etc

école maternelle

collège, collégien

lycée, lycéen

bac, bachelier

bac blanc

tronc commun / spécialité

cours magistral

délégué de classe

instituteur, prof




contrôle continu


grande école


lettres (modernes)




KiTa / Kindergarten


gymnasiale Empfehlung

Gymnasium / Real-, Haupt-, Gesamtschule / Klausur








Ausbilugn, AzuBi


Fachhochschule / Universität


Bilungshoheit der Länder?

Careers hôtellerie-restauration


fonction publique / fonctionnaire

chef d’une PME


la retraite

smic, smicard

syndicat, syndicalisme




créateur de mode




AG, GmbH




den Dienst antreten






Beamte, verbeamtet



Holidays le grand départ

juilletistes, aoûtiens

la rentrée

baignade interdite

station de ski

station balnéaire

à l’étranger



autoroute du soleil











Heimat(-gefühl), Geborgenheit


Travel RER






Bison futé





deutsche Bahn





kein Tempolimit




favourite little words enfin bref

bon ben…



tu vois, voyons, écoute

bordel de merde!








Ach Mensch!



Deutscher Sprachatlas: discovering linguistic diversity in the classroom

map image

Interactive map of accents and dialects

In any language lesson and curriculum, we make a choice – consciously or subconsciously, willingly or unwillingly – about the form of the language we teach. By this I mean:

  • whether we teach (and assess) so-called “standard” vocabulary or whether we teach regionally/nationally distinct vocabulary – and if so, when and how
  • whether we reward only “correct” (i.e. according to prescriptive definitions) grammar, or encourage the use and learning of common grammatical usage (i.e. teach grammar as it is widely used, and view grammar as a descriptive phenomenon

The homogenising approach to teaching so-called “standard” version of the language is not uncontroversial.

Firstly, we are likely to be teaching the language of dominant groups within society, thus sustaining social and linguistic inequalities in our own teaching. We send a signal to our students that socially or geographically situated variations in vocabulary, pronunciation or grammar are of lesser value. This sends uncomfortable signals to our students about who language belongs to.

Secondly, we risk alienating our learners from broad swathes of native speakers of the language.  Our learners will be noted by native speakers for their association to culturally and socially dominant forms of the language – meaning that rather than build bridges with communities, we could potentially be accentuating existing divides.

Thirdly, a successful and fulfilled linguist will be one who understands, enjoys and can even harness the diversity within the language he/she/they are learning. It unlocks a whole new level of learning the language and about language.

I wanted to use, therefore, the brief reprieve from the tyranny of GCSE specifications to explore this with my Year 11 German class. Watch the video and/or read below.


Part 1: The original text


Source: https://www.duda.news/wissen/rotkaeppchen-kurz-und-knapp/

I chose this text because:

  • its content will be familiar to many learners
  • it contains absolutely tonnes of high frequency language appropriate for GCSE / year 11 learners
  • it is situated in the German-speaking imagination – and could be part of a wider unit of work on reading and writing fairytales in their German Märchen tradition

Es war einmal ein süßes Mädchen, das mit seiner Mutter auf dem Dorf lebte. Seine Großmutter schenkte ihm ein rotes Käppchen, das ihm so gut stand, dass es nichts anderes mehr tragen wollte. So nannte jeder das Mädchen „Rotkäppchen“… click to see full text

Continue reading “Deutscher Sprachatlas: discovering linguistic diversity in the classroom”

Oxford German Olympiad: teaching resources

Here are some resources to help any German teachers out there who are keen to encourage their students to participate in the Oxford German Olympiad (deadline 24 April 2020, sadly).

It can easily be done as a unit of work on Beethoven.  It’s aimed at a higher-ability year 11 group but can easily be adapted.

It’s a bit rushed – I’ve cobbled it together this morning because of the deadline approaching – but hopefully it will give you some ideas.

Here’s the powerpoint:  Ox German Olympiad Beethoven resources _final – Copy

And here are images of the resources – click on the thumbnails to see them.


Routledge Intensive Dutch course – a great textbook, what can we learn from it?

coverMy lockdown project for yesterday was to pick up a new language. As a Germanist, Dutch was an easy option and an itch that I had always wanted to scratch. I treated myself to the Routledge Intensive Course in Dutch.

The book is designed for undergraduate and adult learners – so this means it would not work as a textbook resource in most or many secondary classrooms. Unlike UG or adult learning settings, not all of our students are there through choice, and many of our students will have limited literacy. Although, that is why teach languages after all…

Nevertheless, it’s a great textbook for the following reasons. I’ve given examples for each – and a little explanation.  All language teachers can use this to reflect on the resources that they typically use in the classroom.

slide new 2 - Copy

1. It’s full of culture

Using this book, I’m not just learning Dutch, I’m learning all about Holland and Belgium. Culture doesn’t only mean high art and obtuse literature: it means studying what people are like, how they interact and talk, in what ways their life is different from mine. It means engaging with and enjoying our mutual otherness and commonality. It brings language-learning to life and helps me establish a positive (imagined) relationship with Dutch-speaking communities. Some examples:

a) Vocab which transport me to a Dutch-speaking kitchen. Not a generic pizza or burger in sight:

vocab list - Copy

b) Cultural information integrated into the topic being taught – it’s absolutely OK to use English/L1 sometimes. It pays dividends if it helps you increase extrinsic motivation. And cultural learning is learning in the language classroom.

c) Evidences how language and cultural identity are closely linked. How we speak reflects who we are. This could be done socio-linguistically at all levels.  When we are doing listening tasks, we don’t just have to listen for comprehension, we can listen analytically: who is the speaker? How do we know?  Rhythm, pace, intonation, accent, word choice, structures, forms of address, etc.

manner of talking - Copytone 2 - Copy

2. I’m learning real, idiomatic Dutch

Everybody rightly points out that high frequency words should have priority on vocab lists and in exams. Fine. But what people then curiously do is eliminate some of the very highest frequency words – because they’re actually the hardest.  Germanists will know what I mean – doch and noch are virtually never taught at school, yet they’re super handy, very common and add crucial meaning to utterances and scripts.

This textbook teaches those small words right from the word go, and does it really well.  It reassures the learner that s/he isn’t learning ‘pretend Dutch’ – but the real thing. And it demystifies those idiomatic flourishes which puzzle British language-learners, even at an advanced level. Have a look at these examples – and note how they also include listening.


3. Pronunciation and intonation.

What I also really like about this book is that it actively enocurages the repeition and performance of printed dialogues by students – giving the learner the chance to focus solely on pronunciation and intonation.  This is a point often missed in discussions about cognitive overload. As linguists, we need to remember that intonation and pronunciation require full concentration, especially in the early stages.  Indeed, we despite the advances in teaching pronunciation via phonics, we tend to neglect intonation entirely.

Virtually every recorded dialogue in the book is accompanied by something like this as a first exercise. This is so easily integrated into secondary teaching – and platforms such as flipgrid, Padlet and OneNote allow us to set them as homework tasks, too.

repeat dialogue - Copy

4. A varied, mixed and lively approach to grammar

Dutch is a Germanic language, so there’s plenty of issues like word order and strong/weak verbs to deal with. Then there are the usual suspects like conjugation  and adjective endings, although the latter are quite simple in Dutch.

Linguists will argue till their teeth bleed about whether grammar should be taught a) at all or b) implicitly or explicitly.  Then there’s the current fashion to teach lexico-grammar, which is essentially a lot of implicit examples in short phrases with structured exercises for practice.

The truth is – as I think we all know – that there is no silver bullet. Teachers on the front line will also know that students grow quickly weary of doing the same approach again and again ad nauseam. This book has great variety and I’ve included examples of teach

a) Grammar introduced implicitly for the learner to notice and merely understand its meaning (i.e. we don’t realise we’re being taught the grammar, yet we start to absorb it). This example is with the present perfect tense.

deductive 3a - Copy

b) Grammar modeled for implicit learning, such as these examples where the learner is invited to notice and deduce the rule…

…or these examples where the learner is guided through a series of scaffolded tasks to deduce and reproduce.

3. Explicit explanations of grammar for reference and clarity

4. Well scaffolded exercises for practice – note the variety of vocab, not limited to one topic or lexical field. This helps retrieval later on.

5. Rich, ambitious vocabulary

Often language textbooks assume that more expressive or interesting words are more difficult to remember. This plainly isn’t true – and sometimes we can be far more expressive and creative with our TL if we use more precise vocabulary, and cognates can often help us here (in European languages, at least). In less similar languages, too, we might as well learn good vocab, as it is no harder than boring vocab.  This textbook encourages a good range of rich vocab right from the start.

This also means a variety of sentence constructions: it is crucial for students to see and learn to cope with this variety in reading if they are ever to be able to make sense of recorded clips in a listening text.

Additionally, it means using all parts of speech when acquiring topic vocab: describing people is not just about adjectives, it makes use of verbs, nouns and adverbs too, as the following example shows:

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Even the simplest of exercises early on feature a full range of words, from simple and common to abstract and less common. It gives a sense of colour and liveliness to the language being learned.

6. More than just comprehension and production

Particularly at Key Stage 3 and GCSE, tasks are extremely narrowly conceived. We read/hear texts only for comprehension, and we write/speak only to answer a given question – all too often an exam-style question with an banal fictional response whose content is of no consequence.

What this book does nicely is encourage the learner to engage critically with texts written in the TL. It asks the learner not just to understand what is being said, but…

  • how it is being said/written
  • why it is being said/written in that way
  • what features or words give the text a particular effect

This makes the learner feel a whole lot more intellectually engaged – and the learner can appreciate language production as a creative activity in and of itself. It reinforces cross-curricular references to English language, and will enable students to engage a broader variety of skills in the MFL classroom.

For example…

  1. The book asks students to note, engage with and use different registers of Dutch, right from the word go

2. It asks students to study, notice and use different tones, using specific vocab and intonation

3. It asks students to analyse texts linguistically and develops use of grammar and vocab in so doing

4. It does also ask students to understand the content of a text – but often the final question will elicit a more analytical response. This is great differentiation.


For me, this book sets a good standard for the materials we use in MFL classrooms, virtual or real. Materials should:

  1. Be totally reflective of culture and identity
  2. Explain, demystify and encourage use of idiom, especially the small and highly common words that affect meaning
  3. Develop intonation as much as pronunciation
  4. Tackle grammar and syntax in a variety of ways
  5. Be rich and ambtious in their vocab – so that the words we’re teaching are words worth learning
  6. Go beyond comprehension and encourage learning about language




  1. The exam should be fairer
    • more manageable, defined content
    • less focused on middle-class topics
    • accessible questions, in English if needed
    • abolish the tiers of entry
    • comparable with other EBacc subjects
    • reduce the exam burden on pupils
  2. The course should be better
    • get rid of the outdated topics
    • promote linguistic understanding, not rote-learning
    • recognise the broader purpose of language learning
    • properly reflect the cultures of the language being studied


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For the purposes of analysis, only responses from practising teachers in England were used.

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Verbatim comments: current GCSE

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Verbatim comments: what the next GCSE should be

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Uptake and motivation in MFL: what we know and what we don’t know

A lot is said and claimed by all sorts of people (including me) about the causes of declining numbers in MFL.  Participants in the debate are variously teachers, former teachers, teacher trainers, politicians and various other commentators.

But the more important conversation is what we should do about it. Here again, there are some familiar, well-rehearsed responses. But what does the evidence actually tell us? What do we actually know about motivation and subject choice within MFL, and what do we need to find out next?

Here’s a literature review I did. I wanted to find out what research has been done that would confirm or challenge my core belief that we need to fundamentally redesign and radically enrich the MFL curriculum, with a renewed focus on cultural learning.

Enjoy, react, share, discuss!


Language learning in British schools is in a parlous state. A parliamentary review in 2016 found that only 49% of eligible year 11 pupils were entered for an MFL GCSE (Bauckham, 2016: 8), down from 76% only 14 years earlier (Tinsley and Dolezal 2018: 3). There were 120,605 French GCSE entries in 2018 (Ofqual 2018: 3): shockingly, this is lower than the 147,657 entries for French GCE O-level in 1985 (Hawkins 1987: 66), despite the fact that GCSE is intended to be ‘universal’ whereas O level was considered a qualification only for the highest attainers. At A-level, sharp declines in uptake took place during the 1990s (Tinsley and Dolezal 2018: 4). Entries then fell by 63% in French and German between 2006 and 2016 (Bauckham 2016: 7). In 1985, there were 22,140 entries for French A-level (Hawkins 1987: 67), yet in 2018 this figure was merely 7,945 (Ofqual 2018a: 8). Eurostat (2019) found that the UK lagged well behind all other EU countries (including Ireland, the only other English-speaking nation in the bloc).

The decision by the New Labour Government to make MFL optional at GCSE explains why the figure was able to fall so steeply, but it does not explain the subject’s unpopularity. Nor does this decision account for the steep decline in A-level uptake in the decade beforehand. Stakeholders such as the Association for Language Learning report that main cause of the decline in MFL is so-called “severe-grading” (Black et al 2018: 57), a view corroborated by headteachers in a recent survey by the BBC (BBC 2019, online). Ofqual, though, rejects the claims that grading severity is to blame for the decline in MFL (Black et al 2018: 5), finding that MFL subjects are not in fact the most difficult out of common subjects, and that statistical measures to compare difficulty between subjects are flawed. Furthermore, Ofqual suggests that motivation of students and the quality of teaching and learning may have greater bearing on examination performance, and that other factors account for the low popularity of languages.

This period of decline has taken place within a dominant pedagogical orthodoxy known as “communicative language teaching” (Dörnyei 2013), in which the overarching learning goal is the acquisition of the target language for practical communicative purposes. Indeed, the former Department for Education and Science concluded that everyday communication – rather than culture, literature, grammar or linguistics – should be the prime purpose of learning a foreign language in the early 1980s (Dickson 1986: 3). This notion of language learning being purely about “communication” and ‘utility’, without its corresponding cultural, social and historical content, was an entirely new concept in the 1980s (McLelland 2015: 168), marking a point of rupture in over a century of tradition of language learning in British schools.  In the technological age and in a world where the hegemony of global English is undisputed, I hypothesise that this communicative paradigm for language-learning in the UK is faltering.

Curiously, the National Curriculum would suggest that cultural content remains integral to language teaching. In 1999, the curriculum stated that through MFL, “pupils understand and appreciate different countries, cultures, people and communities” (DfEE and QCA, 1999: 14). The equivalent 2014 document asserts that MFL is “a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures” (DfE 2014: 98). However, the reality in English classrooms is quite different. Of the 240 marks available at GCSE in MFL, all of these are for use and understanding of language alone – and not a single mark is awarded for knowledge of or response to culture in any form.

What does the evidence tell us, and where do the research gaps lie? The existing literature

Motivation in MFL

The body of research into motivation within MFL is extensive. Dörnyei (2014: 519) defines a motivation as being responsible for “why people to decide to do something, how long they are willing to sustain the activity and how hard they are going to pursue it” – in other words as choice, persistence and effort. Early motivation studies in languages in the 1950s and 1960s (such as Carroll (1962)) focussed on attitudinal aspects of motivation. Gardner’s (1985: 9-10) proposed a framework whereby motivation in MFL sits on a continuum from instrumental (learning languages because they are useful) to integrative (learning languages because of an affection for the speakers and culture of that language).

Dörnyei has advanced the field of motivation studies in MFL considerably, developing the notion that motivation is not static but dynamic between languages and over time (Dörnyei 2001a: 86), combining external factors, individual factors and the learning experience. Dörnyei also (2001b: 29) published a model of motivational teaching practice within MFL, which incorporates strategies relating to the classroom environment and the teacher’s pedagogy, not the curriculum, which he does not consider. Dörnyei (2008, 2014) has since further developed his theory, suggesting that language learners’ motivation derives from a sense of their “ideal self” (‘I want to be multilingual’) and their “ought-to self” (I need to learn languages), and that teachers can plan to nourish and strengthen these self-concepts within their lessons.  But in much of this research, the language being learned was in fact English, and only in 2017 did Dörnyei begin to test the robustness of his frameworks in reference to non-English foreign languages, finding that other languages lack the “unconscious appeal” (Dörnyei and Al-Hoorie 2017: 463) that English has. This means that motivation for learning other languages, such as here in the UK, may be even more complex, a finding echoed by Lanvers (2017).

Motivation has been found to be lower among boys, particularly after year 7 (Williams et al 2002), but Guilloteaux and Dörnyei (2008) have evidenced that teacher practices can positively influence student motivation. Taylor and Marsden (2014) found that one-off interventions such as panel discussions about the value of languages, or visiting teachers delivering lessons, can have modest effects on motivation, although much of their evidence was inconclusive, and their quantitative methods precluded an exploration of pupils’ more nuanced responses. Coleman et al (2007) found that students in schools where senior teams had made a visible commitment to MFL (such as through specialist school status) were better motivated in the subject. Bolster (2009) and Courtney (2018), meanwhile, cite unsatisfactory transitions from primary to secondary school as a cause of poor motivation. Parrish (2019) found that motivation may be low because the wrong languages are on offer in schools.

The weakness of this body of research is that it studies motivation in isolation within MFL, at a given moment in time. Indeed, Dörnyei (2019: 25) explains that he believes ‘engagement’ to be the best way to measure student motivation as related to their learning experience. While a range of robust measures are used to do so, such an approach does not allow us to explore or explain subject choice and uptake.  MFL teachers will be familiar with the image of highly motivated students – who would score highly on the instruments used by the aforementioned authors – who nevertheless choose not to study MFL.  To answer my research question, it is necessary to consider motivation not in terms of momentary attitudes or engagement, but in terms of students’ propensity to select MFL above other subjects in an options process. This is a big omission from the motivation literature, and only when motivation is studied in terms which are comparative with other subjects, in the context of the subject marketplace, will this research truly help address the decline in uptake.

The MFL curriculum and the role of culture

Various bodies and academics have considered why MFL uptake may be in decline and some indeed recognise the need to address fundamental curriculum issues. Coyle (2000, 2007) find the curriculum to be irrelevant, reductive and held back by its low cognitive demands. Cuff (2017: 3) found that students’ subject choices were driven by enjoyment and perceived usefulness rather than perceptions of relative difficulty, a finding corroborated by Panayiotou et al (2017: 8). Commissioned by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), Ipsos Mori (2014: 32) specifically identified that students found the GCSE course content disengaging.

Exploring MFL in primary schools, Driscoll et all (2013) find that while the intent for cultural learning – my area of interest – is clear in the National Curriculum, it is not systemically planned for or embedded in classrooms. Hennebry (2014) identifies that there is still a debate about what ‘culture’ might mean in MFL: high culture such as literature or intercultural skills more broadly. Either way, he finds that culture plays a much lesser role in UK MFL provision compared to other European countries. Lawes (2017) continues, meanwhile, to make the case for high culture much earlier on in UK MFL curricula, and regrets that culture within MFL has been a “neglected area” of teaching, “ignored by policy makers” (Lawes 2014: 88)

Curriculum as a means to boost motivation

There is a limited research which considers the motivational impact of the rebalancing of MFL curricula towards culture. Particularly in the United States, this is increasingly seen as a priority: Furstenberg (2010: 300) asserts that cultural aspects of language-learning should become the “main objective” of teaching, with “communicative competence” moving into second place, echoing calls by the American Modern Language Association (Modern Language Association 2007: 235) and other prominent US academics such as Schechtman and Koser (2008). Barrette et al (2010) present an integrated curriculum approach which develops transcultural and linguistic competence, arguing that with judicious selection of associated tasks, a full range of cultural texts can and should be tackled from the early stages of language-learning.

In a UK context, research into Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), whereby students learn other curriculum subjects in the target language, report that such an approach is very positively received by students, owing to its increased cognitive demand and greater relevance (Bower 2019, Hunt 2011). CLIL is, however, an approach adopted by a tiny minority of schools.

Peiser and Jones (2013) explored the appeal of intercultural learning with Key Stage 3 pupils in England, only to find that such an approach had limit appeal.  There were, however, three key flaws with their research. Firstly, the notion of intercultural learning was presented to students in a survey as “spend more time learning about life in other countries in MFL lessons” (ibid.: 349); this is arguably a woeful understatement of what intercultural learning is, and we have no way of knowing what respondents understood this phrase to mean.  Secondly, pupils responded in the survey to questions about the appeal of intercultural learning without ever having experienced what it might be: I would argue, therefore, that they were in a poor position to answer such questions. Thirdly, there was no qualitative follow up to explore the reasons behind students’ responses.

Robinson-Stuart and Nocon (1996) publish contrasting findings, which indicate that intercultural learning had hugely positive outcomes in terms of learners’ motivation and propensity to pursue their linguistic studies. Unlike Peiser’s research, these students had actually experienced intercultural learning when their opinions were sought. More recently, Windham (2017) found that the study of culture made students far more likely to want to pursue their studies of German, noting that cultural instruction provided both intrinsic and integrative motivational value, as well as instrumental value (ibid.: 88). This study is powerful as it measures motivation partly by asking directly whether students intend to continue to study the subject (a crucial metric for anybody interested in reviving MFL participation in English schools) and because, again, it is based on students’ experiences of, not perceptions of, cultural learning. The students in this study were, however, undergraduates in the USA.

In summary, the literature illustrates that while motivation is a widely researched issue within MFL, it tends to focus on motivation and engagement in isolation within the subject, as opposed to in a manner which is relative to other subjects. Understanding motivation and appeal relative to other subjects is critical if the goal is to boost MFL uptake within a subject choice marketplace. The literature confirms that curriculum is likely to be one cause of low uptake, and we note, also, that curriculum, in particular the restoration of intercultural content into MFL, is under-researched as a key variable affecting motivation. The small amount of relevant research to date had significant weaknesses or has been conducted with undergraduate students only.  This research in the USA focussing on undergraduates gives grounds for great optimism: I conclude tgat research now needs to take place to determine whether such findings may be replicated in a UK secondary school setting. Such research should seek answers to the following question:

Does a more blended curriculum incorporating culture alongside language may motivate learners to choose to pursue MFL at a higher level? If so, in what ways and to what extent? Specifically:

  1. What do students think the purpose of language learning is, and where has this perception come from?
  2. How do students respond to a blended/integrated curriculum of language and culture?
  3. Does this experience change their perceptions on the purpose or value of language learning?
  4. Does this experience change their intentions to study MFL at a higher level? Why (not)?





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Bolster, A. (2009) ‘Continuity or a fresh start? A case study of motivation in MFL at transition, KS2 – KS3’, Language Learning Journal, 37(2), pp. 233-254

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